Friday, December 31, 2010

Uneven Season Has Forged Resilient Team

Earlier this week, Head Coach Mike McCarthy called these Packers the most resilient team he’s coached in his five seasons here.

It’s a quality that has served them well in multiple respects as they head into a potential playoffs-or-bust regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
First, the team has shown the ability to overcome as many if not more significant injuries than any team in the league this year. The Packers have seen 14 players go on season-ending injured reserve, including six opening-day starters and a handful of key reserves. Other starters, and even some of the replacements for the original starters, have also missed games here and there.
Statistically speaking, opening-day starters have missed a collective total of 77 games, not including the contests in which they got hurt. Over the course of 15 games, that’s an average of five starters missing each week. Reserves and fill-in starters have missed nearly that many more games.
That’s the 2010 obstacle with a capital ‘O’ that has required a combination of factors to overcome, keeping the Packers in contention all season long. The roster depth built by General Manager Ted Thompson and his personnel department, week-to-week coaching adjustments by McCarthy and his staff, and an unwavering no-excuses attitude amongst the coaches and players have all helped get the team to 9-6 with a playoff berth to fight for in this final week.
“It just speaks for the guys on the team, how hard everyone’s been working, just how everyone’s been staying at it and not giving up,” said rookie right tackleBryan Bulaga, who stepped in as one of the new regulars following veteranMark Tauscher’s season-ending shoulder injury four games in. “When a couple guys go down here or there, not everyone just puts their head down. The guys that are behind them step up and play good football.
“A lot of it is Coach McCarthy. He does a great job putting the offensive scheme together every week. He’s a great head coach. He helps put together the team obviously too, so he picks the guys on the team with Mr. Thompson as well. They put the pieces in place, and then it’s up to us to go out there and execute.”
And therein lies the rub. Because for as much as this 2010 season has been about rising above repeated misfortune in the injury department, at this point it’s being analyzed just as much, if not moreso, as one of missed opportunities.
All six of Green Bay’s losses have come by either three or four points, and whether playing shorthanded or not, that’s a lot of chances to win that have slipped away. There have been late-game turnovers and penalties, overtime failures, last-minute drives that don’t quite reach the end zone, and the list goes on.
“I wouldn’t say we’re too proud, because even with all the injuries, we still should have won some of those games we lost,” receiver James Jonessaid. “We put ourselves in this position and we’ve got to dig our way out. We still hold our own destiny, so we have to go out here and get a win, get in the playoffs.”
That’s yet another reflection of the Packers’ resiliency, albeit of the double-edged-sword type. This Green Bay team has been forced to bounce back psychologically from a number of tough defeats, but losses they see as ones of their own making.
“We feel very confident with the guys in this locker room that we’re going to be competitive every week,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “But you look at the games we’ve lost, it’s self-inflicted wounds most of the time.”
Still, the team rebounded from back-to-back overtime losses in Weeks 5-6 to knock off NFC North rival Minnesota in a down-to-the-wire game that jump-started a four-game winning streak.
Then after losing three of four games beginning in late November, the Packers came out last week needing a win to stay alive for a playoff spot and put together their best performance of the season in whipping the fellow Wild Card contending Giants.
Perhaps the previous game, at New England, said as much about this team as any and set the stage for last week. Traveling to play the hottest team in the NFL in a stadium where Tom Brady seemingly never loses and with backup quarterback Matt Flynn forced to take the reins from Rodgers, it would have seemed acceptable to take some pride in pushing the Patriots to the limit in a 31-27 setback.
But this team was downright frustrated, if not angry, it didn’t win that game, and psychologically it simply absorbed another tough loss from which to move on. It wasn’t about taking pride in anything, because the pride was left on the field with an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful performance.
The internal message the players took from that loss was they still weren’t playing well enough, and continuing to push ahead helped produce the dominant showing that followed upon returning to Lambeau. Now the message is that more of the same is needed, with everything in the big picture still there for the taking.
“We set a goal back in March as a team, no matter who’s out there, and we’re still fighting for that goal,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “I guess you could say we’ve done a great job based on injuries, but we don’t want any moral victories. We want to complete our goal that we set back in March.
“It’s a fun time. We all know our backs are against the wall. This is Game 2 of our playoff stretch, and we know it’s win or go home. With the guys we have on this team, with the character, this is a game we embrace. The animal instinct inside all of us, we’ll come to fight.”
McCarthy’s resilient bunch wouldn’t know how to react any other way.
“It obviously starts with your head coach and your leadership with the guys in the locker room, and he’s done a good job of keeping us focused each week on the different themes and things he wants to emphasize,” Rodgers said. “This is a group that has a lot of confidence in each other and plays well together.
“But unfortunately we just haven’t been as consistent for the entire season that we would have liked to. We’d love to be sitting here clinching a berth and maybe playing for the division. But the fact of the matter is we have a chance to still get in the tournament and do some damage if we can take care of business at home this weekend.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Notebook: Matthews Aware Of Gronkowski

For as notably as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has burst onto the scene in his rookie season in 2010 with seven touchdown receptions -- third most among all tight ends in the NFL -- Packers linebacker Clay Matthews isn't surprised. Not in the slightest.

