Tuesday, January 20, 2015

No Excuse for What We Saw Sunday

Photo from Packers.com
As weird as it seems, you can argue that the Packers lost the NFC Championship Game in the first 10 minutes of the first quarter, when they twice kicked field goals on 4th and goal at the 1 and 2 yard lines.  Oh, sure, the Packers played a great game in the first half, and despite those decisions, they led 16-0 at the half.  But by failing to get more points out of those opportunities, they put themselves in a position where the Seahawks stayed in striking range of the Packers, despite how poorly they played in the first half.  We had a group of 8 watching at our house, all Packers fans or at least Packers fans for the day.  There was disagreement among us about the 4th and short decisions, but my argument at the time was that the Packers should go for it.  You start with the fact that teams get a first down more than 50% of the time on first and one, two or three.  So mathematically, the Packers' expected return for going for it both times was more than 7 points.  Even if you score on one and turn the ball over on the other, you score 7 points (instead of the 6 for two field goals) and you leave the Seahawks with the ball on the one or two yard line.  That extra point would have come in handy given that the fourth quarter ended with a score of 22-22.  And with Eddie Lacy and a quality offensive line, not to mention the possibility of a play-action fake, you have a great chance to score twice and (in hindsight) put the game away.

But beyond this, if you go into the Championship game as heavy underdogs, on the road in one of the hardest places to win on the road, then you have to make the most of the chances that you make for yourself, or that fall your way.  To play it safe, taking the "sure" 6 points instead of a chance at 7 or 14 points, is not, in my mind, playing as aggressively as you need to in those circumstances.  Now I can almost hear Coach McCarthy, bellowing that "we are nobody's underdogs," to justify playing it safe rather than "panicking" by taking risks that he would not normally take.  But that, in my view, is really the problem.  His normal approach to these decisions is too timid.  We see too many "run, run, pass, punt" series, especially if Rodgers is injured, as now, or out of the game, as he was last year.  We see too many dive plays to John Kuhn inside the 5 yard line.   And we see too many field goals kicked on 4th and short yardage.

Pete Carroll takes chances to win games (such as the fake field goal Sunday).  Bill Belichick takes chances to win games (among other things, think of the weird, trick formation plays last week).  You could probably also think of spying on opposing teams and deflating footballs as risk-taking in order to win games, but I am talking here only about perfectly legal risks in play-calling and game strategy.  And Sean Payton takes chances (remember the surprise onside kick in the Super Bowl a few years ago).

This is by no means black and white.  Sometimes, Mike McCarthy takes those kind of chances.  But not often enough for my taste.  Even last week, against the Cowboys and with an injured Rodgers, the Packers were more aggressive in their four-minute offense, and they won the game.  Earlier in the year, in the Jets and Patriots games (but with a healthy Rodgers), the Packers were more aggressive in the four-minute offense, and won those games.  Why so tight and risk-averse this time?  I think the magnitude of the game got to him, and when taking into account Rodgers' injury, he basically came to the conclusion that the Packers were lucky to be ahead, and so he started playing not to lose, not playing to win.  I really like McCarthy, and I think he is an excellent coach.  I don't think he should be fired.  But this is my single biggest criticism of him - the unwillingness to play more aggressively when it is needed.  It is possible to like McCarthy, and respect him as a coach, and still assign a lot of responsibility to him for excessive timidity in his game calling.  If you want to have an example of the opposite approach, take the Patriots.  They were still throwing the ball and playing aggressively in the fourth quarter, when they were already ahead by 38-7.  You could perhaps accuse them of piling it on, but one thing is for sure: in the same circumstances, the Patriots would not have found the game slipping away in the face of a furious and miraculous comeback such as the one mounted by the Seahawks.

There were many manifestations of this lack of aggressiveness on Sunday.  The field goals on the 4th and short plays in the first quarter.  Kicking on the other two 4th and 1 situations in the game, one at the Seattle 22 and the other around midfield.  I can't really blame the coaching staff for it, but what in the world was Morgan Burnett thinking when he slid to the ground after making what should have been the game-clinching fourth interception in the 4th quarter?  He had some easy yards available in front of him, and it is not as if there were 2 minutes left - there was 5:13 left on the clock.  Unfortunately, he got the "go down" signal from Julius Peppers, which I think is sort of tragic - there was so much effort to get him another shot at the Super Bowl, and here his signal to Burnett contributed mightily to the Packers missing that chance.

So, after Burnett slid to the ground, the Packers take the ball at that point, needing 2 or three first downs to run out the clock, and instead they go run, run, run, punt.  Then, given the onside kick recovery, they never got another chance to try to run out the clock, but instead were skillful enough (and a little lucky) to get the field goal to tie the game and go into overtime.  That aggressiveness, born of necessity, was, alas, too little and too late.  With all the momentum on their side, and maybe the Packers' defense tiring a little, the Seahawks won the toss and marched downfield in 6 plays to score the game-winning touchdown, to win 28-22.

If you have not seen it, you should watch Aaron Rodgers' post-game press conference.  The body language, the clipped answers, the tone of voice, the unwillingness to elaborate on some questions.  "We gave it away."  "We weren't playing as aggressive as we usually are."  "That is how you lose games."  He, like all players, is hyper-competitive, and he is disappointed to the point of being despondent by what he saw.  If we, as fans, hurt after a loss like this, imagine how someone as competitive as Rodgers, and who actually plays the game and is trying to build his legacy, must feel.  I may be mis-reading him, but I hear in his comments and in his tone something beyond the disappointment.  I think he is disgusted by the lack of aggressiveness in the play-calling.  "You can't let them complete a pass for a touchdown on a fake field goal, you can't give up an onside kick and you can't not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win," Rodgers said. "And that's on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put it all together and that's how you lose games. This was a great opportunity. We were right on the cusp."

Don't get me wrong.  This loss was not all Coach McCarthy's fault.  There was John Kuhn failing to get the ball over the goal line, and Rodgers having a mediocre day, and receivers dropping passes, and Bostick not playing his assigned role on the onside kick, and Burnett following Peppers' instruction to drop to the ground.  Change one or two of those plays, and we are all looking forward to the Super Bowl.  But to say, in effect, "oh well, mistakes are made, and there is nothing anyone can do about it" is to miss the bigger picture - the fact that there is a problem with in-game management, and no apparent intent to try to do things differently in the future.

