Sunday, February 14, 2010

Jersey Al's Packers Blog Has Moved!

A new and improved Jersey Al's Packers Blog can be found here. All recent articles are there and I will slowly be working on moving all my archives over...

Thanks to all readers!

Al Bracco

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Packers Playoff Loss To The Cardinals and Kurt Warner: Who to Blame?



Kurt Warner came into the Cardinals - Packers playoff game with the second-best lifetime QB rating in NFL history. Only Bart Starr is better. Did everyone forget about that?

During the Sunday pregame shows on CBS, NBC and ESPN, only one football analyst picked the Cardinals to defeat the Packers (Bill Cowher). Everyone else picked the Packers. 14 out of 15 of the so-called experts were swayed. Swayed by what? The Packers meaningless win the week before against Arizona? The Cardinals lackluster play over the last four meaningless games of their season?

And a host of Packer fans were wrong. The prevailing sentiment in the week leading up to the game was that the Packers would win going away. I kept scratching my head at that. When I predicted the Packers pulling out a close victory (31-27), I was putting on a brave face, but inside, I feared Kurt Warner. In my mind, a close win would be the best case scenario. Packer fans kept telling me it wouldn't be that close. I wanted to believe, I really did.

Yet I feared that Warner would pick apart the Packers secondary like he did the Vikings secondary in week 13, the last meaningful game the Cardinals had played. Although his numbers in that game came nowhere near those from this past weekend's spectacle, I gained a healthy respect for his decision-making and timing. Kurt Warner delivers the ball to the right receiver, at the right time and in the right spot.

Enter the Packers secondary, an injury-depleted and seemingly easily-confused mish-mosh of over-rated players and waiver-wire pickups. There, I said it. Excluding, of course, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson. Can you picture the Packers secondary without him?

Certainly, Kurt Warner and Ken Wisenhunt's eyes must have popped out like Marty Feldman's when they studied Packers game films. There was plenty there for them to like. From a supposed All-Pro safety that will make the occasional big play but struggles with consistency to the infamous Jarret Bush, helplessly chasing after his man while trying to locate the ball. Throw in the suspiciously disappearing Atari Bigby, athletic but mentally unprepared Brandon Underwood, and just not NFL-caliber Matt Giordano, and there was bound to be a Cardinal party in the Packers defensive backfield.

The only hope for the Packers, of course, would be to make Kurt Warner uncomfortable. But it had to happen from the base defense, which the Packers have not been able to do against quality opponents. With the 4-5 receiver sets the Cardinals dialed up, blitzing a DB was not a good option. Blitzing another linebacker may have helped, if the Packers had a linebacker besides Clay Matthews that can get to the quarterback. Unfortunately, they don't.

Career Stats:
Barnett 15 sacks - 7 years
Hawk 8.5 sacks - 4 years
Chillar 7.5 sacks - 6 years

WIthout the ability to put real pressure on Warner, the Packers were forced to mostly play their nickel and dime packages, putting the defense's fate in the hands of the secondary. It was a lose-lose proposition.

I expected the Packers offense to be able to put up enough points to win the game, and certainly 45 points would normally qualify. And yet, it wasn't enough. Plenty of fingers are being pointed. The fault lies with Dom Capers, Aaron Rodgers turnovers, the referees, Nick Barnett, Jarret Bush, etc.

But there's really only one man to blame for this loss; The man who once before threw 5 TDs in a playoff game, the man with a 9-3 playoff record, the man with the second best playoff QB rating in NFL history; Kurt Warner, the quiet desert assassin who always saves his best for the big games.

And yes, his bust will one day reside in Canton.

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You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: Jersey Al’s Blog, Packer Chatters , Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown and Bleacher Report. Al is the Green Bay Packers Draft Correspondent for Drafttek.com

You can also follow Jersey Al on facebook and twitter.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reflecting on the Green Bay Packers 2009 Season: Potential Realized



Looking back on the Green Bay Packers 2009 season, I would call it a season of fulfilled potential. Yearning to bounce back from a 6-10 record in 2008, the Packers seemed to have all their ducks in a row. An excellent draft, outstanding preseason and a supposedly easy schedule over the first half of the season.

