Monday, November 2, 2009

The worst halloween hangover ever

Brett Favre comes into Lambeau wearing his No. 4 Jersey in Purple; in spite of all the boos, plays his best game at Lambeau since 2004/05. While the Packers offense is literally non-existent the first half, with not too much support from the defense and next to no support from the special teams. Hard to fathom a better recipe for disaster than that. End result: ruining realistic hopes of a Packer division title this season. Without doubt, the worst halloween hangover ever.

This post is not only to delineate how the game went down, but also reveal some of the emotional backlashes during and after the game, and to take a "glass half full" look at the remainder of the Packer season.

The love-fest begins.....

Right from the start, Brett Favre had a very emotional relationship with his fans. His ups and downs on the field are very well documented. He came across to football fans as a player who no matter what the situation of the game was, would play like he would in the backyard. He played with passion and heart. There was never a throw in his mind that he ever thought he could not make. That cost him and his team a lot, but it also brought joy and excitement to Packer fans when they worked. Very early in his career, this trait of his, took him to a pedestal of a legend and folk lore. But his personal life was what exposed the human side in him. His early addiction to Vicodin, his wife Deanna's fight with cancer and later, the death of his father, and other common-man problems made fans believe he was one of them. He was not some flawless idol or celebrity that had a perfect life. On the contrary, they could relate their lives to a man affected by life-altering day-to-day issues. This was what brought him close to the hearts of all football fans (exceptions: Bears and Vikings), not only Packer fans. No matter which team you supported, people were always rooting for Favre. Nothing was more evident of this than what happened on a Monday Night in 2003, the day after Brett's father passed away (video below). And remember, that was in front of the fanatic Raider-Nation:

"V" for Vendetta

Fans were emotionally invested in Brett, and their love for him seemed eternal. Turns out, that connection was going to be tested. Since early 2000s, Brett started flirting with the "R" word. But it was not until the 2005-06 season that people really thought it would happen. After the 2007-08 season, which ended for Brett and the Packers with a heart-breaking pick by No.4 in OT in the NFC championship game, things got flakier for Favre. The Packers were ever-so close to the Superbowl as they had been since 1997. But, although talented, they were the youngest team in the league (counting No.4 who was 38) and to Favre apparently not mature enough to sustain their 2007 season magic. So he decided to leave on a high and officially retired, for the first time that is. Within weeks after his first retirement, he had second thoughts about retirement. After some secret visits by Packer front office folks to Kiln, Mississippi, Favre still was not sure. Its important to note that back then, the Packers were ready to embrace him back with both arms, but Favre just could not make up his mind. Months later, he publicly revealed that he wanted to come back. But now, the Packers were not as receptive and relayed to Favre that they had "moved on". The reason for this decision was three-fold. First, they were tired of Favre's annual flirtation with retirement, impeding the off-season planning of team personnel. Second, they had Aaron Rodgers under contract for only another year after that. Although they liked what they saw in practice, they needed him to have a year-long audition before signing him up long term. The return of Favre meant Rodgers would be untested in game conditions and would have a tough decision when Rodgers becomes a free-agent a year later. Thirdly, as already mentioned, the Packers were the youngest team in the league and having a younger QB meant they could grow together. Bringing back Favre for a year meant loss of continuity after a year.

But this decision by Green Bay, drove Favre crazy. The emotional character that he is, he took this personal and held his grudge against the GM Ted Thompson. When this became apparent, the Packers tried to get Brett back to GB and try lure him into a lucrative deal for not playing. But by then Favre had made up his mind. He had to go to another team and stick it up to his old team. It is not clear if he had the Vikings in his mind back then, but the Packers sure thought he did. After a lot of drama and flip-flopping, the Packers traded Brett to the Jets with a clause which practically meant Jets couldn't trade him back to the Vikes or any of the NFC North teams. After a lofty year with the Jets, Favre decide to retire...... again. But this time, the Jets released him and he was free to go to any team. Joining the Vikings was a no-brainer to him. It was the same system he had been playing in for years at GB (the west coast offense) and he also had familiarity with the coaching staff up in Minnesota. And of course, there still was that urge inside him to teach Ted Thompson and the Packers a lesson. The Vikings had a solid team, with a great defense and a great running back in Adrian Peterson. The missing piece for their jigsaw was a reliable QB, and Favre more than fit that bill, bringing in play-making abilities to the table too.

