Is Time Up for Mike McCarthy & Aaron Rodgers?

photo courtesy of packers.com
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.

Toughness

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.

Defense

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.

Veteren Leadership

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.

Offense

– Aaron Rodgers: 9 years
– TJ Lang: 5 years
– Josh Sitton: 6 years
– James Jones: 7 years
– Jordy Nelson: 6 years

Defense

– 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.

Injuries

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.

Playcalling

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

Closing Windows

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.

 

 

Aaron Rodgers gets PAID

The Packers have seen all they need to see from their new starting quarterback.  And going into the weekend, they decided to pull the trigger and make a deal that will keep Rodgers in Green Bay for the better part of his career.  Rodgers signed the deal Friday morning that makes him among the highest paid quarterbacks in the league.  The new contract will put Rodger’s yearly salary above all quarterbacks but Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo.  Romo’s deal beats Rodgers’ by about $5m total.

According to NFL.com, the deal is worth $65 million over 6 years and comes with $20 million in guarantees.  The good part about the deal is the Packers got Aaron sigend in time to count the deal against the ’08 cap (they had just a hair under $20 million to spare).

The deal is of course getting some criticism from fans and the media, mostly due to the struggles of Ryan Grant after getting his big payday.  While there is some merit to the failures of Grant this season, one can only wonder what his performance would be like had he attended training camp and if he didn’t regularly have offensive linemen thrown into him in the backfield.  In the end, you can’t compare this to Grant’s deal.  I think Grant was somewhat of a desperation move after the Packers thought of the possibility of not only being without one of their best offensive players of ’07 in the post-Favre era, but also the idea of having Brandon Jackson fumbling his way through the starting job is not very appealing.

Congrats to Rodgers and the Packers.  So far, at least in some sense, you could say Rodgers has earned it by being a good teammate, being patient while Favre was doing his thing and performing well when given the chance.  Now it’s time for Rodgers to start paying the Packers back with some wins.

Despite win, Packers still need help

Yes, Aaron Rodgers looked great… but the team still showed no sign of improvement other than the ability to stick with the run.  The Packers actually surprised me, running 39 times (for only 113 yards, 2.9 avg).  So even though they finally kept running the ball, they really didn’t go anywhere.  They also did no better stopping the run, giving up 4.9 per carry.  They also have Ryan Pickett getting an MRI today on his tricept… we’ll hopefully get news on that shortly.

Packers: 2008 vs. 2007

After 3 straight losses, many Packers fans may be saying “what’s wrong?”  This team almost made the Super Bowl last year.  I’m sure many people will blame Rodgers.  Well, more specifically, the fact that he is NOT Brett Favre.  If Favre came back, this was supposed to be a championship team, right?  Well, I don’t know about that.

This time last year, Favre had 1500 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs.  Rodgers?  He has 1270 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs.  The big difference is the run game has actually produced more yards per game which has allowed Rodgers to throw less.

So what is it?  Two things really.  Sloppy play and no run defense.

Let’s look at penalties:
Last year through 5 weeks – 37 penalties, 269 yards.
This year through 5 weeks – 44 penalties, 419 yards.
How can you expect a team to compete with that many mistakes?  Going into week 5, the Packers were 3rd last in the NFL in penalties, dead last in yards penalized.  I’m sure with 9 for 97 yards today that number will just go up.  They are giving away 84 yards per game so far.  That’s 84 extra yards that either the offense has to move the ball or that the opposing offense gets for free.  There’s no excuse for so many foolish mistakes.

As for the defense… teams are just running wild.  The Packers were giving up the 4th most rushing yards in the NFL coming into week 5.  The Falcons put up 176 yards on them.  I’m sure they will be moving down a few spots when the final stats come out for the week.  The team is obviously going to miss Cullen Jenkins and the trade of Corey Williams is looking worse and worse every week as the middle of the line is constantly pushed backwards.  Last year at this point, the Packers were giving up just over 100 yards a game rushing.  Part of that is they were scoring a lot, but even if you score you still have to stop the other team.  This year, teams are finding that they can give up scores to the Packers and not change their offensive gameplan.  The defense is just getting pushed around, the linebackers look slow and injuries are building up.

If the mental mistakes can get cut in half, the team might be able to be competitive.  That seems to be asking a lot, however.  The announcers this week said McCarthy ran a training camp style practice to go back to basics this week.  I think he might have to go with a Pop-Warner style practice this coming week.

Packers play-calling – vanilla?

I’m going to focus on 1st down, this week vs. Tampa Bay.

1st Quarter – Drive 1:
1st and 10 at GB 42(14:51) R.Grant left end pushed ob at GB 48 for 6 yards
1st and 10 at TB 48(13:06) A.Rodgers sacked ob at TB 49 for -1 yards
1st and 10 at TB 33(11:51) R.Grant left tackle to TB 25 for 8 yards

1st Quarter – Drive 2:
1st and 10 at GB 20(8:48) A.Rodgers pass short right to D.Driver to GB 28 for 8 yards
1st and 10 at GB 31(7:00) A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to R.Grant.

