Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Controversial Win Leaves Packers in First Place

Crosby's First Lambeau Leap, Photo by William Glasheen, USA Today
Monday night, the Packers never led until the final play of the game, when Mason Crosby's short field goal lifted them to a 23-22 win over the Detroit Lions.  But the blowback over penalties and non-penalties in the game was severe, almost enough to take the fun out of it for the team and its fans. 

Random comments seen on the internet late Monday night, some by famous people, some by unknown Facebook posters: "We had no business winning this game . . . but I'll take it!!"  "Thank you referees!  We got the win, but seriously those referees were incompetent."  "I'm obviously biased toward the Packers, but the refs are taking this game away from the Lions."  "The refs need to be investigated.  This is horrendous.  Check bank accounts."

My take?  I think there were a number of bad calls in this game, and most of them favored the Packers.  The hands to the face penalties made against Trey Flowers were indeed questionable (at best), but they were not nearly as clear as the TV crew made out, no matter how much former defensive lineman "Booger" McFarland bellowed about it on the broadcast.  (See photo below.)  The league's official position seems to be that the first hands to the face penalty was correct, but the second was not.  The non-call against Will Redmond for pass interference against Marvin Jones seemed wrong to me, as Redmond did interfere with Jones' ability to catch the ball, but even Matt Patricia realized that it was the sort of call that would not be reversed on replay, so he didn't challenge it.  And, speaking of calls, I am not so sure that Kerryon Johnson actually scored on fourth and goal in the first quarter, but once the call on the field was made for a touchdown, I knew it would not be reversed on review. 
Photo by Darnell Hall
Look, if I were a Lions fan, I would feel robbed at the end of this game.  We watched the game with our good friend Al, who is a Lions fan, and I am pretty sure that is exactly how he felt.  But let's play this out.  Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the hands to the face calls, and the interference non-call, were all the wrong calls.  I have already said that the interference non-call is not the type that would be overturned on review as it is being done this year (because it was not egregious enough).  If the hands to the face calls were reviewable, I don't think they could have been overturned, either.  They both looked wrong, but I would argue that they were not obviously and indisputably in error.  If that is so, how do they get overturned?  Even taking the league's position that the last call was wrong, I think at least 2 of the 3 calls would have stood, if all had been reviewable. 

The biggest question always is, what was the call on the field?  Because once that call is made, it becomes tough (and should be tough) to overturn it.  So errors will inevitably go uncorrected, because the evidence is not clear enough to justify overturning them.  This was exactly the situation with the Kerryon Johnson TD.  Either way the officials called it on the field would have stood.  And the Packers (and every other team) have certainly been on the short end of possibly erroneous calls this year and every year.  But, as Aaron Rodgers said after the game, "I think it equals out pretty good over the years."  Every Packers fan can point to calls and non-calls that would have changed a loss to a win: the Seattle Fail Mary game, the Jerry Rice non-fumble in the Terrell Owens game, the Arizona face mask non-penalty in the playoff game.  The refs did the Lions no favors in this game, but I think some of the proposed solutions (full time refs, make every play reviewable for everything, etc.) are way over the top.

Now it is also true that the Lions screwed up this game all by themselves, and if they had not done so, they wouldn't have been in the position where a bad call at the end would essentially cost them the game.  Early in the game, Al was counting squandered Lions points.  I think he stopped counting at 16 points lost (3 times they settled for field goals instead of TDs, and then there was the 12 men on the field penalty on an attempted field goal by Crosby that effectively gave the Packers an extra 4 points).  Of course, you can play that game almost every time, but still, early Lions mistakes cost them the opportunity to walk away with what could have been an easy win. 

The bottom line is that the Lions got off to a roaring good start with their early long pass plays, and kudos to them and their coaches for going out and aggressively trying to get an early lead.  The Packers looked slow and out-coached early on, by comparison.  Unfortunately for the Lions, their inability to finish drives, combined with some questionable or bad calls, made them unable to close out the win against the Packers. 

Before leaving the Lions game, I almost forgot to mention Allen Lazard stepping up and, in the process, presumably moving up to the depth chart.  Davante Adams was out, Geronimo Allison had been knocked out of the game, Marquez Valdes-Scantling had been knocked out of the game but returned, and Darrius Shepherd had made two bad plays resulting in turnovers.  Somebody had to step up.  Apparently Rodgers suggested that the coaches put Allen Lazard in the game, because Rodgers had observed how hard he studies and practices.  The results were like a fairy tale.  Lazard made a great catch on a perfect pass for a touchdown on the penultimate Packers drive of the game, and then made 3 more catches on the next drive, to set up the game-winning touchdown.  I think we will be seeing more of Lazard.