This game is in the books, and the Packers are into off-season mode.  The question is: what happens now?  Ideally, the Packers would learn something from the mistakes made, and have a better chance to avoid making those mistakes next year.  So far, I don't see anything that signals to me that the Packers have learned any lessons.  In the post-game press conference, Coach McCarthy said "I have no regrets.  I don't regret anything."  It is almost impossible to believe that that is really true, but if it is, I don't know if this will ever get fixed.  The Packers have had special teams problems, off and on, for a number of years, but Coach Slocum is still the special teams coach.  Coach McCarthy has, for some time, had a tendency to play too cautiously in big games when the game is still in question.  A friend called it a combination of the "prevent defense" and the "kill the clock offense."  We certainly saw both in the fourth quarter of the game on Sunday.  All I really want is to hear Coach McCarthy acknowledge that there are problems, and that he intends to work on solving those problems in the future.  Or, if he is constitutionally incapable of doing that, then let him put on his Pittsburgh tough guy bluster about having no regrets, as long as we have some reason to believe that, in his heart of hearts, he knows and will work on it.  So far, there is no indication that is true.  Maybe in his Wednesday press conference, the Coach will send us a signal.  I certainly hope so.

UPDATE: As most readers probably know by now, Coach McCarthy's younger brother Joe died on Wednesday, January 21, and as a result his press conference was postponed.  A really bad week for the Coach just got exponentially worse, on a personal level, reminding us all that football is, after all, just a game.  Prayers for the McCarthy family.  There will be time to get the Packers' problems resolved when he is back.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Slingin' in the Rain, Seattle Style

Photo by Tom Freeman
My daughter and I went to the Cowboys-Packers game on Sunday. Between traffic delays and a huge crowd waiting to get in the gates of the stadium, we barely made it in time for the game. In fact, we arrived as the National Anthem was being sung, and managed to peek up from the tunnel to see the fly-over before the game. We made it to our seats before kickoff, in time to witness lots of frustrating moments in the first half.  We had real doubts that the Packers would win, starting in the second quarter, but it turned out to be a great game after all, with the Packers prevailing, 26-21.

The first half was, at times, excruciating. While the crowd started out the game creating lots of noise, there were times in the first half when we all started to have enough doubts about the outcome that the crowd was, to some extent, taken out of the game. Rodgers was obviously immobile, but to make matters worse, he was missing passes that one normally assumes he will make. And Eddie Lacy missed lots of snaps after the first drive, causing us to wonder if he was hurt, too (we learned later that he was having an asthma attack).

The turn-around in the second half was pretty spectacular.  Rodgers started to look much better, even if he was still quite immobile.  Better passes led to fewer missed connections.  Eddie Lacy returned, and ended up being one of three Packer players having over 100 yards from scrimmage in the same playoff game, something that had never happened before (the others were Davante Adams, and, thanks to that last amazing catch to help run out the clock, Randall Cobb).

The picture above depicts the team lined up, about to snap the ball on the game-winning touchdown, as I saw it from section 114. Well, technically it depicts the team lined up right before Rodgers had to burn a time out as the play clock expired. The time out allowed me to post the picture on Facebook before the play was run, in time to look like I knew the game winning score was coming all along.

If I had to name MVPs of the game, I suppose that the obvious choice on offense has to be Aaron Rodgers, given his gutty performance under the circumstances. But you can't ignore the trio mentioned above, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy. While it is fair to expect high level performances from Cobb and Lacy, Adams' performance was totally unexpected - this was the best performance of his rookie season. After an early drop, with the fans in our section grumbling about how McCarthy should take him out and play somebody else, he went on to have a great performance. The juke he made on his touchdown catch was one for the ages. And on the final, game-clinching drive, the third down catch he muscled away from the defender, who seemed to have the better chance to catch the ball, and then proceeded to gain 26 yards, was really a fabulous play. On defense, even though I did not really appreciate it while sitting in the stands (one misses too much sometimes without seeing all the angles on TV replays), the MVP had to be Julius Peppers. His strip of DeMarco Murray, in the third quarter, in all likelihood saved a touchdown. And since the Packers won by 5 points, the importance of this play can't be underestimated.

But my personal non-player MVP is the Diamond Vision operator in Lambeau Field, Kregg Shilbauer. Normally, the way replays work in Lambeau Field is that, after a couple of seconds, a logo appears on the boards, followed by the play shown from the beginning, and then sometimes from different angles. But on the Dez Bryant non-catch with 4:36 left in the game, the procedure was different. Almost immediately, with no logo, and without bothering with the beginning of the play, Shilbauer started shuttling the action backwards from the end of the play, showing Bryant rising off the field, getting the ball, leaping over Sam Shields to get it, then forward, then back and forth several times in slow motion. In other words, he wanted to make sure that Mike McCarthy had an opportunity to watch the important part of the replay, over and over again, in time to make his own decision on a challenge without having to rely on the judgment of others calling down to him from the coaches booth. Now look, given the magnitude and circumstances of the play, I think that McCarthy more or less had to throw the challenge flag, regardless of what he was being told, but Mr. Shilbauer made sure that he had a personal and detailed view of the play.

I have read that both Rodgers, and I think Tramon Williams, instantly knew, based on the "Calvin Johnson play" from 2010, that this should be ruled incomplete, based on the "process rule." Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads: "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete." I have to assume that at least some of the coaching staff knew the rule as well. So after looking at the replay, the decision to challenge was an easy one. The ball very clearly touched the ground, and it very clearly popped loose for a split second, with both of Bryant's hands off of the ball.  It is hard to see how the call could not be reversed.

