Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last Chance to Get Hot!

Press-Gazette Cover, Dec. 28, 2015
The question that has to be asked is: how bad are the Green Bay Packers right now? In losing to the Cardinals by 30 points on Sunday (38-8), they suffered their worst defeat since being blown out by the Lions by the same margin on Thanksgiving Day 2013.  And Matt Flynn was the QB that day, with Aaron Rodgers still recovering from his broken collarbone.  In fact, this is the worst points deficit the Packers have ever had with Rodgers at QB.  To find a bigger points deficit for a Packers team, you have to go all the way back to 2006, when the Patriots beat the Packers 35-0.  If you are a glutton for punishment, you can pile on other stats to show how bad the game was; for example, when the other team has more sacks than your team has points, or when the opposing defense scores more than your entire team, you have a real problem.

But what exactly is the problem, and, more importantly, what is the solution?  Indeed, is there any solution in the short run, or is this a situation where the team has to wait until next year's return of injured players, or worse yet, be torn down and reconstructed?
Before answering that question, let's consider Colin Kaepernick and Chip Kelly for a minute.  Kaepernick, two or three years ago, was almost on top of the world.  He had narrowly lost the "Harbaugh Bowl" Super Bowl to the Ravens, and the following year narrowly lost the NFC Championship game to the Seahawks, who went on to win the Super Bowl.  Less than two years after that, he was benched, then put on injured reserve (apparently at his own request), and has almost certainly played his last game for the 49ers.  Sure, there were injuries, retirements, the loss of a head coach, etc.  But what happened to Kaepernick himself?  He certainly knew how to destroy the Packers in particular, so how did he get so bad so quickly?

As to Chip Kelly, he was the head coach of the Eagles for one week short of 3 years before being fired this week, and while he never took them near the Super Bowl, the new tempo of the Eagles looked unstoppable for a short period of time, and the Eagles finished their first two seasons with him as coach at 10-6.  But this year, they were 6-9 with one game to go, when the Monday sports cover page of the Philadelphia Daily News asked, "Abandon Chip?" while helpfully noting that Andy Reid's Chiefs have made the playoffs.  A day later, he was gone.  Again, there are all kinds of reasons having to do with players coming and going, and with defensive coordinators learning how to adjust to the fast-paced offense, but still, it is remarkable how quickly things soured in Philly.

The reason I bring up Kaepernick and Kelly is to point out how fast things can change in the Not For Long league.  Could we be in a similar spot with Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy/Dom Capers?  Look, the offensive line is in triage mode, so is the defensive backfield, the receivers can't get open, and the running back position has been the subject of a lot of drama.  But the Packers have had most or all of these problems before, and for a long time this season, and why is it that, all of a sudden, the play-calling seems so bad and Rodgers' performance is so sub-par?  Has Aaron Rodgers suddenly lost his confidence, so that he will never be the same player again?

I'm not ready to reach that conclusion, and I think it is more likely that we will learn, in the off-season, that he has been suffering from some lingering injury most of the year.  If he is not hurt, then the injury to Jordy Nelson, and the musical chairs on the offensive line certainly are factors.  But the play-calling by Tom Clements (earlier) and now Mike McCarthy is not giving much help to the Packers' offense.  Where are the screen passes, the quick slants, the quick outs, or any quick release pass?  They generally work when we try them, but we are just not calling them nearly enough.  And since it is pretty well established that Eddie Lacy runs better out of a conventional pro set than from the shotgun, why is Rodgers in the shotgun almost all the time, and how much of an impact does that have on the running game?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Packers are not very good right now, and not destined to go far in the playoffs.  Could they still get hot now that it matters and do some damage in the playoffs?  Sure, but I can't point to any evidence that that is likely to happen.  They are 4-4 over their last 8 games, and really only looked good in 2 of those games (including the Vikings game).

Every game obviously has its own ebb and flow.  The Packers aren't really as bad as they looked against the Cardinals (right?).  But they got behind early, and when they had a chance to make it close, they gave up an interception in the end zone, and the Cardinals scored again, and suddenly it was 17-0 at halftime, when hypothetically it could have been 10-7.  At that point, the rout was on.

Contrast this with the last Vikings game.  While the Packers won the game, 30-13, they had their problems in that game.  They lost some players during the game, too (Linsley and Hyde) and they didn't put the game away until the early 4th quarter.  But the difference is that they were in a position to put the game away that time, and didn't need a miracle to do it.  The biggest factors in that game were a resurgent running game led by Eddie Lacy, more quick passes, controlling Adrian Peterson, and a fearsome pass rush featuring 6 sacks by the Packers.

There isn't any reason that the Packers can't do the same thing on Sunday night against the Vikings, this time at home.  I'm just fresh out of confidence that they will do it.  I have seen some suggestions that maybe the Packers would be better off losing against the Vikings, because they would then play the Redskins on the road in the first round of the playoffs.  I hope that the Packers are not looking at it that way.  Winning the division for the fifth straight season, and hosting a home playoff game, are big deals.

Go Pack Go!  And Happy New Year to everyone, especially to the Green Bay Packers.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Playoff-Bound Packers Looking for More

Photo by Jim Biever, Packers.com
To the left is a shot of James Jones racing down the field against the Raiders, presumably on his touchdown catch.  It might be just my imagination, but I think he plays better when he is wearing his hoody.  I hope he wears it Sunday against the Cardinals, as the Packers will need any edge they can get.

The Packers got off to a shockingly good start on Sunday, in the rain, at Oakland.  Two interceptions of Derek Carr led to a 14 point lead in the first quarter.  After that, while the Packers continued to lead for the entire first half, they effectively blew the entire lead, ending the half at 14-13.  Along the way, they were completely ineffective on offense, and trailed the Raiders in yards gained by 225 to 97 at the half.  The weird thing about that stat is that almost two-thirds of those yards were gained on the Packers' last full possession of the half, which ended when Charles Woodson knocked the ball out of Starks' hands, and the Raiders recovered.
From the Fox game broadcast

Fortunately for the Packers, they got their act together in the second half, and ended up winning the game by the score of 30-20, after trailing the Raiders only once, and very briefly (for about one minute of game clock time in the third quarter).  The best part of this game, from my perspective, was that I got to witness what seems like a rare occurrence: the Packers actually made halftime adjustments that worked!  It was obvious to everyone that the Packers' offense wasn't working in the first half.  The run game was almost non-existent, with the Raiders stuffing the box with defenders to prevent the run.  Normally, you would turn to the passing game, but that wasn't working either, with the recurring problem of the Packers' receivers not getting open, but this time compounded by a wet ball and a wet field.

From the Fox game broadcast
McCarthy changed things up by lining up Cobb in the backfield, which seemed to loosen everything up in the Raiders' defense.  The Packers' running backs are pretty good pass-catchers, but Cobb coming out of the backfield is an exponentially greater pass-receiving threat.  Putting Cobb back there seemed to open up both the running game and the passing game, and the defense performed well in the second half, giving up one touchdown drive, but shutting out the Raiders for the last 22 minutes of the game!

I made a last minute decision to go to the Raiders game.  I had an enjoyable, if wet, afternoon.  There were plenty of Packers fans I saw on the way to the stadium, in the stands, and after the game on the way to my hotel.  The funny thing about my time in the stands was that I found myself sitting next to some old time Raiders fans.  They started peppering me with questions as soon as I sat down.  "Who is your nose tackle?"  "What is the story with your rookie defensive backs?"  "Do you realize what happened the last time the Packers played here in Oakland?"  I apparently passed their little test, which I assume was designed to figure out if I was a real fan with some knowledge, or just some johnny-come-lately without much knowledge of football or the team.  We had some very pleasant conversations after that throughout the game.
My photo, after the game

If we had any doubt about whether Charles Woodson is coming back after this season, he made it clear early this week that he will not.  He has had a shoulder injury all year long, which was clearly evident on one play where he upended Randall Cobb but came up wincing and holding his shoulder awkwardly.  Because the Christmas eve Raiders game against the Chargers was the last Raiders home game of the year, Woodson announced that he will retire, in order to give the fans a chance to say goodbye (something that the fans did not have a chance to do in Green Bay after his last year there).  This turned a meaningless Christmas eve game into something of a Charles Woodson tribute.  He was one of my favorite Packers' players, and a significant contributor to the 2010 Super Bowl season.  He has been described as one of the most instinctive players in the history of the game.  I have interspersed some photos of Woodson, from the Packers game and from the Christmas eve game, into this post.

From the NFL Network game broadcast
While the Raiders are improving, and look like they are definitely on the upswing in the AFC West and in the league in general, the Packers' next opponents, the Cardinals, have already arrived, and are trying to secure a bye week in the playoffs by winning one more game out of their remaining two.  Win or lose, the Packers will still be playing for the division title next week against Minnesota, unless the Packers win on Sunday and the Vikings lose Sunday night to the Beckham-less Giants.  So at the moment, both Packers and Cardinals have something to play for, and it should be a good test.

