Friday, November 27, 2009

Trigg vs. Turkey, Day 3

It’s Friday evening, and the post-game show is still going strong in the Trigg household. My kids insisted on watching the Packers-Lions game again today, so I obliged them as I entered day three of turkey wrangling.  My four-year-old decided, against my recommendation, to name our turkey “Lightning.”  Giving dinner a pet-like name is generally a bad idea, but he didn’t shed any tears as I ripped Lightning’s wings and legs from his body last night – though I was slightly disappointed to be denied the “animals are food” teaching moment.

Yesterday between me and Lightning ended in d├ętente , but I’ve definitely got the advantage now and I’m going on the offensive.  I brought in some new weapons.  In addition to the stock pot, I busted out my bone-cutting kitchen shears and my meat grinder.  What once looked like road kill will now become turkey-cranberry sandwiches, turkey noodle soup and a tasty turkey hash.  Yum.  Lightning didn't look so tough when he was simmering in a stock pot.

This might still be the tryptophan talking, but it occurred to me that my odyssey with this turkey is analogous to the Packers season so far.  Work with me on this.  As you can see in this chart, my confidence index in the Green Bay Packers has trended almost identically as my confidence index in preparing and dismembering this turkey.  Allow me to elaborate.

Pre-season – the start of the year was like first bringing home that Thanksgiving turkey.  You’re not really sure what you’re getting yourself into, but you’re filled with optimism.  Everyone thinks their turkey is going to emerge perfectly browned from the oven to the oohs and aahs of your guests – just as every fan thinks they have a playoff caliber team in the pre-season.  You overlook the obvious blemishes and unpleasantries – the sawed off neck, the remaining bits of feather, the organs in that little bag.  You forget what a pain in the ass last year’s turkey was, and you think ahead to the vision of that bird in its fully basted glory.

This season started the same way.  Forgotten was the 5 of 6 losing streak to close out last year, and over-running was the optimism about NFC titles and championships.  The Cardinals game marked the zenith of the pre-season confidence index.  Pundits on NFL Network were picking the Packers to go to the Super Bowl after the beat down in the desert (at least, for the first half) against the defending NFC champions.  That optimism sustained through the last pre-season loss against the Titans (after all, they don’t count).

Bears – The opener against the Bears gave some pause.  That “oh, crap – it’s going to take me a while to peel 36 cloves of garlic” moment.  Just as I looked awkward stuffing and trussing the turkey, the Packers looked out-of-sync their first game.  But they pulled it off – just as I finally got that fowl hog-tied and into the oven.

Bengals – About 20 minutes into my turkey roasting, I noticed smoke emitting from my stove.  Not a good feeling. That was the Cincinnati game.  Your confidence is suddenly shaken.  What you thought was going to be easy, you are now realizing you may have under-estimated.  Blackened garlic was my culprit.  A porous offensive line was the Packers’.  But I sprayed some stock into the pan and got things under control.

Rams – I felt steady after that, just as the Rams game brought some confidence back in Packer nation.  I knew I was a decent cook and that roasting a turkey shouldn’t be that hard.  And, as a fan, I knew that beating the Rams shouldn’t be that hard.  We did what we had to.

Vikings – Then came the Vikings game.  The confidence index plummeted.  The second-guessing proliferated.  Maybe we should have kept Favre.  Maybe the Vikings will be pretty good after all.  Maybe our offensive line is going to give up the single season record for most sacks allowed.  My kitchen confidence reached a low-point then as well.  Had I over-salted the brine?  Had I allowed for enough cooking time?  Was I going to give all my guests food poisoning with an under-cooked bird?

Bye – I coasted through the bye week and regained some perspective, just as hour 2 of my turkey roasting seemed more calm.  I periodically checked it, flipped it, basted it, and hoped things would get back on track.

Lions – Thank God the Lions are in our conference.  Two easy wins per year is a nice security blanket.  It wasn’t a great win, but it was a shut-out.  My confidence was steadily increasing, as Lightning started to take on that chestnut hue.  Unless my meat thermometer was off, I hadn’t over-cooked it yet.  Just like the Packers win – it may not be perfect, but it was going to be edible.

Browns – Dinnertime.  The turkey emerged from the oven pretty close to perfect.  It looked spectacular, and smelled even better.  I carved it up and served it with mashed potatoes and gravy – just like Aaron Rodgers carved up the Browns defense.  There was no denying that this was a tasty bird, and at 4-2 it looked like the Packers were on their way to the season we’d all envisioned.

