Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Great Start to a Weird Season

Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

I was out of town for opening Sunday, and when I had trouble getting NFL Sunday Ticket to work, we found ourselves racing to the sports bar to catch the game.  We were sitting pretty far away from the screen, so I feel as if I didn't really see the game until I watched it again on NFL Game Pass later.

Football fans, including your humble blogger, tend to over-react to the team's last game.  They even call it "Over-Reaction Monday" on the NFL Network.  And that is probably never more true than if the last game was either the first or last game of the season.  And in this year, without a preseason or much way to know what was going on with the Packers, this last game over-reaction has never been more acute.  

OK, so go ahead and correct for the bias and over-reaction if you want to, but I was pretty happy with the way the Packers looked.  On the offensive line, Bryan Bulaga is gone to the Chargers, and starter Billy Turner was listed as inactive.  And Lane Taylor went out with what looks like a season-ending injury, while Lucas Patrick left with a more minor injury.  So how would the makeshift offensive line look, and how badly would Aaron Rodgers get beat up?  Answer: they could have been playing in an old-fashioned mud bowl, and Rodgers would have come out with a pretty clean uniform.  He was rarely under duress, never sacked, knocked down twice, and was sharp throughout the game.  Speaking of over-reactions, how about this one from Nate Burleson of the NFL Network: "Aaron Rodgers looked like the best quarterback in the NFL."

This is not a fantasy football blog, but Aaron Rodgers has been my starting QB in one fantasy league for several years, and I would have drafted him if I could have in my other league last year.  But in fantasy football terms, Aaron Rodgers was a disappointment last year, despite taking the Packers to the NFC Championship game in real football.  So, in my two "keeper" leagues, Rodgers was not even protected, and was available in the draft.  After attending to other needs in the early rounds of the drafts, I ended up picking up Rodgers as my backup QB, fairly late in the draft, in both leagues.  My thinking was that he should be a quality backup in the case of injury, and if, by chance, the second year under Matt LaFleur brings Rodgers back to a place where he and the coach are on the same page, there was a lot of upside.  Well, suffice it to say, I saw a lot of upside on Sunday, and he is likely to be my starter in Week 2 in at least one of my leagues.  

Getting back to actual football, the first half of the game was strange.  The Packers were dominating throughout the half, but drives were stalling, such that they only led by the score of 8-7 late in the half.  But an offensive explosion in the last 90 seconds of the half, aided by Jaire Alexander's second big play of the game (the first was the safety pictured above, the second was his interception) effectively put the Packers in control of the game.  Some of the things I liked on Sunday included Jaire Alexander's play on defense, and how sharp Rodgers looked.  If he can stay that accurate and stay healthy, the Packers can win a lot of games.  I liked the more complete integration of what I take to be some of Matt LaFleur's influences on the offense.  Things like the jet sweeps, and going straight to the line of scrimmage on some third downs to prevent substitutions.  I also liked that they never let up in the second half.  They continued to be aggressive on offense, which, by the way, was probably necessary to prevent what could have been a miracle comeback.

The things I didn't like were the injuries, to Kenny Clark, and Lucas Patrick, and of course Lane Taylor.  The offensive line continued to play well without Patrick, or Taylor, or Billy Turner (who was inactive), but I hope this is not going to be one of those seasons marred by injuries on the line all year long.  I also didn't like how many points the defense gave up, but let's acknowledge two facts: first, the defense gave up way more yards after Kenny Clark left the game (and Montravius Adams was inactive and therefore not available); and second, the last three touchdowns were essentially in extended garbage time, as the score was 29-10 at the end of the third quarter.  And finally, one of my traditional bugaboos: I didn't like the Packers wasting time outs as the play clock winds toward zero.  I think the Packers wasted 5 of their 6 timeouts that way on Sunday.  I would chalk this up to being the first game of the season, if this had not been a continuing problem in prior years.

The weirdness of this Covid-19 season could possibly work to the Packers' advantage, and I think it certainly did on Sunday.  The relative quiet of the fake crowd noise, limited to 70 decibels, took away a lot of the home field advantage for the Vikings.  Rodgers was able to use his cadences effectively, to draw the defense offside, whereas in a normal Vikings game, the defenders probably couldn't hear the cadence well enough to be drawn offside.  In fact, the same thing could happen when the Packers play the Saints in Week 3 - which will also have no fans in the stands.  So 2 of the Packers' first 4 games are in domes, but with a significant part of the dome field advantage removed.  And then Weeks 2 and 4 bring dome-bound, artificial turf teams to Lambeau Field (Lions and Falcons).  It is true that the limited fake crowd noise will benefit these teams over a typical Lambeau Field game, but open stadiums like Lambeau are rarely as loud as domed stadiums.  And it is still true that the Lions and Falcons, as artificial turf teams, are playing out of their natural element.  If the Packers can win 3 or 4 of those first 4 games, they will be in great shape heading into the bye week.

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