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.