Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Packers Were Down But Not Out

Taken in the Fourth Quarter of Sunday's Game
Sunday was just about the perfect day for our at-least-once annual football pilgrimage to Green Bay.  It was a fall-like, slightly cool but sunny day in the final days of summer.  Judy, Sam and I had an uneventful drive up from Chicago, we met old and new friends Marc and Kathy for lunch in Oshkosh, we parked a block and a half from the stadium, thanks to Marc, and we waltzed into the stadium with plenty of time to hear former Packer defensive end Esera Tuaolo sing a beautiful (but hard to sing along) rendition of the National Anthem (excerpt here).  The Packers were ready for their home opener after the crushing defeat at the hands of the Seahawks 10 days earlier.  Surely nothing would spoil the beautiful pageant of the home opener in Green Bay

And then the game started.  Aaron Rodgers fumbled away the snap on the first play from scrimmage, the Jets capitalized on the short field by scoring a touchdown, and the game just got worse from that point.  The Packers were down, in the second quarter, by the score of 21-3, before starting their comeback.  The three of us never said this out loud, but comparing notes on the drive back to Chicago, we all thought it was a lost cause.  Then you start focusing on such matters as the meager chances for an 0-2 team to make the playoffs, and before too long you start thinking about another lost season in the limited years left in Rodgers’ career.

Fortunately, the Packers had not given up on the game yet, and chipped away at the Jets’ lead.  21-6, then 21-9, thanks to the longest field goal ever kicked by a Packers’ kicker in LambeauField.  They even tried one of those “pop-up” style onside kicks, which failed.  This put the Jets in position to increase their lead at halftime, until the play of the game.  Mike Daniels rushed Geno Smith, and hit him just as he released the ball, resulting in a Tramon Williams interception at the 3 yard line, just after the two minute warning.  And what do you know?  The Packers put together a 97 yard drive for a touchdown, and suddenly it was a new ballgame. 

There were lots of interesting and some weird plays in this game.  There was the Jordy Nelson 80 yard touchdown.  I really thought the Jets would catch him, but Nelson proved that he is faster than I realize.  There was the 4th down Geno Smith touchdown pass to tie the game, that wasn’t actually a play at all, because Jets’ assistant coach Marty Mornhinweg or one of the Jets defensive players had (illegally) called a timeout (illegal because only the head coach can call a timeout on the sideline).

Why were the Packers so bad in the first half, and how did they manage to turn it around?  Brother-in-law Bruce (watching on TV) pointed out that Derek Sherrod was stinking up the joint in the first half.  He was indeed, and the offensive line was providing very little protection overall to Rodgers, and opening very few holes for Eddie Lacy.  It didn't help that Rodgers was holding the ball too long, either.  Another thought that I saw expressed somewhere related to the Packers’ heavy reliance on a 4-3 defense.  This was a closely guarded secret in the preseason, and as a result was not practiced in public or used during the preseason games.

I suppose the idea was to surprise the Seahawks last week, but that strategy backfired since (a) the Seahawks won easily; and (b) the lack of full speed hitting and practice time meant that the players really weren't ready to use the 4-3.  But maybe the defense finally started to gel after the first 6 quarters of the season, and they were much more effective in the second half.  Time will tell whether, as Sherrod gets more comfortable, and/or Bryan Bulaga returns, the offensive line protection improves, and time will also tell whether the defense continues to improve after finally getting things together in the second half.  Finally, and quite importantly, Rodgers started getting rid of the ball faster on most plays, which in turn opened up the possibility of making some of the longer-developing plays work better.

On the rental car shuttle on Monday morning, we ran into two very personable (and very New York!) Jets fans, a father and son, in their 60’s and 30’s, respectively.  They had obviously enjoyed their weekend very much, couldn’t say enough nice things about Lambeau Field and the Packers fans, despite their disappointment in the final result, and were already making plans to visit another historic stadium next year.  "Look, we're from New York," the father said, and we all laughed without letting him finish the thought.  I believe that his point was that if anybody is going to abrasively irritate the local fans, it would be New Yorkers, but the fans were still as nice as could be.  The father, while wishing the Packers well, was quick to say that he thinks the Packers may be in trouble.  His feeling is that they are a very good team, but not a great team, and that they will probably make the playoffs, but probably again won’t go very far.  This is another way of saying, "settle down, it was just the Jets."

He might be right, but I am betting that he is wrong.  The Packers obviously need a lot of improvement, but my feeling is (until proven wrong) that they can continue to improve as the year goes on.  Against most defenses, Eddie Lacy can gain a lot more yards than he did on Sunday, which in turn will keep Aaron Rodgers upright, and result in more points without requiring a career day from Jordy Nelson.  As for the defense, I am more skeptical, since the defense has chronically under-performed starting with the 2011 season.  But maybe there is something to the idea that the Packers haven’t yet had enough full-speed action in the 4-3, and as a result the 4-3 package will become ever more effective as the year goes on.

On a side note, we definitely had the impression Sunday that the Packers fans are louder now than in years past.  With the addition of about 7,000 new seats in the South End Zone, and the changed acoustics created by the higher seating area in that end zone, it might make sense that the stadium can get louder now.  The same seats were there last year, of course, but the only game we got to was the Eagles game, a game in which the Packers never led, started no. 2 quarterback Seneca Wallace, and had to replace him with no. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien.  So there was not a lot to cheer about that particular day.

The Lions are next up, and fans know that they are a tough match-up for the Packers in the dome.  I am not expecting a dominant victory by the Packers, but I do expect them to win, probably in a high-scoring affair.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Better Luck Against the J-E-T-S

There is not a lot more that can be said at this late date about the Packers' road loss to the Seahawks.  The Seahawks were clearly the superior team on that night, and the combination of the Seattle smothering defense, and a high powered rushing game, was way too much for the Packers to handle.  It didn't help that Aaron Rodgers, despite good statistics at first blush, still didn't look sharp, and uncharacteristically gave up two turnovers, one on an interception where Jordy Nelson many times would catch the ball instead of deflecting it to the defender, and the other on a strip sack fumble that resulted in a safety.

The game wasn't really a contest in the second half, and despite not wanting to admit it to myself, the only real question was how bad it would get.  It got pretty bad.  It was the sort of game that causes people to re-think their expectations for the Packers, and in many cases, to over-react.  But experience teaches us that it is way too early to panic.  Sometimes teams just have bad games.  The Patriots looked pretty bad on Sunday.  Are they done?  Brady says he will retire when he "sucks."  Does Brady suck enough that it is time?  Well, maybe we should see how they look against the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings before drawing up the retirement papers.  And I guess we might as well see how the Packers look against the Jets tomorrow before jumping completely off the band-wagon.  I'm looking at the bright side.  Our star running back may have gotten another concussion, but at least he hasn't been released and suspended indefinitely for domestic assault, or indicted for child injury.  (And, at this moment, it looks like Lacy will probably play tomorrow.)

A more detailed discussion of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases can be left for another day.  And we might as well throw Josh Gordon and Ray McDonald into the mix for that discussion.  For now, suffice it to say that the NFL, and in particular Commissioner Goodell, has mis-handled the Ray Rice case from the very start, and has done so in a fashion so severe that I truly think his job is in jeopardy.  (Oops!  As an NFL owner myself, I guess I am not supposed to criticize the Commissioner.  But I don't think he will be able to fine me.)

We are actually going to the game tomorrow, and are in Chicago for a couple of days before the game.  I am sure that if we were already in Wisconsin, we would hear lots of moaning and complaining on sports radio there.  But I still have to chuckle when we listen to sports radio here in Chicago.

Thursday night, after having dinner with our daughter, we were driving back to our hotel, but decided to take a detour to see if the place we lived 35 years ago is still there.  (It is.)  We listened to the end of the Thursday night game, and then just left the radio on AM-670 for a sports talk radio show.  Some caller from Minnesota calls in to talk about the Bears.  This is a rough transcript of the discussion.

Caller: The Bears are never going to be any good until they get rid of Jay Cutler.
Host: Well, I get your point, but certainly there must be some good things about Jay Cutler.  What would you say is the best thing about Jay Cutler?
Caller: Every year he is one year closer to retirement.
Caller: But I am not a Bears hater.  I don't have any ill will towards the Bears.  I am a Packers hater.  I am sick of the Packers, and Aaron Rodgers this, and Aaron Rodgers that.
Host: I'll tell you what I'm sick of, I'm sick of those Vomit-Green and Urine-Yellow uniforms.

Cousin Rick characterizes this as Titletown Envy.  I think he is right.

Anyway, on to the Jets game.  The Jets beat the Raiders last Sunday, and I did see parts of that game.  But the Raiders aren't very good, and the Jets didn't beat them very convincingly.  Even Rex Ryan wasn't happy with the Jets performance, saying that the fans were better than the team on Sunday, and that this game should have been a rat kill, but wasn't.  I can't imagine that the Packers' offense won't be able to score a lot of points against the Jets, and I can't imagine that the Packers' defense won't rebound and have a much better game against the non-powerhouse Jets.  I am expecting a comfortable victory for the Packers.  If they lose tomorrow, then it is time to start worrying in earnest.

