Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Packers-Giants Post-Mortem

(Photo my Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

On Sunday, the Packers' season, which looked like it could turn out to be one of the great seasons in Packers history, came to a crashing and disappointing halt.  The visiting New York Giants ended the Packers' season, just as they did four years ago, this time by the score of 37-20.

I went in for a dental appointment on Monday afternoon.  I'm sure you can see this line coming from a mile away - I feel like I spent two afternoons in a row at the dentist.  In the waiting room I read, wistfully, Peter King's Postseason Predictions in Sports Illustrated from a couple of weeks ago: "I see New Orleans and Green Bay facing each other again [in the NFC Championship Game], with the survivor going on to win the Super Bowl."  Yeah, me too.

All year long, the Packers have set various records, week to week.  Well here is another one.  The Packers became the first ever 15-1 team to be "one and done" in the playoffs.  While it is painful to see the Packers squander their no. 1 seed position this way, it should be noted that 4 of the last 5 number 1 seeds in the NFC have been knocked out of the playoffs without reaching the Super Bowl (New Orleans in 2009 was the exception).  Not that this helps very much - I am still walking around in a daze two days later - but at least the Packers are not alone in wasting a great season.  (It was sad having to cancel my travel reservations for the NFC Championship game, so that didn't help matters, either.)

Before getting into what went wrong, it is appropriate to give some credit to the New York Giants.  They outplayed the Packers on offense, on defense, and on special teams, and in my opinion the Packers were outcoached, as well.  Or as Greg Jennings said on his Facebook page Sunday night: "Hats off to the NYG on their win today.  They played a very sound game and we didn't do enough on our end to get this one.  Thank u Packer fans for your commitment to excellence all season in bringing us closer together as a team as we fed off u all season.  We'll bounce back."

So what went wrong?  Aaron Nagler of Cheesehead TV said that the Packers picked a terrible day to play their worst game of the season, and that is certainly true.  Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette says that this game will go down as the most disheartening playoff loss in team history.  I'm not at all sure I agree with him, but why quibble?  This was plenty bad enough.

I have not even re-watched the whole game yet, but to me it was a large collection of little things, all of which worked against the Packers.  (And since the Packers benefited from a couple of bad calls by referees in their favor, it is horrifying to note that things could have been even worse.)  Aaron Rodgers was off the mark on some of his passes, including what should have been a touchdown to Jennings in the first quarter.  Was rust from an unnecessary week off a factor?  I don't know.  I was not in favor of resting healthy starters for competitive reasons, but there is no question that Rodgers did not look sharp.  Rodgers also had Jennings open for an easy touchdown in the third quarter, but Umenyiora stripped him on the play for a fumble.  In Rodgers' somber post-game press conference, he was asked about the play.
Q: "On the play where you fumbled, did you see how open Greg was?"
A: "Yes."
This terse answer, together with the look on his face, says a lot about the missed opportunities in this game.

If Rodgers was off on offense, the receivers and running backs were even worse.  There were either 6 or 8 dropped passes in the game, depending on how you count them.  Since the Packers averaged about 2 dropped passes per game during the regular season, this hurt, killing promising drives in the process.  Both Ryan Grant and John Kuhn are dependable ball carriers; but they both fumbled away the ball in this game (in Kuhn's case, it was his first career fumble).

On defense, it is probably not fair to single out one player, but nobody had a worse game than Charlie Peprah.  Peprah was the one who hit Hakeem Nicks, but did not wrap him up, on what turned out to be Nicks' long touchdown catch.  At the end of the first half, he took a bad angle and failed to get Ahmad Bradshaw on the ground when the Giants ran the ball with 15 seconds left, allowing him to get out of bounds and set up the Hail Mary pass.  Peprah and Woodson were the players with the best shot to break up the Hail Mary pass, but didn't.  This game, more than any other game this year, shows how much it hurt to lose Nick Collins early in the season.  Peprah is a decent player, but he was a big downgrade from Collins.  The latest word on Collins is that he will be reexamined in March, and will decide based on medical advice (and before the draft) whether he can come back and play again.

But most fundamentally, the problem on defense is what it has been all year: the inability to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing.  So, if the Packers rush 3 or 4 on a given play, there is no pressure, and the quarterback has plenty of time for someone to get open.  If the Packers blitz, they get pressure, but if the quarterback gets the ball out quickly enough, somebody is going to have an opening to make a big play.  It is no fluke that the Packers gave up as many yards as they did on defense this year, but two factors allowed them to mask the problem and go 15-1: (1) the MVP quality of play by Aaron Rodgers; and (2) the turnovers generated by the defense.  On a day when Rodgers did not play like an MVP, and when the Packers lost the turnover battle, we now see what can happen.

