Monday, January 25, 2016

About Mike McCarthy Being "Fed Up" With GM Ted Thompson

There were a few times last season when I wondered if it would have helped if the Green Bay Packers had targeted a free agent or two, on a veteran's minimum contract, who might have helped out at some positions. Notably, the Arizona Cardinals had some success with low-priced veterans like RB Chris Johnson and DE Dwight Freeney in 2015. Apparently Bob McGinn has learned that coach Mike McCarthy was wondering the same thing.
It's hard to get too worked up over this report because in some ways it's old news. It reminds me of when almost everyone was upset that Thompson didn't pull the trigger in 2010 on a trade for RB Marshawn Lynch. Thompson turned out to be right in the sense that the Packers didn't need Lynch that season to win the Super Bowl, but Lynch would have still been worth whatever it would have taken to acquire him (the Bills gave up a 4th and a 5th round pick for him).

I wouldn't be surprised if McCarthy is looking for new answers after another playoff loss on the final play of the game. Having a veteran TE, a veteran DB, or a veteran ILB (instead of rotating Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas Jr.) might have made a small difference, but it could have turned one or two close losses this season into wins. Having no reliable inside LB other than Clay Matthews might have been his biggest regret because Bob McGinn specifically mentions the availability of ILB Mason Foster, who signed with the Redskins.

On the other hand, the NFL free agent market is a minefield. A healthy free agent who might be an average NFL player can command a bust-worthy multi-year contract while the true superstar who hits the market will get a cap crushing deal.

Typically the players who receiver one-year contracts aren't good or haven't been healthy for a while. Foster's a minor success story but other teams handed out one-year contracts to former Packer ILBs Desmond Bishop (released in early September) and Jamari Lattimore (played only on special teams for the Jets) without finding a starting caliber ILB. The Jets did well with ILB Erin Henderson, who could only get a one-year deal after a string of drinking and driving arrests ended his Vikings career, but obviously not every player with a checkered past is able to put it behind them. The Vikings signed Casey Matthews to compete at inside LB but he was hurt before the season even began. Signing a veteran on a one-year contract is much more likely to be a bust than even a mild success.

It's an odd time for this story to come out, on one hand, because this is the season that the Packers did sign WR James Jones to a one-year contract after his release from the Giants, and WR Jordy Nelson was lost for the year. I'm not sure any team in the NFL this season had a better one-year, unrestricted free agent signing than Jones. It's too bad he couldn't have played inside linebacker too.

McCarthy is used to having a deep bench to call on. The lack of depth at offensive tackle and inside linebacker were obvious, and the failure of WR Davante Adams to develop was disappointing, but these things don't always work out. The big takeaway for me in from Bob McGinn's article is that the Packers have really high standards, and if nothing less than a Super Bowl season is a disappointment, then you feel the same way as coach McCarthy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Packers Disappoint At Running Back, Tight End, and Two Coaches Pay The Price

It's always hard to move onto the next offseason after the last game of the prior season, but Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved on quickly, at least as far as his coaching staff was concerned.
The one thing both coaches had in common; the position players under their wings under-performed during 2015. McCarthy did confirm that he will call the plays next season (it's hard for any boss to give up control) and he said would change the structure of the coaching staff. Maybe there's more changes ahead or maybe the firing of Gash and Fontenot is it. I'm sure he had his reasons for the firings, he hasn't been one to make a lot of changes to his staff every year (and usually not this quickly after the season), but I'm not expecting it'll make a big difference in 2016.

The draft is coming up, in almost 100 days (a lot of draft talk lies ahead...) but first free agency is up next. Usually, if GM Ted Thompson has not re-signed an unrestricted free agents before the end of the season, he doesn't re-sign them. But there's always an exception or two. In the big picture, only four of their unrestricted free agents had a positive score according to Pro Football Focus in 2015 (K Mason Crosby, CB Casey Hayward, LB Nick Perry and WR James Jones) so there is no vital unrestricted free agent that must be re-signed for 2016.

