Sunday, September 30, 2012

Packers win, in spite of the zebras

Brother Russ said it best: the referees are the glue that holds the NFL together. Without them, we’re no better than WWF.

So it’s not surprising that Packer fans and football fans everywhere applauded heartily as the veteran refs took the field on Sunday. And for the most part, they reminded us why we need them: they adjudicated the games efficiently and fairly, with few controversies and mostly invisibly as they should be. And then the Packers took the field...

I’m going to be frank here: If the refs had a full pre-season and three weeks into the regular season, they probably don’t have such a bad day. The Saints scored 10 points off of ref mistakes: 1). First New Orleans touchdown, they miss a obvious push-off (as bad as the one last week? Maybe more obvious). 2). First New Orleans field goal, a poor call on the field gives a reception to Colston when the ball clearly hit the ground before he could gain possession. McCarthy is forced to challenge but the refs inexplicably confirm the call in the face of all video evidence. On top of that, in the fourth quarter, after the Packers had gone up by one, the Saints fumbled on the ensuing kick-off. I can’t say the Packers recovered but Moses certainly ended up the ball after the play. But the head ref (who was buried under a pile of players) declared the returner down by contact. Replay showed the ball was clearly out but McCarthy was out of challenges and could do nothing about it. If the play is called correctly, the Packers probably win the game going away.

As I’m writing this, I realize I am sick to death of having our games decided by the zebras. Aren’t you? So why do we have to deal with this every week? I can tell you why: the Packers simply are not playing well enough to overcome the refs. Through the first three weeks of the season, the defense played well and the offense sputtered and faded. This week, the offense played very well and the defense couldn’t get off the field. It was a curious sight: the team that had been aggressive and mean in how it treated opposing quarterbacks became passive and weak when faced with Drew Brees and his receivers. I just didn’t get it: the Packers consistently dropped seven or eight defenders, eschewing any sort of pressure and were gashed for big play after big play. It seemed that no down and distance was unachievable by the Saints.Was this poor execution or a poor game plan? I tend to think it was the latter. Yes, we did get some sacks but the all-important QB hits and pressures were entirely absent. And the stats showed it: Brees threw for 446 yards and 3 TD’s. Sound familiar? Yes indeed, the 2012 Packer defense devolved into the 2011 Packer defense and that is a very bad thing.

Drew Brees and the Saints are no doubt the best passing attack the Packers have faced and maybe we’ve been fooled by the competition we’ve faced. I just can’t fathom how Brees can have so much time and his receivers can be so wide open. Dom Capers has a tendency and I think every offensive coordinator in the NFL has recognized it: When faced with a topflight quarterback, Capers plays it safe by falling back into a soft zone and depends on making tackles. The problem is not with the tackling, it’s with the scheme. With little to no pressure, an elite QB can rip off completion after completion and eat you alive! Open message to Dom: your team is best when it is getting after the quarterback and playing tight man coverage. If you keep to your flawed scheme, in the face of it’s obvious ineffectiveness, you deserve to get torched. 

The Packer offense, on the other hand, is best when it’s up-tempo and in a rhythm. On all four of the touchdown drives, you could just see it happening...bang, bang, bang...right down the field. It was great to see. We are still missing the big plays from last year but that ball-control West Coast offense was certainly on display today. I have to mention the ballsy call by McCarthy in an obvious punting situation in their own end of the field to call a fake punt on fourth-and-one. Direct snap to Kuhn for six and the drive continues right down the field for an eventual touchdown. That’s twice already this season that the naturally conservative Mike McCarthy has rolled the dice and won. Sometimes, to win the big games, you have to make big decisions and make big plays. This not only shows the evolving character of the coach but the belief his players have in his choices.

For the first game this season, you could see glimpses of the passing attack we’ve come to know and love. We had eight receivers catch passes and four of them with over 50 yards. Jones had the two TD’s and probably the best catch of the day at the very end (somehow caught a pass through the defender while being interfered with for the penultimate first down) and Nelson had the big catches to keep drives alive. Benson had several key check-downs. Finley dropped one again but added some good yardage. A concern would be Greg Jennings who had one catch for a 9-yard TD but would finish the game in street clothes with a re-aggravation of his groin injury. Jones, Nelson and Cobb were more than up to the challenge but Jenning’s ability to stretch the field has been missing from the Packer passing attack this year, much to the detriment of the final scores.

