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Monday, January 2, 2012
Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

After the Green Bay Packers' 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Following their big win against the Lions, the Packers take a seat in the examination room.
  1. We discussed last week the pros and cons of swapping out a left tackle on the eve of the playoffs. In the end, Packers coach Mike McCarthy has decided to do just that. McCarthy announced Monday that veteran Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) will resume his role as a starter for the Packers' Jan. 15 divisional playoff game. Marshall Newhouse, who started 10 games for Clifton during the regular season, will return to the bench. Clifton evidently showed McCarthy enough during his 25-play stint Sunday against the Lions. McCarthy: "Marshall's done an excellent job. We've won a lot of games with Marshall Newhouse. But Chad Clifton is the starter. There's won't be any gray area for that. But in the same breath, Chad still has a little more work to do. And we've got time to get it done. I'm encouraged by the progress he's made as long as he can stay healthy through these next couple weeks." I don't think this is a situation where McCarthy felt obligated to abide by the adage that a starter shouldn't lose his job because of injury. In the end, McCarthy trusts Clifton and his experience more in a playoff environment. If he stumbles, he has an experienced backup ready to hop back in.
  2. Quarterback Matt Flynn's 480-yard, six-touchdown performance has made some of you greedy. You've mostly accepted that Flynn would move on in free agency this offseason in search of a starting job, but now you wonder if the Packers can get something back — more than a compensatory draft pick — when he leaves. Flynn is a pending unrestricted free agent, so to trade him the Packers must first make him their franchise player. As ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt points out for the National Football Post, that would put a $14 million cap charge on the Packers' books and could potentially become guaranteed, if he signs it. The Packers wouldn't have much trade leverage in that situation unless a bidding war erupted. Another obstacle: The Packers might want to use their tag on tight end Jermichael Finley instead. Flynn probably made himself some money Sunday, but I'm not sure if the Packers will be able to parlay that success into additional assets other than a potential high compensatory pick.
  3. A rarely-used backup always faces fundamental questions, and arm strength is one of them. Outsiders don't get a chance to see whether he can consistently make the throws required of a successful starter. Flynn's scattered opportunities, both in the preseason and in last season's start against the New England Patriots, didn't answer the arm strength issue. So it's worth noting that Sunday, Flynn completed three passes that traveled at least 31 yards in the air. He had missed all five of his previous career attempts on such deep throws. Those passes -- two to receiver Jordy Nelson and one to receiver James Jones -- will be important bullet points on his free agent resume.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
The Lions' 502 net passing yards pushed the Packers' defense into the record books. They allowed more passing yards — 4,796 — than any team in NFL history this season. That fact will dominate whatever level of public hand-wringing that occurs during the next few weeks. But rarely do you hear this second part, and I'm not sure why. The Packers led the NFL with 31 interceptions, eight more than the next-best team, and opponents had an 80.6 passer rating against them. At some point, like it or not, people need to accept that the Packers give up a lot of passing yards and have won 15 games by making up for it via turnovers. It's not a fool-proof formula. If a team plays a near-perfect game, like the Kansas City Chiefs did in Week 15, the Packers can be beat. But what NFL team has every possible vulnerability locked down?