Saturday, December 28, 2013

One Last Chance to Win the Division

Cover Photo from Monday's Green Bay Press-Gazette
Last Sunday was another weird Sunday for Packers football.  Aaron Rodgers missed his 7th consecutive start as the Packers played the Steelers with a shot at the playoffs on the line for both teams.  While the Packers played well in spots, ultimately you cannot give up 38 points and expect to win a lot of games.  

In the case of this game, exceedingly untimely penalties and turnovers essentially undid the Packers, and unlike the 1995 game between these teams, there was no "Yancey Clause" to bail them out.  Sure, the screwed up ref timing on the final 10 seconds did not help, but absent the penalties and turnovers, the Packers would not have found themselves in the position of needing a TD to tie the game.  The Lions, who should have won the NFC North a month ago, had knocked themselves out of the playoff chase earlier in the day.  And this loss to the Steelers (38-31) left the Packers planning for next year's draft.  

Unless, of course, the Bears managed to lose the Sunday night game to the Philadelphia Eagles.  Oh, boy, did they ever!  The Eagles went up by 21 points in the first quarter, and never took their feet off the gas, beating the Bears by the score of 54-11.  My old friend Dick Karth said, during the Sunday night Bears-Eagles game: "As a GBP fan who went to the game today at Lambeau Field in all the snow and everything ... I'm not happy.  But I'm glad I'm not a Bears fan tonight!   What an embarrassment it must be for Bears fans!"

As a result of the Bears' game, Matt Flynn need not have been so forlorn, as he looked in the picture above.  It turns out, the game against the Steelers did not matter one whit.  Win or lose against the Steelers, the Packers would still need to win the finale against the Bears to win the division and make the playoffs.  Dramatic developments in the last couple of days have Aaron Rodgers returning for this game, Clay Matthews out with a re-broken thumb (I can't imagine him playing again this year), Eddie Lacy will apparently play through the pain of his injured ankle, and as an added bonus, as of this writing, it is quite possible that Randall Cobb will be activated and play.

I am, to be honest, surprised that Rodgers will play.  After all of the talk last week, repeated endlessly on every football website, that Rodgers was not that close to playing against the Steelers, and that he was at "extraordinary risk" if he returned to the field, I really thought that he would again not be activated.  And particularly after Clay Matthews re-broke his thumb, I thought the lesson the Packers would take away was to err even further on the side of caution with Aaron Rodgers.  Despite all that, he will play, which not only changes the complexion of this game, but if the Packers win, it will change the complexion of the playoffs in the NFC.  Rodgers, if he is close to his normal self, is simply not prone to make the same kinds of mistakes that his merry band of backups have made in the almost 8 games since he broke his collarbone.

This game has all the looks of a shootout now.  As bad as the Packers' defense has been, the Bears' defense is worse.  And as well as the Bears' offense has played at times, the Packers' offense is capable of matching them score for score, and, I would argue, getting a couple of extra scores along the way.

The Bears, of course, have a new offense under Marc Trestman, and it has been impressive at times, with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Matt Forte providing the weapons for Jay Cutler.  The Packers-Bears game earlier this season is not much of a predictor, since almost all of the game was played with Josh McCown and Seneca Wallace at quarterback.  But now that Jay Cutler is back, we just need to remember what Charles Woodson said last year: "It's the same old Jay.  We just need to be in position.  Jay will throw us the ball."  If there is one thing that is critical in this game, it is that the Packers must take advantage of every one of those opportunities.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Quite a Football Weekend!

Cover by Green Bay Press-Gazette
I never got around to writing a post last week.  My only excuse is that I have been on vacation.  But when I sat down in a vain attempt to try to write something, my conclusion was that picking the Falcons the previous week had worked like a charm!  As a result, if I had ever finished that post, I was going to pick the Cowboys.  Now that I am really on a roll, I will get the suspense out of the way, by picking the Steelers in Sunday's game.

Being on vacation, we got to watch the game with old friends from our youth, Larry Bailin and Marc Blum, and with new friend Kathy Blum.  Like everybody else, we suffered through the first half, watching the Packers limp along to a 26-3 deficit, and saw the Packers' realistic playoff chances dwindle away.  The 3 points the Packers got were fueled almost entirely to a single big pass and run by James Jones.  For the rest of the half, the Packers' defense looked inept, giving up chunks of yardage, rarely getting pressure on Romo, missing opportunities for interceptions, and the like.  On offense, there were a few good plays, but lots of misfires, everything from dropped passes by Jordy Nelson (!) to penalties, to offensive line breakdowns, and of course Matt Flynn's interception.

It was the sort of half that might have caused sane people to switch the game off and find something more productive to do.  Fortunately, we were all just crazy enough to keep watching, and we witnessed one of the great comebacks of all time.  It was, to me, sort of the flip side of the famous Thanksgiving day "Jason Garrett" game I wrote about here.  Re-watching that game, years later, it was hard to imagine how the Packers were going to end up losing the game, until it happened.  Re-watching Sunday's game, I couldn't believe that the Packers would end up winning, until it happened.

I read somewhere that someone had calculated that, going into the half on Sunday, the Cowboys had a 99.7% chance of winning the game.  Sounds about right, and that shows what a remarkable comeback it was.

The second half was a totally different game, and the Packers went on to score 5 touchdowns in the half to win the game, missing the 2 point conversion on the final one so that the final score was 37-36.  We saw everything from a 60 yard run by Eddie Lacy on the first play of the half, to Jordy Nelson stealing the ball away from the defensive back in the end zone for a touchdown, to more planned rollouts, screen passes and more quick release passes, counteracting Flynn's lack of mobility.  The Packers were still not consistently stopping the Cowboys, as they allowed 10 points to the Cowboys in the half, but they certainly looked better on defense than in the first half, by a large margin.

Let's not kid ourselves, this game could easily have gone the other way.  Late in the fourth quarter, I actually expected the Cowboys to pull it out, either by stopping the Packers on one of their TD drives, or by scoring the winning FG on the final drive, or by forcing a single turnover somewhere in the fourth quarter.  If Jordy doesn't steal that TD from the defensive back in the end zone, or if the evidence is not conclusive enough to reverse the call on the final interception, the Cowboys probably win.  And then if the Lions had not lost on a 61 yard field goal in the final minute on Monday night, the Packers still would not control their own destiny.  But now they do.  Win two games, and they win the division.  I am not sure they will be able to pull that off, but the opportunity is right there, waiting to be taken.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Now or Never!

These last few Packers games have had a now or never feel to them, at least to me.  "OK, they couldn't beat the Bears, but now that Seneca Wallace has had a week of preparation . . .."  "Well, you can't expect Tolzien to pull off a win against the Eagles in those circumstances, but now that he has taken the starter reps . . .."  "We all know that the Giants have the Packers' number, but wait until the Vikings come to town . . .."  "They didn't win, but a tie is better than a loss, and look at the way Flynn played - when he gets another crack at the Lions, look out!"

But what are you going to say about the Lions crushing the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, by the very ugly score of 40-10?  I have run out of excuses, and of optimism, for the Packers this year.  I couldn't even bear going back to re-watch the Lions game.  I realize it was just a pre-planned Black Friday sale, but it seemed somehow strangely fitting when, early Friday morning after the game, I got a Packers Pro Shop email promotion announcing a 30% off site wide sale.  My confidence in the Packers is at least 30% off.

Anyway, I think "now or never" time has really arrived.  If the Packers were to win their 4 remaining games, I could see maybe a 50% chance that the Packers win the division.  The Lions would have to lose 2 games, but that could happen (they have away games at the Eagles and Vikings, and home games against the Giants and Ravens).  The Bears would have to lose one, but in my scenario of the Packers winning out, that happens when the Packers beat the Bears in week 17.

