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.

 

 

Ted Thompson 1st and 2nd Round Draft Picks

Just throwing some data out there.

Link to larger view

Thompson alters approach, drafts on need

Cynical Packers fans likely went into Thursday night expecting to not see anyone added to the team. Many probably thought GM Ted Thompson would simply trade out of the first round and draft the best player available a few picks later. Maybe we’d end up with another try-hard wide receiver or linebacker. Instead, Thompson showed signs that he feels the team might be done simply turning over the roster and ready to build for something.

Cynical Packers fans likely went into Thursday night expecting to not see anyone added to the team.  Many probably thought GM Ted Thompson would simply trade out of the first round and draft the best player available a few picks later.  Maybe we’d end up with another try-hard wide receiver or linebacker.  Instead, Thompson showed signs that he feels the team might be done simply turning over the roster and ready to build for something.  While there are little arguments that Bryan Bulaga was the best player at pick 23, he also fit a glaring need for the team.  It doesn’t matter if he isn’t ready to be an NFL left tackle this season.  He can play on the right side or at left guard, and the Packers need help in both spots.  We now have a legitimate offensive line prospect to develop for the future, but who can also help the team immediately.  In the 2nd round, Thompson addressed a position of concern with the defensive line.  Jolly and Jenkins are potentially gone after this season (and Jolly’s legal situation is an ongoing concern), so getting another big body who can play the 5-technique is a very smart move.  Neal can find his way into the rotation immediately but is under no pressure to start this season.  Finally, Thompson surprised people a bit by trading up in the 3rd round for Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett.  Burnett is a prototypical Thompson player, with more athleticism than football acumen, but he definitely addresses a need.  Hopefully he can start alongside Nick Collins and offer a bit more security in the deep secondary and against the run than the team got from Atari Bigby over the past few seasons.

While there aren’t a lot of quality corners left, I would expect that to be one of the next positions Thompson targets.  Dominique Franks could be a good pickup for that position.  Another concern might be running back, where there is no quality depth behind Ryan Grant.  Joe McKnight and Jonathan Dwyer are still on the board and either one would make a quality back.  McKnight would likely be the better fit as he’s a speedy guy who can catch passes.

Packers draft picks – Ted Thompson Edition

Green Bay Packers Draft History

2009
Rnd Name College Note
1 B.J. Raji Boston College
1 Clay Matthews Southern Cal
4 T.J. Lang Eastern Michigan
5 Quinn Johnson LSU
5 Jamon Meredith South Carolina
6 Jarius Wynn Georgia
6 Brandon Underwood Cincinnati
7 Brad Jones Colorado
2008
Rnd Name College Note
2 Jordy Nelson Kansas State
2 Brian Brohm Louisville
2 Patrick Lee Auburn
3 Jermichael Finley Texas
4 Jeremy Thompson Wake Forest
4 Josh Sitton Central Florida
5 Breno Giacomini Louisville
7 Matt Flynn Louisiana State
7 Brett Swain
2007
Rnd Name College Note
1 Justin Harrell Tennessee
2 Brandon Jackson Nebraska
3 James Jones San Jose State
3 Aaron Rouse Virginia Tech
4 Allen Barbre Missouri Southern State
5 David Clowney Virginia Tech
6 Korey Hall Boise State
6 Desmond Bishop California
6 Mason Crosby Colorado
7 DeShawn Wynn Florida
7 Clark Harris Rutgers
2006
Rnd Name College Note
1 A.J. Hawk Ohio State
2 Daryn Colledge Boise State
2 Greg Jennings Western Michigan
3 Abdul Hodge Iowa
3 Jason Spitz Louisville
4 Cory Rodgers Texas Christian
4 Will Blackmon Boston College
5 Ingle Martin Furman
5 Tony Moll Nevada
6 Johnny Jolly Texas A&M
6 Tyrone Culver Fresno State
7 Dave Tollefson Northwest Missouri State
2005
Rnd Name College Note
1 Aaron Rodgers California
2 Nick Collins Bethune-Cookman
2 Terrence Murphy Texas A&M
4 Marviel Underwood San Diego State
4 Brady Poppinga Brigham Young
5 Junius Coston North Carolina A&T
5 Michael Hawkins Oklahoma
6 Mike Montgomery Texas A&M
6 Craig Bragg UCLA
7 Kurt Campbell Albany (NY)
7 William Whitticker Michigan State

 

We had 34 draft picks in the first 3 years of Thompson as a GM.  The current starters from that pool are:

– Aaron Rodgers, QB
– Nick Collins, FS
– AJ Hawk, ILB (who might not be starting right now if not for injuries)
– Greg Jennings, WR
– Daryn Colledge, OG

Jason Spitz was our starting center this year, so he should count at #6, but unfortunately he went on IR this week.  Allen Babre was starting at RT, but he was so bad we had to re-sign Tauscher.

