NFC North: Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace cashed in during this year's free-agency period when he signed a $60 million contract to join the Miami Dolphins. But the speedy wide receiver evidently turned down a more lucrative offer from the Minnesota Vikings.
Wallace's father, Mike Wallace III, told USA Today Sports that his son declined a $76 million contract offer from Minnesota.
For more, click here.
Item: The Green Bay Packers are making progress on a contract extension for quarterback Aaron Rodgers that will make him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
Comment: A deal has been inevitable for years. It will set a record in the short-term and be eclipsed at some point afterwards. So there will be two points of significance for us. One is obvious: The deal will extend contract peace with the most important player on the Packers' roster. The other has yet to be evaluated: How a contract that presumably averages more than $20 million per season will impact the Packers' future salary-cap space.
Item: After much public debate, the Packers did not touch the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley. He received a $3 million roster bonus, will remain with the team in 2013 and be eligible for free agency after the season.
Comment: It seemed clear for some time that coach Mike McCarthy was encouraged by Finley's performance late last season and wanted him back. The departure of receiver Greg Jennings gave the Packers the financial flexibility to make it happen. At the moment, Finley has the second-highest 2013 compensation on the Packers' roster ($8.25 million). It will be up to him to earn it or almost certainly move on after the season.
Item: The Packers ensured offseason competition for place-kicker Mason Crosby for the first time in five years.
Comment: The choice, former Cal place-kicker Giorgio Tavecchio, isn't exactly a shoo-in to win the job. Last month, we discussed some context to explain the Packers' affinity for Crosby. He'll be the heavy favorite to win the job again unless the Packers were to sign a veteran with experience. But after his inconsistent 2012 season, it's only fair to bring in some level of competition.
Item: Packers linebacker Brad Jones got the kind of contract that makes you wonder what the team has planned for him.
Comment: The deal included a $3 million signing bonus, a $1 million base salary and a roster bonus of $18,750 for every game he is active. So if Jones is active for 16 games this season, he'll earn $4.3 million in 2013. That's not special-teams money, the role you would assume for Jones if A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, Nick Perry and D.J. Smith are all healthy.
Item: The Detroit Lions scheduled a visit for place-kicker David Akers because they are stymied in negotiations with incumbent Jason Hanson.
Comment: This isn't an unusual tactic to spur negotiations, and it's worth noting that Akers kicked himself out of a job last season with the San Francisco 49ers. Hanson is still an excellent field goal kicker. On the other hand, cap-strapped NFL teams don't want to extend themselves on specialists.
Item: The Lions hosted free-agent receiver Darius Heyward-Bey on a visit.
Comment: It's pretty clear the Lions are looking for more depth at receiver after hosting Heyward-Bey and a number of the top receivers in the draft as well. The release of Titus Young and Ryan Broyles' ongoing knee recovery makes for an obvious need.
Item: The Minnesota Vikings confirmed a topic we've discussed several times this offseason: They will be playing in new uniforms in 2013.
Comment: The uniforms will be revealed April 25 at the team's draft party. If the Vikings follow form with the mild updates to their logo in February, the uniform changes won't be significant.
Item: The father of Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace told the Miami Herald that the Vikings offered more money during Wallace's brief sojourn into the market.
Comment: Wallace seemed destined from the start to head to the warmer climate of Miami. The Vikings ended up with Jennings at $3 million less per season than Wallace signed for.
Item: The primary public funding mechanism for the Vikings' new stadium has fallen far below estimates.
Comment: Gov. Mark Dayton must figure out how to overcome a shortfall of more than $30 million. Electronic gambling revenues projections. created to fund the stadium, were dropped from $34 million to $1.7 million last week. As we discussed last month, there are two "blink-on" backup plans in place, a Vikings-themed lottery and a 10 percent tax on luxury suites, but projections could still fall short.
Item: Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is a free agent.
Comment: Lost in the afternoon frenzy was that Urlacher had never reached free agency in his career. The Bears have interest in his return, but clearly the sides hadn't been able to find common financial ground. Perhaps Urlacher will test his value on the market before taking his next step.
