Despite their 3-1 record, there seems to be a perception nationally (and even among local fans) that the Green Bay Packers are, well, not that good.
Part of this is almost certainly due to the way the team got utterly pantsed against the New Orleans Saints in the opener. The memory of a 38-3 beatdown in which the team looked like the worst in the league doesn’t fade away that quickly.
But in each of the team’s three wins since, the team has looked like an improving squad. Still nowhere near perfect, but they’ve taken care of business, flaws and all, much like the 2019 squad did en route to a 13-3 record.
If you’re taking things at face value, that might be somewhat concerning for a team that was just a few plays from the Super Bowl about eight months and some change ago.
But taking things in context, the team has also been overcoming some early adversity, some of its own making and some that has simply been bad luck.
What sort of adversity are we talking?
First, the Packers are missing their top two offensive linemen, who also are arguably two of the five best players on their roster. For a team that was already starting two rookies on the offensive line, this is a pretty big deal.
We’re down to a starting offensive line that, before this season began, had seen a combined zero previous starts in the NFL outside of Billy Turner at right tackle. Despite that, the unit has protected very well over the last two weeks against some high-quality pass rusher.
The injury to Za’Darius Smith robbed the Packers of their top pass rushing threat, quite possibly for the year. While Rashan Gary’s pressure rates are through the roof, especially over the last couple weeks, the loss of Smith is huge, especially with Preston Smith still failing to look like he did throughout much of 2019.
There is also the fact that the Packers installed a brand new defense for the 2021 season, but didn’t give any of their key players preseason time to get even slightly used to it in live game action against a different opponent. The defense has seen some slow improvement each week, but still appears to have quite a ways to go.
There was the quarterback drama that hung over the team all offseason. Aaron Rodgers has not looked as dialed in to start 2021 as he did in 2020, especially on his deep passes. A good portion of that could well have to do with the fact that he skipped an entire offseason.
If you had told me the Packers would be 3-1 after four weeks, I’d have been satisfied with that outcome. But again, that week one loss is still hanging over the early portion of the season.
Now, my point isn’t that everything is going to be fine and the Packers are going to romp to a title. In fact, I’m still not feeling particularly convinced this team has what it takes, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
But rather, the narrative surrounding this team right now seems to be that it isn’t as good as its record. One could easily argue the inverse–that because the Packers have yet to play their best football, they’re actually better than their record.
None of this really means much at the moment and it’s impossible to predict what this team will look like three months from now. But for now, the Packers have been underperforming, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would disagree with that.. But it’s okay, because they’re winning football games.
Stephon Gilmore episode showcases once again the number of fans who fail to understand trade and cap mechanics
It was outrageously predictable from the moment it was announced that former Patriots corner heading to the Packers was a legitimate possibility.
The Patriots would inevitably trade Gilmore to a different team for peanuts, and Packer fans online would flip their lids at the front office for their unwillingness to go all in or make a big move.
Before I begin ranting, here’s a perfectly plain-languaged explanation as to why the deal didn’t work out for the Packers:
On the Packers and their involvement with Gilmore …
They had been exploring this for a while.
That it didn’t work had nothing to do with the trade compensation, but rather the Packers not being able to absorb the remaining portion of his base salary on this year’s cap.
— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) October 6, 2021
That likely prompted the Panthers to get involved.
The only way the Packers could’ve gotten Gilmore is signing him after the Pats released him so they could structure the deal favorably toward their cap.
— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) October 6, 2021
“But surely they could manipulate the salary cap!” you say. Well, not so fast.
Reminder until the trade deadline:
The Packers already used their arsenal of cap gymnastics to push out almost every cap dollar. Only meaningful exception: Davante Adams.
Any argument they can simply “cap wizard” their way into lots more cap space (outside of Adams) is invalid.
— Ken Ingalls – Packers Cap (@KenIngalls) October 6, 2021
There’s also the fact that, you know, it takes two teams to make a trade.
It sounds like the Packers were indeed prepared to make a run if Gilmore hit the open market, which is why the Patriots leaked that news early in the day–to drive up the market for a trade so they could at least get some kind of compensation for a player they intended to get rid of anyway.
The fact that there are people out there who will take every single instance of the Packers not signing the Flavor of the Day big-name free agent or trade acquisition and use it as evidence of the front office’s alleged unwillingness to seriously contend for a title is exhausting, yet hilarious.
It’s so predictable, and the people who get so up in arms every single time this happens never seem to learn any more about how these matters work in the NFL.
