Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Playoff Berth Clinched

I had the great fun of attending Sunday's game against Seattle, with my son, Ben. The Packers absolutely spanked their opponents, by the score of 48-10. Simultaneously, the New York Giants were losing to the Panthers, something I did not expect after the Giants' domination of the Redskins the previous Monday night. The effect of these two events was that the Packers clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs, thus avoiding the dreaded final week drama about whether the Packers make the playoffs. And finally, on Monday night, the Bears (of all teams!) beat the Vikings, in what sounds like it was a great game. This makes Brett Favre's record 0-7 in road games below 40 degrees since 2005. Now that is what you call a great week of football!

We were flying back from Chicago to San Francisco on Monday night. If the flight had left on time, we could have listened to the end of the game on the radio, driving home from the airport. But because the flight was 2.5 hours late (due to unspecified "security issues"), we missed it all. We got exactly 2 updates from the pilot during the game (remember, this was a flight from Chicago, so you might think there was some interest). He came on to tell us that the score was tied, 30-30, with 16 seconds to go in the 4th quarter. No sense of the drama that led up to that, but he did add that the dispatcher had said that the Bears had multiple opportunities to put the game away but, quoting the dispatcher, "naturally, they didn't." He came back on later to announce that the Bears had won, 36-30, in overtime. The reaction to both announcements was the same: stone cold silence. I guess nobody flying from Chicago cares? I suppose I can understand that in a way, given the Bears' season, but still, I expected some reaction. It certainly differed from the reaction on the Chicago to San Francisco flight during the playoffs two years ago, when the announcement that the Cowboys had lost to the Giants was greeted with cheers.

A couple of notes from the game, things that you probably did not see if you watched the game on TV. First, Milwaukee native and American Idol finalist Danny Gokey sang the national anthem, and did a fine job of it (see video here). And at the end of the game, since it was (barring a miracle) the last game at Lambeau Field this year, Charles Woodson and Donald Driver did victory laps around the perimeter of the field, high-fiving all the fans in the bottom rows of the stadium.

The Packers now travel to Arizona for the final regular-season game, with there being at least a 2/3 chance that they play Arizona again the following week in the playoffs. That makes for weird incentives for both teams. Both teams would surely want to play well and win the game, to increase their own confidence that they can do it again the following week. But neither team wants to show all its cards this week, lest they tip off the opponent as to how they intend to play the game that really counts. With the Packers having won 6 of the last 7 games, and barely lost the 7th game, they have to feel pretty good about themselves about now. Peter King, of Sports Illustrated, says that he wouldn't want to play the Packers right now.

At the same time, the Cardinals have played well in most of their games this season. They have the same record as the Packers (10-5), but in the NFC West, that is easily enough to win the division. Although I don't follow their games very closely, they have seemed less impressive in recent weeks, during which time they lost twice, and didn't look that great in some of the wins. Their quarterback, Kurt Warner, is only a little younger than Brett Favre, and at times he looks pretty old out there. But there is no doubt that he can pick apart a defense if given the time to throw. So the Packers would be well advised to bring some pressure on defense.

Another issue for the Packers this week is whether, and if so to what extent, to rest starters. The Packers are a wild card team no matter what, and are highly likely to be the number 5 seed. They could drop to the number 6 seed if the Packers lose and the Cowboys win, but the only real difference between no. 5 and no. 6 is that no. 5 has a very slim chance of hosting the NFC Championship game, while no. 6 has absolutely no chance. So one could take the view that there is not much at stake here. If this team had been performing at a high level of precision for weeks, maybe you could argue that the Packers should rest starters. But they haven't. The Packers took awhile to get into a rhythm against the Seahawks. The Packers' defense gave up ridiculous yardage and point totals to the Steelers. The Packers trailed the Bears in the fourth quarter. The Packers started a bit sluggishly against the Ravens. To me it seems clear that the Packers still have lots of things to work on. So I come out very strongly on the side of playing the starters, playing the game to win, and resting the starters only if the game is well in hand toward the end of the game.

Keeping some of the game plan in reserve for the following week is quite another question. That makes a lot of sense. So I would see no problem in playing a plain vanilla game plan, on offense and defense, but playing hard to win the game. Save the trick plays, the new offensive and defensive wrinkles for the playoffs. But if the Packers bench a lot of starters at the start of the game, or start resting players in the second quarter, that to me would show a foolish degree of over-confidence in how ready the Packers are for the playoffs.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Charles Woodson, Nick Collins and Aaron Rodgers for being selected to the Pro Bowl squad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Last-Second Disaster

That final drive of the game, with the Steelers scoring the game-winning touchdown on the final play, was so painful to watch yesterday. Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette had the same thought I did on the game-winning TD pass by Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace: it was like the 1995 "Yancey Claus" game in reverse. Back in 1995, when the Packers were still more than a year away from their Super Bowl win, the Steelers came to town on Christmas Eve. With the Packers clinging to a lead, the Steelers drove down the field, and Yancey Thigpen of the Steelers gave the Packers a Christmas present by dropping what should have been the game-winning touchdown. In fact, he described it as a Christmas present at the time. The drop gave the Packers their first division championship in 23 years, and they made it as far as the NFC Championship game before losing to the Cowboys. This made such an impression on the Packer fans that they cheered Thigpen years later when he returned to Green Bay for another game.

But of course, this time the Steeler receiver caught the ball, and the Packers lost the game. To add insult to injury, the Vikings lost Sunday night to the Panthers, meaning that the Packers would have still been alive to win the division but for the loss against the Steelers. Not that they likely would have won the division - but they would have had a shot and would have gone a long way toward clinching a playoff spot by winning this game.