Item: The Minnesota Vikings re-signed All-Pro fullback Jerome Felton to a three-year contract.
Comment: This deal needed to get done. Tailback Adrian Peterson averaged about twice as many yards per carry when Felton was on the field compared to when he wasn't.
Item: The Vikings re-signed linebacker Erin Henderson to a two-year contract.
Comment: If the Vikings chose Henderson over middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, also a free agent, they picked well. Henderson is more of a playmaker and could play in the middle if needed.
Item: The Seattle Seahawks gave receiver Percy Harvin a six-year, $67 million contract with about $25 million guaranteed.
Comment: If Harvin asked the Vikings for "Calvin Johnson money," then it was just to accelerate his departure. He didn't even get Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe money.
Item: The Indianapolis Colts made one of the more stunning deals of the day, signing former Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden to a four-year deal worth $16 million, via Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Comment: Walden won back his starting job last season only by default after Nick Perry's injury, and his poor performance against the San Francisco 49ers' read-option scheme in the playoffs will go down in Packers lore. There were few indications the Packers wanted Walden back. Clearly the Colts saw value that perhaps some others did not. I guess.
Item: The Colts also gave former Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus a five-year contract worth $34 million.
Comment: It has been clear for a while that the Lions planned to move on at the position. Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox are the top two candidates for the 2013 right-tackle job.
Item: The St. Louis Rams appear to be targeting Lions safety Louis Delmas.
Comment: The Rams' defensive coordinator, Tim Walton, is the Lions' former defensive-backs coach. The Lions appear ready to move on from Delmas and are hosting free agent Glover Quin.
Item: Defensive lineman Chris Canty, who had visited the Green Bay Packers, signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
Comment: The Packers reportedly had concerns about Canty's knee. Regardless, defensive line remains an offseason priority.
Cap Status: The Bears have a modest amount of cap space after using $8.45 million for the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton. Over the weekend, they were projected to have between $6 million and $10 million available to them.
Strategy: Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears will seek improvement at offensive line and tight end this offseason, and free agency offers the first avenue. At the moment, the Bears' best offensive lineman is right guard Lance Louis, who is still recovering from ACL surgery and is a pending free agent himself. You wonder if the Bears have enough firepower to sign left tackle Jake Long, but New York Jets guard Brandon Moore could be a reasonably priced option. At tight end, everyone loves the Tennessee Titans' Jared Cook, but he will be costly. Incumbent Kellen Davis is signed for 2013 but had a disappointing season last year as a pass-catcher.
Cap Status: The Lions won't have much cap space to work with unless they can renegotiate/extend one of the two huge contracts on their books: quarterback Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million cap figure) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million). According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions are projected to have $6 million in space at the moment.
Strategy: There are plenty of needs to squeeze into that small amount of cap space. The Lions would love to find a speedy tailback to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best, a profile that seems to fit veteran Reggie Bush. But with only two of their 23 projected free agents now under contract, the Lions could have needs for two safeties, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks and one outside linebacker. That's because defensive ends Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are all pending free agents. The same goes for cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey and safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey. A weekend flooding of the cornerback/safety markets could drive down prices.
Cap Status: The Packers are projected to have about $20 million in space, a number that could increase depending on whether they renegotiate the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley.
Strategy: Thompson signaled at least some participation in free agency by hosting a visit for defensive lineman Chris Canty last week; Canty had been released by the New York Giants. The Packers know they need to improve their defensive line, whether it is with veterans, drafted players or a combination of both. There is also plenty of fan support for the Packers to pursue running back Steven Jackson, who has said he would take a role as a "counterpuncher" on a passing offense if necessary. But to this point, there has been no indication the Packers are interested. Much of their cap space is likely to be devoted, one day, to contract extensions for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Cap Status: They will have a moderate amount of cap space, about $15 million, if nothing changes between now and Tuesday.
