Category: sports

Thoughts about 2019 Aaron Rodgers

<- Photo credit: AP Photo / Jeffrey Phelps*

Why do people have to be so extreme?

It’s either Rodgers is god or garbage.

I was infatuated with this. is Rodgers not his “usual” self this year? and why? Lots of speculation, cynicism, and criticism have been aired in the past few months.

So, I turned to our good friend Youtube and specifically dug up most (if not all) Aaron Rodgers’ signature plays from when he first showed his star-quality vs. the Bears, through the daunting, heartbreaking 2018 season in which he was still putting up decent numbers, but the team went literally nowhere.

I specifically wanted to sift through those “Rodgers-defining” plays, not just regular offensive drives, to assess the gaps in perception vs. actual, and got some pretty good observations, I think.

Well, is he getting older? weaker arm? less accurate?  no good gameplan/routes/receivers? has he lost it?

The answer is obviously complicated, but here is what I did manage to come up with:

Observation #1: Rodgers isn’t extending plays well enough and being dynamic out of the pocket as he used to be. Significantly so. Many of the signature plays start off the same, but end up with sacks instead of crazy passes this year.

Why?

  1. He is aging. Shocking. He is now at the age where you officially cannot be as agile and quick as you used to be, but still strong and fit enough to play at the top level. Especially at a QB role in football. Other sports pose different challenges. For a sport that still presents Drew Brees at 40 hitting shots and putting together numbers (and every year matters at this age!), Rodgers cannot be in a bad place, generally speaking. Any (great) athlete adapts with age and enhances their more stationary capabilities, relying less on athleticism. Jordan, Maradona, you name it. Brady was just always more of a pocket passer with strong legs and a killer arm (and mostly really good offensive blockers). Rodgers was (and still somewhat is) a hybrid who felt at home both in and out of the pocket, which is good because it means he can still morph.
  2. He recovered from a bad injury (collarbone) and suffered a leg injury through most of last year, not sure if not still a thing. This is obviously limiting him in some way, both physically and psychologically. The way he was injured in 2017 was pretty brutal and possibly traumatic. He since has been much less adventurous, and also not as quick and agile.
  3. Different offense, coaching, and teammates – LaFleur is the kind of guy who likes a more diverse offense that relies on the run game much more than McCarthy-era Packers used to. This means the team is working often to free up run paths for RB’s, and it requires not just different schemes but also different players. Such who can screen and block. This means, not only fewer opportunities to pass and fewer “shot-plays” but also, fewer potential targets

Observation #2: A passer passes a ball that a receiver needs to catch. Duh? not so sure.

  1. On more occasions than I remembered or assumed, Rodgers’ pass (especially >20 yards) was accurate (enough, mostly) but not such that didn’t require some basic catching ability and/or enhanced athleticism from the catcher. Cobb, Nelson, Jones (James), and Jennings, they all caught some pretty tough-to-catch balls, AND, converted them nicely into memorable plays, that could have easily have been just a pass that got connection, but never yielded actual outcomes, like TD’s or getting enough yardage to make a comeback (take the Cardinals 2-hail marys as the perfect examples, despite the controversy at the end). This means they caught medium-to-hard-to-catch balls. Otherwise, perhaps Rodgers’ highlight reels would have been far shorter, and fame far diminished. With MVS, Geronimo, Graham, and even Davante this season (more than just a handful) dropping passes, it’s hard to maintain those crazy passer ratings and explosive plays.  Best example is that MVS drop on that 35-yarder vs. the Vikings which was placed at the exact same angle and speed as Jordy Nelson would eat for lunch, only to go right into Rodgers’ best shots Youtube video.
  2. Confidence – having missed some shots (and yes, some of them were less accurate than we’re used to, take the recent Lions game as an example), even Rodgers, albeit seeming cool and complacent, could lose his confidence and develop self-doubts. Especially with pretty much everyone on the media bashing him, less rightfully so than not, as this post suggests. In such cases, dink-and-dunk isn’t that bad of an option, to restore confidence and get the offense back into rhythm, and that’s what worked every time they needed a comeback this year, especially after the Niners debacle. Also doesn’t hurt when you have Jamal and Aaron Jones to keep moving those chains as receivers as well.

What should Rodgers do to overcome?

