Tuesday, January 25, 2005

After the loss vs. Minnesota, I wrote that the Packers had two top priorities; hiring a new defensive coordinator and a new secondary coach. If Bob Slovik accepts his old secondary coach job back this week, then the Packers will have accomplished both priorites.

New defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Bates finished 2004 as the interim head coach in Miami, after leading Miami as their defensive coordinator on an impressive run of top 10 finishes in total defense (according to footballoutsiders.com) in each of the last 5 seasons (2000-2004). Miami's pass defense under Bates never slipped below 9th (footballoutsiders.com ranked Miami's pass defense 9th in 2004), which was very impressive considering the train wreck that was Miami's 2004 season. Looking at the Packers 2004 defensive stats, the weakness in the Packers' pass defense can be seen in its pass defenses in 2004 (68 in 2004, down from 92 in 2003). Although the Packers lost CB Mike McKenzie and his 18 pass defenses in 2003, it was really a team let down. The Packers top 3 corners in 2003 combined for 37 pass defenses, while in 2004 they combined for 35, which shows that it wasn't replacing McKenzie with CB Ahmad Carroll that caused the problem, but that it was a team let down. Miami totaled pass defenses of 79, 84, 78 in 2004 through 2002 respectively, while being led by the unlikely pair of former Badger CB Jamar Fletcher's 12 in 2002 and DE Jason Taylor's 11 in 2004. Miami has had some great individual players on defense over the last 5 seasons, but Miami hasn't relied on any one player for their excellent pass defense. It has been a team effort coached by Bates.

Hopefully new/old secondary coach Bob Slovik. Slovik couldn't figure out how to make the Packers defense work in 2004 as coordinator, but Slovik had a successful run as secondary coach from 2000-2003 with the Packers. The Packers secondary was in the top 10 (again according to footballoutsiders.com) from 2001-2003, while below average only in Slovik's first season of 2000. Some mitigating factors in 2000; it was the rookie season for DE KGB and he hadn't gotten much playing time yet (former DE John Thierry led the Packers with 6.5 sacks in 2000) and McKenzie hadn't yet been established as the starting cornerback (he only started in 2001-2003). Bottom line; the Packers secondary has been good when Slovik is the secondary coach. Hopefully Slovik wants to stay with the Packers and reestablish himself in the NFL as a good coach with a secondary that should be much improved (minus SS Mark Roman) in 2005 after Carroll and CB Joey Thomas got their rookie seasons out of their systems.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Packers introduced Ted Thompson as their new GM. Although President Bob Harlan was talking about how Mike Sherman understood the need to reduce his burden entering Sherman's lame duck season of his contract, this was the first real firing in the Packers front office since Ron Wolf was hired in 1991. Since 1991, only two head coaches have been fired (Lindy Infante - 1991 and Ray Rhodes - 1999) and the Packers have been a remarkably stable franchise. There are a few ways to look at this move.

Thompson was a panic hire. After the second Lambeau playoff defeat in three seasons, Harlan had to do something to seem decisive. Thompson was an easy hire because he worked for the Packers for most of the 1990s (1992-1999) and is someone whom Harlan is very familiar. The downside is that Thompson has failed to improve the personnel in Seattle over the last three seasons; the only impact players acquired from 2002-2004 were CB Marcus Trufant and FS Michael Boulware. Seattle's big free agent in 2004, DE Grant Wistrom, was often injured and only recorded 3.5 sacks. Thompson leaves Seattle before the start of a dangerous offseason with their three best players (QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Shaun Alexander, and LT Walter Jones) all entering unrestricted free agency.

It was necessary to hire a GM. Mike Sherman was only able to act as GM/Coach because he could rely on Mark Hatley, the former personnel director for Chicago who had never been officially given the title of GM in either Chicago or with the Packers. Unfortunately, Hatley passed away last summer and finding someone of Hatley's caliber willing to work under Sherman was probably an unlikely situation. Therefore, a true GM needed to be hired and Sherman's title would have to be trimmed back to coach only (I haven't read anywhere if Sherman gets to keep the VP title he had).

This contradicts Ron Wolf's last decision as Packers GM to hire Sherman to replace him. Maybe, but the last time Harlan hired a GM was Wolf and Wolf thought enough of Thompson to work alongside him in the Packers front office for several seasons.

In the end Thompson doesn't address the biggest need the Packers have this offseason; fix the defense. Thompson could bring in better defensive players, but I don't blame the players as much as I blame the defensive coaches. Thompson might know how to throw a bunch of high draft choices on Trufant, Boulware, and SS Ken Hamlin, but he can't teach them how to play a zone or cover-2. Thompson's going to have to prove to me that he deserves this job.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

For some reason, Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee J-S wants Mike Sherman out as GM, maybe even as coach too. Silverstein had an article posted on jsonline.com on 1/12/05 about the Packers alleged pursuit of Seattle's VP of football operations Ted Thompson for GM. Hopefully, Packers' President Bob Harlan doesn't take Silverstein's advise.

Thompson has Packer roots, working under former GM Ron Wolf from 1992 to 1999. Silverstein said "since joining the Seahawks in January 2000, Thompson has run the draft and advised Holmgren on personnel matters." That is probably overstating Thompson's importance. Holmgren didn't give up GM duties in Seattle until Seattle hired Bob Ferguson as their GM in February 2003 (http://www.profootballweekly.com/PFW/Commentary/Spins/2003/spin021103.htm). Silverstein gave Thompson credit for drafting "running back Shaun Alexander, guard Steve Hutchinson, receiver Darrell Jackson, cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Marcus Trufant and safeties Ken Hamlin and Michael Boulware." If he really wanted to pump up Thompson, he should have mentioned how Thompson fooled Wolf into trading QB Matt Hasselbeck and the pick that became Hutchinson for the pick used on useless DE Jamal Reynolds. Of course, Silverstein didn't mention any of the inept decisions Thompson was involved with, such as drafting TE Jerramy Stevens, or signing injury prone DE Grant Wistrom for big bucks (more than twice what useless ex-Packer bust DE Joe Johnson was paid), or allowing Seattle to come into this offseason with their 3 big offensive stars (T Walter Jones, Hasselbeck and Alexander) all unsigned for 2005. He also failed to mention how Thompson completely failed to improve a very talented 2003 Seattle and allowed them to regress in 2004.

Silverstein appears to think Sherman is useless as a GM. Silverstein does praise Sherman for drafting WR Javon Walker and C Scott Wells (Scott Wells?) but is quick to mention the "numerous mistakes in free agency (Joe Johnson, Hardy Nickerson, Tim Couch, Mark Roman, Cletidus Hunt)" Johnson was bad, Hunt has been disappointing (but somewhat underpaid considering what teams now pay for defensive tackles like Cornelius Griffin or Rod Coleman), and Nickerson, Couch and Roman all haven't worked out, but cost the Packers little. "Of his six picks in 2004, the only one who showed promise was seventh-round center Scott Wells," says Silverstein, while ignoring the fact that rookies rarely perform well in their rookie season. If Silverstein wants an example, take a peek at QB Brett Favre's stats his rookie season. How about LB Nick Barnett Tom? Or the 2nd round pick that brought in CB Al Harris?

Sherman has been in charge of 3 drafts since Wolf retired (2002-2004. Ignoring 2004 (rookie seasons don't define players), 2002 and 2003 have brought in Walker, RB Najeh Davenport, DE Aaron Kampman, QB Craig Nall, Barnett, and Harris (traded for 2nd round pick). How did Thompson do in 2002 and 2003? The only noticeable starters are the disappointing Stevens (by the way, Seattle was total suckerpunched in this draft when they tried to trade down and still pick New England TE Daniel Graham, but New England traded up to take Graham and left Seattle stuck with Stevens), CB Marcus Trufant, and S Ken Hamlin. TE Ryan Hannam got some playing time late in the 2004 season too. Maybe QB Seneca Wallace is primed to be the next QB Jeff Blake, otherwise the Packers have drafted better in those two seasons than Seattle.

My point is that Sherman is a competant GM and coach. You can compare Sherman favorable to nearly every other coach or GM in the league over the last three seasons, except Bill Belichek (probably one or two other teams too). Sherman has not done well in free agency, but teams aren't built through free agency (see Washington). He does need someone to replace the late Mark Hatley, but he doesn't need to go looking for a new job. The best thing for a team in the NFL is stability, at least through the last couple seasons for Favre. Changing GM and coach will not put this team any closer to a Super Bowl in the next two seasons (although a change of defensive coordinator and secondary coach remains a must this offseason).

Monday, January 10, 2005

Packers 17, Minnesota 31. Not quite as humiliating as the 2002 home playoff loss against Atlanta but it was still a big hurt. With the defense struggling as bad as it was, QB Brett Favre had to have a perfect game and he was off. Favre struggled in his previous cold Lambeau game against Jacksonville when he threw 3 interceptions and he struggled again against Minnesota in the cold (4 more INTs). It didn't help that the wide receivers appeared to run poor routes on three of the interceptions while the fourth pick was a deflection. No matter how disappointing the outcome, the Packers came into this game as a below average team due to their poor defense and Minnesota played better during the regular season. Minnesota managed to score exactly 31 points in each meeting vs. the Packers and this time the Packers couldn't manage their usual 34 points to get the win. Favre is now considering his future (please come back in 2005!) and the Packers have to figure out where to go from here.

