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Monday, October 25, 2004
Game Review: Cowboys @ Packers
by Mark Lawrence
The Dallas Cowboys came to town. Today, the Packers and the Cowboys both started the day with two wins on the season, and were both startlingly inconsistent. There were a lot of questions which might be answered today.
Going into this game, there were serious questions about the Packers ability to play anywhere near their talent level. The Packers started the season with a dominating win at the Carolina Panthers, who were just coming off a superbowl run. However, the Panthers have been in reverse ever since, currently with a 1-5 record. It turns out this win perhaps gave the Packers faithful an incorrect view of their team.
After the win at Carolina, the Packers went on a 4 game losing streak, including three losses at home. One of these losses was on MNF, to the wounded Tennessee Titans, currently the owners of a 2-5 record; however one of their two wins came while setting a new all-time record for scoring points against the Packers in a home game, dating all the way back to 1919. This losing streak was finally broken at Detroit. However, the play of the Lions was so error prone that there were serious questions about whether the Packers beat the Lions, or the Lions beat the Lions and the Packers just had great seats for the show.
Five days before the Lions game, the Packer's offensive coordinator went into the hospital for emergency surgery, to insert several stents into his coronary arteries. This left the Packers effectively without an OC for a few weeks, importantly for both the Lions and the Cowboys game. For the first time in his career, Packer's head coach Mike Sherman found himself directing the offense and calling plays. The Packer's offense had been startlingly ineffective, scoring 10 points in one game and 7 points in another, and cracking the 20 point barrier in a third game only due to a couple garbage time TDs. Today, however, the Packers did not punt the ball until the 4th quarter, when they were deeply into run-the-clock-out mode. Mike Sherman calling the plays turned out to make something clear, something that perhaps should have been realized five years ago.
During the Packer's heyday of the mid-90s, the plays were called by the head coach Mike Holmgren. Mike stood on the sidelines, and conferred closely with his OC in the booth and with his entire offensive backfield. However, when Holmgren left Green Bay, the Packers reverted to a more NFL normal situation of having an OC in the booth calling plays. It immediately became clear that Favre was a difficult QB to control - his number of interceptions per game immediately went up. Also, in several year, Favre took to almost completely ignoring the play calling, and making his own calls on the field irregardless of the play that was radioed in.
In the last two game, Favre has not thrown an interception. Indeed, these have been two of his better games in his career. With Sherman on the field conferring closely with Favre, suddenly the Packers seem to have a quarterback who is running the Packer's offense, instead of gun slinging. It seems extremely clear that the offense play calling must stay in the current mode - an OC in the booth who is perhaps directing the offense overall, however a head coach on the sidelines who confers closely with Favre between series, and who makes the final decisions on plays based not only on the OC's calls, but also on Favre's input and viewpoint. People have wondered for several years now if Favre still has it to play at a high level in this league - indeed, in 2003 he had the ball in the 4th quarter with the game on the line seven times, and was unable to deliver a win seven times. However, many of us looked at his more outstanding performances, such as his nearly perfect game in December of 2003 at Oakland, and saw that while there was clearly some problem, it was equally true that Favre was still a Hall of Fame talent. Today it became clear that Favre requires an offensive system where he is deeply involved in the planning, not where is he simply sent plays to execute. Perhaps if this had been realized a couple years ago, the Packer's two 12-4 seasons that ended in humiliating losses in the post season would have turned out differently.
Today we saw that there continue to be problems with the offensive line. Gary Reugamer, the Packer's backup center who now finds himself starting due to injury, seems to be settling into his job. He had a play where he successfully pulled, made a key block, and helped free up Ahman Green for a 90 yard touch down run. However, absent that one run, Green and backup Nijah Davenport averaged less than 5 yards per run. This is in dramatic contrast to 2003, when both backs averaged more than 5.5 yards per run. At times it has been suggested that the Packers have the best OL in the NFL. Today, that is simply not true. However, it seems the Packers OL is now at least in the upper third of the NFL, and improving each game.
The Packers also continue to have issues at the Wide Receiver position. Robert Ferguson continues to nurse a leg injury, and continues to make only marginal contributions to the passing game. Donald Driver likewise has been money in the bank on third and long, but has somehow gotten lost from the bread and butter play calling. The Packer's passing game has become very focused on Javon Walker, who is receiving a third of Favre's passes and is perhaps having a pro-bowl year. None the less, focusing on a single receiver makes this team more vulnerable to a defense with a shut-down cornerback.
The Packer's defense spent three games proving to themselves what most other NFL teams also seem to have to have learned the hard way: live by the blitz, die by the blitz. It's considered axiomatic in the NFL that you blitz young inexperienced quarterbacks, but against the older wiser guys you have to pull back, cover, and be patient. During the Packer's four game losing streak, there were several major problems with the defense. First, one must note that the Packer's offense was failing, and therefore the defense was on the field for nearly 40 minutes in some games. Second, the Packers lost both of their large nose tackles early in the year, leaving no coverage for the Packer's lightweight linebackers. Third, the Packers found themselves with some unpleasant choices at cornerback and safety - several young guys who were very inexperienced and assignment unsure, and a couple older guys who simply didn't have the speed to play starting cornerback. And forth, the Packers had a defensive coordinator who seemed married to a losing blitzing package.
For the Lions game, the Packers finally promoted their first round pick Ahmad Carrol to starting. He has made several costly mistakes in his new starting role, but has also clearly been learning quickly from his mistakes and is clearly improving with each quarter he spends on the field. Against the Cowboys, the Packers pro-bowl safety and self-promoting expert Darren Sharper hurt his knee early, and was replaced by Bhawoh Jue. In the past Jue has been a very physical and talented safety who has been inconsistent, and therefore not very safe. In the Cowboys game his play was exemplary - not only was there no drop off from Sharper, but he seemed to be in the right place more often than Sharper had been in the previous several games. Perhaps Sharper needs a bit of bench time to re-think his game strategy. However, it must also be noted that Jue lead the team in tackles - while this speaks well of Jue's preparedness, it also raises concerns that the Packers linebackers and cornerbacks are not providing an effective second level of defense. In a perfect defense, I think the safeties would run around a lot but not actually have a lot to do. Giving some hope, however, it that the next leading tacklers were two cornerbacks and a linebacker.
For the Cowboys game, the Packers 370 pound starting nose tackle Grady Jackson finally returned from his 5 game injury absence. This was extremely notable in several parts of the game: during passing downs, the pocket was pushed and pressure on the opposing QB improved dramatically. Forcing the opposing OL to account for Jackson made DEs Gbaja-Biamile and Kampman far more effective. During running downs, the center of the field was simply not available - absent Jackson, the 1 and 2 gaps had seemed like the LA freeway diamond lanes. And Jackson's blocking freed up middle linebacker Nick Barnett to play his game; Barnett responded with an excellent game, supplying several good stops in the running game and defending several passes.
The Packers continue to have issues on special teams. The Packer's kicker, Ryan Longwell, continues to be money in the bank for extra points and field goals under 45 yards. He also continues to have only barely passable kickoffs. The Packers punting game is forgettable at best, and it can only be deeply appreciated that the punters had no work until the 4th quarter. The coverage teams seem reasonably serviceable, which is a big improvement over some performances in recent years. However, the Packers receiving team seems to be developing a very disconcerting habit of coughing up the ball. Two weeks ago punt returner Antonio Chatman had a costly turnover; this week kickoff returner Davenport lost the ball for no apparent reason, and but for an extremely timely heads-up play by Torrance Marshall the Packers could have had a very costly loss of momentum. It's my opinion that the number one job of the special teams is to not lose the game - this is far more important than spectacular runbacks or 54 yard field goals. The Packers special teams do not inspire great confidence when receiving punts and kickoffs. A team like the Patriots can force a win against a team with suspect special teams receiving.
The Cowboys are a team that plays pretty good defense, but has some serious issues at offense. While their offensive line is pretty good, they are lacking speed at QB, RB, and WR. Like the Lions, this team is a good tune up and confidence builder for the Green Bay defense, but is nowhere close to being in the same offensive league as the Vikings, Eagles, or Colts. However, the fact that the Packers managed to have seven consecutive possessions without ever punting the ball speaks volumes for the new-found offensive effectiveness. While the Cowboy's defense is perhaps not as choking as the Ravens, Patriots, or Buccaneers, no NFL defensive coordinator can watch the tape from the Lions or the Cowboys games and think anything other than that his work is clearly cut out for him. In many NFL cities it is considered that the best defense is a good clock-chewing offense. This is exactly what the Packers seem to be again.
This seems to me to be a Packers team in ascendancy. While it is far too early to claim that this team is entering the elite status of the 2004 Patriots, Eagles, Jets and Colts, it is certainly the case that no team in the NFL would make the Packers their first choice as opponent next week. I think this change is due to some painful lessons which have been learned. We have learned that Favre simply must be intimately involved in the offensive game planning. We have learned that the Packer's defense is dramatically dependent upon having a good nose tackle who can hold point and push the pocket, even against double teams. We have learned that the Packer's defensive backfield is finally improving, but still has a long way to go before it's ready to face a passing attack like Minnesota or Philadelphia. And, we're deeply suspicious that Green, Davenport and Ferguson are nursing injuries that are effecting their play.
Next week, the 3-4 Packers visit the 2-4 Redskins, who will be coming off their bye week. This is a very winnable game for the Packers, but it is also a very losable game for the Packers. Peter King has classified the Packers as a team that on any given week can beat any team in the NFL, and can also lose to any team in the NFL. The Redskins are a talented team who also have consistency problems, but are clearly very capable of raising to the occasion and beating any but the Packer's absolute best effort.
After the Redskins, the Packers have their bye week. We can only hope that the Packers enter the bye week 4-4, and that the bye week gives Green, Davenport, and Ferguson time to heal.