NFL

LaFleur's costly caution leaves Packers & Rodgers to lament another wasted year of Super Bowl window

By Sports Desk January 25, 2021

Fortune favours the bold. It is a phrase has been used so often that it has become a worn-out cliche. But cliches are cliches because they consistently ring true, and that famous Latin proverb applied at Lambeau Field on Sunday as the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers suffered more playoff heartache.

Their forlorn efforts in last year's NFC Championship game rout at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers still fresh in their minds - defensive coordinator Mike Pettine showed the game to his group last week in an attempt at motivation - the Packers reached the same stage this season seemingly well placed to put those memories behind them and reach Super Bowl LV.

The top seed in the NFC, the Packers matched up significantly better with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than they did the Niners last year and had the potentially crucial advantage of playing in freezing conditions at Lambeau Field in front of 8,500 fans.

And yet, with the chance to force a compelling back-and-forth encounter into overtime, the Packers - specifically their head coach Matt LaFleur - shied away from the opportunity, taking a conservative approach that ultimately proved their undoing.

LaFleur's costly caution

Green Bay faced a fourth and goal from the Tampa Bay eight-yard line trailing 31-23 with a little over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

If LaFleur had needed evidence of how to approach this situation, it came at the end of the first half when, rather than punting and settling for a 14-10 half-time lead, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians went for it on fourth down and, a play after converting to keep the drive alive, gave Tom Brady the green light to launch a 39-yard bomb to Scotty Miller that put Tampa Bay 21-10 to the good.

Rodgers and the Green Bay defense helped the Packers recover from a 28-10 third-quarter deficit and move into striking distance. However, when it came time to make a crucial decision, LaFleur ignored the old axiom and instead opted for caution, taking the ball out of the hands of his best player as he elected to kick a field goal and trust his defense to get the ball back.

It was a task that proved beyond them as a contentious pass interference penalty gave Tampa a game-sealing first down, leaving Rodgers to reflect on another year in which the Packers came up short.

Wondrous Rodgers

LaFleur's rejection of the aggressive approach that served Arians well at the end of the second quarter ensured that one of the best seasons of Rodgers' Hall of Fame career was wasted.

Rodgers is a near-lock to win the third MVP of his career after a season in which he took an offense of the Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay ilk to new heights.

He led the league in completion percentage 70.7, threw for 4,299 yards, a league-leading 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

His TD-INT ratio of 9.60 was the sixth-best in NFL history and second among quarterbacks to have played 16 games in a season, behind his 2018 mark of 12.50.

Tied for third in the NFL with 37 passing plays of 25 yards or more, few offenses were more explosive than that of the Packers in 2020, with Rodgers' adjusted net yards per attempt figure of 8.89 tied for sixth of all-time.

That is the same number Patrick Mahomes posted in his 2018 MVP season and, just like the Kansas City Chiefs that year, the end result for the Packers was a devastating loss.

Unlike the Chiefs, the Packers now face the prospect of significant changes in the offseason that could impact their ability to continue to contend in the NFC.

A challenging offseason

In an offseason where the salary cap could shrink to $175million, the Packers may lose center Corey Linsley and running back Aaron Jones to free agency, while Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) and yards per game (98.1) in the regular season, is a candidate for a lucrative contract extension.

The Packers, therefore, face some tough decisions in the offseason and it is the lack of clarity over how the team will look in the immediate future that seemingly led Rodgers to describe his own future as "uncertain" in his post-game media conference. 

Rodgers may have been over-dramatic in the heat of the moment and another season with the Packers appears more likely than a move elsewhere or his retirement.

But the downcast attitude Rodgers presented after the game was indicative of a quarterback who knows that Super Bowl windows are, for most teams, ephemeral by their nature.

With his fourth-down call, LaFleur ensured another year of the Packers' window slipped through their fingers. If they now struggle to keep a formidable team together and Rodgers' career ends without a second Super Bowl ring, LaFleur's rejection of the bold will be remembered as a key reason why.

Related items

  • Wimbledon: Nadal can edge closer to calendar Grand Slam, the holy grail of tennis Wimbledon: Nadal can edge closer to calendar Grand Slam, the holy grail of tennis

    Rafael Nadal is halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, a feat that would mark the crowning point of any player's career.

    Yet the Spanish great does not have to look far back into history to see how quickly that dream can be scuppered, with Novak Djokovic having fallen agonisingly short of a sweep of all four majors only last year.

    As perhaps the most grounded player in tennis, Nadal heads into Wimbledon well aware that winning the first two majors of the year is no guarantee of any future success.

    At the age of 36, and with a foot problem that requires careful maintenance, it would be arguably the most remarkable feat in the Open Era if Nadal were to add the Wimbledon and US Open titles to his Australian Open and French Open triumphs.

    Such dominance is scarce in tennis, and Rod Laver was the last player to scoop all four men's singles titles at the majors, all the way back in 1969.

    Steffi Graf won all four on the women's side in 1988, and it seemed a knock-in that Serena Williams would do likewise in 2015 when she headed to the US Open with three majors already bagged.

