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  • The State of the Packers – 2009

       January 09, 2009

    The 2008 Packers’ season is over and it can only be described as a failure. The post season was a fantasy and now that the Vikings have performed their ritual home playoff loss, there is little for Packer fans to look forward to before the spring draft, other than an off season where the Brett Favre soap opera takes place in someone else’s living room. There was good and bad in the 2008 Packers and here is my take:

    Management

    No NFL general manager has more hate directed towards him than Ted Thompson. It’s premature. For 2008 Thompson had three main criteria by which to be judged: the Favre trade, free agent signings and the draft. The big one in the short term was the Favre trade and Thompson was clearly correct on this one. Aaron Rodgers outperformed Favre and the Packers will get a third round pick this year as well. The other short term measure for management was free agent signings. Brandon Chillar proved to be a very useful pickup but the team could have used additional help, although only on the offensive line was this obvious.

    Finally the 2008 draft contributed little to the Packers success in the short term and doesn’t look particularly promising in the long term. Jordy Nelson will be a player, but the rest of this draft class has thus far shown little. When this is combined with some earlier picks that are starting to look like busts, this is a disturbing trend. Ted Thompson may think that the success with the Favre deal means the pressure is off, but in reality the opposite is true. Entering the 2008 season, the Packers were a team of question marks. Entering the 2009 season they are a team of obvious strengths, obvious weaknesses and obviously under the salary cap. Fans will expect management to address some of the weaknesses through free agency and this is an entirely reasonable expectation. Thompson will then be judged on the performance of those free agents and that is an entirely reasonable criteria for judging his performance. The 2009 off season including the draft will be a major factor in determining Thompson’s future with the team.

    Coaching

    2008 was not a good year for the coaching staff. The team went from 13-3 to 6-10 and a good part of that fall has to go to the coaching staff; specifically special teams and defense. The coverage units were disastrous in 2008 and that blame has to go to the coaches. The Packers also made a horrible decision to change punters to start the year and that was also a decision of the coaches. The Packers will have a new special teams coach in 2009 and improving the coverage units has to be his number one priority.

    On defense the Packers repeatedly blew 4th quarter leads. Partly this was personnel, partly this was coaching. A fair number of the defensive breakdowns were repeated over and over and a fair number of the coverage breakdowns occurred when the Packers were playing some version of the zone. The team needs to abandon the zone once and for all. The new defensive coordinator will have to convince the players to stop making the same mistakes and remove them if they don’t. It isn’t real complicated.

    On offense McCarthy went from being the ultimate pragmatist and thus very aggressive, to being very tentative and conservative. McCarthy traded a marriage with Touchdown for an affair with Touchdown’s ugly sister, Field Goal Attempt. A warning for Mr. McCarthy: this sort of thinking is precisely why your predecessor is no longer coaching the team.

    Part of the sudden conservatism can be explained by a desire to rein in Rodgers in his first season as a starter. McCarthy was very effective by reining in Favre in 2007 and this tactic was repeated with Rodgers in 2008. Rodgers, however, is not Favre. He doesn’t make nearly as many bad decisions with the football. Reigning in Rodgers resulted in reigning in the offense, especially in the 4th quarter when games were close.

    McCarthy will need to let loose the reins on Rodgers in 2009 if the Packer offense is to maximize its’ potential. Getting the most out of Rodgers, the offense, and assuring that the special teams and defensive coaching staffs are up to the task will be the measure by which Mike McCarthy will be judged in 2009. A failure in 2009 could mean an end to his tenure as coach.

    Finally, the Packers committed far too many penalties to be contenders. Their man coverage scheme will result in more defensive penalties, but the procedural penalties, offensive holding penalties and illegal blocks/holds on kick and punt returns have got to stop. The Packers may need a disciplinarian to put the heat on the team next season.

    Quarterback

    Entering the 2008 season quarterback was one enormous question mark for the Packers. No one knew how Aaron Rodgers would perform and if he could remain healthy for 16 games. Rodgers answered all those questions . He performed at a level beyond what Favre could have done with this team.

    Late in the season it became popular to criticize Rodgers for the failure of the Packers to win close games in the 4th quarter. Rodgers had no come from behind wins and supposedly was not leading the team. The implication was that Favre would be doing better These are probably the least valid and most intellectually dishonest criticisms of Rodgers. Rodgers repeatedly brought the Packers back to tie and lead games in the 4th quarter. The defense and special teams then proceeded to surrender those leads. The quarterback does not play defense or special teams. Rodgers was not responsible for the performance of those units nor was Favre when he was the quarterback. Finally, Favre did not have a particularly good record for come from behind 4th quarter wins so suggesting he would have pulled rabbits out of his hat is either wishful thinking or dishonest.

