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.

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