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THEY WON THE FIRST GAME PACKERS 16 EAGLES 13

Jerry Gilbert
Opportunistic and lucky special teams combined with a stout defensive unit were sufficient to produce a victory over the favored Philadelphia Eagles in the season opener.
By any objective assessment, it was a lucky victory. The Packers seemed to have the ball bounce their way. Except for the Donald Driver pass interference flag, most of the calls and non-calls by the officiating crew seemed to favor Green Bay. The usually effective Philadelphia Eagle offense stopped itself at key times either because a pass was dropped or poorly thrown. In many ways, the Green Bay Packers were handed a victory.

On the other hand two thirds of the team played pretty well. For most of the game, the Green Bay Defense held the Eagles in check, and particularly in the second half, they were able to contain the Eagle attack to allow the offense to score some points. The only interception turned into points because Mason Crosby was able to kick a 53 yard field goal even though the offense netted negative yardage after the turn over.

Special teams saved the day. It is not a stretch to say that the second quarter 53-yard field goal by a rookie kicker in his first pro game was the reason the Packers emerged with a victory. His successful 37 yard effort in the third quarter and the game winner from 42 with 6 seconds remaining in the game were other key moments of the game. However, it was two muffed punts recovered by the Packer special teams that produced the home team's only touchdown and set up the game winning field goal.

Meanwhile, the Green Bay Offense was missing in action. There were only three plays worth mentioning. Two happened in the third quarter, on the drive that produced the only score, a field goal that was produced by the offense. These plays are important because they illustrate that, even as his skills begin to decline, Brett Favre can still produce magic. Faced with a relentless pass rush, Favre freed an arm from a would be tackler to lob a short pass to rookie DeShawn Wynn who, for that one play, put on a display of broken field running reminding us of Willard Harrell and Travis Williams. The play netted 18 yards and a vital first down.

Another first down featured a 20-yard bullet pass from Favre whose legs and hips were not involved in the throw because of a sack in progress by an Eagle defender. Few quarterbacks could make an all arm throw like that. Without a doubt, as the season progresses, some throws by Brett Favre in similar situations are likely to produce game changing interceptions. However, the plays show that, whatever the situation with pass protection, the Green Bay Quarterback can still improvise to keep the drive going. What happens in these situations on future Sundays will decide the outcome of a game or two as the season progresses.

The final noteworthy play was the seven-yard run by tailback Brandon Jackson on the final decisive drive. Seven-yard runs should be an ordinary part of the offense, but against Philadelphia the running game was a joke until that play. Nevertheless, many successful teams, the Ravens and Bears come to mind, have featured an effective defense and an offense that was statistically ineffective, but it became effective at key times in enough games.

I see some reasons to believe that the Packer Offense may be significantly better this season. Theses are not justifications for what happened in game one. The Packer offensive line was beaten like drum and these men need to look inside themselves. Receivers ran the wrong routes and dropped passes. The difference between good and bad offenses is whether these mistakes are frequent or rare. Time will tell.

However, there were 3 factors in play in the first game that should not interfere with the offense in the future. First, the offensive line was charged with stopping one of the better pass rushing defenses in the league. Last season, Coach Mike McCarthy employed maximum protection in many situations. A tight end or fullback, or both, stayed in as pass blockers. On Sunday the effort was made to block with only the five linemen. The combination of Philadelphia's innovative pass rushes and top caliber defensive ends proved too much for the Green Bay line. Maybe it is a technique issue. Maybe more max-protection is needed like last season. The problem can be fixed.

Second, the rookie starters have now completed their first game. Every present and former player agrees that the biggest challenge for a new player is to adjust to the "speed of the game." Preseason games are faster than college games and the real games are faster still. Against the Eagles rookies Brandon Jackson, Korey Hall and James Jones faced that speed for the first time. As the season progresses, they should be able to adapt.

Finally, important skill players, who were either absent or hampered due to injuries or other reasons, will return at full strength as the season progresses. Unfortunately, much of this talent was still unavailable for game two, but the situation should gradually improve. One problem for the offense against the Eagles was the lack of a receiver who can outrun the coverage. Greg Jennings is the best such threat on the current roster and he remains questionable. Carlyle Holiday can also go deep and he was also on the shelf. Another possibility is Koren Robinson, who is presently suspended by the league. He has applied for reinstatement and is said to be training hard in Arizona. One way other the other, the Packers should be able to add the long pass to their offense.

Key players in the running game will also be added. Two of the six players on the offensive backfield depth chart, running back Ryan Grant and fullback John Kuhn joined the squad after training camp. It will take time to find out to what extent they can help the offense. This also applies to rookie halfback DeShawn Wynn. He missed so much of the preseason, that he is similar to the new arrivals in terms of preparation. More of a known quantity is tailback Vernand Morrency. His physical readiness remains a question, but he proved last season that, when healthy, he can be effective in the Green Bay rushing attack. When evaluating the outlook for the offense, it is important to keep in mind that only half of the backfield was in uniform Sunday and they were all NFL rookies. There is a basis to project that the running game should be better in future games.
What fuels my cautious optimism for the season is that the opening game with Philadelphia is the sort of game the Packers have usually lost in prior seasons. For the first time in several season openers, there were positive plays at key times and favorable bounces of the ball. It is only one game, but it was a victory to be enjoyed.

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