Monday, December 26, 2011

The Part of the Season We've All Been Waiting For

The Christmas day victory over the Bears secured the third of McCarthy's big four goals for the season, which were (repeated multiple times and typically in this order): 1) win the division, 2) get a first-round bye, 3) secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and 4) win the Super Bowl.  An unstated "nice-to-have" 5th goal may have been to go undefeated, but we'll never know now.  I would have loved to see the Packers make a run at undefeated, but the loss to the Chiefs probably took some pressure off.

However, all these goals will mean nothing unless the 4th is ultimately met.  The Packers didn't achieve any of those first 3 goals last year, but no one gave a crap in the end.  Getting the championship was all that mattered.  And that is all that will matter this year.  From early in the season, it was fairly apparent that the Packers would be in this position.  And after a meaningless game next week against Detroit (one in which I now hope the Packers will rest most of their starters -- particularly if Suh is playing), the Packers are now about to embark on the second part of the season.  It's the mile 0 mark, and anything less than a journey that ends in Indianapolis holding up another Lombardi trophy will be a disappointment.

Watching Drew Brees and the Saints dismantle the Falcons 45-16 while shattering Dan Marino's single-season passing record gives me pause.  As does the 49ers' dominant defense and grind-it-out running game, a style well equipped for cold-weather success at Lambeau Field in January.  Although the path is, statistically speaking, easier this year than it was as a #6 seed last year, the Packers need to enter the post-season with a little better execution all around.

In particular, there are three areas that really need to get shored up:

  • First, the defense needs to finally get back into championship form.  Despite beating the Bears in the end by a two touchdown margin, the defense allowed 21 points against a severely depleted Bears offense.  It's cause for concern when Josh McCown, a guy who was a high school football coach till last week and who is seeing his first NFL action of the season, puts up 242 yards passing, and a posse of third-string running backs rack up nearly 200 yards rushing.  This game should have been a shut-out.  If an offense that crappy can put up 21 points, then the 49ers certainly can, and the Saints might break 100.  The defense needs to stiffen.  Counting on turn-overs and 5 TDs from Rodgers won't cut it in the playoffs.
  • Second, the offensive line needs to get healthy.  Although the Packers' patch-work line did not give up a single sack against the Bears, they will face some brutal defensive fronts in the post-season -- the 49ers, Giants and Lions all pose serious threats with their front 4.  Chad Clifton will reportedly give it a try this Sunday against the Lions.  And Bryan Bulaga should be back in the line-up either this week or by the playoffs.  The first-round bye will help everyone get healthy again.  Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang have both played well this season, but would really like to see the line back to full-strength and everyone back to their regularly scheduled positions for this playoff run.
  • Third, the Packers need to regain their intensity.  There is no question the Packers came into last year's playoffs with a win-or-die mind set.  They had nothing to lose.  They played loose but fierce.  And they rode it all the way.  As incredible as an undefeated season would have been in immortalizing this team among the greatest of all time, there is no question that the loss to Kansas City both took some pressure off them, but also reminded them that no team is invincible.  They need to get the chip back on their shoulder and go out and play ball like their lives depended on it.

It's the concern of every team who clinches early that they will get soft.  A month of ultimately inconsequential games can do that, and it will be great for both fans and players to see meaningful action again.  We'll soon know if the Packers can get their blemishes corrected and deliver on goal number four.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Packers + All Cylinders = Wood Chipper

The Raiders Team Bus
The Packers demonstrated just how dangerous they can be when all three phases are firing on all cylinders at the same time.  The Raiders didn't stand a chance Sunday.  The 46-16 drubbing could have been much worse.  But for a rare Rodgers end zone interception and a few drives that ended in field goals instead of touch downs, the Pack easily could have knocked on the door of 60 points.  It was like watching the Badgers play Ball State.  It was an absolute beat down.  In short, it was a Wisconsin wood chipper.

The defense has been much maligned this year, including by me.  If anything will prevent the Packers from realizing their ultimate goal, it seems like it will be the defense.  They are ranked 31st in the league by yards allowed, after all.  But Sunday was an excellent case study in just what the defensive philosophy of the Packers really is.  Sure they allowed over 350 yards of offense, but they got 5 take-aways and a defensive touchdown.

The emphasis of the Packers defense is taking the ball away.  If they can give Rodgers and the offense just one or two additional possessions in the game, it translates into wide margins of victory.  And on that front, the Packers have one of the best defenses in the league.  They are far-and-away #1 in the NFL in interceptions, logging 27 so far this year, well ahead of #2 in that category (Detroit with 18).  And with the offense's excellent ball security, the result is a +20 turn-over margin, second only to the 49ers.

I still worry that if there comes a time this season when the defense needs to get that final stand that they may not be able to get it done, as we witnessed in the game last week against the Giants.  But if they can put up performances like they did Sunday, it won't matter.  The opponents will be a pile of bark chips while the Packers starters are in sweat pants by the start of the 4th quarter.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Suh-icide

Our turkey doing a Lambeau Leap onto the bar.
It was a pretty typical Thanksgiving at the Trigg household -- a twenty-pound turkey, dinner for 14, and a Packer victory over the Lions.  Like in past Thanksgivings, cooking such an ambitious meal while simultaneously watching the Packer game posed an added degree of difficulty.  In fact, when Rodgers hit James Jones for a 65-yard touchdown the bird accidentally got impaled on my hand as I pumped my fists in excitement.

I don't normally like leading off my post-game analysis with the opposing team, but the Packers have just become so... predictable.  Seems like every week goes down the same way:

  • Rodgers throws for 300+ yards, multiple touchdowns, no interceptions and a 110+ QB rating
  • Somewhere between 12 and 27 Packers receivers catch passes
  • The defense gives up 17 miles of yardage but manages to minimize the scores and gets multiple take-aways
  • Packer players are chillin' and cracking jokes on the sideline by midway through the fourth quarter

Where's the excitement?  Where's the adversity?  Where's the drama?  Fortunately, we had Ndamukong Suh stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith's arm to keep things interesting.  I actually can sympathize with Suh.  Not only did he get beat on the play by a second-string left guard, but it was by a guy with a hyphenated name.  On national TV.  How humiliating.

Suh's dirty play has drawn all the media attention, and deservedly so.  It was a pivotal play in the most critical moment of the biggest game at a key point in the season by their best player.  The full cost of that play probably won't occur to Suh till later -- not only costing his team this game, but potentially hurting them for multiple games (if he's suspended, as most expect he will be).  Furthermore, in addition to the monetary fine he'll need to pay, he likely lost millions in endorsement dollars now that he has provided visible evidence of the "dirty player" reputation he already had.  The only thing more preposterous than the stomp itself was his feeble attempt to explain the incident in his post-game interview.

But Suh's action was really just indicative of a Lions team that was out-classed on Thursday.  The danger for a high-energy, pumped-up team playing on the big stage against the Super Bowl champs is that they let their emotions get the better of them.  And that's exactly what happened to the Lions -- committing 11 penalties for 82 yards, many, like Suh's, at critical junctures.  Combine that with 3 interceptions by Matthew Stafford and you can stick fork in this Thanksgiving showdown.

It really starts with Jim Schwartz.  Anyone who starts a backyard brawl over a post-game handshake is a lame ass.  The Lions are a good team.  The city of Detroit needs them to be a good team.  Hell, they deserve a good team.  But they need to evolve beyond chip-on-the-shoulder bravado to be real challengers.  And after going 2-4 their last six games, they seem to be fading.  We'll see them again in week 17, but by then it may not matter.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Just How Hard Is a Perfect Season?

Another week, another win.  Even though they kept it competitive, the Bucs never really felt that threatening today at Lambeau.  Nobody picked them to win, and, in the end, you could sense they didn't expect to themselves.  But underdogs do win sometimes.  In the Packers perfect season, it's easy to lose sight of that fact.

Today marked an interesting milestone: the 16th win in a row for the Packers dating back to last year -- or the equivalent of a full regular season.  It begs the question, just how hard is that to do?  What are the odds of winning 16 in a row?  What are the odds of going undefeated this season?  What would a mathematician put our odds at?  Why am I asking so many questions?

The reality, statistically speaking, is that the Packers will eventually lose a game this season.  I hope it doesn't happen.  I don't expect it to happen.  But from a strict, numerical, probabilistic, algorithmic standpoint, it is likely to happen.  Before proceeding any further in this article, I should warn the reader that I am about to attempt math.  You'd think with a last name like Trigg (o-nometry), this would be a forte of mine.  Not so much.  So be warned, someone could get hurt.

