Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Ultimate Preventable Loss

Photo by PackersWire.USAToday.com
Today's blog post will be short, and necessarily so.  I am travelling out of the country, and only saw about 60% of the game live, and have no ability to re-watch it since NFL Game Pass (US) doesn't work outside the US.

Most of the focus post-game has been on Ty Montgomery's regrettable decision to try to return the Rams' kickoff after they went ahead, 29-27.  His fumble handed the ball right back to the Rams, and sealed the win for them.  There has been speculation that Montgomery returned the ball out of frustration or spite for having been benched in a prior series ("I'll show them!" - style).  But Montgomery says that is not what happened, rather he thought the ball was going to land close to the goal line, where he can't let a live ball bounce, or take a chance on an official's ruling as to whether he was in or out of the end zone when he caught the ball.  So he made a disastrous, split-second decision to return the ball.

Let me say that I don't really care that much which version is correct.  If the Packers think Montgomery deliberately disobeyed the order to down the ball, they should have cut or traded him on Monday.  If they believe his version, then it is appropriate that he is still on the team as of now (although today is the trade deadline, so we will see).

My bigger concern is that 5 of the Packers' first 7 games have either been decided in the closing seconds, or have been decided by dumb and inexplicable errors.  The Packers pulled off a miraculous comeback against the Bears to win.  They had numerous opportunities to either win or lose the Vikings game, so it was almost fitting that it ended in a tie.  A Mason Crosby flame-out of epic proportions cost them the Lions game.  Another miracle comeback against the 49ers.  And now a boneheaded mistake by our number 3 running back costs Aaron Rodgers the opportunity to pull off a significant upset win.  In these 5 games, the Packers are 2-2-1, so it obviously could be worse.  But a championship team finds a way to win all, or at least most, of those winnable games.  And they typically don't make them close; they put them away early on.

By that measure, the Packers don't look like a championship team right now.  They may not even make the playoffs absent a significant improvement.  An optimist would say that there were signs of improvement in the Rams' loss.  The Packers finally seem to have realized that Aaron Jones is their feature back.  And Jaire Alexander was making the kind of plays that justify the Packers' use of a high draft choice on him.  But "signs of improvement" just won't cut it anymore.  If the Packers are going to make anything out of this season, they are going to have to start winning the close ones, and putting away the easy ones.  Beating the Patriots would not seem like such a "must-win" game if the Packers had pulled off the comeback against the Rams.  But they didn't.  And now they need a win to avoid falling below .500 at the halfway point of their season.  In the immortal Super Bowl XLV words of Kevin Greene, "it is time" to go out and get it done.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Redemption! Now Get Your Act Together!

Redemption!  Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
For most of the evening, watching the Packers-49ers game with my wife, her mother, and her cousins, it seemed like this game was going to be just another lost opportunity.  We would have been complaining about it for the next two weeks, and wondering how (if at all) the Packers could salvage their season.  I never gave up on the game, but I really expected to see the Packers looking up at both the Bears and the Vikings by the final gun.  And then the Packers managed another miracle comeback, scoring 10 points in the final two minutes, on two all but flawless Aaron Rodgers drives, to win it, 33-30.

So where are the Packers, really, as they head into their bye week and get a chance to nurse some of their key players like Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, and Jaire Alexander back to health?  I don't think we know.  They obviously have the talent to pull these miracles out of their hats (or out of their heads, as Jason Witten said on the broadcast), but why are comebacks necessary with this kind of talent? 

We started to see some good things in this game.  Remember how we fans are always watching other games and saying, "why don't we ever run innovative plays like that?"  Well, the Packers scored their first TD of the night on an innovative diamond formation play.  The back receiver, Ty Montgomery, just waited for the lateral pass from Rodgers, and had three blockers in front of him.  Nothing to it.  That was also the first opening drive TD for the Packers all year long.  And Jimmy Graham came ever closer to the massive breakout game we have been expecting all year. 

But for most of the night, the Packers defense looked like it couldn't stop anything the 49ers threw at them.  As my friend Al said by text, "the first team to play defense wins."  It took the Packers to the point of desperation in the fourth quarter before the defense finally stiffened, ending the 49ers last three drives with two punts and an interception.  The penultimate drive was snuffed out by a huge Clay Matthews sack, just when it was needed most, and the last drive was ended on Kevin King's great interception, allowing just enough time on the clock for Rodgers to engineer the winning drive for a field goal.

Mason Crosby, who looked like he could not hit the broad side of a barn last week against the Lions, was nothing but clutch Monday night.  He nailed 4 field goals and 3 extra points.  All of them were needed in order for the game to be tied, and the last one was needed to win the game.  Was last week's game just the most massive blip ever in an otherwise productive career?  It looks like it as of now.

I just had to laugh when they showed the pictures of Rodgers as a kid, first with his 49er gear, and then with his Packers sweatshirt at age 13.  First, doing the math, this would have been from the year of Super Bowl XXXI, so I am guessing that he was a Brett Favre fan at the time.  But on a personal note, I have that same sweatshirt, and I bought it within a few days before or after that Super Bowl.  Unfortunately, mine seems to have shrunk, or at any rate it doesn't fit me anymore, but I just can't part with it. 

Anyway, the Packers are in pretty good shape going into the bye week, just trailing the Bears by a statistical smidgen.  But let's be honest, they can't keep doing this stuff.  They have to start strong every game on offense, never let up, and play better on defense.  The return of Cobb and Allison on offense can only make the offense more explosive, and it already looked pretty good last night.  The return of Jaire Alexander will make a difference on some of those long pass plays that the Packers give up all too frequently.  The way I look at it, they have two weeks to get their act together, because the next two games are against the Rams and Patriots, and it doesn't get much easier after that. 

Coaches, you are on the clock!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Time to Get Back on Track!

Logo by DeviantArt.com
If you thought the Packers' loss against the Lions last Sunday (31-23) was embarrassing, I hope you saw the Giants' loss last night against the Eagles (34-13).  The Giants looked terrible.  Eli Manning may be on his last legs with the Giants (remember when we were all outraged that he was benched last year?), Odell Beckham, Jr. gets more frustrated, week by week, and the remarkably talented Saquon Barkley, for now, is largely having his talent wasted.

But hey, at least the Giants didn't trail, 24-0 at halftime like the Packers did, before attempting the futile comeback against the Lions.  There has been lots of attention this week, naturally, on the five missed kicks by Mason Crosby, which obviously would have been the difference in the game.  If he was a rookie kicker, or a first year free agent signing, he would have been fired on Monday.  But he wasn't, so they didn't, and the Packers even engineered an in-game confidence booster at the end of the game to let him make one final, meaningless field goal.  (Heaven forbid if he had missed that one!)  So the Packers are sticking with Crosby, and I think they should given his history.  But the leash on Crosby should be considered to be very short at this point.  He can't keep costing the Packers games and keep his job. 

The Lions played well, and better than I expected, to get this win.  But it is also true that the Packers were snake-bit.  First there was the botched punt return, allegedly skipping off the back of Kevin King, that led to an easy touchdown.  (I thought the replays were inconclusive, thus the original call would have been upheld either way.)  Then there was the strip sack of Rodgers, leading to a field goal.  At least the Lions went out and created that turnover, while the first one was a gift.  But ten seconds into the second quarter, the score was 17-0.  Without those two turnovers and the first of Crosby's many misses, maybe it is 7-3 Lions, which would create an entirely different situation for the rest of the game. 

Meanwhile, the Packers gained more yards on the ground than the Lions, despite McCarthy stubbornly sticking with his rotating running backs.  (Pro tip to McCarthy: start and emphasize Aaron Jones!)  And they more than doubled the Lions' passing yards, despite missing both Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison.  All three rookie WRs played in this game, including the divinely named Equanimeous St. Brown (although there was no Saint Brown, as the guys from Packers Therapy are fond of reminding us).  So it is easy to see how the Packers could have won this game.  But the Lions, to their credit, didn't make the kind of mistakes the Packers did.  Good for them.  I am moving on past this game, and I hope the Packers can, too.

