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.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Is It Time?

Kevin Greene, Super Bowl XLV, Photo by Kevin Eulitt, KC Star, via Getty Images
The Green Bay Packers are 4-6-1 going into Sunday's game against the Cardinals.  So are the Cleveland Browns.  Let that sink in for awhile.  The Browns have already fired their head coach, and installed their heir apparent at quarterback.  The Browns are over-performing most people's expectations this year. 

The Packers still have the same head coach, and don't have an heir apparent in the wings at quarterback or at coach for that matter.  And they are under-performing the expectations of almost everybody.  With, arguably, the best QB in the league.  And with a "highly successful NFL coach" at the helm. 

The Wisconsin natives are restless.  Wisconsin ex-pats, like me, are also restless.  The bandwagon jumpers are beyond restless and are looking for another bandwagon.  Something must be done!  Fire McCarthy now!  This has been going on for weeks, but intensifies after each disappointing loss.

Even a measured guy like Chuck Todd, of Meet the Press fame (and a Packers fan) says (on a non-sports radio show) that Mike McCarthy has worn out his welcome, is not a winner, and really does not know what to do in crunch time.  He says McCarthy really should hire a clock management coach, because he just doesn't know how to manage the clock.  (Don't get me started on clock management.  This has been a bugaboo for some time.)

It is amazing how quickly it has become conventional wisdom that McCarthy will be fired this off-season, unless the Packers pull off some miraculous recovery.  Headlines abound, such as "McCarthy's Latest Blunder" (referring to the 4th down punt at the end of the Seahawks game).  "McCarthy-Rodgers Marriage Can't be Saved."  "Rodgers, McCarthy at Odds Over Offense."  "How it All Went Wrong."  This last article is probably the best single article I have read on the current state of the Packers.

There have even been conspiracy theories that Rodgers has been under-performing intentionally in an attempt to get McCarthy fired.  While I don't believe that, it is not really in doubt that Rodgers has ignored open receivers looking for a bigger play.  And then when the big play is not converted, the result all too frequently is a punt, not a first down.  And of course he has missed easy, third down passes that any rookie QB could make in the last couple of games. As the Sports Illustrated article suggests, Rodgers has so much latitude to change plays, and changes them so frequently, that if, after watching a game, you are unhappy with the play-calling, it is not clear how much of the blame goes to McCarthy, and how much to Rodgers.

Is a new coach going to be able to convince Rodgers to hit the open man?  Or show him how to hit an easy short pass for a first down?  Those seem like open questions to me.  In other words, replacing McCarthy will not necessarily result in better on-field decisions by Rodgers.  Will he be better when his injury is fully healed, and if he has a new head coach?  We better hope so, given the investment the team made in him this year.  Because of that investment, the Packers are not getting rid of Rodgers.  And the only other key party not replaced last year is McCarthy.

Traditionally, I have thought that firing McCarthy was a bad move.  First of all, in his own immortal words, he is a "highly successful NFL coach."  And in truth, he obviously has a record as a coach many teams would love to have.  Plus, if there are a bunch of sure-thing head coach candidates sitting around just waiting to take the league by storm, why haven't they been hired already?  It is a hit or miss process.  You might end up with the next Sean McVay.  Or you might end up with the next Sean McDermott (hired at the same time as McVay), who might already be on his way out as coach of the Bills.  Or worst of all, you might pay a king's ransom and end up with the results that Jon Gruden has had.  Not even a proven winner from the past like Gruden is a sure thing in today's NFL.  So if you decide to fire your "highly successful NFL coach," you have to do it with trepidation.

But something is seriously wrong with this team.  I doubt that there is a single team in the league that has had as much "bad luck" this year.  The Matthews penalty that wouldn't have been called a month later.  The worst day in Mason Crosby's career.  The Ty Montgomery fumble.  The Aaron Jones fumble.  The decision to punt against Seattle.  The missed TD to Adams against the Vikings.  The bad passes on third and short.  Some of that stuff can happen just as a result of luck.  But it can't all be luck.  Some of it is players not playing up to their potential.  You don't have to accept the conspiracy theory to believe that a new coach might change the atmosphere in the locker room, bring some new excitement to the team, and get better performances out of some of the key players. 

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion, echoing Kevin Greene, that "it is time."