1st Quarter – Drive 3:
1st and 10 at GB 23(2:32) A.Rodgers pass short left to G.Jennings to GB 29 for 6 yards
1st and 10 at GB 35(1:10) R.Grant left end pushed ob at GB 38 for 3 yards PENALTY on GB-C.Clifton, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at GB 35 – No Play.

2nd Quarter – Drive 1:
1st and 10 at GB 11(12:03) R.Grant right end to GB 5 for -6 yards

2nd Quarter – Drive 2:
1st and 10 at GB 22(6:36) R.Grant right guard to GB 21 for -1 yards
1st and 10 at GB 42(5:27) A.Rodgers sacked at GB 34 for -8 yards

2nd Quarter – Drive 3: (about 1min left in half – not counting this drive)

3rd Quarter – Drive 1:
1st and 10 at GB 44(11:32) A.Rodgers pass short left to G.Jennings pushed ob at GB 45 for 1 yard

3rd Quarter – Drive 2:
1st and 10 at GB 40(6:14) R.Grant right tackle to GB 38 for -2 yards (fumble – returned for TD)

3rd Quarter – Drive 3:
1st and 10 at GB 40
(5:48) A.Rodgers pass incomplete short middle to D.Lee.

3rd Quarter – Drive 4:
1st and 10 at TB 42(3:18) R.Grant up the middle to TB 42 for no gain (J.Haye).

4th Quarter – Drive 1:
1st and 15 at GB 15(9:40) R.Grant up the middle to GB 17 for 2 yards (G.Adams).

Last two possessions of the game were 2min drill.

15 normal 1st down plays in the game (ie – not 2min drill, not 1st and 20, etc).  8 plays were runs, 5 of them between the tackles.  Only two of those runs went over 2 yards.  Change things up, maybe?  I’ll have to look up some more stats when I have time, but the plays where they passed on 1st down, it was very obvious they were going to pass.

Rodgers on his way

Week 1, first time as a starter, first game without hall of famer QB Brett Favre on the team, prime time game, division rival, enormous expectations.  The only way Aaron Rodgers could have more pressure tonight would be if he had been the one telling Favre to take a hike over the Summer.  The entire football world was focusing on this kid tonight, seeing how he would handle things.  It was expected that he would stumble here and there.  Maybe some bad throws, even an interception or two.  People expected the Vikings to win.  The Packers had a different game plan.

Rodgers certainly understood the importance of this game, not only for the team, but himself personally.  He wasn’t going to let that bother him though.  This was no typical first time starter at quarterback.  Having Favre on the team has given Aaron Rodgers the luxury of being groomed for this job.  You hate to make the comparison, but it’s extremely similar to the situation with Montana/Young.  You really have to go back to that as there really aren’t many other examples.  Philip Rivers is the next best example of a QB who has had time to learn before being thrown in.  The time learning the offense and getting comfortable with the job and the team certainly looked to have paid off tonight.  Aaron Rodgers looked as if he had been starting for years.  He had command in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.  He avoided the blitz, carefully selected his receivers, knew when to run and when to throw it away.  It was as close to a flawless performance as you could get out of ANY quarterback and an absolutely over the top showing given the circumstance.

Rodgers ended up 18/22 passing, 178 yards, 1 TD throwing and 1 running.  In classic west coast fashion, he completed passes to seven different receivers.  Most importantly, it’s easy to argue he outperformed Brett Favre.  Yes, Favre had a good day for the Jets, but Rodgers was more efficient passing and did it against a much better team.  All and all, a great start for Aaron’s career as the man in Green Bay.

Rodgers looks pretty good in first start

Yeah, it was pre-season.  Yeah, it was agains the pitiful Bengals.  Yeah it was just one quarter.  However, Aaron Rodgers still looked pretty darn good.  A lot of his incompletions and his interception were the fault of dropped passes.  He looked confident and did a good job progressing through his reads.  You could definitely see the difference between Rodgers, who has studied for 3 years and Brohm, who is fresh on the scene.  Brohm (and Flynn) looked very aprehensive and unfamiliar in the offense.  They repeatedly locked in on their first receiving target and never looked elsewhere.  They rushed throws, missed targets, either stood too still or moved too much.  They basically looked like rookies.  Rodgers moved really well and looked like he saw the whole field.  It’s only 12 minutes of pre-season football, but it makes you feel better about the direction of the team.

What if Robin got his shot?