I, for one, predicted a 2009 wild-card berth with a record of 10-6 or 11-5, expecting the Packers to be 7-1 or 6-2 at the halfway point, and then struggling with the tougher half of their schedule. Well, we all know the Packers chose to flip my prediction upside down. I suppose it all makes sense now, taking into account the time needed for the Packers defense to become fully comfortable with their new defensive packages. I considered that at the time, but the early schedule just looked so EASY. Haha...

But regardless of how they got there, the Packers are 11-5 and in the playoffs. And to think, they are just one final-second play from being 12-4 and having won 8 games in a row. A truly remarkable turnaround to their season that all started with that "Come to Jesus" meeting after the Tragedy in Tampa that broke the spirit of even the most die hard Packer fans (like this writer).

In the weeks prior to the Tampa game, I had written about what I perceived as Mike McCarthy's lack of command over his team. There was talk about poor practices, the plethora of penalties, lack of discipline and most importantly, lack of accountability. But nothing changed in Packerland. The Tampa debacle proved that unequivocally.

Former players like Leroy Butler and Gilbert Brown spoke out and were critical of how the team was being coached and handled. Packers president Mark Murphy even went public with harsh comments about how disappointed he was that the Packers were only 4-4.

Fortunately, instead of waiting for McCarthy to act, the players decided to take matters into their own hands. With a brutally honest meeting that singed quite a few eyebrows, the players reclaimed their pride and took their season back.

A few weeks before, Ted Thompson had made two moves that helped facilitate the turnaround. During the bye week, Thompson brought back veteran Mark Tauscher. Nobody was sure how much he would be able to contribute on the field, but even if his injury lingered, "Tausch" would be a great presence in the locker room.

Ten days later, Deshawn Wynn was placed on IR and Thompson signed Ahman Green. Why Ahman Green?, so many people asked (this writer included). Why bypass Kregg Lumpkin on the practice squad to bring in this aging veteran that has been so hobbled by serious injuries?

What did he have left? The answer of course, is "just enough." But more importantly, with the way he carries himself and his work ethic, "Batman" has the utmost respect of the Packer players.

So when the Tragedy in Tampa went down, I believe that having these two warriors on the team and in the locker room contributed mightily to the players deciding to put a stop to the poor play and under-achieving. They were two respected players that just wouldn't stand for embarrassing performances.

With red-hot Dallas as the next opponent, things did not look promising for the Packers, even playing at home. It would take a complete and utter all-out performance to beat the streaking Cowboys. Dom Capers recognized this, and realized the defense would have to set the tone in this game.

He unleashed the lions and went after the Boys with aggression. The result was 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and an interception by Charles Woodson that would be the dagger right through the star on the Dallas Cowboys Helmets, as eloquently stated by Wayne Larrivee in what I think is the top announcer moment of the year. Listen to it here (personally, I never get tired of it).

The season was reborn. The offensive line stabilized with Tauscher back, Clifton healthy again, and Scott Wells bringing his unappreciated talents back to the OL. And let me say right here, I was one of those people who did not think all that highly of Scott Wells. Perhaps I drank the "Jason Spitz is bigger and meaner and better than Wells" Kool-Aid. But watching Wells more closely, I have come to appreciate his smarts out on the field. Wells will point out blocking assignments if he feels a potential blitz coming and there has undoubtedly been less confusion on the line as the season has progressed.

On the defensive side, Dom Capers gave more and more responsibility to Clay Matthews and he soaked it up like a roll of Bounty paper towels, finishing the season with 10 sacks. With Al Harris out, Capers blitzed Charles Woodson less and instead started using him to personally shut down opponents' best receivers. Brad Jones filled in for the injured Aaron Kampman and did not look like a 7th round draft pick. Truth be told, he has probably played as well as Kampman was playing in that position.

The Packers were rolling when they traveled to Pittsburgh to meet the World Champion Steelers. I believe this was the second-most significant game of the Packers season (after the Dallas game). Despite a heart-breaking loss, I think the Packers proved to themselves that they were a resilient team that never quits and are capable of beating anyone. I firmly believe losing certain games in certain ways to certain opponents can be as much of a confidence boost as a big win. I'm convinced the Packers came out of that game with some swagger, a chip on their shoulder and a new resolve to always play to their potential.

And I think that's what we've seen. A season of fulfilled potential. Let the playoffs begin!

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You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: Jersey Al’s Blog, Packer Chatters , Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown and Bleacher Report. Al is the Green Bay Packers Draft Correspondent for Drafttek.com

You can also follow Jersey Al on facebook and twitter.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Green Bay Packers' 2009 Turning Point Was a "Come to Jesus" Moment



It was Monday, Nov. 9 at 2:25 PM. The "Tragedy in Tampa" had occurred less than 24 hours ago. The Packers offense had just finished watching the film of that very ugly game. More sacks. More penalties. More of the poor and inconsistent play that had plagued them all season. Everyone was disgusted. Veteran players stood up individually and spoke to the entire team, including coaches.

Donald Driver, Aaron Rodgers, Mark Tauscher, and others had their say. Donald Driver had some of the more powerful words: "If we don't win - and I mean now - they are going to fire all of our (butts) at the end of the season," Driver said. "I'm serious."

Daryn Colledge called it a "Come to Jesus" meeting. Whatever it was called at the time, you can now call it the "Turning Point."

As Greg Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote at the time, "If the foundering Green Bay Packers go on a long-shot run to the playoffs in the second half of the season, the record will show the resurrection started at approximately 2:25 p.m. Monday." How prescient those words were.

The Green Bay Packers have spoken to us through their play in the last few games. Against Pittsburgh, they showed us that they have enough talent to play with any team. Going into Pittsburgh in December to play a wounded and desperate Steelers team surely would not end well.

And while in one way it didn't, I think the fact that Pittsburgh needed every last second and a moment of pass-completion perfection to pull out a win, actually empowered the Packers and improved their confidence as a team. Sure it was heartbreaking to lose like that, but knowing how hard the Super Bowl champions had to fight to beat them, the Packers could only be impressed with their progress as a team. If I were a Packers player, that's how I would have felt.

The Steelers loss also put the onus on the Packers to win the next game. If they were really serious about making the playoffs (I know that sounds silly, but look at the Giants yesterday), they would need to come out and beat an inferior opponent. The Packers spoke to us in this game with their relentlessness, avoiding the poor third-quarter play they have exhibited in recent games.

More specifically, in their last seven games (starting with the Tampa debacle), the Packers had been shut out in six of those third quarters. Allowing teams to stay close is never a good idea, even though they prevailed in five of those games.

But against Seattle, the Packers did what they could have been expected to do. They dominated an inferior opponent from start to finish. The Packer offense scored at least 10 points in every quarter, quickly fixed a few rough spots at the beginning of the game, protected Rodgers, and only committed three penalties.

The Packers defense did yield almost 300 yards to the Seahawks, but as I wrote in the preseason, this is a defense that will live and die by the big play/turnover. Zero turnovers and a ton of yardage relinquished to the Steelers equated to a heartbreaking loss. Four turnovers and an inferior opponent like the Seahawks equated to a blowout, despite giving up almost 300 net yards.

From the rubble of that horrible loss in Tampa, the Packers rose up, dusted themselves off and found a new focus and new reason for being—a desperation drive to make the playoffs. I have talked with many people who feel that football players don't need any external motivation; because they are pros, they should be able to motivate themselves. I've never subscribed to that theory, especially in football.

Seems to me that a little "Come to Jesus" kick in the ass was just what the Packers needed.

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You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: Jersey Al’s Blog, Packer Chatters , Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown and Bleacher Report. Al is the Green Bay Packers Draft Correspondent for Drafttek.com

You can also follow Jersey Al on facebook and twitter.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

TGIF: Green Bay Packers New Go-to Guy, Jermichael Finley



As the 2009 Packers season plays out, and yet another football lands in the hands of the Packers #88, I've adopted a new twist on a popular acronym:

TGIF - Thank God It's Finley...

Packers GM Ted Thompson's 2008 draft will never be featured at the top of his resume. Jordy Nelson, Brian Brohm and Patrick Lee were the first three picks of that draft. While I like Nelson, and think he will develop into a very useful receiver, Brian Brohm was a certified bust from day one and Patrick Lee is just one more injury away from being called the same. But Thompson did uncover a hidden gem in that draft. In the third round (pick 91) Thompson selected a young underclassman from the University of Texas.

After less than two full seasons, it's not a stretch to say that Jermichael Finley could turn out to be the steal of the entire 2008 draft.

Finley played only two seasons at Texas, and after only 26 games, he was already the 3rd all-time receiving tight end in Texas history. A father of two children, yet essentially still a kid (Finley turned 21 just before the 2008 Draft), Finley felt the need to move on to life's next challenge.

The Packers first took notice of Finley a week before the NFL combine. Said tight ends coach Bob McAdoo, "When you start watching guys, obviously you look for things you can't coach, and I think he has a few of those qualities. He's someone who was intriguing the minute you turned the tape on."

Finley did not do particularly well at the combine, running only a 4.82 in the 40 yard dash. That and his limited experience scared off a lot of NFL teams, but not the Packers. They went into the draft prepared to take him with the second of their two second-round picks, but when Brian Brohm and Patrick Lee "fell into their laps" (collective groan from Packers fans...), the Packers plans were sidetracked. Luckily, the Packers found Finley still waiting for them in the third round, and now a lot of other NFL GMs are kicking themselves.

As a rookie for the Packers, Finley's athleticism and potential was apparent to everyone. But at 21 years old, Finley was the youngest player on the Packers and at times, appeared overwhelmed by the whole experience. His immaturity showed as he made some some ill-advised comments to the media, complaining about passes not being where he wanted them.

In the last two games of the 2008 season, he flashed some of that potential. He caught passes for 35 yards and 26 yard gains, and caught his first NFL career touchdown. Throughout it all, he worked as hard as anyone in practice, and impressed coaches with his passion for the game.

As the 2009 training camp progressed, Finley opened eyes all around. Aaron Rodgers called him "unguardable." Coach Mike McCarthy said Finley's blocking skills had improved to the point where he can be used in any formation and for any role.

Packers GM Ted Thompson said, "Historically the tight end has been huge in the classic West Coast offenses and I think sometimes we've gotten away from that a little bit. The idea is to get back to using those guys. It's difficult for defensive backs. Your skill guys outside are busy trying to handle [Donald] Driver and [Greg] Jennings."

For his part, Finley would say, "I'm just excited and confident with what I'm about to get into. When I was at Texas, I used to look at Texas Tech's [passing scheme] and say, 'Man, I would love to have that offense.' And now, basically, it's come true. I'm just going to love it this year when the real games come."

Well, Finley's wish has been granted. As the season has progressed, Coach McCarthy has proven to be comfortable with using Finley inside, in the slot and out wide. The match-up nightmares created for opposing defenses have resulted in a bigger role for Finley. After returning from missing 3 games with a sprained knee, Finley has had more balls thrown to him and caught more passes than any other Packer.

During the Packers recent winning streak, one thing has stood out to me on offense. I believe we are seeing Finley become Aaron Rodgers' "go-to" guy. On key downs, Rodgers has looked for Finley with great success. Every great quarterback has one guy that is his security blanket. The guy he can always look for when things are breaking down. The guy he can always depend on to have a mismatch with a defender. Finley could be that guy.

"He's done a great job for us," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He really adds an extra dimension to our offense and opens things up for Greg and Donald and James. Having Jermichael out there just gives us another weapon. You have to kind of figure out how you're going to guard him."

What the Packers need to figure out now, is that Finley should be the answer to their Red Zone issues. As Leroy Butler recently said, "When you get to the 20-yard line, that's when No. 88 should get every ball. Jermichael Finley is a bad match-up for every defensive back and linebacker in the National Football League. You have to figure out ways to get him the ball."

Pretty high praise from a Packers legend about a kid who is only 22 years old and should still be a senior in college. It seems apparent to me that the Packers may have hit the proverbial home run with Jermichael Finley. He's an All-Pro in the making and for many years to come, after yet another big play by Jermichael Finley, we should all be saying:

TGIF - Thank God It's Finley.

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You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: Jersey Al’s Blog, Packer Chatters , Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown and Bleacher Report. Al is the Green Bay Packers Draft Correspondent for Drafttek.com

You can also follow Jersey Al on facebook and twitter.