Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Divisional Round Reaction, Part 1: The G-Men Triumph

And just like that, the season is over. 

After trouncing the opposition in a record-breaking fashion, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers can add their name to the litany of teams who failed to repeat.  

Defending champs often shock their fan base in the season following their triumph.  Some limp into the postseason.  Others miss the playoffs all together.  Yet, despite the impressive regular season, this Green Bay underachievement may rank among the all time ex-champion let downs.  For 17 weeks, the superiority of Green Bay seemed unquestioned.  Even after their baffling loss to Kansas City, they were still the near unanimous best NFL squad in the mind of players and pundits.  Even when New Orleans built up the kind of momentum that would send a minivan filled with the Ryan family off the tarmac, few put Green Bay off the top spot.  Yet, for the third straight year, a number one overall seed will fail to win a postseason game. 

I can’t say the result surprised me.  A balls-ier, less hardheaded man in my position would have chosen the G-Men.  But I just couldn’t do it.  Green Bay was my team all along.  I predicted an undefeated season.  If I abandoned them heading into this past weekend’s game, what kind of statement would that say about me?  I’d be jumping ship on what was the world’s most beautifully constructed vessel, which would have been especially shocking when you look at the hurricane-endured boat in front of them. 

The Giants-Packers showdown offered a buffet of ways a game can be completely altered.  We had fumbles, dropped passes, poorly thrown balls, failed onside kicks (I actually loved the call) and, fresh off my Ranting and Raving article from last week, straight-up, heinous, shameful, downright fire-ably bad replay officiating.  But, even with all this and more, the game comes down to two plays that should have never happened.  The first, obviously, is the completed Hail Marry to Hakeem Nicks at the end of the first half.  Allowing something like that should be at the top of any blunder list (not to take credit away from Nicks.  Hail Marry’s should just never happen).  When it’s not, you know whatever took its place must be historically awful… and it was.

Success is measured by the ability to adapt to changes and unexpected situations.  This is something that goes beyond sports.  Flexibility and quick thinking is paramount to accomplish almost anything.  At the start of the second half, these traits appeared to have found their way into the Green Bay locker room.  The Giants had zero first downs in the third quarter.  Green Bay’s offense wasn’t exactly running wild, but the lead was cut to just a touchdown as the fourth quarter began. 
Nicks caught the ball just as NY Giants receivers are instructed to...
with the helmet.
Then the inexplicable happened.  With 13:00 minutes (thirteen full minutes!) left in the fourth quarter and at New York’s 39-yard line, the normally good, Mike McCarthy, called a play that we should see time and time again.  It should be at the top of the list on any NFL Films 50 Worst Coaching Decisions.  His decision to go for it on fourth and five makes Belichick’s 4th and 2 decision against Indianapolis in 2009 look about as commonplace and disturbing as road kill.    

There is no justification for what McCarthy did.  McCarthy’s decision was based on nothing one could even misconstrue as strategy.  Let me assure you, there is exactly zero hindsight bias when I say, it was, quite simply, the worst call I have ever, ever seen. It’s like McCarthy said, “You know what, I’m f-ing bored.  I’ve gotta make it home in time for the Napoleon Dynamite premier.”  Once Michael Boley dragged Rodgers down to the ground, the game was over.

It was the type of play you expect to find in the Beginner lounge of Madden 12.  Facing a clearly more prepared opponent, McCarthy believed that that fourth down play was as close as he could get to victory, a shocking notion when you consider the Green Bay quarterback.

One must be careful not to over blow the effects of a single play throughout the course of a game.  You can’t just say, “They should have gotten seven points here, which means the game would have been tied and they could have won in overtime.”  Every play impacts all the others that come after it.  But, in the case of McCarthy’s demise, a successful punt would have been game altering.    

Let me remind you that there were thirteen minutes left in the game.  Even if Green Bay punter, Tim Masthay, sent the ball into the end zone, netting just 18 yards, the Giants would have needed to produce a drive totaling over 40 yards to even think about taking a game-ending field goal.  If the defense could have limited New York to less than 40 yards, Rodgers would have had about five minutes to go roughly 80 yards.  Of course, that is a worst-case scenario. 

Masthay should have been able to pin New York inside their own ten, or at least fifteen.  Do you think Coughlin would have been aggressive with his team up by a touchdown, deep in their own territory, with nearly a full quarter remaining?  Of course not.  If the Packers could have stop what would have surely been two runs to open up the drive, they could have received the ball essentially just 25 yards deeper than when they decided to go for it on fourth down.

The more I dive into the colossal mishap, I cannot help but get even more frustrated.  Was McCarthy just impatient or was there something else at play?  Prior to the fourth down decision, the Packers suffered their biggest missed opportunity of the season.  Rodgers dropped back and missed a wide-open Jermichael Finley running across the middle of the field.  Both men seemed to indicate it was the other’s fault, but I have to think the blame falls on Rodgers.  Even if Finley made his cut a yard short of the intended route, there’s just no way that ball doesn’t get completed in Week 9.  Rodgers needed to put the ball right on his tight end’s hands.  Hubris must have been a driving factor behind the fourth down decision.  The Packers ran a perfect play to get the needed yardage on third down.  What was stopping them from doing it again? 

The future will judge where this Green Bay team ranks historically.  A Super Bowl run would have certainly cemented them among the all-time greats, especially since it would have be a repeat championship season.  But, now?  They are nothing special; a flavor of the week.  This 2011 Green Bay team will be nothing more than a vestige of a championship one that was able to ascend to the top of the rankings in a season certainly altered by a lingering lockout.  Rodgers’ efficiency will be remembered, but another Super Bowl ring would have already moved Rodgers’ into the top-10-all-time-quaterback discussion.

The next question facing this team is, where now?  Even with another Super Bowl ring, I do not know that Green Bay would have been the NFC favorite heading into next year.  Certainly the Giants have to be in the discussion, as they seem to improve every week and are still not healthy.  Among other contenders are San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, and maybe, maybe, maybe (probably not) Chicago so long as they have Forte. 

Brady and Roethlisberger achieved Super Bowl success early in their careers, but, especially in the case of Brady, these men have realized that as the seasons add up, health, among many other things, make returning to championship glory a difficult endeavor.  Am I suggesting Rodgers may never get to anther Super Bowl?  No, of course not.  There was talk all season of what it would mean for Rodgers to surpass Favre’s ring total.  He may still do it, but, at the moment, Rodgers is among the slew of 1-ring, on-the-cusp-of-legendary quarterbacks, a place he should be happy to sit but is certainly aching to exceed.            

The great tragedy of games like Sunday’s upset is that we talk about the losers first and even though Green Bay found new ways to lose at every junction of the game, all the credit goes to the G-men.  Performances like Green Bay’s don’t just spontaneously happen.  The Giants heckled, out hustled, and out played the Packers on every single ball all night long.  An inferior team would have failed to score after the Green Bay turnover on downs.  New York wrapped that drive up with a field goal and as they move on to the Conference Championship game, Green Bay is left to stew until September. 


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