Monday, December 27, 2010

Most Complete Game of the Year?

The Packers turned in one of their best performances of the year in beating the Giants, 45-17. This came despite the fact that the Giants had almost as much at stake as the Packers, and despite the fact that the Giants, presumably, came in with chips on their shoulders after last week's epic collapse against the Eagles. In fact, it was the Packers, and in particular, the offensive line, that played like they had chips on their shoulders. Mike Vandermause, of the Green Bay Press-Gazette argues that this is because everybody was talking about the Giants, and how fearsome their defense was. The Packers' offensive line just used all the talk as motivation to go out and pass protect and run block as if the whole season depended on it. Which it did.

Meanwhile, the Packers' defense might have had some chips on their shoulders as well. Only the Steelers have given up fewer points than the Packers, and the Packers' defense ranks in the top 10 in almost all categories, and in the top 5 in many. Plus, they are ball hawks, as top playmakers Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews showed today. Woodson and Matthews both single-handedly forced turnovers in the game by punching balls out from behind. Hawk, Collins, and Williams added legitimate interceptions, while Sam Shields added another that should have been overturned, but for the fact that Giants coach Tom Coughlin had used his last challenge in a desperate, but futile, attempt to overturn the fumble caused by Clay Matthews.

I would argue that this was in fact the Packers' best game of the year. The only games I could see being argued to be better were the road game against the Vikings, and the home game against the Cowboys. There is no doubt that those games were satisfying, on a number of levels, but they still fall short of this one. First, the Vikings and the Cowboys did not turn out to be very good this year, while the Giants were in the driver's seat for the same wild card the Packers are seeking. Second, the domination in this game was more complete on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It wouldn't be a 2010 Packer game without some moments of discomfort, and indeed when the Giants recovered Jordy Nelson's fumble and immediately tied the game at 14, with an 85 yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham, I did start to fidget a bit in my seat.

But taken as a whole, it is hard to argue with the offensive domination when Rodgers throws for 404 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, when both Nelson and Jennings get over 100 yards receiving, Driver makes some highlight-reel catches, and when the Packers cobble together a good semblance of a running game between Jackson, Nance, and Kuuuuuuhn. On the defensive side, the 6 takeaways mentioned above, plus 4 sacks, and the dynamic duo of Bradshaw and Jacobs being held to less than 100 yards combined? Yes, that is a good day. Now if only we had a quality kick returner, and a kicker who can kick the ball somewhere closer to the end zone on a kickoff, we would be the real deal!

In all seriousness, this is a great time to be pulling it all together, if that is really what the Packers are doing. This is two really good performances in a row against high quality opponents. I think the key to the whole thing is smart play-calling by McCarthy and execution by the players. One thing that I noticed even while watching the game live was the increased emphasis on protection for Rodgers. On almost every play there was at least one player, and in many cases two, lined up in the backfield for extra protection. In fact, in re-watching the game, I think there were only two empty backfield plays in the whole game. Plus, Rodgers seemed more conscious of getting rid of the ball quickly when under pressure. That is partly a result of designing the plays with an outlet receiver, but I assume that there have been outlet receivers all year. My perception is that he was more conscious yesterday of going to the outlet to avoid a sack. And on Rodgers' two running plays, he slid on one and went out of bounds on the other. That was smart.

On defense, Dom Capers obviously felt that they could control the Giants' offense without going blitz-crazy. So he picked his spots for blitzes, and relied on three and four-man rushes most of the time to create enough pressure to hurry Manning just enough. In the process, he left enough players in coverage to give the Packers a good shot at defending every pass. In reality, if Charles Woodson had not slipped on the one touchdown pass, and if Tramon Williams had not mis-timed his leap on the other, this game might have been even more lopsided than it was.

The Bears come to town next week, for the second consecutive playoff-type game for the Packers. The Bears will most likely be going for the second seed in the playoffs and the resulting bye week, but even if they are not, they will not mimic the Colts and other teams over the last few years, by resting their starters. Lovie Smith, when he was hired in 2004, stated that he had three goals, the first of which was to beat the Packers. So I fully expect they will be bringing it on Sunday, no matter the situation. I have thought all year long that the Packers are a better team than the Bears. We will see on Sunday. Interestingly enough, if the Packers do make it into the playoffs, there is an excellent chance they will face the Bears again the following week.

Monday, December 20, 2010

New England Heartbreaker

What a disheartening loss last night to the Patriots, 31-27. I admit that I did not give the Packers any chance in this game, which reflects poorly on me, I suppose. But for them to lead the Patriots for much of the game, and have a shot at winning in the final minute, but not to be able to pull it off, was painful to watch.

"Heartbreaking" was the word used independently by both my wife and my daughter to describe the game. We had to start watching this game after it was already going on for about 2 hours, so it was over by the time we were still watching the second quarter. That is a terrible way to watch a game, especially one like this. I was getting text messages from Dick Karth, from my daughter, and from my cousin during the game. Then my daughter and my in-laws called within minutes after the end of the game. All of these messages and calls were ignored, but it was pretty clear to me that something remarkable was going on - either a disaster or a miracle. I was holding out hope for the miracle until the final play.

This morning I got some interesting comments on the game from my old college buddy Dick Karth, before I got around to even starting a game review of my own. I agree with most of Dick's comments, and disagree with others. So I am making Dick the honorary guest columnist of the week. His comments (with very slight editing) are in italics, with my own comments interspersed in regular font. Sort of a point-counterpoint.
In keeping with some of my comments [sent to me by Dick during the game], I was liking what I saw as the game progressed. The opening kickoff surprised New England and their coach. It allowed the GBP to take first blood. Brilliant!
Or, as a family member put it, "I didn't know the Packers were that ballsy." Packer blogger Jersey Al used the same colorful term.
The team played solid ball (pretty much on both offense and defense) through much of the game. There were some dropped balls on both the Packer offense and defense that should have been caught, which would have turn the game into a rout. But nonetheless, in spite of those lapses, the Packers were always in the game.
The drops were just killing me. Nobody is a bigger Charles Woodson fan than I am. 95 times out of a hundred he doesn't drop that interception. I could not believe that he dropped it last night. There were other dropped balls, including by Sam Shields and Jordy Nelson. Sorry, guys, this was a big game. You just have to make those plays.
I think that Flynn did an excellent job in his first real game and against an outstanding team. He was poised. Sure the INT for a TD is a pass he wishes he had back, and might not throw that again in his career. Chris Collinsworth made an interesting comment about a pass Flynn threw to the goal line at the left sideline. Chris said that you can throw that kind of a pass in college ball, even a National Championship game, but you CANNOT throw that kind of a pass in the National Football League! If Flynn learns from those mistakes and is effectively coached while watching the tape, he has a bright future in the NFL.
Collinsworth was right. That particular pass was a mistake, and so were the two interceptions [correction - only one official interception - the other one was called back on a penalty]. But we learned something about Matt Flynn last night - if it comes to it, he can play and give us a chance to win. I don't know why I should be so surprised. Going back to the beginning of the Favre - Holmgren era, we have pretty much always had coaches with great skills developing quarterbacks on the staff, and as a result we have pretty much always had capable backup quarterbacks (even, though, ironically, the last time a backup quarterback started for the Packers before last night was more than 18 years ago).
Then things started to unwind. If I were an NFL GM, I would have a rule ... that if a team or player sets an NFL record against me that is derogatory towards my team, then I'm going to fire the responsible coach. No questions asked. To have the longest return play in NFL history by an offensive lineman be executed against your SPECIAL TEAMS is inexcusable. It would have been bad enough for an offensive lineman to have picked up his own team's fumble on a bumbled running play on a 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1 and to have lumbered (and I stress LUMBERED) 71 yards ... but on a kick-off?
Well, agreed, sort of. We do have recurring problems on special teams, and any neutral observer would have to think seriously about replacing the special teams coach, Shawn Slocum. Having said that, I don't agree with the idea of an automatic rule that says the coach is fired, immediately, if A, B, or C.
The final drive. A fraternity intra-mural team would have looked better out there. When you're playing one of the best team's in the league and you're expected to lose by almost two touchdowns, you know the only way you're likely to win the game is on a drive in the closing two minutes with one or no time outs left.

First, 13 to 15 seconds (two plays?) were squandered after plays ended before the timeout was called. Inexcusable. As the plays ended, the QB and the offensive leaders not directly involved in the play should be looking to the sidelines for time out calling direction. Were they? Or was there indecision on the sidelines? (Would not have surprised me!)

