WHAT HAPPENED TO 13-3 Jerry Gilbert 12/28/08
A year ago the Green Bay Packers were the surprise of the league. The youngest team in the NFL, the Packers usually found a way to win games and entered the playoffs as Division Champion, sporting a record of 13-3. This year, with most of the same young players a year older and hopefully better, the Packers have 5 wins against 10 losses and, achieving the same record became a mathematical impossibility weeks ago. The reasons for the decline in victories are many. We will begin at the top and work down.
The first culprit is the NFL itself. The league is committed to parity among the teams. One way this is accomplished, involves the schedule. A successful team one year will have a harder schedule the next. This policy allows teams such as Atlanta and Miami to go from rags to riches, and teams such as Jacksonville and Green Bay to slide into mediocrity. However, the schedule itself is not the only factor. Last year the Packers met good teams such as the Giants at a point in the season when they were not playing very well. This year, Green Bay faced Tampa and New Orleans when each team was at its peak.
Another league-imposed problem is the fact that the officials are given new points of emphasis each year. One focus this season is to make certain that offensive tackles are closer to the line of scrimmage. Anything that gives the pass rusher a little help will create problems for the Green Bay offense because it is based to a significant extent on passing. There is more to the story than the officials, but Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton has not protected the blind side of his quarterback as well as he did last season. Inconsistent pass protection probably cost a couple of victories.
The way a game is called also affects the defense. An emphasis on limiting the contact between a defensive back and a wide receiver makes life more difficult for the bump and run scheme used by the Packer defense. The extreme concern about late hits and tackles out of bounds creates issues for a team that stresses aggressiveness. Finally, there is the issue of hits on the quarterback. One way that the Packers have been hurt by the loss of Brett Favre is that a veteran passer will get more of those calls than a young quarterback. A similar event happened in the loss in Minnesota. The much-discussed "illegal forward pass" play most likely would not have been assessed against Brett Favre.
The next level below the league itself consists of the Green Bay General Manager Ted Thompson and the team executives. They certainly had to realize that the won loss record in 2007 involved an element of good fortune. The team won nearly all the close games, and seemed to get a great play when needed. They did not win because of far superior talent. However, other than the college draft and one veteran linebacker, the folks responsible for stocking the team with good players did almost nothing to improve the team. While they made few additions, they also did nothing to prevent their quarterback, Brett Favre, and their most versatile defensive tackle, Corey Williams, from leaving the team. Knowing that the schedule would be harder, Ted Thompson relied almost exclusively on improvement from within, and we have seen the results. Few young veterans advanced their play over last season, and older players began to slide. We have mentioned Chad Clifton, but Kabeer Gbaja Biamila is a better example, and Mark Tauscher also did not perform up to expectations. There is also a reason for concern whether Donald Driver still has the elusiveness of a premier receiver.
Among younger players, Jason Spitz, James Jones, Tony Moll and Allen Barbre are examples of offensive players who did not progress this season. To be fair, versatile lineman Daren Colledge, running back Brandon Jackson and the tight end Torey Humphrey did raise their level of play. On defense Justin Harrell, Colin Cole, Johnny Jolly, Michael Montgomery, Nick Barnett, Atari Bigby, and A. J. Hawk are all players who did not seem to improve year to year. Three of those players were first round draft choices. Will Blackmon excelled as a returner and on special team coverage, but did not make similar strides as a defensive back. Aaron Kampman and Ryan Pickett seemed to play at about the same level as last season, but that is a pretty high level.
Since Ted Thompson became general manager, he has seemed to find draft choices who make a big impact in their first season. That pattern ended abruptly this year despite the fact that the draft class was skewed toward recognizable needs on the team. Jordy Nelson made a contribution, but he did not surpass James Jones on the depth chart and his level of play was not significantly better than that of Ruvell Martin. Cornerback Pat Lee was injured most of the season, and quarter back Brian Brohm proved to be a development project. Offensive lineman Josh Sitton impressed the coaches and might have been a starter had he not missed time because of injury. Pass rusher Jeremy Thompson was also held back by injury, but when he did play there was little production in his rookie campaign. As we see the many rookies though out the league who made major positive impacts this season, the only fair conclusion is that Ted Thompson made some mistakes in the Draft.
Some personnel decisions also proved costly. While it seemed to make sense at the time to trade defensive Lineman Corey Williams, the projected replacements Justin Harrell and Cullen Jenkins were not available to the team, and the defense suffered from the absence of a pass rushing defensive tackle. The combination of age and injury that led to the forced retirement of KGB was not accounted for in the planning. Neither Mike Montgomery nor Jason Hunter nor rookie Jeremy Thompson, who all battled injuries, proved capable of adequate play opposite Aaron Kampman. Whether it was right to trade Brett Favre is a subject too complex for a single sentence, but it cannot be doubted that the veteran would have found a way to win a couple more games. Another, seemingly minor, decision that proved to be costly was dropping special team leader Tracy White. The brain trust obviously concluded that, with Korey Hall, Jason Hunter, and Desmond Bishop available, .the special teams would be fine. Hall was lost for the season, and the others were absent due to injury at important times. Special teams did not have the depth needed to withstand key injuries. Changing every member of specialist unit, except place kicker Mason Crosby, more than once also contributed to the losses. The original long snapper, J.J. Jansen was injured just as the season began and had to be replaced. The punting experiment consisting of replacing Jon Ryan with Derrick Frost also at the end of training camp, proved to be a disaster. How could anyone believe that an entire unit consisting of young players would perform at a high level without the benefit of training camp? A veteran punter-holder could have made a big difference.