Meanwhile, Sunday brings a game against the Raiders, this time not on a shortened, pock-marked field, but on the full-sized, professional football stadium of Lambeau Field.  Last year, the Jon Gruden experiment looked like a bust, as the Raiders finished with a puzzling 4-12 record.  This year, with the Antonio Brown drama, I wondered if it was going to be another bad year, as the Raiders finish out their second stay in Oakland.  But instead, the Raiders are 3-2 so far this year, and they have beaten the Broncos, Colts and Bears.  None of those teams are terrible, so I am a little surprised by the Raiders.  But on balance, I think the Packers (even with their current injuries) have better players, and I think they will get the win to make it to 6-1. 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Win Over the Cowboys Sets up a Big Monday Night Matchup

Fun Photo of the Day, Fox TV Broadcast
On Sunday, the Packers pulled off a minor upset by beating the Cowboys, in Texas, by the score of 34-24.  In the process, they advanced to 4-1, maintained a first place position in the division, and kept their record of winning every game the Packers have played in the Cowboys' new stadium, including, most importantly, Super Bowl XLV. 

But the game had a very odd rhythm to it, and by the fourth quarter, Packers fans were squirming, just a little, in their seats.  After amassing a 31-3 lead late in the third quarter, the Packers almost let the Cowboys back into the game.  The good thing, as Chris and Dave at the Packers Therapy podcast noted in their podcast this week, was that the Packers didn't do it via the tried and not-so-true prevent defense.  Instead, they continued to rush 4 in the final quarter plus of the game, but Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper made enough plays to close the gap to 34-24, and a missed field goal would have made it 34-27 and brought an onside kick at the end of the game.  The missed field goal, thankfully, ended the unwelcome excitement prematurely, and my family breathed a sigh of relief, as did the Eagles fan watching the game in the same room with us.  Look, with a 31-3 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, you should win the game regardless of the approach you take.  But I liked the aggressiveness of the defense in keeping after the Cowboys, rather than let them "prevent defense" their way down the field for score after score. 

How did the Packers let the Cowboys get as close as they did?  I saw a very interesting piece by Ty Schalter of FiveThirtyEight, making the point that Rodgers has been very hot in the first quarters of games this year, but less effective as the game goes on, and particularly ineffective in the fourth quarters.  Weird, but true.  In the five games so far this year, the Packers have scored 49 points in the first quarters, all on TDs, while they have scored 9 points in the fourth quarters, basically one field goal every other game.  So I rewatched the Cowboys game with this idea in mind.  What I saw was a nice use of deception on first downs in the first quarter.  I think the Packers only had a conventional run on first down once.  They had lots of play action passes, some straight dropback passes, and one end around.  They rode this diverse strategy to a 14-0 first quarter lead, and the fun continued until it was 31-3 late in the third quarter.  Oh, and there was the little matter of a career day by Aaron Jones, who scored 4 touchdowns to tie a team record.  (In case you were wondering, Jim Taylor did it 3 times in 1962, Terdell Middleton did it in 1978, and Dorsey Levens did it in 2000.  Some pretty great receivers also scored 4 TDs in a single game: Don Hutson and Sterling Sharpe.)

So what was the deal with the offense late in the game?  I think the offense was not as aggressive or creative as the defense was late in the game.  The first two drives in the fourth quarter, for example, both started with the old run-run-pass combination.  The first drive was ended with no points after an incompletion and a sack, while the second drive ended with a field goal, but only because of the great field position from Kevin King's interception.  The Packers' final drive, other than the kneel downs after the missed field goal, didn't quite fall into the run-run-pass mold, but that drive was messed up by a 10 yard loss by Aaron Jones, and an 11 yard sack taken by Aaron Rodgers.  It is tough to overcome that, and the Packers didn't.  But the key thing to me is that one more Green Bay first down in any of its three drives would probably have run out the clock with less angst.  In my view, what is needed is a little more aggressiveness on offense late in the game, while keeping the aggressiveness on defense. 

Monday night, the Packers play the second-place Lions at Lambeau Field.  If the Packers win the game, they will be 3-0 in the division and in great shape.  If they lose, they will be 3-2, and the Lions will move past them into first place at 3-1-1.  So this game is a big deal in the NFC North.  I haven't watched much of the Lions so far this year, but they appear to be no joke.  They are also somewhat of an enigma, though.  Every Lions game has been decided by 4 points or fewer, and their games have included a tie against the last-place Cardinals, a win over the Chargers (who maybe are not as good as we thought they would be), a win against the first-place Eagles, and a narrow loss to the first-place Chiefs.  The Lions are also riding a 4 game winning streak against the Packers, so it is impossible to count them out.  But I think the home field advantage and the continuing improvement of the Packers' offense will be enough to bring the Packers another win, even without Davante Adams and Darnell Savage.  I can't wait until Monday night.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Eagles Bring High-Flying Packers Back to Earth