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Thursday Night Preview

My handful of readers might be wondering where I have been.  We have been travelling out of the country for almost a month.  We were able to watch most of the Rams game online, but could not find a video feed of either the Patriots or Dolphins game.  I was able to listen to the Patriots game on the Packers Radio Network in the middle of the night, but for some reason could  not get through on the Dolphins game and had to rely on the written play-by-play online.  These are not ideal ways to follow games, to say the least, and don't allow me to comment meaningfully on either game.  We just got back in the country yesterday, and I haven't been able to watch the prior games yet, but the good news is, I only have to wait until Thursday night for a real, live Packers game!

Seattle and Green Bay is not a natural rivalry.  For most of their early history, the Seahawks weren't even in the NFC.  But since around 2000, this has become the kind of rivalry where a single phrase is all it takes to bring back vivid memories.  The "Al Harris pick 6 game," also known as the Matt Hasselbeck "We want the ball, and we're going to score" game (January 4, 2004).  The "Seattle Snow Globe" game, also known as the "Ryan Grant redemption" game, also known as Favre's last win as a Packers player (January 12, 2008).  The "Fail Mary" game, also known as the "Replacement Ref" game (September 24, 2012).  And of course, the "Colossal Collapse" NFC Championship Game (January 18, 2015).  Not to mention Mike Holmgren's return to Lambeau as the Seahawks coach, a game in which, as I recall, Holmgren had to go to the Packers' locker room to console Brett Favre after his 4-interception performance (November 1, 1999). 

Thursday's game is actually a big game for both teams.  The Seahawks aren't about to catch the Rams (9-1) with their 4-5 record.  But they are certainly in the Wild Card hunt (the Wild Cards, "if the season ended today," would be the 6-3 Panthers and the 5-3-1 Vikings).  But a loss to the Packers will be a serious blow to those hopes.

For the Packers, at 4-4-1, they are not only in contention for a Wild Card spot, but the division is not out of the question, if the Bears stumble and the Packers go on enough of a winning streak to pass the Vikings and catch the Bears.  Those of you who saw the last two games are in a better position to judge than I am whether the Packers are actually capable of going on a winning streak.  But I heard an intriguing statistic on Good Morning Football today: when Aaron Rodgers throws for less than 200 passing yards (as he did Sunday against the Dolphins), the Packers have a very high winning percentage.  All of which suggests that a strong running game (think of some of the early Eddie Lacy years) are a large component of a winning game strategy for the Packers.  I may not have seen the Dolphins game, but I know that Aaron Jones finally was the feature running back, and rushed for 145 yards, with an average gain per run of almost 10 yards.  Some combination of the departure of Ty Montgomery, plus the idea finally getting through Mike McCarthy's stubborn skull, resulted in Aaron Jones playing the role the rest of us thought he should all year long.  I don't think it is too strong to say, as some articles have this week, that Aaron Jones is the key to the Packers making the playoffs.  I look forward to a win Thursday night and a run for the playoffs.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Ultimate Preventable Loss

Photo by PackersWire.USAToday.com
Today's blog post will be short, and necessarily so.  I am travelling out of the country, and only saw about 60% of the game live, and have no ability to re-watch it since NFL Game Pass (US) doesn't work outside the US.

Most of the focus post-game has been on Ty Montgomery's regrettable decision to try to return the Rams' kickoff after they went ahead, 29-27.  His fumble handed the ball right back to the Rams, and sealed the win for them.  There has been speculation that Montgomery returned the ball out of frustration or spite for having been benched in a prior series ("I'll show them!" - style).  But Montgomery says that is not what happened, rather he thought the ball was going to land close to the goal line, where he can't let a live ball bounce, or take a chance on an official's ruling as to whether he was in or out of the end zone when he caught the ball.  So he made a disastrous, split-second decision to return the ball.

Let me say that I don't really care that much which version is correct.  If the Packers think Montgomery deliberately disobeyed the order to down the ball, they should have cut or traded him on Monday.  If they believe his version, then it is appropriate that he is still on the team as of now (although today is the trade deadline, so we will see).

My bigger concern is that 5 of the Packers' first 7 games have either been decided in the closing seconds, or have been decided by dumb and inexplicable errors.  The Packers pulled off a miraculous comeback against the Bears to win.  They had numerous opportunities to either win or lose the Vikings game, so it was almost fitting that it ended in a tie.  A Mason Crosby flame-out of epic proportions cost them the Lions game.  Another miracle comeback against the 49ers.  And now a boneheaded mistake by our number 3 running back costs Aaron Rodgers the opportunity to pull off a significant upset win.  In these 5 games, the Packers are 2-2-1, so it obviously could be worse.  But a championship team finds a way to win all, or at least most, of those winnable games.  And they typically don't make them close; they put them away early on.

