Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Packers are Down, but are they Out?

Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Poof!  That sound you hear just  might be the sound of a promising season blowing up.  When Aaron Rodgers hit the deck hard, with the weight of the tackler on top of him, just like that, the chances that the Packers would make it to the Super Bowl this year were reduced to next to nothing. The 23-10 loss to the rival Vikings seems insignificant when compared to the fact that Aaron Rodgers will be out for most or all of the season.

My own opinion is that it was not in the category of dirty plays or cheap shots.  But you could fairly call it unnecessary roughness, not that a 15 yard penalty would make things any better under the circumstances.

The problems on the offensive line were not directly responsible for the hit, as Rodgers was scrambling as he frequently does to extend plays.  But by the end of the game, three of the offensive linemen who had started the game were on the sideline with injuries, and that fact significantly reduced any chance that backup QB Brett Hundley would pull a "Brett Favre" and be successful in his emergency duty.

Coach McCarthy and the staff have always seemed high on Brett Hundley, and they have had more than two years to get him ready to step in as he must do now.  McCarthy says he is happy with the QBs he has, Brett Hundley as the new starter and Joe Callahan, who has been brought up from the practice squad.  But in fairness, he said the same things 4 years ago about Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien, when Rodgers broke his other collarbone, before eventually signing Matt Flynn, who had become available.

But McCarthy needs to give Hundley a chance to succeed.  Watching the game live on Sunday, it appeared to me, and to family members Sam and Judy, that McCarthy had Hundley under too tight a leash.  In re-watching the game, I don't remember a single play where McCarthy had Hundley do anything other than hand off or drop straight back in the pocket.  Not a single rollout, let alone flea-flickers or other imaginative plays!  And yet one of Hundley's strengths is  his athleticism.  Take off the handcuffs and let him play!

And now the inevitable arguments have started about whether the Packers should or should not go out and try to sign Colin KaepernickTony Romo's name comes up, too, but I think signing Romo is highly unlikely.  Given his injury history in recent years, the state of the Packers' offensive line, and the fact that he is getting rave reviews as a member of the CBS broadcast booth, I just can't see him being anxious to put the pads back on.

As to Kaepernick, I don't see it for at least three reasons.  First, as mentioned, the Packers have always been high on Brett Hundley.  My friend Peter tells me that Hundley is the classic over-hyped, over-rated Pac 12 quarterback, who piled up stats against bad defenses, and is a turnover machine.  I don't follow college football, but let's assume Peter is right.  Could McCarthy and his staff have helped to mold and improve Hundley's game in his two-plus years as a member of the Packers?  I certainly hold out hope that he has, and we will begin to find out soon enough, as McCarthy certainly is going to go with Hundley for right  now.  Can we at least give Hundley a week of prep as the starter before hitting the panic button and pulling the plug on him?  The Packers went 2-4-1 in 2013 in the seven games Rodgers missed when he broke his other collarbone.  That was not a good record (barely enough to get them to the playoffs), but in that seven week span they went through Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien as starters before re-signing and settling on Matt Flynn.  Flynn went 2-2 in the games he started.  I think Hundley can do better than 2-4-1, but we will see.*
*As an aside, if the Packers are interested in signing some quarterback who has not played in some time, I would rather see them sign Matt Flynn - he is available as a 32-year-old free agent.  The downside is that he has effectively not played in two years.  But on the upside, he at least knows the offense, the coaching staff, and many of the players.
Second, Kaepernick has succeeded in exactly one offense in the NFL, specifically designed around his talents by Jim Harbaugh, and before NFL defenses adjusted to the read option offense.  He has not succeeded in any other offense.  Are the Packers going to re-design their entire offense to suit the skills of one player who, at most, is going to play the next 10 games for the Packers?  Obviously not.  Well then, can Kaepernick quickly learn and adapt to the Packers' existing offense?  There are no data to suggest that he can, based on his past performance.  So it is not enough to say, "well, Kaepernick has won games in the NFL as a starting quarterback, gone to the Super Bowl and to another NFC Championship game, so therefore he can win games for the Packers."  Not all former starting quarterbacks are interchangeable.  With Kaepernick, you end up with a round hole and a square peg. 

