Thursday, December 26, 2019

Packers' Defense Returns with a Vengeance

Before Monday night's game against the Vikings, I admit to being quite nervous about the Packers' chances.  Sure, with the game on the line, I would rather have Rodgers as my quarterback, rather than Kirk Cousins.  Sure, Cousins had never won a game on Monday night football.  But on the other hand, the Packers have always had trouble in Minnesota, and they had never won in the Vikings' new stadium.  Plus the Vikings' defense had broken Rodgers' collarbone there 2 years ago.  And people were arguing that Cousins has been playing better down the stretch than Rodgers.  And the Vikings were 6-0 at home this season.  Cousins had more yards and more touchdowns than Rodgers.  Blah, blah, blah.

So Packers fans (or this one, anyway) were in quite a mood after the Packers gave up 3 turnovers in the first half, while not getting any from the Vikings.  The Jones fumble on the first drive reminded me of games from the past, most recently the 49ers disaster last month.  You don't win many games when you are 0-3 in turnovers in the first half.  Still, the Packers' defense was stifling.  They held the Vikings to 3 points after that first fumble, they gave up a touchdown on a perfect pass to Diggs (Cousins' best pass of the night) after the Rodgers interception, and they gave up no points after the Adams fumble.  Meanwhile, the Packers were moving the ball well in between turnovers, but they were stalling and settling for field goals.

At halftime, as I grabbed something to eat, it hit me.  The Packers had given up 3 turnovers, but were otherwise moving the ball up and down the field.  With the exception of the perfect touchdown pass to Diggs, the Packers' defense was shutting down the Vikings, in both the running and passing games, and the Packers were only down 1 point.  The Packers had 13 first downs, to 2 for the Vikings.  The Packers had 3 times more total yards in the half, and 6 times the passing yards.  Despite the turnovers, the Packers were in great shape to win the game.  All they had to do was keep doing what they were doing, but without the turnovers.  And that is exactly what happened, with the Packers winning 23-10, in the process clinching the division, and keeping themselves alive to get a first or second seed in the playoffs and a bye week.

The heroes of the game, of course, were Aaron Jones and the defense, particularly the front seven.  Jones ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns, including the 56-yard "dagger" touchdown in the fourth quarter.  Meanwhile, the defense was shutting down the running game, and bottling up Kirk Cousins and the passing game.  Adam Thielen had no catches, while Diggs had 3 and Rudolph had one.  Now in fairness, it has to be mentioned that the Vikings were down to their third and fourth string running backs, Thielen is probably still hobbled with an injury that kept him out a few weeks, and Kirk Cousins had, well, a Kirk Cousins special awful game.  But you still have to make the plays on defense, and the Packers' defense did exactly that.

You could say that this was another ugly win, primarily because of the 3 turnovers.  But the heck with that.  Division games are always tough, and for the Packers to win a division game on the road against the Vikings, in a building where they have never won before, while overcoming the three turnovers, is good enough for me.  If that was ugly, let's have another ugly win this week.

After the game, the emotion and joy in the locker room, with the team sporting their "The North is Not Enough" T-shirts, was just overwhelming.  Later, I saw Tom Pelissero interview the "Smith Brothers" on the field, and I saw Za'Darius Smith literally choke up talking about how much the win meant to him, and how he had said that all he wanted for Christmas was a hat and a T-shirt.  And Z. Smith was a huge part of the win.  He had 3.5 sacks and 5 total tackles for a loss, the highest total in any game this year.  He was a one-man wrecking crew on this evening, and if he and the rest of the front seven can keep that up, it will be huge for the Packers in the playoffs.

Speaking of emotion, I saw that in Rodgers' post-game press conference, he mentioned the fact that he had been jeered in this stadium 2 years ago when he broke his collarbone.  I guess he has been holding onto that for awhile now.  While I am not sure that holding grudges is Rodgers' best quality, it is clear that nobody is better at it than Aaron Rodgers.  And if he can use that for motivation, more power to him.  Now the truth is, he did not play particularly well on Monday night.  The interception, his third of the year, was inexplicable to me.  Was he that inaccurate that he under-threw the ball by that much?  If not, what did he think he saw on that play?  But he got it done when it counted, by engineering drives resulting in field goals in the first half, to keep the game close, and by engineering touchdown drives in the second half, to put the game away. 

The very best thing about Rodgers' game on Monday, in my view, is that he repeatedly threw the short out passes that would gain 3, 5 or 7 yards, to move the chains down the field, while relying primarily on the running game.  That is exactly what his critics have been asking for.  Play within the contours of the LaFleur offense.  Take what the defense is giving you.  Move the ball down the field, rather than sitting back there looking for the big play and ending up being sacked.  If he can keep working the offense as it was designed, while benefiting from the resurgent Packers defense, they can continue to win games.  No need for heroics if they play like this and avoid the turnovers that almost sent the Vikings game off the rails.

The Packers have a great opportunity to win and secure a bye week against the Lions.  There are no "gimmes" in the NFL, and let's not forget that the Lions crushed the Packers, 31-0, in the finale last year.  But this is a very different year.  Just get it done!  And if the Packers do their job, and the Seahawks manage to beat the 49ers, the Packers will have the no. 1 seed for the first time in a long while.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Getting Used to Ugly

Aaron Jones scores, Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
More of the same from the Packers last week.  This time, after taking a 21-3 lead in the second half, the Packers' offense went as cold as Lambeau Field in January, while letting the Bears creep back into the game.  The game didn't end until the final play, a Cal Band-type play, when Tramon Williams finally stopped the madness by recovering a deflected lateral at the Packers' 2 yard line.  The 21-13 win, combined with a Rams loss later in the day, was enough to put the Packers back in the playoffs for the first time in 3 years.  And since they only need one more win to secure the division, they have a 91% chance to win the division, and a 42% chance to get a bye week, which they can accomplish most easily by winning both remaining games.

The Packers' 11-3 record ought to make fans happy.  But their inconsistency of play has resulted in some very ugly wins, of which the Bears game was another one.  Article after article this week makes it seem as if the only word you can put before "win" is "ugly," at least if you are discussing the 2019 Green Bay Packers.  They may have won 11 games, but in 9 of those wins, the Packers led by only a single score (8 points or less) at some point in the fourth quarter.  The wins over the Raiders and Cowboys are the only exceptions.  Those two games were not complete performances, either, but at least no nail-biting was required in the fourth quarter.

I didn't find the Bears game as upsetting as some of the others, because Packers-Bears games are almost always close, hard-fought battles between the ancient rivals.  They have now played 200 games against each other, and while there have been some blowouts (the first game I ever went to was a Packers blowout of the Bears in 1962, 49-0), most of them have been close games battled out to the bitter end.  So I wasn't surprised with the way the game ended up, but gratified that the Packers won.

