Monday, September 28, 2009

To Embargo, or Not

Until about 6 years ago, I structured every week from August to January around Packer games. This was always a bit of a logistical challenge, having lived outside of Wisconsin since 1988. Each week, I had to find someplace that had the game – even if it meant showing up at a beer-soaked bar in Berkeley at 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning. This behavior was not popular with my family, but Leslie eventually came to accept that the Packers were simply part of our marriage.

The advent of NFL Sunday Ticket and Tivo are two of the great innovations of modern times. Like the grain harvester, printing press, and vacuum tube, these inventions were nothing short of breakthroughs. Modern miracles. Combine it with HD, and it really is the holy trinity of football fandom. Hard to imagine life without them.

However, having every Packer game captured in clean, crisp HD on my Tivo (actually, now my inferior DirecTV knock-off of Tivo) presents a new challenge. Of course, my preference is to watch the games “live” – by live, I usually like to watch it about 10 minutes delayed so I can fast-forward over commercials, official reviews, and the like. But often, as is the case this week, I could not watch the game live. When that happens, it begs the question: do I embargo myself (i.e. deliberately avoid any accounts of the outcome so as to keep it a “surprise” when I watch it), or do I watch the game knowing the outcome already.

I’ve found that the former, embargoing, is remarkably difficult to do. The onslaught of news and information is so thorough, that one needs to almost shut down all TV and Internet connections to not accidentally spoil your own surprise. The latter, knowing the outcome, is also difficult – particularly when they lose. Watching a Packer victory is always so enjoyable that I don’t mind the surprise being ruined. But when they lose, and you know it, and you still watch the game… well, that’s a bit like torture.

I, consequently, usually decide to attempt an embargo. Time-shifting my entire life to Packer time. But this week I found out the outcome, and am psyched to watch the victory over the Rams when I return home tomorrow. Look for my review of Week 3 once I have a chance to watch more than just the highlights on

Monday, September 21, 2009

Week 2 is in the Bag

Until proven otherwise, teams that consider themselves playoff caliber should not lose to the Cincinnati Bengals at home. During former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s term, a group of owners on the league's Competition Committee actually proposed this as a rule change – that any team that lost to the Bengals would immediately lose post-season eligibility. But a contingent of AFC North owners, who relied on the Bengals to bolster their records, shot down the proposal.

Where does one start with this game? Chad Johnson’s (I refuse to call him “Ochocinco”) Lambeau Leap was the greatest desecration perpetrated on those hallowed sidelines since Randy Moss faux-mooned the crowd in the 2004 NFC wild card game against the Vikings. Chad is a tool. And when a tool talks trash at you, says he’s going to mock a sacred team ritual, and then backs it up on Sunday, your entire organization needs to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror.

I had the good fortune of being at the game against the Raiders on December 26, 1993 when the Lambeau Leap was inaugurated. LeRoy Butler, after taking a lateral by the late, great Reggie White, scampered into the end zone and straight into the bleachers. It was about 22 below zero, but nobody in that stadium cared – the place went wild. Even if you weren’t in the stands, it’s a moment when many Packers fans remember where they were. It’s hard to expect someone who wears gold shoes with teeth to match to understand, let alone respect, that kind of tradition.

(Speaking of respecting tradition, I haven’t decided whether the Packer fan that flipped the bird to the cameras was an oaf or a genius. Probably an oaf who inadvertently had the genius to ruin that clip for most of the highlight shows. I think they must have Photoshopped out his middle finger in this shot.)

Anyway, just to continue my rant, anyone who actually changes his name to get a not-particularly-clever, self-proclaimed nickname on the back of his jersey should be taken behind the wood shed. I recall in about 2nd grade, after an inspirational viewing of the Burt Reynolds classic Smokey and the Bandit wanting to be nicknamed “the Bandit.” I even went so far as to paint “Bandit” on my banana seat Schwinn. It only took one morning of relentless mocking by my classmates to realize the error of my ways and paint over it. Giving yourself an idiotic nickname is silly… at age 8. Changing your legal name to an idiotic nickname as a grown man should be grounds for the state putting you into an adult-living facility with no shoelaces.