In short, I think there are serious questions about his skill set and whether the Packers (or any other team, really, since nobody is running the Harbaugh-Kaepernick read option offense right now) are a natural fit for those skills.  Mike Sando of ESPN has written an interesting article, setting forth his notes over the past 4 years from his discussions with league insiders about Kaepernick.  The takeaway is an increasing level of doubts about how good a quarterback he really is as those years go by, starting well before he became famous for his National Anthem protest.  So my basic argument is that he does not have the right skills and is not a good fit from a football standpoint.

But finally, and I know this will piss some people off, I am arguing that Kaepernick's political activism is not only not a plus, but is a negative, and he would become a distraction if he joined the Packers roster.  I don't care if he is from Wisconsin, and if there is that cute picture of him as a kid in a Favre jersey.  The Packers are the team of the smallest town in the NFL.  They are owned by members of the community, your humble blogger included.  People from Wisconsin have somewhat traditional values and, for the most part, do not appreciate National Anthem protests.  The fans in the stands at the Bears game, for instance, did not seem to have any interest in adopting Aaron Rodgers' compromise suggestion to lock arms during the anthem.

While the National Anthem protests have expanded to have a wider focus than the one originally espoused by Kaepernick, he is the one who started the whole thing in the NFL.  And he was very clear about his motivation: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." So others joining in the National Anthem protests, like Martellus Bennett, may not be protesting the flag or the country, but Kaepernick, in his own words, clearly was.  And now he has apparently filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion.  And then there are the socks he wore on the sidelines depicting police as pigs.  And the praise for the Castro regime.  I agree with Boomer Esiason, who said, "This guy's like a tooth ache that just won't go away. . .

If you think all of that is consistent with him being a "Packers person," and a welcome addition to the Packers' locker room, then your definition of the term is very different from mine.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Davante Does Dallas

Packers' Bobsled Formation, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
The Packers put together a thrilling, come-from-behind, last minute victory over the Cowboys on Sunday, 35-31.  Now, if only they had not fallen behind by the score of 21-6 in the second quarter, maybe the thrilling comeback would not have been necessary.  In other words, Sunday's game marked the return of the Packers' patented slow start to games. The sooner they can rid themselves of this nasty habit, the better.

The pattern Sunday was all too familiar.  The Cowboys scored on their first possession (although in this case it wasn't easy - their drive was extended by a fourth down conversion and a phantom penalty on Blake Martinez).  The Packers answered with a very sharp drive down the field ending with a TD to Davante Adams, returning from his cheap shot concussion against the Bears.  And then the entire team went into a funk, where the defense allowed two more quick touchdowns, while the offense did nothing.  What causes this?

Mike Holmgren eventually figured out a way to settle down Brett Favre at the beginning of games, so he wouldn't throw as many "rocket balls" at the beginning of games as he had earlier in his career.  If the modern-day Packers have the skills and intensity to engineer these second half comebacks to win, then why can't they find a way to bring those skills to the fore in the first half?

This game was a bit of a coming-out party for rookie RB Aaron Jones, who rushed for 125 yards, and a 6.6 yard per carry average.  He has the speed to beat defenders around the corner, and as such he brings a new dimension to the Packers' running game.  I am sure (or should I say, pretty sure?)  that when Ty Montgomery is healthy, he will return as the starter.  He is a better receiver, from what we have seen, and that is a big deal in the Packers' offense.  But Aaron Jones has certainly shown that he deserves a bigger role in the offense.

There were a couple of very interesting play calls in the final minutes of the game.  I think they illustrate that all that matters in the end is whether the play is successful; it is the difference between "the coach is a genius!" and "the coach is an idiot!"  On 2d and 2 from the Green Bay 11, with 1:24 left in the game, the Cowboys threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock.  The Cowboys then scored on the next play, leaving the Packers with 1:13 on the clock, which turned out to be plenty of time to win.  Jason Garrett gets grief for poor clock management in the situation.  But bear in mind that the Cowboys were behind by 4 points, and needed a TD to go ahead.  Most people would expect a run, a run, and a pass if necessary on third down for the score or first down.  Why not catch the opponent by surprise, throw on second down instead, to try to catch the Packers focusing on the run?  So I can't really criticize this call. 

