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.