Monday, November 12, 2012

Finally Some Luck in the Bye Week

It's difficult not to draw comparisons between the 2012 season and 2010 season.  Maybe that's just me consoling myself -- trying to muster up some degree of re-assurance that we can overcome the loss of so many starters.  By my count, we are currently down 10-12 starters due to injury: some are on IR (Desmond Bishop, Bryan Bulaga, Nick Perry, D.J. Smith); some we hope to get back later this season (Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson); and some we hope to get back in the next couple weeks (Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, John Kuhn, Jerel Worthy, Sam Shields).  Whether this is 10 or 12 depends if you count D.J. Smith and Jerel Worthy (both, technically, not starters at the outset of the season but beginning to fill/take that role).  Regardless, that's a lot of impact players -- nearly half the starting team.

Any way you slice it, that's a lot of adversity to overcome.  But the attitude in the locker room, as in 2010, seems to be good.  Next man up.  And it has been encouraging to see young guys like Casey Hayward, Dezman Moses, and M.D. Jennings step into the void and make an impact.  It was also encouraging to see James Starks and Alex Green pick up their game last week.  And James Jones and Randall Cobb have risen to the occasion as well.

Fortunately, we finally got some good news during our bye week.  While our players recuperated, the rest of the NFL played out as well as we could have hoped:

  • The Bears finally met an opponent with a winning records and fell like a cheap tent.
  • The Giants lost and just looked miserable doing it.  Can't get punk-slapped by the Bengals.
  • The 49ers kissed their sister with a tie against the Rams.  Not as sweet as a loss, but we'll take it.
  • The Falcons finally lost one of about 8 games they easily could have lost this season.
  • The Cowboys beat the Eagles in the Mediocrity Bowl.
  • The Vikings sent the Lions back to Detroit, the team that may still worry me the most in the NFC North.

The only team we might care about (in terms of tie-breaker scenarios) that didn't lose is the Seahawks.  But overall, this bye week couldn't have gone better -- with all our key rivals for divisional and conference supremacy taking a step back.

We're going to need a little luck, because the Packers are going into the season-defining stretch of their schedule, with 4 division games in the next 5 weeks (and the 5th is against the Giants).  The Packers have the chance to get the upper hand on the NFC North and the inside track on the post-season, if they can continue their winning streak through this stretch -- or at least win 4 of 5.  With 3 losses already, the Packers could possibly afford a loss or two and still be in good shape for the post-season.  It will be hard, with the injury bug in full-force, but all these are win-able games.

Keep your fingers crossed that rather than folding to this adversity, that this year's team channels the 2010 team's determination and gets this season fully back on track.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pack on Track

I, like many Packer fans, was getting a little panicky after the Colts loss last week.  It felt like the season could suddenly be in question.  That another road loss to the undefeated Texans could send us reeling.  Aaron Rodgers's response?  "Shhhhh..."

The Packers came out with both fists blazing Sunday night.  Part of it was the law of averages -- after so many bad calls and bizarre plays this season, the luck of the draw finally seemed to be on our side with multiple Houston mistakes and 3 Packer take-aways.  But with Jennings, Benson and Raji out, Finley limited, and Williams, Shields and Perry leaving the game with injuries, the Packers still put a beat-down on the team many thought was the best in the NFL -- demonstrating on national television why they should still be in the discussion for Super Bowl favorites.

Rodgers' 338-yard, 6 touchdown performance was epic (bonus for me: he's on my fantasy team as well!).  Putting the league on notice that even with half his horses nursing injuries, Rodgers can shred one of the best defenses in the NFL.  In fact, by yards allowed, the Texans were the top defense in the league coming in to Sunday.  Which brings us to a very important point: the Packers have faced some seriously talented defenses so far this season -- having now played 4 of the top 5 defenses in the NFL: the Texans, 49ers, Cowboys, Bears, and Seahawks.  One might reasonably expect the offense to struggle at times against these opponents.

As emphatic as Sunday's win was, the Packers need to maintain their intensity over the next 3 weeks.  The Rams in St. Louis next week are always tough, and have a very stout defense (#7 in the league).  Then the Jaguars and Cardinals at home, and the Cardinals also are very solid defensively (#10 in the league).  If Green Bay can hold serve through these three games, they would go into their bye week 6-3 and in very reasonable shape to contend for the NFC North.  But it will be a battle.  With 5 of their last 7 games against NFC North opponents, the season will likely be decided late.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Maybe We're Just Not That Good

This is what I remember thinking after the Packers lost to the Redskins on October 10, 2010 on a last-second field goal.  The Packers lost several of their players to injury that game, and it seemed like a downward turn in the season.  That feeling was amplified when the Packers lost again at home the following week to the Dolphins.  And that's how I felt today -- questioning whether the Packers are really as good as everyone thought.