On the other hand, how likely is a Packer four game winning streak?  Let's be honest, not that likely.  They have not won any of their last five games.  The offensive line is in disarray, with Center Evan Dietrich-Smith listed as questionable for the game.  The defense is in free fall.  They still don't have Aaron Rodgers back, even though everyone (including Rodgers) seems to have assumed that he would be ready to play this week.  But the four game winning streak, if it is going to happen, has to start against the Falcons tomorrow, without Rodgers.  As disappointing as the Packers have been this year, the Falcons have probably had an even more disappointing season.  They were, after all, in the NFC Championship game last year, where they blew a 17 point lead to lose narrowly to the 49ers.  And yet they are 3-9 as they arrive in Green Bay today.  They have beaten no good teams, only the Rams, the Buccaneers and the Bills.  They may not have had the injury problems the Packers have had, but losing Julio Jones for the year is, without question, a severe loss.

I am predicting a Packers loss.  Maybe that will switch up the mojo.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Game Nobody Could Have Predicted

Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."  So goes the famous Monty Python line.  And in calculating NFL Division standings, nobody expects a tie game.  For that matter, nobody expects the Packers to have 4 quarterbacks playing in the course of three weeks.  But that, of course, is exactly what happened when the Packers played the Vikings on Sunday, with the game ending at 26-26 after each team scored a field goal in overtime, but neither team could score again.

This game felt, in a way, like three different games.  The "first game" was made up of the first 2.5 quarters.  The game started well enough, with the Packers taking their first lead in the last three games on Scott Tolzien's spinning scramble for a touchdown.  It was his first NFL TD scored (as opposed to a TD pass), and also his first Lambeau Leap.  But after that promising start, the offense bogged down, and the defense started giving up chunks of yardage, especially on the ground.  The score was 20-7 in favor of Minnesota almost halfway through the third quarter.  By that time, Tolzien had completed less than 50% of his passes, for 98 yards, no TDs and no interceptions.  He wasn't having a horrible day, but his play was not, at that point, competitive enough to keep the game from getting away from the Packers.

The "second game" started when McCarthy benched Tolzien and brought in Matt Flynn, and lasted until about the end of the fourth quarter.  Flynn lit a fire under the Packers' offense, and perhaps sensing some hope, the defense played better, too.  The defense only gave up a field goal during that quarter and a half, to make it 23-7, while Flynn drove the Packers for 2 touchdowns and 1 field goal, to tie the game at 23-23, and put the game in overtime.  With perfect hindsight, when the Packers scored their first touchdown under Flynn with 11:27 left in the fourth quarter, they could have gone for 1 point, and since they would go on to score 10 more before the end of the game, they would have won, 24-23.  I have already seen some second-guessing online about the decision to go for 2, but I think that critique is overblown.  The Packers had just scored for the first time since the first quarter, and with 11:27 left in the game, 2 TDs with 2-point conversions seemed like a better shot to tie up the game than 2 TDs and 1 field goal.

The "third game" started in that final Packers drive of the 4th quarter, and continued throughout overtime.  The Packers had gotten to first down at the Minnesota 12, with 1:10 left, but at that point the Packers seemed to get a little tentative, and had to settle for the field goal to tie the game, rather than getting the game-winning touchdown.  The same thing happened even more clearly in overtime, when the Packers, with some grit and some good fortune, overcame a bad start on their first drive to aggressively move the ball down the field to first and goal at the Minnesota 7.  But a run, a run and a pass later, they had to settle for a field goal to go up by three points, and give the Vikings a shot to either tie or win the game on their next drive.  At that point, the Packers' defense started giving up yards in big chunks again, allowing the Vikings to tie the game at 26.  The Packers' next opportunity was killed by incomplete passes, and their final opportunity was squandered with three offensive line penalties rendering it all but impossible to score.

With all the attention to the quartet of Packer quarterbacks and Flynn's heroic comeback, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that it was poor defense by the Packers that let the Vikings build up their 16 point lead in the fourth quarter, and poor defense that led to the Vikings' field goal in overtime to tie the game.  Yes, the Packers' defense at times made crucial stops, and they did get 6 sacks and recover 1 fumble.  But on the whole this was not a good effort.  When you give up 447 yards to a bad Vikings team, something is not right on defense.

One could go either way in evaluating a tie game.  Was it basically a victory for the Packers, in engineering the comeback to avoid the devastating loss?  Some fans reacted that way, as did at least one columnist.  Or did this tie basically amount to a loss for the Packers, because of the squandered opportunities to win the game in the 4th quarter and in overtime, and because of the lost chance to move into a tie for the division lead?  Some fans, many of the players, and another columnist take that view.  Count me mostly in the latter category.

So going into the Thanksgiving week, the Bears and Lions are in first place at 6-5, while the Packers are half a game back at 5-5-1.  I guess there are two silver linings here.  A tie is still better than a loss, although it is heartbreaking to have that kind of a stirring comeback and not come away with a win.  Beyond that, it is now highly unlikely that the Packers will end up in a tie for the division lead at the end of the season.  They might win the division by half a game, or they might lose it by half a game (or more).  But it is not going to come down to a tiebreaker, which is just as well, given the Packers' losses in the division and conference.

Who will start at quarterback for the Packers on Thanksgiving?  McCarthy said he has "no idea" if Rodgers will start.  (Well, he must have some idea, but we can let that pass as the usual McCarthy uncommunicative response.)  I am assuming it will be Flynn.  My guess is that Rodgers could use the extra 10 days to heal before the Falcons game.  I like Scott Tolzien, I thought he would be the winning QB Sunday, and I felt a little bad for him getting benched.  But given the Packers' current circumstances, McCarthy had to treat this game as akin to a playoff game.  If he felt Flynn gave the Packers a better chance, he had to make the change, and it is clear to me that he made the right call.  Flynn just looked more comfortable out there, and despite the Packers' offense bogging down twice, when a touchdown would have won the game, the offense was much more productive under Flynn on Sunday.  He completed 21 of 36 for 218 yards and a touchdown, in about 2.5 quarters (including overtime).  Can he beat the Lions?  Well, he did have a record-setting day against the Lions less than two years ago.  It would be great to see a repeat of that game, but ideally with better defensive play.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Make or Break Week Ahead

Photo by Brad Penner, USA Today
How disappointing it was to watch the Packers lose their third game in a row last week to the Giants, 27-13.  Maybe I was kidding myself (always a danger as a fan watching a game), but I really thought the Packers had a shot in the 4th quarter, until the devastating pick-6 interception by Jason Pierre-Paul.  The situation before that play was that the Packers trailed by 7 points, and they had just stopped the Giants with a 3 and out, including two sacks (by Brad Jones and Clay Matthews) to force a punt.  So the Packers had some momentum on their side.  One play later, the game was effectively over, as Jason Pierre-Paul  made a sensational interception for a touchdown against Scott Tolzien.  The ball just stuck in his outstretched hands, as if the ball was metal and his hands were a super-magnet.  From there, he strolled into the end zone to completely change the dynamic of the game.

In a post by blogger Jersey Al Bracco, who naturally attended the game himself, Jersey Al makes two great points on the problems with the Packers in the Giants game.  First, Coach McCarthy did the Packers no favors with his offensive play-calling.  Way too many times, he called runs on both first and second down to start possessions, almost all of which were unsuccessful, and many of which led to punts.  Re-watching the game with this comment in mind, it really was true.  Not coincidentally, the success the Packers offense had in the game (including all three scoring drives) came exclusively on possessions that varied from the run, run, pass model.

Jersey Al takes it a step farther, to make the point that the Packers' offense was so predictable that not only did the Giants seem to know what play was coming next, but so did Jersey Al himself, watching from the upper deck.  In fact, as he notes, Pierre-Paul told Press-Gazette reporter Wes Hodkiewicz after the game that he was able to read the formation of the Packers, and knew exactly what play was coming on his pick-6.  That makes it a lot easier, doesn't it?

Enough about the Giants.  The Packers' season may be made or broken in the next 5 days, as the Packers play the Vikings at home on Sunday, and then the Lions at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.  Aaron Rodgers is out against the Vikings, and reading between the lines of some of the comments, I don't think he will be starting on Thanksgiving, either.  If the Packers win both these games, they will be no worse off than tied for first place in the division.  If they lose both, time to start planning for next year's draft.  If they split the games, who knows?  They will still be alive but on shaky ground.