How did they do in 2004? The offense improved! No really. Footballoutsiders.com offensive DVOA rating was 13.3% in 2004, up from 8.1% in 2003. The Packers total offense rating slipped from 8th to 9th, but 2004 was a big season for offense. The offense had more yards per game, fewer sacks, and fewer turnovers. The Packers defense had outplayed the Packers offense from 2001 through 2003 (no really; go to footballoutsiders.com or see below for the shorthand breakdown) but the defense collapsed in 2004. Only the bay area duo of San Francisco and Oakland had worse pass defenses.

So what is wrong with the pass defense?

Interceptions are probably the first answer. The Packers had 24 INTs in 2002 and 21 in 2003, but slipped to 8 in 2004. By the way, Ed Donatell's improved Atlanta pass defense increased their interception to total to 19 in 2004, up from 15 in 2003.

The second answer is pass defenses (PDs). The Packers fell off the cliff, going from 95 PDs in 2002 and 92 PDs in 2003, falling to 68 PDs in 2004. CB Al Harris actually improved his number from 14 PDs in 2003 to 20 PDs in 2004. The Packers lost CB Mike McKenzie's 18 PDs (replacing them with CB Ahmad Carroll's 8) and FS Darren Sharper fell from 13 to 7 PDs. The biggest offenders were the starting linebackers; although LB Nick Barnett had 6 PDs in 2003 and 2004, LB Na'il Diggs and Hannibal Navies fell from a combined 8 PDs in 2003 to 0 (yes zero) PDs in 2004. Ed Donatell's biggest improvement in Atlanta was raising the team's PDs up from a lowly 56 in 2003 to 80 in 2004. The best pass defense in the NFL in 2004, Buffalo, was led in PDs by their outside LB Takeo Spikes's 17, and as a team recorded 83 PDs. The secondary and linebackers inability to get into position to either break up a pass or intercept it was the number one defensive problem in 2004.

It wasn't the lack of a pass rush that led to a poor pass defense either. DE KGB had 13.5 sacks and his stats were nearly identical to his 2001-2003 seasons. The Packers actually had more sacks, up from 34 in 2003 to 40 in 2004, and got into the backfield as much as they ever have with 49 tackles for a loss, down from 57 in 2003 but way up from 36 in 2002.

The run defense slipped in 2004, but the loss of NTs Grady Jackson, James Lee, and Donnell Washington to injuries was as much of the problem as anything else.

So who takes the fall for the awful pass defense that sank the season? Maybe no one; CB Joey Thomas and Carroll had to take on far too much responsiblities far too early in their rookie seasons due to McKenzie's decision to abandon the Packers. Maybe the players; Sharper clearly looked a step slower while playing injured much of the season and SS Mark Roman failed to impress in his first Packer season. Diggs and Navies might both need to be replaced after they failed to have any impact in pass defense. However, most of the blame should fall on the new defensive coaches; coordinator Bob Slovik and secondary coach Kurt Shottenheimer. Players often looked lost in coverage, the rookie cornerbacks didn't develop much during the season, and the defense looked outcoached on too many occasions. Shottenheimer looked like a good hire at the start of the season, but the Packers fell from 92 pass defenses in 2003 to 56 in 2004, while his former team, Detroit, greatly improved from 66 in 2003 to 80 in 2004.

So how to fix the Packers this offseason? Mike Sherman deserves to be back as coach and GM in 2005, but he does need to replace personnel director Mark Hatley, who passed away last summer, and find a good player personnel man to assist him in the future. The Packers need a change at defensive coordinator and secondary coach. It was no slam dunk decision to fire Donatell last season, but Slovik and Shottenheimer need to move on. The Packers might want to consider moving Sharper to strong safety and finding a quicker cornerback-type player to play at free safety. Most important is finding a linebacker who is good in coverage, preferable a veteran player, to replace Navies. Diggs was probably held back due to injury and poor coaching and shouldn't take the blame this season. It won't be easy to juggle salary cap concerns and free agent re-signings so that a veteran linebacker can come to Green Bay and a defensive coaching change is rarely a cure-all, but both need to happen this offseason.

2004 -5% 21; O 13.3% 9 (P 26% 8, R 9.4% 7 ); D 20% 29 (P 32.3% 30, R 4.9% 23); ST -2.8% 24
2003 18.9% 5; O 8.1% 8 (P 11.8% 8, R 4.8% 8); D -9.4% 9 (P -10% 8, R -8.7% 10)
2002 13.2% 8; O 2.8% 19 (P 7.1% 15, R -2.6% 20); D -12.8% 4 (P -32.4% 2, R 10.7% 29)
2001 13.8% 8; O 2.1% 15 (P 12.8% 6, R -11.3% 22); D -11% 11 (P -21.6% 7, R 3.5% 23)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Packers 31, Chicago 14. It was hard to be too inspired to write anything about this game. Chicago phoned it in, at least on offense. The Chicago defense looked bad, but without their best player (LB Bryan Urlacher), they shouldn't be looking too good.