This game was on ice.  A 21-3 lead at halftime against the worst team in the NFL last year with a rookie quarterback.  But two key injuries to Benson and Raji seemed to sway the game -- making the Packers one-dimensional (except for Green's long run in the fourth quarter) and resulting in 5 sacks in the second half, while the Colts were able to consistently rush the ball, setting up Reggie Wayne for big gains.

The Packers defense continues to be a work in progress.  They just don't seem to be able to get the stops when they need them.  Shields was inconsistent -- some nice plays, but victimized too much including a critical 25-yard pass interference penalty.  Nobody in the secondary seemed to be able to tuck away interceptions.  Although Casey Hayward got one, the usually sure-handed Tramon Williams dropped at least two, as did Woodson.  Luck is good, but no defense should be picked apart by a rookie.  He finished with 362 yards of passing.  Ugh.  Feels like this is going to be another long season on the defensive side.

The offense, which operated like a the well-oiled machine we've come to expect in the first half, completely stalled in the second half.  The inability to run the ball after halftime made the Packers look inept.  They just couldn't get anything going.  It was like a different team.  Were they over-confident?  Did they mail it in for the second half?  Were the injuries to Benson and Finley too much to overcome? I just don't have answers to these questions.  But if, as a team, they are so precarious, it does not bode well for the season.

Going to Houston to face the undefeated Texans next week is going to be a tough order.  We could be staring at 2-4.  And the NFC is going to be tough this year.  Just in our division, the Bears, Vikings and Lions all are looking good.  The Falcons and 49ers are rolling.  It's still early to hit the panic button -- after all, they managed to come back from a 3-3 start in 2010 to win the Super Bowl.  But they better get it going here soon, or it could be a challenge to even make the playoffs.

Monday, October 1, 2012


That was close.  A 1-3 start would have been a problem.  And we were, once again, only one or two calls from it going the other way.  McCarthy's relief was palpable.  Although it was impressive that the Packers were able to put the Seattle debacle behind them (at least in their offensive performance), hopefully the Saints game served as a "teaching moment" for the team.  Key take-aways:

  1. Replacement refs can still screw you over -- three really big mistakes by the "real" officials: the push-off against Morgan Burnett on the Saints' opening touchdown, the un-willingness to over-turn Jimmy Graham's catch that was clearly pinned between his ass and the ground, and the failure to call Sproles's fumble on the kick-off return.  All atrocious.  The crowd at Lambeau was seething.  God help them if those calls had been made by replacement officials.
  2. Be more prudent with your challenges -- I find McCarthy can be a little aggressive with the challenges at times.  His first challenge seemed to be more of a time-out than a challenge.  That seemed unlikely to be over-turned.  His second challenge was more sound and he had to throw the flag, but when it didn't get over-ruled he was done.  And, of course, that decision almost cost the Packers the game when they were out of challenges and could not get another look at what even the most brain-dead replay official could see was a Sproles fumble that would have sealed the game.  I, by the way, think it's time to update the challenge rule, but will save that for another rant.
  3. Zone defense sucks -- last week in Seattle it was the offense that was stubborn to adjust their game plan as Seattle mauled Rodgers in the first half, but they eventually did in the second half.  About 3 long Colston receptions into this game, it was obvious that the zone coverage the Packers were employing on defense was not going to work.  Yet they stuck with it all day, giving up multiple 3rd-and-long conversions and 429 yards through the air in the process.  The Packers' defensive secondary continues to look confused.  Sam Shields' blown coverage on the 80-yard touchdown was inexcusable -- just a pure, obvious mental lapse thinking he had safety help.
  4. Gotta get big plays -- the Packers thrived on big plays last year.  Long passes on offense.  Take-aways on defense.  They aren't getting or creating those plays as much this year.   The turn of events where Harrell fumbled on the goal line ("Just, whatever you do, don't turn the ball over!!!" were without doubt the last words he heard from McCarthy before taking the field for his first regular season NFL snap) to be shortly followed up by a Drew Brees bomb for a touchdown was a 14-point swing that the Packers were truly lucky to overcome.
So the win is a relief, but the team still feels like it needs to get their heads on right.  Indianapolis will be playing with emotion after their head coach was diagnosed with leukemia, and the Colts have put up a pretty good fight.  Losing to an inferior team to start a 3-game road stretch would not be a good next chapter to this season.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Was Monday's Finish the Worst Call in NFL History?