One of two Critical Turnovers, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
What with going to the Broncos game on September 22, and returning from the midwest, and heavy involvement with family event planning, I never got a chance to write up a summary of the Packers 27-16 win over the Broncos.  Suffice it to say that my favorite moment was when the defense was waiting patiently through what was probably a TV timeout, orchestrating their end zone celebration, if the replay call was that the Packers got a turnover.  I think it was on the interception by Darnell Savage in the third quarter.  The Packers got the call, and hilarity ensued in the end zone.

But the good taste in my mouth left by the 3-0 start to the season, punctuated by a member of the defense saying the defense was "as comfortable as a Tempur-Pedic," was wiped away Thursday night when the Packers failed twice to tie up the game late in the 4th quarter, and instead lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 34-27, in a game marred by Packers turnovers, the defense's inability to generate turnovers or sacks, and a spate of injuries, two of which were serious enough to require players to be carted off the field with straps constraining them.

We watched the Eagles game with our good friend Al, who is a Lions fan.  When some of the nasty hits started happening, he made the comment that the thing about (former Lions head coach) Jim Schwartz is that his defenses always play on the nasty side.  And the way I read it, Cheesehead TV's Aaron Nagler agrees, proving that great minds think alike: "That whole defense is very . . . Jim Schwartz."

Remember last year when, early on, officials were making questionable calls of roughing the passer, mostly on Clay Matthews?  And then, after a few weeks, the message somehow got out to officials, and they stopped making those calls except in truly egregious cases?  I think the league has a sort of similar problem this year.  First, the league overreacted to the terrible non-call in the Saints-Rams playoff game by making calls or non-calls of pass interference reviewable.  But now, coaches are wasting challenges on obvious pass interference non-calls, like the one against Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or the one against Alshon Jeffery later in the game.  In both cases, the receiver was interfered with in a way that made the ball more difficult, if not impossible, to catch.  In both cases, the coaches challenged the non-call.  In both cases, the call was not overturned, so the challenges were wasted.

There may be some reluctance of coaches now to challenge pass interference calls or non-calls, since the league evidently will not overturn them most of the time.  But in a critical situation like a long gain or a long incompletion at a critical point in the game, coaches will feel compelled to challenge.  As a result, we will continue to get data from the league as to what will or will not be overturned.  Will the league silently and subtly adjust the criteria for overturning calls, as evidently happened last year with the roughing calls, to match up with what football viewers can see with their own eyes?  My hunch is that what will happen is that the consensus will develop that minor contact, even if it is significant to the receiver's ability to catch the ball, will not result in a reversal into a pass interference call.  Only major contact will result in a call.  I am not sure that is what the league intended in changing the rule, but it seems after four weeks as if that is where we will end up.

The thing that really stings about the Eagles loss is that, as many of us have been predicting, the offense finally seemed to find its rhythm Thursday night, at least in the passing game, with Rodgers throwing for over 400 yards.  Obviously the loss of Jamaal Williams early, and Davante Adams late, were harmful to the effort to tie the game and take it to overtime.  And the sudden inability of the defense to stop the run, or sack the quarterback, or generate any turnovers, was just shocking after the first three games of the season.

But if you give Aaron Rodgers two sets of first and goal downs to get a touchdown, you don't expect a 4 and out on the first, and an interception on the second set of downs.  The score was there to be had, and the Packers could not get it done.  When you notice, on replay, that Darrius Shepherd was wide open on the pass to Valdes-Scantling that was intercepted, it makes the loss that much tougher to swallow.  Sure, the Packers might have gone on to lose the game in overtime, and the loss would count just the same.  But if you give Rodgers (potentially) 8 chances to convert first and goal opportunities, I take it as just about a given that the Packers would score and send the game to overtime.  Yes, Valdes-Scantling was interfered with on the play.  But as noted above, the league is not going to reverse non-calls where relatively minor pass interference takes place.

