Friday, October 12, 2018

Time to Get Back on Track!

Logo by DeviantArt.com
If you thought the Packers' loss against the Lions last Sunday (31-23) was embarrassing, I hope you saw the Giants' loss last night against the Eagles (34-13).  The Giants looked terrible.  Eli Manning may be on his last legs with the Giants (remember when we were all outraged that he was benched last year?), Odell Beckham, Jr. gets more frustrated, week by week, and the remarkably talented Saquon Barkley, for now, is largely having his talent wasted.

But hey, at least the Giants didn't trail, 24-0 at halftime like the Packers did, before attempting the futile comeback against the Lions.  There has been lots of attention this week, naturally, on the five missed kicks by Mason Crosby, which obviously would have been the difference in the game.  If he was a rookie kicker, or a first year free agent signing, he would have been fired on Monday.  But he wasn't, so they didn't, and the Packers even engineered an in-game confidence booster at the end of the game to let him make one final, meaningless field goal.  (Heaven forbid if he had missed that one!)  So the Packers are sticking with Crosby, and I think they should given his history.  But the leash on Crosby should be considered to be very short at this point.  He can't keep costing the Packers games and keep his job. 

The Lions played well, and better than I expected, to get this win.  But it is also true that the Packers were snake-bit.  First there was the botched punt return, allegedly skipping off the back of Kevin King, that led to an easy touchdown.  (I thought the replays were inconclusive, thus the original call would have been upheld either way.)  Then there was the strip sack of Rodgers, leading to a field goal.  At least the Lions went out and created that turnover, while the first one was a gift.  But ten seconds into the second quarter, the score was 17-0.  Without those two turnovers and the first of Crosby's many misses, maybe it is 7-3 Lions, which would create an entirely different situation for the rest of the game. 

Meanwhile, the Packers gained more yards on the ground than the Lions, despite McCarthy stubbornly sticking with his rotating running backs.  (Pro tip to McCarthy: start and emphasize Aaron Jones!)  And they more than doubled the Lions' passing yards, despite missing both Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison.  All three rookie WRs played in this game, including the divinely named Equanimeous St. Brown (although there was no Saint Brown, as the guys from Packers Therapy are fond of reminding us).  So it is easy to see how the Packers could have won this game.  But the Lions, to their credit, didn't make the kind of mistakes the Packers did.  Good for them.  I am moving on past this game, and I hope the Packers can, too.

On Monday night, the Packers will host the 49ers at Lambeau Field.  The 49ers have already lost their starting QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, for the season.  Their promising young RB, Matt Breida, is listed as doubtful for the game.  I saw some stat that the 49ers are 9-1 on Monday Night Football under their last 4 quarterbacks (not including Beathard).  I don't care.  This is a game that they should win, and I would say must win, if they hope to turn around their sluggish start to the season.  Fans in Wisconsin apparently are paying more money for Brewers playoff tickets than for the Monday Night Packers game.  I am not much of a baseball fan, but I can get that.  The Brewers are in the playoffs, whereas a possibly mediocre Packers team will be playing a game against another mediocre team that, at the end of the day, doesn't mean nearly as much.  We will be watching the game Monday night with our cousins, and John is both a Packers fan and a Dodgers fan, so I will get some exposure to both games. 

I am sick of the Packers starting every game slowly, and starting the season like swimming in quicksand.  The start of the season is already behind us, but how great would it be to see the Packers score a TD on their opening drive?  That hasn't happened this year.  Monday night would be a good time to rekindle that tradition.  If they start strong and play a full 60 minutes on both sides of the ball, it will be a good way to send the team and the fans into the bye week.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Rodgers-McCarthy Rift Now Resolved?

All Smiles for Rodgers, Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
The reactions to Sunday's game against the Bills, which the Packers won by the score 22-0, were all over the lot.  Many of us were delighted, and maybe just a little relieved, to see that the Packers were able to win a game, at home, as a significant favorite.  Others were happy with the result of the game, but dissatisfied with the fantasy football points generated by the Packers players on their fantasy teams.  (Not to mention any names here.)

But there really was something about the performance that was not that convincing, especially on offense.  Aaron Rodgers said, in his post-game press conference, that the defense had played at a championship level, while the offense played at a non-playoff-team level.  "Terrible," and "not acceptable," were other words that Rodgers used to describe the offense, which despite those terms still racked up over 400 yards of total offense. 

