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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009

PACKERS RECAP: Back to Midfield

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Last January the Green Bay Packers fell one victory short of the Super Bowl. Now they’re watching the NFL playoffs, having backtracked from a 13-3 record in 2007 to 6-10 this season. The Packers expected the season to open the post-Brett Favre era, and it did, but only after the soap opera of Favre’s un-retirement led to his being traded to the New York Jets.

With Aaron Rodgers taking over at quarterback, the Packers won their first two games, lost the next three, then won two straight to hit their bye week at 4-3.

After two tough losses at Tennessee and Minnesota, the Packers had their best day of the season in routing the hated Chicago Bears, 37-3. That put them in a three-way tie for the NFC North lead at 5-5.

Then the bottom fell out for the Green and Gold. A wipeout at New Orleans was followed by achingly close losses at Lambeau Field to Carolina and Houston. The Packers ran the losing streak to five games before beating hapless Detroit to end the season.

The Packers’ seven-game regression might be deceptive. Seven of the losses were by four points or fewer. Two came down to a last-second field-goal try, missed at Minnesota and made by Houston. Two others, at Tennessee and Chicago, went to overtime. And in two others, against Carolina and Jacksonville, the winning touchdown came with less than two minutes left.

What to make of the season? The Fairly Detached Observers teed it up for discussion.

Artie: Well, we predicted 8-8, so we weren’t too far off.

Frank: A Packer fan might see a silver lining in all those close losses. But I’ll guess that you, Mr. Sunshine, take another view.

Artie: Exactly. They couldn’t hold a lead. And let’s look at the last four seasons. In 2005, Mike Sherman’s farewell as coach, they were 4-12. The next year Mike McCarthy came in and they went 8-8. So in four years there’s been only one winning record.

Frank: The glass half-empty, huh?

Artie: And if we look critically at the 13-3 year, they were pretty fortunate in several games where the bounces went their way, plus they were free of major injuries. This season that didn’t happen. So maybe 2007 was the exception to this team’s true level.

Frank: We know where McCarthy and the GM, Ted Thompson, think the biggest changes need to be made. This week they purged defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and most of the other defensive assistants.

Artie: They can start the changes by having fewer assistants. For crying out loud, they had one assistant for the defensive tackles and another for the ends? They had a “secondary coach” but also a cornerbacks coach? What, does every guy need his own nursemaid? Come to think of it, maybe I could use a coach of my own.

Frank: Whatever problems Sanders’ scheme had, injuries were a factor, too. It seemed like every game they were missing one or two starting D-backs.

Artie: And a key loss was Cullen Jenkins, the defensive lineman who went out in Week 4 with a torn chest muscle. He certainly would have helped with the run defense and with pressure on quarterbacks, ain’a?

Frank: He’d have complemented Aaron Kampman as a sack guy.

Artie: Kampman led the team with nine and a half, but tied for second were a linebacker, A.J. Hawk, and a defensive back, Charles Woodson, with three apiece. Jenkins was next with two and a half, and he didn’t play after September.

Frank: The Pack totaled 27 sacks, which ranked only 25th among the 32 NFL teams. And they were 26th in rushing defense, which also shows the need for D-line improvements.

Artie: Another huge injury was to safety Atari Bigby, who hardly played at all. He showed in ‘07 that he could be an above-average safety. Nobody stepped up as his replacement.

Frank: Eventually they moved Charles Woodson from the corner to safety, and what people will remember about that is Steve Smith out-jumping Woodson for the long pass that helped Carolina win at Lambeau.

Artie: And while Woodson was playing safety, you had a lesser player on the corner.

Frank: By the numbers, the Packers’ pass defense wasn’t terrible. They were 12th in the league in yardage allowed, tied for third in interceptions with 22, had Woodson and Nick Collins with seven each, and returned six INTs for touchdowns. But they also gave up 11 pass plays of at least

Artie: And it just seemed the defensive breakdowns always happened at crunch time.