    But Williams famously came unstuck when she faced Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals, while Djokovic went even closer in 2021, losing to Daniil Medvedev in the final at Flushing Meadows.

    Here, Stats Perform examines the daunting challenge of scooping all four slams consecutively.


    WHAT THE GREAT CHAMPIONS SAY

    Before tennis reached its Open Era, which marked the dawning of professionalism on the tour, Laver won his first calendar Grand Slam in 1962.

    He said later, quoted by the Tennis Hall of Fame: "It was a thrill to come off the court knowing I had won all four majors in one year. But I never felt like I was the best, never felt that way. I just happened to have a good year."

    His 1969 dominance came a year after Laver returned to the majors, following a five-year exile while he played professional tennis elsewhere. When the majors allowed professionals to compete alongside the amateurs, 'Rocket Rod' was again unstoppable.

    Laver turned 31 in 1969 and did not win any further grand slam singles titles in his career after that astonishing season, but that second perfect season sealed his legacy as an all-time great.

    Stefan Edberg won a boys' singles clean sweep in 1983, but Laver remains the only player to win the men's singles full set in a calendar year since American Don Budge captured all four in the 1938 season, the first time it was achieved by a man. Maureen Connolly and Margaret Court achieved calendar Grand Slams in women's singles in 1953 and 1970 respectively.

    A non-calendar Grand Slam was accomplished by Djokovic, when he won Wimbledon, the US Open, Australian Open and French Open consecutively across the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Yet no man other than Laver, Budge and Djokovic has won all four singles crowns in succession.

    It has been 11 years since Nadal himself went close. He went to the Australian Open in 2011 with the Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open trophies in the bag, looking to complete the set.

    "I am sure it's going to be the only one opportunity that I'm going to have in my life," said Nadal that year. "I'm not going to have more of these opportunities to win all four in a row.

    "I think it is almost impossible. It is very, very difficult, no? Tennis is a very competitive sport and there is not a lot of difference between players. So a lot of matches are decided in a few balls. So for that reason it is very difficult to have one player winning everything. That's the truth."

    Nadal, hampered by injury, lost in the Melbourne quarter-finals to David Ferrer in 2011 and had not won back-to-back slams since, until this year's surprise double. 


    REACHING PRESSURE POINT

    It is too soon to think that Nadal has a glorious chance to land all four big ones this year. After all, although he has won Wimbledon twice before, those triumphs came in 2008 and 2010, and he has a chronic foot problem. He has required radiofrequency ablation treatment in the past fortnight, preventing nerves in his foot sending messages to his brain.

    He fell to Djokovic in the 2011 Wimbledon final and has not been back to the title match since, suffering a run of disappointing early exits in London before reaching semi-finals in 2018 and 2019, his last visits to the tournament.

    Djokovic is a heavy favourite for this year's title, but it would be bold to entirely rule out Nadal, particularly given that as the second seed he cannot run into Djokovic until the final. Particularly given that he is Rafael Nadal, and prone to doing stupendous things.

    Serbian Djokovic, a year Nadal's junior, would be able to tell his great rival just how intense the strain can become when a calendar Grand Slam becomes a serious prospect.

    Speaking in November last year, two months after Medvedev denied him in New York, Djokovic said: "I'm very relieved that the grand slam season was done, because I felt a tremendous pressure unlike anything I felt in my life.

    "It was an interesting experience, and I'm very satisfied with the way I played in grand slams, three wins and a final. There are much more positive things to be grateful for and to look at than negative."

    Like Djokovic, Serena Williams has managed the non-calendar Grand Slam before, with the American first achieving that from the French Open in 2002 to the Australian Open in 2003, and in 2015 she was aiming for five slams in a row when she arrived at the US Open, having begun her dominant streak at her home grand slam the previous year.

    That would have meant Williams sealed each of the 2015 slams, and losing to Vinci led to stark frustration, underlined by a terse response to the question of how disappointed she felt by the result.

    "I don't want to talk about how disappointing it is for me," Williams said. "If you have any other questions, I'm open for that."

    Sometimes, players get ahead of themselves when looking at the season ahead, and Naomi Osaka had a calendar Grand Slam in her thoughts after winning the season-opening Australian Open in 2019.

    She had also triumphed at the US Open at the end of 2018, and the Japanese star was beginning to think she might enjoy an invincible year at the majors, only to stumble to a third-round French Open defeat to Katerina Siniakova.

    Osaka said: "I think I was overthinking this calendar slam. For me this is something that I have wanted to do forever, but I have to think about it like if it was that easy, everyone would have done it."

  • Lionel Messi at 35: Could this be PSG and Argentina superstar's defining year? Lionel Messi at 35: Could this be PSG and Argentina superstar's defining year?

    To suggest the next 12 months may well define Lionel Messi's career would be doing a disservice to what we have witnessed up close over the past 18 campaigns. 

    From boy wonder to the greatest player ever in the view of many, and now into a new chapter with Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentina forward has nothing to prove to anyone.

