Tuesday, January 12, 2010

And... Cut!

It seems so abrupt.  The end of a season, that is.  One play and it's all snuffed out.  The months of preparation, hardship, anticipation -- all, in the end, feels like it didn't matter.  It still feels surreal that we won’t be playing next weekend.  I guess I really can go get that haircut now.

Rather than my usual “three observations”, I thought I’d go with something that Packer fans will, hopefully, find therapeutic in the aftermath of this devastating loss.  So I give you my seven stages of Packer playoff grieving, as a template for how you might cope with this tragedy yourself.  At the very least, through the telling of my experience, you can take comfort in the fact you're not alone.

7 Stages of Packer Playoff Grieving

Stage 1: Shock – There is no better word to characterize my reaction to that final play.  Pure, slack-jawed shock.  My brain literally couldn’t process what my eyes had just seen.  I was so certain, after Rackers shanked the field goal in regulation, after winning the coin toss to receive the ball, after nearly hitting Jennings for a TD on the first play of OT, that we were going to win that game, that I just couldn’t accept, for several minutes, what had just transpired.

Stage 2: Denial – With my Tivo remote clenched in my hand, I rewound the final play, whispering “no, no, no…”  That didn’t just happen.  This is a bad dream.  They must have missed something.  Wasn’t there a penalty somewhere?  Shouldn’t there have been an instant replay??  Wasn’t there something that was going to reverse what I had just witnessed!?!?  The Packers were supposed to win that game.  Everyone thought so.  Last weekend, the Cardinals themselves looked like they'd ceded a loss.  Hell, many of the experts were picking Green Bay to go to the Super Bowl.  This couldn’t have happened!

Stage 3: Anger – As I prepared to hurtle the remote control through our 40” plasma, my wife gently reminded me to “model good behavior” for my two sons who were lagging behind a little in the Shock and Denial phases.  (By the way, it's very difficult to calmly answer the question, “Daddy, does this mean the Packers are out of the playoffs?”).  So, with a clenched, maniacal pseudo-grin, I proceeded to explain to my offspring why daddy was “disappointed” in the following people:
  • Dom Capers who seemed to think a game-plan was un-necessary and evidently lost his notes on the back of a Southwest cocktail napkin from the week earlier.  His so-called #2 defense got rung up for 531 yards, 45 points (I won't count the defensive TD), and managed to force only one punt.  Embarrassing.
  • Aaron Rodgers for throwing an interception on the opening play, over-throwing Jennings twice on a pass that “daddy could have thrown”, and assisting Karlos Dansby with the final interception with his foot.
  • Tramon Williams, Jarrett Bush, Josh Bell, some guy named Giordano, and anyone else they threw out there to play in the defensive secondary for failing to get within 5 yards of an open receiver.  When someone named Early Doucet snags 6 catches for 77 yards and 2 TDs, someone "didn't do a very good job."
  • The entire defensive line for getting zero pressure on Warner all day and allowing 156 rushing yards, including an 18-yard scramble by some dude named Stephens-Howling.
  • The entire offensive line for giving up 5 sacks, including the game loser.
  • Every NFL analyst who picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl and got my hopes up
  • Troy Aikman for relentlessly mis-pronouncing our city Green Bay and the razor-sharp insight that “The Packers defense needs to show they can stop the Cardinals here.”
  • Brett Favre, just because.
  • Myself for wasting many late-night person hours this fall writing this dumb ass blog.

Stage 4: Bargaining – Then, it occurred to me, the real reason the Packers lost was due to blown calls by the officials.  It was so obvious!  First, there was Fitzgerald’s overt shove of Woodson to free himself up for a touchdown.  Then, of course, in the final series of overtime, the refs missed a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit on Rodgers that should have drawn a personal foul.  And on the final and fateful play of the game, they inexplicably missed a facemask on Rodgers which helped force the fumble, which is obvious in this photo.  Interesting analysis of these missed calls here.

This was simple.  We’d just call up Roger Goodell, and politely point out that the refs may have possibly over-looked some penalties that could have changed the entire outcome of the game.  He would, very rationally upon seeing the review, agree and declare Green Bay the winner.  Does anyone have Roger's number?

