Frustration and growing pains in Green Bay

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure whether to be impressed, surprised or concerned about the message Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy planned to deliver Monday. Facing another round of internal criticism about the Packers’ new 3-4 scheme, McCarthy said that players need to “handle frustration” better.

McCarthy: “We're the fourth-ranked defense in the National Football League. We're leading the league in turnover ratio right now … I've said it before, and I'll confirm it here. I'll confirm it today again in the team meeting. I'm not interested in having Pro Bowl players and having a 27th-ranked defense. Our interest and our focus is on being a top-three defense in the league. It's utilizing all of our players. Sometimes players are asked to do things, to sacrifice so someone else can benefit from it, and that's part of the deal. That's the way we operate. We have a lot of good players on defense. It's not about one guy getting his. That's not the way we operate, and that will be our focus, and it has been our focus since [new defensive coordinator Dom Capers] came here.”

That response came after defensive end Cullen Jenkins complained that it was time for Capers to remove the “handcuffs” from some players and let them play to their strengths. Three weeks ago, cornerback Charles Woodson expressed disappointment in Capers’ play calling. And don’t forget that linebacker Aaron Kampman never endorsed his position shift and recently has been lining up more often as a traditional defensive end.

Jenkins. Woodson. Kampman. They are three of the Packers’ best and most respected defensive players. Never have they been considered malcontents, nor are they prone to public outbursts. The question facing McCarthy is whether or not the complaints reflect purely selfish motives amid team success. Or are the players simply questioning whether the scheme gives them their best chance to win?

Based on his comment Monday, it appears McCarthy has settled on the former. Is he right? Has the Packers’ defense fulfilled its mission this year? Or are players justified in questioning its direction?

First, let’s look at a statistical snapshot of the Packers’ seven-game defensive performance:

Indeed, based on the way the NFL measures team defense, the Packers rank No. 4 overall. If you prefer points per game as your measure, the Packers would rank No. 9. In fact, Capers’ group ranks in the top 10 in most major defensive categories you can find.

Stop right here for a moment and ask yourself this question: Rankings aside, do the Packers have one of the best 10 defenses in the NFL?

I think it’s hard to make that argument. Green Bay already is a long shot to win the NFC North, primarily because of two losses against Minnesota. Here are the Packers' per-game averages in those contests against the Vikings:

Yards: 344.5

Passing: 257.5

Rushing: 87

Third down pct.: 50

Points: 34

Takeaways: 1.5

It’s not surprising that player complaints arose from the first Minnesota game (Woodson) and the second (Jenkins). When your defense gives up an average of 34 points in the two games that essentially scuttle your division hopes, it’s hard to put much stock in midseason rankings.

I understand the message McCarthy is trying to send: That no individual goals will supersede the team structure. But are we sure that’s what Woodson and Jenkins were seeking? What if there is nothing selfish about their complaints? What if they don’t believe they -- and the team -- can succeed within the roles they’ve been assigned?

Sunday evening, Capers told reporters he wasn’t concerned about the latest round of criticism.

“I think players get frustrated,” Capers said. “They want to win. When you win, I don’t think you hear much of it. The last couple of weeks, we’ve played pretty darn well. We didn’t play as well [Sunday]. Every man has to be accountable for his job. You have to make sure you do your job.”

It’s only fair to point out that on those “couple of weeks” Capers referred to, the Packers played Detroit (1-6) and Cleveland (1-7). Their offenses rank No. 25 and No. 30 in the NFL, respectively, based on yardage gained and points scored.

To be clear, this friction point is not unusual for teams making a schematic transition. I saw it happen three years ago in Minnesota, when coach Brad Childress installed a rigid West Coast offense on a group that had been playing in a downfield passing attack for most of the previous 10 years. Ultimately, players either made the adjustment or left after the season. (You knew I couldn’t write an entire column without mentioning the Vikings, right?)

The key difference, of course, is that Childress made that transition in the first year of his tenure. McCarthy is in Year 4, and the expectation was that the 3-4 scheme would yield both short- and long-term dividends. Can we say with any certainty that their defense is better this season than it was in 2008? Not yet.

That’s why I’m not ready to dismiss the complaints of Woodson and Jenkins as mere frustration. Often, individual success and team goals can go hand-in-hand. In the 4-3 scheme, Jenkins was a lively playmaker. In the 3-4, he’s asked more often to hold his place on the line of scrimmage so that others can make a play. If Jenkins makes more individual plays, the Packers will play better defense. The same is true if more blitzes succeed.

As Capers noted, players don’t usually complain after victories. But that’s not because they’re devoid of frustration. It’s because they know the scheme they played resulted in a victory. You can’t argue with a win. Typically, a player criticizes a coaching point because he felt he could have done more to help the team win.

So we stand at a critical point in the Packers’ season. They’ll need legitimate top-10 play from their defense to make a playoff run. And I think we can very safely say we don’t know if the defense has that capacity. McCarthy and Capers haven’t found the balance between the scheme they want to run and the strengths of their players. They are still pushing through the contradictions on the path to harmony.