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!

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