It is stating the obvious to say that the Packers are going to have to play better than they did on Sunday, if they want to beat the Cardinals.  The Cardinals have a better overall offense, better overall defense, and have scored way more points than the Packers have this year.  The Cardinals did lose the "Honey Badger" for the year, and that gives the Packers' passing game a little break, but it is no accident that the Cardinals are sitting at 12-2 so far this year,  But if the Rams and Steelers can beat the Cardinals, as they did earlier this year, surely the Packers have some chance.

It might feel a little like Lambeau West in Arizona on Sunday, as prices for the game are the highest in five years for a Cardinals regular season home game.  I will give you one guess as to who is buying those tickets.  I have been waiting for weeks to see if the Packers end up being one of those "hot teams" going into the playoffs that "nobody wants to play."  Cliches aside, the Packers may have a three game winning streak going right now, but they just don't look like one of those teams.  If I have to predict, I would predict a Packers' loss, but if they are going to get hot, Sunday afternoon would be an excellent time to do it.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Building Some Momentum (Finally)

Great Pair of Signs from the Game Broadcast
It would be a mistake to make too much of the Packers' 28-7 win over the Cowboys last Sunday.  With Tony Romo now out for the year, the Cowboys are struggling mightily, and backup Matt Cassel has clearly not been the answer.  The Cowboys had their moments, breaking off some long runs, but the passing game was almost non-existent, and they had little chance to keep up with the Packers.  The Packers' win, coupled with the Vikings' loss, put the Packers back in sole possession of first place in the NFC North, and guaranteed that the Packers will be no worse off, going into the final week Minnesota at Green Bay game, than to be playing to win the division.

To what do we attribute the Packers' rejuvenated offense?  Well, Mike McCarthy took back the play-calling duties for the first time this year, and the Packers had one of their better offensive games of the season.  McCarthy let Eddie Lacy out of the "penalty box" from his missed-curfew incident, and Lacy responded by having his best game of the year.  With two of the Packers' remaining games being potential "weather games," the running game could not be more welcome.  Weather forecasts show that rain is likely for this week's game at Oakland, and the season finale against the Vikings could really be in harsh conditions.

So was McCarthy's play-calling the difference?  He said he felt it was something he had to do; that he thinks spending time concentrating on defense and special teams earlier made the team better and made him a better coach; and that he will take it a week at a time as to who will call the plays going forward.  Rodgers, diplomatically, said that it was not about play-calling, it was about execution.

I have been pretty critical of McCarthy's play-calling in the past.  I found it, at times, unimaginative, timid, and predictable.  So, when McCarthy gave up play-calling duties at the beginning of the year, I thought it was a good move.  But the results suggest otherwise.  Sure, the Packers started out the year 6-0, and they were 8-4 before McCarthy took back play-calling.  But they had won only 2 of their previous 6 games, and it took a miracle to accomplish one of those wins.  The defense was playing well enough to win almost every game, but the offense was not.  In short, based on the 12 games that Tom Clements called, the play-calling was not getting better; it was getting worse.  So, although I did not see it coming, I am glad McCarthy is back in the driver's seat.  If nothing else, Rodgers and McCarthy seem to be more in sync, and had fewer problems with running out of play clock in getting the ball snapped.

The next three weeks are all about making the playoffs and playoff seeding.  The good news, as mentioned above, is that the Packers have put themselves in a position where, regardless of what happens on the road against the Raiders and Cardinals, they can be in no worse shape than to be playing for the division title in the finale against the Vikings.  But the Packers are obviously in no position to just coast into that final game and hope for the best.  Much better to keep winning and build some momentum, maybe lock up the division before the final game, and keep alive the (admittedly slim) hope that they might end up as the second seed and get a bye week.

The first stop is at Oakland.  This will be the Packers' first visit there since the historical "Irvin Favre" game in December, 2003, which I wrote up here.  It would be a huge mistake to look past the Raiders.  They just pulled off a big deal of an upset last week, beating their arch-rivals, the Broncos, in Denver.  And, they are still ever-so-slightly in the hunt for a wild card spot, so they have everything to play for and very little to lose.  Which makes them a dangerous team.  When you consider Khalil Mack and the still impressive Charles Woodson on defense (there is a nice article on Woodson and his continuing connections to Green Bay here), and Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Michael Crabtree on offense, you realize that the Raiders are on the upswing.

Still, they have only won 2 of the last 6 games, beating both Denver and Tennessee by 3 points.  They are giving up way too many points to have a winning record, 25 points per game.  The Raiders could obviously beat the Packers.  The way they were playing a few weeks ago, anybody could beat the Packers.  But I don't see it happening.  The Packers are (finally) on a bit of a roll, and I am hoping and expecting that it will continue.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Great Win: Now Make it Matter!

Press-Gazette Cover, December 4, 2015
I was comparing notes with some friends about the Packers' miraculous come-from-behind victory over the Lions last Thursday.  After the Lions scored for the first time in the first quarter, they led the entire 60 minutes of the game, and with 0:00 on the clock, they led the Packers 23-21.  But thanks to a face-mask penalty against the Lions (more about that in a minute), the Packers got one final, untimed play, from their own 39 yard line.

As soon as Rodgers released the ball, I thought that it was the highest Hail Mary pass I had ever seen.  The trajectory was something like the shape of the St. Louis arch, and that was a very intentional part of the plan for the play, because it gave the receivers so much more time to get themselves properly situated under the ball, and makes the pass harder to bat down.  In a new and improved version of the Brandon Bostick play in the NFC Championship game last year, here Richard Rodgers' job was to box out defenders to give Davante Adams a better chance to catch the ball.  But as the ball started to descend from the heavens, Richard Rodgers must have realized that he had by far the best position to catch the ball, so he used his basketball skills, went up and got it, clutched it to his chest, and went to the ground where other receivers piled on him, in celebration and to prevent any Lions from trying to strip the ball away.  Final: Green Bay 27-23.  There is no more fitting Richard Rodgers reference than to call this game "Some Enchanted Evening."  But my friends at Packers Therapy have beaten me to the punch, so go there and listen to their always-entertaining podcast.

Anyway, my mind-set in discussing this game was that at last (!) the Packers were on the winning end of one of these last-second miracles.  I suppose I had in mind, most vividly, the Seattle "Fail Mary" game, the Seattle NFC Championship game, and even the Lions and Bears games in the last few weeks.  But as we discussed it, I realized that the Packers have been on the winning side a few times themselves.  There was the Antonio Freeman "he did WHAT?" Monday Night game, or the Al Harris playoff game, or the Brett Favre last game at Milwaukee County Stadium.  (Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.)  The Thursday Lions game was (in my opinion) more dramatic than any of those games, and certainly far less likely to result in a Packers win.  It was apparently the longest game-ending, game-winning Hail Mary in NFL history.

OK, great dramatic, unexpected, and sorely needed win.  But what happens next?  The Packers had this game lost, for all practical purposes.  They trailed 20-0 in the third quarter,  They had a miraculous comeback that fell one play short, until the face mask penalty.  And the face mask call was marginal, in more than one way.  It was marginal because it was utterly unnecessary.  The Packers (having already made one forward pass on the play) were not going to score from that position on the field, when Aaron Rodgers got the ball back after a couple of laterals.  And it was marginal because it arguably was not even an actual tugging of the face mask.  As to which, see this ESPN article.

But to repeat, now what happens?  Do the Packers take this miracle win, and use it as some kind of springboard or momentum-builder or turning point for the Packers, so that they get their season back on track, and surge forward into the playoffs?  After all, in light of Sunday's Vikings loss, the Packers are back in first place and in control of their own destiny.  All they need to do is keep pace with the Vikings (also at 8-4) or to fall no further behind than one game before the final game of the season, Minnesota at Green Bay.  If so, the Packers go to the playoffs, have a home playoff game, and maybe become one of the hot teams in the playoff that nobody wants to play.

Or, on the other hand, was this dramatic win just a "fart in the wind," to use Ron Wolf's immortal phrase?  The Packers, after their great start to the season, have only won 2 of their last 6 games, and it took a miracle finish to accomplish one of those wins.  If they continue to play at that level they will go 1-3, or at best 2-2, and if they make the playoffs, they won't go far.  It's up to the players and coaches to make sure that doesn't happen.