Almost immediately, the whining and complaining about this call started. A Patriots fan friend, despite saying that he was rooting for the Packers, said that the win was tainted as a result of the call.  To me, that is dead wrong, and I pointed out to my friend that it is like saying that the Brady "tuck rule" play in the AFC Championship game years ago made the Patriots' trip to the Super Bowl tainted. In both cases, the calls after review were clearly correct under the letter of the rules. You want to say that it is a bad rule? Or that the rule should be changed?  Fine. But these were 100% correct applications of the rules as written. End of story.  (And if you are still not convinced, I can only point out that the Packers drove down into easy field goal range by the end of the game, with the Cowboys having at least as much incentive to stop them as they would have if they had retaken the lead.  In other words, the Packers would have won the game, in all likelihood, either way.)

Anyway, the Packers now head to Seattle for the NFC Championship game, the second NFC Championship game in Rodgers' tenure, and the third in McCarthy's. The forecast is for an 80% chance of rain on Sunday.  Could the weather be an equalizer?  You never know what will happen when players and footballs start sliding around.  It does remind me of the last NFC Championship Game the Packers played on the West Coast, in a downpour.  The Packers easily beat the 49ers, 23-10, and the game wasn't as close as the score.  Sunday, by the way, is also Julius Peppers' 35th birthday. I wish him the very best birthday ever.

Do the Packers have a chance in this game?  Heck, the Broncos were bigger underdogs to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. "On any given Sunday," and all that. But the Packers are and should be underdogs in this game. Even if Rodgers were 100% healthy, they would not be favored, given the home field advantage and how well the Seahawks are playing. The Seahawks put a lot more pressure on the quarterback, as compared to the Lions and the Cowboys, and that is not good with a hampered quarterback.  Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, especially when he is out of the pocket. Unfortunately, he can't get out of the pocket right now.

The Packers' big super-secret surprise defense, unveiled at Seattle in week 1, fizzled out rather spectacularly in that game, and they don't really even use that defense much anymore. Fortunately, the Packers' defense is much improved since that time, particularly after the bye week changes principally involving moving Clay Matthews around. But being honest, it is more likely that the Seahawks will win than that the Packers will win. Betting odds say that the Packers have around a 30% chance of winning. I think the true odds are a little higher than that.  I still expect to be disappointed on Sunday.  But yes, paraphrasing Jim Carrey, I am telling you that there is a chance.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ice Bowl Rematch?

Photo by Scott Crevier
What an interesting week this has been.  Almost by accident Tuesday evening I found a 90 minute show on the NFL Network on the subject of the Ice Bowl Game from the 1967 season.  I am old enough to remember the Ice Bowl game, but I never saw it live: in those days, all home games were blacked out in the local market, whether they were sold out or not, and living in Appleton, the only TV stations we got were from Green Bay.

It was interesting to watch the Ice Bowl excerpts and related interviews.  I don't think it was excerpts from the game broadcast itself, as I don't think they kept the tapes in those days, and it had the look of film, not tape, in any event.  Rather, I think it was NFL Films footage of excerpts of the game, with someone doing a cold, almost disembodied voice-over.  I know that the broadcasting style was different in those days.  The classic Ray Scott description of a touchdown pass was "Starr . . . Dowler . . . touchdown!"  Still, I find it hard to believe that an actual game broadcast would have been so bland, with not a trace of excitement displayed for touchdowns, turnovers, big plays, etc.  And then Wednesday morning, the NFL Network was showing the Green Bay at Dallas NFC Championship game after the 1995 season.  So, as is fitting for the second round of the playoffs, there has been a lot of coverage directed to Dallas and Green Bay.

In addition to all of the articles about the upcoming game itself, and about the horrendous call/non-call in the Lions-Cowboys game, there are lots of print and web articles out there about the Ice Bowl (for example, this one from the L.A. Times), and whether it will be Ice Bowl cold this Sunday (it won't).  And now I see that the Cowboys are hoping for it to be as cold as possible for the game.  I agree with the author that this is likely to be a little "whistling past the graveyard."  It is sad, but true, that the Packers are no longer invincible in playoff games at home.  In the past 13 years they have lost more than their share of home playoff games, after never having lost one before that time.  But I still don't buy that the Cowboys are hoping for cold weather.

All of this focus on the Ice Bowl makes  a lot of sense.  The Packers have not hosted the Cowboys in the playoffs in the 47 years since that epic game.  Lots of football fans may be a little fuzzy on the details of that game (who played, how cold was it, who won, was it the Super Bowl, etc.) but every football fan has heard of the Ice Bowl: it is one of the iconic games of NFL history.  

How is that possible, I thought, when I first heard that it has been 47 years since the last Dallas at Green Bay playoff game?  Well, for starters, for most of those years, the Packers were pretty bad.  They made the playoffs exactly twice between 1967 and 1994, and they didn't get close to the Super Bowl either time.  Starting in 1993, the Packers have made the playoffs most years, but the only Packers-Cowboys playoff games have been played in Texas.  This history serves, for me, as a stark reminder that the Packers, of the last 20 plus years, are an historical anomaly.  Most teams are not blessed with back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Most teams don't make the playoffs 18 times in 22 seasons.  Most teams have regular down periods lasting more than a couple of years.  I can see it in my own family.  My wife and I grew up in the Packers' golden age of the 1960's.  Our kids are in their 20's.  They literally cannot remember a time when the Packers weren't almost always in the playoffs.  So they have grown up in another Packers' golden age, starting when Favre came off the bench in 1992, and lasting to the present day.  But it was not always so, and it won't always be so in the future, either.  So, as fans, we should relish the Favre-Holmgren-Rodgers-McCarthy Packers while we still can.

As for the game, I find myself nervous, and I imagine that most Packers fans feel the same way.  There is the recent history of very discouraging home playoff losses.  There is the fact that the Cowboys are unbeaten on the road, while the Packers are unbeaten at home.  Irresistible force vs. immovable object?  Something obviously has to give, and one of those streaks will be broken by late Sunday afternoon.  Most ominous of all is the Rodgers calf injury.  I can imagine all kinds of scenarios, all the way from Rodgers looks great, and the Packers are sand-bagging the Cowboys a bit, to Rodgers will look like the second coming of Lynn Dickey - a great quarterback but completely immobile, and in much worse shape than the Packers have let on.  My own take is that McCarthy and Rodgers will do everything possible to keep Rodgers in the pocket, and the line will take it on itself to protect him, and as we saw in the Lions game two weeks ago, he can still be effective even without the added factor of mobility.  Even though the Cowboys are not known for blitzing, one has to assume that they will try testing Rodgers with a few blitzes early on.  It is vitally important that the Packers are ready for this, and have a quick outlet receiver available on every passing play.  If Rodgers can beat the blitz a few times, I assume that the Cowboys will revert to their normal approach.