Vikings – Losing to Brett Favre at Lambeau Field was a crash back down to earth.  Suddenly, the Browns game felt meaningless, as I stared at the undeniable reality that the Vikings would almost certainly win the NFC North.  The feeling was just like returning to my kitchen to the unfiltered reality of that turkey carcass.  I could get things back on-track though.  I’d just make some stock out of it and everything would be good.

Buccaneers – The Bucs were the low-point on the Packers confidence index, and my turkey confidence index hit a low-point here as well.  Just as the Packers defense struggled with a rookie quarterback, I struggled with the rib cage and backbone of that animal.  Things felt hopeless.  I wanted to scrap the turkey and start over, but I knew I had to fight through it and make the most of it.  Like the Packers, I could either quit or I could strengthen my resolve and show that bird who was boss.

Cowboys – Once I got all the bones into the stock pot, I felt a lot better about where things were headed.  The Dallas win was the same thing – that sigh of relief that maybe things weren’t as bad as I’d feared.  Like the Packers stopping the Dallas offense, I did things I wasn’t sure I could do.  As indistinguishable chunks of meat became beautiful cubes for soup and were ground for turkey hash, I felt more confident about the future.  Dallas returned the confidence that great things can still happen this season.

49ers – Green Bay executed one of its best halves of football this season in the first half of the 49ers game.  The confidence index continued its climb for both the team and the turkey – as I realized that my second- and third-derivative meals from this fowl were not only going to be edible but darn tasty.  I started looking ahead again.  Thinking about menu possibilities, just as I started thinking about playoff scenarios again.

Lions – With turkey soup in the freezer and a variety of turkey-centric meals planned that I’m actually looking forward to eating, I finally feel like my turkey adventure 2009 is under control.  Like the 5 remaining games on the schedule, I’m not sure that all my 5 (or more) turkey meals are going to be perfect, but I have every reason to believe they will be delicious.  The confidence index isn’t quite back to its pre-season level, but it’s trending in the right direction.

The work I’ve done getting the remains of this turkey transformed into something I (let alone my wife and kids) would actually eat has been hard work.  This is the preparation that goes on behind the scenes.  Thanksgiving dinner is like playing on Sunday, but there’s a lot of work that goes on both before and after that performance.  You need to hit the weight room, and get injury treatments.  You need to do film study.  Sometimes you even need to bring in new equipment (Tauscher = meat grinder).  But somehow you need to figure out how to get it done, and that’s what the Packers seem to be doing.

What are you thankful for, Packer fans?

It’s Thanksgiving night, and I’ve now been wrestling with a 13-lb turkey for over 24 hours.  It started last night with brining the beast in a cooler, and ended tonight with resignation about what to do with the remains.  Finishing off a turkey is like disposing of a corpse.  I gave all our guests about two pounds of turkey each, and I’m still staring at a carcass that could feed a family of four for a month.

I was tearing at the thing for about an hour tonight in a tryptophan haze.  Of course, as a San Francisco foodie, I can’t just throw away the bones.  I need to pretend I’m going to make something out of it, keep it in my fridge for a week and then throw it away.  There’s no way to delicately cut up a turkey.  The appropriate term is "dismemberment."  You need to attack it with a kind of primal enthusiasm, and a variety of sharp tools wielded assertively.  You need to torque spinal columns with your bare hands.  You need to splatter bone fragments on your shirt.  In short, you need to get medieval on it.  I contemplated burying the remains in the yard for a while, but finally got it into a stock pot and intend to get the upper hand on it tomorrow.

Between my trussing I got to enjoy a pretty good game.  (By the way, someone's got to tell Troy Aikman how to properly pronounce our city -- it's Green Bay, not Green Bay.)  Anyway, apart from the fumble on the opening kick-off and some red zone inefficiency, it was a pretty solid performance by the Packers.  Penalties continue to be a thorn – 7 of them today for 57 yards, which will allow us to continue to hold on to our #1 position in the NFL for most penalties.  Sweet.  Special teams managed to have two penalties out 9 plays – both blocks in the back.  Aren’t you taught not to do that in Pop Warner?