Matthews played against Gronkowski when the two were Pac-10 rivals at USC and Arizona, respectively, and he considered him one of his toughest individual matchups at the college level. When the two went head-to-head in 2008, Matthews' senior season and Gronkowski's sophomore year, Gronkowski had just two catches for 12 yards in USC's tight 17-10 win, but it was his complete game that impressed Matthews.

"I think he was underrated," Matthews said. "Not only was he a talented receiving tight end, but he could block as well, and it's clearly evident that he's able to do that even on the professional level. He's one of those guys you really have to gear up for.
"I'm glad I've seen him before, knowing that I'm really going to have to focus on him personally with his blocks if I'm matched up against him and what not. But I think he's a great overall, well-rounded player, and his name will be highly regarded at the tight end position for years to come."
The reason Gronkowski's been a bit of a surprise early on was he missed all of last season at Arizona with a back injury, and then he entered the NFL Draft a year early. The Patriots selected him in the second round last April (42nd overall) and then two rounds later drafted another early-entry tight end, Florida's Aaron Hernandez, who in some ways was the bigger name because he had won a national championship with the Gators as well as the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end in 2009, the year Gronkowski was hurt.
The pair has formed an impressive rookie tight end duo. Hernandez has more receptions (41 to 31) and yards (532 to 365) this season, but with the seven TDs to Hernandez's four, Gronkowski has been the more frequent red-zone target.
It's worth wondering what Gronkowski's numbers might be if he were the sole featured tight end in New England's offense, but Matthews says there's no need to focus on his statistics. His personal experience, and this year's game film, have proven to him his read on Gronkowski two years ago wasn't off the mark.
"There are certain guys when you can personally play against them, you kind of predict where they're going to end up or how it's going to unfold," Matthews said. "I got to congratulate him after he was drafted, before the season started, and you could see where his head was at.
"I told him best of luck, congrats on getting drafted, and here we are 14 weeks later going up against each other, just like in college. I have my work cut out for me, and hopefully he does as well."
Another casual link between the two young stars is their athletic families. Both Matthews' father and grandfather played in the NFL, while Gronkowski has two brothers also currently in the league. Dan Gronkowski has played tight end for the Lions and Broncos the past two years, while Chris Gronkowski is a rookie tight end with the Cowboys this season. Their father, Gordon, was a collegiate offensive guard at Syracuse.
"Obviously he's from a football family as well, and with what appears to be a blue-collar mentality, he's going to work hard and get to where he's at," Matthews said. "I think that's exactly what he's done."
Tuck rule redux?
Packers cornerback Charles Woodson has played at New England just once since the infamous "Tuck Rule" game in the 2001 AFC playoffs. With the Raiders in 2005, Woodson opened the season against the Patriots in New England.
But if the forecast for snow Sunday night in Foxborough holds, the scene will undoubtedly remind Woodson even more of the play that allowed New England quarterback Tom Brady to "steal" Woodson's championship ring.
To recap, with the Raiders and Patriots playing in a heavy snowstorm in the 2001 AFC Divisional playoffs, Woodson thought he had caused the game-saving turnover late in the fourth quarter by blitzing on a pass play and stripping Brady of the ball, which was recovered by an Oakland teammate. But because Brady was trying to stop his throwing motion and "tuck" the ball back into his body when he was hit, the officials determined after a replay review that the "tuck rule" applied, making the play an incomplete pass, not a fumble.
Given the reprieve, New England proceeded to drive for a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, and the Patriots eventually won the game in overtime. They also went on to win their first of three Super Bowl titles.
"You know, I've had that flashback more times than I would like," Woodson told Boston-area reporters in a conference call this week. "I catch that game on the classic football channel sometimes. That's a bad memory for me, but you know, it is what it is. This week, we're just going to try and concentrate on getting this win, whether it snows or not."
As for the championship Woodson is still chasing while Brady, his former college teammate at Michigan, has won three Super Bowls: "Yeah, he did steal my ring and I'm still waiting around to get mine," Woodson said.
Injury update
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Thursday there was no change in quarterback Aaron Rodgers' status, and he didn't expect to have an update until late Friday or Saturday. Rodgers (concussion) did not practice for the second straight day.
McCarthy did say Rodgers' playing status would not be a game-time decision, though. He plans to make a decision on Saturday before the team boards the plane for New England.
Left guard Daryn Colledge (knee) returned to practice on Thursday on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday. Talking to reporters afterward, he indicated he planned to be a full participant in practice, but a knee brace he has ordered did not arrive in time.
Still, he sounded confident he would be able to play on Sunday, which would run his consecutive games streak as an NFL player to 81 games, including playoffs. Colledge has not missed a game in his pro or college career.
"I know I've played with worse and I've done different things," he said. "It's a different knee, and that's why we're waiting on a brace, but I expect to continue the streak."
A first last week for Colledge was watching the Packers' game on TV while sitting on a training table in the Green Bay locker room at Ford Field. After Colledge left the game in the first quarter, the medical staff recommended he stay off the knee, so he didn't return to the sidelines and he watched the rest of the broadcast with his quarterback, who also didn't return to the field after halftime.
"Aaron and I spent the second half together on the table watching the game, which was tough," Colledge said. "You want to be out there playing with your guys."
In addition to Colledge, three other players on the Packers' injury report were upgraded on Thursday. Tackle Chad Clifton (knees), guard Josh Sitton(knee) and cornerback Pat Lee (ankle) all went from limited to full participants. Meanwhile safety Anthony Smith (ankle) and Woodson (toe) went from full to limited.
The rest of Green Bay's injury report remained the same.
For New England, Brady (right shoulder/foot) and cornerback Devin McCourty (rib) were upgraded to limited participants on Thursday. The Patriots had no other changes.