Homecoming (Drama) Queen

The date: Nov 1st 2009. It is the day Favre had been waiting for for almost a year and a half for. In his mind, it was the day he can prove to the world that Ted Thompson and the Packers made a mistake of letting him go. He was stepping onto Lambeau field for the first time ever not wearing Green and Gold. To add insult to injury it turns out to be the hated Purple Jersey of the Vikings. Four weeks earlier, he already had the first part of his revenge, but to him this was even more important; he was coming back "home". An opportunity to show his beloved "fans" what they were missing on.

But in reality, the Packer's decision to let him go was not a hasty one. It was not personal like Favre might think it was. The Packers had this well thought out and deliberated before they made their call. The fact was that, as a veteran, Favre was not his best the last few years with the Packers (with the exception of the 2007 season). Obviously, age had something to do with it. But more importantly, Favre was playing with a whole bunch of younger players and had a tough time coping up with new ways in the locker room. He was their father's age and could no longer be the jokster that he loves to be. Now looking back, subconsciously, it affected his drive to play as a team. He felt he always had to put things on his shoulders and carry the team, forcing himself into bad decisions on the field costing him and the team. If the Packers had kept him, the same would have continued, and it wouldn't be this motivated, revenge driven Favre, who now has a chip on his shoulder, trying to prove he can still play. So the Packers are in effect not missing out on his "magic". Favre might have out-shined Aaron Rodgers this year, but Rodgers has a bright future ahead of him with tremendous upside, a potential future superstar in the league. He will mature with the rest of his young teammates and the intention is to give them a chance to potentially grow into a successful prosperous core of players for years to come. The Packers have sure put their young players in a position to do that under the leadership of Rodgers. Only time will tell if that plan comes to fruition.

That said, Favre, in spite of the grudge in his mind, had given us Packer fans years of excitement and joy. Unless he goes on to play a few more years and wins multiple championships here on, he will eventually retire as a Packer. He might be in Purple now, but in our hearts and deep inside his, he will always be a Packer. When he set foot onto Lambeau field on Sunday, short-sighted fans, and people with selective amnesia, decided to show their appreciation or rather lack there of. It felt so wrong to hear all those boos in the air. Here them for yourself:

But then..... fans will be fans. Right when I started hearing the boos, I had a feeling Packer fans were building themselves some bad karma, which evidently came true with the loss. And giving the drama queen another reason to tear up later.

The Xs and Os

To talk about some real football, what went wrong for the Packers? It's hard to find a single reason for their abysmal showing. To begin with, the offensive line although improved from their last meeting with the Vikings, was still a liability. Pass protection was one thing, but they could not even help a whole lot in the run game. Bulk of the blame for the lack of running yards should fall on the play calling and the RB Grant. It's hard to swallow that Aaron Rodgers was the leading rusher for the Packers with 57 yards. The O line still allowed 6 sacks, but this time around, they were mostly coverage sacks, where Rodgers had no one open, and held on to the ball too long, without running out of the pocket or throwing it away. Those sacks are on Rodgers more than his O line. But the O-line still did not keep Rodgers away from pressure even with no Viking Blitzes. Moreover, the play calling lacked vision and ideas. When the pass rush is hot, and no apparent running room, where were all the draw plays and screen plays? Nada. This one is on McCarthy and the game-planning as a whole. A combination of this and some inefficiency on the part of Rodgers held the Packers offense to a meager 47 yards in the first half. The first half turned out to be the worst 2 quarters played by Rodgers this year and possibly over his short career. Two Minutes into the 3rd Quarter, the score was 24-3 Vikes. Even thought the Packers pulled within 4 points of the Vikings later in the half, the lack of imagination in the play calling and the inability to execute plays in the first half was too deep a hole the Packers dug themselves into.

