Miracle in Motown – Packers Fans: R-E-L-A-X

Yep, I just pulled out the most overused quote in the last 10 years of Packer fandom. Packers fans in Wisconsin and abroad are still overjoyed by the very improbable comeback victory over the Lions last night in Detroit. A game that saw the Packers down 20-0 at one point in the 3rd quarter and looking just as lost on offense as they’ve been for virtually every game this year 1. Traditional rankings have them 28th in total offense (great at running, really really really bad passing) and 9th in total defense (mediocre vs the run, really good vs the pass). Of course, the traditional stats leave out a ton. Their pass defense is likely fairly good, but not great and certainly not top 5 or top 3 as some stats have them. Opponents don’t have to score a lot, because the Vikings offense doesn’t score a lot (21 points/gm, 26th in the league). There’s no garbage time passing in blowouts vs the Vikings either, their average scoring margin is +3.4. And since they run a lot, the Vikings have are top 10 in time of possession, so opponents aren’t getting a ton of changes to move the ball. They have a good third down defense, but that’s hidden by the fact that they don’t get in a ton of third down situations (the Vikings are middle of the league, allowing 0.314 first downs per play – all of these rankings are per teamrankings.com, btw). So all that said, the Vikings have definitely been inflated in stature by who they’ve played and how they play. They’re a good team, but I’d guess they have the ability and performance level of a team with a couple more losses than they actually have.

But all that said, it’s still hard for a rational observer to get excited about the Packers. Their offense still rates poorly in every category but points (they are getting a decent rate of points/game and points/play despite being bad in every other category, so essentially they have fair success at big plays). Yes, the defenses they’ve played have been tough,. Denver and Carolina, both who made the Packers offense look pathetic, are two of the best defenses in the league (if not one and two respectively). But the Broncos do not have one of the best defenses in NFL history, and they made the Packers offense look like one of the worst ever. Beyond that, they struggled to put up points in a loss to the Bears, a win against the 49ers and essentially 6.5 out of 8 quarters agains the Lions. Those are not defenses that strike fear into your heart.

The Packers’ defense is in a similar spot to the Vikings. They’re pretty good, not great. They’ve been put in a lot of bad spots by failed drives on the offensive side. They’ve been matched up against some of the better offenses in terms of either scoring, yards or both and done better than expected in many cases (the only real exception being the Broncos game). They aren’t an elite defense, but there are enough stats that put them in the top 10 (and just barely) to simply agree they are definitely above average.

So why have I spent the last 1400 or so words rambling and throwing out numbers about the Packers and their opponents, seemingly drawing no conclusion? It’s about perspective. Last night, the Packers beat a really bad team. In doing so, they’ve done what they’ve largely done all year and beat a team they were favored to beat (the Packers are 8-4 overall and 7-5 vs the spread). They’re still a fairly inconsistant team having lost 3 games they were favored (the 4th loss being that pick’em at MIN, which means GB would have been the favorite on a neutral field). Two of those losses had the Packers favored by eight or more points (at home vs DET and CHI). Prior to last night, they had only two wins where they were favored by less than five points (vs SEA and @ MIN). Their offense shows no trending signs it will be okay, and with what was supposed to be a top running back in Lacy being repeatedly benched for performance and offensive linemen going down for at least periods of multiple games lately, it may get worse. The defense is clearly not good enough to win games on their own.

So sure, the Packers may win the NFC North. Winning in the playoffs against the superior Panthers and Cardinals will not be in their favor, but the division and a single home playoff game is realistic. They have an easier remaining schedule compared to MIN and currently have the tie-breaker (which would obviously be decided in week 17 if a tie were in play). But if they win the division, it will be because they continue to be the same team they’ve been all year. They’ll win because they’re a team that can do enough against inferior teams to win (most of the time). And they’ll win because maybe Minnesota is a little more worse-than-the-record-indicates than the Packers and have a slightly tougher road ahead. The Packers are basically in a favorable spot to win the division without any change in quality of play.

So essentially, last night was not a turning point. It was simply a game where it took incredibly extreme and unlikely circumstances for the Packers to beat a mediocre team that they were favored to beat from the start. Relax, Packers fans. Relax.

  1. side note, Football Outsiders had the Packers ranked 9th in their adjusted offensive DVOA coming into this game. I respect those guys a lot and cherry pick their stats plenty, but I’m missing something here. Their non-adjusted rank is 20. DVOA adjusts for playing from behind in the 4th quarter, where GB has done garbage time damage lately, but it appears mostly that their schedule is far tougher than I’m giving credit.). But then, boom, 14 unanswered points. Hold the Lions to a field goal. Score again on a 3rd down Rodgers run where it looked like we’d have to settle for a 35+ yard field goal.

