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.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Green Bay Packers Running Back Ryan Grant Just Can't "Cut" It.


It was July 2007, "The Summer of Favre," yet with all the attention being given to that PR nightmare, Ryan Grant wanted a little attention too. Five months after the Packers had told Grant and his agent that they would "take care of their own" and sign him to a new contract, Grant was a holdout.

There were angry words from Grant's agent. "It's insulting," agent Alan Herman said of the offer he received from negotiator Russ Ball, "Ryan Grant gave them a running game last year. They know what he can do."

Somehow, what was shaping up to be a contentious negotiation and a long holdout was resolved only a week later, as the two sides agreed on a four year contract. Packer fans everywhere rejoiced. The dynamic running back that had gained over 900 yards for the Packers over the last 10 games of the 2007 season was in the fold.

He's never been the same since.

What Ryan Grant is now, is an example of an incredibly inconsistent NFL running back. He's inconsistent from season to season, game to game, quarter to quarter, even play to play.

I believe it comes down to this: Ryan Grant can only gain significant yards when he has a well-defined hole in sight. Give him a nice big seam that he can run through and he'll slash through the hole with aggression. Give him an offensive lineman or two that have been stood up in his path and he just can't adjust. He doesn't have the ability to make sharp cuts and change direction with speed.

For some proof, lets go to the visual aids:

ryan_grant_1a

This was the play where Grant appeared to have fumbled until he was saved by a replay challenge. It's evident above that the Packers left side of the line loses the line of scrimmage battle and allow themselves to get pushed back a yard or two. Grant sees this. In this picture you can see him trying to stop himself. Because of the unblocked corner, bouncing outside is not an option.

ryan_grant_2a

Conversely, as you can see in the picture above, the right side of the Packers line has done a good job. They've gotten a push, are holding their blocks, there is room for Grant to run. I'm not saying it would be a big gain, but certainly there is room to the right and none to the left.

I give Grant credit for seeing it and attempting to get over there, unfortunately, he doesn't have the ability to do it. His attempted cut takes him right up behind his blockers and within easy reach of the defenders.

ryan_grant_3a

The end result, as you can see above, becomes a two yard loss and near fumble.

Folks, Ahman Green makes that cut. Brandon Jackson makes that cut. Even Kregg Lumpkin makes that cut. Possibly Deshawn Wynn makes that cut (ah, maybe not). But without a doubt, Ryan Grant can NOT make that cut.

Ryan Grant is a fine running back if your offensive line is dominating the line of scrimmage. That hasn't happened very often this year. In my opinion, Ryan Grant is just not the right running back for the Green Bay Packers. I've written about this before and nothing has transpired to change my mind.

As I was watching the Ravens game, it occurred to me that Grant seems to get stopped for zero or negative yardage more than any other NFL running back I've seen. Was this just my imagination? Was my perception fantasy or reality. This inquiring mind had to know.

I went back to the Baltimore game stats and charted Grant's runs. He gained 41 yards on 18 carries for a poor 2.3 yard per carry average. But more importantly, take a look at his 18 runs. Here are the yards per carry on each one:

-1, 3, 2, -1, 7, 0, 8, 2, 0, 4, 0, 8, 4, 2, 3, 3, 4, 3, -1

Besides being about as inconsistent as they could be, let's look closer at these numbers. Six runs (33%) went for zero gain or a loss. Nine runs (50%) went for 2 yards or less. A running back like that is what you call a drive killer. If Aaron Rodgers wasn't seemingly unconscious on third downs, Grant's performance would have manifested itself in more Jeremy Kapinos punts, certainly not what the Packers want.

Conversely, Ahman Green did what Ahman Green does, gain positive yardage. Despite my pleading with Mike McCarthy through my television set, and much to my chagrin, Green was only given five handoffs during the Ravens game. His yards per carry were as follows:

4, 4, 8, 5, 2

Sure this is too small a sample to be definitive, but throughout Ahman Green's career, one thing has been definitive - he consistently gains positive yardage. Consistency that Ryan Grant does not have. Green is rarely stopped for no gain or a loss. He finds a way to make something out of nothing. Consistently.

Of Ahman Green I say, "Give him the damn ball".

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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 3, 2009

Packers Vs. Ravens: Q & A With Ravens Writer And Author John Eisenberg


As the Green Bay Packers prepare to meet the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night, I felt the need to get the inside scoop on the Ravens from someone in the know. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview John Eisenberg, a long-time Baltimore sportswriter and author of seven sports books. John is currently employed by the Ravens organization, writing a regular column for the official team web site.

Also of great interest to Packers fans is John's latest book, "That First Season", about the 1959 Green Bay Packers. Based on new interviews with people who were there, the book recounts how Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay and transformed a downtrodden organization into one of the NFL's greatest dynasties. More about the book later, but first lets get to my question and answer session with John Eisenberg.


Al: Thinking about this Packers - Ravens matchup, I have this uneasy feeling that the Ravens are a team ready to break out with a big game. Looking at the Ravens' record, one thing stands out. The Ravens' 5 losses have come to teams with a combined record of 44-10. The average margin of loss in those games was 4.6 points. Are the Ravens a very good team ready to explode on the unsuspecting Packers?

John: The Ravens are indeed a dangerous team. I don't think anyone relishes playing them. They hit hard and play close games. A couple of late-game gaffes, including a missed field goal by a kicker no longer with them, have kept them from being 8-3 or even better. Having said that, they're also one of the most penalized teams in the league, they've been prone to make key mistakes, and most importantly, their defense, long one of the game's best, is not playing at the same level this year -- still solid but more yielding against both the run and pass. I don't think they will explode on the Packers. And I don't think the Packers are unsuspecting -- they have seen the films of all these brutal games the Ravens play in their division with Pittsburgh and Cincy. I would expect a close, hard-nosed game.


Al: Joe Flacco can expect to see plenty of blitzing from the Packers defense. How would you say he has handled teams that try to rattle him in that way?

John: The Vikings had a lot of luck early in their game with the Ravens by blitzing Flacco. And Pittsburgh had some success last week. Flacco is just in his second year and is still learning about reading defenses and coverages -- sometimes his youth shows. But he is a big guy and not afraid to take a hit. A warning, he gets up and comes back at you. The Vikings had him on the ropes and he directed a huge rally in the fourth quarter and had the game won until Steve Hauschka missed the 44-yard kick -- in a dome, unforgivable. Flaaco's biggest problem right now is a sore ankle that is hampering his mobility and also his throwing mechanics.


Al: The Ravens brought in kicker Billy Cundiff two weeks ago. He has made an immediate impact, making 5 out of 6 field goals against Indianapolis and then kicked a game winner in OT against the Steelers. How much were the Ravens affected by missed field goals in their five losses?

John: Cundiff has provided stability, which the Ravens needed. They took a big gamble and failed by not bringing back Matt Stover, a superb kicker who was getting old but still had it. They thought Hauschka could step in with a huge leg, but he was a kid (24) and he crumbled under the pressure. The miss in Minnesota was devastating, and he missed a couple of other key kicks before the Ravens cut him. It is not impossible that Cundiff could eventually struggle, too, but he looks good so far.


Al: Ravens fans have been very critical of head coach John Harbaugh, much like Packer fans were of Mike McCarthy earlier this season. Do you feel he's being out coached during games and is the criticism warranted?

John: The fans are rightfully upset with all the penalties, which indicate a lack of discipline that falls on the shoulders of the head coach. And he has had problems with time management, timeouts and challenges. But he isn't really taking that much heat. Cam Cameron runs the offense and Greg Mattison runs the defense. Mattison is taking more heat than Harbaugh because the defense has had some problems. Mattison was a longtime college coordinator and some fans don't like his more conservative approach. They long for the days of Rex Ryan, the mad scientist, who brought all kinds of blitzes.


Al: Having followed Ray Rice at Rutgers, I was very high on him coming into the NFL draft. The Ravens grabbed Rice in the second round, one pick before the Packers made their ill-fated selection of Brian Brohm. I have often wondered if the Packers would have taken Rice if the Ravens didn't. I consider Rice a future Pro Bowler. Do you agree and what problems do you think he presents for the Packer defense?

John: The Ravens drafted Rice, but like every team, had no idea he would be this good, especially so soon. They thought they were set at running back with Willis McGahee but Rice has made Willis expendable. He can run and catch, and makes a ton of yards after the first hit. He has been a huge playmaker. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the Pro Bowl this year -- he deserves it. He will present the Packers the same problem he has presented every opponent -- with his strength and low center of gravity, he is elusive in traffic, has a knack for getting through scrums.


Al: How did the Ravens come out of the Pittsburgh game injury-wise? Will any starters be out for the Packers game? Is Terrell Suggs expected back?

John: The Ravens are banged up. I realize that is true for every team this time of year, but the Ravens have issues. Flacco is playing on a sore ankle that is having an impact. Their best defense defensive player, Haloti Ngata, is also playing on a sore ankle that has made him less effective. Suggs is questionable, and if he plays, won't be 100 percent. Starting cornerback Fabian Washington is out for the season, but the rookie who replaced him, Lardarius Webb, had a great game against the Steelers. Webb is a classic Raven, a third-round pick from a little school who plays tough.


Al: In your opinion, what are the three main things the Packers will have to do to beat the Ravens?

John:

1. Run the ball. It can be done against the Ravens this year, as opposed to years past, and it throws the defense off.

2. Pass the ball down field. The Ravens are susceptible to big plays in the secondary.

3. Don't make mistakes. The Ravens tend to make their share -- penalties and turnovers. If you don't give the game away, you're halfway there.

That concluded my interview with John Eisenberg. I find it interesting that the three things John mentioned as keys for beating the Ravens are all things the Packers have had issues with. Running the ball successfully has been a problem until just recently. Being able to throw downfield, of course, depends on the offensive line's ability to protect Aaron Rodgers. Excessive penalties have been a recurring problem for the last three seasons.

Personally, I think the performance of the offensive line will be the key for this game. Can they open some holes for Ryan Grant to keep the Ravens defense honest? Can Rodgers be given enough time to pick apart the Raven's struggling secondary or will he spend the evening fearing for his life? The answers to those questions will most likely determine the outcome.

Getting back to John's book, the full title is "That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory". It is interesting to note that John grew up in Dallas and was a Cowboys fan during the 50’s. He jokingly says that the Green Bay Packers “ruined his childhood.” But you would never know that from reading his book.

I am personally about halfway through the book and have found it both entertaining and informative. I rate it a “must-read” for anyone interested in the Green Bay Packers or NFL history, in general.

Thank you, John, for the interview and enjoy the game!

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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.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Packer Transplants Live Blog - Dec 1st