• In case you missed them…

MVP – a Mighty Vexing Proposition


Rodgers and Peterson

@BreakTheHuddle

Excerpt:

“In the interest of full disclosure (and before I lose my Minnesota-centric audience) let me insist that I’m doing my best to speak as an unbiased observer, and not merely a (spiteful) Packer fan. If you stick around, you’ll find I am just as critical of the award Rodgers won in 2011 as I am of the Peterson/Manning dual candidacy of 2012. The fact that Rodgers isn’t even in the discussion as a viable candidate says a lot about how sportswriters and other prominent NFL pundits think, and trying to peel back the layers can teach us a thing or two about the problems with the process.”

Link to full article:

http://breakthehuddle.com/?p=1648

Hateful Respect


A Packer fan comes to terms with the sublime brilliance of Adrian Peterson

@BreakTheHuddle

—————————————–

“What you did was very spiteful, but it was also very brave and very honest and I respect you for doing that. But the content of what you said has made me hate you. So there’s a layer of respect, admittedly, for your truthfulness, but it’s peppered with hate. Hateful respect.” – Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), ‘Get Him to the Greek’

—————————————–

Peterson Run

Adrian Peterson used the jumbotron at Lambeau Field to see if any Packers were closing in at the end of his 82 yard touchdown scamper on December 2nd. Even if they had been, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

As much as it pains me to admit it – I love watching Adrian Peterson play football. I don’t particularly enjoy when he plays against the Green Bay Packers, and it’s not as though I want the Vikings to win, but when he carries the ball, the sport feels different. A methodical game of ebbs and flows receives a jolt of electricity, everything else stops, and unbridled athletic skill, made manifest in ferocious determination and desire, is embodied in number 28 in the purple helmet.

When the blocks are lined up, and Peterson hits a hole in stride, there’s a sound that happens in a crowded room of people watching the game. If it’s a group of Vikings fans, there’s excited chatter, followed by shouts, followed by the usual pleas and unnecessary reminders (“GO! RUN! GO!”). If it’s a group of opposing fans, there’s a noise not unlike that of air being let out of a balloon, a gasp, a collective muttering of “fuuuuuuuuuuu…” under the breath. Heck, even when he doesn’t get blocks – even when he’s wrapped up, and he’s going down, he never seems down. It’s possible he’ll toss a grown man aside like a plaything and keep chugging along. Or if it’s late in a game, and you need to stop him on a third down – and you stand him up at the line of scrimmage – there he is, again, somehow forcing his way through, diving across the “unofficial” yellow first down line.

Even if you’re a Packer fan who loathes everything about the Minnesota Vikings –their dumpy stadium, the obnoxious color scheme and fight song, their woefully irrational radio play-by-play announcer, as well as that infernal horn that sounds after each first down – you ought to learn to appreciate Adrian Peterson. Other than possessing a lead foot[i] and occasionally being tardy[ii], the guy’s done nothing to incur your wrath. By all accounts, he’s humble, kind and the hardest working man in football.

Paul Allen

Paul Allen: The Unofficial Spokesman for Cheesehead Schadenfreude since 2000.

Now he’s on a historical run, a quest to break the NFL’s all-time record for rushing yards in a single season. Considering the fact that he began the season at less than 100%, and that his workload was reduced in weeks one through six, this might be the most remarkable individual feat in NFL history. After all, he eclipsed the century mark in rushing just once in the Vikings’ first six contests, and according to Vikings beat writer Tom Pelissero, was unable to make lateral cuts as recently as October 7th.[iii]

My appreciation for Peterson is not a symptom of Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a sign that I’m slowly losing my love for the green and gold. I’ll argue with anyone who says Peterson’s the best ever (more on that in a minute) and I still take great delight in Viking maladies… especially watching Christian Ponder play quarterback. Since I moved to Minnesota, I’ve been immersed in the cult of AP, but I haven’t participated – merely observed, and appreciated the talent. Nothing more.

Part of this appreciation comes from the random, historical nuggets that can be uncovered when discussing Peterson’s recent 8-game run of dominance. To wit: in 1998, Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin of the New York Jets rushed for 1,287 yards on 369 carries and scored 8 touchdowns, all over a full 16 game season. In his past 8 games, Peterson has rushed for more yards (1,313) and scored more touchdowns (9) on FEWER THAN HALF AS MANY RUSHING ATTEMPTS (176).

He has exactly as many yards in his past 8 games as Arian Foster has gained on the entire season. His average of 129.4 yards per game is the sixth best single season mark of all time – and all of the top five players in that category (O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson, again) completed their feats before Adrian was born in 1985. Even if his pace “slows back down” to his season average, he’ll still break the record; if he continues at his recent clip, he’ll obliterate it.

His production has him in the hunt for several awards. I don’t know if the ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ award can be split between two players, like the MVP award can, but it should be given equally to Peterson and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. I can’t pick between the two. If they want, the NFL can go ahead and skip the award next year to compensate – shoot, they can just cancel it after this. One of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time, as well as the best running back in the NFL, returned from potentially career-threatening injuries in the same season. Nothing as impressive as that will ever happen again.

As for the MVP… that’s an entire column unto itself, and in the coming weeks, you’ll get plenty of chatter about that from folks who are far smarter and more passionate about it than I am. Suffice it to say, he’s in the mix – an impressive feat for any running back in today’s pass-happy NFL.

There’s also chatter that this season is proof that Peterson is the best halfback to ever play the game. Before I comment, here’s a chart of the other running backs in AP’s stratosphere, with production through their first six seasons, to show you how they compare with the Vikings’ star:

Rushing G Att Yds Avg Td Yds/G
Eric Dickerson 90 2136 9915 4.6 75 110.2
Jim Brown[iv] 90 1790 9322 5.2 82 103.6
LaDainian Tomlinson 95 2050 9176 4.5 100 96.6
Emmitt Smith 93 2007 8956 4.5 96 96.3
Barry Sanders 89 1763 8672 4.9 62 97.4
Adrian Peterson 87 1695 8564 5.1 75 98.4
Walter Payton 89 1865 8386 4.5 65 94.2

The gentlemen listed above are, in some order, the greatest running backs in NFL history.[v] Peterson will add to his total yardage in this season’s final two games, surpassing Barry Sanders (whose overall numbers are remarkably similar). He’s also second in yards per carry and third in yards per game. A common argument derived from these factors goes like this: “Peterson’s playing in the wrong era – he’s a dominant back at a time when passing is more prevalent than ever. If he had been around two decades, or even one decade earlier, his numbers would look like Eric Dickerson’s.”

There are two problems with this line of thinking – first of all, rushing statistics haven’t dipped significantly in recent seasons. In fact, they’ve been stagnant ever since 1990, when Barry Sanders was in his second season and Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson had yet to wear an NFL uniform. Teams are not running the ball less often than they did before – though the ratio of runs to passes has certainly shifted in favor of the aerial attack.[vi]

So the same number of rushing attempts are available to running backs… but nowadays, of course, multiple backs from each team get the carries. This makes the evaluation of Peterson tricky – while he’s the closest thing we have to an “old-school” bell cow, he’s kept fresher by the newfangled strategy of “running back by committee.” That’s the second issue with the argument that AP is the best ever – he was kept fresh by his backups. We can’t merely extrapolate his numbers and assume he’d have reached 10,000 yards on 2,000 carries. It doesn’t work like that.