I saw enough from Scott Tolzien last week to think that the Packers should beat the Vikings.  A little more imaginative play-calling would help, but the Vikings just aren't good enough to beat the Packers at home, in the cold, even with our third-string quarterback.  Can they also beat the Lions on the road on Thanksgiving?  I am not at all sure about that, but we will know more when we figure out how the Packers look tomorrow, and whether Rodgers will be able to return for the Thanksgiving game.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Next QB Up (Again!)

Photo by Mike Roemer, AP
Since it is now Saturday evening as I write this, it is a little late to be commenting on last Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Eagles, in which QB 2 Seneca Wallace went down with a groin injury, pressing QB 3 Scott Tolzien into service.  So I will only say a few things about that game.

Sitting in the stands at Lambeau Field, we were just as shocked as the TV audience was when Tolzien came in on the second series.  We didn't see Wallace get hurt or have any difficulty coming off the field, and now that I have watched the TV broadcast, the announcers obviously had no clue, either.  There was a brief sideline shot, focusing on other things, but showing Scott Tolzien warming up, but evidently the announcers did not notice this, or did not make anything of it.  After Tolzien came in, Wallace continued throwing on the sideline and practicing dropping back for quite awhile, right down in front of us.  There just wasn't anything we saw in what he was doing that would have suggested that he had a season-ending injury.  So I can only read one thing into McCarthy immediately naming Tolzien as the starter this week, and in putting Wallace on IR when Matt Flynn was signed.  McCarthy must have concluded that Tolzien is a better option than Wallace, even if both are healthy.

If that was his conclusion, I can understand why.  Tolzien made two huge errors Sunday in throwing two interceptions.  I don't think it would have made the difference in the game, given the Packers' defensive collapse in the second half, but the game would have been a lot closer but for those interceptions.  Tolzien just looked better out there in his almost-full game than Wallace had in his partial game last Monday night, and his one series on Sunday.  Tolzien was decisive, seemed to have a pretty good arm, and if McCarthy was telling the truth when he said that Tolzien was running plays he had never practiced, then he is a good student of the game.

McCarthy's greater confidence in Tolzien's leading the offense was also shown by the fact that he was more willing to let Tolzien play a more aggressive game.  Unlike Monday night with Wallace, on Sunday McCarthy called more rollouts, screen passes, quick passes to the sideline, and even some deep balls.

So here we are, having our third starting quarterback in 3 weeks, after going the preceding 20 plus years with a total of three starting quarterbacks.  How will that work out for the Packers?  Well, if there are two teams in the league that seem to have the Packers' number in the last few years, the Giants are one of those teams, and the 49ers are the other.  But the Giants have been a bit of an enigma this year.  They lost the first 6 games of the year.  Every one of those teams is at least .500 as of right now, but still, the Giants lost every game.  Since then, the Giants have played two bad teams (the Vikings and the Raiders) and one 5-5 team (the Eagles), and they won all three of those games.  In hindsight, we can see that the Giants are a better team than we thought 3 weeks ago, but I don't think their 3 game winning streak is enough to convince me that the Giants are back as a contending team.

The Packers, when the same QB starts and finishes the game, are 5-2.  When the QB gets knocked out in the opening minutes of the game, they are 0-2.  So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Tolzien lasts the entire game, after preparing the entire week to be the starting QB.  Do the Packers have a chance?  Sure they do.  They now have the best running game they have had in years.  This takes an enormous amount of pressure off the passing game, and tends to tire out the opponents' defense.  While the Packers' defense played way below expectations the last two weeks, especially in the second half, they had been playing much better before that, so they should be capable of a better showing.  The Giants' offense just isn't playing the way it used to, for a combination of reasons including injuries, personnel, and the regression of Eli Manning as a QB.  I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it, but I think the Packers will win this game.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Will the 2013 Packers Survive the Next Few Weeks Without Rodgers?

AP Photo by Morry Gash
The news as of Tuesday afternoon was that Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was injured in the opening minutes of the Monday night loss to the Chicago Bears (27-20), will be out 3-6 weeks with a broken clavicle.  To add insult to injury, Jermichael Finley was placed on IR on Tuesday, as well.  We probably all knew that was coming, but still, just what we needed to hear Tuesday.

Maybe Bears Head Coach Marc Trestman is the Boy Genius after all.  Josh McCown looked good last week when pressed into service against the Redskins (although the Redskins did pull out a win at the end of the game), and he looked very solid Monday night in beating the Packers.  Meanwhile, Mike McCarthy, who has always had the reputation of being a great developer of quarterbacks, has had 8 weeks to work with Seneca Wallace as his backup quarterback, and yet he clearly was not ready to step in and perform at an adequate level.

To make matters worse, McCarthy seemed unwilling to let Wallace air it out.  Or at least, he seemed unwilling to let him pass most of the time until it was third down.  As in, "run, run, pass, punt."  Now I can understand that, when one of Wallace's first passes was tipped up and intercepted by Julius Peppers, it tended to reinforce McCarthy's cautious nature.  But he did the team's chances to win no favors when he pulled the reins so tight with Wallace.  Football fans talk all the time about the prevent defense, and how all it does is prevent a win.  Monday night, I am afraid we saw something that amounts to a prevent offense.  The way I see it, when Rodgers went out, there were two ways that the Packers were going to end up winning this game.  Either the defense and/or special teams were going to step up and make the difference in the game, or the offense was going to have to play aggressively and get a little lucky.

The special teams actually had a pretty good night.  There were two great special teams plays, the blocked punt, and the surprise onside kick the Packers recovered in the third quarter.  And McCarthy certainly gets all the credit for having the guts to call the onside kick.  These two plays led to 10 points for the Packers, half of their total for the night.  I think you could make a pretty good case that the special teams kept the Packers in the game, despite very pedestrian results kicking and receiving the ball.

The defense, on the other hand, picked a hell of a time to play their worse game since the opening day loss to the 49ers.  The defense had been improving all year, until Monday night.  After giving up 494 yards and 34 points to the 49ers in week 1 (a loss), they dialed it back to 422 yards but only 20 points in beating the Redskins in week 2.  In games 3 through 7. the Packers never gave up more than 360 total yards in any game, and in 4 of those 5 games, they held their opponent to less than 300 yards.  Monday night, the Packers gave up 442 yards and 27 points to the Bears playing with a backup quarterback of their own.  The Packers rarely got any pressure on McCown (he was sacked only once), and there were many instances of poor tackling by Packer defenders.

So, seeing how things were going, you would think that McCarthy would realize that more creativity and aggressiveness would be required on offense to have a good chance to win the game.  More play action passes, since it was obvious that the Packers were going to run the ball most of the time.  More screen passes or bootleg plays, or designed rollouts, to take a little starch out of the Bears' pass rush.  Maybe a trick play or two.  After re-watching the game, I now know that Wallace dropped back to pass 23 times, including plays where he was sacked.  He dropped back in the pocket 22 times.  Rollouts: 1.  Screens: 0.  Trick plays: 0.  He may have had a play action pass or two, but in general he just dropped straight back.

McCarthy's innate cautiousness made him shy away from being too aggressive with his backup quarterback. He probably would say that his strategy almost worked, given the Packers' strong running game, which frankly was a surprise given that the Bears knew it was coming.  The Packers led in the 3rd quarter.  They got as far as the Bear's 40 yard line, in the 4th quarter, while trailing by only 4 points.  So they weren't far away from squeaking out a win.  Still, I believe that this approach was a mistake.  Sure, if McCarthy got aggressive, there might be some big negative plays (a pick-6, for example).  But really, it may feel worse to get beat by 20 points than by 7, but they both count as a single loss.  And if you take some chances, you also create the chance to have a real shot at winning the game.

In contrast to McCarthy's overly cautious approach, take a look at the bold play Trestman pulled in the 4th quarter, going for it on 4th and inches, in the Bears' own territory, while holding a 4 point lead.  That is something that is very rarely seen, even though statistically you can make a good case for going for it on 4th and 1 from any position on the field.  But most NFL coaches are way too risk-averse to do it.

The bottom line is that the Packers were outcoached Monday night, their backup quarterback outplayed the Packers' backup quarterback, and the Packers' defense was woefully inadequate to make up the difference.  Congratulations to Marc Trestman and the Bears.