But rather than being a whiner, on Thanksgiving day it feels more appropriate to say what I’m thankful for as a Packers fan.  So here goes:

1) Aaron Rodgers – the guy just continues to be nails.  He went 26 of 39 for 348 yards and 3 TDs with no interceptions.  He’s just so mentally sharp, and rarely ever makes mistakes.  His passer rating on the season is 104.9 – trailing only Favre (112.1) and Brees (105.8).  He’s thrown 22 touchdown passes – tied for first in the NFL with Brees.  And his 3,136 passing yards is second only to Peyton Manning.  He has the arm (the completion he had to Driver was over 65 yards in the air), the athleticism, and the intelligence of the best QBs in the game.  And he’s developing that intangible will to win with every game.

Favre, it must be acknowledged, is having an incredible year as well.  Maybe if he’d performed like that his last few seasons in Green Bay, we should have let him come back.  But Rodgers is executing consistently at a Pro Bowl level in only his 27th start.  And, oh – by the way, he is 15 years younger than Favre.  If he stays healthy, he will be our franchise QB, and we should be thankful for him wearing a Packer uniform for many years to come.

2) Our defense – Dom has been in the house the last few weeks.  Five turnovers, two sacks, and a pick six today.  Woodson is at another level entirely.  He’s got to be making a case for defensive MVP.  It was also huge for Tramon Williams to get an interception today – should give him a little more confidence for the big shoes he needs to fill.

The defense is fast, hits hard, and is stingy.  Denying a Lions score from first and goal from the 6-yard line in the 4th quarter today was a great example.  Overall, the Packers defense has only allowed 281.5 yards/game, second best in the NFL.  They are also opportunistic and ball-hawking.  Green Bay has 18 interceptions on the season, second only to the Saints.  We're +17 on net turn-overs.  Best in the league.

And the young players are really coming on.  I’ve talked about Clay Matthews several times.  He didn’t have a great game today, but he brings incredible energy and speed to the defense.  B.J. Raji is becoming a presence as well – stuffing the run as he did in that hit on Kevin Smith for a 4-yard loss.  Again, if these guys can continue to develop and our secondary stays healthy, we should be in good shape for many Thanksgivings to come.

3) Shoring up our O-line – I can’t really say I’m thankful for our offensive line.  It’s more that I’m thankful they haven’t been a complete liability the last few weeks.  No holding penalties today, one penalty overall (false start on Colledge), and only one sack allowed.  The sack that was allowed was embarrassing.  Continue to feel like Clifton’s head just isn’t in the game at times – he seemed to be looking at the play clock while Julian Peterson blew by him.  But, overall, they seem to have gotten their shit together – against some solid defensive fronts in Dallas and San Francisco particularly.  Tauscher is making a big difference, and Wells and Sitton are quietly playing consistently.  There were several plays (particularly that bomb to Driver, who I'm also thankful for, by the way) where Rodgers had all day to pass the ball.  If they can keep up that level of protection, what seemed like a season-killing Achilles heel three weeks ago could be good enough to get us to the post-season.

So that’s what I’m thankful for.  I’m going to try to do some breakdowns of the playoff situation this weekend.  With our improved play and the Giants loss tonight, I’m getting more confident about our wild card chances.  Now, back to my bone saw.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The *Real* City by the Bay

I live in the San Francisco area, but none of my friends out here, including my in-laws, are really 49ers fans.  That’s unfortunate, because it robs me of an outlet for my gloating.  There are few teams that we’ve dominated as consistently as the 49ers – winning 12 of the last 13 match ups.  That Journey song should have been written about Green Bay.  Sunday, with the exception of that little rally in the 4th quarter, was glorious.  The first half reminded me why I was so optimistic coming into this season.

I picked the 49ers to steal this one from us a few weeks ago.  They have a solid defense, particularly against the run (3rd ranked in the NFL coming in), and Gore can be a beast as he showed in that break-away on the first possession.  But the Packers demonstrated the same style of play they showed against the Cowboys – excelling in the exact facets of the game that have plagued them in previous weeks.

1) Running game – what a statement game for Ryan Grant, 129 yards and a TD.  His 43 yards on the opening drive established the tone, and his 21 yard rush in the final drive sealed the victory.  He finished with over 6 yards/carry.  Plus, Grant and Jackson combined for another 81 receiving yards, creating a dimension to their offense that I felt had been missing.  The result of all this production was a 2:1 time-of-possession advantage.  The last few seasons, it seems we’ve had to wait until the last third of the season for the running game to emerge.  Let’s hope we can sustain this kind of production.