A US quarter: AKA the "Manitowoc Abacus"
Let's start with a baseline.  There are two teams in every NFL game.  If the contest is perfectly evenly matched, each team has a 50% chance of winning -- same as the flip of a coin, 50/50.  Hopefully, I'm not going too fast for anyone.  If you assume a 50% chance of winning in every game, then going undefeated over a 19-game season (16 regular season games + 3 playoff games) is 0.5 to the 19th power.  (That's that little superscript "mini-me" number that always screwed you up in algebra and I can't figure out how to do in HTML).

Now 0.5 to the 19th is a small number.  I know that because when you get the little "E" thing in Excel instead of actual numbers, it means it's a really small number.  How small?  (Hold on, Manitowoc, I'm about to blow your mind!)  It's a 0.0001907348% chance, or 1 in 524,288, that an average NFL team goes undefeated.  If, like most red-blooded Americans, you don't believe in math, try flipping a quarter 19 times and getting heads every time (then try getting tails 19 times, and call me in about 35 years once you've finished).

Now, you say, "yeah, but the Packers have better than a 50% chance of winning every week."  Of course.  That's what good teams do.  They improve their chances of winning slightly above the 50/50 baseline odds.  How much more likely are the Packers to win, on average?  Maybe 60%?  70%?  80%!?!  It's hard to imagine anyone other than the most aggressively optimistic or inebriated Packer fan asserting an 80% chance of the Packers winning every week, against every opponent, for an entire season.

But here's where that "19th power" thing really messes with your brain: even at 80% odds of winning each week, the odds of winning an entire season is only 1.441151881% or 1 in 69.  Don't believe me?  Check out my handy cheat sheet.  Excel doesn't lie, although it does drive you freakin' crazy when you're trying to get the IRR function to work at 2AM.  No wonder Vegas sports books are so good at taking everyone's money.  The actual likelihood of unlikely things is hard for our simple brains to get their cortexes around.

Occasionally Rodgers throws an interception.  Once in a while, opposing running backs break 7 tackles on the way to a 54-yard touchdown run.  Sometimes desperation onsides kicks are recovered.  In short, in the wise words of a baseball hat I once saw at a shop up in Door County with a plastic turd on the brim, "Shit Happens."  Once again this week, all you need to do is look around at the fate of some other top teams -- the Giants losing at home to the 3-6 Eagles, or Jay Cutler breaking his thumb and likely out for the season -- to remind yourself how fortunate the Packers are to be sitting at 10-0.

An undefeated season certainly won't be easy.  And if it happens, it would likely be a once-in-our-lifetimes event.  But although it's not probable, anything is possible.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Defense Finally Delivers in Viking Drubbing

That was the performance we've all been waiting for from the Packers' defense this year -- constant pressure, creative blitzes, three sacks (two by Matthews), an interception, forced fumble and multiple 3-and-outs.  Woodson was a beast with 8 tackles, two blocked passes, and two near interceptions -- one of which he would have taken to the house.  If not for Randall Cobb's muffed punt (we'll give him a break since he already spotted us 6) it probably would have been a shut-out performance.

A new use for the Viking horn.
This was the defense we became accustomed to seeing last year, but was off to a slow start through the first half of the season.  Could this be the turning point after which we can expect to see this kind of defense on a consistent basis?  It's difficult to say against a wobbly offense with a rookie starting QB.  But even Adrian Peterson, the Vikings only real weapon these days, was held to only 51 yards rushing.  Meanwhile, the offense was obscene, as usual.

At the very least, we could be ushering in an era of dominance over the Vikings.  We may have finally found a convenient use for that tiresome horn on the side of their helmets -- all the easier to manhandle them by.  If they just added a cup holder and a remote control caddy to the Vikings' helmets, they could become the perfect couch accessory.

The Packers' dominant win came against a backdrop of mediocrity this week.  The Lions embarrassed themselves with 6 turnovers against the Bears.  With Jahvid Best out they can't run, and Matthew Stafford apparently has an injured finger.  The Eagles' season is over.  After losing to the Cardinals at home to drop to 3-6, and potentially losing Vick for a few weeks to two broken ribs, you can stick a fork in that bird.  The 49ers appear to be legit, but it's hard to give them too much credit -- after all, they play in the atrocious NFC West and two of their most impressive wins (on the road against the Lions and Eagles) maybe weren't that impressive after all.  The Saints are good, but any team that can lose to the Rams can't be that good -- plus we have the tie break against them.  That leaves the Giants and Cowboys in the NFC East -- two teams the Packers owned last year.

There are still 7 games left, so it's too early to start speculating about the post-season too much.  Look at the Houston Texans -- with Matt Shaub done for the year, they could quickly drop from the #1 seed in the AFC over the remaining weeks.  Always best to take it one week at a time as the Packers are preaching.  But a convincing win tonight makes me optimistic that things are going exactly according to plan.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Packers’ Peprah Picks a Pack of Philip’s Passes


Unfortunately, he also got burned numerous times for touchdowns.  While his prolific picks may have been prophesized by some, I doubt his poor pass protection was also part of that premonition.  Midway through a still undefeated season, the Packers enigmatic defense continues to be… an enigma.

On the one hand, they’re really good.  They are tough in the red zone.  They lead the league in interceptions with 16.  They took away 3 on Sunday, two for touchdowns and one to ice the game.  As impressive as the Packers’ offense was, it was the Packers’ key defensive plays that won the game.

On the other hand, they stink.  The are the 30th ranked defense in the league, allowing an average of 400 yards per game.  And their points allowed, which was respectable for a while, is now only mediocre – ranking 15th in the league at 22.4 points per game.

You have to assume that the Packers drop off this season in defensive performance is due primarily to the loss of two key players.  On the line, Cullen Jenkins is definitely missed.  His ability to both shut down the run and get pressure on the quarterback is unique.  His absence has resulted in more double teams on Matthews, and reduced sacks overall.  The Packers have only 19 sacks on the season, 17th in the league.

The "WTF!?" shoulder shrug as diagrammed in the Packer playbook
In the secondary, the loss of safety Nick Collins for the season is clearly causing communication breakdowns in coverage.  Both Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah have been consistently out of position, biting on routes and letting receivers get by them at critical times.  They don’t seem to be confident about where each other is on the field – as evidenced by their frequent “WTF!?” looks and accompanying shoulder shrugs.  The combined impact of a lackluster pass rush and miscommunications in the secondary is allowing opposing offenses to rack up both points and yards.

The 14-game winning streak and national media hype is obscuring the defensive lapses that are an increasingly concerning weakness about the 2011 Packers.  So far, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers NFL-leading 34.4 points per game on offense are glossing over the poor showing on defense and keeping the Packers in the win column.

But sooner or later the offense will struggle to put up points.  Though they fared well Sunday against the Chargers 7th-ranked defense, the Packers really haven’t faced any formidable defensive teams so far this year.  All their other opponents rank 14th or lower in total defense with the Saints 15th, Panthers 18th, Bears 25th, Broncos 22nd, Falcons 14th, Rams 23rd, and Vikings 20th.

The defensive deficiencies were something many thought would be shored up after the bye week, following the pattern of last year.  But the Chargers’ 38 points and 470 yards of total offense Sunday proved there is still cause for concern.  The record may be perfect, but the play on defense has been far from it.  And any talk of 16-0 will go out the window if they don’t get it cleaned up.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tebow’s Glorious Debut Overshadows Packers 7-0 Start


The Green Bay Packers held off a fourth quarter rally by the Minnesota Vikings in the dilapidated Mall of America Field (or, as it’s known by locals “Lambeau West”) to remain undefeated on the season.  But the accomplishment was overshadowed Sunday by the first career start of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

“There’s really not much to say about our game when today marked the start of the Tebow era,” said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy in his post-game press conference.  Of Aaron Rodgers’ 335-yard, 3-TD performance, McCarthy said, “Yeah, I guess it was alright, but did you see Tebow make that one scramble?!?”

“We didn’t really want to come out of the tunnel to start the game,” acknowledged a star-struck Rodgers.  “I mean… Tebow was about to lead a come-from-behind victory over the [winless] Dolphins.  We were all just glued to the TV!”
Part of NFL.com's 30-day series on Tim Tebow.

NFL.com, which understandably led with the gripping story of two teams with a combined total of one victory coming into Sunday’s contest, breathlessly applauded Tebow’s “late game heroics” complete with a montage of photos of Tebow’s life accompanied by Queen’s We Are the Champions.  “Just remember where you were today, so you can tell your grandchildren you saw Tim Tebow’s first victory,” said a visibly shaken NFL.com columnist with tears streaming down his face.

