Ten weeks ago the Packers were 4-1, Aaron Rodgers was the odds-on MVP favorite, and the 3-2 Vikings had, in the two weeks prior, lost at home to the Detroit Lions, then barely survived the limping Chicago Bears on national TV.
Six days after a pathetic effort from Bear QB Mitchell Trubisky was nearly enough to beat them (the punter threw one touchdown and Mitch bounced another off the safety’s hands), the Vikings’ strong-side linebacker, Anthony Barr, landed with as much momentum as he could on top of Aaron Rodgers.
Immediately afterward, Barr showed no remorse. Thirteen days later, rather than apologize for causing severe injury and then taunting a fellow athlete while he walked to the medical tent, Barr added quite a bit of insult. “If he takes the lick and keeps it pushing,” Barr typed, “we aren’t STILL talking about this. get over it. #13dayslater”
Mr. Anthony Barr can rest assured that even 13 years from now, when he is long retired, all serious Packer fans will still be talking about his reckless play, his obscene taunting, and his lack of remorse or respect even after 13 days had passed.
That Aaron himself will not be able to visit revenge upon Mr. Barr and his teammates this Saturday evening is a tragedy—but it is not because the collarbone is still broken. #9weekslater and that steel-plated collagen and calcium did finally heal, but the opportunity for this next game to matter was lost last Sunday…and Aaron helped lose it.
We’ll talk more about why Green Bay didn’t beat Carolina in a minute. In the meantime, those Packers remaining on the active roster will be up against this Minnesota team, again:
SCOUTING THE VIKINGS
For a detailed look at the key names and jerseys numbers, please consult our scouting report from ten weeks ago. Since that was published the Vikings have won eight of nine games and clinched the NFC North title.
Of the eleven players on defense and eight on offense that I recommended keeping an eye on back then, all of them should be suited up this week. A few guys were banged up on the way (especially along their already mediocre offensive line), but the tight end’s and left tackle’s ankles, the left guard’s calf, the center’s shoulder, and the right tackle’s brain and back all appear to be healthy enough for football now.
WR Stefon Diggs’ groin (which caused him to be an unexpected scratch against us in October and kept him out of another game after that) doesn’t appear to be holding him back anymore, although he is now clearly the #2 WR after Adam Thielen, who has the fifth most receiving yards in the NFL so far this season.
Overall, their offense still has mediocre talent well-disguised by the effective scheming of coordinator Pat Shurmur. The play calls are a little less gimmicky than they were early in the year, especially now that QB Keenum (98.9 rating) and WR Thielen (Pro Bowl) have established their starting bonafides. They still kill you with crossing routes from trips formations, but instead of bunching all the eligibles tight, now they’re spreading it out more. This has freed up some wheel and out routes for RB McKinnon, who snuck out of the backfield for 115 receiving yards in last week’s division-clinching rout of the Bengals:
The defense is fierce and elite as ever—probably the best in the league. They are strong and fast at all three levels and so healthy it’s almost like karma took the year off.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
The mathematically eliminated Packers are suddenly a tough scout, since young backups Montravius Adams, Vince Biegel, Kyler Fackrell, Josh Hawkins, and maybe even Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown will probably get long looks while the walking wounded veterans wonder what went wrong with the defense this year.
What did go wrong with the defense?
Dom Capers has been in charge of it since 2009. His first two seasons were championship-level based on the eye test, the traditional stats, and the advanced metrics. Oh, and the trophy test, too. The next seven have fluctuated between mediocre and abysmal, also by all four measures.
There was a season-and-a-half stretch from mid-’14 to the end of ’15 when the pass defense appeared to be elite again—which was very not coincidentally also the time when we had our most athletic linebacker, Clay Matthews, playing on the inside where he could take running backs and chip-blocking tight ends out of the passing game. But the run defense suffered without Clay containing one of the edges, and so we moved him back outside and drafted two-gapping Kenny Clark in the spring of ’16, which has eventually helped the run defense quite a bit this season (ranked top ten in that category of DVOA for the first time since Capers’ first season here).
