Thursday, January 29, 2004

I expected Bob Slowik to be promoted to defensive coordinator, and it finally happened yesterday. I'm not too excited about hiring a guy who worked closely with Dave Wannstedt for 6 season in Chicago, but he wasn't working with a very talented defensive team either. Over those 6 seasons, the best players during it were probably defensive back Mark Carrier and the fumes of Richard Dent's great career. Plus, with the exception of the 1995 season, Chicago didn't provide much support on offense either. Slowik was defensive coordinator for the 1999 expansion Cleveland 2.0 but that season isn't even worth examining, because a 2-14 expansion defense should have the least amount of talent in the NFL. Slowik probably deserves another chance as defensive coordinator, to show what he can do with a more talented defense and more support from an offense.

Kurt Schottenheimer was a nice signing for defensive backs coach. He knows the NFC North since he was the defensive coordinator in Detroit last season, and the defense improved from 31st to 24th this season.

Ron Wolf took a new job as a personnel specialist for Cleveland. It sounds like Wolf will watch some film at home, give his two cents worth of advice regarding personnel, and probably get paid around $1 million per year for it. Its good work if you can get it. I'm wondering if this means Cleveland is determined to solve their quarterback problem, either through the draft or free agency, and want Wolf to help them with it.

A number of players have been signed since the last game of the season. None of the names are familiar to me, so I would consider them all minicamp depth, NFL Europe (if that will be around anymore) candidates, or practice squad possibilities. All signings will probably remain this way until Franchise and Transition players are named in mid-February and free agency begins.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

2003 Packers In Review. I'm defenitely not using a letter grade system to review the Packers. That is as arbitrary as real school grades, and itdoesn't tell you all you need to know about someone. No pythagorean (if team X scores A points and allows B points, its record should be C-D) outcomes because it doesn't say much either. I will use rankings from Football for some statistical analysis in this review and rank the units from best to worst, although the worst unit on the team was still league average.

Overall. The Packers were the 9th best team in the NFL, ranked according to the team's overall DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). They were 14.9% over average, which doesn't predict anything when you realize the 18th best team in the league with a -5.8% below average team (Carolina) is going to the Super Bowl. Overall they were good enough to make the playoffs, good enough to beat any team in the playoffs (including beating the best team in the NFC, 5th ranked Seattle), but didn't make the plays when they needed it. Carolina and Philadelphia were both inferior teams overall, but both made big plays when it mattered. The Packers got few lucky bounces, it wasn't one of those magical years where everything breaks your way, and it just wasn't their year.

Run Offense. The best offensive line in the NFL was the best at opening holes for the running backs and the 3rd best at preventing negative runs with 80% of all running plays going for positive yards. Ahman Green was the main beneficiary with a 27.5 DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement) and the 4th back RB in the NFL. Overall the rush offense only ranks 12th because of all the fumbles, however, few if any fumbles occured over the last several games. Green, Tony Fisher and Najeh Davenport make up the best set of backs in the NFL. With the return of this entire unit in 2004, with the possible exception of possible free agent Chad Clifton, this unit could be the best run offense in the NFC in 2004 if the fumbles have stopped.

Pass defense. Only St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Dallas had better pass defenses in the NFC than the Packers. Its more impressive when you consider that the Packers pass rush recorded a sack on only 6.1% of pass plays which is only slightly above the league average of 6%. The pass blitz was rarely succesful and better execution on pass blitzes and stunts might greatly improve its success rate. Darren Sharper, Mike McKenzie, Al Harris, and Michael Hawthorne all were consistently solid, but not spectacular, in coverage. The linebackers were solid on coverage of the tight ends and running backs, with an exception in the San Diego game against Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson. Only Minnesota, St. Louis and San Francisco had more interceptions in the NFC than the Packers. Only Antuan Edwards and Hannibal Navies might leave from this unit, so it should be strong again in 2004 and they could be much improved with better pass blitzing.

