Even a victory in Super bowl XLV might not overshadow what just happened this week. Not only did the Green Bay Packers waltz into the Metrodome on Sunday and embarrass the Vikings with a 31-3 beat down, they also managed to open a lane for Brad Childress in the unemployment line. So after one of the greatest conquests the Packers have seen in a while, it’s hard for fans to find a lot of fault with their team’s performance and decisions.
That’s why we have our media experts.
In his Monday appearance on “Green and Gold Today,” Wilde called the Packers’ success in Minnesota a “slam dunk,” citing the Tramon Williams interception as the primary turning point in the whole game. However, he was a bit critical of head coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to defer the kickoff upon winning the coin toss, calling it a “bold stroke,” despite being “lauded as brilliant.”
Jason Wilde elaborated on this point, saying “two colossal plays made that whole strategy possible. … One, Atari Bigby tripping up Percy Harvin on the opening kickoff, … and then Tramon Williams’ interception.” Without those, he contended, deferring to the second half would have been condemned by fans rather than praised.
So that begs the question:
Was Mike McCarthy’s decision to defer the opening kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings really a good idea?
In this second edition of the “Packers Beer Mug Perspective,” we’ll take a look at the issue from both angles, then determine whether our mug is really half full or half empty.
THE MUG IS HALF FULL
When asked in the post-game press conference what factors went into the decision to defer, Mike McCarthy responded with his usual ambiguity:
I really don’t want to get into all of that, I think they’re very obvious. It’s something you look at week-to-week, that’s why you study film, it’s part of your game plan. It was something I felt on Friday in our game management meeting and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense and it worked out today.
It’s clear McCarthy gave the decision a lot of thought, and that point is magnified upon realizing that this was the first time he had ever elected to defer on the opening kickoff. Despite McCarthy’s vague reasoning, it should be obvious that the decision to defer was based on two factors: (1) trying to control the crowd noise and (2) having a lot of faith in the defense.
“We’ve been going three-and-out to start the game on defense,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You’re going on the road in an opponents’ stadium, with the crowd involved and you get the ball first, that’s the loudest time of the game. If you go out there and get a three-and-out, I think it helps get you started in the right direction in terms of trying to make sure the crowd doesn’t get involved in the game.
“We’ve tried to place an emphasis on starting fast on defense and we’ve been able to do that the last three games.”
Well, quite frankly, their plan seemed to work.
The Packers held the Vikings offense to three-and-out with a Clay Matthews sack to cap off the first series. After Chris Kluwe’s 46-yard punt, Green Bay’s offensive unit took their first snap with decent field position. Unfortunately, they were also held to just one set of downs before Tim Masthay had to punt it back.
Despite the offense only gaining eight net yards in the first quarter, the defense held up its part of the bargain.
They made an excellent red zone stand on the Vikings’ second drive to keep them to a field goal, then followed that up with a forced fumble recovery on the next drive. To seal the deal, Tramon Williams’ studies put him in a position to jump a slant route for the game-changing interception.
By the time the first half had come to a close, the Packers defense deserved a lot of credit for putting the team in a position to go up 17-3. Of the six offensive drives by Minnesota, three of them stalled after three downs, two ended in turnovers, and one ended in a red-zone field goal.
McCarthy and Capers apparently had every right to trust in their defense.
THE MUG IS HALF EMPTY
As noted before, Jason Wilde argued that two key plays made the difference between McCarthy’s decision to defer being seen as smart and it being seen as foolish. I’m even willing to add a third play to that mix.
The first play was Atari Bigby’s “shoe-string” tackle of Percy Harvin on the opening kickoff.
After fielding the ball at the 3-yard line, Harvin made the right moves to get around his blockers and up the field. He had running room ahead of him while Packers fans held their breath, fearing the worst. Luckily, Atari Bigby was able to reach out and trip up Harvin at the 27-yard line.
But had Atari Bigby not made that play, the chances were very high that Harvin would have made it down to the end zone.
If the Packers had hoped to quell the crowd early on with their defense, a kickoff return for a touchdown would have been the last thing they would want. The noise would have been ignited, and it probably would have continued through Green Bay’s first few possessions.
The second play to make the difference was Charles Woodson’s forced fumble on Vikings running back Toby Gerhart.
At the end of the first quarter, the Green Bay offense looked its worst. After finally getting a first down on their second drive, Aaron Rodgers was sacked twice within three plays for a loss of fifteen yards. The score was still 3-0, and Minnesota took the ball back at their own 33-yard line.
Then, on third-and-8, Toby Gerhart took a short pass up the middle of the field for a 10-yard gain. That play would have been a nice momentum boost for the Vikings had it not been for Woodson, the Packers’ own Superman.
In a move fans have seen many times before, Woodson chops the ball out of Gerhart’s arm as he goes in for the tackle. A.J. Hawk wisely falls on top of the ball after it takes a short bounce, letting Aaron Rodgers and company take the field for their third time.
While the Packers failed to convert on their next series, the turnover was enough to take some of the wind out of the Viking’s sails and keep the Packers close.
Finally, with about a minute left to play, Tramon Williams makes his game-changing interception.
At that point, the Vikings had driven 53 yards on six plays to get down to the Packers’ 25-yard line, with them trailing by a touchdown. They had found some rhythm and were knocking on the doors of the endzone.
If Tramon Williams doesn’t jump the route, there’s little doubt that the momentum would have stayed with the Vikings and that the crowd would have been back in the game.
In fact, were it not for any of the aforementioned plays, the game would arguably have not been a blow-out, and each team would have been fighting to the bitter end.
GETTING THROUGH THE FOAM
Bad strategy with good execution usually isn’t enough to win games, yet good strategy with bad execution doesn’t help much, either. The two have to go hand-in-hand in order for a team to be truly effective.
Fortunately, the Green Bay Packers utilized some good strategy with some great execution.
In the game of football, many decisions come down to playing the odds. When you are in a certain situation as a player or coach, you have to rely on your preparation and knowledge of the opponent to get you through.
What do I know about my opponent, what do I know about myself, and what do I know about my team?
In Mike McCarthy’s case, he knew that his team’s defense was running much stronger than its offense. He had faith in his defense’s ability to get the job done, and he knew that if they were successful, then the cacophony inside Metrodome would be just a little more bearable.
He took the odds, ran with it, and was successful.
Look, you can play the “what if” games all day. “What if” Bigby doesn’t make that tackle? “What if” Woodson doesn’t force the fumble? And “what if” Williams doesn’t trust his instincts and preparation? The sheer fact of the matter is that the Packers had a better chance of suppressing the crowd noise with their defense than with their offense.
Remember, the Packers offense did practically nothing in the first quarter. And it wasn’t even until halfway through the second quarter that their first touchdown was scored. If we use their first quarter performance as an indicator, then taking the opening kickoff probably wouldn’t have done much to silence the crowd. In fact, it may have done the opposite.
The defense, meanwhile, more than held their own on the first six Vikings possessions.
Aside from the field goal, each drive ended on either a turnover or a three-and-out. And it’s not like the turnovers are something out of the ordinary with this unit. That part of the game has become a cornerstone for how they operate, and it’s something that factored into the equation.
Mr. Wilde, I love your work and listen to your podcasts regularly, but I think you’re drinking out of the wrong mug here, because this one is definitely half full.
I don’t expect Mike McCarthy to make deferring the kickoff a trend in the coming games, but there is no solid reason why it wasn’t a good decision in this one.——————Follow @ChadToporski