Tom Brady and Drew Brees can still function, and they’ve proven it time and again lately (with the exception of Brady only in recent games). Rodgers has the ability to fire from inside the pocket and re-balance his philosophy that was previously predicated on him making crazy shot plays all the time. He has great RBs and a pretty good O line, so he can use that to not be so predictable and still somewhat extend plays, but has to tone it down significantly. He can benefit from another good, fast, ball-catching receiver, and a solid, strong, good game-reading tight end. With Brian Gutekunst at the helm, I believe we can find those, in free agents, draft picks, or trades. Anything’s possible. All Rodgers needs to do is keep calm, remember that he’s still incredible, and then find a way to embrace his constraints, and LaFleur’s offense. I believe the more he will gain confidence in LeFleur, and learn how to work with different types of receivers, not just ones who have glue on their hands, he will resurrect and be part of a powerhouse, balanced, more “New-England” type (but without all the yucky part) Pack team through the rest of his career.

Good luck to us all!

 

*You noticed it, the photo was actually not taken in 2019… busted. Was just a nice photo I randomly picked, because I obviously didn’t expect Rodgers to throw me a pick… ->ba dum chhhh.

2019 Regular season thoughts about the Packers

<– In the image: me in Israel wide awake at 3:30am cheering against the Vikes.

I’ll start with an apology meant for my 1 devoted reader. Dude, sorry I haven’t been writing of late, my optimism on writing after every single game turned out to be unrealistic, HOWEVER! I will do my best to write on occasion.

Now, here are some of my insights regarding the Packers for the 2019 season:

  • People don’t give Jamal Williams enough credit. Yes, Aaron Jones is a big deal on LaFleur’s offense, but at the same time, Williams’ tremendous contribution as a 2nd runner was conspicuously missing vs. the Lions, and fortunately for us, we will see him in the postseason. He needs to get a lot more recognition.
  • Some people, not just Pack fans, are too easy on the trigger with Rodgers – they thought so highly of him, that showing less than super-human traits has no circumstances, just statistics. This season is especially difficult on Rodgers, as he was molded into (and to some degree contributed to it actively) McCarthy’s offense, which is *vastly* different than LaFleur’s. Add new key players to the mix (best example is Lazard, our quasi-formal 2nd receiver), and you get a perfectly decent, post-collar-bone, veteran quarterback season. Did he miss some simple throws? yes. Did he misread some plays and ignored open players? Yes. Did he force the pass play when clearly they should have run it? Likely. Holistically looking at it, he’s adapting, as great as he is – and you’re seeing labor pain, imo. I believe no matter what happens this year, as Rodgers gets into LaFleur’s scheme and mindset, and they study each other, he will return to his greatness. Maybe not all-time, but certainly continuously improvement, until age (or god forbid, injury) does its thing.
  • It is amazing to me how Pack fans are so extreme in how they perceive the team. I listened to A LOT of Pack podcasts this year. A LOT. and everybody is either saying things like ‘trash’, ‘inadequate’, ‘weak’, or, they’re saying ‘Super Bowl’. No spectrum. Very little regard to the process of a HC+QB combo with vastly different disciplines to bridge, (some) new key players, and generally speaking, a system on the rise but definitely not at a peak.
  • As I said in the past, this Packer team should be very proud they’ve gotten to the playoffs, and tremendously so with getting the #2 seed in the NFC. much more than what 90% of fans would have expected, and a 13-3 record.
  • Were we somewhat lucky with last-minute bailouts, key opponent injuries, and a mildly-difficult schedule? Definitely. But still, that team found a way to win. And I admire that, because character and dressing rooms are the foundation of a strong sports team, then, talent, schemes, and execution will follow.
  • Please, look at this season as one that went overwhelmingly well, but shouldn’t distract the system: front office, coaching staff, and players (and fans!) from the real objective: regrowing a successful, balanced, enjoyable dynasty. These are the buds, and they look great. Don’t nip them with your uncontrolled urge to criticize.

And one last thing,

Maybe it’s just the fan in me that refuses to acknowledge realistic expectations (i.e. getting to where we got is more than we hoped for), I am toying around with the thought that Rodgers’ saying before the Niners game: “We’ll have to beat them there (i.e. on the road) once” was almost a prophecy, and the fact they failed to do so then, makes me kind of fantasize about making it a reality, just when it matters the most, at the NFC conference final. But my fan-free prediction is that we get knocked out on the divisional round, and Lamar comes away with the MVP + Lombardi trophy, after having beaten Drew Brees and the Saints in Miami.

Packers Week 12 2019-2020: Packers beat the Giants, No news = Good news?