Pass Offense. Brett Favre is either loved or hated. I appreciate that on 95% of plays, he is playing as well as any QB in the NFL, however, on the other 5% he takes risks that make him look like a rookie. So many NFL teams run such conservative offensive schemes, attempting perfect execution along with no turnovers, that their offenses are often anemic. Some teams look so much better in a hurry up offense that you wonder why they don't hurry up all the time. Favre is always running a hurry up offense, more often than not he is successful, but sometimes its a fiasco. Favre ended the season with his career best season completion percentage (65.4%), but he is likely to be remember this season for his jump ball interception in OT vs. Philadelphia. Favre's aggressive play created the most touchdown passes in the NFL (32) and the 3rd most interceptions (21). All those turnovers slipped his ranking to 16th among QBs and the pass offense to 11th. The offensive line was excellent in pass defense, allowing a sack only 18 times or 4.1% of their pass plays. There is room for improvement at wide receiver, Donald Driver was tops as the 25th best receiver in the NFL, while Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson were both top 40 and are likely to improve in 2004. The tight ends provided little to nothing all season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Bubba Franks, David Martin, and Wesley Walls all return in 2004 and hopefully they can improve under a new tight ends coach. This unit should be excellent in 2004, maybe even better with improved receiver play, although Favre is unlikely to throw less than 20 interceptions.

Run defense. This unit only got better as the season went on, due in large part to the signing of Grady Jackson. The Packers were the 5th best run defense on carries under 10 yards, however, they were below average at stopping runs for negative yards (20th) and preventing runs over 10 yards (22nd). Overall they were 11th in the NFL. The Packers were poor run blitzers last year and Edwards had some trouble tackling, the game in Chicago comes to mind. Maybe improvement by Marques Anderson as a run blitzer and a full season for him in run support will improve both areas. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Packers look for a new strong safety, the Packers briefly flirted with Sammy Knight last offseason, but I would be surprised to see wholesale changes on the defensive line and at linebacker.

Special Teams. With the exception of Ryan Longwell, who is perfect from within 45 yards on field goals and perfect on extra points, this entire unit could be revamped. Overall the unit was average and the 12th best unit in the NFL. Josh Bidwell is a free agent and I wouldn't expect him back, unless at a league minimum salary. Antonio Chapman had some moments as a kick and punt returner, but was not a factor. Davenport might be an exciting kick returner in 2004, if he is given the job, after watching him as a kick returner over the last few games. The kick coverage is desperate for a gunner to make an impact.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The most important decision the Packers make this offseason is hiring the team's next defensive coordinator. Dave McGinnis is getting a lot of mention, along with assistant head coach Bob Slowik and linebackers coach Mark Duffner. McGinnis would seem preferred, because he is a former head coach, but his defenses in Arizona were never very good although there were many excuses for it. Is the roster best suited for the type of defense McGinnis perfers to play? I have no idea. It should be a 4-3 defense, because the Packers aren't deep at linebacker, but other than that the defense appears to have the size and speed (although not much speed at cornerback) to play many different defensive schemes. I wouldn't be surprised if Mike Sherman is looking for a coordinator with a past or future plan to generate an improved pass rush. As long as the players listen to and work hard for the new coordinator, he should be successful with the Packers.

Monday, January 19, 2004

It was an ugly game, but Carolina beat Philadelphia with a bit of luck. Carolina's luck was most prominent last week when St. Louis's Jeff Wilkins missed an OT field goal, a kick I would imagine Wilkins makes 49 out of 50 times, but Carolina created their luck this week when they knocked Donovan McNabb out of the game. Philadelphia was a 4th quarter team in 2003 and both times they played the Packers, McNabb led Philadelphia back in the 4th quarter. Without McNabb, Philadelphia didn't come back in the 4th quarter vs. Carolina, although maybe Koy Detmer would have led a late touchdown drive if Duce Staley hadn't run the wrong route near the goal line. With the exception of Dallas, who Carolina clobbered in the first round, all the NFC playoff games were close, and it easily could be the Packers in the Super Bowl. The Packers weren't robbed of a Super Bowl appearance, they deserved to lose to Philadelphia, but they could have won that game on numerous plays. Although I don't know if any NFC team could beat New England right now, and I'm expecting Carolina to get crushed like Atlanta in 1998 or the New York Giants in 2000.

Speaking of Atlanta, Ed Donatell has a new home in Atlanta where he will be the defensive coordinator in 2004 for new head coach Jim Mora, Junior. Donatell has his work cut out for him because Atlanta will switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 defense this offseason and will try to improve from a 30th ranked defense. Donatell is a good coach, but when you coach an average performance out of a talented defense with few injuries, you are likely to be fired. Maybe Donatell is being fired for having a young Packers defense. Comparing the Packers defense to New England's defense, player by player, both defenses have comparable talent, however, New England's defense has far more experience and much better results. However, some teams rely too much on veterans, for example Oakland in 2003, and have bad results. I don't think Mike Sherman needed to fire Donatell, but it might be a good idea to bring in a new coach to get more production out of a solid defense on paper.

