Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Getting Tired of Home Shutouts

Tubing in Titletown, Photo by Adam Wesley, USA Today
The Packers played their final home game on Saturday night, and got shut out by the Vikings, 16-0.  Since the Packers suffered two shutout losses in Lambeau Field this year, maybe we should consider the fact that this is the last home game to be a blessing of sorts.  By the time we next see the Packers in Lambeau Field, (1) Aaron Rodgers and numerous others will be back from injured reserve; (2) the Packers will have another chance to do something about their defense; and (3) we are likely to have seen some changes in the coaching staff.  I will have more to say about coaching changes in my year-end post in a week or two.

In the meantime, since there are no more games, this would be a great time to check out the tubing hill in the Titletown District, which opened this past week.  I would check it out myself if I lived nearby.

As far as the game is concerned, I did not see a lot to like in the Packers' performance.  I also wasn't too impressed with the Vikings.  They scored 10 points in the first quarter, and then could only manage another 6 points for the rest of the game.  They did not, to me, seem like a team likely to go rolling through the playoffs, and then play and win the Super Bowl in their own stadium.  Especially if they have to play a game outdoors, I don't see them winning that game. In light of last night's game, the Eagles now have the number one seed, so if the Vikings are to advance, it will have to be by going through Philly, unless the Eagles get knocked off in their first game.  The Eagles didn't look too great, either, so that could quite possibly happen.

But the vulnerability of the Vikings makes the Packers' performance all the more disappointing.  The Packers had exactly one promising drive in the game, late in the second quarter, which ended on a terrible interception by Hundley in the red zone.  Every time Hundley threw a ball over 10 yards, it seemed like it was either too short, or, more frequently, too long.  Unlike the Goldilocks tale, none of them were "just right."  Well, technically he did complete several passes over 10 yards, but the impression this viewer had was that every time he threw a longer pass, I just knew the pass would be incomplete. 

That would be hard to take if Hundley were a first year player, but at least in that context you could wait for better play from him in the future.  In this case, he has been McCarthy's backup, "the guy" for three years now, and McCarthy has repeatedly vouched for him.  So how can he be as mediocre as he seems to be? 

Back in the first couple of weeks that Hundley was playing, I thought people were jumping all over him way too fast.  Give the kid a chance to settle in, and all.  But despite having won 3 of the 9 games he played in, I don't know how you can avoid the conclusion that Brett Hundley just isn't good enough to be the Packers' backup, at least if the goal is to keep them winning enough games to get to the playoffs.  Now, I think it is quite reasonable to conclude that McCarthy's faith in Hundley is misguided, which raises questions about whether he will be able to develop a better backup for Rodgers for next season.

Indeed, it really calls into question McCarthy's judgment and his reputation as a quarterback whisperer.  Whereas Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf prepared backup after backup, and several of them went on to become starters in the league (Matt Hasselback, Mark Brunell, Ty Detmer, Doug Pedersen), the same cannot be said about Mike McCarthy, unless you give him credit for bringing along Aaron Rodgers after he was drafted to replace Brett Favre.  I guess you could count Matt Flynn, but when he got his chance to be a starter, he was beaten out by rookie Russell Wilson.  And to make matters worse, they put the more promising backup candidate, Taysom Hill, on the practice squad, where he was signed away by the Saints.  I know, that was a calculated risk, but in hindsight, why not keep Hill and get rid of Joe Callahan, if they don't have enough confidence in Callahan to run him out there in a game where Hundley is doing nothing?

At any rate, while the Packers have plenty of problems on defense, and that needs to be addressed for next season as well, the defense wasn't really the problem Saturday night.  They held the sometimes high-scoring Vikings to 16 points.  That ought to be good enough to give the Packers a chance to win, but as it happened, they had no chance at all with the Brett Hundley-led offense.  It is going to be a long-than-usual offseason for Packers fans, and a very interesting one, as well.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Disappointing End to the Season

Allison Fumbles, photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
Well, as Aaron Rodgers himself suggested, this was not exactly the fairytale ending we were all hoping for.  Rodgers returns, and far from "running the table" again this year, he looks off in his return gig, throwing 3 interceptions to match his 3 touchdown passes, and the comeback fizzles when, despite recovering the onside kick while trailing by 7 points, Geronimo Allison fumbles away the ball in Panthers territory and the Panthers win, 31-24.  And if that wasn't just grinchy enough for you, the Falcons won on Monday night, knocking the Packers out of the playoffs, Rodgers was shut down for the season by going back on IR, and Davante Adams has been ruled out of the Saturday night home game against the Vikings.  Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, indeed!

