Thursday, November 12, 2009

Analyze the Enemy: Green Bay Packers

Admittedly, this is a fairly odd position for me to be in this week, but over the 12 seasons of covering Dallas Cowboys football, there have been several meetings between the two teams, so I have certainly grown accustomed to the oddness.

In fact, I offered an essay on this back in 2007 if you care...

To me, the Green Bay Packers do not represent the "enemy", but for purposes of continuity, the title of the piece shall remain the same. Also, since I don't play for the Cowboys, any awkwardness would be for Tony Romo (another life-long Green Bay fan) to work through, at it appears he hasn't had any difficulty doing such a things. His numbers in his 2 games against Green Bay are a 2-0 record, 36-60, 569 yards, 569 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT and a passer rating of 105.5. He seems pretty nervous.

In 1967, the Green Bay Packers finished a run of 5 World Championships in 7 years by beating the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II. It was the 2nd time the franchise had won 3 consecutive NFL Titles (something that no other franchise has ever done even once). Vince Lombardi left the franchise a few days later.

From 1968 until 1991 (24 seasons), the Packers enjoyed just 4 winning seasons (never consecutive). They made the playoffs just twice, and only once (1972) in a legitimate full NFL season (sorry, but making the playoffs in the bogus 1982 season with a 5-3-1 record does not impress anyone). They were an absolute mess, who had totally undone everything that Vince and the Packers dynasty of the 1960's had built. The Green Bay Packers franchise was irrelevant in the NFL, aside from being the punchline destination for players who angered their teams.

Then, in 1992, Ron Wolf was hired to be the GM of the Packers. He hired Mike Holmgren. They traded for Brett Favre by sending the #19 pick to Atlanta for him, and both teams felt like they won the trade decisively.

For the next 7 years (92-98), Holmgren, Favre, Wolf, and Reggie White helped design a model-franchise. 7 years, 7 winning season, 6 playoffs, 3 NFC Championship games, 2 Super Bowls, and 1 World Title. It was too good to be true. Their franchise QB had won the NFL MVP in 1995, 1996, and 1997, and was now just 29 years old. The sky was the limit for how many more could be won.

This was a time when successful NFL Coaches would take their success as a sign that they needed to do more. "Buy the Groceries" was a cliche Bill Parcells used, but it applied to many others - including Holmgren. Despite having one of the most successful stints an NFL Coach had ever had in such a short time with a team, he had to be the GM, too. The Packers had Ron Wolf already, so there was no opening in Green Bay for that title. Therefore, Holmgren resigned from the Packers to take an 8 year contract from the Seattle Seahwaks to be both Head Coach and General Manager of that franchise.

It didn't make a whole lot of sense, but Green Bay fans were not sure it was that big of a deal, since they still had the NFL MVP running the show. It was a very big deal. Holmgren knew how to coach Brett Favre. He knew how to harness him. And most importantly, Favre was interested in hearing what Holmgren had to say.

But, after that, the Packers repeatedly brought in coaches who had no idea how to coach or deal with Favre, and they never achieved up to their ability after that. They still had a number of fine playoff years with Division Titles, but Favre's play went from "finely tuned" to "trying to do too much" and Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman would generally not say anything when he returned to the sideline after a bad mistake.

Mike Sherman had a wonderful record in Green Bay, but in each of his 4 trips to the playoffs with Favre and the Packers, there was a tremendous crash-and-burn exit.

2001: Favre throws an NFL record 6 INTs in St Louis as the Packers are steamrolled, 45-17.

2002: Michael Vick and the Falcons are the first road team to ever win a playoff game in Lambeau Field as they drill the Packers, 27-7.

2003: Green Bay squanders full control of a playoff game in Phildelphia, one of the biggest chokes and worst coaching performances in memory, as the Packers surrender a 4th and 26 to Donovan McNabb and then Favre heaves an unneccesary INT in overtime as the Eagles survive, 20-17. If you are curious, this, like Super Bowl 32 and the 2006 NBA Finals, are the "taking it to your bleeping grave" games of my life.

