Thursday, December 11, 1997

Packers on December Roll!

At the beginning of the season, the late-November to mid-December part of the season looked rather daunting for the Packers.

November 23, Cowboys at home. True, the game would be at Lambeau at last. But the Cowboys had won 7 in a row against the Packers - maybe they just had the Packers' number.

And then comes a three game road trip. Not again!

December 1, at Minnesota. The dome jinx. True, the Packers have to win one sometime, but something weird always seems to happen.

December 7, at Tampa Bay. At least it is on grass, but weren't the Bucs much improved at the end of 1996? And didn't the Bucs beat the Packers here in December a couple of years ago?

December 14, at Carolina. Omigosh, the NFC Championship game rematch, in their stadium.

Back at the beginning of the season, this looked like a stretch where the Packers could easily go 2-2, even though I hoped for better.

Now fast forward to the aftermath of the Colts debacle on November 16. Deep down, didn't you feel that the Packers could lose 2 or maybe 3 of these 4 games if they continued to play like they did in that game? I did.

What a difference 3 weeks and three W's make. The Packers now seem to be on the best roll they have been on since last December-January. They have exorcised two demons, won the division for the third year in a row, and have clinched a bye week for the playoffs. They ought to win the next two games and cruise into the playoffs with another 13-3 record. As a matter of fact, an objective observer might just conclude that the Packers have put it all together at exactly the right time.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look as if 13-3 will be good enough for home-field advantage. I think the 49ers will lose Monday night to Denver, but I think they are good enough to beat a fading Seahawks team the following week. And if they do, they get the home field advantage for the NFC Championship game ASSUMING that they get past their first opponent on the weekend of January 3-4. They probably will, but I don't take that as a given with the 49ers.

Here in San Francisco, the fan sentiment seems to be that the 49ers have very little chance against the Packers if they have to play them in Green Bay. I agree with that. If the game is in San Francisco, the consensus is that the 49ers have a much better chance, but just beneath the surface I detect the belief that the Packers are probably a better team. I think they are right about that, too.

We'll know soon enough. The Championship games are less than a month away, and at this point it sure looks like the NFC opponents will be the Packers and the 49ers. In the AFC, my guess would be Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Could we be heading for a rematch of Super Bowl I? That would be an interesting matchup.

Sunday, November 23, 1997

Packers Spank Cowboys - Head for Last Turf Game

I have to admit that I was nervous about the game against the Cowboys. I picked the Packers to win, I felt that the Packers were the better team, I believed that nobody beats the Packers at Lambeau Field.

But still - what if they didn't win? After all, they got beat by the Colts last week. They couldn't stop anybody, including people none of us ever heard of, and gave up 467 yards of offense and 41 points to an 0-10 team. If they could lose to the Colts, surely the Packers were capable of losing to the Cowboys, especially if the breaks went against them. And if the Packers were to lose, the
devastation, at least to the fans, would be total. How would the team react? Would they go into a tailspin, having left it all on the field against the Cowboys?

Fortunately, we don't have to find out. Despite a slow start, during which the Packers wasted good field position on two successive drives, and despite a Deion Sanders interception for touchdown, that allowed the Cowboys a tie at halftime, the Packers rolled like they have not rolled all this year, crushing the Cowboys in the second half. And so they moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC Central, with Minnesota and Tampa Bay looking up at them.

They did this, in my opinion, through a more aggressive approach, especially on defense. Last week, it seemed that after Gilbert Brown went out, the Packers played very conservatively on defense, and perhaps as a result, never got any pressure on Paul Justin. This week, they blitzed, they took chances, and they came through. And they did so even though it seemed as if both Gilbert Brown and Reggie White missed substantial portions of the game.

So one major monkey is off of the Packers' back. And now they get a chance to try to remove the other one. Next week, the Packers travel to Minnesota to try to win for the first time there in the Holmgren-Wolf-Favre era. I'm worried about this game. Heck, I'm worried about every game this year. There could be a letdown factor after the big Cowboy game. There could be funny bounces of the ball, like there always are at the dome. And there is no question that the Packers remain a team built for grass, not turf. But win or lose, this should be the last turf game for the Packers this year, as the last 3 regular season games are all on grass, and the post-season games will be in Green Bay, maybe in San Francisco, and, just maybe, in San Diego.


I've given up on getting the number 1 seed. The 49ers don't seem interested in providing any assistance to the Packers whatsoever. The 49ers will get the number 1 seed. (There, I've said it. Maybe NOW they will go on a losing streak.) So here are my predictions for final records in the NFC:

NFC Central: Green Bay (12-4, DIV); Minnesota (11-5, WC); Tampa Bay (9-7, out).

