Sunday, August 12, 2018

The 2018 Season is Here!

DeShone Kizer, Scrambling (photo by Adam Wesley, USAT)
Well, not exactly the 2018 season.  The 2018 preseason has arrived.  It seems like the preseason is less and less edifying every year.  Having said that, I can't help myself.  If there is a Packers game to be watched live (or on delay as is more typical in the preseason), I just have to watch.

This offseason has been one of significant changes.  Ted Thompson and Dom Capers are gone from their prior positions.  Jordy Nelson is now playing in Oakland.  Jeff Janis and Richard Rodgers are also gone on offense.  Morgan Burnett and Damarious Randall are gone on defense.

On the other side of the ledger, Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis are potential impact players at the tight end position.  I am particularly excited about Graham, who could be the best Packers tight end since Jermichael Finley.  Tramon Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson might both be past their prime, but both are in a position to shore up the defense, which sorely needed shoring up by the end of the 2017 season.  DeShone Kizer may or may not turn out to be an upgrade at backup quarterback.  Brett Hundley certainly has more experience in the offense, but Kizer strikes me as having more upside after Hundley's disastrous turn at the reins last year.

In the draft, first round pick Jaire Alexander and second round pick Josh Jackson better be ready to play at cornerback.  They will start the year on the bench, but there is no doubt the Packers will be turning more and more to them (especially Alexander) as the season progresses.  Third round pick Oren Burks is penciled in as a starter at LB, given the loss of Jake Ryan for the season.  Late round WR picks Equanimeous St. Brown (who sports an all-time Key & Peele type name) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling look like they are ready to compete for a backup position.

As for the week 1 preseason game, which the Packers won, 31-17 over the Titans, who really cares?  But in all seriousness, the players who stood out to me on offense were Hundley and Kizer at QB.  I was less impressed with Tim Boyle in my first exposure to him.  Jamaal Williams looks like he is ready to pick up where he left off last year, which would be a very good thing.  And rookie WRs St. Brown, Valdes-Scantling, and even second year player Jake Kumerow, made some impressive plays. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Burks, Josh Jackson and Reggie Gilbert all looked impressive and made good plays.  Quinten Rollins made an impression, but not a good one, and seemed lost at times, playing poorly on both defense and special teams.

Week 2 of the preseason is almost upon us.  It will be interesting to see if the coaching staff lets more of the starters play, even if briefly.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Something Has to Give

All Downhill After the Onside Kick, Photo by Evan Siegle,
A disappointing season came to a fittingly disappointing end on Sunday, when the Packers lost to the Lions, 35-11, at Ford Field.  If it was unclear before the game (and it wasn't) that there is a problem with the Packers' defense, the problems could not be ignored after the game.  The Packers gave up passing TDs of 54 and 71 yards, to Kenny Golladay and Golden Tate.  Then, sort of as the cherry on top of the sundae, they gave up a 2-point conversion pass from Golden Tate to Matthew Stafford to close out the scoring.

The offense was again sub-par, although that perhaps was something to be expected given the absence of Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams.  If it wasn't for Randall Cobb and Trevor Davis, we might not have had any passing offense at all.  And Jamaal Williams again looked good, gaining 82 yards with a 3.7 yard average.  But when your starting QB throws for less than 200 yards and throws twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, you know you are in trouble.

In my house, we were calling for Joe Callahan no later than the third quarter.  Not because we thought Callahan was going to win the game for the Packers, but because we thought it was worth seeing what he looks like in live action, since Brett Hundley has so clearly failed as the Packers' backup quarterback.

I have nothing more to say about the game, other than to mention that some players were clearly not just mailing it in, players like Jamaal Williams and Randall Cobb on offense, and players like Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels on defense.  Good for them.

So what now?  Something has to give.  I have heard friends and family members calling for the firing of Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and Dom Capers.  We will know what happens not long after I finish this blog post, but my vote is to fire Dom Capers (or let him retire) and to retain McCarthy and Thompson.  There are, admittedly, problems with both Thompson and McCarthy.  Ted Thompson is ultimately responsible for the lack of a quality backup quarterback, and many other problems on the roster.  But he has a strong record of finding quality players in the late rounds and among unsigned players, and I think it would be a mistake to turn away from those talents.  He needs better marching orders (self-imposed or imposed from above), but with those marching orders he should be retained until he chooses to retire, which will probably be in another year or two.