Second. Either the team goes on 60 second drill autopilot with audibles ... or two or three or four plays should be called during the T/O's. Neither apparently happened.
Look. They moved down the field in the final minutes and had a chance to win the game. My biggest criticism of the final drive is clock management. I have often been critical of McCarthy on matters of clock management. From his press conference, ironically, it appears that McCarthy had the right thinking in mind on this drive. That is, he wanted to use up time during the drive so that, if the Packers scored, there would be little time for Brady to work with. That is the right thing to do, so it seems harsh to be too critical. They overdid it, as it turned out, and they certainly wasted time they wish they would have had to play with at the end. But in this instance they were actually trying to do the right thing.
So ... in the end ... while I got excited at times during the game ... I again didn't like what I saw last night.
I guess I was happier with what I saw than Dick was. I did not give the Packers a chance in this game, and they proved me wrong and almost won the game.
The GBP were picked by smart football people at the beginning of the year to be in the Super Bowl. I can see why the smart people picked them for that. They have talent, depth, and they can play well.
More depth than I could possibly have imagined back in September.
But ... they not only almost upset New England (and could have turned it into a rout), they handed the best 2 and 10 or 3 and 10 team in the history of the NFL a four point victory that should have been a Packer victory.

On a brighter note ... this is a team that could back its way into the play-offs, into the Super Bowl, and bring the next Lombardi trophy to Green Bay as one of the few teams with NO home field play-off games during the play-offs ... if they don't beat themselves.

Apparently they don't want to win the Super Bowl the smart and easy way through the front door ... they appear to me to want to win it the dumb and hard way, through the back door.
Well, stranger things have probably happened. And I will obviously be rooting for it. But I don't see the Packers making it to the Super Bowl this year. Might they have done so without the avalanche of injuries? Hard to say, but it sure would help to have Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, Mark Tauscher and 9 other players around to help out. I have been amazed by the Packers' ability to stay in contention with all these injuries. I argued before the season started that the 2010 Packers were not at the level of the 1996 Packers. If that was right, then it stands to reason that the end of season 2010 Packers are not even close.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pre-Game Good News

So I was sitting here minding my own business, watching football, when I saw the miraculously impressive come-from-way-behind victory of the Eagles over the Giants, followed in short order by the new powerhouse Lions beating the Buccaneers in overtime. It had seemed to me that it was best for the Eagles to beat the Giants, since we need either the Giants or the Eagles to lose two games, and, given that the Packers play the Giants next week, we are in a better position to ensure that the Giants lose two games than the Eagles.

Bear in mind I was and am assuming that the Packers lose tonight to New England. But when both the Buccaneers and Giants lost, it seemed to me that this has to improve the Packers' chances. So I went over to the ESPN Playoff Machine and started playing out scenarios for the remaining games. To my surprise, in every scenario where the Packers beat the Giants and Bears, the Packers end up in the playoffs. Just as I was wondering if this could possibly be right, the Green Bay Press-Gazette confirmed that it is. So, even assuming that the Packers lose tonight, they have regained control of their playoff destiny. Not bad for a day sitting around watching other games.

Now, it is obvious that with the Packers' injuries, beating the Giants and the Bears could be a tall order. But at least they now have something I did not expect after last week's loss, an unimpeded path to the playoffs.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Perfect Opportunity. Squandered.

I started writing this while watching the Patriots administering a real beat-down to the Bears. Right. The same beat-down that, when paired with a Packer victory, would pull the Packers back into a tie with the Bears. Whoops!

How many times have we seen something like this? Last year it was the loss to the previously-winless Buccaneers. I wrote about it here. I am aware that almost every team, some time during the year, loses a game that they should win. The Packers are not unique in their vulnerability to bad teams. Heck, the Patriots lost to the Browns this year. But in fairness, the Browns are an up and coming team, now struggling at 5-8. The 3-10 Lions, with more players on Injured Reserve than the Packers, and playing their third-string quarterback yesterday, are not in the same category. Nor were the 0-7 Buccaneers last year when the Packers lost to them.

So, even if the Packers are not uniquely vulnerable, it seems more predictable than with other good teams that they will screw up a game like this at least once every year. I just can't let Mike McCarthy off the hook anymore. Periodically, I feel that he is finally starting to get it in his play calling. Yesterday was not one of those days. From too much emphasis on the non-existent running game, to too much emphasis on long passes when underneath passes were available, to the idiotic play calls on the final drive (running plays on a final, must-score-a-TD drive; long pass on 4th and 1), this was not an impressive effort. I am losing confidence in McCarthy's ability to learn from past mistakes.

Another way to look at this is that, this year at least, the Packers have lost three games to teams with worse records when either Rodgers or Matthews did not play or did not finish the game. Baranczyk and Christl make this point in the Press-Gazette today. This is, perhaps, the flip side of the positive notion that the Packers have done a great job of winning a lot of games despite the devastating impact of all the injuries. That is true in general, but they seem to have a hard time dealing with the absence of their biggest stars. You could point to any number of teams who have not fallen victim to this problem - from the Vikings winning last week behind Tarvaris Jackson, to the Lions beating the Packers yesterday with their third-string quarterback.

Amazingly, the Packers could still win the NFC North, but now it will take some help from our old friends, the Chicago Bears. They looked pretty bad yesterday, but I think that was more about the New England Patriots than it was about the Chicago Bears. As Packer Blogger Jersey Al put it, the Patriots are "executing teams like cold-blooded killers." Oh, great, the Packers face New England next week.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

49er Game Review

Watching the 49er game, I was uncomfortable, as were others in my group of family and friends (judging from Facebook and text messages during the first half). It was another slow start, and the halftime score was only 14-13, Packers. Could this essential game slip away from us? But the Packers poured it on in the second half, and the final score was 34-16, Packers, so the concern was somewhat misplaced.

In hindsight, it is possible to see that the Packers were never in much real trouble. Both of the 49ers' first half field goals resulted, essentially, from a single long pass completion, after which the Packers' defense held. The 49ers' only touchdown resulted from a single, 66-yard touchdown pass, with a missed tackle playing a big part. Obviously, it would be better if these three long pass completions never took place, but you can't shut out every team every game.

I was far more interested to see if the Packers would be able to adjust things defensively at halftime, and to see how the Packers approached their own offensive game plan. I found things to be pleased with in both areas. On halftime adjustments, in the second half, the 49ers' longest pass completion for 20 yards, while they had three of 25 yards and over in the first half. In the first half, the 49ers completed 45% of their passes for 125 net yards. In the second half, they completed 36% of their passes, for 47 net yards passing.

The SF Bay Area media and sports talk radio were all over Coach Singletary yesterday, for not being able to make any halftime adjustments, unlike the Packers, and for being disconnected from the offensive and defensive game-calling, doing too much delegating and not having enough hands-on involvement. The 49er coaching staff was also criticized for having coached the playmaking ability out of QB Troy Smith, "turning him into Alex Smith." Left unspoken was the frequent refrain around here, that they could have had Aaron Rodgers, instead of Alex Smith. And speaking of Alex Smith, the 49ers announced today that they will start Alex Smith, not Troy Smith, this week against the Seahawks. (Singletary, at this writing, keeps his own job.)

I also saw good things in the Packers' offensive game plan. True, it was not as effective in the first half as in the second, but I still saw improvement. In the first place, the Packers seemed to finally recognize that their strength on offense is in the passing game. In the first few series, there was heavy emphasis on short passes, with runs being the exception, rather than the rule. Starting later in the first half and in the second half, the running game became more prominent, presumably because the 49ers were focussed so much on stopping the passing game. This is exactly what I have been looking for, using the passing game to open up the running game, rather than the other way around. Second, it looks like James Starks is going to be a big plus for the running game. He seems to have a better feel for the running game than does Brandon Jackson, although Jackson remains an excellent pass receiver.

The point is that the addition of Starks to the running back rotation opens up some additional options for the Packers, since the running game was not very successful before. While they only scored 14 points in the first half, this was because of a doinked field goal on the first drive, a disruptive sack on the second drive, and a sack and a pass bouncing off a defensive back's helmet on the third drive. The Packers were taking the right approach on offense, it just didn't pay off in those first three drives.

Between the improved offensive game plan and the halftime adjustments on defense, the result, as I heard it said on SF sports talk radio yesterday, was that the Packers administered a beating to the 49ers both ways, some on quick strike touchdowns and some on sustained drives.