I have to assume that McCarthy will open it up at least a little in the coming weeks.  McCarthy will have a week, albeit a short one, to get Wallace ready to start against the Eagles on Sunday.  Over the next 3.5 weeks, the Packers will play 4 games against mediocre (or worse) teams: the Eagles (4-5) at home, at the Giants (2-6), at home against the Vikings (1-7), and at Detroit (5-3) on Thanksgiving.  Could the Packers win at least two of those games?  I think so, and if they do, they would be 7-5 and in pretty decent shape by the time Rodgers is about ready to come back.  The Eagles game would be an excellent time to start.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Chance to Go 3-0 in Division on the Line

Photo by Evan Siegle, Green Bay Press-Gazette
It is not news to any of us Packer fans that having a healthy running game is a huge plus for the Packers.  For years, in one context or another in these posts, I have lamented the fact that the Packers (usually) did not have that healthy running game.  But this year I have been excited about the fact that, with the drafting of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, it looked like they finally had a dependable running game.  The value of this was never clearer than it was on Sunday night.  The Packers beat the Vikings 44-31, in the Packers' last visit to the Metrodome, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score.

The Packers have had a productive running game in all 7 games this season, as noted by T.J. Lang in comments after the game.  But this was the first time all year that the Packers made substantial use of both Eddie Lacy and James Starks, with both staying healthy from start to finish of the game.  This allowed the Packers to batter the Vikings with the big back, Eddie Lacy, for most of the first three quarters, and then have James Starks available with fresh legs to continue gashing the Vikings and give Lacy a breather for half a quarter or so.

The problem with a high-powered pass offense is that it can sometimes misfire.  A pass is dropped, a ball gets batted, a receiver slips, and the next thing you know the defense is back on the field.  But if you have a balanced offense, as the Packers did on Sunday night, everything opens up.  Receivers have an easier time getting open, the play action and screen passes are more effective, and the other team's defense gets exhausted instead of your own defense.  The game stats clearly show this:
  • Combined Lacy / Starks stats: 39 carries for 151 yards, 
  • Combined 3rd and 4th down record for the Packers: 15 out of 20
  • Time of possession: the Packers had the ball for 40:54, more than twice the possession time of the Vikings.  The Packers outgained the Vikings, 464 to 243.
  • The Packers never punted in the game.
And then there was Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers has been notorious throughout his pro career for keeping various chips on his shoulder, starting with the fact that so many teams passed him up before falling to the Packers.  Did Rodgers have a chip on his shoulder about some of Greg Jennings' comments during the offseason?  I think so.  In the week before the game, he was asked about Jennings' comments, and said he was focused on the players in the locker room.  When a follow-up question was asked how he could forget about these comments, he said, "I didn't say anything about forgetting, I just said focusing." 

Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette put in context how dominating Rodgers' game was on Sunday:
In five appearances at the Metrodome before Sunday, Rodgers completed 70.1 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns, just one interception and a phenomenal 123.2 passer rating.
It didn’t seem possible, but Rodgers proceeded to take those impressive numbers to a higher level on Sunday, when he completed 24 of 29 passes (82.8 percent) for 285 yards and a passer rating of 130.6.
This dominating performance, along with Greg Jennings' stats (1 catch for 9 yards), led to the uncomfortably long hug by Jennings of Rodgers, depicted above.

And now the Bears come to town.  The Packers will need to beat the Bears to stay in first place in the division, and if they do win, they will go up 2 games on the Bears, and 1 game on the Lions.  When the Bears started the year 3-0, I thought that maybe the addition of the Boy Genius (Marc Trestman) as coach might have really turned the Bears around.  I call him that because, when he was the offensive coordinator in San Francisco, the media here treated him as the next great coach.  His NFL career never went anywhere, but then he went off to Canada, won some Grey Cups as head coach, and now has come to Chicago.  Since I don't follow the CFL at all, it was conceivable to me that he had really come into his own, and that in the Trestman offense, the Cutler-Brandon Marshall connection would be a big deal again, as it had been in Denver.

After their 3-0 start, they have lost 3 out of 4, and they will almost certainly be without Jay Cutler on offense and Lance Briggs on defense on Monday night.  Packer fans are not about to feel bad that the Bears are missing a couple of stars, given the Packers' injuries this year.  The Packers have shown, so far this year, that they are a better team than the Bears, and they have done that despite their many injuries.  The Bears' defense is nothing like what it used to be - you would not call this unit the Monsters of the Midway.  They are in the bottom 10 in the league in both passing and rushing defense.  While the Packers have given up way too many yards passing, too, the Packers are no. 4 in rushing defense, which ought to slow down Matt Forte just a little bit.  On offense, meanwhile, the Bears are no. 14 in rushing offense.  Not too bad, except that (I can't even believe I am typing this) the Packers are no. 3 in rushing offense.  The Bears are no. 11 in passing offense, again not bad, but the Packers are no. 5.  Without Jay Cutler, this should be a serious mismatch favoring the Packers.

I noticed a couple of interesting items in a article about this game.  First, the Packers will be honoring U.S. Marine Corps Lieutentant Jon Eisele before the National Anthem.  In addition to being a a Marine and a Packer shareholder, he is also a member of the Central Florida Packer Backers, where we will visit next month.  The other item stuck out like a sore thumb to me:
John Vincent will perform the national anthem, and four large American flags will be unfurled on the field.Vincent is a singer at Mike Ditka’s Steakhouse in Chicago, Ill.
Ditka's Steakhouse?  You must be kidding!  But then I did a little research, and discovered that, in addition to having a powerful baritone voice, Vincent also performed the National Anthem at Lambeau Field last season, in the week 2 Thursday Night Game when the Packers dismantled the Bears, 23-10.  My take is that the Packers, as an organization, are every bit as superstitious as everyday Packer fans.

Maybe Rodgers can even find something to put a chip on his shoulder about the Bears.  I see a big win for the Packers.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Despite Injuries, Packers Roll into First Place

Photo Courtesy of
This turned out to be an eventful weekend in the NFC North, on a couple of levels.  In the early games on Sunday, the Bears lost to the Redskins in a high-scoring game (41-45).  The Redskins manufactured an excellent drive in the final two minutes, and went ahead on a final minute touchdown run by Roy Helu.  Minutes earlier, the Lions had lost to the Bengals (24-27) on a final play field goal.  Going into this week's games, the Bears and Lions were both at 4-2, while the Packers trailed in third place at 3-2.  So as soon as the Bears and Lions lost, the Packers found themselves in first place in the division, for the first time this year, although obviously they needed to win their game in order to stay in first place.  Which they did, beating the Browns 31-13, in a game that was never in doubt after the Packers scored touchdowns on their first two drives.  This was a simple case of a better team beating an inferior team.

The Packers played the game in their historic blue and gold throwback uniforms, this year featuring plain gold helmets, instead of the plain brown helmets they have used for the past few years.  As a point of historical trivia, this game between the Packers and the Browns featured both teams playing in plain helmets, with no logo (since the Browns always play without a logo).  This presumably is the first Packer game since 1960 in which neither team had a helmet logo, because the Packers added the "G" logo to their helmets in 1961.  In this game, the Packers did a very good job of compensating for their injury-depleted roster.  The Packers played without linebackers Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Brad Jones, and without receivers and tight ends Randall Cobb, James Jones and Ryan Taylor, and would lose Jermichael Finley during the game.  But the backups played very well.  WR Jarrett Boykin, who looked very iffy when pressed into service a week ago, looked great on Sunday, having his first 100 yard receiving game, and his first NFL touchdown.  On the defensive side, A.J. Hawk had another big day, racking up 12 total tackles, and backup linebacker Jamari Lattimore got another 12 tackles and a sack.  Rookie linebacker Nate Palmer added another 6 tackles. 

Sunday was an absolutely brutal day on the injury front in the NFL.  The Bears lost Jay Cutler for 4 weeks with a torn groin, and also lost LB Lance Briggs for 6 weeks, during the game.  The Colts lost Reggie Wayne for the season, the Bengals lost Leon Hall, the Buccaneers lost Doug Martin, the Texans lost Brian Cushing, and the Rams lost Sam Bradford.  The scariest injury of all was the potentially life-altering injury to Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.  Finley took a blow to the head or neck on a tackle, and initially could not move after hitting the ground, was taken off on a cart and spent the night in the intensive care unit of a Green Bay hospital.  The latest news as of the writing of this blog post suggests that Finley is up, walking around, and in good spirits.  So it looks like he will OK in "real life."  What about his football life?  It may be some time before we know the answer to that one.  I wish him nothing but the best.

While I was finalizing this post, I saw references on the internet to Finley's twitter account, where he sent out a set of tweets late today, saying:
"I want to thank my family, friends, teammates, fans and Packer Nation for the prayers and support over the past 24 hrs. I'm happy to report that I have been transferred out of the intensive care unit and that I have full feeling in my arms and legs. As importantly, I was able 2 walk to & from the shower today, which was badly needed after yesterday's victory! Thank u again 4 the support, and Go Packers!" 
Great news to hear, and I hope that he recovers quickly, and that his injury does not turn out to be career threatening.

To finish out the NFC North's weekend, the Vikings played at the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.  I have to say, both these teams look just terrible.  They both have some talent on defense, but they can't get their act together on offense.  Eli Manning, despite having targets like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, can't get the passing game going, and the Giants' running game is a mess. 

The Vikings are now starting their fourth quarterback in the last 10 months: Christian Ponder, Joe Webb, Matt Cassel, and now the recently-acquired Josh Freeman.  Josh Freeman could conceivably turn out to be the Vikings' quarterback of the future, but he clearly he is not the Vikings' quarterback of the present until he learns more of the playbook.  The Vikings' next game is against the Packers, at the Metrodome, next Sunday night.  Will Freeman be ready?  I don't think so.  Does Greg Jennings miss playing for the Packers?  Based on the ill-will he has shown for the Packers since signing with the Vikings, I guess the answer is no.  But maybe, just maybe, he is starting to realize that things were not so bad in Green Bay, and maybe he would be better off if he was still a Packer.  Since the Packers play the Vikings twice, the Cutler-less Bears once, and the Giants in the next five weeks, I am hoping that these games will provide the opportunity for some wins while the Packers get a little healthier.  It starts in Minnesota this week, and I am looking forward to a solid win for the Packers on Monday night.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Injury Carousel Continues

Photo by Evan Siegle, Press-Gazette Media
Linebacker Nick Perry, shown in the photo, was one of the Packer players who sustained significant injuries in Sunday's game against the Ravens, which the Packers hung on to win, 19-17.  The photo shows him forcing the fumble on the second-to-last play of the first half, which resulted in Mason Crosby getting another shot at a field goal, having missed one (his first miss of the season!) a couple of plays earlier.  This time, Crosby made the field goal, in essence providing the margin of victory in the game.  Perry's strip sack was a big-time play.

But apparently on the same play, Perry broke his foot and is expected to miss multiple weeks, meaning both starting outside linebackers, Perry and Matthews, will be out for now.  If Brad Jones is still out this week, then 3 of the 4 starting linebackers will be out.  Time for McCarthy's mantra: next man up!  Speaking of which, what got into A.J. Hawk?  The normally steady but unspectacular Hawk led the team in tackles and assists Sunday (10), in sacks (3) and in tackles for loss (5, including the 3 sacks).  Hawk was not the only defensive player to step up his game on Sunday.  Lots of players contributed, and when you hold Ray Rice to 34 yards rushing, and have a sensational goal-line stand from the 4 yard line, the defense is playing a great game.

If anything, though, the injuries to James Jones and Randall Cobb were more troubling, given that the Packers' passing offense has sputtered, on and off, all season long.  Both were knocked out of the game, with Cobb's injury looking particularly painful.  When you have to cart the player back to the sidelines to watch the rest of the game, it is not a good sign.  After Cobb left the game, the Packers were left with exactly two active and healthy wide receivers on the roster, Jordy Nelson and Jarrett Boykin.  And for awhile, it looked like Boykin had hands of stone, as he dropped several passes before finally holding onto one for an important gain of 43 yards.

Jones' injury turns out to be the less serious of the two, just as we all expected while watching the game, and he might even play this week against the Browns.  But Cobb broke his fibula, and while differing reports were swirling all day Monday, the current consensus estimate is that he might miss 6-8 weeks.

Was the tackle on Cobb a cheap shot?  After Ravens' safety Matt Elam tackled Randall Cobb at his knees, Rodgers let Elam know he wasn't happy about the tackle.  Another defensive player argued back about the limited areas defensive players are now allowed to tackle a ball carrier, which Rodgers admitted was a fair point.  Adam Czech, of Jersey Al's Packers web site, makes a pretty convincing case that there was nothing dirty about the hit.  For myself, I am glad that Rodgers made an issue about it, both during the game and in his press conference after the game, even if we assume that the hit was not illegal.  As I understand Rodgers' point, he isn't exactly arguing that the hit was illegal, or even that it was (necessarily) a dirty hit.  He is arguing that it was completely unnecessary to hit Cobb at the knees, in effect appealing to Elam's better instincts and, more broadly, to try to encourage the players and the league to take a closer look at unnecessarily dangerous hits.  In the same way that a legitimate tackle becomes an illegal hit when the defender picks up the offensive player and slams him into the ground, there ought to be some discretion to treat a tackle like this one as an illegal hit by needlessly exposing the player to injury.

This coming Sunday, the Cleveland Browns come to Green Bay.  With the rash of injuries afflicting the Packers, every game is a potential loss.  When the 3-3 Browns were on their three-game winning streak, they looked dangerous.  But in hindsight, they have only beaten one good team, the Bengals, and they did it at home.  Their other two wins were against the flailing Vikings and the under-performing Bills.  The Packers ought to have enough, with a week to plan around the injuries, to beat the Browns.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Win Over Lions Brings Packers Back to .500

Photo by Tom Freeman
We were lucky enough to attend Sunday's Lions-Packers game (the Packers won, 22-9).  We saw a few things that were not featured in the TV broadcast.

(1) The University of Wisconsin marching band played the national anthem before the game, and they did a nice job of it.  Somewhere out there on the field, Lions center Dominic Raiola was shouting insults and slurs at the band members, but we did not see any of this from the stands.  I am tempted to say that Raiola is typical of the completely classless Detroit Lions organization, starting with Head Coach Jim Schwartz, but if I say that, I also have to give some credit to Lions safety Louis Delmas, who apparently apologized to band members and told them he had enjoyed their performance.

(2) There was a different flyover from the usual Lambeau Field flyover, apparently because of the effects of the government sequestration: the AeroShell Aerobatic team, flying vintage AT-6 propeller planes over the stadium.  If I had realized they were coming, I would have snapped a picture, since it would be a lot easier to catch a picture of them than the usual jets.

(3) Finally, on a completely different note, our friend Andrew Bradley noticed Evan Dietrich-Smith throwing up on the sidelines, if I recall correctly, before the second half started.  I have no idea what that was all about, but it was unpleasant to watch.  It didn't seem to affect his play, however.

Despite all the Packers' sputtering in the red zone, I always felt that the Packers were in charge of this game.  It is certainly true that, leading at halftime by the score of 6-3, the Packers were a broken coverage away from trailing in the game.  But this was not one of those games where it felt very likely that that could happen.  The line provided decent protection to Rodgers (he was only sacked once), Eddie Lacy did a nice job running the ball, gaining 99 yards, and only a penalty late in the game prevented him from going well over 100 yards.  Mason Crosby was 5 for 5 on field goals, including 3 from more than 40 yards.  Did a little competition in training camp help to pull him out of his slump from last year?  Who knows, but right now he is kicking very well.  Speaking of Eddie Lacy, I have never seen him in person before, but he looks a lot bigger on the field, for some reason, than he does on TV.  I wouldn't quite say he has Earl Campbell thighs, but I thought of Earl when I saw Lacy out on the field.  My main critique of Lacy on Sunday was that he doesn't seem, at this stage, to break a lot of tackles.  When he is hit, he tends to go down, but he falls forward for a couple of extra yards when he does.  If he starts breaking tackles, the sky could be the limit for him.

We were surprised, on the way to the stadium, to hear that Calvin Johnson was inactive for the game.  Would he have made the difference for the Lions?  We will never know, but with him out of the lineup, it was much easier to key on Reggie Bush and control the Lions.  And so they lost in Wisconsin again, as they have every year since 1991.

This week, the Packers travel to Baltimore to play the world champion Ravens.  Before the season, I would have seen this game as a likely loss, but I am now much more optimistic about it.  The Ravens, although 3-2, are just not playing like the Ravens of 2012.  Maybe the loss of Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin hurt them more than I would have imagined, but for whatever reason they just look more beatable to me.  Flacco has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and the much-vaunted Ravens running game is producing less than 80 yards per game.

The loss of Clay Matthews for about a month (broken thumb) is very concerning, and indeed three other players have already been declared out for the game (James Starks, Brad Jones, and Greg Van Roten).  The Packers are particularly thin at linebacker.  Three linebackers from Sunday's game will be out - Matthews, Jones, and Robert Francois (now on IR).  So this game will be a real test of the Packers' depth.  It would be nice to see them get above .500 for the first time this year.  Once could make the argument that this is the toughest game left on the Packers' schedule for the year.  This could be a bit of wishful thinking on my part, but I am predicting a Packers victory.  Since the Bears already won their fourth game Thursday night, the Packers can't afford to lose any more games that they could win, if they want to keep pace.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Will the Packers Look Like After the Bye?

Picture by
Watching your team lose a game is always frustrating.  Watching them dig themselves out of a hole, build a sizable lead, and then collapse and lose the game after all, is not only frustrating but infuriating.  Add in wounded players all over the field and you have the formula for despair.  All of that, and more, came out of the Packers' 34-30 loss to the Bengals last week.  They found themselves peering upward at the 3-0 Bears (now at 3-1), wondering what the rest of the season would look like.

After last week's game, speculation was running rampant.

When would the Packers dump kick returner Jeremy Ross, who was responsible for another fumbled kickoff, leading to the Packers trailing 14-0 in the opening minutes of the game?  Answer: the day after the game.  (Follow-up question: if you are going to dump him the next day, why have him run back more kicks during the game?  I have no answer on that one.)

What was the story behind Rodgers and McCarthy yelling at each other on the sideline in the second quarter, after a Packers drive fizzled at the Bengals' one yard line?  Rodgers confirmed that the discussion was about play-calling, but the antagonists otherwise brushed it off by saying that they are both fierce competitors trying to win the game.

I even heard some speculation in a Packers Talk Radio Network podcast that Rodgers sustained a concussion on the sideline hit on the drive that fizzled at the one.  I have to admit, the same thought occurred to me while watching the game.  The difference is that the podcaster in question is a medical doctor, so her observation counts for more than mine.

While the Packers were idle this week, the Packers' next opponents, the Lions, were busy beating the Bears, so that both the Lions and Bears are now 3-1.  I saw enough of that game to feel that beating the Lions will be no walk in the park on Sunday, but if the Packers are ever going to recover enough to win the division, it was probably important for the Lions to knock off the unbeaten Bears, and it is even more important that the Packers start to play more consistently and go out and beat the Lions at home.

Despite all the drama of last week's loss, it is useful to keep things in perspective - it is a long season, and if the Packers can get their act together, there is plenty of time to turn things around.  Speaking of keeping things in perspective, it is hard to say it any better than Zach Kruse of Cheesehead TV did:

– Keep this in mind: The Packers were without starters at running back, safety, cornerback and eventually tight end and outside linebacker, plus backup running back and special teams gunner. Coughing up a 16-point second half lead is inexcusable, but that’s a lot of talent to lose on the road against a good football team.
I agree on all counts.  I can't excuse the blown lead, but let's face it, when you lose that many people, before and during the game, you can say "next man up" all you want, but you still have a problem on your hands.

The Packers just came back after their bye week on Monday, so it is still a little early to know how many of these players will be back for the Sunday game against the Lions.  As of today (Wednesday), all of the injured players are back participating fully in practice, with these notable exceptions: Hayward (out, and sounds like he is not expected back this week), OL Greg Van Roten (out), James Starks (did not practice, sounds like he will be out this week) and Clay Matthews (limited participation).  I think this means that Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, Jermichael Finley and Morgan Burnett are all expected back this week.  Will that be enough?  Let's hope so, because otherwise it will be a long season.  The Lions have beaten the Vikings, Redskins, and Bears, and lost to the Cardinals, in putting up their 3-1 record.  Only the win against the Bears impresses me.  Reggie Bush has played surprisingly well for the Lions, and of course Calvin Johnson is almost impossible to stop. But I still believe that the Packers have more talent on their roster, they will be playing at home, they have had two weeks to game plan, rest up, and get some players healthier.  I am looking for a big Packers win on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Packers' Record-Breaking Performance

Photo by Rob Grabowski, USA Today Sports
Karma moment of the year is pictured in the USA Today photo - Brandon Meriweather being taken off the field after his second helmet-on-helmet hit against a Packers running back.  The first one knocked Eddie Lacy out of the game with a concussion.  In the second one, Meriweather knocked himself out with a concussion.  Both the Packer players and the fans in the stadium gave him a nice hand on his way off the field.  In that regard, they are much more generous than I am.  I was glad to see him knock himself out of the game before he injured anybody else. 

Either the league is serious about preventing helmet-to-helmet hits, or it is not.  If it is, Meriweather should be suspended, especially because he has a history as a head-hunter.  Ndamukong Suh just last week got a $100,000 fine, when anybody else without his history would have been fined much less.  Given Meriweather's history, nothing but a suspension will suffice.

But back to the game itself, a game filled with big smiles on the Packer sidelines and in the stands.  The Packers completely dominated the game, from start to finish, leading at one point in the third quarter by 31-0, before finishing the game 38-20, a misleading score if I ever saw one.

My favorite things about this game?  Just about everything.  Better decisions on kick returns by Jeremy Ross, a score on the opening drive despite back-to-back sacks, aggressive play on offense, including the no-huddle and a 4th down touchdown pass, aggressive play on defense, including swarming run defense and nice use of blitzes at appropriate times.  James Starks, playing in relief of Eddie Lacy, had the first 100 yard rushing game by a Packer since Brandon Jackson did it in 2010.  He also made great decisions on individual running plays, and he was the beneficiary of the Packers' old staple play, the screen pass - something they should run more often, because it was successful in both games this season.  The only real negative was the fact that the Packers gave up 4 sacks, which is not the way to keep Aaron Rodgers upright and healthy the whole year.

Speaking of records, Aaron Rodgers tied the Packers' single game passing record at 480 yards.  He shares that record with the perennial backup, Matt Flynn (now playing backup for the third team in as many seasons).  The Packers also had a 400 yard passing game and a 100 yard rusher in the same game for the first time in the long history of the franchise.  To take it one step further, no team in NFL history had a 450 yard passing game and a 125 yard rushing game in the same game, until the Packers did it on Sunday.  And finally, the Packers had the second-most YAC (yards after catch) in a game in the history of the NFL on Sunday (295 YAC).

So at 1-1, trailing the Bears by a game in the NFC North, the Packers have something to build on as they play the Bengals, in Cincinnati on Sunday, hoping to go 2-1 before their very early bye week.  In the wake of the 49ers game in week 1, I was personally worried about the possibility of the Packers going 0-3.  I was still worried about 1-2, but frankly the Bengals did not impress me that much in their Monday night game.  They do have a fearsome pass rush, they have the great A.J. Green and a developing running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.  But I think the Steelers are pretty much all done, and yet they were able to stay close to the Bengals for most of the game.  So I think a team like the Packers has an excellent chance of beating them, even on the road.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Disappointing First Game

Photo by Tom Freeman
It was a tough day at the old ball park on Sunday.  The Packers played much better Sunday than they did in their January trip to Candlestick Park, in almost all aspects of the game.  But it was not enough, and they lost their season-opener to the 49ers for the second year in a row, this time by the score of 34-28.