The running game will be critical for both teams.  On paper, the Cowboys have a better rushing offense this season than the Packers.  But I don't think that DeMarco Murray has been as effective since breaking his hand.  Given the weather conditions and Murray's injury, I expect Eddie Lacy to gain more yards in the game than Murray.  On defense, again, on paper the Cowboys look like they have a better rushing defense than the Packers.  But, as I have said before, I think the statistic is somewhat outdated.  If you look at the Packers' rush defense since they started playing Matthews inside on the early downs, I think that the Packers have at least an equal, if not better, rushing defense than the Cowboys.

As for passing offense, under normal conditions it would be a no-brainer to pick the Packers as having the better passing offense.  But it may not be as clear on Sunday, since (a) Tony Romo seems to be more reliable than he has in past years, and (b) the Rodgers injury is a huge wild card.  But I still expect Rodgers not to make mistakes, especially at home, and I think Romo can still be counted on to throw an interception or two.  Dez Bryant is a tremendous talent at receiver for the Cowboys, as is Jason Witten.  But if, as appears likely now, Davon House is able to play, I like the Packers' chances to keep these receivers at least somewhat in check.

Anyway, I think the Packers will win, and my daydream is that it won't even be close.  More likely, the Packers will win by 10 points or less.

Friday, December 19, 2014

No Margin for Error Left

Most Creative Use of Mouthpiece Award Winner
Ever have a multi-stop business trip, where things go haywire on the first stop, and it threatens to throw a monkey wrench into all of the rest of your plans?  Well, the Packers had that kind of a first stop in Buffalo last Sunday, losing to the Bills 21-13.  They were in it, sort of, until Rodgers was stripped of the ball near the goal line late in the game, and whirled around but could not find the ball.  Eddie Lacy picked the ball up in the end zone and tried to advance it.  Unfortunately for Lacy and the Packers, this brought into play the "holy roller" rule, and thus was a safety, whether or not Lacy got out of the end zone.

The holy roller rule arose out of a 1978 play involving Ken Stabler and Chilton, WI high graduate Dave Casper of the Oakland Raiders.  With seconds left in the game, and the Raiders trailing, Stabler, about to be sacked, "fumbled" the ball forward, where it was bobbled and rolled into the end zone by Casper, where he recovered it for the winning touchdown.  Of course, there were calls for the league to "do something" about this.  In a football application of the old principle that hard cases make bad law, the league came up with the holy roller rule, which basically states that in the final two minutes of a half, only the player who fumbles the ball can advance it.  Thus, when Rodgers could not find the ball, as soon as Lacy picked it up, it was a dead ball in the end zone and a safety.  Ironically, the rule was probably never necessary.  If, as was admitted at the time, Stabler intentionally fumbled the ball in an effort to have a chance for someone to advance it, then it could have been ruled an incomplete forward pass, or maybe even intentional grounding, and in either case the ball could not be advanced.  So, I would argue it was just a bad call, not a cause célèbre calling for a new rule.  But anyway, rules are rules, and the way the Packers had been playing, they didn't have much of a chance anyway.

On the plus side, Cobb and Nelson become the first pair of receivers in the long history of the Packers to have 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, each in the same season.  Jordy Nelson's best play of the game, however, might have been on defense.  A pass to Nelson was nearly intercepted and might have been returned for a touchdown, but for Nelson getting a hand on the ball and knocking it out of the defensive back's hands.

But the negatives far outweighed the positive.  Jordy Nelson dropped what should have been a 95 yard TD. That is something that nobody would expect out of Nelson.  And it wasn't just him.  Receivers dropped what looked like 5 or 6 catchable balls throughout the game, and Rodgers was uncharacteristically off on a number of passes.  He had two interceptions, one of which was a tipped ball, like all his previous interceptions this season, but the other was just a bad pass.  Rodgers had the lowest QB rating of his career.  He also had the most incomplete passes in a game in his career.  Remarkably and inexplicably, McCarthy did not respond to the problems in the passing game by calling more running plays, screens, draw plays, etc.  He certainly should have.

And, as a little footnote, there were more problems in the kicking game, as Crosby's 53 yard field goal attempt was blocked, and the Packers' special teams gave up a punt return for a touchdown.

The Bills have the kind of defense that Rodgers generally has problems with.  If they can put pressure on with 4 rushers, and drop everyone else in coverage, problems ensue.  This is the sort of thing that Seattle does to Rodgers, or occasionally the Jim Schwartz-led Lions.  Not entirely coincidentally, Schwartz is now the defensive coordinator for the Bills.

This game featured the worst announcer pair I have ever heard, Justin Kutcher and David Diehl.  My working theory is that they were switched in to cover this game after Fox decided to show the Johnny Manziel game to most of the country, because they acted as if they had done no preparation whatever for the game.  Bryan Bulaga's name was repeatedly pronounced "Beluga" until they finally figured it out in the 4th quarter.  Maybe they grew up listening to the Raffi children's song, Baby Beluga.  Or maybe they love caviar.  Poor Micah Hyde had his name butchered as "Makiah Hyde."  The Old Testament Prophet must be rolling over in his grave.  One of the announcers had the verbal tic where he pronounces the "T" in Kyle Orton as if it were a glottal stop, not a letter to be pronounced.  And I can't count the number of times during the game that one of them said, "my mistake."

The Packers, of course, have to put all the negatives behind them and move on to the Tampa Bay game.  Fans have no choice but to do the same.  The Packers' loss to the Bills puts them in the position where they dropped back into a tie with the Lions, and it is a severe blow to any thought the Packers had of claiming the number 1 seed.  But if they beat the Buccaneers on the road and the Lions at home, the Packers still win the division and get at least the number 2 seed (and the resulting bye).