Strategy: There is no doubt the Vikings need to improve their receiving corps, but to this point there has been no indication they are interested in the pre-eminent receiver on the market: Mike Wallace. Multiple reports suggest Wallace is most likely to end up with the Miami Dolphins. Monday's trade of Percy Harvin means the Vikings could get into the Wallace mix or perhaps Greg Jennings or Brandon Gibson. Meanwhile, it's quite possible the Vikings could seek a safety on the free-agent market, and they'll have to decide what to do at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker. The incumbent starters, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, are both free agents.
If the NFL's three-day negotiating period revealed anything, it was that the Minnesota Vikings aren't as excited about free agent receiver Mike Wallace as some of you have thought or hoped. Nothing that has happened so far is binding, meaning the Vikings could jump into the fray at any time, but for the moment ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that "the league-wide expectation" is Wallace will sign as early as Tuesday with the Miami Dolphins.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King, meanwhile, reported: "Miami didn't have much, if any, competition for a big-money deal" with Wallace.
Frankly, if you're surprised by this development, you haven't been paying attention. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has repeated his team-building philosophy often in the year since he was promoted to this role: He would acquire blue-chip players via the draft and supplement the roster via free agency. At the very least, he would have been making a significant exception to pursue Wallace.
Serious involvement in those negotiations would require a commitment probably of $11 million annually or more. In the video, Schefter said Wallace will be the only player in free agency to get a deal that exceeds $10 million annually. The Vikings have the salary cap space to do it, but the ramifications would be notable. Among others, it would suggest the Vikings have no plans to extend receiver Percy Harvin's contract and would have limited leverage in subsequent trade talks.
I think we can all agree the Vikings need to upgrade their receiving corps. Pursuing Wallace is one avenue, and conceivably it could still come to fruition. But history and precedent tells us the Vikings' likeliest path was not through signing the most coveted player in free agency.
Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?
Chicago Bears: It's unclear how much interest the Bears would have, but a tight end like Jared Cook would make sense. General manager Phil Emery is on record saying that he wants better production in the passing game from the tight-end position, and Cook is a smooth receiver. He would be a big upgrade from Kellen Davis in that regard, and new coach Marc Trestman could find plenty of different ways to line Cook up and move him around.
Detroit Lions: I'm all for the Lions pursuing running back Reggie Bush, who would provide a speedy alternative to Mikel Leshoure and also re-open a level of the passing game that has been missing without Jahvid Best. But the Lions' lack of reliable depth at safety is no less important, especially when you remember that general manager Martin Mayhew wants more playmakers in the back end. The Lions might not have the salary-cap space to sign Dashon Goldson, but fellow free agents William Moore and Glover Quin would help matters.
Green Bay Packers: Running back Steven Jackson has plenty of wear on his 29-year-old body -- nearly 2,800 touches. But a move to Green Bay would set up a satisfying conclusion to his career. The Packers will never move too far away from their pass-first philosophy, but part of that approach is the result of never having a big running back like Jackson. He could capitalize on defenses focused on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game and provide a new level of physicality to this offense.
Minnesota Vikings: There is plenty of clamor for the Vikings to make a run at speedster Mike Wallace. That's one option. From a bigger-picture perspective, a more inclusive approach would have the Vikings targeting a second-tier free agent -- such as Brandon Gibson -- re-signing Percy Harvin to a multi-year contract and focusing on a top-end speedster in the draft. Gibson has outside skills and wouldn't threaten the Vikings' salary-cap structure at the position.
It appears we are getting close to a resolution on one of the biggest offseason questions in the NFC North: Brian Urlacher's status with the Chicago Bears.
Multiple reports suggest Urlacher's agents submitted a contract proposal Thursday morning and are awaiting a response. That fact alone adds more grist to our working theory since the NFL scouting combine. The Bears haven't shut the door on Urlacher's return and seem to have interest in bringing him back in 2013 under the right scenario.