The emergence of Benson as a rushing threat can only do good things for the fortunes of the Packers. He’s not breaking any big runs but that’s not his role. He had 84 yards on 19 carries for a 4.66 average. That’s a solid two yards more than Starks had last year. If you think about that in down-and-distance terms, that’s the difference between second-and-eight and second-and-five. That’s miles in the grand scheme of offensive football. Plus, he’s developed into a real asset in the passing game, something we haven’t had since the high point of Ryan Grant’s tenure.

So we’ve made it through the rough September that the NFL schedulers saw fit to saddle us with. We should be 3-1, (thank you very much Roger Goodell and his replacement refs) but 2-2 ain’t too bad. You and I both know that the loss to the Seahawks will have a negative affect on the Packers’ post-season fortunes but we can’t do anything about that right now. All we need to do is focus on the next game and forget about the last ones and take care of business. Three road games loom ahead and coming out of that with a 5-2 record would be fantastic. If the offense can continue it’s ascendence and the defense can get back to early season form, it’s an attainable goal. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Inaccurate Reception

Oh, you didn't think "we got screwed" was all I had to say, did you?

I had to take a few days to let this percolate and to let events play themselves out. I knew (KNEW!) that the Monday night travesty would shake up the NFL vs. refs dynamic and suddenly there would be resolution. I've heard and read this and I totally agree: there is NO WAY IN HELL the NFL was going to send replacement referees into Lambeau Field on Sunday. Can you imagine the scene? Ugly, right? Well, I'm sure Roger Gooddell (RG) could imagine that scenario as well and that broadcast would have had the highest ratings for a regular-season game ever. And that audience would have witnessed 70,000 enraged Packer fans throwing every movable item they could get their hands on at the so-called "officials". You think Monday night gave the game a black eye? Sunday would have been a full-body contusion. 

So now the real refs are back and all is right with the world, right? Wrong! We will never get that game back. The other 47 games that went down in this young season are all tainted. But all those same talking heads and pundits wringing their hands and declaring the end of football as we know it are now saying, "everything's great! The refs are back! Too bad, Packer fans but everything's all better now! Let's talk about Tim Tebow..." If the rest of the NFL and all the fans are happy about those refs being back, they have the Green Bay team and fans who took the bullet to thank for it. The Packers are the Jesus Christ of the NFL - they lost for your wins!  

So, as you might suspect, a lot has been swirling around in that mushy, grey pudding that passes for my brain...

So much has been said and written about that final, fateful moment and little has been said about the 59:54 that went before it. Well, I think I need to say some things: First, the Packer offensive line in the first half was a joke. Bryan Bulaga, normally a pretty good pass blocker, was a human turnstile. He looked like he had been swilling NyQuil before the game, sort of pass rushers streamed past him on their way to performing chiropractic adjustments on Aaron Rodgers. Likewise, Marshall Newhouse had the look of a scared child, facing his first day of kindergarten and looking like he was going to fall down and go boom rather than block anybody. Our interior linemen looked rooted to the ground like posts, wondering what the heck that swooshing noise was. And the dullness of the line was only exceeded by the stubbornness of the play-calling. Mike McCarthy seemed insane, as in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Deep drops, roll-outs into a rush, play fakes that nobody bought, patterns that took five seconds or more to develop...when your QB is getting continually pasted, you need to do something DIFFERENT! And, to his credit, MM did shift his entire game-plan at halftime and, surprise surprise, it worked! So why keep running headlong into the brick wall in the first half? I don't know and I would bet MM doesn't know either. If he and his coaching staff had been able to react a little quicker, we would not have been shut out in the first half and the silly sequence of events that ended the game would have never occurred.

