Monday, December 11, 2017

Kings of the Overtime Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Packers Run to Victory in Overtime

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Signs of Life for the Packers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

No Place to Go But Up

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Packers Need to Keep Winning


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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Packers are in a Heap of Trouble Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Showdown with Motown

I was not really sure what to expect in the Saints game preceding the Packers' bye week.  I thought, at the end of the day, that the Saints were likely to beat the Packers.  Sure, their record was technically worse than the Packers, and the game was in Green Bay.  But with a backup QB and a banged up defense, I figured that the Packers would not be able to keep up with the Saints' scoring machine.

As a result, I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat hopeful when the first half ended with the Packers leading by the score of 14-7.  The two first quarter interceptions by the Packers had not led to any points, but they at least slowed the Saints down.  In hindsight, those interceptions kept the Packers in the game, keeping the Saints from scoring (those two drives were probably worth 10 or 14 points to the Saints if the interceptions had not happened).  But the failure to take advantage of at least one of those turnovers (or the turnover that almost happened on the muffed punt by Ted Ginn) ultimately contributed to the eventual loss, by the score of 26-17.

On first watching of the game live, my impression was that Mike McCarthy went into his now-familiar conservative game-calling mode in the second half.  Taking no chances, just making the most conservative choices and hoping for the best against the high-powered Saints.  Re-watching the game leads to the same conclusion.  In the first half, the Packers' offense ran a lot of play-action passes, fake end-arounds, etc., and the creativity of the calls led to greater success in the running game, with Aaron Jones scoring one of the TDs on a 46 yard run, and Brett Hundley scoring on the other when he decisively pulled down the ball and used his legs to score the TD.

But watching the second half again confirmed my initial impressions.  Virtually every play was a straight hand-off, a straight drop-back pass, or a shotgun snap for a pass.  I don't recall any play-action passes at all, much less other plays designed to deceive.  The results were predictable.  The Packers, having scored 14 in the first half, scored 3 in the second half.  The defense did not generate any turnovers to slow down the Saints, and as a result they scored 19.  Why didn't Mike McCarthy see this coming?  Why didn't he adjust his game plan as the second half wore on?

McCarthy, in his characteristically testy way, even acknowledged that he did not do a good job of coaching against the Saints.  While he got into no details, it was certainly clear to me as an observer that part of that poor coaching job was his play calling in the second half.  When you lead 14-7 at halftime, you can't just run out the clock on the entire second half, especially against a team with an offense like the New Orleans Saints.  And yet, if you didn't know the score or the amount of time left, you would assume that the Packers were trying to do just that: run out the clock in the second half.

When the Lions come to Green Bay on Monday night, in theory there is a lot on the line.  The Vikings are at 6-2 and on their bye week.  They may be close to having all 3 of their QBs available, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater.  If the Packers hope to stay in the playoff mix at 4-3, a win here would be a big step forward, showing that they can win at least some games with Brett Hundley.  And for the 3-4 Lions, this game is pretty critical.  Absent the injury to Rodgers, one would have expected the Packers to win this game.  Playing against Brett Hundley gives the Lions the chance to steal a game that they would have assumed to be a loss just three weeks ago.

In the Saints game, the Packers teased us in the first half, but ultimately disappointed us and did not play up to the level of our hopes as fans.  I am going to go out on a limb and predict a Packers win on Monday night.  This will require McCarthy to call a better game, Hundley to play a better game with few to no mistakes, and the rest of the team to play up to their considerable abilities. 

Hundley's abilities are what they are.  It is clear that he does not have Rodgers' accuracy on long passes.  It is clear that, although mobile, he does not have Rodgers' accuracy while on the run.  The best strategy for him seems to be to rely on shorter throws, and to emphasize that if his first couple of options are not open, he should quickly decide to pull the ball down and take off.  But a short passing game, with little threat of the long ball, will only work if the play-calling is creative enough to include the element of deception.  Play-action passes, screen passes, end-arounds, fake end-arounds, etc.  This is squarely on McCarthy to call a better game. 

Maybe he needs to designate somebody to stand next to him, and to remind him to call a more creative game.  I have someone in mind: how about Aaron Rodgers?  He is back in Green Bay, and has nothing better to do during the game.  I hope he can elevate McCarthy's game calling.  Let's see what happens.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Packers are Down, but are they Out?

Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Poof!  That sound you hear just  might be the sound of a promising season blowing up.  When Aaron Rodgers hit the deck hard, with the weight of the tackler on top of him, just like that, the chances that the Packers would make it to the Super Bowl this year were reduced to next to nothing. The 23-10 loss to the rival Vikings seems insignificant when compared to the fact that Aaron Rodgers will be out for most or all of the season.

My own opinion is that it was not in the category of dirty plays or cheap shots.  But you could fairly call it unnecessary roughness, not that a 15 yard penalty would make things any better under the circumstances.

The problems on the offensive line were not directly responsible for the hit, as Rodgers was scrambling as he frequently does to extend plays.  But by the end of the game, three of the offensive linemen who had started the game were on the sideline with injuries, and that fact significantly reduced any chance that backup QB Brett Hundley would pull a "Brett Favre" and be successful in his emergency duty.

Coach McCarthy and the staff have always seemed high on Brett Hundley, and they have had more than two years to get him ready to step in as he must do now.  McCarthy says he is happy with the QBs he has, Brett Hundley as the new starter and Joe Callahan, who has been brought up from the practice squad.  But in fairness, he said the same things 4 years ago about Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien, when Rodgers broke his other collarbone, before eventually signing Matt Flynn, who had become available.

But McCarthy needs to give Hundley a chance to succeed.  Watching the game live on Sunday, it appeared to me, and to family members Sam and Judy, that McCarthy had Hundley under too tight a leash.  In re-watching the game, I don't remember a single play where McCarthy had Hundley do anything other than hand off or drop straight back in the pocket.  Not a single rollout, let alone flea-flickers or other imaginative plays!  And yet one of Hundley's strengths is  his athleticism.  Take off the handcuffs and let him play!

And now the inevitable arguments have started about whether the Packers should or should not go out and try to sign Colin KaepernickTony Romo's name comes up, too, but I think signing Romo is highly unlikely.  Given his injury history in recent years, the state of the Packers' offensive line, and the fact that he is getting rave reviews as a member of the CBS broadcast booth, I just can't see him being anxious to put the pads back on.

As to Kaepernick, I don't see it for at least three reasons.  First, as mentioned, the Packers have always been high on Brett Hundley.  My friend Peter tells me that Hundley is the classic over-hyped, over-rated Pac 12 quarterback, who piled up stats against bad defenses, and is a turnover machine.  I don't follow college football, but let's assume Peter is right.  Could McCarthy and his staff have helped to mold and improve Hundley's game in his two-plus years as a member of the Packers?  I certainly hold out hope that he has, and we will begin to find out soon enough, as McCarthy certainly is going to go with Hundley for right  now.  Can we at least give Hundley a week of prep as the starter before hitting the panic button and pulling the plug on him?  The Packers went 2-4-1 in 2013 in the seven games Rodgers missed when he broke his other collarbone.  That was not a good record (barely enough to get them to the playoffs), but in that seven week span they went through Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien as starters before re-signing and settling on Matt Flynn.  Flynn went 2-2 in the games he started.  I think Hundley can do better than 2-4-1, but we will see.*
*As an aside, if the Packers are interested in signing some quarterback who has not played in some time, I would rather see them sign Matt Flynn - he is available as a 32-year-old free agent.  The downside is that he has effectively not played in two years.  But on the upside, he at least knows the offense, the coaching staff, and many of the players.
Second, Kaepernick has succeeded in exactly one offense in the NFL, specifically designed around his talents by Jim Harbaugh, and before NFL defenses adjusted to the read option offense.  He has not succeeded in any other offense.  Are the Packers going to re-design their entire offense to suit the skills of one player who, at most, is going to play the next 10 games for the Packers?  Obviously not.  Well then, can Kaepernick quickly learn and adapt to the Packers' existing offense?  There are no data to suggest that he can, based on his past performance.  So it is not enough to say, "well, Kaepernick has won games in the NFL as a starting quarterback, gone to the Super Bowl and to another NFC Championship game, so therefore he can win games for the Packers."  Not all former starting quarterbacks are interchangeable.  With Kaepernick, you end up with a round hole and a square peg. 