I have many issues with Mike McCarthy.  In-game adjustments (the lack thereof), poor clock management, and an incredibly stubborn streak.  His reputation as a trainer of young quarterbacks is in serious question in light of his constant advocacy for Brett Hundley.  Could Hundley have been so much better in practice than in games, that McCarthy was just fooled about his talent level?  Or was McCarthy's judgment just way off in thinking that he had an adequate backup for Aaron Rodgers?  I think it has to be the latter.  But despite all that, McCarthy has had an extremely good record with the Packers, and I don't know where we would find a replacement who could step in and better manage the remaining years of the Aaron Rodgers era.  So I don't support firing McCarthy, and I doubt it will happen.

Finally, we come to Dom Capers.  I like Capers.  I don't wish him any ill will.  But I think it is time for him to go.  Obviously, there is more to judging a defense than looking at the number of points given up, but points given up in the regular season tell a devastating story in this case.  In Capers' first year, the Packers gave up 297 points.  In his second year, the Packers gave up 240 points, were second in the league in scoring defense, and went on to win the Super Bowl with a very healthy dose of a ball-hawking defense in the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

But since then, it has gone downhill.  The Packers have given up 323 points or more (20 points per game) in every year starting with 2011.  2013 was the low point, with 428 points given up, but in 2016 they gave up 388 points, and this year they gave up 384.  That is 24 points per game.  Even with Aaron Rodgers behind center, you are going to lose some winnable games if you are giving up 24 points per game.  And if you don't have Aaron Rodgers, well, we all know how that story ends.

So what happened?  Has the game "passed him by?"  I never know quite what is meant by that term, but I suppose one example would be where opposing offenses learn to adjust to the defensive coordinator's tendencies, and then the defensive coordinator doesn't make good counter-adjustments.  Is he too old, at age 67, to relate well to players in their 20's?  Has Ted Thompson failed to get him good players to work with?  Who knows what the problem is.  I don't think it is all explainable by lack of quality players, as the Packers have drafted some high quality defensive players in the last few years, but they don't seem to be getting the most out of them.  It is painful to see players (like Casey Hayward) leave the Packers and perform better elsewhere, but that has certainly happened in a number of cases.  At least some of that has to be put at the doorstep of the defensive coaching staff.  It is for this reason that I have become convinced that the Packers will do better with a new defensive coordinator.  My favorite candidate is Vic Fangio of the Bears, who I believe is available (especially now that John Fox has been fired).

2017 was a tough year both on the football field, and in real life for my family.  I am hoping for a much improved 2018.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Getting Tired of Home Shutouts

Tubing in Titletown, Photo by Adam Wesley, USA Today
The Packers played their final home game on Saturday night, and got shut out by the Vikings, 16-0.  Since the Packers suffered two shutout losses in Lambeau Field this year, maybe we should consider the fact that this is the last home game to be a blessing of sorts.  By the time we next see the Packers in Lambeau Field, (1) Aaron Rodgers and numerous others will be back from injured reserve; (2) the Packers will have another chance to do something about their defense; and (3) we are likely to have seen some changes in the coaching staff.  I will have more to say about coaching changes in my year-end post in a week or two.

In the meantime, since there are no more games, this would be a great time to check out the tubing hill in the Titletown District, which opened this past week.  I would check it out myself if I lived nearby.

As far as the game is concerned, I did not see a lot to like in the Packers' performance.  I also wasn't too impressed with the Vikings.  They scored 10 points in the first quarter, and then could only manage another 6 points for the rest of the game.  They did not, to me, seem like a team likely to go rolling through the playoffs, and then play and win the Super Bowl in their own stadium.  Especially if they have to play a game outdoors, I don't see them winning that game. In light of last night's game, the Eagles now have the number one seed, so if the Vikings are to advance, it will have to be by going through Philly, unless the Eagles get knocked off in their first game.  The Eagles didn't look too great, either, so that could quite possibly happen.

But the vulnerability of the Vikings makes the Packers' performance all the more disappointing.  The Packers had exactly one promising drive in the game, late in the second quarter, which ended on a terrible interception by Hundley in the red zone.  Every time Hundley threw a ball over 10 yards, it seemed like it was either too short, or, more frequently, too long.  Unlike the Goldilocks tale, none of them were "just right."  Well, technically he did complete several passes over 10 yards, but the impression this viewer had was that every time he threw a longer pass, I just knew the pass would be incomplete. 

That would be hard to take if Hundley were a first year player, but at least in that context you could wait for better play from him in the future.  In this case, he has been McCarthy's backup, "the guy" for three years now, and McCarthy has repeatedly vouched for him.  So how can he be as mediocre as he seems to be? 

Back in the first couple of weeks that Hundley was playing, I thought people were jumping all over him way too fast.  Give the kid a chance to settle in, and all.  But despite having won 3 of the 9 games he played in, I don't know how you can avoid the conclusion that Brett Hundley just isn't good enough to be the Packers' backup, at least if the goal is to keep them winning enough games to get to the playoffs.  Now, I think it is quite reasonable to conclude that McCarthy's faith in Hundley is misguided, which raises questions about whether he will be able to develop a better backup for Rodgers for next season.

