Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Packers Need to Get Off to a Faster Start

The Snap on the Game-Tying TD, photo by Tom Freeman
I think we are starting to see a disturbing pattern here with the Packers.  In the last few years, many of us have complained that the Packers sometimes have a tendency to start out the season slowly.  While none of the recent seasons fit the critique exactly, last year's team can illustrate the point.  By the time 10 games had been played, the Packers were sitting at 4-6.  It took a somewhat remarkable "running of the table" for them to get to the playoffs and ultimately to the NFC Championship Game.  

This year, we are seeing the same issue in microcosm, with the Packers starting out each game slowly, before turning it on in the second half and winning 2 out of the first 3 games.  They trailed Seattle 0-3 at halftime, before winning 17-9.  They trailed the Falcons 7-24 at halftime, before at least making it close and losing, 23-34.  They trailed the Bengals on Sunday 7-21 at halftime, before winning the game in overtime, 27-24.  My friend Harv, from whose palatial estate this blog post is being written, thinks that the Packers frequently have started games slowly, even in prior years.  I took a look at a few of the box scores from last year, and I don't think that was the case, but it certainly seems to be their routine this year.  Harv goes a step further and argues that the team, and in particular Rodgers, start out the games with a lack of urgency, almost a lackadaisical approach to the games, and  only turn on the jets later in the game.  I think my wife, Judy, agrees with at least part of Harv's argument on this.  I don't know that I agree, as I was not really watching for that when watching the games live.  I will be watching the Thursday night game, and any game I get a chance to go back and re-watch next week, with a special eye for the energy level and urgency level of the Packers, on both sides of the ball, during the early part of the games.

All in all, the Packers are lucky to be 2-1 after three games, and I suspect that all of us realize that this business of playing sluggishly in the first half, and then getting it together in the second half, just is not sustainable as a means to get to the playoffs. They could easily have lost the Bengals game on Sunday.  For example, if the Bengals had not missed a field goal earlier in the game, or if the Packers had not put together their most impressive stop of the day on the opening drive of overtime, or if Geronimo Allison did not haul in the bomb on the free play; in any of these circumstances the Packers would likely have lost the game.  Almost by definition, last-minute heroics will not save the day every time.  And when they get behind to a high quality opponent, like the Falcons, they are unlikely to be able to make up the deficit.  They are going to have to learn to start games faster, and there is no time like the present, with the Chicago Bears, carrying some renewed optimism, riding into town.  If they can just keep it together, despite their many injuries, and bring home another win on Thursday night, then they will be 3-1, with a mini-bye to get healthy, before a stretch of difficult games in October.  

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This is a football blog, not a political one.  But one can't really write a football-related blog post this particular week without acknowledging the whole national anthem protest issue.  My attitude on this is as follows.  Nobody who has thought about this and knows something about our civil rights doubts that athletes have a right to kneel, lock arms, sit down, or do anything else they want to do during the national anthem.  I certainly believe that.  But just because something is legal does not mean that it is right or even a good idea.  It is also legal for football players to skydive, bungee jump, and race motorcycles.  But all three are probably contrary to the player contracts, and all three are definitely a bad idea for football players to do during their playing careers.  In my mind, if you do anything other than listen, sing along, and put your hand over your heart during the anthem, you are showing some degree of disrespect for the country and the flag.  If you do this intentionally, for the purpose of scoring a political point, then you are certainly showing disrespect.  Politicizing the national anthem by protesting it may be legal, but it isn't right.  So I am not in favor of locking arms, or sitting, or kneeling during the national anthem.  I think the Packers' players and management are wrong to suggest that the anthem should be politicized in this fashion.  

Nor do I agree with those who vow to never watch the NFL or the Packers again.  I was a Packers fan before the current crop of players were even born.  God willing,  I will be alive and rooting for the Packers when the last of the current players is retired.  My fan interest in the Packers does not depend on the conduct or attitude of the current players or the current management of the team.  As a shareholder, my involvement with the team is permanent; as players and management, their involvement is more temporary.

Not everything needs to be, or should be, political, all of the time, although right now one side or the other seeks to politicize almost everything.  I regret that the players chose to politicize football and the national anthem.  I regret that the President decided to inflame the situation with his ill-thought-out comments.  I hope we can all get back to plain old football, and soon.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Here We Go Again!

Rodgers running for his life, photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
Sunday night's game led to a result I expected, a Packers loss.  But I did not expect such a demoralizing loss, at the hands of the Falcons (yet again!).  Anybody who watched the game knows that the game was not nearly as close as the final score of 34-23 might suggest.  With a score of 34-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, it would have taken much more than a couple of garbage time touchdowns to even the score.

As soon as I heard that both Bulaga and Bakhtiari were inactive, I should have suspected that problems were ahead.  Missing 40% of your starting offensive line is not a good thing against a team with a strong pass rush.  And by the end of the first quarter, Jordy Nelson and Mike Daniels were also sitting on the sidelines.  By the end of the game, so were Randall Cobb, Davon House, Kentrell Brice and Jahri Evans.

On defense, the problems were evident from the first drive, which was way too easy for the Falcons, even before Mike Daniels went out of the game.  The conclusion I reached was that last week's defensive performance was something of a mirage, or at a minimum greatly exaggerated because of the ineptitude of the Seahawks offense in general, and their offensive line in particular.  Against a powerful offense like that of the Falcons, the Packers can't keep up, at least on artificial turf. One lesson I hope the Packers learned from this loss is that it is time to get rookie cornerback Kevin King and rookie safety Josh Jones more playing time.  They outplayed their more experienced teammates.

