Wednesday, January 14, 2004

I Would Have Double-Bagged It

How ironic that Brett Favre's newest TV commercial, for Master Card, is all about Monday Morning Quarterbacks. There certainly has been enough Monday Morning Quarterbacking going on in the wake of the Phenomenal Phlop in Philly.

Generally, I hate to indulge in this particular sport. I try to remember that from what I see (and understand) on TV, it is difficult to pass judgment on whether a player should have zigged, instead of zagged. But this time, with a whole off-season to think about it, I feel compelled to throw in my 2 cents worth.

There are 4 plays in the game that people have been talking about. I don't take serious issue with two of them, so I will set them off to the side. Going for it on 4th and goal in the second quarter seemed like a good idea to me at the time, and I refuse to criticize it now just because it was unsuccessful. Yes, in hindsight it would have been nice to have the 3 points, but 7 points at that time would have been pretty devastating to the Eagles' chances for a comeback, and the Packers have a very powerful short yardage rushing game.

And, at the end of the game, many people have complained about the pass on 1st down in overtime, which was intercepted and led very shortly to the win by Philadelphia. As to that play, I would have run the ball, but there is something to be said for surprising the other side, and if the play call had not been met by a heavy blitz, and accompanied by a horrible decision as to where to throw the ball by Favre, none of us would be complaining about the play. In short, I believe that Brett Favre deserves the criticism he is getting for the throw he made, but I think that much of the criticism directed to the play call is misdirected.

When the game is lost (especially a playoff game), the play-caller is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, which the coaches fully understand. In his season-ending press conference on Wednesday, Mike Sherman even noted the fact that he has been criticized both for going for it on 4th and 1 in the first half, and for not going for it on 4th and 1 in the second half. Which does show how unfair Monday Morning Quarterbacking can be. What would be nice, though, is if we could get some sense that lessons can be taken away from the inevitable agony of Monday Morning Quarterbacking - something that can be applied in seeking a different result in the future.

With that background out of the way, the plays I would like to subject to scrutiny are the 4th and 1 play late in the 4th quarter, and the defensive play call on the 4th and 26.

4th and 1, Fourth Quarter

On the 4th and 1 at the Eagles' 41, I thought the Packers should have gone for it instead of punting. Many have criticized the punt, but others have said it was the right decision, so there is no unanimity on this call. Here is my thinking. If the Packers got the first down there, with about 2 minutes and 30 seconds left, the game was over, barring some miracle for the Eagles. If the Packers punted, the Eagles would have plenty of time to try to drive for the tying field goal or winning touchdown. So in evaluating the 4th down call, getting a first down was pretty close to winning the game. Plus, would you rather keep the ball on offense if you could, or hope the Packers' defense could stop a drive to tie or win the game? All hindsight aside, the Packers have not done a good job of stopping those drives all year, including the prior week's Seahawks game at the end of the 4th quarter, and including the Monday night game against the Eagles. So, I would rather put my trust in the ability of the offense to get a yard, especially considering how well they were playing, and how they had been wearing down the Eagles' defense.

Even though the Packers had failed on 4th down and 1 in the second quarter, my sense (without having statistics in front of me) was that the Packers had a high likelihood of getting the first down. They have a great offensive line, and a great running back, and my recollection of similar situations throughout the year was that they were almost always successful. Plus, Mike Sherman had made the point the prior week that he had asked the players to play aggressively, and that in turn the coaching staff would make calls aggressively. All of these factors suggested going for it.

Since the game, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on has pointed me to the Football Outsiders web site, where they have collected statistics on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 calls throughout the season. The statistics show that when a team runs on 3rd or 4th and 1, they make the first down 72% of the time. They also have statistics on a slightly larger category of plays, what they call "power" plays, defined as 3rd or 4th and 1 or 2 yards to go, or 1st or 2nd and goal from the 1 or 2 yard line. Interestingly, the Packers have 79% success on rushes on "power" plays, which should not be surprising if you believe, as I do, that the Packers have a better than average short yardage running game. Since "power" plays are a somewhat wider category, the Packers'success on 3rd or 4th and 1 is almost certainly greater than 79%.

Bear with my math. Let's take, conservatively, a 75% chance of success if the Packers had gone for it on 4th and 1. If they went for it, they had a 75% chance of essentially winning the game right there. And if they failed (the other 25%), the game was not lost -the question was whether they could prevent the Eagles from scoring from about their own 41 yard line with 2.5 minutes to go and only one time out left. Let's say the Packers had a 50% chance of preventing a score in the situation where the Packers turned the ball over. So, overall, if thePackers went for it, they would have around an 87.5% chance of winning (75%plus 12.5%). Pretty good odds.

