Why I'm not concerned about the running game

After a loss like the one the Packers endured on Monday night to the Bears, fans start to panic, and its hard to blame them. There's a lot to worry about going forward. The penalties raise concerns about discipline and age issues on the team, both young and old (ie - Clifton and Tauscher). You can blame the refs all you want, but even if the Packers really did get screwed on a handful of flags (I'm with Woodson on the Burnett PI call), they were still flagged 18 times. Even half of that is too many.

However, there is one thing I'm not worried about: the lack of a legitimate running threat.

Its a common mantra in the NFL that you have to run the ball to win consistently, and it breaks down to this: running the ball helps you control the clock, keep the defense honest, and wear the defense down. The logic is sound. But the Packers are in a situation where they can accomplish these three goals by going to the air, thanks largely to Aaron Rodgers.
To say Rodgers is accurate is to say there's a long line for Packers season tickets: you couldn't understate it more. In Monday night's game, the Packers owned the time of possession battle 35:49-24:11 and ran the ball a mere 15 times. The reason for this anomaly? Rodgers completed 75% of his 45 passes, thanks in large part to high-percentage short pass plays like the repeated 6-yard slant to Driver. The west coast offense is well suited to hide the lack of a solid running game, and Rodgers executes to perfection.

Of course, in order for the pass to consistently work, there needs to be some reason for the defense to believe the offense will run the ball. But Rodgers is willing to tuck the ball and run with it, and he does it well. In the past 3 years he has 11 touchdowns on the ground to go with 572 yards rushing on 126 attempts. When he rolls out or steps up in the pocket, the defense is forced to respect that he has that option.

Unfortunately, its difficult to wear a defense down in the passing game. But take a look at other teams who have overcome this problem in recent years: Indianapolis and New England. When you can't wear your opponent down physically, demoralize them by putting up big points on big passing plays. You know Rodgers has the arm, and Green Bay has a daunting receiving corps. It can't get much more demoralizing than trying to cover Jermichael Finley.

Now back to the running game. You can't pass on every play, and the backs on the roster are good enough for what the team needs to do. Brandon Jackson jukes too much to be an every down guy, but he's a solid 3rd down back and is perfect for screens, while John Kuhn can get you tough yardage when you need it. And if you're still not sold, remember that rookie RB James Starks should be ready to go around midseason, and the coaching staff is very high on his ability. He could provide a late season boost in time for a playoff run.

The Packers didn't lose Monday's game because of an inability to run. They lost because they were undisciplined. A better RB option would be nice, don't get me wrong. It just isn't a necessity for 2010 to be a good year in Green Bay.


Packers vs. Bears: still a marquee game?

This weekend the Packers and Bears are set to face off in a much storied rivalry that dates back to the 1920s. The game will be televised on Monday night, and the announcers will undoubtedly talk about the history of the series and detail some of the best moments from the past 90 years. They'll likely show clips of Charles Martin body slamming Jim McMahon and Refrigerator Perry bowling over green and gold clad players, highlighting the 80s when the rivalry was at its most brutal.

But then they'll show the quarterback carousel the Bears have endured over the past 20 years, and compare it to the consistency with which the Packers have been blessed. And then you'll start to wonder: does the rivalry still exist?

When I think Packers -Bears, I think of the Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Ralph and Sam, the wolf and sheepdog, who are pals until they clock in for the day and start going head to head. They battle in the daylight over a flock of sheep, with Ralph generally getting the short end of the stick, until the whistle blows and they walk off side by side to clock out. And really, though these two teams put in the work, the rivalry does feel a little hollow. I mean, can you imagine Dick Butkus hugging Bart Starr?

There are a number of reasons why the emotion in this match-up has dwindled, but the biggest factor is the lack of memorable incidents. The last classic Packers-Bears game is probably when Favre butchered the Bears on Halloween in the 1994. I was out trick-or-treating, and when asked by a man with a candy dish whether I was a Packers or Bears fan, naturally I replied Packers fan. I received no candy, a door in the face, and a valuable lesson on the magnitude of this rivalry.

I've attended several Packers-Bears games since that night, and experienced nothing but playful banter. In fact, I remember few details of the games, save for Demond Parker waving at his "hot" feet in the endzone during a 100 yard effort, the only of his 2-year career. Unfortunately the most memorable event at a Packers-Bears game in the past 15 years has to be Favre crying during a post-game interview on New Years Eve in 2006, back before we'd grown tired of his flirtation with retirement. Largely the series has been forgettable.

Now look to the north: this is not the case with the Vikings. In the time since that Halloween night, there have been game-turning interceptions, a Moss-mooning, last second field goals, an impossible reception by Antonio Freeman in OT, and a turncoat quarterback. Today there is hate brewing at every corner of every game, and there is nothing good natured about this rivalry. Its everything that Bears vs. Packers was in the 1980s.

Beyond this, rivalries are built upon competition, and while the Packers and Vikings have spent much of the past 15 years battling for first in the North, there has been little between Chicago and Green Bay. Green Bay leads the series since 1994 23-9, and 3 of those Bears wins came between 2005 and 2006, when the Packers were rebuilding and the Bears made it to the Super Bowl. You're supposed to throw the record out in true rivalry games. This hasn't been the case.
However, there seems to be something brewing in both cities right now. The Packers are a popular pick to reach the Super Bowl, and the Bears are tied with them atop the NFC North after a surprise win over the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams have young QBs with strong arms in offenses catering to them. Monday's game could prove to be a fight, and if the current trends hold for the division, the outcome of the series could be the difference between making the playoffs and staying home for either team.

Personally, I'd welcome it. To hell with the purple pukes up north. All things considered, the Vikings are an intruder. They're a wildcat who has snuck into the aforementioned cartoon, which makes Sam's job more difficult and Ralph's day even worse. Let them burn, and may the Bears reclaim their place atop the list of anticipated games for the Pack. Here's hoping for a hell of a game on Monday night.


Post-game trade in the works?

This week Green Bay hosts Buffalo, and the teams find themselves in somewhat similar situations: both suffered an injury to a key starter in week one, and both have found themselves painfully thin at their respective positions.

The scenarios:

Packers starting RB Ryan Grant (right) tore a ligament in his ankle, ironically the same injury which sidelined his oft-compared Holmgren-era counterpart Dorsey Levens in 1998. (By the way--who else was impressed by Ryan Grant's one-legged run into the locker room??) This left Green Bay with a journeyman (Brandon Jackson), a tweener fullback (John Kuhn), and a former Falcons' practice squadder (Dimitri Nance) as 1-2-3 on the depth chart.

Meanwhile, Bills starting inside linebacker Paul Posluszny sprained his knee in week 1, leaving him out for several weeks and set to be replaced by 6'0" 220 pound Keith Ellison. What's more is the Bills are in the first year of the 3-4, meaning Buffalo will essentially have a plus-sized safety taking on offensive linemen on a regular basis.

Sounds bad, right? If you're Mike McCarthy or Chan Gailey, you're hoping like crazy your GM can find you a trading partner, because the guys you put on your practice squad likely aren't ready to step up quite yet.

Well, read on.

The Bills have a logjam at running back, and former first rounder Marshawn Lynch (left) is serving the role Kregg Lumpkin would've served with the Packers had he not been cut: 3rd string. He's a product of Cal, and a former teammate of Aaron Rodgers. Naturally, Rodgers loves the idea.

The Packers have AJ Hawk (below), a middle linebacker coming off what Mike McCarthy calls "his best camp of the year," and nowhere to put him. In the Eagles game he didn't play a defensive snap, with Winston Moss stating after the game that he had packages which would have utilized Hawk, but the team "never got around to it." If we're playing word association, you say Hawk, I say expendable.

Now, normally this sort of thing is just typical message board fantasy football, and naturally you can't trade with the team you're playing this Sunday. But there seems to be a few bread crumbs which suggest this thing may have legs.

AJ Hawk's house in DePere, WI, is selling for $1.65 mil and his agent stated that his client is "open to a trade." Meanwhile, Lynch was on the trading block, albeit for a third round draft pick teams were reluctant to give up, until recently. Reports now are that Lynch is no longer available. You can take this at face value, that the Bills want to be really, really, really sure their running game is secure. But perhaps he's already spoken for.

Its speculation, but not unsubstantiated. Regardless of what either team says publicly, these two players may be swapping jerseys Monday morning.


Tramon Williams, VIP

"You've got a roster of 53 guys and you have to put those guys to use."

That's a quote from Tramon Williams, who on Monday was revealed to be the opening day punt returner for the Green Bay Packers and is perhaps the most important of those 53 in 2010 not named Aaron Rodgers.

With Ted Thompson's recent decision to part ways with oft-injured Will Blackmon, Mike McCarthy found himself in an interesting predicament with no true return specialist on the roster. Enter Williams, former specialist and current starting cornerback for the Green Bay Packers.

Now, the knee-jerk reaction to his decision is "you're bleeping nuts, Mike!" and its an understandable response. The concern when it comes to putting starters in at special teams is always injury, and remember, Al Harris is out half of the season and is not guaranteed to regain his form after blowing out his knee last year. People are naturally concerned about what an injury might mean: either perennial Packer punching bag Jarrett Bush or undrafted rookie free agent Sam Shields starting opposite Charles Woodson (I just shuddered typing that). Clay Matthews is a beast coming off the corner, but as the Steelers and Cardinals showed us last year, the pass rush can only hide so much. If Williams is injured on a return, Mike McCarthy will need to start grocery shopping with body guards.

But McCarthy really has no choice. He can't have Shields fielding punts after his whoops-a-daisy showings early in the preseason, and putting the reigning defensive player of the year back there would be truly careless. Woodson would do it without so much as a blink, but because Dom Capers leans heavily on his versatility, he's as indispensable on defense as Aaron Rodgers is on offense. Its not a risk worth taking.

Of course, the punt returner doesn't have to be a cornerback. The wide receiver corps is very deep, and an injury wouldn't seem to have such an impact. But backup Jordy Nelson is already returning kicks, and last season proved ineffective as a punt returner after posting a 5.4 yard average, roughly half of Williams' 10.4. Meanwhile, starter Greg Jennings is listed as the #2 return man, and would seem to be the more logical option considering the depth behind him. At this point, though, you're pitting two starting skill position players against each other, and Williams has much more experience with returns at the pro level. McCarthy made the logical choice.

So here we are. As crazy as it sounds, this is really the Packers' best option. Unless Thompson brings in another return specialist, the season's fate may rest on the healthy body of Tramon Williams. Its a bit disconcerting, I know, but let's try to focus on the positive: the punt-return game is in able hands.