We will find out if it does, starting on Sunday against the Cowboys.  In light of the Cowboys' win on Monday night, they are tied for first in their pathetic division at 5-7, and have every motivation to try to win their division.  Plus the Cowboys may feel that they have a score to settle with the Packers after their (in their minds) controversial loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year.  Having said that, there is no good reason that the Packers should lose to the Cowboys, at home, without Tony Romo at quarterback.  Of course, there was no good reason for the Packers to lose at home to the Bears or the Lions, either.

Until proven false, I am going with the theory that the Packers will use the Thursday night gift as a springboard to get things back on track.  Let's hope they have proved their point with Eddie Lacy, let him be the lead rusher again, and that he continues the resurgence he showed in the last couple of games before being effectively benched against the Lions.  And maybe I am just a Cockeyed Optimist, but I am hoping that Richard Rodgers' new-found confidence will lead him to be a more consistent contributor to the Packers' offense.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time Running Out for the Packers

Image by NBC Sports
The historic game on Thanksgiving night was perfect in so many ways - Bart Starr was able to make the trip, so the three great Packers quarterbacks in modern history were in the stadium at the same time, undoubtedly for the last time, given Starr's health problems.  Brett Favre, greeted by his old teammates, some of whom I could not immediately place, had his name and number unveiled on the wall of Lambeau Field.  The nostalgia and warm feelings were palpable, right through the big screen TV.

There were only two slight problems.  One, the weather.  I have been to plenty of cold games at Lambeau Field, including, I believe, two of the three coldest games in the history of the stadium.  But I have always thought that the worst possible weather for a game is a steady rain, with temperatures in low to mid 30's.  Which is exactly what the weather was Thursday night.  Kudos to Sam Freeman, who attended the game instead of me.

The other problem was the game itself, replete with the same problems we have seen over the past few weeks: dropped passes, errant passes, and insufficient commitment to the running game.  I don't have a lot of issues with the defense - they played pretty well, giving up only 17 points, 7 of which were aided by a Packers turnover, Eddie Lacy's fumble.  So the Bears, on the Packers' big night, won the game, 17-13.

I just want to focus on the running game for a minute, and then move on to tonight's game.  Lacy was averaging over 6 yards per carry, while Starks was averaging just under 6 yards per carry.  Lacy's fumble was horrendous, but in that kind of weather, with the problems in the passing game, the running game was by far the best thing they had going for them on Thanksgiving night.  And yet, in the last 10.5 minutes of the game, at a time when the Packers trailed by 4 points, the Packers had the ball in three different possessions, and called exactly one running play, right before the 2 minute warning, while calling 21 passing plays.  Eight of those 21 plays resulted in completed passes, while the other 13 resulted in incompletions, a sack, an interception, and a couple of scrambles by Rodgers.  That just won't cut it.  It is bad game management and bad play calling.  Period.  Any hope that we had that in giving up the play-calling duties, McCarthy would have more time to pay attention to in-game management seems to have been dashed.

Now, for the second Thursday in a row, the Packers are on Thursday night football, at the Lions.  The way that the Packers are playing, having won only 1 of the last 5 games, and the way the Lions are playing, having won 3 in a row, there just isn't any good reason to assume that the Packers will win.  And yet, I am picking them.  It is probably just letting my fan interests show through, but I think that somehow, they will get it together and beat the Lions to stay a little closer to the top in the NFC North.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Favreapalooza!

Rejuvenated Eddie Lacy, Photo by Jim Matthews, Press-Gazette
The difference between a win and a loss on Sunday was dramatic.  With a loss, the Packers would have trailed the Vikings by 2 games plus the tiebreaker, making a 5th consecutive division crown unlikely, and pushing the Packers very far in the direction of a Wild Card playoff spot, if they even made the playoffs.  A win, on the other hand, put them back in first place in the division, while controlling their own destiny for the division and even a number two seed, which comes with a much-needed bye.  So the convincing 30-13 win over the Vikings was a huge win for the struggling Packers.

The Packers looked better to me in every aspect of the game.  The offense finally looked more in sync, with Rodgers getting off more passes quickly, with fewer passes that were poorly thrown, and with a resurgent Eddie Lacy (at last!).  The defense, which had not registered a sack during the three-game losing streak, got six of them on Sunday.  And on special teams, the Packers had a nice Jeff Janis kickoff return, and Mason Crosby was flawless (if only he could have gotten the decisive kick last week against the Lions).

The Packers now have a short week before hosting the Bears on Thanksgiving night.  This will truly be an historic game.  It will be the first time since 1923 that the Packers have hosted a Thanksgiving game, the game will have serious playoff implications for the Packers (as it is likely every game will for the rest of the season) and of course the Brett Favre Ring of Honor ceremony will take place at halftime, with Brett Favre and (hopefully) Bart Starr in attendance.  Since I can't go to the game, I really hope that they show the ceremony on the broadcast.  When you think of the turmoil that other teams have had over the years at QB (think of the Bears, or the Lions, for example), you realize how blessed the Packers have been to have three outstanding, long-term, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era.

As for the upcoming game against the Bears, I find it so easy to get caught up in Packers-Bears nostalgia.  How many of these do you remember?  Halas and Lombardi, Ditka and Butkus and Gregg and Starr and Nitschke.  More recently, Gregg and Ditka as coaches, Payton, Favre, Singletary, Sharpe, Rodgers, Cutler, and so many others I have left out.  You have the 49-0 whipping of the Bears in 1962 (the first Packers game I ever attended), the Instant Replay game in 1989, the Favre Halloween monsoon game in 1994, the Favre 99 yard TD pass to Brooks in 1995,  the game in 1999 where Walter Payton's ghost helped the Bears to block what would have been the game-winning field goal, the 2010 season NFC Championship Game, and the 2013 game marking the return from injury of Rodgers and Cobb, with the Rodgers to Cobb TD in the closing minutes clinching the division for the Packers.  So many of those Packers-Bears memories involve Brett Favre, so it makes sense that the Favre ceremony will take place during a Bears prime time game.

Let's not forget that this game is the chance for the Packers to finally tie up the all-time record with the Bears.  For all my life, the Packers have always trailed the Bears in all-time wins (while leading them in all-time Championships for most of that period!).  But now the record is 92-91-6 in regular season games, or 93-92-6 including playoff games.  A win Thursday evens the ledger.  The last time the Packers actually led in the series was 1932.  Favre and then Rodgers have been so good against the Bears that sometimes it is possible to forget how big a rivalry this is.  When you stop to realize that the NFL has put a Bears-Packers game in Prime Time for 10 years in a row, it becomes apparent that this is still probably the best rivalry in the NFL.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.  Here's hoping we have another Packers win over the Bear for which to give thanks.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

How Long Will the Losing Streak Last?

Press-Gazette Cover, 11-16-15
The 24 year streak is over, as the Lions beat the Packers last Sunday, at Lambeau Field, by the score of 18-16.  I subscribe to a bunch of Packers' podcasts, and sometimes I get behind in listening to them, as happened this week.  It is strange to listen to the pre-game podcasts after the game, because almost everyone thought the Lions' game was a mere technicality on the way to the tougher match-up at the Vikings this weekend.  There was generally some recognition that the streak can't last forever, and that, obviously, someday, the Lions would win again in Wisconsin, but most (including me) were pretty sure that last Sunday was not about to be the time.

The most prescient comment, in hindsight, was almost a throwaway line from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Bob McGinn, on his Packers Podcast.  He first quoted Ron Wolf on the streak, who said some years ago, "How can that happen?  The ball has to bounce your way so many times for that to happen."  McGinn then quoted a retired Detroit writer who had said, again a few years ago, "It probably will end some time when people least expect it to end," and McGinn added, "like this weekend."

It is hard to believe, even after re-watching the game, that the Packers let this one get away from them.  There was a time in the second quarter when my wife Judy and I discussed the fact that the Packers, as mediocre as they looked, were still outplaying the Lions by far.  But they were one missed tackle away from being behind, since the score was 3-0 Packers at the time.

That is close to what happened, too.  The Lions tied up the game at the end of the half, and then ran the second half kickoff back to the Packers' one yard line, and never looked back or trailed after scoring the touchdown on that one-yard drive.

Right before the start of the second half, Aikman and Buck were discussing whether Mike McCarthy might take back the play-calling duties, given that they were not able to get much going in the first half.  Aikman said: "There's part of me that thinks he won't, because he's not one who reacts quickly."  Isn't that the truth?  You could say the same about in-game adjustments.