Now, take a punt. Obviously, you put the ball in McNabb's hands, but you assume that they will have to start much closer to their own goal line.Therefore, they will have to go 20 or 30 yards farther in order to score the field goal for a tie, or the touchdown for the win. What are the chances the Eagles will score if they start from the 10 or 20 yard line? Plug in your own number, but I would suggest they have around a 30% chance of scoring, meaning that the Packers have a 70% chance to prevent a score and therefore win the game. So, accepting my non-scientific percentages, the Packers REDUCED their chances to win from 87.5% to 70% by punting the ball. If you differ with me on the percentages, plug in your own numbers and see what you come up with. But I think these stats help to prove that the right choice in that situation was to go for it, not to mention that it was consistent with Sherman's pledge to call the game aggressively, and it has a greater chance of keeping the ball out of McNabb's hands altogether.

4th and 26, Fourth Quarter

Now let's consider the next possession, as the Eagles were driving for the field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. In this and the previous two possessions, the Packers had been applying relentless pressure to McNabb, causing a game's-worth of sacks and lots of incompletions. On the decisive drive, that pressure had put the Eagles exactly where the Packers wanted them, 4th and 26. So, do they continue to apply significant pressure on that key play? No. They drop back into soft zone coverage, McNabb has all day to throw the ball, Freddie Mitchell finds the seam in the zone, and the rest is history.

Why? Why not keep applying the same pressure that put the Eagles into 4th and 26? Oh, I know, the theory of it is that all you have to do is keep the receivers in front of you, and that way, even if you give up 25 yards on theplay, the ball still is turned over on downs. If you put pressure on and some receiver gets free in single coverage, you can LOSE the game right there. But how many times have we seen conservative play-calling kill a team? In fact, even though it was before Ed Donatell's time, his predecessor called exactly the same soft zone coverage on the decisive play in the "Terrell Owens" playoff game in January, 1999 (Mike Holmgren's last game as coach of the Packers), with similar results.

These two 4th down plays in the Eagles game have something in common. Both represent situations where the coaches could have called the game aggressively (as they had pledged to do the week before), but where they went conservative instead. They also are situations where the coaches opted not to continue doing what was working well, and opted for more conservative, but ultimately disastrous, different choices. Long time reader Thomas Sattler works in the computer field, and plays golf, and he offers a rule that fits perfectly in this situation. He calls it Sattler's Law of Golf and Systems Development: "Go with what works."

Now, in the wake of the game, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has been fired, although allegedly not because of the 4th and 26 failure. Let's hope that this makes a difference. Certainly, Donatell's successor will come in with a mandate to be aggressive on defense, and that is a good thing. Repeatedly, this year, the Packers' defense has given up drives at the ends of games to either tie or lose the game, or to let the opponent turn small leads into larger leads. Take a look at the 4th quarter drives given up against Arizona, Kansas City, Philadelphia (regular season), Detroit (2d game), Seattle (playoffs) and Philadelphia (playoffs). That simply can't be allowed to happen as often as it did.

It would be nice to think that the Packers (and Mike Sherman in particular) learned something from the Eagles game. Maybe it is too much to expect, butI would have loved to hear him say "It seemed like a good idea to punt at the time, but if I had it to do again, I would run the ball" or "A soft zone seemed like a safe play call, but since it burned us I would probably put some pressure on in a similar situation if it came up again." Instead, Sherman, in his press conference, defended the 4th and 1 punt, and talked about how the Packers had the Eagles where they wanted them at 4th and 26,rather than really addressing the unbelievable failure on that play. Maybe this was just a defense mechanism on Sherman's part, and he really has taken something away from this game that he will put to better use in the future, even if he won't admit it publicly. That is what I hope, anyway, because the window of opportunity for this team grows shorter every year.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Sudden Death

To tell you the truth, I was kind of hoping for a laugher. You know, the kind of game where Pederson and some of the other backups can get some playing time, and where a Packer win is all but assured in the third quarter. That way, I figured, even if the Packers did not get a bye, at least the starters would not get as banged up. Plus, laughers tend to end sooner, and since we were driving back to Chicago after the game for a flight Sunday night (through a snow storm from Fond du Lac on, as it turned out), we would have a better chance to make the flight.

Well, so long as the Packers ended up winning, it is hard to complain about being present for one of the all-time great playoff games, the only one to ever end on an interception return for a touchdown. "Sudden death" doesn't get much more sudden than that.

It is possible to argue that, if the Packers had this much trouble with the Seahawks, it is a bad sign, but I saw it the other way. My view was that this was an inspired and hard-fought game, almost completely error-free, between two teams that know each other pretty well. In fact, if the Seahawk receivers played as well as Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawk defense, I think they would have won the game. I like Matt Hasselbeck, and it is too bad that he had to be the guy who made the game-ending error, but that is the way it goes in football.