I am out of town, and saw the game at Casey Jones Grill in Phoenix, home of the Desert Packer Backers group. A nice sports bar, with all the games on, but with the sound up on the Packer game, and with special sound effects to commemorate good plays, scores, etc. The Packer fans there were excited when the Packers finally took their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter, and when the Packers held the Steelers to a field goal on the ensuing drive. When the Packers had a 3rd and 14 at the 25, the sense of relief was palpable when Rodgers completed a touchdown pass to James Jones which, with a 2 point conversion, gave the Packers a six-point lead. Relief because nobody rooting for the Packers wanted to see Mason Crosby line up for a go-ahead field goal, after he had already missed a medium-range field goal earlier.

So, after all that had happened, and the Packers finally had a 36-30 lead, it was just devastating to watch the Steelers march down the field for the game-winning touchdown, after the Packers' lead had been so hard to achieve. It is not as if there were no opportunities to put the game away. The Packers intercepted Roethlisberger on one play, but the interception was nullified by a very clear illegal contact penalty. Charles Woodson had a chance for an interception on another play. The Packers just missed a sack that would have run out the clock. But the thing that frustrated me the most was Dom Capers' decision to rush only 3 or 4 players on most of the plays of the drive. I can see the arguments on the other side - the Steelers had moved the ball up and down the field all day, including (at the point the drive started) over 400 yards passing. So, in that sense, what the Packers had been doing on defense was not working, why not try something else, basically the old "prevent defense?"

But I would argue that the prevent defense is the worst decision you could possibly make. If the Packers have had trouble stopping Roethlisberger's passing game all day, why would you think it would improve your chances if you only rush 3 or 4, letting Roethlisberger have as much time as he needs on most plays? Sure, you have more players dropping back in coverage, but it is a truism that if you give a quality quarterback enough time, eventually someone will get open. I am not arguing for an all-out blitz on every play, but I am arguing that you need to put some pressure on in the hopes of disrupting the passing game. Otherwise, if you give the quarterback enough time, and if there are enough seconds left on the clock, they will just methodically move down the field and score. Which is exactly what happened.

The defense was so essential in some of those games that made up the five-game winning streak. But the defense let the team down yesterday, both generally (no turnovers, way too many yards and points given up) and especially on that last drive. The lessons I take away from this game are:
  1. Something has to be done about the Mason Crosby problem before he loses another game for us. Whether it is just a mental thing with him right now is not clear, but he is not performing at an acceptable level. (See here for the ugly details on his slump.)
  2. No more prevent defenses in protecting a lead of 8 points or less. Ever.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bears Swept Away by Packers

The Packers certainly still have some things to clean up in the remaining three weeks. But still, they completed a sweep of the Bears on Sunday, with the Bears hanging on to slim playoff hopes as they went into the game. This is the sixth season with Lovie Smith as the head coach of the Bears, and interestingly enough, this is the first time in those six years that the Packers have swept the Bears. When he was hired, he famously said that his first goal was to beat the Green Bay Packers, and he has done a pretty good job of that, until this year.

The Packers looked pretty good on offense in the first couple of drives (it is hard to look bad on a 62 yard, 1 play touchdown drive), but the offense started to sputter soon enough. Jennings dropped what looked like a touchdown pass on the second drive, and Rodgers misfired on 3rd and 7 on the next one. So instead of what could easily have been a 21-0 lead, the Packers were ahead only by the score of 13-0 instead.

But no matter. The defense played another solid, even dominant, game, and thanks to that effort, the Packers won their fifth game in a row. True, the Bears did go ahead in the third quarter, by the score of 14-13, so the Packers could easily have lost this game. In fact, I don't think there is any doubt that they would have lost this game last year. But now, and thanks largely to the strength of the defense, they have the ability to re-group, score some more points, and put the game away. That is what they did in the 4th quarter against the Bears, just as they did last Monday night against the Ravens.

Dom Capers again deserves credit for the creativity of his defensive game plans. First of all, you have to love any defense that has an alignment known as the Psycho Defense. I'm sure the players themselves love the defense, just because of the name. But seriously, a 1-5-5 defensive alignment? What a great way to deal with the fact that there were so many injuries on the defensive line, so that Capers wasn't really sure who he would have available at game time. And it was very successful when it was used, most likely by confusing Jay Cutler so that he did not know where the rush was coming from, and which players were covering the receivers.

The Packers are now in an excellent spot to make the playoffs as a wild card. They probably will make the playoffs with one more victory, and will definitely make it with two. I am sure we can all remember years where the Packers had to win all their games, plus three out of five games (or whatever) had to go a particular way for the Packers to make the playoffs. The problem is, things don't always go as planned. Would many of us have predicted that the 49ers would beat the Cardinals tonight? Or that the Raiders would beat the Steelers last week? It is hard enough to get your own games right, without having to rely on some other team. So I like the fact that the Packers can get this done all by themselves, starting this week in Pittsburgh.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Four Games to Go

Watching the second half of the Packers' Monday Night win against the Ravens was like torture for this Packer fan. The first half had started off very slowly, with lots of dropped passes and even more penalty flags. But as the half went on, the Packers started looking a little more like themselves on offense, and even scored a big touchdown right before the half, to make the score 17-0.

And then, right on schedule, came the second half, with a definite "here we go again" feel to it. Donald Driver's fumble led to one Ravens touchdown, and when the Packers got the ball back, Rodgers' pass took a weird bounce off of Driver's leg, and was intercepted. One long pass later (complete with an obligatory pass interference call against Tramon Williams) and it was first and goal at the one yard line. Two plays later and the score was 17-14. On the very next drive, despite passes being dropped all over the field, the Packers still managed to get in easy field goal range, but a dropped snap led to a missed field goal.