Does it suck that the Packers were in a situation where they couldn’t end up getting cornerback help from a former All Pro? Sure, assuming Glimore ends up playing like his former self when he returns from injury (which is in itself a big assumption).
But anyone trying to spin this as Gutekunst/Mark Murphy/Russ Ball as being cheap or lacking guts is exposing themselves as being ignorant to how these matters work and thus not worth paying attention to.
Wisconsin Beer of the Week
October is here, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few of my favorite Oktoberfest beers to get you all into the spirit of the season!
Pictured above is the Oktoberfest from 1840 Brewing Company, which regular readers of this column will know is my pick for best brewery in the state without a whole lot of competition. But this is far from the only Oktoberfest beer I enjoy.
Oktoberfest beers are German-style beers similar to a Vienna lager. They are characteristic of their transparent reddish brown color (at least in the United States), their rich malt flavor and a nice crisp, clean hop balance and slight bitterness. You might also be familiar with the term Marzen, which is used interchangeably with Oktoberfest for many American-style beers.
At the Oktoberfest festival in Munich, the German-style beers you’ll find will likely be paler in color.
There are a number of really great Oktoberfest beers from Wisconsin breweries that you can find widely available. These include:
Staghorn by New Glarus Brewing Company. One of my personal favorites. Available all over Wisconsin, never lets you down.
Octoberfest by Central Waters Brewing Company. Had this one on tap for my wedding some years back and the keg went out pretty quickly because it’s an easy-drinking crowdpleaser.
Oktoberfest by Lakefront Brewery. Refreshing and malty, it’s got much more red to its hue than you’d find with traditional Oktoberfests but it’s still a legit, authentic Marzen.
Oktoberfest by Capital Brewery. This one takes me back to my college days in Madison, where Capital Brewery’s beers were my introduction to localized craft brewing. During the fall semesters we’d drink a lot of their Oktoberfest and Island Wheat.
Oktoberfest by Raised Grain: A little lighter than other Oktoberfests on this list, and highly drinkable.
Pretty much any of these you should be able to find throughout the state in your local liquor store.
Happy Oktoberfest season!
A couple small causes for concern
I’ve spent a lot of time in this column talking about the defense and my concerns about Joe Barry as a defensive coordinator. I still have plenty of concerns about the defense moving forward, namely the weakness at the defensive line, the injuries that are piling up and the fact that the Steelers had open receivers running through the Packers’ secondary all game long on Sunday and Big Ben just couldn’t hit them.
All that aside for a moment, I do have a couple other concerns about the Packers that aren’t quite as obvious.
First, field goal coverage. We saw the Packers’ game-ending kick against San Francisco nearly get blocked off the right side. Next, we saw the Steelers block a kick off the right side of the line, but the Packers get lucky when the refs botched an offsides call to bring it back. Then, the Packers nearly had another kick get blocked later in the game.
I don’t know what is going on, but this is quickly becoming a habit and it has to be addressed immediately. As in, before this coming weekend. That’s basic football stuff right there and there’s no reason the team should be letting rushers get so close to the ball so frequently on kicks.
Another less-obvious concern: Aaron Rodgers’ deep ball and play action.
The Packers have improved their efficiency on offense over the last couple weeks primarily because of their leaning on the running game and their use of shorter routes and timing, which is really what makes this offense go.
But Rodgers has just looked off on the deep ball so far. He’s failed to connect with Marquez Valdes-Scantling on several would-be touchdowns, overthrowing him each time. He has had a couple deep passes put behind receivers running posts. And he badly underthrew Robert Tonyan this week on a seam route on what would have been a touchdown.
What’s more, Rodgers has been very off with play action so far this season, which was his bread and butter a year ago.
According to Peter Bukowski, PFF has Rodgers at a 50.2 PFF passing grade on play action, which would be fourth-worst among qualifying quarterbacks in the league. A year ago, he was at a 96.6 (out of 100), which was far and away the best in the league.
Some of this is sample size, so there’s some hope these numbers will turn around. But it’s also an indicator of how this offense hasn’t come close to hitting its stride yet. When pairing this issue with the lack of deep ball accuracy, there are a couple small concerns with Rodgers.
He’s still making magic happen multiple times a game, but he’s not making it look as easy as he did a year ago. Not yet, anyway.
Ben Roethlisberger’s clear decline
Packer fans that don’t pay much attention to what’s happening around the league (or at least, to the Steelers) might have been surprised to see the extent to which Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has declined.
He was missing open receivers for big gains, relying almost exclusively on short dump-off passes to eat up yards, and not even throwing past the sticks on third down. He’s lost a lot of mobility and frankly looks like a shell of his former self.