Indeed, it really calls into question McCarthy's judgment and his reputation as a quarterback whisperer.  Whereas Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf prepared backup after backup, and several of them went on to become starters in the league (Matt Hasselback, Mark Brunell, Ty Detmer, Doug Pedersen), the same cannot be said about Mike McCarthy, unless you give him credit for bringing along Aaron Rodgers after he was drafted to replace Brett Favre.  I guess you could count Matt Flynn, but when he got his chance to be a starter, he was beaten out by rookie Russell Wilson.  And to make matters worse, they put the more promising backup candidate, Taysom Hill, on the practice squad, where he was signed away by the Saints.  I know, that was a calculated risk, but in hindsight, why not keep Hill and get rid of Joe Callahan, if they don't have enough confidence in Callahan to run him out there in a game where Hundley is doing nothing?

At any rate, while the Packers have plenty of problems on defense, and that needs to be addressed for next season as well, the defense wasn't really the problem Saturday night.  They held the sometimes high-scoring Vikings to 16 points.  That ought to be good enough to give the Packers a chance to win, but as it happened, they had no chance at all with the Brett Hundley-led offense.  It is going to be a long-than-usual offseason for Packers fans, and a very interesting one, as well.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Disappointing End to the Season

Allison Fumbles, photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
Well, as Aaron Rodgers himself suggested, this was not exactly the fairytale ending we were all hoping for.  Rodgers returns, and far from "running the table" again this year, he looks off in his return gig, throwing 3 interceptions to match his 3 touchdown passes, and the comeback fizzles when, despite recovering the onside kick while trailing by 7 points, Geronimo Allison fumbles away the ball in Panthers territory and the Panthers win, 31-24.  And if that wasn't just grinchy enough for you, the Falcons won on Monday night, knocking the Packers out of the playoffs, Rodgers was shut down for the season by going back on IR, and Davante Adams has been ruled out of the Saturday night home game against the Vikings.  Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, indeed!

I was (quite uncharacteristically) on an international flight during this game.  I think that last happened in 1995, on the night Favre threw a 99 yard TD to Robert Brooks at Soldier Field.  On this past Sunday, I was doing my best to follow the game by WiFi, until we got into US airspace and could pick up Fox and the NFL Network on the seatback TVs.  So while I was following the game, I saw none of it until days after the fact, when I finally had a chance to watch the recording.  The watching of the game was of course skewed by the fact that I knew the outcome.  I also knew that Rodgers and the defense had not played well, so I was, in effect, just waiting for the wheels to start to come off as I watched.

There was a glimmer that Rodgers was off even on the very first drive.  While his first pass of the game was on the money to Adams, his second and third passes were off the mark, to Nelson and Cobb respectively.  He settled down somewhat, and looked rusty but serviceable for the rest of the first half.  His biggest mistake of the half was the interception on a ball he was trying to throw away, but he threw it short (an omen of interceptions to come), in the field of play.  Meanwhile, the defense looked passable in the first half, giving up only 10 points.  The gashing, particularly by Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen, was just beginning at the time.  With the Packers leading 14-10 at halftime, I imagine that it would have been possible, if watching the game live, to picture the Packers pulling off the upset.

So it was with a sense of foreboding that I watched the second half.  It didn't take long.  Newton and McCaffrey gashed them most of the way down the field on the first drive, and when the Packers blitzed and hit Newton, he was able to uncork a 30 yard TD pass to Greg Olsen.  Two plays later, Rodgers was intercepted on another underthrown ball, and Davante Adams was knocked out of the game on an extremely cheap shot.  After the disputed "ass cheek" touchdown, Rodgers was again intercepted, again on an underthrown ball, three plays later.

In following the game via WiFi, and reading the stats after the fact, I was shocked by how the Packers had abandoned the running game in the second half.  In watching the game, it was a little more clear why, as the Panthers seemed to be stacking the box on most plays to stop the run.  Normally, that would give Rodgers the chance to carve them up, but this was not the Rodgers we are familiar with.  So the Panthers' gamble paid off.

Anyway, it was a disappointing way for the season to come to a virtual end, while the actual end was confirmed on Monday night.  It seems inevitable that changes must come after a season like this, and I think they are justified.  The defense has not played up to its potential for years, and if the defense had played just a little better in every game, one or two of those losses could have been turned into wins.