After a terrible series for the Ravens, the Packers got the ball back again, and drove quickly for a touchdown to take a 10 point lead. But then another special teams letdown allowed a long kickoff return, which would have gone for a touchdown but for Tramon Williams running the returner down from behind. Following this great play, Tramon Williams was called (again) for pass interference in the end zone, and it was again first and goal at the one. On first down, Charles Woodson reacted to the handoff by charging into the Ravens' backfield and tripping up the runner at the three. This was critical because it resulted in the Ravens throwing the ball on second down. Not just any pass, mind you, but the dreaded rainbow all the way from the right sideline more than half way across the field. The ball was intercepted by (who else?) Tramon Williams, meaning that Williams had made two of the biggest plays of the game, to go along with his pair of end-zone interference penalties.

As nerve-wracking as it was watching parts of the second half, on balance I am really happy with the way the game went. Let's face it, the offense or the defense will occasionally have an off day. The special teams have off days more regularly. That is going to to happen - the question is, how does the rest of the team react? In this case, the offense really looked out of synch for most of the first half, and for parts of the second half. Rodgers made bad throws on quite a few passes, and receivers repeatedly dropped what looked like catchable balls. But the defense was dominant throughout the game, with a performance that was marred only by the plethora of penalty flags. There was even a redemptive quality to the defensive performance (vaguely reminiscent of Ryan Grant's redemption in the 2007 season playoff game against the Seahawks), in that Tramon Williams made those two, essentially win-preserving plays, despite being called for the big pass interference penalties.

Looking back on the last four games, something has happened to turn things around, especially on defense. I was very critical of the defensive game-plans earlier in the year, especially in the Vikings games. I thought that the Packers were not aggressive enough on defense, and that as a result they just let Favre carve them up. Well, something has changed. Maybe Dom Capers has realized the error of his ways, and started calling the defense more aggressively. More likely, Capers realized that it was going to take some time for his players to really internalize his new defense, and so he called the games more cautiously until he was sure the players were ready for a more aggressive game-plan. And that time seems to have come in the past four weeks. Whatever the case, Capers certainly deserves credit for the improved play of the defense. And the result is that the defense is playing well enough to keep the Packers in the game, even if the offense is mis-firing, and even if the special teams give up some big plays. That is a good feeling.

Now, with four games to go, the Packers have only one home game left, but at least they only have one game against a team with a winning record (the Cardinals). None of these games are "gimmes" (if a team that lost to the Buccaneers can ever consider a game to be a gimme). The other three opponents have records of 5-7 or 6-7, so they obviously are capable of winning a game. So a dominating defense, and a more consistent offense, would be a great way to spend the rest of the regular season.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Three Game Streak on the Line

The Thanksgiving day game certainly did not start off with a bang for the Packers. First, Jordy Nelson fumbled the opening kickoff which, with the help of a roughing the quarterback penalty, led to a Lions' touchdown. Then the Packers had a sustained and impressive drive, but which ended in a missed field goal. Then the Lions drove into Packer territory quickly on the next drive. "Oh, no" (or some more colorful expression), Packer fans everywhere must have wondered, is it going to be one of those days? But Nick Collins' athletic interception at the sideline ended that drive, and it was almost all Packers for the rest of the game, which ended in a 34-12 final score. I almost forgot to mention the fantastic game Donald Driver had. Driver had 7 catches for 142 yards (including two long bombs) and a touchdown. Good enough to merit the Golden Turkey award (or whatever they call it) at the end of the game.

So the Packers go into the Monday night game against the Ravens as the proud owners of a 3-game winning streak. The timing could not be better. This leaves the Packers with a 7-4 record, with 5 games to go, which means that, almost no matter what happens, they will be in contention for a wild card spot into the last couple of weeks of the season. There is no cause to get too carried away. This 3-game streak is made up of one win against a good team (the Cowboys), another against a mediocre but improving team (the 49ers) and one against a bad, banged up team (the Lions). Still, despite my quibbles about easing up in the 4th quarter of games, the Packers were impressive in all three games and had leads of 17 to 22 points in the 4th quarter of each game.

The Baltimore Ravens will undoubtedly be a tougher opponent than the Lions. In the last three weeks, they crushed the Browns, almost upset the undefeated Colts, and beat the Steelers (who were without Roethlisberger). Three things lead me to predict a Packer victory. First, the Packers have been making a much more concerted effort to have a balanced offensive game plan, which will serve them well against a tough defense like the Ravens. Second, even though the Packers still lead the league in sacks given up, they have improved dramatically in the last three games, partly because of a more balanced game plan, and partly because Rodgers has done a better job of getting rid of the ball. Finally, while the Packers were hurt badly by the loss of Aaron Kampman and Al Harris, their replacements played well against the Lions and then got 11 days to get ready for their next game.

Now, if we could just arrange for the Vikings to lose to the Cardinals, and for the Packers to beat the Ravens, it would be a heck of a good football weekend.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Steve Hayes on Old-Man Injuries

Well, I realize that I haven't written anything yet on the Lions game last Thursday, or on the upcoming Monday-nighter. I will try to get to that over the weekend. But this is just too rich not to share. Fellow Packer blogger Steve Hayes, of the Weekly Standard, Fox News, and the Packer Geeks blog, has written an article on "Old-Man Injuries" that struck home with me. As I commented at his blog, if you think it is bad now (I think he is about 38 years old), just wait.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Quick Turnaround for Thanksgiving Game

When the Packers played the 49ers yesterday, they started off by playing probably the best half of football they have played all year, leading the 49ers 23-3 at halftime. Then, they almost let the game get away from them, and ended up winning by the score of 30-24, prevailing only by grinding out three first downs to run out the clock. That was the way it felt while watching the game, and as happy as I was to see some more aggressiveness, on offense and defense, in the first half, I was disappointed to see the "play it safe" attitude that almost lost the game in the second half.

