Packers

2010 NFL Review: Dolphins vs. Packers

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In light of winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers home loss to the Dolphins is artistic. Not Artistic like, say, a Rothko color field. More like Varinia leaving for Gaul, showing their newborn son to Spartacus, saying “Please die, my love... die, die now my darling!” artistic. A cave hidden in the great artistic crevasse that is impenetrably deep but opens at the banks of the River Schmaltz.

You see.

The Packers week six loss is a story of spurned ambitions, sudden reversal and anticlimax. It feels essential within the greater narrative of the 2010 Packers. It was the second of consecutive overtime losses, both by field goals, that dropped the Packers to 3-3. It was among Aaron Rodger’s worst games of the season. It was his first following his first concussion of the season. He would suffer another in Week 14.

It was a loss, yet, in the associative, irrational, romantic human brain, it can now be interpreted as a story of manning up, hanging tough and accepting transient defeat in the pursuit of eternal glory. Heady stuff. But in the eternal present of an MP4 file, the Packers know only bitter defeat. Again and again. Forever.

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Why this game was exciting: Dolphins at Packers was intuitively exciting. It was rich with the kind of high-leverage situations football fans feel in their gut: fourth and seven, down seven, 2:43 left in the fourth quarter; fourth and one, on the one, down seven, 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter; and of course the thrill of the overtime coin flip.

Dolphins at Packers was intuitively exciting. It was back and forth early. The Dolphins won the first quarter, the Packers the second, the Dolphins the third; the fourth was a tossup, with favorable win probability passing between Green Bay and Miami six times before Miami extended a commanding lead late. Dolphins at Packers was intuitively exciting and, as intuitive
evidence goes, a sound indictment of overtime rules.

Turning of the tide: The overtime coin flip is the obvious choice. Miami won; Miami won. Miami did not however score on their opening drive. And so, for the sake of avoiding a screed about the NFL’s overtime rules, Cam Wake’s ankle-sack on Aaron Rodgers is our turning point. Win probability flipped in Miami’s favor following Brandon Field’s 50 yard punt and Packers fullback Korey Hall’s illegal block above the waist. That pinned the Packers back at their own 16. Brandon Jackson started the drive by running for four. In absolute terms, the Packers win probability stood at 51%. In relative terms, the fourth ranked Packers offense, playing at home, probably had a meaningful advantage over the 14th ranked Dolphins defense. That advantage would not come to fruition.

Second and six, Tony McDaniel harries Rodgers into a scramble towards the left sideline and a desperation, left-handed throwaway, forcing third and six. That sets the scene. The Packers split: trips right, single-wide left, running back left, shotgun. The Dolphins shift into a four-man front, with Wake set in a four-point stance opposite Bryan Bulaga. Wake sprints off the snap, forces Bulaga into heavy retreat, works under and into and bullies the right tackle backwards. Rodgers can barely set and read before Bulaga's backside is closing on him. Channing Crowder releases on a delayed blitz, creates interior pressure and hooks Rodgers, but falls away to Rodgers’ left. For a brief, shining moment, it looks as if Rodgers will step up and to his right and evade pressure. McDaniel and Crowder are grounded. Strong safety Yeremiah Bell is shaded offensive-left, ready to cover Brandon Jackson releasing from the backfield. But from beneath Bulaga, barely visible, a hand reaches out and snares Rodgers’ ankle; Wake: supine; sacking Rodgers; winning the game.

The sack nets 12% win probability. Davone Bess fair catches Tim Masthay’s punt at the Dolphins 47. A short drive later, the game ends not with a bang but a field goal.

Five plays that defined the game:

Finding Brandon Marshall: . . . a reference to a movie I haven’t seen and do not plan on seeing, hmmm.