The Bears' response to the Urlacher contract offer will be telling. They could bid him farewell in a passive-aggressive way by countering with a number low enough that they know Urlacher will reject it and move to free agency. Or they could negotiate in a way that will bring about an agreement by the time free agency opens early next week.
We'll keep you updated.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- It's quite possible the Bears will make a tight end their top target in free agency, writes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
- Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if the Bears will pursue a free agent offensive guard.
- Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "The agent for Cullen Jenkins said his client is more than open to a return to the Green Bay Packers."
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel isn't expecting a quick decision from the Packers on free agent defensive lineman Chris Canty, who visited Thursday.
- Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com is convinced the Minnesota Vikings will pursue receiver Mike Wallace. Whether they are willing to pay him top dollar is another story.
- Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "[I]t seems difficult to imagine the Vikings paying top dollar for a player such as Wallace or [Greg] Jennings if they're intent on keeping receiver Percy Harvin."
- Get ready for a lot of speculation, writes Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
- Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter took a pre-draft visit to the Detroit Lions on Thursday, notes Tim Twentyman of the Lions' website.
- Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford holds all of the leverage in his current contract negotiations, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
- Justin Rogers of Mlive.com looks at free agent offensive linemen from the Lions' perspective.
- One participant of the Lions' specialist tryout earlier this week was Norwegian kicker Havard Rugland, an Internet sensation who rose to fame because of a trick shot video. More from Bernie Wilson of the Associated Press via the Detroit Free Press.
A line in a recent NFL.com analysis indicates the Miami Dolphins anticipate competing with the Minnesota Vikings for free-agent receiver Mike Wallace. In the video, ESPN's Adam Schefter mentions the Vikings as a likely suitor for free-agent receiver Greg Jennings. And for months, we've discussed the Vikings' looming contract discussions with their own star wide receiver, Percy Harvin.
So how will these tentacles mesh over the next week? I won't pretend to have direct insight into the Vikings' plans, other than an informed assumption that they know they need a better receiving group. I'll just return to what we discussed a few days ago: In a relatively tight salary-cap era, it would be surprising if the Vikings pay out two market-level contracts at the same time for one position group.
You figure that Harvin, 24, and Wallace, 26, are seeking deals similar to what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Vincent Jackson last season and the Kansas City Chiefs paid to Dwayne Bowe this week: Around $11 million annually. It's doubtful, but not impossible I guess, to envision the Vikings paying that to Harvin and Wallace. So in essence, it's one or the other (or neither).
Jennings, 29, won't exactly be cheap, although as Matt Bowen writes for ESPN Insider , he won't be viewed by all NFL teams as a classic No. 1 receiver. You need an Insider subscription to read what is really an extraordinary breakdown of Jennings' skill set, but here is the bottom line, according to Bowen: "Jennings can still play and still produce. But he isn't a 25-year-old receiver in his prime who can consistently flip the field and put stress on the league's top corners in the vertical passing game."
Jennings' ability to get open -- Bowen wrote he is still "one of the top route runners in the game" -- and his history of turning short slants into big gainers mesh well with the Vikings' offense. Ideally, the Vikings could sign Jennings for the rate Bowen recommends: $6 million to $8 million annually on a shorter-term contract. That would give them more flexibility to retain Harvin, if that's their plan.
On the other hand, if you see the Vikings jump out and offer top dollar to Wallace and/or Jennings, you could reasonably guess they have at least delayed plans to re-sign Harvin. We're down to a few days before we find out.
According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, among others, Bowe received a five-year deal worth $56 million, with $26 million guaranteed. That's a notch higher than last year's free-agent benchmark: $55 million over five years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson, with similar guarantees.
Those figures help you understand why the Green Bay Packers either haven't been able, or haven't tried, to re-sign pending free agent Greg Jennings, who turns 30 in September. It also illustrates why it's difficult to predict where the Minnesota Vikings will go with their multi-pronged needs and challenges at the position.
As you know, Percy Harvin is entering the final year of his contract. It's safe to assume he will eye Bowe's contract as a framework for an extension. Those of you who would like to see the Vikings sign Jennings or the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace, the top two free-agent receivers available, should ask if you think they would dole out two deals that average more than $11 million annually for receivers.
