Friday, September 28, 2018

Packers Need to Play Smarter on Offense

Allison, Wide Open, Photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
The last week has brought quite a few changes in the NFC North.  After a hard-fought, 70 minute game ending in a tie against the Vikings, the Packers and Vikings were tied for the lead in the division.  But last week's games changed everything.  The Packers and Vikings both lost games to teams that, at least on paper, were inferior teams.  The Packers at least lost to the Redskins on the road, and the loss was convincing but not devastating (Redskins, 31-17).  The Vikings, on the other hand, lost overwhelmingly to the previously winless Bills, at home, 27-6. 

Meanwhile, the Lions beat the Patriots, pretty convincingly, to get their first win of the season, and the Bears beat the Cardinals, narrowly, to get their second win of the season.  As a result, at the end of Sunday, the Bears led the division at 2-1, with all 4 teams being within a game of each other. 

And then last night, the Vikings lost a shootout on the road to the Rams, 38-31, so they are on a two-game losing streak.  But there is no shame in losing to the Rams, especially on the road, since the Rams are certainly a leading contender to win the NFC this year.  So it is a little early to count the Vikings out.  At the same time, if the Packers can beat the Bills at home on Sunday, they will be no worse off than a half game out of first place in the division.  Sunday will be a good indicator of whether the Bills are for real, or if last week's game against the Vikings was a bit of a fluke.  But it will also be a good test of the Packers and whether they can bounce back from a road loss and take care of business at home. 

At the moment, it seems that nobody can play defense in the NFC North, other than the Chicago Bears.  Certainly, the Packers are having their problems.  My overall impression, just from watching the games, is that the defense is improved this year, as compared to last year, and yet the points allowed so far don't show any improvement at all.  The Packers have been giving up over 27 points per game, and you can't win many games that way, especially when the offense is not exactly blowing the doors off.  Sunday, against the Redskins, there were way too many drops by receivers (at least 4, by my count), and a shocking number of bad passes by Rodgers (I counted at least 6).  Add in some injuries on both sides of the ball (Wilkerson, out for the season, Bulaga, knocked out of the game) and you have the recipe for an upset. 

Alarmingly, it is almost as if the Packers don't learn anything from experience.  The hurry-up offense was instrumental in the comeback over the Bears in Week One.  Not only was the tempo itself helpful to the Packers' rhythm, it obviously wore the Bears' defense down.  So why have we seen so little of the hurry-up offense in Weeks Two and especially in Week Three?  I don't get it.  The eternal optimist side of me thinks maybe we will see some this week.  And with an injured QB, a nicked up offensive line, you would have thought we would at least see a lot of quick-release passes against the Redskins, rather than a lot of deep drop, slow developing plays, that have a tendency to lead to sacks.  But that didn't happen against the Redskins, and I only counted a handful of quick-release passes in the entire game.  This must be a joint decision of Rodgers and McCarthy, both of whom seem to prefer the big hitter plays. 

Don't get me wrong, the long TD to Allison (pictured above) was a great example of the good that can come from deep drops and letting Rodgers scan the entire field.  But at the same time, with Rodgers under siege for parts of the game, it is not a reach to suggest quick-release passes to loosen up the defense.  Maybe then more big hitter plays will open up.  And if you are averaging over 5 yards per carry, why do the Packers go with 3 times as many passing plays as running plays?  Yes, I understand, the Packers were behind all game.  But they were not so far behind as to rule out the running game.  Wouldn't a better balance on offense force opposing defenses to take the run game more seriously?  And wouldn't this, in turn, open up the passing game?  Again, maybe we will see a better balance on Sunday against the Bills.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Kissing Your Sister?

Family Photo with Judy, Sam and Mary
I did not hear any phrase more in the first 24 hours after the Packers' tie (29-29) with the Vikings than that a tie is just like "kissing your sister."  Maybe so, maybe not, I don't have a sister, so I can't confirm this.  My friend Stan Silva thinks he suggested the idea of using this phrase to me.  But he hasn't been watching/listening to/reading midwest sports media, where the phrase has been omnipresent.  But anyway, a tip of the hat (sort of) to my friend Stan. 