I think much of the fan dissatisfaction and anxiety has to do with the fact that we know (or think we know) that the Packers are capable of better play than the way they are playing.  So we want to see the Packers establish their identity as a good to great team by playing 60 minutes on offense, and 60 minutes on defense, and put together a convincing win against a good team.  Hell, we would take a convincing win against any team, good or bad, at this point.  The fear is that if they don't start playing up to what we think is their potential, they are going to get bounced out of the playoffs, rather unceremoniously, as soon as they come up against a good team, which will probably be in the first game.  At the moment, from week to week, we don't know if we should expect an ugly win, or a really ugly loss.  The one thing we are losing faith that we will see is a convincing win.

Aaron Nagler says, "maybe winning ugly IS their identity."  Chris Havel says, "If the Packers' identity is 'winning ugly' so be it."  The funny thing is, they might actually be on to something.  Older fans will remember teams like the "Cardiac Pack" and the "Cardiac Cards."  The identity of those teams was that they would find ways to come from behind and win games at the end.  And we have certainly seen Packers teams over the years that would find ways to lose most of the close games that they could have won.  Well, the Packers in 2019 are kind of the opposite.  They aren't generally coming from behind, so they are not like the old Cardiac Pack, but they almost always find a way to win close games that they could have lost.  The only close game they have lost was the game against the Eagles.  I am not sure that winning like this is sustainable into the playoffs, although it looks as if we will get the chance to find out soon enough.  But if this is winning ugly, I will take it as long as they continue to win.

The Vikings are usually also a tough matchup for the Packers, especially when the game is in Minnesota.  The Packers haven't yet won a game in the Vikings' new stadium, and they weren't so great in the Vikings' last stadium, either (remember the T.J. Rubley game, for instance?).  The Vikings have good weapons on offense (although Dalvin Cook might miss this game), and their defense is in some ways similar to the Packers: lots of bend but not much break, generating turnovers, etc.  While the Vikings trail the Packers by a game in the standings, they have scored more points on offense, and given up fewer points on defense.

Channeling Denny Green for a moment, I am not ready to crown the Vikings' ass just yet.  They have already been beaten by the Packers and Bears, as well as the Chiefs and Seahawks, so they are not unbeatable.  Despite some underwhelming play by the Packers in general, and Rodgers in particular, at times this year, I will still take Aaron Rodgers over Kirk Cousins, at the end of a close game, any time.  So I would like to see the Packers play their first complete game of the year, and blow the Vikings out of their dome.  But I doubt that will happen, and I will gladly take another ugly win.  Of necessity, I am getting used to ugly wins.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Another "Unsatisfying" Win

Lots of My Relatives Were at the Game
Happy Days are here again!  (Well, sort of.)  The good news is that the Packers, by beating the Redskins Sunday (20-15), have recorded their 10th win out of 13 games.  In so doing, Matt LaFleur became the first coach in the history of the Packers to get 10 wins in his first season.  Special shout out to all my family members who attended the game, including relatives from Israel.  Wish I could have been there!

The Packers now have a 93% chance of making the playoffs, according to  Also, with the 49ers' win over the Saints on Sunday (and other results), the Packers' chances of getting a first round bye have improved to 37%.  (I admit that I had to rinse the foul taste out of my mouth after rooting for the 49ers comeback.)

With Thanksgiving in the recent past, it is worth noting and giving thanks for how much better the Packers' situation is this year, as compared to the years we have had in the past where, at this time of the season, we would have to sit around and say something like, "let's see, if the Packers win out, and the Vikings lose 2 out of 3, or if the Eagles, Rams and Seahawks each lose 2 out of 3, then the Packers will sneak into the playoffs."  And of course the last two years were even worse, when the Packers finished with losing records and well out of the playoffs.

But the bad news is that the Packers looked, how shall I say it?  "Uninspired?"  They started out hot, going up 14 points in the first quarter, then let the Redskins creep back into the game, with the Packers only winning by 5 points.  Almost a carbon copy of the Giants game last week, except at least in the Giants game the Packers threw in the flourish of two touchdowns in the 4th quarter to pull away.  This time they got a field goal in the third quarter, and another in the fourth, to put the game just slightly out of reach of the weak Redskins team, playing with a hobbled rookie quarterback.  (The fast start the last two weeks with the Packers' opening scripted plays raises the half-serious suggestion, "why not script the first 50 plays if the script works so well?")  The way the team played on Sunday, you could maybe see the Packers win a home playoff game, if they are lucky enough to get one, but you have to scratch your head to figure out how the Packers would go about winning a game on the road against the 49ers, Saints, Seahawks, or even the Vikings.

I actually have some sympathy for LaFleur, Rodgers and the other players, who have to face all these questions about why the win wasn't more convincing.  I get it, style points are not included in the Win-Loss columns, and it is a good thing they aren't, because the Packers are short on style points this year.  You should not have to apologize for a 10-3 record.  But it is frustrating (for players and fans alike) that they still haven't put together a complete game all year.

You could say that they had a pretty complete game on defense against the Bears in Week 1, and a pretty complete game on offense against the Raiders in Week 7.  But they really haven't come close to putting the pieces together in a single game.  In this connection, I can't help but mention that the game against the Redskins was the first game in which all aspects of the special teams looked good.  No penalties that I recall, no missed kicks, good punts, and for the first time all year, a return game with new returner Tyler ("Swervin") Ervin.  Ervin has single-handedly, in his first game, saved the Packers from setting the record for worst punt-return yardage in an entire season.

Let's take a step back.  Obviously, nobody expected the Packers to do this well this year, with a rookie coach.  We probably expected something more akin to a rebuilding year than a title run.  It is worth remembering that, as I said a few weeks ago, the Packers are mostly finding ways to win games this year that they would have lost in prior years.  I saw a statistic that the Packers were 3-6-1 in one-score games last year, while they are 6-1 this year.  All of this is good, even if the Packers are not providing the "wow" factor where fans and teams can't see how anyone can beat this team.

Still, every week, I keep thinking that this will be the week for everything to gel, but it has not happened yet.  If the Packers could just switch on their complete game at will, they should have thrown the switch by now.  Meanwhile, other leading teams (most prominently, the Ravens) seem to be peaking at the right time, with the playoffs around the corner.

This week the Bears come to town, boasting a 3 game winning streak, and clinging to slim playoff hopes.  A loss to the Packers will essentially end any hopes of the Bears for the playoffs.  A win by the Packers will clinch a playoff berth for Green Bay.  This is the 200th meeting of the two teams, with the Packers holding a slim all-time edge over their big-city rivals.  The game will be played in the cold at Lambeau Field (current projected high is 14 degrees.)  This game is actually a huge game for both teams, and we know that the Bears will be motivated.  Will the Packers?  And if not now, then when?

