Monday, December 29, 2008

Packers Postmortem

At least they beat the Lions.

I don't mind telling you that I was dreading yesterday's game more than any other in my life as a Packers fan. I would have been heartbroken if Green Bay had lost Super Bowl 31 or any number of playoff games (and I was indeed heartbroken when they lost Super Bowl 32 and any number of playoff games.....4th and 26, Jesus that still bothers me...), but I would have been devastated if the Pack had been the only team to lose to Detroit this season. That would have been pretty much the worst loss in team history. There might have been a riot at Lambeau Field, and with good cause.

That said, it would also have been a fitting end to the most frustrating Packers season I've ever witnessed. Last year, when Green Bay lost the NFC title game to New York, I noted that the defeat didn't sting so badly because, frankly, everything went right for Green Bay last season. They caught every break, suffered virtually no injuries, Brett Favre had one last great campaign and it was all peaches and rainbows en route to a 13-3 record.

It was only fair, then, that 2007's good fortune be karmically balanced out by a season where the Pack couldn't get even a whisper of good luck. Green Bay scored the fifth-most points in football, played in a weak division, survived the big quarterback fiasco in the summer (more on this in a minute), ended up with a positive PF-PA number --- the last teams to outscore their opposition but still finish with a losing record were the 2004 Chiefs (483-435, 7-9) and 2004 Panthers (355-339, 7-9) --- were competitive in all but one game (their blowout loss to the Saints) and yet finished with a 6-10 record. In the words of Fred Willard, wha happened?

* A total lack of ability to finish games. When Detroit and Green Bay were tied heading into the fourth quarter on Sunday, I was near suicide watch because I could visualize the ending in my head --- the teams would stay tied until roughly the two-minute warning, when Green Bay would drive into the red zone and then stall due to penalties, dropped balls, Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson being stuffed, etc. The Pack would then settle for a field goal with about 1:30 remaining. The Lions would then drive downfield and score a TD on a circus catch from Calvin Johnson as time expired, thus sparing them the ignominious fate of an 0-16 record. You might wonder why I was so fatalistic about my team's ability to stop the historically-bad Lions, but that's just how it's gone this year for Green Bay. the last four weeks, the Packers screwed things up in the closing minutes and lost. The total inability to stop Steve Smith led to a loss against Carolina. The missed field goal against the Bears. Getting four turnovers but still losing on a last-minute FG to Houston. Giving up two fourth-quarter TDs to Jacksonville. Those four losses were by a combined total of 14 points! If I had hair left, it would've been pulled out by now.

It gets worse. If you factor in three-point losses to Atlanta and Tennessee and a one-point loss to Minnesota, that's SEVEN LOSSES by a total of TWENTY-ONE POINTS. If just three of those close losses go Green Bay's way (the one against the Vikings and any two others), then the Packers win the division. It is appalling how this team just kept blowing it time after time. I feel like a Mets fan.

* Play-calling. This really could have come into the previous category, since Mike McCarthy's bizarre tactics are a big reason why Green Bay kept blowing those games. McCarthy coached this season like a guy who decided to sit on a 14 in blackjack. As I mentioned earlier, the Packers' offense was quite prolific this season. Only San Diego, Arizona, New Orleans and the Giants scored more points than Green Bay did. But whenever the Packers had a late lead, suddenly the play-calling became more conservative than a roomful of Cheneys. McCarthy would go to the late-game tactic of running the ball to chew up the clock, except for the small problem that a) he'd start doing this with about a minute to go in the third quarter and b) GB's running game sucks. The opposition therefore had plenty of time to get back into the game, abetting by (you guessed it) poor defensive play-calling. I had my worries about McCarthy after the NFC title loss and the Dallas loss last season, when he seemed unable or unwilling to change strategies when it was clear that nothing was working. After the repeated miscues this season, I'm no longer on the McCarthy bandwagon. If GB stumbles again next season, can his ass.

* Penalties. 984 yards lost due to penalties this season. Just disgusting. Now I know what it's like being a Raiders fan, minus the uncomfortable feeling of rooting for your team owner to die so things can improve.