What an aggressive and gutsy call by Ed Donatell (defensive coordinator) to go with an all-out blitz on that last play, resulting in the game-winning interception return. So many times, fans complain that their team lost the game because they played conservatively on defense, trying to avoid any big mistake, with the result that the other team marched down the field in small chunks to win the game. Ed Donatell's call, approved by Mike Sherman during the timeout, was as diametrically opposed to that approach as possible. It is no wonder that Donatell raced into the end zone after Al Harris to congratulate him, as he undoubtedly would have been raked in the press if the all-out blitz had resulted in a game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks. Mike Sherman took the same approach on offense, in less dramatic fashion, by going for it successfully on a couple of fourth downs. This aggressive approach to coaching seems to have inspired the players to play aggressively. As Sherman said, in the playoffs you have to go get the game, rather than waiting for the game to come to you.

But, as great a game as it was, I suspect that the Packers' season will end this week in the City of Brotherly Love. It's not that the Eagles are so much better than the Packers, or that the home-field advantage is decisive in this case (after all, the Eagles only went 5-3 in their new stadium this year). Instead, I think that the bye is the key to the win. It is really hard for a team that played in the Wild Card round to beat a team that had a bye. In fact, the No. 1 seed in the NFC has not lost its first playoff game since 1987 (when Minnesota knocked off San Francisco). Reaching even further back into the record book, the Packers have not won a game in Philadelphia since 1962, having lost 6 in a row near the shore of the Delaware River. On the other hand, all of those road losses were played on the concrete surface of Veteran's Stadium, and this week's game will be played on grass at the new Lincoln Financial Field. So maybe the Packers will have a better chance.

If you want to make a case for the Packers winning, consider this. While the Packers lost to the Eagles at Lambeau Field on November 10, there are a number of things that have happened since then that cut in favor of the Packers. That game was played in the rain, always a wild card in a game, whereas the weather Sunday should be cold but dry. In that game, Brett Favre had not yet gotten used to playing with his broken thumb, and that, combined with the wet ball, led to him fumbling 3 times, including the final fumble that prevented any chance at a comeback. In that game, Ahman Green also fumbled twice, before changing the material on his forearm to something not as conducive to having the ball slip out. And finally, Grady Jackson was playing sparingly in his first game with the Packers that night, whereas now he is fully integrated into the defense.

So that is my case for the Packers having a real shot. As against that, you have to consider that the Eagles were without a number of their starting defensive backs that night, and most or all of them will be back for the game. And although the Eagles will be without their leading rusher, Brian Westbrook, in the Eagles' "running back by committee" approach this should not be as big a factor as it would be for other teams. While the Packers have a much better chance in Philadelphia than they would have had in St. Louis this week, I still think the Eagles will win. It will take another inspired game by all concerned, and a few key Eagles mistakes, for the Packers to prevail, but I am not sure they have enough left in the tank. If they do, then maybe this really is a team of destiny.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Happy New Year

Well, last weekend's football sure started out on a sour note, before the miraculous turn-around at the end. Not only did the 49ers pretty much roll over for the Seahawks on Saturday (see my column last week), but the Cowboys proceeded to lose to the Saints in the early game, thus setting up the dreaded 3-way tie scenario we all had feared. As the late games started, we knew that the Packers could no longer get in to the playoffs as a Wild Card, and that they would have to win the division to keep playing. That, in turn, required BOTH a Packer victory over the Broncos, AND a Vikings loss to Arizona. Not bloody likely, I thought.

Oh, and to complete the ominous picture, when I went out to get the newspaper Sunday morning, I noticed that my Packer flag was missing. The flag and the flagpole were both missing, even though I moved the bracket much higher after the flag was stolen by (I assume) a 49ers fan a few years ago.

This time, the perpetrator would have either had to give a boost to an accomplice, or maybe jump just high enough to grab the lowest part of theflag as it hung. That is probably what happened, since the bracket was broken in the crime, suggesting that the flag and pole were pulled until the bracket broke. This time, was the thief a 49ers fan? A Raiders fan? Who knows. But my feeling was that this was a bad omen, since I always fly thePacker flag the day of a game.

Still, the Cardinals were leading the Vikings 6-0 in the first half, making all of us feel as if a miracle could happen. But then it was 7-6, then 14-6, and then 17-6 Vikings, with the time on the clock ticking away. Meanwhile, the Packers were beating the Broncos B squad, and when Ahman Green took off on his 98-yard touchdown jaunt, followed by the strip on the kickoff for another touchdown, it was obvious that more attention was neededto the Vikings game than to the Packer game. So I went into the other room,to watch the Vikings game on our second satellite receiver, because my wife hates it when I switch back and forth between games. So she watched the Packer game, I watched the Vikings game, training my full powers of negative energy on the Vikings players on the screen, and I would yell updates to her from the other room.