I do know this much.  This game may not have been a loss, but it felt like a loss in the stands, and I am sure it felt the same way in the locker room.  Even callers in to WTMJ after the game kept referring to the game as a loss, and the hosts did not bother to correct them.  There were so many chances to put this game away, and the Packers could not pull it off.  Obviously one of those chances was flat-out stolen from them by the refs (the Clay Matthews non-roughing roughing call), but there was also the missed 52 yard field goal, the Rodgers fumble that spoiled what could have been a surprise bootleg for a first down, the holding call that negated what would have been a Jimmy Graham TD catch, poor clock management on the final drive of the 4th quarter, dropped interceptions in overtime by Wilkerson and Alexander, and probably other opportunities.  If you were a Vikings fan, you probably felt the same way - if they only had a place kicker who could kick, they would have won this game a couple of times over.  Not surprisingly, they have replaced their kicker since Sunday.

As a side note, we were in the Chicago area for most of the past week, other than going to the game on Sunday.  It was extremely entertaining listening to sports radio in Chicago.  They just could not move past their stunning loss to the Packers in Week One, and in a way, who could blame them?  One of the memorable lines was the guy who called in to say that when a guy goes out on the cart, "nobody comes back off the cart, at best, you are out for the game, at worst you are out for the season.  But this guy did and then proceeded to beat the Bears on one leg."  Bears fans were extremely critical all week of Coach Nagy and Mitch Trubisky, saying that Nagy called the wrong plays, and Trubisky executed them poorly.  I heard somewhere (I think it was on the Packers Therapy podcast), that when the Bears were up 20-0 in the third quarter, Yahoo Sports was claiming that the Bears had a 98.2% chance of winning that game. 

I wonder what the odds of a 29-29 tie were in the Vikings game when the score was a relatively mundane 20-7 in the third quarter on Sunday?  But that is obviously what happened, and neither fans nor players can be very happy about it.  This game is the first tie for the Packers since they played to a tie, also against the Vikings, and also at Lambeau Field, in 2013.  Fans may remember that Matt Flynn played QB in that game in Rodgers' absence, and that the Packers could not have won the division if they had not managed to pull off at least a tie in Week 12.  So sometimes a tie is not a bad thing. 

This season, the tie makes a tie for a playoff spot with any team other than the Vikings quite unlikely, but it also makes the November 25 game against the Vikings, at least potentially, the difference between winning the division and not.  Two weeks into the season, it doesn't look promising for the Lions this year (with apologies to my friend, Al Lawson), and while the Bears look much improved, at least we have a leg up on them, thanks to the Week One miracle.  But it would be very easy to see the Division championship coming down to that November 25 game.  On the one hand, it is in Minnesota, and it is always harder to win on the road.  But on the other hand, Rodgers may be at full strength and mobility by then, and he certainly wasn't on Sunday.

One week ago, Packers fans rightly celebrated the miracle, 21 point fourth quarter to win the game against the Bears, and Bears fans lamented the collapse of their defense.  How, then, do Packers and their fans react to the fact that the Packers gave up 22 points to Kirk Cousins and the Vikings in the 4th quarter, not to mention what should have been two field goals in overtime?  There was talk of the Packers having worn out the Bears defense with the quick pace in Week One.  It looked to me as if the Vikings wore out the Packers defense in the second half and overtime on Sunday.  (And I have to wonder why Rodgers and McCarthy did not use more fast-paced offense themselves to wear out the Vikings.)  It was certainly hot and humid out there on Sunday, so it would not be shocking if the defenders were a little gassed in the second half and overtime.  Thankfully, the forecast for this Sunday in Landover, MD is for a high of 73 degrees and showers.  So weather is not likely to be the same kind of factor this coming week.  In fact, the Packers should not have another hot-weather game this season, with the possible exception of the Rams game on October 28. 

As far as the Matthews roughing call is concerned, in the real world, there doesn't seem to be any controversy about it.  Everybody (other than the NFL) agrees that it was a terrible call.  This includes both callers and hosts on Chicago-area sports radio, not known for their partiality to the Packers.  It includes Packers haters like Skip Bayless.  I have not heard a single person not associated with the League defend the call. 