In the first half, the Packers finally seemed to absorb some of the things that us armchair quarterbacks think we see so clearly while sitting in our dens watching the games. On offense, there was a good balance of running and passing plays, and maybe just as important, the play calls were unpredictable. There was a series made up entirely of passes, ending with the 64 yard touchdown pass to Jennings. There were other series with multiple running plays strung together. There was continuing, welcome emphasis on plays that take some of the heat off of Aaron Rodgers, through screen passes, quick-release passes, and play-action passes. And, let's face it, the offense just played a better, more consistent game than it has in the past. Rodgers seems more conscious of getting rid of the ball before the pass-rushers converge, the offensive line played better, the return of Jermichael Finley at tight end made a difference, and Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson had productive days at running back. On the defensive side, Dom Capers continued to unleash more of those pressure tactics that kept Tony Romo off-balance last week, to similar effect.

And then the Packers almost blew it in the second half. But after watching the game a second time, I am far less critical of the offensive and defensive calls in the second half than I was during and immediately after the game. In the first place, the Packers actually continued to be aggressive on both sides of the ball throughout the third quarter and into the early fourth quarter. With 11 minutes left in the game, the Packers had just put the heat on Alex Smith, passing from his own end zone, resulting in an interception by Nick Collins, leading to a short touchdown drive that put the score at 30-10. It was really only at that point that the Packers seemed to back off, on both sides, and play it safe to protect the lead and finish the game. The truth is that it would have taken a perfect storm of events for the 49ers to come back and win the game. The fact that it came close enough to happening to make ever Packer fan cringe does not change the fact that it was an extremely long shot throughout those scary 11 minutes.

One of the interesting NFL story lines of the past week has been the post-mortem on Patriots Coach Bill Belichick's going for it on 4th down in his own territory to try to run out the clock. The attempt failed, and the Colts drove for the winning touchdown. Watching it at the time, I thought Belichick was nuts to go for it. Or more precisely, I thought that there was no way they would actually run the play, and that if they did, then he must be nuts. That is pretty much where things stood until the Sunday morning shows yesterday, when I heard for the first time the argument that Belichick had made the right decision, even if it was unsuccessful. (For an example of the analysis leading to that conclusion, see this article.) I am open to this kind of argument, and have even made the same sort of argument before, in connection with some of the 4th down calls in the Packers' playoff loss to the Eagles in January, 2004 (see here).

Returning to the 49ers game, I am prepared to believe that, leading by 20 with 11 minutes to go, the chances of winning the game (high in any event) are improved somewhat by playing it safe on both sides of the ball. I am not claiming this is true, just saying that I could easily see it being true. So I am withholding criticism on this point. Admittedly, it feels better as a fan to watch your team continue to bring the hammer down until the closing gun, rather than coasting along. But I am no longer convinced that it was a bad strategy to play it safer in the game yesterday.

Now the Packers have only three days to get ready for the Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit. And to make matters worse, the Packers have to figure out how to deal with the fact that both Aaron Kampman and Al Harris had season-ending injuries yesterday. This is really terrible news. I know that there has been discussion about whether Aaron Kampman was like a fish out of water in the new defense. But when used properly, he is still a force on the defensive side of the ball. And even if there is room for argument about how much the loss of Kampman will mean, there really is no argument about the loss of Al Harris. With Al Harris on one side and Charles Woodson on the other, the Packers had (I think) the best pair of cornerbacks currently playing in the league. With one of them missing, the defense will suffer. So it is up to the backups to step up their game, and up to Dom Capers to come up with schemes to try to maximize the strengths the Packers still have on defense.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Great Win Over The Cowboys

Last Sunday's Packer victory against the Cowboys (even though I did not predict it) represented about two-thirds of what I hoped for and expected from the Packers this year. A dominant, aggressive defense controlling the game, combined with a special teams unit at least good enough not to cause problems for the team. The third that was not quite there was of course the offense. I was looking for an offense powerful enough to grind it out whenever that is needed, with a combination of the running game and the short passing game, and explosive enough to put the fear of the big play in the mind of the opposing defense.

When the defense comes within a garbage-time touchdown of shutting out a team like the Cowboys, that is news. I have complained, several times this year, about the "play-it-safe" defensive strategy. I wanted to see more aggressiveness, putting the opposing quarterback back on his heels, not knowing where the next rush is coming from. Now, obviously, every time you devote more players to rushing the quarterback, you take the chance of giving up a big play. And yet, in the Vikings games in particular, the opposite philosophy led to the quarterback being way too comfortable in the pocket, and able to pick the Packers to pieces. So I was very anxious to see the Packers put more pressure on, and that is exactly what they did on Sunday.

Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com says it all: "Capers Brings the Heat." I'm glad somebody at ESPN keeps track of these stats, so the rest of us don't have to: in the first 8 games, the Packers devoted 5 or more players to rushing the QB on 40.6% of the snaps. On Sunday: 51.3%. The result was what one would hope for: the Packers sacked Romo 5 times, more than three times their average per game of 1.6. Now let's face it, the Cowboys didn't play very well on offense. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Packers' defense helped to bring about that result. Romo, at this point qualifying as a veteran quarterback, looked confused and harassed all throughout the game. Charles Woodson, of course, had an amazing game, and was rewarded by being named NFC Defensive Player of the week. What with the two forced fumbles, the interception, and the sack, this is probably the sort of game Woodson was thinking of when he said, after the first Vikings loss, that the Packers have a lot of tools in the bag that they were not using.

In the lead-up to the 49ers game this week, the local SF Bay Area media are focusing, more than on any other thing, on the connection between Aaron Rodgers and 49er quarterback Alex Smith, going back to draft day in 2005. (For example, here: "49ers' Alex Smith, Packers' Aaron Rodgers Forever Linked.") My wife heard the same basic story line on KGO radio, which used to carry the 49er games. The consensus seems to be that Rodgers was lucky to be Favre's understudy for three years. By contrast, Smith was the starter for half of 2005 and 2007, all of 2006, none of 2008, and then half of this year. This is the first regular-season meeting of the two quarterbacks, although they both played in a stinker of a game in San Francisco last year (written up here).

There is a lot of history in this match-up of the Packers and 49ers, most of it in the Brett Favre era. A lot of coaching connections, too, going back to the time when the Packers hired Mike Holmgren off of the 49ers staff, and including the 49ers hiring ex-Packer assistant Steve Mariucci, and even including the Packers hiring Mike McCarthy away from the 49ers, after he was one of those at the 49ers who decided not to draft Aaron Rodgers. Brett Favre had an uncanny mastery over the 49ers, playing 11 games, and losing only in the "Terrell Owens game." This will be Aaron Rodgers first chance (in a game that counts) to show that he can keep it going.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Packers / Cowboys Thanksgiving 1994

This afternoon, I flipped over to the NFL Network to see what was on, and what do you know, it was the replay of the Thanksgiving day game from 1994, Packers at Cowboys (a/k/a the "Jason Garrett game"). I turned it on late, so I missed the Packers' first touchdown (a Sterling Sharpe touchdown reception), but caught the rest of the game, which I have not seen in a long time.

It was odd watching the game. Well into the third quarter, the Packers seemed in control of the game. And yet I was almost positive that the Packers would lose the game, because of my awareness of the Packers' record at Dallas during the Favre era, and because of the very fact that I remember this game as the "Jason Garrett game." It was an early manifestation of a troubling problem the Packers had over the years, where a star player of the other team would be out with injuries, and the Packers would make the backup look like a Hall-of-Famer (in this case, Troy Aikman was out, and Jason Garrett played at quarterback for the Cowboys). I later started calling this the Brad Hoover Syndrome.

Anyway, a couple of other observations from this 15-year-old game:
  • I was reminded what a stud Sterling Sharpe was. Even though the Packers lost, Sharpe was just killing the Cowboys, catching four touchdowns in the game. 1994 was his last year as a player before retiring due to his congenital neck problem. Imagine if he had been able to play for another 5 or 10 years, which would not be unusual for a wide receiver. Is there any doubt that the Packers would have won more than one Super Bowl in that period?
  • The broadcasters were, of course, John Madden and Pat Summerall. My mental impression was that Summerall had deteriorated as a broadcaster in the last few years before he retired, for the first time, after the 2001 season. But boy, he was pretty bad already in this game in 1994. Misidentifying players, saying inane things, mostly just piping in with something like "yes, it is" with his big broadcaster voice after Madden would make some mildly interesting comment.
Anyway, I am hoping for a better result tomorrow (but not expecting it).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fire Mike McCarthy?

"Shameful" says the Packer Report. "Ugly from any Angle" is how it was described in the Journal-Sentinel. The Press-Gazette calls it the low point in Mike McCarthy's career. Mike McCarthy himself says, "It doesn't feel good. This one definitely hurt. I'm disappointed in the way we played. We have some recurring problems that we have not cleaned up yet." These are just a few of the reactions to the Packers' loss to the previously winless Buccaneers last Sunday, a game that featured 6 more sacks for Aaron Rodgers, and three unanswered touchdowns in the 4th quarter by the Buccaneers.

Yes, indeed there are recurring problems. Stupid penalties. Too many sacks. Play-calling that seems to ignore the sack problems, rather than trying to avoid sacks. Poor special teams play. Unbalanced game plans.

Let's just focus on the sacks for a moment. On Monday, Mike McCarthy said, "We don't need wholesale change. We may need to adjust some things and that will be our focus. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I have all the answers, but I'm very confident in the issues that we've had in pass protection, that they are correctable." Would it be inelegant for me to suggest that it is time to start fixing the problem, if it is correctable, rather than talking every week about how the problem is correctable and needs to be cleaned up?

It pains me to say this, because I like Mike McCarthy, but I think he needs to be fired unless the Packers pull together a winning record in the second half of the season. The team as a whole may not be as good as some of us thought it was, and certainly some of the individual players are sub-par, either because of their skill level and/or because of injuries. Some of that reflects on Ted Thompson, some of it reflects on the individual players, and some of it is just bad luck. So Mike McCarthy is by no means the only problem. But when you look at the continuing problems he talks about every week, he bears some responsibility for a lot of them:
  • Unbalanced offensive game plans.
  • The failure to call plays that minimize the prospects for taking sacks.
  • The tendency I have noted to play it safe on defense, rather than to play aggressively.
  • Inadequate team discipline, leading to a rash of stupid (and sometimes critically important) penalties.
I do not get the impression that the players are terrified of coming back to the sidelines after committing a stupid penalty, in the way they certainly would have been under, for example, Mike Holmgren.

If there was any doubt that things are getting out of control in Titletown, consider the latest ridiculous story to hit the news. It seems that a 22-year part-time member of the Lambeau Field maintenance crew was fired before the Vikings game after, in one version, calling out to the coach to get the boys ready to "kick some butt" this weekend, or in the other version, saying something along the lines of "don't lay an egg" in the game. Here is a suggestion: if McCarthy and the Packers want to show that they are tough guys, next time a player commits a stupid penalty, kick him out of the game, rather than taking it out on part-time maintenance workers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Wanted: Accountability

One of the problems involved in waiting five days to write about a game is that sometimes the real world rises up in the interim to remind us that, after all, football is just a game. And that, of course, is just what happened this week with the massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas. Fortunately, the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides for the death penalty (18 U.S.C. § 1111) and I hope it is used, swiftly. May the memories of those killed be as blessings to their family and friends.

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The reason I waited so long was that I wanted to take another look at the game to see if it confirmed my initial impressions. Boy, did it ever. The biggest problem with this game was that the Packers' defense put very little pressure on Favre. Beyond this weakness on defense, the Vikings' offensive game plan was smarter than the Packers' offensive game plan, in a couple of respects.