Monday, September 1, 2014

And Away We Go!

I find this time of year to be nerve-wracking.  We have been waiting 6 months for football to return, with a million questions.  Will the Packers sign anybody in free agency?  Who will they draft?  How will the new players look?  Who looks impressive in mini-camps?  How will they look in training camp?  What about the pre-season games?

With all of that behind us, and the season upon us, now is the time when we will finally start to find out what the Packers will be able to do this year.  Will they be able to put it all together, with the benefit of having one of the best offenses in the league, and a somewhat improved defense?  Or will they fizzle out, due to injuries or whatever else, and end up with a mediocre record and out of the playoffs?

Count me as an optimist, albeit a nervous one.  While the Packers have made some use of the no-huddle offense over the years, during the pre-season they have given the impression that they are really serious about using it, a lot, this year.  I am sure this is (in part) a reaction to the success of the Eagles and the Chip Kelly up-tempo offense last year, but that is fine with me.  The Packers are better equipped than most teams to run the no-huddle offense, with a great veteran QB, a vastly improved running game (as compared to a couple of years ago), and experienced, quality wide-outs.  The only unknowns on offense are (1) how much the injury to center J.C. Tretter will hurt, how long he will be out, and how the relative lack of depth on the offensive line will play out; and (2) how things will go with rookie Richard Rodgers trying to take the place of Jermichael Finley.  But Richard Rodgers has looked quite impressive in the pre-season, and I just have to hope that he won't find himself bewitched, bothered and bewildered out there as the season starts.  With luck, he will be able to climb every mountain he finds in front of him.

On defense, the big changes are the addition of Julius Peppers, the drafting of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and the replacement of B.J. Raji.  Peppers is listed as the starting OLB opposite Matthews, but realistically he will play some defensive line as well.  Clinton-Dix is not a starter as we go into week 1, but with his talent he will be seeing a lot of snaps, and I have to believe he will be a starting safety very soon.  As for Raji, he obviously didn't have a very good year in 2013, but now that he is out for the year, somebody is going to have to step up.  Letroy Guion was the less-heralded free-agent acquisition, but if he ends up as a significant upgrade over the 2013 version of Raji, he might have more impact than Peppers.  I have been a little surprised that the Packers did not sign Ryan Pickett, or even Johnny Jolly, to shore up the defensive line, and maybe they still will.  But for now they seem confident that Guion can do the job.

There is nothing I love more than when the Packers find some hidden gem of an undrafted free agent.  They might have another one in Jayrone Elliott.  When you have limited snaps in the pre-season, but still end up with Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers calling you "The Sackmaster," and the trainers calling you Shakespeare (all he does is make plays), then you just might have a future in the NFL.  

There is a lot of talk about the Packers going to, and perhaps winning, the Super Bowl this year.  So it is going to be one of those high-expectation years.  2010 was just like that, too, and of course the Packers did go on to win Super Bowl XLV, although the path they took to do that was probably not something anyone could have or would have predicted (the no. 6 seed, barely making the playoffs based on DeSean Jackson's punt return TD against the Giants, winning three road playoff games and then the Super Bowl).

As I look at the Packers' schedule, I think they will end up 12-4 or 13-3.  I think they will probably lose to the Seahawks, Saints and either Patriots or Bears.  If they lose both those games, they end up at 12-4, which still ought to be plenty for them to win the division.  

Focusing specifically on Week 1, what a plus it would be if the Packers could defeat the world champion Seahawks, and then get 10 days to be ready for their next game.  And this could well happen - there are reasons for optimism, starting with the fact that the Seahawks have lost a bunch of players in the wake of their Super Bowl win, as frequently happens.  Adam Czech of Jersey Al's AllGBP.com lists five reasons the Packers can win, but never mind his reasons, I just can't improve on the intro to his article:
I hate the Seahawks. Pete Carroll is annoying. I’m sick of hearing about how loud their stupid stadium is. Russel Wilson is a terrible actor in bad commercials. Half the team is jacked up on PEDs. I can never figure out what Richard Sherman is yelling about.
I hope the Packers beat the Seahawks on Thursday by 12 touchdowns. Then I hope they build a giant bonfire at midfield, burn every last piece footage from the Fail Mary, and dance around the flames singing “Bang the Drum all Day” until dawn.
 Despite all that, I think it is more likely than not that the Packers will lose to Seattle and start off the season on a sour note.  But we only have three more days to wait to find out.