I didn't know Jeff Jagodzinski was the tight ends coach until Sherman fired him. Jagodzinski had one thing in common with Donatell this season, he coached an underachieving unit, and both men were fired. Just as with the defense, maybe bringing in a new tight ends coach will make that group more productive.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Packers 17, Philadelphia 20. The most depressing loss in recent memory. Many games have moments when a team could win a game if they had made this play or the other, but this game had several moments when victory could have been snatched from the jaws of defeat. If Mike Wahle hadn't tripped Ahman Green on 4th down on Philadelphia's 1 yard line. If Mike McKenzie and Marques Anderson had covered Todd Pinkston in the end zone. If Javon Walker had stood up and run into the end zone instead of getting up to celebrate. If Mike Sherman had trusted his offense to make a 4th and 1 with 2:30 left in the game, except he was probably shell shocked after Wahle's earlier trip of Green on 4th down, and not had given Donovan McNabb another chance to win the game. If Bhawon Jue had covered Freddie Mitchell instead of leaving him wide open at the first down marker on 4th and 25. If Brett Favre hadn't thrown that awful interception in overtime. Favre's interception will get all of the attention, but if the Packers had executed a single one of these plays correctly, they would have won the game. Except for Wahle being pushed into Green while Wahle was pulling on the play, every other play I mentioned was either poor execution or a poor decision, and not because Philadelphia outplayed the Packers on the play.

So many players had great game for the Packers. Nick Barnett, Ahman Green, Brett Favre (except for the interception), the entire offensive line, Grady Jackson, and of course Robert Ferguson. In the end, all it did was keep Philadelphia from leading in the game until the final play. If the Packers have played Philadelphia for about 125 minutes this season (2 games plus OT), then Philadelphia has led for about 2 of the 125 minutes, but has beaten the Packers both times.

It was a duplicate of Philadelphia's earlier win in Green Bay. The Packers outplayed most of the game, but Philadelphia kept it close, waited for the Packers to make their mistakes and then made big plays when given the opportunity.

In this game, Philadelphia had little production from their running backs and the Packers pass coverage was often excellent. McNabb ended up with big passing numbers and Philadelphia ended up with big rushing numbers, but both are deceiving stats. McNabb had some success passing, but often couldn't find an open receiver and took a sack (8 sacks in the game). The pass coverage was excellent on the plays when McNabb took off and ran too, but the Packers were woefully unprepared to stop McNabb from scrambling on the busted play. The Packers did a lot of stunting, with defensive linemen running parallel to the line of scrimmage and then running at McNabb to try and generate pass pressure, but it created big holes for McNabb to run through. Philadelphia's defensive blitzing was excellent, especially in the 4th quarter and overtime when it forced Favre's interception.

I am hoping that the Packers decide/are able to keep this team together and take another shot at the Super Bowl next year. This team is so close to putting it all together, with three straight playoff appearances, and it finished strong at the end of the season, the loss in Philadelphia ended a 5 game win streak, which is a strong indicator for next season.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Packers 33, Seattle 27. This was a very close game played by two very similar teams. Both teams have great run offenses but struggled to run the ball. Both teams have great a pass offense and a struggling pass defense. The Packers gained 2.4 yards/carry to Seattle’s 2.3 yards/carry. The Packers had 319 yards passing to Seattle’s 300 yards. There were few penalties and no turnovers until the last play of the game. Seattle could have won the game if Maurice Morris or Koren Robinson hadn’t missed/dropped touchdown passes or Ahman Green’s crucial 4th down carry had been ruled a fumble, but any missed opportunity or mistake was amplified by the similar ability of the two teams.

First Quarter: Seattle was hurt by dropped passes all game long, but the Packers had two crucial drops in the first quarter. Robert Ferguson dropped a 2nd down pass after a penalty that effectively ended one drive and Antonio Freeman dropped a 3rd down pass that would have been 1st down yardage in Seattle territory. Seattle had one successful drive, Shawn Alexander actually had a 17 yard carry but only had 28 yards on 19 carries for the rest of the game, and the Packers had a successful goal line stand in the first quarter although Alexander was very effective near the goal line for the rest of the game. Grady Jackson was fantastic getting into Seattle’s backfield and making plays in pursuit up and down the line of scrimmage. Aaron Kampman was excellent holding his position on run plays, and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila did much better on run defense this game instead of pushed out of the way like he did in the first half against Seattle back in October. Packers 0, Seattle 3.