I have to give McCarthy some props, though. After that unbelievable end it takes a special kind of man to look his team in the eye and say, "guys, I know this hurts and it hurts bad but we need to put eleven men on the field to finish this extra point. So get out there and do the right thing."  I cannot tell you how classy that was. Personally, I would have said an extremely bad word and slammed the door. Then, at his press conference, he showed remarkable self-restraint. If any guy ever had a reason to knock over a podium, punt the mic and swear up a blue streak, MM was that guy. The assembled press corps did their best to provoke him and he almost broke a few times but he was strong. Then, as the week progressed, he held firm: that game is over, we're moving on, our focus is on the New Orleans Saints. I criticize MM often, (as in the paragraph above) but I have a new-found admiration for the man. He is a true leader.

You know, we could have avoided this whole mess if the replacement refs hadn't screwed up an earlier call: On the Seattle series prior to the refs' final, massive failure, the Seahawks had a third-and-long deep in their own territory. Wilson was flushed to his right (Matthews was chasing him) and tired to make a completion along the sideline. Instead the pass was deflected and wound up in the hands of one of our DB's (if you have his name, please tell me) who deftly got his feet down in bounds, interception Packers. BUT NO! The "ref's" had called Erik Walden for roughing the passer. The quick replay that ESPN put up showed that nothing of the sort occurred. Walden tackled Wilson a split second after he released the ball, way out of the pocket, by the legs, not driving into the ground, no blow to the head. The commentators were stunned into silence but the play went on. So what was the effect of this "call"? IF the Packers had kept possession, they were already in field goal range. So that would have been at least three points and maybe seven, no last minute drive, no hail mary, no stupid-ass blown call. Instead the Seahawks would drive down the field (the series aided by a PI call on Sam Shields on third-and-forever where he was grievously assaulted by Golden Tate, a pairing that would fatefully repeat later), took their shots, didn't score on fourth down, turning the ball over, the Packers unable to move or run out the clock, punting it back and then came the awful ending. Long series of events? Sure. But I'm just trying to point out that the refs were the cause of this loss by the Packers through more than the one, blown call.

What has upset me most about this entire mess is the fact that this replacement ref, who had no business being on an NFL playing field, made his mistake but he had a massive amount of back-up available that simply didn't work. In fact, there were six opportunities to make the right call: 1). The initial incorrect call of a touchdown. Supposed "simultaneous possession", even though in later statements, the ref demonstrated a lack of understanding of the concept. 2). The second ref who came in who had a better view of the possession question and started to call "dead ball", which is what he needed to do first before indicating an interception. He could have made the right call. 3). The head ref (the "white hat") should have conferred with his two fellow officials and found out the whole story, find out who had a better look and clarified the the call. He did not, instead coming in, seeing the tussling players fighting for the ball and coming to his own conclusion of a touchdown, despite not having seen the play himself. 4). The replay booth, supposedly staffed by an experienced supervisor, could look at the tape, from every angle possible and take as long as they needed (the game was going to be over with either way) but instead took far less time than they did to spot the football on a MM challenge earlier on. And they inexplicably ignored the video evidence and agreed with the call of a touchdown, not an interception. 5). The league officiating office also reviewed the call on Monday and were well within their power to tell the world that, yes, the game officials screwed that one up. But they didn't. They did say the offensive pass interference committed by Golden Tate to shove Sam Shields out of  the way should have been called, but since that's not reviewable, that was a weak-ass bone they tossed to football fans everywhere. 6). Finally, and most telling, the NFL (in the person, I'm sure, of Roger Gooddell) followed the party line they had no doubt laid down in agreeing with the call. They could have said, "yup, that was screwed up but we can't change it, sorry." We'd still be pissed, but at least we'd have some acknowledgement that we weren't all dreaming, insane or hallucinating. Gooddell DOES have the power to change the result but I can't believe that was ever going to happen: it would open a floodgate that could never, ever be closed again. All of those opportunities to get it right or at least admit there was a mistake and the arrogant, stubborn NFL refused to even acknowledge anything at all had happened. Just a controversial call in another big game! That's how these things go! Hey! Want to buy a t-shirt?