On Monday night, the Packers will host the 49ers at Lambeau Field.  The 49ers have already lost their starting QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, for the season.  Their promising young RB, Matt Breida, is listed as doubtful for the game.  I saw some stat that the 49ers are 9-1 on Monday Night Football under their last 4 quarterbacks (not including Beathard).  I don't care.  This is a game that they should win, and I would say must win, if they hope to turn around their sluggish start to the season.  Fans in Wisconsin apparently are paying more money for Brewers playoff tickets than for the Monday Night Packers game.  I am not much of a baseball fan, but I can get that.  The Brewers are in the playoffs, whereas a possibly mediocre Packers team will be playing a game against another mediocre team that, at the end of the day, doesn't mean nearly as much.  We will be watching the game Monday night with our cousins, and John is both a Packers fan and a Dodgers fan, so I will get some exposure to both games. 

I am sick of the Packers starting every game slowly, and starting the season like swimming in quicksand.  The start of the season is already behind us, but how great would it be to see the Packers score a TD on their opening drive?  That hasn't happened this year.  Monday night would be a good time to rekindle that tradition.  If they start strong and play a full 60 minutes on both sides of the ball, it will be a good way to send the team and the fans into the bye week.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Rodgers-McCarthy Rift Now Resolved?

All Smiles for Rodgers, Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
The reactions to Sunday's game against the Bills, which the Packers won by the score 22-0, were all over the lot.  Many of us were delighted, and maybe just a little relieved, to see that the Packers were able to win a game, at home, as a significant favorite.  Others were happy with the result of the game, but dissatisfied with the fantasy football points generated by the Packers players on their fantasy teams.  (Not to mention any names here.)

But there really was something about the performance that was not that convincing, especially on offense.  Aaron Rodgers said, in his post-game press conference, that the defense had played at a championship level, while the offense played at a non-playoff-team level.  "Terrible," and "not acceptable," were other words that Rodgers used to describe the offense, which despite those terms still racked up over 400 yards of total offense. 

Rodgers' statement, despite the hyperbole, was basically right about the offense.  While the offense played well enough to win this game (with help from the defense pitching a shutout and generating three turnovers), that is not to say that they played well.  There were dropped passes again, bad passes from Rodgers again, heck, there was even a rare missed extra point.  Nobody would confuse the Packers' offense on Sunday, with the finely-tuned offenses of either the Rams or Vikings last Thursday night.  And that seems to be the not-too-well-hidden message in Rodgers' comments after the game.  Rodgers may have been all smiles in the photo above walking off the field, but he definitely wasn't in his press conference, giving clipped, sometimes one-word, answers.  Beat writers interpreted this as a widening rift between Rodgers and McCarthy, over play-calling and offensive philosophy.  Maybe so.  Going public with this rift may not be the most diplomatic move Rodgers has ever made, but if it results in better play-calling and better play-making, all for the better.

As to the defense, I think Rodgers' comments are in the right direction, but ridiculously premature.  Until the Bills game, the Packers had given up at least 23 points in each game, and if they had done so against the Bills, the score might have been 23-22 and another loss.  The defense embarrassed itself in the first half against the Bears, in the second half and overtime against the Vikings, and in the first half against the Redskins.  So one measure of improvement by the defense would be if they could play an entire 60 (or more) minute game, instead of taking a half off.  By that measure, they certainly improved against the Bills.  You can't argue with a shutout, less than 150 total net yards, 2 interceptions, and 7 sacks.  But in fairness, you have to consider the opponent, and despite the Bills having somehow beaten the Vikings, the Bills are just not a very good team, and certainly didn't play like one against the Packers.  Let's see how they perform in the next game, against the Lions, before we anoint the Packers defense. 

By Wednesday of this week, both Rodgers and McCarthy were insisting that everything is fine between them.  But whereas on Sunday, Rodgers seemed clearly to be criticizing the game plan, by Wednesday he was talking only about execution.  My sense is that there is a real rift, but that McCarthy and Rodgers are both trying to paper over the differences, and that is a good thing.  That kind of dirty laundry is probably better aired out in the locker room or in the Coach's office, rather than from the podium.