The regular refs are back, but the scars of Monday night's debacle will linger.

Like most NFL fans, I've been consumed by the aftermath of the Packers stunning loss on Monday night -- lapping up all the news and analysis I can.  It occurred to me that what the media tried to characterize as a "controversial call" was anything but.  There was no controversy over that call.  Everyone knows it was a colossal screw up.

I have never, ever, in my 42 years of watching sports, heard such universal, unanimous, un-wavering agreement by everyone that watched a game that a call was botched.  I have yet to hear a single person defend it.  Hell, I haven't heard a single person even explain it.  The refs on the field Monday night certainly couldn't explain it.  The Seahawks fans can't explain it (every Seattle fan I heard call in to NFL Radio admitted it was a travesty).  Most Seahawks players like Marshawn Lynch have agreed that Seattle didn't win that game.  Golden Tate admitted he pushed off.  Even Pete Carroll can't defend it, offering on NFL Network one of the most talking-without-saying-anything explanations that "Whether they missed the push or not, obviously they missed the push in there, in the battle for the ball.  But that stuff goes on all time.  They see it, they don’t see it.  That happens with the official officials.  And so the result is they called it, the league backed it up, game over, we win."  Nice sportsmanship.  Dick head.

The only people, evidently in the entire world, who thought that play was a Seattle touchdown are side judge Lance Easley, who I think was just confused when he called it a touchdown on the field (back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn, standing two feet away, begged to differ -- as infamously captured in this photo), replay official Howard Slavin and referee Wayne Elliott.  I'm not sure which of these guys got cut by the Lingerie Football League, but it would be hard for any of them to make it even there.  The only thing more insulting than the call, was the NFL's statement in response, which acknowledges both the offensive pass interference and the fact a "simultaneous possession" call can be reviewed (and over-turned), yet at the same time declared the result final.

With such a preposterous conclusion and the hasty resolution of the referees' strike that it precipitated, it begs the question: was that the worst call ever in the NFL?  I did a little research on other notoriously bad calls, and here are the top 5 plays that would even be contenders:

  1. The Thanksgiving Day coin-toss where Jerome Bettis called tails but the referee heard heads.
  2. Jerry Rice's fumble (that was never called) in the '99 Packers-49ers wild card game.
  3. The infamous "tuck rule" game in which Charles Woodson's strip of Tom Brady was over-turned.
  4. The Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris
  5. The Seattle Sacrifice where M.D. Jennings was robbed of a game-winning interception which finally prompted the NFL to resolve its labor dispute.

I believe #5 is your winner for several reasons:

  • No other play (except the Immaculate Reception) decided the game -- they were all pre-cursors that set up the final play.
  • No other play had such indisputable visual evidence -- there wasn't even replay in 2 of the other 4.
  • No other play was so unanimous -- fans from opposing teams in each of these plays saw it differently.
  • No other play was officiated by replacement refs.
It's no contest in my opinion.  The only hopeful news from all this is that the Packers seem to be using it as motivation.  McCarthy, to his credit, seems to have moved on.  That was his, and Charles Woodson's, message to the team.  They can't dwell on this.  They need to get ready for the Saints.  We all can only hope that a one-game difference in record won't come back to haunt them.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The NFL Should Over-rule Their Own Refs

The "Monday Night Mugging."  Like all notoriously controversial plays, this play needs a nickname.  So it won't be forgotten.  So it goes down as a black mark, as an asterisk, in the annals of NFL history.

In fact, if the NFL has any integrity, they should retroactively change the result of the Packers-Seahawks game tonight.  The job of the NFL is to ensure the game is decided by the players on the field, not by the referees.  The League has taken a huge gamble, in the face of increasingly vocal criticism and ever-mounting evidence of ineptitude, by going with substitute refs.  And now it's blown up in their face.  Roger Goodell should be ashamed.  He better damn well be on the phone as we speak with McCarthy and Thompson and Murphy, and, by proxy, every Green Bay Packer shareholder, explaining what the hell he's going to do to make this right.

The brand of the NFL is tarnished by tonight's result.  That is the judgment of Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Jon Gruden, Adam Schecter, and countless other commentators, experts and analysts.  I have never, in all my years of watching football, seen and heard such unanimous consensus that the officiating of a game was incompetent.

The focus has, rightfully so, been on the last play of the game.  But that was merely the most visible and consequential mistake of the night.  Arguably the more egregious blown calls were Erik Walden's roughing the passer penalty that negated a Packer interception, and the positively ridiculous pass interference call on Sam Shields that kept the Seahawks drive alive and changed the field position battle dramatically in the fourth quarter.  And there were numerous other missed calls, like Browner's blatant cheap shot on Jennings, that were just flat-out missed.  (By the way, Browner better get a fine for that hit.  Player safety, my ass!)

Short of Goodell picking up the phone and doing the right thing to change the outcome of this game (something I admit will never happen, by the way), and short of the NFL actually resolving this labor dispute and getting the real refs back (something that, by most accounts, doesn't sound imminent), the League must, must, must take measures to attempt to return a shred of integrity to this game:

First, they need to insist that referees confer on the field to make the on-the-field call to the best of their ability.  On the final play, one ref called it a touchdown and the other (who had a better view, by the way) called it an interception.  There was minimal conference or discussion, which places the onus on replay to overturn the ruling on the field.  I know the refs have been criticized this season for slowing down the pace of play, but having differing opinions by the judges on the field is absolutely unacceptable.  They need to force them to take the time to get it right -- even if it means games take 6 hours to finish.

Second, I'm sick and tired of coaches, players and fans trying to intimidate these referees.  Just like John Harbaugh's antics and incessant complaining in week one, Pete Carroll, I believe, influenced how these referees called the game.  I also think the crowd influenced how these referees called the game.  By any measure, this game was completely out-of-control.  The Seahawks had 14 penalties.  Players were pushing and shoving after every play.  It's just not fun to watch.  And, frankly, when the thing becomes a bar fight, it plays to the disadvantage of the organizations with the class and self-respect to play the game by the rules.  They should start ejecting coaches who come out on the field and players who start shoving.  End of story.  They have to clean it up, before players start getting hurt.

Third, they need to give these refs more support.  I would start by adding more officials on the field.  These guys simply don't have the skills, athleticism or training to cover the game.  They should have one ref watching each receiver because the pass interference stuff has been out-of-control.   They should also add more officials on cameras and replays.  Frankly, I would almost support the entire game getting called from the booth if they had enough cameras.  Let the officials on the field focus entirely on keeping things in control, but make the calls upstairs.  At the very least, the booth judges need to be more aggressive in over-seeing the officiating that's happening on the field.

My final thought on this outcome is that it was not only unfair for the Packers, but it was unfair for the Seahawks.  The Seahawks played a damn good football game.  Their defense was relentless -- totally knocked the Packers out of their rhythm, forced nine sacks in the first half, made the Packers one-dimensional.  Russell Wilson, who every Wisconsinite has a soft spot for, had a solid performance -- put his team in position to win.  But instead, what he'll be remembered for, at least in this game, is a freebie.  A victory that was stolen.  A result he didn't fully earn (and that certainly goes for Golden Tate, whose blatant push-off of Shields was un-sportsmanlike at best).  That's not fair to Wilson.  That's not fair to the players on either team.  And, most of all, that's not fair to the fans -- many of whom I suspect are starting to regard this season with the same asterisk as the 1982 players' strike.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The ABC(J)'s of the Packers Newly Dominant Defense

After a week of trash talking fueled by Jay Cutler's message to the Packers defensive backs wishing them "Good Luck, We invite press coverage. We invite man.", the Green Bay defense put on a performance reminiscent of the 2010 Super Bowl team.  Cutler, who understandably had swagger after a week 1 victory over a Colts team that went 2-14 last year, had a miserable night -- including 7 sacks and 4 interceptions, the first quarterback to achieve those marks in the same game since Patrick Ramsey ten years ago.  Ouch.

But what drove this Packer defensive resurgence?  Surely it wasn't just Cutler's bulletin board fodder.  When asked about it in the post-game press conference, defensive coordinator Dom Capers had a simple explanation.  "Well, a lot of it starts with A.J.  Of course, he needs B.J. to open things up for him at the line, and sometimes C.J. will shoot the gap for an overload."

Capers went on to explain, "In the nickel and dime, we'll usually pull A.J. and just go with D.J.  Then C.J. gets a breather and B.J. slides to nose.  Unless we want to blitz, then we'll keep A.J., drop D.J. into coverage and rely on B.J. to clog up the middle.  Or, if we need to shut down the run, we'll push B.J. and C.J. to the 5 technique and bring pressure up the middle with A.J. and D.J.  The nice thing is B.J. and C.J. are somewhat interchangeable, as are A.J. and D.J."

A.J., B.J., C.J., D.J. and some other guys whose names I can't remember because they aren't acronyms.

Asked where the Packers could still improve on their impressive defensive performance, Capers was quick to offer, "We need more guys like A.J., B.J., C.J. and D.J., of course.  Obviously, Brad Jones could really step up his game if he went with BJ2.  We've also been talking with M.D. Jennings to maybe go with just M.J. instead.  We've worked with Bush as J.B. but it just doesn't seem to stick.  We'll be looking to draft an E.J. next year, and, if we're lucky, an F.J. will pop up on the waiver wire."

Whatever the reasons, I want more of the defense we saw tonight for the rest of this year.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Packer Pilgrimage Part II

The last time the West coast branch of the Trigg family made it back to Lambeau Field was two years ago.  Our second pilgrimage to the cathedral of football began yesterday with a visit to the Lambeau Atrium.  We hit Curly's Pub for an early lunch and it turned out to have a special treat on the side.  Our 11AM arrival and prime position near the window of the second-story eatery directly over the player's parking lot provided us a birds-eye view of the players leaving their morning practice.  We saw Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Jeff Saturday, B.J. Raji, A.J. Hawk and many other players.

Then we tucked into the Packer Pro Shop with reckless abandon.  If you haven't been there, the place is a bit of sensory overload.  Hard to imagine any item one could need that isn't available adorned with a Packer logo, from grill covers to pick-up trucks.  We stocked up with, among other items, a B.J. Raji jersey, Clay Matthews Fathead poster, Packer license plate holder, Packer pint glasses, a Packer football, Packer football cards, the 2012 Official Packer Yearbook, and a pair of Packer puffy socks (gift for mom).

Our attack plan for the big day: tailgate, play flag football in the parking lot, roam the perimeter to take in that Lambeau ambiance, hit the Tundra Tailgate Zone, enter Lambeau early to watch the player warm-ups, get in our seat with a brat in one hand and a beer in the other, watch fly-over, enjoy Packer beat-down of the 49ers.  It's gonna be epic!

Friday, September 7, 2012

TriggPack is Back!

After a quiet off-season, I’m finally getting a late start on my fourth season of the TriggPack blog.  I didn’t manage to get my act together to post about the draft, or the OTAs, or the pre-season.  But the start of the regular season is just too damn exciting not blog about it.  I have so much I want to say!  So let me get to it.

Every season needs to start with predictions.  And, like last year, the Packers are a popular pick to win the Super Bowl among many of the leading NFL prognosticators – with good reason.  Let’s start on offense.

The Packers return one of the most prolific offenses of all time.  Captained by the NFL MVP, the Packers put up an average of 35 points per game last year, and all the pieces are there to put up similarly gaudy stats this year.  The Packers' passing game is simply ridiculous.  With the emergence of Jordy Nelson and an incredibly deep stable of receivers, the Packers will be almost impossible to stop.  Randall Cobb should be exciting to watch from the slot this year, and the Packers’ decision to keep a 6th receiver in Jarrett Boykin is very intriguing.  I’m waiting for them to roll out the offense’s equivalent of the defense’s “Psycho package” with 6 WRs, 1 TE and only 3 offensive linemen.  Sounds crazy, but I bet it would work.

The running game should also be improved this year.  I believe Cedric Benson is probably an upgrade over Ryan Grant (although I always thought Grant was a real class act).  People are down on James Starks and his turf toe will keep him out a while, but he’ll hit a game this year where he shows the pop he did in the 2010 playoff run.  Kuhn will provide the bulldozer when all they need is a yard, and Alex Green is showing great promise as well as a third-down back.  Once all healthy, this could be a dynamic group.

Really the only question mark on the offensive side of the ball is the O-line.  Bummer we lost Scotty Wells, but Jeff Saturday seems to have stepped in pretty seamlessly – as long as the 37-year old can hold up.  Marshall Newhouse at left tackle is a bit of a concern, but he’s showing signs of gaining the confidence and swagger that seems to be there on the right side with Sitton and Bulaga.  With only 2 other offensive linemen on the roster though, any injuries among the starters could be a real problem.  Hoping Ted is paying close attention to the waiver wire to see if there are any other veteran guys they can pick up, just in case.  But barring injury (always a big thing to “bar”), the offense should be outstanding.

