The good news finally arrived for the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, a few hours after the clipped press conferences and the somber reconstructions, after the fight techniques were helpfully relayed from San Francisco and the defense could finally start treating its burn marks. Keep an eye out for your lovely fruit and cheese basket, Philadelphia Eagles, because the Packers owe you one.
Chip Kelly's new fast-break offense made the Washington Redskins the biggest loser of the first weekend of games, removing that yoke from the Packers after little more than 24 hours in green and gold. The Eagles did the Packers another favor, too: They revealed the rust that Robert Griffin III only started to chip off late in the game, and that he is, for now at least, far less of a threat to run out of the read option than he was last season.
That should make the defensive game planning a little easier for the Packers, who host the Redskins on Sunday. Late on Monday night, Griffin disputed that his limited practice time and the absence of any preseason work contributed to the misguided passes or his repeated failure to step into his throws. No matter. The result was evident: Until the fourth quarter, when the Redskins were forced to throw and throw some more, Griffin had no rhythm and, it seemed, little ability to take off on the runs that bedevil defenses, finishing with just 24 yards on five carries. For much of the game, it was fair to wonder if he was even ready to be back on the field. This was a low-wattage version of the player whose pick-your-poison style of play electrified the NFL in 2012.
But in completing 30 of his 49 pass attempts for a career-high 329 yards -- 169 coming in a desperate fourth quarter -- Griffin also served up a reminder that the Packers should heed like a neon sign in their defensive wilderness.
"I've been telling people -- coach knows this, players know this -- we can sit there and drop back with the best of them," Griffin said. "It's just not our game. But whenever it's called upon, we can do it and it generated a spark for us."
Far from a klieg-lighted press conference room, Colin Kaepernick delivered the same message to the Packers on Sunday. After an offseason in which the Packers ruminated on how Kaepernick exposed their inability to stop his running game in the playoffs last year -- when he rushed for 181 yards -- and after a week that focused on how much the Packers would be able to hit Kaepernick, he stayed comfortable in the pocket and shredded them for 412 yards through the air, mostly as a traditional drop-back passer. The Packers, so intent on keeping Kaepernick in front of them with a zone defense (it worked -- he ran for just 22 yards), instead let him channel his inner Joe Montana with one perfect strike over the middle after another. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick completed 13 of 15 passes over the middle that traveled less than 20 yards, resulting in 208 yards and two touchdowns.
"Well, it was a different style game," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers told Green Bay reporters. "Obviously there was so much focus on Kaepernick running with the ball and the read option, and those type of things. I thought our guys did an excellent job on that and in terms of the quarterback scrambles. Now, he scrambled and threw. He didn't gain significant yardage running with the ball, which we know he's capable of doing. When you're playing a quarterback that has those kinds of talents and can move around and has a strong arm, you've got to be able to do both. We played one phase well, we didn't play the other phase well enough."
Such is the conundrum presented by the read option. Griffin's limitations Monday night made it easier for the Eagles to manage it, but its menace was obvious in Philadelphia's warp-speed offense.
The Packers were hamstrung, in part, by a pair of hamstrings. Safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward were both out. Burnett's absence -- which coaches did not expect until late in the week -- clearly hampered the Packers in the secondary. And Capers conceded that even after the Packers began to double team the ageless Anquan Boldin, they could not stop him. The players simply didn't execute in the secondary, a problem compounded by the lack of pressure on Kaepernick, in part because opponents don't blitz as much when worrying about the option.
"When you have that many players running free, that's a mental thing," said one former personnel executive who watched the game.
In the immediate aftermath, the game brought back reminders of 2011, when the Packers had the league's worst passing defense. That is why the Packers might be getting a break in facing Griffin now. If the fourth quarter was any indication, he will be able to work his way back into a passing rhythm. But his comfort and confidence in his knee, and the Redskins' willingness to test it, might curtail his running. That in turn should allow the Packers to focus less on the option and more on defending the traditional passing skills that Griffin put on display late in the Redskins' loss. If that's the case, the Packers will be able to get an unobstructed view of the state of their pass defense.
The first week of the season is ripe for overreaction, and both the Packers and Redskins have plenty of company. The entire AFC North, after all, is being downgraded now after going 0-4. The Pittsburgh Steelers, after suffering three season-ending injuries and the disappearance of their running game, have all but been consigned to rebuilding.