Green Bay at Dallas looked like a marquee matchup in Week 5, and I think it still is.  A pair of wannabe undefeated teams are still division-leading 3-1 teams, with a lot of glorious history between them.  I wish the Packers were at full strength for this game, but instead the Packers' chances of having Davante Adams, Jamaal Williams, and Kevin King on the field Sunday look iffy.  The absence of Adams and Williams in those final two series Thursday night was arguably critical in the Packers' inability to score.  Stopping Ezekiel Elliott will be a tough task for a defense that has given up 144 yards rushing to the Broncos' tandem of running backs, and 163 yards to the Eagles' running backs.   But if they can stop him enough to force Dak Prescott to have to throw the ball, they can still win this game.  After all, the Saints, with a backup quarterback, beat the Cowboys last week.  The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, have a good chance, too, even if some weapons are missing.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Two Good Quarters out of Eight

All About the Defense, Photo by Joshua Clark, USA Today
"We've had two good quarters out of eight," said Aaron Rodgers in his post-game press conference, obviously referring to the offense.  And he is absolutely right.  The offense right now is like a big old V-8 engine that is only hitting on two cylinders.  But, in spite of this, the Packers are 2-0 after two weeks.

If you had told me, a couple of weeks ago, that the Packers' offense would have one good quarter against the Bears, and one good quarter against the Vikings, and that they would do diddly-squat (©) in the other six quarters, I would not have given the Packers much chance of being 2-0, 2-0 in divisional games, and in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

It is obvious that the improved defense this year is responsible for the Packers being unbeaten.  They have given up 19 points in two games, and that was good enough to secure victories when the offense under-performed in both games.  If the defense can continue to play this well (or better!), if and when the offense really gets its act together, this team could win a bunch of games.  It must be a huge comfort to Rodgers (and to LaFleur) that the Packers now have a defense that can win some games for them.  It is certainly a great comfort to me as a fan.

Family members Sam and Mary were at the game, and they tell me that the Packers chose to introduce the defense at the beginning of the game, a tip of the hat to the fact that the defense won the first game.  Rodgers and LaFleur have been very upfront in acknowledging how well the defense is playing, and in particular the importance of free agent acquisitions Za'darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos, and rookies like Darnell Savage and second year players like Jaire Alexander.  Rodgers described the two Smith "brothers" as leaders on and off the field, and these two clearly seem to enjoy playing with each other.  Adrian Amos basically sealed the win last week against the Bears.  Against the Vikings, it was Kevin King who made the end zone interception to essentially salt the game away.

In the crazy schedule the Packers have drawn this year, they will have two more home games in a row (vs. Denver and Philadelphia), followed by a road game at Dallas, and followed by two more home games (vs. Detroit and the Raiders).  So by the end of the day on October 20, the Packers will have already played 5 of their 8 home games, but they will have had lots of chances to work out the kinks in their offense on their home field, with a home crowd that hopefully knows to be quiet when the offense is at work.  It is not hard to imagine the Packers standing at 5-2 after seven games, and wouldn't that be a great start while getting used to a new offense!  As the crew on Good Morning Football said Monday morning, Rodgers and LaFleur are getting used to the new offense and working with each other on the fly.  Absent catastrophic injuries, there is every reason to think that the offense will get better as every week goes by.

Speaking of learning on the fly, Sam and Mary also tell me that there was no foghorn at the game yesterday.  So LaFleur, or whoever else may have come up with the idea of copying the Vikings' Gjallarhorn, has learned on the fly that it was not such a great idea.

Anyway, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Maybe the offense doesn't improve from week to week.  Maybe the defense is hit with the injury bug (Savage and Greene were hurt in Sunday's game).  And playing 6 of the final 9 games on the road will be no picnic.  But as of this moment, I couldn't be more encouraged by the new Green Bay Packers.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Packers' Best Defense in Years?

Game-Saving INT by Adrian Amos, Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee J-S
After all these months of waiting to see the new Matt LaFleur-led Packers, I didn't have much idea what to expect in the regular season.  First, we had to suffer through another meaningless preseason, with some unfortunate injuries, but without ever seeing Rodgers, most of the offensive starters, or many of the defensive starters on the field.  The Packers didn't look very good, even though they won the two home games, but with the joke the preseason has become, there was at least room to hope that they would look better when the games started to count.

And yet, the much-vaunted 100th season opener, on the road against the Bears, promised to be a tough one, given the strength of the Bears' defense.  Mitch Trubisky is still a question mark, but the Bears have a new rookie running back who looks like he might be a good one (David Montgomery), and the Bears also have some quality receivers, even though one (Trey Burton) missed this game.  But it wasn't the Bears' offense that worried me, it was the Bears' defense, the same one that knocked Rodgers into sub-par play for all of last year, that was really the cause for concern.

The addition by the Packers of some quality rookie and free-agent defenders carried with it the possibility of improvement, but I honestly did not expect the Packers' defense to match the Bears' defense, play for play.  The most prominent free-agent acquisitions were the two Smiths, Preston and Za'Darius, and Adrian Amos.  All three made a real difference in this game, and two of them provided the decisive plays that sealed the game.  The Smith "brothers" came up with 8 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks, while Amos contributed the decisive interception.