2) Rodgers vs. Smith – as I broke down two weeks ago, there is no other quarterback drafted since 2005 I’d rather have than Aaron Rodgers right now.  The guy is money.  He went 32 of 45 on the day, for 344 yards, 2 TDs and no interceptions.  He set a career high 274 yards passing in the first half.  Sure, I would have liked to see those first two drives culminate in touchdowns rather than field goals, but what more can you realistically ask of your quarterback?

The juxtaposition against Alex Smith couldn’t have been more stark.  The QB who was drafted ahead of him, first overall, in the 2005 draft.  Selected by the 49ers, where our very own Mike McCarthy was offensive coordinator at the time.  Same draft year, both first rounders, both have first names that start with “A”, and, maybe it’s just me, but they even look a little bit like each other!  But the results couldn’t be more different.  Rodgers hasn’t been able to get the Brett Favre monkey off his back yet, but he served the Alex Smith one with a side of rice on Sunday.  Imagine if we had Alex Smith.  Or Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinert, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, or anyone else who has come into the league since for that matter.  Yikers.

3) Offensive line – by far the best performance by our offensive line.  The first half was evidence of how effective we can be when we don’t have sacks and penalties on every other down.  The line gave up only two sacks on the day, but more importantly they avoided the costly holding and false start penalties.  Wells got flagged once for holding, and Rodgers got an intentional ground and delay of game penalty, but that was it on offense.

To me, this shows the benefit of establishing the run early.  I just believe that if you let your linemen get a little smash mouth mindset going early by rushing the ball, that they perform better in all aspects of the game.  Of course, getting Tauscher back probably helped too, and Clifton and Colledge both had relatively good games for a change.

So that was “the good.”  The concerning part of the day was the fact that the 49ers almost came back, despite the dominating performance.  And, once again, we have the special teams unit to thank for leaving the door open.  Josh Morgan’s 76-yard kick-off return changed the momentum of the game.  The only team sucking more than Green Bay at kick coverage is the Steelers.  Special teams also had two penalties on the day.

And then, there were the injuries.  Ugh... what a bummer.  Losing Harris and Kampman both for the season is a major blow.  Kampman, as amazing as it feels to say this, seems like the easier guy to replace.  Brad Jones held up fine when Kampman was out against the Cowboys, and Poppinga should be able to help as well.  Plus, Clay Matthews – or as my four-year-old calls him, “the Rookie Matthews” – has provided both the effective pass rush and ability to drop into coverage at that position that, frankly, Kampman hadn’t been consistently delivering.

Harris is another matter.  I see his unique abilities as a shut-down cover corner to be foundational to the kind of defense the Packers want to play.  Tramon Williams is a capable back-up, and I’m hopeful that with more playing time he can really develop into a legitimate starter.  But it seems inevitable that they will have to adjust to a slightly more conservative defense – putting Woodson on the opposition’s top receivers (reducing his ability to blitz and create chaos), and providing more safety support.  I also worry about Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood, and the newly-signed Josh Bell coming into nickel and dime formations.  I’m glad to see the Packers at least trying to get some depth at that position with the Bell deal.

This week should be winnable – particularly with Stafford likely to be inactive.  Can’t have another let-down-our-guard game though, because after this it gets rough:
  • Baltimore Ravens
  • @ Chicago Bears
  • @ Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Seattle Seahawks
  • @ Arizona Cardinals
Only two more home games, 4 of the 5 games outdoors in cold weather, and 4 of the 5 teams still in the playoff hunt.  And we need at least 4 wins out of these last 6 games to get into the post-season.  Go Pack!

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Winning Formula

It is so much more enjoyable to write this blog when the Packers win – particularly when they beat a good team, AND in relatively convincing fashion, AND with a game plan that suggests a successful winning formula for the remainder of the season. There was a lot of doom and gloom last week in Packer nation. Although that was an ugly loss, I maintain any team can lose to any other team on any given week (like the Saints nearly did against the Rams this week). The encouraging thing is Green Bay seems to have learned from the loss to the puffy shirts, and applied it on the field this week.