NFC West: San Francisco (13-3, DIV).

NFC East: NY Giants (10-5-1, DIV); Dallas (10-6, WC); Washington
(9-6-1, WC).

Monday, November 3, 1997

Packers Back on Track / Mid-Season Review

Bye Week Blues

Well, it seems as if the Packers needed the bye week, even if their fans did not. What does a Packer fan living in the San Francisco area do during the bye week, when there is nothing doing locally but 49ers and Raiders? If you are like me, you find a week without Packer football to be a bit tough to take. And believe me, it is worse if you are not in Wisconsin, without all the Packer hubbub that goes on around there.

My family kept busy the weekend of the bye by going to Great America for the last time this year on Saturday, and by going to the Denver at Oakland game on Sunday. An interesting game, but ultimately who cares about a game involving a couple of AFC teams? It's just not the same.

Last weekend, the weekend before the Monday night game, we had to go out of town to a business function, which helped to keep our minds off of the long wait for the Monday night game. And today (Sunday, November 2) we went to scout out the Cowboys and 49ers at 3Com Park, allowing enough time to get home to watch the Packer game. I was doing my scouting in my Super Bowl hat and shirt, but another guy right in front of me was doing the same thing in his Brett Favre jersey. One kid (10-12 years old) saw me driving my car with PACK FAN license plates in the 3Com parking lot, and was nice enough to tell me (very loudly) that "the Packers Suck!" This passes for intelligent football discourse in the 3Com parking lot, apparently, although I have a feeling that he may not have checked the box scores in the recent Packer-49er games.

The Monday night game against the Patriots was great. The Packers looked the best they have looked all year. The only thing that bothers me a little bit is the thought that maybe the Patriots aren't really good enough to be considered a difficult test for the Packers. The Patriots' game today against the Vikings tends to confirm the suspicion.

Tonight's game against the Lions was not very impressive on offense, but the defense was in complete control of the game, and played its second impressive game in a row. It is good to see Fritz Shurmur showing enough confidence in his defenders to take some chances and play aggressively. The defensive players looked like they were really having fun out there.

Contenders' Schedules

I meant to take a look at remaining schedules for the rest of the NFC contenders last week, but did not get around to writing it down until now. The good news is that the Packers have the easiest schedule in the second half of all meaningful contenders, and the 49ers have the hardest schedule. (My thanks to Ross Fleege for crunching the numbers.) Unfortunately, though, the 49ers show little sign that they are about to start losing some games. So the Packers have to just keep winning games, and hope for a little help from someone else somewhere along the way.

Here is a brief review of the contenders' schedules, along with a few comments.

GREEN BAY PACKERS. Currently 7-2, the same as last year at this time. The Packers have home games left against St. Louis, Dallas, and Buffalo, and away games at Indy, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Carolina. Going 6-1 seems quite possible to me, with a loss likely somewhere (I'm going to "arbitrarily" guess at Minnesota). So I am predicting 13-3 for the final record. This may be a bit optimistic, since they could drop another game somewhere. But they should not end up worse than 12-4.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS. Currently 7-2. Home games left against Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit and Indy. Away games at Detroit, NY Jets, and San Francisco. I am predicting that the Vikings go 4-3, losing the games at Detroit, at the Jets, and at San Francisco. This would leave the Vikings at 11-5. It would be nice to see a late-season collapse here (except when they play the 49ers), but right now they seem to be playing pretty well.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS. Currently 6-3. Home games left against New England, Green Bay, and Chicago. Away games at Atlanta, Chicago, the NY Giants and the NY Jets. I see a 3-4 record for the Bucs, with losses to New England, the Giants, Green Bay and the Jets. The Bucs would then end up at 9-7. The Bucs were an interesting story early in the year, but my predictions reflect my belief that the story is now over.

DETROIT LIONS. Currently 4-5. Not really a contender anymore, but I am just including them because they are in the NFC Central with a record better than 1-8. Home games against Minnesota, Indy, Chicago and the NY Jets. Away games at Washington, Miami and Minnesota. I see the Lions going 4-3, losing to Washington, Miami and Minnesota. The Lions would end up at 8-8.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS. Currently 8-1. Home games against Carolina, San Diego, Minnesota and Denver. Away games at Philadelphia, Kansas City and Seattle. I see them going 4-3, to finish at 12-4. I predict losses to Philadelphia, Kansas City and Denver. (But I sure wish they had lost today to the Cowboys.) The interesting thing about the 49ers schedule is that they are now all out of "byes," with the possible exception of the San Diego game. Even though I think they will win 4 more games, certainly the Panthers, Vikings and Seahawks are each capable of beating the 49ers. Be that as it may, I hope I am not being overly optimistic in predicting 3 losses.