If you consider that scenario unlikely, you're probably right. You wonder if the Vikings' likeliest path is to either commit to Harvin or sign a free agent -- but not both -- while also hoping to address the position in the draft. When you look at the second tier of free-agent receivers, you realize that many of them would play the same slot role as Harvin -- Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Donnie Avery among them.
Regardless, we now have a better idea of what it will cost for the Vikings either to satisfy Harvin and/or add a top veteran to the mix. In short: A lot.
In that scenario, the Vikings could seek one of those receivers in free agency and another in the draft. To that end, Insider reporter Field Yates recommends pending free agent Mike Wallace, and not Greg Jennings, as the free agent the Vikings should target.
Yates: "Wallace possesses rare speed, and though his production tapered off in 2012 compared to his previous two seasons, he remains one of the most dangerous downfield threats in the league. For an offense that is centered around pounding the football with [Adrian] Peterson, adding an explosive edge receiver in Wallace would effectively take the top off of defenses and create further lanes for Peterson to run."
Wallace ran a 4.33 in the 40 during his combine test in 2009 and would be an obvious downfield upgrade over Michael Jenkins, who could be released, and Jerome Simpson, a pending free agent. The question is whether the Vikings will want to get involved in negotiations that probably will use as a benchmark the five-year, $55 million contract that Vincent Jackson received last spring from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As for the draft, let me pass along Mel Kiper's top five receivers , a list he updated after last week's combine:
- West Virginia's Tavon Austin
- Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson
- Cal's Keenan Allen
- Tennessee's Justin Hunter
- Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton.
Austin has elite speed and playmaking ability, but at 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, he projects at the same position as Harvin and Wright. Patterson (6-foot-3), Allen (6-3), Hunter (6-4) and Patton (6-2) are built more like edge receivers.
Patterson ran a 4.42 in the 40 at the combine, Hunter a 4.44 and Patton a 4.53. Allen did not run.
The answer in each case was no, no, no, no, no and a big fat no.
As ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt pointed out this week, restricted free agency is a dying classification that appears to have run its course. The NFL's new collective bargaining agreement requires rookies to receive four-year contracts, which eventually will nullify a category that requires an expired contract and three years of accrued experience.
A conspiracy theorist would question what the future of restricted free agency has to do with how it functions in 2012. Are teams in unspoken agreement -- i.e. colluding -- to leave each other's RFAs alone, thus eliminating an entire class of players from movement? I guess everyone can draw their own conclusions on that, but here is what Brandt -- the Green Bay Packers' longtime contract negotiator -- wrote about it:
This is hard to pinpoint, though as a front office executive I was hesitant to present RFA offer sheets, thinking I was negotiating the contract for the incumbent team, as it usually matches. However, as noted above, the Wallace situation finds the Steelers susceptible.
Another factor is an increased emphasis on building through the draft. With a reduced financial obligation compared to the past, especially high in the draft, these picks are more valuable than ever. Combine that with the high financial price of prying away an RFA, and teams are shying away.
Beyond these reasons, however, an overriding concern for players is that teams are spending less on players than in recent years, and RFA inactivity is a symptom of a larger malady.
Friday is the final day for RFAs to sign an offer sheet with another team. Goodbye, restricted free agency. We'll miss you.
All of our previous Calling Canton nominees carry some kind of caveat among their credentials. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been a starter for just three seasons. Defensive ends Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) and Jared Allen (Minnesota Vikings) fall in a category that hasn't always rewarded high-sack producers. Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson plays an uncelebrated position amid some equally talented contemporaries.
I don't know that we'll find a substantive flaw in the candidacy of Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, however. Packers columnist Vic Ketchman recently suggested Woodson will win election on the first ballot he appears. It's always difficult to predict the first-ballot tendencies of voters, but I'm guessing Ketchman's perspective reflects that of the football establishment: It would be a stunner if Woodson isn't inducted soon after his career ends.