Still, they had been running the ball well, and on 2d and 2, there is no reason to think that they could not have gotten the first down on the ground, running down the clock and thus prompting the time-management criticism.  One can't help but think that along with the excitement about Prescott scoring the go-ahead touchdown, there must have been some undertone in the crowd of outright dread about the amount of time left on the clock for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  After all, they have seen this routine before, in last year's playoff game.

Seconds later, on 2d and 10 from the Dallas 47, McCarthy called a running play to Aaron Jones, which went for 15 yards, and the rookie got the ball out of bounds, to boot.  Great call!  Who expects a running play in this situation from midfield, when you have 47 more yards to cover and not many seconds left to get it done!  But imagine if he was stuffed in the backfield, or tripped up inbounds after a short gain.  What an idiot!  How can you call a running play there!  There is obviously such a thing as poor clock management, and Coach McCarthy has sometimes been guilty of this sin.  But in most cases, there is another side to the story, the strategic angle, where an attempt to go against the conventional wisdom can be exactly what is called for, in order to outsmart the opposing team.

Everybody now knows how this ended.  After a first down incompletion on a back-shoulder pass to Davante Adams, Adams urged Rodgers to call the same play, and according to Rodgers, Adams' eyes included the extra message, "throw a better ball."  He did exactly that with 11 seconds left in the game, and Adams scored the winning touchdown.  The game was a great win for the Packers, and an instant classic of a ball game overall.  It brings the Packers to a 4-1 record, which is certainly at the high end of what anyone could predict for the Packers thus far in 2017, especially when you consider all the injuries, particularly on the offensive line.

This week they head back to the Vikings' new stadium, to renew another long-time rivalry.  In recent years, the Packers have won most of their games against the Vikings, regardless of which stadium they play in.  Last year's game in Minnesota was the inaugural home game for the Vikings in their new stadium, and those games don't go well for the Packers, as we learned again this year in Atlanta.  But the Vikings are unsettled in a number of areas, including the fact that starting QB Sam Bradford has been ruled out for this game, as has starting WR Stefon Diggs.  The Vikings lost their rookie RB Dalvin Cook a week ago, so they are using backups there as well.  I expect a win for the Packers; and hopefully a win not requiring another furious comeback.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tougher Tests Lie Ahead

I argued last week that the Packers have been starting games off too sluggishly, and that they need to come ready to play and get off to better starts, as the furious comeback model is not a good look for the Packers, or a good road to getting a lot of wins.  Sometimes that last-second pass gets dropped, or tipped and intercepted, and the comeback falls short.  Well, the Bears last Thursday night seem to be just what the doctor ordered.  By the time the first 6 minutes of the game had been played, the Packers led 14-0, and they never led by less than 14 points for the rest of the game.

While I had assumed, based on the Bears-Steelers game, that the Bears must have been better than my initial impression, that game must have been something of a fluke.  They certainly were not an impressive squad on Thursday night, and indeed the Bears have now pulled the plug on Mike Glennon and will now start Mitch Trubisky this coming week.  The point is, the Packers' fast start might have more to do with the ineptness of the Bears than it does with a greatly improved Packers' approach to the game.

Speaking of fast starts and furious comebacks, the playoff game at Dallas last year was almost the mirror image of some of the Packers' games this year.  The Packers led the game by 18 points early on, and then by 15 points a little later, before allowing the Cowboys to stage the furious comeback, which led to the last minute heroics by Rodgers, Jared Cook and ultimately Mason Crosby.  Two of the big and somewhat unexpected stars of that game were Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.  Cook led all Packers receivers with 104 yards, and while Montgomery only had 47 yards rushing, he also scored two touchdowns.  Obviously, Cook is gone, and Montgomery is unlikely to play on Sunday.  There is no indication so far this season that Martellus Bennett is an upgrade at tight end, which the Packers must have expected when they let Cook go and signed Bennett.  This would be a great game for him to step up and finally have a big day.  Whoever does play running back, whether Williams or Jones, will  also need to step up to keep the Cowboys defense honest.  If, as appears possible, both Bulaga and Bakhtiari will be ready to play their first snaps together on Sunday, this would be a huge plus for the Packers.

I expect a close game.  Neither team is playing now at the level they were playing in the playoffs last year.  The Packers' offense may leave something to be desired, but at times they have looked improved on defense.  If they can bottle up Ezekiel Elliott and force Dak Prescott to try to beat them in the air, I think the Packers have a good shot to win the game.  Go Pack!