    And then, the real miracle. After stopping the Lion’s attempt to run out the clock, Rodgers takes over on his own 21 with only 23 seconds left.

    Two incompletions later, they’re still at the same spot but facing 3rd down and 79 yards to go in 6 seconds. Game over, time for Packers fans to start looking forward to baseball season. Here comes the predictable chaos of cross-field laterals in a desperate attempt to make magic happen. According to some random win probability calculator I found, the Packers had a 3% chance of winning in this scenario. Pro-Football-Reference.com says there’s a 10.46% chance of a win here, but has zero plays in its archive where this scenario resulted in a win. Let’s just say the odds are against Green Bay here.

    So like most fans, I’m half watching this little back and forth. The ball goes back to Rodgers (Aaron) and at this point I’m only interested in seeing if the franchise quarterback is going to get hurt on this pointless play.

    And, I guess because it’s the Lions. Because they are one of the most poorly run franchises in league history that has only won one single playoff game over a 75+ year span and forced one of the greatest players in NFL history to retire early out of disdain. Because their coach may have died in 2011. Because their coach is from Wisconsin and may secretly be a Packers fan. Because Detroit keeps getting crapped on or crapping on themselves as a city.

    Or much more likely, because the Lions are a bad team that makes more mistakes than most and the NFL always favors calls that “protect” quarterbacks, there was a flag on the field after the play and time had run out. And of course, it was against the Lions.

    Let’s be clear on this one, it shouldn’t have been a facemask call [2. In previous iterations of the rule, this may have been the often annoying 5 yard incidental facemask penalty, which would’ve allowed a hail mary attempt, but from 10 yards further out (71 yards) and essentially zero chance of the throw even reaching the end zone). You can clearly see in replays that Taylor’s thumb grazed the facemask, maybe latching onto it for a fraction of a second. And the bulk of the grab/pull motion was on Rodgers’ shoulder pads. But Rodgers did some acting when a hand came near his face and the ref saw the head turn. When it’s heat of the moment and the game is potentially going to be decided whether on what the ref does, it makes sense that they go with the seemingly obvious visual and the idea they are protecting player safety. Sure, with zoomed-in slow motion HD replay, we see it’s not a facemask. But from 20 yards away in real time? It sure looked like one. Sorry Lions fans, your player made a really dumb move, his hands should have been nowhere near the helmet.

    Anyway, 15 yard penalty and essentially a free play with no time left from 61 yards away, we all know what happened. Packers win, miracle victory, amazing comeback.

    And suddenly the narrative is that the Packers are back or at least have hope. Why not? They’re 8-4, lead the wildcard in a conference full of mediocre teams, have one more game against the division-leading Vikings which could at least put them in a tiebreaker situation for the North lead. And they have Aaron Rodgers! There’s plenty of reason to think will make the playoffs. There’s a reasonable amount of hope they can win the division, with winnable games against Dallas and Oakland coming up (before playing Arizona and Minnesota). The Vikings might have a slightly harder remaining schedule, also playing the Cardinals but with games against more competitive teams verse Chicago and the NY Giants.

    Minnesota has a bit more at stake too, despite being in the division lead by a game (half game at this point, but 1 game going into Thursday night). Let’s say the Packers go 2-1 in their next 3 games. If Minnesota also goes 2-1, they would have a single game lead over the Packers going into their week 17 matchup at Lambeau Field. Because the Packers beat Minnesota a couple weeks ago, the winner of that game would win the division. Obviously that’s a lot of pressure on both sides, but the Packers would be almost certainly be favored in that game (in their last meeting, the line was a PK w/ Minnesota being at home).

    You could make a good case that Minnesota is also one of the more fraudulent good teams. They have the weakest schedule in the division and one of the weakest ones in the conference. They’ve only beaten two teams that currently have above .500 records (the Raiders & Falcons, who are both 6-5) and have lost to the only other above .500 teams they’ve played (Packers & Broncos). Their offense and defense both near rank middle of the pack per Football Outsiders [3. See, cherry picking

Packers Fire Bob Sanders?

http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/2009/01/breaking-news-packers-fire-sanders/

According to the National Football Post, the Green Bay Packers have fired their defensive coordinator.  Hopefully the rest of the defensive staff will follow.

What I’ve come to realize…

After watching the Packers lose 4 of their last 5 games due primarily to an inability to win games in the 4th quarter (aside from the New Orleans game), I’ve realized a few things about the team that have really been tough.

