Packers too soft to join NFL’s elite
By Bob McGinn, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – A week ago, Jim Harbaugh called the Green Bay Packers the best team in the National Football League over the last number of years.
“They play tremendous as a team and they have guys step up when others are injured,” the 49ers’ second-year coach said before the San Francisco-Green Bay divisional playoff game. “They have great coaching . . . they have great talent.
“They do the things that all teams aspire to be. Which is not just consistent, but consistently good.”
Three days later, the Packers showed their consistency in another area. They’re a soft football team, and in a sport that forever favors the tough, soft is a very, very bad thing to be.
The Packers’ season ended just as it started, in a convincing defeat handed down by an opponent that is physically superior.
What general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy do about it will determine if this team is to go down as “just another fart in the wind,” as the 1990s one-and-done title team was characterized by GM Ron Wolf, or wins another championship.
Chris Snee, the New York Giants’ three-time Pro Bowl guard, should know a lot about Tom Coughlin. Not only is Coughlin the only NFL coach that Snee has played for, he’s also married to Coughlin’s daughter.
In a March interview, Snee repeated what Coughlin told his players and coaches shortly before the most recent New England-New York Super Bowl.
“Coach said that the only way you earn New England’s respect is by being physical with them,” said Snee. “I’ve been around long enough where I heard that before. New England respects physical football. That’s the same case with us.”
En route to winning their second Super Bowl in five years over New England (13-3), the Giants beat Atlanta (10-6), Green Bay (15-1) and San Francisco (13-3).
When asked which had been the best team the Giants played in the postseason, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell tabbed the 49ers. “Physical, physical, physical,” he said.
Kevin Boothe, the Giants’ other guard, emphatically agreed with Fewell and Snee that San Francisco was the toughest of the four teams.
“Having played the 49ers twice this year, those were two of the most physical games I’ve ever played in my career,” Snee added in the March interview. “Their defense is the best in the league; that’s a group that will be there at the end next year (2012).
“Green Bay didn’t play very well when we played them. I certainly didn’t think going into that game we’d win by 17 points. But San Francisco is a very physical team.”
By winning 15 games last year and 11 more in the regular season this year despite a long list of debilitating injuries, the Packers have demonstrated their dominance over the NFC North Division and the weaker teams on their schedule.
Aaron Rodgers, his exceptional receivers and McCarthy’s offensive practices and philosophy have over time compensated for weaknesses at various positions.
But here Thompson and McCarthy sit, the football heads of an organization that has been in position to win Super Bowls five times in the past six years and came away with one.
The Packers were seeded No. 2 in 2007, No. 5 in 2009, No. 6 in 2010, No. 1 in 2011 and No. 3 in 2012.
How, you might ask, did they win the Super Bowl two years ago?
By being physical, that’s how.
The Packers went into Philadelphia on wild-card weekend and, on a day when their longest completion was just 20 yards, rode James Starks’ 23-carry, 123-yard rushing game to a close victory.
Everyone will remember the Atlanta rout as a triumph for Rodgers and his receivers, and it was. But the underappreciated element was how the Packers’ rank and file handled a very physical team on just five days rest so the passing game could decide the outcome.
A week later, the Packers outrushed their third straight opponent, 120-83, on a 20-degree day at Soldier Field. I’ll remember the bruising Starks setting the tone on his first carry by running right over the top of linebacker Lance Briggs.
And in the Super Bowl, Rodgers and his exceptional offensive line stood tall against the NFL’s fiercest defense while Howard Green and the combination of Clay Matthews and Ryan Pickett stuffed Pittsburgh blockers to force game-deciding turnovers.
In those four victories, the Packers averaged 101 yards on the ground to the opponents’ 83.8, had almost a six-minute-per-game margin in time of possession and finished plus-6 in turnover differential.
“It’s a misconception that if you throw the ball you’re not physical,” McCarthy said on the eve of the 2012 season. “The more physical team usually has more success.”
Now let’s recall some of the old-fashioned beatings the Packers have absorbed in their elimination games under Thompson-McCarthy.
As dramatic as Starks’ surge over Briggs was, Brandon Jacobs barreling over Charles Woodson on the Giants’ first play that frigid night in January 2008 topped it. In Brett Favre’s ugly swan song, the Packers rushed 14 times for 28 yards.
Two years later, Kurt Warner and Rodgers kept trading haymakers through the air. What’s forgotten is Beanie Wells averaging 6.5 yards a crack and the Cardinals’ 28th-ranked running game amassing 156 against the NFL’s top-ranked run defense.
A year ago, the Giants returned to Lambeau Field and flexed their muscles all over again. Green Bay missed eight tackles in the first half alone. Jason Pierre-Paul kept mugging Jermichael Finley. It was over early.
And then eight days ago, the Packers not only didn’t smack Colin Kaepernick, they barely laid a glove on him. Frank Gore slammed for 119 more when his O-line put a whipping on Dom Capers’ run defense. And when Rodgers did find the mark the 49ers’ hard-hitting secondary kept chopping down his receivers.
In those four defeats, the Packers were outrushed, 177-92, on average; on average, they faced a nine-minute deficit in time of possession; and their turnover differential was minus-7.
Two decisions made by the Packers’ brain trust last spring were informative on what’s important in Green Bay.
Thompson and his first lieutenant, Russ Ball, were wrong on Scott Wells, the team’s best offensive lineman in 2010-’11 and hub of their ground game. When Wells refused to provide a hometown discount and wouldn’t budge, the Packers kissed him goodbye.
So McCarthy entered the picture. He studied the 10 centers with starting experience that were available, then told Thompson that his top priority would be someone able to handle the mental load of his fast-paced, no-huddle attack.
Just about every other name on the board had more power and size than Jeff Saturday. The Packers still went with the 37-year-old ex-Colt.
The problem was, Saturday couldn’t block anybody in the run game. In the four defeats before McCarthy finally recognized his hand-picked man was done, the O-line was mediocre to lousy.
Already saddled with a soft left tackle in Marshall Newhouse, the Packers became even more of a finesse offense with Saturday. Assuming Wells had been re-signed and stayed healthy in Green Bay, the Packers might well have secured No. 1 or No. 2 seeding.
In late April, Thompson was looking for a big man to reinforce a sagging run defense and interior pass rush. Finally, he traded up, but it was too late because the defensive end that he wanted, Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes (6 feet 4 inches, 300 pounds), had gone No. 49 to San Diego.
His selection, Jerel Worthy (6-2½, 305), had shown pass-rushing quickness at Michigan State but some scouts said he was too short to play in the 3-4 defense and didn’t have a block-eater’s mentality.
The Packers took Worthy No. 51 over Devon Still (6-5, 301), a point-of-attack force for Penn State who went No. 53 to Cincinnati, where he seemed slightly miscast in a 4-3.
Worthy showed little in training camp, decided to drop a load of bad weight and kept getting pushed back against the run. In other words, he was soft, too. By the way, Reyes had an impressive first season.
It’s startling that in 18 games this was a defense that forced a running back to fumble just one time.
When the Packers played the 49ers, Seahawks and Vikings, I couldn’t help but marvel at their safety play. San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson, Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and Minnesota’s Harrison Smith put the fear of God into ball carriers, but the Packers don’t have anyone close to that anymore.
Not only that but, at cornerback, the Packers have been stretching and stretching the 5-10 barrier that has been in effect organizationally since the Terrell Buckley disaster 20 years ago.
I know. I know. It’s a passing league.
But when the weather turns and the officials begin swallowing their whistles, I’m not sure I want thin, linear players such as Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Casey Hayward trying to tackle people.
There are physical cornerbacks across the league, but the Packers obviously have placed more value on other qualities at the position.
If Charles Woodson doesn’t retire, Thompson has to release him. His time has passed, assuming the Packers realize they will have to dip early into a deep draft for safeties and find their own enforcer.
Losing Desmond Bishop in August for the season was the worst blow of all. Together with Clay Matthews and Ryan Pickett, Bishop would have given Capers a third violent individual.
The Packers can only hope that Bishop, at 29, makes it all the way back from his torn hamstring.
While we’re at it, let’s list a few other far less important areas that might be contributing to how the Packers now play the game.
Is it helpful that the players work in the lap of luxury? Team executives are proud to say football gets everything it wants, but at some point having the best amenities and finest food can be counterproductive in a quasi-militaristic culture.
Is it necessary for McCarthy to give older veterans a practice off just a week or so into training camp? Maybe he could put the hammer down just a little bit more.
And the crowds at Lambeau Field have started to remind me of those staid assemblages at the University of Michigan. It’s the place to be seen and all that, but it has been a long time since a visiting coach or player went on and on about how it difficult it was to hear and play in Green Bay.
Nowhere is it written that the Packers shall contend for if not win the Super Bowl every year, but some fans sure seem to think it is.
If Bill Belichick and his Patriots had played Green Bay this season, would the Packers have been physical enough to earn his respect?
The answer is a flat no. Original story here