My Lions' fan friend Al, who wasn't able to watch the game until the middle of this week, passed on a few comments:
"My team tried mightily to give the game away, as is their pedigree.  Two botched extra points and only 10 men on the field for the failed field goal attempt.  The Lions got away with some questionable non-calls on pass interference.  But I have to give the defense credit otherwise.  They were hitting hard and putting a lot of pressure on Aaron."
Indeed they did.  You would have thought that the 2015 Lions, missing Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and DeAndre Levy, might not put so much pressure on Rodgers, but they did.  Rodgers got hit way too many times.  It's not because of the Mike Ditka Packers sweater curse, either.  Part of it is due to indecision on Rodgers' part, part of it is due to receivers not getting open, and part of it (I know I have been harping on this for weeks) is due to Tom Clements not calling enough quick release and misdirection plays.  Plus the Lions played very well on defense.  But whatever the reason, Rodgers is getting beat up.

The suspicion that many of us had that there is something wrong with Rodgers seems now to have been confirmed, as Mike McCarthy admitted this week that he is "banged up."  He apparently has both a shoulder injury and a leg injury, but Rodgers won't say how long the shoulder has been bothering him.  Which of course just feeds my conspiracy theory that he has been hurt for some time.

The 2015 season is rapidly starting to look like a lost season.  A little hard to believe after a 6-0 start.  But I can't see a realistic scenario where the Packers end up with home field advantage in the playoffs, since the Panthers are still cruising along at 9-0.  If the Packers lose to the Vikings on Sunday, winning the division looks unlikely, too.  So then you are looking at a possible Wild Card slot, and (even though the Packers won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card 5 years ago), that is not a formula likely to take the Packers far into the playoffs.

I have no remaining confidence in the Packers' ability to win a game, much less a game on the road.  So let them prove me wrong on Sunday in Minnesota.  I hope they do.  But until they do, I am picking the Vikings.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Time for the Packers to Stop the Slide

Press-Gazette Cover, 11-9-15
I had just about finished this post on Friday, when the news of the terrorist attacks in Paris started hitting the screen.  All of a sudden, a two-game Packers losing streak didn't seem like such a big deal after all, and I decided to wait a day before posting this.  Prayers for the victims and survivors, comfort to the families, and may France and the west be "impitoyable √† l’√©gard des barbares de Daesh" (ruthless against the ISIS barbarians).  Having gotten that off my chest, back to football.

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Cam Newton rips down and destroys an expensive Packer fan banner in the stadium (and the fan reports him to the police, and the Panthers later agree to replace the banner).  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Julius Peppers yelling at each other on the sidelines, with B.J. Raji and Mike Pennel doing some pushing and shoving to try to break it up. Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers arguing with each other on the sidelines.  Rodgers, upon seeing that he had missed a wide open Cobb on the decisive play of the game, throwing his tablet to the ground (and apparently destroying it in the process).  Packer fans are in full panic mode after the Packers lose 2 games in a row for the first time since 2010, this one by the score of 37-29 to the still-undefeated Carolina Panthers.  Then later this week, Eddie Lacy gets demoted to RB number 2.  All is not well in Titletown, that is for sure.

Will a visit by the Lions make everything OK?  Well, it will take more than a win against the Lions to make everything OK with the Packers.  But the Lions have not won in the state of Wisconsin since 1991.  This sets up a sort of a football Rorschach test.  Glass-half-full types would say, the Packers are not about to lose to the Lions in Green Bay, particularly not this year's Lions team, which is in disarray at 1-7.  While glass-half-empty types would say that the Lions are due after all those years.  Or, here is another Rorschach test.  The Packers' 6 wins have come against 6 teams, none of which currently have a winning record (the best among them are the Seahawks and Rams at 4-4).  While the Packers' two losses have come against teams that were undefeated at the time of the games.  Does that make you feel better or worse about the 2015 Packers?

Put me in the glass-half-full group.  I expect the Packers to beat the Lions, but I have to be honest in saying that nothing would shock me after the last two games.  And it is good not to forget that the Lions were 11-5 last year and only lost to the Cowboys in the playoffs on a controversial play.  So it is not as if they are as bad a team as their 1-7 record would suggest.

As for the Packers, everybody knows that there is something wrong with Eddie Lacy and with the receivers.  Eddie Lacy is some combination of too fat/too out of shape/too injured.  I love Lacy, but it is probably a good thing for right now that Starks is going to be the starter.  Starks has looked much better than Lacy for several games in a row.

The problem with the receivers is a little different.  The receivers who are starting are not very fast, and the receivers who are fast are not playing much and don't seem to have the trust factor with Rodgers or the coaching staff.  I do think that this will improve over time as some of the players continue to get healthier after their injuries (Cobb, Adams, Montgomery) and as the faster players gain more trust (Janis, Abbrederis).

But what about Aaron Rodgers?  My wife Judy has been saying for weeks that there is something wrong with him.  I did not think so at first, but I am coming around to her point of view.  He frequently seems jumpy in the pocket.  He seems to hesitate in pulling the trigger on passes (I saw this several times in the Carolina game - instances where he had open receivers available to him).  Why?  Is that a conscious decision by Rodgers, because he is looking for a longer pass, or the play call by the coaches?  Even when he does pull the trigger, he is frequently just a little off target, more so than we are used to.  It would be a violation of league injury policies for Rodgers to be injured and for the Packers not to report it.  So let's not assume that that is the case.  But if it is not, then what is the answer?  Could it be that he is taking too many hits and sacks, and getting inadequate protection from the offensive line, and that this has affected his psyche?  Perhaps, but that would not be a good answer.

Beyond this, the coaching staff continues to under-perform.  Once again, I saw insufficient offensive plays designed to take the pressure off of Rodgers (screen passes, draw plays, roll-outs, slants and other quick release passes).  They were a little better on this against the Panthers than against the Broncos, but I want to see more protective and creative play calls against the Lions.

And the defense, which a few weeks ago looked like one of the best in the league, now looks like one of the worst.  They have not had a single sack in the last two games, and they have given up 1,475 yards over the last three games.  I have never been a member of the "fire Dom Capers" club, but I might be getting closer to it if things don't improve.  They need to be more aggressive.  They need to get after Matthew Stafford.  He is not likely to look like Cam Newton when under pressure.

The next four games, all against division opponents, will in effect decide how the 2015 season will go.  To borrow from Kevin Greene in Super Bowl XLV, "it is time."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Bouncing Back Against the Panthers

Packers Arrive in Charlotte, Photo by Duke Bobber, Packers.com
In the first of two consecutive road games for the Packers against undefeated opponents, the Packers crashed and burned last Sunday night at Denver, losing 29-10.  Among many other problems for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers could not find anyone open downfield, took many hits and sacks, and scored a career low of 77 yards passing.  But stop and think, how many times on Sunday night did the Packers run plays on offense that were designed to take the pressure off of Rodgers?  I am talking about screen passes, draw plays, quick release passes, play action passes, outlet passes to a running back?  I re-watched the game, and the answer is, not nearly enough.  Part of the Packers' problem on Sunday night was that their game plan was, in some ways, too aggressive, involving too many long-developing offensive plays.  But they couldn't get away with them against a defense as good as that of the Broncos, so eventually Rodgers had to throw the ball away, and/or get hit in the process.

At that point, two additional problems kicked in.  The first has been a "problem," off and on, since Rodgers has been the starting quarterback.  Rodgers is cautious, occasionally to a fault.  He doesn't like to take reckless chances.  When he had Jordy Nelson available, he had the trust he needed to throw a ball up and count on Nelson to make a play.  I am calling it a "problem" here, but it is also his greatest strength.  Unlike his predecessor, who we all remember had a tendency to make a huge mistake at the wrong time, Rodgers is much more careful about throwing the ball up for grabs.  But when the Packers fall into a 17-0 hole against the number 1 defense, as they did Sunday night, something has to change and, I am arguing, you have to take some chances and give the receivers the opportunity to make a play, even if you don't have the same degree of trust in them that you have in Jordy Nelson.

Speaking of things needing to change, the second problem was (to my eye, anyway) the lack of in-game adjustments.  Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers have both frequently been criticized for not making enough in-game adjustments.   Some of us hoped that relinquishing the play-calling duties might free Mike McCarthy up to concentrate more on broad strategy issues during the game, rather than having to focus on calling each individual play.  But there was no evidence of that on Sunday night.  Either McCarthy is too stubborn to try to adjust his game plan during the game, or if he was adjusting the game plan, then either Tom Clements, in play-calling, or Aaron Rodgers, in calling audibles, was undermining the adjusted game plan.  

Obviously, if the Packers had to lose their first game, it is just as well that they would lose to an AFC opponent, since that loss has no playoff implications.  But now they travel to Charlotte to face the undefeated Panthers, knowing that a loss there will put the Packers two games behind the Panthers, plus a tie-breaker, in the race for home-field advantage.  So this is the game that really counts.  The Panthers, meanwhile, had an interesting game of their own this past week.  They were beating the Colts so badly that I actually turned off the game to do other things.  I then noticed that the Colts had closed to within 3 points with less than a minute to go.  They tied it up, went into overtime, exchanged a pair of field goals, and then Luck was intercepted on a tipped ball, resulting in the winning field goal for the Panthers.

