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.

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