Monday, November 9, 2009

Is the Packers' season over?

On the heels of a devastating road loss to the Bucs, there are a number of questions up in the air about the Packers and their season. None more compelling than "Is the season over?". After the loss to the Vikings at home, I still was optimistic about the Packer's chances this season. It took them less than a week to throw that all into the thrash can. Over the 12 hours after Sunday's game, I was mulling over the legitimacy of the Packers as a contender this season. Who are the real Packers?

No Parley with the Buccaneers

One might ask, how could you lose to the 0-7 Bucs? To put things in perspective, the Packers are no Juggernauts, after all they have no wins this season yet against a team with a winning record. The Bucs are bad, the low life of the league this year; the last team left without a win before they played the Packers. But historically, the Packs have had a tough time at Tampa. They had won only 1 game out of the last 7 games they played down there. Plus, the Bucs were starting their rookie Josh Freeman for the first time, and a little spark from him would be a big morale boost for the team, which they got from their 21 year old 1st round pick. And as much as the coaches and players deny it, throw in some amount of complacency / looking beyond this game factor by the packers while preparing for this win less team (especially the game plan which I will talk about soon).

Having said that, if you expect to be a playoff team, this was a game you had to take care of without much fuss. Especially the defense should have been licking their chops on the thought of defending a rookie on his NFL debut, rather than licking your injuries after the humiliating loss. More so after the loss to the Vikings, it was imperative to take care of business and give yourself a chance to put on a win streak. Well, in short, the Packers faltered.

'Run' for your lives!!

Mike Mccarthy does the offensive play calling for the Packers. First of all, the game-planning by itself has been sub-par this season. The creativity and strategy thought out (at least one that is called Sundays) leaves a lot to be yearned for. The coaches seem to be game-planning to the strengths of the Packers, their passing game, which is not a bad thing in itself. But then, football is the ultimate team game. You might think your forte is the long ball and deep strike ability with a strong armed QB and great receiving core, but this is the frickin NFL. Even bad teams are talented enough to stop something that they know is coming. Especially, if you do not have an Offensive line that can protect you long enough for big plays. So opposing defenses, rush just 3-4 players on passing plays and play a lot of nickel packages, where there is an extra corner back or safety to protect the secondary. When you face such a defense, you need a precision offense like Peyton Manning's, or lot of time in the pocket like Big Ben to beat the extra man in coverage. When you cannot do both these (Rodgers is no Peyton Manning, and the O line of the Packers is horrible), you have to game-plan to cover these weaknesses. Look at the Patriots: they use repeated screen passes and draw plays to slow down the rush, helping their offensive line and also execute some quick passes to Wes Welker to keep the defensive backs from playing too deep, making the sudden deep strike very effective.

These have been issues all through the year. Another area where they need to improve, which was a glaring hole in the Bucs game, is calling enough running plays. In earlier games, the running game hardly produced anything (with the exception of the Browns game). So it was somewhat understandable when McCarthy went away from the run game back then. For the record, I think even that was a mistake. You need to maintain that balance between pass and run plays to be an effective offense. Or back to screen passes which are equivalent to run plays in terms of how defenses play the screen. Even if it is a run for no gain, you have to hand it off ever so often to keep the defense play honest and that will invariably open up long pass plays. Mix in a few play action fakes, and you have a potent offensive plan.

Dumb and Dumber ....

Not calling run plays against the Bucs was plain dumb and inexcusable. First, the Bucs never lead the game until late in the 4th quarter. So there was no need to move away from the run. Second, Grant and Green were successful running the ball. Just looking at stats, you will find they averaged over 5 yards a carry the entire game. Moreover, when you actually saw the game, they were breaking runs up the middle of the Bucs defense and once you establish that in a game, you have to be retarded to just not pound it every time (3rd and long will be the only exception).

Watching Mike McCarthy's play calling just drove me crazy. I almost threw the remote on to my TV once in the 3rd quarter. The sequence went like this: The Packers had the lead by 7 and Grant broke 3 runs in a row to get 2 consecutive first downs. What would a sane play-caller do next on first down? .....duh?!! But the genius mind of McCarthy thought he will pull a rabbit out of his hat and lined up his offense in shotgun with an empty back field. What happens next, incomplete, sack, incomplete....tada ..... time to punt.

That was not the only brilliant sequence master-minded by McCarthy. When the Packers got the ball in Bucs territory after a punt (need I say tremendous field position with a lead already in hand), the calls: pass deep (incomplete), pass to flat (incomplete), 3rd and long intermediate pass (incomplete). Bring on the punt unit!! This happened twice in Bucs territory in the first half. This is the NFL and you are playing pro-level competition (even if its the team with the worst record). Sub-standard play calling will not cut it. How in the world would you call just 27 rush plays (not counting QB sacks and scrambles) when it averages 5.2 yards a carry and throw a whopping 35 times (a meager 6.7 yards a pass attempt at less than 50% completion rate). Obviously, there are going to be games when your QB, as good as he may be, has a rough day. But its a crime when you make him throw 1.4 times more than you run when your running backs average 5+ yards a rush. This is just beyond any explanation..... beyond and spec of sanity.