2004: Randy Moss and the 8-8 Vikings roll into Lambeau and anger Joe Buck with the "Fake Moon the Crowd" incident and prove winning in Lambeau is easy in the playoffs, 31-17. This was also the game that Favre had the famous "bail-out 3 yards over the line of scrimmage underhand toss inside the 5 that made me wonder if he had lost his nerve and needed to retire" play. If you want to see the play, Go to 2:15 on this cut . It would be Moss' final TD in Minnesota, but the Favre era was creeping to a close.

After that 4th year of believing they should have achieved better than they did, Sherman was stripped of his GM duties (how did he get them in the first place might be a better question) and they hired Ted Thompson to be the new GM, with Sherman as the coach. 2005, was one of the most injury-filled seasons ever seen, and the Packers hit rock bottom - with the only losing season in the 16 years that Brett Favre was the QB, with a 4-12 record. And that was the end of Sherman altogether.

2006 brought in Mike McCarthy, and the Thompson/McCarthy era was under way.

I have already written extensively about what happened next , so if you want to know why I think the Packers botched the Favre situation so badly, and really need another management change, you can read about that.

So, the Aaron Rodgers era started in 2008. Since then, he has put up some of the finest individual passing numbers in the league, so if you are a fantasy football owner, you are pleased. But, if you want to see the team continue to run of winning football in the post-Favre era that was put in place in 1992, the results are 10-14 for the Rodgers' Packers.

Surely, if you have watched 2 plays of GB football with Rodgers, it is clear that he isn't the main problem at all, but on countless occasions, including Sunday at Tampa Bay, he has had the ball in his hands late in a game with a chance to save the day (something Favre did several dozen times) and has not proven to have a grasp for the big moment whatsoever at this point in his career. At this point of his career, he has 2 major flaws that stats do not fully explain:

1) - His ability to get that drive at that moment. His 4th Quarter passer rating is the lowest of his 4th Quarters, and the Packers have lost several g ames in the final 5 minutes during his run.

2) - He has been sacked 71 times in his 22 starts, only Matt Cassel has been sacked more often during that stretch. Surely, his OL is to blame plenty, but his lack of pocket presence is difficult to ignore when watching him play with complete disregard for the pass rush. One major issue with passer rating is it doesn't in any way account for taking a bad sack. QBs who know when to get the ball out of there to avoid a drive-killing sack do not get enough credit sometimes.

NFP's Blue rankings Show the Packers are pretty talented :

BLUE CHIP: QB, Rodgers; WR, Jennings; DE, C. Jenkins; OLB, Kampman; CB, Woodson.

ALMOST BLUE: WR, Driver; ILB, Barnett; CB, Harris.

The Green Bay Packers are talented, but the problem with this team is two-fold. Both suggest that they are poor at the line of scrimmage. On offense, nobody gets sacked more than Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have given up 37 sacks, and only Kansas City is in the vicinity with 30. They are worst, by a mile. In Week 1 against Chicago, it was clear the Packers' OL was a mess, and it has gone down hill from there. They thought they could rebuild their OL from within with many of their own picks, but like Dallas, they obviously are not picking the right guys to do the job through the draft. But, unlike Dallas, they also don't sign any veteran free agents. So, their spectacular offensive skill-position talent is wasted because they can't get anyone blocked.

And on defense, only Jacksonville and Kansas City get fewer sacks. This idea that Dom Capers and his 3-4 were going to sort everything out has not quite come to pass.

The drafts of Ted Thompson have yielded many solid players, but he has had some issues at the top. Aaron Rodgers was certainly a fine snag in 2005. But, then it gets rocky. For instance, AJ Hawk was the #5 pick in the 2006 draft. If you are going to take a LB that high, he better be special. Hawk is ok. He also grabbed Greg Jennings, a truly special WR in Round 2. Justin Harrell from Tennessee was an injury risk when they took him in the 1st Round in 2007, and has never started a game for the Packers as a complete injury bust in his 3 years on the team. In 2008, they traded out of the 1st Round and took Jordy Nelson in Round 2. His impact so far has been rather minimal - and he was one of many WRs taken before DeSean Jackson. This year, the Packers took 2 defensive players in the 1st Round, with BJ Raji still trying to figure things out and Clay Matthews JR who looks very impressive.

