Monday, November 20, 2017

No Place to Go But Up

All Down Hill From Here, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Well, here we are.  It is a short, holiday week, with almost nothing positive to say about the Green Bay Packers, in light of their dismantling yesterday, at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, 23-0.  What in the world can I say to shed any light on the game?  The game started so promisingly, as the Packers marched down the field after taking the opening kickoff, until Brett Hundley, on second down, inexplicably threw a ball that for the end zone that Randall Cobb had virtually no chance of catching.  One of the two defensive backs double-covering him on the play would catch the ball, or nobody would.  Of course, Jimmy Smith intercepted it, and the game was all downhill from there, with the Packers never mounting a serious threat after that play.

As luck would have it, the first thing I saw this morning was a Facebook rant by my Facebook friend Jon W. Eisele.  I don't know him personally, but he is an aviator, a veteran, and a Packers shareholder originally from Illinois, and he seems like an all-around good man.  I don't think I can improve on some of his thoughts about yesterday's game, so I am just reprinting them here, with his permission.  I don't go all the way with him in suggesting that maybe it is time to tank the season and position for draft picks, but I understand the reason for the suggestion.  I will gladly agree to turn over half my fee to Jon for "guest-writing" this post, but as a reminder, 1/2 x $0 = $0.
In all kinds of weather, I will always love my Green Bay Packers; as a Shareholder of the Great organization, I also reserve the right to be critical.
Since QB1 broke his collarbone, we've learned that Brett Hundley's scouting reports out of college are still valid and accurate; when not playing the Bears, he's shown himself to be non-competitive past his first 10 scripted plays of the game. So far, he’s proven himself to be a waste of time and resources developmentally, and he’s wasted a golden opportunity that generations upon generations of would-be's and back-ups everywhere could only dream of. True, our chronically banged-up OL is in a constant state of disarray, but that’s no excuse for his staggeringly awful performance today: 4 turnovers, 6 sacks, and countless squandered opportunities, most of which were due to his hesitation and/or overall lack of awareness or confidence.
Despite the lingering criticism of Dom Capers, I thought the Packers' defense played one a hell of an impressive, aggressive, and consistent game (for the second week in a row), especially considering the circumstances, which handed the offense every available opportunity to win — ultimately, it was impossible for them to have overcome the remarkable level of ineptitude under center. We’ll be lucky to finish the season 7-9 with that level of offensive play. Take a look at the team stats, and then revisit the final score. I cannot remember seeing a game that was that clearly and definitively lost by an offense, much less that *talented* of an offense. Unreal. It just doesn't make any sense.
I really *hate* saying this, but at this point, I’m not totally opposed to the Packers playing for draft position and developing/playing/evaluating younger talent from this point on. Injuries have been unrelenting this season and I don’t want to see anymore of our proven studs go down or sustain a major injury unnecessarily. I feel yucky and disloyal admitting that, but I feel it to be an objective and realist point of view right now. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong moving forward.
I both understand and respect Mike McCarthy's public (and perhaps private) loyalty and confidence in Brett Hundley, but I honestly feel like we should start developing (and therefore playing) Joe Callahan to get a feel for what he potentially is or isn’t; doing so will help us better prioritize our draft decision for a new backup QB. I think Brett Hundley has proven himself to be too far gone at this point, and nothing more than a non-competitive placeholder as a backup or starter.
Please someone, prove me wrong. I truly welcome it.
The brightside: We beat the Bears twice this season (the value of which is at least doubled in my opinion) and now lead the all-time series by two games — and I'm already looking forward to witnessing the eventual collapse of the Vikings. I still believe that the front office will right the ship, and the Packers will inevitably return to better days. Keep your head up, Cheesehead Nation.
#GoPackGo #TheBearsStillSuck #TheVikingsSuckToo
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, it is a wonderful time to spend time with family and friends, as our family will be doing.  Just don't get your hopes too high for the Sunday Night matchup at Pittsburgh.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Packers Need to Keep Winning