Media and public officials around the world rejoiced at the news of the Broncos victory.  A sampling of headlines:

  • “Dolphins Salvage Season with Loss to Tebow” – Miami Herald
  • “Tebow Awarded Honorary Heisman Trophy and Third National Championship After Sunday's Win” – Gainesville Sun
  • “Suck It, Merrill Hodge!” – Denver Post
  • “Sun Life Stadium to Be Re-named Sea of Galilee Stadium After Tebow Walks Over It” – International Herald Tribune
  • “If Only Tebow Were President, He’d Know What to Do” – Washington Post
  • “God Admits: It Should Have Been 'Tim 3:16'” – Christian Science Monitor
Could the Packers go undefeated this year?  Sure, maybe.  But with Tim Tebow on TV, who cares?!?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rams Invoke Mercy Rule, Scrimmage for Second Half

St. Louis Rams Fans Showing Their Colors at a Lambeau Tailgate
The St. Louis Rams exercised a rarely-used clause of the new NFL collective bargaining agreement on Sunday, allowing teams to invoke a "Mercy Rule" if they have absolutely no hope of winning at half time.  Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo threw his white mercy flag, which all NFL coaches are issued along with their red challenge flag, after the teams took the field in the second half -- turning the remaining two quarters into a scrimmage by NFL rules.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do at that juncture in the ball game," said Spagnuolo of his first, though not likely his last, mercy flag of the season.

"We wanted to control the tempo of the game and see if we could force an early mercy flag," commented Packers coach Mike McCarthy in the post-game press conference.  "Our guys told me in the locker room that the last thing they wanted was any more highlights on ESPN in their throwback uniforms.  So I was proud of our guys that they got up 21 points and forced Spags to throw the mercy flag."

Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk helped draw the first mercy flag of the year by flipping "the bird" to the Rams bench in the second quarter.  "I just wanted to send a message that I might end up on SportsCenter wearing those ridiculous khaki pants," said Hawk.  "I just think they [the Rams] could have thrown the mercy flag sooner and we all could have gotten out of there with some dignity."



Speaking of exiting with dignity, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz showed us how it's done Sunday.



In the words of Ron Burgundy, "You stay classy, Detroit."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Packers Express Concerns over "Throwback" Uniforms

Packers Brad Jones and Jordy Nelson... looking ridiculous.
Green Bay Packers players and coaches expressed concerns going into Sunday's match-up against the winless St. Louis Rams.  The furrowed brows around the locker room after Friday's practice had nothing to do with the game plan, player assignments or injury report, instead it was dismay over having to again wear their "historic third jerseys."

"I look freakin' ridiculous in this thing," said offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga, who hopes to return from injury this week.  As he pulled on his dirt-brown helmet, a nearby Packers' PR person explained it was designed to look like leather.  "It looks more like a turd," Bulaga quipped.

"The jersey is kinda cool, I guess," remarked wide receiver Jordy Nelson, "But khaki pants?  I feel like I'm wearing Dockers.  I'm going to the gridiron, not casual Friday in an office park."

Players weren't the only ones expressing concern.  "We had a great week of practice getting the young guys ready to step up," observed offensive line coach James Campen.  "Then we got back to find these things hanging up in our lockers.  It just really breaks your concentration.  I don't know how my guys are supposed to stay focused on their assignments when it looks like they were dressed by their mamas."

Seeking a bright side, some players felt the uniforms could provide an edge on Sunday.  "I ran a cut-back at practice today and B.J. [Raji] just fell to the turf laughing," said Packers running back James Starks.  "These jerseys provide a distraction that will give us an advantage.  Just look at the touchdown run Double D was able to break last year -- the 49ers couldn't tackle him because they were laughing so hard."

Driver himself wasn't so sure.  "I'm not sure I can step out of the locker room wearing this thing again.  It was humiliating last year," said the veteran receiver.  "If anything can make us lose to an 0-4 team, it's looking ridiculous."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The ABCs of the Packers’ Perfect Start


How we learned the ABCs in the Trigg household.

Through 5 games and the Packers’ perfect season remains intact.  It wasn’t the blowout we witnessed the last time McCarthy and company visited Atlanta, and moments in that first quarter were downright tense.  But they emerged victorious and are off to their best start since 1965.  The Packers have started 5-0 six previous times in team history, and each of those previous years culminated in a championship.

The win got my gears spinning about why the Packers have been on an 11-game winning streak dating back to last season.  There are the obvious factors – a stud franchise QB, multiple Pro-bowlers on both sides of the line, and an excellent coaching staff.  But many NFL teams have those factors.  There is a deeper set of less tangible attributes that combined to catalyze last year’s Super Bowl run and have carried over into this year’s quick start, and they were on display Sunday night.  Because I can’t resist a mildly clever little hook, I shall call these the “ABCs of the Packers’ Perfect Start.”

A is for Adjustments – Nobody, with a nod to Bill Belichick and the Patriots, is better at in-game adjustments than the Packers.  Sunday against the Falcons was a classic example – the Falcons came out strong with two long drives that resulted in touchdowns.  Rather than panicking, the Packers’ coaching staff immediately switched into strategy mode on the sidelines.  Players got their new assignments – most notably switching to bump-and-run coverage on the corners (Williams and Shields shut down Roddy White and Julio Jones) and freeing up the inside linebackers to slash into gaps and eliminate the Falcon’s running game.  The Falcons didn’t score again.

B is for Back-ups – The Packers’ story last year couldn’t have been written without their bench, and the Packers’ back-ups are already playing just as important a role this year.  This goes beyond having capable players behind the starters.  This is the NFL, after all – everyone is good or they wouldn’t be in the league.  The Packers not only scout great talent, but they fit that talent into their system – allowing them to continue the same game plan with the “next man up.”  Packer back-ups are not just prepared to play, they prepare as if they are the starter every week.  When Clifton went down Sunday, in came Derek Sherrod at right tackle and Marshall Newhouse shifted to left tackle.  After a hiccup or two, the offense clicked right back into gear and continued their march.

C is for Composure – This is probably the most impossible attribute to teach, and very difficult to identify in a prospective player until he is in game-time circumstances.  Composure is even more elusive in a team sport, where the emotional dynamics of players, incidents, and situations intermingle in very unpredictable ways.  But the Packers have captured it.  They know that they will get every team’s best shot this year – particularly the Falcons, who wanted revenge in what B.J. Raji described as “their Super Bowl.”  To go down 14-0 on the road in a raucous dome on a national stage is not an easy place to be.  But the Packers took the Falcons’ best punch and didn’t flinch.  At no point in that game did the Packers show any crack in their confidence.  They didn’t get flustered.  They didn’t get scared.  They simply made their adjustments, made their plays, and made up for their slow start with 25 unanswered points.

Of course, A is also for Aaron and A.J., B is for B.J. and Bishop, C is for Charles and Clay, and if we got to the J’s that would be Jones, Jennings and Jordy territory.  Every team is the sum of its players.  But this set of players, and the coaches who coach them, have a chemistry that is greater than the sum of the parts.  Like every great team, these players are great not only because of their individual talent, but because of the unique circumstances that enable them to succeed.

Not to get all schadenfreude-ish but to see the inverse of the example set by the Packers, look no further than the Eagles.  Dream teams are not automatic outcomes of a group of outstanding individuals, they are the result of outstanding individuals that fully embrace their role and play together as a team.  The Packers as a team continue their march.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Memo to "Dream Team": You're 1-3!

Some dude in West Chester, PA has a room full of these.
There was a lot of hype around the Philadelphia Eagles coming into this season.  With several key free agent signings and the frenzy around born-again media darling Michael Vick, Philly fans were practically booking their trips to the Super Bowl already.  Heck, even I had to acknowledge the Eagles were making some impressive moves to put themselves in contention.

Funny thing happened on the way to Indy.  After barely squeaking by the as-yet winless Rams on opening day, the Eagles are on a 3-game losing streak.  Evidently anointing oneselves the "Dream Team" does not make it so -- injuries, opponents, and just plain luck have something to do with it.  With the "character" that's been revealed under such adversity (including in-fighting, contract hold-outs, and accusations the refs are biased), this thing could get worse before it gets better.  So don't go buying your "Dream Team" t-shirts just yet, Philly fans!

Meanwhile, the Packers, despite plenty of blemishes of their own, are off to their first 4-0 start since 2007.  I like their tone though -- no swagger, no boasting, no premature t-shirt printing, just focus week after week on what they can improve on.  There's lots to like so far this season.  Some highlights:

  • The offense is ridiculous.  They are #5 by yards (429 per game), but, much more importantly, #1 by points at 37 points per game!
  • Rodgers is sharper than a laser-honed ginsu knife.  He's #1 in the NFL in QB rating at 124.6, he leads the league in plays over 40 yards, and he's #1 in completion percentage (73%!).  Plus, he doesn't appear to have lost any aerodynamics since shaving his handlebar mustache.
  • The receiving corps, as we all knew, is the best in the NFL.  Randall Cobb is making an impact despite a crowded field.  And it was great to see the Packers re-signed Jordy Nelson to a 3-year, $13 million deal.  Now they just need to secure Finley and they will be in great shape for years to come.