Crosby should be expected back, but he might not be re-signed until March when it's seen what other kickers are earning. Hayward had the highest grade of the four, but he was the 4th highest rated defensive back in 2015, which is a sign that it's a strong unit and maybe not Hayward specifically. He should also be the free agent who attracts the most attention from other teams. Perry had a good grade too but primarily for his run defense (not his pass rushing) which makes him less appealing. They have a bigger need for edge pass rushers than they do for another run defender. Jones obviously had a lot of value in 2015 but he's exactly the type of player that GM Ted Thompson usually lets go in free agency (as he did after the 2013 season). Maybe Jones has so little value to every other team, and the Packers would like the insurance he provides, that a low cost, one-year contract can be worked out.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Packers Playoff Loss: Still Taking It All In

[UPDATE: While I picked on Hayward below it appears that CB Damarious Randall was to blame for the blown coverage.] CB Casey Hayward is soon to become a free agent. While he's a good player, he seems to make mistakes that might give the front office pause on whether he's a keeper. DE Mike Daniels already got his mid-season extension but unless Hayward isn't in demand (which seems unlikely since CBs have been getting paid in free agency) I don't see the Packers re-signing him. It's plays like the opening one in OT, when WR Larry Fitzgerald deployed a cloaking device and ran right past him, that makes me wonder.
It's been a struggle on offense this season (QB Aaron Rodgers does need a healthy offensive line, which he finally got in the playoffs, and a deep roster of receivers) but these two Hail Mary plays, side-by-side show how he's made up for some of it. It's also interesting that both defenses played it completely different. The Lions took a lot of criticism for defending a series of laterals that never came, instead of the Hail Mary, and they didn't bring much pressure because they were expecting the short pass. The Cardinals, instead, brought the house and got into Rodgers's face immediately, and they only dropped four into coverage. Rodgers spun away from the rush and still managed to throw the pass he needed anyway. Two different defensive schemes to the same scenario, but Rodgers made the result the same.

I'm all for taking risks, and understood why Bruce Arians passed late in the game when he could have run out the clock. If the Cardinals had completed that fade pass to Fitzgerald, then the game was over. But the Cardinals were the favorites and they've been the better team all season, so they could have taken the lower percentage path to victory (and probably won in regulation, if they'd wiped out another 35 seconds). The Packers, on the other hand, could have gone for the two point conversion to end the game before OT. I understand the math and the Packers probably had a better chance of converting then rather than winning in OT, but it's a one-and-done scenario. Instead of giving his team a few chances to make a big play in OT, Mike McCarthy would have gave them just one. Unfortunately, the secondary blew the coverage in their first opportunity to make a play in OT, but McCarthy made the right call for the extra point. He should give his team more than one chance to win, though Bill Barnwell below explains why he thinks McCarthy should have gone for two.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Packers' 2015 Season Ends Like The 2014 Season, With An Overtime Loss At An NFC North Opponent, Cardinals Win 26-20

The Green Bay Packers defense gave them a chance in this game, and they didn't let the team down until they allowed two late TD drives which gave the Cardinals the lead in the 4th quarter and then gave them the win in OT. It was better than the offense could do. Outside of a long run by RB Eddie Lacy, the Packers' rushing attack wasn't much of a help. With WR Randall Cobb injured early, and WR James Jones shut out by CB Patrick Peterson, their top two receivers caught zero passes. But three big completions to WR Jeff Janis for two touchdowns gave them just enough offense to force OT. It was a wild ride, starting with a dumb luck, ricochet TD pass to WR Michael Floyd.
Then QB Aaron Rodgers answered with an amazing Hail Mary pass to WR Jeff Janis for the tie.
But a 75 yard pass play to start OT, when the Packers' pass rush doesn't quite get to QB Carson Palmer, ends their season.
It was a great season, and an amazing run considering QB Aaron Rodgers played this game without his expected top 3 receivers (Nelson, Cobb, Adams) and had no passing yards to his best remaining receiver (Jones), but they were so close, just like last season, and you never know when the opportunity might come again.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Packers Need To Dominate In The Air, Not On The Ground

Pro Football Focus is a great resource but I don't agree with them in this week's article previewing the Green Bay Packers playoff game in Arizona that the Packers can win if they run the ball.
The Cardinals have the 2nd best run defense this season according to Football Outsiders, and the Packers haven't shown the ability to consistently run the ball. The Cardinals' strong run defense might be exaggerated because their opponents were forced to throw to keep up with the Cards' offense but the Packers aren't the team to take advantage of it. Injuries to the offensive line and RB Eddie Lacy's ribs have taken all of the steam out of the ground game's engine this season.