The 1929 uniforms don't seem to have made a very good impression on anyone. One radio guy said maybe it is finally time to get rid of throwback uniforms, after seeing the Packers' uniforms this week. Here is Peter King's take on the 1929 uniforms:
Where'd you get those uniforms, Packers? Costco? And the helmets that looked like round FTD fall-bouquet vases? Without a question, those are the worst throwbacks I've seen, and there have been a lot of bad ones.
The Packers must have decided that they are never using these uniforms again, as they are selling off the game-worn uniforms at the Packer Pro Shop starting today.

With four games left, the pressure to win every game is intense. The only "easy" game is this week, at the Lions. It is very arguable that the Lions are much better than their 2-10 record, and indeed the Lions gave the Packers a hard time at Lambeau Field, and they came close to upsetting the Bears this week. None of that matters. With the Patriots, Giants and Bears coming up, there can be no excuse for not coming away with a victory at Detroit.

Steve Mariucci, on the NFL Network, predicted that the Packers and Bears will both be 10-5 going into the final week, when Chicago comes to Lambeau Field. He predicts that the Packers will win that game and the division. So let's look at the schedule. The Bears play the Patriots at home, then the Vikings in the dome, then the Jets at home, and then at the Packers. If the Bears are going to be 10-5, they need to lose 2 of the next 3 games. I don't know how the coach figured it, although I could see the Bears losing any or all of those games. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that they upset the Jets, but lose to the Patriots and Vikings. For the Packers to be 10-5, they need to win 2 of the next 3. At Lions, at Patriots, and the Giants at home. I assume that Mariucci thinks the Packers will lose to the Patriots, and win the other two. Everybody knows that the coach grew up as a Packer fan. So his predictions are almost as suspect as mine. But I think he is probably right on this. After watching the relentlessness of the Patriots last night against the Jets, the Patriots are certainly the remaining team I consider most likely to beat the Packers. If so, and if the Packers win the other two games, then that Bears at Packers game will be monumental. I assume the league will flex it so it ends up as the Sunday night game, the final game of the 2010 regular season, with the NFC North Division winner, and quite possibly a playoff bye, on the line.

Friday, December 3, 2010

49ers Coming to Lambeau Field

(Photos are from
I think it is the helmets, more so than the jerseys, that are going to be hard for me to get used to when the Packers wear them on Sunday. The jerseys look strange to me, much less like Packer jerseys than any of the other alternate jerseys that have been used over the years. But the helmets don't look anything like any Packer helmet I can relate to. The idea is that the plain brown helmets sort of simulate the old leather helmets worn in the early years of the league, but they still look more like Cleveland Browns helmets that got baked too long. Not to mention that brown helmets don't go with blue jerseys. Would you wear brown shoes with a blue suit?

Having lived in the SF Bay Area for 30 years, a Packers-49ers game is always special to me. Back in the pre-NFL Sunday Ticket days, it was special because I knew the game would always be on TV. Since then, it has still been special just because I have never been shy about being a Packer fan, so there is always some pre-game ribbing to be had about this game. Or there was, more so before the Packers established an enviable record of domination over the 49ers. The Packers have won 12 out of the last 13 games against the 49ers in the regular season or in the playoffs, the sole exception being the "Terrell Owens Game" in the playoffs after the 1998 season. The last time the Packers lost to the 49ers in Wisconsin was in 1990. Aaron Rodgers kept the tradition going last year by beating the 49ers, 30-24 at Lambeau Field.

The 49ers have had a weird 2010, to say the least. They are 4-7 going into the game at Green Bay, but that doesn't begin to tell the story. They have lost lopsided games to the Seahawks, the Chiefs, and the Buccaneers, and they had a blowout win of their own last week against the Cardinals. They came close to pulling off upsets against the Saints, the Eagles, and the Falcons, but in each case they fell short. All of their games this year have been started by quarterbacks named Smith. The first 7 games were started by Alex Smith, the guy the 49ers picked over Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Their record was 1-6. The last 4 games were started by Troy Smith, and their record with Troy Smith at QB is 3-1. Whether Troy Smith is the Smith of the future for the 49ers, or just enjoying a temporary blip, remains to be seen.

Head Coach Mike Singletary seemed to be in a lot of jeopardy after starting the season at 1-6. He must be helping keep his chances of coaching the 49ers next year by winning 3 of the last 4 games. At 4-7, the 49ers are one game out of first place in the pathetic NFC West, and could well end up in the playoffs if they keep winning. Time for the Packers to put a stop to that nonsense.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Little Things

It's the little things that kill you in a game like the Packers had this week against the Falcons (the Falcons won 20-17 with a field goal in the final seconds). Well, make that the little things plus one gigantic thing - the total absence of a running game. We have known about that problem pretty much ever since Ryan Grant was injured in Week One. I have come to the conclusion that the Packers are not approaching the lack of a running game the right way. More about that later.

For the second time this year, the Packers' hype has gotten way ahead of their performance on the field. Before the season, they were favored by many to go to the Super Bowl, and after they started the season 2-0, that didn't seem out of the question. When they lost three of the next four games as a cascade of injuries started to take effect, Packer fans' expectations came back down to earth. Then, when they went on their four game win streak, including a couple of blowouts, the hype started to return. Just last week, Peter King made the case that the Packers are the best team in the league. That changed today, as the Packers have dropped to no. 4, but with the comment that they have an excellent chance to return to the Georgia Dome for the NFC Championship game. One of the talking heads on one of the pregame shows Sunday said that the Packers are the best team in the NFC right now. Best team in the NFC? I am having trouble making the case that they are the best team in the NFC North. I am not yet in Jim Mora territory with this team, but I am getting closer.

The little things I have in mind include:
  • The return of the penalty bug. They didn't set any record for penalties this time, but just had enough of them (8), and at inopportune times, to cause some real problems.
  • Regression on special teams. While the special teams seemed to be getting better for a couple of games, yesterday they were not impressive. They gave up too many yards on Falcons kick returns, they didn't get much yardage on Packer kick returns, and they committed too many penalties on special teams plays.
  • Questionable play calling in short yardage situations. Just take goal line plays. The Packers had 6 plays during the game inside the Atlanta 5 yard line. Four of those plays were runs. One run by Nance (no gain) and three runs by Rodgers, resulting in a 1 yard gain, a disastrous fumble recovered by the Falcons, and a 1 yard TD run on a quarterback draw by Rodgers.
  • Poor decisions on challenges. For a couple of weeks there, Mike McCarthy was on a roll on challenges. But not against the Falcons. The costly one was the non-catch by Gonzalez on 4th down, that led to the touchdown by the Falcons at the end of the first half. I accept that in the other team's stadium, you don't always get a quick look, and that McCarthy got word from upstairs too late. But the Packers had two timeouts left in the half, and it was obviously a pivotal play. McCarthy and/or the people upstairs need to make a quicker decision here. Worst case, it costs them a timeout that, as it turns out, they did not need anyway.
The gigantic problem the Packers have is the lack of a running game. Rodgers was the leading Packer rusher yesterday, and that was not a good thing. Brandon Jackson has had exactly one 100 yard game this year, against Washington, and that was after ripping off a 71 yard run on his first carry in the game. So he got another 44 yards the rest of the game. In my view, the only time the Packers' running game has been even slightly effective (setting aside Rodgers' scrambles) has been late in games when the opposing team has been burned one too many times by the Packers' passing game. At that point, in desperately trying to avoid another pass completion, some run opportunities have opened up. Yet the Packers persist, game after game, in trying to establish a running game early in games, mostly without success. This almost always leads to a slow start by the Packer offense. This was true to some extent yesterday against the Falcons, and it was also true to some extent against the Vikings the week before.

In principle, I support the idea of trying to establish the running game. Some semblance of a balanced offense is obviously a good thing, and it helps to keep the quarterback upright and the defense off-balance. But the pattern I see developing with the Packers has three phases. In Phase I, they start off the game trying to establish the running game, which does not work, with the result that the Packers start off slowly, and frequently find themselves in a hole. Then in Phase II, they abandon the running game and go with a passing play on practically every down. They are usually much more successful in this second phase. Finally in Phase III, after the success engendered by the pass-on-every-down philosophy, the Packers find that the opposing defense is so concerned about the pass that the running game becomes more effective.

I could be nuts to make this suggestion, but if the three-phase pattern mentioned above is correct, then wouldn't the Packers be better off skipping Phase I and starting with Phase II? If they came out passing on every down (sure, mixing in some play-action passes, screen passes, roll-out passes where the defenders don't know if Rodgers will pass or run), does it not stand to reason that they would get off to a better start, probably get ahead in the game, and get to Phase III where the running game opens up, that much earlier? That is my thought, anyway.

