Tuesday, January 20, 2015

No Excuse for What We Saw Sunday

Photo from Packers.com
As weird as it seems, you can argue that the Packers lost the NFC Championship Game in the first 10 minutes of the first quarter, when they twice kicked field goals on 4th and goal at the 1 and 2 yard lines.  Oh, sure, the Packers played a great game in the first half, and despite those decisions, they led 16-0 at the half.  But by failing to get more points out of those opportunities, they put themselves in a position where the Seahawks stayed in striking range of the Packers, despite how poorly they played in the first half.  We had a group of 8 watching at our house, all Packers fans or at least Packers fans for the day.  There was disagreement among us about the 4th and short decisions, but my argument at the time was that the Packers should go for it.  You start with the fact that teams get a first down more than 50% of the time on fourth and one, two or three.  So mathematically, the Packers' expected return for going for it both times was more than 7 points.  Even if you score on one and turn the ball over on the other, you score 7 points (instead of the 6 for two field goals) and you leave the Seahawks with the ball on the one or two yard line.  That extra point would have come in handy given that the fourth quarter ended with a score of 22-22.  And with Eddie Lacy and a quality offensive line, not to mention the possibility of a play-action fake, you have a great chance to score twice and (in hindsight) put the game away.

But beyond this, if you go into the Championship game as heavy underdogs, on the road in one of the hardest places to win on the road, then you have to make the most of the chances that you make for yourself, or that fall your way.  To play it safe, taking the "sure" 6 points instead of a chance at 7 or 14 points, is not, in my mind, playing as aggressively as you need to in those circumstances.  Now I can almost hear Coach McCarthy, bellowing that "we are nobody's underdogs," to justify playing it safe rather than "panicking" by taking risks that he would not normally take.  But that, in my view, is really the problem.  His normal approach to these decisions is too timid.  We see too many "run, run, pass, punt" series, especially if Rodgers is injured, as now, or out of the game, as he was last year.  We see too many dive plays to John Kuhn inside the 5 yard line.   And we see too many field goals kicked on 4th and short yardage.

Pete Carroll takes chances to win games (such as the fake field goal Sunday).  Bill Belichick takes chances to win games (among other things, think of the weird, trick formation plays last week).  You could probably also think of spying on opposing teams and deflating footballs as risk-taking in order to win games, but I am talking here only about perfectly legal risks in play-calling and game strategy.  And Sean Payton takes chances (remember the surprise onside kick in the Super Bowl a few years ago).

This is by no means black and white.  Sometimes, Mike McCarthy takes those kind of chances.  But not often enough for my taste.  Even last week, against the Cowboys and with an injured Rodgers, the Packers were more aggressive in their four-minute offense, and they won the game.  Earlier in the year, in the Jets and Patriots games (but with a healthy Rodgers), the Packers were more aggressive in the four-minute offense, and won those games.  Why so tight and risk-averse this time?  I think the magnitude of the game got to him, and when taking into account Rodgers' injury, he basically came to the conclusion that the Packers were lucky to be ahead, and so he started playing not to lose, not playing to win.  I really like McCarthy, and I think he is an excellent coach.  I don't think he should be fired.  But this is my single biggest criticism of him - the unwillingness to play more aggressively when it is needed.  It is possible to like McCarthy, and respect him as a coach, and still assign a lot of responsibility to him for excessive timidity in his game calling.  If you want to have an example of the opposite approach, take the Patriots.  They were still throwing the ball and playing aggressively in the fourth quarter, when they were already ahead by 38-7.  You could perhaps accuse them of piling it on, but one thing is for sure: in the same circumstances, the Patriots would not have found the game slipping away in the face of a furious and miraculous comeback such as the one mounted by the Seahawks.