Never mind the regular season stats, the playoff failures of these Capers-coordinated defenses have become the stuff of anti-legend. It began on January 15, 2012 when Hakeem Nicks embarrassed Charles Woodson and Charlie Peprah in Lambeau’s south endzone. Three hundred and sixty-three days (including a Leap Year) later, Colin Kaepernick shredded us by air (263 yards) and land (181 yards) at Candlestick Park.
Fifty-one weeks after that, at home in single digit temperatures, the defense did stiffen a bit against double-threat Kaepernick (227 air yards, 98 by land), and had a chance to win the game slip through rookie Micah Hyde’s cold fingers, and then a chance to force overtime was several steps past the reach of a limping Andy Mulamba.
Fifty-three weeks more and all appeared right with the world once Morgan Burnett collected Russell Wilson’s fourth interception of the day, but cagey veteran Julius Pepper told him to stop running and proved the point (which didn’t need further evidence) that even a good defense won’t win if it doesn’t bother to try.
Another 51 weeks passed, and rookie Damarious Randall intercepted Carson Palmer in the end zone as the 4th quarter began. Minutes later, Randall deflected another end zone pass intended for Larry Fitzgerald, but it anti-miraculously meandered into Michael Floyd’s chest for the go-ahead touchdown. Then, in overtime, the rookie forgot to follow the Cardinals’ best receiver and the rest is anti-history. Say what you will about the strange details of that game, the history books will always record it as the only successful playoff game of Carson Palmer’s career, and it occurred courtesy of a Dom Capers-coached defense.
Fast forward yet another 53 weeks—and as good as Matt Ryan has sometimes been—only Dom Capers could make him look this unstoppable.
For this 2017 season—Capers’ ninth as a Packer—the final humiliation occurred in December instead of January, a mere 46 weeks after the last one. Make no mistake, defensively, it was humiliating. Especially from a preparation perspective. We told Dom, as did many others, that “#22 Christian McCaffrey is the primary receiving option, especially on early downs.”
Indeed, on the Panthers 15th offensive play of the game, it was second and goal, and Clay Matthews heeded our advice. From his right outside linebacker position in the nickel formation, he screamed across the ball to LOLB Ahmad Brooks and LCB Damarious Randall, “It’s that wheel route, it’s that wheel route.” RB McCaffrey was in the backfield just to QB Cam Newton’s right. TE Greg Olsen was lined up tight right, and WR Devin Funchess was wide right.
You know how NFL announcers love to talk about all the “film room time” quarterbacks supposedly put in during the work week? “He’s the first guy into the facility every morning and the last one to leave,” is the standard gush line. No one, in the history of the NFL, has ever tried to get away with saying that about Cam Newtown. This is a “student of the game” who couldn’t even pass his classes in the SEC without cheating. If you are a highly touted recruit to Florida, your classes are pre-passed. If you are cheating then you are misunderstanding the entire system.
Yet this is the same man who understood Dom Capers’ defensive system well enough to respond in Clay’s direction, “You been watching film, huh? That’s cool. Watch this.” Then he promptly threw a touchdown to a completely uncovered McCaffrey. The rookie running back could have run the wheel route if he wanted (he ran a slant instead) because Randall followed the WR inside and MLB Martinez and SS Jones both covered the tight end’s post route, leaving an entire side of the field open for the guy everybody but Dom Capers knew was Cam’s primary option.
It didn’t get better from there. Two quarters later the safety made the opposite mistake: instead of double-covering the tight end, Josh Jones forgot to cover him at all. In the last quarter, 2nd-year player Damiere Byrd scored his second touchdown of the half—and, incidentally, of his entire career.
It’s true that in big games, great players sometimes make winning plays, no matter how good the opposing scheme. But Dom Capers’ fire drill schemes have enabled no-names like Damiere Byrd and Carson Palmer to enjoy career days on big stages, and allowed elite players like Colin Kaepernick, Larry Fitzgerald, and Marshawn Lynch to score with way too much ease.
Over these last seven trophy-less years, wise scribes like Bob McGinn have periodically pointed out that it was Dom Capers who helped win us some big games—before we lost the even bigger ones. McGinn has also frequently remarked that Capers should be in high demand if we ever let him go.
I would agree with that, and would expect that if Ted Thompson had the guts to fire Mike McCarthy and all his assistants tomorrow, Dom would probably land on his feet faster than “highly successful” Mike. But there does seem to be something about Dom that causes doubt, not just with fans, but with the very players he commands.