It is not a shocking development for the Packers to lose by a field goal, on the road, to a team that came in at 8-2. Nevertheless, this loss has large implications. They now find themselves at 7-4, looking up at 3 NFC teams with better records - the Bears at 8-3 in the division, and the 9-2 Falcons and the 8-3 Saints in the NFC South. They have also dropped out of a playoff spot based on this week's games (the wild cards would currently go to the Saints and Giants). I still think that the Packers can win the division, although in fairness the Bears have not been playing down to my level of expectations for them, so who knows? While lots of strange things can happen, just looking at the records of the playoff contenders and their remaining opponents, I don't see much chance that the Packers can end up with the no. 1 seed in the playoffs. They might have a better shot at the no. 2 seed, but it will probably depend on tiebreakers that are too speculative to calculate now with 5 weeks left.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Singletary Better Watch Out"*

After being blown out by the Green Bay Packers, with the Metrodome becoming more and more like a Packer home crowd as the Vikings fans left early, the Vikings fired Head Coach Brad Childress on Monday morning. This is the second game in a row where the opposing coach has been fired after being blown out by the Packers.

The Packers (7-3) visit the Falcons (8-2) this week. I don't know what could possibly happen in that game that could result in Falcons Coach Mike Smith being fired the next day, so I think he can rest easy. But the week after that, the 3-7 49ers visit the Packers, and Coach Mike Singletary might have a little more to worry about. * Or, as Scott Clendening put it, "Singletary better watch out."

For a game that ended in a blowout bad enough to be the final straw leading to the firing of the coach, how come I was so uncomfortable for the first quarter and a half of the game? Well, that is the sort of thing that happens when you gain a total of 15 yards on offense in the first 18 minutes of the game. The Packers' defense played a great game from the first snap, a run for no gain by Adrian Peterson. It is very obvious that Dom Capers' defensive game plan was to put lots of pressure on Favre, and to never let him get comfortable. Lots of players jumping around on defense, extra rushers coming from different directions on different plays. On the first couple of series, the Packers brought extra rushers, or at least had people jumping around creating confusion about who was rushing, on almost every play. On the second drive, the Vikings were able to string together three big plays to get close enough for a field goal, their only points in the game, but other than that drive, and the one that ended with Tramon Williams' interception just before the half, the defense was in complete control.

The offense was a different story. As noted, the game was 18 minutes old before the Packers could gain more than 15 yards (as it happened, they quadrupled their offensive yardage on one play, the 47 yard pass to Jennings). The Packers only scored a field goal to tie up the game on that drive, and we all know that you can't afford to have a close game against Favre. There is just too much risk of the old Favre magic returning, as it almost did in the first game this year at Lambeau Field.

The Packers went on to score 14 more points before halftime, and 14 more points in the second half. From about the midpoint of the second quarter, it was all Packers on both sides of the ball. From my point of view, the best thing about the way this game unfolded was the fact that the Packers kept their foot on the gas until there were 10 minutes left in the game, and the Packers were ahead by 28 points. I have seen too many instances of easing up with a lead, and letting the lead get away. We need more "killer instinct," and in this case the Packers had it.

In looking back at the slow start on offense, there is no single thing that explains the ineffectiveness, unlike other games where Rodgers just seemed off, or where there were multiple instances of miscommunication between Rodgers and the receivers. Against the Vikings, the first drive was disrupted by pressure on third down, leading to a rushed and incomplete pass, the second drive was disrupted by two sacks, and the third drive was disrupted by a well-timed hit on third down, resulting in an incompletion.

The Packers' blowout of the Vikings was certainly an important win. It keeps the Packers tied with the Bears, it got them to the point where, "if the season ended now," the Packers would be in the playoffs, it increases the confidence that can only help as they face four tough games out of their last six, it evens the Favre game record at 2-2, and it effectively puts the Vikings out of contention this year. Fellow Packer Blogger Jersey Al call this game one of the top 5 most satisfying wins of the last decade.

In my review of the Cowboys game, I pointed out what a classy guy Charles Woodson is. It turns out his ex-teammate, Al Harris, is a classy guy, too. Would you believe that an athlete, in this era, and after being released by the Packers, would take out an ad in the paper to thank the Packer fans for their support? Believe it.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Theatre Review: Lombardi on Broadway

No Packer game to report on this week. The Bears and Vikings had an interesting little game yesterday, and the Vikings continued their road losing streak - now at 8 games. The Bears moved back into a tie with the Packers, although they have the tiebreaker advantage over the Packers as of right now. Lots to think about this week as the Packers prepare for what is almost certainly going to be their final game against the league's interception leader, Brett Favre.

That will have to wait for a later blog entry. Right now, I am going to play the part of theatre critic for the first, and quite possibly the only, time in the history of this blog, a review of the show Lombardi on Broadway. I have been a big fan of live theatre for a long time, almost as long as I have been a Packer fan. When I first heard that David Maraniss' book, When Pride Still Mattered, was going to be the basis of a Broadway show on the life of Vince Lombardi, I was a bit apprehensive. I started to read this book when it came out, and I found it a fascinating and richly-detailed biography, but I got busy at work and never finished it. (I pulled it off the bookshelf the other day and intend to finish it now.) It was the rich detail of it that made me wonder about a theatrical script based on this book. Vince Lombardi, in popular culture, has become something of a cartoon character, with his persona being defined mostly by the disputed quote: "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

So how do you reduce the richness and nuance of Lombardi's life to a short script, without turning him into a caricature? I should not have worried about it, as playwright Eric Simonson (who grew up in Wisconsin and had an uncle of the Packers' Board of Directors) did a great job of conveying the complexity of Vince Lombardi in a short script (the show only runs about 95 minutes, with no intermission). You get the essence of Vince Lombardi, as I remember him from my youth, from many years of seeing him on NFL Films, and from my (partial) reading of David Maraniss' book. But he comes across as a real person, flaws and all, and not as a cartoon. There is not always a lot of cross-over between the theatre world and the sports world, so it was not obvious that they would do a good job of this, and they are to be commended for having done so. To take a somewhat parallel example - how do you take a long, complex and dark novel like Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and turn it into a Broadway musical? Yet producer Cameron Mackintosh assembled a team of writers and composers who turned it into one of the most successful musicals of all time.

The NFL and the Packers have actively cooperated with the producers in putting on this show. The Packers brought in the cast and crew to visit Green Bay, to tour the Packer Hall of Fame, to spend time with Coach McCarthy, to attend practice, and even to have actor Dan Lauria sit at Vince Lombardi's desk. The NFL has helped to bring in NFL people to talk-back sessions after certain shows (we had punter Sean Landeta and broadcaster Bob Papa at the show we attended), and the NFL even has a Lombardi Trophy on display in the lobby for a short time, along with the other Packer and Lombardi memorabilia. Cheryl Nelson brought to my attention a story published about the large group of Packer front office people, directors, guests and travelling Packer fans who saw the show on the Saturday night before the Packers-Jets game in the Meadowlands.

There are six actors in the cast. They are all good, even if we had some small issues with the actors who played Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, and Dave Robinson. The other three were outstanding. Dan Lauria, best known for the TV series The Wonder Years, really looks the part of Lombardi, and his enthusiasm for the role is obvious, as is the fact that he is something of a natural for the part. He looks like Lombardi right down to the gap between his front teeth (which he admitted, in the talk-back session, is enhanced for the part by nail polish), and like Lombardi, he is of Italian heritage, raised in New York, he played high school and college football (as a linebacker), and was a high school football coach before concentrating on acting. Lauria plays Lombardi as driven, as you would expect, but also as a conflicted and complicated character, who deeply needs his wife Marie to soften his rough edges.

Judith Light, unknown to me but obviously known to many in the audience from various TV series including One Life to Live and Who's the Boss, plays Marie Lombardi and steals practically every scene in which she appears. I don't really remember Marie Lombardi at all, but what a fascinating portrayal of Coach Lombardi's better half. She was the quintessential New Yorker, out of place in small-town Wisconsin, with a bit of a drinking problem, a very wry sense of humor, a sharp tongue, and the only one who could really get through to the Coach at times. The players would come to her from time to time to get the Coach to lighten up. Lauria and Light's portrayal of the difficult but devoted marriage between the two gives us an insight into the couple that you will never get from NFL Films.

Finally, Keith Nobbs, also unknown to me, plays Michael McCormick, a fictional reporter for Look magazine, who spends a week with the Lombardis writing a story about the coach, and who serves, in effect, as the narrator of the play. The device of the narrator, to help make the story make sense, is artificial, of course. But he has the earnest young sports reporter character, a bit in awe of his subject, but enough of a reporter to try not to show it, down to a "T."