First, the Vikings relied heavily on the running game to take pressure off Favre. Obviously, given the nature of the Packers' running game, and the differences between Adrian Peterson on one hand and Ryan Grant on the other, the Packers did not have the luxury of being able to place the same amount of emphasis on the running game.

Second, the Vikings were smarter in mixing in a heavier dose of quick-release passes by Favre. This allowed the Vikings to counteract the Packers' emphasis on stopping the running game, while still protecting Favre by getting the ball out of his hands quickly. The Packers could have done the same thing, and they did occasionally, but usually when Rodgers went back to pass, it was with a full drop-back, where, in too many instances, he held the ball too long and was sacked.

The irony is that the Vikings didn't really need the quick-release passes to protect Favre, because even when he did a full drop-back, the Packers rarely tried to put any pressure on him. And, as a result, he carved them up. I complained about the same thing after the first Vikings game (here). In fairness, the Packers probably did blitz a little more this time, without much success. But I still think the Packers did not do enough in their defensive scheme to put pressure on Favre.

I can't help but ask for some accountability by the coaching staff. From my perspective, they made many of the same mistakes in this loss that they made four weeks earlier. We would like to think that the coaches learned something from the first meeting with the Vikings, as well as from watching the tapes of the Vikings' loss to the Steelers. But I just don't see the evidence that they learned much, if anything, from those games. And speaking of accountability, how many more times do we have to listen to Mike McCarthy talk about eliminating the stupid penalties before we conclude that he is either not serious about this, or not effective as a coach, or both? The Johnny Jolly head-butting penalty probably did not make the difference between winning and losing this game. But it is one of the dumbest penalties I have ever seen.

Finally, as a sidelight on the game itself, I want to point out three interesting articles I have seen in the past week, all of which shed additional light on the dysfunction that led to the Packers trading Favre away last year. Two of the articles are by Andrew Brandt, former Packer Vice-President. In the first one, Brandt explains why, in his view, Favre retired in the first place - basically because he perceived (correctly or not) that Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson were indifferent to whether he retired or continued to play. (First Brandt article.) From the article itself, it appears that Ted Thompson probably forced Brandt out of his position, so take the articles with whatever grains of salt seem justified. In the second article, Brandt picks up on Troy Aikman's comment, during the game broadcast, to the effect that maybe Favre never wanted to play for the Packers after his brief retirement last year. He lays out in some detail why this comment makes him think that this is something Favre must have said directly to Aikman. (Second Brandt article.) The last article is by the writers of the Packer Geeks blog (Stephen and Andrew Hayes). In this article, the Hayes brothers argue, with references to some of the things said at the time, that Favre was less than truthful in some of his public statements made during the retirement/unretirement saga. (Hayes brothers article.) All three of these articles are essential reading.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tune-Up for Next Week

When the opening kickoff by the Packers bounced off the end zone pylon, giving the Browns the ball at the 40 yard line, I was concerned that this might be a sign of bad things to come. When a flag on the second play at first looked like it might be a phantom pass interference call against Al Harris, I worried some more. But it turned out it was a very proper offensive pass interference call against Massaquoi, and from that moment on it seemed like there was very little to worry about in this game.

From the first time that the Packers had the ball, it was apparent that they were working on changing their approach to the running game. The Packers have had seasons where the running game was strong enough to carry the offensive load. Up until yesterday, there was no reason to think that this would be one of those seasons. It probably still is not destined to be one of those seasons, but the difference yesterday is that the Packers clearly had decided to make a strong commitment to the running game. When is the last time you can remember the Packers starting out the game with 10 of the first 11 plays being runs? The stats of the game tell the same story. The Packers had as many first downs by rushing as by passing. They had more net rushing yards (202) than they have had in any game this year. The closest they have had to this total was in the Rams game, where they had 152. In the other four games, they never had more than 107.

This is welcome, on a number of fronts. It is getting to the time of year when it is more important for an outdoor team like the Packers to have a running game. It is a great time for Ryan Grant to start looking like the Ryan Grant of a couple of years ago. It gives the receivers a better chance to make a play, when the defenders have to worry more about the running game. Most importantly, it gives Aaron Rodgers a better chance of avoiding getting killed back there. It is surely not just a coincidence that Rodgers was not sacked a single time in the game.

The game itself was fun to watch. The 71-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver was my favorite play. The 34-year-old was in a footrace to the end zone, and it was clear that the defensive back was faster than Driver. But Driver used a combination of a stiff-arm, and a changed angle to the end zone, to stay just enough in front to score the touchdown. Driver found Packer fans in the first row to greet, and then Rodgers came over and tossed a ball into the stands.

But despite all the positive developments in this game, there are still reasons for concern. The cavalcade of penalties continued, with the Packers racking up 8 of them in this game. And the red zone difficulties have not gone away, either. It took the Packers 6 plays from inside the 5 yard line to score the touchdown toward the end of the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the Brett Favre magic peeled away, just a bit, in the Vikings game at Pittsburgh yesterday. I have been waiting all year for one of those games where the Vikings lose, and it is at least arguably attributable to a Brett Favre mistake. Yesterday doesn't quite fit that mold, but it comes close. Favre had the ball knocked out as he was back to pass, and the ball was returned for a touchdown. But hey, that could happen to anybody. And then the Vikings returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, which effectively eliminated any benefit from the fumble return. Then, Favre had a ball intercepted and returned for a touchdown, to seal the victory for the Vikings. But the ball was tipped, so again, it is hard to really pin it on Favre. For now, this will have to do. But this past weekend's games can't help but improve the confidence of the Packers, and remove the aura of invincibility around Favre.

