1.) There's no joy in Brett's big game as a Viking
Brett Favre had one of the most amazing games in his 19-year career and I couldn't enjoy it. Not one bit. In fact, as I watched him do his vintage pump fakes, quick pivots and laser throws for touchdowns to Visanthe Shiancoe, Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian on his way to a 30-23 victory, I could only sit and stare with a knot in my stomach and a little sadness in my heart. How in the world did we get here?
I love Favre. I love the Packers. And I really, really hate the Vikings. Seeing Favre pump his fist after those scores in that ugly purple uniform and horned helmet seemed as wrong as anything I'd seen in sports. This, apparently, is what sticking it to Packers general manager Ted Thompson looks like — 24 completions on 31 attempts, 271 yards, three touchdowns (all beauties, of course), zero interceptions and zero sacks.
That last stat may have been the most frustrating, because I wanted Green Bay to get to him. My ideal scenario was for Favre to have a magnificent game (though even I didn't imagine it would be the kind he had), but for the Packers to win. I also thought it would be good for him if he got planted into the turf a few times. That seemed to be a requirement for Green Bay to win.
But quite the opposite, Favre dropped back behind a virtual wall of purple. He had 7.34 seconds on one third-quarter pass (ESPN put a clock up on the replay) — time enough to survey the defense, go through his progressions a few times, open up a Brett Favre Steak House in the Twin Cities and hit backup tight end Jeff Dugan 25 yards. Aaron Rodgers needed three plays to get that many seconds worth of protection. (There's more on that later.) Favre hit Berrian down the sideline for a 31-yard score on the next play to make it 28-14.
The worst part for Packer fans is that it once again takes your mind down that path you didn't want to go. Would Green Bay have been better off with Favre — not long term, but right now? Because clearly, Favre didn't just look better than Rodgers on Monday night, he looked better than most quarterbacks in the league on Monday night. After 19 years, Favre retains that magic, that moxie, that mojo — whatever "it" is — that only a few ever had or ever will. Yes, Brett was awe-inspiring. Yes, he can still play. But many of us never doubted that. There's no point in debating the whole he-said/he-said fiasco again. Both sides are at fault. There's also no point in debating that Rodgers is an immensely talented, athletic quarterback. He threw for 384 yards on 21-of-37 passing in a pressure-cooker environment and looked sensational in hitting tight end Jermichael Finley on a 62-yard score. He's probably one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league — and he's also 15 years younger than Favre. Still, it's hard not wonder how things might've gone if Favre had returned after that 13-3 season and trip to the NFC championship game following the 2007 season.
Of course, imaginary scenarios serve little comfort when watching one of the greatest — and easily the most passionate and exciting — quarterbacks of all time, days away from his 40th birthday, light up his old teammates like candles on a cake.
2.) The burden of eight sacks should be shared
If you thought the Chicago game was scary and Cincinnati was a nightmare, then you must've been changing your shorts after what passed for pass protection in the Metrodome on Monday. Rodgers probably wanted to. Perhaps running back Ryan Grant summed up that gruesome total best when he said, "Eight (expletive) times."
That Rodgers finished the game, let alone threw for nearly 400 yards and two touchdowns behind a patchwork, musical-chairs offensive line, is amazing and a credit to his ability. Daryn Colledge, who started at left tackle in place of the injured Chad Clifton, is best suited for left guard. Right tackle Allen Barbre and rookie T.J. Lang, who took over when Colledge got hurt, seem best suited for the bench. Thankfully, mercifully, the Packers are on the verge of re-signing longtime starter Mark Tauscher to take over the right tackle position he manned so effectively for nine seasons, prior to injuring his knee in December.
Jared Allen sacks Aaron Rodgers
Compounding the problem has been the offensive scheme, which seems to have gone from a power running game to a zone scheme to the current hybrid zone-blocking version with bigger lineman. The common denominator seems to be that all of them have struggled — save for eight games at the end of 2007, when Favre's quick release and escapability kept him upright and the Packers' passing attack opened up lanes for Grant, who had come on out of nowhere.
Scheme aside, the team has tried to improve their personnel through mostly late-round and small-school draft picks and second- and third-tier free agents. The results have run the gamut from respectable to serviceable to excruciating.
Of course, Rodgers hasn't helped his cause much, either. His penchant for holding the ball too long has made him responsible for nearly half the sacks and one of his two safeties. With 20 sacks and two safeties through four games, Rodgers is on pace to be dropped 80 times, including eight safeties — if he makes it through the season. It's admirable to stand in the pocket until the last possible second, but it's foolish to continue to lose field position — if not the ball — by refusing to bail on the play. It's been said before and will be said again, the quickest way to make the offensive line look better is to get rid of the ball quicker. If he can't do that, the clock in Rodgers head is going to have the batteries knocked out.
3.) Kampman's pass-rushing prowess is being squandered
Over a two-year stretch, Aaron Kampman, the defensive end, was one of the NFL's best pass rushers, notching 27.5 sacks. He trailed only San Diego's Shawne Merriman, who had 29.5 over the same span. So it stood to reason that the biggest question surrounding the Packers switch to a 3-4 scheme was how Kampman would make the transition to left outside linebacker. The typically talkative Kampman said little over the offseason OTAs and through the preseason. As it turns out, the silence was telling.
Through four games, Kampman has one sack and eight quarterback hits. And while sacks often come in bunches, it doesn't feel like that's close to happening. This is absolutely not an indictment of Kampman, who is one of the hardest-working, most-determined players on the team. But it looks like he's been miscast as a standup linebacker that drops into coverage along with rushing the passer.
Kampman's strength is lining up outside the offensive tackle, with his hand on the ground and his ears pinned back. He's proven that. Not every great defensive end translates into a great outside linebacker, and it shouldn't be seen as a failure on anyone's part. But until defensive coordinator Dom Capers comes to the same conclusion, the Packers will continue to squander one of their most valuable assets in one of their greatest areas of need. Against the Vikings, Kampman looked uncomfortable and was unable to capitalize on a matchup against rookie Phil Loadholt. Not only was Favre not sacked, he was barely touched.
Kampman is in the final year of a four-year, $21 million extension he signed in March 2006. His move to outside linebacker has not only hurt the Packers' pass rush, it has hurt Kampman's negotiations for a new contract, and moreover his chances of staying in Green Bay. If things don't change soon, it's a safe assumption that he'll seek a team playing a 4-3 scheme that lets him return to his familiar, Pro Bowl form.
4.) This 'Safety Dance' is not working
A switch to a 3-4 scheme didn't just alter the number of lineman and linebackers. There was a fairly fundamental change in the way the secondary played. That said, it seemed like a good move when the Packers brought in free agent safety Anthony Smith from the 3-4-savvy Steelers. Not only would Smith provide some insight with a scheme he was familiar with, he would push incumbent Atari Bigby — coming off an injury-marred season — for a starting spot. From the outside looking in, it appeared Smith had locked up a roster spot at worst, and a starting spot at best after a solid preseason. Instead, Green Bay released him on the final cutdown, arguably their most surprising move, while keeping the inconsistent Aaron Rouse to back up Bigby.
The Packers then traded offensive lineman Tony Moll for Baltimore Ravens safety Derrick Martin and went on to cut Rouse. That's all well and good except that Bigby would get hurt once more, and while Martin proved to be more consistent than Rouse, it turned out to be consistently bad. Aside from his role in letting Favre dissect the middle of the field, Martin failed to provide help over the top on Favre's 31-yard strike to Berrian, who streaked by Al Harris on what would be the winning points. Harris was immediately in the ear of safeties coach Darren Perry after the play. Cornerback Charles Woodson also chimed in after the game:
"We had a guy here, you know, that we brought in. For whatever reason, he's not here anymore," Woodson said, referring to Smith. "Again, I'm not saying we win the game if Smith is here, but you know... I know a lot of those things, I believe, wouldn't be a problem."
5.) Matthews and Co. made Adrian Peterson look human
There's really no debate that Vikings uber-back Adrian Peterson is the best running back in football. In fact, most of the debate centers on if he might be the best back ever by the time it's all said and done. He's provided the highlight of the year with a touchdown run against the Cleveland Browns where he went around, over and through defenders, literally tossing them aside with his free arm. Coming into Monday night's tilt, he led all rushers with 357 yards.
That said, Green Bay's game plan was to stop Peterson first and make Favre beat them. It seemed sound, of course that's exactly what the Vikings, and especially Favre, wanted. Regardless, it would be a tall order. As it turned out, the Packers were able to maintain their gap discipline for the most part, get Peterson going east-west instead of north-south, and gang tackle once they got to him. The results were just 12 yards on 11 carries in the second half and 55 yards total on the night. But it was rookie Clay Matthews — whom Thompson traded back into the first round of April's draft to get — who provided the defensive highlight of the evening and possibly the season — when he ripped the ball away from Peterson during one of those gang tackles and returned it 42-yards down the sideline to tie the game at 14-14 and fire up the Packer faithful.
One play does not a season make, but Matthews' continued improvement since injuring his hamstring during the preseason should land him in the starting lineup before too long.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.