This problem will have to be addressed in the draft and/or free agency, with the top priority being the defensive line.  I will have more comments on the Packers' needs later, after we see which coaches (if any) are hired away or simply replaced by the Packers.

Putting the pieces together, how do we explain (1) a sub-par performance by our MVP quarterback; (2) an extra dose of dropped passes; (3) fumbles by our normally reliable running backs; (4) sloppy tackling on defense; (5) worse than usual pass rush; and (6) poor play in the secondary?  I had predicted that the team would use Coach Philbin's son's death as a rallying point.  But Andy Hayes (of Packergeeks) was at the game and points to some things not visible on TV that really do suggest that there was something lacking, emotionally, from the team's effort.  So I have come to the conclusion that this was a far bigger, and more negative, factor than I would have anticipated.

It has been a good run for the Packers in the first few years with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback.  Despite the disappointing end to this season, the core of this team is young and good enough that there should be more opportunities in the coming years.  The caveat is that I thought the same thing when the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII.  I was convinced that the Favre era Packers would rack up a couple more Super Bowl wins, but we found out that nothing comes easily, and nothing is guaranteed.

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I had occasion over the weekend to reflect on the way that technology has changed the lives of sports fans.  When my wife and I spent a week in England in October 1983, we literally had to wait until Monday and buy the International Herald Tribune to find out who won the football games on Sunday.  (We were happy to learn that the Packers beat the Buccaneers, 55-14, October 2, 1983).  But on Sunday, we watched the game at home with friends, while our son watched the game while flying on Jet Blue, and our daughter watched it with Wisconsin expats in Amsterdam.  The expats were Erik and Mary Jo Tunison, who own Eat at Jo's restaurant in the Melkweg entertainment complex, near the Leidseplein.  They showed themselves to be classic Wisconsin people, by being nice enough to invite a total stranger to watch the game with them, just because she is a Packers fan!  As Erik said afterwards, "We had a good time, except for that one little thing..."  Eat at Jo's is on my list of places to go, if I ever get back to Amsterdam.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Divisional Games Predictions

(Official Packers.com Twitter picture of shovelers lined up outside Lambeau Field)

Some snow over the last few days led to another one of those charming Packer rituals today - citizens lining up for the chance to help shovel out the stands in Lambeau Field.  There were so many volunteers that more would-be shovelers were turned away than were able to actually get in to shovel.  Weather should not be a problem for the game, as the forecast is for a high of about 30 degrees, with nothing more than snow flurries.

The weekend of the divisional playoff games has finally arrived, and none too soon for those of us who have been waiting anxiously for the past two weeks.  The one must-read article of this week is an ESPN piece on Brandon Jacobs and Tramon Williams, high school teammates in tiny Napoleonville, LA.  The overall point of the piece is the astronomical odds of these two kids from the bayou country both earning Super Bowl rings.

The part about Williams is fascinating.  He was smart and talented, but a little too small and a little too slow to be the ideal cornerback, and so he didn't attract any attention from college scouts, who only paid attention  to his teammate Brandon Jacobs.  So he gave up on football and went to college, where he watched the Louisiana Tech team from the stands until he decided he could cover better than the players on the field, and walked on.  After college, he wasn't drafted, but spent his rookie training camp with the Texans until he was cut.  The Packers' scouting staff, who notoriously take a different approach to scouting, invited him up for a tryout.  When Charles Woodson saw him make a play in practice, he said "Holy crap, who is that guy?"  And so, Tramon Williams ended up as another one of the free agent miracles found by Ted Thompson and his staff.

The article ends with a detailed look at how Williams made the game-turning interception for a touchdown on the final play of the first half in the playoff game against the Falcons last year.  It gave me a greater appreciation for Williams, who may not have had the impact this year that he did last year, but has a chance to do so again in the playoffs.  Even if I was not already pumped up for the Giants game, reading this article would have gotten me ready.

