Saturday, October 20, 2007

Happy Bye Week!

SAN FRANCISCO — It is indeed a happy bye week for the Packers. After their disappointing Sunday night loss to the Bears, they had one more game before the bye, against the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, according to some analysts in the days before the game, actually had the best defense of all the teams the Packers had played this season. Thus, it would be important to win that game, to avoid going into the week off with a two-game losing streak.

Before getting to the Redskins game, a word or two on the loss to the Bears. After an impressive first half, in which the Packers staked themselves to a halftime lead of 17-7, it seemed as if the Packers were in position to win again. But in the second half, the Packers scored only 3 points, while the Bears scored 20 and won the game. During the second half, John Madden made comments about the Packers playing very conservatively on offense, and watching the game, it certainly seemed that way to me, too. At the time, it seemed like the Packers were so convinced that they had the game in hand, that they thought they could, in effect, just run out the clock on the second half. It was painful to watch the game slip away that way. I always admire teams that keep on pounding with whatever is working until the game is out of reach. The Patriots, for example, seem to do this, continuing to play aggressively, without mercy, until the game is almost over. The best single example of what I am talking about was the NFC Championship Game after the 2000 season, during which the Giants attacked the Vikings with the long ball from the very beginning of the game. After building the lead, they did not let up, or start to use up time with the running game. They just kept hammering the Vikings until it was over, 41-0. So it was very disappointing to see the Packers seem to think that they could just play it safe and protect their 10 point lead for 30 minutes of football. It was also disappointing to hear Mike McCarthy deny that the Packers had played conservatively. How refreshing it would have been to hear him say that, in hindsight, maybe we did play too conservatively, and that is a mistake we will not make again. But I guess coaches just don't say things like that.

As for the Redskins game, it was a terrible day on offense for the Packers, during which Favre set the all-time interception record, and did not throw a touchdown pass. While there have been hints of an improving running game in a couple of the earlier games (ironically, especially in the loss to Chicago), the running game was totally ineffective against Washington. After three games in a row where Favre threw for more than 300 yards per game, these figures were almost cut in half, as Favre threw for only 169 net passing yards.

It seemed clear early on in the Redskins game that only the defense could put the Packers in position to win this game. And that is exactly what they did, scoring the go-ahead and winning points on a fumble return for a touchdown by Charles Woodson. Not the most impressive way to win a game, but at least it leaves the Packers at 5-1. Now, I would argue that they are the worst 5-1 (or 4-1, or 4-2) team in the league. But then, in the past, haven't Packer fans said pretty much the opposite? Last year, weren't the Packers the best 8-8 team in the league? Or the best non-playoff team in the league? At least as a mediocre 5-1 team, they have the chance to get their act together, get their running backs healthy and hopefully more effective, get all their receivers healthy and keep Favre in one piece, and win a bunch of games.

Friday, October 5, 2007


SAN FRANCISCO — A quarter of the new season has gone by, and the Packers, to my amazement, are 4-0. Ignoring the pre-season, the Packers have won 8 games in a row. And they are playing (this year) without Ahman Green. In fact, you could go farther and say that they have no running game at all. Plus, they have had a rookie (James Jones) starting at wide receiver opposite Donald Driver most of the year, and they are still the youngest team in the league.

Would any of us have given the Packers a chance to be 4-0 before the season started, with a 3-0 record in the conference? Particularly if you consider that they have played 3 playoff teams from last year, with a 4th coming up on Sunday night? I certainly would not have done so. A record of 2-2 at this point would have been considered a moral victory. I would have expected this to be a rebuilding year of sorts, with the best case scenario being that they get the offense together fast enough to win a bunch of games late in the year and maybe sneak into the playoffs.

A few observations about specific players. At the end of last season, one of the articles I intended to write, but never got around to, was an analysis of how the kicking game may have cost the Packers a slot in the playoffs. All year long, my wife complained about Dave Rayner, and as time went on, I had to agree with her. He certainly played a significant role in losing several games, and if those games had gone the other way, the Packers would have made the playoffs with a team that was on the roll at the end of the year. Not in the sense of missing a game-winning field goal at the end of the game - that did not happen. But missed field goals at key points in games helped to put or keep the Packers behind in games they might have won if they had picked up extra field goals here and there. So how delightful it was to see this kid Mason Crosby start out the year strong, including not only a game-winning kick in the first game, but consistently deep kickoffs. And while we are discussing the kicking game, it is only fair to give a tip of the hat to the holder, Jon Ryan, who made that first game-winning kick possible by grabbing a high snap out of the air and getting it down in time for Crosby's kick.

Rookie receiver James Jones has impressed me. One of the TV announcers compared him to Sterling Sharpe, and as soon as he said it, I realized that he was right. Jones has a style reminiscent of Sterling Sharpe, and we all know how valuable a Sharpe-like receiver can be in a Favre-led offense. Now that Jennings has started to play again, it is not clear exactly how much playing time Jones will get. But the way he has played, he certainly deserves to get some chances.

The grizzled veteran, Brett Favre, seems to be playing better than he has in years. He continues to make throws and take chances, as he always has. But he seems to be using better judgment as to which chances are worth taking. Perhaps he realizes how precarious the offense is right now, without a running game, and realizes that even though the passing game (and the defense) will have to carry the team for now, it is Favre's responsibility to not make the kind of mistakes that can kill a game. It was great to see him break a number of all-time records in the first quarter of the season, and get that behind him, so he can concentrate on winning games. Did anyone else notice that Favre's last TD pass, on Sunday, to James Jones, looked eerily similar to that very first Favre TD pass in 1992 to the trivia-question answer, Kitrick Taylor? I did not realize until I looked it up that that pass was the ONLY TD pass Favre ever threw to Kitrick Taylor, but indeed it was. He may not have had a great career in the NFL, but he was there at the beginning of the legend.

Meanwhile, the defense has been doing more than its share of the hard work. Nick Barnett leads the team in tackles, while KGB leads the team in sacks. Both are near the top of the stat charts in these categories for the entire league. As Favre continues to break records almost every week, KGB will soon set the record for sacks as a Green Bay Packer, by passing Reggie White's record. (Obviously, most of Reggie's career sacks were registered while he was an Eagle, and KGB has a long way to go to approach Reggie's 198 sacks, or Bruce Smith's 200.)

And now the Bears come to town. Sure, the Bears went to the Super Bowl last year. But they were exposed as pretenders in that game. And they certainly have not improved since then. The Packers could find themselves guilty of over-confidence this week. And the Bears could rise to the occasion in an attempt to resurrect their season. But I doubt it. Mike McCarthy will have the team ready, and the Packers will roll.