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.