There were many manifestations of this lack of aggressiveness on Sunday.  The field goals on the 4th and short plays in the first quarter.  Kicking on the other two 4th and 1 situations in the game, one at the Seattle 22 and the other around midfield.  I can't really blame the coaching staff for it, but what in the world was Morgan Burnett thinking when he slid to the ground after making what should have been the game-clinching fourth interception in the 4th quarter?  He had some easy yards available in front of him, and it is not as if there were 2 minutes left - there was 5:13 left on the clock.  Unfortunately, he got the "go down" signal from Julius Peppers, which I think is sort of tragic - there was so much effort to get him another shot at the Super Bowl, and here his signal to Burnett contributed mightily to the Packers missing that chance.

So, after Burnett slid to the ground, the Packers take the ball at that point, needing 2 or three first downs to run out the clock, and instead they go run, run, run, punt.  Then, given the onside kick recovery, they never got another chance to try to run out the clock, but instead were skillful enough (and a little lucky) to get the field goal to tie the game and go into overtime.  That aggressiveness, born of necessity, was, alas, too little and too late.  With all the momentum on their side, and maybe the Packers' defense tiring a little, the Seahawks won the toss and marched downfield in 6 plays to score the game-winning touchdown, to win 28-22.

If you have not seen it, you should watch Aaron Rodgers' post-game press conference.  The body language, the clipped answers, the tone of voice, the unwillingness to elaborate on some questions.  "We gave it away."  "We weren't playing as aggressive as we usually are."  "That is how you lose games."  He, like all players, is hyper-competitive, and he is disappointed to the point of being despondent by what he saw.  If we, as fans, hurt after a loss like this, imagine how someone as competitive as Rodgers, and who actually plays the game and is trying to build his legacy, must feel.  I may be mis-reading him, but I hear in his comments and in his tone something beyond the disappointment.  I think he is disgusted by the lack of aggressiveness in the play-calling.  "You can't let them complete a pass for a touchdown on a fake field goal, you can't give up an onside kick and you can't not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win," Rodgers said. "And that's on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put it all together and that's how you lose games. This was a great opportunity. We were right on the cusp."

Don't get me wrong.  This loss was not all Coach McCarthy's fault.  There was John Kuhn failing to get the ball over the goal line, and Rodgers having a mediocre day, and receivers dropping passes, and Bostick not playing his assigned role on the onside kick, and Burnett following Peppers' instruction to drop to the ground.  Change one or two of those plays, and we are all looking forward to the Super Bowl.  But to say, in effect, "oh well, mistakes are made, and there is nothing anyone can do about it" is to miss the bigger picture - the fact that there is a problem with in-game management, and no apparent intent to try to do things differently in the future.

This game is in the books, and the Packers are into off-season mode.  The question is: what happens now?  Ideally, the Packers would learn something from the mistakes made, and have a better chance to avoid making those mistakes next year.  So far, I don't see anything that signals to me that the Packers have learned any lessons.  In the post-game press conference, Coach McCarthy said "I have no regrets.  I don't regret anything."  It is almost impossible to believe that that is really true, but if it is, I don't know if this will ever get fixed.  The Packers have had special teams problems, off and on, for a number of years, but Coach Slocum is still the special teams coach.  Coach McCarthy has, for some time, had a tendency to play too cautiously in big games when the game is still in question.  A friend called it a combination of the "prevent defense" and the "kill the clock offense."  We certainly saw both in the fourth quarter of the game on Sunday.  All I really want is to hear Coach McCarthy acknowledge that there are problems, and that he intends to work on solving those problems in the future.  Or, if he is constitutionally incapable of doing that, then let him put on his Pittsburgh tough guy bluster about having no regrets, as long as we have some reason to believe that, in his heart of hearts, he knows and will work on it.  So far, there is no indication that is true.  Maybe in his Wednesday press conference, the Coach will send us a signal.  I certainly hope so.

UPDATE: As most readers probably know by now, Coach McCarthy's younger brother Joe died on Wednesday, January 21, and as a result his press conference was postponed.  A really bad week for the Coach just got exponentially worse, on a personal level, reminding us all that football is, after all, just a game.  Prayers for the McCarthy family.  There will be time to get the Packers' problems resolved when he is back.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Slingin' in the Rain, Seattle Style

Photo by Tom Freeman
My daughter and I went to the Cowboys-Packers game on Sunday. Between traffic delays and a huge crowd waiting to get in the gates of the stadium, we barely made it in time for the game. In fact, we arrived as the National Anthem was being sung, and managed to peek up from the tunnel to see the fly-over before the game. We made it to our seats before kickoff, in time to witness lots of frustrating moments in the first half.  We had real doubts that the Packers would win, starting in the second quarter, but it turned out to be a great game after all, with the Packers prevailing, 26-21.