I’m really going to try and make an effort to write my thoughts after every game. Or at least every few games, I hope.

For this one vs. the Giants, it was quite special for me, mostly because:

  • I actually went to the game! (photo to prove)
  • I got to see Aaron Rodgers and my Packers for the 2nd time this season

I don’t think there was a single person at Metlife stadium who was expecting a Giants W, but I will say that with the Giants’ tradition and brand name, their fans (and perhaps rightfully so) are still sarcastic about their team in a way that clearly shows how they actually do expect them to perform. That is, unlike the Jets fans, for example, who are always on the lookout for when they’re going to be bitten in the ass or fumble, yet again.

I will say, all things considered, given this crazy week of upsets (Redskins beat Eagles, Texans beat Pats, Bangles blow out Jets, Dolphins beats Panthers), overall, we came out on the right end of it. In the snow, no less.

The stadium atmosphere was fairly mild as far as cheering, which is sadly common for Giants games, but you can still feel that Giants aura when at the stadium, that comes with their history, tradition, titles, and gigantic superstars. At some point, after the Packers have secured the game, it seemed like most Giants fans have left and Metlife turned into quasi-home field for the players and what I would assume to be 15,000 Green-and-Gold Go-Pack-Go fans.

My theme for this game was “no news”. The Packers are still the same team from last week vs. SF, except the rival this time was far inferior in almost every position. Well, not almost. Every position. This means I refuse to overly relish the nice W they put on the charts to go 9-3, same as I refused to submerge myself in a sea of depression post-SF. Still, I think “no news = good news”, because if our expectations are set correctly and realistically, we’re worth reaching playoffs but most definitely not a Superbowl team. So, I think blowing out the Giants on the road in the snow is going to help the players regain their momentum and confidence, so they don’t mess up the relatively easy upcoming games (Washington, Chicago, Detroit), and to allow themselves to withstand another L vs. Vikings at Minnesota.

Everyone is hyper-focused on stats, wins, this player, that player. That’s important. But don’t forget the big picture, which I will rehash again: the Packers ARE NOT a Superbowl team, but they CAN be, in the future. Hence, a near term (i.e. for this season) goal in the form of “reaching the playoffs” is not only tangible, but it’s also potentially a wonderful lesson for the less experienced Packers that need to get a taste of those playoff fights, the team as a unit, and not to mention LaFleur as a head coach and how the system is built around his philosophy.

Looking at the divisional and overall NFC standings, odds are not looking good for being a #1 or #2 seed with how good the other top-tier teams are playing (SF, Seattle, and NOLA), and so the likely path is that we win a wildcard spot, and hope to not get our asses kicked at one of those teams. And this is exactly what an impressive win over New York (and it was, especially the 2nd half) means.

I really believe with proper strengthening of both sides of the ball (D – cornerback/safety, O – tight-end/receiver), and with Rodgers+LaFleur aligning on strategy (as opposed to improv-as-a-strategy), and adding more creativity to quite conservative plays/schemes they’re running, we will have a top-end team for next season, and for as long as Rodgers can be useful (ehm… another Brady reference).

Also, I was very sorry to hear about Mason Crosby’s sister-in-law who passed away last week after a battle with cancer.

Mason is a special man and he went through a rough patch this year with his wife and sister-in-law both dealing with cancer, all-the-while maintaining incredible professional standards and having a pretty amazing season.

May she rest in peace.

 

Off to Washington! #GoPackGo!

My (new) periodic Packers coverage – The 49ers Blowout :(

It’s been a loooong time since the last time I’ve written here.

Since my fanbase doesn’t even consist of my mom (let alone other people who aren’t obligated to love me and thereby everything I do), I reckon you weren’t wondering where I had gone.

Well, lots of places. But today I’m here to say that I have many things to say about my rediscovered love for the Packers (yes the NFL’s Green Bay Packers) and my thoughts, that may be somewhat contrarian to veteran football fans, more so veteran Pack fans.

A quick history rundown: growing up in Israel, I was exposed to the Packers in the mid-1990s, right around when Brett Favre started becoming a thing.

I liked the colors and the team, and so I became a fan. Not hardcore by no means, but a fan nonetheless.

 

Fast forward to nowadays, I finally paid my first visit to Lambeau Field this season, and for a big home-opener against no other than the Vikings. It was an entertaining match that ended up with a big win and I was super happy with my break-in experience, and it reignited my passion for football and for the Packers.