The concern of every Packer fan is really on defense, which stank it up last year.  It’s easy to dwell on their 32nd ranking in yards allowed – a startling stat for sure, but that’s partly symptomatic of the fact that every team the Packers played had to pull out every crazy play they could dream of in a mostly (15/17ths) futile attempt to keep pace with the Packer offense.  To counter the kitchen sink that teams will throw at them, the Packers’ defense needs two major improvements over last year: a better pass rush and a deeper secondary.

First, the pass rush.  I’m not sold yet.  Nick Perry could be a perfect complement to Clay Matthews, but it’s an awful lot to expect a rookie moving from DE to OLB to make a big impact right away.  Matthews didn’t really emerge till about half way through his rookie season.  The defensive line also has a promising new prospect with the addition of Jerel Worthy.  But, he'll have to work his way into the rotation before we can expect much from him.  I would have liked to see a veteran signed to augment and help develop this bunch.  But with no obvious upgrades, we'll just need to hope Perry or Worthy can be this year's Matthews or Raji.

Second, the secondary.  Moving Woodson to safety is probably a good move, although that leaves Jarrett Bush or Sam Shields as the opposite corner – both of whom continue to have frequent missed tackles and disconcerting mental lapses.  Shields has been the defensive equivalent of James Starks – both incredibly gifted athletes who had a set of break-out performances during the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run, only to have their confidence shaken the following year sending them into a sophomore slump.  The further additions Thompson made via the draft with Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian should help us a couple years from now, but, again, I worry it may be optimistic to really rely on these guys this season.

Bottom line: while the personnel focus is clearly, and appropriately, on the defensive side, Thompson’s “build-through-the-draft” approach may mean we have to wait a few years for these moves to pay off.  If Ted had made one high-impact free-agent signing on the defensive side, a la his very uncharacteristic Jeff Saturday pick-up, it could have made a big difference both this year and in developing the younger players.  Oh, well.  Not his way.  Thompson has always bet on youth, and his bets usually pay off.  So I remain hopeful these young guys can step up.

As for the season, the Packers have a fairly favorable schedule.  It’s hard to see them finishing worse than 10-6.  The Seahawks, Colts, Rams, Jaguars, Cardinals, Vikings (twice) and Titans all should be easy games – that gets them to 8 wins.  If they just go 50/50 against the tougher teams on their schedule (Bears and Lions twice, plus 49ers, Saints, Texans, and Giants) they’d be 12-4.

Winning the NFC North may be more difficult this year with the Lions and Bears both making improvements.  But after entering as the 6th seed and winning it all in 2010 followed by a 1st seed last year which resulted in a one-and-done playoff appearance, I almost wonder if securing home field is a dis-advantage.   The Packers are built for a fast track – not exactly Lambeau in January.  So just getting into the dance with a healthy team feels like a good place to end the regular season.  The first step happens Sunday against the 49ers – a game that I will have the pleasure of viewing in-person at Lambeau.  Can’t wait!  More to come on that soon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It Just Doesn’t Matter

That’s what I keep telling myself.  I’ve been in an absolute funk since Sunday.  Terse, short-fused, monotone, punching couch cushions and kicking misplaced stuffed animals as if they were somehow responsible for the Packers’ uninspired 37-20 loss to the Giants.  In the context of the Philbin family’s tragedy last week, it should be easy to put this loss into perspective.  It just doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of life.  Yet, it is gnawing at me and will for months, maybe years, to come.

Every season that doesn’t end up with a Lombardi trophy, I go through a remorseful period.  Mad at myself for spending so much time and mental energy on the Packers, only to have them lose in the end.  But this year’s recovery will take a particularly long time.  The Packers became the first 15-win team ever to be ousted in the first round of the playoffs.  The Lambeau mystique, regained for an 8-0 regular season record, remains entirely gone in the playoffs – where the Packers have gone a disconcerting 2-4 at home in the last decade.

Oddly, while the Packers were heavy favorites, this loss wasn’t that surprising.  The Packers should have been prepared for the possibility of an upset.  There were plenty of warning signs – the NFL-worst defense foremost among them.  Other signs felt more like superstitions – the 2008 NFC Championship loss to these same Giants, the frightening example of the Saints giving up 5 turn-overs in their game, the statistically improbable fact that all the other home teams had won so far that weekend.  Surely, McCarthy had been preaching ball security all week.