In short, I think there are serious questions about his skill set and whether the Packers (or any other team, really, since nobody is running the Harbaugh-Kaepernick read option offense right now) are a natural fit for those skills.  Mike Sando of ESPN has written an interesting article, setting forth his notes over the past 4 years from his discussions with league insiders about Kaepernick.  The takeaway is an increasing level of doubts about how good a quarterback he really is as those years go by, starting well before he became famous for his National Anthem protest.  So my basic argument is that he does not have the right skills and is not a good fit from a football standpoint.

But finally, and I know this will piss some people off, I am arguing that Kaepernick's political activism is not only not a plus, but is a negative, and he would become a distraction if he joined the Packers roster.  I don't care if he is from Wisconsin, and if there is that cute picture of him as a kid in a Favre jersey.  The Packers are the team of the smallest town in the NFL.  They are owned by members of the community, your humble blogger included.  People from Wisconsin have somewhat traditional values and, for the most part, do not appreciate National Anthem protests.  The fans in the stands at the Bears game, for instance, did not seem to have any interest in adopting Aaron Rodgers' compromise suggestion to lock arms during the anthem.

While the National Anthem protests have expanded to have a wider focus than the one originally espoused by Kaepernick, he is the one who started the whole thing in the NFL.  And he was very clear about his motivation: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." So others joining in the National Anthem protests, like Martellus Bennett, may not be protesting the flag or the country, but Kaepernick, in his own words, clearly was.  And now he has apparently filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion.  And then there are the socks he wore on the sidelines depicting police as pigs.  And the praise for the Castro regime.  I agree with Boomer Esiason, who said, "This guy's like a tooth ache that just won't go away. . .

If you think all of that is consistent with him being a "Packers person," and a welcome addition to the Packers' locker room, then your definition of the term is very different from mine.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Davante Does Dallas

Packers' Bobsled Formation, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
The Packers put together a thrilling, come-from-behind, last minute victory over the Cowboys on Sunday, 35-31.  Now, if only they had not fallen behind by the score of 21-6 in the second quarter, maybe the thrilling comeback would not have been necessary.  In other words, Sunday's game marked the return of the Packers' patented slow start to games. The sooner they can rid themselves of this nasty habit, the better.

The pattern Sunday was all too familiar.  The Cowboys scored on their first possession (although in this case it wasn't easy - their drive was extended by a fourth down conversion and a phantom penalty on Blake Martinez).  The Packers answered with a very sharp drive down the field ending with a TD to Davante Adams, returning from his cheap shot concussion against the Bears.  And then the entire team went into a funk, where the defense allowed two more quick touchdowns, while the offense did nothing.  What causes this?

Mike Holmgren eventually figured out a way to settle down Brett Favre at the beginning of games, so he wouldn't throw as many "rocket balls" at the beginning of games as he had earlier in his career.  If the modern-day Packers have the skills and intensity to engineer these second half comebacks to win, then why can't they find a way to bring those skills to the fore in the first half?

This game was a bit of a coming-out party for rookie RB Aaron Jones, who rushed for 125 yards, and a 6.6 yard per carry average.  He has the speed to beat defenders around the corner, and as such he brings a new dimension to the Packers' running game.  I am sure (or should I say, pretty sure?)  that when Ty Montgomery is healthy, he will return as the starter.  He is a better receiver, from what we have seen, and that is a big deal in the Packers' offense.  But Aaron Jones has certainly shown that he deserves a bigger role in the offense.

There were a couple of very interesting play calls in the final minutes of the game.  I think they illustrate that all that matters in the end is whether the play is successful; it is the difference between "the coach is a genius!" and "the coach is an idiot!"  On 2d and 2 from the Green Bay 11, with 1:24 left in the game, the Cowboys threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock.  The Cowboys then scored on the next play, leaving the Packers with 1:13 on the clock, which turned out to be plenty of time to win.  Jason Garrett gets grief for poor clock management in the situation.  But bear in mind that the Cowboys were behind by 4 points, and needed a TD to go ahead.  Most people would expect a run, a run, and a pass if necessary on third down for the score or first down.  Why not catch the opponent by surprise, throw on second down instead, to try to catch the Packers focusing on the run?  So I can't really criticize this call. 