Next under the microscope are Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff. One thing we have heard from the Coach from his first press conference to the present is that he believes he knows how to conduct training camp and practices in a way to minimize injuries. The verdict from this season is that he needs a new plan. Losing Nick Barnett and Cullen Jenkins for the season was devastating. Jenkins proved to be irreplaceable and Barnett is the type of player who can come up with a big play to change momentum. A successful defense depends on such players. In addition, key players were lost at critical times. On the play after Barnett went down, Minnesota completed a drive-extending pass against his replacement. Without Nick Collins and Atari Bigby for extensive periods, the secondary was porous. Bigby illustrates another issue. He played while injured, and was not up to the challenge. Al Harris, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins were slowed by injuries. A.J Hawk and Ryan Pickett also had injury issues. A defense consisting of the walking wounded proved to be inept at key times all season. Special teams failed repeatedly because of a combination of not enough good players, a rash of injuries and a lack of coaching.
Another area of concern is the offensive game planning. Mike McCarthy is committed to a zone blocking running attack using mobile offensive linemen. Injuries at various times to center Mike Wells, tackle Mark Tauscher and others was part of the problem. Tony Moll was the fill in for both of them, and he did not contribute enough to the running game. At a deeper level, much of the problem for the running game resulted from a failure to cut off the pursuit from behind. Neither Tauscher nor Chad Clifton is particularly strong in this area. It is an offensive strategy that does not fit the skills of the available players. Of course, it did not help that Ryan Grant, due to missing training camp and injuries, did not begin to run effectively until well into the season. Brandon Jacobs and DeShawn Wynn might have helped more had they not also been injured at various times. A great back can help compensate for inadequate blocking. The Packers did not consistently display either great blocking or running.
There is also reason to criticize the defensive schemes and teaching. It has taken all season to generate a pass rush. The man to man pass coverage is a fairly predictable scheme to attack, it requires an effective pass rush and is vulnerable to a running quarterback. In the past few game we have seen more variations in approaches to coverage, but only in the first game against the Bears was there consistent success in covering the tight end. The last time I remember a player who dominated the opposing tight end is when Wayne Simmons played strong side linebacker. The coaches need to do a better job in this area. Defending the run has also been a concern all season. The absence of Cullen Jenkins and Atari Bigby is part of the reason, but there are teams in the NFL that stop the run with players who are not as talented as those in Green Bay. Coaching is the issue here as well.
Finally, we look at the head coach himself who preaches pad level angles and taking what they give you as a recipe for success. I wonder if there is enough emphasis on creativity, anticipation and instincts. Charles Woodson is more effective than Al Harris because Woodson, in addition to coverage skills, comes off his man to make interceptions. Long runs are made possible when a blocker finds a way to affect multiple defenders. Former center Mike Flanagan used to get a hand on three or more defenders to help create a gap for his running back. It appears that Greg Jennings is better than other receivers in changing his route when the quarterback needs help. The ability to block on the move and stay live to catch a pass is part of the reason the Ruvell Martin remains on the squad. An offensive or defensive scheme needs to empower great players to make outstanding plays. I wonder whether the emphasis on pad level and game management could be inconsistent with the development of those skills that produce game changing plays.
Summing up, decisions made about personnel were repeatedly undercut by injuries and less than expected levels of performance. A strategy of improving a team only by adding rookies and teaching the players already on the roster is an inherently flawed strategy. While a veteran free agent can hurt team chemistry, the right free agents improve a team more than just with the talent they bring. Tracy White and Charles Woodson are two recent examples in Green Bay. A veteran left tackle adept at back side run support would improve the skill levels of all the young linemen. An all pro level safety or pass rusher would raise the level of the defense immediately. In the college draft, a few players who can make an immediate impact provide a recipe for a return to being a contending team. There also needs to be an evaluation of the assistant coaches. They did not produce a successful season. I question whether Coach Mike McCarthy and an offensive coordinator whose background is with the offensive line provide enough creative offensive input. Would a defensive coordinator with demonstrated creativity be a better choice? We know that the players on the roster produced a much better result a year ago. This team is not far from being a contender. They need to find a way to change 5 or 6 close losses into victories. Adding some talent and keeping most players healthy will go along way toward getting back to 13-3. As a start, the league will give them an easier schedule.