Oh, dear lord, there is so much to say on this subject! How about the complete lack of contrition by Golden Tate, who even refuses to admit he gave Shields a shove that allowed him to even be in the picture? How about Pete Carroll, a well known asshole, who blithely goes around saying how he can't understand the controversy. They won, the league says so. How about the sudden settlement of the lock-out and RG standing up in front of the press, saying the Monday night game had nothing to do with it. Yes, that's the same guy who fines and suspends players for tarnishing the "integrity" of the NFL. The same guy who has a self-proclaimed mission statement to "protect the shield" of the NFL. The same guy who brought this whole mess of a lock-out on us over $3.3 million worth of compensation, a sum of money that would be recouped in two Super Bowl commercials with enough left over to buy each real ref a gold-plated whistle. THIS is the same guy who just settled this ref lock-out (remember that HE locked them out) for almost EXACTLY the same deal that was on the table back in June!!!

So where do we go from here? We move on. Personally, I will not be visiting the website for the remainder of the year. I will not watch NFL Network. I will not buy a single NFL-branded piece of merchandise. That's my own personal boycott and I urge you to take similar actions. RG has free reign to do whatever the hell he wants as long as he's making money for the NFL. So hitting them in the wallet is the only way to indicate your displeasure. But we do need to move on. We have a football game happening on Sunday and it's importance has increased 1,000-fold for the Packers. So I found this quotation in some fan commentary today and I'm not sure if it's authentic or not but I still like the sentiment, whoever said it: 

“I have been wounded but not yet slain. I shall lie here and bleed awhile. Then I shall rise and fight again. The title of champion may from time to time fall to others more than ourselves. But the heart, the spirit, and the soul of champions remains in Green Bay.” – Vince Lombardi

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Monday Morning Quarterback

Packers rebound from a tough loss on a short week to give Da Bears a good thrashing.

Cut Graham Harrell! Who needs a back-up QB in Green Bay when you’ve got a punter with a perfect passer rating in a Bears game! That’s right, sports fans: Tim Masthay was 1-for-1 for 27 yards and a touchdown and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. On the other sideline, Jay Cutler’s line looked a tad bit sorrier than our punter’s: 11-for-27, 126 yards, 1 TD and four picks for an anemic 28.2 on the old passer rate-o-tron. 

All seriousness aside, when a straightforward guy like Mike McCarthy pulls out a trick play, you have to just stop and marvel at it. And it wasn’t your ordinary risk he was running. That was fourth-and-26, not some sneaky attempt to pick up four yards and a first down. That was a shot at six points all the way and it set the Packers on fire after that.

Some great things to see in this game and a few not-so-great:

  • Great - Donald Driver! After being totally absent last week and generally missing this week, he runs a perfect route and provides the dagger score after a turnover. He’s only on the field because Gregg Jennings was inactive but I think the Packers may try to get him some more work after that play. Fantastic!
  • Not great - Marshall Newhouse. I know this guy is young but much of the hammering Aaron Rodgers was subjected to can be traced right back to big number 74. He had a big task tonight, taking on Julius Peppers much of the time, but he did not fare too well. He’ll get better but the Packers need to give the guy more help and not leave him on an island against a premiere pass rush.
  • Great - Clay Matthews. This guy was all OVER the freaking field! He tied for the lead in tackles (4) and assists (3) and recorded 3.5 sacks on the evening. He even tipped a pass and was all up in Cutler’s face all night long. 
  • Not great - Replacement Refs. When Clay Matthews wasn’t performing rectal surgery on Cutler, he was being held and held in obvious and egregious fashion. On one play (that lasted quite a while as Cutler scrambled about) the offensive tackle (whom I’ll refer to as Mr. Holdy McHoldster) grabbed Clay by the helmet, held on (with both hands) and twisted him around until the whistle blew, Matthews ending up at the feet of the ref who was looking right at him the whole time. No flag. And that head ref, (who I swear taught me remedial math in 9th grade), seemed a bit befuddled all night long. Perhaps it was past his bedtime or maybe he thought he was working a lacrosse match ‘cause he sure as all get-out wasn’t familiar with the game of football.
  • Great - Cedric Benson. The guy was a dud last week but he made a real impact in his first foray in a Packer uniform against his old team. He had 20 attempts for 81 net yards and caught 4 passes for 35 yards. If he can keep this up, he will become not just a distraction for opposing defenses so Rodgers can light them up, but a real offensive weapon that teams will have to scheme how to stop. Nice to see that.
  • Not Great - Dropped passes. Listen to me, Packer receivers (and I’m looking right at you Finley) if the NFL MVP drops back and throws the ball to you and hits you in the hands, YOU HAVE TO CATCH THE BALL! And Finley, I am so out of love with you. You are a pretty good player on early downs but if the ball comes to you on third down, you suddenly come down with a case of stone hands. You want to be a star in the NFL? Catch the damn balls. Catch the really important ones.
  • Great - Packer interceptions. Tramon Williams got two, Woodson got one and McMillan got the first one of his career. YAH! Nothing is more deflating to a team than giving up turnovers and four of them is nigh-on impossible to recover from. THIS is the kind of defense we like to see. This is late 2010-style defense. It all starts with the pass rush and (if we’re lucky) ends with picks. 