CAROLINA PANTHERS. Currently 5-4. Trying desperately to crawl back in the race after a miserable start. Home games against New Orleans, Green Bay and St. Louis. Away games at Denver, San Francisco, St. Louis and Dallas. I see a record of 3-4, for a total of 8-8. The losses would come against Denver, San Francisco, Dallas and Green Bay.

NEW YORK GIANTS. Currently 6-3. Quietly becoming a significant contender. Home games against Arizona, Tampa Bay and Washington. Away games at Tennessee, Washington, Philadelphia and Dallas. I predict losses against Washington and Dallas, for a 5-2 record and a total of 11-5.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS. Currently 5-4. Home games against Detroit, NY Giants, St. Louis and Philadelphia. Away games at Dallas, Arizona and NY Giants. I think they will go 5-2, losing to Dallas and the Giants on the road, for a total record of 10-6.

DALLAS COWBOYS. Currently 4-5. Not really a contender anymore, but I had to include them here for frame of reference. Home games against Arizona, Washington, Tennessee, Carolina and NY Giants. Away games at Green Bay and Cincinnati. In making my predictions, I initially came up with a 6-1 record, with a loss only to Green Bay, for a total record of 10-6. But that just can't be right. This team is not good enough to go 6-1. They will find a way to lose 1 or 2 games to teams like Arizona, Carolina, the Giants or Cincinnati. They will end up with a record something like 8-8.

If these predictions come true, the Packers will win the all-important home field advantage. But the 49ers are (to state the obvious) the team with the best shot to knock the Packers out of home field advantage. So root like crazy against the 49ers, every week. The only other serious challenger I see in the NFC is the Vikings. That game on December 1 at the Metrodome could not only have large implications for the home field advantage, it could end up deciding the division winner.

Tuesday, September 23, 1997

Quarterly Review - No Cause For Panic In Packerland

There has been a fair amount of grumbling among Packer fans in the first quarter of the 1997 season. "The Packers were in some danger of losing each game this year!" "They haven't looked dominating in any game, except for the second quarter of the Vikings game!" "They lost to the Eagles and didn't even score a TD!" "The rash of injuries has robbed the Packers of all of their depth!" Etc., etc. etc.

But let's stop for a second and take a closer look. One quarter of the regular season is over, and the Packers are 3-1. Last year, they dominated in the first 3 games, but then lost at Minnesota, and had the same 3-1 record. Many of us (myself included) overreacted to the situation. I know that I felt that the Packers would never be able to catch the Vikings, given tie-breakers. What an overreaction that was, as the Packers won the division by 4 games, with the home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And, in a sense, the Packers are better off this year, since their loss is outside of the division.

By contrast, take a look at the 49ers. They have started to dominate their opponents, and to all appearances, they seem to have overcome the loss of Jerry Rice, and seem to be taking better care of Steve Young. But hold on a minute! The teams they have beaten are the Rams, the Saints and the Falcons, three of the most pathetic teams in the league. They lost to Tampa Bay, but as we are beginning to appreciate, that is no great shame given the way the Buccaneers are playing. Let's wait until the 49ers have a couple of games against quality opponents before concluding that they are back in the driver's seat.

All in all, I feel pretty good about the Packers' season. I think they will only get better, as some of the injured players return to the lineup, and as some of the reserves pressed into action get more experience. Last year, the injury plague induced a two game losing streak against Kansas City and Dallas. This year, the Packers have come through an injury plagued first quarter with a 3-1 record. Not too bad. I see (conservatively) at least an 11-5 record for the Packers this year.

Tuesday, July 29, 1997

Edgar Bennett Out for Year

The opening pre-season game, otherwise a success for the Packers, was tarnished by the loss of Edgar Bennett for the entire 1997 season with an Achilles tendon injury.

Some have suggested that this may mark Edgar's last game with the Packers, since there is some sentiment that the Packers will not be able to (or maybe even want to) keep both Edgar and Dorsey Levens next year. I hope that doesn't prove to be true, but this seems as good a time as any to reminisce about the good times with Edgar Bennett.

Although I live in California, it so happens I was at the first pre-season game in the year Edgar was drafted, which I believe was 1992. I was mostly interested in seeing who this kid was for whom the Packers had traded a first round pick, somebody named Favre. (His first pass was a drop-back-and-heave-it-as-far-as-you-can job, which was intercepted.) So the early returns on Favre were a bit mixed.