Additional Reading:

Ted Thompson's fault? :

Just two years removed from being everyone's darkhorse Super Bowl contender, the Packers find themselves .500 at the year's midway mark and wobbling under the weight of hefty preseason predictions.

This isn't a Super Bowl team. Heck, it probably isn't a playoff team.

So who is to blame for the debacle that is 2009? General Manager Ted Thompson failed to pick an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of any of his drafts, and now Aaron Rodgers spends more time on the grass than The Grateful Dead. Head Coach Mike McCarthy looks more lost on the sidelines than his defense does trying to grasp the 3-4. But does either deserve to pay with his job?

Fans have been calling for Thompson's head on a platter since the messy divorce from Brett Favre last summer, and in truth his reaction to an admittedly difficult situation was arrogant, cold, and shortsighted. Worse, he made Favre's diva antics seem somewhat understandable and actually managed to cast the Packers in negative light.

While Favre is enjoying a renaissance in Minnesota, Green Bay is suffering from a distinct lack of on-field leadership--part of the reason Thompson made the desperation move of re-signing Ahman Green. The Packers are the youngest team in the league....again, and it shows. They are one of the most penalized teams in football, and they have far too many boneheaded lapses in judgment on the field.

Casting aside veterans and refusing to reload in the free agent market is in theory a fine strategy, but for it to work Thompson had better darned well be sure that his drafts are consistently strong. They haven't been.

Justin Harrell, Brian Brohm, Abdul Hodge, and Terrence Murphy have been bona fide busts, and A.J. Hawk and Darryn Colledge still have work to do to fulfill the potential that made them both high round picks. Sure, drafting Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings were strokes of genius, but Thompson has thus far failed to build a supporting cast around them, which has in turn stunted their development and placed on them the unfair burden of carrying the team.

More of that here :

Twenty-four regular-season games into Favre's removal as Green Bay's starting quarterback, Ted Thompson looks every bit as stupid as Peter Pocklington, the man who traded Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles.

The inconvenient, impolite, painful, highly entertaining and worthy-of-ample-discussion truth is Brett Favre wanted out of Green Bay because he believes Ted Thompson is a moron. Favre spent one year in New York just so he could get to Minnesota and prove that Ted Thompson is a moron.

Halfway through the 2009 season and after two Vikings victories over the Packers, the Favre prosecution team has rested its case and anxiously awaits Thompson's defense the second half of the season.

As jury foreman, I'm ready to vote guilty on all charges. Short of winning the Super Bowl, there's not a damn thing the Packers can do to mask Thompson's incompetence.

I'll be asking my peers in the jury room to sentence Thompson to the unemployment line and hand Favre the league's MVP Award.

That's right. Halfway through the season Favre is the clear-cut MVP. It ain't even close. Right now Favre is sportsman of the year. That's not hyperbole.

If Favre's second-half play matches what he's delivered through eight games and the Vikings win the Super Bowl, he will have elevated himself to Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Jim Brown status.

What Favre has done so far this season is the stuff of legends. It surpasses Ruth's "called shot" in the 1932 World Series and Joe Namath's Super Bowl guarantee. I'd put Favre's 2009 performance on par with the "Miracle on Ice" and Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" victory.

I'm telling you, despite blanket coverage, we've totally missed the Favre story. We've failed to put this in proper context.

Favre is doing what Michael Jordan could not.

MJ hated Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Bulls. Jordan believed Krause was an idiot and was in too much of a hurry to break up Jordan, Jackson, Pippen and Rodman. Jordan "retired" and first tried to prove Krause's idiocy by managing the Wizards and then tried to prove it by playing for the Wizards.

Jordan failed. He drafted Kwame Brown No. 1 overall and put together two forgettable seasons in a Wizards uniform.

The 40-year-old Favre, however, is having the greatest season of his 19-year career. His 106 QB rating is seven points higher than his previous best. He's on pace to throw just six interceptions, which would be seven fewer than he's thrown in any season as a starter.

And still more :

Since Thompson was hired in January 2005 as the general manager, his philosophy has been to build a winning organization through the draft and by resigning his own players.

For the most part, Thompson has stayed in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to free agency and trades.

