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.