And no, this isn't a letter to the producers of Larry David's hilarious HBO show.
Larry must read fast if he can read the New York Times in twenty 30-second trips.
Green Bay beat Arizona 44-37 last night, but the game was 38-17 going into the fourth quarter. As the Packers' scrubs took the field, Matt Leinart went off for 3 touchdowns and made the game far closer than anyone could imagine. Still, the game wasn't nearly as close as the final score would suggest; it was a thoroughly dominating performance by Green Bay on all fronts, just like the previous two preseason games.
Yes, they have looked spectacular on nearly all fronts. The team is showing the symptoms of greatness. Preseason predictions are transforming into post-season ones, and there's not much opposition. But I'm here to be the proverbial rain on the parade, whether you like it or not.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to be excited about. Like how the first team defense only allowed 10 points to the Cardinals, one of the best offenses in the NFL, ending the shutout streak from the first two games. Or how the offense is averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Or how they have a +10 turnover ratio through the first three games. Or how the offensive line hasn't let anyone lay a finger on the starting QB.
Let's talk more about that defense. The Legion of Dom has made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks with superior line play, excellent coverage packages, and disguised blitzes out of the 3-4. How miserable? 11 sacks, 8 interceptions, and 8 forced fumbles worth. And this, which was pretty sweet.
Wanna talk individual performances? How about Charles Woodson? Last night, he had four tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, recovered one of them, and generally made Shaft look like a sissy. So this is what Chuck looks like when he's healthy, considering his campaign in 2008 was hindered by a toe injury.
Wait, he did what last year? Holy moly.
Defense isn't your thing? Let's talk offense. How about Jermichael Finley, who is turning last year's frustrating performance into a push for Donald Lee's job? In three games, he has 9 catches for 92 yards and 2 scores, but his play cannot be quantified by stats. The only numbers that matter are these: 6'5", 247, 4.76, 29". Those are his height, weight, 40 time, and vertical leap. You add massive improvements to blocking and route running, and you have a big time weapon on your hands. He's a mismatch for anyone who tries to cover him: too fast for linebackers, too big for cornerbacks, too athletic for safeties. And since he can line up in a three-point stance or split out, he's nearly impossible to jam at the line. Words cannot express how excited I am about Finley this season.
And how about the wide receivers? Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson have all combined for 16 catches, 345 yards, and 3 touchdowns. That's including a 76-yard bomb to Nelson, who was matched up against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the NFL's better corners; when Nelson caught the ball off of the playaction, he was at least 7 yards in front of DRC. In the business, that's what we call a nice play.
And can we talk about Aaron Rodgers for a minute? In three preseason games, he's put up 458 yards on 71% passing, has 12 yards per attempt, and has a TD/INT split of 6/0. Oh, and his QB rating is 151.1. And he can move in the pocket and turn a sure sack into an incompletion at worst. Nearly every ball he's thrown has been perfect. And his best target (Greg Jennings) is gonna be OK after that hit he took last night. He sufferred a minor concussion (then again, when is a brain bruise ever minor?), and will be 100% well before the opener against Chicago.
I don't know about you, but I need to sit down for a second. Get my bearings. There's just too much excitement for me to handle. As I said before, there are signs of greatness on this team. Each skill position is positively stacked, the less talented players are executing well, and the coaching has been superb. There's a chance for the 2009 Packers to be something special.
What I want is for everyone to just calm down.
* * *
Remember, they have not played a dominant running team yet. The Vikings still have
Chad Steve Hutchinson and Adrian Peterson, who I think could run for 1,000 yards with just Chad Steve blocking and AP running. Matt Forte is far more potent than Fred Jackson, Jamal Lewis, and Beanie Wells. And Kevin Smith is a top-20 back handicapped by a bad offensive line. Remember how poor the run defense was last season? Don't think that keeping the Bills, Browns, and Cards at bay is a sign of a complete turnaround.
Besides, Beanie Wells had a few highlight plays of his own against our starters. Check out this video, and take notice of the poor angles taken by Packer defenders, the failure to disengage from blockers, and bad attempts at tackles.
Also, they have not played a dominant defense yet. The Bills and Browns are not stalwarts, and the Cardinals are merely above-average on a good day. Yes, the offense was top-10 last season, and they have had an excellent showing in the preseason, but preseason is short for "the defense is going to try to run the right play but not try too hard because they don't want to get hurt just yet."
And don't forget the Cardinals' fourth quarter performance. Matt Leinart singlehandedly willed the Cards back into the game by sparking a 27-point second half, albeit against Green Bay's backups. But this is a sign of a potential depth issue on defense. If a critical player gets hurt, one of these backups is going to have to step up. If the backups allow 360 yards and 3 TD's to Leinart and the Cardinals' second- and third-stringers, how are they going to perform when faced with NFL starters?
All this aside, my biggest concern lies with a few key players.
1. Mason Crosby. The Colorado Kid has dynamite for a leg, but he's struggled with accuracy. He's 4/7 through three games, but his misses are from 29, 48, 55, and 60 yards. The first two are really the only misses that concern me, but his inability to hit the long ball in game situations takes away the option of a 50+ yard attempt later in the season.
2. Quinn Johnson. Johnson hasn't done too much in the preseason. His lead blocking abilities were supposed to open huge holes for the running game, but that really hasn't happened. I liked the prospect of the fifth-round pick blowing linebackers up at the second level, but nobody's seen it yet, which makes his likelihood of making the roster less than a sure thing.
This concern is pointed not only at Quinn Johnson, but at the running game as a whole. While it might be a by-product of the passing game's explosiveness, the offense hasn't fully exhibited the type of ball control offense needed to hang onto close games. Maybe it's because Ryan Grant has only gotten 21 carries, or because the offensive line has just ended the position battles. All I know is that I wanted to see some strong running, and the only back that's shown it consistently is Tyrell Sutton, who should but might not make the roster.
3. A.J. Hawk. There's been a lot of talk about A.J. Hawk in the last two weeks, mainly concerned with his fit (or lack thereof) in the new 3-4 defense. Maybe it's his short arms, or his injury history, or his skill set, or his athletic tendencies. We really don't have much of a clue as to why he's been struggling, or even if he really is struggling and we're just creating the illusion of a problem where there is none.
Here's what it really comes down to; in three preseason games, here's the tackling totals for Green Bay's inside linebackers:
|Desmond Bishop||16 tackles, 2 assists, 1 sack|
|Danny Lansanah||11 tackles, 2 assists|
|Brandon Chillar||7 tackles, 3 assists|
|A.J. Hawk||1 tackle, 2 assists|
To be sure, this is not the kind of performance expected out of a 5th overall pick who's playing style racks up tackles like Steve Nash racks up assists. He's been around the ball, but he constantly ends up on the ground or pushed in the opposite direction. He hasn't gotten to the quarterback the way people thought he would. He's being outperformed by nearly every linebacker on the roster.
The point of all this talk is this: the coaches need to put the right players on the field to give the team the highest chance of success. If that means A.J. Hawk doesn't fit into that simple criterion, then he needs to be either coached and developed better, benched, traded, or cut.
I am a huge A.J. Hawk fan; his jersey was the first Packer jersey I bought when I started getting money with which I could buy jerseys. (My first actual jersey was an Allen Iverson home jersey...the year before he got traded. That sucked.) I like the way Hawk plays, I admire him for playing as hurt as he did last year, and I think he has the tools to be a solid starter in this league. But I have my doubts as to whether or not he's a good fit for the fast-paced finesse-heavy 3-4 defense that the team is installing.
* * *
To sum up, the Packers have shown a lot of growth and development from last year's 6-10 campaign. Fans are perfectly justified in predicting great things this year; the team has shown several great things in only a few weeks. I myself will go out on a limb and predict that Green Bay will end up with the division.
But don't let the early success get to your head. There are legitimate concerns about parts of our roster. The team to beat is still Minnesota. Chicago is still neck-and-neck with us. Detroit simply won't go without a fight anymore. Nothing is a given, everything is fluid.
So when other fans come over here and talk smack, let them. When other sites post ridiculous articles that make wild assertions about their delusions of Green Bay's shortcomings, don't respond. When media outlets hype up other players and other teams while leaving ours on the side, don't complain about it.
Because come September 13th, the Packers are going to start the season, and you'll see a drop in the smack talk on the site. After September 20th, you'll notice a huge dropoff in the Packer bashing. By September 27th, you might see a Green Bay highlight in the first half hour of SportsCenter.
Then October 5th will come, and it is legitimately the most important game of the year. If Green Bay wants the division, they're going to have to take it from last year's champion. It's going to be a huge event, transcending the sport and focusing on the celebrity component that will dominate the coverage. This game will be a turning point in not just the 2009 season, but the momentum of the rivalry.
2009 figures to be a big year for the Packers. But for now, curb your enthusiasm, and let's focus on Tennessee.