Back to the point, my 3 observations of Week 2:

1) Chad Clifton. When I saw Clifton being carted off the field in the meat wagon, I thought at first I saw the Packers’ 2009 season riding shotgun. To describe the offensive line play as an abomination would be an understatement. And that was before they lost arguably their best lineman at the critical left tackle position for the game. Reports are that it was a sprained ankle, which gives me some hope he’ll return soon.

They will need him. Someone better versed in the strengths and tactics of offensive line play can perhaps explain to me the crazy domino scheme that Clifton’s injury triggered – with Colledge kicking out from guard to tackle, Spitz moving to left guard, and a new center showing up in Scott Wells. What the hell was that? I thought the exchange between center and QB was one of the most important things for the rhythm of an offense. Now you’ve not only altered that, but have two other players trying to remember new positions. They barely remember their own assignments, let alone their neighbors’.

About the only bright spot was I didn’t hear Allen Barbre’s name too much (apart from making himself useful and recovering a fumble after watching Rodgers get sacked). Probably because Antwan Odom was so busy blasting through the porous left side of the line this week. Five sacks by Odom – that’s a season’s worth for most players. When your team pretty much single-handedly sends a guy to the Pro Bowl, you better start digging around for Mark Tauscher’s phone number in your BlackBerry. The Associated Press noted, “Odom said he was surprised the Packers didn't assign other players to help Colledge.” I’d say. How do you not adjust to that if you’re the coaches? Six sacks on the day for the Bengals. Ridiculous. And Rodgers is a mobile quarterback – he probably avoided a half dozen more.

If Rodgers keeps getting hit like this, he’s not going to make it through the season, let alone make it to the playoffs. And, you know what really helps struggling pass protection? When your receivers drop the damn ball! Jermichael and Jennings both had drops in the first possession that would have both gone for first downs. That set the tone for a day with more dropped passes than I can remember.

2) Ryan Grant. I can’t tell yet if this is a “typical” Ryan Grant year (sample size = 1.5 seasons), where he doesn’t really get his juices flowing till the end of the season, or if Grant is simply a mediocre back behind a rapidly deteriorating offensive line. Probably the biggest thing I was hoping to see Sunday from the Packers was to establish the run. I’m no expert, but 14 carries for 46 yards is not “establishing the run.” Establishing the run is what Cedric Benson did (on my fantasy team, thank you very much, but didn’t start him) with 59 yards in the first quarter and 141 on the day.

Grant just looks tentative to me. Gaping, the holes have not been. But he seems to consistently hesitate right at the line, before being engulfed in defenders. He runs to the edge with a little more determination, but he really doesn’t have the speed to break those. I happened to be at the 49ers game Sunday (more on that debacle later if I have time to write another post), but watching Gore pop off two 80-yard TDs was a reminder that Green Bay just doesn’t have that kind of threat in Grant.

Some of this is on McCarthy too. Is he too impatient? The play calling right now is trending over 2:1 – 39 pass attempts by Rodgers to 14 rushes by Grant. The fact they’re getting stuffed on the run and/or sacked early each series doesn’t help, of course. But both these were close games. I’d expect that ratio to be more balanced. Bottom line: they’ve got to get the running game going soon. Everything flows from that.

3) Charles Woodson. What can you say about him other than "stud." He single-handedly kept the Packers in that game – accounting for 14 of the Packers’ 24 points with his two interceptions. He was also in on almost every tackle. Of course, he needed to be, since the rest of the defense had a pretty lackluster afternoon.

Two weeks into the season, and we’re already right back into the injury-riddled musical chairs in the secondary that plagued us last year. Sounds like Bigby is out a month. Collins went down with clavicle sprain (how does one do that?), and could miss time as well. On the positive side, Blackmon is back, Tramon looked good again, and the Packers are experimenting with Clay Matthews’ hair as a distraction for opposing quarterbacks. Dom Capers reportedly told reporters after practice, “Clay’s hair is electrifying. We need to figure out more ways to get it on the field, if possible with fans and mist.”

I knew this game was in jeopardy when, facing a 3rd and 34 from about their own 5-yard line with 3:42 left in the first half, the Bengals converted. Then flea-flickered their way to the Green Bay 5, and scored with a pass to a convicted felon. That was an extreme case, but emblematic of the day. The Bengals converted 9 of 14 third downs. Green Bay’s defense just couldn’t get them off the field.