Both defenses played very well, as should be obvious given that the game score was 10-3.  But the Packers broke through and mounted one perfect TD drive to start the second quarter.  And that single drive was the difference in the game, as the Packers' defense only gave up a field goal the entire game.  The rest of the time, they just stopped the Bears in their tracks, time after time, including on 12 of the Bears' third down plays, and both of their fourth down plays.

Still, the game wasn't over until ex-Bear defensive back Adrian Amos intercepted Trubisky in the end zone with 2 minutes left.  And even then, it wasn't quite over, as the Bears got one final chance, thanks in part to the Packers taking a chance and throwing an incomplete pass when they were trying to ice the game.  But that last-ditch chance was snuffed out by Preston Smith's 4th down sack of Trubisky.

Speaking of that decisive touchdown drive, my reaction watching the miserable first quarter was this.  Under the way preseasons were conducted until a few years ago, Rodgers and the starters would probably have played about one quarter of one game in the preseason.  They didn't do that this year, and it looked like it in the first quarter.  NBC flashed the stat that the Packers lost 17 yards on the first two drives, making them the worst two drives to start a game for Rodgers as a starter.  After they got that lousy quarter behind them (the quarter they should have played in the preseason), it was time to shake off the rust and play like the Packers.

And lo and behold, that is exactly what they did, although it was mostly that one drive at the beginning of the second quarter.  Four for four passing, 74 yards, and a TD pass to Jimmy Graham.  Boom!  We watched the game on vacation in Hawaii with our friends Stan and Lorri (see photo below).  But my daughter and I, watching the game from 5 time zones away from each other, had exactly the same reaction to the Graham TD.  This was exactly what we expected to see from Jimmy Graham last year, but rarely saw.  Rodgers with the confidence to throw it to Graham, even though he was well covered, and Graham with the skill to pull the ball in despite the coverage.

With this somewhat improbable, 10-3 upset win, the Packers managed to beat their ancient rival, go a game up and a tie-breaker against them, and pull off a win on the road to start the season.  They also, according to the excellent NBC statistics crew, managed to hand the Bears their first loss, when the opponent scores 10 or fewer points, since 1932.  Now that is an obscure statistic, one for which they had to dig pretty deep.

And now, the Packers get the luxury of having 10 days to prepare for their home opener against the Vikings.  A win there will give them a great start to the season.

Stan, Lorri, Your Humble Blogger, and Judy, Watching the Game in Hawaii

Thursday, August 8, 2019

And So We Begin Again . . .

On the Same Page?  Photo by Wm. Glasheen, USA Today
Seven plus months after the disheartening 31-0 loss to the Lions back in December, the Green Bay Packers were back on the field Thursday night, ready to start another season for the historic franchise. 

Lots of things have happened in those seven months.  The Packers passed over Joe Philbin, which seemed like the obvious thing to do after the 31-0 debacle.  They hired midwestern native Matt LaFleur as head coach, and so we will get to see what the Packers look like with a young, energetic coach replacing Mike McCarthy.  When he was introduced, he said all the right things about this being a dream come true, and as a midwesterner, I got the sense that he really appreciates the storied history of the franchise.  A  major story line for the entire season is likely to be how LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers do, or do not, get along.  If they are on the same page, and if Rodgers can avoid another injury, they could do great things together.

Every season, players retire, depart in trades or free agency, or are cut.  This season the toll includes some well known and (to some) beloved names: Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Jake Ryan, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels, among others.  Matthews and Cobb were favorites of mine, and other members of my family; we are sorry to see them go, even if we can understand the reasons for the moves.  It will be interesting to see how the young and new players do in replacing these familiar faces.

Nobody much cares about preseason games.  Personally, I find that I can watch Packers preseason games, just because it is my team, but I find other preseason games almost unwatchable.  I tried to watch the Hall of Fame game last week, and I almost fell asleep. 

The best thing about the first preseason game this year (which the Packers won, 28-26, over the Texans) was watching the defense and special teams generate a total of 4 turnovers.  That was a part of the Packers game that has been missing of late.  But the Packers' tackling Thursday night was atrocious, and they need to get their act together on that front.  Linebacker Ty Summers was maybe the most impressive rookie, while last year's training camp star receiver Jake Kumerow gave every impression that he intends to make the final roster.  Last year's defensive sensation Oren Burks, unfortunately, left the game with an injury on the same shoulder he injured in the preseason last year. 