On offense, the makeshift offensive line held up for a while, and of course the touchdown on the first drive helped foster the illusion that maybe everything would be OK.  But after a few drives, it all started to fall apart. One guy who had a particularly bad night was Martellus Bennett.  He needs to clean up his act, starting catching the balls that are catchable, and put this game behind him.

The worst thing about this loss is the potential damage to the Packers' quest for home field advantage in the playoffs.  There is a lot of season left, but trailing the Falcons by a game plus a tiebreaker is not where the Packers want to be.  The Packers have a good chance to beat the Falcons in Lambeau Field in the playoffs.  But they have demonstrated no ability to beat them in Atlanta.

After two weeks, the Packers have in their record an ugly win against the Seahawks, who don't look much like a championship caliber team, and an even uglier loss to the Falcons, who undoubtedly will be contending for the title.  The schedule now calls for what should be two much easier games, both at home, first the 0-2 Bengals, who have only scored 9 points in two games, and the 0-2 Bears, who looked pretty good in losing to the Falcons at home, and not so good in losing to the Buccaneers on the road.  If the Packers take care of business and win both these games, they will have a 3-1 record, and a "mini-bye" of 10 days to get healthy before starting a tougher series of games starting with the Cowboys.  I expect two wins in the next two games, but I admit to being nervous about what the injury report will say as the games get closer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Packers Off to a Good Start!

GB Press-Gazette, 9-11-17
Our long offseason is finally over.  For someone like me, who doesn't much follow other sports, including college football, and for whom the NFL preseason has become more boring and less insight-provoking every year, it is a seven-month wait from the Super Bowl to another football game that actually matters.

How do the 2017 Packers look to me so far, after their 17-9 victory over the Seahawks on opening day?  The answer is, pretty good, and I am encouraged that they will only get better as the season goes on.

We all know that the Packers' main problem last year was on defense, never more evident than in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta.  While the Packers' defense started off the year last year with some promise, by the end of the year, due in large part to injuries, the defense was a mess.

So the Packers went out and drafted with an emphasis on defense, and made some pickups in free agency on defense.  The first four picks on defense were defensive players, with the ones looking most promising to me being defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones.  Re-signing former Packers defensive back Davon House added depth, while signing former 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks added some pass-rushing pop.

So going into Sunday's game, I figured the offense would  be just fine, especially with the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett.  Of course it wasn't at all, at first. More on that in  a minute.

But it was the defense I really wanted to see, to judge whether any progress has been made.  

On Sunday, from the very first series, when Nick Perry disrupted Russell Wilson's pass, and then got a third and long sack, this looked like a new and invigorated defense.  Probably the best part was that they got lots of pressure against the Seahawks, while hardly ever blitzing.  Nick Perry, right now, looks like the Packers' best linebacker, and Mike Daniels had maybe the best game of his career on Sunday afternoon, before going home and starting to prepare for the Falcons Sunday night!  The return of Davon House adds some veteran savvy in the defensive backfield, and Dom Capers' heavy reliance on the "nitro" defense, where a safety lines up as an inside linebacker, adds speed in the middle of the field.

Now, it is undoubtedly true that the Seahawks have problems of their own on the offensive line, and it will be interesting to see if the defense can play as well against better O-lines in the upcoming games.  Still, when the last game that meant anything was the awful NFC Championship game, seeing the defense play as well as it did on Sunday against a quality opponent was very welcome.

On offense, the Packers' start of the season was painfully slow, with no points and an interception (that easily could have been a pick six) in the first half.  Even if the Packers' offense looked better than the offense of the Seahawks in the first half, some bad throws, bad penalties and other mistakes meant no success in the first half.  Bryan Bulaga missed the game with an injury, and while the O-line did a credible job without him, getting him back will clearly help to give Rodgers more time and take fewer hits and sacks.

The running game was not too successful, but as the game moved into the second half, the passing game picked up the pace.  The Seahawks paid too much attention to Nelson and Adams, with the result that Cobb had a great game underneath.  Rodgers personally picked up the pace on a snap late in the third quarter, catching the Seahawks in a 12 men on the field penalty and firing a TD pass to Jordy Nelson.  Martellus Bennett did not make a huge splash in his first game, but he made some important catches to keep drives going.  While I hate unnecessary penalties, it is hard to fault Bennett too much for going after the guy who took an arguable cheap shot at Rodgers.  Even Rodgers appreciated the support.  Ty Montgomery also contributed in the passing game; he looked good on his three receptions, and his play served to remind that even if he is a running back now, he still remembers how to play wide receiver.

The Packers move on to open the new dome in Atlanta against the Falcons on Sunday night.  I watched the first Falcons game, in which they beat the Bears 23-17 in Chicago, and really should have lost if the Bears could gain 4 yards in 4 plays at the end of the game.  I came away feeling that the Falcons do not look like the Falcons of last year's Super Bowl (or, at any rate, not like the Falcons of the first half of the Super Bowl).  I think a good team can beat them, even though they will play a lot faster on their artificial turf.

Still, the Packers learned about the emotional boost a team gets when it is opening a new stadium last year in Minnesota.  I think the Falcons will be tough to beat in this particular game, and I expect a Packers' loss.  But how great would it be if they could pull off another win and start off the season 2-0?