Lack of Identity, Not Toughness, was Green Bay's Playoff Undoing

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | Lazy analysis is the only explanation for blaming the Packers early playoff exit on being soft. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bob McGinn, who has been covering the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel since I was a kid, but his explanation of Green Bay's foibles smacks of click-trolling and an outdated sense of NFL realities.

When I first read it, I pictured Clint Eastwood's character in Trouble with the Curve , a salty veteran scout struggling to come to terms with his own perspective on the game.

Ironically, McGinn quotes several New York Giants players talking about how great San Francisco is, while the G-Men sat at home this postseason.

Furthermore, the Giants didn't win last year or in 2007 by being a more 'physical' team. They won because they rushed the passer extremely well, got turnovers, and created big plays in the passing game.

That's the same formula Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Green Bay all have used in the last few years to win Super Bowl titles of their own. Just because the two most physical teams in the league won this year, doesn't mean that's the way of the NFL.

In fact, it has been since the last time the Ravens played in a Super Bowl, more than a decade ago, that the quarterback won the title wasn't also at least a borderline Hall of Fame player.

This year, it's Colin Kaepernick vs. Joe Flacco. Does that all of a sudden mean that any team with a decent quarterback can win a title? Of course not.

Kaepernick beat Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan to get to New Orleans while Flacco beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. This year is an aberration, an exception to the rule.

Even if you just go back two years to the last time the Packers won a title, it's impossible to contend that the Packers were a more physical team than either the Bears or the Steelers, yet the Packers won both games to ultimately claim the title because they got timely turnovers and outstanding quarterback play.

Green Bay didn't blow out the Falcons because of their toughness and moxy, but rather because Aaron Rodgers put on one of the greatest aerial displays in league history.

The 'run the ball and play defense' narrative is a joke at this point. New York won a Super Bowl last year and finished last in the league running the ball. Sure, they improved once the playoff started, but they beat the Packers at Lambeau because they scored 37 points, mostly thanks to big plays from Eli Manning and the passing game.

Green Bay didn't lose to San Francisco because they're soft. They lost to San Francisco because they don't have the horses defensively.

This defense simply isn't talented enough.

Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl with a speedy defense. New Orleans won a Super Bowl with a ball-hawking, blitzing defense. Neither were what you'd call 'physical' teams. They have guys who would hit you like John Lynch and Darren Sharper, but those defenses were built on quickness and pass-rush.

Green Bay's Super Bowl defense was as well: Clay Matthews off the edge, Nick Collins patrolling the middle of the field and the best group of cover corners in football. That was the formula.

What the Packers lack is an identity. Who are they as a defense? We know what they are as an offense: they're Aaron Rodgers and a dynamic stable of receivers.

But defensively, particularly now with A.J. Hawk and potentially Charles Woodson on their way out, where does this team look to for some character?

Desmond Bishop was a start and his loss cannot be understated. He brought the nasty to this defense.

Watch Nick Perry decleat Andrew Luck in the pocket and tell me he wouldn't have brought some attitude to the Packers defense this season.

Rookie safety Jerron McMillian also had his moments as a hitter, but his coverage skills left much to be desired. There are some hints of what could be on this defense. Fellow rookie Jerel Worthy also plays with fire and violence, but he struggles to control it.

Ted Thompson, along with Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers, spent last offseason adding talent to this defense. Perry and Hayward were a good start, while Worthy and McMillian have potential.

But building a defense isn't like building an offense where you can take a great scheme and throw some talented players in there and make it work.

Defense is an attitude, it's a way of living. Watch Baltimore or San Francisco play and you can see what I mean. They don't care about flags and they don't care about the rules.

They hit and they hit hard.

There are certainly some players at need positions who could come in and bring that attitude to this defense, SEC standouts like Kevin Minter, Matt Elam, and Sam Montgomery among many others. This is a draft loaded with defensive players, particularly in the front seven. A linebacker like Minter or a safety like Elam, both of whom love to hit and make splash plays, would bring some ferocity and intensity to this defense.

What Green Bay needs isn't necessarily to get stronger or bigger or more physical. What it needs is players who fit the system. Erik Walden isn't fast enough to defend read options and isn't talented enough to rush the passer. He can't be the starter at outside linebacker next year. Walden isn't soft, he's just not very good.

M.D. Jennings, despite the robbery of the Fail Mary, isn't talented enough to be a starting safety for this defense.

The jury is out as to whether Jerel Worthy can be an every down player in this 3-4 defense, but it doesn't seem like Green Bay thinks he can be - they wanted Kendall Reyes from Connecticut last year, but he was taken a few picks ahead of the Packers. Again, Worthy isn't soft, he's just out of position in this defense.

A.J. Hawk is likely done in a Packers uniform and they needed an upgrade there even with Hawk still on the roster. Hawk, for his part, is soft and that has been a problem for him since he came into the league.

How Ted Thompson decides to fill those holes will go a long way in determining how much better Green Bay is in 2013.

I took a lot of heat for arguing that Green Bay was no more or less flawed than any of the NFC contenders, they just had a bad game.

While I stand by that, an influx of defensive talent and identity would go a long way to rounding out an already dangerous team.

Could they afford to get more physical? Of course, but is that the reason the Packers lost to San Francisco? No way. And does it mean Green Bay isn't an elite team? Do you really think Green Bay couldn't have just as easily gone into Atlanta and beat the Falcons?

Personally, I thought the two best NFC teams played in San Francisco 10 days ago. San Francisco proved me half right on Sunday.

History, particularly in the last decade, says this 'toughness' machismo is a speciously false narrative, otherwise how did so many finesse teams win Super Bowls? Green Bay needs to play better when it matters and having the right players on the field - and healthy - will go a long way in doing that.

Developing a defensive identity is the missing piece.

Peter Bukowski lives in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime

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