I was (quite uncharacteristically) on an international flight during this game.  I think that last happened in 1995, on the night Favre threw a 99 yard TD to Robert Brooks at Soldier Field.  On this past Sunday, I was doing my best to follow the game by WiFi, until we got into US airspace and could pick up Fox and the NFL Network on the seatback TVs.  So while I was following the game, I saw none of it until days after the fact, when I finally had a chance to watch the recording.  The watching of the game was of course skewed by the fact that I knew the outcome.  I also knew that Rodgers and the defense had not played well, so I was, in effect, just waiting for the wheels to start to come off as I watched.

There was a glimmer that Rodgers was off even on the very first drive.  While his first pass of the game was on the money to Adams, his second and third passes were off the mark, to Nelson and Cobb respectively.  He settled down somewhat, and looked rusty but serviceable for the rest of the first half.  His biggest mistake of the half was the interception on a ball he was trying to throw away, but he threw it short (an omen of interceptions to come), in the field of play.  Meanwhile, the defense looked passable in the first half, giving up only 10 points.  The gashing, particularly by Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen, was just beginning at the time.  With the Packers leading 14-10 at halftime, I imagine that it would have been possible, if watching the game live, to picture the Packers pulling off the upset.

So it was with a sense of foreboding that I watched the second half.  It didn't take long.  Newton and McCaffrey gashed them most of the way down the field on the first drive, and when the Packers blitzed and hit Newton, he was able to uncork a 30 yard TD pass to Greg Olsen.  Two plays later, Rodgers was intercepted on another underthrown ball, and Davante Adams was knocked out of the game on an extremely cheap shot.  After the disputed "ass cheek" touchdown, Rodgers was again intercepted, again on an underthrown ball, three plays later.

In following the game via WiFi, and reading the stats after the fact, I was shocked by how the Packers had abandoned the running game in the second half.  In watching the game, it was a little more clear why, as the Panthers seemed to be stacking the box on most plays to stop the run.  Normally, that would give Rodgers the chance to carve them up, but this was not the Rodgers we are familiar with.  So the Panthers' gamble paid off.

Anyway, it was a disappointing way for the season to come to a virtual end, while the actual end was confirmed on Monday night.  It seems inevitable that changes must come after a season like this, and I think they are justified.  The defense has not played up to its potential for years, and if the defense had played just a little better in every game, one or two of those losses could have been turned into wins.

The Saturday night, final home game of the season against the Vikings now seems a bit anticlimactic.  Rodgers would certainly have wanted to get back at the Vikings for ruining the Packers' season.  But it is hard to see how the depleted Packers can get that done.  I read somewhere that Case Keenum has never played a game in freezing temperatures, so there is that.  Without Davante Adams, maybe Hundley will finally be able to connect with Jordy Nelson, or will be able to improve his connection with Randall Cobb.  Poor Cobb, he has never had a January in his career where the Packers were not in the playoffs.  So maybe he can still make an impact in December, by helping to knock off the Vikings.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Kings of the Overtime Game

Animated Rodgers Waits His Turn, photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
Another week, another overtime game, another victory?  At some level, that sounds great.  It certainly shows that the Packers are not giving up on games when they get behind.  And they have been able to make some plays when the chips are down. 

I really liked the way the Packers opened the game, with the first drive including a fake punt and another fourth down conversion.  The drive ended in a 30 yard TD pass from Hundley to Jamaal Williams.

But then I don't know that I liked a single additional thing I saw for the rest of the first three quarters.  It was that familiar funk, into which the Packers have sunk in a number of games this year.  When the fourth quarter rolled around, I appreciated the way that the Packers stuck with it, battled back, and eventually tied the game to send it to overtime.  To get there, it took a gutty challenge by McCarthy, and a big time punt return by Trevor Davis, showing us why McCarthy and Coach Zook keep sending him back there despite his mistakes.  But they got there and tied the game up with seconds to go.  I admit that I was concerned that the defense would blow it when Cleveland won the toss.  But far from blowing it, they pressured DeShone Kizer and forced him into a horrendous rookie mistake.  As the ball was in the air, every Packers fan must have been terrified that somehow a Browns player would come down with the ball, or that the multiple Packers players in the area would take each other out of the play.  But instead, Josh Jones snatched the ball out of the air, and a few plays later, the Packers had won, thanks to a nice TD reception by Davante Adams.