Yet, ball security was ultimately what doomed the Packers with four costly turnovers.  Rodgers, who had just six turnovers all season, had two on Sunday.  The fumbles by Ryan Grant and John Kuhn were just as uncharacteristic.  And they were lucky not to lose a fifth with what appeared to everyone to be a fumble by Greg Jennings.  No team ever wins games when they end up 4:1 in turnover margin.  Add to that eight dropped passes, shaky offensive line play (Clifton was basically pulled from the game after allowing the forced fumble, a knockdown and three hurries, and Newhouse wasn’t any better in allowing 1.5 sacks), and a complete paucity of big plays (the longest completion was just 21 yards), and it’s easy to point to an offensive breakdown in searching for explanations for this loss.

But the defense was just as responsible.  The Packers manufactured zero pass rush.  They did a decent job containing the run, except when it mattered the most – Jacobs’ scramble to set up the hail mary before halftime, and in the final time-out-burning drive by the Giants.  The Packers’ secondary was as inexplicably atrocious as its been all season.  The Giants were able to pick up third-and-long plays up the middle at will.  Peprah was particularly abysmal, repeatedly out-of-position and inadvertently busting Hakim Nicks for his long TD with a weak shoulder tackle.

Special teams has to be called out as well.  What in God’s green one were they thinking with that onsides kick in the first half?!?  Although that particular play wasn’t ultimately costly, since they managed to block the field goal attempt, it was indicative of a team playing outside its game plan.  It was totally out of character.  It felt desperate.  And I think it was a turning point – causing the Giants to realize how nervous the Packers were that they would lose this game.

The reality is the warning signs of this kind of playoff meltdown have been apparent all season.  The Packers were fortunate to be 15-1.  I think we all knew deep down that this team had significant vulnerabilities on the defensive side.   And that, if Rodgers and the offense ever failed to put up their usual 30+ points, we could be in trouble.  This team felt like the team from the 2009 season who ended up losing the Wild Card game against Arizona in overtime giving up about 47 miles of passing yardage along the way.

It made me wonder what would have happened if this season had happened last year.  What if the Packers had gone 15-1 only to flop in the opening game of the playoffs at home last season.  Rodgers and McCarthy and Thompson would have faced withering criticism.  Instead, with the Super Bowl under their belts, we’ll give them a break for this year’s disappointment, and look ahead to next season.

But next season will be different.  Driver sounds like he could be gone.  Clifton may be done as well, possibly Woodson?  Finley is in a contract year.  We’ll almost certainly lose key coaches, with rumors of Capers and Philbin both getting head coaching gigs, and Greene and other assistants possibly departing for bigger positions as well.  Every year brings changes.  But this season felt like a unique opportunity – a team that returned mostly intact (with the notably exception of Jenkins) and was healthy at the right time.  A team that was playing at home.  A team that was poised to do something extraordinary: repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Sadly, with one terrible game, that golden opportunity is lost.  It doesn’t matter any more.  The 15-win season doesn’t matter.  The record-breaking year of the likely MVP doesn’t matter.  The damn “discount double check” doesn’t matter (although it is pretty funny).  None of it matters in the face of this loss.  There will be no legacy, no dynasty.  The season is over.  And the Packers and their fans need to pick up the pieces and move on.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hola, Los Gigantes. We meet again.

January 20, 2008: a play that will live in infamy.

Those of you who are long-time TriggPack fans may recall my past posts about Los Gigantes.  But the rivalry goes back much further than the '07 Jersey Pipefitters convention I witnessed in Cancun during which Corey Webster stuck a dagger in the heart of every Packer fan, and stuck a fork in Brett Favre's career as a Packer, with his overtime interception.  No, this rivalry dates back to the earliest days of the NFL and an Italian-American coach named Lombardi who wasn't white bread enough to be New York's head man.

Lombardi's promotion to Green Bay may as well have come with a mission statement to stick it to his former team, and stick it he did.  The Packers beat the Giants in the NFL Championship game two consecutive years in '61 and '62.   The Packers beat the Giants in two previous NFL Championships as well, in '39 and '44.  Really, the Giants have historically been one of the Packers' biggest non-divisional rivals, up there with the 49ers and Cowboys.  But until that fateful night 4 years ago (and a loss to the Giants in the '38 NFL Championship) it was a rivalry mostly dominated by the Packers.