And while it’s superficially stunning to consider how good Peterson’s been despite the futility of Minnesota’s passing attack, in historical terms, it’s hardly unique. It’s important to note that O.J. Simpson, especially, was stuck with putrid signal callers for much of his career. In Simpson’s all-time best 1973 campaign, Buffalo’s run-to-pass ratio was 605-to-213. You think defenses didn’t know that number 32 was going to get the ball?

A more modern example, LaDainian Tomlinson, had the following quarterbacks at the start of his career: Washed Up Doug Flutie, Drew Brees Before He Was Really Drew Brees, Ancient Doug Flutie, Almost the Great Drew Brees, and Rookie Philip Rivers. Sounds pretty comparable to Peterson’s list: Decent Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte For Some Reason, Vengeful Brett Favre, Post-Sexting Scandal Brett Favre, Fat Donovan McNabb, and Christian Steele-Ponder.

Speaking of Tomlinson, there’s also the problem of pass-catching for Adrian Peterson, shown in the following chart:

Receiving Rec Yds Avg Td
LaDainian Tomlinson 398 2900 7.3 11
Emmitt Smith 301 1951 6.5 4
Barry Sanders 210 1782 8.5 6
Walter Payton 202 1791 8.9 5
Jim Brown 192 1831 9.5 14
Adrian Peterson 175 1520 8.7 3
Eric Dickerson 172 1422 8.3 3

Some don’t like including receiving statistics in the evaluation of running backs – but it’s an integral part of playing the position. In this respect, Peterson’s output is pedestrian, especially in comparison with Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson.

I’m not ready to stand on the table and say, definitively, that I know who the best running back of all-time is. What I do know is this – it’s not Adrian Peterson, and there’s no shame in that. Tomlinson, Simpson, Brown and (maybe) Eric Dickerson are ahead of him. At least, that’s what the numbers say to me.

At the same time, I realize that football isn’t played in statistical models or football-reference websites. The point of sports is to watch the games, to get excited, to appreciate the subtleties and debate about intangibles. I am too young to remember Simpson or Dickerson, and Brown played before most of the games were even caught on film. LaDainian Tomlinson never scared me the way Adrian Peterson scares me. The numbers might say he was better – I’m afraid my eyeballs tell another story.

The tug-of-war between the objective and subjective forces in our brains is part of what makes discussing and writing about sports so much fun. We (usually) get the fun payoff of debating without devolving into the partisan bickering that any political discussion inevitably descends into. Black and white facts stack up against full-color replays, and we’re left to sort through it all. Do you think Peterson’s the best of all time? Well, he scares the BeJesus out of me, so I guess I see your point.

I guess there’s no harm in saying he “could” be. His career isn’t finished, yet. He could be like Earl Campbell and simply wither away at 29, beaten and bruised and used. Or he could be Emmitt Smith, productive and remarkably healthy until he’s in his late 30s. The debate will rage for years to come, and he’ll be a source of pride for Minnesotans, and a source of envy for those of us who love the Green and Gold.

How should Packer fans handle it? It’s not like the Vikings are a threat to Green Bay’s standard for success – Lombardi Trophies. A team whose best player is a running back can’t win the Super Bowl anyway; what harm is there in letting our poor, snakebitten rivals to the west have a little fun now and again?

Hopefully, Packer and Viking fans both found something they loved and loathed about what I’ve said, here. It’s possible to feel both at the same time, you know.

Hateful respect.*

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below

*One more thing. Every nice thing I said about Adrian Peterson is hereby null and void if his urine or blood is ever found to be dirty in the teeniest, tiniest sense. I might appear to be a rational fan, full of respect for a truly wonderful player on my favorite team’s arch rival, but if he’s on horse steroids or HGH I will unload self-righteous hell on every purple-wearing Minnesotan dumb enough to come within earshot. Not that I think he’s using, or anything…


[iv] This is actually Jim Brown’s first seven seasons – since they played only 14 games per year back then, it helps the math work out a little better.

[v] O.J. Simpson didn’t fit neatly into the chart because he had an odd career; he followed three seasons as a backup with six transcendent years (which included 1973, the greatest season by a running back, ever) and finished his career with three injury-riddled years. His “apex” numbers would’ve slotted him just ahead of Barry Sanders – 87 games, 1800 rushes, 8849 yards, 4.9 yards per attempt, and 46 touchdowns on 101.6 yards per game. He also had the best statistical season of all-time by a running back, in 1973.

[vi] It’s worth mentioning two other small points – first, the average gain per rushing attempt is at an all-time high this season, and second, this rushing success likely has something to do with the fact that contact practices are limited, and tackling technique has gone the way of the dodo bird. I wanted to include this in the article, but it seemed too “hater-ific” and I chickened out. Oh, well. It made it into a footnote.

Black and Blue Snooze


Examining the problems with Thursday Night Football

@BreakTheHuddle

Naturally, the week I plan on writing about how lousy the Thursday Night games are, the Thursday Night game is a good one (Falcons – Saints).

On November 30th, 2006, Cincinnati hosted Baltimore in the rebooted version of ‘Thursday Night Football.’ It was a rather ignominious start – the Bengals emerged victorious from the 13-7 clunker, a rather dull affair that featured 29 total first downs and a 6-0 halftime score. But the new reality was born. The NFL’s quest to dominate every free evening of the week had begun.

Contrary to popular belief, the NFL did not concoct the new scheduling wrinkle out of nowhere; the league has a long history of non-Thanksgiving Thursday games. From 1978-86, at least one game was played on Thursday, and in many seasons upwards of three took place. It was retired from 1987-89 but returned in 1991, with one game in Week 7 and a second one the week after Thanksgiving (most seasons).

In 2002, the NFL did away with the Thursday games save for the season opener (and Thanksgiving contests in Dallas and Detroit, of course). A year later, NFL Network was born, a cable channel owned, operated and managed by the 32 NFL ownership groups. It was a matter of time before it began broadcasting regular season games, the crème de la crème of sports programming.  In 2006, that’s precisely what happened.

Since then, games on Thursday night have increased from four (’06 and ’07) to six (’08 through ’11) to where it stands in 2012, with thirteen Thursday night games (weeks two through fifteen, with only the Thanksgiving games exempted). The league was obviously hoping to expand its brand into a new, dynamic, prime-time slot. Instead, what it’s gotten are gripes from fantasy owners, troubled with making lineup changes mid-week, pick-em league operators, forgetful of the new “early” deadline, and those without NFL Network on their cable or satellite package.