    And yet on the day he turns 35 – the average age of retirement for a footballer – questions continue to be asked of Messi. 

    Will he win a World Cup – still in the eyes of many the real barometer of a truly great player, even in the era of the Champions League – before he retires? 

    Can he prove himself in a different country after a mixed first season in France? Both of those questions will be answered before he celebrates his 36th birthday in a year's time.

    Stats Perform looks at how Messi's game has already changed, and whether he is still capable of inspiring club and country to glory in possibly the biggest year of his career.
     

    MESSI 2.0

    Ten months have passed since the shock announcement that Messi was bringing an end to his 21-year association with Barcelona to join Ligue 1 giants PSG.

    By his own high standards, Messi's first campaign in Paris was far from great. He scored 11 goals in 34 appearances, down on the 38 scored in his last season with Barca.

    And those 11 goals came from an expected goals (xG) value of 16.8, meaning he scored 5.8 goals fewer than he should have based on the quality of his chances.

    Among players in Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions last season, only six others had a worse return, with Lille striker Burak Yilmaz (8.11 differential) topping the list.

    There were extenuating circumstances, of course, with Messi himself recently opening up on just how badly he struggled after testing positive for coronavirus in January.

    The La Masia product also had to adapt to life outside the place he had called home for more than two decades, seeing him take on an entirely different role.

    While his scoring figures dropped considerably, Messi set up 14 league goals – only once in his last five seasons at Camp Nou (21 in 2019-20) did he assist more in a campaign.

    The majority of his assists last season came from a left-of-centre position outside the box, where he predominantly played alongside Neymar and just off Kylian Mbappe.


    RONALDO SHOWS THE WAY

    The 11 goals Messi scored at the age of 34 is his lowest return since the eight he netted when aged 18 and still in the infancy of his Barcelona career.

    While that can be put down to a change of scenery, and being in the unfamiliar role of having to play second-fiddle to Mbappe, age is also surely a factor.

    At 35 – or 34 as he was last season – Messi will inevitably have to rely more on his footballing brain than his legs to give him an advantage over opponents.

    As showed by Cristiano Ronaldo, though, age is just a number when it comes to the very best, the Portugal star having scored 75 goals in 102 games since his 35th birthday.

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic, four months shy of his 41st birthday, has scored an impressive 112 goals in 174 appearances since hitting 35, an age often perceived as being 'over the hill'.


    ALL EYES ON QATAR

    Playing a supporting role may well be something we must come accustomed to when it comes to club level, but for Argentina Messi very much still remains the main man.

    That was clear to see earlier this month when, in his final game in a gruelling campaign, Messi scored all five of Argentina's goals in their thumping friendly win over Estonia.

    That five-goal showing rightly attracted plenty of focus, though it was arguably four days earlier in his side's 3-0 'Finalissima' victory over Italy that Messi truly showed his quality.

    Messi pulled the strings from a slightly deeper position as Argentina, who also boast the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala, showed their credentials.

    He assisted two of Argentina's three goals, including a delightful turn to leave Giovanni Di Lorenzo trailing in his wake before setting up Martinez for a simple finish. 

    On the back of ending their 28-year wait for silverware in 2021 with victory at the Copa America, Lionel Scaloni's men now look good value to challenge for the World Cup.

    Regardless of any more titles he adds to his collection at PSG, Messi lifting the most famous trophy of them all in Qatar later this year would be the defining image of his career.

    Different now he may be, but Messi has a chance to show in his 35th year that he has plenty more left in the tank to turn a great career into the greatest.

  • Top QB recruit Arch Manning commits to Texas Top QB recruit Arch Manning commits to Texas

    Heralded quarterback prospect Arch Manning has committed to sign with the University of Texas, ending one of the most anticipated recruiting decisions in recent memory.

    Manning, the nephew of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning and the grandson of Ole Miss legend Archie Manning, revealed his decision with a short message on his Twitter account.

    "Committed to the University of Texas. #HookEm,” Manning tweeted.

    Texas was one of three schools, along with Alabama and Georgia, that Manning made official visits to earlier this month.

    The 17-year-old New Orleans native is the consensus number one quarterback of the 2023 class, and his ties to his famous family added further interest and intrigue to his recruitment.

    Arch’s decision would also continue the legacy of Manning quarterbacks within the Southeastern Conference, as Texas is currently scheduled to join the SEC from the Big 12 in 2025 – a move that could theoretically come sooner if the Longhorns and Oklahoma can negotiate buyouts from their present leagues.

    Both Archie and Eli Manning played collegiately at Mississippi, while Peyton starred at Tennessee before embarking on his Hall of Fame NFL career. Additionally, Arch’s father, Cooper, committed to Ole Miss as a wide receiver before a diagnosis of spinal stenosis ended his playing career shortly after high school.

    Manning will be joining a Texas program that is already well-stocked at the quarterback position after landing Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers, the consensus number one recruit of the 2021 class, in December.

    The Longhorns also have two other highly regarded quarterback prospects in rising sophomore Hudson Card and incoming freshman Maalik Murphy. 

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.