The areas for improvement have been mostly on defense.  It's really been a tale of two defenses.  Against the run, the Packers have dominated -- holding opponents to an NFL-second-best 71 yards per game.  But the pass defense has been shredded to the tune of 336 yards per game, 31st in the league.  They've also given up a lot of big plays -- 23 plays of 20+ yards so far this year, which is only topped by the Patriots.  Their take-aways (tied with the Bills for first in interceptions at 8) and red zone defense have enabled them to avoid hemorrhaging points -- their 24.2 allowed per game is 14th in the NFL.

The porous pass defense is a little perplexing, particularly given the strong secondary.  Losing Nick Collins hasn't helped, and Morgan Burnett needs to do a better job of not letting guys get behind him.  But that doesn't seem to be the problem.  A lack of pressure on opposing QBs is a contributing factor as well, although the Packers have logged a respectable 11 sacks so far this season.  So it's a little hard to put your finger on, but clearly Dom and company are on the case and hopefully it will get shored up.

If the offense keeps racking up 37 points per game though, it may not matter.  Even the "Dream Team" will have trouble keeping up with that kind of fire power.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Beating the Bears is So Satisfying

Chicago-style Road Kill
One of my earliest sports memories is watching the Green Bay Packers play the Chicago Bears.  I don't remember quite how old I was, or who the starting quarterback was (probably Lynn Dickey or David Whitehurst), but I remember realizing it was a significant game.  The first Packers game I watched with both my sons (the first from the hospital after the delivery) was against the Bears.  The two games games against the Bears (last year 3) are the ones I, my kids, and every other Packer fan look forward to every season.  And Sunday's victory lived up to all the anticipation that we all expected.

But why is it that a victory over the Bears is so satisfying?  A lot has been written about the Packers-Bears rivalry.  Dating back to 1921, it is the oldest rivalry in the NFL.  Kinda makes the Steelers-Ravens seem lame by comparison.  The two teams have played each other 183 times, with the Bears holding a slight edge, 92-85-6.  But that's not really the reason this rivalry is so sweet.

This is also a rivalry the Packers have dominated in the last 20 years.  Starting with Favre's impressive 20-4 stretch against the Bears between 1992 and 2003, including a 5-year 10 game undefeated streak from 1994 to 1998, the Packers have had the Bears' number.  Rodgers has reinvigorated that dominance, winning 6 of 8 contests against Chicago in his career as a starter.  But that also isn't the reason this rivalry is so satisfying.

No.  The Packers defeating the Bears is so satisfying because it's just so right.  It's what you want to have happen.  It's good vs. evil.  It's small market vs. big market.  It's cheese heads vs. FIBs.  It's the happy ending.  There are a few immutable facts you need to teach your kids.  Capitalism is better than Communism.  Cheddar is the best kind of cheese.  And the Packers are better than the Bears.  Those lessons, along with lifting the seat up when you pee, is all they need for a happy, fulfilled life.

With that said, a few notes from the game:

  • The injury bug continues to circle our heads.  Good news that Bulaga only has a knee bruise/sprain rather than a torn ACL as originally feared.  But that's the third guy to go down in 3 games.  Marshall Newhouse did an admirable job filling in, though.  So, hopefully, they can weather this till Bulaga is healthy again.  Great to see Tramon back.
  • Nice to see Ryan Grant get going.  His 92 yards on 17 carries was key to controlling the game and showed why he's still the starter.  By contrast, Starks, after a lot of work the first two weeks, is probably in McCarthy's dog house after his anemic 0.5-yard per carry average and nearly single-handedly letting the Bears back into the game with his fumble in the 4th quarter.
  • Pressure on Cutler in the first half was non-existent.  It was great that the Packers were able to make some adjustments and get that pressure in the second half -- forcing Cutler into several 3-and-outs accompanied by his usual chorus of "boos" at Soldier Field. 
  • The Bears fake-out punt return near the end of the game was one of the most genius special teams plays I've ever seen.  I can't imagine how irate the Bears' special teams coach was after designing that play, practicing it for hours, whipping it out at the perfect moment, and executing it perfectly -- only to have it called back due to a debatable holding call.  Now everyone will be ready for it.  Not sure it would have won them the game, but, damn, you have to give them props for that.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Update: Collins Done for the Season

Terrible news today -- McCarthy announced Nick Collins' injury is worse than expected.  Prognosis today is that he's likely to be out the entire season.  Obviously wish him all the best for a speedy recovery.  Big loss for the team.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Trap Avoided: Packers Escape Upset

Today's match-up against the Carolina Panthers had "Trap Game" written all over it.  A home opener against a highly motivated opponent with reason for optimism.  Every team this year will give the Packers their best effort, and this one started off rocky.  Cam Newton proved he is legit -- leading his team on an 85-yard opening drive for a touchdown, and finishing the day with 432 yards through the air and another 53 on the ground.  But 4 turnovers by the Panthers proved too much to overcome, allowing Green Bay to avoid the trap and come away with a win.

This was the kind of game the Packers managed to lose last year.  It's a sign of a more veteran, confident team that they were able to overcome the early setbacks to get a win (even if it did come against a team that was 2-14 last year with a rookie quarterback).  Despite the narrow victory, there was a lot to like in Sunday's win, including:

1) Woodson, Woodson, Woodson -- though Steve Smith got away from Charles a few times, including a big 62-yard gain in the 4th quarter, Woodson had one of his signature big impact games, coming up with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.  His play really turned the game around.

2) An effective running game -- the Packers showed they could run the ball with the Grant-Starks tandem racking up 110 yards.  And that credible rushing attack was what opened up the play action and big touchdown catches by Jennings and Nelson.

3) Adjustments -- After the opening drive and a quick turn-over on the ensuing kick-off, Dom Capers' unit re-calibrated and shut down what was working for the Panthers -- intermediate passes to their tight ends.  This is a formation the Packers have trouble with: a mobile quarterback combined with fast, pass-catching tight ends.  But after the first quarter, they shut both TEs out until the fourth.

The Packers didn't panic.  They didn't let themselves succumb to Carolina's momentum.  They stayed the course and got the win -- and wins, any win in the NFL, is hard to come by.  Yet, I think most Packer fans expected this to be an easier win.  So, while I'm not alarmed and a "win is a win" and all that, there are a few causes for concern:

1) Not getting enough of a pass rush -- though the stat sheet shows 4 sacks, at least 2 were Newton running out of bounds.  Matthews hasn't been as disruptive a presence without Jenkins applying a threat.  Pickett left today's game, which made it even harder to get pressure on Newton.  It seems like the Packers pulled back their pressure from the linebackers a bit to get better coverage on Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey (who gouged us on the opening drive).  And the Packers also committed to stopping the run (Williams and Stewart combined for only 19 yards on 11 carries).  But it still felt like Newton had way too much time in the pocket, as Brees did last week.  Hopefully, Pickett and Mike Neal can get back into the lineup to help apply some pressure.

2) Lack of pass coverage -- Our defensive secondary was supposed to be a strength this year.  But they've given up over 400 yards passing a second week in a row.  Granted Tramon Williams was out today, and Nick Collins left the game on a stretcher (thankfully, according to reports, he appears to be OK).  Granted further that the pass defense came up with several big plays, including 3 picks and a force fumble and recovery.  And granted both Brees and Newton appear to be pretty damn good.  But there were several plays where Smith, in particular, was wide open.  I just hope there isn't anything symptomatic in these lapses.

3) Field goals, not TDs -- A 4:1 turnover ratio for the Packers usually means a blow-out, not a narrow one-TD victory.  The reason: the Packers only managed 9 points off those turnovers.  It was close -- Finley could have had one if the ball hadn't squirted out.  But the Packers need to be a little better closing the deal in the red zone.

Overall, the Packers showed great resiliency and resolve.  They are off to a 2-0 start, and they go into next week with a chance to get an early upper hand against the Bears -- although the real team to watch out for in the NFC North appears to be the Lions.  Oh my.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Good News on Tramon Williams

Big sigh of relief... Mike McCarthy reported (via the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Mike Vandermause on Twitter) at his press conference today that Tramon Williams's injury last night was just a shoulder bruise.  I'm sure it hurts like hell, and he may still miss some time.  But obviously much better news than a break or a shoulder separation.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The NFL's Perfect Season Opener

Why are these men smiling?  See section 354.c.iv.
When Roger Goodell and Demaurice Smith signed the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, there was a little-known clause in section 354.c.iv called the "Make Everyone Forget About the Lock-Out with an Opening Game for the Ages" provision.  Goodell and Smith couldn't have scripted a better game if they had literally put it down in ink and certified it with an army of lawyers.  Wow -- what a game!