But the question is, why was a furious comeback and overtime score necessary against the worst team in the league?  I understand, the Browns have come close to some wins in the past few weeks, and they were close again Sunday.  As a matter of fact, but for the terrible wounded duck thrown up by Kizer in overtime, maybe they would have finally won on Sunday.  But the Browns have a history of finding a way to lose, and it happened again against the Packers.

Where this game leaves the Packers is an interesting question.  They still have an outside chance of making the playoffs.  (You can check out some of the scenarios here.)  It probably won't happen, as they need far too much help from others, not to mention needing to put together three more wins themselves against tough opponents.  But, to paraphrase Dumb and Dumber, yes, there is a chance.  And in light of that, the question on everyone's mind is, will Aaron Rodgers be activated from IR and play the final three games? 

My strong hunch is that he wants to be activated.  He seemed more animated on the sidelines on Sunday, and that suggests to me that he is anxious to get back under center.  So far, McCarthy has given no indication that Rodgers won't be activated, unless the doctors won't allow it.  So McCarthy is obviously willing to entertain a Rodgers return, rather than just "playing it safe" and announcing that he isn't going to take a chance on Rodgers' health this year.  From McCarthy's perspective, he knows that he would get a lot of heat if he were to preemptively shut Rodgers down, so it is perhaps understandable that he wants to put it on the doctors.  We will see in the next few days.  I suspect that the medical report will be a good one, and I think Coach McCarthy will have a hard time turning Rodgers down, unless the medical staff says he is not ready.  So buckle your seatbelts, it will be an interesting week, and I think we will be back to Aaron Rodgers at QB come Sunday.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Packers Run to Victory in Overtime

Aarons Celebrating Their Birthdays Together, photo by Packers.com
On a day when Brett Hundley didn't look very good (13 complete passes for 84 yards), how would the Packers be able to pull off a win against the Buccaneers?  A huge dose of Jamaal Williams, just a pinch of Aaron Jones when needed, and NFC defensive player of the week Dean Lowry making  plays all day long.  That was enough for a 26-20 win in overtime.

The Packers were ahead at halftime, 17-10, on the strength of Williams' running and an opportunistic defense.  But the Packers basically did nothing in the second half.  When the Buccaneers went ahead, 20-17, with 6 minutes to go in the game, it was not hard to imagine the Packers losing the game.  But when a drive was needed, Hundley put one together that was just good enough to get the tying field goal.  Both on that drive and in overtime, Hundley made use of his own legs as a change of pace for the legs of Jamaal Williams.  And for the ultimate change of pace, after Williams, on successive hard driving plays, got the Packers deep into Buccaneers territory, they gave him a rest by bringing in Aaron Jones for his first carry of the day.  Boom.  Jones goes into the middle of the line, finds nothing there, and bounces it out to the left side, where he ran it in for the 20 yard, game-winning touchdown.

I will say this - with the way the Packers were giving up yardage on screen passes, and with Jameis Winston having more accuracy on passes down the field than Hundley, we were very pleased when the Packers got the ball first in overtime.  Who knows what would have happened if the Buccaneers had gotten the ball first?

It is hard not to daydream about what the Packers' offense would be like with this running game, and with Aaron Rodgers behind center.  Rodgers can test his arm by throwing passes anytime he wants.  The fact that he goes out and throws passes in pregame warmups seems to me to be sending the message that he is ready to come back.  Clay Matthews has even been quoted as saying that the Packers made a mistake putting Rodgers on IR; i.e., Matthews thinks he would have been ready to come back before 8 weeks have passed.  And if he comes back after the Browns game, and if the Packers run the table . . .

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  The bottom line is that I am still skeptical that the Packers will make the playoffs this year.  Too many things have to fall the right way for that to happen, and little things will happen, like the Seahawks knocking off the Eagles Sunday night, that will interfere with the Packers ever getting there.  And, of course, all of this depends in any event on the Packers winning the last 4 games.  Let's assume that Brett Hundley plays well enough to beat the Browns on Sunday.  After all, the Browns are the worst team in the league.  So the Packers should win that game.  And let's assume that Rodgers is healthy enough to return for the last 3 games.  Unfortunately he doesn't get any games against the Browns in that stretch.  Instead, he plays road games against the Panthers and Lions, and a home game against the Vikings.  Let's just say none of those are easy games; all of those teams have presented problems for the Packers in the past; and as a result, I frankly doubt that the Packers will win all three.  But even if they do, they still have to pass up too many teams.  An extra win for the Seahawks here, or for the Panther or Falcons or Lions there, and the playoff push goes out the window.  But as long as the Packers keep winning, things will stay interesting.  That is more than I would have predicted a few weeks ago.