Second Quarter: Both punters struggled because of the cold weather, Josh Bidwell had two early touchbacks and Tom Rouen couldn’t get any distance. William Henderson made an unbelievable catch right off the defender’s hip and it set up a field goal. Seattle’s receivers were able to get separation on the Packers secondary all game and Robinson, Itula Mili, Darrell Jackson and Bobby Ingram were open often. Matt Hasselbeck was very accurate and at least half of his 20 incompletions were drops. There is nothing worse than watching the officials take points off the scoreboard when they ruled Hasselbeck didn’t fumble (tuck rule!) and Nick Barnett, who had a great game, didn’t score a touchdown. Brett Favre and Javon Walker are a great deep pass combination. Favre is never right on target with Walker, few NFL quarterbacks hit their receivers deep in stride, and Walker is excellent at adjusting to the ball. Bubba Franks has caught zero or one pass in 8 of the last 10 games, but he gets behind the safety with no help deep in the end zone for probably his longest catch of the season. I expected Franks to be a serious threat deep over the middle this season, and this was the first time I saw it work. The defense was fired up after the touchdown and got its only real sack on Hasselbeck all game on Seattle’s first play, and it caused a fumble to kill the drive. Packers 13, Seattle 6.

Third Quarter: Mike Holmgren’s Packers teams always made successful adjustments at half time. Seattle’s offense is no different. Seattle had the ball 6 times in the first half and scored 6 points. In the second half, Seattle had the ball 4 times and scored 21 points. All the drives were long, consistent drives and it was a very impressive performance from Hasselbeck considering he did it all without much help rushing from Alexander. Of course he had some luck too when he threw a perfect pass right to Packers linebacker Hannibal Navies, who didn’t catch the ball, allowed it to bounce off of him, and was caught by offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson. Favre threw the ball up for grabs a few times, and I wish he would stop doing that. He threw it up once for David Martin, and Martin should have caught it. Favre has been throwing it up once or twice a game all year and usually it gets picked off, but not today. The Packers secondary fell apart short as receivers keep getting open, but no long touchdown passes. Mike McKenzie is trying to play through his injury, but it is obvious he is a step slower with his injured toe. Packers 13, Seattle 20.

Fourth Quarter: I have no idea how Randall Godfrey failed to tackle Green on 4th and 1 on Seattle’s 3 yard line. My best guess is a combination of strength by Green and bad angle by Godfrey. The next drive the Packers ran and passed the ball to get to Seattle’s 20 yard line, and then proceeded to run the ball 5 times for 20 yards and a touchdown. After this outburst for 4 yards/carry, the announcers reminded everyone that it is obvious that the Packers are built around running the ball with Ahman Green. Uh huh. Green is a top 5 running back in the league, but Favre’s 319 yards passing were much more important than Green’s 66 yards rushing. This team is built around Favre and he is very productive in this offense. Green is the best complimentary player Favre has ever played with, but Green is still the compliment to Favre. Watching the Packers last touchdown drive, I thought it was great that the drive took so much time off the clock, but it didn’t leave the offense enough time to score on its last drive. The Packers secondary never looked worse in the game than the 59 yards it allowed on 4 pass attempts in one minute. With about a minute and a half left, Seattle was down to the Packers 8 yard line. It was a great goal line stand until Barnett committed pass interference in the end zone. Walker made a great reception, but Ryan Longwell hasn’t kicked for distance all year and especially not in cold weather. Packers 27, Seattle 27.

Overtime: Apparently Hasselbeck was wrong, because Seattle didn’t score. Both defenses looked sharper in the overtime, which was really surprising after both defenses allowed a combined 3 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Both teams had unsuccessful drives until Hasselbeck threw the interception to Al Harris that he returned for a touchdown. Holmgren looked upset in the post-game interview that Hasselbeck called an audible on the play. I remember a game in the mid-90s in Minnesota when backup Packer quarterback T.J. Rubley (he was the third string QB who came in after Favre and Ty Detmer both got hurt) threw a game ending interception on an audible, and Holmgren had him cut the next day. Holmgren won’t cut Hasselbeck, but he might want to in anger and it’s a good thing that Holmgren doesn’t have his GM powers anymore. The Packers corners haven’t jumped too many short routes this season, whether it is conservative play or lack of speed to jump the routes I don’t know, but Harris played that one perfect. Packers 33, Seattle 27.