"The Packers' season came to an end on Sunday with a crashing thud. They were destroyed by a far superior St. Louis Rams team, blown out by the score of 45-17. Just like those early playoff years of the Favre/Holmgren era, they met up with a team (the Cowboys then, the Rams now) that they seemed to have no chance to beat."
At least that is what you would think if you missed the game, woke up on Monday morning and just read the final score. But on closer inspection, this game had a different feel to it. Oh, the Rams' victory was no fluke, and the Rams are certainly the better team. But unlike the feelings of despair in those years against the Cowboys, when it was clear that the Cowboys were so much better than the Packers that the Packers would never beat them until the Cowboys were well past their prime, this time the Packers seemed pretty close to the victors. Take away the ridiculous number of turnovers (PLEASE take them away!), and the Packers played right with the Rams. In fact, it could be argued that they outplayed them. The Packers had more rushing yards, more passing yards, more time of possession, more of most everything except points, where there was a huge deficit.
So what happened? Well, obviously, enough turnovers for 4 games (6 interceptions, tying a playoff record, and 2 fumbles lost). But the interesting question is, why? Antonio Freeman's fumble was mostly just a great play by Aeneas Williams in stripping the ball. Ahman Green's fumble was the result of poor ball-carrying technique, something he will work on in the off-season.
And then there were the interceptions. The first one (returned for a touchdown) was the obvious result of either Favre or Schroeder making a mistake, but without knowing the details of what the Packers' offensive system is for adjusting routes on the fly, it is difficult to know whose fault it was. Certainly, Schroeder's adjustment (to head up field) was a good idea in the abstract (i.e. apart from whatever the system calls for), because he would have been wide open for a long gain or a touchdown. But Favre and Schroeder have frequently seemed not to be on the same page this year, and as much as it is nice to see the local Sheboygan boy make good, I am not sure he will be back.
Four of the interceptions came on tipped balls, so there was a certain fluky aspect to those interceptions, although there is plenty of room to question both Favre's judgment on some of the throws, and the inability of the Packer receivers to pull the balls down.
More and more, and after re-watching most of the game, I am coming around to the view that the problem was a combination of several factors: (1) a slightly over-aggressive (and thus risky) approach to the game plan; (2) the fact that this risky approach came home to roost in the form of several early interceptions, one for a touchdown and one for a near touchdown, so that early in the second quarter the Packers were down 21-7; (3) the fact that one of the breaks that could have kept the Packers in the game (Rossum's kickoff return for a touchdown) was called back on a penalty; and (4) the fact that the early 14 point lead allowed the Rams to start playing almost a prevent type defense, which, combined with the continuing aggressive approach by the Packers' offense, led to an obscene number of interceptions.
What I mean by the slightly over-aggressive approach is this. The Packers seemed to come into the game with the attitude that they needed to score a lot of points to win the game, so they went right after it, somewhat aggressively, from the start. No jockeying for field position, not a lot of runs or short passes, but a lot of medium range or longer passes. Now that is not a bad thing; in fact I think it was a good strategy. But unfortunately it is a higher-risk strategy, and it backfired on the Packers when the early turnovers started putting extra points on the scoreboard for the Rams. And as the Rams got ahead, and as the minutes for a possible comeback ticked off the clock, it led to an ever-increasing sense of desperation for the Packers, so they started putting the ball up even more, trying to squeeze it into small spaces, etc. And this just allowed the Rams' defensive backs to have a field day.
Mike Sherman, in his dual role as head coach and general manager, will have a busy off-season. It will have been a successful off-season, in my view, if he is able to upgrade the wide receiver corps. Right now, the Packers' wide receivers are not keeping defensive coordinators from sleeping at night. The Packers need a substantial improvement of at least one of their starting wide receivers, whether through maturation of players on the existing roster, through free agency, or through the draft. A relatively modest improvement at wide receiver will really open up the running game, and help to take some pressure off of Favre.
And then, if he has some free time left over, it would be good if he could figure out a way to keep the team better motivated against bad teams. The Packers lost three games to non-playoff teams this year, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Turn one of those losses into a win, and the Packers would have won the division and had a bye week in the playoffs. Turn two of them into victories, and the Packers would have had home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Games against bad teams are always important, every year. But looking back at the 2001 season, the importance of those games could not have been clearer for the Packers.
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