As the Packers prepare to face the Cleveland Browns today, Mike McCarthy is worried if he will even have 46 healthy bodies to place on the active roster. Injuries and inconsistent play have guided the Packers to a 3-2 record so far this season, and nearly every player on the team has, at some point, had a letdown in play that has affected their ability to make the big play.
Today, both sides of the ball arrive on the field missing many key players, with perhaps more injured linebackers than healthy, and one experienced wide receiver lining up to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers.
In a game where the Browns have a limp offense going against a defense that played over its head last week, you would like to think that the Packers would be able to keep the Browns from scoring more than 20 points, even if they can't take advantage of Brandon Weeden's penchant for throwing interceptions.
But the Browns have a tough defense, one that can limit Eddie Lacy's drive-breaking runs and put the ball in the hands of Aaron Rodgers, who simply hasn't had a season thus far worthy of MVP consideration. Take away his injured receivers and have him face a pass rush that has proven it can get to the quarterback (19 sacks in 6 games), and Rodgers may find himself in the same situation he's been in much of the season: moving the ball well between the 20's, and fizzling out in the red zone.
In fact, the Packers rank 28th in the league for scoring touchdowns from the red zone on the season (45%). Over the last three games, the Packers have only scored red-zone touchdowns on 20% of their opportunities. Last week? They didn't score any red-zone touchdowns.
Enter the unlikeliest of heroes, kicker Mason Crosby, who has attempted seven field goal attempts from he red-zone this season, and is a perfect 7-7. More importantly, however, is that he is also perfect (2-2) from outside 50 yards. In fact, on the season, he has missed only one field goal (which the defense immediately gave him a redo on by recovering a fumble).
Who is this Crosby character? Well, for one, he's been the much-maligned kicker that has gone through repeated ups-and-downs over his career. Even his best season ever was loaded with asterisks and qualifiers. Certainly, this site has offered more than its share of doubt in Crosby to carry the load, with most of those articles written by me.
Amazingly enough, that one miss puts Crosby's field goal percentage at 92.7%, still placing him only at 10th overall in the league this season. But the infamous Football Outsiders statistical rigamarole puts the Packers at 6th overall in their comparative standings, taking distance and relative stats from similar kicks into consideration.
More importantly, Crosby's field goals have actually been the difference in a win or loss the past two weeks: he contributed 15 points in a 22-9 win over the Lions, and 12 points in a 19-17 win over the Ravens.
It's a far cry from the player we repeatedly saw Mike McCarthy pass over on fourth down and go for it within field goal range at the end of last season. Everyone, including McCarthy and Crosby, had lost faith in our kicker.
In a normal world, this should have spelled the end of the Crosby Era in Green Bay. But the Packers, still committed to Crosby for whatever reason, brought in token competition and declared the position wide open. In retrospect, it really wasn't, and Crosby was back after a lackluster preseason that did nothing to make us believe that much had changed from last year.
Except, it did.
After not attempting any field goals against the 49ers, Crosby has been on a tear, going 13-14 on field goals and not missing any extra points.
More importantly, however, has been how the ball is coming off of his foot. In the past, there was always a significant movement, almost a jerk, of the ball, left or right, during its ascent. Sometimes that movement steered the ball between the goal posts. But on many occasions, it moved it outside the goal posts...sometimes wildly beyond the goalposts.
Watching how he's kicking the ball this year, the ball is being struck more solidly, and the shifts in direction aren't happening. In other words, when he kicks the ball, it goes to where he's kicking it on a straight line. No fades. No slices.
The most important moment, for me, was when he lined up for his first field goal attempt last week, a 45-yarder that would have been a coin flip last season. Instead of steadying myself for a miss, as I usually have done, I allowed myself to trust the kick to be true. And it was.
If he's able to convince me to trust him again, he certainly has worked hard enough to earn the trust of his coaches, teammates...and most of all, himself.
Was I wrong in my criticism of Crosby over the last few years? No. Simply put, he wasn't trustworthy. He had earned the doubters by not kicking field goals at the rate expected of an NFL kicker.
But he has worked and earned that trust back. That, in and of itself, is perhaps the biggest conversion of Crosby's career.
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