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Pete Dougherty column: Will cold hurt Packers passing game?

Dec. 6, 2011
 
Green Bay Packers' James Starks runs for a first down during the first quarter of the NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears on Jan. 23, 2011, at Soldier Field in Chicago. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media

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There’s probably still some truth to the adage that cold-climate teams need to run the ball to win in December and January.

The issue is to what degree that applies to the unbeaten 2011 Green Bay Packers. These Packers, after all, are built like a dome team; only the New Orleans Saints, who play in the Louisiana Superdome, can rival their talent in the passing game.

These Packers also appear headed for the NFC’s best record, which means they’ll have to win two playoff games at Lambeau Field to get to the Super Bowl. Their No. 29 ranking in rushing yards and yards per rush brings into question whether a bad-weather day could blow up their offense and wreck a spectacular season. Maybe, but not necessarily so.

First, a quick look at some statistics suggests the game changes — though not as much as you might think — at this time of year.

Last year, the Packers’ ratio of run calls (runs minus quarterback scrambles) to pass calls (attempts, sacks and scrambles) was 37-to-63 in their first 11 games, through Nov. 28. Then in the last three regular-season games quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished, all at Lambeau — he missed the second half at Detroit and the following week at New England because of a concussion — their run ratio increased slightly, to 40-60. Throw in two cold-climate playoff games, wins at Philadelphia and at Chicago, and it went up another tick, to 43-to-57.

That’s a six-percentage-point increase in runs from the first 11 games to Rodgers’ cold-climate games in December and January. Not trifling, but not a big swing, either.

This season, coach Mike McCarthy’s offense ranks first in the NFL in scoring, No. 2 in passing yards and No. 29 in rushing yards. Its run-pass ratio is 35-to-65. The Packers have three home games in the next four weeks, and if they finish with the best record in the NFC, which looks likely, they will have to win two playoff games at Lambeau to get to the Super Bowl.

Back in 1996, when they won the Super Bowl under former coach Mike Holmgren, the Packers also had to win two playoff games at Lambeau. They had a run-pass ratio of 43-to-56 from September through November plus a dome game at Detroit in December. Then in their cold-climate games in December and January, including the two home playoff wins, their ratio went up to 51-to-49. That’s an eight percentage-point increase, slightly more than the six-point increase in cold-weather games on the way to winning the Super Bowl last year.

So the most recent champion Packers teams ran a little more in the cold. That suggests this one probably will have to, also.

But the huge majority of the Packers’ talent this year is in the passing game, and that talent is superior to anything they could put on the field in 1996 and ’07, the last two times the Packers played the NFC championship game at home. So this year’s passing game might function better in the cold simply because it has better playmakers.

In comparison to ’96, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing at least as well, if not better, than Brett Favre in his second MVP season. Greg Jennings is better than the team’s best receiver in ’96, Antonio Freeman. This year’s No. 2 receiver, Jordy Nelson, isn’t far behind Freeman and rates higher than Andre Rison, who was 29 at the time and past his most productive seasons. Tight end Jermichael Finley is at least at talented as Keith Jackson in ’96. And at receiver, this year’s Packers are far better going five deep with James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb, compared to the ’96 team that had tight end Mark Chmura, No. 3 receiver Don Beebe and non-factors Terry Mickens and Desmond Howard.

The same holds true looking to the ‘07 NFC championship game. The ’07 Packers lost to a New York Giants team that was much more physical on that bitter-cold day at Lambeau. But the ’07 Packers couldn’t match the ’11 Packers’ talent, either.

In ’07, Favre was 38 and unable to handle the brutal cold like when he thrived in such conditions in his 20s. Who can forget seeing him bundled up and looking miserable on the sidelines that day? Rodgers, on the other hand, is at his physical prime at 28. He also has some of the attributes that helped Favre perform well in bad weather — a strong arm to cut through the wind and large hands for ball security (Favre’s were a huge 10¾ inches from thumb to pinky with his fingers spread; Rodgers’ are only slightly smaller at 10 1/8 inches).

And though Favre was mobile and especially tough to bring down because of his strength, Rodgers is the faster scrambler, which could be critical for picking up first downs in bad conditions.

Now, you can make a decent argument the Packers don’t win the Super Bowl last year if James Starks hadn’t emerged at the end of his rookie year as a viable run threat. He gave the Packers’ offense just enough balance to win in the playoffs, at least in moderate winter conditions and in domes.

The same might hold true this year. He’s clearly their best back, and without him, a bad-weather day spells trouble. That in turn suggests the Packers might sit him for the next week or two to ensure his aggravated ankle injury is healthier for the money games in January.

But like the high-octane 2007 and unbeaten-until-the-Super-Bowl New England Patriots, the greatest threat to the 2011 Packers might not be the cold weather, but rather a hot team playing the game of its season.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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