Friday, September 26, 2014

Lowering Expectations

Julius Peppers, in his old uniform
If I told you before last Sunday's game that the Packers would hold the Lions to 10 offensive points, and force three turnovers, we all would have felt pretty good about the Packers' chances.  But just as the defense sort of comes alive, the offense goes into a cocoon and racks up a total of 7 points.  And the offense adds another 9 points to the Lions' column.  And there you have it: a 19-7 loss to a team that I still think is just not that good.

How did it happen?  What is wrong with the Packers?  Is Aaron Rodgers right in telling the fans to just R-E-L-A-X?  The game started off with another first-possession fumble, returned for a touchdown.  Later in the first half, a great interception, ruled down at the one yard line under the new version of the "momentum" rule, resulted in a safety on the next play.  When I watched the game the first time in a sports restaurant, my impression was that the defense played well, but that Rodgers was off target.  Re-watching the game on NFL Game Rewind, I had a very different impression.  On the defensive side, the Packers played very well, except for the early fourth quarter long TD run by Reggie Bush.  The defense was clearly not responsible for this loss.  On offense, while Rodgers missed a few passes, there were more drops and bad routes than there were bad passes.  Oh, and Rodgers held the ball too long on a few occasions, resulting in sacks or other negative results.

Where were the screen passes, draw plays, and other mis-direction plays?  They were too few and too far between.  One of the media themes of this week is whether the Packers' offense is too limited because of the emphasis on the no-huddle.  Just as the no-huddle prevents situational substitution on defense, it also limits the Packers' ability to bring in different packages of players on offense.  That could be a factor, but I maintain that the Packers can and should be more creative on offense, with or without the no-huddle.

A little bit of perspective is called for.  This is the third year in a row that the Packers have started 1-2, and they made the playoffs both of the prior years.  (Of course they got bounced out of the playoffs in the first week, but that is another story.)  Going back further, in 2011 the Packers started 3-0 and still got bounced out of the playoffs the first week.  In 2010, they started off 2-1, but were as low as 3-3 before taking off on their magical Super Bowl run.  So the Packers have a bit of a history of slow starts, and yet that hasn't prevented them from making the playoffs every year and winning one Super Bowl in the last four seasons.  So while the 1-2 start is obviously distressing to fans, and in my view a good reason to start lowering expectations for the Packers' season, it is still too early for despair or panic.

Bear week would be an excellent time to start turning things around.  The Bears are 2-1, after dropping the opening day game to the Bills, and then beating the 49ers and Jets in successive prime-time games.  I am not quite sure how impressed I should be.  The 49ers, at 1-2, have some problems of their own (may those problems continue!).  The Jets are also 1-2, after blowing a big lead against the Packers, and then falling behind the Bears and not being able to catch up.  The Jets did manage to beat the Raiders in week 1, but that doesn't count for a lot in my book.  So my argument is that the Bears are not as good as the Bears fans probably believe, and the Packers are not as bad as some of us Packers fans believe.  All of which says that Sunday's game should be a pretty good contest.

I am calling this game for the Packers.  Their pattern is to start to turn things around after a maddeningly slow start.  I realize that the Bears have a lot of weapons on offense, and more experience with the Marc Trestman offense than they had last year.  But the Packers defense, which looked terrible in the Seattle game, is slowly getting its act together.  And Julius Peppers certainly has something to prove in this game, despite his claim that this is just a business trip for him.  Add in the fact that it looks like Clay Matthews will play (he is listed as probable).  And then consider the fact that 7 Bears starters are either listed as out or questionable for the game (out: center Roberto Garza, guard Matt Slauson, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, linebacker Shea McLellin; questionable: wider receiver Brandon Marshall, defensive end Jared Allen, safety Chris Conte).  Even if you assume that the questionable players end up playing, the matchups favor the Packers due to the injury situation.

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