All the way back in 2011, when the team was 15-1 but the defense ranked last in the league against the pass, there were rumors flying all over local AM dials that multiple defensive veterans didn’t like the way Dom called games. I later confirmed – in a private conversation with one of those radio hosts—that Charles Woodson was the source of many of those rumors—and was one of the veterans who didn’t like Dom.
Last offseason, fresh off his first Pro Bowl and a one-year contract extension, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix went public (albeit somewhat obliquely) with his frustrations about Dom’s play calls.
So even if Dom is calling great schemes, the players aren’t listening. Is that his fault? Is it Mike’s for not creating clear lines of communication and authority? Is it Ted’s for drafting and signing players with dispositions toward insubordination and confusion?
Perhaps all of the above. Certainly something is rotten near Denmark, Wisconsin. In the ten years that the best quarterback in the history of the NFL has been throwing passes in Green Bay, the defense has been statistically in the league’s top ten just two of those years, and none of the last seven. (The offense has been top ten every time except for 2015 and this season.)
Yet, despite all these constant defensive failings, Sunday’s game was there for the winning. Even before Geronimo fumbled our last gasp away, Aaron had first Davante, then Randall, then Jordy open deep for touchdowns during the second and third quarters, but all three times he badly underthrew his three best receivers, and no-name defenders on the Panthers (including the emergency third-string nickel backer Colin Jones who only saw the field because one player was injured and another was benched for insubordination) were gifted easy stat stuffers.
Was his surgically repaired shoulder not strong enough to throw so deep? Clearly, no. Was it rust? Maybe. Or was it another example of his failure to play big enough in big games? If so, put another chip on that shoulder. His playoff record of nine wins and seven losses will stay that way for at least another calendar year.
THE CHARLOTTE GHOST WE COULDN’T KILL
Going into last week’s game, I openly mocked Panther owner Jerry Richardson for being a greedy, sadistic plutocrat with a bronze streak of narcissism, but I didn’t dare publish my suspicions that he was also a racist misogynist.
At the time that column went to press (just one week ago) all I had was circumstantial evidence, which I will now outline: Five weeks ago the Executive Director of Stadium Operations patiently gave two busloads of municipal officials a tour of the Panthers’ stadium. Throughout this tour, he continually referred to his direct superior as “Mr. Richardson” and kept talking about “how classy” he was.
To support this claim he gave three main pieces of evidence: 1) The midfield logo on the field depicts the NFL shield, not his own team’s black Panther image, unlike all of the other teams in the league. 2) He cared so much about “our aging fans” that he extorted several hundred million dollars out of Charlotte taxpayers in order to install escalators for their weary legs and bigger scoreboards for their fading eyes. 3) Every year Mr. Richardson and his executive team attend the Masters golf tournament in Georgia, and they consider this experience to be the “gold standard” of fan experience. Specifically, claimed our tour director, they liked the VIP tents, and so they hoist a few up every football Sunday in Charlotte. (The executive stayed silent on the issue of historic exclusive white and male membership at the Augusta club.)
Any time an immediate subordinate needs to be so publicly effusive for a boss, rather than feeling the unstated privilege to banter and wink about higher-ups, that is a serious red flag. “Mr. Richardson must be real piece of work,” I thought while staring disbelievingly at his Stalinistic statue outside the gates.
The day after Read After Kickoff went to press (and just minutes before actual kickoff) Sports Illustrated published a lengthy piece detailing just how awful “Mr. Richardson” really is. He routinely sexually harassed female employees and used racial slurs to address non-white male employees.
It would have been doubly sweet if the publicly owned Packers could have given this private owner a good-bye kick in the pants last Sunday, but such karma was not to be.
Deeper justice can still be had in Charlotte this offseason, however. Will Colin Kaepernick finally be able to break through the NFL blacklist he’s on by hiring himself to play quarterback once he buys the Panthers? Hard to believe Roger Goodell and his Trump-supporting owner bosses would ever that happen, but karma can’t stay undefeated forever, can it?
Is it darkest before dawn? Or before even less of a view? The solstice is here, and so the celestial bodies move…