Chad Henne is miscast as an underdog. He would make a much better winner. Henne is known for his hard work, coachability, good tools that do not invoke the word “freak”; for furthering Clayton Richard’s baseball career, marrying his junior high sweetheart, hailing from a small town that sounds like a less-than-clever portmanteau—all the things we associate with a winner, a real Horatio Alger story of hard work and talent and achievement and the American Dream.

Unfortunately, Henne may have a crippling flaw. He isn’t accurate. Accuracy and completion percentage are sometimes conflated, but shouldn’t be. Accuracy is a constituent part of completion percentage, along with read, the nature of the offense and the quality of surrounding talent (not to mention: weather conditions, opponent, game state, and chance.) Accuracy is exactly what it seems: the ability to throw the ball where you want it. Henne doesn’t, and his receivers know that only too well. It’s often subtle, the difference between leading a receiver towards open field and leading a receiver towards a charging defender, but it matters, a ton, and it accumulates.

Or, as was the case with 41 seconds left in the first half and the Dolphins breaking into the lead in win probability for the first time in the second quarter, it happens all at once and takes points off the board.

Henne fakes play action out of a seven-step drop. Brandon Marshall streaks deep on a skinny post. Corner Tramon Williams and free safety Nick Collins are caught shallow. Marshall runs behind both and is wide open in the end zone. Henne flips a floater towards Marshall but not to Marshall. It hangs. Marshall awkwardly backpedals against his own momentum and settles under the ball towards the back of the end zone. He catches, lands his right foot inbounds and his left, out.

According to the win probability calculator, a four-point lead with 35 seconds left in the second is worth 72% win probability. The incomplete left the Dolphins with 47% win probability, a dramatic if ultimately irrelevant swing.

Continuing a theme: With 1:17 left in the first quarter, Tramon Williams slips out of his break but still intercepts a pass intended for Brandon Marshall. It’s an ugly sequence. Marshall runs a deep out that he improvises into a pseudo-comeback. Both Marshall and Williams lose their footing, Williams more so. Henne one-reads it, faking play action and then turning turret-like towards Marshall, locking on. The pass, as it absolutely can not on a deep out, misses inside giving Williams the angle. Marshall seems oblivious to Williams, and where he could have come back towards the ball or at least attempted to slap it away, instead stands, feet planted, and watches as Williams undercuts his route and intercepts the pass. Williams then tumbles to the turf, fumbles, the ball is briefly fought over by Marshall and Williams, before Marshall gives in and with his free hand attempts to signal to the ref “Miami ball.” No dice.

The very next play: Rodgers fakes play action, rolls to his right and finds Greg Jennings for 86 and the score. Jennings runs a corner-post and loses Vontae Davis on the second move. Davis is able to recover as Jennings slows every so slightly and catches the pass. Jennings angles inside towards the space vacated by Bell, away from Davis and free to the end zone. Touchdown.

Yet the Dolphins won: One reason the Dolphins won was the absence of Clay Matthews. Another is that the Dolphins are a good team and even more so than good, talented. The Packers finished tied for second in the NFL with 47 sacks on the season, but were shutout against the Dolphins. Without Matthews, defensive coordinator Dom Capers resorted to a bag-of-tricks pass rush. Not a style he’s unaccustomed to, but high-risk. Anthony Fasano’s 22 yard touchdown reception is a good example of how and why more unorthodox approaches to pass rush often fail.

Miami aligns two wide receivers right, Davone Bess in the left slot, Fasano at left tight end, Ronnie Brown right of Henne and Henne in the shotgun. The Packers are in a 2-4. Henne takes the snap and begins to roll right. The Dolphins offensive line follows, moving the pocket towards the right sideline. The four primary pass rushers – the two down linemen and both outside linebackers – pursue offensive right. Collins runs a safety blitz off left end. He is initially blocked by Fasano but shortly after contact Fasano releases towards the left flat. It’s a trap. Miami’s three wide receivers have drawn coverage towards the right. At the time of the reception, no Packer is left of the hashmarks. Henne turns left. Collins and Brad Jones are bearing down on Henne head-on. Henne flips it to a wide open Fasano and Fasano, with a small assist by Jake Long, runs up the right sideline uncontested to the end zone. The play nets 12% win probability and pushes the Dolphins to a total win probability of 88%.