Frank: There was the Smith play. There was the Houston game, where the Texans were pinned inside their 5-yard line but marched to the winning kick. There was the Tennessee game, where the Titans got the overtime kickoff and did the same.

Artie: The linebacking unit was way below average in pass coverage. It didn’t help that Nick Barnett went out with a knee injury in the second Minnesota game, but even he wasn’t having a real good year.

Frank: The sense I get with Hawk is that he has his good moments but isn’t showing what they hoped he would.


Artie: When they moved him from weak-side to middle linebacker after Barnett’s injury, there was some feeling that it was where he belonged in the first place. Last week the linebackers went on notice that “everything is in play” for next season.

Frank: The 22 interceptions helped the Packers finish the season at plus-seven in turnover differential. Only five teams were better, and they all made the playoffs.

Artie: A positive number in that category usually means a winning record. Not this time.

Too Much Flag-Waving

Frank: OK, Mr. Sunshine, here are some really, really negative stats. The ones involving penalties.

Artie: Man oh manischewitz, talk about your flag football!

Frank: The Packers were close to leading the league in penalties per game (6.9) and they did lead the league in penalty yards per game (61.5). Those numbers were virtually unchanged from 2007.

Artie: Wait, you’re kidding me! McCarthy said they were gonna get that fixed.

Frank: Here’s another bad stat: The Packers got 18 first downs by penalty but their opponents got 33. In other words, twice per game the Green and Gold handed over an extra set of downs.

Artie: Plus it seemed that in every game there was a penalty on an absolutely crucial play.

Frank: In the Houston game, they were driving toward a winning score when a holding call messed it up. They wound up having to punt and never got the ball back.

Artie: And in the same game, a kickoff return for a touchdown got wiped out by a hold.

Frank: Some other really bad stats involve punting; the Packers were 25th in the league in net yardage. And you, my friend, were saying from about Week 2 that they should put Derrick Frost on ice. How long did it take?

Artie: Jeremy Kapinos took over in Game 13. Until then, they kept saying, in one of my favorite McCarthyisms, that they had to “evaluate.” And that Frost “looked good in practice.”

Frank: In the cozy Hutson Center he was booming ‘em, huh?

Artie: Yeah, and when I’m home alone I imagine I’m Brad Pitt and Angelina’s my long snapper. Anyway, they’ve signed Kapinos for ‘09, and also another punter, so they can have a foot-for-all competition in camp.

A Nice Passing Grade

Frank: On offense, the Packers have some pretty good numbers. In passing, eighth in the league in yards gained, eighth in plays of 20 yards or more. Tied for first in pass plays of 40-plus yards, with 16. Fourth in touchdown passes (28) and many fewer interceptions (13).

Artie: But then again…

Frank: I knew you’d say that. Thirty-four sacks allowed, ranking in the middle third of the league, and a mediocre running game at best. They scored only 11 times on the ground and broke only 10 plays for 20 yards or more. And against Carolina and Jacksonville, they couldn’t convert on extremely short-yardage plays when it might have turned the game.

Artie: They had a musical-chairs thing on the O-line, partly from injuries but also because they were trying to figure out what would work.

Frank: When draft time arrives, I guess they’ll be looking for some big boys.

Artie: On both sides of the ball. And McCarthy has said they’ll be locking in positions on the O-line, with nomoving around. Apparently, the muchtouted multiple-position scheme became a weakness.

Frank: At the “skill” positions, Greg Jennings had almost 1,300 receiving yards, sixth in the NFL, and Donald Driver had over 1,000. And Jordy Nelson had a nice year as a third wideout, what with James Jones missing so many games.

Artie: The wide receivers are clearly the Packers’ best unit.

Frank: In rushing, Ryan Grant got 1,203 yards…

Artie: But a “quiet” 1,203, I’ve heard said. He missed a week of training camp in a holdout, then hurt his hamstring and didn’t really get going until halfway through the season. Besides that, the line wasn’t blocking real well. But I have to wonder whether Grant just isn’t worth the big new contract he got.

Frank: He broke a 57-yard run in the season opener, but that was it for explosive plays from Grant.