So the Packers have a lot to play for, and no remaining margin for error.  I was amused today by a Press-Gazette article remembering the time that Brett Favre had to wave his arms to quiet the Packer fans' "Go Pack Go" chant in the Tampa stadium.  I remember the game more for the way it set off a rant from Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer after the game.  Anyway, that was against a Buccaneers team that made the playoffs.  This year, the Buccaneers are 2-12.  While the Buccaneers usually have trouble selling out home games, this game was sold out 6 months ago, and the tickets are now reselling way over face value.  You tell me who is buying those tickets.  To put it a different way, if the Packers have trouble with the Buccaneers in their home away from home, then they are in a heap of trouble overall.  I expect a convincing win from the Packers.  It is time to play like champions again.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Road Trip Awaits the Packers

The Unstoppable Jordy Nelson (photo by Jim Biever, Packers.com)
Almost everything went the Packers' way in the first half, last Monday night against the Falcons.  Other than a crisp first drive by the Falcons, to tie the game at 7-7, it was all Packers, all the time.  When Rodgers hit Nelson for the last score of the first half, to make it 31-7, Jon Gruden said "the rout is on."  And if you look at the stats for the first half, you would think the same thing.  In every single offensive category, the Packers were outperforming the Falcons.

With the way that the Packers have played this year, fans could be forgiven for thinking that the days of "playing it safe" with a lead had gone away for good.  One of my complaints, for years, had been that the Packers take their collective foot off the gas with a lead, stop playing aggressively on offense and defense, and frequently let lesser teams climb back into the game.  The Packers really haven't done that this year, and they have blowout wins against the Bears, Vikings, Panthers, Bears again, and Eagles to show for it.  

So what happened in the second half?  Since when do we expect to see the Packers give up 30 points in a half, while scoring only 12, to lead to a final score of 43-37?  Well, you can't take anything away from Julio Jones, who set the all-time record for receiving yards against the Packers, with 259.  And it could have been worse if he didn't sit out part of the 4th quarter with an injury.  All game long, it looked like they needed safety help over the top to cover Jones, but they usually did not provide it.  And it wasn't just Jones.  It was the Falcons' passing offense and the Packers' passing defense in general.  Even though no receiver other than Jones put up big numbers, 8 other receivers caught passes, and Matt Ryan ended up with 375 passing yards.

Julio Jones is certainly a top-flight receiver, but the Packers have controlled better quarterbacks (for example, Tom Brady) and have done a better job of controlling other top receivers (Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson).  So I do think that the second half was a bit of an anomaly, and most likely represents a letdown or an example of taking the second half off.  If so, it is appalling that it happened.  But if it did, there is no better outcome than for the Packers to hang on and win the game anyway.  This gives them the benefit of the win, against a conference opponent to boot, and keeps them tied for the best record in the league.  But, almost as importantly, it serves as an important reminder and warning that they can't get away with this stuff, even against a team that is, objectively, not as good as other teams the Packers will have to play in the playoffs.  Better to learn that lesson now than on the first (or hopefully, the second) weekend in January.

Now the Packers head off on a two-game road trip, first against Buffalo, and then against Tampa Bay.  I will take a closer look at Tampa Bay next week, but offhand that game does not concern me.  Not only do the Buccaneers have the worst record in the league at 2-11, but the stands will be half full of Packers fans.  Any Packers fans in the area should get tickets now.  You can't have a better time in late December than sitting out in shirt sleeves, in a friendly road venue, and watching the Packers.  (I'm talking to you, Marc B. and David A.)

The Bills, on the other hand, are a bigger test.  Weather should not be an issue, with temperatures in the mid-30s and not much chance of rain or snow.  But the Bills could be an issue.  They have a pretty decent record at 7-6, they are playing at home, and they still have a shot at a wild card spot.  In fact, with a bunch of 8-5 wild card contenders in front of them, a loss to the Packers would be close to devastating.  This will not be a team with their bags packed, waiting for the off-season to start.

The Bills have not played that well on offense, but their defense is outstanding.  No team in the AFC has given up fewer points than have the Bills.  The defense is coached by old Packer nemesis Jim Schwartz, so although the team may not have played the Packers in four years, the defensive coordinator knows the Packers very well.  The offensive line of the Packers will have its work cut out for it in keeping Rodgers upright and healthy against the Bills' defense.  The Packers, in my opinion, have the best quarterback in the league and the best set of receivers.  Rodgers and the receivers will have to put some points on the board, especially if Eddie Lacy is hampered or out of the game.

On top of that, and for whatever it is worth, the Bills have scored more points on offense than the Packers' other remaining opponents, the Buccaneers and Lions.  Kyle Orton, the current starting quarterback, has a surprisingly good record as starter against the Packers, and the rookie wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, will also test the defense.  So it is important that the Packers' defense plays much better than they did last week.  I think the Packers will win the game, but probably by less than 7 points, so we may to sweat this one out, too, just like the last two weeks.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Morning Game Day Thoughts

Photo by USATSI
The photo above depicts the key defensive moment in last week's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots.  The Packers were playing one of the best teams in the league, with the league's best record at 9-2, and the Patriots were on a 7 game winning streak, with one of the best quarterbacks in the league at the helm.  The Packers had never trailed in the game, but it had been a close game since the second quarter, with the Packers never leading by more than 9 points in that span.  On offense, the Packers' main problem all day had been in the red zone, where they ended up having to settle for four field goals and one missed field goal.

So when the Packers' drive in the fourth quarter stalled, and Mason Crosby kicked his fourth field goal of the day to bring the score to 26-21 with 8:45 left in the game, Packer fans could be forgiven for contemplating the possibility of a long, clock-eating drive, ending in a go-ahead touchdown by the Patriots.  While the Packers' defense had kept Brady under control all game, they had never sacked him, until it was 3rd and 9 from the Packers' 20, after the Patriots' drive had consumed over 5 minutes of the clock and 52 yards.  It was at that moment that Mike Daniels and Mike Neal came up with the only Packers sack of the game, putting the Patriots too far out to try a fourth-down play, and forcing them to try to kick a field goal, which they missed.  Two Lacy runs, one clutch pass to Cobb, and 3 kneel-downs later, the game was over.  While this game was obviously not a Super Bowl, the Daniels-Neal sack immediately reminded me of Reggie White's two, back to back sacks of Drew Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI, to effectively finish out the game.