It is not unusual for there to be an upset in each of the first two weeks of the playoffs, like last week's upset of the Steelers by the Broncos.  But this week, as I look through the list of games, I think all of the favorites will win.  The Saints are the only road team that is favored over the home team, the 49ers, and in my view, with good reason.  The Saints' offense will be too much for the 49ers, even though the 49ers' defense is vastly improved now that Jim Harbaugh is coach.  Or to put it another way, even if the 49ers' defense slows the Saints down a little, I can't see the 49ers scoring enough points.  Harbaugh has quarterback Alex Smith on a very short leash, which will not be conducive to keeping up with the Saints.

Tebow time, I expect, will end on Saturday against the Patriots.  This game is similar in some ways to the Saints-49ers game.  The Broncos have a pretty good defense, although not close to being as good as the 49ers' defense.  But their offense is another story.  They, too, have a quarterback with a limited set of skills, as compared to most of the other playoff quarterbacks.  They will not be able to keep up with the Patriots, who will probably get off to a big lead and never relinquish it.

In the other Sunday game, I don't have much feel for the Ravens and Texans.  They both have quality defenses, and offenses that have done better than I would have expected.  So, in the absence of better information, I am going with the home team Ravens.

In the Packers-Giants game, there has been an awful lot of coverage focusing on how the Giants beat the Packers 4 years ago in the NFC Championship game, how fearsome their defense is, how powerful their running game is, and how talented the receivers are.  All well and good, and obviously there is truth in all of these points.  But the Giants are still wildly inconsistent, and for all the talk about how bad the Packers' defense is, the Giants have given up more points than the Packers have, and the Packers have generated far more turnovers on defense than have the Giants.  The Packers are as healthy and rested as they have been all year, and as Greg Jennings said earlier this week, they have not forgotten who kept them out of the Super Bowl 4 years ago.  We all know that Aaron Rodgers is not as likely to make the game-killing mistake, as his predecessor did in that game.

Finally, there is the wild card effect of the Packer family tragedy this week involving the death of Coach Philbin's son.  Analyzing what effect it might have on the play on the field may be cold, but there is a large emotional component to the game of football.  The death of Michael Philbin could turn out to be a huge distraction for the team, or the source of enormous motivation.  I think back to the Monday Night game in Oakland in 2003, the day after Irvin Favre died.  We were lucky enough to be there, and I don't think we will ever forget it.  Favre had a stellar game that night, but he certainly did not do it by himself.  The offensive line gave him protection like they had not done since 1996.  And the receivers went out and caught any ball that was anywhere near them, something they had not regularly done that year.  In other words, the other players went out and played beyond their normal level, in an effort to win that game for Brett Favre.  My thought is that the 2011 team will play their hearts out, for Coach Philbin.

If everything breaks right for the Giants, they obviously have the talent to beat the Packers.  But when you add up all of the factors mentioned above, I think it is much more likely that the Packers will win, and it may not be that close of a game.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Look Back at the 2007 NFC Championship Game

Well, the Packers got (in my opinion) the least favorable matchup for their first playoff game next Sunday.  I thought that either the southern dome team (the Falcons) or the northern dome team (the Lions) would have been easier for the Packers to handle than the Giants, who both play outdoors in cold weather, and have the confidence booster of having beaten the Packers in the NFC Championship game four years ago (Giants 23, Packers 20, in overtime - Favre's last game as a Packer).

There were at least 15 Packers who played in that ice cold overtime game four years ago who will be expected to play on Sunday.  The Green Bay Press-Gazette informs us that there was exactly one current player who suited up for that game but did not play: Aaron Rodgers.  Will he be the difference-maker?  I hope so.

Kevin Seifert of ESPN describes that game as one of the most disappointing Packer games ever, and it is hard to argue with that (although there are certainly other candidates: Super Bowl XXXII, the 4th and 26 Eagles game, and the Michael Vick playoff game come to mind).  I remember well the elation we all had when the no. 2 seed Packers, unexpectedly, got to host the NFC Championship game after the Giants knocked off the no. 1 seed Cowboys.  But the Packers did not play well that night, and of course everyone remembers Favre's final pass as a Packer, which was intercepted in overtime and led to the game-winning field goal.  To be sure, Favre was not the only one who played poorly.  My son and I went to this game, and I can remember saying to him, at the beginning of the overtime session, that the Packers might end up winning this game, but they certainly don't deserve to win it.

