photo courtesy of packers.com
For the third straight year, the Packers lost in the playoffs. For most teams, this wouldn’t be so terrible, but the Packers feature one of the two or three best quarterbacks of the past decade. Someone who is believed to be a sure fire Hall of Famer. A quarterback who has nine seasons behind him and might be seeing his window of opportunity closing.
The early responses point to a few common themes in the Ted Thompson era. Many critics are saying there’s a lack of overall toughness, citing repeated losses to very physical Giants and 49ers teams. Others say the defense is terrible. And there’s a healthy mix of complaints about a lack of veteren leadership / free agents.
Let’s look at the criticism and see if we can sort out what is going wrong with this team.
This is a rather difficult thing to measure. But let’s see if we can quantify it a bit. Looking just at the most recent playoff loss, there are a few possible “toughness” numbers (per NFL.com).
49ers avg yards/carry: 5.6
Packers avg yards/carry: 4.0
49ers sacks allowed: 3
Packers sacks allowed: 4
49ers QB Hits: 6
Packers QB Hits: 2
You might look at some of those numbers and think they indicate San Fran is the tougher team. They run more, they have a better pass rush, they allow fewer yards against the run. But there is a lot more to it than that.
Running the ball, San Fran barely did anything in the traditional sense. Gore carried 20 times for a 3.3 yard average. His longest run was 10 yards. The yards/carry average was grossly inflated by Kaepernick’s 98 rushing yards and 14 yard/carry average. And his long runs did not come as a result of the option, but pass plays where he felt pressure and his first read wasn’t open. Basically, he scrambled and Green Bay couldn’t catch him.
On the Packers’ side, they were facing the 3rd rated rush defense in the league and performed admirably. Their running game is the best it’s been in years. I’m not sure how you can rationally argue this.
The pass rushing stats are a bit more subjective, but Green Bay has been very limited in that department all year. With the strength of San Fran’s offensive line and all the injuries on the Green Bay defense, it’s not much of a surprise. The 49ers have allowed 2.4 sacks per game this year, so Green Bay was pretty much right on pace.
The Packers’ pass protection remains a mystery. They without their projected starting left tackle the entire season. The fill in was lost during the playoff game. They also have a first round tackle who has yet to get on the field for any meaningful amount of time (although it’s beginning to look like this is less about injury and more about ability).
There are certainly bigger and faster teams compared to the Packers, but I don’t think you can really prove it’s an issue.
I covered the run defense already. On the pass defense side, Kaepernick had 227 yards and a 53% completion rate. Coupled with one touchdown and one interception, this wasn’t a terribly impressive game on paper. But visually he dominated once again. Kaepernick still is not an accomplished passer. You can watch him follow a single receiver on every play, and either force the pass or run if that player isn’t open. He’s occassionally hitting a second read these days, but it still looks to be rare.
Even with those limitations, he still kept making plays when it counted. Especially at the end of the game, where the 49ers were 4/4 on 3rd down and 3/3 on the final drive of the game.
Giving the league’s 8th rated offense (according to FootballOutsiders.com) the ball with 5 minutes left, only needing a field goal to win, is not a good situation for any defense. The Packers made some critical mistakes (Bush allowing Kaepernick to run past him on 3rd and 8) and had some big missed opportunities (Hyde’s dropped interception), but ultimately just looked outmatched on the final drive.
The rest of the game, they looked really solid. When the offense was absolutely pathetic in the first quarter, the defense stopped two drives inside their own 10 yard line. The only touchdown they allowed in the first half was a result of a terrible bit of defense that led to Kaepernick’s 42 yard run. That play included a lot of people out of position.
But basically the two big Kaepernick runs and the Davis touchdown were the only plays where the defense did not look good. A good defense wouldn’t allow those plays, but this performance was still much better than what we’ve seen in the past.
There are all sorts of variations of this theme thrown out every year under Thompson. Let’s look at a few numbers for defensive & offensive starters… Below is name followed by years of experience.
– Aaron Rodgers: 9 years
– TJ Lang: 5 years
– Josh Sitton: 6 years
– James Jones: 7 years
– Jordy Nelson: 6 years
– Tramon Williams: 7 years
– Ryan Pickett: 13 years
– BJ Raji: 5 years
– AJ Hawk: 8 years
– Brad Jones: 5 years
– Clay Matthews: 5 years
11 of 22 starters are 5+ year veterens. Every one of those 11 players were on the Super Bowl roster, all but Brad Jones as a starter.
So what we’re really talking about here is free agency.