Back when the Packers were 1-2, none of us really contemplated the Packers being in a position to win 7 out of 8 games, or to knock off two division-leading teams like the Eagles and the Patriots within a three week span.  But they have done exactly that.  Keeping more of their players healthy has been a big factor, obviously, but so has the continuing development of young players like Eddie Lacy and David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley and Davante Adams (other than his big drop of what would have been a touchdown pass) on offense, and like Datone Jones, and Micah Hyde, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on defense.  And finally, the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit.  Over the years, many of us have been critical of Mike McCarthy and his staff, for poor clock and game management, unimaginative play calling, being slow to adjust within games, etc.  But I have to admit that the Packers, for most of this year, have been doing a better job of changing things up to keep the opposing teams off balance.  On defense, the creative use of Clay Matthews in the last four weeks has made a huge difference in the overall performance of the defense, and on offense, last Sunday's game showed how the creative use of Randall Cobb in many different alignments can create massive problems for the opposing team's defense.  Where was all this creativity hiding for the last few years?  Hard to tell, but let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Much has been made this week of Bill Belichick seeking out both McCarthy and Rodgers after the game to have a few words with them.  Neither McCarthy nor Rodgers would disclose what was said, but it is fair to assume that Belichick was acknowledging the excellent play-calling and performance of the Packers in the game.

The Packers have four winnable games left in the regular season.  Atlanta at home, Buffalo and Tampa Bay on the road, and then the huge rematch with the Lions.  The Falcons, despite their 5-7 record, should not be taken lightly.  They still have Julio Jones and Roddy White on offense, and if Matt Ryan gets hot, they can score a lot of points.  They have also won 3 of their last 4 games, including a win over Arizona, so they are getting their season back on track after a really poor start.  Plus, at 5-7 they are like the old joke about the two men being chased by a bear.  Since they currently actually lead the NFC South, they don't need to win enough games to have a good record; they just need to finish in front of the Saints and Panthers.  If they do, they will win the division and host a home playoff game.

We all remember that it was just four short years ago that the Falcons had the best record in the NFC, and the Packers knocked them off on the way to Super Bowl XLV.  They have lost a lot of players since then, but they still have plenty of talent.  And this is, for the reasons noted, a big game for the Falcons.  But I don't see them pulling off a massive upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field.  I think the Packers will win this one by at least 10 points.  Go Pack!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Statement Game, Part Deux?

Two weeks ago, the Packers made their statement by beating one of the top teams in the NFC, the Eagles.  Then they avoided, just barely, falling in their trap game against the Vikings in TCF Stadium.  On Sunday, they get their chance to make another statement by beating the Patriots, probably the top team in the AFC, in what some people are calling a possible Super Bowl preview.

About the Vikings game - sure, we all expected the Packers to dominate the game, and they really did not do that.  They never trailed in the game, but they never really took control of the game, either.  It was the classic sort of game where the better team plays down to the level of the competition, and lets the other team hang around and hang around, all game long.  There were a number of contributing factors.  First, the Packers just seemed flat.  Rodgers missed some passes, and should have been intercepted at least once, and receivers dropped some passes that they normally would catch.  The Vikings played a lot of cover-2 defense, which seems like it always frustrates Rodgers, and it does tend to decrease the efficiency of the Packers' offense.  Teddy Bridgewater looks like he might be the real deal for the Vikings, but he was wild on Sunday, especially early in the game.  If he had completed some easy passes, instead of overthrowing them, and if his receivers had not dropped a handful of catchable passes, the Vikings might well have won the game.

Still, the positive parts of the Vikings game were the effect that the Packers suffered through a subpar performance and still managed to win the game - somewhat like the Jets and Dolphins games, both of which they could easily have lost.  And there is nothing more satisfying than to see the Packers get the ball back, with over 3 minutes to go, and watch them grind it out on 5 straight Eddie Lacy runs, for two first downs, to get the game into kneel-down time.

What about the Patriots?  They have the best record in the AFC at 9-2, and they are on a 7 game winning streak, after a maddeningly slow start of 2-2.  People were beginning to question whether Brady was over the hill, but just like that, they turned it around.  In their seven game winning streak, only one win has been by less than 15 points (they beat the Jets by 2 points).  One of the things that I have always admired about the Patriots is the way that they keep their foot on the gas until the game is way out of control.  So if the Patriots get ahead of the Packers on Sunday, there is no hope that the Patriots will slow down the game and give the Packers a chance to catch up.  The Packers will have to seize the opportunity themselves, with no help from the Patriots.

I can make the case for the Patriots winning the game.  They have two top cornerbacks, so they should have a better chance to keep Nelson and Cobb in check than most teams.  Both teams have high-level passing offenses and middle of the pack rushing offenses,  They both have middle of the road passing defenses, but the Patriots have a much better rushing defense, and the Patriots have shown that they are willing and able to emphasize the run offense when that is the easier way to score points.  If the Patriots win the game, it will be likely be because of the Packers' Achilles' heel: rushing defense.

But I am predicting a Packers' win.  True, the Patriots have won 7 in a row, but the Packers have won 7 out of their last 8 games, and are 5-0 at home (thanks to the furious comeback against the Jets).  The Packers do have, on a year-to-date basis, one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, but I would suggest that the statistic is out of date.  Since the Packers started to use Matthews inside, the Packers have given up 55, 109 and 112 rushing yards in those three games.  If they did that all season long, the Packers would have a top 10 rushing defense.

It is interesting that Brady and Rodgers have never started against each other - a fact made possible by Rodgers' concussion in 2010.  Matt Flynn played instead, and came close to upsetting the heavily-favored Patriots.  But this time, we get two of the best quarterbacks in the league, both (I would argue) sure future Hall of Famers.  This will be an interesting battle, between the classic pocket passer in Tom Brady, and the newer model, more mobile quarterback in Rodgers.  According to the NFL Network, there has never been a game in which the starting quarterbacks have more career touchdown passes.  Brady and Rodgers have 603 combined passing TDs.  In second place is a Roethlisberger-Favre matchup late in Favre's career - those two had 589 passing TDs.  This should be a great matchup.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Statement Made - Now Avoid the Trap Game

Photo by Jeff Hanisch, USA Today
Last week, I made the comment that the Packers hadn't really beaten any good teams yet, with the possible exception of the Dolphins, and that they really needed a "statement" game.  Well, beating the high-flying, at the time 7-2 Eagles, by the score of 53-20, qualifies as a statement in my book.  The Packers turned in their second 50 + point game in two weeks, and dominated the Eagles on both sides of the ball, and (to some extent) on special teams as well.