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Not Quite a "Statement" Win

I Love Snow Games!  Photo by Adam Hunger, AP
In the wake of the disaster in Santa Clara last week, I was looking for two things in Sunday's game at the Meadowlands against the Giants: first and foremost a Packers win; and secondarily a convincing win to give me some level of confidence that the Packers were back on track.  Sunday's 31-13 win over the Giants was one of those games where you can really say that the game was closer than the final score.  It was a 4 point game at the beginning of the 4th quarter, and while I never felt as if the Packers were in much danger of losing the game, they did not blow me away playing against a pretty terrible New York Giants team.  I know, it counts just the same in the Win-Loss columns, but I was looking for a real statement, and I didn't feel as if I got it.  If you want to know what a statement win looks like, look no farther than the Ravens win against the 49ers.

The defense certainly played better against this terrible Giants team.  In giving up only 13 points, they had their best game since week one against the Bears (which the Packers won, 10-3).  They also got 3 interceptions, but obviously poor throws by Daniel Jones (under relentless pressure from Za'Darius Smith and others) had something to do with that.

On the other hand, the Packers' defense got no sacks despite the pressure, and they gave up 335 total yards, including giving up 20 first downs, 3 of them on 4th down plays.  So the bad news is that the Packers gave up lots of yards, and allowed sustained drives that used a lot of time and kept the ball away from the Packers' offense.  But the good news is that despite all that, they only gave up 13 points, in a good demonstration of the "bend but don't break" style of defense. 

I saw lots of things on defense that I didn't like.  While they, in general, did a good job of containing Saquon Barkley, they still gave up 4 plays to him of more than 10 yards (including one pass).  And they gave up two of their patented long passes down the middle of the field, one to WR Cody Latimer, and another to TE Kaden Smith. 

On offense, the Packers obviously looked a lot better than they did against the 49ers, but that is a pretty low bar.  The running game was nothing special, which is a little concerning against a team that is not that great against the run.  The game was won with the passing game.  I liked the fact that Rodgers threw the ball to 10 different receivers (7 of whom had catches).  I was less thrilled with the fact that Davante Adams was targeted as heavily as he was, but on the other  hand, Adams (along with Allen Lazard) was doing the most damage in the passing game, so good for the Packers for going with what was working. 

Special teams looked good, for a change, with perfect performance by the grieving Mason Crosby, a much stronger effort by J.K. Scott, and even good work on the return game (both as kicking and receiving teams).

In the last 5 games of the season, you would have thought that the Packers have an excellent chance to win 4 of them, including Sunday's Giants game (the other games are the Redskins, the Bears and the Lions).  The fifth game, at the Vikings, may well decide who wins the division, although the Monday night loss by the Vikings to the Seahawks really gives the advantage to the Packers to win the division.  But the Packers can't afford any missteps in the other games, or they potentially hand that advantage right back to the Vikings.  The win against the Giants was the first step, but I still think they are going to have to play better to get the job done.  The Redskins game at Lambeau Field would be an excellent way to get some momentum going.

Meanwhile, the playoff positioning goal has to be to get one of the byes.  At the moment, that would mean finishing above either the Saints or the Seahawks, both of whom are currently at 10-2 (so are the 49ers, but they are currently a Wild Card).  Among the top teams in the NFC, the Packers and Vikings have the most favorable schedule, since they each only play one team above .500 (when they play each other).  The Seahawks play the Rams and 49ers, while the 49ers play the Saints, Rams and Seahawks, and the Saints play the 49ers and Titans.  This will become a lot more clear as each week goes by, but if the Packers were to win out, I don't see a realistic way that they would not end up with a bye.  So just keep winning.

Friday, November 29, 2019

How Good Are the Packers?

In happier times, when the score was 0-0
So which loss was worse, the 26-11 loss to the Chargers 4 weeks ago in Los Angeles, or the 37-8 loss to the 49ers last week?  At one level, the loss to the (at the time) 3-5 Chargers might seem more out of character than the loss to the 9-1 49ers.  Both losses were the result of total domination by the opposing teams, and pathetic performances by the Packers on both sides of the ball (and you can throw poor special teams into the mix, too, with an ineffective punting game joining an ineffective return game).  While you can say that there is no shame in losing to the team with the best record in the NFC, there is plenty of shame in losing the way the Packers did. 

While the defense kept the Packers in the 49er game for awhile, it once again gave up huge plays down the middle of the field, none more damaging than the long touchdown to phenomenal 49er tight end George Kittle, which essentially ended any hope for a comeback.  And the offense again could generate no rhythm at all, with Rodgers constantly under duress.  Why didn't the Packers load up on quick release passes designed to offset the pass rush?  Why didn't they throw the ball to Aaron Jones and see what he could do?  I have no clue, and you can't figure out the answer by listening to Matt LaFleur's press conferences, either.  I guess I really should not expect much enlightenment from press conferences, and I am glad that LaFleur takes responsibility and says that he was outcoached, but if you want to know what he will do differently to avoid another such embarrassment, you will  have to figure that out for yourself. 

We went to the 49er game, and there were plenty of Packer fans there with us.  But the Packer fans never really got a chance to cheer after the warmups, because on the very first drive, the 49ers strip-sacked Rodgers, leading to a quick touchdown, and it was all downhill from there.  We had plenty of time to listen to that stupid foghorn they play when the 49ers score, and to be thankful that the Packers ditched the idea for a foghorn of their own.

Maybe the Packers aren't as good as we thought they were?  Getting blown out, by one bad and one good team, does not happen to most good teams.  Just for kicks, I took a look at all the top teams in the NFC and AFC, to see how they lost their games.  So the Packers lost a fairly close one to the Eagles, and lost convincingly and pathetically to the Chargers and 49ers.  I arbitrarily used 14 points as the definition of a blowout.  Sure enough, most really good teams do not get blown out.  They lose like the 49ers did (27-24 to Seattle).  Or like the Chiefs, losing by 7 points or less to the Colts, Texans, Packers and Titans. 

In fairness, some of the really good teams did get blown out once.  The Patriots lost to the Ravens by 17.  The Bills lost to the Eagles by 18.  The Seahawks lost to the Ravens by 14.  But among the teams with the best records, only the Packers and Saints lost 2 games by blowout.  The Saints lost to the Rams by 18, and lost to the Falcons the first time around by 17.  The fact that Brees got knocked out in the Rams game might be a mitigating factor, although the Saints are much more set at backup quarterback than the Packers have been in a very long time.  But anyway, as a general rule, the very good teams do not get blown out twice by this point in the season, and this is not a good sign for the Packers.