The Saturday night, final home game of the season against the Vikings now seems a bit anticlimactic.  Rodgers would certainly have wanted to get back at the Vikings for ruining the Packers' season.  But it is hard to see how the depleted Packers can get that done.  I read somewhere that Case Keenum has never played a game in freezing temperatures, so there is that.  Without Davante Adams, maybe Hundley will finally be able to connect with Jordy Nelson, or will be able to improve his connection with Randall Cobb.  Poor Cobb, he has never had a January in his career where the Packers were not in the playoffs.  So maybe he can still make an impact in December, by helping to knock off the Vikings.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Kings of the Overtime Game

Animated Rodgers Waits His Turn, photo by Evan Siegle,
Another week, another overtime game, another victory?  At some level, that sounds great.  It certainly shows that the Packers are not giving up on games when they get behind.  And they have been able to make some plays when the chips are down. 

I really liked the way the Packers opened the game, with the first drive including a fake punt and another fourth down conversion.  The drive ended in a 30 yard TD pass from Hundley to Jamaal Williams.

But then I don't know that I liked a single additional thing I saw for the rest of the first three quarters.  It was that familiar funk, into which the Packers have sunk in a number of games this year.  When the fourth quarter rolled around, I appreciated the way that the Packers stuck with it, battled back, and eventually tied the game to send it to overtime.  To get there, it took a gutty challenge by McCarthy, and a big time punt return by Trevor Davis, showing us why McCarthy and Coach Zook keep sending him back there despite his mistakes.  But they got there and tied the game up with seconds to go.  I admit that I was concerned that the defense would blow it when Cleveland won the toss.  But far from blowing it, they pressured DeShone Kizer and forced him into a horrendous rookie mistake.  As the ball was in the air, every Packers fan must have been terrified that somehow a Browns player would come down with the ball, or that the multiple Packers players in the area would take each other out of the play.  But instead, Josh Jones snatched the ball out of the air, and a few plays later, the Packers had won, thanks to a nice TD reception by Davante Adams.

But the question is, why was a furious comeback and overtime score necessary against the worst team in the league?  I understand, the Browns have come close to some wins in the past few weeks, and they were close again Sunday.  As a matter of fact, but for the terrible wounded duck thrown up by Kizer in overtime, maybe they would have finally won on Sunday.  But the Browns have a history of finding a way to lose, and it happened again against the Packers.

Where this game leaves the Packers is an interesting question.  They still have an outside chance of making the playoffs.  (You can check out some of the scenarios here.)  It probably won't happen, as they need far too much help from others, not to mention needing to put together three more wins themselves against tough opponents.  But, to paraphrase Dumb and Dumber, yes, there is a chance.  And in light of that, the question on everyone's mind is, will Aaron Rodgers be activated from IR and play the final three games? 

My strong hunch is that he wants to be activated.  He seemed more animated on the sidelines on Sunday, and that suggests to me that he is anxious to get back under center.  So far, McCarthy has given no indication that Rodgers won't be activated, unless the doctors won't allow it.  So McCarthy is obviously willing to entertain a Rodgers return, rather than just "playing it safe" and announcing that he isn't going to take a chance on Rodgers' health this year.  From McCarthy's perspective, he knows that he would get a lot of heat if he were to preemptively shut Rodgers down, so it is perhaps understandable that he wants to put it on the doctors.  We will see in the next few days.  I suspect that the medical report will be a good one, and I think Coach McCarthy will have a hard time turning Rodgers down, unless the medical staff says he is not ready.  So buckle your seatbelts, it will be an interesting week, and I think we will be back to Aaron Rodgers at QB come Sunday.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Packers Run to Victory in Overtime

Aarons Celebrating Their Birthdays Together, photo by
On a day when Brett Hundley didn't look very good (13 complete passes for 84 yards), how would the Packers be able to pull off a win against the Buccaneers?  A huge dose of Jamaal Williams, just a pinch of Aaron Jones when needed, and NFC defensive player of the week Dean Lowry making  plays all day long.  That was enough for a 26-20 win in overtime.

The Packers were ahead at halftime, 17-10, on the strength of Williams' running and an opportunistic defense.  But the Packers basically did nothing in the second half.  When the Buccaneers went ahead, 20-17, with 6 minutes to go in the game, it was not hard to imagine the Packers losing the game.  But when a drive was needed, Hundley put one together that was just good enough to get the tying field goal.  Both on that drive and in overtime, Hundley made use of his own legs as a change of pace for the legs of Jamaal Williams.  And for the ultimate change of pace, after Williams, on successive hard driving plays, got the Packers deep into Buccaneers territory, they gave him a rest by bringing in Aaron Jones for his first carry of the day.  Boom.  Jones goes into the middle of the line, finds nothing there, and bounces it out to the left side, where he ran it in for the 20 yard, game-winning touchdown.