Let me be clear, I don't like "good games" (meaning close games).  To me, a good game is a Packer blow-out.  The Falcons game in the playoffs was a "good game" -- never in doubt from start to finish.  But from the NFL's perspective, that was a goooooooood game!  The last two Super Bowl champions, facing off at the most historic of NFL venues.  It was a media-palooza -- reaching a hype level in the 72-hour pre-game show that felt almost equal to the buzz of the last NFL game played in Dallas last February.

And the game itself lived up to all that hype -- a 42-34 shoot-out that came down to a final goal line stand on 4th down with no time left on the clock.  It was literally exactly the kind of game the NFL would like every game to be -- high-octane offenses, big plays on defense and special teams, tons of scoring, star players (particularly quarterbacks) who racked up the stats, two (nearly four) kick returns for touchdowns.  It was ridiculous.  Quite possibly a preview of the NFC Championship game.

Here are my observations from week one:

Kid Rock did not rock.

  1. Aaron Rodgers should be illegal.  That first quarter was a quarterback school wrapped in a clinic and deep-fried in an NFL Films-narrated showcase.   Aaron evidently likes the hardware, because he made a strong opening day case for league MVP to go with his Super Bowl MVP... and championship belt.  Even more astonishing is Brees out-gunned him by 100 yards.
  2. The defense bent but didn't quite break.  Giving up 500 yards of total offense and 34 points might be considered more than "bending" (maybe a high-ankle sprain?).  Two fourth-down stands and a fumble recovery are really all that kept that game from being a disappointing loss.  Hopefully that can be attributed to the Saints having one of the most potent offenses, but would like to see a little less porous defense.
  3. Randall Cobb is a stud.  Hitting pay dirt twice in your first NFL game doesn't happen very often (I'm too tired to research exactly how often, but trust me -- it's rare).  That 108-yard kick-off return immediately put him on the map and will force teams to change their game plan in kicking/punting to the Packers.
  4. Kid Rock is a dipshit.  Why the NFL thinks that washed up rock stars performing pre-game or half-time shows is a good idea has never been clear to me.  Memo to Roger: pull the plug.
  5. Fingers crossed the injury bug doesn't strike again.  I don't see a report yet on Tramon Williams, but his injury did not look good.  I would guess he broke a bone from the angle of the hit and the way he was holding it afterwards.  I'm hoping for the best -- would really be a bummer if he missed time.
  6. No one can run with our receivers.  The arsenal of weapons was on full display.  Jennings was on fire.  Jermichael was a monster.  Driver and Nelson were unstoppable.  The only guy who didn't get into the act was James Jones, but he'll have his day.
Happy with the win.  Offense is everything it was billed as.  Mild concerns about the defense, particularly if Tramon is out, but expect that side of the stat sheet to look a lot better in week two against Carolina.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

5 Factors That Could Foil a Packer Repeat

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am presently witnessing the Giants' struggle to repeat as World Series champions -- heck, more like their struggle just to make the playoffs.  Giants fans are frustrated.  They expect another title, based on the heightened expectations of winning it all last year.

Let's face it, as Packers fans we expect the same thing.  We won the Super Bowl.  We had a great draft.  We re-signed most of our key free agents.  And we have a bunch of starters returning from IR.  Why wouldn't we repeat???  Certainly that is the expectation in Vegas, where only the Patriots have better odds (5 to 1 vs 6 to 1 for the Packers) of winning it all.

Of course, we all know the reality is that repeating is extremely difficult, though not impossible.  In fact, the Super Bowl champion has repeated 7 times in the 45 years it has been played (a 15.5% repeat rate), including the Patriots in '04/'05, Broncos in '98/'99, Cowboys in '93/'94, 49ers in '89/'90, Steelers twice in '75/'76 and '79/'80, and, of course, the Packers in '67/'68.  There are many reasons repeating is so difficult -- including the NFL's practice of creating tougher schedules for the teams with the best record the previous season, the high probability of injury to key players, and not to mention the fact that 31 other teams circle the reigning champion as the team to beat.

The other reason repeating is so elusive is that winning the Super Bowl requires considerable luck, even when you are as good as we all believe the 2011 Packers are.  The Packers' ability to overcome an incredible string of bad luck last year (15 players on IR, all 6 regular season losses by 4 points or fewer, 4 with last-second field goals and 2 in overtime) was amazingly rare.  To not win their division, barely make the playoffs as a sixth seed, and win three road playoff games is something we may not again witness in our lifetimes.

So in an attempt to reverse-jinx this season, here are the 5 factors that could blow the Packers' chance to repeat.

The scene no Packer fan wants to see again this season. 
1) Rodgers goes down -- I know this is thinking the unthinkable, but the Packers' chances for a repeat rest squarely on the Super Bowl MVP staying healthy for the full season.  Although Matt Flynn has certainly shown he can play, he would be a first-year QB if he were pushed into significant playing time.  First-year QBs are usually .500 performers, best case -- even when they're really good.  Rodgers was 6-10 his first year as a starter in 2008 on a team that went 13-3 the previous season.

2) Offensive line struggles -- Chad Clifton had an outstanding season last year.  But at age 35 the probability of him playing at that level, without injury for another complete season is low.  If Clifton does go down, I have concerns about Derek Sherrod's ability to fill in.  Not that he can't become a quality left tackle.  It's just that he's a rookie, and he played like one in the pre-season.  The other concern on the O-line is T.J. Lang replacing Daryn Colledge at left guard.  Lang clearly won the starting job over Sherrod, who was obviously not up to the transition inside.  And Lang has been complimented by his teammates for his mean streak and more physical play.  But being a successful guard requires more than being a bad ass.  In fact, intelligence is arguably more important at the position, due to the need to quickly identify and pick up complex blitz packages.  The Packers gave up too many sacks in the pre-season, and if they start looking like the 2009 O-line, we will have problems (see issue #1 above).

3) Can't manufacture a pass rush -- seems like a worrywart concern in a defense that features Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, and Dom Caper's creative blitz schemes, but the ability to replace Cullen Jenkins' pass rushing abilities could prove difficult.  Mike Neal has the task of filling Jenkins' shoes, but Capers will likely look elsewhere for generating QB pressure.  I read in Sports Illustrated that the Packers ran a 2-4 with 5 DBs almost 70% of the time last year.  So it will most likely be somebody else who will have to step up or Matthews will see more double and triple coverage.  Like a lot of Packer fans after the Chiefs game, I'm hoping that Vic So'oto could provide a spark here, but that's probably wishful thinking -- he'll need more development before he becomes a real factor on the field in the regular season.

4) Another rash of injuries -- over-coming the loss of so many players, particularly key starters like Grant and Finley, last year just doesn't happen.  In fact, the Packers had to fight and claw and barely even made the playoffs due to their injury pandemic.  If the Giants hadn't blown that game against the Eagles in epic fashion, they probably would have claimed that 6th playoff spot and we would have all been forced to acknowledge that the rash of injuries was simply too much to overcome.  That can't happen again.  Despite the Packers' depth, no team under normal circumstances can recover from that many injuries.

5) Can't establish a consistent rushing game -- this is lower on my list of concerns, but there is uncertainty in the running attack.  Grant coming back full-steam from last year's injury is a question mark.  Starks is dynamic, but won't be surprising anyone anymore and needs to improve in pass protection on third down.  And Alex Green is still showing plenty of rookie green-ness.  Of course, I feel a lot better about their running back situation than I did after Grant went down last year, but this trio needs to find a groove even as they share carries.

Despite these concerns, Packers fans have every reason to feel bullish about this season.  The mindset of the Packers seems to be focused.  In spite of winning a Super Bowl, they still seem to have a chip on their shoulders.  They still seem to be playing like they have something to prove.  And I look forward to seeing that determination on the field starting with the Saints at Lambeau Field this Thursday night.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Packer Roster Deep on TEs and LBs

The cut down to the 53-man roster is complete. There were a few surprises -- I thought most notably the cutting of QB Graham Harrell and WR Chastin West. Both could end up on the practice squad, but I suspect they will be claimed off waivers by other teams before ever returning to the Hudson Center.

The Packers kept atypical depth at the positions of tight end (keeping 5) and linebacker (keeping 10). They also have 10 defensive backs, but only 8 offensive linemen. Scuttlebutt seems to be that Ted will try to claim a guard off waivers or via trade. Of the guys remaining on the roster, I think LB Jamari Lattimore and DB M.D.Jennings might be vulnerable if they need to make room for another O lineman -- something I think they need to do, incidentally.