Stage 5: Guilt – My anger phase was coming back to haunt me.  How could I have said that about Aaron Rodgers!?  The guy went off for 422 yards and four touchdowns – setting a team playoff record for passing yards and tying it for touchdowns.  Better than Brett ever played.  What an ungrateful fan I was for expecting him to shoulder even more than he already had.

I also felt guilty that I had infected my own children with this disease, this obsession.  I’d set them up for disappointment.  I couldn’t stand the looks on their faces, huddled quietly on the couch in their Packers jerseys.

Stage 6: Depression – The futility of my emotional roller coaster set in on Monday morning.  This season just felt like such a lost opportunity – such a promising team that was tragically cut off before their time.  It was like euthanizing your dog you’ve played fetch with every Sunday afternoon.  You know there’s going to be this big empty void, as you eagerly reach for the remote next weekend only to remember… they’re gone.  Will they be able to field a team this good next year?  How will they fill the gaps?  What if Rodgers or Woodson gets injured next year and they tank?  You need to seize opportunities like this when you get them, and we didn’t.

I was bitter about the in-authenticity of Cardinal fans, gloating over the victory of their transplanted team under their retractable roof.  I was sullen about the other teams who were advancing while the Packers cleaned out their lockers.  I was sickened by the thought of reading, listening or watching any news about the Packers.  I do this every year – over-indulge in every bit of Packers news I can get my hands on like a Minnesota truck driver at Old Country Buffet, and then, when the Packers season ends, I’m suddenly repulsed by it.  Packer news that was so titillating two days ago looks no more appealing than the crusted over day-old lasagna at Sbarro.  I can’t eat another bite, and I regret my gluttony in the first place.

Stage 7: Acceptance
– I’m not sure “acceptance” is a stage I’ve ever been able to fully achieve with the Packers playoff losses.  The overtime loss to the Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship game, the Randy Moss mock-moon in the 2004 wild-card loss to the Vikings, the infamous “4th and 26” loss to the Eagles in 2003, the Michael Vick-led blow-out by the Falcons in 2002, Favre’s six interceptions in the Rams dismantling of the Packers in 2001, the last-second catch by Terrell Owens to propel the 49ers past us in 1998, and, of course, the Super Bowl loss to Denver in 1997.  All these games are etched on my brain like they were yesterday.  Losing seasons aren’t as painful or memorable for some reason.  It’s getting your hopes up, as mine were each of those playoff years, only to have them shattered that makes them so hard to accept.

But it’s time to pick up the pieces of the 2009 season and look forward to 2010.  We have a great, young nucleus of a team.  There are certainly several holes that need to be filled (more on that later), but I believe this will be a learning experience for the team – and one they will come back to avenge next year.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Many frustrated thoughts going through my head, but emotional state still too fragile to write.  The prevailing question: how does the #2 offense in the NFL give up 500+ yards of total offense, 51 points, and only force one punt.  Ridiculous.  More to come once I regain my composure.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Great finish to the regular season

I can’t wait for this weekend’s game.  Ironically, the last time I felt this optimistic about the Packers was after their blowout against these same Cardinals in the pre-season.  We’ve put together two very impressive games in the desert, and I hope it will be a third this Sunday.

A Packer buddy of mine re-sent an article this week by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer Bob McGinn back in September.  In it, he makes remarkably accurate predictions for the Packer season so far.  I encourage you to read it (despite the antiquated and annoying requirement to pay for access).  Let’s hope he keeps his accuracy through the playoffs, which he predicted would lead to a Super Bowl berth.

The victory over the Cardinals Sunday was a satisfying cap to a great regular season.  It was really remarkable to watch the team solidify over the last 8 games, finishing the season 7 of 8 with their only loss on a one-in-a-million drive by Pittsburgh.  After the Bucs loss in week 8, it felt like this could be another season like last year – spinning out of control in the second half of the schedule to finish a disappointing 6-10.  Instead, Green Bay took it the other way, and not only finished the season strong, but is entering the playoffs with a head of steam.

What made the Packers second-half of the season so strong?  Here are my observations for the biggest changes that enabled the Packers to improve so significantly. 

1) Pass Protection – we still gave up more sacks this season (51) than any other team in the league, but this was a significant area of improvement in the second half of the season.  I was extremely skeptical in week 8 that the Packers would be able to fix their pass protection problems, but they did.  Tauscher got back into form.  Clifton got healthy.  But more than anything, they ended the deck chair shuffling and started to gel as a unit.  Plus, shorter pass plays, quicker decisions by Rodgers, and improved blitz pick-ups by our backs also all helped.
  • Sacks allowed in the first 8 games: 37 (4.6/game)
  • Sacks allowed in the last 8 games: 14 (1.75/game)
That’s a pretty remarkable improvement, and it has made an enormous difference in our 3rd-down conversions and overall offensive effectiveness.

1) Jermichael Finley – not only was it a win against the same team and the same place, but the same player (Finley) and same play (a jump ball in the right corner of the endzone) was what made me so optimistic back in the pre-season.  With the exception of the Vikings game in week 4 (6 receptions for 128 yds and a TD), Finley got off to a slow start.  Then he missed 3 games due to injury.  Since he’s been back, he’s been a force.
  • Finley’s stats in the first 8 games: 17 receptions, 260 yds, 1 TD
  • Finley’s stats in the last 8 games: 38 receptions, 416 yds,  4 TDs
Do that for a full season, and you’re going to the Pro Bowl next year, Jermichael.  And it’s not just his stats – it’s what he opens up for the rest of the offense.  The guy is an absolute stud and a match-up nightmare for every team in the league.

3) Clay Matthews and Brad Jones – If you had told me at the start of the season we’d have two rookie linebackers, added to an already deep linebacking corps, not only starting but emerging as impact players, I would have been stunned.  I would have a man-crush on Matthews even if he didn’t have the hair.  The guy had 10 sacks on the season.  10 sacks as a rookie!  Jones has 4 sacks since coming in for Kampman.  It was unfortunate to see Kampman go down, but he’d only logged 3.5 sacks to that point in the season.  Poppinga had none in the 3 games he started.
  • Sacks by Kampman and Poppinga in the first 8 games: 2.5
  • Sacks by Matthews and Jones in the last 8 games: 11
4) Rush Defense – 83.3 yards rushing allowed per game.  Not only was that #1 in the NFL, but it set a Packers franchise record.  The difference in this area isn't as stark compared to the first half of the season, but it's dramatic compared to last season.  Packers finished last year #26 against the run, allowing 131.6 yards per game.  Quite an improvement.  Another rookie, B.J. Raji, has certainly helped in this area.
5) Player Leadership – Finally, though it’s hard to quantify in the statistics, Aaron Rodgers on offense and Charles Woodson on defense have fully stepped into the critical leadership roles they needed to play.  After the loss to the Bucs, these guys stepped up and took responsibility, but also demanded more from their teammates.  Both are playing very confident ball, and, deservedly, are Pro-Bowl bound.

I have every reason to believe that the Cardinals will come out fighting on Sunday, but if the Packers can continue to do these things that nearly got them a perfect schedule in the second half of the season, I like their chances to do some damage.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Playoff Preview

With a playoff berth sealed, it’s not too early for a playoff preview.  Though this last game against the Cardinals is meaningless from the standpoint of making the playoffs, it is very relevant from the standpoint of maximizing the Packers’ playoff run because it, and two other games played on Sunday, will decide the final playoff seeding.  Plus, it’s a chance to get some practice against our most likely first-round opponent, Arizona.

Before getting to that though, let me get the coulda/woulda/shoulda out of the way... the Vikings are only ahead of us by one game!!  If we could have just split 1-1 with them, or if San Fran or Baltimore could have beaten the Vikings earlier this season, or if we’d beaten Tampa Bay, we’d be tied going into the last game of the season with a first-round bye within our reach!  Ugh… Oh well, back to reality.

Everyone has been assuming for weeks that it would be the Saints and the Vikings who get the first-round bye.  But thanks to the Vikings recent losing streak (did I mention how much I LOVE Jay Cutler!?!?!), they no longer control their own destiny.  If the Eagles beat the Cowboys Sunday, they take the NFC East, the #2 seed, and the first-round bye away from Brent and company... which would be sweet!

Week 17, as far as the Packers are concerned, boils down to three games: Packers at Cardinals (of course), Giants at Vikings, and Eagles at Cowboys.  My Tivo will be recording all three.  The Eagles, Vikings, Cowboys and even Cardinals could all earn a first-round bye still.  The Packers cannot.

Of the three games that matter Sunday, there are eight possible outcomes.  In 6 of the 8 possible outcomes, we go on the road to play Arizona for a second week in a row.  But there is a 1 in 8 chance of going to Dallas, and even a 1 in 8 chance of going to Minnesota.  Here are the possible outcomes, who the Packers would consequently play, and what the playoff seedings would be:

1) Packers win, Giants win, Eagles win – Packers @ Cardinals
    (Eagles #2, Vikings #3, Cardinals #4, Packers #5, Cowboys #6)

2) Packers win, Vikings win, Cowboys win – Packers @ Cardinals
    (Vikings #2, Cowboys #3, Cardinals #4, Packers #5, Eagles #6)

3) Packers win, Giants win, Cowboys win – Packers @ Cardinals
    (Cowboys #2, Vikings #3, Cardinals #4, Packers #5, Eagles #6)

4) Packers win, Vikings win, Eagles win – Packers @ Cardinals
    (Eagles #2, Vikings #3, Cardinals #4, Packers #5, Cowboys #6)

5) Cardinals win, Giants win, Eagles win – Packers @ Vikings
    (Eagles #2, Cardinals #3, Vikings #4, Packers #5, Cowboys #6)

6) Cardinals win, Giants win, Cowboys win – Packers @ Cowboys
    (Cardinals #2, Cowboys #3, Vikings #4, Eagles #5, Packers #6)

7) Cardinals win, Vikings win, Eagles win – Packers @ Cardinals
    (Eagles #2, Vikings #3, Cardinals #4, Packers #5, Cowboys #6)

8) Cardinals win, Vikings win, Cowboys win – Packers @ Cardinals
    Vikings #2, Eagles #5, Cardinals #3, Packers #6, Cowboys #4

Four weeks ago, the Saints and Vikings both seemed a foregone conclusion to go to the NFC championship game.  But after a rocky December for both clubs, those teams seem very beatable now.  In fact, who really scares you in the NFC?  The Packers are playing football as good as anyone right now, but they, like every team, have vulnerabilities as well.

What makes me think the Packers could go far in the post-season:
  • Consistent, stable QB – Rodgers makes great decisions, is unflappable, and doesn’t lose games with INTs (one of two QBs with no interceptions on 3rd down this season).  He can beat anyone.
  • Emerging rushing game – Grant has busted long runs for TDs in each of the last three games.  Jackson and Green have established themselves as viable threats.  Together, if they can rush the ball and control the clock, they will win games.
  • Stud receivers – Jennings has really come on lately as the deep threat he was last season.  Driver is solid, as always.  James Jones and Jordy Nelson are playing great.  But, most of all, Jermichael Finley has grown into the match-up nightmare Packer fans have been predicting since the pre-season.
  • Turnover ratio – Green Bay is +22 on turnovers this season, #1 in the NFL.  They have 37 takeaways and have only given it up 15 times.  If they can sustain that ratio in the playoffs, they have a great chance to go far.
  • #1 run defense – Green Bay is allowing just 85.7 yards per game rushing (improved from 26th last year).  The ability to stop guys like Adrian Peterson, Marion Barber, and Brian Westbrook will be key to advancing in the playoffs.
However, there are several reasons the Packers could be one and done too:
  • Offensive line – though it is radically improved, the Packers still are vulnerable on pass protection.  Even the Seahawks managed to get pressure.  The Vikings, Eagles, and Cowboys can all apply a wicked pass rush.
  • Defensive secondary – I’m feeling better about Tramon Williams in place of Harris, but Jarrett Bush and Josh Bell still make me nervous against deep receiving corps – and the Cardinals, Saints, Vikings and Eagles all have the receivers to create problems for us.
  • Kicking game – It was nice to see Mason Crosby go 2/2 on field goals (and 6/6 on PATs) Sunday, but the kicking game still makes me very nervous.  I will be on egg shells if we are relying on Mason to win a playoff game late or in OT.
  • Penalties – though this has been cleaned up a little recently, the Packers are still the most penalized team in the NFL and the second-most in penalty yards.  If they can’t keep the mistakes to a minimum, it will cost them.
The good news is everything seems to be trending in the right direction.  The strengths are getting stronger, and the weaknesses are getting shored up.  And that gives me cause for optimism.  More important than record or seeding is momentum.  The hot teams have been the ones to make it to the Super Bowl.  Last year, it was Arizona.  The year before, it was the Giants.  This year, will it be the Packers?

PS – I still haven’t cut my hair.