I will say this - with the way the Packers were giving up yardage on screen passes, and with Jameis Winston having more accuracy on passes down the field than Hundley, we were very pleased when the Packers got the ball first in overtime.  Who knows what would have happened if the Buccaneers had gotten the ball first?

It is hard not to daydream about what the Packers' offense would be like with this running game, and with Aaron Rodgers behind center.  Rodgers can test his arm by throwing passes anytime he wants.  The fact that he goes out and throws passes in pregame warmups seems to me to be sending the message that he is ready to come back.  Clay Matthews has even been quoted as saying that the Packers made a mistake putting Rodgers on IR; i.e., Matthews thinks he would have been ready to come back before 8 weeks have passed.  And if he comes back after the Browns game, and if the Packers run the table . . .

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  The bottom line is that I am still skeptical that the Packers will make the playoffs this year.  Too many things have to fall the right way for that to happen, and little things will happen, like the Seahawks knocking off the Eagles Sunday night, that will interfere with the Packers ever getting there.  And, of course, all of this depends in any event on the Packers winning the last 4 games.  Let's assume that Brett Hundley plays well enough to beat the Browns on Sunday.  After all, the Browns are the worst team in the league.  So the Packers should win that game.  And let's assume that Rodgers is healthy enough to return for the last 3 games.  Unfortunately he doesn't get any games against the Browns in that stretch.  Instead, he plays road games against the Panthers and Lions, and a home game against the Vikings.  Let's just say none of those are easy games; all of those teams have presented problems for the Packers in the past; and as a result, I frankly doubt that the Packers will win all three.  But even if they do, they still have to pass up too many teams.  An extra win for the Seahawks here, or for the Panther or Falcons or Lions there, and the playoff push goes out the window.  But as long as the Packers keep winning, things will stay interesting.  That is more than I would have predicted a few weeks ago.

So no, I am not too excited about the Packers' prospects for actually making the playoffs this year. But one thing I really am excited about is the Packers' running game for 2018.  We have discovered that we have two, high-quality, rookie running backs ready for next year, not to mention Ty Montgomery, if indeed the Packers don't either trade him or re-convert him to receiver.  It seems like forever since the Packers had two really good running backs of this quality.  Off-hand, I am thinking of Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, but maybe I am forgetting a pair of backs some time in the last 20 years.  There is no need to give up on 2017 just yet, but 2018 looks very promising, indeed!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Signs of Life for the Packers

Adams on the way to the End Zone, Photo by Evan Siegle,
The Packers lost a heartbreaker Sunday night, falling to the Steelers by the score of 31-28.  It took a 53 yard field goal on the final play to end the Packers' night, tying the record for longest field goal in Heinz Stadium. 

Nobody gave the Packers a chance going into the game.  I certainly didn't.  The oddsmakers had the Packers as 14.5 point underdogs, which is bigger than any point spread I can remember in a long time.  But this turned out to be Brett Hundley's best game, by far.  Jamaal Williams looked perfectly capable of being a starting running back in the NFL.  And Davante Adams showed that he really is to Hundley as Nelson is to Rodgers, i.e., his go-to receiver.

The comparison on everyone's mind (including mine) was the 2010 Matt Flynn game against the Patriots.  I remember the game very well.  Rodgers was out with a concussion, Flynn had to play against the Patriots, and the Packers were huge underdogs.  Because we had to go to an event that evening, we watched the game on delay, starting two hours after the game started.  I had to ignore all the text messages and phone calls we were receiving, but the volume of them suggested that something very dramatic was happening.  And indeed it was.  The Packers led the Patriots for most of the game, and took the game to the final play before succumbing, 31-27, in a heartbreaker game equivalent to this week's Steelers game.

So which Hundley-led team is the real one?  The team that beat the Bears and came close to beating the Steelers?  Or the team that set off a stink-bomb against the Ravens?  In my view, a big difference Sunday night and a sign of growth was Hundley's ability to see and connect with the open receiver.  We all remember the shot from behind that showed Hundley not seeing a wide-open Jordy Nelson a few weeks ago.  And we have seen Hundley misfire on some of his long throws.  Maybe a few weeks of actually running the offense has made Hundley a little more comfortable back there, and able to go through his progressions without panic.  At any rate, the easy TD to a wide-open Randall Cobb (who was clearly not his first read) in the first quarter must have increased Hundley's confidence.  Then add the interception by Damarious Randall, and the screen pass TD to Jamaal Williams, and you had the recipe for a possible huge upset.  Obviously, not every screen pass works as well as this one, but this is a perfect illustration of why I want to see more of them!