    A far simpler criteria for evaluating the Packer’s season with respect to quarterback is to ask a simple question: If you knew in August that Rodgers would remain healthy, throw for 4038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 Ints and have 207 yards rushing what record would you have predicted for the Packers? Anyone who says less than 10 wins is lying. Rodgers was not the problem with the 2008 Packers.

    Rodgers was not perfect, though, and for 2009 he needs to improve in two areas and answer one challenge. First, Rodgers needs to get rid of the ball a little faster in most situations. Rodgers held the ball a little longer than Favre in most situations and it resulted in more sacks. A quicker release should come with more playing time, so this is not a great concern. Second, and paradoxically, Rodgers needs to hold the ball a little longer when teams show the blitz. Rodgers was too quick to get rid of the ball when teams showed a blitz and while this prevented some sacks throwing a five yard pass on third and ten doesn’t cut it. Rodgers needs to be cognizant of the game situation and try to get first downs in some of those situations. Finally, I expect the offense will be opened up in 2009 and Rodgers will have to answer the challenge by continuing his good performances for four full quarters. I expect he will be up to the challenge.

    The Packers backups were Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm. Both are total unknowns.

    The Packers are clearly the best in their division at Quarterback. Still.

    Running Back

    With over 1200 yards rushing, the Packers look set at running back, but I am not convinced. Ryan Grant is certainly the Packers most punishing runner. He does much of his running inside and doesn’t shy away from contact. On the downside I thought he did not cut back on enough runs and that his overall vision when he ran the ball was poor. Grant also caught only 18 passes all year. Grant was removed in most passing situations for Brandon Jackson and later DeShawn Wynn when Jackson was injured. This is a poor situation. Given that the Packers also rarely throw to the fullback, it telegraphs pass anytime Jackson or Wynn enter the game. Rotating running backs is fine, but both men in the rotation need to be able to catch the ball. If Grant really can’t catch the ball then Jackson needs to be given a shot at starting.

    Korey Hall and John Kuhn shared fullback responsibilities. Korey Hall is the better of the two, but neither is really a threat to either run or catch the ball. Both men are average blockers. While the current situation is tolerable, the Packers could probably use an upgrade here.

    The Packers clearly trail the Vikings and Bears at running back.

    Receiver

    Receiver remains one of the Packers strengths. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings remain solid starters (Jennings really belongs in the pro bowl) and Jordy Nelson was added to the mix and showed a lot of potential. With Ruvell Martin and a healthy James Jones, this unit should be set for 2009. The only real improvement here would be fewer dropped balls for Driver and Jennings.

    Tight end saw a big decline in production. Donald Lee was a big part of the offense for 2007 and was largely invisible in 2008. Jermichael Finley added nothing to the mix. Tight ends usually make their living running routes in the middle and part of the reduced production at tight end probably reflects a reluctance to let Rodgers throw passes over the middle. That will have to change in 2009. The tight end needs to be a threat, especially in the close games in which the Packers did so poorly, and the Packers will have to either change personnel or offensive philosophy to make that happen.

    Even without a threat at tight end the Packers easily have the best receivers in the division.

    Offensive Line

    The clear weak link in the offense is the offensive line. At tackle the Packers started Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton for most of the year, with Tony Moll starting for an injured Tauscher at the end of the year. Tauscher was the best of the starters. He was effective at pass blocking, less so at run blocking. He also suffered a season ending injury and is a free agent. The Packers may not want to sign Tauscher, but the picture of the offensive line without him is not pretty. Tony Moll started for Tauscher and was ineffective. He is probably not the long term answer. Chad Clifton played horribly early in the year but played better as the year wore on. He may have been suffering from an injury early in the year. The Packers would probably like to replace Clifton as he is not a particularly good run blocker, but there is currently no one on the roster to do that.

    At guard the Packers started Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz. Neither was particularly effective, although Spitz was probably the better of the two. Colledge could very well wind up at tackle. With Spitz and Colledge doing the starting, there is obviously no depth at this position. The Packers are supposedly high on Josh Sitton and Allen Barbre, but not high enough to actually substitute them for any of the existing starters.

    At center the Packers started Scott Wells the whole year. Wells was an effective pass blocker but with the overall weak interior line it is difficult to judge him as a run blocker.

    All in all this was a unit that was marginal at pass blocking and poor at run blocking. The zone blocking scheme has been blamed for some of the run blocking woes, but the Packers were especially bad in situations that required a simple push by the line. This is not a scheme problem, but a strength problem. The Packers badly need to upgrade this position and doing so will be the Packers main offensive personnel problem in 2009.

    Within the division the Packers trail the Vikings at this position and possibly also the Bears.

    Defensive Line

    If the Packers were weak at offensive line, they were equally weak at defensive line. The Packers have a player in Aaron Kampman, but after that there is little on the defensive line. Cullen Jenkins suffered a season ending injury. Johnny Jolly showed a lot of promise in 2007 and did nothing in 2008. Ryan Pickett went from being average against the run and invisible against the pass to being totally invisible. KGB was released. Justin Harrell did little, and with another back surgery a possibility is most likely to be a total bust. Colin Cole, Mike Montgomery and Jason hunter were ineffective against both pass and run.

    This unit was below average at stopping the run and aside from Kampman non-existent rushing the passer. The injury to Cullen Jenkins has been blamed for a big portion of the decline. While Jenkins loss certainly affected the pass rush, blaming the decline in run defense on his loss is without merit. Jenkins is a tackle converted from defensive end who played primarily against the pass. Against the run the Packers would primarily have played a combination of Cole/Jolly/Pickett inside and this combination was ineffective against the run. The Packers probably need two new defensive lineman.

    Within the division the Packers trail both the Vikings and Bears at this position.

    Linebacker

    The Packers worst position in 2008 was linebacker. Packer starters Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk and Brady Poppinga were incredibly ineffective against both pass and run and were ineffective even as blitzers. The number of times opposing rushers made it through the defensive line and there was not a linebacker in sight became too numerous to count midway through the season; about the same time it became apparent the three starters were incapable of covering either receivers or running backs. Nick Barnett became injured halfway through the season giving AJ hawk an opportunity to start at middle linebacker, his natural position. Hawk was as bad at middle linebacker as he was outside.

    Last year I thought Barnett and Hawk made a good pair of starters after a bad 2006, but it is now apparent all three Packer starters probably need to be replaced. If the Packers improve their defensive line they could probably live with Barnett in the middle, but Hawk and Poppinga need to go.

    The lone bright spot at linebacker was Brandon Chillar. Chillar was not perfect against the run, being out of position on occasion, but he was more effective in coverage than all the other linebackers combined. He could not cover Jeremy Shockey, but was otherwise effective , being especially good at tackling backs short of the first down marker. Chillar is a good all round player who should start next year and would be even more effective if the Packers improve their defensive line.

    Secondary

    The strength of the Packer defense remains their secondary. Even with injuries to Al Harris, Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse, this unit was effective all season. At corner Harris and Charles Woodson are still in their prime and capable of covering anyone. Tramon Williams was beaten a few times but was not out of position as past Packer corners have been. With any hint of a pass rush Williams would have looked much better. Nick Collins made the pro bowl at safety, but I thought this was unwarranted. Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse had injury issues, but both are capable of playing at an NFL level.

    Secondary is the Packers best and deepest position. If the Packers can improve their front seven the quality of the secondary is sufficient that the defense could go from very poor to very good overnight. This is, however, a relatively old unit. The Packers have a limited window of opportunity in which to make that improvement .

    Within the division the Packers have far and away the best secondary.

    Special Teams

    The Packer special teams were generally horrible in 2008 but within that horribleness there were two bright spots. First, while the kick return teams produced a poor average, Will Blackmon is a quality punt return man, among the top 5-6 in the league. Second, Mason Crosby has developed into one of the league’s better kickers. But let’s talk about the horrible.

    The Packers first special teams move of 2008 was releasing punter John Ryan for Derrick Frost. Frost was almost impossibly bad, to the point where I began to feel sorry for him. After making this mistake the Packers compounded it by playing Frost long after it became apparent he shouldn’t be playing. The reason given for this was that there was no one else out there. This excuse lasted for twelve games until Frost was replaced by Jeremy Kapinos , a punter who been out there the whole time. Kapinos will never be confused for Ray Guy, but he at least avoided the bad, game changing punts. The Packers have repeatedly replaced punters with someone worse over the last several years. While it is always good to try to improve the team everywhere, the Packers had better learn that if you are going to switch players at a position and then keep only one player at that position on the roster, you better be sure you know what you are doing. Finding a reliable punter is now a Packer priority for this off season.

    The next part of horrible was the coverage teams. Packers opponents had an average starting field position of their own 32 versus the Packers at their own 28. In addition the constant 4th quarter breakdowns of the coverage teams meant that after the Packers had gained late leads they quickly gave the opposition good field position to start.

    Finally, the Packers had the lowest kick return average in the league.

    The Packers believe that a new special teams coach is the answer and in part I agree with them. It should have been possible to put any ten players chosen at random out on the field with Mason Crosby and produced better kick coverage than the Packers showed in the fourth quarter of most of their games. Much like the linebackers Packer coverage personnel didn’t control their gaps on the field and overpursued ball carriers. On the other hand the Packers were once again very young and they may need some veteran help on the special teams to go make that coaching take. Special teams are also usually a reflection of a teams’ depth and this season’s special teams are a pretty good indicator of the lack of depth beyond the receivers and defensive secondary. Improving the special teams alone would net the Packers a win or two over this past seasons’ 6-10 record.

    The Packers clearly trail the Vikings and Bears on special teams.

    Conclusion

    I am not as disappointed as are others in the past season. I had few expectations for this team and I never bought into last year’s team being only a player away from the Super Bowl. The Packers are seldom as good or bad as they are made out to be. The 2006 8-8 team could easily have been 10-6 and last year’s 13-3 team could easily have finished 11-5. This year’s 6-10 squad finished with probably the worst record they could have achieved given their level of play. The amount of randomness in a game’s outcome combined with the number of close games the Packers played makes it highly likely they would improve their record next season even with the exact same team.

    The goal, though, isn’t to improve, but to win championships. To win championships the Packers need help. Specifically they need help on the offensive line, defensive line and linebacker immediately. That the help needed will come from player development is possible but unlikely given the level of play at those positions this past season. On offense the Packers need to spend some money on the line. Regardless of what blocking scheme they employ next season the Packers need more strength on the line and could also use some nastiness on the line. They are unlikely to get immediate help from outside the first round, so Ted Thompson had better go hunting and he had better bring something back. The Packers could use veteran help at both guard and tackle so there is really no excuse for the Packers to sit still in free agency.

    On defense the first step will be hiring a new coordinator and deciding on a scheme. The new coordinator will not have a chance to evaluate the players on the field and he will be expected to bring improvement next season so I expect the Packers will keep man coverage as their basic coverage scheme. There has been talk of the Packers switching to a 3-4 scheme for the front seven, but it is difficult to picture that happening with Packers weakness at linebacker. In either case the Packers will likely have to decide if they want to go after linemen or linebackers in the free agent market. If the Packers were to improve their line with an Albert Haynesworth, they might be able to live with 2 out of their 3 current linebackers. On the other hand there are a lot of free agent linebackers available and a good linebacker can be had cheaper than a good lineman. (The availability of people capable of playing the 3-4 might be the best argument in favor of it.) I expect the Packers will try to sign free agent linebackers and hope that Cullen Jenkins can come back and that Johnny Jolly can make a step up in play.

    The final piece will once again be the draft. The Packers need help and depth on both sides of the ball so they should not feel pressured to draft a particular position with any of their picks. The greatest pressure will probably be to take a pass rushing defensive lineman but the Packers have had such poor luck with first round defensive line picks that I shudder at that thought. The Packers also ought to be able to find some help at positions that are not as high a priority such as tight end and special teams. While I believe that the draft should be used for long term help, Thompson’s last two drafts have not had as much an impact as the Packers need and Thompson must do better this season. If halfway through the 2009 season there is no help from the past two drafts beyond Jordy Nelson, Ted Thompson may be headed for an early exit.

    Take heart Packer fans. Not only do the Packers play in a lousy division, the team is not as bad as their record would indicate and they have several excellent pieces in place for a playoff run. If they can get any help on both sides of the line they should be in the playoffs again next season. If they can get even a single impact player for their defensive front seven they could easily be division champs and go deep into the playoffs again where anything can happen.

    For the Super Bowl I like the Giants again. No one in the AFC looks that good and I don’t think Carolina can go to New York and beat the home team. If the Super Bowl and Badger Basketball won’t hold you over until the fall then just remember that as of February 2, the Packers will once again be undefeated.


    Posted by BVBigBro at January 9, 2009 08:46 AM

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    Comments

    #  January 9th, 2009 9:17 AM      kris
    I like this line:

    McCarthy traded a marriage with Touchdown for an affair with Touchdown’s ugly sister, Field Goal Attempt.


    So true. You know, I actually feel pretty optimistic for a fan of a 6-10 team. I just hope Thompson is willing to pull the trigger on some free agents because I think we are a few players and some luck away from the playoffs.  
     
    #  January 9th, 2009 6:00 PM      Squibbly
    I really don't want to see a "State of the Seahawks" post in detail. That might make me cry myself into oblivion.  
     

     

     


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