Why such a slam-dunk case? In 13 career seasons, Woodson has already put himself in the appropriate statistical range for Hall of Fame cornerbacks. He has enough interceptions. His coverage skills have never been in question. He won a defensive player of the year award at age 33, a testament to the longevity of his elite skills, and has a particular talent -- stripping the ball -- to hang his figurative hat on.
That's my case in a nutshell, but let's examine the details:
- Fair or otherwise, interceptions are always a key measure for defensive backs. Woodson has 47, which places him No. 49 on the NFL's all-time list. Obviously, interceptions don't tell the whole story. But as the first chart shows, there are 11 Hall of Fame players who spent their careers almost exclusively at cornerback. The range for their career interceptions is 46-68. To me, that tells us Woodson's low(er) interception total, which should grow as his career concludes and is based at least in part on how often teams throw his way, won't hold him back.
- Interceptions aside, Woodson has risen to near the top of several all-time NFL lists. His 10 interception returns for a touchdown ranks No. 3 all-time, behind Rod Woodson (12) and Darren Sharper (11). And Woodson has more forced fumbles (27) than any other cornerback in NFL history, according to the database at pro-football-reference.com.
- Forced fumble records don't go back more than a few decades, as you probably noticed if you followed the link to the database. Even so, we can safely say Woodson is the best of several generations and one of the best ever. A forced fumble is less valuable than an interception, because it still requires recovery to qualify as a turnover. Regardless, the candidacy of any potential Hall of Fame player is buoyed by a skill that stands out from his peers. Woodson without question has that.
- The performance that led to his 2009 DPOY award provides a strong illustration for Woodson's multi-faceted success. That season, he became the fourth player in NFL history to record at least nine interceptions and two sacks in a season. Against the Detroit Lions, Woodson became the first player in league history to record two interceptions, a touchdown return, a sack and a fumble recovery in the same game.
- There is no reliable way to quantify a player's coverage skills. But throughout his career, Woodson has been well-known for his instincts, ball skills and physicality at the line. Scouts Inc.'s report on Woodson includes these plaudits: "Woodson does a great a great job anticipating break points and jumping routes. He does a great job at jamming and rerouting his opponent off the line of scrimmage in press coverage." And lest anyone doubt his one-on-one skills, go back and watch the play Woodson broke his collarbone on in Super Bowl XLV. He was running stride for stride with Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Mike Wallace, who, among other things, is 10 years younger.
As with our other Calling Canton posts, I think it's important to measure Woodson against his contemporaries, knowing that only the best of any given era typically find their way to the Hall.
Woodson was one of four cornerbacks to make the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s, joining Ronde Barber, Champ Bailey and Ty Law. As the chart shows, Woodson has three more interceptions than Law and trails Bailey by one. Current stars Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha will also enter the conversation at some point but will need several more years of sustained success to do it.
It's also important to note that since he entered the league in 1998, Woodson has more forced fumbles than any player -- at any position -- other than safety Brian Dawkins. Typically speaking, linebackers and safeties should have more opportunities to force a fumble than a cornerback. Woodson's numbers in that category are a testament to his all-around play and should be a big part of any argument for his inclusion on the first Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot he is eligible for.
Earlier: Rodgers has put himself on the path toward Canton. Peppers and Allen face stiff competition. Hutchinson has all the credentials.
- A change in holders is always a warning sign when it comes to kickers, and Sunday it made little difference that the Packers switched from Matt Flynn to Jeremy Kapinos. Placekicker Mason Crosby was wide on a 34-yard attempt, his fifth miss in his past 11 attempts. In a league where an 80 percent conversion rate is considered low, Crosby is at 72.7. But I still think the Packers would be tempting fate to change kickers this week. The idea of bringing in someone off the street to kick at Lambeau Field, and then perhaps the playoffs, seems just as risky as trying to make it work with Crosby.