My wife and I are life-long Packer fans. We were of course predisposed to like this show. Maybe the better test of the quality of the show was our friend Bik Moy, a New York friend who frequently goes to Broadway shows with us when we are in New York. Bik claims not to have known Lombardi the coach from Lombardi's the pizzeria, which claims to be the first pizzeria in America. And yet she seemed to enjoy the show every bit as much as we did. I suppose that the show had a certain resonance and richness for us that it did not have for Bik. But she could enjoy the show as a biography of a fascinating historical figure, well written and well acted.

The show has received mostly favorable reviews, except in the New York Times. Interestingly, a number of the reviews make the same point made by our friend Bik's enjoyment of the show - that you don't need to be a fan of Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers, or even the sport of football to enjoy this show. Some of the good reviews were published by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Talkin' Broadway, and the New York Post.

Two final notes. I am on the traditional side as a theatre goer. I know you can go in flip-flops and a T-shirt, but it just seems wrong to me. But in the case of Lombardi, by all means wear your jersey. I did, and so did at least a couple of other people I noticed in the audience. See it while you can, the theatre business is a tough one, and there is no telling how long it will run.

And, on a related note, HBO has a new documentary on Lombardi's life. If you are on the invitation-only guest list, you can see it at Lambeau Field on November 18. The rest of us will have to wait until December 11 to see it on HBO. What is with all this interest in Vince Lombardi, 40 years after his death? More importantly, could it be some kind of omen of glory days to come?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Coach-Killing Packers

The reaction, during and after the Packers' Sunday Night dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys, was elation. The domination was complete on offense and defense, and only a bit more equivocal on special teams. Why the elation? The Packers came into the game at 5-3, and the Cowboys came in at 1-6. The game was in Green Bay, and the Packers were heavy favorites to win. So big deal, they won a game that they should win.

All of that is true, but there is a long history with the Cowboys. For some of us, the sting of seven straight losses to the Cowboys, all of them in Dallas, and three of them in the playoffs, still lingers (1991 to 1996). So just on that basis alone, this win was more satisfying than it should be, looking only at current season records. But beyond the history, there is also a sense of development in the way the team is playing. The Packers played well in beating the Vikings, but it was a close game and it easily could have gone either way. The defense played masterfully against the Jets, but the offense sputtered. And then finally, against the Cowboys, the Packers pretty much put it all together in a single game, and thus went into the bye week with what is probably the highest level of confidence they have had all year.

This is at least the third time this year that the Packers' opponents have made big changes after playing, and losing to, the Packers. In Week One, the Packers knocked Kevin Kolb out of the game, and he has mostly found himself as the backup quarterback for the Eagles ever since. In Week Two, the Packers did such a job on Bills starting QB Trent Edwards that the Bills cut him soon thereafter (he is now on the roster of the Jaguars). And then in this game, the Packers drove the final nail into the coffin of head coach Wade Phillips. Could another coaching change be in store after the Packers play the Vikings again after the bye week?

Meanwhile, on Monday the Packers released Al Harris, rather than activating him or putting him on injured reserve. I am sorry to see him go, and I am worried that this will turn out to be a mistake. He has already signed on with the Dolphins, and I wish him nothing but the very best of luck with them. He was a great asset to the Packers, and from everything I could tell, a class act. Until the emergence of Clay Matthews, I would have said that the two most irreplaceable Packer defensive players were Charles Woodson and Al Harris. Here is a link to a pleasant memory, the video of one of Harris' biggest plays (the game-winning overtime interception return against the Seahawks in the playoffs).

Because of Al Harris' release, when I watched the game again, I was paying particular attention to the play of the defensive backs, to try to get a better sense why the Packers felt confident enough of the other DBs to release Harris. Charles Woodson remains at or very near the top of his game. He is strong in coverage, a real playmaker on running plays, and even if his big-play production has fallen off a bit with the emergence of Clay Matthews, he is one of the best in creating interceptions, fumbles, and sacks. At age 34, he may not have a lot of years left, but right now you could not ask for more from your starting cornerback. (See my comments on his post-game interview below.)

The other starting cornerback is Tramon Williams. I was surprised, early in the year, to notice that Tramon Williams, more often than not, has been given the job of covering the no. 1 receiver of the opponents. This may in part be so that Woodson is freed up to blitz, or at least to leave a bigger question mark in the mind of the opposing QB. But it may also be that Dom Capers now considers Williams to be the top coverage DB on the team. If so, given Woodson's talent, that is quite a statement.

The rise of rookie free agent Sam Shields may really be the key to the Al Harris decision. You can't make too much of a single play like his unbelievable interception early in the Dallas game, but the truth is he has looked good when he has gotten a chance to play in the last three weeks. Having passed up more experienced cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood on the CB depth chart, the Packers obviously felt that this was the right time to let Al Harris catch on with another team.

After the game Sunday Night, Andrea Kremer interviewed Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson on the sideline. Ever since Woodson joined the Packers, I have liked him a lot. Hard not to like his play for the Packers, where he has been far more productive than he ever was for the Raiders. Then I learned of his charitable and community activities, and my respect for him grew even more. Heck, I would probably even like his wine if it wasn't way too expensive for my tastes. But in the post-game interview, I saw yet another side of Charles Woodson. He could not have been more gracious or deferential about his teammate Clay Matthews. He said he was just glad that Clay was sharing the spotlight with him, he called Matthews the "Claymaker" and singled out Matthews' blowing up the running play on 3rd and 1 early in the game. When Kremer asked Woodson about Woodson's ability to make big plays, Woodson explained that it was because he was rushing from the same side as Matthews (and therefore the blockers' pre-occupation with Matthews freed up Woodson to make the play). At that point Kremer called Woodson the head of the Clay Matthews PR department. As good a year as Woodson himself is having, it is obvious that Clay Matthews is involved in more of the high-impact plays this year, and recognizing that fact, Woodson is doing everything he can to promote his teammate for defensive MVP. A very good guy, and we are lucky to have him on our team.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Beware of Cowboys Bearing Gifts

When Cowboys Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett brings his team onto the field at Lambeau Field tonight, I wonder if he will think of another nationally televised Cowboys-Packers game, 16 years ago on Thanksgiving. Yes, I speak of the "Jason Garrett Game." I did not write about the game at the time, as I had not yet started writing these articles/posts, but I wrote about it last year, when I saw a replay of the game on the NFL Network.

In a nutshell, in 1994 the Packers were going for their second straight playoff berth, after going to the playoffs the prior year, beating the Lions, and then losing to Dallas. As they struggled to keep their heads above water in 1994, they caught a huge break (or so it seemed) when Troy Aikman was injured and unavailable for the Thanksgiving day game against the Cowboys. The backup QB, Jason Garrett, played, and of course the Packers lost. And oh, by the way, the Packers did make the playoffs that year, where they again beat the Lions, and then again lost to the Cowboys.

So if it seems that the Packers are getting a gift, in that they are facing a banged-up Cowboy squad, I don't see a gift, I just see a potential trap game. The Packers, struggling as they are, managed to get past the part of the schedule where they lost 3 out of 4 games. They then managed to string together an emotional, hugely important win against the Vikings, and then put on an impressive defensive performance against the Jets, so all it will take is another win against the Cowboys to let the Packers go into the bye week with a 3 game win streak, a 6-3 record, and first place in the division.

Speaking of the Jets game, it was a great win, but an almost unwatchable game for a neutral observer. There are games that are just great defensive struggles, but this was not one of them. There were great individual defensive plays (like the interceptions and the Clay Mattews sack in the closing minutes), but overall the story line of this game was more about mis-fired passes, dropped balls, and turnovers. It reminded me a bit of an overtime Monday night game against the Buccaneers in 1983, when both teams struggled on offense, scoring nothing but field goals, and as I recall it, the game went on and on into overtime before finally the Packers kicked another field goal to win it, 12-9. That game, at least as I remember it, was even more unwatchable than the Jets game.

The Packers obviously know how important this Sunday night game is, and they are not playing well enough to be in a position to take anybody lightly. I think they will avoid the trap, win the game handily, and get a welcome break to get some players healthier before continuing the season in a couple of weeks.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Huge Win Against Vikings

Just last week, I was making my familiar complaint about not putting pressure on the quarterback. In big games last year, the Packers seemed to mostly sit in coverage, allowing elite quarterbacks to carve them up. They lost all the games in which they did this. In the Redskins game, they did it again, and lost to Donovan McNabb and the Redskins. In fairness, the Packers were without this year's defensive MVP, Clay Matthews III, so Dom Capers had more limited options.