That philosophy certainly can work if your drafts are among football's finest year in and year out. But a major reason the Packers are 4-4 this season and just 35-37 during Thompson's tenure is his drafting has been nothing more than mediocre.

Thompson has conducted Green Bay's last five drafts, and here are the results:

• Thompson has selected 51 players.

• Thirty four of Thompson's picks are still either on the roster or the practice squad (66.7%)

• Ten of Thompson's picks are currently starters (19.1%).

• And as Collins stated, he's the only Thompson draft pick to have played in a Pro Bowl (2.0%).

Compared to some other general managers around the league, Thompson's draft record isn't bad. The problem is, it isn't special either.

And considering Thompson's apathy toward free agency and trades, he needs to hit home runs in the draft.

Had Thompson's draft record been better, the Packers might be better than 10-14 since Brett Favre was traded last summer.

Thompson didn't return phone calls for this story, but in April he said: "The draft is the biggest way you build a team, and I think it's the best way to build a team for the long run, because you have a draft every year, and you can work at it that way. . . . 

"I think the draft is very important, and it's important whether you're active in free agency or not active in free agency. It's an investment in the future of your team."

But this guy wants McCarthy gone, too :

Even the staunchest supporters of the Green Bay Packers' Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy braintrust - and I consider myself to have been among the most staunch during the last two years - no longer can defend this mess.

Sunday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - the revival of the Buccaneers' ghastly creamsickle uniforms conjuring images of a woebegone era only rubbed salt into this gaping wound - sealed this sorry deal.

Barring an about-face during the second half of the season, which is difficult to envision considering the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals remain on the schedule, McCarthy deserves the same fate he passed to most of his defensive staff after last season. And that's a one-way ticket out of Green Bay.

His team is ridiculously sloppy, the play of his offensive line is an embarrassment and his team's conversion to a 3-4 defense appears more and more to be an unmitigated disaster that is neutralizing the Packers' best players (i.e. Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins).

McCarthy has been saying on a weekly basis that the penalties which have come in bunches cannot be tolerated. Yet, they keep recurring, which indicates McCarthy has either lost his players or never had the capability to reach them in the first place.

As for Thompson, he should get one more year to straighten out a mess that he played an ample role in creating.

Even his harshest critics must acknowledge he has overseen a reasonably steady infusion of talent, although his judgment has certainly been far more flawed than the great Ron Wolf's was.

But responsibility for the Packers' pathetic offensive line must fall squarely on his shoulders. And considering this is the fifth year of Thompson's program, that just doesn't wash in today's NFL.

As you can see, this is a full-fledged mess. Chaos for a team that has had its swagger taken away by the Favre-mess and subsequent demolisions at the hand of their former leader.

I would say this, though, don't count your money yet. This is a very talented team, that has shown great ability at times. Now, that everyone is telling them how lousy they are, all of the conditions seem right for them to circle the wagons and take one last gasp at the playoffs on Sunday. After that, they may give it up, but Sunday, I would anticipate everything they have.

We will give a game plan tomorrow, but beware of the ambush.


jjtaymo said...

Bob, this was a fantastic write-up but then, at the end, you had to go Kirk Herbstreit on us and say the "s" word.

Ironic thing about Thompson is that he's a Wolf guy. Harlan probably thought he was making the safe choice by "keeping it in the family" so to speak.

I also found this statement by Thompson (from his webpage)somewhat ironic in light of his critics:

"...but despite how much value he places on the draft, Thompson also will use the free-agent market as another tool to build the roster. In Green Bay, he has brought in CB Charles Woodson, DT Ryan Pickett and LB Brandon Chillar, among others, to either take over starting jobs or provide valuable, experienced depth at their positions.

'I think free agency is a very interesting tool to use to help you patch some holes and do some things,' said Thompson, who signed five unrestricted free agents in 2006, the Packers' most since 1998."

Josh said...

Some tinder to stoke the flames you were mentioning regarding GB having their backs against the wall:

Sturminator said...

What is the "S" word? I don't understand that.

Josh said...


Phil K. said...

Random comment for the blog...

I just want to give GB a little credit back in 2001. I mean...St. Louis was the lauded "Greatest Show on Turf," racked up un-godly scores all season and finished 14-2. The Pack sort of hit a freight train with that one.