In other words, it’s been a difficult first season for the expanded lineup of Thursday Night Football. The previous trial runs (2006 through 2011) were neither lauded nor lamented; this year, however, dissonant voices are speaking up. Radio host Dan Patrick, who’s been the Lombardi Trophy presenter at the Super Bowl in recent years, spoke out in favor of getting rid of the Thursday night games altogether. Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, heavily involved with the issue of player safety for the Players’ Union, was also sharply critical of the expanded Thursday Night Football schedule, saying this:

Fujita

“I think the Thursday night game is one of the worst things you can do for a player’s body. For people who have never played football, I don’t know if they realize how tough it is to come back with three days in between games.”

Anecdotal evidence doesn’t make a solid argument, but here’s some more, just for the heck of it: the past few Thursday night games (Dolphins/Bills, Colts/Jaguars, Chargers/Chiefs) have been duds. Do the statistics bear out the premise that Thursday Night Football has been of a lower quality than the rest of the games? If so, what does this mean for the possibility of NFL scheduling creeping further and further into the work week?

The Numbers

Since the new Thursday Night scheduling system was put into place in 2006, there have been 42 true ‘Thursday Night Football’ games played. This, of course, discounts the season-opening game and the Thanksgiving contests. I made it my goal to find out if the Thursday games were of “lower quality” than the average NFL game.

When I think of a “low quality” game, I think of three things: penalties, turnovers, and garbage time – that is, sloppy play, mistakes, and blowouts. As far as high scoring games, it’s a give-and-take proposition. Some shootouts feel dull, some low-scoring games are exciting – but generally speaking, offense attracts viewers and excites fans. Given the rule changes in the NFL in recent seasons, somebody in the league office agrees with that premise.

First, let’s examine the following chart, which explores penalties and turnovers in Thursday Night games, compared with the league averages in those categories.

 

Penalties / Gm   Turnovers/ Gm  
Year

TNF

All Games

TNF

All Games
2009

11

11.8

2.5

3.4

2010

10.5

12.1

2.3

3.4

2011

12.2

12.8

3.7

3.2

2012

12.2

12.7

3.7

3.2

 

Oddly enough, participants in Thursday night contests have been flagged less often than they are on Sundays – and some years, it’s by a pretty significant margin. In 2010, for instance, there were one and a half fewer yellow flags per game on Thursdays. Without devoting time, energy and intelligence that I don’t possess to figuring out why, I can’t even begin to explain the reasons for fewer flags.

Studying the turnover differential is equally perplexing. In 2009 and 2010, there was an average of one fewer turnover per game. Now, there is half a turnover more. I hate chalking things up to pure coincidence- especially when this much research is involved – but in terms of turnovers and penalties, the Thursday night games are no more or less sloppy than Sunday or Monday night contests.

The scoring figures tell a different story, though.

 

Year NFL AVG PPG TNF PPG Difference
2009

43

38.8

-4.2

2010

44

41.7

-2.3

2011

44.4

37.2

-7.2

2012

46

37

-9

While the margins of victory don’t change much between regular weekend games and Thursday night games (fact: the average margin of victory in the NFL is approximately 12 points) the total points themselves drop significantly. This is probably because coaches barely have time to concoct new schemes or game plans, much less implement them, during a three day work week. Teams with young quarterbacks are really at a disadvantage – and as of now, more than a third of the league is starting rookies or second-year players under center. Veterans can add new wrinkles on the fly, while young guys have to stick with what they know; they are predictable, easier to stop, and thus, offense suffers.

 

What does it mean?

One prevailing theory is that the NFL would like to sell the rights to Thursday night games to a TV partner – if that’s the case, they certainly aren’t doing a very good job of showcasing themselves. The league currently draws more than $3 Billion annually from the TV networks (NBC, CBS, Fox) for the privilege of broadcasting games. Even if the Thursday night games are inferior to the rest, demand is so high that the Thursday night slate would certainly fetch upwards of $700 – $800 million on the open market.

If the NFL does not want to sell off the broadcasting rights, and instead wishes to keep the telecasts in-house on its own network, then why not get itself a better product? One idea is to have an 18 week season, with 16 games, and two bye weeks interspersed throughout. Currently, every team in the NFL is required to get at least one game in “prime-time” per season, an unusually egalitarian move for a league as profit-driven as the NFL obviously is (see: player lockout, 2011; see also: referee lockout, 2012). The Thursday night games could then be effectively managed so they come after a bye week – ten days off before a Thursday night performance, nine days off after.

Would there be a bit of a lag between games? Sure. But if the NFL is actually serious about player safety – and the jury is still out as to whether or not they are – this would go a long way towards helping matters. Perhaps the end game for the NFL is to have football on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday every week. That setup would be great for single guys, terrible for marriages, and make a lot of television money for the league.

The only problem is, under the current conditions, it’d be very difficult to make it work. Four years of evidence suggests offense is down in the Thursday games, and offense is what makes the league popular… and to be honest, Thursday Night Football just doesn’t pass the ‘eye test.’ Everyone looks tired, underprepared, and the road team is at a great disadvantage. A subjective argument such as that one is tepidly employed by yours truly, as I generally like to back my claims with research, but I believe it’s completely valid.

That said, while the games aren’t quite as good, it’s still the NFL, and the NFL is king. Expansion, heightened television exposure, game on more nights during the week – all of it’s on the table, and the reality is, all of it will be in demand. The popularity of the NFL knows no bounds.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

2010 All Over Again?


Superficially, it feels a lot like two years ago for the Green and Gold – but is it?

@BreakTheHuddle

February 6, 2011, was the day the Green Bay Packers capped off their terrific 2010-11 NFL season by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Beset by injuries, the resilient squad went on a remarkable six week run, spanning the final two weeks of the regular season (at home) and four playoff games (all on the road) en route to the franchise’s fourth Lombardi Trophy. It was a magical, unexpected and thrilling march to a championship, made all the more incredible in light of the maladies the Packers had to overcome to get there.

Injuries, inconsistency and a brutal schedule down the stretch couldn’t stop Mike McCarthy’s bunch. Sound familiar? For some Packer fans, the similarities between the current Packer incarnation and the World Champion 2010 version are uncanny, unmistakable and even cause for optimism. But so much has changed in 21 months – gas back then was $3.17 per gallon. Now? It’s all the way up to $3.22! Milk was $0.13 cheaper in those halcyon days – and technology misappropriated for sexual purposes was felling quarterbacks rather than four-star generals.

All kidding (and veiled references to Brett Favre’s sexting scandal) aside, the similarities between the fortunes, and play, of the 2010 Packers to the 2012 team are superficial and misleading. The schedule, the offensive line, and the injury issues all appear familiar, but a closer examination reveals the truth – what we are watching in 2012 is very different than two years ago. In some ways better, in some ways worse – but certainly not the same.

The Schedule

Superficial similarities:

YEAR

Record Win Streak Point differential OPP 1-9total win% OPP 10-16 total win%
2010

6-3

3

+78

.465

.589

2012

6-3

4

+52

.549

.552

By this chart, things seem pretty similar – this year looks even more impressive, considering the Packers played a much more difficult schedule in the early part of the season than the 2010 team did. The only teams the Packers have lost to this year – the Colts, 49ers and Seahawks – are possible playoff teams. In 2010, Green Bay dropped games to Washington (on the road) Miami (at home), two postseason nonfactors. So don’t the similar results against stiffer competition bode well for the green and gold?