 

For those of you who care, I want to say a few words about the 2019-2020 Packers, per yesterday’s game vs. 49ers and in general:

I listen to a lot of Packer podcasts. Between pessimistic to optimistic, everybody is (not) talking about a team that is in the process of rebuilding. Veteran fans (somewhat) forget that it’s coach LaFleur’s first-ever season as a head coach and many of the players are new to the team, and some are just new in general. Players like Za’daruis Smith who’s an explosive outside linebacker has only joined the team this season, and young & promising players like Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage too. Yes, we have some veterans and a couple of superstars you all know, but this general mosaic has been shuffled and rejuvenated compared to the McCarthy team, which is highly noticeable in many aspects on both sides of the ball.

Having said that, this team is much more prone to being outplayed, outcoached, and caught off guard at this time. So, yes, having a player like Aaron Rodgers on the team is priceless, and despite being in his mid-late 30’s, he’s still a winner and a game-changer. But still, this team has overperformed compared to the relatively new team, and while people say we all had wished for an 8-3 start, none of us thought it just may have been the making of a big team, potentially, not a big team at this very moment, yet. It is not a Rodgers-dominated team. It’s a team with a hall-of-fame QB that understands the game better than anyone, but more so, understands his role in this current team.

The Packers are not built to win the SuperBowl, heck, not even necessarily to finish at a favorable position for the playoffs. They are maximizing their situation at the moment and they still have a shot at getting a nice season overall. Those who say we are frauds are dead-wrong. The Packers never defrauded anyone, they were just catching more breaks than expected of a new team, and played quite well on occasion. But a team that gets DESTROYED for no obvious reason (let alone twice), while being considered a “contender” otherwise is the sign of work in progress and naivety that has to go away at some point.

I still think people are impatient with some of the players and should let this team evolve into better play calling, more “bread-and-butter” plays, and finding their rhythm in general. It hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Yes, Green Bay is missing a couple of key players, more so, more playmakers that can be go-to’s in case Davante Adams and/or Aaron Jones are heavily marked. The newcomers like Lazard, MVS, and even Geronimo Allison ought to gain more confidence and catch balls thrown at them. We are likely missing, for example, one powerful tight end on the O side (OMG Kittle…) and possibly a powerhouse corner on D (OMG Sherman).

I really do think that, combined with some milage for LaFleur and his coaching staff, is all it takes to make up a decent contender in the coming years, at least until Rodgers starts his final decline (which I believe he hasn’t yet, at least not meaningfully so). Just looking at Tom Brady makes me think people need to consider retirement before they can’t really play anymore. But that’s another story.

————-

Specifically, everybody bashes the way the Packers were blown out by the Niners, but I really do believe that they should be much more encouraged than discouraged. They were newbs and got outplayed by a team that has been there / done that, with a coach that has been there / done that.

Classic bad start that led to losing momentum, and little mental capacity, is the making of any young team. You can not expect Aaron Rodgers or any other veteran on the team to make the difference when every trick on the book fools your team, you really can’t. Add some bad calls by the refs that weren’t challenged: Rodgers, I reckon, did not fumble. He was brought to the ground and only slightly after it had gone loose. Also, the big pass to our version of Jimmy G (Graham) was a CATCH. he clearly took 3 steps with the ball before hitting the ground. A challenge at 13-0 on the 25-yard line could have changed things. Not to make excuses, Packers would have likely lost anyway, but at least the game could be a bit more competitive.

So, when you’re a new team, these things would break you. The Packers can still determine their own destiny, and you know what? I think this season is still relatively going to be good. There are too many better teams at this point (Pats, Ravens, Seahawks, Niners, Saints…) for me to think we could get away with the trophy this year, but I am nonetheless very optimistic about this team, granted that they can hold on to current pillars on both sides of the ball (e.g. Smiths, Clark, BOTH offensive blockers, Adams, Jones, and of course, Rodgers). My gamble is that we finish the season 12-4, and we get to the playoffs as 3rd seed.

Other than that I don’t expect much, but I am looking forward to the years to come under LaFleur with a functional, occasionally vintage Aaron Rodgers.

See you (hopefully) after the next game.

Seeking glory? Minimax is your least favorable option. Ask Luis Enrique.

Minimax (loosely defined) is a strategy in game theory, representing the choice of cautious moves that allegedly have greater chances to reach the minimal criteria of victory in a situation where your options are win/lose. It’s actually choosing the minimum, in a maximum (win) situation, i.e. minimal victory.