We knew this was going to be a tough game, as I said last week.  In an effort to change up the karma, we went Packer-stalking Saturday night, and did manage to find the Packers' hotel, and see several Packers in the lobby (James Jones and Clay Matthews).  We used to do this back in the 1990's, and the Packers won all but one of those Green Bay at San Francisco games.  Jones was talking to unidentified teammates about his routes.  (Since he had no catches on Sunday, maybe he needed to spend more time talking about his routes.)  Matthews was talking to a friend in a very animated fashion, right before going into a team meeting at 8:00 pm.  The animation carried over to Sunday, when he played with intensity all day long (including the one play where he overdid it).

As for the day of the game, things were mixed, both on and off the field.  Off the field, things started out very well, as we attended a great tailgate party hosted by our Packer fan friends, Hazel and John.  We arrived in the stadium and were lucky enough to have really excellent seats (the picture above was taken from the seats).  But after such a great start, the game began.  I have to admit that, objectively speaking, it was a very good and entertaining game, but for us, it was painful, for obvious reasons.  After the game, we were stuck in massive traffic jams, perhaps due in part to the novelty of the newly-reconfigured Bay Bridge.  It took us well over 3 hours in traffic to get home, although in retrospect some of that time was lost in unsuccessful attempts to find a way around all the traffic. 

But hey, it could have been a lot worse: at least we didn't fall off the elevated Jamestown Street walkway outside of Candlestick Park and die, as one drunk football fan did on Sunday just as the game was getting started.  It turns out that he fell off a pedestrian bridge that allows fans to cross Jamestown Street  to enter the stadium's main parking lot from above without disrupting traffic.  We used the same bridge on our way in and out of the stadium on Sunday, where we encountered other drunk 49ers fans (the deceased was a 49ers fan).  You would have to be pretty drunk, or pretty stupid, or both, to fall off this bridge, since there is a railing 3.5 to 4 feet high on the entire bridge (the bridge is pictured in the photo in this KTVU story).

As for the play of the Packers on the field, I had mixed feelings.  There is no non-division team I want to beat more than the 49ers, so the game was obviously a major disappointment.  And yet, despite the fact that the Packers were either tied or behind most of the game, so that it was at all times easier to imagine the 49ers winning the game than the Packers, there was a lot of good to take away from the Packers' loss.  I liked the extensive use of the no-huddle offense by the Packers.  The play of Jermichael Finley was also appreciated, and it really does look as if the pre-season talk about him being ready to have a break-out year may be justified.  I liked the play of Eddie Lacy, who fumbled once and struggled to get started, but who looked better the longer the game went on, and who really looked good when he got in the open field, particularly on a screen pass in the first quarter.  The play of the offensive line was a pleasant surprise, as they did a pretty good job protecting Rodgers despite the absence of Bulaga.  And I liked the aggressive play of the defense, particularly Clay Matthews, despite his costly error on the late hit out of bounds.  To Matthews' credit, he owned up to the mistake, calling it "not a very smart play," but given the pre-game talk about going after the quarterback, I thought he was a little lucky not to be thrown out of the game.  And I really liked seeing Johnny Jolly back and in extended action, and I have to wonder how much his presence on the defensive line had to do with the Packers' much better play against the run.

To me, the difference in the game came down to two things, turnovers and injuries.  Eddie Lacy had the ball stripped from him in a pile, resulting in a 49er touchdown, and a ball bounced off Finley's hands and was intercepted, although the 49ers did not score on the ensuing drive.  Meanwhile, the Packers forced no turnovers on defense.

As for injuries, the Packers played without two starting-quality defensive backs, Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward (who is technically not a starter, but is a strong contributor in many defensive packages).  The Packers played a lot of zone defense in the game, which I think makes sense given their emphasis on stopping Kaepernick from running.  Scrambling quarterbacks frequently pick up lots of extra yards against a man-to-man defense, because some of the defenders have their backs to the ball and realize too late that the quarterback is running.  So it made good sense to play the zone, but Anquan Bolding and Vernon Davis were able, very effectively, to exploit the gaps in the zone, especially in the middle of the field, and without Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward on the field, the Packers were just not able to make enough plays to stop them.  The Packers played pretty well, much better than in either of the 49er games last year, they had their chances to win this game, and they were in the game until the final play, all without Burnett and Hayward.  Would they have made the difference?  Who knows, but the Packers' chances would have been better with them playing.

This week, The Washington Redskins (yes, I called them the Redskins) come to town for the opening game at Lambeau Field.  This will be the second of three straight games against playoff teams from last year to start the season, and the only home game of the three.  I expect to see the Packers win the game.  As compared to last week, the Packers will pick up the home field advantage, plus it looks hopeful that Morgan Burnett will be back.  On the Redskins' side, while I like RG III a lot as a player, I think he is less likely, given his injury last year, to take off running than was Kaepernick.  I don't think the Redskins receivers or tight ends are as good as those of the 49ers, and I don't think the Redskins' defense is anywhere near as good as the defense of the 49ers.  Put all of these factors together, and I think you have the recipe for a win for the home team.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Another Season, Another 49er Opener

Today I went to the local DMV counter at the AAA office here in the suburbs of San Francisco.  My purpose was to get my "PACK FAN" plates reassigned to my new car.  The clerk asked, in a good-natured fashion, if I wanted to switch the plates today or wait until after the game on Sunday.  He also pointed out that they are offering a free 49ers blanket if I get an insurance quote.  The funny thing is, this office is in the East Bay, much closer to Oakland than to San Francisco, and yet they are not offering any Raiders blankets.  Yes, I love these California bandwagon-jumpers.

Lots of pregame coverage around here revolving around the rules for hitting read-option quarterbacks.  First, the NFL put out a media training video that explains the rules (warning: it takes forever to load - NFL Video).  The bottom line of the video is that a read-option QB is considered a runner, whether or not he actually has the ball, until he is out of the play or is in a "passing posture" (for example, standing upright, either still or backing away from the play).  So if the QB hands off the ball but continues to run forward in order to continue the uncertainty about who has the ball, he is in a "running posture" and can be tackled.  When Bay Area media asked Clay Matthews about this the other day, he explained the rule as the Packers understand it.  Which caused Jim Harbaugh to immediately start whining about the Packers' "tough talk," saying that he has contacted the league office to ask for clarification of the rule, and also intends to talk to the officials in the stadium on Sunday about what he perceives as sounding like the targeting of a specific player.

At least one member of the Bay Area lapdog sports media was right there with Harbaugh. "What’s behind the NFL’s failure to protect read-option quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick?"  Maybe that had something to do with the fact that Harbaugh upped the ante on Friday by saying that the rule is "flawed and biased."  My sense (and hope) is that this issue will fade away, one way or the other.  The league's rule is not new - only the explanation and examples are new.  Obviously, if the QB is either running the ball or trying to deceive the defense as to who is carrying the ball, the QB has to be treated as a ball carrier, and not as a quarterback entitled to special protection against harm.  One of two things is likely to happen with respect to this rule and this game.  Either Harbaugh will cut down or even eliminate the usage of the read-option, to protect Kaepernick, or he won't, and Kaepernick will take some hits.  If the Packers are able to do this with some discipline and discretion (an open question), it might work out well for them.

On a personal level, I don't think I have been as pessimistic about a 49ers-Packers game since that first playoff game back in January, 1996.  Then, I just assumed that the defending Champion 49ers would win, and I didn't know if Favre and the Packers were ready to compete on that level.

This time, my pessimism comes from the fact that the 49ers were almost impossible to stop late in the year and in the playoffs last year.  The Packers, by contrast, just were not on any kind of a roll at the end of the year, and blew the chance for a bye week by losing to the Vikings in the final regular-season game.  I know that the preseason doesn't mean much (if anything at all).  Still, in the preseason this year, the Packers have just not done anything to give me a lot of confidence.  I am enthusiastic about Eddie Lacy bringing a new dimension to the offense, but that enthusiasm is tempered by the loss of DuJuan Harris and Brian Bulaga for the year, and I don't know if it is reasonable to assume that they will have a successful running game together by Week 1 of the season.  On defense, I find it encouraging that the Packers spent a lot of time studying how to stop the read-option during the offseason (and I will set aside the question of why they didn't do a little of that homework in preparation for the playoff game last year), but the Packers will still be without Casey Hayward (out with a hamstring) and probably without Morgan Burnett (also with a hamstring).