When it began to look like Matthews would be back against the Vikings, I wondered if the Packers would learn from last year's debacles against the Vikings, and put more pressure on Favre. Yes, they certainly did. I was at the game (more on that below), so I wanted to get a chance to watch the game again before commenting on this. But the reality is that there is a strong correlation between pressure on Favre and good things happening for the Packers. Take a look at the game highlights (on, here). Favre had one touchdown and three interceptions. On the touchdown, the pass is a quick one, but there is no extra pressure visible in the highlight. On the three interceptions, extra Packer rushers were either in Favre's personal space or on the way. This is not a mere coincidence.

There are no magic bullets in football. If you blitz on every play, good quarterbacks and offensive coordinators can find ways to beat you. My only argument is that without a judicious use of extra pressure on the quarterback, a team like the Packers is not good enough to beat an elite quarterback. With judicious blitzing, they have a fighting chance.

I had not originally planned to go to this game. We were going to be visiting our son on the East Coast, and getting to Green Bay on the way back to California would be complicated, since we were occupied in Providence on Saturday night. (While on the East Coast, we took a side trip to New York to see Lombardi on Broadway, a couple of nights before its official opening. I will report on that when I get a chance.) Our daughter (who lives in Chicago) encouraged me to stop back through Chicago and go to the game with her. In order to make that happen, I ended up getting four hours of sleep on Saturday night, and four hours of sleep again on Sunday night after driving back to Chicago. But what a great experience to be in Green Bay for this game. We got there in time to have dinner with old friends Laura and Mike at Curly's Pub in the atrium. Mike has always been a Packer fan, despite his Chicago upbringing, and Laura, a U.P. native, really should be a Packer fan, but for some reason roots for the Vikings. At least she had the discretion not to wear any of that purple stuff in the stadium.

In re-watching the game this week, I found that the TV broadcast did not come close to conveying the atmosphere in the stadium. Sure, you could hear the cheering and the booing, you could see the signs, you could see that people in the stands were excited, but that would be true of any game at Lambeau Field. But in the stands, the atmosphere was positively electric. The intensity was something that I can only associate with a playoff game.

This was obviously a huge win for the Packers. Whether they can keep the momentum going against the Jets, now one of the best teams in the league, remains to be seen. But at least they are in a position now to continue to contend for one of the top spots in the NFC.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Two More Losses, Vikings on the Way

A combination of travel and disappointment with two discouraging losses in a row have kept me from writing anything until now. It is a lot more fun writing about a game when there is something positive to talk about. But when the team loses two overtime games in a row, having had opportunities to win both games, it is a little harder.

Things can happen in any game. A player drops a pass he should have caught, a ball is stripped out at the worst possible moment, the ball slips out of the quarterback's hand. "That's why they play the games," as Chris Berman likes to say. But at a certain point, those things become a pattern, or at least suggest that there is some kind of a problem. And I think there is a problem. The most obvious problem is the injuries, but everyone has injuries during the year. And even though the Packers have had more than their share this year, it is no excuse for the way they are playing. Take our division rivals, the Bears. They lost their starting quarterback for a game a couple of weeks ago. Their backup quarterback, the very far over the hill Todd Collins, played poorly. He threw for a total of 32 yards, with no touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Not exactly the kind of stats that will usually lead to a victory. But the Bears won, by the score of 23-6. Matt Forte, the kicker (Robbie Gould) and the Bears defense made that happen.

No, I think the real problem is not injuries, but coaching. We are seeing repeated coaching mistakes: not putting pressure on the quarterback, not throwing the ball near the goal line, bad clock management, and lack of discipline leading to too many penalties.

One of my complaints last year was that the Packers seemed to hang back in coverage against elite quarterbacks, like Favre, Roethlisberger, and Kurt Warner. My feeling was that the Packers (either McCarthy or Capers) wanted to avoid looking bad on long pass plays resulting from the elite quarterback beating the blitz. But the result was less spectacular but just as bad: these quarterbacks picked the Packers apart when given the time to sit in the pocket and wait for the open receiver. Last week, against the Dolphins and without Clay Matthews, I saw the Packers doing the same thing. There was no pressure on the quarterback, and McNabb had plenty of time to pass. Coaches study game tapes. All they have to do is look at the tapes of the games against the Vikings last year to realize that the sit back in coverage strategy was not working. So try something else.

The only thing keeping the Packers in contention right now is the fact that there is no dominant team in the NFC. They may have lost three of the last four games, but at 3-3 they are still only a game behind the teams with the best records in the conference (the Giants, Eagles, Bears, Falcons and Saints). Clay Matthews is expected to be back this week, and even Atari Bigby and Al Harris may be activated. Donald Driver expects to play despite his injured quad. So they still have time to turn this around.

The Vikings don't have the magic they had last year, and Favre is hurting and much less effective. Some serious pressure on Favre obviously carries risks, but it also has the promise of causing Favre to make some of his trademark mistakes. If the Packers don't win this week against the Vikings, they will have squandered the chance to stay near the top.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Two Bad Games in a Row

My old college buddy Dick Karth (make that my very old college buddy Dick Karth) said it best:

"I didn't like what I saw on Monday night.

I didn't like what I saw on Sunday.

What I saw in both games is a football team with lots of talent and with almost the same ability to squander the talent as it has talent.

I saw a team that, if it doesn't get its act in shape, is going to be 12-4 or 11-5 (maybe 9-7) which will probably be good enough to make the playoffs, but then not get past the first round.

I don't like what I saw."
I was thinking more or less the same thing. If the Packers have this much trouble with the 0-3 Lions, how are they going to handle the 2-2 Redskins, with a proven veteran quarterback, on the road? Let's assume for the sake of argument that they can beat the 2-2 Dolphins at home in two weeks, but that brings Brett Favre and the Vikings back to town. They may be 1-2 now, but it is safe to assume that they will be suitably revved up and ready to go in three weeks.

Monday Night Bears Game

So, with that depressing intro, let's review briefly the last two games.

The Monday night game against the Bears was certainly a disappointment. In many ways, the Packer outplayed the Bears, and yet a flurry of penalties and, to a lesser extent, turnovers, made it impossible to win the game. The Bears prevailed, on a last-second field goal, by the score of 20-17.

To make matters worse, Mike McCarthy made a couple of critical errors in the closing moments of the game. First, he challenged the recovery of James Jones’ fumble, when there was almost no chance of having the call overturned. He had, maybe, a 1% chance of having the recovery overturned, and a 99% chance of losing a timeout in the process. I was prepared to cut him a little slack until I heard him say, in the post-game press conference, that he was right there near where the ball was recovered. If that is the case, he knew to a virtual certainty that the call would not be overturned, and his challenge amounted to a futile wish and a prayer.

Having blown the first timeout, anyone could see, once the Bears got inside the Packers’ 10 yard line, that the Bears would have a chip-shot field goal opportunity. What are the chances that Robbie Gould will miss a field goal when the line of scrimmage is inside the 5? Maybe 2% or so? If he makes it, and almost all the time is gone, the Bears win. What if the Bears score right away, on a touchdown? Well, the bad news is that the Packers now have to score a touchdown to tie the game, but the good news is that they have close to 2 minutes to do it. Anybody who figures out the odds will realize that the Packers had a better chance to win by letting the Bears score. But instead, McCarthy opted for the heroic goal-line stand and the loss of the game.

Sunday's Lions Game

I went to this game, with my wife, my daughter, and cousin Rob. For most of the first half, the Packers seemed in control of the game, even if they weren't playing particularly well. But during the last 36 game minutes, things spun almost completely out of control. For starters, the Packers gave up an 80 yard drive for a touchdown to make the score 21-14 at halftime. But take a look at the Packers' possessions and highlights for the rest of the game.
  1. Jordy Nelson fumbled the kickoff after the 80 yard drive, and the Lions recovered.
  2. Charles Woodson single-handedly saved the win with his interception for a touchdown. When I first saw it live in the stadium, I had a bad angle on the play and I was not sure he caught the ball. Luckily, he did.
  3. The Packers had a nice drive going, but after gaining 49 yards, to the Detroit 23, the drive ended with an interception.
  4. Three and out, punt.
  5. Fumbled kickoff, recovered by Detroit.
  6. Long pass on the first play of the drive is intercepted.
  7. The last drive, really the only good news on offense in the last 36 minutes of the game, found the Packers grinding out the last 6:32 of the game, getting 6 first downs in the process.
So what happened? Did the Packers, when the score was 21-7 against the winless Lions, figure the game was in the bag, and switch on the auto-pilot? I don't know, but as unacceptable as that would be, it is actually the better possible reason for how the game went. Because if that wasn't it, then I don't see how it can be argued that this team is as good as we thought it was.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Packers Beat Bills and Meet 2-0 Bears

If you missed the game and just saw the score the next day, you would see that the Packers beat the Bills, 34-7, and you would assume that they probably dominated from start to finish. And yet, that is not at all how it felt watching the game live. Yes, the game started off pretty well, with the Packers putting the first 13 points on the board. But nothing much good happened for the Packers in the second quarter, and at halftime the score was 13-7. Along the way, there were missed passes, a sluggish running game, and some generally mediocre play. I am sure I was not the only one wondering if this might turn out to be a "trap" game after all.