If they can continue to execute a similar game plan going forward, they still have a strong shot at making the playoffs. Here was the winning formula:

1) Defensive Pressure – Probably the most perplexing aspect of Green Bay’s losses so far this season, particularly in the two games against Favre, was the complete lack of pressure on the quarterback. We had not seen much of the swarming, scheming, chaos-creating style we saw in the pre-season. Last week, we hardly blitzed at all against a rookie QB and only sacked him once. I’m not sure what jogged Dom Capers memory, and I certainly didn’t expect us to get pressure with Kampman and Chillar out, but I’m glad he re-discovered that part of the playbook. Not only did the defense produce 5 sacks and 11 knockdowns, but that pressure was the catalyst for a bunch of other good stuff – particularly the forced fumble that decided the game.

This is the style of defense the Packers are built to play. And if they can play it successfully against Dallas (with two key injuries no less), they can play it against anyone. They have great corners who can hold up against anyone. They have speed at line-backer to pick up tight ends and backs. They have a solid defensive line that can both stop the run and sniff out screens. And, because of all that, they can usually figure out how to free up a player or two to come with blitz, confuse the coverage, or otherwise stunt their way into something exciting. ESPN showed a stat that Capers, in the first 8 games, rushed five or more players 40.6% of the time. Against the Cowboys, he did it 51.3%. That won Green Bay the ball game – stopping the Cowboys drives (3 of 12 on third down), forcing turnovers, and nearly pitching a shut-out against one of the best offenses in the league.

And Woodson! What can you say about Woodson? His stats – nine tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception – stand out, but they don’t tell the whole story. The strip of Williams was a phenomenal momentum swing. His strip of Romo set up a critical touchdown. And his interception at the goal line sealed the victory. Without Woodson, we lose that game. He is increasingly becoming the emotional heart and soul of this defense, if not the entire team. He wants it. And I hope the rest of the team can learn from his veteran leadership. I also hope Capers continues to find ways of letting Woodson loose.

Clay Matthews also deserves a call out. He picked up one of the sacks – giving him four on the season. He also recovered both the fumbles that Woodson forced. He has an impressive knack for the ball, and finishes plays definitively. Really impressed by his play.

2) Patience on Offense – the downfield plays are beautiful, but it seems like McCarthy finally recognized this week that they need to get rid of the ball faster and balance it with a rushing attack. There were a lot of three-step drops, a lot of slants, and a lot of screens. It took patience – I’m sure when fans were booing the Packers in the first half it was tempting to call some hail Mary. But the conservative play-calling helped keep a strong Cowboys pass rush out of Rodgers’ face – giving up only 4 sacks (still needs to improve but much better than I expected).

They were also patient with the running game – rushing the ball 28 times (41% of their offensive snaps). Grant had a decent game with 79 yards on 19 carries, averaging over 4 yards per attempt. If the Packers can manage to average 4 yards on first down, they are very good at converting that set of downs. Play action starts to work. Defenses need to respect both the run and the pass. And the line can’t pin their ears back and rip Rodgers’ head off.

The drive at the end of the 3rd quarter exemplified this patient style of play. It was a 15-play, 80-yard drive that burned 7:33 on the clock, and gave the Packers a 10-0 lead on a one-yard QB sneak by Aaron Rodgers that I’m surprised isn’t being compared more to Bart Starr’s one-yard QB sneak against these same Cowboys that won the Ice Bowl. Here was the sequence:
  • Pass to Driver for 5 yards
  • Pass to Driver for 10 yards
  • Run by Grant for 3 yards
  • Screen to Green for -4 yards
  • Pass to Jennings for 14 yards (on 3rd and 11)
  • Sack on Rodgers for -7 yards
  • Run by Grant for 4 yards
  • Pass to Lee for 17 yards (on 3rd and 13)
  • Run by Grant for 7 yards
  • Pass to Nelson for 10 yards
  • Cowboys penalty – hands to the face
  • Incomplete to Jones
  • Cowboys penalty – defensive pass interference
  • Incomplete to Jennings
  • Run by Grant for 4 yards
  • Pass to Nelson for 7 yards
  • QB sneak by Rodgers for the touchdown

Rodgers did a great job converting two long third downs, but other than that it was all short passes and runs. And NO penalties! If they can replicate it, this drive could be one we look back on as a turning point in the season.

3) Winning the Turnover Battle – Of all the stats, turnover ratio is one of the most predictive of which team will win the game. Dallas gave up three turnovers – two fumbles and an interception. Green Bay didn’t give up any. One of the things I most love about Rodgers, particularly after the Favre years, is that he’s careful with the football – both in the passes he makes, and in how he holds the ball in the pocket. A close game, like this one was and like I expect the remaining games to all be, is decided by turnovers. What was great this week is that these were “take-aways” not just turnovers. The defense got to the ball and created opportunities. Continue to do that, and they will continue to win games.