The problem with a blitzing, scheming, high-pressure defense, like Dom has implemented, is they run out of gas if your offense can’t put together a series of more than 3 sacks and a punt. Johnny Jolly can only be on the field so many minutes before the dude needs a cheeseburger… stat. Via IV drip if possible. You can’t expect Big Sexy to be making one-handed interceptions on an empty tank.

So, in summary, get the O-line fixed, so we can establish the run, so our defense can rest and get medieval on folks when they finally hit the field. Simple as that.

Other game notes:
• The overhead blimp pan camera angle of the Lambeau crowd after Grant’s TD was sweet.
• Am I the only one who saw Carson Palmer obviously fumble the ball on his QB sneak?
• Crosby has some accuracy issues. Need to correct that.
• Nick Barnett’s swashbuckling celebration of an average tackle late in a Bengals drive that was killing Green Bay’s last chance to win after being absent all afternoon. Not cool.
• Finley finally getting involved towards the end after another rocky start.
• 11 penalties for 76 yards – ugh.
• Special teams giving up multiple penalties and two long punt returns. Those guys better be running wind sprints right now.
• “Childress says Favre has bent fingernail, won't miss start” – seriously, this is a story. He apparently hurt it handing off to Adrian Peterson.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Observations from Week 1

I've been thinking about documenting my thoughts, rants, and opinions about the Green Bay Packers in a blog for a while. The start of a new season seems as good a time as any to actually do this. Particularly this season, when optimism about the Packers' possibilities are running high.

I wanted to call this blog "3-Pack" -- highlighting three key observations I had about the week's game. Of course, 3-Pack and Three-Pack were taken, so were 4-Pack and Four-Pack. And five just seemed like a lot of observations to have to make each week. So, hence, the lamely titled "Trigg Pack"... doesn't exactly roll off your tongue, does it? Maybe it will make more sense when I have millions of devoted followers.

It really all started with the Arizona game. After a 6-10 record in 2008, I can't say that I was picking the Pack as Super Bowl contenders. I was optimistic, as I am every season. But I wasn't pumped. The Arizona pre-season game changed that. Don't get me wrong, the Cardinals are hardly the benchmark against which all NFL prowess should be measured, but they are the defending NFC champions. And the Packers just punished them. Pure domination on both sides of the ball. Suddenly, I was day dreaming about Lombardi trophies.

Week 1 -- Packers 21, Bears 15

I think like many Packer fans, and many Packer players, I expected a big win against the Bears. Jay Cutler is an over-rated jackass. I fully expected him to stink it up out there, which he did. What I didn't expect was for the Packer offense to look so inept. The Packers first team offense scored something like 9 touchdowns on 12 offensive series in the pre-season. Which brings me to the first observation of the week:

1) Allen Barbre -- wow. You don't need to know much about football to know that Allen Barbre was atrocious out there. One look at a 300-lb man flopping to his butt like a teddy bear is all you need to see. Barbre has been much maligned in the press this week. Further analyzing his numerous breakdowns would be flogging a dead horse. What I want to talk about is his hair. I'm just not sure I can trust an offensive lineman with a pony tail. Full stop.

Defensive players are a different matter. You want that "I'm just too busy psycho-mauling people to bother with personal hygiene" look from a defensive player. And, no doubt, we've got plenty of that on the defensive side of the ball -- from the sweet dreads on Harris and Bigby, to the tweener 'do of Nick Barnett, to the mallrat-ish rocker looks of A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews. It's all good. Kind of sets a tone.

I don't like it on offense. For whatever reason, I want my offensive linemen to be clean cut. These are supposed to be the smart kids. The ones who study plays and pay attention in class. You want them to have crew cuts and execute with military-like precision, not be taking bong hits behind the bleachers. Barbre (pictured right) looks like the guys in my fraternity who couldn't be bothered to wake up before noon, rising from a pool of their own drool and empty beer cans, to devour a breakfast of beef chili and Frosted Flakes with a fork.

I put Barbre, and the rest of the o-line for that matter, #1 on my list of observations, because I truly think his play made the difference between a tight win and a blow-out. There were at least two plays downfield -- one overthrown to Driver, the other underthrown to Jennings -- that were touchdowns if Rodgers didn't have Adewale Ogunleye crashing into his chest.