Rodgers Greets Hundley After the Decisive TD Pass
Please allow me to  have a large snack of crow (or Raven, given this week's game).  I had seen nothing in the last 3 games to suggest that Hundley was capable of having as good a game as he had against the Bears on Sunday, or that the Packers' defense is capable of stopping anybody with consistency, over a full 60 minute game.  But the Packers did both in beating the Bears, 23-16, at Soldier Field.  Now, let's not get too excited, it is only the Bears, but still, what a nice little win to keep the Packers' season interesting for at least another week or two. 
On the bad news/good news front, Aaron Jones injured his knee during the first quarter, Ty Montgomery (re) injured his ribs in the second quarter, and Brett Hundley injured his hamstring, although nobody outside the Packers organization knew about Hundley's injury until after the game.  It appeared to me as if the injury probably happened early in the game, as Hundley didn't seem to have as much "escapability" in the pocket as I expected.  But the Packers were able to keep things rolling, even with Jamaal Williams, their third string running back, and with an injured Brett Hundley. 
By far the funniest play of the day (if not the year) was Coach Fox's challenge of a ruling in the first half.  Cunningham, the Bears' running back, was trying to get to the end zone, and was diving for the pylon.  He was ruled out of bounds at the 2.  Fox challenged, claiming he did not step out of bounds, and it was a TD when he reached out and touched the pylon with the ball.  On review, the determination was made that (1) he never stepped out of bounds; but (2) he lost control of the ball as he was reaching for the pylon, so when the loose ball hit the pylon, it became Packers ball and a touchback.  You could sort of see this in the first several angles shown on TV, if you were really looking for it, but it was not obvious.  The people upstairs who advised Fox to challenge it had obviously not seen the one shot that clearly, and without the slightest doubt, shows that the ball had come loose before hitting the pylon.  So what seemed like a slightly aggressive challenge (after all, they would have had the ball on the 2 yard line, anyway), turned into a disastrous miscalculation.  And that was a key play in the game, as the Bears were seemingly poised to tie up the game, 10-10, but for the ill-considered challenge.
So the Packers find themselves at 5-4, in at least theoretical contention for a wild card spot, and with the Ravens coming to town.  Heck, they are tied with a bunch of teams for the wild card spots at 5-4, but the Falcons and Lions would beat them out based on head-to-head record.  Meanwhile, fan enthusiasm for the Packers seems to be waning, and what with a Rodgers-less Packers team, and the start of the hunting season, tickets are selling for well below face value for this game.  Can they keep it going against the bye-rested, 4-5 Ravens?  Every game they win now keeps things interesting; every game they lose approaches a nail in the coffin.  Before Rodgers' injury, everyone would have assumed that this would be a Packers win.  But now, the Ravens are favored, even as a road team at Lambeau Field. 
I watched the Ravens' last game, against the Titans two weeks ago.  They lost, 23-20, but they did almost nothing in the game until the 4th quarter.  Sounds a little like the Packers?  One of these teams should just pretend it is the 4th quarter at the beginning of the game!  Obviously, the defense plays differently in the 4th quarter, and in the case of the Titans-Ravens games, the two 4th quarter TDs can to some extent be seen as garbage-time TDs.  But still, how refreshing it would be to see the Packers come out in an up-tempo offense at the beginning of the game, and maybe put some points on the board right away. 
Anyway, the Ravens, statistically, have the worst passing offense in the league (although it is only fair to note that if you limited the stats to the last 4 weeks, the Packers would be right down there, too).  They have an above average rushing offense, and an above average passing defense, but they are nothing special against the run.  So the Packers can potentially pull off an "upset" in this game, if only they game-plan appropriately for the Ravens.  An offensive game plan emphasizing the running game, and including short passes as an extension of the running game, makes sense to me.  On defense, this is one of those teams where the Packers should concentrate on the run and force Joe Flacco to beat them in the air.
When the Ravens come tapping at the door of Lambeau Field on Sunday, let's hope the Packers send them away with nothing to show for it.
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice: Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore — Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; — 'Tis the wind and nothing more." 
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

Friday, November 10, 2017

Packers are in a Heap of Trouble Now

Brett Hundley, All Alone, Photo by Evan Siegle,
On Monday night, the Packers started off the game on a positive note, on both offense and defense.  On offense, the Packers marched down the field on a scoring drive, ultimately having to settle for a field goal.  On defense, the Packers forced a 3 and out in the Lions' first drive.  EXCEPT . . . Except, the Crosby field goal was blocked, and a penalty on Mike Daniels prolonged the drive, resulting in a Lions' TD.  So instead of 3-0 Green Bay, it was 7-0 Detroit.  And it was all downhill from there.  If you imagine the alternate endings to both those drives, would it have made a difference?  Probably not in the long run, but it would have at least prolonged the illusion of competitiveness.