Of course, the Packers put the game away in the second half, apparently after getting some choice encouragement from Coach McCarthy at halftime (the words "flat" and "sloppy figured prominently), so there turned out to be no problem. Still, the impression I carried away from the game was that the Packers didn't play very well, that they need lots of improvement to keep up with the better teams, and that they are lucky to be sitting at 2-0, tied with the Bears (what? how did that happen?).

All of these criticisms are valid, but I felt better about where the team is on a second viewing of the game. They started off strong, scoring on the first three possessions, while blanking the Bills. On defense, the Packers were aggressive from the start, sacking Trent Edwards on the Bills' third play, using their great "Psycho Defense." (In this defense, the players come to the line with one defensive lineman, five linebackers, and five defensive backs.) The look on Trent Edwards' face was priceless in showing how effective this alignment can be, because the quarterback is sure that a big rush is coming, but nobody is sure where the rush is going to come from.

My revised opinion is that the Packers played pretty well, even dominantly in parts of the game, but had an extremely flat second quarter that left us wondering what went wrong. The defense looked great, the special teams continue to play beyond my (meager) expectations, and the passing game was good enough to contribute to a win in most games (Rodgers completed 2/3 of his passes, for 255 yards, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions). Only the running game was really troubling, but I am prepared to wait a week or two to see if they can bring that around.

So the Packers, at 2-0, get to meet the 2-0 Bears at Soldier Field, for the Packers' only appearance on Monday Night Football this year. This game is no "gimme." While the Packers did manage to sweep the Bears last year, that was the first time since Lovie Smith has coached the Bears that the Packers swept the season series. The Bears presumably are delighted with their 2-0 record, and their fans (or the fair-weather fans among them) are snapping up tickets for the Monday Night game and raising ticket prices in the process. How sweet it would be to start the process of deflating their bubble on Monday night.

I did not realize it until I saw it in the Packers Dope Sheet on the game, but the last time the Packers and Bears met when both teams were 2-0 was September 30, 1962. The Packers won that game by the score of 49-0. That was a memorable game for me because it was the first Packer game I ever attended. Somewhere, I might even have some Instamatic snapshots from that game. For some much better pictures, see the collection published by the Press-Gazette.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A LONG Time Coming

I had in mind the fact that the Packers have had trouble winning at Philadelphia. They have lost every recent game I can remember that was played in Philly. But I had forgotten that this streak goes back to 1962, until I heard that statistic in some of the post-game coverage. When you consider how long it has been, I would gladly take any win in Philadelphia, no matter how ugly.

And parts of this game were ugly. If you told me that Rodgers would throw for less than 200 yards, take three sacks and have two interceptions, I would have been pretty pessimistic about the Packers' chances. Add in a a handful of players knocked out of the game (especially Ryan Grant), and the fact that the Packers old nemesis Michael Vick was running the defense ragged for more than half the game, and I would have been positively depressed.

And yet, despite causing a lot of heartburn in the 4th quarter, the Packers won the game, 27-20. They did it, not with the smoking hot precision offense I had expected, but with good to excellent special teams (Mason Crosby hit 49 and 56 yard field goals, the latter being an all-time Packer record, and Jordy Nelson averaged 31 yards per kickoff return), and with an impressive defense. With Atari Bigby and Al Harris scheduled to miss at least the first six weeks of the season, each Eagles receiver was held to less than 50 yards receiving. With the way DeSean Jackson was tearing up the league last year, that is a significant accomplishment. Justin Harrell was knocked out of the game with what looked like a serious injury, and Cullen Jenkins played with a broken hand and a club cast. Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews did most of the damage. Woodson was always around the ball, made a handful of tackles, forced a fumble, and almost had an interception. Matthews, after missing most of the preseason, had seven tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, and was instrumental on the critical fourth down stop of Vick to preserve the victory. With Vick at quarterback, I would have given long odds that they would get a yard on fourth down to keep their drive alive.

So yes, I will gladly accept a mixed performance for a win in the opening game. This leaves the Packers tied for the lead in the division (with Chicago!), and with the Vikings and the Lions at the bottom of the division. The Packers did not show me what I wanted to see: that they are a dominating team that has a great chance to win every game. As a result, we will have to wait to see if they can start to pull things together over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Everybody's Jumping on Their Jock"

Thanks to the Packergeeks blog, I saw last night's quote on the Packers from Visanthe Shiancoe, tight end of the Vikings: "Everybody is jumping on their jock, like they've actually gone to the Super Bowl, and won it." Sounds like somebody is in a bad mood, after losing the NFL season opener on the national stage.

To tell the truth, neither the Vikings nor the Saints looked like Super Bowl contenders last night, except for the Saints' first drive. They looked so unstoppable in that drive that I thought they would score 40-50 points in the game. But not much happened after that drive, and the Saints ended up winning it, 14-9. Obviously, a team can start out the season slowly, and get it all together later. But last year, the Saints opened the season with victories by 18 points, 26 points, and 20 points. That turned out to be a good sign of things to come for the Saints. The Vikings also started out 3-0, but two of those games were against bad teams, and the third was one of those miracle Favre finishes against the 49ers.

Could Favre's late arrival at camp have anything to do with the team looking out of sync last night? Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune certainly thinks so, in an article titled "Pin This Loss on Favre's Belated Arrival." It is hard to argue with him, although the absence of Sydney Rice was certainly also a factor. Even Favre admitted that "I thought our timing was a little bit off." The Vikings made just enough mistakes to lose a game they easily could have won, especially after Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed two field goals, which would have put the game out of reach by the middle of the 4th quarter. One of those mistakes, even though it didn't result directly in any points, was Favre's second quarter interception. This prompted SF Bay Area High School football player and Packer fan Scott Clendening to quip: "you know the NFL is back when Favre leads the league in interceptions."

So the season is off to a good start, with the Vikings at 0-1. A Packer victory against Philadelphia on Sunday would give them a one-game lead over the Vikings. When the Packers last had the kind of hype they have this year, in 1996, they started the season on a high note, beating the Buccaneers by 31, the Eagles by 26, and then the Chargers by 32, before some injuries started to kick in. They lost three games over the next eight weeks, and then never lost another game through and including the Super Bowl.

This week, we will start to see if the Packers can live up to the hype. I have not seen any of the Eagles' preseason games, and of course they have a new starting quarterback (Kevin Kolb) and a new starting running back (LeSean McCoy) since last year. The Packers have not had a good record at Philadelphia in recent years (that playoff loss at Philadelphia after the 2003 season still makes me shudder), so this will be an interesting test.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Scary Preseason Predictions

The Packers' preseason loss to the Chiefs this week was so boring that I had to write this blog post during the latter part of the game. The Packers chose to sit most of their starters for the game, which makes some sense, but must irritate anyone stuck with a full-price ticket for the game.

Meanwhile, the preseason accolades for the Packers continue to roll in. polled its seven experts, and all seven picked the Packers to be the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. Four of them have the Packers winning the Super Bowl, while three of them have the Packers losing to the Colts, Ravens and Bengals.

The last time the Packers were the consensus Super Bowl pick was probably 1996. I remember it well, including the Sports Illustrated cover predicting the Packers and Chiefs for Super Bowl XXXI.

I love seeing this stuff, but it scares me almost as much as it pleases me. I also guess I am not yet a complete believer. In 1996, the Packers had gone to the playoffs the prior three seasons, and they were coming off an NFC Championship Game loss to the Cowboys. The Packers had led the game in the fourth quarter. To name a few players, the Packers started the season with Favre at quarterback, Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens at running back, Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman at wide receiver, and Keith Jackson at tight end. On defense, they had Reggie White and Sean Jones at defensive end, and Leroy Butler, Craig Newsome and Eugene Robinson at defensive back. On special teams, they had Desmond Howard. This was an impressive team, and it was obvious at the beginning of the season. Sure, they might not win it all, but there was no team in the NFC that you would have thought had a better shot at it.