The Packer special teams was horrible, especially their kick return coverage was MIA. The Packers were a mammoth minus-154 yards in field position for the game, which is more than 1.5 times the length of the entire field. It is a tall order to overcome that against any opposition, let alone the Vikings. Percy Harvin had 261 total yards for the game, most of them coming off kick returns (One receiving TD and 2 returns setting up TDs). The short fields that the Vikings offense took control of helped them score faster and did not give the Packers defense much of a chance to hold them to 3 and outs. The Vikings kick returns None more damaging than his return after the Packers came to within 24-20 with all the momentum riding with them and the rookie just killed it all with a monster return deep into packer territory.

Angry Football Gods

Taking nothing away from the dominant performance of the Vikings, there were so many things that happened this game, which could have helped the Packers. To begin with, on the first scoring drive of the Vikings, they were in the red-zone, on 3rd down, Al Harris made a great play to stop a first down and make the Vikings go 3 and out. But then Johnny Jolly of the Packers made a bone-headed mistake, he got into a tussle with one of the Vikings and lost it for a second, head butting the Viking. That was an obvious 15 yard penalty, and instead of the Vikings lining up to kick a field goal, they were within the 10 yard line with a fist down. they went on to score a TD and grab the lead 7-3 and the early momentum. But for that play, the Packers would have tied it at 24-24 in the 3rd quarter, making it a whole new ball game than it was before.

Then there was the Percy Harvin TD. Favre threw about 30 yards deep to Harvin for the catch. It was between 3 packer defenders. Unfortunately for them, the 3 Packers tumbled onto one another completely missing the receiver. The tangled defenders could not stop Harvin from taking the ball to the house. Now, it cannot be said that the Vikings would not have scored a TD if Harvin was tackled at the spot of the catch, but it was a rare incident that went against the Packers.

There were a number of football plays too, that went against the interest of the Packers. I am reluctant to include them in the category of lucky/unlucky breaks, but if one or two of those had gone the Packers' way, the outcome might have been different. Like the play where, Nick Barnett manages t get a hand on the ball just when Favre released it and it went up in the air, but none of the 5 packers around it could not come up with the pick. Or the play before that, where the tipped pass goes in the air, and falls to the ground just short of a diving Nick Collins. Or the Favre TD pass to Berrian that sealed the deal, it was inches away from the reach of Barnett again. Of course a couple of plays went against the Vikings too, but the number of bad bounces against the Packers far outnumbered them.

Well, at the end of the day, would-a, could-a, should-a stories don't take you anywhere.

Looking into the crystal ball......

After the Vikings win, they now enjoy a 3.5 game cushion over the Packers and the Bears in the NFC North Division. Any realistic chances for both the teams to catch up on the Vikings was gone after this game, barring an unlikely Vikings collapse. The only hope now for the Packers is the wild-card race. At the moment, the teams competing for the 2 NFC wild card spots are Eagles (5-2), Giants (5-3), Bears (4-3), Packers (4-3) and Falcons (4-3). Still having an outside shot at it are the Panthers (3-4) and the 49ers (3-4). It is still rather early to analyze wild card standings, but its good to look where you stand at the moment.

The Packers have a chance of clinching a wild card spot only if they start get a string of victories together. They probably cannot afford to lose more than 2 more games to contend for a playoff spot. With their schedule including teams like the Ravens, Steelers, Cowboys etc, its a tall order to shoot for. To stand any chance of accomplishing that, the Packers have to play better. Set their Offensive Line straight, not only for pass protection, but also to help in run-blocking. They need a boost in special teams play, including better punting and kicking by Kapinos and Crosby. Game planning and play calling should be more spot on and efficient. On top of that, called plays should be executed in a crisp manner. We have seen glimpses of fine execution of the offense this season, but only in spots and not throughout a game. The defensive play calling has been decent enough, but individual players should pick up their level of play. Especially Cullen Jenkins, Aaron Kampman and Nick Collins. These guys used to be all over the ball the last couple season, but are having a hard time settling down in the new system. They also need to be coached better to avoid penalties, especially the pre-snap ones. And please no more dumb penalties.

Here's to hoping for a chance for the Packers to avenge the sweep with just one playoff win over Favre and the Vikings. Now wouldn't that be bitter-sweet?

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