On a couple of levels, you could say Brett Hundley wasn't the problem on Monday.  He had no interceptions, no fumbles, no huge mistakes.  And the problems on defense were so severe that even a better performance by Hundley would not have resulted in a win. 

Still, there seem to be two successful models in the NFL for surviving with backup quarterbacks, and neither model is working for the Packers right now.  One method is to have a veteran, former starter in the league as the backup, ready to step in at a moment's notice.  Think of Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Buccaneers this year, or Tony Romo as the backup for the Cowboys last year.  Or even Jimmy Garappolo when he has still the Patriots' backup.  The other model is to have a young, talented player being groomed for his big moment.  Brett Favre back in 1992, Aaron Rodgers in 2005-2007, Tom Brady back in the Drew Bledsoe days.  I was willing to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt with Hundley, given his reputation as a mentor of quarterbacks, and the fact that he has been preparing him for the better part of three seasons.  But after almost three full games, it doesn't appear that Hundley fits the "young, talented player" model, and he is obviously not a veteran, former starter.  I am afraid he is just a journeyman backup quarterback, and you don't win many games with journeyman backups.  If you think I am being tough on him, take a look at this article, pointed out to me by my buddy (and fellow shareholder) Peter Chen.

Which is not to take McCarthy off the hook for the way he is managing Hundley during the games (as opposed to in mentoring him for this day).  There needs to be a greater emphasis on the running game, and on passing plays suited to Hundley's talents.  There is no use having him throw deep; he is not going to complete those passes.  So stretch the defense with mid-range passes that actually have a chance to be completed!

The real story, though, is how pathetic the defense looked.  They did a nice job of stopping the run, but passing against them was like child's play for Matt Stafford.  They get no pressure on the passer without a blitz, and as a result a skilled quarterback can just shred them (to use the term the Monday night crew used repeatedly during the broadcast).  You know your defense is no good when the other team does not have to punt once in the entire game.

The defense has been the Packers' Achilles Heel (apologies to Richard Sherman) for too many years, now.  There have been injuries, of course, but there are always injuries.  The fact that the defense has been a problem is illustrated by the fact that the Packers have devoted 11 draft picks in the first 4 rounds of the last 3 drafts (4 each in 2017 and 2016, and 3 in 2015).  So you could say that the Packers have drafted an entire starting lineup full of high round defensive players in the last 3 years, and yet the results are very poor.  I have never been on the "fire Capers" bandwagon until now, as I didn't think it was wise, with a perennial title contending team, to just fire a coordinator and start over with a new system.  I'm not sure I am quite there yet, but I am sizing up the height and speed of the bandwagon like a cat, judging whether to jump on.

Well, if two weeks were not enough time for the Packers to prepare to play the Lions at home, one wonders how the Packers will do on the road in Chicago on a short week?  For my entire life, I had been waiting for the Packers to catch up with, and then surpass, the Bears in all-time record between the two teams.  They finally caught up last season, and then went ahead of the Bears this year in week 4, and now lead the Bears 95-94-6.  This was the first time the Packers have led the series since 1932. 

It will be heartbreaking if after going ahead in week 4, the Packers fall back into a tie in week 10.  And yet I don't know how one can predict a Packers victory, the way they are playing right now.  It remains to be seen whether Mitchell Trubisky is the starting quarterback the Bears have been searching for all these years.  His passing stats in the four games he has started are unimpressive, and yet he has won 2 of those 4 games, with wins against the Ravens and Panthers.  The results have been better for Trubisky, after half a season in preparation, than they have been for Hundley, after 2.5 years in preparation. 