I remember reading years ago that the way Superman is depicted as flying in the comic books is impossible as a matter of physics.  It is not possible to change directions instantaneously.  And yet that is what would have been required here.  Matthews could have done nothing to change his trajectory toward the QB, and there is no visual evidence that he attempted to inflict any more damage on the QB than is a natural consequence of hitting him with a clean football tackle.  I find untenable the ref's suggestion that Matthews picked up Cousins and drove him into the ground.  I had hoped that the League would have something to say about this, because the new rule is just not working in real life if calls like this can change the outcome of the game.  A player in Matthews' predicament evidently needs to pull up and not hit the quarterback, because if the QB releases the ball just as the tackler arrives, he might get called.  (Mike Daniels did just that on a different play, only to see Cousins escape from the would-be sack.)  That stinks, and the League should have admitted that the whole thing is a mess and tried to clarify the rule.  But instead, we learned on Monday that the League is doubling down on the rule, and insisting that this is a proper call.  I think I will find time to write a letter or email to the Commissioner (, or NFL, 280 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017).  I hope others do so as well.

Going to a Packers game in person is always so much fun.  The guy next to us in the stands flew in at the last minute from Myrtle Beach.  That is real fan devotion, as I would have thought the residents of Myrtle Beach had other more pressing concerns over the weekend.  When we arrived at our hotel near the O'Hare airport Sunday night, some guy came out from the lobby to talk to us when he saw our Packers gear.  He had been at the game as well.  On the shuttle bus from the rental car place to the airport, we ran into a Japanese Packers fan, who was also at the game, and who was attending the second game in his life after being a fan for about 35 years.  And on our flight to LAX Monday night, we ran into at least 5 other Packer fans who had been at the game, a husband and wife sitting in the dreaded middle seats, and a two-generation family of three a couple of rows behind us. 

For now, the Packers just have to keep winning games that they should win, while Rodgers gets healthy.  That means winning against the Redskins this week.  The Redskins seem to be improved this year, but they still should be no match for the Packers.  And then the Packers certainly must win at home against the Bills the following week.  If they can finish the first quarter of the season at 3-0-1, they will be in good shape, and be in no worse place than a tie for the division lead.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rodgers Puts Together an Instant Classic

Cobb's Game-Winning TD, Photo by Wm Glasheen, USA Today
What a tale of two halves.  And what a tale of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.  One of the best offensive players in the league (and the highest paid), in Aaron Rodgers, meeting one of the best defensive players in the league (and the highest paid), in Khalil Mack.  As bad as the offense and defense looked in the first half, they looked just that good in the second half.

We actually had to watch most of the game on DVR Sunday night, as we had to leave the house when the game was just starting for Rosh Hashanah services, and didn't get back until about 2 hours later.  In the meantime, we had turned off our cell phones and left them off, and turned off the answering machine so that we didn't have to listen to any messages coming in, and we turned off the car radio.  By the time we finished watching the game, it was almost midnight, Lambeau time.  So this is a bit of a stream of consciousness recap of how we learned what had happened.

We didn't know that Rodgers had been knocked out of the game, and taken off on a cart, until we got back home.   When we saw the injury, I thought one of the bones in his leg had broken based on the way the Bears player landed on the leg.  I was envisioning another lost season, or at a minimum wondering how many weeks Rodgers would have to miss.  I wasn't feeling too excited about traveling from the west coast this coming week to watch DeShone Kizer getting beat up by the Vikings.  And I was wondering how my fantasy team would survive.

But Rodgers miraculously appeared on the field, ready to play the second half.  It was obvious that he was hobbled by his knee injury, and therefore obvious that he was more vulnerable than usual to oncoming pass rushers, especially from Khalil Mack, who was like a human wrecking ball in the first half.  He was only expected to play limited snaps, but the Bears threw that plan out the window when they saw the instant impact he had on the game.  Oh, now I get why the Bears were willing to pay so much to bring him to Chicago.  But once Rodgers returned, the Packers started playing a lot of no huddle offense, and the TV announcers were exactly right in observing that the pass rush dropped off as soon as the Packers started running no huddle.  They just could not keep up with the pace of the offense and started to tire out. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine also made adjustments, and after the two opening drives for the Bears, the defensive squad only gave up two more field goals for the rest of the game.