The Panthers are probably playing better than the Packers have over the last few weeks, but the Packers have a more talented team.  If they play up to their talent level, the Packers should win this game easily.  But it is hard, as a fan, to have a lot of confidence in the Packers right now.  They have won 6 out of 7 games, sure, but they have looked at least somewhat bad in each of the last 4 games.  The Packers have something to prove, to me and to the rest of their fan base.  Let them show that they can bounce back after a tough road loss (they do have a pretty good record of doing this).  Let them show that they can make in-game adjustments when things are not going their way.  Let them show that they can insert some plays, when necessary, to take some pressure off Rodgers.  And let them show that they can stick to a balanced offense even when they have some trouble making it work.  Go ahead, show us.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Battle of the Unbeatens

Image by NBC Sports

Where, exactly, do the Packers stand as they finish their bye week and charge into the rest of the season?  The objective metrics say they are in great shape.  They are 6-0, one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the conference.  They have scored 164 points, while giving up only 101.  Only two teams (Patriots and Cardinals) have a greater margin of points scored over points given up.  On defense, the Packers have more sacks than any team in the NFC, and trail only the Broncos in sacks.  On offense, only Brady and Palmer have more TD passes than Rodgers (and those two have played 7 games, not 6).  Among full-time starters, only Brady has fewer interceptions.

And yet . . .  somehow it does not feel as if the Packers are in great shape.  From the fact that the offense has struggled now for three games in a row, to the fact that the defense, previously dominant, gave up a record-setting number of yards to Philip Rivers and the Chargers before the bye, there is a real sense that this team is fortunate to be sitting at 6-0.

Maybe they are, in some sense.  But I have always admired the teams that find a way to win the games that could easily have gotten away from them.  And I have frequently complained, in years past, when the Packers found ways to lose games that they could have, or should have, won.

The current Packers team is not only finding ways to win games, they are getting help from the most unexpected places.  Jordy Nelson is out for the season, Davante Adams has missed several weeks, and Ty Montgomery is injured in the middle of the game?  Jeff Janis steps in and makes a couple of big plays.  (Speaking of unexpected, could anyone have predicted, as of July of this year, that James Jones would be averaging a touchdown per game for the Packers?)  The Packers lose several defensive backs in free agency, and then Morgan Burnett misses several games?  No problem, Damarious Randall not only makes the game-preserving play on fourth down, he actually baits Philip Rivers into making the throw so he can bat it down.

State of the NFC North:

It has been obvious for weeks that only the Vikings (4-2) pose a serious division challenge to the Packers this year.  The Bears are 2-4, while the Lions have the worst record in the league at 1-6.  My Lions fan friend Al points out that it has gotten so bad that there is a petition pending to revoke the passports of the Lions while they are in London for their Sunday morning game.  I can't support that petition, since a new Lions team constructed from scratch could turn out to be better than the current team.  But anyway, the point is that the Packers' first goal is to win the division, and they are in great shape to do just that.

Sunday Night Game

The Sunday night game against the Broncos has the makings of a classic.  Two 6-0 teams meeting in a nationally televised game.  Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, meeting each other for the last time, unless they happen to meet again in Super Bowl 50.  A lot of Packers-Broncos history, from the Monday night blizzard game back in 1984, to Super Bowl XXXII, to the Monday Night overtime game won on the bomb from Favre to Jennings on the first play of overtime in 2007.

The Packers' biggest problem will be when the Packers have the ball and the Broncos' are on defense.  The Broncos' defense is ranked no. 1 overall.  while the Packers' offense is in the top half of all teams.  Here, the bye week could make a major difference for the Packers since, in my view, injuries have been a big part of the Packers' struggles on offense.  Davante Adams has missed more time than he has played, while Randall Cobb has been hobbled by a shoulder injury, and both Eddie Lacy and James Starks have struggled with injuries.  Thanks to the bye, Adams should be back and fine, Cobb should be better, and so should Lacy.  So the Packers will have a better chance of getting the running game going, and of stretching the field with outside deep balls to Adams.

On the other side of the ball, if you think that the Packers have under-performed on offense, you should take a look at the Broncos' offense.  They are in the bottom 5 and you can't really blame it on injuries, either.  Peyton Manning is clearly nearing the end of his career, and does not seem to have the zip on the ball, or the accuracy, that he used to.  The departure of Julius Thomas to Jacksonville hurts, because he was and is one the best tight ends in the league.  And they can't seem to get the running game going, either.

Having said that, I have the uncomfortable feeling that Manning will turn it around at some point, and look like the old Peyton Manning, even if he can't maintain it for the rest of the season.  Could Sunday night be the game where he turns it around?  Let's put it this way - a nationally televised Sunday Night game, after a bye week off, is a pretty good candidate for a game in which Manning looks rejuvenated.

So I expect to see the Broncos bring out not only their formidable defense, but an offense that looks much better as well.  I am betting that the Packers' off-day on defense against the Chargers was a bit of an anomaly, and I am also betting that the Packers' offense will be improved with the return of healthy (or at least healthier) Adams, Cobb and Lacy.  The bottom line is: obviously this game could go either way.  But I like the Packers' chances, in what will likely be a very close game.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Packers Charging into the Bye Week

Quinten Rollins' Pick 6 - Photo by Jim Biever
For the second week in a row, the Packers' defense had to carry the day, as the Packers struggled on offense, but came away with a 24-10 win over the Rams on Sunday.

There now seems to be a clear game plan to stay close to the Packers, for teams that have the horses on defense.  They have to have a strong front line, to put some pressure on Rodgers without blitzing, and to keep him from stepping up in the pocket.  Then they have to play a lot of Cover Two defense, which is generally effective against a West Coast Offense, and has always been frustrating for Rodgers.

But there are some problems with this strategy.  First, most teams don't have a strong enough front line to make this work.  And second, even if you can keep the Packers' offense somewhat in check, you still have to deal with the Packers' newly dominant defense.  So these past two weeks, the 49ers and Rams have caused problems for the Packers' offense, but they had no answer at all for the Packers' defense, which has allowed a total of only 13 points in those two games.  And maybe a third problem with this strategy is this: even if you have the defense to play this game against the Packers, the Packers have traditionally beaten this strategy with the deep outside threat.  In past years, Jordy Nelson was the guy who most frequently provided that threat.  That won't happen this year, but if the Packers can develop that threat, either in Davante Adams when he returns, or in Jeff Janis (who has the speed but not the trust of Rodgers or the coaching staff), or in Ty Montgomery (who has the trust but not necessarily the speed) there may be no stopping the Packers' offense.

The Packers intercepted Nick Foles 4 times (thanks in large part to a ferocious pass rush), once for the pick-six depicted in the photo above, and they sacked Foles three times.  I realize that the Packers gave up 159 yards rushing to Todd Gurley, but 95 of those yards were in the second half, i.e., many of them were garbage-time yards, and they produced a total of 0 points.  Time will tell if the Packers can continue to play like this on defense, but so far they look very good despite the defensive injuries sustained this year.

Sunday, the Chargers come to Green Bay, on a short week after their Monday night game.  This will be the last game before the Packers' bye week, and it would be a huge plus to be 6-0, with two weeks to get healthy before their trip to Denver for a Sunday night game.  The Chargers already trail the Broncos by three games after five weeks, so they would love nothing more than to be able to beat the Packers and at least keep pace with the Broncos for another week.  And the Chargers do have a good offense; in fact Philip Rivers leads the league in passing yards.  But his offensive line was a mess Monday night, and is still expected to be on Sunday.  That, combined with the way the Packers have been rushing the passer while keeping the running game mostly contained, is not a good combination for the Chargers.  I was not all that impressed with the Packers' offensive game plan last week, and I assume they realize, just like the fans, that it was lacking.  I expect them to correct this on Sunday, come out with a much better game plan, and put up a lot more points.  I think this should be a big win for the Packers.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Packers Fast Start - 4-0 For the First Time Since 2011

The Packers' Game Day Captains, Plus a Photo-Bomber
The Packers' first visit to the 49ers new stadium was a success, as they beat the 49ers 17-3 on Sunday, in the process beating Colin Kaepernick for the first time.

On the way into the stadium, we spent some time talking with an old-timer 49er fan.  He dated back to the days when the 49ers played in Kezar Stadium.  He was in a somber mood, apparently expecting the 49ers to lose to the Packers, but also lamenting the way that everything has changed since the move to the new stadium.  Ordinary fans were priced out of the market for season tickets, he said, this changed the demographics of the people who own season tickets, and to make matters worse, now that the team is on the down-slope, people will stop caring and jump off the bandwagon.  He told us that his $10,000 worth of PSLs are now only worth about $2,000 if he were to re-sell the rights to his season tickets (apparently you can sell the rights to 49ers season tickets, unlike the situation in Green Bay).