But what exactly was the problem with Sunday's offense?  Having re-watched the game, I think it was more about execution than about game plan.  I can certainly point to individual plays that reflect a bad plan, or a bad offensive philosophy, or both.  For example, the "give up" running play on third and long, from near midfield, at the end of the first drive.  I agree with the sentiment expressed by Chris and Dave on the Packers Therapy podcast: you have Aaron Rodgers, just chuck it downfield.  Maybe you complete it, maybe you get a pass interference penalty, maybe it gets intercepted, but if so it is just like a punt.  And if the ball is incomplete, you punt anyway. 

Similarly, I have commented before about the McCarthy tendency to go into "prevent offense" mode late in a game when holding onto a lead.  I think most of the fourth quarter looked like that, with a very unimaginative offensive game plan.  I suppose this is what Rodgers was complaining about in his post-game conference.  And, as a matter of sheer stubbornness by Coach McCarthy, I was just as surprised, the second time around, that McCarthy tried so hard to spread the running plays out among Jones, Williams and Montgomery.  Anybody watching the game can see that Jones is by far the best running back of the three.  And even if you can't see that, you certainly have to admit that he had the hot hand on Sunday.  So why not feature him?  Stubbornness by the Coach.

But in general (at least in the early portion of the game), what I saw was failure to execute plays that themselves were pretty well conceived, whether through dropped passes, poor passes, or Rodgers spending too much time looking around for the big hitter.  Instead they should go with the quicker passes to move the chains; this will cause the defense to play closer to the line of scrimmage, opening up the big hitter later.  But anyway, since Rodgers is the one with the ball in his hands, and since he has a lot of leeway to change the plays at the line of scrimmage, Rodgers has significant discretion in what plays are actually run.  So if the plays are bad, then Rodgers bears some responsibility, along with McCarthy.  And if the problem is (as I believe) more a matter of poor execution, then Rodgers and the players all need to step up their games, rather than making veiled criticisms of the coaching staff.

Recapping the divisional games in the first quarter of the season, the Packers were lucky to escape at home with a win against the Bears, and they were lucky to escape with a tie at home against the Vikings.  How will they fare against the new and improved Lions at Ford Field?  I can't figure the Lions out, to be honest.  They beat the Patriots, soundly, at home, but were also blown out at home by the Jets.  They lost close games to the 49ers and to the Cowboys, both on the road.  In the Patriots game, there was a lot of the "student vs. mentor" vibe going on between the Lions new Coach, Matt Patricia, and the old master, Bill Belichick.  But still, under the right circumstances, the Lions have enough talent to beat even an elite team in the league.  So they can obviously beat the Packers, who have not looked elite so far.  My gut sense before checking the records was that the Lions always give the Packers a hard time at home.  But actually, in the Rodgers era, the Packers are 6-4 against the Lions at Ford Field, or 6-2 if you exclude the Brett Hundley game last year, and the Matt Flynn game in 2013.  So it is more true to say that Rodgers has the Lions' number than the other way around. 

I'm just glad that the Lions (presumably) will not be wearing their stealthy, all gray "ghost" uniforms on Sunday.  It is hard to see them out there with no contrast.  But with or without contrasting uniform colors, the Lions have some offensive weapons, including Stafford's complement of receivers (Tate, Jones and Golladay) and now a new and energized running game with Kerryon Johnson.  I don't expect an easy game. 

The Lions have one of the better pass defenses in the league, but they are among the worst in rush defense.  So this would be a great time to decide to ride the legs of Aaron Jones until the Lions are able to stop him.  I would like to see more running plays than passing plays for the Packers (an unusual stat line for them), which in turn would both exploit the Lions' weakness on defense, and hopefully keep Rodgers out of danger as he continues to heal.

I think the Packers should win the game, but I I also don't feel confident that we know what the 2018 Packers really are yet.  I will consider them fortunate if they escape Detroit with a victory.