Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Packers - Texans post-mortem

With the space of a day between the loss on Sunday and today, Packer fans have had time to reflect. Although judging by the sports pundit and fan call-in commentary, it didn't take long to assess the situation. And it has been essentially what we've been realizing since about mid-season, if not sooner: the Packers, while having some good individual talent, are not a good team. Why that is still seems to be a matter for dispute.

Wayne Larrivee, the radio voice of the Packers, said on 620WTMJ radio (the Packers flagship radio station in Milwaukee) yesterday that basically the Packers season changed with the loss at New Orleans. After stifling Da Bearz the week prior and looking like world beaters, the defense got lit up. Larrivee noted that since then the defense has seemed to lack any confidence or swagger. And that is certainly born out by the results since that game, the most recent evidence being giving up more than 500 yards to the Texans, including more than 400 yards passing to Matt Schaub who hadn't played a game in a month.

The lack of pass rush has been well documented, as has the related inability to stop the run. And the recurring tendency to give up big plays has absolutely killed the Packers coming down the stretch.

Pundits and fans alike seem to agree that GM Ted Thompson is going to have to go against his own tendency to try to do everything with draft picks. He's going to have to open up the coffers -- and the Pack has plenty of money to spend in free agency if they want to do so -- and go after some major defensive line help, whoever might be available. Minnesota did it this past season by going after Jared Allen, and that has obviously added to an already good defensive front. The Packers need to similarly reemphasize the D-line as they did in building their Super Bowl teams of the 1990s.

Another area that has seemingly gone from what was a perceived strength at the beginning of the season to an area of obvious weakness is the linebacking corp. A.J. Hawk has not had a productive season. Nick Barnett, of course, is out and his absence is felt. Brady Poppinga, while he has a motor that won't stop, can't cover. Backup Brandon Chillar is the best cover backer but now plays a back up role. He was out of Sunday's game due to injury and that absence was felt; Desmond Bishop, who took his place, got burned in the Texans' game-winning drive by not being able to cover TE Owen Daniels.

Offensively, there are receiving weapons aplenty and QB Aaron Rodgers is having a better-than-expected first year. Some folks say that he hasn't had that 4th quarter game-winning drive yet. Not true. He had it against Minnesota, Carolina and Houston, if not others. The problem has been the defense has not been able to close the deal. (As someone remarked about this failure to get the big stop with the clock winding down, the Packers have been playing with a "break don't bend" approach.) The consensus emerging among many callers and pundits is that while Ryan Grant is a good running back, he is not a great one. Many callers want to see more of Brandon Jackson, although some felt that because of his build he's more of a change of pace back than someone who can play every down. But regardless of who is carrying the ball, there has to be guys up front to open the holes, as well as provide sufficient pass protection for Rodgers. The Packers sustained a huge loss in that area when veteran RT Mark Tauscher was lost for the season, sustaining a torn ACL is his left knee, the same knee he injured earlier in his career. Give that he's 31 years old and in the final year of his contract, seeing Tauscher carted off the field Sunday might be the parting memory we have of him. And that's sad. He's a Wisconsin native, a University of Wisconsin graduate, and a player who has arguably been the most consistent offensive lineman the Packers have had during the time he's been there. You can read more about Tauscher here.

Given what should be a sufficient offense to generate points -- which they have -- one of the big mysteries is still why the Packers are so inconsistent with their third down conversions. On Sunday they were a miserable 1 for 10 on third downs...that is a recipe for failure.

Whether it's calling plays, penalties or failure to execute, a team's preparation, energy and performance largely falls to the coaching staff. That's why a lot of fan and pundit commentary these days is also being directed at the coaches, of course, beginning with head coach Mike McCarthy. Some are saying his post-loss press conferences are starting to sound eerily similar to those of former coach Ray Rhodes. That would not be a good model to follow. McCarthy's playcalling has been called into question. But that's going to happen with any coach. Although some sets in some situations, for example, empty backfield on a certain down/distance, pretty well tells the defense what the play is going to be. The predictability of many of the calls in certain situations is a growing concern.

Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and special teams coach Mike Stock are considered to be likely targets to be fired at the end of the season. Interestingly, there is also some speculation now that if Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy don't reverse this season's decline next year they may find themselves on the chopping block at the end of next season.

The Packers are going to have make some dramatic improvements next season, particularly on defense. How well Thompson handles personnel maneuvers in the offseason will not only dictate the Packers success next year but for years to come. Yes, it will be that critical.