1. The Packers are a very average team without Favre.  Forget the schedule, forget it being Rodgers’ first year, forget the injuries.  The Packers did not have a better defense last year and their run game wasn’t great either.  But whatever magic they had going with Favre gave them leads and let the aggressive corners stop teams.  They didn’t have to worry about stopping the run as much, and the passing game set up big runs as secondaries were playing deep.  The Packers haven’t been able to establish that passing game this year… they’ve become predictable and they don’t have enough talent and good coaching to overcome that.  Some teams are predictable but can still force their will (to borrow an overused expression), but not everyone can.  Last year the Packers were able to ride the Favre magic carpet ride.  This year, the Jets are (see their record last year and their inevitible horrible record when he retires).

2. The team is soft.  The top 5 rushing offenses in the NFL are (in order): New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Tennesee Titans.  The top 5 rushing defenses in the NFL are: Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears.  What do these teams have in common?  They are all potential playoff teams.  It’s said every year, especially when it gets cold… but the running game is a crucial focus in the NFL.  You need to be able to run and stop the run.  If you can’t, you better be able to put up so many points that teams have to pass on you.

The Packers are 20th in rushing.  They are 26th in stopping the run.  They are 15th in total offense.  They are not moving the ball enough and not getting stops.  They are scoring, but teams don’t have to change their game plan and can keep running all day if they want.

3. The Packers pass too much.  This ties in with #2, but I thought I’d give it more focus.  Here are the top 10 teams from last year, in terms of most pass attempts:

1. New Orleans Saints – 652
2. Arizona Cardinals – 590
3. Seattle Seahawks – 590
4. Detroit Lions – 587
5. New England – 586
6. Green Bay – 578
7. Philadelphia Eagles – 577
8. Cincinnati Bengals – 575
9. St. Louis Rams – 574
10. Chicago Bears – 569

See a trend here?  Of the list, 3 playoff teams.  In fact, to find the next most pass-happy playoff team from 2007, you’d have to go to #15, Indianapolis (551).  The list looks to shape out in a similar fashion this year, with bad teams with bad defenses attempting a lot of passes.  The Packers have a good shot at being on that top 10 list.  The big difference is we might see more playoff teams out of the top 10 due to some worse than expected division races (*cough* west coast teams *cough*).

4. Someone in the Tompson/McCarthy staff might very well be gone.  Anything short of a playoff appearance will be a total failure in the eyes of a LOT of people.  I think that group might include team president Mark Murphy.  The Packers will be down by 2 games in the division race after tonight.  They have no hope of a wild card at this point (they are currently 6th in the Wild Card race and will essentially need a division win to make the playoffs).  Chances are getting slimmer by the day.  So if the season doesn’t end well, who gets the blame?  Do you start at the top with Thompson for his handling of the Favre scenario and not getting the right players?  Do you blame McCarthy for having a sloppy team (ie – one of the most penalized teams in the league two years running) and not giving the team a solid identity?  Or do you go for a smaller sacrifice like defensive coordinator Bob Sanders for not putting together a stout defensive scheme?

If it were me, I’d start with McCarthy.  The team is inconsistant in both their play and style of play.  Like I said, they seem to have no identity.  They aren’t really a running team, a defensive team or a top offense.  They are just average all around.  Plus, he seems to be doing something wrong with his training/conditioning program.  Including injured reserve, the Packers had 24 players on the injury report this week.  Especially being a young team, they need to find ways to keep guys healthy.

Say you get rid of McCarthy, what next?  I think the only options are one of the hot coordinators out there.  Seems Steve Spagnuolo of the Giants or Josh McDaniels of the Patriots.  Either guy could be considered an upgrade given the success they’ve had with their respective teams.

However, I don’t think it will play out that way.  McCarthy will keep his job because of his contract and the Packers will need to find ways to improve next year.  They’ll have a lot of money to play with, but will need serious help on the offensive and defensive lines.  They’ll need to address the age at cornerback as well.  Those are all generally areas that cannot be quickly handled via the draft, which is the Packers’ style.  With the number of talented players on the roster, nobody can afford to let players develop to fill gaps at this point.  That means we’ll either need to see a lot of improvement from the existing roster in the offeseason or there will have to be patchwork fixes along the way.

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.

Packers to actually blitz this season? Hmm…

ESPN.com has an article talking about the increased emphasis on the blitz during mini-camps this summer.  It’s obvious to anyone who has watched the Jim Bates/Bob Sanders era defense that the Packers rarely send anyone but the front four after the QB.  Last season, the Packers blitzed on about 22% of passing plays.  The NFL average was about 30% (both according to STATS LLC).  Some of the more memorable lack of pass-rushing performances came against the Cowboys, where Romo stayed upright the entire game, and the NFC Championship where Eli was able to spend the majority of the game comfortably picking us apart.  Coach McCarthy claims that the defense is more comfortable in the scheme this year and the blitz is a natural progression, but I just find it hard to believe.  This is a defensive system that has never relied on the blitz, not when Bates was in Miami and not since he went to Denver.  Why should we expect a change now?  I guess we’ll have to see what the regular season brings…