So no, I am not too excited about the Packers' prospects for actually making the playoffs this year. But one thing I really am excited about is the Packers' running game for 2018.  We have discovered that we have two, high-quality, rookie running backs ready for next year, not to mention Ty Montgomery, if indeed the Packers don't either trade him or re-convert him to receiver.  It seems like forever since the Packers had two really good running backs of this quality.  Off-hand, I am thinking of Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, but maybe I am forgetting a pair of backs some time in the last 20 years.  There is no need to give up on 2017 just yet, but 2018 looks very promising, indeed!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Signs of Life for the Packers

Adams on the way to the End Zone, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
The Packers lost a heartbreaker Sunday night, falling to the Steelers by the score of 31-28.  It took a 53 yard field goal on the final play to end the Packers' night, tying the record for longest field goal in Heinz Stadium. 

Nobody gave the Packers a chance going into the game.  I certainly didn't.  The oddsmakers had the Packers as 14.5 point underdogs, which is bigger than any point spread I can remember in a long time.  But this turned out to be Brett Hundley's best game, by far.  Jamaal Williams looked perfectly capable of being a starting running back in the NFL.  And Davante Adams showed that he really is to Hundley as Nelson is to Rodgers, i.e., his go-to receiver.

The comparison on everyone's mind (including mine) was the 2010 Matt Flynn game against the Patriots.  I remember the game very well.  Rodgers was out with a concussion, Flynn had to play against the Patriots, and the Packers were huge underdogs.  Because we had to go to an event that evening, we watched the game on delay, starting two hours after the game started.  I had to ignore all the text messages and phone calls we were receiving, but the volume of them suggested that something very dramatic was happening.  And indeed it was.  The Packers led the Patriots for most of the game, and took the game to the final play before succumbing, 31-27, in a heartbreaker game equivalent to this week's Steelers game.

So which Hundley-led team is the real one?  The team that beat the Bears and came close to beating the Steelers?  Or the team that set off a stink-bomb against the Ravens?  In my view, a big difference Sunday night and a sign of growth was Hundley's ability to see and connect with the open receiver.  We all remember the shot from behind that showed Hundley not seeing a wide-open Jordy Nelson a few weeks ago.  And we have seen Hundley misfire on some of his long throws.  Maybe a few weeks of actually running the offense has made Hundley a little more comfortable back there, and able to go through his progressions without panic.  At any rate, the easy TD to a wide-open Randall Cobb (who was clearly not his first read) in the first quarter must have increased Hundley's confidence.  Then add the interception by Damarious Randall, and the screen pass TD to Jamaal Williams, and you had the recipe for a possible huge upset.  Obviously, not every screen pass works as well as this one, but this is a perfect illustration of why I want to see more of them!

Well, of course, it did not come to pass.  Despite the promising first quarter, as the game went on, it became increasingly obvious that the Packers did not have an adequate answer for Le'Veon Bell (183 total yards) or Antonio Brown (169 yards and 2 TDs).  I put this down more to the credit of the Pittsburgh offense than as a knock on the Packers' defense.  The Packers played pretty well on defense, with special note being given to Blake Martinez and Mike Daniels.  Both of them seemed as if they were in on almost every play.  The Packers got three turnovers on the evening, but only cashed in on the interception in the first half.  If they had scored even a field goal on the second half interception or fumble, the game would likely have gone to overtime.  If they had scored a TD on one of the second half turnovers, they probably would have won the game.

In the post-game show, coach Tony Dungy made the case that the Packers are still in the NFC playoff hunt.  His argument was that the next two games (Buccaneers and Browns) are winnable if Brett Hundley plays like he played Sunday night.  That would take them to 7-6.  Then Rodgers is eligible to return, and the assumption was that he would win all three remaining games to bring them to 10-6 and in the midst of the Wild Card hunt.  Yeah, maybe so, but I will believe it when I see it.  As of right now, the wild cards would go to the Panthers (8-3) and the Falcons (7-4).  The Packers would have to pass up the Lions (6-5), the Seahawks (7-4) and either the Falcons or the Panthers to get a wild card spot.  That is a lot to ask.  All those teams have winning records, and there is no good reason to think that all or most of them are about to go into the tank.

Still, I think the Packers should win on Sunday, despite the fact that Jameis Winston will return from injury.  The Buccaneers just have not been as good as I expected this year, even before Winston's injury.  With the Packers' renewed confidence, and a December home game for the Packers (even if the weather will be unseasonably warm), they should be able to get this win.  We will see what happens after that.