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.