For a team that believes in building through the draft, we’ve done a miserable job of it.  Here’s a look at our Week 9 starters and where they come from:

Offense
QB: Aaron Rodgers – TT Draft Pick
HB: Ryan Gran – Trade
FB: John Kuhn – Waivers
WR: Greg Jennings – TT Draft Pick
WR: Donald Driver – Pre-TT
LT: Chad Clifton – Pre-TT
LG: Daryn Colledge – TT Draft Pick
C: Scott Wells – Pre-TT
RG: Josh Sitton – TT Draft Pick
RT: Mark Tauscher – Pre-TT

Defense
LE: Johnny Jolly – TT Draft Pick
DT: Ryan Pickett – Free Agent
RE: Cullen Jenkins – Pre-TT
LOLB: Aaron Kampman – Pre-TT
ILB: Nick Barnett – Pre-TT
ILB: AJ Hawk – TT Draft Pick
ROLB: Clay Matthews – TT Draft Pick
CB: Charles Woodson – Free Agent
CB: Al Harris – Pre-TT
FS: Nick Collins – TT Draft Pick
SS: Atari Bigby – Free Agent

By my count, that’s 8/22 starters that Thompson has drafted.  He’s drafted 51 total players in that time frame.  That makes his success rate for drafting starters just over 15%.  That doesn’t mean the other players that are starting are all bad.  We have a lot of talented players that were either here when Thompson arrived or that were acquired outside the draft.  The problem is, with so many poor draft picks (23 draft picks – 45% – are not on the team), we’re really lacking in depth and have clearly over-valued at numerous positions.  It’s bad.  Top it off with McCarthy stinking the joint up and we’re heading the wrong direction.

Somewhat negative view of Ted Thompson’s draft history

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2008 – Green Bay Packers

Rd Sel # Player              Position School

2 36 Jordy Nelson WR Kansas State – Playing well for a rookie

2 56 Brian Brohm QB Louisville – Horrible performance in pre-season, 3rd string QB.

2 60 Patrick Lee CB Auburn – On IR

3 91 Jermichael Finley TE Texas – Has been the #3 tight end and cannot get on the field.

4 102 Jeremy Thompson DE Wake Forest – Shown some energy but has been hurt

4 135 Josh Sitton T Central Florida – Gotten some playing time as fill-in, project

5 150 Breno Giacomini T Louisville – Project player

7 209 Matt Flynn QB Louisiana State – Played decently in pre-season

7 217 Brett Swain WR San Diego State – Practice squad

2007 – Green Bay Packers

Rd Sel # Player              Position School

1 16 Justin Harrell DT Tennessee – No surprise, has been injured a lot

2 63 Brandon Jackson RB Nebraska – Has played well in spurts, fumble liability

3 78 James Jones WR San Jose State – Played well early as a rookie, has slumped this year

3 89 Aaron Rouse SAF Virginia Tech – Has filled in for injuries, often out of position

4 119 Allen Barbre G Missouri Southern State – Still a project

5 157 David Clowney WR Virginia Tech – Gone

6 191 Korey Hall FB Boise State – Has played well enough

6 192 Desmond Bishop LB California – Made some big plays vs Houston, doesn’t look like a starter

6 193 Mason Crosby K Colorado – Has been very solid

7 228 DeShawn Wynn RB Florida – Was cut, but re-signed because of injuries

7 243 Clark Harris TE Rutgers – Gone

2006 – Green Bay Packers

Rd Sel # Player Position School

1 5 A.J. Hawk OLB Ohio State – Hasn’t been the impact player expected, but a solid linebacker

2 47 Daryn Colledge G Boise State – Cannot sustain blocks, gets beat by power and speed

2 52 Greg Jennings WR Western Michigan – Looks like a star, gets lost in some games

3 67 Abdul Hodge LB Iowa – Gone

3 75 Jason Spitz G Louisville – Plays okay in fill-in roles, not a starter

4 104 Cory Rodgers WR Texas Christian – Gone

4 115 Will Blackmon CB Boston College – Pick play ability on special teams, goes sideways too often

5 148 Ingle Martin QB Furman – Gone

5 165 Tony Moll G Nevada-Reno – Backup player

6 183 Johnny Jolly DT Texas A&M – Good enough, especially considering where he was picked

6 185 Tyrone Culver DB Fresno State – Gone

7 253 Dave Tollefson DE Northwest Missouri State – Gone

2005 – Green Bay Packers

Rd Sel # Player                           Position School

1 24 Aaron Rodgers QB California – Looks like a solid QB

2 51 Nick Collins FS Bethune-Cookman – Out of position way too often

2 58 Terrence Murphy WR Texas A&M – Out of NFL: Injury

4 115 Marviel Underwood DB San Diego State – Gone

4 125 Brady Poppinga LB Brigham Young – Decent vs run, can’t cover

5 143 Junius Coston C North Carolina A&T – Gone

5 167 Mike Hawkins DB Oklahoma – Gone

6 180 Mike Montgomery DT Texas A&M – Playing okay as a fill-in

6 195 Craig Bragg WR UCLA – Gone

7 245 Kurt Campbell CB Albany State (NY) – Gone

7 246 Will Whitticker G Michigan State – Gone

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.