Friday, November 30, 2018

Is It Time?

Kevin Greene, Super Bowl XLV, Photo by Kevin Eulitt, KC Star, via Getty Images
The Green Bay Packers are 4-6-1 going into Sunday's game against the Cardinals.  So are the Cleveland Browns.  Let that sink in for awhile.  The Browns have already fired their head coach, and installed their heir apparent at quarterback.  The Browns are over-performing most people's expectations this year. 

The Packers still have the same head coach, and don't have an heir apparent in the wings at quarterback or at coach for that matter.  And they are under-performing the expectations of almost everybody.  With, arguably, the best QB in the league.  And with a "highly successful NFL coach" at the helm. 

The Wisconsin natives are restless.  Wisconsin ex-pats, like me, are also restless.  The bandwagon jumpers are beyond restless and are looking for another bandwagon.  Something must be done!  Fire McCarthy now!  This has been going on for weeks, but intensifies after each disappointing loss.

Even a measured guy like Chuck Todd, of Meet the Press fame (and a Packers fan) says (on a non-sports radio show) that Mike McCarthy has worn out his welcome, is not a winner, and really does not know what to do in crunch time.  He says McCarthy really should hire a clock management coach, because he just doesn't know how to manage the clock.  (Don't get me started on clock management.  This has been a bugaboo for some time.)

It is amazing how quickly it has become conventional wisdom that McCarthy will be fired this off-season, unless the Packers pull off some miraculous recovery.  Headlines abound, such as "McCarthy's Latest Blunder" (referring to the 4th down punt at the end of the Seahawks game).  "McCarthy-Rodgers Marriage Can't be Saved."  "Rodgers, McCarthy at Odds Over Offense."  "How it All Went Wrong."  This last article is probably the best single article I have read on the current state of the Packers.

There have even been conspiracy theories that Rodgers has been under-performing intentionally in an attempt to get McCarthy fired.  While I don't believe that, it is not really in doubt that Rodgers has ignored open receivers looking for a bigger play.  And then when the big play is not converted, the result all too frequently is a punt, not a first down.  And of course he has missed easy, third down passes that any rookie QB could make in the last couple of games. As the Sports Illustrated article suggests, Rodgers has so much latitude to change plays, and changes them so frequently, that if, after watching a game, you are unhappy with the play-calling, it is not clear how much of the blame goes to McCarthy, and how much to Rodgers.

Is a new coach going to be able to convince Rodgers to hit the open man?  Or show him how to hit an easy short pass for a first down?  Those seem like open questions to me.  In other words, replacing McCarthy will not necessarily result in better on-field decisions by Rodgers.  Will he be better when his injury is fully healed, and if he has a new head coach?  We better hope so, given the investment the team made in him this year.  Because of that investment, the Packers are not getting rid of Rodgers.  And the only other key party not replaced last year is McCarthy.

Traditionally, I have thought that firing McCarthy was a bad move.  First of all, in his own immortal words, he is a "highly successful NFL coach."  And in truth, he obviously has a record as a coach many teams would love to have.  Plus, if there are a bunch of sure-thing head coach candidates sitting around just waiting to take the league by storm, why haven't they been hired already?  It is a hit or miss process.  You might end up with the next Sean McVay.  Or you might end up with the next Sean McDermott (hired at the same time as McVay), who might already be on his way out as coach of the Bills.  Or worst of all, you might pay a king's ransom and end up with the results that Jon Gruden has had.  Not even a proven winner from the past like Gruden is a sure thing in today's NFL.  So if you decide to fire your "highly successful NFL coach," you have to do it with trepidation.

But something is seriously wrong with this team.  I doubt that there is a single team in the league that has had as much "bad luck" this year.  The Matthews penalty that wouldn't have been called a month later.  The worst day in Mason Crosby's career.  The Ty Montgomery fumble.  The Aaron Jones fumble.  The decision to punt against Seattle.  The missed TD to Adams against the Vikings.  The bad passes on third and short.  Some of that stuff can happen just as a result of luck.  But it can't all be luck.  Some of it is players not playing up to their potential.  You don't have to accept the conspiracy theory to believe that a new coach might change the atmosphere in the locker room, bring some new excitement to the team, and get better performances out of some of the key players. 

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion, echoing Kevin Greene, that "it is time."

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Thursday Night Preview

My handful of readers might be wondering where I have been.  We have been travelling out of the country for almost a month.  We were able to watch most of the Rams game online, but could not find a video feed of either the Patriots or Dolphins game.  I was able to listen to the Patriots game on the Packers Radio Network in the middle of the night, but for some reason could  not get through on the Dolphins game and had to rely on the written play-by-play online.  These are not ideal ways to follow games, to say the least, and don't allow me to comment meaningfully on either game.  We just got back in the country yesterday, and I haven't been able to watch the prior games yet, but the good news is, I only have to wait until Thursday night for a real, live Packers game!

Seattle and Green Bay is not a natural rivalry.  For most of their early history, the Seahawks weren't even in the NFC.  But since around 2000, this has become the kind of rivalry where a single phrase is all it takes to bring back vivid memories.  The "Al Harris pick 6 game," also known as the Matt Hasselbeck "We want the ball, and we're going to score" game (January 4, 2004).  The "Seattle Snow Globe" game, also known as the "Ryan Grant redemption" game, also known as Favre's last win as a Packers player (January 12, 2008).  The "Fail Mary" game, also known as the "Replacement Ref" game (September 24, 2012).  And of course, the "Colossal Collapse" NFC Championship Game (January 18, 2015).  Not to mention Mike Holmgren's return to Lambeau as the Seahawks coach, a game in which, as I recall, Holmgren had to go to the Packers' locker room to console Brett Favre after his 4-interception performance (November 1, 1999). 

Thursday's game is actually a big game for both teams.  The Seahawks aren't about to catch the Rams (9-1) with their 4-5 record.  But they are certainly in the Wild Card hunt (the Wild Cards, "if the season ended today," would be the 6-3 Panthers and the 5-3-1 Vikings).  But a loss to the Packers will be a serious blow to those hopes.

For the Packers, at 4-4-1, they are not only in contention for a Wild Card spot, but the division is not out of the question, if the Bears stumble and the Packers go on enough of a winning streak to pass the Vikings and catch the Bears.  Those of you who saw the last two games are in a better position to judge than I am whether the Packers are actually capable of going on a winning streak.  But I heard an intriguing statistic on Good Morning Football today: when Aaron Rodgers throws for less than 200 passing yards (as he did Sunday against the Dolphins), the Packers have a very high winning percentage.  All of which suggests that a strong running game (think of some of the early Eddie Lacy years) are a large component of a winning game strategy for the Packers.  I may not have seen the Dolphins game, but I know that Aaron Jones finally was the feature running back, and rushed for 145 yards, with an average gain per run of almost 10 yards.  Some combination of the departure of Ty Montgomery, plus the idea finally getting through Mike McCarthy's stubborn skull, resulted in Aaron Jones playing the role the rest of us thought he should all year long.  I don't think it is too strong to say, as some articles have this week, that Aaron Jones is the key to the Packers making the playoffs.  I look forward to a win Thursday night and a run for the playoffs.