Beyond the blowouts, some of the Packers' wins are a little suspect when you look back at them.  The Packers beat the Bears only on the strength of the defense playing out of their minds.  The Packers barely beat the Lions, and maybe shouldn't have, given some of the calls.  And the Panthers took the game to the very last play of the game, which play even had to be reviewed, before the win was secured.  The Bears, Lions, and Panthers aren't really all that good, so these wins could be cause for concern if you want to look at it that way.

This Sunday, the Packers visit another team that is not very good, the New York Football Giants (as a friend used to call them).  They are 2-9, haven't won since September, and by my 14 point definition they have been blown out in 5 of their 9 losses.  They have beaten only the equally bad Redskins, and the very inconsistent Buccaneers.  So there really isn't any good reason why the Packers should not beat the Giants convincingly, especially given the sting and embarrassment of the 49ers game last week.  If they struggle against the Giants, even if they end up winning, it will really be time to question how the Packers can make any noise in the playoffs.

Despite the bad football we watched Sunday night, I had a great Thanksgiving with family yesterday.  I hope you did as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Terrible Performance Snaps Packers' Winning Streak

Cousins Enjoying the Ambiance, Before the Carnage Started
Well, we figured out a way to watch the game from overseas.  Maybe it would have been better if we didn't, so that our only exposure to the game was through the box score.  Losing to the Chargers (previously 3-5) by the score of 26-11 would look bad enough in the box score, but it would not have conveyed how terrible the Packers looked in all phases of the game.  Teams have off days, but can you have a day this far off without starting to wonder if the team is as good as you thought it was?

The Packers could not block Jake Kumerow's big cousin, Joey Bosa (and, as someone mentioned, they have the other Bosa cousin to deal with in San Francisco after the bye week).  On defense, the "bend don't break" thing kept the Packers in the game until the second half, since they forced field goals on the Chargers first four scoring drives.  But two second half touchdowns by the Chargers, as the defense ran out of gas, put the game out of reach.  And the special teams gave up the blocked punt that ended up really sealing the deal.

To his credit, Matt LaFleur acknowledged that the Packers were out coached and out prepared by the Chargers.  That might be the diplomatic thing to say, but in this case, it has the additional advantage of being true.  The Packers finally figured out a plan that worked on offense in the fourth quarter.  It was a hurry up offense with short, quick-release passes, and it resulted in the Packers' only touchdown.  That was too little and way too late.  Maybe they should have tried that in the first half to get a rhythm going. 

Rodgers talked about focus and the team not being "locked in" after the game.  There seemed to be a suggestion that maybe arriving a day early contributed to that lack of focus, although LaFleur claimed on Monday that nobody missed curfew before the game.  But I think it is a safe bet that the team will come out on Saturday, rather than on Friday, for the San Francisco game in a few weeks.

On Sunday, the 5-3 Panthers come to Green Bay.  On paper, the Panthers are a better team than the Chargers, and they certainly have one of the league's top rushers in Christian McCaffrey.  The Packers have given up a lot of rushing yards this season, so McCaffrey can obviously pose problems.  If the Packers are not as bad as they looked on Sunday, and if the Chargers' game was a bit of an anomaly, they should come back with a vengeance and win this game.  But if they lose this game, to take a two game losing streak into the bye, it may really be time to reevaluate how good this team is.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Packers Finding Ways to Win Games

Aaron Jones, star of the game, photo by Ed Zurga, Associated Press
Sunday night's game was another game that the Packers, in past lives, might have lost.  They have for many years had a habit of making backup quarterbacks look great, going back to Jason Garrett as the backup quarterback for the Cowboys.  In this case, Andy Reid had smartly devised a game plan where the ball was out of Matt Moore's hands as quickly as possible.  So as a result, he ended up getting hit far less frequently than Rodgers.  And he looked pretty good - like one of the veteran backup quarterbacks we wished we had on the roster during the seasons that Rodgers missed a lot of time.  He certainly looked good enough to have a real chance to manage a game tying drive at the end and send the game to overtime.

Reid had also designed a good defensive game plan, involving a lot of physical man coverage and a lot of blitzes against Rodgers.  So even though the Packers quickly went up 14-0, the Chiefs kept the pressure up and came back to take a 17-14 lead.  In the fourth quarter, the Packers went back on top, first by 24-17, and later by 31-24. 

So when the Packers held the Chiefs and forced a punt with 5 minutes left in the game, and the punt was downed at the Green Bay 2, there were all kinds of things that could go wrong.  A turnover, a safety, a 3 and out giving the Chiefs the ball back at around midfield, a Tyreek Hill punt return.  And in the case of past Packers teams, one of those things would probably have happened - most likely giving the Chiefs the ball back with enough time to at least mount a drive to try to tie the game.

When the Packers found themselves with 3rd and 5 at the two minute warning, I wanted to see a passing play to get the first down and ice the game.  I can see the argument being made that you have to run the ball to keep the clock moving, and anyway your defense should be able to prevent a touchdown.  So run it, hope for the best, and probably have to punt the ball.  But LaFleur obviously decided that, with a Hall of Fame quarterback behind center, a short pass to get the first down is the way to go.  If they call the perfect defense, Rodgers is smart enough not to do something stupid, and at worst he can pull the ball down and hit the turf for a couple yard loss.  I like the philosophy that we will go out and try to win, rather than just avoid all risk and hope to hold them.  As LaFleur apparently told Rodgers, "go win the game."  Which they did, 31-24.

The Packers are doing lots of things right this year, in spite of a defense that is sometimes too porous, an offense that had a slow start to the year, and special teams that are a mess except for Mason Crosby and J.K. Scott.  But if there is one thing that they are doing right better than I have seen in years, it is finding a way to win close games.  Not every game is going to be a blowout, and the Packers have had to come from behind in 5 of their 8 games this year.  Only against the Eagles did they fail to complete the job and win the game, although they had multiple chances to tie up the game.  I have always felt that the really good teams find ways to win those close games, and this year the Packers seem to be doing that.

The evidence becomes more clear every week that there is a silver lining to the absence of Davante Adams.  The Packers have discovered that Aaron Jones is a legitimate receiving threat, and they lined him up as a wideout on numerous occasions during the game.  He ended up being the leading receiver for both teams in the game with 159 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, and another one where he stepped out of bounds.  If you imagine the offense being as good as it is right now, and then layer in Davante Adams on top of that, this could turn out to be a very special season if everyone stays healthy after he returns.