Artie: Fortunately, the Packers still have DeShawn Wynn, who broke a 73-yarder in the final game and looked good in limited time in ‘07. His problem has been staying healthy. But he runs with power and speed.

Mr. Rodgers’ Show

Frank: Now for the main man, who had a pretty nice season. Rodgers threw for 4,000 yards with way more TDs than interceptions, which helped give him the sixth-best QB rating in the league. Not that I know how to figure out that stat.

Artie: That would challenge Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

Frank: Rodgers seemed to make good decisions. Yeah, he threw a couple of interceptions late in games, but that happens. He was very mobile, able to escape the rush and keep plays alive.

Artie: He did take a pounding over the season, though, and played hurt.

Frank: Yeah, for a while it looked like that strained shoulder would take him down. You could see he was in pain, but he got them to the bye at 4-3 and after the layoff the shoulder seemed OK.

Artie: If you had told me in August that Rodgers would play every game and finish with the No. 6 rating, I’d have said, “Wow! I’ll take it.”

Frank: And, lest we forget the man he replaced…

Artie: The diva?

Frank: Mr. Favre finished 21st in the QB ratings.

Artie: The diva sure took a dive in those last five games.

Frank: I was in New York when the Jets beat Tennessee to go 8-3. The tabloids were touting an all-New York Super Bowl, and one headline called Favre “Mr. Perfect.” But in the last five games he threw two TDs and nine INTs. Artie: What did the tabloids say then?

Frank: The morning after the Jets lost to Miami and missed the playoffs at 9-7, the New York Post declared: “Dump ‘Em: Losers Favre, Mangini Must Go.” The coach was canned, but the Jets’ owner wants Brett back for ‘09.

Artie: An opinion not shared by some of his teammates, I hear.

Frank: There are grumbles that he set up Brett Favre Inc. in his own little corner and didn’t mix in with the other guys.

Artie: I heard the comment that he “never went out to dinner” with any of ‘em. Maybe he was all the time studying his playbook.

Frank: I don’t think any Packer fan can say things would have been better if Favre had stayed.

Artie:
Absolutely. With the Packers, he would have been working with a lesser offensive line and a lesser running game than the Jets had.

What Happens Now?

Frank: So, Mr. Sunshine, what about the Pack in ‘09?

Artie:
Hard to say. They could keep everything pretty much as is, have a good draft, possibly Ted Thompson has a nervous breakdown and signs a free-agent impact player, and they could climb to 10-6 and win this weak division.

Frank: That’s what NFL parity is all about.

Artie: But changes do need to be made. Special teams were terrible; besides the lousy punting, they gave up seven kickoff returns of 40-plus yards, and a game-winning field goal at Chicago was blocked.

Frank: The special-teams coach, Mike Stock, fell on his sword and retired.

Artie: They’ve got a lot of work to do with their line play. Cripes, if they don’t spend their first three or four picks on linemen, something’s wrong. And there’s another worry: Can Aaron Rodgers play 16 straight games again?

Frank: Behind him are Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm, rookies in ‘08.

Artie: The injuries to Jenkins and Bigby proved that depth in key areas was lacking. And where you really have no depth is at quarterback.

Frank: So the No. 2, who’s Flynn right now, better get plenty of off-season work.

Artie:
One more thing: As a Packer fan, I thought there was something missing in the area of “spirit.” They seemed to be, not flat, but there was a spark missing. And I don’t think it necessarily had to do with Favre being gone.

Frank: I think that was a factor. My image of Rodgers is one of total cool, calmly waggling his fingers to get the next huddle together. Whereas Favre might be yelling or bumping helmets or something.

Artie: I look at the way Hawk plays. He seems too careful, worried about making a mistake in his coverage, rather than just letting go.

Frank:
No Dick Butkus, he.

Artie: Hey, do you suppose Butkus is available?

Frank:
He’s a Bear, remember?

Artie: And pushing 70, too. All right, maybe as a second-stringer. Depth is key.

What’s your take?
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