One very good point is about QB Aaron Rodgers's accuracy. Bryson Vesnaver wrote at Pro Footbal Focus that Rodgers struggled against Washington without any pressure "completing just 58.6 percent of his passes...when in a clean pocket." I'm spoiled as a Packer fan but Rodgers's accuracy has been below his usual levels this season. He was especially bad early in the game, missing open receivers, but he was much better by the second quarter. But instead of emphasizing the ground game over the passing game, this means that Rodgers has got to get his accuracy back to near perfection. With the offensive line as healthy as it's going to get, the pass protection was at it's best against the Redskins.
It's more likely that Rodgers will have a perfect game than Lacy will shake his 2015 season slump. They'll win by leaning heavily on Aaron Rodgers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

To Beat The Cardinals; Aaron Rodgers Is Going To Have To Be Great

There's no other way to look at it; the Green Bay Packers are the statistically weakest 2015 team still in the playoffs and they have the hardest road to the Super Bowl.
It's useful to look back at the Packers' 2010 season (2011 playoffs) when they went on a road playoff run and advanced to the Super Bowl. But that was a different team, which never trailed by more than seven points at any time during the 2010 season and might have been the greatest 10-6 team in NFL history. They were the 4th highest rated team of 2010 according to Football Outsiders, and the best remaining team in the NFC after they beat the Eagles that year in the Wild Card game. The 2015 Packers don't have a lot in common with them.

The 2015 Packers' best comparison is the 2012 Ravens, which was the 9th best team of 2012 according to FO, and won the championship behind the arm of QB Joe Flacco. He was OK that regular season (ESPN QBR of 49.2, which was dragged down by two disastrous losses vs. the Texans and Broncos) but he outplayed nearly every statistically measurement during the playoffs (11 TDs and 0 INTs in 4 playoff games). QB Aaron Rodgers has been better during the 2015 regular season in almost every way compared to Flacco v.2012, and he had one of his best games of the season against the Redskins last week. Now he's going to have to do it again while also improving on the lowly 5.83 ypa he had during that Wild Card game.

There's no good way to look back and see any positives from the 38-8 beating the Packers had pasted on them by the Cardinals three weeks ago. The upgrade to Tretter (if Bakhtiari is still out with an ankle injury) over LT Don "revolving door" Barclay will make them much more competitive. While he had a good game against the Redskins, WR Davante Adams has been a problem all season and his MCL injury might provide a boost to the Packers' offense by giving more reps to WR Jared Abbrederis. But those are marginal improvements and not enough to overcome a 30 point difference. The Packers (Rodgers in particular) are going to have to play their best.

The Cardinals are a great team, and they're about as good in 2015 as the Packers were in their 2010 when they were on their way to the Super Bowl, but they're not without their flaws. Rodgers played great against the Redskins because his pass protection was solid. The Cardinals were outstanding at getting after Rodgers three weeks ago, but the benching of Barclay alone makes a big difference and the Cardinals aren't the best at pressuring the QB. They also lost two defensive players to injury over their bye week and were forced to sign LB Jason Babin to provide some depth for Saturday's game. Neither of the two players lost to injury (Okafor and Redding) are defensive cornerstones but it's a sign that the Cardinals don't have much of a pass rush outside of DE Calais Campbell.

There's no statistical advantage the Packers are bringing to their next playoff game; they're going to have to play their best game of the season if they want to beat the Cardinals on Saturday.

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Wild Card: Packers Beat Redskins in D.C. 35-18

The first 17 minutes of their playoff game felt like a lot of recent Green Bay Packer games. The offense couldn't get anything going, and the pass protection was letting QB Aaron Rodgers down (new starting LT JC Tretter was bull rushed for a sack and safety in the 1st quarter). At that point it was Redskins 11, Packers 0, and it should have been even worse if not for a missed extra point and a poor job by WR DeSean Jackson to not reach for a touchdown.

But then the Packers offense scored on their next 5 possessions for 32 points. This touchdown was the point at which I felt like they were going to win.
On offense, what went right was their offensive line. They're probably as healthy as they've been in several weeks and subbing JC Tretter in at left tackle instead of moving Josh Sitton over from left guard finally gave them their best lineup, so long as LT David Bakhtiari is still injured. I wasn't excited to hear that Tretter was starting, he was a minor disaster at tackle in 2014, but that early safety was the only sack, and the Redskins only recorded 2 QB hits, for the game. They had been really good at getting to the quarterback over their last few regular season games. Once the passing game got going, the running lanes opened up (good run blocking led to some huge cutback lanes) and the rout was on.