The Eagles gained a lot of yards, but the Packers forced just enough mistakes to hold them to 20 points.  For the second week in a row, Clay Matthews' part-time gig as an inside linebacker paid dividends, with Matthews causing matchup problems inside, and registering a sack when lined up outside.  Julius Peppers scored his second interception return touchdown of the year, and did a MUCH better Lambeau Leap this time.  I assume he has been practicing.

On offense, in re-watching the game, I was impressed by the front line's protection of Rodgers.  He was sacked once, but otherwise generally had plenty of time.  If I am not mistaken, this is the first time in years that the same 5 offensive linemen have started every game all season, despite some of them being banged up in a number of games.  That continuity is making a lot of difference, as is more attention to quick releases by Rodgers, screen passes, and other mis-direction plays.  The highlight of the game for me, even though the game was already out of reach, was Eddie Lacy's 4th quarter "boom . .boom . . boom" style touchdown on a short dump-off pass to the left side.  Thirty-two yards and five would-be tacklers later, Lacy was in the end zone.  Most of the country missed the score, as Fox, I think, had already switched to another game, but what an impressive effort by Lacy.

One thing that I have not seen written about anywhere is whether Jordy Nelson hurt himself in the first quarter of the game.  Watching on TV, we both had the impression that he came up with a slight limp after a long incomplete pass on a free play, when the Eagles jumped offsides.  He missed a couple of plays, then returned and played the rest of the game, and did not appear on any injury reports this week, so I have to assume he will not be hampered in any way on Sunday.

Special teams was more of a mixed bag.  Micah Hyde had a great punt return for a touchdown, but there was also a botched extra point and a missed extra point.  If you are going to miss easy kicks, do it in blowout games where it doesn't make any difference.

This week, the Packers get to play the Vikings outdoors, at the University of Minnesota.  It will be the first Packers-Vikings road game played outside since 1981.  While the Metrodome was mostly a house of horrors for the Packers in the Brett Favre era, the same has not been true for the McCarthy-Rodgers era.  The Packers are 8-1-1 in their last 10, and 3-1 in the last four games at the Metrodome.  Playing outdoors in Minnesota, if anything, has to be a plus for the Packers.  The Vikings' temporary stadium only holds 52,000, and of course with an open end, and an open roof, it has to be easier on the ears than the Humptydome.  Weather shouldn't really be a factor either way, as the high will be near 40 degrees, unless it is raining.

The Vikings are playing better recently than they were earlier in the year, and Teddy Bridgewater looks like he will be a definite upgrade for the Vikings at quarterback.  All of which sets this game up as a potential "trap" game.  The Packers have had many of these games over the years.  The would-be perfect season in 2011 was spoiled by the trap game against Kansas City.  The Chiefs had their own trap game Thursday night against the previously winless Raiders.  Still, I just can't see the Vikings keeping up with the Packers on Sunday, and I expect a comfortable win.  You could argue that the Packers are "peaking" too early this season, but I don't think that it will make any difference on Sunday.  And, if the Lions lose in their visit to New England on Sunday, the Packers will find themselves in sole possession of first place in the division come Sunday evening.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How Sweet It Is!

Jarret Boykin, blocking the punt before it is kicked
"How Sweet It Is!"  This was a catch-phrase made  popular by entertainer Jackie Gleason, in the various iterations of his TV shows in the 1950's and 1960's.  It was also the first thing my mother-in-law, Carole Casper, said about Sunday night's Packers-Bears game, which the Packers won, 55-14.  And sweet it was.

At times over the years, I have almost succumbed to the delusion that the Packers-Bears rivalry is not such a big deal as it used to be.  After all, the Packers have dominated the Bears for more than 20 years now, starting with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, and continuing under Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers.  Favre's record against the Bears was 22-10, and I am almost surprised that his winning percentage wasn't higher.  I think a different figure was presented on the Sunday night broadcast, but I counted the games myself, and Rodgers' record is 12-3, including the NFC Championship game in 2010.  So the aggregate record is now 34-13 over 23 seasons.

But saying that the rivalry is no longer a big deal is lunacy.  The Packers-Bears rivalry has everything going for it.  The David and Goliath aspect - the smallest town franchise in major sports against one of the great American big cities.  The fact that the teams are only a couple of hundred miles away from each other.  The fact that they are in the same division and play each other twice a year.  The sneering "Cheesehead" slur by Bears fans that was turned into a thriving business by Foamation.  Let's not forget that it is the oldest rivalry in the NFL, and that the Packers and Bears are numbers 1 and 2 in total NFL Championships (the Packers are number 1, of course).  I can well remember the years when a Packers losing season could be salvaged by beating the Bears at least once.  And I think the shoe is now on the other foot.

Most Packers fans under their mid-50's have never witnessed a more lopsided win over the Bears than the Packers achieved Sunday night.  But I am older than that, and in fact my dad took me to my very first Packers game in 1962, when the Packers beat the Bears 49-0 at Lambeau Field.  Somewhere, buried deep in a box of stuff, I even have a black and white snapshot I took in the stands that day.  So I have a little history with the Packers and the Bears, including having lived in the Chicago area for a couple of years, and having a daughter who lives there now.

If you think the rivalry is not that important, then consider that Lovie Smith was brought to Chicago with the explicit, number one goal, of beating the Packers.  I didn't remember that the idea of trading for Jay Cutler was also about beating the Packers, but the announcers mentioned that Sunday night.  Irony alert: his record is now 1-11 against the Packers.  And wasn't Marc Trestman, the "boy genius," also brought in to upgrade the offense, in order to beat the Packers?

