Sunday, September 22, 2013

Packers fall behind, get ahead, look dominant, look inept and lose the game. What did we just see?

The fans of the Green Bay Packers have long, long memories. Walk into any Packer bar on game day (or any other day for that matter) and you are just as likely to hear someone talking about an interception by Ray Nitschke or “4th and 26” as you are about the game last week. As such, I can pretty much guarantee you this loss will stick in the craws of Packer fans for a while. Maybe not as long and the “Fail Mary” last year, but it’ll be a while.

The game definitely had one of those “what the hell did I just see” vibes that left Packer fans stunned. Mrs. MMQB and I had to give #1 Son a lift home after the game and here is a sampling of what we saw just in the few blocks around our house: A man in a Favre jersey, standing in his driveway, staring blankly out at the road, possibly mumbling very bad words under his breath. Another man tossing a kiddie golf club like he just dropped his third straight tee shot into a water hazard. A woman hand-spreading something in her lawn which I would have to guess would be salt so nothing would ever grow there again.

Yeah, that was a painful one.

This game had more ups and downs than a carnival at the county fair. The Packers, thanks to a lax defense and a “you’re being cut before we get to the airport” play by Jeremy Ross, found themselves down by 14 before their jocks could get settled in place. Then, with the offense sputtering and the defense making stands and taking away the ball, reeled off 30 unanswered points. Then, thanks to that same inconsistent offense and a defense that suddenly found itself without it’s biggest playmaker, gave up the next 20 unanswered points. Add it all up and you might as well run yourself into a wall (try it sometimes - it feels GREAT when you stop!) as watch this football game.

Mrs. MMQB and I hosted #1 Son, DIL Becky and granddaughter Gracie for brunch prior to the game and we had a few mimosas, and some home-brewed barley wine, but even that nice little Sunday morning buzz was not enough to minimize the damage to our brains through the sheer whiplash of this game. How many times can you trade high-fives and face-palms on one Sunday afternoon? 

And the injuries - all I can say is OY! Before the game, the Packers gave injury scratches to Eddie Lacy, John Kuhn, Jarrett Bush, Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward. During the game, they lost Finely, Matthews and Starks and even Franklin for a while. Can a team sustain those kind of losses and still continue to play football in the NFL? Want to make a bazillion dollars? Figure out how to prevent or treat hamstring injuries and sell your idea to the Green Bay Packers. Even if you do it as piecework, you’ll make a mint!

What was up with Aaron Rodgers today? When he wasn’t missing his wideouts, he was hitting his opponents. #12, the best QB in the NFL, had a worse passer rating today than Christian Ponder of the 0-3 Minnesota Vikings. Can you fathom that stat? He went 26-for-43, 244 yards, 1 TD and 2 interceptions, breaking a 41-game streak of games without multiple picks, best EVER in the NFL. By comparison, Rodgers had over 250 yards last week in the first half! Wow. Now, the Bengals have a much, much better defense than the Redskins. They play tough, the make tackles and they don’t beat themselves. Still, you would think that our offense, with all our weapons (even with Finley looking for his marbles on the sidelines) could find some way to put up even a field goal after DOMINATING the Bengals and going up 30-14. Sadly, they never even got close. The turning point - you guessed it: going for in on fourth and 2 (the correct call), failing to get any push by the line, handing it off to a rookie RB (only guy left) who fumbled the ball before he hit the line and giving up a recovery TD for the final go-ahead score. How many ways can you fail in one play? I’m not sure but I think the Packers found them all. If the Packers make the first, they continue their drive and most likely put some points on the board. A TD wins it, a field goal puts them up by six and requires the defense to step it up. Either way, that was the ball game.

It’s a shame, really, to have Franklin’s day be marred by such a terrible play. Coming in for the injured Starks (himself in for the injured Lacy), Franklin had a great afternoon, going 103 yards on 13 carries (7.9 yards per tote) and one TD. That’s right, sports fans, the Packers have put up back-to back 100-yard rushers in the last two weeks. But we won’t be talking about that on Monday. We’ll be talking about his fumble on the biggest play of the day. Was it too much to ask of a rookie who had never played a down on offense before today? Maybe it was. 

A few weeks ago, I talked about the Packers having a “ridiculously early” bye this year. #1 Son called me on that almost as soon as the words left my fingers and it turns out HE is the prophetic one in the family. The Green Bay Packers have three defensive backs injured, four running backs injured, one tight end injured and their most valuable player on defense (Matthews) injured. If the Packers have ANY hope (I say unto you again ANY HOPE) of converting a 1-2 start into a Super Bowl run, all these men need to get healthy and do it in a hurry. Rodgers can throw the ball to Quarless but I’m not sure if he can catch it. Our second and third string DB’s can go out on the field, but I’m not sure if they can cover. Our front seven can blitz as one but I’m not sure if they can get a sack. Our QB can attempt to hand off the ball...well, I’m not sure if anyone will be back there to take it. So this bye, coming in week four of the season, could not be better timed. 