In the last offseason, probably the most prominent free agent to change teams was Elvis Dumervil. While his 9.5 sacks for the Ravens looks good, he was just a situational pass rusher. He totaled 31 tackles and 3 passes defended. While the 3rd down presence would help, it’s hard to imagine $5.2 million per season being worth it for such a limited player.
While plenty of people wanted Greg Jennings to stick around, it’s hard to argue against the results without him. The biggest struggle the Packers’ offense faced was the loss of Aaron Rodgers. No receiver group could make Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn look good.
Where the Packers missed in free agency is at the less attractive end. Glenn Dorsey was a big contributor at the end of the season for the 49ers. Chris Cante is an ideal 3-4 defensive end that eats blockers all day. Shaun Phillips was a steal compared to Dumervil, but offered virtually identical production. And these were all positions of great uncertainty entering the season.
I don’t know if enough data will ever be available to figure this one out. The Packers players get injured more frequently than the rest of the league. This has happened historically under Thompson.
I’ve tried to pull data about player growth from high school to the pros, and it looked like a lot of Ted Thompson draft picks showed big increases in BMI (35-30% increase from high school to pros). The rest of the league, appears to have gains more like 10-15% over the same timeframe. The theory is that players are bulking up fast, to a size larger than their frame is designed to hold. so you have someone with the skeleton of a linebacker by the mass of a lineman. Potentially, if your body isn’t meant to hold that kind of weight, it could break down more often. There’s no science I know of to support this, it’s just a guess. Trying to turn correlation into causation. But data from high schools is not reliable enough. Too often, it seems players measure bigger than they really are (maybe to appear bigger and get noticed by scouts?). I’d love to look further into it, but without access to scouting data, I think it’s a dead end for now.
Beyond that, there are plenty of questions out there about the conditioning staff and McCarthy’s training/practice program. Changes have been made in both departments over the year, with no changes.
Regardless, something desperately needs to change. The Packers had 15 people on injured reserve this year, and had a lot of missed games by other starters. You cannot operate a team that way and expect them to be successful through the postseason.
I’m not throwing this entirely on McCarthy, since Rodgers runs the show in the no huddle to a great degree. But things just don’t seem to make sense year after year. In 2007, Favre’s last year with the team, McCarthy had a young team and a very shaky offensive line. He dealt with that by using a fantastic variation of the west coast offense. The Packers were a late game Favre meltdown away from the Super Bowl that year.
Ever since, we haven’t seen that willingness to adapt to adverse situations. In Sunday’s game, despite struggles with the 49ers’ pass rush, the Packers kept sending their receivers deep play after play. In most instances, one receiver would go short on a slant with everyone else 15+ yards deep. If that short pass wasn’t open, it left Rodgers waiting in the pocket far too long for routes to develop.
And then there’s the Cobb run inside the red zone. And the wasted timeout at the end of the first half. Nearly every game includes questionable moves like this. The team nearly missed the playoffs because McCarthy didn’t go for two later in the Bears game.
The Packers have obviously built their offense around big plays, but they can’t expect them every snap. There needs to be some adjustment to the playcalling philosophy to allow for adapatation against tough defenses. Just like the first touchdown drive on Sunday when they went exclusively with runs and short passes
Next year will be difficult for Ted Thompson to orchestrate. Two thirds of their starting defensive line will be unrestricted free agents. Sam Shields, James Jones, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jermichael Finley, Mike Neal and CJ Wilson will all join them. The following year will see the same time come for Jordy Nelson, Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb. Tramon Williams is a likely cap casualty in 2014 with $9.5 million in salary and bonuses due. The team has $107.8 million in spending against the cap (according to OverTheCap.com) for next year, before drafting anyone or even getting a full roster.
The point is, things are going to get a lot harder. All of this doesn’t take into account teams like the 49ers and Seahawks contuing to develop, along with other powerhouses around the league. If the Packers hope to not let another hall of fame quarterback career go by with only one title, they are going to have to figure out a lot of issues that don’t have obvious answers.
Unless you believe there is a coach out there that can make an immediate impact given the existing talent, you can’t make a change in that department. The aging roster and heavy contracts of Matthews & Rodgers won’t allow big splashes in free agency, and history shows there really aren’t big splashes worth making most years. Thompson will likely need to replace veterens on the team currently with lower priced options (via draft and lower tier free agecy).
But he’ll need to go on a talent evaluation run that ranks up there with the best GM’s of all time, as the window of opportunity for this team appears to be closing.