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.

 

 

McCarthy’s poor coaching dooms the Packers

I forget if I’ve written about it here to any length, but two of my top signs you have a bad head coach are 1. Lots of penalties. 2. Bad special teams play. It seems with coaches who are destined to be good coordinators, they can’t handle the extra detail involved in fixing those issues. So they try to make up for it in other areas and publicly pretend it isn’t that big of an issue.

I forget if I’ve written about it here to any length, but two of my top signs you have a bad head coach are 1. Lots of penalties. 2. Bad special teams play.  It seems with coaches who are destined to be good coordinators, they can’t handle the extra detail involved in fixing those issues.  So they try to make up for it in other areas and publicly pretend it isn’t that big of an issue.

For the last three years as the Packers have been at or near the top of the league in penalties and special teams ranking, McCarthy has said things like “we’ve got to shore that up” week after week, while the problem doesn’t change.  It would be very convenient to blame those mistakes on youth (as the Packers have also had one of the youngest teams in the league over that stretch), but last night you wouldn’t dare make that case.

For example, the end of the third quarter when Green Bay was pinned at their own 1 yard line, long-time right tackle Mark Tauscher flinched on consecutive plays, killing any chance of momentum and getting the fans into a bigger frenzy.  After Rodgers forgot to look at the play clock, the Packers were forced to punt.  In an astonishingly bad judgement call, special teams coach Shawn Slocum said “let’s punt it to Hester” (who was waiting at mid-field).  One Devin Hester punt return for a touchdown later, the Packers were cooked.

The mistakes continued to pile up as James Jones caught a pass down the sideline for what should’ve been a huge first down late in the fourth.  Instead of getting out of bounds or simply going to the ground quickly to conserve time, he tried to fight through two linebackers and lost the ball.

When the Packers were trying to stop the Bears from making a game-winning drive, the defensive penalties started mounting.  The team was probably tired and frustrated at this point, but they really showed their true character by being over aggressive and killing any hope of stopping the Bears with sloppy play.

Just like every year under Mike McCarthy, this team is going to underachieve.  We may make the playoffs, we may even win a playoff game, but as long as the same problems that have plagued McCarthy his entire head coaching career are still there, he will defeat us.

McCarthy’s approval rating takes big dive with loss

If you haven’t seen, ESPN.com lets fans vote on the job their coach is doing. Mike McCarthy received a 32% approval rating for week 5.  Not good, but well deserved.  The bad thing, is the logic many fans and reporters are using for the poor performance of the Packers.  Whenever I read articles about the team, the “F” word always comes up.  So many people seem to think that Brett would do a better job run blocking.  They feel he would stuff the middle of the line on defense or get penetration on the end.  Apparently Favre would do a far better job covering the tight end or stopping a running back from turning the corner.  Favre would also be able to punt more consistently and get flagged less often for holding.

Blame Mike for not putting a well prepared team on the field.  Blame Thompson for not filling the roster with quality depth on both lines.  Don’t expect that Favre would fix any of the problems we are seeing right now.

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 Running Into 2008 Season

Run-down feeling

McCarthy wants to beef up Packers’ ground game

So McCarthy thinks the Packers need to improve their ground game.  I’d agree.  If you want to look at just one big reason the rushing attack didn’t really get going in 2007, look at the performances in 2007:

  • Week 1 vs Philly: 17 carries - 46 yards
  • Week 3 vs San Diego: 13 carries – 42 yards
  • Week 4 at Minny: 20 carries – 46 yards
  • Week 5 vs Chicago: 21 carries – 77 yards (if you subtract a 44 yarder by Wynn)
  • Week 6 vs Washington: 20 carries – 56 yards
  • Week 12 at Detroit: 16 carries – 69 yards (if you subtract a 31 yarder by Grant)
  • Week 13 at Dallas: 18 carries – 62 yards (if you subtract a 62 yarder by Grant)
  • Week 15 at St Louis: 22 carries – 31 yards (if you subtract a 24 yarder by Grant)
  • Week 16 at Chicago: 20 carries – 59 yards (if you subtract a 66 yarder by Grant)
  • NFC Championship vs NY Giants: 14 carries – 28 yards (13 yards of that came on 1 run by Grant)

During those 10 games, if you subtract the biggest runs (some games have multiple big runs, but I only counted the longest for simplicity) the Packers averaged 18.1 carries for 51.6 yards.  That’s a terrible performance.  Their rushing success wasn’t much better in other games, but I’m simply pointing out the ones where they gave up on the running game (with less than 25 carries per game).  It’s obvious that their rather pathetic numbers are heavily inflated by a few long rushes in each game.  I don’t count big runs as carries because it’s more a result of that particular play going great for the offense and terrible for the defense, it’s not a good judge of offensive line performance overall.

If this hopes to improve, it might not be easy – check out a few of the Packers ’08 opponents:

  •  Chicago Bears – played the Packers tough against the run in both games
  • Minnesota Vikings – #1 run defense in NFL
  • Dallas Cowboys – #6 run defense in NFL
  • Indianapolis Colts – #3 total defense in NFL
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers – #2 total defense in NFL
  • Seattle Seahawks – #12 run defense in NFL
  • Jacksonville Jaguars – #11 run defense in NFL
  • Tennessee Titans – #5 run defense in NFL

Really, the only “bad” defensive units they play all season are in 5 games: Detroit (twice), New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston.  Chicago would be in there, but they always take it to the Packers.

Aside from a major offseason move to improve the o-line, and a change in philosophy by McCarthy; there’s no way the running game is improving.  In fact, I think it’s highly likely the Packers will drop off next year. 

During the regular season, the Packers were 28th in the league with a pathetic 24.2 rushing attempts per game.  Even so, this stat is somewhat inflated by 3 “big” games against New York, Minnesota and Oakland where they had 29, 29 and 36 attempts respectively.  Take these games out of the mix and the average drops down to 22.6 attempts/game.  With such a half-hearted dedication to the run, how can the team ever expect to improve?