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,
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.