The first half was, at times, excruciating. While the crowd started out the game creating lots of noise, there were times in the first half when we all started to have enough doubts about the outcome that the crowd was, to some extent, taken out of the game. Rodgers was obviously immobile, but to make matters worse, he was missing passes that one normally assumes he will make. And Eddie Lacy missed lots of snaps after the first drive, causing us to wonder if he was hurt, too (we learned later that he was having an asthma attack).

The turn-around in the second half was pretty spectacular.  Rodgers started to look much better, even if he was still quite immobile.  Better passes led to fewer missed connections.  Eddie Lacy returned, and ended up being one of three Packer players having over 100 yards from scrimmage in the same playoff game, something that had never happened before (the others were Davante Adams, and, thanks to that last amazing catch to help run out the clock, Randall Cobb).

The picture above depicts the team lined up, about to snap the ball on the game-winning touchdown, as I saw it from section 114. Well, technically it depicts the team lined up right before Rodgers had to burn a time out as the play clock expired. The time out allowed me to post the picture on Facebook before the play was run, in time to look like I knew the game winning score was coming all along.

If I had to name MVPs of the game, I suppose that the obvious choice on offense has to be Aaron Rodgers, given his gutty performance under the circumstances. But you can't ignore the trio mentioned above, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy. While it is fair to expect high level performances from Cobb and Lacy, Adams' performance was totally unexpected - this was the best performance of his rookie season. After an early drop, with the fans in our section grumbling about how McCarthy should take him out and play somebody else, he went on to have a great performance. The juke he made on his touchdown catch was one for the ages. And on the final, game-clinching drive, the third down catch he muscled away from the defender, who seemed to have the better chance to catch the ball, and then proceeded to gain 26 yards, was really a fabulous play. On defense, even though I did not really appreciate it while sitting in the stands (one misses too much sometimes without seeing all the angles on TV replays), the MVP had to be Julius Peppers. His strip of DeMarco Murray, in the third quarter, in all likelihood saved a touchdown. And since the Packers won by 5 points, the importance of this play can't be underestimated.

But my personal non-player MVP is the Diamond Vision operator in Lambeau Field, Kregg Shilbauer. Normally, the way replays work in Lambeau Field is that, after a couple of seconds, a logo appears on the boards, followed by the play shown from the beginning, and then sometimes from different angles. But on the Dez Bryant non-catch with 4:36 left in the game, the procedure was different. Almost immediately, with no logo, and without bothering with the beginning of the play, Shilbauer started shuttling the action backwards from the end of the play, showing Bryant rising off the field, getting the ball, leaping over Sam Shields to get it, then forward, then back and forth several times in slow motion. In other words, he wanted to make sure that Mike McCarthy had an opportunity to watch the important part of the replay, over and over again, in time to make his own decision on a challenge without having to rely on the judgment of others calling down to him from the coaches booth. Now look, given the magnitude and circumstances of the play, I think that McCarthy more or less had to throw the challenge flag, regardless of what he was being told, but Mr. Shilbauer made sure that he had a personal and detailed view of the play.

I have read that both Rodgers, and I think Tramon Williams, instantly knew, based on the "Calvin Johnson play" from 2010, that this should be ruled incomplete, based on the "process rule." Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads: "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete." I have to assume that at least some of the coaching staff knew the rule as well. So after looking at the replay, the decision to challenge was an easy one. The ball very clearly touched the ground, and it very clearly popped loose for a split second, with both of Bryant's hands off of the ball.  It is hard to see how the call could not be reversed.

