Saturday, December 29, 2018

One More "Meaningless" Game to Go

Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Who expected, back at the beginning of the 2018 season, that the Packers would be left with two utterly meaningless games to play out at the end of December?  One of the old cliches, that we hear every year in December about such games, is that a team had its bags packed and ready to roll out the door.  Joe Philbin indirectly referred to this phenomenon when he said that the locker room will be like a ghost town come Monday. 

Early in the game, the Packers looked like they were ready to head home for the holidays.  On defense, they gave up first down after first down, and only a missed field goal prevented the Jets from scoring on their opening drive.  On offense, there was poor blocking, poor throws by Rodgers, and only Jamaal Williams looked like he actually came to play. 

This game was like so many others this year, with the Packers in double-digit holes, trailing 14-0, 21-7, and 35-20.  I assumed for most of this game that the Packers would lose again, and finish their season winless on the road.  While the offense started to come to life in the second quarter, the defense (undermanned due to injury though it was) was making the Jets' offense look like all-stars.  And of course the special teams were busy sealing Ron Zook's fate.  Once the offense started to play, they were almost unstoppable, with Davante Adams leading the way.  But it still took overtime, and what seemed like an endless supply of penalties against the Jets, for the Packers to secure the 44-38 win.  Imagine if the Packers' offense had been prepared to play in the first quarter?  The Packers' defense and special teams would have managed, unfortunately, to keep the game close anyway, but the Packers probably would have won the game in four quarters by 7 to 14 points.

Most commentators have taken the position that the Packers should have played DeShone Kizer in these last two games.  What is the point of playing Rodgers?  What if he gets hurt?  Don't we need to see what (if anything) we have in Kizer?  But the best case for playing Rodgers (made by Pete Dougherty last week) was that he has seemed reluctant to trust his young receivers all year.  Let him have a couple of games with lots of the young receivers in the lineup, and hopefully he will gain more familiarity and comfort with them.  The first of the two meaningless games allowed for just that.  Rodgers completed passes to 9 different receivers.  Adams and Williams led the team in pass receptions.  But in addition to single catches by Dan Vitale and Robert Tonyan, there were multiple receptions by Kendricks, Graham, Kumerow, Valdes-Scantling, and St. Brown.  And kudos to Kumerow for scoring his first NFL touchdown!  (I have been waiting all year to say that.)

All that remains now is to play the final meaningless game, against the Lions, and then see what the off-season brings.  The Lions gave the Vikings a run for their money into the second quarter last week, but then pretty much collapsed after that.  Of course, the Lions' offense is likely to have an easier time against the Packers' nicked-up defense than they had against the Vikings.  But still, the Packers ought to be able to win their final game, and finish just below .500, at 7-8-1.

I'm not sure when the NFL started scheduling only divisional rivalry games in Week 17.  I didn't realize until I looked at the schedule that this is the case.  But it is a great idea.  In many cases, it results in meaningful match-ups with playoff implications.  When they put the schedule together, they probably assumed that Lions at Packers or Bears at Vikings would decide who wins the division.  In this case it did not, but at least the Vikings still have a playoff berth on the line in their match-up with the Bears.  Even where the game ends up being meaningless, as in the case of the Lions and Packers, at least it makes for a more interesting meaningless game, against a traditional rival.  May the best team win, and may there be no injuries for either team. 

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Packers 2018: What Went Wrong?

The Story of Rodgers' Day, Photo by Nam Huh, AP
Now that the Packers' season, or at least their playoff hopes, are ended, it might be time for a little reflection on what went wrong with the Packers this year.  Obviously, if you had to name a single factor, it was injuries.  Rodgers was injured in the first half of the first game against the Bears, and I would argue that he has never been quite right for the rest of the season. The second Bears game, last Sunday, bears this out (if you will excuse the pun).  The Packers lost a game, 24-17, that I am convinced they would have won or at least had a shot at winning in the closing minutes, if only Rodgers were fully healthy.  Still, the Bears earned the division crown, by consistent play on offense, and dominant play on defense, all year long.  Congratulations to the Bears.  I won't be rooting for them, but they deserve our congratulations.

Before getting back to the injuries, there were of course other factors, too.  Knowing what we know now, that Rodgers doesn't have full trust in the young receivers, maybe it wasn't such a smart idea to get rid of Jordy Nelson.  In hindsight, Khalil Mack looks like he was worth whatever the Raiders were asking of the Packers in a trade. 

Last Sunday's game was a good example of the injury problem.  Three offensive linemen (Bulaga, Pankey and Siragusa) were inactive, as was Kenny Clark on defense.  Playing against the Bears' defense, you don't want to see this, especially with a guy like Bulaga on the inactive list.  And especially with a quarterback who is not 100%, doesn't trust his young receivers, who seemingly hates to throw checkdown passes, and whose injury status gets worse during the game. 

And of course last week's inactive list is the least of the Packers' problems.  Going into the game, just to name the most prominent players, Geronimo Allison, Byron Bell, Trevor Davis, and Kyle Murphy were already on injured reserve on offense, and Aaron Jones was added after the game.  On defense, Mike Daniels, Raven Greene, Davon House, Kevin King, Nick Perry, Jake Ryan, and Muhammad Wilkerson were on injured reserve, and Kenny Clark was supposed to be headed there after the game, but has not yet been moved to IR.  How do you even win 5 games with that many injured players?  Oh, and Clark is out, and Cobb and Spriggs are doubtful, for the Jets game tomorrow.  Rodgers arguably should not play with his injured knee and groin (what is the point?) but he has announced that he is playing anyway.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I took another look at the Bears' game.  There is no doubt that Rodgers got worse as the game wore on.  He was perfect in the first quarter.  It is sometimes hard to decide which are bad throws and which are throwaways.  But in the second quarter Rodgers had 3 throwaways/bad throws, and one flat out bad throw.  He then injured his groin on the Hail Mary pass at the end of the half. 

In the third quarter, he made some good passes, but some of them were defensed well by the Bears, and one was dropped by Cobb.  But beyond those, he had an inexcusable overthrow to Cobb.  Things got worse in the fourth quarter.  Rodgers had bad overthrows to Cobb and Valdes-Scantling early on, and then Cobb dropped another ball.  Between throwaways and bad throws, there were another 5 missed connections in the fourth quarter, and of course the interception, ending his streak of passes without an interception.  On first viewing, that looked like a ball that bounced off the hands of a guy with a broken thumb and was intercepted.  Which it was.  But it was also thrown behind Graham, when a better throw would be right in front of him.  So it is, in my book, yet another errant throw. 

So what happens next year?  Maybe Rodgers recovers from his injuries, lots of players come off of IR, new and improved players are obtained in the draft or free agency, a new coach creates a spark, and we are right back in contention for the playoffs and the Super Bowl.  Or, father time is catching up with Rodgers, he will never be the same, and every year will be touch and go as to whether we even make the playoffs.  Having committed to Rodgers with the big contract, we better hope the former is true.  With my Green and Gold colored glasses firmly perched on my face, I think we will be right back in it next year.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Can the Packers Put Together a Winning Streak?

Interim Coach Joe Philbin, Photo by Wm. Glasheen, USA Today
The Packers have not had back-to-back wins all year long.  Such is the misery of a 4-7-1 season.  They will get a 5th chance this week to start a winning streak.

Sunday's game against the Falcons, which the Packers won 34-20, was the first game under the leadership of Interim Head Coach Joe Philbin (or Coach Fill-In, as the guys from the Packers Therapy Podcast call him). 

A week after losing to the 2-10 Cardinals in embarrassing fashion, the Packers put together a pretty good showing against the Falcons, a team similar to the Packers in that they are a talented team having a bad season.  The Falcons and the Packers, after all, were in the NFC Championship Game just two seasons ago in January, 2017.  This suggests to me that neither team is as bad as its 2018 season record.  And the win over the Falcons shows me that the Packers are not as bad as they looked the week before.

There were a few surprises for me on offense.  First, the Packers went pass-heavy in the first half, throwing on about 80% of their offensive plays.  I would have expected them to try to establish the running game.  Switching things up surprised me, and I think it may have surprised the Falcons, as well.  That is a good sign, that Philbin designed a game plan that went against what would be expected.  Better yet, many of those pass plays were quick-release plays, which many of us have been calling for all year.  With a makeshift offensive line, it doesn't take a genius to see that Rodgers should get rid of the ball quickly.  I am just glad that they actually did it. 

Second, I re-watched most of the game, and the thing that struck me was how few obvious audibles there were on offense.  We can't know if Rodgers changes some plays in the huddle, and he might have alternate play calls that he can signal with a simple word or number from the line of scrimmage.  But I saw very few of the traditional audibles, where it is obvious that the play is being changed at the line of scrimmage.  I take this to mean that Rodgers and Philbin were more in sync on the play calls than Rodgers and McCarthy have been this year. And given that this was the first game that Philbin has called as an NFL coach, it would not surprise me if he gave extra deference to the experienced play-caller behind center. 

Now, beating the Falcons was, by itself, no big deal.  It is not unusual or unexpected for a team to rally in the first game after a coach is fired, and there are presumably all kinds of psychological factors that lead to such a result.  But now that that first game is behind them, what happens for the rest of the season, and does it matter if the Packers still have theoretical playoff hopes?  They theoretically are in the playoff race as of now, and if they were to win the rest of their games, it might get interesting, as the other things that need to happen are not completely outlandish to contemplate.  The Packers play at the Bears this week, then at the Jets, and finish at home against the Lions.  While the Cardinals game shows that there are no gimmes for the 2018 Packers, let's just take it as a given that the Packers have a pretty good chance of beating the Jets and Lions.  What about the Bears on Sunday?

On one side, you have the newly resurgent Bears, who after blowing a huge lead to the Packers in Week One, have played pretty well the rest of the season, with last week's shutting down of the Rams being maybe their best game of the year.  Only two teams, the Cowboys and Ravens, have given up fewer points.  Mitch Trubisky looks like he is for real in his second year, Tarik Cohen is an important factor in both the rushing and receiving game for the Bears, and the receivers and tight ends have contributed 17 touchdown catches of their own.  Heck, the Bears even have a serviceable backup quarterback who can step in and win a game or two for them (imagine that!).  A bunch of big pluses for the Bears.

On the other side is . . . Aaron Rodgers.  His mastery over the Bears is very similar to that of his predecessor.  Both QBs were dominant over the Bears, at home and at Soldier Field.  Rodgers has won 16 of his 20 starts against the Bears, and one of those 4 losses was when the Bears broke his collarbone in the first quarter.  But very few, if any, of those wins were against Bears teams as good as this year's version.  So we will see.  Being a realistic observer, I am expecting the Bears to win this week, effectively ending the Packers' playoff hopes, and possibly affecting the way the team approaches the final two weeks.  But with Rodgers at quarterback, anything can happen.  I hope it does.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Future Starts Now

McCarthy Contemplates Future, Photo by Dylan Buell, Getty Images
Hours after losing to the Cardinals last Sunday (20-17), the Packers fired Mike McCarthy, ending his 13 year tenure as Packers head coach.  I never expected the Packers to fire Mike McCarthy before the end of the regular season, but that is exactly what they did. 

I may  not have expected it, but I think it was the right call.  Sunday's loss to the Cardinals, maybe, was just the last straw, so disheartening that it forced Mark Murphy's hand.  Or who knows?  Maybe McCarthy and Murphy got into a shouting match, ending with "you're fired!"  Or more likely than that, I could see McCarthy, no dummy and realizing what was coming after Week 17, saying "Let's just get it over with right now."  Why prolong the agony if the end result was a given, anyway?

Everybody knew that the only thing that could save him was a deep playoff run, and that chance was (all but mathematically) ended on Sunday.  I have seen some hand-wringing that this was unprecedented, that McCarthy deserved better treatment, etc., but I am not sure letting him dangle on the sidelines, with all the reaction shots as four more tedious games play out, would have been kinder to him in any way. 

Both the Packers and McCarthy himself made nice gestures after the firing.  The Packers allowed McCarthy to come back and say goodbye to the coaching staff and the players, and he reportedly received a standing ovation from the players.  And Mike McCarthy took out a classy full-page ad in the paper, thanking the Packers and the community for a good run as head coach. 

McCarthy's replacement was due, if not overdue, as I said last week.  But that doesn't mean I take any real joy in seeing him fired.  "We may have lost, but it felt like a win."  This was one of the Facebook messages to Aaron Nagler on his Daily Chat Sunday afternoon/evening.  I can't get behind that kind of gloating at all.  McCarthy was a good coach, he led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory, and he is one of only 3 coaches in Packers history who can say that.  But the time had come to make a change, and that pathetic loss to the Cardinals evidently made it clear to Mark Murphy that the time was now.

What is the point of firing him now and moving on with an interim coach?  I see lots of points.  McCarthy, as noted above, is put out of his misery.  We don't have to listen to all the questions, see all the reaction shots, etc., for the next 4 weeks.  The Packers can begin their job search in earnest without having to answer any questions about any interview or scouting activity that takes place.  But most fundamentally, it gives the team a chance to try to change the momentum.  Four more games like we saw on Sunday, and the off-season would be filled with nothing but bitter memories.  With two home games remaining, this gives the team a chance to show if they can get a better vibe going, and at least generate some interest in what happens for the end of the year.  The players get a chance to try to demonstrate that they were not the cause of the Packers' woes this year.  Joe Philbin gets a chance to see what he can do, as a tryout for this job or any other future job.  They get to see more playing time for some of their rookies in a low-risk environment.  If, hypothetically, the team wins at least a couple games, we fans can at least see some hope for next year.  If they look better, and get a new coach that excites the players and the fans, this team can be a contender again soon.