The Packers have enough talent to go in and win this game.  And maybe the 49ers will turn out to be a bit of a one-year wonder.  But if I honestly predict the winner of the game, I see the 49ers winning, in a closer game than the playoff game last year.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Next Stop, San Francisco

Your Humble Correspondent with Family & Friend

When it was announced that the Vikings had made starting quarterback Christian Ponder inactive for the
Saturday night playoff game against the Packers, the logical reaction was to think of this as a plus for the Packers.  The Packers had a huge problem stopping Adrian Peterson in the regular season, and the Vikings beat the Packers last week in the regular season finale largely because Ponder played the game of his career so far, putting the Packers in the position of having to defend not only Adrian Peterson, but also a newly-productive Christian Ponder.  With Ponder out in favor of Joe Webb, the argument would be, the Packers could now focus almost exclusively on stopping Peterson.

That was not my reaction.  I had just arrived at my seat in Lambeau Field when my brother-in-law Bruce Casper sent me a text message that Ponder was inactive.  I didn't really believe him (he has been known to BS me, from time to time), but I quickly confirmed that it was true.  But I have been writing for over 10 years about what I call the Brad Hoover Syndrome, where a backup player gets an unexpected start against the Packers, and turns out to be the key player in the Packers' loss.  Ever since Brad Hoover got a start for the Panthers in a 2000 Monday Night game against the Packers, in place of Tim Biakabatuka, I have treated these situations as potential poison.

Thankfully, in this case things worked out exactly as they should have.  I had not seen Joe Webb play since he replaced Brett Favre (then with the Vikings) a couple of years ago.  In the first series, I realized that I had forgotten how mobile the guy is.  He and Peterson combined to run the ball down the field, leading to the Vikings getting their only lead of the day, at 3-0.  But I soon also remembered what a poor quarterback he is.  He is inaccurate, and makes poor decisions under pressure.  Twice he threw "pop-ups" as he was under extreme pressure, and only his lucky stars prevented these passes from being intercepted or returned for touchdowns.  I could not help but be troubled by the second half, after the Packers took a 24-3 lead.  They seemed to go to sleep, coasting for the rest of the way, with one 3-and-out after another.   Not a great plan, and one to be avoided at all costs in a game against a team with more firepower.

So now the Packers will be coming out here to Northern California to play the 49ers.  This game has so many echoes for me.  The very first playoff game I ever attended was Packers at 49ers, in January 1996.  It was the coming out game for the Packers.  Sure, they had been in the playoffs the two prior years, but had not made much noise.  And here they had to play the defending world champion 49ers, at Candlestick, in the second round of the playoffs.  I almost didn't go, thinking that they would probably lose, but since I had attended every Packer game since 1980 in Northern California against the 49ers or Raiders, I decided I had to go.  (That streak is still alive, and I will be there Saturday night.)  That January 1996 game was the first time you really had to look at the team and say "these Holmgren/Favre/White Packers might actually win the Super Bowl."  They didn't, that year, but did so the following season.

That game was the first of four years in a row where there were playoff games between the Packers and 49ers, with three of those games in San Francisco.  There was the euphoria of the emergence of the Packers in January, 1996, the dismantling of the 49ers at Lambeau in the freezing rain the next year (the year of Super Bowl XXXI), the drowning of the 49ers at Candlestick in the heavy rain the following year (the year of Super Bowl XXXII) and then finally, the Terrell Owens game at Candlestick the following year, where both teams were well past their prime (the Terrell Owens game was also Mike Holmgren's last game as Packers' head coach and, for that matter, the last radio game for Max McGee and Jim Irwin).

Local media here in the days leading up to the game have been surprisingly guarded in their outlook for the game.  "Rodgers has edge vs. 49ers," said one article, while "QB duel would not favor S.F.," said another.  There was coverage of the fact that former 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo still has nightmares about the Packers and Cowboys.  And of course there has been coverage everywhere of the ironic fact that California-native Rodgers grew up as a 49er fan, while Wisconsin-native Colin Kaepernick grew up as a Packers fan.  So this is a huge personal game for both starting quarterbacks, and of course the chip on Rodgers' shoulder is legendary by this point.  The Packers have played inconsistently at times during this season, but whereas they lost 3 of their first 5 games, they have won 10 of their last 12, and they are probably healthier now than they have been in months.  Sure, the Packers could lose this game, and they could lose it badly if the 49ers get in a rhythm and the Packers get in a rut.  But I like the Packers' chances against a young QB playing his first playoff game, and against a fearsome defense, but one that is a bit banged up at the moment.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Exorcise the Demon

Going into the final week of the regular season, the Packers had the chance to secure a week off and get some rest before starting the playoffs.  Of course, they blew that chance and let the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson run wild all over the Metrodome, leading to a 37-34 loss to the Vikings.  At times, one could be forgiven for wondering if the Packers had just decided to let Adrian Peterson get the all-time single season rushing record, as some kind of twisted and belated Christmas present.  Sort of like Brett Favre falling to the turf to give up a sack to his pal Michael Strahan.

I ran out of time this week to go back and re-watch the game, so I haven’t counted up the number of times Peterson bounced a run to the outside, whereupon the Packers defender realized that he had an impossible angle to get to Peterson, and had to adjust the angle so as to give up another 10 or 20 yards, but at least have a chance to catch up to Peterson.  Suffice it to say that it seemed like it happened a lot. 

Heading into the playoffs, there were a lot of potential revenge games that could have materialized for the Packers’ first game.  Would it be a chance to pay back Seattle, for (as it turns out) costing the Packers a bye week, and coming darn close to ruining the Packers’ season?  Would it be the Giants, with the Packers getting one more chance to show that the Giants’ defense does not really have the Packers’ number?  How about a flashback to all those Packers-49ers playoff games from the 1990’s and a chance to avenge the disastrous Terrell Owens game?

Nope.  Instead, the Packers get a do-over.  Another chance to show that the Packers don’t always give up 200 yards rushing to Adrian Peterson.  Another chance to stop the otherwise unimpressive Christian Ponder from carving them up.  And (forgive me for this) a chance to “wipe away” the Randy Moss playoff game from January 2005. 

To get it done, the first thing they have to do is do a better job of tackling.  The Packers showed in week 13 that you can give up a lot of yards to Adrian Peterson and still win the game, so long as you don’t also let Christian Ponder have time for a shoe shine and a shave while sitting back comfortably in the pocket.  Ponder had what was probably his best day in the NFL against the Packers last Sunday.  

The most interesting article I have read this week is by Kevin Seifert of ESPN.  He brings the stats to show that, in the first game between the two teams, the Packers blitzed 75% of the time on third down, and on those downs, Ponder was horrible.  For reasons known only to Dom Capers, on third down in the second game, the Packers only blitzed 25% of the time.  We all saw the results.  I am sure that Ponder has improved over the course of the year, and in particular he has looked much better in the last month, but he is not as good as he looked in that game.  So the second necessary change is to get in Ponder's face some more, and the turnovers will come.  One interception is all it would have taken to turn around the game last week.  Move the game outside in the cold, give the Packers a home crowd, rush more than three on third down, and the Packers should win this game.  It might not even be close, but given the way that the Packers rarely put away a lesser opponent, it probably will be.  Something like 31-24.

My wish list for the game includes a lot of rushing yards for Grant and Harris (I would love to see the first 100 yard rushing game for the Packers in a long time), a few catches for Donald Driver in what will most likely be his last home game, more sacks for Clay Matthews, a smashing return for Randall Cobb, and a sack or an interception (or both!) for Charles Woodson.  The most important item on my list is probably the rushing game for the Packers.  With Evan Dietrich-Smith and Don Barclay now starting on the offensive line, it is to be expected that these young players are more advanced in run blocking than they are in pass protection.  So rather than have Rodgers drop back 50 times and take 5 or 6 sacks, it would be great if the Packers could get the running game going, with the one-two punch of Grant and Harris, and take some pressure off of Rodgers.  If the Packers win Saturday night, they take a trip to my backyard to play the 49ers the following Saturday night.  That matchup will be a tough one for the Packers, if it happens.  But first things first.  Time to exorcise the Adrian Peterson-monster.