Did this look like a championship team on Sunday? Last week, the Packers did what a better team does and pretty much stomp on a lesser opponent. This week, when the foe is a little more equal, the Packers looked alternatively sad and dominant. What happens when they face a team that might be a little bit better than them? Are we looking at a blow-out? Do we get smacked around? I’m not sure. All I know is that an inconsistent team is a team that is usually sitting at home in January.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Packers turn on the offensive jets and blow out the Redskins

The Green Bay Packers did NOT want to go to 0-2. You just cannot dig yourself a deep hole like that in September and expect to control your own fate in December. You had a feeling that going into their home opener, the Pack would be ready to rumble.

Except they weren’t! Starting the game with three straight passes (who the heck was calling the plays? MM LOVES to run on first down, especially the first first down), losing Eddie Lacy to a concussion, having a TD by Cobb called back, driving down inside the ten, giving up back-to-back sacks and then having to settle for a Mason Crosby field all just looked flat, unsettled. 

Our inexperienced tackles were one display early for all the NFL to see. The Skins brought the pressure early and often and got home with alarming frequency. Rodgers was so rattled early he started getting happy feet in the pocket, something that never comes out well. A funny thing happened, though: McCarthy and his coaches saw what was happening and actually (!!!) made adjustments! That’s right, the coaching staff that sticks to its guns even in the face of overwhelming evidence it shouldn’t, started calling quick throws, quick outs, receiver screens and anything else that would get the ball out of Rodgers hands faster. And it worked! The pass rush slowed down, the wide-outs began to pile up yards and (wonder of wonders!) the running game started to bust wide open.

James Starks, in relief of the concussed Lacy, started to rip off great runs. There where holes to run through, there were tackles broken and there was speed. All the things we expected to happen when Eddie Lacy began running the ball happened when Starks came in for him. For the first time in 44 games (that’s all the way back to the Super Bowl season of 2010) a Green Bay Packer running back rushed for over 100 yards. Starks ended his day with 132 yards and so many of those yards led to advantageous down-and-distance situations that allowed Rodgers to get his groove on.

And groove he did! Official NFL stats put him at 34-for-42, 480 yards, 4 TD’s and no interceptions and a passer rating you could only match playing Madden against a toddler. Those 480 yards equals the Packer record set two years ago by Matt Flynn when Rodgers was a healthy scratch against the Lions. One comment on that - Rodgers had tied the record by the time the Packers hit the two minute warning, up by 18 and on the ten yard line. After the time out, McCarthy chose to call kneel downs on three consecutive plays to run out the clock. The victory was in hand, but I think he owed his indispensable QB a shot at the record. Even three shots and the record. I’m sure some stats guy knew where they were. What was the worst that could happen? Three incompletions and a field goal? An interception and a 102-yard runback for a TD? NFL pundits accusing Green Bay of running up the score? The Packers still win the game and maybe Rodgers gets one more (or ten more) yards and another score and he has a career afternoon. Why the hell not, Coach?

Another guy having a career afternoon was James Jones, (11 catches for 178 yards) who was skunked last week and Nelson had the great day. This just goes to show that if you take one guy away, another one is there. Cobb was doing his usual job, as were Nelson and Finley. Those four guys, when things are clicking, seem almost machine-like. Boom, boom, boom, right down the field and then someone breaks one. As I’ve said so many times before, the running game can set up the passing game and never was that proven more true than today.

Another word about Cobb: he reminds me more and more of Donald Driver in his prime - the possession guy, willing to go over middle, out in the flat, wherever. That play where Cobb split the D down the middle and went for a 35-yard TD in the first half was vintage Driver.

A few words about the defense - as dominating and powerful as they were in the first half, they came out flat and soft in the second. Is this how our team puts people away? Big lead and pitching a shut-out at the half and they come out and allow three TD’s in the second? I understand playing a bit off and relaxed with a lead but that was nuts. And can someone explain to me how Pierre Garçon can be so freakin’ wide open on every single down? He must have borrowed the cloaking device that Anquan Boldin was wearing last week. If this is going to become a habit (leaving the opponents best receiver uncovered all afternoon) the Packer defense is going to be torched every single Sunday.

And a few words about the refs, those lovable and sight-challenged zebras. It seemed like they had blinders on when the Redskins were committing fouls. I saw one great Washington run that could have drawn four separate holding calls. James Jones had his jersey practically removed trying to run under a Rodgers pass, no flag. Brandon Merriwether took out Lacy with a helmet-to-helmet hit and almost did the same to Starks, no flags. He will no doubt be fined heavily by the league but wasn’t h-to-h hits supposed to be a point of emphasis with the refs this year? Even with replay, the Redskins were given a TD on a close play when Moss failed to gain possession with both feet down in the end zone. 

The Packers started playing run-out-the-clock with over eight minutes to go, to the glee of the Redskins who quickly converted that tactic into their own points. Props to MM and his staff for adjusting again, letting Rodgers complete passes and chew up the clock. A good running day is one thing but when they are stacking nine men in the box, you have to take what they give you and throw the ball.