And sure enough, the atmosphere in the stadium was different.  You can't really compare the way the fans react to a team that is obviously losing its way, as the 49ers now are, to a team on the upswing, as the 49ers were the last couple of times the Packers played the 49ers at Candlestick Park.  But we certainly noticed the difference, from the empty seats scattered all over, to the exodus of the fans starting early in the 4th quarter, to the lack of enthusiasm shown for their adorable little stadium gimmicks, such as chanting "Aah-oo!, aah-oo!, aah-oo!" after a first down.  Want more proof?  The 49ers owner could not offer to give away some extra tickets to the Packers game without getting roasted by 49ers fans for having dismantled the team.  I mentioned last week that the 49ers seemed to be in serious disarray as a franchise, but I am not sure I realized how bad it really is.  Peter King tallied it up this past summer and came to the conclusion that of the 25 most important 49er players and coaches, 14 of them left this off-season.

The image to the left (taken at the stadium on Sunday) reflects a sort of inside joke in our family.  Starting with the great Joe Montana days, people started referring to the "49er Faithful."  We considered it a joke, because in 1980 you could walk in and buy season tickets; that is how "faithful" the fans were before the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.  Most of them seemed to think that NFL history started sometime around 1980.  Anyway, it looks like a new era for the "faithful" is now beginning, and for someone like me who lived with the insufferable 49ers fans and media for years, I welcome it.

Despite all of that, the 49ers played very well on defense, and kept the Packers' offense in check better than any other team this year so far.  Rodgers' accuracy may have been a bit off by comparison to other games, there were a couple of dropped passes, and Don Barclay continues to be less than ideal as a replacement for Bryan Bulaga, but I think most of the credit goes to the 49ers defense.

On the other side of the ball, though, the Packers' defense probably had its best game of the year.  They obviously set out to stop the run by playing safeties close to the line of scrimmage, in effect daring Colin Kaepernick to beat them with the passing game, or by scrambling.  They succeeded in stopping the conventional running game (Carlos Hyde gained only 20 yards), Kaepernick could not beat them with the passing game (he only had 160 passing yards and was sacked 6 times), and they did an admirable job of containing Kaepernick's scrambling, holding him to 57 rushing yards, with no rush longer than 12 yards.  I did not anticipate that the Packers' defense would play this well this soon, especially considering the injuries they have sustained.  But they are doing it and, I might add, playing with more creativity and aggression than they did at times last year.

The Packers now return home for a pair of home games, against the Rams and Chargers, both currently having a record of 2-2.  If the Packers can win both those games, a good likelihood given the Packers' record at home, they will be 6-0 heading into the bye week.  The Rams have a very strong front seven, and if Don Barclay continues to play in Bulaga's absence, they will get some pressure on Rodgers.  But, interestingly enough, despite the reputation of the Rams' front seven, at this point the Packers' defense is outperforming the Rams' defense in rushing defense, passing defense, and points allowed, while the Packers' offense is similarly outperforming the Rams' offense in all those categories.  I don't see any reason not to expect a Packers' victory this week.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Packers On the Road Again to California

Best Game-Day Attire Ever
Maybe I am crazy, but I had almost the opposite reaction from everybody else to the Monday Night Chiefs game, which the Packers won, 38-28.  I heard lots of people talking about Aaron Rodgers' game, using words like "surgical" and "masterful" and "at the very top of his game."  We went to the game, and I did not come away with that impression at all.  Sure, he had a good game, but I did not see it as one of his best of all time.  I probably am putting too much emphasis on his early missed passes (he missed his first three) and the pass that should have been intercepted in the early third quarter, which would have broken his streak of home games without an interception.  So I re-watched the game when I got back to California, and I have mellowed a little.  I still don't think it is one of his best games ever, but maybe watching the game with Jon Gruden's superlatives being drummed into my head has helped me to realize some of the finer points that I might have missed in the stands.

Turning to the defense, everybody (including me) was happy with the way the Packers' defense performed for the first 2.5 to 3 quarters.  But I have heard a lot of complaining about "taking the foot off the gas" and going into "prevent defense" mode way too early in the game.  I can see that point, but I think it is severely overstated.  This game was effectively over at halftime (when the score was 24-7), and then it was again over toward the end of the third (when it was 31-14), and then it was really over when it was 38-14 with 12 minutes left.  (And if they had not blown all their time-outs, it would have been over one last time when the 4th and 18 pass came up short but was treated as a first down anyway.)  But it just didn't feel as if it was really over.  And the only reason it didn't feel that way was because of the traumatic experience of last year's NFC Championship Game.

But this game never approached, in my view, the circumstances of that game.  It was never as close (the Chiefs trailed by at least 16 points until they reduced their deficit to 10 points with 1:25 left in the game).  While you can never say never, the chances of scoring another 10 points in 1:25, with 2 time-outs, is close to zero.  It would have required 2 successful onside kicks, and at least one very fast score (broken coverage, or a defensive back falls down, or whatever).  I just wasn't that worried.  Also, while you can say that in some sense the Packers were playing more of a prevent type defense late in the game, it wasn't the kind that drives me crazy, where they rush 3, put no pressure on the quarterback, and let him take short passes for granted.  Here, even after the two-minute warning, the Packers were still rushing 4 or 5 on every play and occasionally blitzing.

Having finally beaten the Chiefs in Lambeau Field for the first time in history, the Packers have now beaten every team there but one: the Houston Texans.  I don't know when they will next come to Lambeau Field, but I look forward to it.

When you live over 2,200 miles away from Green Bay, you don't often get to see back-to-back Packer games in person.  But that is what we get to do this week, when we venture up to Santa Clara to see the 49ers' new stadium, keep our streak alive of going to every Bay Area Packers game since 1980, and hopefully witness the exorcism of the Kaepernick evil spirit from the Packers once and for all.  While the 49ers played well against the Vikings in week one, they have looked like a mess the last two weeks.  I was never a fan of Jim Harbaugh, but he seemed like a much better coach than the new guy.  There must be some fairly serious disarray in that organization, given that they got rid of a good (but obnoxious) coach, turned Kaepernick from a Packers-killer into somebody who seems to have regressed substantially, and have seen at least 10 players retire or leave in free agency, apparently just to get the hell out of there.

I expect Clay Matthews to play most of the game at inside linebacker, probably assigned just to keep tabs on Kaepernick.  I expect the Packers to play well on offense (the 49ers defense has taken some severe hits in retirements and free agency) and I expect the Packers' defense to continue to play well, and aggressively, and hopefully put this game away early.  I am looking for a big win to take the Packers to 4-0.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Packers Are 2-0 Thanks to the "Next Men Up"

Photo from Seattle Times Sept. 21, 2015
For the last couple years, no team has been more of a thorn in the side of the Green Bay Packers than the Seattle Seahawks.  I still shudder when I think of the "Fail Mary" game and the monumental collapse in the NFC Championship game.  It was no surprise when the NFL put the Seahawks-Packers game in prime time.  In the rematch of the NFC Championship game, the Packers (finally hosting the Seahawks in Green Bay) won the game, 27-17. They concentrated on keeping Marshawn Lynch in check, did so successfully and led for most of the game.

But if any of us thought at halftime that the second half would be easy, we made a bad call on that.  Right after halftime, it seemed that the Seahawks had made better halftime adjustments, and scored on successive drives to take the lead, 17-13, primarily by getting Russell Wilson moving around, and having him take off with the ball when necessary.

At that point, it was the Packers' turn to adjust their game plan, which they did by making frequent use of the no-back backfield on offense.  James Starks, who had replaced Eddie Lacy early after Lacy injured his ankle, needed a rest anyway.  But more importantly, the no-back set allowed the Packers to line up with Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers and even Ty Montgomery in the backfield,  creating uncertainty if not confusion by the defense as to where they might go on pass routes.  This adjustment led to the Packers retaking the lead on a clutch fourth quarter drive, with a TD pass to Richard Rodgers, followed by a 2 point conversion to Rodgers.  The Packers then salted the victory away by wiping almost 5 of the last 7 minutes off the clock and scoring a a field goal at the two minute warning to reach the final score of 27-17.

To me, the largest story line of this game was "next man up." James Jones is only in Green Bay because of the season-ending injury to Jordy Nelson, and he was again a large factor in his second game back.  Tackle Bryan Bulaga hurt himself in practice and missed the game. Don Barclay, who many times has struggled when pressed into action, played pretty well.  He was the weakest player on the offensive line, but he played better than we might have expected.  Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury, and James Starks looked really good in relief.  Davante Adams was knocked out temporarily, and came back gimpy late in the game, but rookie Ty Montgomery (who has appeared primarily as a kick returner up to now) played the no. 3 wide receiver for a while and looked good, made some plays, and broke some tackles.  Defensive tackle Josh Boyd was knocked out of the game (and lost for the season), but Mike Pennel and Datone Jones picked up the slack.

But most impressively, in part because of the loss of linebacker Sam Barrington in week 1, second year player Jayrone Elliott got extra snaps, and boy, did he make the most of them. All he did was generate two turnovers, first intercepting a Wilson pass with one hand, and then later stripping the ball on a passing play to clinch the game.  This is the same guy that Matthews and Peppers started calling "the Playmaker" last year, while the trainers started calling him "Shakespeare."  Why, you ask? "Because all he does is make plays."

 After two weeks the Packers lead the division at 2-0, the Vikings are 1-1, and the Bears and Lions are 0-2.  The fact that the Seahawks are 0-2 is a nice added bonus.  Obviously it is a long season, but the two game lead, plus a tiebreaker, over the Seahawks makes it much less likely that the Packers would have to go back to Seattle for a hypothetical Championship game.  A very nice start to the season, fully consistent with McCarthy's desire to get off to a faster start this year.

The Chiefs come to town next Monday night, as the Packers play their second consecutive home night game.  The Chiefs were poised to go 2-0 themselves, before giving up a fourth quarter touchdown to tie the game, and then fumbling the ball and the game away in the closing seconds.

The Chiefs will be a tough matchup for the Packers.  I am sure that we all remember the Chiefs spoiling the Packers' perfect season a couple of years back. They obviously have some talent.  Andy Reid is an excellent coach.  Alex Smith is not a bad quarterback, but he is no Aaron Rodgers.  Jamaal Charles is excellent, except when he fumbles away the ballgame.  But I don't think they have the same number of playmakers as the Packers have.  And I think that will be the difference in the game.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Off to a Good Start!

This Week's SI Cover Photo
The Packers' 2015 season is off to a good start with their 31-23 victory against the rival Chicago Bears.  As a result of this win, the all-time scoring in Packers-Bears games shifts to the Packers, maybe for the first time in my lifetime.  After 189 games, the Packers have scored 3,208 points, while the Bears have scored 3,207.  For as long as I can remember, the Packers have trailed the Bears in won-loss record.  But thanks to the Favre and Rodgers eras, they finally can tie it up this year.  The current record is Bears 92, Packers 91, with 6 ties.  So the Favreapalooza on Thanksgiving night will be the chance to pull even in the win-loss record.

One interesting development in the game was Aaron Rodgers pulling off a couple of unusual plays, for him.  The first was Favre-like, when he flipped the ball backhanded over the defender to Eddie Lacy.  And the second was almost like an option play, where he normally would just run, but at the last minute he pitched the ball to Richard Rodgers.  I wonder if, now that Rodgers seems fully healthy, he is realizing that he needs to be a little more careful about taking shots now that he is in his 30's.

The story of the day, of course, was James Jones.  After his one year stint with the Raiders, they cut him this spring.  The Giants signed him and he lasted there through the preseason, getting cut on the last cutdown day.  He signed with the Packers the next day, and was the player of the game 7 days later in beating the Bears.  I wonder if the Giants tried to trade him to the Packers?  Everybody knew that the Packers might be interested in him, after all.  Maybe they tried, and the Packers called their bluff by not offering a trade.  In the real world, a player who gets cut twice within four months has very little trade value.  But he was just what the doctor ordered for the Packers.  Jones caught two touchdowns that counted against the Bears, and another that was called back on a holding penalty.  For those who are still fixated on Jones' tendency in his early years to drop easy passes (and you know who you are), let's also remember that in his last year with the Packers he had reduced his drops to three in the entire season.

Clay Matthews made the game-preserving interception in the fourth quarter, cutting right in front of Martellus Bennett, catching the ball like a receiver, and returned it 40 yards (some of those yards were lost on a penalty).  Matthews continues to be the Packers' biggest playmaker on defense, and he played most of the game at inside linebacker, where he has obviously learned some of the finer points of the position in the offseason.  If, as the news suggests today, Sam Barrington is now lost for the season, expect to see even more of Matthews at the inside position.

All was not good in this game.  The Bears were in the game until the Matthews interception.  The Packers gave up way too many rushing yards, mainly to Forte, their tackling was suspect, and they didn't totally destroy Cutler as they sometimes do.  They will need to play a lot better against Seattle on Sunday night if they want to end up at 2-0.  But I refuse to see the glass as half-empty after one game.  Sure, the Packers blew the Bears out last year, to the tune of 93-31.  But that was an aberration.  The Bears generally play the Packers tough, as they did on Sunday.  To go on the road against your oldest rival, and come back with a win, is good enough for me, especially when many of your starters are rusty from lack of play in the preseason.

From what I saw of the Seahawks game on Sunday, they were not exactly on top of their game, either.  We all know that the Packers were the better team for 55 minutes of the NFC Championship game last year, on the road.  (Don't get me started again on the last 5 minutes.)  Both teams have lost some good players since then, to injury, free agency, and holdout.  But change the venue to Lambeau Field, and I like the Packers' chances.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Packers vs. Bears, Edition No. 189

Image by GreenBayZone.com
As the Packers approach their season-opener at Chicago, expectations are running high.  A month ago, various web sites were picking the Packers to go to, and maybe win, the Super Bowl.  Since then, the Packers lost Jordy Nelson for the season, and at times looked "iffy" on defense, especially that old bugaboo, run defense.  On the other hand, they seem to have found a good backup QB in Scott Tolzien, and a very promising third string rookie QB in Brett Hundley.  And, as always, some undrafted rookie free agent gems made the roster, RB Alonzo Harris, and DB LaDarius Gunter.

So where are we today?  After a post-Jordy Nelson injury lull in Super Bowl projections, 6 out of 13 NFL.com writers pick the Packers to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and 5 of them pick the Packers to bring back another Lombardi trophy.  Not bad for a team that lost its best receiver in the first quarter of the first pre-season game.

Any time the Packers play the Bears, there is a lot of history to take in.  My wife and I moved to California in the summer of 1980.  One of the downsides of moving here was the knowledge that we would only occasionally get to see Packer games on TV.  1980 was right in the middle of the post-Super Bowl II drought for the Packers, so in general we could only expect to see a handful of Packer games each year.  This was long before DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, and if sports bars showing every game existed at the time, I did not know about them.

But 35 years ago today, as I write this post, was opening day, and surprisingly, we got to see Chicago at Green Bay on local TV.  I really only remember the end of the game, but from the score, it must have been an exceedingly boring game.  Two Chester Marcol field goals accounted for the Packers' 6 points, but the Bears also only had 6 points, so the game went into overtime.  Chester Marcol lined up to attempt a 35 yard field goal in overtime, but the ball was blocked, and miraculously ended up right in Marcol's hands, where the bespectacled kicker caught it, and raced around the left end to score the winning touchdown.

There is lots to read about the Packers in this week's Monday Morning Quarterback column (including his pick of the Packers over the Ravens in the Super Bowl) , and I commend it to you.  But just in case you don't get around to clicking the link, this is the most amazing piece of information in it:

Stat of the Week
Next Sunday, the Packers and Bears will play in Soldier Field. It will be the 189th meeting in the rivalry that began in 1921. No two pro football teams have played each other more.
The average score in the 188 meetings: Chicago 17.06, Green Bay 17.02.
The composite score in those 188 games: Chicago 3,207, Green Bay 3,200.
So just think, it will only take a 7 point victory margin for the Packers to even up the score for all time.  

I think the Bears will improve under new head coach John Fox.  I don't know how fast the improvement will become evident, but I don't expect it to start in Week 1.  Jay Cutler, despite his innate talent, will continue to be an albatross around the neck of the Bears.  I see his record against the Packers going to 1-12, as the Packers win by a score of something like 28-17.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reactions to First Preseason Game

Photo by Maddie Meyer, USA Today
Packers football is back, and the preseason could not arrive fast enough for me.

Let's face it, preseason games can be boring.  Who cares who wins or loses, when the point is more about evaluating talent than about winning the game?  Going into the Packers' first preseason game against the Patriots, I was primarily interested in seeing the answers to three questions: (1) how did the Packers look on offense, especially when the backups were in the game?; (2) are there any differences noted with someone other than Mike McCarthy calling the offensive plays?; and (3) how does the defense look, especially the defensive backs, the linebackers, and the run defense in general?

(1) Offense.  On offense, the Packers seemed to be able to move the ball pretty much at will, both with starters and backups, but the catch is that they were not very good about scoring touchdowns.  If the problem in the NFC Championship game was (among many other things) settling for field goals from the 1 or 2 yard line, the problem this time was that they were going for it on 4th and anything short, but not making the first down and touchdown when it counted.  Scott Tolzien played most of the game at quarterback, and he looked much more solid than I remember from his playing time in 2013.  Now that he has been part of the system for two years, he looks ready to go.  Even rookie Brett Hundley looked good in his relatively short time in the game.

(2) Play-Calling.  New play-caller Tom Clements seemed intent on making a statement with his fourth down strategy, and I found it refreshing.  I was critical of McCarthy's decisions on 4th and goal from the 1 and 2 yard lines early in the NFC Championship game.  Part of the reason I welcomed a new play-caller was that the one overriding critique I have of Mike McCarthy as a coach was his tendency to play it safe in situations like this, and to play it safe with a lead late in the game.  Both of those tendencies played out, to the catastrophic detriment of the team, in the NFC Championship game.  While I don't expect Clements to be as aggressive on 4th down in the regular season (and while I hope he is more successful when he does), I see it as a good sign that he is willing to show some aggressiveness now.  Who knows if Mike McCarthy will be OK, in the long run, letting Clements call the plays?  He did say something about being bored on the sidelines with nothing to do.  But the first exposure to Clements calling plays was a positive one.

(3) Defense.  Having lost both Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency, cornerback is an obvious area of concern.  But both Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter looked good in their first game experience, including Gunter intercepting a Jimmy Garoppolo pass.  Gunter, an undrafted rookie, has been making quite a splash in training camp, and is the only defensive back with multiple interceptions off Rodgers.  Another Ted Thompson special find?

It was harder to find a standout performance, good or bad, from the linebacking corps, especially with Matthews not playing and Peppers making only a token appearance.  But the Packers did sack New England Quarterbacks 7 times, with most of those sacks being recorded by linebackers.  While the run defense was spotty. and never looked worse than on the 55 yard touchdown run in the second quarter, on the whole the defense looked pretty good and should only improve as time goes on.

All in all, a good start to the preseason.  Let's see what happens in week 2 against the Steelers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Favre Week!

Brett Favre, Super Bowl XXXI, Packers.com
This should shape up to be a great weekend for Brett Favre and for the Green Bay Packers.  Favre will have his jersey retired, and be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday evening.

I could have done nothing all week but watch Favre videos, read Favre stories, and watch old Favre games, and believe me, I was tempted to do just that.  I have already watched the "One of a Kind" program at Packers.com, which is definitely worth watching.  And I will try to watch as much as I can of the non-stop Favre coverage on Saturday on the NFL Network, starting at 6:00 am California time.

It is hard to add much to everything that is being said this week, except maybe for some personal thoughts.  I have always been a Packers fan, but I didn't really appreciate the glory days of the 1960's until they were already over.  And then, like all Packers fans of my vintage, we suffered through the 1970's and 1980's.  Maybe it was better for me, in a way, to live outside of Wisconsin for most of that time, before DirecTV and the NFL Sunday Ticket.  I would get to see maybe 2 or 3 Packers games in a typical season, and usually go to one game in person.  The games were frequently disappointing, but it was still a special occasion to be able to watch my team.

Then things started to fall into place.  The Packers hired Ron Wolf, who certainly had a great pedigree, and then Wolf hired that year's star head-coach prospect, Mike Holmgren.  Expectations started to rise, as they always did in the off-season, but this time with more intensity.  And then they traded a first round draft choice for the Falcons' second round pick from the previous year, some southern kid named Brett Favre.  We didn't even know how to pronounce his name at first, and as one who does not follow college football, I truly had no idea who he was.  He made some noise in the off-season by getting into a bar fight down south, and as luck would have it, we happened to attend the first home pre-season game in 1992.  Don Majkowski played most of the first half, until Favre came in with 2 minutes to go and 80 yards away from the end zone.  With 2 minutes left, there was plenty of time for a respectable drive.  But the first pass I ever saw Favre throw in a game was one where he reared back and heaved it as far as he could throw it.  It was intercepted, and as the crowd grew quiet, someone a few rows behind yelled out, "better stick to bar-fighting, dude!"  We have always wondered what that guy must have thought a few years later.

In September of that year, we happened to go to a now-defunct Packers bar/restaurant in Redwood City, CA, with our 2 and 5 year old kids, for the third game of the season, against Cincinnati.  Majkowski was knocked out of the game, and Favre came in, and the rest was history, just like Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig.  Our kids may have been born during the Don Majkowski era, but they are now in their mid to late 20's and the only regular Packers quarterbacks they have ever known are Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.  And they were there, in that Redwood City bar, when the legend began.

What a time the 1990's and 2000's were with Brett Favre at the helm.  Favre, along with Reggie White, Holmgren and Wolf, made the Packers perennial contenders again.  Expectations were high every single season, but for a change there was good reason for high expectations.  When I attended my first home and road Packers playoffs games, Favre was the quarterback (he won both games).  When I attended my first NFC Championship game, and my first Super Bowl, Favre was the quarterback (he won both those games, too).  In my dynasty fantasy football league, he was my quarterback for basically his entire Packers career.

We lived through the great times with Favre, and the not-so-great times.  There was the Vicodin addiction, there were the first three home playoff losses in the history of Lambeau Field (to the Falcons, the Vikings, and the Giants).  There was the first ever loss by the Packers in a Super Bowl.  There were the wasted opportunities, such as the loss at Dallas in the NFC Championship game, and the ill-timed interceptions.  Looking back on it, I still can't believe that the Packers only won one Super Bowl in the Favre era.  While I wouldn't go as far as to call the Favre-era Packers a mere "fart in the wind," in Ron Wolf's immortal phrase, I can't help but feel that they underachieved with the amount of talent they had.

But notwithstanding all that, the Brett Favre era changed everything for the Packers and for their fans.  So it devastated many of us when he retired, un-retired, demanded to be traded, and eventually ended up playing for both the Jets and the Vikings.  We knew that he would eventually retire or leave the team, but we weren't ready for it, even though many of us knew that he could no longer play well in the cold (the NFC Championship game against the Giants was still fresh in our minds).

The ugliness of the summer of 2008 is well captured in a couple of articles by Peter King and Kevin Seifert.  It had the effect of forcing Packers fans to choose sides between Favre and the Packers.  In my own family, most of us took the Packers' side.  We felt that Favre had jerked the Packers around, off-season after off-season, with his melodramatic musings about whether he would retire or not.  Nobody really knew that Rodgers would turn out to be as great as he is, but we could see that the carefully groomed replacement for Favre could end up leaving as a free agent if he didn't get a chance to become the starter.  All of that left us with the feeling that Favre had more responsibility for the nastiness of the divorce than the Packers.

The minority position in our family was that the Packers bore more of the responsibility.  My wife, Judy, is the leading family proponent of this view.  She argues that the Packers forced him to decide whether to retire too early, at a time (in March) when he was not ready to make that decision.  She noticed in the tearful retirement press conference right away, from both the words and the body language, that something was wrong with what was happening.  The premature retirement decision ultimately led to his decision to un-retire, because he really still wanted to play.  And then to compound matters, having decided to make the change and move on to Rodgers, the Packers were unwilling to just release him (the argument was that a veteran of his stature deserves a release when he asks for one after being replaced as starter), or to trade him to a team of his own choosing.  This latter theme is echoed in some of Favre's own recent comments, to the effect that he was ticked off that the Packers felt he was not good enough to be their starting quarterback, but that he was good enough that they were not willing to trade him to a rival team.

That argument has raged in our family for the past seven years.  I am hoping that we can finally put it behind us now that Favre and the Packers are back in each others' good graces.  Here is another argument I will try to put to rest.  My wife is also insistent that Favre was more fun to watch than Rodgers, and that some of Favre's craziest decisions were part of what made him so much fun to watch.  I maintain that it is more fun to watch Rodgers, because I can watch him without living in fear, on every play, that he will pull a catastrophically boneheaded move.  I prefer the reliability and precision of Rodgers over the sometimes-reckless play of Favre.

But what I will say is that the joy of watching Brett Favre was that no player I can remember ever displayed the pure, almost-childlike love of playing the game that Brett Favre did.  He expressed this himself in one of the clips in "One of a Kind."  He said that if the team was down by 21 points with a minute to go, he wanted the ball in his hands.  He realized that the chance of winning was about zero.  But he still wanted to play.  Another example was his 6 interception playoff game against the Rams.  At the time he said something to the effect that what was he supposed to do - play it safe and worry about his stats as they were in the process of losing a playoff game?  He might as well take some chances and leave it all on the field.  I will always love and respect that aspect of Brett Favre's play.  And I thank him for all of the memories.