A little love for the kicker: Dan Carpenter’s game-winning 44-yard field goal was worth 14% win probability. He finished three for three, hitting a 44-, 41- and 53-yard field goal that followed a 43-yard field goal that was nullified by penalty. All that clutch kicking may not mean anything for Carpenter’s future, but on the day it was worth 30% win probability. Not nothin. Not nothin at all.

Official interference: Lambeau erupted in boos following an illegal formation penalty that turned fourth and two into first and ten with 7:18 left in the fourth. It’s not clear whether attending fans did not understand the penalty, did not agree with the penalty, believed the outcome of the penalty – a first down for the Dolphins – did not match the “injustice” of the infraction – Robert Francois lining over center – or if, with officials convening as if to discuss the penalty, maybe the Packer faithful thought they could influence the call, but it was the right call, however technical or to-the-letter-and-not-the-spirit it may have seemed.

Ed Hochuli and his crew call a good game, by my estimation. The guiding principle seems to be: flag if it’s flagrant and otherwise stay out of the way. The Packers and Dolphins combined for 11 penalties totaling 75 yards. Apart from the illegal procedure penalty mentioned above, none stood out as crucial.

Subjective excitement index: This was one of the better games of the 2010 regular season. We can start with the context. The Packers went on to win the Super Bowl. The Dolphins slumped in the second half of the season, losing their final three games and finishing 7-9. Miami has had an active if futile offseason. Both the Dolphins and Packers are bona fide great NFL franchises, and though success and history are a double edged sword, charming some and repulsing others, it gives this matchup a sense of time and place and significance.

The game itself was thoroughly even, so to speak. It was neither a shootout nor a grinder. The Dolphins finished with 381 yards of net offense. The Packers finished with 359 yards of net offense. Dan Henning and the Dolphins built their offense through play-action and a varied and well-executed ground game. The Packers were much more boom and bust, attacking deep, and countering blitzes through draws. No one unit dominated. It wasn’t sloppy. The Packers moved out to an early lead but the Dolphins clawed back through the second and third quarter. The Dolphins fielded the better defense. The Packers, the better offense. Overtime turned on a defensive play, which feels more satisfying and fair than the receiving team taking the ball and scoring right away.

Good setting, good narrative and exciting flashes from the players: Cam Wake did bad, bad things to Bryan Bulaga. Tramon Williams flashed the potential of an elite corner, a potential he would fulfill through the Packers Super Bowl run. Aaron Rodgers suffered the end-of-first-act humbling that always seems to presage the end-of-second-act ascension. Quietly as always Greg Jennings showed the speed at angles that makes him among the best wide receivers in the NFL. Henne had a typical Chad-Henne game. I didn’t see much from Jake Long or B.J. Raji, two young studs that play opposite sides of the line, but maybe that’s just me.

Almost a bonus but between Henning and Mike McCarthy, this was a treat for fans of x’s and o’s too. Both practice a studied, grounded in fundamentals and historic strategy approach to game planning, but both, in their respective ways (Henning on the ground; McCarthy through the air), call a great game. If you, like me, are used to a rushing attack consisting of two plays, the stretch and the inside zone, the 2010 Dolphins are such a breath of fresh air it’s hyperventilating. Henning was eventually fired, but though his offense may be indeed too focused on running the football, too conservative or whatever, it’s nevertheless a lot of fun to watch.

Final verdict: Short of extreme weather, playoff implications, old-school rivalry and other extraneous if often fun ornamentation, Dolphins at Packers is exactly what a great football game should be. It's significant, hotly contested, well-executed football. Find it. Watch it. Relish it like an oasis in the Sahara.