The decline hasn’t been rapid–he had some struggles in 2020 as well. But it’s definitely significantly worse and more noticeable this year, and the team hasn’t had the strong defensive play that it has historically had to back him up.
It’s just one more reminder of how quickly quarterbacks can fall off in skill–even the greats.
Roethlisberger is 39 years old. That’s ancient as far as quarterbacks go. There have been several quarterbacks in recent years to play past 40 (Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, with Brady’s success clearly standing out) but for the most part, even the greatest of all time see their skills decline by their late 30s.
Peyton Manning was the worst starting quarterback in the league during the Broncos’ 2015 Super Bowl campaign and got his second ring on the back of historically great defense.
So it is a warning sign to teams like the Packers that have aging franchise quarterbacks. Rodgers is coming off an MVP season and still in 2021 looks like a top-flight quarterback. But when the drop happens, as it inevitably will, it can happen quite fast.
Having a succession plan is never a bad thing. And the Steelers… don’t.
Around the NFC North
Here we go once again around the NFC North leading into week four.
-The CHICAGO BEARS had a bit of a bounce back performance after their disastrous outing against the Browns, taking down the lowly Detroit Lions 24-14. The Bears didn’t ask Justin Fields to do much–he went 11/17 for 209 yards and an interception. David Montgomery was the focal point for the offense this time around, getting more than 20 carries and over 100 yards. Coach Matt Nagy said Andy Dalton will be the Bears’ starter when healthy, but changed his mind two days later and gave the job to Fields. After seeing two weeks of what Fields can do, it doesn’t really look like it’ll make much of a difference.
-The DETROIT LIONS are bad. Very bad. That one play where the snap to Jared Goff bounced off his body and directly into the hands of a Bears defender pretty much perfectly exemplified everything about this team over most of the last six decades. This is a team that will very likely be in the running for the top pick in the draft this spring, and it’s hard to see a whole lot of silver linings for them at the moment.
-The MINNESOTA VIKINGS are officially off to yet another disappointing start, falling to the Browns at home and scoring just 7 points in the process. The Vikings could get absolutely nothing going on the ground, and the aerial attack was ineffective. This is a team that had a lot of hype coming into this season (as usual) and I actually bought them as a potential wild card contender, but somehow they appear to be worse than a year ago. They’re going to have their work cut out for them getting to seven or eight wins this season against a tough schedule. So much for being the Packers’ top competition in the NFC North.
The legacy of The Crusher lives on
Those of you of a certain age may remember the professional wrestler The Crusher, who graced screens across the midwest primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. He often partnered with Dick the Bruiser, but had plenty of other memorable nemesis.
The Crusher was a Wisconsin resident–from the small suburb of South Milwaukee, to be exact–and his legacy now lives on in the form of a bronze statue in the city’s downtown and a now-annual festival, Crusherfest, that bears his name.
Crusherfest happens to be this weekend, and I’m hoping to attend. There will brats, beer, live wrestling, and some appearances by some names of wrestling’s past, including Eric Bischoff, “The Sodbuster” Kenny Jay, Jim Brunzell, Medusa and Greg Gagne.
The Crusher somehow has not been inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame, which honors professional wrestlers of all territories and eras. It’s a horrendous omission, frankly, as Crusher was an icon for the entire region.
His blue-collar, beer-drinking Polish Wisconsinite gimmick was a big hit with the locals, as you can imagine. He would call his opponents “turkeynecks,” much as The Rock would call his opponents “jabronis.”
As someone who grew up a wrestling fan, I’m looking forward to partaking in the celebration of the Crusher’s legacy and getting to see some faces from ages past.
Prediction for Packers vs. Bengals
This Bengals team is tough. They’re not quite “there” yet as a legitimate threat, but they’re going to give everyone they play a tough time. They’re playing decent defense, they’ve got a tough young quarterback who already looks like a seasoned vet, and the connection between Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase is looking really sharp in the early going.
Make no mistake, the Packers are going to have their hands full, especially if Jaire is out.
That being said, the Packers have a coaching edge, they have Aaron Rodgers and an offensive line that’s proven capable of holding up to even strong front sevens, and they’ve still got Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, Kenny Clark and company.
I think this will be a tight game, and the Bengals will fight the entire 60 minutes, but the Packers will manage to come out on top in the end.
Packers 27, Bengals 24.
Tim Backes is a lifelong Packer fan and a contributor to CheeseheadTV. Follow him on Twitter @timbackes for his Packer takes, random musings and Untappd beer check-ins.