What still needs to be fixed.

So as tempting as it is to get all hyped up again after a big win, I need to note a few things that continue to be problems.

First, penalties – they’re killing us. The Packers had 12 penalties for 100 yards on Sunday. The fact the Cowboys are the second-most penalized team in the league (and had 10 penalties for 67 yards themselves) was the only thing that balanced out this otherwise disastrous part of the box score. It’s amazing how fast penalties can destroy a drive. Great example was Green Bay’s third possession of the game. Here’s how it went down:
  • 1st & 10: Grant 2-yd run
  • 2nd & 8: PENALTY – false start on Lang
  • 2nd & 13: Screen to Grant for first down, brought back on PENALTY – holding on Nelson
  • 2nd & 13: Completed to Nelson for 9 yards
  • 3rd & 4: Rodgers sacked, but drive kept alive by Cowboy penalty for illegal use of hands
  • 1st & 10: PENALTY – false start on Colledge
  • 1st & 15: Green run for 5 yards
  • 2nd & 10: Incomplete to Green
  • 3rd & 10: Complete to Jones for first down, but challenged by Dallas and overturned
  • 4th & 10: Punt

That’s three penalties in nine plays – two pre-snap penalties, and one that negated a first down. This was the point where the Lambeau crowd started booing. They need to clean this up. It’s should be solvable – most of it is just bone-headed, lack-of-concentration mistakes.

Second, of course, is still the offensive line. Lang got the start at right tackle in place of Tauscher and Barbre, and didn’t give up too much. But now Colledge might be hurt (not that he’d been playing well anyway), and Clifton continues to struggle in my opinion. He just doesn’t seem to be moving his feet well. There was a series in which he completely failed to get out and block for a screen to Green, which was immediately followed by DeMarcus Ware blowing by him for a sack like Clifton was standing still. I don’t know if the injury is still bothering him, but he remains a big vulnerability. Green Bay still leads the league by far in sacks given up with 41 and have allowed 66 hits on Rodgers.

Third, special teams is the weak link in the three phases. The Packers are the worst in the league on net punt yards (averaging 33 yards). Part of that is Kapinos, who is mediocre at best (averaging 43.1 yards, 20th in the league), but a lot of it is just poor punt coverage – they’ve given up 294 return yards, more than any team in the league. Their kickoff team isn’t doing well either – averaging 61.9 yards per kickoff (27th in the league) and allowing an average return of 24.5 yards (9th worst in the league). Our return game hasn’t been very good either – averaging only 6.7 yards per punt return (23rd in the league) and 22.6 yards per kick return (18th in the league). Many of our penalties have been committed by special teams as well. We need to improve this phase of the game.

The good news is Kampman, Chillar and Finley are all expected back next week. We need them, as I expect the 49ers to play a physical game. Hopefully, if we put together a game plan like we did against Dallas, this can be the start of a little winning streak. We control our own destiny for a wild card spot, but we are even with three good teams – the Eagles, Giants and Falcons – at 5-4. So there’s no room for error.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Well that sucked…

tuesday, june 14OK.  First off, I must acknowledge the unfortunate timing of my previous post – heralding Rodgers’ two-interception season on the very morning that he tosses three picks.  Pretty much took the wind right out of my argument.

I have to say, I’m pretty shocked the Packers lost that game.  It goes without saying that they should have beaten a winless team with a rookie quarterback getting his first NFL start.  You simply can’t lose that game.  And against a team wearing uniforms that can only be described as… flamboyant.  C’mon – the knife clenched between the teeth?  The dude is winking for Christ's sake!  I half expected their coach to come out in a puffy pirate shirt.

The entire premise of this blog was three observations, good or bad, from each week’s game.  That premise is rapidly getting tired, since the three things almost always are pass protection, pass protection and pass protection.  So I’ll start there.

1) Pass protection.  Six sacks!!!  I’ll accept the point of the Rodgers bashers that he’s holding on to the ball too long at times.  But that is, at most, costing us a sack or two – not six.  Not against the Buccaneers.  Green Bay has become the game opposing defensive linemen put circles and stars around on the schedule.  They should start tracking player's sack counts with an asterisk indicating if they’ve played the Packers or not, since it provides such a generous boost to their stats.