Almost immediately, the whining and complaining about this call started. A Patriots fan friend, despite saying that he was rooting for the Packers, said that the win was tainted as a result of the call.  To me, that is dead wrong, and I pointed out to my friend that it is like saying that the Brady "tuck rule" play in the AFC Championship game years ago made the Patriots' trip to the Super Bowl tainted. In both cases, the calls after review were clearly correct under the letter of the rules. You want to say that it is a bad rule? Or that the rule should be changed?  Fine. But these were 100% correct applications of the rules as written. End of story.  (And if you are still not convinced, I can only point out that the Packers drove down into easy field goal range by the end of the game, with the Cowboys having at least as much incentive to stop them as they would have if they had retaken the lead.  In other words, the Packers would have won the game, in all likelihood, either way.)

Anyway, the Packers now head to Seattle for the NFC Championship game, the second NFC Championship game in Rodgers' tenure, and the third in McCarthy's. The forecast is for an 80% chance of rain on Sunday.  Could the weather be an equalizer?  You never know what will happen when players and footballs start sliding around.  It does remind me of the last NFC Championship Game the Packers played on the West Coast, in a downpour.  The Packers easily beat the 49ers, 23-10, and the game wasn't as close as the score.  Sunday, by the way, is also Julius Peppers' 35th birthday. I wish him the very best birthday ever.

Do the Packers have a chance in this game?  Heck, the Broncos were bigger underdogs to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. "On any given Sunday," and all that. But the Packers are and should be underdogs in this game. Even if Rodgers were 100% healthy, they would not be favored, given the home field advantage and how well the Seahawks are playing. The Seahawks put a lot more pressure on the quarterback, as compared to the Lions and the Cowboys, and that is not good with a hampered quarterback.  Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, especially when he is out of the pocket. Unfortunately, he can't get out of the pocket right now.

The Packers' big super-secret surprise defense, unveiled at Seattle in week 1, fizzled out rather spectacularly in that game, and they don't really even use that defense much anymore. Fortunately, the Packers' defense is much improved since that time, particularly after the bye week changes principally involving moving Clay Matthews around. But being honest, it is more likely that the Seahawks will win than that the Packers will win. Betting odds say that the Packers have around a 30% chance of winning. I think the true odds are a little higher than that.  I still expect to be disappointed on Sunday.  But yes, paraphrasing Jim Carrey, I am telling you that there is a chance.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ice Bowl Rematch?

Photo by Scott Crevier
What an interesting week this has been.  Almost by accident Tuesday evening I found a 90 minute show on the NFL Network on the subject of the Ice Bowl Game from the 1967 season.  I am old enough to remember the Ice Bowl game, but I never saw it live: in those days, all home games were blacked out in the local market, whether they were sold out or not, and living in Appleton, the only TV stations we got were from Green Bay.

It was interesting to watch the Ice Bowl excerpts and related interviews.  I don't think it was excerpts from the game broadcast itself, as I don't think they kept the tapes in those days, and it had the look of film, not tape, in any event.  Rather, I think it was NFL Films footage of excerpts of the game, with someone doing a cold, almost disembodied voice-over.  I know that the broadcasting style was different in those days.  The classic Ray Scott description of a touchdown pass was "Starr . . . Dowler . . . touchdown!"  Still, I find it hard to believe that an actual game broadcast would have been so bland, with not a trace of excitement displayed for touchdowns, turnovers, big plays, etc.  And then Wednesday morning, the NFL Network was showing the Green Bay at Dallas NFC Championship game after the 1995 season.  So, as is fitting for the second round of the playoffs, there has been a lot of coverage directed to Dallas and Green Bay.

In addition to all of the articles about the upcoming game itself, and about the horrendous call/non-call in the Lions-Cowboys game, there are lots of print and web articles out there about the Ice Bowl (for example, this one from the L.A. Times), and whether it will be Ice Bowl cold this Sunday (it won't).  And now I see that the Cowboys are hoping for it to be as cold as possible for the game.  I agree with the author that this is likely to be a little "whistling past the graveyard."  It is sad, but true, that the Packers are no longer invincible in playoff games at home.  In the past 13 years they have lost more than their share of home playoff games, after never having lost one before that time.  But I still don't buy that the Cowboys are hoping for cold weather.