Still not convinced?  How about the fact that one Chicago Tribune columnist thinks that Marc Trestman should have been fired at halftime?  Or what about the Packer fan who ordered a customized Packers jersey, number 6, Cutler?

So yes, upon further review, Sunday night's destruction of the Bears was a big deal.  I am sure I am missing some of the records that were set or tied, but they included: Rodgers set an NFL record by throwing his 16th TD pass of 70 yards or more; Rodgers had his first career game with 4 TD passes in the first half; Rodgers tied Daryle Lamonica's record by throwing 6 TD passes in a half; Rodgers became the first player to throw 10 TD passes and no interceptions against a single team in a single season; the Packers set a team record for points scored against the Bears; the Packers set the record for most points scored against the Bears in one half; the 42 point halftime lead was the second largest halftime lead in history; and (this one is my favorite) the Bears became the first team to allow 50+ points in successive games since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons.

The most interesting development in the Bears game was the Packers having moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker for the majority of his snaps.  Everybody knows that the Packers' defense has had a problem with the running game all season long.  Prior to Sunday's game, the Packers had given up an average of 153 rushing yards per game, and never gave up less than 108 rushing yards.  By lining up Matthews inside, everything changed, and the Packers gave up only 55 rushing yards to the Bears.  That just cannot be a coincidence, although there are two factors in the Bears game that may not apply in any other game: the element of surprise, and the fact that the Packers got up so far so fast, thus taking the Bears out of their normal mix of running and passing plays.

But the Packers have no time to rest on their laurels.  This Sunday, the high-flying Eagles come to town, ready to match their no-huddle offense against that of the Packers.  A few weeks ago, I would have seen this game as a loss for the Packers.  Then, after QB Nick Foles was knocked out with a collarbone injury, I thought the Packers had a much better chance.  But then when I watched the Eagles lay waste to the Panthers on Monday night behind backup Mark Sanchez, I started to be concerned again.

But after re-watching both the Packers game and the Eagles game, I am cautiously optimistic about the Packers' chances.  While the Eagles ran up the score to 31-7 in the first half, they did this with the benefit of 4 turnovers by the Panthers, an additional turnover on downs, and 5 sacks against the hobbled Cam Newton.  I don't expect the Packers to be similarly generous to the Eagles, and I also have trouble believing that Mark Sanchez, even with the high-powered Eagles offense, will be able to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  I would guess that the game will be high-scoring, but that the Packers will come out on top.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pivotal Bears-Packers Game

Picture by NBC Sports
Bears-Packers Week is always special for me.  It reminds me of the very first Packers game I ever attended, against the Bears, in 1962 (the Packers won, 49-0).  I think of the intensity of the rivalry, and the iconic players and coaches who participated in it (Nitschke, Butkus, Ditka, Gregg, Halas, Lombardi, Payton and others too numerous to mention).  I think of the memorable games - the Monsoon Bowl on a Halloween night, the game after Walter Payton's death, decided on a blocked field goal, the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season, and, of course, the Instant Replay Game.

Twenty-five years ago this week, during what I call the "Majic Man Season," we were in the stands for the Instant Replay game.  Our seats were (at the time) in the end zone, the end zone on the other side of the field from the decisive play.  The Packers trailed, 13-7, in the final minutes of the game, until on 4th and goal from the 14 yard line, Don Majkowski threw what looked like the game-winning touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe.  Except there was a flag - illegal forward pass - Don Majkowski was over the line of scrimmage when he released the ball.  (The rule has since been changed, but at that time only the point where the ball was released mattered.)  Majkowski's body could have been over the line, but if the ball left his hand behind the line, the pass was a good one.  The replay official called for a review, which lasted forever.  There were no massive, crystal-clear replay boards in the stadium at the time.  But we had a portable TV with us, and we watched it over and over on the tiny screen.  Even the Bears fan next to us concluded that it was a touchdown, and after a four minute review, so did the replay official.  The Packers went 10-6 that year, and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, but it was still a pivotal and important game for the Packers and their fans.

This week's game is pivotal, too, for essentially the opposite reason.  If the Packers win this game, they will be 6-3 and in reasonable good shape, while the Bears will be 3-6, and even more in disarray than they are already.  If the Bears win, suddenly they will be back closer to the top in the division at 4-5, just a game behind the Packers at 5-4.  Under this scenario, maybe the Lions will end up running away with the division (or not, time will tell).  But in either case, this is an important game.

Both the Packers and the Bears had a bye last week, so they will be well rested.  The Packers should have both Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields back, and apparently Rodgers is just fine with his hamstring injury, but both T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton are questionable.

What can we learn from the Packers' loss to the Saints two weeks ago (44-23) and from the Bears' loss to the Patriots the same day (51-23)?  The Packers were in the Saints game, and in fact poised to take the lead in the third quarter, when disaster struck as Rodgers tweaked his hamstring.  His reduced mobility led to an uncharacteristic interception on that same drive, and another one later in the game.  While the Packers did score one more touchdown in the game, Rodgers was not himself for the rest of the game, and that, combined with the Packers' inability to stop the run or the pass against the Saints, turned the game into a blowout.  This week, the return of Burnett and Shields should help on defense, but I wonder how much the possible loss of starting guards Lang and Sitton will hurt the Packers by allowing more pressure on Rodgers and less effectiveness in the running game.  In the Saints game, the Packers made great use of Eddie Lacy in the passing game (8 catches for 123 yards), and it would be nice to see Rodgers get enough protection to allow that trend to continue.

The Bears were blown out by an even greater margin by Tom Brady and the Patriots two weeks ago.  That game was never close, despite decent efforts by Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett.  But while the Bears had some success on offense, their defense was completely outmatched by the Patriots' offense.  The Bears had some injuries on defense, and they are healthier now, but it is no accident that the Bears have given up more points than anyone in the division.  Their defense just isn't as good as we traditionally expect of the Bears.  The Packers beat the Bears handily on the road 6 weeks ago, and I expect them to do the same Sunday night at home.

To help get you ready for the game, here are a few interesting/amusing things to watch and read.  More coverage of the Instant Replay Game.  A video of the decisive play in that game.  And a collection of Jay Cutler interceptions thrown to the Packers.  Go Pack Go!