At this point, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to get solved this season.  We just don’t have the personnel.  Spitz is on IR.  Clifton appears to be done.  Lang and Barbre aren’t ready.  Tauscher, even if you believed he would make a difference, sprained his surgically-repaired knee.  And it’s not just the O-line.  Grant can’t pick up blitzes.  Finley is out.  Rodgers is holding on to the ball too long.  McCarthy needs to accept that the offense he wants to run just isn’t going to work with this personnel group.  They need to change the play calling to more runs, more screens, faster releases.  That was, incidentally, one glimmer of hope in that game is the establishment of some rushing and the presence of Ahman Green filling that 3rd-down back role.

I'm so damn sick of talking about the pass protection though, that it came as a bit of a relief that there were some new things to complain about this week.

2) Three interceptions.  If Rodgers ever wants to put the Favre demons to rest, he can’t crap the bed like that one week after losing to the Vikings.  Every QB will have some bad days, but you can’t have it against an 0-7 team wearing tangerine uniforms and waving pirate flags from Disney-esque fake ships.  I won’t harp on this, because it hasn’t been a problem at all this year, and I believe Rodgers will bounce back.  But the picks kept the Bucs in the game.

3) Special teams.  Coming off a week in which Percy Harvin shredded our kick coverage team, you’d think they would have worked on that in practice a bit.  Special teams is where the youth and mistake-prone nature of this team is most visible.  It’s not even guys getting physically beat.  It’s just stupid mental errors.  Like on the blocked punt.  Ya kinda gotta block the guy coming right up the middle!

The bottom line of this loss is it put us into a position in which we have a bunch of must-win games against good teams – particularly this week against Dallas and the following week against San Francisco.  I have always felt that a 9-7 or 10-6 season with a wildcard berth was a realistic expectation for this year.  My confidence in that prediction was shaken by that loss.  Let’s hope they can right the ship and get things back on track in the second half of the season.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Packers vs Vikings, Part Deux

It took me a while to write this post.  Partly, my delay was due to multiple family events this week and a business trip to New York, but mostly it was because I needed some distance from last week’s game.  Talking about the weaknesses that cost the Packers that game is beyond beating a dead horse at this point – it’s dismembering the horse, pounding it into a fleshy pulp, and grinding the remaining bone fragments in a mortar.

I can’t really keep doing my “three observations” since it’s the same things week after week.  1) Sacks – six of them last week, 31 on the season, more than any other team.  2) Inability to run – no commitment to the run whatsoever (only 14 attempts by backs), 3.0 yards per carry for Grant, and Rodgers outgaining Grant nearly 2:1 in rush yards.   3) Penalties – 6 for 45 yards against the Vikings (including the critical head butt personal foul that turned a field goal into a touchdown), and 57 penalties on the season (second only to the Bills in the NFL).

Obviously, the coaching staff and management in Green Bay knows that these things are a problem.  Anyone who even remotely follows the NFL knows they’re a problem.  What’s discouraging as a Packers fan is that the organization seems to be completely unable to do anything to fix them.  Clifton and Tauscher will be back this week, but I’m not optimistic it will solve anything.  We may not see it against Tampa, but most of the remaining teams on the schedule are too good not to exploit these weaknesses.  The Vikings certainly did.  And as much as it pains me to say it, they are simply a better team this year.

I still believe the Packers are a playoff contender, but any chance of taking the NFC North title pretty much disappeared last Sunday.  Barring a complete Vikings meltdown, it’s almost impossible to see how Green Bay gets back in the running.  A couple weeks ago, when I made my picks for the remainder of the season, it looked like the Eagles and Cardinals would be marginal.  But those teams seem to be gaining momentum, which will make the wild card race a bigger challenge.

But after last week and the likelihood the Vikings will win the division and possibly the NFC, I think the question on most Packers fans’ minds is “would we be better off with Favre?”  To that, I still say, emphatically, no.

First, Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback.  He is the number one quarterback in the NFL – both in the real league with a 110.4 QB rating, and in the fantasy league with 157 fantasy points by my league’s scoring system.  On the season, he’s thrown 14 TDs to only 2 interceptions (#6 and #3 in the league respectively in those categories).  He’s averaging 284 yards per game (#7 in the league) and has a 65.3% completion percentage (#11 in the league).  Favre, with a 106 QB rating, is having a great season too.  But Rodgers is having a better season.  The most common knocks on Rodgers are:
  1. “He can’t win the big game” – Need I dig out Favre’s stats in “big games” both early in his career (remember the Cowboys) and later in his career (costing us playoff games his last several years in Green Bay).
  2. “He holds on to the ball too long” – I’d gladly take sacks instead of interceptions.  Rodgers has only thrown two on the season.
  3. “He doesn’t start games well” – a relatively new criticism by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal’s Greg Bedard, which places all the Packer’s start-of-game and start-of-half execution woes on Rodgers.
These criticisms are crap -- particularly for a player who has only started 23 games.  Rodgers is playing at a level well beyond his game experience.  Given time, I fully expect him to prove these doubts ill-founded.

Second, who would you rather have???  There’s really only two possible answers to this question: Favre or somebody else we could have drafted.  In terms of other young QBs, there’s nobody better.  Rodgers was the 24th pick in the first round of the NFL 2005 draft.  The only QB to be drafted ahead of him (#1 overall) was Alex Smith to the 49ers – who only recently got back his starting job and is pretty widely regarded as a bust out here. Players at the QB position the Packers passed on that year include:
  • Jason Campbell, Redskins
  • Charlie Frye, Browns
  • Andrew Walter, Raiders
  • David Greene, Seahawks
  • Kyle Orton, Bears/Broncos
  • Stefan LeFors, Panthers
  • Dan Orlovsky, Detroit Lions
  • Adrian McPherson, Saints
  • Derek Anderson, Ravens
  • Matt Cassel, Patriots
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick, Rams
Pretty clear we got the best of that lot.

So what about the drafts in the intervening years?  Here are your choices:
  • 2006 -- Vince Young, Titans; Matt Leinart, Cardinals; Jay Cutler, Broncos/Bears; Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings
  • 2007 -- JaMarcus Russell, Raiders; Brady Quinn, Browns; Trent Edwards, Bills
  • 2008 -- Matt Ryan, Falcons; Joe Flacco, Ravens
  • 2009 -- Matthew Stafford, Lions; Mark Sanchez, Jets; Josh Freeman, Buccaneers; Pat White, Dolphins
Lots of complete busts in there (Russell, Quinn, Young, Jackson), a couple promising players (Ryan and Flacco), but nobody I’d even come close to taking ahead of Rodgers.  You really need to go back to the 2004 draft , which included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Schaub, to find anyone at Rodgers’ level.  But I’d still rather take Rodgers ahead of all those guys.

So what about Favre?  Would he have vanquished his own post-season demons and gotten us to the promised land the last two seasons?  Personally, I can’t see how.  With such horrible pass protection and lack of a running game, I think we would have seen the “same Favre” we lived with for most of his last four seasons in green and gold – pressing too much, making too many mistakes, throwing too many interceptions, and costing us too many games with is “gun-slinging” style.  Favre is good enough to be great with the solid offensive line, elite running back, and talented young receivers he has in Minnesota.  But with the Packers (and 90% of the other teams in the league for that matter), he’d be no better than average.

Third, we are in this for the long-run.  What Favre, his ego, and most Packers fans have never seemed to understand is it’s not about who is the better quarterback for one game, or even one season.  To be a successful organization, a team needs a quarterback that can lead them for a decade or more.  These guys are really rare, but, with stability and leadership in the front office and coaching staff, a “franchise quarterback” is the essential piece of the puzzle for winning games.  You call him that because he is the person around whom you build your franchise.

We have that with Rodgers.  A young quarterback who is improving every week.  An elite player who will form the foundation of the organization for years to come.  A difference maker, who may not win a championship in his first or second year as a starter, but who will win more games and go further in the post-season over a 10-year span than most teams in the league.  Whether it was drafting genius or pure luck is irrelevant.  The fact is, we have that guy on our roster, and there simply was no other choice for Thompson, McCarthy and the rest of the organization but to ride that horse.

Favre will retire.  He is 40.  As improbable as his current level of play is, continuing it for more than a year or two further is nothing short of impossible.  It won’t happen.  And any fan who acknowledges he is not invincible must accept that the Packers are a better organization with Rodgers.  This season looks like it will end painfully for us, but, over the next 3 to 5 to 10 years, I’ll take our situation over the Vikings’ situation any day.