In a departure from McCarthy's practice, apparently Rodgers and maybe some of the other starters will get playing time next Thursday against the Ravens.  I think that is a good move.  In recent years, the Packers' starters in the regular season have sometimes looked as if they needed a little more exposure to live action in the preseason; I hope that letting the starters play, even a little, in week two, is a step in the direction of getting them more playing time overall in the preseason. 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

One More "Meaningless" Game to Go

Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Who expected, back at the beginning of the 2018 season, that the Packers would be left with two utterly meaningless games to play out at the end of December?  One of the old cliches, that we hear every year in December about such games, is that a team had its bags packed and ready to roll out the door.  Joe Philbin indirectly referred to this phenomenon when he said that the locker room will be like a ghost town come Monday. 

Early in the game, the Packers looked like they were ready to head home for the holidays.  On defense, they gave up first down after first down, and only a missed field goal prevented the Jets from scoring on their opening drive.  On offense, there was poor blocking, poor throws by Rodgers, and only Jamaal Williams looked like he actually came to play. 

This game was like so many others this year, with the Packers in double-digit holes, trailing 14-0, 21-7, and 35-20.  I assumed for most of this game that the Packers would lose again, and finish their season winless on the road.  While the offense started to come to life in the second quarter, the defense (undermanned due to injury though it was) was making the Jets' offense look like all-stars.  And of course the special teams were busy sealing Ron Zook's fate.  Once the offense started to play, they were almost unstoppable, with Davante Adams leading the way.  But it still took overtime, and what seemed like an endless supply of penalties against the Jets, for the Packers to secure the 44-38 win.  Imagine if the Packers' offense had been prepared to play in the first quarter?  The Packers' defense and special teams would have managed, unfortunately, to keep the game close anyway, but the Packers probably would have won the game in four quarters by 7 to 14 points.

Most commentators have taken the position that the Packers should have played DeShone Kizer in these last two games.  What is the point of playing Rodgers?  What if he gets hurt?  Don't we need to see what (if anything) we have in Kizer?  But the best case for playing Rodgers (made by Pete Dougherty last week) was that he has seemed reluctant to trust his young receivers all year.  Let him have a couple of games with lots of the young receivers in the lineup, and hopefully he will gain more familiarity and comfort with them.  The first of the two meaningless games allowed for just that.  Rodgers completed passes to 9 different receivers.  Adams and Williams led the team in pass receptions.  But in addition to single catches by Dan Vitale and Robert Tonyan, there were multiple receptions by Kendricks, Graham, Kumerow, Valdes-Scantling, and St. Brown.  And kudos to Kumerow for scoring his first NFL touchdown!  (I have been waiting all year to say that.)

All that remains now is to play the final meaningless game, against the Lions, and then see what the off-season brings.  The Lions gave the Vikings a run for their money into the second quarter last week, but then pretty much collapsed after that.  Of course, the Lions' offense is likely to have an easier time against the Packers' nicked-up defense than they had against the Vikings.  But still, the Packers ought to be able to win their final game, and finish just below .500, at 7-8-1.

I'm not sure when the NFL started scheduling only divisional rivalry games in Week 17.  I didn't realize until I looked at the schedule that this is the case.  But it is a great idea.  In many cases, it results in meaningful match-ups with playoff implications.  When they put the schedule together, they probably assumed that Lions at Packers or Bears at Vikings would decide who wins the division.  In this case it did not, but at least the Vikings still have a playoff berth on the line in their match-up with the Bears.  Even where the game ends up being meaningless, as in the case of the Lions and Packers, at least it makes for a more interesting meaningless game, against a traditional rival.  May the best team win, and may there be no injuries for either team. 

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Packers 2018: What Went Wrong?

The Story of Rodgers' Day, Photo by Nam Huh, AP
Now that the Packers' season, or at least their playoff hopes, are ended, it might be time for a little reflection on what went wrong with the Packers this year.  Obviously, if you had to name a single factor, it was injuries.  Rodgers was injured in the first half of the first game against the Bears, and I would argue that he has never been quite right for the rest of the season. The second Bears game, last Sunday, bears this out (if you will excuse the pun).  The Packers lost a game, 24-17, that I am convinced they would have won or at least had a shot at winning in the closing minutes, if only Rodgers were fully healthy.  Still, the Bears earned the division crown, by consistent play on offense, and dominant play on defense, all year long.  Congratulations to the Bears.  I won't be rooting for them, but they deserve our congratulations.

Before getting back to the injuries, there were of course other factors, too.  Knowing what we know now, that Rodgers doesn't have full trust in the young receivers, maybe it wasn't such a smart idea to get rid of Jordy Nelson.  In hindsight, Khalil Mack looks like he was worth whatever the Raiders were asking of the Packers in a trade. 

Last Sunday's game was a good example of the injury problem.  Three offensive linemen (Bulaga, Pankey and Siragusa) were inactive, as was Kenny Clark on defense.  Playing against the Bears' defense, you don't want to see this, especially with a guy like Bulaga on the inactive list.  And especially with a quarterback who is not 100%, doesn't trust his young receivers, who seemingly hates to throw checkdown passes, and whose injury status gets worse during the game. 