On defense, it was the Packers pass rush. The Redskins had some success running the ball, but that usually happened when Dom Capers got caught in the wrong defense and had an undersized unit on the field (on QB Kirk Cousins's TD run, the only defender over the interior lineman was DB Micah Hyde). But their offensive line had no answer for the Packers' defensive rush. LBs Nick Perry and Mike Neal have had forgettable regular seasons, but both came up huge in this game. The Redskins were able to get open and beat the Packers' coverage but sacks (and one lost fumble) killed their offense.

This was one of their best overall games of the year, and it came at just the right time. Hopefully their injuries aren't too serious (WR Davante Adams hurt his knee (he said it's only sore) and it's unknown at this time if CB Quinten Rollins has a serious groin injury) and they'll make it back on the short week. Unlike in this game, when they were steamrolled in the opening quarter, they can't get blown away for one quarter and expect to beat the Cardinals. They'll have to play well over the course of an entire game, which isn't something they've done often this season.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Why The Packers Will Defeat The Redskins; Because of Their Offense

I'll have to admit, I'm having trouble writing about how the Green Bay Packers' offense is going to beat the Redskins. The easy answer is that the Redskins have a mediocre defense (ranked No. 21 overall according to Football Outsiders (19st against the pass, 22nd against the run) and the Packers have the defending MVP at quarterback. The offense will look much better if the starting offensive line (especially LT David Bakhtiari) can play and RB Eddie Lacy can have one of his good games.

However, that's not the reality of this season. Bakhtiari is still struggling with his ankle injury and Lacy has had many more bad games than good. RB James Starks isn't the answer either; the Packers can't run behind their beat up offensive line. The passing game has covered up for the lack of a running game in past seasons by killing defenses with their deep passing game, but that element has vanished this season without WR Jordy Nelson.
Even that 8.19 YPA is low for Rodgers. He was at 8.43 YPA in 2014, and 8.75 in 2013. The big change since those first six games is that WR James Jones isn't fooling as many defenses as he was at the start of the season. He still has his moments but they're not as frequent. Cobb's never been much of a deep threat but according to Pro Football Focus, Cobb caught 3 TDs in 2014 on targets of 20 yards or more, and he's caught zero in 2015. I won't even get into how much of a disappointment WR Davante Adams has been in this regard. The low YPA isn't a sign that Rodgers has turned into a dink-and-dunk passer but that the deep passing game has had such a low percentage of success in 2015.

It would seem like the Packers need to focus on a short passing-high completion percentage game plan. It's not Mike McCarthy's style but they got to get out of 3rd and long situations and win the hidden elements of the game, like field position, and let their very good defense create some short fields after defensive stops and/or turnovers.

But stopping the short passing game is probably the strength of the Redskins' defense. According to Football Outsiders, the Redskins are terrible against No.1 and No. 2 wide receivers but slightly above average against other wide receivers. They're also the 5th best defense against running backs in coverage, so those running back screens don't look like something to use against them. They're not great at covering tight ends but TE Richard Rodgers isn't someone who can really challenge them.

While they will run the ball on occasion, RB Eddie Lacy has only been good in recent games against the Cowboys (who have a terrible run defense) and the Vikings, and Lacy just seems to have the Vikings number. RB James Starks has been even worse lately (4 fumbles over his last 5 games) and his only big game in recent weeks came against the terrible Cowboys, but he seems more likely to have a breakout game than Lacy. Either way, it seems very unlikely that the running game will provide a spark.

My opinion is subject to change depending on the Packers' next opponent, but it looks like the best thing the Packers' offense can do is to keep leaning heavily on Jones and Cobb, as they've been trying to do all season long. The Redskins defense is similar to the Lions, and the passing game (Hail Mary aside) did pretty well against them in two games (as long as they don't try to force feed the ball to Davante Adams). The big difference between those two teams is the Lions can't cover tight ends and Richard Rodgers killed the Lions in both games against them. Despite what I wrote earlier, maybe getting him involved more is the way to go against the Redskins, in addition to leaning heavily on Jones and Cobb.

Sticking to the same offensive schemes that haven't been working all season isn't an inspired game plan, however, that is probably the best way for the Packers' offense to defeat the Redskins on Sunday.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Why The Packers Will Defeat The Redskins; Because of Their Defense

There's plenty of pessimism surrounding the Green Bay Packers as they enter the playoffs. And looking at their team efficiency ranking at Football Outsiders, it should be expected that the Packers will lose to either the Panthers or Cardinals in Round Two (after beating the lower ranked Redskins next Sunday). But I can see how the Packers will not only beat the Redskins, but how they can beat the other powers (Seahawks, Cardinals, Panthers) and advance to the Super Bowl.

It starts with the defense (and I'll get to the Packers' offense later):
The last time the Packers opened the playoffs on the road (2010 season) it was against the NFC East champion (Eagles), and the Packers featured one of the best pass defenses (6th overall in 2015 according to Football Outsiders vs. 1st overall in 2010). But that's about where the similarity ends. The 2010 Eagles had a good pass offense and an elite rushing attack, while the 2015 Redskins can't run the ball to take advantage of the Packers' average run defense. Their late season winning streak (they won 5 of their last 6) has been because of QB Kirk Cousins, who's been very accurate (69.8 completion percentage on the season) and with only 1 INT in his last 6 games.

And that's the knock on Cousins. Over his last 6 games, the Redskins have played a collection of mediocre to awful pass defenses. The last time they played a quality pass defense was mid-November against the Panthers, and they got clobbered by 28 points. Just as QB Aaron Rodgers has to play better for the Packers to make a playoff run, the Redskins won't win with a bad game from Cousins (the Redskins are 0-4 when he throws 2 INTs in a game this season).

Meanwhile, Cousins hasn't been relying heavily on any one receiver. TE Jordan Reed is his best, but the Packers are ranked No. 4 overall against TEs this season according to Football Outsiders. The Redskins do a number of good receivers (Garcon, Jackson, Crowder) but luckily the Packers have a lot of depth at cornerback to offset that advantage, especially if CB Sam Shields is recovered from his concussion this week.

The Packers defense matches up very well against the Redskins offense, which is why the Packers will beat them on Sunday.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Packers Lose To The Vikings, 20-13, Will Play Redskins In D.C. on Sunday

Before I get into anything else, a big round of applause for a great game from the Green Bay Packers' defense. Except for a couple big runs from WR Adam Thielen (watch out for the jet sweep, Dom) the Vikings' offense did nothing. RB Adrian Peterson had only 67 yards and QB Teddy Bridgewater passed for 99 yards. That was a dominant performance that usually wins any game that QB Aaron Rodgers starts at quarterback.
Mike McCarthy fixed the Don Barclay problem by putting Barclay on the bench and moving Josh Sitton to left tackle. It wasn't a great performance by Sitton, but DE Everson Griffin is a very good pass rusher and Sitton hasn't played left tackle in maybe ever.

But he didn't fix the WR Davante Adams problem. It took them too long to figure out that their best play on offense is to throw it whoever was being covered by CB Terence Newman. If WR James Jones was being covered by CB Xavier Rhodes, then he wasn't open. WR Randall Cobb was usually double-teamed, and Adams seems to run at defenders instead of away from them. In McCarthy's defense, I'm not sure either Abbrederis or Janis is any better than Adams. Maybe they need to line up with more two tight end sets, or keep lining FB John Kuhn out wide.

It was also painful to watch the running game. It's not an Eddie Lacy problem. The offensive line (injured, playing out of position) isn't getting enough push, or second level blocking, depending on the particular play. James Starks isn't the answer either. However, they're both much better as receivers. After the Packers basically gave up on the running game in the fourth quarter, the offense came to life. But all those pass attempts behind a shaky offensive line also leads to more hits on Rodgers, and more strip sacks returned for touchdowns.

Abandoning the running game next week against the Redskins might work if LT David Bakhtiari can play. He practiced on Friday and was a game time decision against the Vikings. It's not a stretch to expect him back next week, which would allow them to re-shuffle their line and have all five starters together for the first time in a while.

While this loss, coming on the heels of a disastrous loss in Arizona, may make this seem like a lost season already. But they could get their starting offensive line back next week, and their defense has been playing great this season. With a great defense and a great starting quarterback, lots of good things can happen in the playoffs.