This is one of those games that I don't think I have ever gone back to watch again, even though I recorded it at the time (Super Bowl XXXII was another one).  But thanks to the NFL Network (I love these guys!) I am watching it again tonight, as they are replaying it right now.  There were some great individual plays (like the Driver 90 yard touchdown that took place while I was in the Lambeau Field bathroom), but overall, the Packers suffered from the total lack of a running game, an inefficient passing game, an inconsistent defense, and of course the interceptions.

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In the midst of getting ready for this week's game against the Giants, the Packers' family has been struck by a terrible tragedy, as Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin's 21 year old son, Michael, was first reported missing, and then was found dead after having fallen through the ice of the Fox River.  As the father of two young adults in their early 20's, I cannot imagine the anguish of the Philbin family.  My prayers are with them.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ready for the Playoffs?

(Photo by Dan Powers, Appleton Post-Crescent)

Until I got around to re-watching the Lions' game on Thursday, I had forgotten what a mess it was in the first few minutes.  First, Pat Lee (in place of the inactive Randall Cobb) mishandled the opening kickoff, with the ball rolling through the end zone for a touchback.  Matt Flynn had the ball stripped away on the first possession, resulting in a turnover and a touchdown.  Then, Pat Lee (evidently through inexcusable ignorance of the rules), mishandled the second kickoff, resulting in a safety and a 9-0 hole.  Tim Masthay free-kicked the ball, despite not having been given a signal by the officials for live action.  And of course there were some dropped passes, too.  Those first few minutes were ugly.

All of this seemed slightly beside the point in the wake of the 45-41 victory over the Lions, with Flynn setting all-time Packer records for TD passes in a single game, with 6, and for passing yards in a game, with 480.  He also managed to position himself very nicely in the free agent market, having another sensational game in only his second career start.

There was a lot to like on offense, despite a makeshift offensive line, with the Packers scoring 45 points against a playoff team that was actually trying to win the game, in a vain effort to avoid a trip to New Orleans to play the Saints this weekend.  I was not a big fan of sitting relatively healthy playmakers like Rodgers, Matthews and Woodson, on top of players who were actually injured and inactive like Jennings, Bulaga, Starks and Cobb.  But the Packers sat them all anyway, and yet they still managed to win the game, extend their team record for regular season wins in a single season to 15, and extend their home winning streak against the Lions to 21 years.  The Packers scored the most points of any team in the league this season, with 560, and of course they had the best record in the league as well.  It was also a nice touch for the Packers to let Rodgers call the offensive plays in the first half, which can only help him in calling audibles when he is on the field.

On defense, it was pretty much the same story as it has been for most of the year, but worse.  The Packers gave up 520 passing yards, 41 points, 575 total net yards, and 5 passing TDs to Matthew Stafford.  Stafford, and some of his receivers, are quality offensive weapons, but for a dome team to have that kind of an offensive game in blustery conditions outdoors, against the number one seed in the NFC, is sort of disgraceful.  Despite the Packers' 15-1 record this year, they gave up 359 points in the regular season, over 22 points per game.  For a point of reference, the no. 2 NFC seed 49ers gave up 229, and in the AFC, the Ravens, Steelers and Texans all gave up fewer than 300 points.  The Packers finished the regular season by edging out the AFC's no. 1 seed, the Patriots, for last place in the league in yards allowed per game.  So there is very little question in my mind that the Packers' problems on defense are, at a minimum, going to make it tougher for them to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

On the slightly brighter side, in watching the game a second time, it confirmed for me that the Packers played a very plain version of their defense against the Lions.  I assume they did this, in part, because they might be playing the Lions again in the playoffs, and, in part, because of the absence of their two biggest playmakers on defense, Matthews and Woodson.  The Packers blitzed infrequently during the game, and I did not notice a lot of defensive stunts, either.  Yet despite the plain and simple version of the Packers' defense, they still managed to come up with turnovers, two interceptions (by Shields and Bush) and two fumble recoveries (by Burnett and Crosby).  Add some complexity, blitzes and stunts to the mix and the likelihood of turnovers in the playoffs will increase.

There has been a lot of discussion this week about who would be the most favorable opponent for the Packers in their first game.  Personally, I think it would be the Falcons - a southern dome team playing outdoors in Green Bay in January.  But I think it is much more likely that it will be the Giants, which will happen if the Lions lose to the Saints (which I think is highly likely) and if the Giants beat the Falcons.  The Giants-Falcons game is tougher to predict, but the Giants seem to be peaking at exactly the right time, and even though the Giants have been wildly inconsistent this season, I expect them to win.