I don't think anybody would have predicted that the Packers would be 7-1 at this point in the season.  The next game, against the Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park in Los Angeles is one of the road games where I expect a win.  The Chargers don't really have a home fan base yet in Los Angeles, and they have had a disappointing season.  So the tiny, 27,000 seat temporary stadium will be filled with Packers fans, including cousins John and Ben, and even my local State Farm agent, Matt.  We would normally go to a game this close to home, but we are out of the country and unable to attend.  The weather should be great (unless it is still smoky from all of the California fires), and I hope I can figure out a way to watch the game.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

"Scary" Packers Offense Gives Raiders a Tough Time

Cousins Having Fun at the Game
Many of us have been predicting that the Packers' offense would improve every week.  And with the exception of a dip in points production in the Lions' game last week, that is basically exactly what has happened.  But Sunday's game against the Raiders was the ultimate culmination of that trend, as the Packers scored 42 points in beating the Raiders, 42-24.  Rodgers threw 5 touchdown passes (each one to a different receiver), ran in a 6th touchdown, and Rodgers had the first perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 in the 100 year history of the Packers.  Rodgers also became the quarterback to get to 350 touchdown passes in the smallest number of games played (172).  As Za'Darius Smith said, "that's some legendary stuff."  So it would be hard to expect any further improvement in the offense, and, quite frankly, I am OK with the offense just as it played on Sunday.

The defense was a different story.  You could say that it was somewhat effective on Sunday, in the sense that it was very "bendy" but not very "breaky."  In fact, despite the offensive explosion by the Packers in this game, the Raiders actually gained 3 more yards with their 484.  That is a lot of yards, and yet they only gave up 17 points while it mattered, and another 7 points in garbage time.  The defense has had better days this year, when they were generating both sacks and lots of turnovers, but as has been true of several games this year, the defense seems to have the capability to tighten up near the goal line, despite giving up big chunk plays as the opponent gets down the field.  So I would love to see the defense give up fewer big plays, but unlike in the past, even when they do, there is still reason to think that the Packers can stop them or limit them to field goals (which was never more true than in the Lions game).  One of the stops Sunday was basically Derek Carr's fault (with a slight assist from Blake Martinez) in fumbling the ball through the end zone for a turnover.  That play was really the turning point in the game.  But three other times the Packers stopped the Raiders, once limiting them to a field goal, once stopping them on fourth and goal, and once intercepting Carr in the end zone. 

Turning Point, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

Speaking of sacks, the Packers didn't even register a single sack Sunday, which was anti-climactic since the Smith Brothers had cooked up a Halloween-themed sack celebration and gotten it approved by Coach LaFleur.  Next week's game at Kansas City is still before Halloween, but apparently they don't intend to use it next week, even if they do get a sack.

I am excited about the Packers' offense seeming to have pulled it all together, even without their best weapon, Davante Adams.  Family member Alan makes the interesting point that there is, in effect, a silver lining behind Adams' absence for these past 3 games: it has forced Rodgers to build rapport and trust with the young receivers.  It is scary for the rest of the league what this offense would look like if it plays as well as it did on Sunday, and gets Davante Adams back to boot. 

The Packers have now arrived at the "on the other hand" part of the season.  It was great that they played 5 of their first 7 games at home, and even better that they managed to win the two road games, along with 4 of the 5 home games.  They also are 3-0 in the division, and 4-1 in the conference, all good stuff when it comes to the end of the year.  But, on the other hand, they only have 3 home games left in their final 9 regular season games. 

They have three sets of 2-game road trips coming up, the first of which starts on Sunday in Kansas City, and then continues in Los Angeles against the Chargers.  I had assumed, despite a little inconsistency by the Chiefs, that the Packers would end up losing to the Chiefs in Kansas City.  But with Patrick Mahomes apparently set to miss this game, I think the Packers have a real chance to win the game. 

And then as far as the Chargers game is concerned, the Chargers have been a huge disappointment this year, and Dignity Health Sports Park is likely to be Lambeau West on Sunday, November 3.  So I could easily see the Packers winning both games on this next road trip.  A fast start to the season doesn't guarantee a successful ending.  I still remember a season where the Raiders started off, as I recall it, 8-2, only to lose the last 6 games.  But I love the Packers' chances if they are 7-2 or 8-1 in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Controversial Win Leaves Packers in First Place

Crosby's First Lambeau Leap, Photo by William Glasheen, USA Today
Monday night, the Packers never led until the final play of the game, when Mason Crosby's short field goal lifted them to a 23-22 win over the Detroit Lions.  But the blowback over penalties and non-penalties in the game was severe, almost enough to take the fun out of it for the team and its fans. 

Random comments seen on the internet late Monday night, some by famous people, some by unknown Facebook posters: "We had no business winning this game . . . but I'll take it!!"  "Thank you referees!  We got the win, but seriously those referees were incompetent."  "I'm obviously biased toward the Packers, but the refs are taking this game away from the Lions."  "The refs need to be investigated.  This is horrendous.  Check bank accounts."

My take?  I think there were a number of bad calls in this game, and most of them favored the Packers.  The hands to the face penalties made against Trey Flowers were indeed questionable (at best), but they were not nearly as clear as the TV crew made out, no matter how much former defensive lineman "Booger" McFarland bellowed about it on the broadcast.  (See photo below.)  The league's official position seems to be that the first hands to the face penalty was correct, but the second was not.  The non-call against Will Redmond for pass interference against Marvin Jones seemed wrong to me, as Redmond did interfere with Jones' ability to catch the ball, but even Matt Patricia realized that it was the sort of call that would not be reversed on replay, so he didn't challenge it.  And, speaking of calls, I am not so sure that Kerryon Johnson actually scored on fourth and goal in the first quarter, but once the call on the field was made for a touchdown, I knew it would not be reversed on review. 
Photo by Darnell Hall
Look, if I were a Lions fan, I would feel robbed at the end of this game.  We watched the game with our good friend Al, who is a Lions fan, and I am pretty sure that is exactly how he felt.  But let's play this out.  Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the hands to the face calls, and the interference non-call, were all the wrong calls.  I have already said that the interference non-call is not the type that would be overturned on review as it is being done this year (because it was not egregious enough).  If the hands to the face calls were reviewable, I don't think they could have been overturned, either.  They both looked wrong, but I would argue that they were not obviously and indisputably in error.  If that is so, how do they get overturned?  Even taking the league's position that the last call was wrong, I think at least 2 of the 3 calls would have stood, if all had been reviewable. 

The biggest question always is, what was the call on the field?  Because once that call is made, it becomes tough (and should be tough) to overturn it.  So errors will inevitably go uncorrected, because the evidence is not clear enough to justify overturning them.  This was exactly the situation with the Kerryon Johnson TD.  Either way the officials called it on the field would have stood.  And the Packers (and every other team) have certainly been on the short end of possibly erroneous calls this year and every year.  But, as Aaron Rodgers said after the game, "I think it equals out pretty good over the years."  Every Packers fan can point to calls and non-calls that would have changed a loss to a win: the Seattle Fail Mary game, the Jerry Rice non-fumble in the Terrell Owens game, the Arizona face mask non-penalty in the playoff game.  The refs did the Lions no favors in this game, but I think some of the proposed solutions (full time refs, make every play reviewable for everything, etc.) are way over the top.