However, unlike most Packer fans who are calling for the return of Mark Tauscher (who had his own hair issues, BTW), I somehow believe Barbre is going to get this corrected. He at least managed not to be embarrassed for most of the second half. And anyone who can stand and take the locker room interview barrage he took without going Brett Myers on some reporter must have a decent head on his shoulders. So, with little evidence to talk me off the ledge, I'm going to withhold judgment on Barbre for at least another week or two.

2) Dom Capers. All you hand-wringers about the switch to the 3-4 can sit down now. Yeah, Kampman and Harris and the rest of the defense looked really uncomfortable in that system. How are they possibly going to adjust??? I was more excited to watch the defense than to watch the offense for most of that game. The schemes and blitzes were brilliant. I can't ever remember a Packer team that swarmed the ball like that. Four INTs -- even against Cutler that's impressive.

Any analysis of the Packers defense has to start with the line -- J&J. Jolly and Jenkins were just simply dominant. Jolly's interception was one of the most athletic plays I've ever seen a guy that size make. Ridiculous. They were tossing linemen aside like Allen Barbres. Everything starts with them, Picket and Raji. If that line can hold up, stay healthy, and stop the run with just 3 guys, it opens up all sorts of crazy possibilities. Suddenly, you can line up Kampman wherever you want. You can run corner blitzes with Harris and Woodson. You can stunt in a Brandon Chillar. And all that craziness forces turn-overs.

Next, the linebacker play was off the hook. Between Hawk, Barnett, Poppinga, Chillar, Matthews and Bishop, not to mention Kampman, they have one of the most athletic, fast, agile and hard-hitting linebacking corps in football. Chillar's hurdle-sack against Cutler was epic. I really feel these guys, particularly with the front line holding its gaps, can both stuff the run and shore up one of our big vulnerabilities the last few years -- pass coverage on big TEs.

Finally, the backfield is deeper than it's been in years. Obviously, Woodson and Harris are solid. I've heard some grousing about Woodson giving up the long pass play to Johnny Knox -- to which I say: A) he had 1:1 coverage against one of the fastest guys in the league with no safety help, B) he stopped the guy short of a touchdown, and C) the Bears came away with no points. So shut up. It was great to see Atari and Collins back, though slightly discouraging that both seem to have slipped right back into that perpetually mildly injured mode (and Collins' breakdown on the Devin Hester touchdown was surprising -- let's attribute that to a strained hammy for now). Then you've got Tramon Williams, who looked great; Aaron Rouse, who I'm still not fully sold on but got a lot of playing time last year; and the interesting Ravens pick-up in Derrick Martin. I'm worried about the defensive backfield staying healthy, but if they do there will be 2-3 guys going to the Pro Bowl from it.

3) Aaron Rodgers. A lot of people were disappointed in Rodgers' play Sunday, himself included. I am not one of them. The reality is, even the best quarterbacks don't light it up with 358 yards passing and 6 touchdowns every week, unless you're playing the Lions. You're going to have off weeks -- particularly against defensively dominant division rivals who have your playbook photocopied to their eyelids. I would have liked to see a stronger overall game from Rodgers, sure (and, as noted above, I believe he was only a missed block or two from blowing the lid off), but there were three things that really impressed me about Rodgers.

First, he played within the game. He was patient. Although he showed some frustration on the sideline, he didn't show it on the field in the form of ill-advised plays. He took what the defense gave him. And, when they needed it, he got it done.

Second, no turn-overs. The 4-0 turn-over margin was the difference in the game. There were relatively few passes that were even intercept-able. And, even under significant pressure, he was sure-handed with the ball -- particularly on that safety that could have easily been 7 points had he not had the strength and athleticism to hold on to the ball.

Third, winning with the 2-minute offense. This was one of the big knocks on him last year. He came out for that final drive with a lot of poise and confidence. And the coaches were confident in him -- calling the gutsy play-action to Jennings on a third-and-one to win the game. He set that up with his scramble the previous play, and despite being battered around all night, stood in there to deliver that last pass.

The reality is that last year the Packers lose that game. And it's not just because Orton wouldn't have handed the ball over to them 4 times the way Cutler did. It's that they're more mature, more confident, and more opportunistic. These are the kind of games you need to figure out a way to win, and they did. And I believe they will build on it. Looking forward to the Bengals game this week.