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.


  1. You are spot on about the terrible defense. At least the TV commentators no longer talk about what a defensive "genius" Dom Capers is.
    And it was absolute madness when the Packers had first and goal that they did two runs in a row. Especially on second down (if not also on first) they needed to throw. They'd have won the game. It looked like they were playing "not to lose" rather than to win. Horrific play-calling.

  2. Jon - I certainly agree. I understand, in theory, how you might change the risk-reward calculus as you advance down the field. For example, if you are trailing by 3 at the 2 minute warning, deep in your own territory, you are going to have to take some risks to "matriculate your way" down the field, as Hank Stram would say. But if by taking those chances, you get to first and goal with a minute left, now you want to be more careful, so you don't blow the opportunity for the field goal to tie, even though you would rather get the TD to win. (Didn't Stafford throw an INT in the red zone, at the end of the game, trailing by 3 yesterday? If so, it is a perfect illustration of my point.) But I just think that McCarthy has had a tendency to dial up his cautiousness a notch or two beyond what he should be doing.

  3. My buddy Dick sent me these comments by email. I thought they are worth sharing, so here they are:

    Why is the GBP defense so inconsistent and at times so ineffective?

    Is it injuries?

    Not the right players?

    or Dom Capers?

    When the defense "clicked" ... or "clicks" ... it is good.

    On WTMJ riding home someone questioned if the defense has not been able to recover from the loss of Nick Collins. Is that the case? What about the loss of Charles Woodson? Have they not been able to recover from the loss of either or both.

    When Rodgers comes back healthy, it will be interesting to see what Ted and Mike do with Seneca, Scott, and Matt. Who is sent packing, who gets bumped to the practice squad, and who is the #1 backup.

    One really great thing about yesterday's game ... NO interceptions.

    I did notice one thing, and this was discussed on the radio, had Rodgers been playing and been on his "A" game ... the outcome would have been much, much different. There were a few passes that were off by inches to a foot which Rodgers would have likely put "in there" for first downs and touchdowns. Couple that with the running of Lacy and the Packers would have been accused of running the score up on the Vikings for no good reason.

    Back to the defense problem ... injuries, personnel selection, or Dom Capers?

    What do you think?


    1. To add a couple of comments to Dick's questions, I heard an interesting podcast, recorded before this game, wondering if part of the problem is the lack of on-field leadership on defense. Woodson may have lost a step, but he was that leader. Capers may or may not be a good coach, but he is up in the box, not on the field. Maybe Kevin Greene can step up, if no player does it.

      As for next year, I can't see Seneca Wallace come back. He is old enough and limited enough that there must be better options. Why not Flynn and Tolzien? Flynn tested the free agent waters, got two years' worth of big bucks, and showed himself to be a career backup, not a starter. If he can live with that, he is maybe the perfect backup for the Packers.

      I don't believe that either Wallace or Flynn would be eligible for the practice squad, due to their active roster NFL experience. Tolzien will still be eligible unless he remains on the active roster for too many games this year.