Lombardi: State of the Packers

PackerReport.com's John Lombardi offers his assessment of the Green Bay Packers through five games this season. Though the Packers have one victory, there are a number of reasons to be optimistic in the final 11 games, Lombardi says.

With the bye week on the horizon, it is appropriate that we take stock of this year's team, its performance and look ahead to the rest of the season.

The Packers record is 1-4, tied for second worst in the NFL with Arizona, Cleveland and Miami. The Steelers are 1-3. The Lions, who the Packers defeated, are 0-5 tied with the Titans for worst record in the NFL. The Raiders and Bucs are 0-4.

On a good note, the teams that beat the Packers, the Bears (5-0), Saints (4-1), Eagles (4-1) and Rams (4-1) are among the best in the NFL and each of them leads their divisions. They played the Saints and Rams tough and it could be said with some certainty that they had a chance to win each of those games, but the Bears and Eagles beat them soundly.

My grandfather said that stats are for losers, but there are a few of them that are indicative of the state of this team.

When it comes to turnovers/margin, the Packers quite frankly stink. Their minus-5 turnover margin is fourth from the bottom of the NFL. (Cleveland -9, Oakland -8, Tennessee -6). They have committed 12 turnovers which ties the Titans, Lions and Cardinals and only the Browns (14) and Raiders (13) are worse. What do all of these teams have in common? Well, a combined 2-22 record. Throw in the Packers and it jumps to 3-29. That is a whopping 10.34% winning percentage.

The Packers defense ranks 31st in the NFL (14th against the rush - 31st against the pass). It is giving up 378 yards per game. Only Houston is worse, giving up 5.9 yards per play and permitting 27.6 points per game, 28th out of 32 teams.

A lot is made of the Packers' poor defense. Much of the blame is falling on the shoulders of Defensive Coordinator Bob Sanders and his staff. The argument is that last year's coordinator, Jim Bates, had a better defense with what on paper looked like a unit with less talent. According to conventional wisdom, Charles Woodson, Marquand Manuel, A.J. Hawk, Ryan Picket and Brady Poppinga are all upgrades over Ahmad Carroll, Mark Roman, Robert Thomas and Na'il Diggs.

Shouldn't an upgrade in talent lead to a better defensive team? Well, Bob Sanders is not Jim Bates and no one should expect him to be. This is not a knock on Sanders. Jim Bates is an excellent coach, but football is more than talent. Whatever happened to chemistry and teamwork? Half of the personnel is new and of those, Woodson, Pickett, Manuel, Poppinga and Al Harris missed much if not all of the OTAs. Some of them, notably Poppinga and Manuel, missed much of training camp due to injuries. How can anyone expect them to play like a well-oiled machine when they have not played together very long and do not have an established coach to mold them? It is unfair to blame Bob Sanders for not being Jim Bates and is unfair to expect these coaches to shape a better defense out of so many new players with very little field time together. If anything, cohesion and chemistry was the last thing taken into account when composing this roster.

This team has 14 rookies and 14 players in their first or second year. The Rams by contrast have only 14 players total with less than two years experience. The Packers have very few players with proven talent or playmaking ability. Of the free agents they went after, only Ryan Pickett has not been underwhelming. It is impossible to blame the coaches for the team they field. Mike Sherman and Ted Thompson are responsible for the roster.

What the coaches can be blamed for is the confusion and lack of cohesion and consistency. Eleven men is the requisite number of players on an NFL field at any one time, but too often the Packers have had 10, or 12. Part of this problem is coaching and part is players knowing what to do, but the longer it continues, the more it becomes a coaching problem. And if these mistakes continue, fingers get pointed, usually at the coaching staff. It is one thing to lose because of inferior talent or inexperience, though it is quite another to be out-coached.

The Packers rank 9th in the league, averaging 341.2 yards per game. Brett Favre can still win some games, not on his own, but with help he can do it. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are making plays, and can score some points. The Packers are not going to get any help from their third receiver, Robert Ferguson, who is not any good and hurt often. Koren Robinson could be suspended for a year at any moment.

The tight end position is no longer a threat for this team. They are primarily used as a sixth blocker on pass plays and then slip out to be a safety valve receiver. Noah Herron looked good against the Rams, but they are not very good defending the run. If he can hold onto the ball, he is adequate. He runs hard and can get the tough yards, but he does not have the skill to make that next move that sets apart the good ones from the journeymen.

One interesting stat that I noticed is that the Packers are leading the league in offensive third down plays with 74. They are sixth in third-down conversion percentage. This is interesting to me because it is imperative to convert third downs, but the true question is why they have all these third down plays? It is probably indicative of playing from behind and throwing the ball more often.

The offensive line was a big question mark to start the year off and here is a good example of why stats can lie. Brett Favre has only been sacked seven times. The Broncos have only allowed four sacks (through three games). The Bears, Patriots and Chargers (four games) have given up five. The Saints and Titans have allowed six sacks and the Pack is tied with Minnesota, Indy, Baltimore (through four games) and Tampa (four games) with seven. Only six teams have allowed fewer sacks than the Packers and the Packers have attempted 207 pass attempts which is far and away the most in the league. Of the teams near the Packers, The Colts and the Vikings have thrown it 171 times and the Broncos have only attempted 86 passes. The Packers actually rank third in sacks per pass play behind the Patriots and Bears and the margin is razor thin.

To accomplish this, the Packers have gone out of the shotgun on what seems like two out of every three passing attempts and routinely keep the tight end, or one or two running backs in to help block. The shotgun has become so routine that they even use it on third and short. They do not even try and fake the play-action pass anymore.

The teams that have a higher ranked offense than the Packers have a combined record of 25-7. If the Packers can improve the defense, they have the offense to compete.

Overall this team is hard to characterize. They have made critical mistakes and look disorganized at times, but have also had stretches where you can see that they have a chance to compete. The defense is struggling mightily. Last year under Jim Bates the Packers allowed 36 passes of 20 yards or longer – in the first four games of this year, they have allowed 24.

Looking at yesterday's play by play, it looks like the Packers had at least four more. The coaches look overmatched at times, but have made adjustments to compensate for their talent or lack thereof. Cutting Ahmad Carroll was overdue from my perspective. It did open them up to second guessers about the timing, but in the Rams game, it did not cost them much.

Things boil down to one thing for this team. It needs to discover some playmakers. They have some good players, but they need to make good plays. On offense and defense, playmakers need to step up. Driver and Jennings can make plays, but they have to cut down on the drops. Favre can make plays, but not in a vacuum. On defense, Al Harris and Charles Woodson need to stop dropping game-changing interceptions. KGB or Aaron Kampman or Nick Barnett or A.J. Hawk need to make a game-ending sack. I feel like I am beating a dead horse, but they do not have the talent to overcome turnovers and penalties and blown calls. The offense is good enough to win if the defense can keep it close.

The first four games after the bye are all winnable. The Dolphins are reeling without a solid QB. The Cardinals are hoping a rookie QB can stop their slide. The Bills are surprising, but just got pounded by the Bears. And the Vikes are not world beaters. After that they host the Patriots and then head to Seattle. The last five games only present one opponent, the Bears, who look unbeatable. That game is the last one of the year and the Bears may rest everyone in preparation for the playoffs, so who knows how vulnerable they might be. Of the rest, the Jets, 49ers, Lions and Vikings do not scare anyone. To say the schedule is favorable is putting it mildly.

There is hope. If the line was set today, the Packers would probably not be favored against anyone save the Lions, but they have nine winnable games out of their last 11. Do I think they will win nine? No, I do not, but they should not give up hope. They can compete on offense and if the defense matures and overcomes some of its shortcomings, they have a great chance to salvage this season and make it something that Aaron Rodgers can build on next year.

John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at johnlombardi22@yahoo.com.

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