Rodgers' statement, despite the hyperbole, was basically right about the offense.  While the offense played well enough to win this game (with help from the defense pitching a shutout and generating three turnovers), that is not to say that they played well.  There were dropped passes again, bad passes from Rodgers again, heck, there was even a rare missed extra point.  Nobody would confuse the Packers' offense on Sunday, with the finely-tuned offenses of either the Rams or Vikings last Thursday night.  And that seems to be the not-too-well-hidden message in Rodgers' comments after the game.  Rodgers may have been all smiles in the photo above walking off the field, but he definitely wasn't in his press conference, giving clipped, sometimes one-word, answers.  Beat writers interpreted this as a widening rift between Rodgers and McCarthy, over play-calling and offensive philosophy.  Maybe so.  Going public with this rift may not be the most diplomatic move Rodgers has ever made, but if it results in better play-calling and better play-making, all for the better.

As to the defense, I think Rodgers' comments are in the right direction, but ridiculously premature.  Until the Bills game, the Packers had given up at least 23 points in each game, and if they had done so against the Bills, the score might have been 23-22 and another loss.  The defense embarrassed itself in the first half against the Bears, in the second half and overtime against the Vikings, and in the first half against the Redskins.  So one measure of improvement by the defense would be if they could play an entire 60 (or more) minute game, instead of taking a half off.  By that measure, they certainly improved against the Bills.  You can't argue with a shutout, less than 150 total net yards, 2 interceptions, and 7 sacks.  But in fairness, you have to consider the opponent, and despite the Bills having somehow beaten the Vikings, the Bills are just not a very good team, and certainly didn't play like one against the Packers.  Let's see how they perform in the next game, against the Lions, before we anoint the Packers defense. 

By Wednesday of this week, both Rodgers and McCarthy were insisting that everything is fine between them.  But whereas on Sunday, Rodgers seemed clearly to be criticizing the game plan, by Wednesday he was talking only about execution.  My sense is that there is a real rift, but that McCarthy and Rodgers are both trying to paper over the differences, and that is a good thing.  That kind of dirty laundry is probably better aired out in the locker room or in the Coach's office, rather than from the podium.

But what exactly was the problem with Sunday's offense?  Having re-watched the game, I think it was more about execution than about game plan.  I can certainly point to individual plays that reflect a bad plan, or a bad offensive philosophy, or both.  For example, the "give up" running play on third and long, from near midfield, at the end of the first drive.  I agree with the sentiment expressed by Chris and Dave on the Packers Therapy podcast: you have Aaron Rodgers, just chuck it downfield.  Maybe you complete it, maybe you get a pass interference penalty, maybe it gets intercepted, but if so it is just like a punt.  And if the ball is incomplete, you punt anyway. 

Similarly, I have commented before about the McCarthy tendency to go into "prevent offense" mode late in a game when holding onto a lead.  I think most of the fourth quarter looked like that, with a very unimaginative offensive game plan.  I suppose this is what Rodgers was complaining about in his post-game conference.  And, as a matter of sheer stubbornness by Coach McCarthy, I was just as surprised, the second time around, that McCarthy tried so hard to spread the running plays out among Jones, Williams and Montgomery.  Anybody watching the game can see that Jones is by far the best running back of the three.  And even if you can't see that, you certainly have to admit that he had the hot hand on Sunday.  So why not feature him?  Stubbornness by the Coach.

But in general (at least in the early portion of the game), what I saw was failure to execute plays that themselves were pretty well conceived, whether through dropped passes, poor passes, or Rodgers spending too much time looking around for the big hitter.  Instead they should go with the quicker passes to move the chains; this will cause the defense to play closer to the line of scrimmage, opening up the big hitter later.  But anyway, since Rodgers is the one with the ball in his hands, and since he has a lot of leeway to change the plays at the line of scrimmage, Rodgers has significant discretion in what plays are actually run.  So if the plays are bad, then Rodgers bears some responsibility, along with McCarthy.  And if the problem is (as I believe) more a matter of poor execution, then Rodgers and the players all need to step up their games, rather than making veiled criticisms of the coaching staff.

Recapping the divisional games in the first quarter of the season, the Packers were lucky to escape at home with a win against the Bears, and they were lucky to escape with a tie at home against the Vikings.  How will they fare against the new and improved Lions at Ford Field?  I can't figure the Lions out, to be honest.  They beat the Patriots, soundly, at home, but were also blown out at home by the Jets.  They lost close games to the 49ers and to the Cowboys, both on the road.  In the Patriots game, there was a lot of the "student vs. mentor" vibe going on between the Lions new Coach, Matt Patricia, and the old master, Bill Belichick.  But still, under the right circumstances, the Lions have enough talent to beat even an elite team in the league.  So they can obviously beat the Packers, who have not looked elite so far.  My gut sense before checking the records was that the Lions always give the Packers a hard time at home.  But actually, in the Rodgers era, the Packers are 6-4 against the Lions at Ford Field, or 6-2 if you exclude the Brett Hundley game last year, and the Matt Flynn game in 2013.  So it is more true to say that Rodgers has the Lions' number than the other way around. 