So we are back to even at 1-1 going into Cincinnati next week after this convincing victory. The Bengals are 0-1 going into Pittsburgh Monday night and we’ll have to wait and see if they are for real this year or not. The Packers will have to build off their successes and learn from the miscues. I get the feeling they will.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Packers fight it out with their new arch-rivals and come out on the short end of the stick

The Green Bay Packers  have a new nemesis and it’s not the Vikings and it’s not the Bears. The team the Packers would most like to beat these days is the San Francisco Forty-Niners.

The Packers have been beaten by the Niners three times in the last 12 months (game 1 in 2012, the playoffs and now game 1 in 2013) and if they were to meet again in the post-season this year, I would hope somehow they could break up that streak.

I have to admit that I was not filled with a great deal of confidence going in and was pleasantly surprised to see how close this game was. The Packers were very successful in making the Niners, the best rushing team of 2012, one-dimensional. You have to count that as a pretty big win, considering they ran at will against the Pack in the playoffs. The problem, unfortunately, was that the passing dimension was extremely profitable. 

Kaepernick was able to torch the Packers for 412 yards through the air and three TD’s. They were only able to put up 68 yards on the ground but the passing was enough to win the game. The Packer defensive backs seemed to have trouble locating Mr. Anquan Boldin all day long. Even after he had emerged as the main threat, he was running uncovered in the secondary, seemingly in some sort of stealth mode. So any time Kaepernick went back, he was able to find his primary wide open. Boldin accounted for 208 yards and 1 TD. Many of those 208 yards happened on third down, which just made those catches that much more impactful.

The short-handed situation in the Packer safety corps was supposed to be somewhat mitigated by the depth at cornerback but it just didn’t matter. The lack of any sort of pressure on the SF QB allowed him to wait, survey, wait some more and then find Boldin or Davis wide open for big chunks of yardage.

Aaron Rodgers wasn’t so lucky. I saw a stat come up showing Kaepernick hadn’t been hurried, hit or sacked in the first half. Rodgers’ same stat was chock full of pressure. Part of the problem is a rookie left tackle and an inexperienced right tackle. I think, though, the biggest issue is the lack of running production.

What? Is that right? The running game sucked? It still sucked after highly touted running backs were drafted and Mike McCarthy’s promise that the Packers would be better at the run? Yup, still sucked. 

Eddie Lacy ran for a grand total of 41 yards, most of those coming on the Packer’s last touchdown drive. Aaron Rodgers, as the second most prolific Packer runner, chipped in a whopping 12 yards. Why so poor? Well, first of all, Mike McCarthy is the world’s most predictable play-caller. In the first half of any football game, he will call a running play on first down 90% of the time. In his first series of the second half, he will call a run 99% of the time. So the defenders are standing there, in the backfield, waiting for the runner to arrive. Secondly, the Packer offensive line is just not that good. They can’t open holes consistently without holding. Third, our new rushing attack is going to need time to gel. Lacy might be the next coming of Edgar Bennett but he’s still a rookie. When he got a hole or when he got out in space (as he did on a great screen pass for 31 yards) he looked great. So maybe we just need to be a little bit patient and allow the new run attack to develop. It sure didn’t look very promising today, but maybe it will in the weeks to come.

I’m very disappointed that the Packers were never able to take advantage of the opportunities the Niners presented them. When the Niners mis-fired, the Packers stalled. When the Packers answered a Niner score with one of their own, the defense would disappear. When the Packers finally got ahead on the scoreboard, the Niners were able to drive quickly down the field and put themselves up for good. There were many turning points, but it just seemed like the Packers were never able to put together that key drive or that key stop when they needed them most. Call it early season jitters or a poor plan or maybe they are getting intimidated by the Niners as a team. Whatever. It was a real and tangible phenomenon Sunday afternoon.

I would be remiss if I didn’t show some well-deserved loathing for the referee crew. They blew a call in the first half, giving the Niners an extra play on third and six that should have been fourth and two after offsetting dead ball penalties. Instead of attempting a field goal, they scored a touchdown. With a tight, tight football game going on, that’s an egregious error on the part of an NFL officiating crew. Who knows how differently the game ends up if maybe the Niners go for it on fourth and fail or miss the field goal. Might have been the turning point of the entire game but we’ll never know, will we? Thanks, zebras. Up to your usually high standards already I can see.

I’m busy tearing apart the effort of our team and, to be honest, I really shouldn’t be. After that pathetic performance in the playoffs, the Packers looked like a team that shouldn’t even be on the same field and the Forty-Niners. For this game to be close in the fourth quarter and for the Packers to have a shot at victory right up until the final play is a HUGE improvement! This was a tough, hard-fought game and it was a privilege to watch the back-and-forth as each team sought advantage. The final result might be disappointing but the progress we witnessed bodes well for this team. 

So, as 2012 started with a loss to the Niners, 2013 also begins with the same result. San Francisco is a consensus contender to win the NFC and the Packers played them right down to the wire. Someone had to win that game and you have to look up and down the stats and admit the Niners were the better team in every phase - they deserved the win. We can build on this, take pride in the effort and start getting ready for the Redskins next week, maybe with a hope in the back of our minds that we might just get a shot at redemption in January, which would not be such a bad thing.