Bring on Favre and the Vikings. We have been waiting for this game all season. We know Favre has been waiting for it. And what a surprise to learn that Favre's family reserved rooms in Green Bay for this weekend, a couple of months before he un-retired and joined the Vikings (see here).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review of the Lions Game

This was one of those weeks where I read about the game before actually seeing most of it.  I was out of town on Sunday, and was really only able to catch about a quarter's worth of the game live in a sports bar in Providence, RI, after it was pretty well in hand.  So when I saw the game last night, I already knew the outcome, as well as the fact that the conventional wisdom was that the Packers had played pretty unimpressively for a team that notched a 26-0 shutout.  I knew that Rodgers had been sacked 5 times (and the Packers lead the league in sacks given up), that penalties against the Packers were out of control, reminiscent of a Raiders game (the Packers are second in the league in penalties), that this shutout was achieved against the Lions, a pretty bad team, and one missing its two biggest name starters, QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson.

Long-time readers will know that the fact that Stafford and Johnson were out gave me no great pleasure in the lead-up to the game.  I have previously written about what I call the Brad Hoover Syndrome (the Packers' incredibly irritating tendency to make back-up players look like hall-of-famers), so if anything, the fact that the Lions would be starting backups at key positions made me nervous.

Having now seen the game, the conventional wisdom is right, in my view.  The penalties, in particular, are ridiculous, and it implicates the coaching staff.  Sure, penalties are part of the game.  You can't eliminate them entirely.  I get all that.  But the problem is, when the head coach says that they are part of the game (as McCarthy did in his Monday press conference), I am afraid that the message that comes through to the players is that it is not good, but hey, it is not that bad either.  Wouldn't it be better for the player to be afraid to come back to the sideline after committing a penalty, as Leroy Butler says he was when playing for Mike Holmgren?

I saw some improvement in some areas.  I noticed a few more roll-outs, screen passes and pump fakes, all of which would help deal with the pass rush, given the problems on the offensive line.  Speaking of screen passes, shouldn't the Packers be great at screen passes, since they seem to let the rushers through even when they are not trying to do so?  I still saw some instances where Rodgers held on to the ball too long, so that is clearly an area where he needs to continue to improve.  I did like his presence of mind to throw the long ball on an obvious offsides call in the first drive, resulting in the long TD to James Jones.  

There has also been a lot of talk about letting Aaron Kampman be a pass rusher again, with his hand in the dirt, as the announcers were so fond of saying on Sunday.  Well, he got a few more chances to rush the passer, with favorable results.  So maybe the coaches are paying at least some attention to the criticism out there.  

Where do we go from here?  The Packers get one more "exhibition" game against the Browns on Sunday, before the re-match with the Vikings.  In fairness, with the Packers there are no exhibition games, so they should not take the Browns lightly.  My wife pointed out that on local TV in the SF Bay Area last week, they showed a clip of Eagles' coach Andy Reid, talking about the upcoming game with the Raiders.  He said that they know what the Raiders' record is (1-4 at the time), but that they have seen the films and know how explosive they can be.  At this point they cut back to the sports guys, laughing at their desk, saying they don't know what films he is watching.  The Raiders, of course, went on to beat the Eagles, 13-9.  The Packers should take a lesson from this.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Pressure Needed on Defense

As a Packer fan and a Brett Favre critic, last Monday night's game 30-23 loss to Brett Favre and the Vikings was about as discouraging as it gets. Aaron Rodgers was harassed and hit all night long, taking 8 sacks including a safety and a fumble, as well as an interception. He had lots of yards, but only two touchdowns, and he was battling from behind since late in the second quarter.

On the other side of the ball, Brett Favre was never sacked, rarely hurried, had no interceptions, and threw for three touchdowns. And all this in a game in which the Packers did a pretty good job shutting down Adrian Peterson.

So what gives? Obviously the two most glaring problems were the Packers' offensive line, and the fact that the Packers got no pressure on Brett Favre. The line is a problem, but one that may be on its way to improvement. According to the Packer Report, the week 1 line will be back intact this week against Detroit. This means that Chad Clifton will return at left tackle, and all the others who have shifted over will return to their original positions. Plus, the Packers signed Mark Tauscher. If he is healthy enough to contribute, he should provide extra depth at OT.

Other things that would help would include Rodgers doing a better job of getting rid of the ball (some of those sacks were attributable at least as much to Rodgers as to the shaky offensive line), and better play calling. Given a shaky line, it would be nice to see more roll-out plays and screen passes to take some of the pressure off. The Packers tried some of these, without a lot of success, but they should do this more.

The lack of pressure on Favre is another story. You would think that the Packers would have a lot of familiarity with Favre's strengths and weaknesses. Did the coaching staff just miss the fact that, for all his strengths, he does tend to make big mistakes when he is getting a lot of pressure? Not likely. When a guy like Charles Woodson makes note of the fact that something was missing from the defensive game plan, something must be going on. He was quoted in the Journal-Sentinel as saying "Well, I think we've got a lot of tools in our bag that we're not using. For whatever that reason is, I don't know."

Re-watching the game confirms that the Packers rarely tried to bring much pressure on Favre. Why? It makes no sense. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the only reason I can think of is that they didn't want to take big risks with the resulting big downside. If they blitzed Favre, he might hit the home-run bomb, which would look really good on the highlight reels for Favre, and really bad for the Packers. So if they were unwilling to have Favre beat them with flashy big plays, then what? I guess they were content to try to stop the run, drop into coverage, and let Favre dink and dunk them to death, in the hope that he might make mistakes anyway, despite the lack of pressure. Well, he dinked and dunked them, and didn't make the mistakes, and won the game. If this was the plan, they need a better one come November 1.

One of the side-effects of locating and formatting all of my old articles is that I am re-living some of the great and not-so-great memories of past games. A recurring theme is soft coverage in critical situations. There are other examples, but the most egregious one was the 4th and 26 situation against Philadelphia in the playoffs. I am afraid that the Monday night Vikings game fits into the same category.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Archives Done for Now

Update October 13, 2009:

Scott, the owner of the South End Zone web site, has sent me the text of all of my old columns, so I have more archiving to do. There were apparently 102 of them on the SEZ site. I have added a few already, but there still must be at least 30 of them that I have not posted here yet. I will try to finish that up by next week some time.


After searching email files on 3 computers, I found lots of my old South End Zone articles and a couple of posts of interest (probably only to me) that pre-dated my South End Zone columns. I only have 3 articles from 1999, none from 2000, and only 1 from 2001, so there are obvious holes in my archives, and those were interesting times. I wish I could find them. I will check around with the owner of South End Zone and maybe with a few friends to see if I can rustle up any of the missing articles, but otherwise I am done with the archiving and will concentrate on new postings. One is currently in the works.

Going through old email files, it struck me that blogging is, fundamentally, a self-indulgent exercise, probably more so than writing a regular column. With a regular column, you write it, some people read it at the time, and then it goes down the memory hole and you move on to the next article. But now that I am a blogger, more or less, the format is different, and the assumption is that everything gets preserved. I will apply labels to the posts or articles, so you can look up (if you are so inclined) any older articles I wrote that focused on Bob Harlan, or on the Seahawks, or other teams. So the whole body of my blog entries will be on display and somewhat readily searchable.

Having spent this time searching for copies of old articles about games that happened long ago, the question naturally arises: who cares if I can find some old article from the 1990's? Almost nobody is going to spend time reading them now, except for me. But even if these old articles are of very little interest to anyone else, they have some sentimental value to me.

I came up with everything from a 1995 recollection of Brett Favre's first extensive action with the Packers in 1992 (here), my first article for the South End Zone in 1997 (here), and my rant about franchise free agency (here). Other personal favorites include my report on the game that signaled to me that the Packers really were contenders, the playoff game against the 49ers after the 1995 season (here), my recollections when Ray Nitschke died (here), and the column I dedicated to my Dad the week he died (here). So feel free to read some of these if they are of interest. I will try to blog regularly enough to have some continuity.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Note on Archives

This blog was set up on September 27, 2009. As you may know, I was a columnist for the South End Zone for a number of years, until SEZ discontinued columns this year. I knew I had some of my old columns on my computer, but I also assumed that most of my old columns were gone. Last night, I started to look for them, and I was pleased to find that lots of them are on one or the other of my computers. They go back to the very earliest South End Zone column I wrote, in 1997. I also have some slightly older items, before I wrote for South End Zone, that I wrote when I participated actively in the old PackFans listserv, long since moved to Yahoo Groups.

It takes a while to cut & paste these, fix formatting glitches, and get them set up on this blog, so it will be awhile before I finish the process. But I am putting up the first batch of 19 old columns today, with dates adjusted so that they match the dates of the original columns.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Favre Hit Hard on FOX News

Worth repeating, from panelist Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, on today's FOX News program, Special Report with Bret Baier.

Hayes: Well, speaking of tawdry behavior and betrayal, Brett Favre will be playing on Monday night wearing a Minnesota Vikings uniform. It is appalling and it is, I think, the worst possible outcome of his two-year long betrayal of Green Bay Packers fans, peppered with lies, peppered with mis-statements, and now he is going to be playing for the enemy.

Charles Krauthammer: He might be worse than Roman Polanski.

Hayes: He might be, if you are a Packer fan. If you grew up in Wauwatosa, he might be worse.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Favre Week Number 1

So much for making any progress in the NFC North standings this week. While the Packers finally started to look like themselves after the first few series against the Rams, and were closing in on their victory yesterday, I was also watching the 49ers and Vikings on another TV. Wouldn’t you know it, the old Favre magic against the 49ers was in evidence, with the old man connecting on a last second touchdown pass to beat the 49ers. Sort of a mirror-image of the old Terrell Owens game so many years ago in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, although I was paying no attention to it at the time, the Lions were in the process of wrapping up their first win in over a year. And in the afternoon, the Bears managed to win a back and forth battle against the Seahawks. Which, unfortunately, leaves the Packers exactly where they started the day. Tied with the Bears for second place, a game behind the Vikings, a game ahead of the Lions.

So the week 4 visit to Minnesota should be interesting. We will be seeing a lot of Favre highlights on the sports shows this week. The local papers here on the west coast are full of the thought that "Yes, Brett Favre did it once more to the 49ers." While I have been and remain highly critical of Favre for his retirement/non-retirement dramas the last two years, I have to admit that his mastery of the 49ers was always one of the best things about him, at least for me, living in the SF Bay Area. Of course in yesterday's game, it was a little different. I always root for the Vikings to lose, for obvious reasons. And I always root for the 49ers to lose, just because a 49er loss brings me pleasure. In this case, I had to root for the 49ers, for NFC North divisional reasons.

In light of the Vikings' come-from behind victory, the pressure is on the Packers. Yes, it is early in the season. Sure, they get another crack at the Vikings in another month. But the Packers can ill afford to fall two games behind the Vikings this early. The fact that they gave up so many rushing yards to the Rams is not a good sign, since the Vikings have an even better running back in their lineup. But given that the Packers' offense started to come alive yesterday, there is some reason to hope for a good result.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I'm Baaaack

There might be a few people out there who remember my periodic articles on the South End Zone web site. I posted articles there for a number of years, and enjoyed doing it. The problem was that my articles were way too irregular and infrequent. When the owner of the web site re-designed his web site, he decided to eliminate my columns (along with the columns of several others who had not posted in years). I can't blame him for that. And so I found myself out on the street, at least as a Packer pundit.

I thought I would not miss the opportunity to comment on Packer games, but three weeks into the season, I find that I do. So here I am, back and ready to roll.

To the extent I can retrieve some of my old articles, and figure out how to do it, I may re-post them here. In the meantime, I will start adding new ones as the mood strikes me.