But the kid who really impressed me was Edgar Bennett. It seemed like every time he got the ball, he was just like a bull - very difficult to bring down. He was heavier then, and I think they were listing him as a fullback. But he certainly had promise.

Fast forward to the playoff years. Four more impressions of Edgar. First, he almost NEVER fumbled the ball. We all know how important that is to Holmgren, and to us. If you remember Brent Fullwood, fumbling at the opponent's 1 yard line on what would have been a go-ahead score, you know why this is important. In fact, when Edgar fumbled in the slop in the mud-bowl against San Francisco, wasn't that his first fumble in over a year?

And speaking of the mud-bowl, impression number 2 is that there is no finer "mudder" in the league now than Edgar Bennett. Given the new "Sport Grass" and its improved drainage, this may not be as big an issue anymore, but it always seemed that the messier the field was, the better Edgar was. How he was able to keep his balance in the slop, on the way into the end zone, is just beyond me.

Impression number 3 is the screen pass. This is an important weapon in the Holmgren offense, and Edgar ran it to perfection. It seemed as if, half the time the Packers found themselves at about the 15-20 yard line, they would run this play, and it seemed as if it most often went for a touchdown. He will be missed on this play, but fortunately Dorsey Levens runs this play pretty well himself.

Finally, Edgar was a very skilled receiver. I remember one pass in particular, a sideline pass to the left side, where Edgar laid himself out parallel to the ground and caught the ball.

In short, Edgar may be no Barry Sanders, no Emmitt Smith, no Thurman Thomas. But he brought stability to the running back position for the first time in a number of years, and I always liked him. 1997 was to be another "running back by committee" year for Edgar and Dorsey, but sadly that will not happen now. I hope that the Packers figure out a way to bring Edgar back in 1998, but if they don't, it has been a nice ride with Edgar these past few years.

Friday, June 27, 1997

Franchise Free Agency

There has been a fair amount of attention on the internet and in the popular press about the effects of free agency. Is it a plus or a minus for a small market team like the Packers? Now that the Packers are on top of the heap, does free agency help them (because they are relatively attractive to free agents looking for a shot at a ring) or does it hurt them, because the participants in a Super Bowl always get more attention from other teams than they deserve (see Neil O'Donnell, Larry Brown and, yes, even Desmond Howard).

These are all interesting questions, and I might even have something to say about them one of these days. But my topic today is FRANCHISE free agency, not player free agency.

As a Packer fan, I suppose it is obvious that I have my biases on the question of franchise free agency, but try as hard as I can, I can't see anything good about the present system. Yes, there are some teams with whom the fans have just fallen out of love. I suppose the Oilers are the best example. A year or so ago they had a rally in downtown Houston to try to keep the Oilers, and something like 36 people showed up. This is amazing to me, given how recent it was that the Astrodome was known as the "House of Pain" and was filled to the rafters with nut cases with their faces painted blue. But right now the team has no support in Houston, and I suppose that the owner had little choice but to try to find a new home somewhere else. The Rams are probably another more or less comparable example.

But then there are the Raiders, and the way that Al Davis screwed the City of Oakland, not once but twice. The first time was when he took the Raiders away from sellouts and a solid fan base in a dispute with the city over luxury boxes. And the second time was when he brought them back under the burden of the highest ticket and PSL prices in the league, which are not selling out and which will leave the taxpayers in the City of Oakland holding the bag under the financial guarantees they provided to the Raiders to lure them back.

And the saddest case, to me, is the Browns/Ravens. Browns fans were like Packer fans, in many ways. They had a devoted, working class fan base, they were one of the old time teams in the league, and they had a wonderful history and tradition. And, quite unlike the Raiders, the Browns had an old-time, NFL guy for an owner, not a lifelong renegade like Al Davis. But Art Modell took the Browns away just as ruthlessly as Al Davis took away the Raiders.

The people of Cleveland will be getting a new Browns team in a couple of years, but it won't be the same. Never again will the people feel as if this is really "their" team. They will always know that some rich guy can take it all away in an instant over some future dispute over stadiums, luxury boxes, or something we can't even imagine now.

Compare these situations to the Packers. The fans (or more precisely some of them) actually own the team. It is not feasible to imagine a set of circumstances, other than outright financial failure of the franchise, under which the team would no longer be in Green Bay. There is no reason for a kid, or even an adult, to hold back on giving his heart to this team.

Here is the part that I don't understand. Can't everyone see that this is a better situation for the team, for the fans, and for the league, than the situation in Cleveland, Oakland, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, etc? Then why is it that the league currently prohibits Packer-style public ownership, with the Packers being the sole team that is "grandfathered?" This just seems nuts to me.

