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.


  1. Tom, Beautifully written. Astute as always. Probably a good thing you waited a few days to write this. Jeff B.

  2. Thanks, Jeff, I appreciate it. I actually had maybe half of it done Sunday night, but decided to wait.

  3. Longtime reader Eli F. sent me this comment by email, with which I agree: "I am surprised that no one has included in the list of "errors" rushing three down linemen on a 3rd and 19. Given the amount of time that allowed a receiver was bound to get open and the worst quarterback in the NFL, hell, most if not all college quarterbacks, could gave completed a pass for a first down."

  4. As a “Packers fan for the day” my opinions, coming from the enemy as it were, may be unwanted and ill-informed, but here goes. As a Lions fan since 1957, I understand losing better than most. And I think I understand the value of a good coach now that I have experienced having one (i.e. Caldwell). So let me bring a slightly different perspective to this discussion.

    First, my definition of football is controlled, directed aggression. Applying that to this game, I agree that the Packer’s coaches were not aggressive enough in their 4th-and-goal decisions. They left 4 to 8 points on the field. While being stopped may have affected morale, a coach must believe in his offensive line and his Pro Bowl fullback to get the job done for Lacy, who is a difficult guy to stop. I said so during the game and still feel that way. Apart from morale, the worst thing that can happen if stopped is that the Seahawks need to go 99 yards to paydirt, while a pick-6, safety, blocked punt, or at the very least good field position, in that situation are all positive outcomes. McCarthy could have shown confidence in his defense here. I ask myself what Vince would have done, and I think he would have gone for it both times.

    Getting back to my appreciation of a good coach, I would tend to trust McCarthy’s judgment overall. He is a very successful coach and you are lucky to have his leadership. But in this instance Pete Carroll played the game more aggressively. He was willing to risk 3 points for 7 and on two occasions McCarthy eschewed risk in favor of certainty. The game swung in the balance.

    While coaching decisions on both sides helped shape it, ultimately the outcome is determined by the players. I think the loss was a team effort. A team (Seattle) committing 5 turnovers should not win. An offense given 5 turnovers by its defense should not lose. The offensive line was unable to get a first down with 5 minutes to go. With 4 minutes to go, a defense should not give up 2 touchdowns. A championship defense does not give up 193 yards rushing. Then there were the two critical plays on special teams: the fake field goal and the muffed on-sides kick. Ordinarily Rodgers is quite capable of covering these flaws but his injury was crucial to the outcome. To wit, 171 yards passing. This was probably his least passing yardage short of the 147-yard game against my Lions (sorry, but I had to plug them somewhere).

    But in the end the Pack played well enough against a great defensive team to get to OT. The real reason for the loss, in my opinion, is the stupid NFL take on OT. The team that wins the toss can run the table without the opposition offense touching the ball. The NCAA has the right idea and the NFL should change its rules accordingly. The NFL seems driven, whether by TV networks or its own stupidity, to end its games quickly. I think the rules put too much emphasis on the luck of the toss. Far better, in my opinion, is to let the game be decided with both teams having an equal chance to win.

    Lastly, defense wins championships. The Pack should invest in stopping the running game (but please do not sigh Suh!). They had only one Pro Bowl player on defense (Matthews) while Seattle has 3 in key positions (linebacker, corner, and safety).

    I enjoyed your well-written post and will partake of it in the future, particularly after our rivalry games.


  5. Al - this might well be my longest blog post ever, and now that I think of it, I am almost positive that your comment is the longest one I have received.

    As I read it, we agree (1) that the Packers should have gone for it on the early 4th and 1s; and (2) that McCarthy is a good coach overall. I guess that I agree with you that this loss was a team effort, too. The two places where I think I disagree with you most are your emphasis on the OT rule, and the fact that I still think it comes back to the coaches, even if it was an overall team effort.

    On the OT rule, bear in mind that I don't follow college football, so while I kind of know how it works, I don't live with the experience of it. From my perspective, when they loosened the rule in the NFL some years ago, they already addressed part of the concern you express. You can say they did not do enough, and I am not even really disagreeing with you on that. But to me the nature of the OT rules was the least of the Packers' problems on Sunday.

    As you say, a team that gets 5 turnovers should not lose the game. And there were player errors (the Bostick decision to go after the ball, the Burnett/Peppers decision to go down on the last INT, the Clinton-Dix misplay on the 2 point conversion) and even some official errors (not penalizing Lynch for the crotch-grabbing move, which would have set up a 17 yard two-point conversion attempt) that contributed.

    But then you think back and say, wait a minute, who is in charge of the in-game decisions? Who decided to try to run out the clock with running plays, rather than to try to get a first down with a pass? Who decided to play a semi-prevent defense late in the game and in OT? At a time when the momentum was overwhelmingly in Seattle's favor. It doesn't happen every game (as I mentioned in the post) but it has been repeated often enough to make one wonder if the Packers wouldn't be better off having the OC call the plays. By the way, in the famous Lions' game when Matt Flynn threw 6 TDs and earned himself a big contract with Seattle, who was calling the plays? Aaron Rodgers.