It was very, very important for the Pack to come away with a victory, bordering on must-win. To be 0-2, down by two games to the Bears, even this early in the season, would have been a big, deep hole to climb out of. This is the toughest September schedule in a long while for Green Bay and they showed character, swagger and poise in this victory. It wasn’t pretty (unless you call sacking Cutler seven times pretty) (hmmm...I guess that would be pretty, now that I think about it) and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was a huge win and will hopefully propel the Packers to bigger and better things.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Monday Morning Quarterback

I’m trying to find a few positive things to write about in the Packer’s deflating 22-30 loss versus the SF Forty-Niners this afternoon...

(sound of crickets chirping)

...but I can’t seem to locate one. 

Seriously, I was slightly impressed by the Packers making a game of it in the second half (ahh, the good old glory minutes) but I can’t even bring myself to revel in that since they were ultimately short-lived and unsuccessful. 

Before I get to dissecting the failures, a word about the replacement referees: BAD. There were so many missed calls, blown calls and just outright wrong calls, my head started to spin. At one point they missed three (3) false starts on one SF series. They totally blew the call on Cobb’s TD return play. They completely missed an egregious face-mask against Aaron Rodgers on the Packers final series. How many times were Packer receivers mugged and no flag thrown? The list goes on and on, for and against both teams in all three phases of the game. I was worried that the replacement refs might have an adverse affect on the game. My fears are correct. MMQB to Roger Goodell: Settle this labor dispute NOW! Why wait until they foul up so big the coaches and fans storm your office and force you to do it? Seriously: the regular zebras screw up quite enough, thank you. Send these guys back to the Podunk U campus ASAP!

Did the refs cost the Packers the game? Absolutely not. They played poorly enough to do that all on their own. Let me count the ways:

  • The addition of Cedric Benson was thought by many (including your humble scribe) to add an extra dimension to the Packer offense. Thanks to indifferent blocking, that was not the case. Benson ran 9 times for a total of 18 yards with a long rush of a whopping 4-yards.
  • Even with the poor quality of officiating, the Packers were flagged early and flagged often. They were flagged 10 times for 77 yards. 
  • The defense, more specifically the pass rush and the pass defense, were huge areas of emphasis for the Packers during the off season. How’d that go? Well, we did get four sacks and held to Smith to only 211 yards, so I guess that was a positive but the catches and the yards that were made were all in key situations. When Randy Moss (anybody remember him? No?) can walk unmolested into our end zone and catch a TD pass, something is seriously wrong with your scheme and your players.
  • The rush defense gave up almost 200 yards and allowed Gore to gash up the Tundra for over 100 and a key touchdown.
  • The passing attack with Rodgers and crew took WAY too long to make itself felt in this game. We could see it, in flashes and spurts but that consistent, juggernaut of the Packer offense from most of 2011 looked more like the offense we saw against the Chiefs and Giants. That is NOT a good sign!
  • Where was Nick Perry, the Packers new bookend for Clay Matthews? He had some tackles but no sacks and I didn’t really notice him in pressuring the passer.

I have to admit: the Niners are a really, really good team. Their defense is just as tough and aggressive as it was last year. Their rushing attack is truly a throwback, but it is a potent weapon nonetheless. Add in Smith who does just enough with his arm to be dangerous and you have a team that is tough to beat. And the Packers found out today that they are not tough enough (right now) to beat a team like San Francisco. One of the keys to this game was the difference in tackling. When the Packers made a play, there was an SF player right there to make the stop. When the Niners made a play, it took two or three Packers (the first two just showing up in the general vicinity) to bring them down. Didn’t I hear that tackling was a point of emphasis in training camp this year?

