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Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

Packers Recap: A Nifty Reverse

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Last January the Green Bay Packers were looking back on a 6-10 season, a seven-win dropoff from 2007. Brett Favre had left, but the offense didn’t falter in Aaron Rodgers’ hands. The big problem was defense, so general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy decided on a radical remedy—a completely new system.

Now the Packers are assessing an 11-5 regular season and a playoff disappointment against Arizona. As the accompanying chart shows, the offense hardly missed a beat and the 3-4 defense of coordinator Dom Capers showed big improvement in some areas. But it failed in the overtime loss to the Cardinals, and as always in the NFL off-season, major personnel decisions lie ahead.

Evaluating and speculating: the Observers’ sworn tasks!

Frank: The Packers are telling themselves, and rightfully so, that they should have beaten Arizona. But based on what we saw in the Super Bowl, I think their season would have ended a week later in New Orleans.

Artie: Especially the way the pass defense played in Arizona. Drew Brees would have picked them apart as well as Kurt Warner did. The Super Bowl wasn’t spectacular stuff, but after the first quarter the Saints pretty much kept Peyton Manning off the field by controlling the ball and piling up first downs.

Frank: Who dat gonna beat dem Saints?

It probably wouldn’t have been Green Bay. But looking at the Packers’ season, what pops out statistically is the progress on the defensive side.

Artie: Especially against the run, ain’a?

Frank: They allowed about 50 fewer yards per game overall, virtually all of it on the ground. Opponents rushed for only 3.6 yards per carry, a full yard below ’08.

Artie: They contained Adrian Peterson twice and shut down the Cowboys’ running game in the win that turned the season around. The Pack had the heaviest defensive line in the league, and that corps of mega-corpuses—Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly—had a solid year, with some spotty help from rookie B.J. Raji. Now come the free-agent issues; Job One is re-signing Pickett, who’s unrestricted, and I’d hate to see them lose Jolly, who’s restricted.

Frank: And facing drug charges in Houston.

Artie: Knowing Ted Thompson, I hope he doesn’t start thinking, “We’ve got Justin Harrell, who’ll be healthy next year, although he never has been, and he won’t cost as much as these other guys.”

Frank: Especially if the salary cap disappears, which will happen if the owners and players’ union don’t agree on a new labor deal by March 5. Looking at the linebackers, by the last month Clay Matthews was playing in the other team’s backfield.

Artie: Absolutely. The rookie got a slow start because of injuries but turned out great as an outside guy in the 3-4. But they need someone to complement him on the other side.

Frank: That was supposed to be Aaron Kampman, but he had knee surgery in December.

Artie: He had some trouble changing from a 4-3 defensive end, but he was coming on when he got hurt. Brad Jones, another rookie, played OK in his place. Kampman’s another unrestricted guy, so he and the team have a big decision ahead.

Frank: At inside LB, am I right in feeling that A.J. Hawk improved over his first three years?

Artie: Some, although his pass coverage ain’t so hot. That’s why Brandon Chillar’s in there a lot.

Frank: As for the secondary, it was like the nursery rhyme’s “little girl who had a little curl… When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad she was horrid.”

Artie: Thirty interceptions, tops in the league, nine by the amazing Charles Woodson, and a nice jump in sacks. But 29 TD passes allowed, almost the worst in the league.

Frank: In the two Minnesota losses, the one to Pittsburgh and the playoff game they got shredded. Of course those were some darn good QBs—Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and that No. 4 in purple.

Artie: Whatever schemes Capers was calling those days, they didn’t work. But you don’t design a defense to be wide-open in the middle, like it was in the playoff game, so there must have been bad reads, too.

Frank: They lost Al Harris in November, but everyone has injuries. In those losses, they put almost no pressure on the QBs. But then there was the Dallas game, where they rattled Tony Romo all day.

Artie: The Saints proved that Favre can be pressured, but the Packers sure didn’t do it. They’ll look for defensive backs in the draft, but so will everyone else because the league is pass-happy.

Frank: As it was, the Packers led the league in turnover margin with plus-24. Mostly that was from grabbing the 30 INTs while Rodgers threw only seven and Matt Flynn one. Which brings us to the 2009 offense, which statistically was as good as in ’08. Rushing yardage went up a smidge; rushing TDs jumped from 11 to 20, including five by Rodgers.

Artie: He holds the ball too long sometimes, but he’s also got the mobility to

extend plays. You can’t complain about two straight seasons with 4,000-plus passing yards, and as the starter he’s thrown 58 TDs and only 20 INTs. None of the receivers is in the free-agent group, so the air game looks fine for 2010.

Frank: One glaring stat is the 51 sacks allowed, the most in the league. But 37 were in the 4-4 first half of the season.

Artie: Things got better when they resigned Mark Tauscher after his recovery from knee surgery. He stepped in at right tackle for Allen Barbre, who was a disaster. And it helped a lot when Scott Wells regained the center spot when Jason Spitz got hurt.

Frank: Certainly the five-game winning streak that began with Dallas showed this team had some character. Remember, the streak began after the offense had a “clear the air” meeting the day after the Tampa Bay disaster.

Artie: Tauscher and left tackle Chad Clifton are unrestricted free agents. I hope Thompson doesn’t think, “We’ll re-sign Clifton, give a low-ball offer to Tauscher and things will be fine.” Those two are well into their 30s and pretty worn down. Ted’s got to address the left-tackle issue for the long term. But good luck finding a can’tmiss guy when you’re drafting No. 23.

Frank: They might do better to look for a punter. Jeremy Kapinos, who took over late in ’08 from Derrick Frost, was no improvement.

Artie: How desperate are they? I heard Thompson sent a scout to Iraq to check out Saddam Hussein because they liked his hang time.

Frank: As you might say, ba-ding!

Artie: This goes back to Thompson letting Jon Ryan go before the ’08 season. “Oh, we can’t pay that much money for a punter.” Just like a previous regime let Craig Hentrich go. He thrived with Tennessee and Ryan is doing fine with Seattle.

Frank: There were field-goal problems, too. Mason Crosby was under 50% from 40 yards or more.

Artie: And why is Crosby here? They didn’t want to pay Ryan Longwell a few years back. Well, Ted, you get what you pay for.

Frank: Finally, there’s a stat in which the Packers excelled in ’07 and ’08 but still managed to increase.

Artie: Penalties. We’re No. 1!

Frank: Actually, they were a close second to Baltimore in yardage, but they led the NFL in flags with 118 in 16 games.

Artie: And they came from everywhere.

On special teams there were several long returns that got wiped out.

Frank: But as we keep hearing, penalties aren’t that big a problem.

Artie: Nah, in the immortal words of Mike McCarthy, “We’ll get that fixed.” Since he just finished his fourth season, I guess it’s a five-year plan. Unless it’s 10.

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