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 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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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.