That 2007 game, however, has Giants fans optimistic and Packers fans concerned.  Coincidentally, I find myself in New York City this week, surrounded by Giants fans.  All they can talk about is how reminiscent this game is of the 2007 season with the Packers playing at home as the higher seed and the Giants coming off a mediocre season but "peaking at the right time."  Although the coaches are the same, most of the players are different -- both teams only have about 15-16 players still on the roster since 2007.  But it is a tantalizing storyline, complete with all the predictable stereotypes of New Yorkers with back hair and Brooklyn accents and Wisconsinites with their excessive cheese and brat consumption (today's New York Times features an article titled "Bratwurst, N.Y.C." about the venerable Packer bar in Greenwich Village called Kettle of Fish) -- a stereotype blunted by the fact Packers fans embrace it... that, and because it's pretty much true.

Although the odds-makers still favor the Packers, this will be a tough match-up.  Here are the keys to a Packer victory:

  1. Contain JPP, JT, and OU -- the Giants' front four defensive linemen are probably the best in the business.  Jason Pierre Paul will be a handful for Chad Clifton who is still shaking the rust off a season he mostly spent on the bench.  Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and a healthy rotation will keep this line fresh and put pressure on Rodgers all day.  Getting Clifton and Bulaga back into the starting line-up is reassuring, but wish both had been playing more regularly of late.  Getting Grant and Starks going on the ground would help enormously.
  2. Stop the Giants running game -- even though Eli Manning carved up our secondary last game, I believe the Giants will try to pound us with the rush with a healthy Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, particularly if the forecast of snow proves true.  Ryan Pickett will need to have a good game stuffing these guys and forcing the Giants into long down-and-distance.
  3. Win the turn-over battle -- as with just about any game, he who wins the turn-over battle usually wins the war.  An interception return by Clay Matthews last game against the Giants proved to be the difference.  If we don't protect the ball and don't get a take-away or two, it will be a problem -- particularly since our defense is otherwise porous.
Of course, this week's game is all the more daunting under the circumstances this week, with the tragic death of Joe Philbin's son.  Tragedies like this can sometimes turn into inspiration, but it has to have been a major event for the players and coaches to deal with, and certainly affected their preparation at some level.  I have no doubt that they could pay Michael Philbin no greater tribute than to dedicate this victory to him.  Hopefully, they can do it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Flynn Is In

Matt Flynn's record-setting performance Sunday was a perfect showcase for the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.  Perfect for him at least.  I was kind of holding out hope that he might slide under the radar of other NFL teams and stay on our roster next year in case Rodgers got hurt.  But a 480-yard, 6 touchdown performance against an ostensibly playoff-caliber defense is hard not to notice.

Matt Flynn's wardrobe might be as swanky as Errol's soon.
I was going to title this post "In like Flynn" until I researched the origins of that saying.  Turns out it refers to the famous actor Errol Flynn -- famous mostly for womanizing, binge drinking, and accusations of "alleged" relationships with 15-year-old girls.  That was before he flat-lined of a heart attack at age 50.  Kinda makes you re-consider when it might or might not be appropriate to use that phrase.

For those of you skim-reading this digression, consider avoiding the phrase "In like Flynn" in reference to your dapper appearance at your next PTA meeting.  You're likely to get more than eye rolls from the other parents.  More like a restraining order.  Unless, of course, you're wearing an ascot -- in which case you can probably pull it off.  I elected to just avoid the phrase entirely and go with "Flynn is in" instead.

And he is indeed in.  The NFL is a quarterback-driven league.  There are 32 teams, but, unfortunately, only about 15 good quarterbacks.  You either have one, or you don't.  The teams with good QBs have a good chance of making the playoffs every year.  The ones that don't are perennial also-rans.  Every NFC playoff team has a great quarterback.  Every AFC playoff team does too, except arguably the Texans (now on their third-stringer with Yates) and the Broncos (though at 8-8 they can barely be considered a playoff team).  Like any market, when demand outstrips supply, prices get bid up.  And for Flynn (Matt, not Errol), this means two words: pay day.

I'm glad for Matt.  Seems like a nice guy, and he clearly deserves to be a starter someplace.  Now he should have that chance.  But the unfortunate thing for the Packers is they probably won't get much for him beyond a compensatory draft pick.  He will be an unrestricted free agent, so before they could trade him they would need to put their franchise tag on him -- a potentially risky financial move since it would guarantee Flynn a huge salary if they couldn't trade him.  Plus, the Packers will likely want to use their franchise tag on Jermichael Finley, who, barring a major injury to Rodgers, is simply more valuable to the team than a back-up quarterback.

So the Packers gave Flynn a golden opportunity, and he made the most of it.  Like many Packers players who've gone on to starting roles on other teams, he was the beneficiary of Thompson's and McCarthy's outstanding system of player development.  But, at least for this season, I'm glad he's a Packer.  Just in case.