* Run defense. The Pack ended up allowing over 131 yards of rush yards per game. This weakness became the most obvious in the Minnesota game two months ago, when Adrian Peterson ran for approximately 783 yards and single-handedly (footedly?) beat Green Bay by himself. Again, at the end of games, the opposition was always able to bust out big runs and GB was powerless to stop them.

* The defense in general. True, Cullen Jenkins and Nick Barnett were injured for much of the year, but the drop-off between last year's performance and this year's performance was pretty glaring. The losses of Jenkins, Corey Williams (dealt to Cleveland in the offseason, though Williams didn't exactly tear it up for the Browns this year) and KGB (retirement) transformed a strong defensive line in 2007 into swiss cheese in 2008. Aaron Kampman had another impressive season, but the Jolly/Pickett tackle combination didn't scare anyone in the middle, and, after two seasons, I think it's safe to call Justin Harrell a total bust. The linebacking corps didn't scare anyone --- Poppinga, Hawk and Chillar are generally go-hards, but I'm not sure they have the talent to be an elite unit. The bright spot was the secondary, as Nick Collins and Charles Woodson had outstanding years and mostly covered the fact that Al Harris is getting old and Atari Bigby continues to stink. But even then, the secondary was prone to giving up big plays and every once in a while had a game where they just couldn't cover anyone (i.e. the stinker against New Orleans).

* The running game. Ryan Grant kinda sucks. In a league where two-back systems are becoming increasingly not just common but necessary, Green Bay has just one running back who isn't very good. Grant had probably the worst 1200-yard season in NFL history. When you get 312 rush attempts, you need to do better than 3.9 yards per carry and only four 100+ yard-rushing games. Some of this is the O-line's fault, but Grant isn't a runner that opposing teams feel they need to really worry about. If Green Bay is going to do anything in 2009, they really need to get another back or two in order to give themselves more options on offense. The current backups (DeShawn Wynn and Brandon Jackson) aren't going to amount to much.

So as you can tell, a team with so many glaring problems probably shouldn't be so surprised that they finished 6-10. But such a showing might be better for GB in the long-run. A division title might have obscured some of these issues for another offseason, which might have turned 2009 into a real toxic-waste dump of a season. But for now, Green Bay actually has proof that things aren't right in Packerland, and hopefully will turn their attention to fixing these things for the next season. It honestly won't take much; Minnesota and Chicago won't improve and Detroit will be Detroit, so the NFC North is as wide-open as ever. An easier schedule in 2009 (the pathetic NFC West and games against Cincy and Cleveland from the AFC North) means that improvement is almost a given, but I don't want just a cosmetic improvement and a quick playoff exit. I want to see this team build on its strengths and be a top-tier club once again. My patience with GM Ted Thompson is running out only slightly slower than my patience with McCarthy did, so if he has another poor draft, then it's time for a full management overhaul in Titletown.

And, finally, Aaron Rodgers. It turns out that he's awesome. Now, I should qualify this by adding that he played as big a role in Green Bay's late-game failures as anyone, as he threw a few bad interceptions at critical times. But by and large, I'm more than satisfied with his first season as the starter. He finished top six in the NFL in QB rating, touchdown passes and passing yards. Also, I should note, he finished ahead of Brett Favre in each of those categories. My dad's theory about Green Bay's problems this year was that it was all due to the Favre trade --- his leadership late in games would have helped the Packers to more wins. That's certainly possible. It's also possible that Favre would've suffered due to GB's lack of a running game (Leon Washington and Thomas Jones > Ryan Grant and BranJack) and he would've had a lot more games like the stinker he threw up against the Dolphins on Sunday. You can point to a lot of problems with the 2008 Packers, but the passing game was the least of the team's worries.

BONUS: Let's take a look back at my preseason predictions and see how I did.

AFC playoffs.....1. Patriots, 2. Chargers, 3. Colts, 4. Steelers, Wild cards: Jaguars, Bengals
NFC playoffs.....1. Cowboys, 2. Seahawks, 3. Packers, 4. Saints, Wild cards: Eagles, Giants
Super Bowl 43.....My heart says Green Bay over New England, but in reality, I'll pick the Patriots to finally capture that (relatively) elusive Super Bowl title with a win over Seattle. Maybe you shouldn't be reading anything I write about football. *backs out of the room slowly*

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