And of course last week's inactive list is the least of the Packers' problems.  Going into the game, just to name the most prominent players, Geronimo Allison, Byron Bell, Trevor Davis, and Kyle Murphy were already on injured reserve on offense, and Aaron Jones was added after the game.  On defense, Mike Daniels, Raven Greene, Davon House, Kevin King, Nick Perry, Jake Ryan, and Muhammad Wilkerson were on injured reserve, and Kenny Clark was supposed to be headed there after the game, but has not yet been moved to IR.  How do you even win 5 games with that many injured players?  Oh, and Clark is out, and Cobb and Spriggs are doubtful, for the Jets game tomorrow.  Rodgers arguably should not play with his injured knee and groin (what is the point?) but he has announced that he is playing anyway.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I took another look at the Bears' game.  There is no doubt that Rodgers got worse as the game wore on.  He was perfect in the first quarter.  It is sometimes hard to decide which are bad throws and which are throwaways.  But in the second quarter Rodgers had 3 throwaways/bad throws, and one flat out bad throw.  He then injured his groin on the Hail Mary pass at the end of the half. 

In the third quarter, he made some good passes, but some of them were defensed well by the Bears, and one was dropped by Cobb.  But beyond those, he had an inexcusable overthrow to Cobb.  Things got worse in the fourth quarter.  Rodgers had bad overthrows to Cobb and Valdes-Scantling early on, and then Cobb dropped another ball.  Between throwaways and bad throws, there were another 5 missed connections in the fourth quarter, and of course the interception, ending his streak of passes without an interception.  On first viewing, that looked like a ball that bounced off the hands of a guy with a broken thumb and was intercepted.  Which it was.  But it was also thrown behind Graham, when a better throw would be right in front of him.  So it is, in my book, yet another errant throw. 

So what happens next year?  Maybe Rodgers recovers from his injuries, lots of players come off of IR, new and improved players are obtained in the draft or free agency, a new coach creates a spark, and we are right back in contention for the playoffs and the Super Bowl.  Or, father time is catching up with Rodgers, he will never be the same, and every year will be touch and go as to whether we even make the playoffs.  Having committed to Rodgers with the big contract, we better hope the former is true.  With my Green and Gold colored glasses firmly perched on my face, I think we will be right back in it next year.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Can the Packers Put Together a Winning Streak?

Interim Coach Joe Philbin, Photo by Wm. Glasheen, USA Today
The Packers have not had back-to-back wins all year long.  Such is the misery of a 4-7-1 season.  They will get a 5th chance this week to start a winning streak.

Sunday's game against the Falcons, which the Packers won 34-20, was the first game under the leadership of Interim Head Coach Joe Philbin (or Coach Fill-In, as the guys from the Packers Therapy Podcast call him). 

A week after losing to the 2-10 Cardinals in embarrassing fashion, the Packers put together a pretty good showing against the Falcons, a team similar to the Packers in that they are a talented team having a bad season.  The Falcons and the Packers, after all, were in the NFC Championship Game just two seasons ago in January, 2017.  This suggests to me that neither team is as bad as its 2018 season record.  And the win over the Falcons shows me that the Packers are not as bad as they looked the week before.

There were a few surprises for me on offense.  First, the Packers went pass-heavy in the first half, throwing on about 80% of their offensive plays.  I would have expected them to try to establish the running game.  Switching things up surprised me, and I think it may have surprised the Falcons, as well.  That is a good sign, that Philbin designed a game plan that went against what would be expected.  Better yet, many of those pass plays were quick-release plays, which many of us have been calling for all year.  With a makeshift offensive line, it doesn't take a genius to see that Rodgers should get rid of the ball quickly.  I am just glad that they actually did it. 

Second, I re-watched most of the game, and the thing that struck me was how few obvious audibles there were on offense.  We can't know if Rodgers changes some plays in the huddle, and he might have alternate play calls that he can signal with a simple word or number from the line of scrimmage.  But I saw very few of the traditional audibles, where it is obvious that the play is being changed at the line of scrimmage.  I take this to mean that Rodgers and Philbin were more in sync on the play calls than Rodgers and McCarthy have been this year. And given that this was the first game that Philbin has called as an NFL coach, it would not surprise me if he gave extra deference to the experienced play-caller behind center. 