Other correctable offenses

The Packers were not flawless in other facets of their game either. We have been through some of them time and again the past few weeks: the horrible O line, Aaron Rodgers holding on to the ball way too long. Another flaw which isn't talked about a lot is the special teams. The punt coverage has been bad, especially the last 2 weeks. Against the Bucs, after the Packs scored a TD in the 4th to go up 28-17, the kickoff coverage unit let the Bucs returner bring the ball back 83 yards, well into the Packers red-zone. That one play helped the Bucs grab all the momentum that the Packers just had. Talking about flaws in special teams, how can I not mention the mediocre punting efforts by Kapinos. Not to mention the punt formation team that let a Bucs player untouched to block a Kapinos punt, that was returned for a TD.

Other issues the Packers have to look into to improve long term are:
  • Aaron Kampman simply cannot play in coverage. Period. I am surprised why people don't just throw towards him when he is in coverage. They have to play him as a pass-rusher to use him effectively. If not, he is more a liability when in coverage. To be fair to him, it is not his fault. He is built to be a DE and not a LB where the Packers are playing him.
  • Let Al Harris and Charles Woodson do what they do best: play in press coverage. What this does is not only put them in positions they are most comfortable doing, but also makes available some extra bodies to stop the run or extra blitz-ers.
  • You have got to protect Aaron better: Either improved O line play, which is hard with current personnel or, I cannot say this enough, do more screen and draw plays to slow down the pass rush helping your O line.
  • Flexibility in game-plan!! Obviously the game plan for the Bucs was to throw, throw and then throw some more. But once you see you are able to run down their throat with ease, you should be able to adapt and change your game plan on the fly.
  • Get some injured bodies back. This, though, is out of the control of Packers. But some of those injured people: Jordy Nelson (WR), Jermicheal Finley (TE), Brandon Chillar (LB), Jason Spitz (C) and Derick Ward (S). At least 3 of these are potential starters and most of them are very much needed extra bodies for punt / kick return coverage. Also, evidently, Clifton and Tauscher are not recovered enough to play in games yet. Add Aaron Kampman to that list this week after the concussion he suffered during the Bucs game. Don't get me wrong, injuries are no excuses. All teams face these problems. But getting back some of these guys in coming weeks will help out the Packers a whole lot.
  • It is too early to call BJ Raji a bust. But his play at nose tackle has been poor. It again may be due to his leg injury, but almost all NFL players play when they are dinged up. Raji has to prove he was worth the 9th overall pick in the draft and worth all the money he was signed for. To add to the pressure, Clay Mathews Jr., the 27th overall pick has been a revelation at LB the last 3-4 weeks.
  • Mason Crosby cannot miss any more under 50 yard FGs. He did not against the Bucs, but has missed a whole bunch this season. At the NFL level , up to a 50 yard FG should be a gimme early in the season before the winter and cold winds set in.
  • The defensive play calling too can be better. Dom Capers seems to be reluctant in unleashing zone blitzes, a staple of his 3-4 defense, that can confuse opposing QBs. Especially against a rookie, you have to show him new looks and make him feel overwhelmed. It definitely is a risk, as you can be burned blitzing too many people, but you cannot be a dominant 3-4 defense without doing so.
Homers never lose hope

As hard it may be to fathom the Packers making the playoffs, I just cannot write them off. At least not yet. No doubt, there is no way they are going to make it the way they are playing. But with a few lucky breaks and a string of good fortune, they just may grab a wild card spot. Here is the rest of the Packers (4-4) schedule:
  • Nov 15th Dallas at home: winnable game, not if the Packers play like they have the last 2 weeks though. Marking it a loss for now
  • Nov 22nd: SF at home: very winnable especially since the 49ers are in shambles. Win
  • Nov 26th: at Detroit: Thanksgiving game, its fair to write it down as a win (but you never know after witnessing last week)
  • Dec 7th: Baltimore at home: This is a real tough one. The 2 things that might be working for the Packs for this game are the Ravens although potent have a .500 record, so who knows what their mindset will be in 4 weeks. And the game is at home, which is always an advantage. I am going to write this down as a loss for now. But the Packers do have a chance.
  • Dec 13th at Chicago: Again, a lot depends on how the Bears do the next few weeks. If they are in the running for the playoffs like the Packers, they will play hard. Still, I think the Packers will win unless the Bears secondary suddenly improves.
  • Dec 20th at Pittsburgh: Nothing more to be said. Loss.
  • Dec 27th Seattle at home: Should beat the seahawks who will not be in playoff reckoning. Win
  • Jan 3rd at Arizona: The Cardinals would have clinched their playoff spot and will be resting most of their starters. Packers should get a cheap win here.
So a fair prediction of the end of season record, as of today, is: 9-7. This could be enough to get the last wild card spot. Here is how I see the wild card spot get filled:

NFC wild card 1: The NFC East have the Eagles and Cowboys who are pretty good. If one of them wins that division, I assume the other will take the first wild card spot.

NFC wild card 2: The competition at the moment is between: Giants (5-4), Falcons (5-3), Packers (4-4), Bears (4-4) and a 3 teams at 3-5 (Seattle, SF and Carolina)

By no way do the Packers have the inside track to earn a playoff spot. But it is not out of hand, just yet. Even if they lose to the Cowboys this coming weekend. The falling off of the Giants and a few Falcon stumblings will help the cause. Hopefully the Packers can pull off a 2007 Giants (make the playoffs with a 10-6 record and go deep)!!

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