Some bright spots? Any? Well, the emergence of Randall Cobb as an offensive weapon is certainly cause for celebration. 9 catches for 77 yards doesn’t sound world-changing but the scheme to work him out of the backfield was extremely intriguing to me. Donald Driver was a total non-factor (I  think I saw him on the field twice when the Packers went five-wide) and his role as the possession guy has been completely taken over by Cobb. Finely had 7 catches for 47 yards and a TD and there were some big, big catches. But there were also some big drops, too. 

It’s only the first game of the season and it’s only one loss, no reason to panic. There were some very disquieting things going on in this match-up but we can all hope they are not indicative of the team in general. Even if they clean up just the penalties (the legitimate ones, anyway) we look a bit better. We probably don’t win this game, but it becomes a better contest. Unfortunately, there is no time for corrections: it’s a short week and it’s Bear week. Thursday will be telling. Chicago looked absolutely awful to start on Sunday but won going away. Obviously, the Colts are not a tough test, so it’s unclear just how good Chicago is. And I’m not so sure we know just how good the Packers are after the failure-fest today up in Lambeau. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

MMQB Preseason Special

Hi, all! Another historic season of Packer football starts up on Sunday and we at the MMQB compound have fired up the laptops, hired another group of expendable interns (Hey, I'm sorry but if you bring Miller products into the office, your done!) and started shifting our snarkiness into high gear. As is my custom, I've got a few things to say about last year and a couple about the new season before it gets going...

If you ask any of the legion of Packer fans littering the Wisconsin (and beyond) landscape, many of them would say that 2011 was a disappointing season. How could you consider it a success after that soul-crushing defeat at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants? And you know what? It didn’t go as planned. There was supposed to have been a coronation of a new Green Bay Packer dynasty and that didn’t happen. But you have to look at the season as a whole and not just one or two games. Yes, I know: that one game was a very important one.

The Packers went 15-1 in the regular season. They set team records for wins, consecutive wins and a dozen offensive categories. Aaron Rodgers was named MVP of the entire NFL. He put up historic numbers all over the stat chart and set new standards in efficiency and passer ratings. From the preseason on, they were a lock to waltz through the playoffs and clobber some poor collection of schlubs in the Super Bowl. Short of hoisting a consecutive Vince Lombardi trophy, no Packer team has ever done better. Disappointing? The final result was certainly disappointing, but the season? Disappointing? Preposterous!

We had a lot to be thankful for during that ride in 2011 and I for one felt privileged to watch it. I’ve been a Packer fan all my life and last year ranks right near the top of my all-time favorite seasons. There were low points, absolutely. The puzzling descent from an elite defense to a collection of human turnstiles was hard to watch every week. When the Chiefs came up with a way to beat the Packers in week 16, it was painful but we all treated it as an aberration. Of course, the Giants used it as a blueprint and the Packers chipped in with their worst performance in more than a year and the dream was over.

So how do you improve on a 15-1, got-knocked-out-of-the-playoffs team? Well, you have to look at your weaknesses. First and foremost was the defense. Hard to believe in a 15-1 team but it was true. The 2011 Green Bay Packers gave up more passing yardage than any team in NFL history. As in EVER. This required the offense to be ON every week and score as many points as possible, which forced opponents to play wide-open, which put more pressure on the defense and on and on. A pass rush that evaporated was  the main culprit, coupled with a mediocre secondary, populated by lesser men due to injuries. If you think about it, the 2010 defense was so much better simply because their pass rush was so much more effective. Remove that rush and your defensive backs are exposed. So the brain trust, led by Ted Thompson, went out and found a couple of free agents and drafted a whole pile of defenders to enhance the rush and shore up the secondary. Based on what we’ve seen so far in the preseason, many of these players will be making immediate contributions, most notably Nick Perry, drafted as a bookend to Clay Matthews at outside linebacker. Upgrading the defense, even if it’s just a little bit, would have a huge impact. You just cannot expect your offense to play lights-out every single week. When the offensive troops do have an off day, you need a defense capable of winning the game for you. Remember 2010? That unbelievable run to the Super Bowl? How many of those games hinged on the defense? How many of those games could have been put away by the offense but the defense had to step up big? We were fortunate last year but you can’t count on fortune. You can count on a dominant pass rush and a defense that dictates terms and takes no prisoners.