Packers Sign QB Harrell From Practice Squad, Place S Smith On Injured Reserve

The Green Bay Packers have signed QB Graham Harrellto the active roster from the practice squad and placed S Anthony Smith on injured reserve. The transactions were announced Saturday by Executive Vice President, General Manager and Director of Football Operations Ted Thompson.

Harrell, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound first-year player out of Texas Tech, signed with the Packers in May 2010 and has been on Green Bay’s practice squad for all 13 games this season. He finished his collegiate career atop the NCAA record books in several passing categories.

Smith played in four games for the Packers this season after being acquired from Jacksonville in a trade on Oct. 18.

Notebook: Rodgers Doubtful For Sunday

Starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t practice for the third straight day due to a concussion he sustained last Sunday at Detroit, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t rule out the possibility that Rodgers could still play Sunday at New England.

Rodgers was listed as doubtful on Friday’s injury report, defined as “at least a 75 percent chance he will not play,” but McCarthy wasn’t ready to make any declarations of who will be the Packers’ starting quarterback on Sunday night.
“Just as I’ve stated all week, we’re prepared to play the game withMatt Flynn as our starter,” McCarthy said. “We’ve started that process since Monday. As far as an update on Aaron Rodgers, he’s progressing through the medical process. He was able to attend probably three-quarters of the practice today, and he’ll continue to work through that process today and tomorrow.
“I’m hopeful to make a decision by tomorrow, but the door is open for Aaron Rodgers to play in the game. It really comes down to two things. No. 1, he has to be cleared medically, and Dr. John Gray will have the final say on that. And if he does make it to that point, then (I) will make a decision on whether he plays or not. Right now he’s still working through the medical part.”
The first hurdle that Rodgers has to clear as part of the concussion protocol is a conditioning test, but McCarthy declined to say whether the quarterback had done that yet.
“He’s working his way through the process,” McCarthy said. “I really don’t want to get into specifics of that. There are stages that you work through. If you’re educated on it, that’s great. This is really a standard policy as far as the details.
“If Aaron wants to share the step-by-step process that he’s going through, that’s fine. But he’s making progress, and I talked to him today. He looks good, would like to play. But once again, him and Dr. John Gray are working through this, and until he’s cleared medically, then it comes to me.”
McCarthy had stated throughout the week that Rodgers’ availability would not be a decision that the team would take up until game-time, but on Friday he said that it wouldn’t necessarily be one that is made before the team departs for New England on Saturday afternoon. McCarthy said Rodgers will make the trip with the team.
“There’s not a written script for this,” McCarthy said. “The goal as I stated Monday, Wednesday and Thursday would be to make a decision by Saturday. But with the late start Sunday, we can leave the door open for that.”
The concussion that Rodgers suffered last Sunday was his second of the season, with the first coming in Week 5 at Washington. McCarthy said Friday that Rodgers will be wearing a different helmet moving forward, but didn’t provide specifics on what those differences were. Rodgers was in the locker room during the media-availability period on Friday, but declined comment.
If Rodgers is unable to play on Sunday night, Flynn will be making his first career start. He saw the most extensive action of his career at Detroit last Sunday as he played the final series of the first half and the entire second half, completing 15-of-26 passes for 177 yards and an interception. Practice-squad quarterback Graham Harrell would likely be added to the active roster if Rodgers is ruled out, but McCarthy said earlier in the week that he didn’t expect to make any roster moves until Saturday.
A different yearIt hasn’t been the kind of season wide receiver Donald Driver has become accustomed to over the past several years, but you won’t hear the veteran complaining about his statistics.
Driver entered this season with six straight 1,000-yard seasons, a franchise record, and as one of only two NFL players (Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne) to hit the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past six seasons. With three games to go, Driver has 449 yards receiving on 40 catches (11.2 avg.) for the season.