I'm just glad that the Lions (presumably) will not be wearing their stealthy, all gray "ghost" uniforms on Sunday.  It is hard to see them out there with no contrast.  But with or without contrasting uniform colors, the Lions have some offensive weapons, including Stafford's complement of receivers (Tate, Jones and Golladay) and now a new and energized running game with Kerryon Johnson.  I don't expect an easy game. 

The Lions have one of the better pass defenses in the league, but they are among the worst in rush defense.  So this would be a great time to decide to ride the legs of Aaron Jones until the Lions are able to stop him.  I would like to see more running plays than passing plays for the Packers (an unusual stat line for them), which in turn would both exploit the Lions' weakness on defense, and hopefully keep Rodgers out of danger as he continues to heal.

I think the Packers should win the game, but I I also don't feel confident that we know what the 2018 Packers really are yet.  I will consider them fortunate if they escape Detroit with a victory.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Packers Need to Play Smarter on Offense

Allison, Wide Open, Photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
The last week has brought quite a few changes in the NFC North.  After a hard-fought, 70 minute game ending in a tie against the Vikings, the Packers and Vikings were tied for the lead in the division.  But last week's games changed everything.  The Packers and Vikings both lost games to teams that, at least on paper, were inferior teams.  The Packers at least lost to the Redskins on the road, and the loss was convincing but not devastating (Redskins, 31-17).  The Vikings, on the other hand, lost overwhelmingly to the previously winless Bills, at home, 27-6. 

Meanwhile, the Lions beat the Patriots, pretty convincingly, to get their first win of the season, and the Bears beat the Cardinals, narrowly, to get their second win of the season.  As a result, at the end of Sunday, the Bears led the division at 2-1, with all 4 teams being within a game of each other. 

And then last night, the Vikings lost a shootout on the road to the Rams, 38-31, so they are on a two-game losing streak.  But there is no shame in losing to the Rams, especially on the road, since the Rams are certainly a leading contender to win the NFC this year.  So it is a little early to count the Vikings out.  At the same time, if the Packers can beat the Bills at home on Sunday, they will be no worse off than a half game out of first place in the division.  Sunday will be a good indicator of whether the Bills are for real, or if last week's game against the Vikings was a bit of a fluke.  But it will also be a good test of the Packers and whether they can bounce back from a road loss and take care of business at home. 

At the moment, it seems that nobody can play defense in the NFC North, other than the Chicago Bears.  Certainly, the Packers are having their problems.  My overall impression, just from watching the games, is that the defense is improved this year, as compared to last year, and yet the points allowed so far don't show any improvement at all.  The Packers have been giving up over 27 points per game, and you can't win many games that way, especially when the offense is not exactly blowing the doors off.  Sunday, against the Redskins, there were way too many drops by receivers (at least 4, by my count), and a shocking number of bad passes by Rodgers (I counted at least 6).  Add in some injuries on both sides of the ball (Wilkerson, out for the season, Bulaga, knocked out of the game) and you have the recipe for an upset. 

Alarmingly, it is almost as if the Packers don't learn anything from experience.  The hurry-up offense was instrumental in the comeback over the Bears in Week One.  Not only was the tempo itself helpful to the Packers' rhythm, it obviously wore the Bears' defense down.  So why have we seen so little of the hurry-up offense in Weeks Two and especially in Week Three?  I don't get it.  The eternal optimist side of me thinks maybe we will see some this week.  And with an injured QB, a nicked up offensive line, you would have thought we would at least see a lot of quick-release passes against the Redskins, rather than a lot of deep drop, slow developing plays, that have a tendency to lead to sacks.  But that didn't happen against the Redskins, and I only counted a handful of quick-release passes in the entire game.  This must be a joint decision of Rodgers and McCarthy, both of whom seem to prefer the big hitter plays. 

Don't get me wrong, the long TD to Allison (pictured above) was a great example of the good that can come from deep drops and letting Rodgers scan the entire field.  But at the same time, with Rodgers under siege for parts of the game, it is not a reach to suggest quick-release passes to loosen up the defense.  Maybe then more big hitter plays will open up.  And if you are averaging over 5 yards per carry, why do the Packers go with 3 times as many passing plays as running plays?  Yes, I understand, the Packers were behind all game.  But they were not so far behind as to rule out the running game.  Wouldn't a better balance on offense force opposing defenses to take the run game more seriously?  And wouldn't this, in turn, open up the passing game?  Again, maybe we will see a better balance on Sunday against the Bills.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Kissing Your Sister?