I don't see the 2010 Packers as being at the same level. I like the 2010 Rodgers as much as I liked the 1996 Favre, and Driver/Jennings/Finley compares pretty favorably with Brooks/Freeman/Jackson. I am a Ryan Grant fan, but I don't think he stacks up well against Bennett and Levens. On defense, where are the pass rushers to match up with White and Jones? Where are the defensive backs to match up with Butler, Newsome and Robinson? Charles Woodson is probably better than the 1996 defensive backs, but with Al Harris (as well as Atari Bigby) spending the first six weeks of the season on the PUP list, I just can't make a case that the defensive backs as a whole are close to being comparable. And, of course, the special teams have been shaky for most of the preseason as well as last year.

Are the Packers better, going into the season, than the Saints, the Falcons, the Vikings, the Cowboys, or the 49ers? (The same experts pick the Cowboys, the Saints or Falcons, and the 49ers to win their respective divisions.) Maybe. But I don't see it as being so clear cut as to make the Packers a consensus pick for the Super Bowl.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Most Points Since . . . When?

The Packers, in beating the Colts last night 59-24, scored the most points they have scored in a single game since they beat the Cedar Rapids Crush, 75-0, in the 1938 pre-season. (The guys on TV said it was the most points "in a league game" since the victory over the Crush, but I think that was a mistake since the Crush never made it to the NFL.)

I wasn't happy to see 3 fumbles in the game (by Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson, and Will Blackmon), and I wasn't happy to see Peyton Manning carve up the Packers' defense in the first few possessions. But this game answered a lot of questions for me.

Yes, the Packers are capable of putting some pressure on a quality NFL quarterback. Even though they were still not playing this as a regular season game, Dom Capers at least gave us some indication that he is willing to bring some pressure against a quality QB. The result was an interception and a strip of Peyton Manning.

Yes, the Packers offensive line looks like it is still capable of giving Rodgers the kind of protection he got toward the end of last year. Rodgers was never sacked, and this was without rookie Bryan Bulaga even dressing for the game.

Yes, the Packers continue to look very sharp on offense, even though Greg Jennings did not play last night. But Finley, Driver and James Jones picked up the slack and gained 195 yards in passing offense in the first half.

Yes, it looks like the Packers got some good players in the draft or as free agents. Although, again, Bryan Bulaga did not play, safety Morgan Burnett had a good showing. After struggling early on in the pre-season, he made some plays, most impressively including one interception he made and another that got away. Free agent linebacker Frank Zombo (why do I keep thinking of Frank Zappa?) made a bunch of tackles and stripped the ball out of Manning's hand. I would not want to be the person charged with cutting down the roster, as there are going to be some tough decisions here.

And yes, the special teams are capable of making some positive plays. While they gave up one kick return that was way too long, they also scored two touchdowns, one on a muffed punt recovered in the end zone, and another on a punt return. That is not a bad night's work, and it helps to relieve the sick feeling I have been getting whenever the special teams are on the field.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Week 2 Comments & Week 3 Preview

Time to write a quick few words about last week's game against Seattle, since the next game comes tomorrow night (Thursday) on ESPN against the Colts.
  • The Packers' first-string offense continues to look great. Rodgers is in fine form, and in the first two games, the Packers have marched up and down the field with their first team, interrupted only by Ryan Grant's fumble in the first game.
  • Jermichael Finley is going to be a monster for the Packers this year. His skill became more and more apparent as the year went on last year, but he seems unstoppable in the pre-season this year. A worthy pickup in any fantasy league that has separate roster spots for tight ends.
  • The first-string defense continues to look spotty, but since the Packers were missing at least 6 starters on defense, I would not want to hit the panic button just yet.
  • Special teams were again disappointing, but maybe not quite so disappointing as a week ago.
Traditionally, the first-string teams have their longest pre-season outings in the third game, so normally I would look forward to the Colts game with great anticipation. But it is not clear to me that the first-string offense has anything left to prove this pre-season, so I would not be surprised to see them take their seats early, maybe early in the second quarter.

I do hope to see more of the starters return on defense, and it would be nice to see a little more aggressive play-calling on defense. I don't fault Dom Capers for calling the first two games conservatively - it makes sense for him to do that early in the pre-season. (Besides, there will be plenty of time to criticize him for conservative play-calling during the regular season!)

But since there are going to be some changes on defense from last year when the season opens (Al Harris looks like he won't be ready, and of course Johnny Jolly and Aaron Kampman are gone), I am sure that Capers wants to see how some of his replacement starters perform in different pressure packages. I have no idea how long the Colts' starters on offense will play (heck, they don't always play even when the games count). But for however long they play, they will provide exactly the kind of test for the Packers' defense that I would think the coaches would want to see.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review of 1st Preseason Game

I had to wait a couple of days to watch Saturday night's game until it was shown on the NFL Network on Monday. It was pretty much exactly what I expected based on the box score and a couple of stories I had seen. The first string offense looked great, except for Ryan Grant's fumble on the first play and him getting knocked out of the game a couple of carries later. Thankfully, the injury does not seem to be serious, although it does bring into play the new tougher NFL rules on concussions. Since he only fumbled once in all of 2009 (in a loss to Cincinnati, leading to the go-ahead points), it would be nice to think that this gets his fumble of the year out of the way.

The first string defense was another story. It is unfortunately accurate to say that it picked up right where it left off last year, in such games as the playoff loss to Arizona, the loss to Pittsburgh, and the losses to Minnesota. And the special teams were pretty much a mess, giving up too many yards on returns, and not doing well on Green Bay returns.

You can't make too much out of a preseason game, especially the first one. We need to see how the team looks in the next couple of weeks before getting too worried, and maybe even then worry would be premature. Suffice it to say that I did not see any strong evidence that the Packers are Super Bowl contenders, during this first preseason game.

Oh, and in other NFL news, the "Cirque du Favre" continues. By the time you read this, the official announcement will probably have taken place, that the Packers will get another shot at beating Favre.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"They Warned Us"

"They warned us. Remember?

The embedded Packers fans amongst us warned us that Brett Favre would break our hearts, whether on the field of play or in the absurd theater of his mind. He would throw the killing interception when you least wanted or expected it, would turn our summers into melodramas that teased, then annoyed, then infuriated us.

Could they have been more right? Could they have asked for any more reason to say, 'I told you so?'"

So begins a not-to-be missed article from Tuesday in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune by Jim Souhan. I expressed some skepticism myself on Tuesday, but not nearly as much as was justified. It only took one day for Favre to walk away from Tuesday's stories, saying that he is in fact undecided, and that he will play if he is healthy.

Meanwhile, ticket brokers are biding time on the pricing of tickets for the Vikings' visit to Green Bay, and for everyone except Favre, training camp continues.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Favre Retires Again (!?)

It doesn't take long for word to spread, when the story out of Minnesota is that Favre is retiring again. This still has not been confirmed as of this writing, and I kind of line up with those who say that they will believe it on opening night at the Superdome (September 9). My wife heard the report on the radio early this morning, and it has been pretty much non-stop Favre coverage ever since (after taking a little time out for a business call shortly after the news came out).

I was pretty sure he was coming back. His off-season surgery only made sense if he was planning to come back. The Vikings must have thought they had a great opportunity to go to the Super Bowl if Favre returned, and Favre (no shrinking violet, he) must have thought the same thing. So if he is not coming back because of his ankle, as reported, it must be a pretty serious issue with the ankle. One can make the case that the Vikings will be better off without Favre (see here), but I don't find that convincing. At all. With Favre, the Vikings would be serious contenders this year. With Tarvares Jackson? Or Sage Rosenfels? Give me a break.

And yet, parts of this story don't add up. Why would he have talked to Ryan Longwell, today, without mentioning that he is retiring? (Unless Longwell is covering for him, I suppose.) Why would he send text messages to friends saying he is retiring, but not officially notify the head coach, who has to make plans for the upcoming season. (Upon further review, forget that question. It has been obvious for several years that he doesn't care about the dilemma facing his head coach as he dithers about whether to retire.)

The bottom line is that even if this is confirmed later today, we won't really know for sure until the regular season, or possibly even later. In the meantime, I agree with my daughter's reaction, which was that this is sort of sad, because we won't have the chance to get our revenge on Favre this year.