“You get to a point where you can still enjoy the game and you don’t have to get 100 balls,” Driver said. “You don’t have to have a 1,000-yard season to feel like you produced. I think I have done everything that I could. I have played well. Unfortunately I got the quad injury. It set me back a game and I missed one.
“I think you’ve still got to have fun. I think that is the biggest thing. When you start getting to a point where you start nitpicking everything and, ‘Oh, I want this, I want that,’ that’s when you start having problems.”
Driver originally injured his quadriceps in practice leading up to the Week 6 contest vs. Miami, but started the next three games. He aggravated it in the first half of the Week 8 game at the N.Y. Jets and was forced to sit out the next week against Dallas, his first game missed due to injury since 2003, before returning at Minnesota following the bye.
Driver has had his moments this season, most notably a spectacular 61-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown vs. San Francisco in Week 13, but he hasn’t posted a 100-yard game since Week 12 last year at Detroit. The last time he didn’t register at least one 100-yard game in a season was 2001.
Driver entered the season No. 2 in the franchise record books for receiving yards, trailing James Lofton by 606 yards for the Green Bay career record. Driver joked that a lot of people jinxed him by thinking he would break Lofton’s record around the midway point of the season. He needs 158 yards in the final three contests to set the record, but said he is OK if that chance doesn’t come until next season.
“I know (Lofton) doesn’t want that record to be broken,” Driver said. “It’s been up there for a long time. If I can get it, it would be a great accomplishment for myself. I would be happy that I took down a good man.
“It would mean everything. The same thing when I broke Sterling’s (Sharpe) record (for receptions). To come here as a seventh-round draft pick, no one thought that I would be a part of this team, of this tradition. Now when people say who are the Packers’ great receivers, my name gets mentioned in that same bunch. That’s going to put a big smile on my face.”
An honorEarlier this week, the Big Ten Conference announced the creation of 18 trophies for various awards starting in 2011, and Packers cornerbackCharles Woodson will see his name etched on one of them.
The conference’s top defensive honor will be named the Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year after Woodson and Bronko Nagurski, a three-time All-American at the University of Minnesota from 1927-29.
As a junior in 1997, Woodson led Michigan to a perfect 12-0 season and a national championship, and he became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
Two other former Packers were selected for trophies, with former wide receiver/kick returner Desmond Howard (1996, 1999) part of the Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award along with former Wisconsin wide receiver/tight end Pat Richter, and running back Darrell Thompson 1990-94) on the Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year Award with Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El.
Injury/participation updateDefensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) will be out for the second straight game, while Rodgers and linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) are doubtful. McCarthy said third-year man Erik Walden will start at right outside linebacker in Zombo’s place, which would be the first start of his career.
Linebacker Diyral Briggs (ankle) was added to the injury report on Friday and is questionable. Cornerback Pat Lee (ankle) and safetyAnthony Smith (ankle) are also questionable.
Safety Atari Bigby (hamstring), tackle Chad Clifton (knees), guardDaryn Colledge (knee), fullback Korey Hall (knee), linebackerClay Matthews (shin), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle), guardJosh Sitton (knee) and Woodson (toe/ankle) are all probable. Bigby last played at Minnesota in Week 10.
Colledge was upgraded to a full participant after being limited on Thursday.
“I thought he practiced well,” McCarthy said. “I fully anticipate Daryn to play and start in the game unless there’s a setback here in the next 48 hours.”
Linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) was also added to the report on Friday, but he is probable.
For New England, defensive lineman Ron Brace (concussion), tight end Aaron Hernandez (flu), cornerback Devin McCourty (rib), nose tackle Myron Prior (back), defensive lineman Gerard Warren (knee) and defensive lineman Mike Wright (concussion) are questionable. Hernandez was added to the report on Friday.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington (elbow), quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder/foot), wide receiver Deion Branch (knee) and cornerback Darius Butler (thigh) are probable. Butler was also added to the report on Friday.