Family Photo with Judy, Sam and Mary
I did not hear any phrase more in the first 24 hours after the Packers' tie (29-29) with the Vikings than that a tie is just like "kissing your sister."  Maybe so, maybe not, I don't have a sister, so I can't confirm this.  My friend Stan Silva thinks he suggested the idea of using this phrase to me.  But he hasn't been watching/listening to/reading midwest sports media, where the phrase has been omnipresent.  But anyway, a tip of the hat (sort of) to my friend Stan. 

I do know this much.  This game may not have been a loss, but it felt like a loss in the stands, and I am sure it felt the same way in the locker room.  Even callers in to WTMJ after the game kept referring to the game as a loss, and the hosts did not bother to correct them.  There were so many chances to put this game away, and the Packers could not pull it off.  Obviously one of those chances was flat-out stolen from them by the refs (the Clay Matthews non-roughing roughing call), but there was also the missed 52 yard field goal, the Rodgers fumble that spoiled what could have been a surprise bootleg for a first down, the holding call that negated what would have been a Jimmy Graham TD catch, poor clock management on the final drive of the 4th quarter, dropped interceptions in overtime by Wilkerson and Alexander, and probably other opportunities.  If you were a Vikings fan, you probably felt the same way - if they only had a place kicker who could kick, they would have won this game a couple of times over.  Not surprisingly, they have replaced their kicker since Sunday.

As a side note, we were in the Chicago area for most of the past week, other than going to the game on Sunday.  It was extremely entertaining listening to sports radio in Chicago.  They just could not move past their stunning loss to the Packers in Week One, and in a way, who could blame them?  One of the memorable lines was the guy who called in to say that when a guy goes out on the cart, "nobody comes back off the cart, at best, you are out for the game, at worst you are out for the season.  But this guy did and then proceeded to beat the Bears on one leg."  Bears fans were extremely critical all week of Coach Nagy and Mitch Trubisky, saying that Nagy called the wrong plays, and Trubisky executed them poorly.  I heard somewhere (I think it was on the Packers Therapy podcast), that when the Bears were up 20-0 in the third quarter, Yahoo Sports was claiming that the Bears had a 98.2% chance of winning that game. 

I wonder what the odds of a 29-29 tie were in the Vikings game when the score was a relatively mundane 20-7 in the third quarter on Sunday?  But that is obviously what happened, and neither fans nor players can be very happy about it.  This game is the first tie for the Packers since they played to a tie, also against the Vikings, and also at Lambeau Field, in 2013.  Fans may remember that Matt Flynn played QB in that game in Rodgers' absence, and that the Packers could not have won the division if they had not managed to pull off at least a tie in Week 12.  So sometimes a tie is not a bad thing. 

This season, the tie makes a tie for a playoff spot with any team other than the Vikings quite unlikely, but it also makes the November 25 game against the Vikings, at least potentially, the difference between winning the division and not.  Two weeks into the season, it doesn't look promising for the Lions this year (with apologies to my friend, Al Lawson), and while the Bears look much improved, at least we have a leg up on them, thanks to the Week One miracle.  But it would be very easy to see the Division championship coming down to that November 25 game.  On the one hand, it is in Minnesota, and it is always harder to win on the road.  But on the other hand, Rodgers may be at full strength and mobility by then, and he certainly wasn't on Sunday.

One week ago, Packers fans rightly celebrated the miracle, 21 point fourth quarter to win the game against the Bears, and Bears fans lamented the collapse of their defense.  How, then, do Packers and their fans react to the fact that the Packers gave up 22 points to Kirk Cousins and the Vikings in the 4th quarter, not to mention what should have been two field goals in overtime?  There was talk of the Packers having worn out the Bears defense with the quick pace in Week One.  It looked to me as if the Vikings wore out the Packers defense in the second half and overtime on Sunday.  (And I have to wonder why Rodgers and McCarthy did not use more fast-paced offense themselves to wear out the Vikings.)  It was certainly hot and humid out there on Sunday, so it would not be shocking if the defenders were a little gassed in the second half and overtime.  Thankfully, the forecast for this Sunday in Landover, MD is for a high of 73 degrees and showers.  So weather is not likely to be the same kind of factor this coming week.  In fact, the Packers should not have another hot-weather game this season, with the possible exception of the Rams game on October 28. 

As far as the Matthews roughing call is concerned, in the real world, there doesn't seem to be any controversy about it.  Everybody (other than the NFL) agrees that it was a terrible call.  This includes both callers and hosts on Chicago-area sports radio, not known for their partiality to the Packers.  It includes Packers haters like Skip Bayless.  I have not heard a single person not associated with the League defend the call. 

I remember reading years ago that the way Superman is depicted as flying in the comic books is impossible as a matter of physics.  It is not possible to change directions instantaneously.  And yet that is what would have been required here.  Matthews could have done nothing to change his trajectory toward the QB, and there is no visual evidence that he attempted to inflict any more damage on the QB than is a natural consequence of hitting him with a clean football tackle.  I find untenable the ref's suggestion that Matthews picked up Cousins and drove him into the ground.  I had hoped that the League would have something to say about this, because the new rule is just not working in real life if calls like this can change the outcome of the game.  A player in Matthews' predicament evidently needs to pull up and not hit the quarterback, because if the QB releases the ball just as the tackler arrives, he might get called.  (Mike Daniels did just that on a different play, only to see Cousins escape from the would-be sack.)  That stinks, and the League should have admitted that the whole thing is a mess and tried to clarify the rule.  But instead, we learned on Monday that the League is doubling down on the rule, and insisting that this is a proper call.  I think I will find time to write a letter or email to the Commissioner (roger.goodell@nfl.com, or NFL, 280 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017).  I hope others do so as well.

Going to a Packers game in person is always so much fun.  The guy next to us in the stands flew in at the last minute from Myrtle Beach.  That is real fan devotion, as I would have thought the residents of Myrtle Beach had other more pressing concerns over the weekend.  When we arrived at our hotel near the O'Hare airport Sunday night, some guy came out from the lobby to talk to us when he saw our Packers gear.  He had been at the game as well.  On the shuttle bus from the rental car place to the airport, we ran into a Japanese Packers fan, who was also at the game, and who was attending the second game in his life after being a fan for about 35 years.  And on our flight to LAX Monday night, we ran into at least 5 other Packer fans who had been at the game, a husband and wife sitting in the dreaded middle seats, and a two-generation family of three a couple of rows behind us. 

For now, the Packers just have to keep winning games that they should win, while Rodgers gets healthy.  That means winning against the Redskins this week.  The Redskins seem to be improved this year, but they still should be no match for the Packers.  And then the Packers certainly must win at home against the Bills the following week.  If they can finish the first quarter of the season at 3-0-1, they will be in good shape, and be in no worse place than a tie for the division lead.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Rodgers Puts Together an Instant Classic

Cobb's Game-Winning TD, Photo by Wm Glasheen, USA Today
What a tale of two halves.  And what a tale of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.  One of the best offensive players in the league (and the highest paid), in Aaron Rodgers, meeting one of the best defensive players in the league (and the highest paid), in Khalil Mack.  As bad as the offense and defense looked in the first half, they looked just that good in the second half.

We actually had to watch most of the game on DVR Sunday night, as we had to leave the house when the game was just starting for Rosh Hashanah services, and didn't get back until about 2 hours later.  In the meantime, we had turned off our cell phones and left them off, and turned off the answering machine so that we didn't have to listen to any messages coming in, and we turned off the car radio.  By the time we finished watching the game, it was almost midnight, Lambeau time.  So this is a bit of a stream of consciousness recap of how we learned what had happened.

We didn't know that Rodgers had been knocked out of the game, and taken off on a cart, until we got back home.   When we saw the injury, I thought one of the bones in his leg had broken based on the way the Bears player landed on the leg.  I was envisioning another lost season, or at a minimum wondering how many weeks Rodgers would have to miss.  I wasn't feeling too excited about traveling from the west coast this coming week to watch DeShone Kizer getting beat up by the Vikings.  And I was wondering how my fantasy team would survive.

But Rodgers miraculously appeared on the field, ready to play the second half.  It was obvious that he was hobbled by his knee injury, and therefore obvious that he was more vulnerable than usual to oncoming pass rushers, especially from Khalil Mack, who was like a human wrecking ball in the first half.  He was only expected to play limited snaps, but the Bears threw that plan out the window when they saw the instant impact he had on the game.  Oh, now I get why the Bears were willing to pay so much to bring him to Chicago.  But once Rodgers returned, the Packers started playing a lot of no huddle offense, and the TV announcers were exactly right in observing that the pass rush dropped off as soon as the Packers started running no huddle.  They just could not keep up with the pace of the offense and started to tire out. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine also made adjustments, and after the two opening drives for the Bears, the defensive squad only gave up two more field goals for the rest of the game.

I only took one call while we were watching the game.  We got a call from our daughter, who was stuck in traffic on the way back from the game with her partner.  I answered and immediately yelled "we are only in the third quarter, can I call you back when we are done?"  She asked me how much time was left in the third quarter, and I said 5 minutes.  She said, "OK, I want to talk to you about the game when you finish."  On the surface, I learned nothing from this call.  And yet, I did not hear the slightest hint of dejection in her voice, and I would have expected to pick up on some.  The score was 20-0 at the time.  I didn't say this to my wife, but I began to wonder if somehow they had pulled off a miracle.