- Had the Packers won Sunday, I would have considered it a seminal game in the career of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After completing only 13 of his first 35 passes, Rodgers finished the game with 13 consecutive completions in leading the Packers back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Rodgers said afterwards that he considered himself past the point of having to prove he could lead a fourth-quarter comeback, but actions always speak louder than words. His aggressive but collected approach as the game progressed was perfect.
- With a half-day to reflect, I’m still really surprised that defensive coordinator Dom Capers backed into a dime defense on the Steelers’ final drive rather than aggressively rush quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I don’t doubt that defensive backs provide the best matchup for receivers, as went Capers’ post-game reasoning. But when two of those defensive backs (Jarrett Bush and Josh Bell) are relatively new to their jobs, and when Roethlisberger has been so effective when he's had time in the pocket, I just don’t like the matchup. There was no chance for a player like Bell to stay with a receiver like Mike Wallace when a quarterback like Roethlisberger is taking the snap. The only way to defend that final play is to get to Roethlisberger.
Why didn’t the Packers run the ball more in the first half? Rodgers explained that everyone liked their receivers’ matchups against Pittsburgh’s pass defense, and that the decision to throw on 29 of their first 35 plays was planned. But there are certain risks a team takes when planning a pass-happy approach for an outdoor road game. You saw some of those Sunday when the Steelers’ pass rush blew up the Packers’ early attempts to throw. Running the ball at an aggressive pass rush is one of the best ways to stunt it, but the Packers kept throwing. I don’t deny the matchup situation. But with the Packers, you always have to take pass protection into account.
(Even more sure than I was of a victory Sunday at Pittsburgh. Ha.)
The question for us as a blog community is not whether the Packers will earn a wild-card berth. Given their remaining schedule and the squalid state of the NFC, it’s a near-lock. No, the real issue for the Packers is whether they’re equipped to win a playoff game. In my book, at least, missing the playoffs is only marginally less satisfying than a first-round defeat.
The events of Week 15 suggest the Packers will be a playoff team, but one that is not yet capable of winning a postseason game on the road -- as they will have to do when and if they clinch. Their opportunity to suggest otherwise came late in the fourth quarter Sunday, and quite frankly, they fell short.
Ahead by six points with 2:06 remaining, the Packers allowed Pittsburgh to drive 86 yards -- converting three third-down plays and one on fourth down -- and win on the final play of the game.
Mike Wallace’s 19-yard touchdown reception capped a career day for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a team-record 503 yards against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
Put bluntly, none of what you read in the preceding paragraph should happen to a playoff team.
“You have these types of games in the playoffs and you go home,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “We had what we wanted out there, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed.”
I wasn’t sure what I would encounter when I reached the Packers’ postgame locker room. Would there be stunned silence? Anger? Uncontrolled sobbing? (I’ve never seen the latter in a pro locker room, but I had to establish the full spectrum.)
More than anything, I encountered realism. The Packers lost on an exceptional effort on the final plays of a wild game. But they are still 9-5 this season and, based on the NFC standings, one victory away from clinching a playoff berth. Seattle’s pending arrival at Lambeau Field next weekend provides what should be an easy foil, a dynamic the Packers appear fully aware of.
“Right now our mindset is that we have to get ready for Seattle,” receiver Donald Driver said. “We take care of business at home and we’re 10-5 and that may get us in.”
With the rest of the NFC field at least 1.5 games behind the Packers and Dallas in the wild-card race, that scenario appears highly likely. But I thought Sunday’s game provided a good allegory for the Packers’ postseason aptitude: They’re on the brink, but not there yet.
To be clear, the Packers made an exceptional comeback to take the lead in the fourth quarter. I thought it would have been a seminal victory for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 383 yards and led the Packers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
But a playoff-winning defense would have forced a turnover during the Steelers’ final drive. Instead, the Packers mishandled two opportunities -- one apiece by Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson -- and had a third overturned by penalty. A playoff-winning defense shouldn’t allow a 32-yard pass on fourth-and-7, but that’s what happened when Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes wide open with 1:14 remaining.