All of this focus on the Ice Bowl makes  a lot of sense.  The Packers have not hosted the Cowboys in the playoffs in the 47 years since that epic game.  Lots of football fans may be a little fuzzy on the details of that game (who played, how cold was it, who won, was it the Super Bowl, etc.) but every football fan has heard of the Ice Bowl: it is one of the iconic games of NFL history.  

How is that possible, I thought, when I first heard that it has been 47 years since the last Dallas at Green Bay playoff game?  Well, for starters, for most of those years, the Packers were pretty bad.  They made the playoffs exactly twice between 1967 and 1994, and they didn't get close to the Super Bowl either time.  Starting in 1993, the Packers have made the playoffs most years, but the only Packers-Cowboys playoff games have been played in Texas.  This history serves, for me, as a stark reminder that the Packers, of the last 20 plus years, are an historical anomaly.  Most teams are not blessed with back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Most teams don't make the playoffs 18 times in 22 seasons.  Most teams have regular down periods lasting more than a couple of years.  I can see it in my own family.  My wife and I grew up in the Packers' golden age of the 1960's.  Our kids are in their 20's.  They literally cannot remember a time when the Packers weren't almost always in the playoffs.  So they have grown up in another Packers' golden age, starting when Favre came off the bench in 1992, and lasting to the present day.  But it was not always so, and it won't always be so in the future, either.  So, as fans, we should relish the Favre-Holmgren-Rodgers-McCarthy Packers while we still can.

As for the game, I find myself nervous, and I imagine that most Packers fans feel the same way.  There is the recent history of very discouraging home playoff losses.  There is the fact that the Cowboys are unbeaten on the road, while the Packers are unbeaten at home.  Irresistible force vs. immovable object?  Something obviously has to give, and one of those streaks will be broken by late Sunday afternoon.  Most ominous of all is the Rodgers calf injury.  I can imagine all kinds of scenarios, all the way from Rodgers looks great, and the Packers are sand-bagging the Cowboys a bit, to Rodgers will look like the second coming of Lynn Dickey - a great quarterback but completely immobile, and in much worse shape than the Packers have let on.  My own take is that McCarthy and Rodgers will do everything possible to keep Rodgers in the pocket, and the line will take it on itself to protect him, and as we saw in the Lions game two weeks ago, he can still be effective even without the added factor of mobility.  Even though the Cowboys are not known for blitzing, one has to assume that they will try testing Rodgers with a few blitzes early on.  It is vitally important that the Packers are ready for this, and have a quick outlet receiver available on every passing play.  If Rodgers can beat the blitz a few times, I assume that the Cowboys will revert to their normal approach.

The running game will be critical for both teams.  On paper, the Cowboys have a better rushing offense this season than the Packers.  But I don't think that DeMarco Murray has been as effective since breaking his hand.  Given the weather conditions and Murray's injury, I expect Eddie Lacy to gain more yards in the game than Murray.  On defense, again, on paper the Cowboys look like they have a better rushing defense than the Packers.  But, as I have said before, I think the statistic is somewhat outdated.  If you look at the Packers' rush defense since they started playing Matthews inside on the early downs, I think that the Packers have at least an equal, if not better, rushing defense than the Cowboys.

As for passing offense, under normal conditions it would be a no-brainer to pick the Packers as having the better passing offense.  But it may not be as clear on Sunday, since (a) Tony Romo seems to be more reliable than he has in past years, and (b) the Rodgers injury is a huge wild card.  But I still expect Rodgers not to make mistakes, especially at home, and I think Romo can still be counted on to throw an interception or two.  Dez Bryant is a tremendous talent at receiver for the Cowboys, as is Jason Witten.  But if, as appears likely now, Davon House is able to play, I like the Packers' chances to keep these receivers at least somewhat in check.

Anyway, I think the Packers will win, and my daydream is that it won't even be close.  More likely, the Packers will win by 10 points or less.