And then it was 20-3 after Rodgers' first drive of the third quarter.  Too bad they didn't get a touchdown, now they still needed three more scores (and a shutout or near shutout) to possibly win.  Soon, it was 20-10, thanks to a quick drive and a sensational pass from Rodgers (on one foot) and an excellent catch by Geronimo Allison in the corner of the end zone, on a 39 yard touchdown.  Hey, there were still 14 minutes left.  Who knows?  Around this time, my wife and I started to exchange looks, that, loosely translated, meant, "What do you think?  Could they possibly do this?"

Just a few minutes later, it was 20-17, thanks to another extremely efficient, 6 play, 75 yard drive.  And there were still 9 minutes left.  Unfortunately, the Bears, who had been quiet for most of the second half, put together a pretty good drive, converting third downs when necessary, and eating up 6 of the 9 minutes left on the clock.  But the Packers defense finally stiffened and forced a 32 yard field goal to make it 23-17.

Well, what do you know?  If they could somehow pull it off, this wouldn't be the first game-winning drive Rodgers engineered in the last 3 minutes.  Not even the first one against the Bears, and not the first one involving Randall Cobb.  When Rodgers hit Cobb for a short pass that Cobb turned into a 75 yard TD (who knew he still had that much speed and shiftiness?), the only problem was that they scored too fast, and left over two minutes on the clock for the Bears. The Packers would have to stop the Bears on downs to preserve the win.  And they did!  In fact they had to do it twice, when Clay Matthews (who didn't have a very good game overall) committed an inexcusable roughing the passer penalty on what should have been the game-clinching, fourth-down incompletion.  If the Bears had gone on to score and win, Matthews would have been the goat, and not the Greatest Of All Time kind, just the plain old goat.  But five plays later, Nick Perry bailed out his fellow linebacker with a fourth-down strip sack, preserving the miraculous 24-23 win.

It was my wife's observation, but one with which I agreed, that this game was sort of reminiscent of the famous "Irvin Favre" game in Oakland, the night after Favre's father died.  Yes, Favre and Rodgers played unbelievably well; but it was also the case that their teammates stepped up and played over their heads, in order to support their team leader.  If they can preserve and maintain just a little of that extra something in coming games, it will be a big plus.

I think there are some significant take-aways from this game.  The first is that maybe it isn't such a great idea to have your starting offense only play 5 plays together during the entire preseason.  I understand why they do it, in view of the season-ending injury to Jordy Nelson a couple years ago, but you cannot convince me that the lack of playing time together had nothing to do with the sluggishness of the offense in the first half.  To a lesser extent, I felt the same way about the defense.  They seemed lost and outcoached during the first half, and I wonder if more playing time as a unit might have helped them out as well.  I know the coach will have none of this, but I hope deep down inside somewhere, he takes the point.

The second thing is that the Packers should turn to the fast paced, or even no huddle offense, whenever they are having trouble getting things started.  Heck, start the game with it and see what happens.  It is so obvious that Rodgers is the master of the fast-paced offense, and it is equally obvious that it puts the defense at a serious disadvantage.  If you have Rodgers behind center, you have a natural advantage going in.  But if you really want to put the defense back on its heels, have Rodgers run the fast-paced offense.

Finally, they are going to have to play better than this to win the game on Sunday against the Vikings.  No holes to be dug out of; no sluggishness on offense or defense; more pass protection and quick-release passes from the very beginning of the game, not just after your quarterback almost gets knocked out for an extended period.  With an injured Rodgers, and with the Vikings looking very good against the 49ers this past week, you would think that the advantage goes to the Vikings.  But it was the Vikings who took Rodgers out last year.  That ought to be a little motivation for the team to play with emotion and intensity again.  I just hope they start that way from the very start.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

On to the Games that Count!

Artwork by DeviantArt.com
We don't need to spend much time on the final preseason game before moving on to the more interesting developments of this past week, and the start of the regular season this week.

The Chiefs beat the Packers, 33-21, in another sloppily played game.  It was more entertaining than the Raiders game, at least in the first half, but ultimately any game where you leave 40% of the players likely to make the final roster at home is not going to be must-see-TV. 

But off the field, last week was a momentous and active week.  On Wednesday, the Packers signed Rodgers to a massive 4-year contract extension, making it more and more likely that he will finish his career in Green Bay.  Meanwhile, the same day, they traded Brett Hundley to Seattle for a sixth round pick, which is a bit remarkable since it amounts to turning nothing into something.  Surely the Seahawks must have suspected that the Packers would end up releasing Hundley, so they paid a pick to guarantee that they got Hundley rather than another team.  This paved the way to the Packers keeping all three remaining QBs in the final cutdowns: Rodgers, Kizer, and Tim Boyle.  The Packers obviously like Boyle enough that they are not prepared to take the risk of putting him on the practice squad, at least for now.