By that measure, the Packers don't look like a championship team right now.  They may not even make the playoffs absent a significant improvement.  An optimist would say that there were signs of improvement in the Rams' loss.  The Packers finally seem to have realized that Aaron Jones is their feature back.  And Jaire Alexander was making the kind of plays that justify the Packers' use of a high draft choice on him.  But "signs of improvement" just won't cut it anymore.  If the Packers are going to make anything out of this season, they are going to have to start winning the close ones, and putting away the easy ones.  Beating the Patriots would not seem like such a "must-win" game if the Packers had pulled off the comeback against the Rams.  But they didn't.  And now they need a win to avoid falling below .500 at the halfway point of their season.  In the immortal Super Bowl XLV words of Kevin Greene, "it is time" to go out and get it done.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Redemption! Now Get Your Act Together!

Redemption!  Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
For most of the evening, watching the Packers-49ers game with my wife, her mother, and her cousins, it seemed like this game was going to be just another lost opportunity.  We would have been complaining about it for the next two weeks, and wondering how (if at all) the Packers could salvage their season.  I never gave up on the game, but I really expected to see the Packers looking up at both the Bears and the Vikings by the final gun.  And then the Packers managed another miracle comeback, scoring 10 points in the final two minutes, on two all but flawless Aaron Rodgers drives, to win it, 33-30.

So where are the Packers, really, as they head into their bye week and get a chance to nurse some of their key players like Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, and Jaire Alexander back to health?  I don't think we know.  They obviously have the talent to pull these miracles out of their hats (or out of their heads, as Jason Witten said on the broadcast), but why are comebacks necessary with this kind of talent? 

We started to see some good things in this game.  Remember how we fans are always watching other games and saying, "why don't we ever run innovative plays like that?"  Well, the Packers scored their first TD of the night on an innovative diamond formation play.  The back receiver, Ty Montgomery, just waited for the lateral pass from Rodgers, and had three blockers in front of him.  Nothing to it.  That was also the first opening drive TD for the Packers all year long.  And Jimmy Graham came ever closer to the massive breakout game we have been expecting all year. 

But for most of the night, the Packers defense looked like it couldn't stop anything the 49ers threw at them.  As my friend Al said by text, "the first team to play defense wins."  It took the Packers to the point of desperation in the fourth quarter before the defense finally stiffened, ending the 49ers last three drives with two punts and an interception.  The penultimate drive was snuffed out by a huge Clay Matthews sack, just when it was needed most, and the last drive was ended on Kevin King's great interception, allowing just enough time on the clock for Rodgers to engineer the winning drive for a field goal.

Mason Crosby, who looked like he could not hit the broad side of a barn last week against the Lions, was nothing but clutch Monday night.  He nailed 4 field goals and 3 extra points.  All of them were needed in order for the game to be tied, and the last one was needed to win the game.  Was last week's game just the most massive blip ever in an otherwise productive career?  It looks like it as of now.

I just had to laugh when they showed the pictures of Rodgers as a kid, first with his 49er gear, and then with his Packers sweatshirt at age 13.  First, doing the math, this would have been from the year of Super Bowl XXXI, so I am guessing that he was a Brett Favre fan at the time.  But on a personal note, I have that same sweatshirt, and I bought it within a few days before or after that Super Bowl.  Unfortunately, mine seems to have shrunk, or at any rate it doesn't fit me anymore, but I just can't part with it. 

Anyway, the Packers are in pretty good shape going into the bye week, just trailing the Bears by a statistical smidgen.  But let's be honest, they can't keep doing this stuff.  They have to start strong every game on offense, never let up, and play better on defense.  The return of Cobb and Allison on offense can only make the offense more explosive, and it already looked pretty good last night.  The return of Jaire Alexander will make a difference on some of those long pass plays that the Packers give up all too frequently.  The way I look at it, they have two weeks to get their act together, because the next two games are against the Rams and Patriots, and it doesn't get much easier after that. 

Coaches, you are on the clock!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Time to Get Back on Track!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Rodgers-McCarthy Rift Now Resolved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 28, 2018

Packers Need to Play Smarter on Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Kissing Your Sister?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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