Well, of course, it did not come to pass.  Despite the promising first quarter, as the game went on, it became increasingly obvious that the Packers did not have an adequate answer for Le'Veon Bell (183 total yards) or Antonio Brown (169 yards and 2 TDs).  I put this down more to the credit of the Pittsburgh offense than as a knock on the Packers' defense.  The Packers played pretty well on defense, with special note being given to Blake Martinez and Mike Daniels.  Both of them seemed as if they were in on almost every play.  The Packers got three turnovers on the evening, but only cashed in on the interception in the first half.  If they had scored even a field goal on the second half interception or fumble, the game would likely have gone to overtime.  If they had scored a TD on one of the second half turnovers, they probably would have won the game.

In the post-game show, coach Tony Dungy made the case that the Packers are still in the NFC playoff hunt.  His argument was that the next two games (Buccaneers and Browns) are winnable if Brett Hundley plays like he played Sunday night.  That would take them to 7-6.  Then Rodgers is eligible to return, and the assumption was that he would win all three remaining games to bring them to 10-6 and in the midst of the Wild Card hunt.  Yeah, maybe so, but I will believe it when I see it.  As of right now, the wild cards would go to the Panthers (8-3) and the Falcons (7-4).  The Packers would have to pass up the Lions (6-5), the Seahawks (7-4) and either the Falcons or the Panthers to get a wild card spot.  That is a lot to ask.  All those teams have winning records, and there is no good reason to think that all or most of them are about to go into the tank.

Still, I think the Packers should win on Sunday, despite the fact that Jameis Winston will return from injury.  The Buccaneers just have not been as good as I expected this year, even before Winston's injury.  With the Packers' renewed confidence, and a December home game for the Packers (even if the weather will be unseasonably warm), they should be able to get this win.  We will see what happens after that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

No Place to Go But Up

All Down Hill From Here, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Well, here we are.  It is a short, holiday week, with almost nothing positive to say about the Green Bay Packers, in light of their dismantling yesterday, at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, 23-0.  What in the world can I say to shed any light on the game?  The game started so promisingly, as the Packers marched down the field after taking the opening kickoff, until Brett Hundley, on second down, inexplicably threw a ball that for the end zone that Randall Cobb had virtually no chance of catching.  One of the two defensive backs double-covering him on the play would catch the ball, or nobody would.  Of course, Jimmy Smith intercepted it, and the game was all downhill from there, with the Packers never mounting a serious threat after that play.

As luck would have it, the first thing I saw this morning was a Facebook rant by my Facebook friend Jon W. Eisele.  I don't know him personally, but he is an aviator, a veteran, and a Packers shareholder originally from Illinois, and he seems like an all-around good man.  I don't think I can improve on some of his thoughts about yesterday's game, so I am just reprinting them here, with his permission.  I don't go all the way with him in suggesting that maybe it is time to tank the season and position for draft picks, but I understand the reason for the suggestion.  I will gladly agree to turn over half my fee to Jon for "guest-writing" this post, but as a reminder, 1/2 x $0 = $0.
In all kinds of weather, I will always love my Green Bay Packers; as a Shareholder of the Great organization, I also reserve the right to be critical.
Since QB1 broke his collarbone, we've learned that Brett Hundley's scouting reports out of college are still valid and accurate; when not playing the Bears, he's shown himself to be non-competitive past his first 10 scripted plays of the game. So far, he’s proven himself to be a waste of time and resources developmentally, and he’s wasted a golden opportunity that generations upon generations of would-be's and back-ups everywhere could only dream of. True, our chronically banged-up OL is in a constant state of disarray, but that’s no excuse for his staggeringly awful performance today: 4 turnovers, 6 sacks, and countless squandered opportunities, most of which were due to his hesitation and/or overall lack of awareness or confidence.
Despite the lingering criticism of Dom Capers, I thought the Packers' defense played one a hell of an impressive, aggressive, and consistent game (for the second week in a row), especially considering the circumstances, which handed the offense every available opportunity to win — ultimately, it was impossible for them to have overcome the remarkable level of ineptitude under center. We’ll be lucky to finish the season 7-9 with that level of offensive play. Take a look at the team stats, and then revisit the final score. I cannot remember seeing a game that was that clearly and definitively lost by an offense, much less that *talented* of an offense. Unreal. It just doesn't make any sense.
I really *hate* saying this, but at this point, I’m not totally opposed to the Packers playing for draft position and developing/playing/evaluating younger talent from this point on. Injuries have been unrelenting this season and I don’t want to see anymore of our proven studs go down or sustain a major injury unnecessarily. I feel yucky and disloyal admitting that, but I feel it to be an objective and realist point of view right now. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong moving forward.
I both understand and respect Mike McCarthy's public (and perhaps private) loyalty and confidence in Brett Hundley, but I honestly feel like we should start developing (and therefore playing) Joe Callahan to get a feel for what he potentially is or isn’t; doing so will help us better prioritize our draft decision for a new backup QB. I think Brett Hundley has proven himself to be too far gone at this point, and nothing more than a non-competitive placeholder as a backup or starter.
Please someone, prove me wrong. I truly welcome it.
The brightside: We beat the Bears twice this season (the value of which is at least doubled in my opinion) and now lead the all-time series by two games — and I'm already looking forward to witnessing the eventual collapse of the Vikings. I still believe that the front office will right the ship, and the Packers will inevitably return to better days. Keep your head up, Cheesehead Nation.
#GoPackGo #TheBearsStillSuck #TheVikingsSuckToo
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, it is a wonderful time to spend time with family and friends, as our family will be doing.  Just don't get your hopes too high for the Sunday Night matchup at Pittsburgh.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Packers Need to Keep Winning

Rodgers Greets Hundley After the Decisive TD Pass
Please allow me to  have a large snack of crow (or Raven, given this week's game).  I had seen nothing in the last 3 games to suggest that Hundley was capable of having as good a game as he had against the Bears on Sunday, or that the Packers' defense is capable of stopping anybody with consistency, over a full 60 minute game.  But the Packers did both in beating the Bears, 23-16, at Soldier Field.  Now, let's not get too excited, it is only the Bears, but still, what a nice little win to keep the Packers' season interesting for at least another week or two. 
On the bad news/good news front, Aaron Jones injured his knee during the first quarter, Ty Montgomery (re) injured his ribs in the second quarter, and Brett Hundley injured his hamstring, although nobody outside the Packers organization knew about Hundley's injury until after the game.  It appeared to me as if the injury probably happened early in the game, as Hundley didn't seem to have as much "escapability" in the pocket as I expected.  But the Packers were able to keep things rolling, even with Jamaal Williams, their third string running back, and with an injured Brett Hundley. 
By far the funniest play of the day (if not the year) was Coach Fox's challenge of a ruling in the first half.  Cunningham, the Bears' running back, was trying to get to the end zone, and was diving for the pylon.  He was ruled out of bounds at the 2.  Fox challenged, claiming he did not step out of bounds, and it was a TD when he reached out and touched the pylon with the ball.  On review, the determination was made that (1) he never stepped out of bounds; but (2) he lost control of the ball as he was reaching for the pylon, so when the loose ball hit the pylon, it became Packers ball and a touchback.  You could sort of see this in the first several angles shown on TV, if you were really looking for it, but it was not obvious.  The people upstairs who advised Fox to challenge it had obviously not seen the one shot that clearly, and without the slightest doubt, shows that the ball had come loose before hitting the pylon.  So what seemed like a slightly aggressive challenge (after all, they would have had the ball on the 2 yard line, anyway), turned into a disastrous miscalculation.  And that was a key play in the game, as the Bears were seemingly poised to tie up the game, 10-10, but for the ill-considered challenge.
So the Packers find themselves at 5-4, in at least theoretical contention for a wild card spot, and with the Ravens coming to town.  Heck, they are tied with a bunch of teams for the wild card spots at 5-4, but the Falcons and Lions would beat them out based on head-to-head record.  Meanwhile, fan enthusiasm for the Packers seems to be waning, and what with a Rodgers-less Packers team, and the start of the hunting season, tickets are selling for well below face value for this game.  Can they keep it going against the bye-rested, 4-5 Ravens?  Every game they win now keeps things interesting; every game they lose approaches a nail in the coffin.  Before Rodgers' injury, everyone would have assumed that this would be a Packers win.  But now, the Ravens are favored, even as a road team at Lambeau Field. 
I watched the Ravens' last game, against the Titans two weeks ago.  They lost, 23-20, but they did almost nothing in the game until the 4th quarter.  Sounds a little like the Packers?  One of these teams should just pretend it is the 4th quarter at the beginning of the game!  Obviously, the defense plays differently in the 4th quarter, and in the case of the Titans-Ravens games, the two 4th quarter TDs can to some extent be seen as garbage-time TDs.  But still, how refreshing it would be to see the Packers come out in an up-tempo offense at the beginning of the game, and maybe put some points on the board right away. 
Anyway, the Ravens, statistically, have the worst passing offense in the league (although it is only fair to note that if you limited the stats to the last 4 weeks, the Packers would be right down there, too).  They have an above average rushing offense, and an above average passing defense, but they are nothing special against the run.  So the Packers can potentially pull off an "upset" in this game, if only they game-plan appropriately for the Ravens.  An offensive game plan emphasizing the running game, and including short passes as an extension of the running game, makes sense to me.  On defense, this is one of those teams where the Packers should concentrate on the run and force Joe Flacco to beat them in the air.
When the Ravens come tapping at the door of Lambeau Field on Sunday, let's hope the Packers send them away with nothing to show for it.
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice: Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore — Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; — 'Tis the wind and nothing more." 
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