Then on Saturday, the Packers made their initial cut-down to a 53 man roster.  Among the cuts that were somewhat surprising to me was Aaron Ripkowski.  If he doesn't re-sign in a few days or get replaced by another fullback, this may mark the end of the recent fullback era in Green Bay, with John Kuhn and Ripkowski both gone.

On defense, it was mildly surprising that Wisconsin native Vince Biegel was cut.  He was a 4th round draft pick last year, but he was not that productive last year, and didn't look to be making the next step in the preseason this year, either.

Of course, the biggest story on defense was, like the old fish story, the one that got away.  After the Raiders' Khalil Mack has been rumored to go to Green Bay for weeks, alternating with other rumors that he was going to Chicago, or that the Raiders would eventually re-sign him, on Saturday Mack signed with the Bears, who gave up two first round draft choices to get him (along with exchanging some later round draft choices), and then signed him to the largest defensive contract ever.  Why the Bears?  One can certainly make an educated guess that the first rounders that the Bears will give up will be higher picks than the two the Packers might have offered.  Maybe, maybe not, with the addition of Mack to the Chicago roster.  And then the joke goes, the Bears had a trump card to offer that the Packers could not - the likelihood of having most Januarys and Februarys off.

I had mixed feelings about whether it was worthwhile to spend what it would take to get Mack.  But he certainly would have been the biggest impact player the Packers have had on defense for some time.  All that is moot now.  I just hope he is not yet in game shape for Game 1 of the season.

I was watching Good Morning Football on the NFL Network this morning.  The reporters at the desk predicted the Super Bowl combatants and winner this year.  Of the eight teams predicted to be combatants, the Packers were not even mentioned as a participant, much less the winner.  (Peter Schrager did predict that Rodgers wins the NFL MVP, however.)  And yet the Packers should obviously be better than they turned out to be last year.  If Rodgers is healthy, and if the new and improved defensive backs make a difference, last year will be just a bad memory.

The problem is that other teams in the NFC North should also be improved this year.  The Bears, because of the continued development of Mitch Trubisky, and now because of the addition of Mack.  The Vikings will benefit from the return of Dalvin Cook, and might benefit from having their QB situation firmed up with the addition of Kirk Cousins.  I am skeptical about that one, but we will see, although I can't see them winning 13 games again, like last year.  And finally, I think the Lions' new coach, Matt Patricia, will bring some new ideas with him from New England, which will result in more success for the team.  They took steps to improve the running game, including the signing of LeGarrette Blount, and the drafting of the aptly-named Kerryon Johnson.

Which brings us to Sunday Night Football this week.  The Packers will open what they are now calling their 100th season on Sunday night against their ancient rivals, the Bears.  The league could not have made a better choice.  After 196 games over the years, the Packers finally lead the series, 96-94, with 6 ties.  It will be great if the Packers can add a couple more victories to their totals this year.  One Bear has already produced some bulletin board material, saying that the Packers can't block Mack.  Maybe the Packers can use the lack of "respect" being shown as motivation this year.  It all starts Sunday night, with a win over the Bears.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Happy Reunions; Sloppy Game

Old Friends Sharing a Laugh, Photo by Ben Margot, AP
Friday night's game was reminiscent of those "Grandma went to Cancun, and all I got was this T-Shirt" gifts.  Sixty minutes of football, over 3 hours of clock time, and only 1 touchdown to show for it, as the Raiders beat the Packers, 13-6, Friday night.  It was a sloppy game for both teams, and there were more penalties in the game than points scored.

The Raiders have plenty of ex-Packers on their team and staff.  Jared Cook, Jordy Nelson, Edgar Bennett, Reggie McKenzie, and probably others who don't come to mind.  The feel-good part of the night was in warm-ups, with Rodgers throwing a pass to Nelson, and Carr throwing a pass to former college teammate Davante Adams.  But it was mostly downhill, once the game started.

I am not sure what ever happened to the idea that starters play at least a quarter, if not a half, in the third preseason game.  I suppose, at least for the Packers, the specter of Jordy Nelson's preseason injury a couple years ago still looms large.  At any rate, I am glad we decided not to pop for tickets, inflated concession prices, a four hour drive each way, and a hotel room to go to this game.  It was boring on TV and presumably almost as boring in person.  What a shame for the Packers to play so poorly in the same stadium where they played one of the most memorable games in Packers history, the "Irvin Favre" game.

What do we make of the fact that QB Tim Boyle didn't play at all?  Either the Packers plan to cut him and were much more interested in seeing Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer play, or the Packers have decided that Boyle is good enough to try to sneak him onto the practice squad, and by not playing him, they hope to avoid another Taysom Hill debacle like they had last year.  I suspect the latter. 