And frankly, a playoff-winning defense wouldn’t have felt compelled to retreat into a dime defense -- which included two relative newcomers to the lineup whom the Steelers repeatedly targeted -- on the final drive. But that’s where defensive coordinator Dom Capers landed on the final play. Roethlisberger found Wallace matched up with dime back Josh Bell, whom the Packers signed last month and were using only because Brandon Underwood was sidelined with a hip injury.
Capers has had the Packers on the attack for most of their recent five-game winning streak, but Sunday he chose to emphasize coverage over pass rush.
“They went to four wide receivers,” Capers sad. “Down the stretch there, we felt we would have been better off matching up defensive backs on receivers.”
Perhaps, but I would argue the Packers would have been better off flooding Roethlisberger's passing lanes rather than giving him time to slide in the pocket. Starting with the opening play of the game, Roethlisberger identified and targeted both Bell and nickel back Jarrett Bush. With Woodson playing mostly against the slot receiver, the Steelers had exceptional matchups with Holmes and Wallace on the outside.
“That’s Roethlisberger,” Bush said. “We gave him some time to slide in the pocket and let guys get open. And we didn’t get it done on the back end. You can’t take it away from them. They made some plays. … We all know that’s not going to happen every week.”
Oooooooh, I’m not entirely sure of that final assertion, Jarrett. What we saw Sunday was the first Packers opponent to really capitalize on cornerback Al Harris’ season-ending knee injury. The domino effect of that injury, which moved Bush up to nickel back and Underwood/Bell up to dime, finally caught up to them.
Bush made an inexplicable adjustment on Roethlisberger’s first pass of the game, allowing Wallace further separation on a 60-yard touchdown play. Bell didn’t have terrible coverage on the final play, but my guess is a savvier player would have initiated more contact and perhaps given officials a tougher call to make.
But if I’m Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston -- the keys to an Arizona passing attack that could be the Packers’ first-round playoff opponent -- I’m licking my chops. If the Packers want to play a nickel or dime defense in the playoffs, a team like the Cardinals will be a particularly tough matchup.
“We all expected to win this game,” Woodson said. “I think we all thought we pretty much had it in the bag. But that’s the way it works. We’ve got another opportunity next week to try to get on the right track. That’s what we’ll try to do.”
To make the playoffs, yes. To win a game or two when they get there? I’m not so sure. Not yet.
- As per their tendency this season, the Steelers came out throwing and have never stopped. The Packers' defense hasn’t been horrendous, but it has been gashed for three big pass plays: A 60-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace on their first play of the game, a 33-yarder to Santonio Holmes and 27 yards to Heath Miller.
- This is a game where the Packers miss cornerback Al Harris, if for no other reason than the domino effect that has left Jarrett Bush as their nickelback. Bush’s “coverage” on Wallace’s touchdown was inexplicable.
- Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has completed 14 of 20 passes for 233 yards in the first half despite being harassed repeatedly by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. In abusing Steelers left tackle Max Starks, Matthews has two sacks and has brought his season total to 10. He lost a third sack, and forced fumble, in a replay review. Matthews for defensive rookie of the year, anyone?
- I realize the Steelers have a good run defense, but I haven’t been a fan of the Packers’ play selection. They threw on their first six plays, despite a heavy interior rush, and overall threw on 24 of their 35 first-half plays. And one of those runs was a 14-yard scoring scramble by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Steelers almost knocked Rodgers out of the game in the first two series. That’s not the formula the Packers have used in winning five consecutive contests.
- In fact, the Packers are back to their all-or-nothing ways. They have an 83-yard touchdown pass to receiver Greg Jennings and a 49-yard play to receiver Donald Driver.
- Drops are unofficial statistics, but I’ve got the Packers for an inexcusable total of five. Receiver James Jones and tight end Donald Lee had particularly glaring instances.
- If I’m the Packers, I’m hoping I don’t have to send place-kicker Mason Crosby out to win a game, no matter what the distance. He’s now missed five of his past 11 attempts, including a 34-yarder in the second quarter.