Still, they had been running the ball well, and on 2d and 2, there is no reason to think that they could not have gotten the first down on the ground, running down the clock and thus prompting the time-management criticism.  One can't help but think that along with the excitement about Prescott scoring the go-ahead touchdown, there must have been some undertone in the crowd of outright dread about the amount of time left on the clock for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  After all, they have seen this routine before, in last year's playoff game.

Seconds later, on 2d and 10 from the Dallas 47, McCarthy called a running play to Aaron Jones, which went for 15 yards, and the rookie got the ball out of bounds, to boot.  Great call!  Who expects a running play in this situation from midfield, when you have 47 more yards to cover and not many seconds left to get it done!  But imagine if he was stuffed in the backfield, or tripped up inbounds after a short gain.  What an idiot!  How can you call a running play there!  There is obviously such a thing as poor clock management, and Coach McCarthy has sometimes been guilty of this sin.  But in most cases, there is another side to the story, the strategic angle, where an attempt to go against the conventional wisdom can be exactly what is called for, in order to outsmart the opposing team.

Everybody now knows how this ended.  After a first down incompletion on a back-shoulder pass to Davante Adams, Adams urged Rodgers to call the same play, and according to Rodgers, Adams' eyes included the extra message, "throw a better ball."  He did exactly that with 11 seconds left in the game, and Adams scored the winning touchdown.  The game was a great win for the Packers, and an instant classic of a ball game overall.  It brings the Packers to a 4-1 record, which is certainly at the high end of what anyone could predict for the Packers thus far in 2017, especially when you consider all the injuries, particularly on the offensive line.

This week they head back to the Vikings' new stadium, to renew another long-time rivalry.  In recent years, the Packers have won most of their games against the Vikings, regardless of which stadium they play in.  Last year's game in Minnesota was the inaugural home game for the Vikings in their new stadium, and those games don't go well for the Packers, as we learned again this year in Atlanta.  But the Vikings are unsettled in a number of areas, including the fact that starting QB Sam Bradford has been ruled out for this game, as has starting WR Stefon Diggs.  The Vikings lost their rookie RB Dalvin Cook a week ago, so they are using backups there as well.  I expect a win for the Packers; and hopefully a win not requiring another furious comeback.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tougher Tests Lie Ahead

I argued last week that the Packers have been starting games off too sluggishly, and that they need to come ready to play and get off to better starts, as the furious comeback model is not a good look for the Packers, or a good road to getting a lot of wins.  Sometimes that last-second pass gets dropped, or tipped and intercepted, and the comeback falls short.  Well, the Bears last Thursday night seem to be just what the doctor ordered.  By the time the first 6 minutes of the game had been played, the Packers led 14-0, and they never led by less than 14 points for the rest of the game.

While I had assumed, based on the Bears-Steelers game, that the Bears must have been better than my initial impression, that game must have been something of a fluke.  They certainly were not an impressive squad on Thursday night, and indeed the Bears have now pulled the plug on Mike Glennon and will now start Mitch Trubisky this coming week.  The point is, the Packers' fast start might have more to do with the ineptness of the Bears than it does with a greatly improved Packers' approach to the game.

Speaking of fast starts and furious comebacks, the playoff game at Dallas last year was almost the mirror image of some of the Packers' games this year.  The Packers led the game by 18 points early on, and then by 15 points a little later, before allowing the Cowboys to stage the furious comeback, which led to the last minute heroics by Rodgers, Jared Cook and ultimately Mason Crosby.  Two of the big and somewhat unexpected stars of that game were Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.  Cook led all Packers receivers with 104 yards, and while Montgomery only had 47 yards rushing, he also scored two touchdowns.  Obviously, Cook is gone, and Montgomery is unlikely to play on Sunday.  There is no indication so far this season that Martellus Bennett is an upgrade at tight end, which the Packers must have expected when they let Cook go and signed Bennett.  This would be a great game for him to step up and finally have a big day.  Whoever does play running back, whether Williams or Jones, will  also need to step up to keep the Cowboys defense honest.  If, as appears possible, both Bulaga and Bakhtiari will be ready to play their first snaps together on Sunday, this would be a huge plus for the Packers.

I expect a close game.  Neither team is playing now at the level they were playing in the playoffs last year.  The Packers' offense may leave something to be desired, but at times they have looked improved on defense.  If they can bottle up Ezekiel Elliott and force Dak Prescott to try to beat them in the air, I think the Packers have a good shot to win the game.  Go Pack!