It's an exciting roster, loaded with athleticism at every position. Where I foresee noticing this depth this year will be on special teams. The Packers have a long list of big guys who can run -- impressive set of TEs and LBs. The guys on the bubble all seem to realize that special teams is where they can get noticed, and are, therefore, focused on making an impact there. Combine the addition of a potentially dynamic return man in Randall Cobb and the impressive punting ability of Tim Masthay, and special teams could be a dramatically improved area in 2011.

Also notable is the presence of 10 rookies on the roster. The fact the Super Bowl champions would return a team of nearly 20% rookies testifies to how firmly they believe in youth and player development for sustaining excellence. Hard to argue with this philosophy given it's success. Will be exciting to see who from this crop emerges as the next batch of young stars.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tough Cuts to 53-Man Roster

Ted Thompson will pare the 2011 Packers down to 53 players tomorrow. Given the Packers' incredible depth, there will be some very tough decisions -- not to mention plenty of NFL teams anxious to pick up our cast-offs. Here are the key decisions as I see them.

1) Keep 3 QBs -- last year the Packers got by with just 2 QBs on the active roster, but don't think they can do that this year. Graham Harrell is too good to sit on the practice squad without another team scooping him up. Plus, with Flynn becoming a free agent next year, the Packers can't risk Harrell slipping away. One roster spot occupied.

Brett Swain and Russell Brand.  The same guy???
2) Keep 5 or 6 WRs -- this is a really tough call. The top 5, including Cobb, are a lock (those agitating for a Driver cut are crazy in my opinion). But I would not be surprised to see one of the young studs, like Tori Gurley or Chastin West stay on as a 6th WR -- particularly justifiable since Cobb is their likely returner.  I'd keep West.  His game against Arizona was impressive, with five receptions for 134 yards including that 97-yard touchdown.  He caught every pass thrown his way and showed breakaway speed on the score.  Made me sad to lose Brett Swain, by the way -- he always kinda reminded me of Russell Brand. Sweet 'do.  And I always kept expecting him to say something funny in a British accent.

3) Keep 4 or 5 TEs -- another very tough call. Tom Crabtree and Ryan Taylor would seem to be the candidates for cuts, but keeping TEs is easy to justify since they often contribute on special teams and could fill in at FB if needed. Personally, I'd probably like to see them go to 4 here, though I don't know who I'd cut either. Probably Taylor -- Crabtree's brawler mentality is just too sweet.

4) Keep 8 or 9 LBs -- I think the TE and LB conversations will be intertwined, since the second string guys at both positions make good special teamers. Vic So'oto appears to be the man. He is this year's Sam Shields -- an undrafted free agent rookie who could immediately become a high impact player. Don't know how Thompson finds these guys but God bless him. That leaves Frank Zombo and Robert Francois most likely on the bubble. Zombo would be a lock if it weren't for the broken shoulder blade. Very, very tough decision but I would probably let Francois go -- just doesn't seem as big impact as the other guys.

The rest of the positions, particularly on defense, seem pretty straight forward as to who will still be wearing a Packer uniform come Sunday.  I'm sure it will be a long discussion, but it will be interesting to see who stays on for the 2011 campaign.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Football is the Best Sport

TriggPack West team scouting the Raiders for week 14.
I attended my first NFL game in-person this week.  Granted it was a pre-season game.  Granted it was the 49ers against the Raiders in one of the most decrepit venues in the NFL, Candlestick Park.  But, after a long and uncertain off-season, I was psyched to see a game -- particularly when it was free seats in the first row on the 50-yard line, courtesy of my buddy Mark.

As I soaked in the ambiance of an NFL game, I found myself marveling at how fully awesome football is. Like a Minnesotan tucking into a deep-fried Twinkie, I just can't get enough.  I've been lapping up pre-season games with an intensity usually reserved for the playoffs. You'd think after the whole lock-out thing there might be some lingering bitterness. A slight diminishing of enthusiasm coming into the season. Instead I, like most NFL fans, am greeting the start of football like a rabid hyena clawing for zebra scraps.

It all begs the question: why exactly is football so awesome? Well, there are lots of factors, but I've boiled it down to 3 fundamental reasons.  The 3 "S's":

One thing that's not scarce: deep-friend Twinkies at Mall of America
1) Scarcity.  The fact there are only 16 games in the regular season distinguishes it from every other team sport.  No question one of the most critical factors in the NFL's success is it's scarcity.  Every single game matters, and matters greatly.  A 16-game stretch in the NBA or MLB is like a long road trip. Teams like the Mariners go on 16-game losing streaks.  The Astros are 34 games out of first place in their division.  34 games!  That's more than two full seasons of football.  Even for die-hard baseball and basketball fans, it's hard to get very worked up until the games mean something in the playoffs.  Even then, they have 7-game series -- that's half the season in football.  Soccer is worst of all.  Nobody knows when a season is even happening, and just when you think a game actually matters, it turns out to just be a friendly with all the star players off with their national teams.  A 16-game season, though my addiction wishes there were more, is perfect -- keeping us glued to every game and every play.

2) Strategy.  There is so much planning and preparation that goes into each NFL game.  Sure, other sports have "plays" too -- like when a basketball guard holds up a number 1 finger as he comes down court.  It must be hard for players to remember which of the two play options they are supposed to run.  Football teams have hundreds of plays.  For every play, eleven players on each side of the ball need to know where to go in 40 seconds.  Each play requires meticulous preparation, studying playbooks and practicing it on the field.  And each play has hundreds of hours of analysis behind it -- with dozens of coaches, scouts, and assistants combing through tape of their competition to determine the exact time to call the exact right play.  The results of all that strategic planning, and the players' ability to execute the strategy, directly determines the outcome of the game.  Unlike basketball, you can't just give the ball to LeBron James every play.

Civil War picnickers before the advent of NFL Sunday Ticket.
3) Savagery.  It's often stated that football is a violent game.  But "violence" isn't quite the right word.  "Savagery" isn't either but it starts with "S" so I'm going to use it -- plus, I think it more accurately captures what I see as the appeal of football's "physicality."  Violence to me means bloodshed and broken bones.  There are plenty of more violent sports, like UFA or pitbull fighting, that hold no widespread appeal.  No -- it's not the violence.  It's the scale of the violence.  (Maybe "Scale" would have been a better third "S.")  Nothing else offers eleven individual simultaneous hand-to-hand battles.  A one-on-one fist fight will draw a crowd, but when it's 11-on-11, or more like 45-on-45, there is some shit goin' down!  That's more akin to a bar fight.  Or a riot.  Like an army of gladiators charging at each other, you just don't turn away from football.  The scale of human conflict you are about to witness is just too fascinating.  It's like picnickers at the outbreak of the Civil War.  They were compelled to watch -- though many of them probably realized later it might have been preferable to catch that one on DirecTV.  You don't turn the channel on football.

There you have it: the three basic reasons that you'll be glued to your TV every Sunday through February.  It doesn't matter how much they strike.  It doesn't matter how much money they make.  It doesn't matter how much they mis-behave off the field.  You may be disgusted at times, but you watch.  You have to watch.  It's just too compelling.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cobb Impresses in Packers' Pre-Season Debut

The fun thing about pre-season games is evaluating individual players. Determining which new additions to the roster might make the cut, and, more importantly, make an impact. Rookie Randall Cobb showed encouraging signs of being one of those impact players the Packers hoped he was when they drafted him.

The Kentucky product could give a real boost to our return game, which was fairly anemic last year through a rotating door of return men. Cobb had two nice kick returns out nearly to the 30 both times, and showed elusiveness and sure hands, though no yards, in his one punt return. Cobb also lead Packer receivers with 3 receptions for 60 yards, including a beautiful quick cut up the field on a 5-yard crossing pattern that netted 28 yards and nearly a TD.

Cobb could be a perfect addition to an already potent receiving corps. His speed, cutting ability and good hands will present match-up nightmares for opposing defenses. They will need to cover him with a corner, and particularly in a 4-receiver set, that corner isn't likely to be very good. Cobb will either be open or he will open up something for another receiver. And his impact on the return game could be dramatic. Even if he averages just a few more yards per return, it will make a big difference in field position. And if he breaks one or two this season for scores, those are the kind of plays that decide games.

Another player I was watching closely was Derek Sherrod. He and T.J. Lang are in a dead heat to replace Colledge at the left guard position. Sherrod looked good and sounds very comfortable at the guard position, despite playing only tackle at Mississippi State. Sherrod and Lang actually were both in the game with the second team, rotating between the left guard and tackle positions. And, with the exception of a blown blitz pick-up which resulted in a sack, fumble and return for a touchdown, they both played well. One will start and the other looks start-able should the other guy or Clifton get injured.