The main problem for these QBs was that the backup offensive lineman provided very little protection, and they were running for their lives.  I went back and forth on which QB looked better, as I thought that Kizer looked more poised in the pocket than Hundley.  But Kizer had too many inexcusably bad throws, so I have to give the nod to Hundley.  Still, the Packers have a Damarious Randall trade invested in Kizer, so I wonder if they would really cut him?  I suspect he ends up as the number 2, or the Packers keep three QBs. 

Last year showed that after several years of development, Hundley could not be counted on when he was needed, which makes me think there is more upside with Kizer.  McCarthy has acknowledged that Hundley was not ready last year.  But since McCarthy is supposed to be the quarterback whisperer, is that more the fault of Hundley or the fault of McCarthy himself?  And if he was not ready last year after 2 plus years of preparation, what reason is there to think he would be ready this year?

The defensive backs, meanwhile, may have had the best game Friday night.  While Jaire Alexander gave up a huge pass to Amari Cooper on the first play from scrimmage, he came back to make his first interception of the preseason later in the game.  And Josh Jackson made his second pick-six of the preseason, although this one was unfortunately nullified by a penalty on the other side of the field.  Over the weekend, the Packers traded DB Lenzy Pipkins to the Colts for LB Antonio Morrison.  I know nothing about Morrison, but it is obvious that the Packers have at least a little need for additional depth at LB, having lost Jake Ryan for the year, what with Oren Burks having injured his shoulder in warmups!  But the thing the trade shows me is that the Packers are feeling pretty good about their defensive back situation.

The Packers' final preseason game, this Thursday night in steamy Kansas City, probably will not have many starters playing either, at least on offense.  On defense, the new system under Mike Pettine requires some more playing time by the starters.  If they can just get through this last game without any additional injuries, it will be time for some football that actually counts.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Early Returns on Jimmy Graham are Favorable

First of Many Jimmy Graham TDs? Photo by Adam Wesley, USA Today
By the time four minutes were gone in Thursday night's game against the Steelers, the score was 14-0 Packers.  Tramon Williams made the ultimate in triumphant returns, snatching an interception and a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage.  And a few plays later, Aaron Rodgers hit Jimmy Graham for a red-zone touchdown to make it 14-0.  Lambeau Leaps for Williams and Graham.

Rodgers was now done for the night, but in Rodgers' few plays we saw lots: a perfectly timed slant pass to Davante Adams, a successful 12 men on the field penalty, a scramble and slide, and the TD to Graham.  No running plays at all, but hey, Rodgers probably wanted to maximize the few plays he was going to get. Graham played a few extra plays, as compared to other starters like Rodgers, Adams and Cobb, but not enough to get more than that tantalizing first look at what he might mean to the Packers' offense. Let's hope that touchdown catch is the first of many.  If things work out, he could be the Packers' first truly elite tight end in a long time; the kind of tight end we thought Jermichael Finley might become.

While first round draft choice Jaire Alexander also made his Packers debut, he had no stats of any kind, and he played sparingly (only 9 snaps).  So it will be at least another week before we see what he can do. But if Alexander is not yet making an impression in the preseason, a young receiver struggling to make the roster certainly is.  Jake Kumerow is not a rookie, and has kicked around practice squads for several years.  He scored on a 52 yard TD in week 1, but I just figured that was a fluke.  That plus his 82 yard TD against the Steelers suggests that there is no fluke involved, and it makes him impossible to ignore.  I have to believe he is playing his way up the depth chart, and with all the drops by J'Mon ("Come on, Mon") Moore, Kumerow certainly must have at least passed him up.  Kumerow has repeatedly been praised by Rodgers in training camp (contrast Rodgers' criticism over the years of Jeff Janis), so he must be doing something right.  At the moment, I don't see how Kumerow won't get a roster spot (as I understand it, he is not eligible for the practice squad).  But we will see, and if his injured shoulder turns out to be serious, I suppose he could end up on injured reserve. 

All told, the game was an impressive offensive showing for the Packers.  After all, they scored 51 points (37 on offense) in the 51-34 win.  Giving up 34 points is never a plus for the defense, but if the Packers can get back to their ball-hawking ways of the 2010 season, generating points on turnovers, I suppose they can afford to give up some points along the way.  Plus, the defense will be seeing more change than the offense under the new defensive coordinator, and with new starters like Muhammad Wilkerson and Oren Burks, and old/new starter Tramon Williams, there is more settling in to be done on defense than on offense.  I am not too worried yet

The Packers are on their way to Oakland this week, to play the Raiders on Friday night.  I won't be able to make it to the game, but I look forward to seeing more of the young players and how they do.  I hope they televise the reunion of Jordy Nelson with his old teammates.  It should be fun. 

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, Packers.com
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!