Batman and Robin.  Super hero, understudy.  Always has been that way, always will be.  Robin is always an afterthought compared to Batman, because Batman is Batman.  It has nothing to do with what Robin has done or hasn’t done.  In fact, unless you are the type of person who really studied the comics, you don’t know much about Robin at all.  The common person thinks of Robin from the aweful TV show where he was (in)famous for saying things like “holy uncanny photographic mental process, Batman!”  You can’t judge the entire potential of a character on a poorly written spoof sitcom.  Robin still got the bad guy a few times and he always put in a good effort.  Not only that, but he learned from Batman!  It’s not like it was some character with superhuman abilities like Spider Man trying to teach something that can’t be taught.  Sure, there is some inherit ability in being Batman, maybe some good instincts or reflexes.  However, a lot of it is based on experience and a knowledge of his craft.  Let’s face it, large fortune aside Batman is a regular guy like anyone else.  Sure, he’s a tad more pissed off than most, but regular guy nonetheless.  So why is it impossible to believe that someone who maybe has a similar skillset couldn’t learn Batman’s craft?  Maybe if Batman takes a vacation for a month, is it impossible to believe that Robin couldn’t go off and take out Dr. Doom?  Is it even beyond comprehension that Robin could do Batman’s job better?  Or at least, do it better than an old, overweight George Clooney Batman?  Well, obviously I’m not the only one who wondered this, because there was a comic series (maybe more than one) based on the Robin character going solo.

So why can’t this philosophy apply to Favre?  Aaron Rodgers has all the tools necessary to be a quarterback, we know that.  He’s learned from a great quarterback.  Maybe Favre didn’t take on an active role as a teacher, but Rodgers could at least have learned by watching.  On top of that, sure Favre has had some success recently, but he also threw 29 interceptions not too long ago.  McCarthy admitted he has had to shorten up the playbook based on Favre’s abilities (mainly his inability to throw a deep ball).  You don’t have to do that with Rodgers.  I’m not saying Rodgers will be breaking ANY of Favre’s records, ever.  I’m saying, that there is a possibility that Rodgers could have a better next few seasons than a guy who is 14 years older than him.

Favre Comeback – Where do I begin?

Not that it can possibly be a secret at this point, but the word is Brett Favre wants to come back and play again.  The Packers don’t want him, they don’t want to release him either.  They want him retired.  Sorry Brett, should’ve thought of this before you announced your retirement.  Bummer for Brett, but that’s life, right?

Who knows… Even if the Packers want Favre back, you’d think they would put a big front on to make sure Brett really truely wants to come back.  You don’t want to take the guy in and have him change his mind week 2 of pre-season.  You also don’t want your future QB, Aaron Rodgers, to think that you’ll just cast him aside one more year without a second thought if you can get any hope of Favre being around.  And if the Packers don’t want Favre back, that makes sense too.  They’ve invested a lot in turning over the franchise and eventually you have to see that plan into action.

So what are we supposed to make of this?  There’s decent reason for the Packers not to take Favre back.  There’s probably better reason to take him back.  Granted he made some mistakes in that Giants game, as well as several other games, he still did get the team pretty close to a Super Bowl.  He’s also coming into a team that has hopefully improved from last year.  So in theory, taking Brett back puts your team as a top 5 team in the NFL with expectations of making the Super Bowl.  Going with Aaron Rodgers puts you as an expected 2nd place team in the division.  In the end, it’s probably worth giving the old guy another shot.  I guess if he falls apart mid-season you bench him and bring in Rodgers and Favre tarnishes his career a bit but gets some extra assurance that he is done with football.  If you tell him “no” and end up with an 8-8 season, you’ll always be wondering.

Now what?

What did I say at the ’07 draft?

Everyone on the planet said it, why did we pick Justin Harrell?  The guy was always hurt, and no surprise, he’s hurt again.  Can we cut this dude, eat his signing bonus and stop paying 1st round money to someone who will be on the PUP list the next 5 years anyway?

Other news, Jason Taylor doesn’t want to come to Green Bay.  Well, no kidding!  What did Deion Sanders call it many years ago when he was still playing?  The coldest, smallest, borinest city in the NFL?  The whole thing is, Green Bay is likely the only team in the NFL where Taylor could come in and A) Start, B) Be the hero of the defense (which he arguably had to split reps with Zach Thomas on) and C) Have a realistic chance at a Super Bowl in the next 2 years (assuming the Aaron Rodgers project doesn’t blow up from day 1).  Most any other team is either going to A) Put him in a rotation, B) Have him play in the shadow of an established defensive star, C) Not win (or some combination of the 3).  If you think about Green Bay last year, Favre really did nothing spectacular all year… and we came an interception away from the Super Bowl.  If you look at the other playoff teams last year, Washington, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Seattle all had problems on offense that need to get solved before Jason Taylor would help them go further.  New York could use a guy in the left end spot, but many would say they don’t have a chance at repeating, New England, San Diego and Indy already have pass rushers (and Indy can’t afford another contract).  So that would put Taylor in the position of trying to find a large market team that is an old defensive end away from a Super Bowl.  Fat chance.