Other players who stood out Saturday against the Browns included James Starks -- who only had 2 carries but looked to be back into his beastly form, blowing guys backwards for gains of 5 and 9 yards. Starks is just one of those guys who seems to stride 2-3 yards with every step, breaks multiple tackles, and finishes every run falling forward for several additional yards. He and Grant will give us one of the most high-impact running back tandems in the league.

Matt Flynn also had a nice night. He finished 11/18 for 126 yards and a TD with no interceptions. He clearly has a full command of the offense, calling audibles at the line several times based on his reads. He has the arm strength and accuracy to make tough throws. And he has great poise for a young player -- efficiently leading the Packers on a 9-play, 89-yard touchdown drive with less than two minutes left before halftime. As Flynn showed last year against the Patriots, he can effectively lead the Packers in the event Rodgers goes down -- which in the era of concussion sensitivity (which I support, by the way) will be increasingly likely.

Overall, it was great to see the Packers back on the field. Although they didn't win, the only mild concern was watching the first-team defense give up a touchdown (granted, it was 3rd stringer Pat Lee who gave up the TD catch). It all whets the appetite for the regular season opener against the Saints on September 8. Can't wait!









Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jones and Kuhn Staying Home

Free agency continues to be fast and furious.  Yesterday brought some good news with the re-signing of receiver James Jones and fullback John Kuhn.  Jones' return is particularly welcome news.  I thought he was all but gone, but he's back in what is shaping up to be a nasty receiving corps.  The return of all 5 WRs, plus the addition of rookie Randall Cobb, who was apparently lighting it up in practice, and the return of Jermichael Finley, should make the Packers passing game a juggernaut.

Cobb feels to me like he could have a similar impact as the Vikings' Percy Harvin, hopefully without the migraines.  Harvin had speed, quickness, and hands that enabled him to make an immediate impact and create mis-matches as DBs lined up against their bigger receivers.  I'm hoping Cobb may also be able to finally add some punch to our return game.

So far, the Packers have lost five players to free agency, including DE Cullen Jenkins (Philadelphia), guards Daryn Colledge (Arizona) and Jason Spitz (Jacksonville), RB Brandon Jackson (Cleveland) and FB Korey Hall (New Orleans).  Jenkins and Colledge are the two most concerning losses.  Replacing Jenkins worries me less.  He's 30 and has been getting injured more and more often the last few years.  Plus, with some potentially promising young DEs, including Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn, they had some backfill.

Colledge, though un-spectacular has been steady.  And with Spitz leaving as well, their depth at offensive guard is shallow.  First-round draft pick Derek Sherrod has been practicing with the first team offense at Colledge's left guard position, and is the presumptive opening day starter -- even though he played exclusively at the left tackle position in college.  But the Packers lack many other options, besides T.J. Lang and Nick McDonald, and Sherrod sounds confident he can pick up the new role.


Not surprisingly, given Thompson's philosophy, the Packers haven't made any splashy free agency moves.  But a major difference for the Packers is the number of players they will have returning from IR.  Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Brad Jones and Morgan Burnett are all impact players who should be back in the starting line-up week 1.  If these were all new players we'd signed via free agency, we'd all be pretty psyched.  So I don't necessarily expect or covet any big free agent signings in the next few weeks.  Instead, I look forward to seeing which young players will emerge as this year's B.J. Raji or Clay Matthews.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Eagles Hunting for Bear... or Packers

I normally don't comment much about other teams in this blog, unless it's to taunt the Vikings on firing of their coach, or their stadium implosion, or their general status as a society...  Let me re-phrase that, with the exception of the Vikings... or Bears, I don't normal comment much about other teams on this blog.  But what the Philadelphia Eagles have engineered in free agency the last 48 hours is nothing short of impressive.

Sometimes you are just ready for championship... or a piss.
Let's break this down for a second: Eagles lose home divisional playoff game to the Packers, decide they need to get active in the free agency market to get over the proverbial hump -- a hump, incidentally, the Eagles have been stuck on for the better part of 50 years.  Apart from losing appearances in Super Bowls XV and XXXIX, the Eagles haven't tasted a championship since 1960.  That's quite a dry spell.  If the Packers had gone 51 years without a championship (not to mention 0-for-2 in the Super Bowl era), we would all be getting a little antsy -- almost as antsy as this die-hard Eagles fan was to find a porta-potty without a line.

After their humbling loss to end the 2010 campaign, the Eagles wasted no time, after a short 5-month lock-out, in stacking up their defense.  And their moves have been almost as impressive as the squatting pose struck by this fan.  First was the deal everyone was anticipating, shipping Kevin Kolb to Arizona in exchange for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.  Great move -- particularly once they signed Vince Young to a one-year deal to back up Vick.  Kolb's style was very different than Vick's.  And if/when Vick gets hurt, which I suspect he will, Vince is a much better back up that doesn't force them to change the way they call the offense.  Shrewd.  If this were the only move the Eagles made, it would have been a big upgrade.  But they weren't done.

Yesterday came the news that the Eagles had landed the top free agent prize of the year: Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.  Asomugha had gone somewhat forgotten in Oakland, but his skills are un-questioned.  Dallas, NY Jets and Houston were rumored to be the most likely destinations, but the Eagles swooped in and stole perhaps the top corner in the league.  Him, coupled with Cromartie and, presumably, a re-signed Asante Samuels will instantly give the Eagles one of the most high-octane defensive secondaries in all of football.  But they still weren't done.

This is when it really touches Packer nation -- today the Eagles announced the signing of our very own Cullen Jenkins.  Jenkins fits very well with their defense and should have plenty of time to get to the quarterback with their newly-signed shut-down corners.  I'm not sure I would have given a 5-year, $25 million contract to a 30-year-old defensive end, but it was one of the last missing pieces for the Eagles defense.

Eagles fan sending a message: "Get the beer guy!"
Clearly the Eagles are sending a message: we're not going to be runners up again.  We're blowing our wad this year to make a run at this thing.  Anything less than a Super Bowl championship will be a disappointment. And Eagles fans are sending a message too -- you can practically hear them shouting, "Get me anutha' cheesesteak!" and "Whadda you lookin' at!" and "The line fo' da pissa is way too freakin' long!"

Whether this will be enough to finally get the Eagles past the Packers and on to Super Bowl glory, time will tell.  But if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that this classy fan base finally deserves a Lombardi trophy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shaky and Peanut Sign with Packers

Packers fans can rest assured that we won’t be resting on our laurels through the frenzy of free agent signing this week.  The Green Bay front office announced that the highly coveted Shaky Smithson, WR from Utah, and Peanut Joseph, NT from Temple – both undrafted free agents – have landed with the Packers.

Is this the future for Shaky and Peanut???
Although “Shaky” may not be the most re-assuring name for a wide receiver, at least he’s not a brain surgeon.  Or a calligrapher.  And while one might hope for more of a "Brazil nut" or "Macademia" for a nose tackle, “Peanut”, a name presumably appropriate for its irony, could add some depth behind B.J.  Most likely scenario is none of these guys make the team, but Sam Shields was plucked from last year’s undrafted free agent class, and now he has a Super Bowl Ring… as a neck tattoo.

So who am I to judge?

Other than Shaky and Peanut, the Packers dive into the free agency mosh pit hasn’t had many surprises.  In case you’re out of date, here are the highlights:

  • Nick Barnett was cut.  No real surprise – saved the Packers $5 million in salary for a guy who is probably past his prime, is injury prone, and, in all likelihood, would be a back-up to Hawk and Bishop.  
  • Daryn Colledge, as expected, is almost certainly leaving via free agency .  It would be great to re-sign him, but the salary could be a hard nut to swallow and it sounds like he’s already out the door.  I’m a little concerned about the O-line.  Not quite sure what their plan is for back-filling him.
  • Mason Crosby was re-signed to five-year deal worth $14.75 million, including $3 million guaranteed – making him one of the most highly paid kickers in the NFL.  I like Crosby.  Not sure I like him that much, but I’m not GM.
The two biggest question marks remain Cullen Jenkins, who we all assume is gone (Redskins being the leading candidate), and James Jones.  Rodgers put in a strong case to bring Jones back today stating, "James is extremely talented and he's a guy that I think we need to bring back without a doubt. He should be priority No. 1 and I mean that with all my heart. He really should be priority No. 1. We don't win the Super Bowl without him and we need him."

My gut is Jones doesn’t come back, but you never know – there are several big-name WRs in the free agent pool this year, so Jones may discover he can’t get what he thinks he can get, and return to an heir-apparent #2 in Green Bay after Double-D retires.  I’d like to see him stay.  Maybe they can give him some of the money that Barnett and Colledge won’t be getting.

Stay tuned to TriggPack or risk missing more breaking news, like the Shaky and Peanut story.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

HALLELUJAH!!!

