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.

*    *    *    *

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.