Now it is also true that the Lions screwed up this game all by themselves, and if they had not done so, they wouldn't have been in the position where a bad call at the end would essentially cost them the game.  Early in the game, Al was counting squandered Lions points.  I think he stopped counting at 16 points lost (3 times they settled for field goals instead of TDs, and then there was the 12 men on the field penalty on an attempted field goal by Crosby that effectively gave the Packers an extra 4 points).  Of course, you can play that game almost every time, but still, early Lions mistakes cost them the opportunity to walk away with what could have been an easy win. 

The bottom line is that the Lions got off to a roaring good start with their early long pass plays, and kudos to them and their coaches for going out and aggressively trying to get an early lead.  The Packers looked slow and out-coached early on, by comparison.  Unfortunately for the Lions, their inability to finish drives, combined with some questionable or bad calls, made them unable to close out the win against the Packers. 

Before leaving the Lions game, I almost forgot to mention Allen Lazard stepping up and, in the process, presumably moving up to the depth chart.  Davante Adams was out, Geronimo Allison had been knocked out of the game, Marquez Valdes-Scantling had been knocked out of the game but returned, and Darrius Shepherd had made two bad plays resulting in turnovers.  Somebody had to step up.  Apparently Rodgers suggested that the coaches put Allen Lazard in the game, because Rodgers had observed how hard he studies and practices.  The results were like a fairy tale.  Lazard made a great catch on a perfect pass for a touchdown on the penultimate Packers drive of the game, and then made 3 more catches on the next drive, to set up the game-winning touchdown.  I think we will be seeing more of Lazard.

Meanwhile, Sunday brings a game against the Raiders, this time not on a shortened, pock-marked field, but on the full-sized, professional football stadium of Lambeau Field.  Last year, the Jon Gruden experiment looked like a bust, as the Raiders finished with a puzzling 4-12 record.  This year, with the Antonio Brown drama, I wondered if it was going to be another bad year, as the Raiders finish out their second stay in Oakland.  But instead, the Raiders are 3-2 so far this year, and they have beaten the Broncos, Colts and Bears.  None of those teams are terrible, so I am a little surprised by the Raiders.  But on balance, I think the Packers (even with their current injuries) have better players, and I think they will get the win to make it to 6-1. 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Win Over the Cowboys Sets up a Big Monday Night Matchup

Fun Photo of the Day, Fox TV Broadcast
On Sunday, the Packers pulled off a minor upset by beating the Cowboys, in Texas, by the score of 34-24.  In the process, they advanced to 4-1, maintained a first place position in the division, and kept their record of winning every game the Packers have played in the Cowboys' new stadium, including, most importantly, Super Bowl XLV. 

But the game had a very odd rhythm to it, and by the fourth quarter, Packers fans were squirming, just a little, in their seats.  After amassing a 31-3 lead late in the third quarter, the Packers almost let the Cowboys back into the game.  The good thing, as Chris and Dave at the Packers Therapy podcast noted in their podcast this week, was that the Packers didn't do it via the tried and not-so-true prevent defense.  Instead, they continued to rush 4 in the final quarter plus of the game, but Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper made enough plays to close the gap to 34-24, and a missed field goal would have made it 34-27 and brought an onside kick at the end of the game.  The missed field goal, thankfully, ended the unwelcome excitement prematurely, and my family breathed a sigh of relief, as did the Eagles fan watching the game in the same room with us.  Look, with a 31-3 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, you should win the game regardless of the approach you take.  But I liked the aggressiveness of the defense in keeping after the Cowboys, rather than let them "prevent defense" their way down the field for score after score. 

How did the Packers let the Cowboys get as close as they did?  I saw a very interesting piece by Ty Schalter of FiveThirtyEight, making the point that Rodgers has been very hot in the first quarters of games this year, but less effective as the game goes on, and particularly ineffective in the fourth quarters.  Weird, but true.  In the five games so far this year, the Packers have scored 49 points in the first quarters, all on TDs, while they have scored 9 points in the fourth quarters, basically one field goal every other game.  So I rewatched the Cowboys game with this idea in mind.  What I saw was a nice use of deception on first downs in the first quarter.  I think the Packers only had a conventional run on first down once.  They had lots of play action passes, some straight dropback passes, and one end around.  They rode this diverse strategy to a 14-0 first quarter lead, and the fun continued until it was 31-3 late in the third quarter.  Oh, and there was the little matter of a career day by Aaron Jones, who scored 4 touchdowns to tie a team record.  (In case you were wondering, Jim Taylor did it 3 times in 1962, Terdell Middleton did it in 1978, and Dorsey Levens did it in 2000.  Some pretty great receivers also scored 4 TDs in a single game: Don Hutson and Sterling Sharpe.)

So what was the deal with the offense late in the game?  I think the offense was not as aggressive or creative as the defense was late in the game.  The first two drives in the fourth quarter, for example, both started with the old run-run-pass combination.  The first drive was ended with no points after an incompletion and a sack, while the second drive ended with a field goal, but only because of the great field position from Kevin King's interception.  The Packers' final drive, other than the kneel downs after the missed field goal, didn't quite fall into the run-run-pass mold, but that drive was messed up by a 10 yard loss by Aaron Jones, and an 11 yard sack taken by Aaron Rodgers.  It is tough to overcome that, and the Packers didn't.  But the key thing to me is that one more Green Bay first down in any of its three drives would probably have run out the clock with less angst.  In my view, what is needed is a little more aggressiveness on offense late in the game, while keeping the aggressiveness on defense. 

Monday night, the Packers play the second-place Lions at Lambeau Field.  If the Packers win the game, they will be 3-0 in the division and in great shape.  If they lose, they will be 3-2, and the Lions will move past them into first place at 3-1-1.  So this game is a big deal in the NFC North.  I haven't watched much of the Lions so far this year, but they appear to be no joke.  They are also somewhat of an enigma, though.  Every Lions game has been decided by 4 points or fewer, and their games have included a tie against the last-place Cardinals, a win over the Chargers (who maybe are not as good as we thought they would be), a win against the first-place Eagles, and a narrow loss to the first-place Chiefs.  The Lions are also riding a 4 game winning streak against the Packers, so it is impossible to count them out.  But I think the home field advantage and the continuing improvement of the Packers' offense will be enough to bring the Packers another win, even without Davante Adams and Darnell Savage.  I can't wait until Monday night.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Eagles Bring High-Flying Packers Back to Earth

One of two Critical Turnovers, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
What with going to the Broncos game on September 22, and returning from the midwest, and heavy involvement with family event planning, I never got a chance to write up a summary of the Packers 27-16 win over the Broncos.  Suffice it to say that my favorite moment was when the defense was waiting patiently through what was probably a TV timeout, orchestrating their end zone celebration, if the replay call was that the Packers got a turnover.  I think it was on the interception by Darnell Savage in the third quarter.  The Packers got the call, and hilarity ensued in the end zone.

