One of our favorite things to do around here is chat with a blogger from an opposing team, and this week we're doing exactly that with Jason Hirschhorn of Acme Packing Company. Wonder what it's like to have your team be the favorite in the division, and then live up to that? Find out below!
1. Green Bay's front office, by and large, has to be absolutely commended. You virtually never hear about off-field troubles with their players, and then last week we heard the astonishing stat that 50 out of 53 players on the Packers' active roster have never been anything but a Green Bay Packer. That's ten more than any other team. Who would you say is most integral to that success?
The answer is Theodore Evelyn* Thompson. Thompson took over as the Packers' general manager following the 2004 season and within a year brought in head coach Mike McCarthy and future starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, each a principle piece of the team's 2010 championship season.
Thompson is among the most conservative front office execs in regards to trades and free agency. Since 2005, the Packers have signed only 15 free agents with only 10 actually making the roster. That's by far the lowest such number in the NFL over that span. The few free agents they have signed have fallen into one of two categories. Either they're well regarded veterans who missed out on the early signing frenzy and have lowered their price tag (Charles Woodson, 2006), or they're relative unknowns with little demand for their services (Brandon Chiller, 2008). In both cases, Thompson avoids those megadeals that often look silly just a few years later.
Instead, Thompson has built his team through a draft-and-develop philosophy. To borrow the famous Ditkaism, Thompson throws draft picks around like manhole covers. Very rarely has Thompson sacrificed multiple picks to trade up for a player, Clay Matthews being the most notable exception. It's this process of accumulating picks and avoiding expensive free agents that has led the Packers to having 50 out of 53 players be homegrown.
*This may not be Mr. Thompson's actual middle name.
2. The run game in Green Bay seems to have new life, with just shy of 1,000 yards for the team through the first 7 games. Notably, over 600 of them have come in the last four games against Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Minnesota. Has there been a schematic change to running, or is the personnel just better and able to make more happen?
The correct answer is both. Since Mike McCarthy arrived in Green Bay back in 2006, the Packers have utilized a zone-blocking scheme. That has changed this year to a degree. The Packers still use zone-blocking, but they've mixed in some gap scheme to make things more difficult for opposing defense. As a result, defenses haven't been able to key on Green Bay running backs even when they know the Packers are running which has lead to more yardage.
Additionally, the Packers have rotated and added several players. In the offseason, McCarthy made the decision to flip the offensive line, placing his linemen in positions where they may better optimize their abilities. The Packers also added two talented running backs in the draft, Alabama's Eddie Lacy and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin. Both have produced 100 yard games and been effective receivers out of the backfield. Green Bay has also received some strong play from James Starks, a fourth-year player who was integral to their Super Bowl run a few years ago. The Packers lean on Lacy more than the others, but all will be leaned on during the remainder of the season.
3. Who are some of the rookies or second-year players that are making the biggest contributions this year?
Besides the aforementioned Lacy and Franklin, the Packers have received significant contributions from left tackle David Bakhtiari. Rarely do rookie offensive tackles perform well right out of the gate, let alone those selected in the fourth round, but that's precisely what's happened with Bakhtiari. After Bryan Bulaga went down with a torn ACL prior to the first preseason game, the coaches made the tough call to place a rookie on Aaron Rodgers' blindside. While there have been lapses, Bakhtiari has exceeded every expectation. In his matchup with Jared Allen this past weekend, Bakhtiari held the All-Pro to zero sacks, zero tackles, and a half pressure. When Rodgers has that kind of protection on the outside, the Packers are impossible to defend.
On the other side of the ball, second-year player Mike Daniels has become the best pass rushing defensive lineman on Green Bay's roster. In his past two games alone, Daniels has racked up 10 pressures, five hurries, and three sacks. Those are numbers usually reserved for 4-3 defensive ends, not those playing the five-tech in a 3-4 scheme. More impressive still, the production has come at a time when starting outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have been sidelined with injuries.
4. Give us one or two guys who could jump up and surprise the Bears this week. Who might have a big impact that we may not have heard of?
I'd again suggest Mike Daniels, but I'll give you another name. Over the past few weeks, the Packers have lost to injury three of their top targets in the passing game. The player who has stepped in seamlessly is wide receiver Jarrett Boykin. He originally signed with Jacksonville after going undrafted in 2012, but the Jaguars soon cut him after determining that he was too slow and lacked athleticism. Instead, he fought his way onto the Packers and now in his second year is proving to be another Ted Thompson find. In the last three games, Boykin has amassed 235 receiving yards and 14 catches, good for 16.8 yards per reception. Not bad for a guy who the lowly Jaguars felt couldn't meet their standards.
5. It took a few weeks, but the Packers have worked their way to the top of the division like many assumed they would. Is the team, even with some of the notable injuries they've been through, built to maintain that lead through the second half of their schedule? How do you feel about the back half of the schedule?
At this point, nothing short of an Aaron Rodgers injury should keep the Packers from taking the NFC North. This has as much to do with their division rivals as it does their own abilities. The Bears will be without their best offensive and defensive player for at least another few weeks, and the Lions have already dropped a game to Green Bay.
Furthermore, several of the Packers' most significant injured players (Clay Matthews, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Nick Perry, Morgan Burnett, and Casey Hayward) have either recently returned or will return before the end of the regular season. With the Packers starting success already starting to snowball, returning quality players as the team enters the second half of the season should further distance themselves from the rest of the division. It also doesn't hurt that the most difficult part of the Packers' schedule is already behind them.
5a. What would it take us to get the Packers to sign Tim Tebow and make him starting QB? (Yes, I wanted to make sure my story includes Tim Tebow in some way.)
That would require blackmailing Ted Thompson with an amount of incriminating material not seen since the Blagojevich trial.
5b. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you laugh when you saw the Vikings signed Josh Freeman, and then immediately made him throw it fifty times?
The signing itself seemed like a low risk, potentially high reward move. Josh Freeman has been a very efficient quarterback in the past, and it seems his downward turn directly correlates with the arrival of Greg Schiano in Tampa. Furthermore, it's not as though there's much left to uncover with Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel, so starting Freeman didn't strike me as coaching malpractice.
(Kev's note: This .gif was sent in response by APC Editor Evan "Tex" Western)
However, having a quarterback with only two weeks' experience with your offense throw that many times is unfathomable. Even with the best quarterback in the league, 50 passes is far too many for a single game, let alone for a team that has Adrian Peterson in the backfield. Surely, there will be no greater blunder in the NFC North this season.
Thank you very much, Jason. Here's to a sporting match with few injuries and fewer Packer touchdowns!