I would respectfully suggest that the Green Bay Packer ownership model is the ideal fix for the problem with the league and franchise free agency. The league ought to be encouraging community ownership, rather than prohibiting it. Nothing much can be done with the existing franchises, but as the league adds new teams in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, and as teams are sold, community ownership should be the preferred (if not exclusive) model. The NFL right now is the hottest thing in sports. But they are very close to having the league ruined because of problems like franchise free agency.

If you agree, why not take a minute and write a letter to the Commissioner about this. I have already done so. The address is:

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue
National Football League
410 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Thursday, May 22, 1997

Thank Heaven We Are Packer Fans!

Events here in San Francisco in the past week serve as a reminder how lucky we are to be Packer fans (as if we needed any reminder in this most glorious of years). It seems that the 49ers want a new stadium to replace Candlestick/3Com Park, and they want (need?) the San Francisco voters to approve a pair of propositions on June 3 to authorize $100 million in revenue bonds to finance the new stadium.

Candlestick/3Com Park is, in the words of 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo, a "pigsty." Oh really? Well it doesn't have the magic of Lambeau Field, and it is a multi-purpose stadium, but it does have real grass, it doesn't have a roof, it does have luxury boxes, it has actual backs on the actual seats, and it has much greater variety in food service than the home of our own heroes. So if Candlestick/3Com is a pigsty, is Lambeau Field one as well?

In my view, the whole issue is cooked up by yet another demanding sports owner, in a desire to have a new stadium just so he can say he has the newest, coolest stadium.

This week, the debate has become even uglier, as DeBartolo has dropped hints in the press to the effect that, if the bonds are not approved, the team might "have" to move elsewhere, since they cannot continue to play in Pigsty Park. In other words, he pulled the gun out of his pocket, and laid it on the table. TV ads are now running here, sponsored by the pro-stadium forces, which conclude with a shot of the 49er helmet, with the "SF" oval spinning like a dial on a slot machine, until it stops on a "?" Today's afternoon paper has a headline discussing the possibility
that the 49ers might move to Los Angeles.

Al Davis. Bob Irsay. Georgia Frontiere. Al Davis (again). Art Modell. Bud Adams. Eddie DeBartolo. All charter members of the NFL Hall of Shame. Thank heaven it can never happen in Green Bay.

Friday, January 31, 1997

Close Encounters of the AF Kind

The California Freeman family met Antonio Freeman's family in New Orleans on Monday. Here is the story. During the actual weekend of the Super Bowl, we were staying across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington. On Monday, after a brief side trip to Kiln, MS, we drove back to New Orleans and checked into the Embassy Suites. When we checked in, we learned that many (maybe all?) of the Packer families had been staying there (the players were at the Fairmont).

Anyway, I was waiting for a beer at the bar, when I noticed that the woman in front of me was wearing a Packer hat with "Antonio Freeman" and "86 Son" embroidered on the back and side. I introduced myself and my family to her, as the California Packer Fan Freeman family, and she was nice enough to take us over to introduce us to Antonio's father, brother, God-Mother, and one other whose connection I did not catch. They were very nice and appreciative of our words of congratulations. I discussed the Championship game with the father, as we had both been there, and we discussed the record-setting Super Bowl catch. We both mused on what an amazing year he had, what with breaking his arm in the middle of the year.

Anyway, they couldn't have been nicer, and it was a real pleasure to meet them.

Tuesday, January 14, 1997

Championship Game Report

Several of my friends have asked me what it was like to be at the game Sunday. As a football game, this was not one of the best of all time. Even though the Packers were only up by 7 points
at the half, it seemed clear that they would have to really mess things up to lose the game. I overheard one guy on his cellular phone during halftime, explaining that "The game is over! They can't move the ball at all, and the Packers are rolling." I wasn't quite as confident as he was, but let's face it - he was right. The way they were moving the ball vs. the Panthers, and the way the Panthers were being bottled up by the defense, it probably would have taken a series of 2d half turnovers to give the Panthers much chance.

So while this game had the excitement and pageantry of a really big game, it didn't have the tension of a really close game, such as the instant replay game of 1989, which I attended, or the OT victory in October over the 49ers, which I did not. But any lack of tension was made up by the pure emotional joy of realizing, somewhere in the middle of the 4th quarter, that the dream was really going to come true. The signs started coming out, the chants of Su-Per-Bowl started. Many people, myself included, had tears in their eyes, as the players jumped in and greeted the fans in the stands after the game, and then during the entire trophy ceremony. That is what I will always remember about this game, more so than any of the individual plays or performances.