Now, beating the Falcons was, by itself, no big deal.  It is not unusual or unexpected for a team to rally in the first game after a coach is fired, and there are presumably all kinds of psychological factors that lead to such a result.  But now that that first game is behind them, what happens for the rest of the season, and does it matter if the Packers still have theoretical playoff hopes?  They theoretically are in the playoff race as of now, and if they were to win the rest of their games, it might get interesting, as the other things that need to happen are not completely outlandish to contemplate.  The Packers play at the Bears this week, then at the Jets, and finish at home against the Lions.  While the Cardinals game shows that there are no gimmes for the 2018 Packers, let's just take it as a given that the Packers have a pretty good chance of beating the Jets and Lions.  What about the Bears on Sunday?

On one side, you have the newly resurgent Bears, who after blowing a huge lead to the Packers in Week One, have played pretty well the rest of the season, with last week's shutting down of the Rams being maybe their best game of the year.  Only two teams, the Cowboys and Ravens, have given up fewer points.  Mitch Trubisky looks like he is for real in his second year, Tarik Cohen is an important factor in both the rushing and receiving game for the Bears, and the receivers and tight ends have contributed 17 touchdown catches of their own.  Heck, the Bears even have a serviceable backup quarterback who can step in and win a game or two for them (imagine that!).  A bunch of big pluses for the Bears.

On the other side is . . . Aaron Rodgers.  His mastery over the Bears is very similar to that of his predecessor.  Both QBs were dominant over the Bears, at home and at Soldier Field.  Rodgers has won 16 of his 20 starts against the Bears, and one of those 4 losses was when the Bears broke his collarbone in the first quarter.  But very few, if any, of those wins were against Bears teams as good as this year's version.  So we will see.  Being a realistic observer, I am expecting the Bears to win this week, effectively ending the Packers' playoff hopes, and possibly affecting the way the team approaches the final two weeks.  But with Rodgers at quarterback, anything can happen.  I hope it does.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Future Starts Now

McCarthy Contemplates Future, Photo by Dylan Buell, Getty Images
Hours after losing to the Cardinals last Sunday (20-17), the Packers fired Mike McCarthy, ending his 13 year tenure as Packers head coach.  I never expected the Packers to fire Mike McCarthy before the end of the regular season, but that is exactly what they did. 

I may  not have expected it, but I think it was the right call.  Sunday's loss to the Cardinals, maybe, was just the last straw, so disheartening that it forced Mark Murphy's hand.  Or who knows?  Maybe McCarthy and Murphy got into a shouting match, ending with "you're fired!"  Or more likely than that, I could see McCarthy, no dummy and realizing what was coming after Week 17, saying "Let's just get it over with right now."  Why prolong the agony if the end result was a given, anyway?

Everybody knew that the only thing that could save him was a deep playoff run, and that chance was (all but mathematically) ended on Sunday.  I have seen some hand-wringing that this was unprecedented, that McCarthy deserved better treatment, etc., but I am not sure letting him dangle on the sidelines, with all the reaction shots as four more tedious games play out, would have been kinder to him in any way. 

Both the Packers and McCarthy himself made nice gestures after the firing.  The Packers allowed McCarthy to come back and say goodbye to the coaching staff and the players, and he reportedly received a standing ovation from the players.  And Mike McCarthy took out a classy full-page ad in the paper, thanking the Packers and the community for a good run as head coach. 

McCarthy's replacement was due, if not overdue, as I said last week.  But that doesn't mean I take any real joy in seeing him fired.  "We may have lost, but it felt like a win."  This was one of the Facebook messages to Aaron Nagler on his Daily Chat Sunday afternoon/evening.  I can't get behind that kind of gloating at all.  McCarthy was a good coach, he led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory, and he is one of only 3 coaches in Packers history who can say that.  But the time had come to make a change, and that pathetic loss to the Cardinals evidently made it clear to Mark Murphy that the time was now.

What is the point of firing him now and moving on with an interim coach?  I see lots of points.  McCarthy, as noted above, is put out of his misery.  We don't have to listen to all the questions, see all the reaction shots, etc., for the next 4 weeks.  The Packers can begin their job search in earnest without having to answer any questions about any interview or scouting activity that takes place.  But most fundamentally, it gives the team a chance to try to change the momentum.  Four more games like we saw on Sunday, and the off-season would be filled with nothing but bitter memories.  With two home games remaining, this gives the team a chance to show if they can get a better vibe going, and at least generate some interest in what happens for the end of the year.  The players get a chance to try to demonstrate that they were not the cause of the Packers' woes this year.  Joe Philbin gets a chance to see what he can do, as a tryout for this job or any other future job.  They get to see more playing time for some of their rookies in a low-risk environment.  If, hypothetically, the team wins at least a couple games, we fans can at least see some hope for next year.  If they look better, and get a new coach that excites the players and the fans, this team can be a contender again soon.