Brown County officials welcome the end of the NFL lock-out.
It's finally over.  Months of bickering, animosity and greed finally culminated in what most observers figured would ultimately prevail: common sense.  There was simply too much money at stake for the two sides not to agree.  The league generates $9 billion per year today, but, barring an unexpected groundswell in Australian Rules Football that steals away TV audiences, the NFL will generate well over $100 billion over the 10-year life of this deal.  That's a lot of cheddar.  They had to get a deal done.

As a quick side rant, our friends in Washington D.C. would be well-served to follow the NFL's lead.  It's a sad statement that the NFL owners and players association look reasonable and mature compared to our federal elected officials.  One of many differences between a business and the federal government is that a business can see and measure when it is destroying its own equity through its own obstinance and idiocy.  The government can't -- at least not until our bonds get downgraded to junk status.  Regardless of your political leanings, there's really only one word that can be applied to Washington D.C.: dysfunctional.  Maybe we just need Jeff Saturday to get in there and give John Boehner a big 'ol hug.

Can't the politicians just hug it out like the NFL?
Back to football... tomorrow and the ensuing week or so is going to be unprecedented in terms of player movement.  And, unfortunately for the Packers, many of those players may be moving out the door.  The only Packer free agent who seems like a lock to re-sign is Mason Crosby.  Two of the most painful, and most likely, departures will be Cullen Jenkins and Daryn Colledge.  Given the up-and-coming young players the Packers have at both these positions, I'm not sure I'd pony up what either guy will command in the open market.  But both could leave big holes if the younger guys fail to step up.


The next crop of losses that will hurt but are more survivable are James Jones, Brandon Jackson, and either Korey Hall or John Kuhn.  Jones gets a bad rap among Packers fans for his untimely drops this season, but he will be hard to replace.  Randall Kobb could be good, but he's unproven and has a very different body type -- not really a replacement.  Jackson feels more expendable, assuming Grant returns to health and Starks keeps rolling.  Suspect Kuhn and/or Hall will be re-signed since there isn't a frothy market for FBs, but both are unrestricted free agents and could get scooped away.

Finally, there are several back-up defensive players who could exit in seek of starting roles elsewhere, including Nick Barnett, Atari Bigby, Matt Wilhelm, Brady Poppinga, and Brandon Underwood.  None of these guys would be big losses, and several could easily be re-signed if they don't find a new home in this compressed free agent period.  But more players out means a loss of depth and continuity that was key to the Packers weathering the perfect storm of injuries last year, which happens many years.

Unfortunately, I don't hear the Packers coming up in the discussion for many top free agent prospects.  This comes as no surprise, given Ted's inclination to build via the draft rather than free agency.  There are no glaring holes that they need to fill, although there may be some backfilling to do.  But it would be fun to see the Packers make some moves in next few days/weeks.  As reigning Super Bowl champions, they have a persuasive selling point to lure players they want.

CAN'T WAIT FOR THE SEASON!!!





Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It Is Time.

There were many spectacular moments in the Packers' Super Bowl victory, but one of my favorites wasn't discovered until I watched the replay of the game, complete with sideline cameras and microphones, on NFL Network.  It was linebacker coach Kevin Greene telling Clay Matthews, "It is time... It is time!"  On the next series, Matthews applied the hit that forced the fumble that probably won the game.  Spectacular.

NFL owners and players would be well advised to heed these words: IT IS TIME!  The ridiculousness of this lock-out has lasted long enough.  We are at the deadline.  If the two sides don't ratify this new agreement this week, missing games is a near certainty.  There's no more time for negotiation.  There's no more time for posturing in the media.  It is time to finally do what they should have done months ago -- get a new collective bargaining agreement and get on with football.  Damn it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

With the 233rd Pick in the Draft, the Packers Select… some Random "Guy"

Rounds 4-7 of the NFL Draft are a little different than the first 3 rounds.  As you go deeper into the draft board, the predominant reaction as the picks are announced is… “Who??”

Not being nearly as big a fan of the college game as I am the NFL game, I needed to do some research on the Packers’ last 7 selections in the 2011 draft.  Everyone hopes to find some diamonds in the rough in these later picks.  The reality, of course, is that some of them may not even make the team.  But if we get a Sam Shields or two out of this crop, we should all be happy.

The X-factor that is very hard to determine from game film is a players’ character.  The Packers have consistently selected players with integrity, determination, and self-confidence without overly large egos.  Perfect example, if you haven’t seen it already, is this ESPN story about Packers’ 5th-round pick D.J. Williams from Arkansas.



Guys who can overcome this upbringing have the character to make it in the NFL.  The Packers obviously felt they could find some gems late in the draft as they traded down to amass three picks in the 6th round and two more in the 7th.  Here’s my breakdown of the remaining picks.

Davon House, CB, New Mexico St. (Round 4, Pick 131)

I like this pick.  Some boards had him as high as a second-round pick.  He has good size, plays bump-and-run press coverage, and should challenge the Packers’ back-up DBs to be their dime back.  House fits well with the Packers’ defense and has the athleticism to contribute on special teams as well.  Good example, like Shields, of getting a gifted athlete.  I also like the selection of a DB.  We needed a little competition on the depth chart.

D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas (Round 5, Pick 141)

Since seeing the video above, this guy is one of my favorites.  Thompson evidently has an affinity for guys named “D.J.” since he picked two of them this draft.  Williams was seen as one of the top 3-4 TE prospects in the draft.  Like House, his skill set fits very well with the Packers offense – great hands and speed who creates match-up problems.  He can also play in the fullback or halfback position, which presents some intriguing possibilities.  One analysis described drafting Williams in the 5th-round as “highway robbery.”  Certainly, with Finley back, and Quarless’s maturation, the Packers have an elite set of lethal weapons at TE.

Caleb Schlauderaff, OL, Utah (Round 6, Pick 179)

This was no steal, but it does add depth at a position we will likely need help at if Colledge and Spitz are lost.  Schlauderaff reportedly has great toughness and work ethic, along with a “mean streak” which I like to see in offensive linemen.   It’s not clear if he’s got the skills to be a true starter.  Frankly, it’s not clear he’s got the skills to even make the team.  But he should provide depth and some options at the interior of the Packers’ O-line.

D.J. Smith, LB, Appalachian St. (Round 6, Pick 186)

Many prognosticators (myself included) expected the Packers to select an OLB sooner in this draft.  But at least we added someone to the mix.  Smith is small, and certainly not obviously better than any of our other various options for OLB.  Some speculate he may be better suited to play inside, or may just be a special teams player.  Thompson commented on the pick, “What I like most about him, is his name is D.J.”

Ricky Elmore, DL/OLB, Arizona (Round 6, Pick 197)

By this point in the draft, you’re really taking flyers on guys.  But Elmore could be worth the flyer.  He again grades out high on the character quotient – with a reportedly “strong motor” and never-say-quit attitude.  Several mock drafts had us taking another Arizona pass rusher and Clay Matthews look-alike, Brooks Reed.  But Elmore actually out-produced Reed over their respective college careers, with Elmore logging a Pac-10 best 21.5 sacks over the 2009-2010 seasons.  Again, should add depth and competition at training camp and has great potential up-side.

Ryan Taylor, TE, North Carolina (Round 7, Pick 218)

The Packers like their tight ends, and have selected many great ones.  Taylor apparently caught the eye of the Packers scouts and coaches, and could make the team as a fourth TE.  There will be plenty of competition, with at least 6 guys (including Crabtree and Havner) by my count coming into training camp.   It’s possible the Packers see his value as mostly on special teams – Taylor was a special teams captain at North Carolina.

Lawrence Guy, DT, Arizona State (Round 7, Pick 233)

The appropriately named “Guy” wasn’t the last pick in the 2011 Draft (that honor went to Cheta Ozougwu from Rice with the 254th selection by the Texans), but at pick #233 he was pretty close.  It’s an honor to be selected at all, but, statistically speaking, the likelihood of some “Guy” making an impact, or even making the team, as a 7th-round pick is low.  That said, Thompson and his team have shown they can find great value deep on the board.  I would not have guessed that defensive line, one of the areas I thought we needed most, was a position we would wait to select till the last round.  But this “Guy” has the potential to be a surprise value.  He’s big and athletic and probably could have gone higher in the draft.  If nothing else, he will, hopefully, motivate Neal, Wilson and other Packers’ defensive tackles to step it up.

My overall reaction to the draft was positive.  It was more heavy on offense than I expected.  Although we addressed them late, I wish we had selected some more promising players at DT and OLB.  That said, there are several players with upside potential.  And the “best-available” approach that has served us well in the past could have been an effective philosophy again this year.  Can't wait to see these guys in camp, assuming we ever sort out this labor mess.