Packers looking far from prime-time worthy

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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The most anticipated matchup of the 2009 NFL regular season was less than 12 minutes old, and the Packers' fired-up defense had just made a major statement at jam-packed Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon.

Thanks to a big mistake by the visiting Vikings – center John Sullivan's(notes) premature shotgun snap off quarterback Brett Favre's(notes) thigh, which led to a fumble recovery and field goal – the Pack held a 3-0 lead. After a 77-yard kickoff return by Percy Harvin(notes) put the Vikes in the red zone, Green Bay linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) had just slammed Chester Taylor(notes) to the turf for a 5-yard loss on third-and-5 to keep Minnesota from going ahead.

Most of the 71,213 fans stood and roared their approval. And then, at the worst possible time, Packers defensive end Johnny Jolly(notes) went nuts.

Jolly's absurd head-butt of Taylor drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct flag, gave the Vikings first-and-goal and set up Adrian Peterson's 1-yard touchdown run, giving Minnesota a lead it would never relinquish in its 38-26 victory.

At that moment and at game's end, it was obvious that the Packers, like Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner back in the day, were not ready for prime time.

In its second season of the post-Favre era, Green Bay (4-3) is a talented young team that is theoretically capable of competing on a high level. But brain-locks like Jolly's are unconscionable in that context, and his postgame comments revealed that the man doesn't have a clue.

"It is what it is," Jolly told reporters afterward, though without Bill Belichick's three Super Bowl rings to help sell the Pats coach's trademark phrase. "That didn't cause [us to lose] the game."

Uh, really? To be accurate, Jolly's gaffe cost the Packers four points in a game they would twice trail by five in the second half after a furious comeback. Assuming the adjusted score would have rendered the Pack's unsuccessful 2-point conversion try in the fourth quarter superfluous, it's likely Green Bay would have twice tied the game, meaning Favre and the Vikes would have had to work at least a bit harder to prevail.

Clearly, the visitors were the ones who displayed more poise in Sunday's NFC North showdown, which is one reason the Vikes (7-1) are cruising to a division title while the Packers will have to scrap for a wild-card berth.

I've been high on the Pack's potential for the past two seasons, and I still believe that in the long-term, they made the right call in trading Favre and committing to Aaron Rodgers as his successor. Yet I'm starting to wonder if they're ready to compete on the big stage, or if bonehead plays like Jolly's speak to a larger issue.

Here are some other questions I have about the Packers:

Are they trying to get their quarterback killed? Rodgers has already been sacked an NFL-high 31 times, and not surprisingly he's nursing injuries to both feet and at times seeming a bit shellshocked in the pocket. The offensive line play has been deplorable, which is one reason I'm not ready to write off halfback Ryan Grant as a one-year wonder who'll never recapture his '07 form.


Rodgers was sacked six times on Sunday.

(Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Is Rodgers polished enough to compensate for the protection issues at this early stage of his career? Yes, he's in his fifth season, but he has only started 23 games and sometimes it shows. He was terrific once he settled down and started moving around in Sunday's second half, but before that he was holding onto the ball too long and failing to match Favre's level of excellence. Granted, that level was Hall of Fame-caliber Sunday. I'm not saying Rodgers can't eventually get to that point. Right now, however, he's a very good quarterback who might not yet be capable of uplifting a flawed team to the league's upper echelon.

What's up with the revamped Green Bay defense? Switching to the 3-4 under newly hired coordinator Dom Capers sounded good in theory, but it's clear that this wasn't the smoothest transition. Once a pass-rushing threat, converted outside linebacker Aaron Kampman has been a virtual nonfactor this season, though the rookie on the opposite side, Clay Matthews, appears to be a future star. On Sunday, defensive end Cullen Jenkins complained that the defense was "in handcuffs" under Capers, and last month veteran cornerback Charles Woodson questioned Capers' play-calling. Clearly, this is a group that is still conflicted about the schematic switch, and the Packers play like it in key moments.

Does Mike McCarthy have a firm grip on this situation? We know he can coach, as evidenced by the Pack's 13-3 record in '07 (his second season) and his development of Rodgers into a highly productive player. I admire the way he has stuck with his convictions and been unafraid to make bold moves, and I expect him to succeed in Titletown before all is said and done. Right now, however, he has the league's second-most penalized team, a bunch of frustrated players and a figurative stain in the shape of Favre's footprint on the back of his khakis. McCarthy's leadership skills will be required to prod this team into position for a playoff run, and he can start by making sure that if players commit stupid infractions like Jolly's, there'll be hell to pay.

The good news? The Packers' next game is in Tampa Bay, where our brand new basement-dweller faces a far more daunting challenge: Trying to avoid an 0-16 season.

Our latest attempt to make sense of all the madness, from the prime-time players to the rank amateurs:

1. New Orleans Saints: Are any team's defensive backs as opportunistic?

2. Indianapolis Colts: If Jim Caldwell quit today, would he go down as the Rocky Marciano of coaches?

3. Minnesota Vikings: When Adrian Peterson and Naufahu Tafi engaged in "horseplay" in the locker room Saturday, was there any possible chance that the league's most punishing halfback would end up as the injured party?

4. Denver Broncos: If Brian Dawkins and Ray Lewis had engaged in a pregame staredown Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, would it still be going on right now?

5. New England Patriots: Has anyone noticed that they're completely in control of the AFC East – exactly as we expected them to be?

6. Cincinnati Bengals: Is it possible that the constant presence of the "Hard Knocks" cameras actually helped Marvin Lewis' team get focused for the '09 season?

7. Pittsburgh Steelers: Why do I get the feeling that we haven't seen the last of Willie Parker as a feature back?

8. Baltimore Ravens: Am I the only one who gets the feeling that this team is capable of greatness?

9. Philadelphia Eagles: Is there a single fantasy football league in the world in which Leonard Weaver's 41-yard touchdown run actually scored points for one of the participants?

10. Dallas Cowboys: Can they compete in Philly next Sunday, or will they collapse like they did nine months ago with their season on the line?

11. Arizona Cardinals: When Kurt Warner shook hands with old NFL Europe teammate Jake Delhomme before Sunday's game, did he catch the Turnover Flu from the Carolina QB?

12. Atlanta Falcons: After the way they battled the Saints to the finish Monday night, why do I get the feeling they'll be very, very tough to beat in the Dec. 13 rematch at the Georgia Dome?

13. New York Giants: Are these guys slumping, or are they just not that good?

14. Green Bay Packers: Given that he played linebacker in college, how insane is it that UCLA product Spencer Havner has more receiving touchdowns than former Bruins teammate and fellow tight end Marcedes Lewis?

15. Houston Texans: Can we commend Ryan Moats for being a lot more aggressive toward opposing tacklers than he is toward overzealous law-enforcement officers?

16. Chicago Bears: Are their pass blockers engaged in a secret competition with their Packers counterparts to see which team's high-priced quarterback can absorb more hits?

17. San Francisco 49ers: After watching them beat up on Peyton Manning in Indy, doesn't it seem logical that they'll manhandle Vince Young at Candlestick on Sunday?

18. Miami Dolphins: Who needs an offense?

19. New York Jets: At this point in the season, do you think some people in the organization might be a little less than enthused with Favre's revival in Minnesota?

20. San Diego Chargers: Yo, A.J. Smith – now that you've released Chris Chambers, and the Dolphins' starting quarterback is the guy they drafted with the second-round pick you sent to acquire him, how hard are they laughing in Miami?

21. Carolina Panthers: When it's suggested that they somehow got revenge for last season's crushing playoff defeat to the Cardinals by winning a regular-season game in Arizona on Sunday, these guys don't actually believe that, do they?

22. Buffalo Bills: How long can Jairus Byrd continue his ridiculous 14-interception-per-season pace – and has he already locked up defensive rookie of the year honors?

23. Seattle Seahawks: Is it fair to say the return of Marcus Trufant won't solve this team's problems anytime soon?

24. Jacksonville Jaguars: Yo, Jack Del Rio: Eight carries for Maurice Jones-Drew – really?

25. Tennessee Titans: Does owner Bud Adams have any other bright ideas?

26. Washington Redskins: With Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden and perhaps Jeff Fisher all theoretically ready to hit the market in 2010, is Mike Holmgren really in a position to take shots at prospective sugar daddy Daniel Snyder?

27. Oakland Raiders: When Louis Murphy and Johnnie Lee Higgins accidentally bumped into one another with the game on the line in San Diego on Sunday, could any play possibly have been more symbolic?

28. Kansas City Chiefs: Did Carl Peterson really choose Larry Johnson over Jared Allen – and how refreshingly counterintuitive is Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock's argument that the Chiefs should keep LJ around?

29. St. Louis Rams: What were the odds that the Rams' first victory celebration in more than a year would go smoothly?

30. Detroit Lions: When Jim Schwartz described the Lions' offense as "toothless", did Red Wings coach Mike Babcock think, "Wow! So is mine"?

31. Cleveland Browns: In the wake of general manager George Kokinis' ouster, how awesome would it be if Randy Lerner hired Dawg Pound Mike as the "strong, credible, serious leader" to oversee Eric Mangini?

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can someone please, please figure out a way to make this hypothetical game happen?