Another issue is the running game. I’m sure there are many of you now saying “What? MMQB, you know the Packers are a pass-first team! It’s all about getting the ball to Nelson and Jennings and Finley and the run is just there to keep the defense honest!” and you’d be partially correct. With a guy like Aaron Rodgers and the corps of targets he has to choose from, the Packers are going to win through the air. With the yards and scores the Packers put up last year, with a fairly ineffective running game, why would it matter? Well, all you have to do is look at the two football games we lost last year to answer that question. Both the Chiefs and the Giants beat the Packers by dropping seven into coverage and rushing only four. Both of these teams have effective defensive lines and a great pass rushers. Do you not think the rest of the NFL has looked at those films? Clog up the secondary and put just enough pressure on our QB and the offensive juggernaut grinds to a halt. How do we combat this? RUN THE BALL! Whether it’s Rodgers tucking the ball in and scrambling (a tactic used to great effect on the Bengals two weeks ago) or handing it off on a draw or even a dump-off pass to a back curling out of the backfield (essentially a long handoff) you negate the effectiveness of the defensive tactic and gain yards. Sure, you’re not ripping off big chunks that a complete pass would get you but rushing yards are WAY better than an incompletion, a sack or a pick. The Packers attempted to upgrade the running attack from within but injuries to the RB corps again (seems like it’s been that way forever) caused them to switch gears and bring in Cedric Benson. Benson is not the second coming of Ahman Green but he is just the type of back to take advantage of pass-centric defenses, wear down a d-line with repeated poundings and grind it out in tough, short-yardage situations. If he can catch a few passes (again, the Cincinnati game was instructive) and learn to pick up a blitzer on occasion, we might just have something. Don’t think of the Packer running attack as a primary weapon, think of it as a force-multiplier: just how much better will our pass offense be if our opponents have to account for the possibility of a real running back on every play? When we need to run out the clock, won’t it be much more effective if we have someone capable of ripping off 6 or 9 yard runs, rather than just slamming into a pile of bodies and falling down?

So how do I see our chances in 2012? A lot will depend on the injury situation, as it always does. The defensive backfield is in flux due to injuries and the move of Woodson from corner to safety. The Packers are painfully  thin at offensive line. Watching Graham Harrell run for his life in the preseason should tell you something. In the final cuts last week, the Packer management thought so little of their current prospects on the O-line they canned almost all of them, leaving them with only two back-ups for five line positions. And speaking of our presumptive back-up QB, despite his reassuring performance last week, you can’t help but worry about the possibility of an injury to Rodgers and how big that fall-off truly is. Both Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson profess confidence that Harrell can get the job done. These guys see him in practice every day and we only get to see him behind a second-rate O-line throwing to also-ran receivers. How many people knew that Matt Flynn was as capable as he appeared when he was needed? An NFL season is long and difficult and simply the wear and tear on players is enough to grind them down. I will repeat my mantra as I have for so many seasons: your team will go as far as your back-ups will take you. Finding ways to win games in the face of adversity is the most difficult task for any team. In order to continue their great success, the Packers will have to fight through adversity and no one can say just what form that will take. But I think this team is up to the challenge. They are well coached at all levels and have the kind of experience in key areas that will serve them well. There is no way they will win 15 games again (the first month of the season is as brutal a test as you could get!) and you can treat that as a disappointment if you want. The truth is that 15-win seasons are rare in the NFL and you don’t need to go 15-1 or 16-0 to be a great, great football team. I think, however, the Packers will win no fewer than 13 games and again dominate the North: The Lions shot their wad and missed, the Bears’ offense will be improved but I think their defense will grow more suspect and the Vikings will never claw their way out of the cellar, much less challenge for a Division title. I’m predicting 13-3, a North win and another trip to the playoffs and decent shot at another Lombardi Trophy.