ME: "The Cardinals just scored a touchdown!"
JUDY: "Great, stay in there, keep working."
ME: "They missed the 2-point conversion."
JUDY: "Too bad, stay in there, keep working."

And on and on. I confirmed around the time of the onside kick that Judy is even more superstitious about Packer games than I am. When I told her that the Cardinals got the onside kick, I yelled that she should come in and watch the Vikings game with me. But no way! Things were going well, so she would stay exactly where she was, despite how utterly compelling the action was on the screen I was watching. Obviously, all of us were really starting to think that this thing might happen, when the second down sack, and then the third down sack and fumble happened. Oh, it was all just a horrible tease. They got so close to winning the game, but now it was fourth down,the clock was ticking toward zero, and, let's be honest, what are the chances of a game-winning, fourth and 24 touchdown pass on the last play of the last game of the season that knocks one team out of the playoffs and puts another one in? (Seriously, what ARE the chances? One in 1,000? Onein 10,000?)

Fortunately, the clock was running, so there were only a few seconds to contemplate those awful odds before McCown rolled right and unleashed that Favre-like toss to the end zone. Poole caught it (the catch reminded me just a little of the Dwight Clark touchdown catch against the Cowboys back in 1981), and was shoved out of bounds as he came down. I don't know about you, but I don't have a high degree of confidence that he could have gotten that second foot down inbounds. But by shoving him, the defensive back changed the equation, requiring the referee to make an instant judgment call, which he made in favor of a touchdown. I instantly thought to myself "Thank goodness that judgment calls like that are not reviewable." Anyway, after hearing me scream that the Cardinals won and the game was over, Judy came in to watch the replay of the touchdown. Then we noticed that the officials were reviewing the play, so she turned right around to wait in the other room. I was terrified that I was wrong, and that the judgment call WAS reviewable, but it turned out they were just checking to see if he maintained possession, which he clearly did.

A couple more thoughts. Later, I watched the tape of end of the Packer game, since I had missed it while watching the Vikings game. I was astonished by what a poor job the CBS crew did of keeping the viewers informed of what was happening in the Vikings game. Obviously, the announcers had given up on that game. With 9:10 left in the Packer game, the little box in the corner of the screen showed Vikings, 17-12. That was a big development, but the announcers said nothing about it for more than five minutes. They were too busy telling us the story about "old hammerhead", then showing the scoring plays from the Packer game, then just talking about other inconsequential things while a major story was developing in Arizona. I gather from what I have read that the Packers radio crew was doing a better job of giving play-by-play of both games at once, so the people in the stands, despite Mike Sherman's Vikings blackout, had a better idea of what was going on than the TV viewers around the country.

Also, not to wish bad things on another team or anything, but can you imagine a more perfect way for the season to end, from the standpoint of a Packer fan? The hated rival Vikings complete one of the most epic collapses ever seen, 2000 miles away, by getting knocked out of the playoffs in favor of the Packers, on the last play of the last game. That is just too sweet for words, and it will not be forgotten any time soon.

And now, the Packers play on, hosting the Seahawks, who will bring lots of old friends with them, including Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, and Matt Hasselbeck. It will be nice and cold, and it will probably snow during the game. There are more story lines in this game than in any other game this weekend. Which is a good thing, since I will be missing all the other games in transit to and from Wisconsin to see this one. As many have remarked, it seems as if something special is going on with the Packers right now, and so this game is not to be missed.

On one hand, it is not possible to have as much confidence in a Packer home playoff victory as we all had a year ago when it could be said that the Packers had never lost such a game in their entire history. But, as Mike Sherman said in the locker room Sunday, there is a big difference this year. The team is on the upswing, they have showed a lot of character by playing their way back into the playoff picture, and their best football of the year is being played right now, perhaps in part because of the emotion of Brett Favre's personal tragedy. Last year, the opposite was true, and so maybe we should not have been so shocked when they lost to the Falcons. Plus, thePackers are much healthier this year than last at this time. All of these factors point to a Packers victory. Probably something like Packers 28, Seahawks 20.

Dave McGinniss and the Cardinals deserve a slap on the back. When so many other teams were packing it in for one reason or another, including Shanahan's Broncos and Erickson's 49ers, the Cardinals played the game as if it was actually important to try to win the game. Which, for the Packers, it certainly was.

My New Year's resolution for the Packers. Now that you have been the beneficiary of the miracle in the desert, let's see if you can make the most of the gift. And try to win enough games next year that you don't need to rely on another miracle.