The reality:

Wins over the Texans (on the road) and the Bears (at home) stand out, but the 2012 schedule is much tougher than 2010. Why? Chicago is only divisional foe the Packers have faced, and the rest of the division is much better than they were in 2010. That season, Green Bay went 4-2 in the NFC North – aided by a bad Vikings team and the scuffling Detroit Lions.

This season, Detroit (though still flawed) is much better than they were two seasons ago. Minnesota is a matchup issue for the Packers and possesses offensive weapons that keep them in any game. Chicago still gets to host Green Bay in the Windy City. It’s not a division of cupcakes in 2012 – rather, the NFC North might be the best division in football. It’ll be a slugfest to the end.

If ten wins is the benchmark to reach for a postseason berth, head-to-head victories mean everything, as several teams (the Seahawks, Buccaneers, Vikings, Packers, maybe even the Saints and Cowboys) have a shot at getting to double digit victories. While the Packers lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Seahawks (a nightmare scenario, should it play out that way), they control their own destiny with the Saints. The other teams (who don’t face Green Bay)- the Buccaneers (4),  and Cowboys (4) –  already have more intra-conference losses than the Pack do.

All that leaves us with is this reality: the ‘Border Battle’ games with the Vikings will be bigger than they have been the past couple of years. It’s always a rivalry game, sure – but this year, postseason berths will be on the line – and this Vikings team is proud, motivated, and talented. Ditto for the Lions – except their coaching is far inferior – and the Bears’ only losses in 2012 have come to the best team in the AFC (the Houston Texans) and, of course, on the road in Lambeau Field.

 

He hasn’t exactly been a Pro Bowler, but Bulaga’s consistency on the right side of the line will be missed.

The Offensive Line

Superficial similarities:

The core of the offensive line remains the same – the two guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and tackle Bryan Bulaga. Add veteran center Jeff Saturday, and progressing youngster Marshall Newhouse rather than the aging Chad Clifton, and this line should be about the same as the one two seasons ago… right?

The reality:

Jeff Saturday, brought in due in large part because of his deft ability to communicate in pass protection, has been abysmal in run blocking – at any rate, he’s been a downgrade from Scott Wells, who departed in free agency. Clifton held on as long as he could, and should go down as one of the most underappreciated Packers of the past decade. His replacement at left tackle, Marshall Newhouse, has been beaten on numerous occasions. Green Bay allows more than 3 sacks per game, a much higher rate than either of the past two seasons.

Sitton and Lang are their usual, reliable, selves – but an injury to Bryan Bulaga, quietly placed on IR this week due to a non-contact injury suffered in the Packers’ victory over the Cardinals, shifts Lang to right tackle and promotes Evan Dietrich-Smith from the bench to left guard. Such shuffling was commonplace on the 2009 offensive front – and results were disastrous, as Aaron Rodgers was sacked a league-leading 50 times that year. Keeping Rodgers healthy the rest of the season is a tall order for a left side of the line as inexperienced as Newhouse and Dietrich-Smith. Speaking of health…

 

All the Injuries

Superficial similarities:

Year # Players on I.R. Starters on I.R. # Players on PUP list
2010

14

7

3

2012

8

4

3

Suffering a rash of cataclysmic injuries, the 2010 Packers, thanks to their organizational depth and savvy moves by General Manager Ted Thompson, stayed afloat. In 2012, pretty much the same thing has happened, right?

The reality:

The six most important people on the 2010 team were, in no particular order, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, Nick Collins, and Charles Woodson. They missed a total of 2 games that season. Combined.

The six most important people on the 2012 team are, in no particular order, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. They have missed a total of 12 games already – only Rodgers and Matthews have been active for every game this season, and after Sunday, it’ll be just #12 (Matthews is likely to miss the game with a hamstring injury).

While nearly a third of the starters from the 2010 team were lost for the year, the core six were very durable, as was the offensive line. This season, there are injuries to the team’s blue-chippers, and the young players normally expected to fill their shoes (Derek Sherrod, Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy) are also dinged up.

The depth of the team, particularly at receiver, is notable, but eventually injuries to the stars and the guys in charge of keeping Rodgers clean will catch up to Green Bay. While there are plenty of injuries, yes, these are different – in 2012, game-changers have been missing time, rather than placeholders.

Superficially…

The Packers will rely on their depth and coaching savvy, not to mention the arm (and feet) of Aaron Rodgers, to a playoff berth, where anything can happen. This is the optimist’s outlook as Week 11 approaches.

In reality…

Important people are hurt. The offensive line is in disarray – one more injury, and the team will be forced to use guys who were undrafted free agents this year (Andrew Datko and Don Barclay). The division is tougher, and five divisional games remain. I’m not saying the Packers won’t make it to the postseason; what I am saying, is, they’ve got a tougher road than many people think. They can’t afford any more injuries, especially on the offensive front. Realists have a grip on the obstacles in front of this team.

One thing both sides can agree on – all that’s important is making it to the postseason, because once it starts, anything can happen. That’s where optimism and realism collides.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

Pinpoint Inaccuracies


Comparing four young signal-callers and dispelling the nonsense surrounding each

@BreakTheHuddle

Shaun King of the Buccaneers was the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game. Now go, impress your friends with what you’ve learned here today! But read the rest of the article first.

Despite the fact that the National Football League is extremely complex, certain buzzwords and sentiments become en vogue and are repeated, endlessly, whether they are true or not. Groupthink begins to take over, churning cycles full of clichés, stereotypes and misleading information into public opinion.

Nowhere is this clearer than the evaluation of young quarterbacks. As a product of the early success of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Andrew Luck, much is immediately expected from the young men playing the most difficult position in sports. One is either a “bum” or a “budding superstar”, depending upon how their last drive ended. The backup quarterback is still a popular man in some NFL cities, despite the fact that few teams are actually making bad long-term decisions at that position.

Nearly one-thirds of the league was using a first-or-second year quarterback as its starter when the 2012 season opened; more than half (17) of the league’s starters have four seasons of experience or fewer. Teams no longer spend time on journeymen veterans, leaving their youngsters holding a clipboard on the sideline; everyone wants to know what they have, and right now.

Comparing quarterbacks can be a tricky endeavor. Even basic statistics can be a bit misleading, and the situation on every team is different. What skill position players does a QB have to work with? How about his offensive line? What schedule has he played, easy defenses, or a lot of tough ones? Yet pundits and casual fans alike love to debate who they like more, Eli or Peyton, Rodgers or Brady, Cutler or Stafford, rarely taking the whole picture into view. Quarterbacks never face one another, head to head, in a vacuum, a la Lebron James and Kobe Bryant on a basketball court. But we persist in cross-referencing one quarterback’s numbers and style with others.

Some comparisons are made because of race, and aren’t necessarily valid (Cam Newton – Robert Griffin III), some are made smartly, because of body size and arm strength (Josh Freeman – Ben Roethlisberger) and some are flat-out hilarious (Tim Tebow throwing left handed – Peyton Manning throwing left-handed). But often it’s the comparison you wouldn’t necessarily consider that can be the most informative.

What follows are two sets of comparisons – and a few conclusions, cautiously drawn from (attempting to) dissect each quarterback’s play from all angles.

COMPARISON ONE:

Quarterback A, 2011-2012: 19 starts, 340/575, 59.1%, 3,659 yards, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions

Quarterback B, 2011-2012: 18 starts, 344/606, 56.8%, 3,961 yards, 14 touchdowns, 13 interceptions

The first guy is clearly better, right?

Quarterback A, 2011-12: 6.4 yards per attempt, 10.8 yards per completion, 76.0 passer rating, 2011 QBR: 33.73, 2012 QBR: 46.84.

Quarterback B, 2011-12: 6.5 yards per attempt, 11.5 yards per completion, 75.4 passer rating, 2011 QBR: 28.58, 2012 QBR: 46.15.

Well, maybe they’re more similar than we thought…

Quarterback A’s offensive line: 18th rated for the run, 32nd for the pass in 2011, 5th and 26th (respectively) in 2012. In 19 career starts, he’s had 8 different linemen blocking for him amid 5 different line configurations. This season, his line has been intact for all nine of his games.

Quarterback B’s offensive line: 30th rated for the run, 28th for the pass in 2011, 16th and 27th (respectively) in 2012. In 18 starts over the past two seasons, 17 different offensive linemen have started a game, amid 10 line configurations. This season, he averages about one new lineman per week.

Are you starting to wonder if QB-B even gets to learn his offensive lineman’s names before a new one comes along?

Quarterback A: 2011 opponents ranked an average of 19.0 on Football Outsiders’ defensive ratings.[i] 2012 opponents, to this point, are at 17.6 – meaning he faces below average defenses on a week-to-week basis.

Quarterback B: 2011 opponents ranked an average of 15.2… and so far this year, the figure is 11.0, meaning he faces above average defenses regularly.

Any guesses as to who they might be?

Quarterback A is Christian Ponder.

Quarterback B is Sam Bradford.

Ponder’s “traditional” statistics are much better than Bradford’s – he has more touchdowns, a higher completion percentage, a better record (7-12 career, whereas Bradford is 4-14 the past two seasons) and more rushing yards (346-87).

But when you factor in all of Ponder’s ancillary advantages – a better (though still mediocre) offensive line, one of the best running backs in football (Adrian Peterson), a dynamic receiver (Percy Harvin) and a toolsy, pass-catching tight end (Kyle Rudolph), he should have much better production than Bradford. The Rams quarterback has been going to battle with the aging Steven Jackson in the backfield, the enigmatic drop machine Lance Kendricks at tight end and a collection of nobodies (save the oft-injured Danny Amendola) at wideout. Bradford’s had three offensive coordinators in his three seasons; Ponder has had one in his two years as the Vikings signal-caller.

The party line coming out of Minnesota this week is that fans need to remain patient with Christian Ponder – that he doesn’t have much to work with. It’s too early to tell if either quarterback is a bust – but Ponder apologists are on shakier ground than they think. Sam Bradford would love to have the toys, and the healthy offensive line, that Ponder gets to play with. It’s fair to say Christian Ponder has been a major disappointment in his second season – and unless he’s playing through an underreported injury, it’s fair to say that he shoulders much of the blame for what’s holding the Vikings back.

Bradford, on the other hand, is beginning to hear it from critics, questioning why he’s being outplayed within his own division by a rookie (Russell Wilson) and a much-maligned quarterback who was once left for dead (Alex Smith). Patience is, perhaps, beginning to run out on Bradford – which is a shame. He’s been dealt a difficult hand – is he the current incarnation of Jason Campbell, a talented guy with terrible luck (coordinators, injuries, etc)? Time will tell if he goes the way of Campbell, who now toils on the Bears’ bench.

The ruling: Ponder deserves more blame, Bradford deserves more time.

Ponder is currently in a relationship with ESPN’s Samantha Steele. He might be a mediocre player on the field, but off of it, he’s on fire!

 

COMPARISON TWO:

Quarterback C, 2012: 8 starts, 182/285, 63.9%, 2,130 yards, 14 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

Quarterback D, 2012: 9 starts, 145/234, 62.0%, 1,639 yards, 13 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

They appear to be a lot alike…

Quarterback C, 2012: 7.5 yards per attempt, 11.7 yards per completion, 86.7 passer rating, QBR: 50.71

Quarterback D, 2012: 7.0 yards per attempt, 11.3 yards per completion, 87.0 passer rating, QBR: 56.85

It’s possible they’re the same person…

Quarterback C: Not drafted in the first round, but immediately started for his team.

Quarterback D: Not drafted in the first round, but immediately started for his team.

Well, that’s just anecdotal evidence, right?

Quarterback C, career (24 games): 60.2% completions, 34 TDs, 24 INTs, 12-12 record.

Quarterback D, career (projected through 24 games): 62.0% completions, 35 TDs, 21 INTs, 13-11 record.

Is it getting creepy, yet?

Any guesses?

Quarterback C is everybody’s favorite ginger, Andy Dalton.

Quarterback D is everybody’s favorite “guy who’s too short to play quarterback”, Russell Wilson.

Physical differences aside, these two have remarkably similar stories, though I have yet to read a comparison between the two from one of the national football writers. They must be too busy comparing Cam Newton to Vince Young[ii] or Phillip Rivers to Dan Marino[iii] or something. Abandon the racial element, gentlemen! Dalton slipped to the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, behind fellow QBs Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. If they could do it over, I’m sure the Panthers would stick with Newton, but the Titans, Jaguars and Vikings might make a different decision.

Dalton led the Cincinnati Bengals to a 9-7 record his rookie season, good enough to earn a playoff berth, the franchise’s 3rd in the past 21 years. This season, despite an offensive line that struggles mightily in pass protection (25th-rated unit by Football Outsiders) his completion percentage and yards per attempt both increased dramatically.

Wilson, listed at 5-11, 204 pounds, played minor league baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization and transferred schools when North Carolina State decided to part ways with him. He led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl berth in 2011, leading the nation in passing efficiency, completing 73% of his passes, and sporting a 33-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio.

Despite his efforts, he slid all the way to the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Though he’s been a tad inconsistent at times, and has had rough stretches, he’s been occasionally transcendent – especially in a 293 yard, 3 TD game against New England and this past Sunday’s 173 yard, 3 TD game against Minnesota. He’s only faced one defense all season outside the top-17 of Football Outsiders’ defensive ranks – meaning his numbers are likely to improve as the schedule gets easier.

The book on both of them seems to be that they are “game managers” – ironic, as Dalton averages more yards per attempt than Drew Brees, and Wilson tops Matthew Stafford in that same category. The downfield accuracy of each will improve with time – and the development of each as franchise quarterbacks from overlooked beginnings is a story that should resonate with NFL fans across the league.

The ruling – give both of them a lot more credit, because they’re pretty good. Also, enough of the Andy Dalton “ginger” jokes… and stop selling Russell Wilson short… get it? Short? Ah, you get the point.

If I haven’t convinced you that these two are remarkably similar… well, you’re probably unable to see past skin color. It has nothing to do with my inability to clearly articulate an argument.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[i] Football Outsiders is an amazing website that utilizes innovative statistics to evaluate and dissect the NFL. In other words, if you’re a football nerd, it’s the perfect site for you: http://footballoutsiders.com/stats/teamdef2012

Fantasy Football Facts, Figures and Folly


Sorting out who’s been dead weight, who’s been great, and who is available to help your team.

@BreakTheHuddle

I never thought I would allow myself to write about fantasy football on this site. There are plenty of bona fide reasons for this – in order:

  1. It’s a terribly clichéd thing to do: “Amateur sportswriter thinks he knows everything about fantasy football!”
  2. My teams are not that good.
  3. My friends know my teams are not that good, and would give me crap for writing about fantasy football when I clearly don’t know much.
  4. It doesn’t appeal to my target audience (sports fans who want to see something satirical, unique or off-the-cuff, and despise the same old “sports talk noise”).
  5. It doesn’t appeal to my actual audience (mostly my relatives, none of whom play fantasy sports, or people who stumble to the site via random Google search, and are here exclusively for the pictures).

Good news is: I don’t take myself too seriously. I am not going to give you any fluff, nor will I B.S. you. I’ll give you facts, stats, a couple of light-hearted, good-natured tips, a few (hopefully) witty observations, and we’ll leave it at that. No pretentious demagoguery about who to pick up (though I will make some polite suggestions), who to trade for or who to start/ sit this week. Just a little bit of analysis and a whole lot of self-deprecation.

Quarterbacks:

The following list indicates the top scoring quarterbacks in terms of points per team game to this point in the season.

Rank Name Team PPG
1 Drew Brees New Orleans 24.6
2 Robert Griffin III Washington 23.7
3 Aaron Rodgers Green Bay 23.1
4 Matt Ryan Atlanta 20.8
5 Peyton Manning Denver 20.2
6 Tom Brady New England 19.9
7 Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh 18.8
8 Andrew Luck Indianapolis 17.4
9 Cam Newton Carolina 17.2
10 Eli Manning New York Giants 17.0

The top of the list contains one guy who was expected to be either at the top or close to it at the beginning of the season – Drew Brees. He’s in the perfect situation for terrific fantasy numbers: talented supporting cast, a pass-happy offensive scheme, and a terrible defense that necessitates throwing the football for the length of the game each Sunday. In second is a surprise, Robert Griffin III, who is succeeding in fantasy because of his rushing numbers. He’s got 468 yards and 6 TDs on the ground – if he were a running back, those stats would be good for around 14th in the league, ahead of Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden and Michael Turner. And third is Aaron Rodgers, who is up there because he is the best quarterback in football, as well as an awesome human being.

I never said this post would be 100% objective.

Dead weight

Tony Romo and Philip Rivers. Fantasy owners who waited during the draft and counted on one of those two to buoy the position for them wound up with the 24th or 25th (respectively) overall QB this season. Yet Romo, who averages 13 points per game, is owned in 96% of leagues and is started in 56% of them. Rivers is started in 30% of leagues, which is lower than Romo but still far too high considering the lack of production. To put this in perspective: Sam Bradford, whose receivers are as anonymous as internet trolls, is still averaging a point better, per game, than these two.

Who to get

Josh Freeman, who averages 17 points per game (I will do the math for you – that’s 4 points better than the Romo-Rivers conglomerate from Mediocrityville) is owned in 71% of leagues and started in just 15% of them. He’s the 11th overall QB this season – certainly worthy of a roster spot, and probably worth a shot at a platoon, or at the very least a bye week spot start.

Running Backs:

Rank Name Team PPG
1 Arian Foster Houston 19.1
2 Ray Rice Baltimore 15.3
3 Jamaal Charles Kansas City 14.3
4 Alfred Morris Washington 13.9
5 Adrian Peterson Minnesota 13.8
6 C.J. Spiller Buffalo 13.7
7 Frank Gore San Francisco 13.3
8 Reggie Bush Miami 12.6
9 Stevan Ridley New England 12.3
10 Marshawn Lynch Seattle 12.2

The top two players were two of the first four backs selected in most fantasy football drafts, so their appearance near the top is not shocking. Also unsurprising is the fact that the rest of the top-10 is full of surprises; the running back position is historically hard to project, and this season is no exception. The rest of the top ten is made up of two guys who made quick rebounds from injuries (Charles, Peterson), three who emerged from running-back-by-committee situations to be workhorse backs (Morris, Spiller, Ridley), two guys who refuse to get old (Gore, Bush) and the ugliest human being on the planet (Marshawn Lynch). Kudos to you if you saw any of that coming, and kudos to you if you’ve never seen a close-up of Marshawn Lynch.

WordPress wouldn’t even let me post a picture of Marshawn Lynch.

Dead Weight

The Carolina backfield. Both DeAngelo Williams (5.1 PPG) and Johnathon Stewart (4.2) are dismal, despite being 94% and 81% owned, respectively. Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton are there to vulture goal line carries on the rare occasion the sputtering Panther offense even gets that close, and each has dealt with nagging injuries. The two  had 13 points apiece in Week 2; only Williams (in Week 4) has cracked double digits other than that.

Who to get

To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from – running backs are thin, and even the whiff of a potential starting spot is enough to send everyone to the waiver wire in a tizzy. Pierre Thomas is already owned in 72% of leagues, but considering the fact that he averages nearly 7 PPG, and is a threat to both run and catch the ball, it should be a lot closer to 100%.

Wide Recievers:

Rank Name Team PPG
1 A.J. Green Cincinnati 15.2
2 Victor Cruz New York Giants 15.0
3 Vincent Jackson Tampa Bay 14.8
4 Brandon Marshall Chicago 13.6
5 Marques Colston New Orleans 13.3
6 Roddy White Atlanta 13.2
7 Reggie Wayne Indianapolis 12.8
8 Percy Harvin Minnesota 12.7
9 Jordy Nelson Green Bay 12.2
10 Wes Welker New England 11.3

The first two wideouts taken in many drafts were Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson; it’s not all that surprising that Andre is outside the top-10, but it is shocking that Calvin, who has been healthy and active for all six of his team’s games, can’t find the end zone. Green’s jump from year one to year two has been extraordinary, as he’s third in the NFL in receiving yards (636) and tied for first in touchdowns (7). Vincent Jackson’s emergence as a fantasy stud is also a surprise – but the rest of the top ten is full of familiar names.

Dead weight

Justin Blackmon, who is owned in 51% of leagues, averages 2.4 points per game and has zero receiving touchdowns. Cecil Shorts, his Jacksonville teammate, averages 7.3 points per contest, has found the end zone three times this season and is owned in 3% of fantasy leagues. Neither is particularly own-able, but at least Shorts has shown something this season; Blackmon’s been a dud from the get-go. Sidney Rice is also a quandary I can’t figure out, netting 6.2 points per game, but still owned in 88% of leagues. Donnie Avery, by comparison, matches his output yet is owned in 13% of leagues.

Who to get

Avery and Shorts would be nice additions in deep leagues, but Andre Roberts, who is one of 20 receivers to average double digit fantasy points per week, is still only owned in 38% of leagues. This is ludicrous – his output thus far matches Dwayne Bowe’s and eclipses Larry Fitzgerald, Stevie Johnson, Dez Bryant, Andre Johnson and Steve Smith, just to name a few. Jeremy Kerley, of the fantasy black hole known as the New York Jets receiving corps, is surprisingly decent (3 weeks of double digit fantasy production, plus another week with 9 points) and available (owned in 45% of leagues).

 Tight Ends:

Rank Name Team PPG
1 Tony Gonzalez Atlanta 11.2
2 Rob Gronkowski New England 10.2
3 Heath Miller Pittsburgh 10.2
4 Owen Daniels Houston 9.4
5 Vernon Davis San Francisco 8.3
6 Kyle Rudolph Minnesota 7.8
7 Jimmy Graham New Orleans 7.2
8 Brent Celek Philadelphia 7.0
9 Martellus Bennett New York Giants 6.9
10 Scott Chandler Buffalo 6.5

Once you get outside the top three, it’s a giant mess of mediocrity. Don’t get me wrong, Owen Daniels has been a nice surprise, rebounding from injury late last season, and Kyle Rudolph’s sophomore development is a sign of big things to come in the future, but it’s hard to know what’s what at tight end unless you’ve got Tony, Gronk or the Heath Bar.

Dead Weight

Jermichael Finley. What else is there to say? The Packers offense has tallied 100 points over the past three weeks. Jermichael’s contribution? 7 receptions, 54 yards. Total. He’s been a little dinged up, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been avoiding putting the injured into the ‘dead weight’ category, preferring instead to point out the healthy, terrible players clogging rosters. While I understand why he’s owned in 88% of leagues (the Packers offense is one of the league’s best) I don’t think he’s ever going to break out. He’s nowhere near as washed up as Chad Ochocinco was a season ago, but the principle applies here: if you can’t get your numbers as part of a high-powered attack, what does that say about you? It says you’re not that good. Shoulder injury aside, Finley’s been bad this year. Period.

Who to get

Remember earlier? When I told you about Heath Miller, and I said he was the third overall tight end through seven weeks? Well, he is a free agent in 1 of 5 fantasy leagues. So do yourself a favor, and see if he’s out there, then remedy the situation. And if he’s on your bench, start him (only 50% of those who own him actually start the guy).

 Defense:

Rank Team PPG
1 Chicago 18.3
2 Houston 11.7
3 Arizona 10.1
4 Atlanta 9.8
5 Minnesota 9.7
6 Denver 9.2
7 San Francisco 9.1
8 Seattle 8.9
9 New England 8.3
10 New York Giants 8.1

 Dead Weight

Defenses are drafted based on reputation alone – but they shouldn’t be held onto so long if they are terrible. For some reason, the Pittsburgh defense, who averages 3.7 points per game (good for 24th place) is owned in 93% of leagues and STARTED in nearly two-thirds of them.

Who to get

Miami (11th overall, 7.5 points per game) is available in 87% of leagues. The play the Jets this week. The quarterback of the Jets is Mark Sanchez. Have I painted a clear enough picture for you?

Confession

I don’t really care about defenses that much – the only reason I brought any of that up is so I could write about the Bears Defense. Every league seems to score defenses differently, but in my three leagues, the Bears rank 8th, 9th, and 10th… OVERALL. Yes. The Bears, in all their majesty, were apparently deserving of a first round pick, meaning the idiot in your league who took them rounds ahead of where they “should” have gone isn’t actually an idiot. He’s the smart one.

Remember how last season was the “year of the tight end”, with Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski shattering all sorts of records? In most leagues, in 2012, there are two defenses who have scored more points per game (Chicago, Houston) than the top-rated tight end (Tony Gonzalez). In 2011, there were six tight ends among the top 56 fantasy players; this season, there are zero.

It just goes to show you that fantasy football is fickle, fabulous folly, full of fortune, farce and frivolous foolery.  If the knucklehead who sat at your draft and defended his selection of a defense in the fifth round was right, then maybe everyone, even the guys who get paid to do this professionally, need to admit something: playing fantasy football is one part smarts, one part luck and one part theatre of the absurd.

Happy fantasy-ing (fantasizing?) everybody.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

Appease the Football Gods


How the Packers can get back in the good graces of the pigskin pantheon

@BreakTheHuddle

It just seemed as though the Colts were destined to win Sunday’s game – and this miraculous catch by Reggie Wayne was one of the signs.

Last Sunday, before kickoff, I channeled my usual doom-and-gloom pessimism and made a-not-so-unique proclamation to my friend, Bernard. As the Packers took the field against the Indianapolis Colts, whose coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with leukemia during the previous week, I turned to Bernard and said:

“This feels like a bad karma game. Indy’s going to be playing for the coach. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Naturally, I (and every other Negative Nancy who said something similar) looked silly during the first half. Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic, the defense was stifling, and the Packers carried a 21-3 lead into the locker room with them, with the second half kick coming their way. Green Bay was finally showing glimpses of last season’s form – they were blowing out an inferior team, scoring at will, and controlling the tempo of the game.

The second half, as we all know, told a different story. Without Cedric Benson, who’d compiled 41 total yards through 17 minutes of game play before he was injured, the offense lost its rhythm. The defense, pesky and suffocating in the first 30 minutes, went soft, the pass rush totally ineffective the final 30. No one could cover Reggie Wayne. Andrew Luck showed his athleticism, breaking away from sacks and rushing for first downs. And no one could stop the momentum shift – Indianapolis outscored the Packers 27-6 in the second half, sealing the victory when Mason Crosby’s 52 yard field goal attempt sailed so far left that Michael Moore would’ve been proud of it.

Lame political jokes aside, the second half of the Colts game was a microcosm of the Packers’ 2012 season to this point. Though it’s possible the football gods punished me Sunday for my appalling lack of faith, I’d hazard to say there are other reasons for Green Bay’s struggles.

 

First of all, the Packers need call more running plays – a LOT more running plays.

Cedric Benson is carted off the field during Sunday’s loss; he’s out at least 8 weeks with a lisfranc injury.

If you watch the Packers closely, I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. In Sunday’s game, McCarthy called for 10 pass plays and 8 rushes before Benson left with an injury early in the second quarter. Afteward? A whopping 35-to-9. Despite the fact that Green Bay opened the second half with an 18 point lead, 13 of their first 16 offensive plays were called passes, one of which was intercepted, setting up the Colts for an easy score.

Adjusted for sacks and scrambles, the Packers have the fifth highest called pass-to-run ratio in the NFL, at 72%-to-28%. Nearly half the league (14 teams) pass the ball 60% of the time. But of those 14, only the Ravens (4.9 yards/carry) and the Giants (4.8) are more successful when they do run than the Packers, who average 4.3 yards per rush. Some of that figure is skewed by Rodgers, who is averaging 5.4 yards per attempt, but still, Packer running backs average 4.2 yards per rush – not an elite figure, to be sure, but far from terrible. The run game certainly deserves more attention than Mike McCarthy has given it.

Because the team calls so many passing plays, the Packers are just 21st in time of possession. It’s currently en vogue to eschew time of possession as a statistic. Many pundits now consider your number of plays to be the key factor – this, more than time of possession, is indicative of whether or not you are wearing out the opposing defense. In this department, the Packers are 14th, at 64 offensive plays per game – about league average. What’s troubling is, despite the ability to hold onto the ball and run a lot of plays, the Packers are a paltry 24th in yards-per-play, down there with teams such as Tennessee, Tampa Bay, the New York Jets, and the Cleveland Browns.

The love for the passing attack has gone unrewarded; once adjusted to include sacks, the Packers average 5.74 yards per pass attempt, good for 28th in the league. Many stat sheets do not factor sacks into this equation – indeed, simply looking up “yards per pass attempt” reveals the Packers average 7 yards every time they throw the ball, which is about league average.

Many fans are quick to point out that Aaron Rodgers seems “off” so far in 2012. Actually, he’s on pace for 4,182 yards, 32 TDs and 13 INTs with a 97.0 QB rating – not a bad statistical season. His averages from 2008-10 were a comparable 4,131 yards, 29 TDs and 10 INTs with a 99.4 QB rating. It’s possible we were spoiled by his otherworldly 2011 campaign… it’s also possible he’s holding onto the ball too long, a criticism made of him early in his career. He’s taking a lot of sacks – on pace for 67 of them, which would be the most in the NFL since 2005.

Sacks need to be included when assessing the overall health of a passing attack – if you can’t protect, and the quarterback has to scramble or give himself up for a sack, what good is passing the ball so much? On many occasions this season, Rodgers finds himself in the pocket, with time, unable to find a suitable target downfield. Green Bay insists on running the play-action bootleg, which is fine, but opposing defenses aren’t biting – nor should they.

Taking the time to establish the running game needs to be high on McCarthy’s priority list. For all the talk of the NFL as a passing league, the top offense in terms of total yards is the New England Patriots, third overall in rushing. The league’s leader in yards per play, the New York Giants, are 12th in this category. As fate would have it, Green Bay averages 4.34 yards per rush, while the vaunted New England attack gains 4.33 yards per carry. The difference between the two? The Hoodie sticks with the run, and the Packers abandon it for long periods of time. Making this adjustment will be key to the Packers’ success moving forward… speaking of which…

 

The coaching staff needs to make better in-game adjustments.

Of the nine sacks against Seattle, this one looked the most painful.

Truth be told, they’ve been embarrassed in this department. The most exquisite example of this was in the Seahawks game – Seattle pass rushers got to Aaron Rodgers nine- NINE- times in the first thirty minutes. Despite this, Cedric Benson was handed the ball twice in 27 first half plays. The other 25 times, Rodgers dropped back to pass – and better than a third of those times, he was sacked.

Such a playcalling discrepancy would have been understandable (though not excusable) if the Packers were down by 20 points early in the game – but they weren’t. Seattle finally got on the board with 6:22 left in the second quarter, and by this time, much of the damage had been done. McCarthy’s stunning inability to veer from the gameplan hindered the offense’s ability to be effective and put the quarterback in harm’s way. To be fair, McCarthy acknowledged as much – and came out in the second half running the football.

The team seems to take off entire halves of football and lacks the consistency one would expect from a squad full of veteran leaders. Indeed, the team is young, but experience is sprinkled throughout the roster – Woodson, Matthews and Raji on the defense, Rodgers, Saturday and Nelson on the offense. All of those guys have plenty of game reps, and should know what to expect, yet somehow the team still comes out flat – be it in the first half of the Seattle and Chicago games (for the offense) or the second half of the Colts game (for the defense).

Any way you slice it, the Colts’ coaching staff saw something at halftime and made adjustments – McCarthy had a better game plan going in, and the Colts managed themselves better on the fly. Becoming a better in-game strategist is vital to the Packers’ hopes this season – because while the team is talented, they aren’t talented enough to play brain-dead football for 30 minutes at a time and expect to win games.

 

Defensively, the Packers have to play tougher – and with more consistency.

The measurable statistics on the Green Bay defense are as follows: 16th against the pass, 17th against the run, 14th in opponents’ points per game. Pretty mediocre, right? Tied for first in the NFL with 18 sacks… pretty good, right? Only 7 defenses in the NFL have fewer takeaways, and four of them (Oakland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Dallas) have played in one less game due to bye weeks… pretty bad, right?

Such is the story of the 2012 Green Bay defense. At times transcendent and tough, other times porous and soft, it’s a group that gives fans fits. They were manhandled against a physical 49ers team, they beat up and embarrassed the Bears, they shut down the Seahawks and only allowed 7 verifiable* points, they were mediocre against a high-powered Saints team and they were both great (first half) and lousy (second half) against a rookie quarterback last Sunday in Indianapolis.

On a positive note, at least there are flashes of good play from the defense; after last year’s atrocity, any improvement must be noted and expounded upon. Nick Perry seems like he’ll be a decent complementary pass rusher to Clay Matthews, who has been very good. Tramon Williams is healthy again (and performing well) and Sam Shields, who had a very trying 2011 season, has rebounded nicely in 2012.

On the other hand, Charles Woodson is a step slower (and very hands-y, drawing many penalties), the defensive line has been nothing to write home about, and D.J. Smith has been underwhelming trying to fill the shoes of the injured Desmond Bishop.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a proven track record in the NFL, and fans have no choice but to trust that he’ll get the issues ironed out as the season progresses. The star power is there, the pass rush is there – it’s just a matter of generating more takeaways, something they’ve excelled at in the past, to give the offense more opportunities to possess the ball.

In summary…

No matter how mad you get at Marshall Newhouse, Jerry Kramer (64, above) would not be an improvement. After all, he’s 76 years old!

I’m  not one to get wistful for the days of yore – mostly because I am 25 years old and I don’t remember them. I’m not going to suggest the Packers bring back Jerry Kramer to run the power sweep 45 times per game, a la Lombardi. I would, however, venture a guess: the Packers will find a way to get Alex Green, Brandon Saine, and James Starks (once he’s healthy) more involved in the offensive game plan.

Many of Green Bay’s misfortunes in 2012 have to do with poor luck and bad timing. It’s been a trying first third of the season, but there are elixirs for the Packer maladies. Rather than omnipotent, all-powerful deities, the football gods seem to be more fickle, prone to the passion and inconsistency of human beings.

In Greek mythology, humans can make their own luck by making the right choices. While it may seem as though the 2012 Packers are cursed, destined to play tragic figures, there’s still time to turn it around – provided they correct their ways and appease the football gods. Balance, intelligence, toughness – these are the hallmarks of a great team. With some adjustments, this underachieving bunch can become a great team – and continue their remarkable run of success.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!