I only took one call while we were watching the game.  We got a call from our daughter, who was stuck in traffic on the way back from the game with her partner.  I answered and immediately yelled "we are only in the third quarter, can I call you back when we are done?"  She asked me how much time was left in the third quarter, and I said 5 minutes.  She said, "OK, I want to talk to you about the game when you finish."  On the surface, I learned nothing from this call.  And yet, I did not hear the slightest hint of dejection in her voice, and I would have expected to pick up on some.  The score was 20-0 at the time.  I didn't say this to my wife, but I began to wonder if somehow they had pulled off a miracle.

And then it was 20-3 after Rodgers' first drive of the third quarter.  Too bad they didn't get a touchdown, now they still needed three more scores (and a shutout or near shutout) to possibly win.  Soon, it was 20-10, thanks to a quick drive and a sensational pass from Rodgers (on one foot) and an excellent catch by Geronimo Allison in the corner of the end zone, on a 39 yard touchdown.  Hey, there were still 14 minutes left.  Who knows?  Around this time, my wife and I started to exchange looks, that, loosely translated, meant, "What do you think?  Could they possibly do this?"

Just a few minutes later, it was 20-17, thanks to another extremely efficient, 6 play, 75 yard drive.  And there were still 9 minutes left.  Unfortunately, the Bears, who had been quiet for most of the second half, put together a pretty good drive, converting third downs when necessary, and eating up 6 of the 9 minutes left on the clock.  But the Packers defense finally stiffened and forced a 32 yard field goal to make it 23-17.

Well, what do you know?  If they could somehow pull it off, this wouldn't be the first game-winning drive Rodgers engineered in the last 3 minutes.  Not even the first one against the Bears, and not the first one involving Randall Cobb.  When Rodgers hit Cobb for a short pass that Cobb turned into a 75 yard TD (who knew he still had that much speed and shiftiness?), the only problem was that they scored too fast, and left over two minutes on the clock for the Bears. The Packers would have to stop the Bears on downs to preserve the win.  And they did!  In fact they had to do it twice, when Clay Matthews (who didn't have a very good game overall) committed an inexcusable roughing the passer penalty on what should have been the game-clinching, fourth-down incompletion.  If the Bears had gone on to score and win, Matthews would have been the goat, and not the Greatest Of All Time kind, just the plain old goat.  But five plays later, Nick Perry bailed out his fellow linebacker with a fourth-down strip sack, preserving the miraculous 24-23 win.

It was my wife's observation, but one with which I agreed, that this game was sort of reminiscent of the famous "Irvin Favre" game in Oakland, the night after Favre's father died.  Yes, Favre and Rodgers played unbelievably well; but it was also the case that their teammates stepped up and played over their heads, in order to support their team leader.  If they can preserve and maintain just a little of that extra something in coming games, it will be a big plus.

I think there are some significant take-aways from this game.  The first is that maybe it isn't such a great idea to have your starting offense only play 5 plays together during the entire preseason.  I understand why they do it, in view of the season-ending injury to Jordy Nelson a couple years ago, but you cannot convince me that the lack of playing time together had nothing to do with the sluggishness of the offense in the first half.  To a lesser extent, I felt the same way about the defense.  They seemed lost and outcoached during the first half, and I wonder if more playing time as a unit might have helped them out as well.  I know the coach will have none of this, but I hope deep down inside somewhere, he takes the point.

The second thing is that the Packers should turn to the fast paced, or even no huddle offense, whenever they are having trouble getting things started.  Heck, start the game with it and see what happens.  It is so obvious that Rodgers is the master of the fast-paced offense, and it is equally obvious that it puts the defense at a serious disadvantage.  If you have Rodgers behind center, you have a natural advantage going in.  But if you really want to put the defense back on its heels, have Rodgers run the fast-paced offense.

Finally, they are going to have to play better than this to win the game on Sunday against the Vikings.  No holes to be dug out of; no sluggishness on offense or defense; more pass protection and quick-release passes from the very beginning of the game, not just after your quarterback almost gets knocked out for an extended period.  With an injured Rodgers, and with the Vikings looking very good against the 49ers this past week, you would think that the advantage goes to the Vikings.  But it was the Vikings who took Rodgers out last year.  That ought to be a little motivation for the team to play with emotion and intensity again.  I just hope they start that way from the very start.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

On to the Games that Count!

