Monday, November 24, 2008

The Pressure is On

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Tonight's game at New Orleans will go a long way toward showing if the Packers are going to make a run at the playoffs this year. After an abysmally bad showing against Minnesota, where they were lucky to even have a shot at winning the game, the Packers proceeded to crush their other historical nemesis, the Bears, the following week.

This marked the first time in Lovie Smith's tenure as head coach of the Bears that the Packers had beaten the monsters of the midway in Green Bay. As a result, the Packers were put back in charge of their own destiny. If the Packers win all their remaining games (admittedly, a long shot), they will win the division. But at least as of today, they don't need to rely on any other team. Let's hope that state of affairs continues.

The burning issue of the day, though, is which Packers are the real Packers? If the real Packers are the team that can't stop the run, can't get a running game of their own going, and misfire at the most inopportune moments, the team is in big trouble. If, on the other hand, Ryan Grant continues to run as he did last week against the supposedly good Chicago Bears rushing defense, if they continue to shut down the run like they did last week, and if the truly sensational Green Bay defensive backs continue to control some of the premier wide receivers in the league, then it is hard to see how they can lose another game.

So a visit to the Superdome, in prime time for all the nation to see, could not come at a better time. Sadly, with the departure of Brett Favre to the Titan-beating New York Jets, there are no remaining player links on the team to the Super Bowl XXXI Champions, who won their Super Bowl game in New Orleans almost 12 years ago. If I am not mistaken, Packers running backs coach Edgar Bennett will be the only member of the Super Bowl Champion team to be on the Packer sidelines tonight. Drew Brees and the Saints will present quite a challenge to the Packers tonight. The Saints have been scoring a lot of points, but the good news is that they give up lots of points, too. The Saints are in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing defense. So the Packers should have some opportunities to score some points. Wear some Mardi Gras beads and get ready for a good game.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bad Decisions

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Poor coaching decisions and tentative quarterback play. Those were the stories of today's game at Minnesota, and as a result the Packers lost their first game to Minnesota since Mike McCarthy became head coach.

If you only look at the final score, you would think that this was a pretty close game. The Packers only lost by the score of 28-27, and they would have won the game if only Mason Crosby could have made the 52 yard field goal at the end of the game. But that is misleading. In reality, the Packers were beaten solidly, and only outstanding and opportunistic defensive and special teams play kept the score within reach. The interception return touchdown by Nick Collins and the punt return touchdown by Will Blackmon are obvious examples, but the only other touchdown the Packers scored was set up by Charles Woodson's interception. Take away these plays and the score might have been 28-6.

In other words, the offense played with consistency all day long. And it was not pretty. Without taking anything away from the Vikings, who played well on defense, it seems to me that Aaron Rodgers and the coaching staff deserve a lot of blame for today's game. Rodgers may not have made the sort of catastrophic mistakes made by Gus Frerotte today, who was intercepted three times and as a result had no business winning this game. But the two safeties taken by Rodgers, either of which provided the margin of victory, were bad enough. The first one was probably caused by watching too many crazy Favre tosses over the years, although the announcers were probably right in saying that they would not have called the safety against Favre. And the second one was caused by a bad decision to try to escape the pressure by retreating into the end zone. But Rodgers, more generally, just seemed tentative today, holding onto the ball too long and taking too many sacks, and "double-clutching" on passes rather than being decisive.

The coaching staff deserves some blame, too. Everyone knew, going into the game, that the Vikings are pretty tough against the run, and more vulnerable to the passing game. Why, then, did the Packers run more than 50% of the time on first down instead of trying to use the passing game to open up the running game? How many times do you have to find yourself in 2d and long before trying something else? Two other odd coaching decisions merit mention. On the final score on the long run by the Vikings, what is the point of challenging whether the runner scored? If the challenge had been upheld, the ball might have been on the one foot line. Is there any prospect that the Packers could stop Adrian Peterson four times in a row? The chances are overwhelming that the challenge will be rejected (and the Packers lose a time out) or that the challenge is upheld, more time runs off the clock, and then the Vikings score anyway. The way things turned out, the lost time out on the challenge did not matter, but this is just not smart football.

The other coaching issue came on the final drive. The Packers got a good kick return, and started on their own 41. The first play resulted in a 19-yard gain after Driver pulled in a deflected pass, to the Vikings' 40. And then the Packers called a run, another run, a pass with not much chance of getting a first down, and then tried and missed a 52 yard field goal. If you are at the 10 or 15 or even 20 yard line, I could see the old run-run-pass-kick series of plays, even though a field goal can be missed from anywhere on the field. But how in the world do you play cautiously to set up the winning field goal, at a time when that field goal will be over 50 yards? I don't care if you are playing in a dome and if you have the best kicker in the history of the game (which the Packers don't), that is just not playing the percentages. Play aggressively, and take your best shot when you run out of downs or run out of time. But don't play it safe on the assumption that you can count on a 50 plus yard field goal to win the game.

Now the Packers find themselves looking up at both the Bears and the Vikings, with the Bears coming to Lambeau Field next week. This game becomes a must-win game. It is hard to see how the Packers can expect to win the division without beating the Bears this week.