But the good taste in my mouth left by the 3-0 start to the season, punctuated by a member of the defense saying the defense was "as comfortable as a Tempur-Pedic," was wiped away Thursday night when the Packers failed twice to tie up the game late in the 4th quarter, and instead lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 34-27, in a game marred by Packers turnovers, the defense's inability to generate turnovers or sacks, and a spate of injuries, two of which were serious enough to require players to be carted off the field with straps constraining them.

We watched the Eagles game with our good friend Al, who is a Lions fan.  When some of the nasty hits started happening, he made the comment that the thing about (former Lions head coach) Jim Schwartz is that his defenses always play on the nasty side.  And the way I read it, Cheesehead TV's Aaron Nagler agrees, proving that great minds think alike: "That whole defense is very . . . Jim Schwartz."

Remember last year when, early on, officials were making questionable calls of roughing the passer, mostly on Clay Matthews?  And then, after a few weeks, the message somehow got out to officials, and they stopped making those calls except in truly egregious cases?  I think the league has a sort of similar problem this year.  First, the league overreacted to the terrible non-call in the Saints-Rams playoff game by making calls or non-calls of pass interference reviewable.  But now, coaches are wasting challenges on obvious pass interference non-calls, like the one against Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or the one against Alshon Jeffery later in the game.  In both cases, the receiver was interfered with in a way that made the ball more difficult, if not impossible, to catch.  In both cases, the coaches challenged the non-call.  In both cases, the call was not overturned, so the challenges were wasted.

There may be some reluctance of coaches now to challenge pass interference calls or non-calls, since the league evidently will not overturn them most of the time.  But in a critical situation like a long gain or a long incompletion at a critical point in the game, coaches will feel compelled to challenge.  As a result, we will continue to get data from the league as to what will or will not be overturned.  Will the league silently and subtly adjust the criteria for overturning calls, as evidently happened last year with the roughing calls, to match up with what football viewers can see with their own eyes?  My hunch is that what will happen is that the consensus will develop that minor contact, even if it is significant to the receiver's ability to catch the ball, will not result in a reversal into a pass interference call.  Only major contact will result in a call.  I am not sure that is what the league intended in changing the rule, but it seems after four weeks as if that is where we will end up.

The thing that really stings about the Eagles loss is that, as many of us have been predicting, the offense finally seemed to find its rhythm Thursday night, at least in the passing game, with Rodgers throwing for over 400 yards.  Obviously the loss of Jamaal Williams early, and Davante Adams late, were harmful to the effort to tie the game and take it to overtime.  And the sudden inability of the defense to stop the run, or sack the quarterback, or generate any turnovers, was just shocking after the first three games of the season.

But if you give Aaron Rodgers two sets of first and goal downs to get a touchdown, you don't expect a 4 and out on the first, and an interception on the second set of downs.  The score was there to be had, and the Packers could not get it done.  When you notice, on replay, that Darrius Shepherd was wide open on the pass to Valdes-Scantling that was intercepted, it makes the loss that much tougher to swallow.  Sure, the Packers might have gone on to lose the game in overtime, and the loss would count just the same.  But if you give Rodgers (potentially) 8 chances to convert first and goal opportunities, I take it as just about a given that the Packers would score and send the game to overtime.  Yes, Valdes-Scantling was interfered with on the play.  But as noted above, the league is not going to reverse non-calls where relatively minor pass interference takes place.

Green Bay at Dallas looked like a marquee matchup in Week 5, and I think it still is.  A pair of wannabe undefeated teams are still division-leading 3-1 teams, with a lot of glorious history between them.  I wish the Packers were at full strength for this game, but instead the Packers' chances of having Davante Adams, Jamaal Williams, and Kevin King on the field Sunday look iffy.  The absence of Adams and Williams in those final two series Thursday night was arguably critical in the Packers' inability to score.  Stopping Ezekiel Elliott will be a tough task for a defense that has given up 144 yards rushing to the Broncos' tandem of running backs, and 163 yards to the Eagles' running backs.   But if they can stop him enough to force Dak Prescott to have to throw the ball, they can still win this game.  After all, the Saints, with a backup quarterback, beat the Cowboys last week.  The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, have a good chance, too, even if some weapons are missing.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Two Good Quarters out of Eight

All About the Defense, Photo by Joshua Clark, USA Today
"We've had two good quarters out of eight," said Aaron Rodgers in his post-game press conference, obviously referring to the offense.  And he is absolutely right.  The offense right now is like a big old V-8 engine that is only hitting on two cylinders.  But, in spite of this, the Packers are 2-0 after two weeks.

If you had told me, a couple of weeks ago, that the Packers' offense would have one good quarter against the Bears, and one good quarter against the Vikings, and that they would do diddly-squat (©) in the other six quarters, I would not have given the Packers much chance of being 2-0, 2-0 in divisional games, and in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

It is obvious that the improved defense this year is responsible for the Packers being unbeaten.  They have given up 19 points in two games, and that was good enough to secure victories when the offense under-performed in both games.  If the defense can continue to play this well (or better!), if and when the offense really gets its act together, this team could win a bunch of games.  It must be a huge comfort to Rodgers (and to LaFleur) that the Packers now have a defense that can win some games for them.  It is certainly a great comfort to me as a fan.

Family members Sam and Mary were at the game, and they tell me that the Packers chose to introduce the defense at the beginning of the game, a tip of the hat to the fact that the defense won the first game.  Rodgers and LaFleur have been very upfront in acknowledging how well the defense is playing, and in particular the importance of free agent acquisitions Za'darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos, and rookies like Darnell Savage and second year players like Jaire Alexander.  Rodgers described the two Smith "brothers" as leaders on and off the field, and these two clearly seem to enjoy playing with each other.  Adrian Amos basically sealed the win last week against the Bears.  Against the Vikings, it was Kevin King who made the end zone interception to essentially salt the game away.

In the crazy schedule the Packers have drawn this year, they will have two more home games in a row (vs. Denver and Philadelphia), followed by a road game at Dallas, and followed by two more home games (vs. Detroit and the Raiders).  So by the end of the day on October 20, the Packers will have already played 5 of their 8 home games, but they will have had lots of chances to work out the kinks in their offense on their home field, with a home crowd that hopefully knows to be quiet when the offense is at work.  It is not hard to imagine the Packers standing at 5-2 after seven games, and wouldn't that be a great start while getting used to a new offense!  As the crew on Good Morning Football said Monday morning, Rodgers and LaFleur are getting used to the new offense and working with each other on the fly.  Absent catastrophic injuries, there is every reason to think that the offense will get better as every week goes by.