First Half: Bad tackling continues. WR David Terrell ran for a while after CB Al Harris got completely lost and SS Mark Roman continued his poor tackling. But this quick early Chicago TD was their only highlight. The Packers made it look easy scoring against Chicago, and QB Chad Hutchinson helped with the TD pass to FS Darren Sharper. It wasn't the worst decision Hutchinson could have made (although he could have stopped staring at the receiver) and it was a great read by Sharper. QB Craig Nall played well again, his four good game of the season (preseason vs. Tennessee, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and now Chicago). Considering he almost was cut in the preseason in favor of QB Tim Couch, he has really given his career a second life. He is a restricted free agent (I believe) this offseason and might be traded this offseason. Packers 28, Chicago 7.

Second Half: The only concern remains that the Packers run defense didn't play well again. RB Thomas Jones did not have a great season, only rushing for over 100 yards against the Packers twice, Minnesota once and Detroit once (highlight the poor run defense in the NFC North). NT Grady Jackson didn't play to rest his knee, but it wasn't incouraging to let a below average running back run all over you. The Packers offense played to get the game over with. Packers 31, Chicago 14.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

In the first few weeks, the biggest concern for the Packers was their depth at defensive tackle. With three key injuries by week 5 (DT Donnell Washington, DT James Lee, and DT Grady Jackson), it was a big problem. Well the problem is back. Lee is now on IR and gone for the season, he missed the last couple of games anyway, and Jackson has reaggravated/reinjured his knee and needs more surgery. Undrafted rookie DT Colin Cole made his first appearance as a Packer last week in Minnesota for some added depth. Jackson is putting his needed (no pun intended) surgery and play through the rest of the season. Teams seem to love to run away from Jackson, so if Jackson stops playing it could be a very quick postseason. The most likely first round opponent, Carolina, isn't a very good running team (now starting their 4th string RB Nick Goings), unfortunatley the likely 2nd round opponent, Atlanta, is a very good running team although their big RB T.J. Duckett will probably play his first game in a month in the playoffs after undergoing December knee surgery.

Should the Packers sit out their players in Chicago? I hope not. Last season, Denver came into Green Bay in week 17 to play a meaningless game, sat all their regulars, and then got blown out in the playoffs. Injured players like LB Na'il Diggs and Jackson should sit, but the rest of the team should play at least the first half.
Packers 34, Minnesota 31. NFC NORTH CHAMPS!!! A very surprising end to a disappointing 1-4 start. What changed during the season to turn 1-4 into 9-6? Surprisingly it was the improvement in the offense. The defense has been run over all season, but in the Packers first 5 games, only the week 3 loss against Indianapolis was an excellent offensive performance. Tom Rossely's health problems that led to Mike Sherman calling plays after week 5 could have been a reason. The offense played fine at Carolina and vs. Chicago, but neither was a dominant performance. The Packers offense didn't score a TD against Tennessee until they were down 24-3, which was far too late. The offense was in a slump starting against Philadelphia, continuing vs. Detroit, and didn't break out until the 2nd half vs. Jacksonville. The offense has overall been great this season, but the defense can't stop anybody and the offense has to play at a very high level the rest of the season.

First Half: Please, please, please tackle somebody. LB Nick Barnett is playing hard but can't cover the entire field. LB Na'il Diggs is trying to play through a serious back/kidney injury. There is no one in the defensive backfield that was not tackling bad. Jsonline.com has a recent article pointing the finger at SS Mark Roman, who is the most perplexing tackler, because prior to December he was the best tackler in the secondary but he has been playing poorly ever since. CB Joey Thomas's wiff on the tackle of RB Michael Bennett's TD run was the worst missed tackle I've seen in the NFL this season. Fortunately, QB Brett Favre had his way with Minnesota's defense for the second time this season. Minnesota held the big play in check, but couldn't stop Favre moving the offense down the field on long drives. Favre will have to play like this the rest of the season. Packers 17, Minnesota 21.

Second Half: As bad as the Packers secondary was at tackling, they played very well in coverage. The tackling improved, the coverage was good, and Minnesota didn't get a big play on offense the rest of the game. Their only TD was the outstanding interception by LB Chris Claiborne. The Packers defense has had problems with good tight ends in coverage all season, but TE Jermaine Wiggins was covered well and had minimal impact after being a major weapon against the Packers in week 10. DE Aaron Kampman had his best game of the season and had a major impact. He ran down WR Nate Burleson down from behind on a short pass, which was unbelievable. Minnesota's WRs just gave up on QB Daunte Culpepper in the fourth quarter. How great is it to have automatic (within 40 yards) K Ryan Longwell with the Packers? Packers 34, Minnesota 31.

The most amazing thing about this game was the way the score, final play, total yardage were all identical with the week 10 game in Green Bay.