Artwork by
We don't need to spend much time on the final preseason game before moving on to the more interesting developments of this past week, and the start of the regular season this week.

The Chiefs beat the Packers, 33-21, in another sloppily played game.  It was more entertaining than the Raiders game, at least in the first half, but ultimately any game where you leave 40% of the players likely to make the final roster at home is not going to be must-see-TV. 

But off the field, last week was a momentous and active week.  On Wednesday, the Packers signed Rodgers to a massive 4-year contract extension, making it more and more likely that he will finish his career in Green Bay.  Meanwhile, the same day, they traded Brett Hundley to Seattle for a sixth round pick, which is a bit remarkable since it amounts to turning nothing into something.  Surely the Seahawks must have suspected that the Packers would end up releasing Hundley, so they paid a pick to guarantee that they got Hundley rather than another team.  This paved the way to the Packers keeping all three remaining QBs in the final cutdowns: Rodgers, Kizer, and Tim Boyle.  The Packers obviously like Boyle enough that they are not prepared to take the risk of putting him on the practice squad, at least for now.

Then on Saturday, the Packers made their initial cut-down to a 53 man roster.  Among the cuts that were somewhat surprising to me was Aaron Ripkowski.  If he doesn't re-sign in a few days or get replaced by another fullback, this may mark the end of the recent fullback era in Green Bay, with John Kuhn and Ripkowski both gone.

On defense, it was mildly surprising that Wisconsin native Vince Biegel was cut.  He was a 4th round draft pick last year, but he was not that productive last year, and didn't look to be making the next step in the preseason this year, either.

Of course, the biggest story on defense was, like the old fish story, the one that got away.  After the Raiders' Khalil Mack has been rumored to go to Green Bay for weeks, alternating with other rumors that he was going to Chicago, or that the Raiders would eventually re-sign him, on Saturday Mack signed with the Bears, who gave up two first round draft choices to get him (along with exchanging some later round draft choices), and then signed him to the largest defensive contract ever.  Why the Bears?  One can certainly make an educated guess that the first rounders that the Bears will give up will be higher picks than the two the Packers might have offered.  Maybe, maybe not, with the addition of Mack to the Chicago roster.  And then the joke goes, the Bears had a trump card to offer that the Packers could not - the likelihood of having most Januarys and Februarys off.

I had mixed feelings about whether it was worthwhile to spend what it would take to get Mack.  But he certainly would have been the biggest impact player the Packers have had on defense for some time.  All that is moot now.  I just hope he is not yet in game shape for Game 1 of the season.

I was watching Good Morning Football on the NFL Network this morning.  The reporters at the desk predicted the Super Bowl combatants and winner this year.  Of the eight teams predicted to be combatants, the Packers were not even mentioned as a participant, much less the winner.  (Peter Schrager did predict that Rodgers wins the NFL MVP, however.)  And yet the Packers should obviously be better than they turned out to be last year.  If Rodgers is healthy, and if the new and improved defensive backs make a difference, last year will be just a bad memory.

The problem is that other teams in the NFC North should also be improved this year.  The Bears, because of the continued development of Mitch Trubisky, and now because of the addition of Mack.  The Vikings will benefit from the return of Dalvin Cook, and might benefit from having their QB situation firmed up with the addition of Kirk Cousins.  I am skeptical about that one, but we will see, although I can't see them winning 13 games again, like last year.  And finally, I think the Lions' new coach, Matt Patricia, will bring some new ideas with him from New England, which will result in more success for the team.  They took steps to improve the running game, including the signing of LeGarrette Blount, and the drafting of the aptly-named Kerryon Johnson.

Which brings us to Sunday Night Football this week.  The Packers will open what they are now calling their 100th season on Sunday night against their ancient rivals, the Bears.  The league could not have made a better choice.  After 196 games over the years, the Packers finally lead the series, 96-94, with 6 ties.  It will be great if the Packers can add a couple more victories to their totals this year.  One Bear has already produced some bulletin board material, saying that the Packers can't block Mack.  Maybe the Packers can use the lack of "respect" being shown as motivation this year.  It all starts Sunday night, with a win over the Bears.