Monday, November 29, 2010

Aneurism in Atlanta

OK… maybe the Falcons are pretty good.  Sunday’s game easily could have gone either way, and a lot of the post-game analysis has focused on three particular plays – Rodgers’ fumble in the end zone, McCarthy’s non-challenge of Gonzales’ non-catch, and Matt Wilhelm’s flagrant facemask on the final kick return that set up the game-winning field goal for the Falcons (adding insult to injury, Wilhelm’s promo shot on still has him in his 49ers uniform).  Any of those three plays could have easily changed the outcome of the game.  All of them made the veins in the side of my head bulge.  As they lined up for the final kick at the end, my son warned me, “Now, dad, don’t freak out if the Falcons make this field goal.”  When your 8-year old is providing the steady voice of reason, you realize you need to calm down a bit.

Not wanting to dwell on my negative initial reaction and spiral into a tirade, I decided to sleep on it before writing my analysis.  With the benefit of some distance, here are the observations I would make about the game and the Packers’ season at this point:

First, it was, as I anticipated, a very winnable game – they just didn’t quite get it done.  To lose on the road against the #1 team in the NFC by 3 points on a last-second field goal is nothing to be ashamed of, in spite of how disappointing it may be.  And, it says to me, that should the Packers make it to the playoffs, they can hold their own on the road against the best in the league – which, it’s now evident, they will almost certainly have to do.

Second, I must admit that the full implications of losing that game didn’t hit me until the Bears beat the Eagles – something I entirely did not expect.  Now, suddenly, we’ve gone from vying for a playoff bye to fighting just to get into the playoffs.  The Packers are currently the #8 seed, with only 6 seats at the table.  If they can’t gain ground on the Bears (that final game of the season is now, of course, critical), they will need to beat out some pretty good teams (most likely the Saints, Eagles or Giants) to get a wild card spot.  But I’m going to try to be glass-is-half-full about this as well – being the #5 seed and playing whoever wins the horrendous NFC West on the road isn’t such a bad path!

Third, as I’ve harped on all year, the Packers’ lack of a running game is a serious problem – one that will most likely cost them any significant playoff run this year.  My take on this Achilles heel is a little different than most people.  I actually believe the era of the dominant running game is over.  The teams that have won Super Bowls the last several years are built like the Packers – centered around a stud quarterback, who is complemented with a deep set of quality receivers (including a physical tight end) and positional backs who specialize in certain strengths.  The Patriots, Colts, Steelers and Saints all exemplify that model, and almost the entire NFL is going that way.  So I don’t expect to see big rushing numbers or a dominant running back.  The problem is really when you cannot run the ball when you need to – around the goal line, to burn clock in close games, etc.  When you are so un-certain about your running game that you, just for example, go with back-to-back QB sneaks inside the 5-yard line, that says something – even if one was an audible.

So, where do we go from here?

Obviously, the Packers’ running game isn’t going to get fixed this season.  That boat has sailed.  Maybe next year, with Ryan Grant and James Starks healthy and possibly a draft pick, we’ll have a credible threat at running back again.  But we need to play the hand dealt, and I think that’s exactly what McCarthy is doing.  Interesting fact (shared by a TriggPack reader): the Packers ran a five-receiver set 14 times Sunday.  Why?  Largely because it worked.  From that formation, they gained 104 yards, 5 first downs and 2 touchdowns.  Bottom line: the Packers simply have a personnel gap right now at running back, so they will need to remain pass-heavy and rely on Rodgers’ scrambling as their lead rushing threat.

As for the playoffs, even though we statistically don’t control our own destiny, effectively, we probably do.  If the Packers win out (a very hard task, no doubt), they will end up 12-4, which I still believe could be enough to win the NFC North.  Even if they lose another game and end up 11-5, it’s hard to believe that wouldn’t be good enough for a Wild Card. And once you’re in, anything can happen – as the Giants in 2007 and Cardinals in 2008 demonstrated.

If we don’t make the playoffs, it will be a massive disappointment.  Although I’ve heard some fans clamoring for McCarthy’s and Thompson’s heads already after the Falcons loss, I submit that firing a coach or GM is never a “solution” – particularly at mid-season.  It’s an admission of defeat.  It’s pressing the panic button.  It’s what you do if you’re the Cowboys or the Vikings, or possibly the 49ers if they don’t win tonight.  What we have in Green Bay isn’t broken, it just hasn’t quite gotten over the edge yet.  There will be a good discussion at the end of the season, as there should be every year.  And Mike and Ted don’t have unlimited redo’s before the fans lose their patience.  But there’s still a lot of football to play this season first.

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