My motto for this week's game is the same as the title of the old Mel Brooks song, "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst."

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Showdown with Motown

I was not really sure what to expect in the Saints game preceding the Packers' bye week.  I thought, at the end of the day, that the Saints were likely to beat the Packers.  Sure, their record was technically worse than the Packers, and the game was in Green Bay.  But with a backup QB and a banged up defense, I figured that the Packers would not be able to keep up with the Saints' scoring machine.

As a result, I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat hopeful when the first half ended with the Packers leading by the score of 14-7.  The two first quarter interceptions by the Packers had not led to any points, but they at least slowed the Saints down.  In hindsight, those interceptions kept the Packers in the game, keeping the Saints from scoring (those two drives were probably worth 10 or 14 points to the Saints if the interceptions had not happened).  But the failure to take advantage of at least one of those turnovers (or the turnover that almost happened on the muffed punt by Ted Ginn) ultimately contributed to the eventual loss, by the score of 26-17.

On first watching of the game live, my impression was that Mike McCarthy went into his now-familiar conservative game-calling mode in the second half.  Taking no chances, just making the most conservative choices and hoping for the best against the high-powered Saints.  Re-watching the game leads to the same conclusion.  In the first half, the Packers' offense ran a lot of play-action passes, fake end-arounds, etc., and the creativity of the calls led to greater success in the running game, with Aaron Jones scoring one of the TDs on a 46 yard run, and Brett Hundley scoring on the other when he decisively pulled down the ball and used his legs to score the TD.

But watching the second half again confirmed my initial impressions.  Virtually every play was a straight hand-off, a straight drop-back pass, or a shotgun snap for a pass.  I don't recall any play-action passes at all, much less other plays designed to deceive.  The results were predictable.  The Packers, having scored 14 in the first half, scored 3 in the second half.  The defense did not generate any turnovers to slow down the Saints, and as a result they scored 19.  Why didn't Mike McCarthy see this coming?  Why didn't he adjust his game plan as the second half wore on?

McCarthy, in his characteristically testy way, even acknowledged that he did not do a good job of coaching against the Saints.  While he got into no details, it was certainly clear to me as an observer that part of that poor coaching job was his play calling in the second half.  When you lead 14-7 at halftime, you can't just run out the clock on the entire second half, especially against a team with an offense like the New Orleans Saints.  And yet, if you didn't know the score or the amount of time left, you would assume that the Packers were trying to do just that: run out the clock in the second half.

When the Lions come to Green Bay on Monday night, in theory there is a lot on the line.  The Vikings are at 6-2 and on their bye week.  They may be close to having all 3 of their QBs available, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater.  If the Packers hope to stay in the playoff mix at 4-3, a win here would be a big step forward, showing that they can win at least some games with Brett Hundley.  And for the 3-4 Lions, this game is pretty critical.  Absent the injury to Rodgers, one would have expected the Packers to win this game.  Playing against Brett Hundley gives the Lions the chance to steal a game that they would have assumed to be a loss just three weeks ago.

In the Saints game, the Packers teased us in the first half, but ultimately disappointed us and did not play up to the level of our hopes as fans.  I am going to go out on a limb and predict a Packers win on Monday night.  This will require McCarthy to call a better game, Hundley to play a better game with few to no mistakes, and the rest of the team to play up to their considerable abilities. 

Hundley's abilities are what they are.  It is clear that he does not have Rodgers' accuracy on long passes.  It is clear that, although mobile, he does not have Rodgers' accuracy while on the run.  The best strategy for him seems to be to rely on shorter throws, and to emphasize that if his first couple of options are not open, he should quickly decide to pull the ball down and take off.  But a short passing game, with little threat of the long ball, will only work if the play-calling is creative enough to include the element of deception.  Play-action passes, screen passes, end-arounds, fake end-arounds, etc.  This is squarely on McCarthy to call a better game. 

Maybe he needs to designate somebody to stand next to him, and to remind him to call a more creative game.  I have someone in mind: how about Aaron Rodgers?  He is back in Green Bay, and has nothing better to do during the game.  I hope he can elevate McCarthy's game calling.  Let's see what happens.