I want to demonstrate why I think choosing minimax may mitigate some risks, but needs to be carefully chosen, and more importantly, one needs to realize it almost completely denies his chances of glory, for those interested. 

Full disclosure first, I’m a die-hard Barcelona fan since childhood, let’s hope it doesn’t compromise my judgement (too much…).

Intro

Last night, Luis Enrique (Barcelona’s coach for those who haven’t been living on earth since 2014), decided to choose the minimax strategy against Atletico Madrid in a 2nd leg of the champions league quarter final, after having won 2-1 in the previous game at home. Basically all he needed was a draw, any draw. And since the Champions league is a knockout-based cup, there is no draw. Ultimately, one team HAS to prevail. i.e. win/lose.

For those of you who don’t know how the system works, you may close your browser tab now, as I won’t be explaining what away goals mean 🙂

How did “Lucho” (Luis Enrique) play minimax?

Easy. He instructed his players to maintain control of the ball as much as they can (nothing new here to fans), only this time, not for the purpose of scoring a goal, rather than just keeping the ball by passing it from side to side, mainly behind the half-way line therefore denying Atletico the chance of goal scoring opportunity (under the somewhat controversial notion: if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score). 

Also, he instructed his players to narrow the gaps, and the offense to help on defense (when was the last time you saw Messi chasing somebody tenaciously all the way to his own box, only to just barely steal it and not even gaining control over it?). 

Why was the strategy minimax?

Because Lucho reckoned that since he did have the (slightest) advantage thanks to the 2-1 win the week before, and due to Atleti’s defensive reputation (which is a very shallow observation), playing a “mid court” game will kill their enthusiasm, silence the fans, help Barca defend efficiently and therefore not concede the dreaded goal that would disqualify them. And, as a bonus, once Atleti goes all-in, he has the best tools in the world for a lethal counter attack to seal the deal.

So what went wrong?

He made 2 fundamental mistakes:

  1. Assuming an excessive possession game with no goal-bound inclination can do the job: the core of Barca’s DNA is indeed possession game, but never for the sake of possession or time wasting (except for specific tactics in the final stages of important games). The possession game has to serve the goal scoring process. That’s what it’s there for. It’s meant to find that precise moment of defensive vulnerability, where you can strike quickly and most effectively. In fact, this strategy is so well-embedded in Barca players, sometimes they don’t even need the brilliance of Messi or Iniesta to score or make an incisive through pass. It has to be said, of course, once the opponent is well trained, it does require moments of genius. By neutralizing the end-game of the ball possession strategy, Lucho immediately called for misfortune and confusion to happen, especially with a team coached by Diego “El grande jefe” Simeone, that thrives on fear (on the other side).
  2. He didn’t fathom or couldn’t cope with the fact that his 3 aces (Messi, Neymar and Suarez) are out of shape/form for whatever reason, therefore he couldn’t rely on them to shine on the counter as much as he did in the past year. With roughly 1/3 battery power on the attack and a confused midfield, you’re in fact miscalculating your odds.

What should he have done differently?

Yes, I know decisiveness in retrospect is the easiest. However, I’m not claiming my solution would have surely brought it home, it could probably just increase the odds.

Traditionally, Barca is an all-or-none team. It crashes and burns the same way it emerges victorious: gloriously. Barca doesn’t know how to deploy minimax because it’s not in the club’s and players’ DNA, the same way it can’t execute an ultra defensive (i.e bunker) strategy, like Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the  2010 semis. This is empirically proven. It’s the blessing and the curse of that club, and a part of its unique magic. Lucho should have trusted his players to try and play the same way they’re used to: possess and progress. That was their only chance. It was never a done deal at the Calderon with such a fragile advantage, but it’s what brought them to this place, specifically and in general.

I’d be a fool to finish this post without expressing my awe, respect and admiration for Diego Simeone. If there’s any proof that a soccer/European football coach can make a huge difference, it’s him. Took a mediocre+ team to great success, and with admirable continuity. In my book, he’s a hero, and he deserves to finally win the European title. Chapeau, Diego.

F U, Minimax!

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I don’t like minimax. Best case scenario you win small, but you’ll never know what it feels like to REALLY win. Acting as if you have nothing to lose (not extremely so, but mainly not being dominated by the fear of failure) could be surprisingly rewarding, and if you haven’t yet tried it, I think you should. You too, Lucho.