Speaking of learning on the fly, Sam and Mary also tell me that there was no foghorn at the game yesterday.  So LaFleur, or whoever else may have come up with the idea of copying the Vikings' Gjallarhorn, has learned on the fly that it was not such a great idea.

Anyway, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Maybe the offense doesn't improve from week to week.  Maybe the defense is hit with the injury bug (Savage and Greene were hurt in Sunday's game).  And playing 6 of the final 9 games on the road will be no picnic.  But as of this moment, I couldn't be more encouraged by the new Green Bay Packers.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Packers' Best Defense in Years?

Game-Saving INT by Adrian Amos, Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee J-S
After all these months of waiting to see the new Matt LaFleur-led Packers, I didn't have much idea what to expect in the regular season.  First, we had to suffer through another meaningless preseason, with some unfortunate injuries, but without ever seeing Rodgers, most of the offensive starters, or many of the defensive starters on the field.  The Packers didn't look very good, even though they won the two home games, but with the joke the preseason has become, there was at least room to hope that they would look better when the games started to count.

And yet, the much-vaunted 100th season opener, on the road against the Bears, promised to be a tough one, given the strength of the Bears' defense.  Mitch Trubisky is still a question mark, but the Bears have a new rookie running back who looks like he might be a good one (David Montgomery), and the Bears also have some quality receivers, even though one (Trey Burton) missed this game.  But it wasn't the Bears' offense that worried me, it was the Bears' defense, the same one that knocked Rodgers into sub-par play for all of last year, that was really the cause for concern.

The addition by the Packers of some quality rookie and free-agent defenders carried with it the possibility of improvement, but I honestly did not expect the Packers' defense to match the Bears' defense, play for play.  The most prominent free-agent acquisitions were the two Smiths, Preston and Za'Darius, and Adrian Amos.  All three made a real difference in this game, and two of them provided the decisive plays that sealed the game.  The Smith "brothers" came up with 8 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks, while Amos contributed the decisive interception.

Both defenses played very well, as should be obvious given that the game score was 10-3.  But the Packers broke through and mounted one perfect TD drive to start the second quarter.  And that single drive was the difference in the game, as the Packers' defense only gave up a field goal the entire game.  The rest of the time, they just stopped the Bears in their tracks, time after time, including on 12 of the Bears' third down plays, and both of their fourth down plays.

Still, the game wasn't over until ex-Bear defensive back Adrian Amos intercepted Trubisky in the end zone with 2 minutes left.  And even then, it wasn't quite over, as the Bears got one final chance, thanks in part to the Packers taking a chance and throwing an incomplete pass when they were trying to ice the game.  But that last-ditch chance was snuffed out by Preston Smith's 4th down sack of Trubisky.

Speaking of that decisive touchdown drive, my reaction watching the miserable first quarter was this.  Under the way preseasons were conducted until a few years ago, Rodgers and the starters would probably have played about one quarter of one game in the preseason.  They didn't do that this year, and it looked like it in the first quarter.  NBC flashed the stat that the Packers lost 17 yards on the first two drives, making them the worst two drives to start a game for Rodgers as a starter.  After they got that lousy quarter behind them (the quarter they should have played in the preseason), it was time to shake off the rust and play like the Packers.

And lo and behold, that is exactly what they did, although it was mostly that one drive at the beginning of the second quarter.  Four for four passing, 74 yards, and a TD pass to Jimmy Graham.  Boom!  We watched the game on vacation in Hawaii with our friends Stan and Lorri (see photo below).  But my daughter and I, watching the game from 5 time zones away from each other, had exactly the same reaction to the Graham TD.  This was exactly what we expected to see from Jimmy Graham last year, but rarely saw.  Rodgers with the confidence to throw it to Graham, even though he was well covered, and Graham with the skill to pull the ball in despite the coverage.

With this somewhat improbable, 10-3 upset win, the Packers managed to beat their ancient rival, go a game up and a tie-breaker against them, and pull off a win on the road to start the season.  They also, according to the excellent NBC statistics crew, managed to hand the Bears their first loss, when the opponent scores 10 or fewer points, since 1932.  Now that is an obscure statistic, one for which they had to dig pretty deep.

And now, the Packers get the luxury of having 10 days to prepare for their home opener against the Vikings.  A win there will give them a great start to the season.

Stan, Lorri, Your Humble Blogger, and Judy, Watching the Game in Hawaii

Thursday, August 8, 2019

And So We Begin Again . . .

On the Same Page?  Photo by Wm. Glasheen, USA Today
Seven plus months after the disheartening 31-0 loss to the Lions back in December, the Green Bay Packers were back on the field Thursday night, ready to start another season for the historic franchise. 

Lots of things have happened in those seven months.  The Packers passed over Joe Philbin, which seemed like the obvious thing to do after the 31-0 debacle.  They hired midwestern native Matt LaFleur as head coach, and so we will get to see what the Packers look like with a young, energetic coach replacing Mike McCarthy.  When he was introduced, he said all the right things about this being a dream come true, and as a midwesterner, I got the sense that he really appreciates the storied history of the franchise.  A  major story line for the entire season is likely to be how LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers do, or do not, get along.  If they are on the same page, and if Rodgers can avoid another injury, they could do great things together.

Every season, players retire, depart in trades or free agency, or are cut.  This season the toll includes some well known and (to some) beloved names: Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Jake Ryan, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels, among others.  Matthews and Cobb were favorites of mine, and other members of my family; we are sorry to see them go, even if we can understand the reasons for the moves.  It will be interesting to see how the young and new players do in replacing these familiar faces.

Nobody much cares about preseason games.  Personally, I find that I can watch Packers preseason games, just because it is my team, but I find other preseason games almost unwatchable.  I tried to watch the Hall of Fame game last week, and I almost fell asleep. 

The best thing about the first preseason game this year (which the Packers won, 28-26, over the Texans) was watching the defense and special teams generate a total of 4 turnovers.  That was a part of the Packers game that has been missing of late.  But the Packers' tackling Thursday night was atrocious, and they need to get their act together on that front.  Linebacker Ty Summers was maybe the most impressive rookie, while last year's training camp star receiver Jake Kumerow gave every impression that he intends to make the final roster.  Last year's defensive sensation Oren Burks, unfortunately, left the game with an injury on the same shoulder he injured in the preseason last year. 

In a departure from McCarthy's practice, apparently Rodgers and maybe some of the other starters will get playing time next Thursday against the Ravens.  I think that is a good move.  In recent years, the Packers' starters in the regular season have sometimes looked as if they needed a little more exposure to live action in the preseason; I hope that letting the starters play, even a little, in week two, is a step in the direction of getting them more playing time overall in the preseason.