Friday, November 10, 2017

Packers are in a Heap of Trouble Now

Brett Hundley, All Alone, Photo by Evan Siegle,
On Monday night, the Packers started off the game on a positive note, on both offense and defense.  On offense, the Packers marched down the field on a scoring drive, ultimately having to settle for a field goal.  On defense, the Packers forced a 3 and out in the Lions' first drive.  EXCEPT . . . Except, the Crosby field goal was blocked, and a penalty on Mike Daniels prolonged the drive, resulting in a Lions' TD.  So instead of 3-0 Green Bay, it was 7-0 Detroit.  And it was all downhill from there.  If you imagine the alternate endings to both those drives, would it have made a difference?  Probably not in the long run, but it would have at least prolonged the illusion of competitiveness.

On a couple of levels, you could say Brett Hundley wasn't the problem on Monday.  He had no interceptions, no fumbles, no huge mistakes.  And the problems on defense were so severe that even a better performance by Hundley would not have resulted in a win. 

Still, there seem to be two successful models in the NFL for surviving with backup quarterbacks, and neither model is working for the Packers right now.  One method is to have a veteran, former starter in the league as the backup, ready to step in at a moment's notice.  Think of Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Buccaneers this year, or Tony Romo as the backup for the Cowboys last year.  Or even Jimmy Garappolo when he has still the Patriots' backup.  The other model is to have a young, talented player being groomed for his big moment.  Brett Favre back in 1992, Aaron Rodgers in 2005-2007, Tom Brady back in the Drew Bledsoe days.  I was willing to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt with Hundley, given his reputation as a mentor of quarterbacks, and the fact that he has been preparing him for the better part of three seasons.  But after almost three full games, it doesn't appear that Hundley fits the "young, talented player" model, and he is obviously not a veteran, former starter.  I am afraid he is just a journeyman backup quarterback, and you don't win many games with journeyman backups.  If you think I am being tough on him, take a look at this article, pointed out to me by my buddy (and fellow shareholder) Peter Chen.

Which is not to take McCarthy off the hook for the way he is managing Hundley during the games (as opposed to in mentoring him for this day).  There needs to be a greater emphasis on the running game, and on passing plays suited to Hundley's talents.  There is no use having him throw deep; he is not going to complete those passes.  So stretch the defense with mid-range passes that actually have a chance to be completed!

The real story, though, is how pathetic the defense looked.  They did a nice job of stopping the run, but passing against them was like child's play for Matt Stafford.  They get no pressure on the passer without a blitz, and as a result a skilled quarterback can just shred them (to use the term the Monday night crew used repeatedly during the broadcast).  You know your defense is no good when the other team does not have to punt once in the entire game.

The defense has been the Packers' Achilles Heel (apologies to Richard Sherman) for too many years, now.  There have been injuries, of course, but there are always injuries.  The fact that the defense has been a problem is illustrated by the fact that the Packers have devoted 11 draft picks in the first 4 rounds of the last 3 drafts (4 each in 2017 and 2016, and 3 in 2015).  So you could say that the Packers have drafted an entire starting lineup full of high round defensive players in the last 3 years, and yet the results are very poor.  I have never been on the "fire Capers" bandwagon until now, as I didn't think it was wise, with a perennial title contending team, to just fire a coordinator and start over with a new system.  I'm not sure I am quite there yet, but I am sizing up the height and speed of the bandwagon like a cat, judging whether to jump on.

Well, if two weeks were not enough time for the Packers to prepare to play the Lions at home, one wonders how the Packers will do on the road in Chicago on a short week?  For my entire life, I had been waiting for the Packers to catch up with, and then surpass, the Bears in all-time record between the two teams.  They finally caught up last season, and then went ahead of the Bears this year in week 4, and now lead the Bears 95-94-6.  This was the first time the Packers have led the series since 1932. 

It will be heartbreaking if after going ahead in week 4, the Packers fall back into a tie in week 10.  And yet I don't know how one can predict a Packers victory, the way they are playing right now.  It remains to be seen whether Mitchell Trubisky is the starting quarterback the Bears have been searching for all these years.  His passing stats in the four games he has started are unimpressive, and yet he has won 2 of those 4 games, with wins against the Ravens and Panthers.  The results have been better for Trubisky, after half a season in preparation, than they have been for Hundley, after 2.5 years in preparation. 

My motto for this week's game is the same as the title of the old Mel Brooks song, "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst."