Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Packers Won the Super Bowl! Season in Review.

Before the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, I wrote “notes” on Facebook about the upcoming games. My cousin Scott’s weekly blog updates inspired me to write those notes, and I enjoyed doing them, so he invited me to write for his blog, which I gladly accepted. So thank you for the opportunity Scott! Since this is my first post on the blog, it will be long because I’m going to recap the season for me, and I’m still excited about the Super Bowl win so I have a lot to write! So this will be a summary of what was an unbelievable season for me.

I had high expectations going into the season, but I had some concerns going into the season that not many other people were talking about. My main concern was what were the Packers going to do at nickel back? It was no secret that after Al Harris got hurt last year, their defense was vulnerable to good passing teams. Many people told me the cornerback situation wouldn’t be a problem since Al Harris would return from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list after week 6. That never eased my concerns though. What were they going to do those first six weeks at corner? I didn’t trust Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee, or Jarrett Bush. Besides, even after Al Harris returns, he was never that fast of a corner anyway, he’s getting older, and he just blew out his knee the previous year. How well would he be able to overcome that injury, and would he ever been his old self? I didn’t think he was a particularly good fit for the 3-4 defense either, so I was never confident of him making a big impact this year.

So the nickel back was my fear coming into the season, but I was wrong. Not because Al Harris would come back and make an impact: he didn’t. They released him mid-season and never took him off the PUP list. The Dolphins signed him only to release him later in the season. I was right about Al Harris, he’s done. But the guy who stepped up into that nickel spot right away in the season and played fantastic was not one of the three veterans I mentioned in the previous paragraph; it was an undrafted rookie from the University of Miami: Sam Shields. When the Packers signed him as a free agent, I was excited: not because of his cornerback ability, but I thought he would be a good kick returner. My only knowledge of him was watching him return a kickoff for 84 yards against the Badgers in the 2009 Champ Sports Bowl. So I was excited the Packers found a kick returner finally.

Well what I didn’t realize: Sam Shields can’t catch kickoffs. The 84 yard return I saw was a reverse to him, and apparently for good reason. But little did I know that Sam Shields would fill that nickel slot and possibly be one of the best nickel backs in the league (though when Shields is in, which is the majority of snaps, he’s on the outside and Charles Woodson actually plays the nickel slot). I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong: I wanted the Packers to draft Kyle Wilson, cornerback out of Boise State, in the 2010 draft. They took Brian Bulaga at 23 instead, and he did a good (not amazing, but good) job as a starting tackle in his rookie season. Kyle Wilson went to the Jets at 29, and he saw very little playing time. So at least for this season, he didn’t live up to what was expected of him. Sam Shields was one of two best rookie cornerbacks this year, and he was undrafted. The other, Devin McCourtney, went at 27, four picks after Bulaga. So while McCourtney would’ve been a solid pick as well, we got Bulaga AND Sam Shields. So, once again, Ted Thompson proves he knows what he’s doing better than the fans. But Sam Shields emerged as the nickel back the Packers needed to be an elite team and defense, and nobody saw that coming.

So the nickel back wasn’t a problem all year; in fact, it was the opposite, the Packers played the nickel back something like 75% of the time, unheard of in the NFL, and they had a lot of success in it. They actually were more of a 2-4-5 team than a 3-4 team. If I knew the nickel back problem would be resolved, I would’ve been very confident going into the season, but of course, other problems arose.
The Packers suffered more significant injuries than any team in the NFL. To name a few of the most significant ones: starting runningback Ryan Grant went out for the season week 1, starting inside linebacker and former All-Pro Nick Barnett went out for the season in week 4 ,and starting tight end and possibly the second most talented player on offense (next to Aaron Rodgers) Jermichael Finley went out for the season in week 5. These are just three of the sixteen players who went on injury reserve for the season; many others would’ve been huge for the team as well. It didn’t make me feel any more confident when the Packers started 3-3, with 3 close losses. And they failed to trade a third round pick for Marshawn Lynch, a guy who I thought would’ve been a big help to the Packers. So six weeks into the season I was not confident at all.

But the Packers pulled off some impressive victories to get me excited again. They shut-out the Jets in New York, which few expected. They beat the Vikings twice, including a 31-3 beat down in Minnesota that cost Brad Childress his job. They dominated Dallas on Sunday Night Football, which also cost Wade Phillips his job. While you might say beating Dallas and Minnesota doesn’t mean much now, these were two teams expected to make possible Super Bowl runs going into the season, and both of them have a lot of talent on them. These were some big wins for the Packers, but questions still arose if they could win a close game.
Then they went to Atlanta, considered the best team in the NFC at the time. They played a great game and should’ve won big, but some crucial turnovers and a defensive letdown at the end allowed the Falcons a last second winning field goal. This seemed too familiar to Packers fans; they could play with anyone, but they had trouble sealing the deal. The following week they beat up a bad 49ers team, who would also later fire their coach in the season. It was a nice win, but didn’t answer some of my concerns.

The next week came the low point of the Packers season. The Packers lost to the Lions in Detroit 7-3. Aaron Rodgers missed over a half with a concussion, but he didn’t look very effective in the game when he was in either. Not to mention, the Lions were on their third string quarterback Drew Stanton. The defense played good for the most part, but the offense was terrible. And the Packers fell far behind in the race for the division title, and the wild card was even a long shot. Even Scott, perhaps the most optimistic Packer fan I know (which I love about him), said in his blog that this loss was probably the end of the season and he said “barring a near miracle, the 2010 season looks as though it'll go down as the most disappointing Packers season of my life.” I shared his sentiment though.

The following week was an interesting week for the Packers. First they were playing the Patriots in New England, who were the hottest team in football at the time. Aaron Rodgers was out with a concussion, and Matt Flynn was making his first career start. Everyone was picking a Patriot domination, including me. I made score predictions throughout the season, and I expected the Patriots to win huge in that game, which I don’t think I ever did before. But the Packers shocked people, they outplayed the Patriots, and ended up losing by 4 points on the final play after giving up some inexcusable plays to help the Patriots out. They lost, but the team learned that, even without their starting quarterback, they could play with the best teams in the league. However, the close loss, while impressive, continued to raise the question if they could win big games. But even with that impressive loss, they got huge help with the Eagles mounting a major comeback, and returning a punt for a touchdown in the last seconds, to defeat the Giants. The Buccaneers also lost. So all the Packers had to do was win their next two games, both at home, but both against good opponents: the Giants and the Bears. Then they would qualify for the playoffs. So to win the Super Bowl, the Packers needed to win six straight games – no easy take, regardless of the opponents.

I went to the Giants game in Green Bay the following week, unfortunately the only game I went to this season. For both teams, it was practically a playoff game. Giants would’ve qualified with a win, and the Packers would’ve been eliminated. But the Packers just dominated the game and won 45-17 and an extremely fun game to go to for me. Aaron Rodgers looked fantastic in first game back from a concussion.

The next week, the Packers played one of their two biggest rivals, the Chicago Bears (between them and the Vikings, depends on who you talk to). The Bears were playing for nothing except to keep their momentum going and to try to knock their divisional rival out of the playoffs, who they likely feared making it knowing how good of a team they were. The Bears played their starters the entire game and put 100% effort into it, which I was very impressed with and I gained respect for Lovie Smith for going all out in a meaningless game for his team. However, the Packers won a close game 10-3, after the Bears drove down the field at the end only to throw a game ending interception. Note the defense making a huge stop in the late game to secure the victory in a close game: this becomes a trend. And this is not something I don’t think most Packer fans are used to.

So the Packers qualified for the playoffs and were playing against the Eagles in Philadelphia! This was actually the game of the playoffs I felt least confident about. Their first game of the season: played the Philadelphia Eagles in Philly. The Packers won in Philadelphia in week 1, but it was a close game, and Michael Vick only played a half after Kevin Kolb got a concussion. This was the beginning of Vick’s “comeback season.” Vick played very well and brought the Eagles back into the game; however, Dom Capers was gameplanning for a Kolb team, and Vick presented a whole new challenge. Nonetheless, the Packers stopped Vick and the Eagles late to hold onto a close win. Early on, the Packers attacked the Eagles early and often, and James Stark had his national coming out party. They had a chance to put the game out of reach by halftime, but James Jones dropped a major touchdown just before halftime that may have sealed the game (I have more thoughts on James Jones that I’ll save for another blog post). However, the Eagles made a late push for a lead on the last drive of the game, and Tramon Williams had a game ending interception in the end zone. Finally the nation learned what Packers fans knew all season: Tramon Williams is one of the elite cornerbacks in the NFL.

So the Packers headed to the #1 seed Atlanta, where they lost on a last second field a couple months earlier. The Falcons were 13-3, “Matty Ice” Ryan was 20-2 at home in his NFL career, and the Falcons were coming off a bye so they were well rested. But I felt more confident about this game than I did the Eagles. I never believed the Falcons were that good of a team, mostly just a lucky team. So I picked the Packers to win, which some people gave me grief for since I had a bad record picking Packer games in the regular season. But I honestly did not see the Packers losing to the Falcons. I just expected the game to be close. Early on, it looked like it would be close, or the Falcons might dominate. They scored early and were winning at two different points in the first quarter (the ONLY game the Packers trailed in the playoffs from what I recall… Think about that for a second). But the Packers dominated that game like I’ve rarely seen in the playoffs, and Aaron Rodgers had one of the all-time best playoff games in NFL history: 31/36 for 366 yards, 3 touchdowns passing, and another touchdown rushing. Unbelievable. But as impressive as Aaron Rodgers was, the play that changed the game and was the most important came from Tramon Williams. The Falcons had success rushing against the Packers the first time they played, and they had success at the beginning of the play-off game. So their gameplan was to continue running on the Packers, but with the Packers holding a 21-14 lead shortly before halftime, the Falcons tried to gain a few yards to get in better field goal position. Matt Ryan threw an out to Roddy White, but Tramon Williams stepped in front of it and impressively returned it for a touchdown. Instead of it being 21-17 going into halftime, it was 28-14, and the Packers commanded the game the rest of the way. The Falcons had to abandon the run, and Matt Ryan had no success passing on the Packers defense. Aaron Rodgers was hot, so the Falcons couldn’t afford to try to get in a shoot-out with the Packers. After the dominating 48-21 performance, I honestly believed the Packers had a good chance to win the Super Bowl, though I still remained nervous.

Then the Packers returned to Chicago to play their divisional rival Bears in the NFC Championship. The oldest rivals in the NFL meet for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. The Bears beat the Packers early in the season in Chicago on a last second field goal, in a game where the Packers committed an absurd 18 penalties. The Packers beat the Bears in the final regular season game to qualify for the playoffs, but it was a close (10-3) game, and the Bears were driving at the end to tie or possibly win before a Packers interception. The game was meaningless for the Bears: they were the #2 seed in the playoffs, win or lose, but they played because they wanted momentum and they wanted to knock the Packers out of the playoffs. I told my brother Dan I had a lot of respect for Lovie Smith for playing that game so hard. Going into the NFC Championship, I had no question the Packers were the better team, but I also knew the Bears always played the Packers tough, and for whatever reason, Aaron Rodgers had more trouble with the Bears defense than anyone else. I watched the game at my brother Dan’s house, and the night before, we watched a replay of the earlier Packers loss to the Bears on the NFL Network. After watching that, I was more convinced than ever that the Packers would win; the Packers should’ve dominated that game if not for so many uncharacteristic mental mistakes.

The Packers got off to an early lead against the Bears and looked like they were going to run away from the game. Just before half, as the Bears were driving for points, but Sam Shields came away with a crucial interception, preserving a 14-0 lead. But Jay Cutler got hurt and only played for a little over a half, and I said to Dan that this might actually be bad for the Packers: without Cutler, Mike Martz might actually run the ball, which is the way I predicted the Bears would be able to beat the Packers. Martz is too stubborn to run the ball with his starting quarterbacks, and has cost his teams many victories because of this (See: Super Bowl Eventually the Bears did have some success running the ball and third string QB Haleb Canie was looking decent, and it changed the momentum some. They cut the lead 14-7, and I was nervous. Then B.J. Raji, underrated but dominant second year defensive tackle, dropped in a zone blitz and intercepted a pass, running it in for a touchdown – a 340lb guy scoring a touchdown in the NFC Championship game! Dan, my sister-in-law Jeanne, their kids, and I celebrated like the Packers made the Super Bowl! We thought that was game: a 14 point lead in the fourth quarter should’ve sealed it. But Haleb Canie drove the Bears down to a score to cut it to 21-14, the Packers offense stuttered on the next drive, and the game seemed in question. The Bears were driving the field again, but on 4th down Sam Shields came away with his second interception to clinch the game. Remember, the initial concern I had coming into season was the Packers nickel back, and in the NFC Championship game, an undrafted rookie came away with two interceptions as a nickel back! Sam Shields was a significant piece that helped lead the Packers to the Super Bowl.

So after the Packers beat the Bears, Dan, Jeanne, and I watched to see who the Packers would face in the Super Bowl: Steelers or Jets. I figured the Steelers would win, but I was much more confident that the Packers could beat the Jets. The Steelers jumped out to an early lead, but the Jets rallied just to fall short at the end (similar to the Packers victory over the Bears). At the beginning of the game, I thought the Steelers would beat the Packers, but after watching them I became less convinced. I thought the Packers had a legitimate shot at beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl! But I still had my doubts.

The two weeks between the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl were exciting, but nerve wrecking. I spent a lot of free time thinking about the individual matchups and the different game plans trying to figure out who had the edge. Honestly, there were nights I had trouble falling asleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about the game. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became the Packers had the edge and probably should win. The Steelers were a good team and I wasn’t discounting them winning by any means, but I believed the Packers had the advantage. The one thing people kept saying was “the Steelers had the advantage in Super Bowl experience.” I never bought that; that may help the Steelers during Media Day, but once the game starts, it’s still football, and both teams have experience playing football. So I tried to think about other ways the Steelers could win: one thing people were saying was the Steelers had a good running game and the Packers run defense was vulnerable. The Packers run defense wasn’t spectacular during the season, but it also wasn’t as bad as people made it seem. Remember, the Packers played with 2 defensive linemen on the majority of plays, which may have left them open to the run a little more. So teams would break off nice runs and occasionally get some yards on the ground, but I said few teams were able to drive down the field running the ball against the Packers. So I discounted the significance of the two advantages the Steelers supposedly had over the Packers: experience and the running game.

I thought a lot about how the Packers could win the game. Teams haven’t effectively rushed against the Steelers all season, and the Packers running game obviously wasn’t their strength. But the Steelers pass defense was vulnerable; their secondary was not that good, and with Aaron Rodgers spreading the field with four fast receivers in a dome, I thought the Packers offense could score on the Steelers. The more I thought about it, the more confident I became. I even took the step to call into a national sports radio show for the first time ever (Sean Pendergast) the Friday night before the game to explain how I believed the Packers would win by spreading the field and throwing on the Steelers. Sean, while picking the Steelers, admitted I made a solid point, and after the Packers won by doing what I said, he gave me credit for it on Monday.

I didn’t expect the win to come easy. I knew the Steelers would put up a fight, but I didn’t expect that fight to include losing a starting wide receiver and two starting cornerbacks (I consider Sam Shields a starter since the Packers play the nickel more than a standard 3-4) who were so important to our team. While I expected the game to be close, the Packers jumped out to a huge 21-3 lead early in the game, and I started to think it would be a blow-out. The Steelers had some success running against the Packers, but not enough to sustain long drives against the Packers. Also, great passing by Aaron Rodgers and a huge interception returned for a touchdown by Nick Collins gave the Packers a large lead and made the Steelers more pass oriented (like the Packers game against the Falcons). But then the injuries started: Driver, Shields, Woodson, all missed over a half of the game, and the Steelers cut it to 21-10 at halftime. The injuries to Driver, Woodson, and Shields changed everything, and I became extremely nervous. Now the Packers really needed their backup receivers and cornerbacks to step up and make plays.

So at halftime of the Super Bowl, my concern returned to the concern I had in the pre-season for the Packers: the cornerback position. With losing Sam Shields and Charles Woodson, the Packers needed to depend on both Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush to keep the Steelers from scoring! The thought of this terrified me: last year the Steelers scored 37 points against the Packers when Jarrett Bush was the nickel back, and this is when Charles Woodson was still in the lineup! The Packers offense obviously needed to step up too to put up enough points to fend off the Steelers, so the pressure was on.

And the Packers did not handle the pressure well at first. Brett Swain, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones dropping crucial passes kept the Steelers in the game. Jordy Nelson had a good game overall, but dropped a few significant passes that I have trouble forgiving him for. I do not care to see James Jones and Brett Swain on the roster next season because I think the Packers can upgrade at the position and be even more dangerous offensively, but I’ll save that for another post. Meanwhile, Jarrett Bush, while having a nice pick in the first half, got embarrassed on a touchdown by Hines Ward that cut the lead to 4. If the receivers wouldn't have dropped so many balls, and the cornerbacks didn't get hurt, this game would have been a blow-out.

The Steelers got the ball back in good field position, and looked to take their first lead of the game. Cameras caught Outside Linebackers coach Kevin Greene (former Steeler) saying to Clay Matthews before the play “Since Woodson is out, NO ONE has stepped up as a leader. It’s time… It’s time.” I found these to be beautiful words of encouragement trying to get a young star and future leader to step up into his role. Then before the play, Clay told the defense “I think they’re running at me, they’re looking at me… This play is headed toward me!” On the next play, Rashard Mendenhall got the ball and was headed toward Clay’s side, but first he got nailed in the backfield by both Ryan Pickett and Clay, and Clay’s hit knocked the ball loose, which Desmond Bishop scooped up. This play was a significant game-changer that swung momentum back in the Packers’ favor.

The Packers had good field position and they were looking to takeover this game. Aaron Rodgers, despite his receivers’ drops, was not giving up and drove the Packers down to take a 28-17 lead with a Greg Jennings touchdown. I celebrated, but I knew this game was far from over. The Steelers got the ball back, drove the field, and beat an injured Sam Shields for a touchdown. Shields wanted to try to play through his injury, but only made it a few plays. The Steelers convert the two-point conversion and it’s 28-25 with plenty of time left.

The Packers next drive was crucial for the Packers: they desperately needed points and to take time off the clock. This drive could have been a legendary drive for Rodgers. How would he respond? It didn’t look good at first and second down, but on third and 10, Rodgers hits Jennings running a seam route for a huge gain. This was one of the biggest plays of the game for the Packers. It kept the Steelers offense off the field and they would have had good field position. The Packers continued to drive, and McCarthy trusted in his quarterback on this drive, just like he needed to. However, the Packers stalled on third and goal and had to settle for a field goal. The field goal helped because it made the Steelers score a touchdown, but the Packers needed a touchdown to seal the game there. It was a good drive , but that drive wasn’t the legendary drive Packer fans hoped for because once again, just like against the Eagles and the Bears twice during this “must win” span of six games, the Packers offense was unable to seal the game and depended on the defense to stop the opposing team from taking the lead or tying the game.

We all know: Roethlisberger has had a last minute Super Bowl comeback before. Could he do it again against the Packers fourth and fifth string cornerbacks? I didn’t feel very confident in the Packers chances of stopping the Steelers since I don’t trust Jarrett Bush or Pat Lee on defense. The Steelers gained a first down on the first play, then gained five yards. Then Dom Capers decided the Packers needed to put some pressure on Big Ben or his cornerbacks would get eaten up. So he started blitzing heavier, and this worked. Under pressure, Big Ben missed his next two throws, so it was fourth and five. Mike Wallace runs a curl route and Big Ben throws it to him, but Tramon Williams (hero of so many games this season) reads the play and swats the ball away. Ball game. The Packers could just take a victory kneel down.

The Packers won the Super Bowl! I still can’t believe it. What an impressive six game run to end the season too. In the six must-win games for the Packers, they beat teams with a combined record (including playoffs) of 71-34, which is equal to about 68%. That is remarkable to beat so many good teams in a row, and three of those were away, and one was neutral. Also as impressive was not only the injuries the Packers overcame during the season, but overcoming the injuries in the Super Bowl. My biggest fear coming into the season is that the Packers would have Jarrett Bush, Pat Lee, or Brandon Underwood as their nickel back, and I don’t like any of them. I thought that was the Packers weakness. As I said earlier, Shields filled that roll for the season. But in the Super Bowl, with Woodson and Shields out, both Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee are playing! You can imagine how nervous that made me. But honestly, they did a serviceable job; they weren’t great (Bush had an interception, but also got beat pretty bad for a touchdown), but it wasn’t a disaster like I would’ve expected. What an incredible season for the Packers, and barring a major injury to Aaron Rodgers, you have to think they’ll continue to contend for years. Sure, we thought the same thing about the 96 Packers, but they were an older team and Holmgren had bigger aspirations. The Packers are young and their GM and coach situation should be stable for years to come. If there is a season next year, I am optimistic about the Packers chances. If the deal doesn’t get done until August or September, it will – in a way – favor the Packers since they have such continuity, and teams implementing new schemes or bringing in a lot of new players will struggle.

This post ended up being much longer – and taking much longer – than I initially anticipated, but I enjoyed going back and thinking about the season again. I can’t wrap up a Super Bowl season as exciting as this one without rambling on! Look for a future post about what the Packers should or will do in the off-season whenever that off-season occurs, then I’ll also write one (or more) about the draft.

No comments: