Sunday, December 19, 1999

The Table is Set

Packer fans had the Sunday off. The division leading Buccaneers were in town to play the Raiders. What better way to spend the afternoon than to go to the game and root against the Buccaneers. (Besides, since this is the 27th straight blacked out home Raider game, I could not very well stay home and watch it.

Well, as we all know, the Raiders completely destroyed the Buccaneers, 45-0. We did not stay until the bitter end, but I imagine that the Buccaneers must have had to crawl off the field at the end of the game. Now the Raiders are OK, but they are not that good, which suggests that the Buccaneers are not as great as some might think. The game films will show how you beat the Buccaneers. You play aggressive defense and put pressure on the rookie QB, Shaun King. Oh, if only the Packers had a defense! If only they could rush the QB!

Meanwhile, what a weekend to set the table for the Packers and Vikings on Monday night. True, the Panthers won on Saturday, but they are still only at 7-7, so not yet really a factor to the winner of the Monday night game. In the NFC East, The Redskins lost, and dropped to 8-6. The Giants lost, to drop to 7-7, and the Cowboys lost, to drop to 7-7 as well. The 6-7 Cardinals have not yet played as of this writing, but again, they are not yet a factor.

In the NFC Central, the Buccaneers were crushed and dropped to 9-5. The Lions lost to the Bears, and the Lions are now 8-6. And the 7-6 Packers play the 7-6 Vikings tomorrow night.

So the table is set. All the Packers have to do tomorrow night is to beat the Vikings in Minnesota, to move into a tie for 2d place in the division. And all they have to do next week is to win at Tampa to move into a first place tie. If there was ever a time for this team to step up, this is it.

Unfortunately, the Packers have been wildly inconsistent all year, so there is no really good reason to think that the Packers will win both of these games. But it could happen. The Buccaneers, given their offense, are pretenders as was shown today. And the slumping Vikings are not exactly world beaters, either. But you could not have asked for a better set of results in the Sunday games, to make the Monday night game even more critical than it already was.

Tuesday, November 30, 1999

Report from 3Com Park

Last night's game was probably boring to anyone but Packer fans. I'm guessing that the TV rating dropped precipitously in the second half. It was certainly boring to the 49er fans in the stands. They were pretty quiet throughout the game. In fact, on the way home, people were calling in to sports radio shows, complaining about how quiet the fans were, as if the "12th man" was the main problem for the 49ers. The other topic on the sports radio shows was who should start at QB for the 49ers next week.

There was a lot left to be desired in the game for the Packers. There was a lot of bending but no breaking on defense, and the offense only scored 2 TDs (plus 2 FGs) out of 5 trips inside the red zone. This could un-do the Packers in a different game. Here, I looked at it as a methodical, pretty conservative game plan on both sides of the ball, with the idea that this was a game they would win unless they screwed it up.

To put it differently, I had the impression that the Packers could have scored a lot more points if they wanted to by opening up the offense. But they decided to stick with a safer, conservative game plan, figuring that the 49ers would not score many points. Except for the first couple of series, the Packers seemed to me to be in total control of the game.

The long ball to Bradford was obviously not a conservative play, except in the sense that people have been throwing long against the 49ers with success all year. And if the defender did not tackle him it might have been a TD (you all must have seen that one better than I did, since they showed no replay of this play in the stadium). So 2 of the possible outcomes are good, plus it a long pass like this tends to loosen up the defense for the short passing game. Certainly in the second half the 49er defenders were playing way off the receivers.

As mentioned, the atmosphere throughout the game was subdued in the stands. There were a lot more Packer fans present than in the playoff game in January, as I had expected. The Packer fans were having a good time, tastefully at least in my area, and the 49er fans were mostly sitting on their hands. The paper here did not publish any "no show" statistics, but I can tell you that there were thousands of empty seats, even at the beginning of the game. The rain, which may have scared some away, did not start to any meaningful extent until the 4th quarter. Once it did, the stands started to empty out, and the percentage of Packer fans present increased dramatically by the end of the game. The Packers got a pretty hearty send-off from the Packer fans at the corner of the field on the other side, where the team goes on its way to the locker room.

Sunday, November 28, 1999

Monday Night 49er Game

As is almost always true, the Packer - 49er game this year is a big one. Not because these two teams are fighting it out for home field advantage in the playoffs. The 49ers are all done, and the Packers are one or two losses away from being in the same boat. But as long as there is a chance for the Packers, every game will be huge, as they fight to keep their playoff possibilities alive.

This game will be an interesting one, because it will tell us whether the newly-healthy right thumb is going to carry the Packers anywhere, or whether last week's victory against the Lions was just a fluke. This 49er team is absolutely awful, and if the Packers can't beat them now, you can forget about the playoffs in any event. The 49ers are at 3-7, with a 6 game losing streak going for them, and things have gotten so bad that the local media is not spending much time actually talking about Monday night's game. They know that the 49er season is over, whether the 49ers effectively end the Packers' season as well or not.

As this season has progressed, I have noticed that the 49er fans are dealing with their adversity better than the Packer fans. On the Packer mailing list, the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing is enough to keep you awake all night long. The 49er fans are dealing with even more adversity, but they seem to be managing pretty well.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, the 49er fan base is the classic example of a fan base that is a mile wide and 2 inches deep. When I moved to the San Francisco area in 1980, they weren't even selling out the games. Then along came 1981, and all of a sudden everyone was on the Niner bandwagon. But now that the dynasty seems finally to have ended, they will move on and find something else to worry about. In other words, the majority of 49er fans just don't care about the team the way that most Packer fans do.

The other thing, of course, is that the circumstances are very different for the two teams. Favre has been injured all year, but presumably he will be healthy next year. Chmura will be back, Ron Wolf will draft some more people to fill more holes. Ray Rhodes may or may not be back, but as long as this team has Brett Favre, they will be a contender for a long time. In the case of the 49ers, there is no particular reason to hope for the future.

In all likelihood, Steve Young will never suit up again, and there is no heir apparent. Jerry Rice is all through as an impact player, and this will probably be his last year. And the salary cap, long deferred, has finally caught up with the 49ers. They had to cut something like $28 million in salaries this year just to meet the cap, and they have to cut something like another $18 million next year. So the 49er fans know that while they have had a long, unbelievable run, this time it is finally over.

That will be obvious Monday night, as the Packers roll to a 31-10 victory. By the end of the game, the only sound from the stands will be the sound of Packer fans (myself included) yelling GO PACK GO!

Saturday, November 20, 1999

Must Rhodes Go?

The internet has been buzzing for several weeks about the sad state of the 1999 Packers. Most of the flak has been directed at Ray Rhodes and his coaching staff. Many have suggested that Rhodes be fired immediately. I don't think that will happen, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is hard to see how firing the head coach in the middle of the season will help to salvage this season. No other obvious coaching candidates are available from the outside, and it is certainly not clear that there is an up-and-coming head coach candidate on the Packers' staff (past enthusiasm for Sherman Lewis has been dissipated).

For weeks, I took the view that the main problem is Brett Favre's thumb. I'm not so sure anymore. While I can't claim to have studied game tapes after the fact, something has struck me in watching the last couple of games live. When the Packers are on offense, it seems like the defense is ALWAYS in Favre's face. And when the Packers are on defense, it seems like the Packers NEVER get any pressure on the quarterback without blitzing.

So maybe it is not just the thumb. Maybe it is both lines as well. And this has caused me to ask the next question: how could the offensive and defensive lines deteriorate so badly in less than a year? Granted, Reggie White retired. Mark Chmura is on injured reserve. There have been injuries, etc. But I just cannot believe that these factors have made that much difference. So I am coming to the conclusion, more firmly as every week goes by, that the coaching staff has to shoulder a lot of the blame. This coaching staff is just not get getting much production out of these players, most of whom were in the Super Bowl two years ago.

Every year, some team comes along and achieves more than its talent should allow it to do. The Falcons were probably an example of that last year. And every year, there is a team that never plays up to the level of its talent. Around here, that team is usually the Raiders. Sadly, this year, there is no team that looks like more of an under-achiever than the Packers.

If things don't turn around immediately, this is a lost season. I hate to say it, but I don't see any reason to think that things will turn around. This team is playing like a 4-5 team (or worse), and I can't think of a good reason to think that they will go 7-0 or 6-1 to finish the season. If they don't turn it around, then Rhodes must go.

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

What is Wrong With The Packers?

I suffered through the Denver game, and could not comprehend how the team could be so flat and inept for a game that meant so much to the fans. Why didn't the players play like it?

Then I enjoyed the San Diego game, deluding myself into thinking that the Packers had turned the corner, and would be just fine from here on out.

Then the Monday night disaster [Ed.note - the Packers played the Seahawks, and lost 27-7.] . The Packers played their worst game since, . . . , well, since two weeks before. A disaster in some ways akin to last year's disaster on Monday night against the Vikings. The players had to care about this one, just as a matter of pride, didn't they? Then how could they play like this?

I have talked with others, read some of the post-game comments, read articles online, mostly just listening, trying to make up my own mind about this. None of the people I have talked to or heard from have suggested that the Packers are playing at the level of their talent. Yes, injuries have hurt them, but not this much. They have much more talent than they have shown in two of their last three games.

Some have suggested that the coaching staff is to blame. The "country club atmosphere" has returned, and the team does not have enough discipline (the Earl Dotson debacle fits right in with this theory). The play-calling has been questioned. Why, for example, did the Packers not run more in the second half, before it got too late to recover? Dorsey Levens was gaining big chunks of yards, and the running game would have taken some pressure off of the ineffective Favre?

Others have suggested that the real problem is that Favre's hand is bothering him more than people realize. Certainly one of the fumbles could be attributed to inability to get a proper grip on the ball. I'm not surenif the interceptions could be attributed to the thumb problem, but maybe. The thing that is a bit ominous about the thumb theory is that I remember Favre having made a comment before the San Diego game, suggesting that the warm weather would make it easier to play with his injured thumb. And, maybe not coincidentally, the San Diego game was the Packers' best game of the year. Monday night in Green Bay, it was cold and blustery, and Favre had his worst (or second worst) game of the year. The ominous part is that there are only a couple of truly warm weather games left on the schedule (at Dallas, at Tampa, and at Minnesota if you count a dome game as a warm weather game). So if the thumb is the problem, we could be in for a very long year.

I come out thinking that the thumb is the main problem. The defense has looked alright. I certainly can't blame the defense for giving up 20 points (not counting the 7 points on the blocked field goal), when the offense turned the ball over 7 times. The offense was horrible, but mostly just because of the turnovers. If you could somehow cut the turnovers out of the game, it would have been a very different game. I just have a feeling that the thumb is getting worse, that it acts up more in cold weather, and that Favre is going to have this problem all year long.

Having said that, I am starting to agree with those who criticize the coaching staff, as well. It is becoming apparent that Sherman Lewis is not as good an offensive coordinator as Mike Holmgren was. I think that the Packers have been out-coached in several of the games this year. That was not usually the case with Holmgren. On the lack of discipline, certainly Dotson's outburst was inexcusable. I felt that it single-handedly eliminated any chance the Packers had of coming back to win that game. And to the extent that Favre is doing erratic things like throwing into double coverage instead of being smarter about his decision-making, maybe that is indicative of a lack of discipline as well. I'm going to try to pay more attention to the coaching decisions as the game progresses, and see if I can get a better sense of this question in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, it is Bear week. This game does not have the luster it had a few years back, but the Bears almost always play the Packers tough. I'm looking for a relatively low-scoring game, with a defensive touchdown for the Packers and more of a ball control game on offense. Packers, 21-13.

Sunday, September 26, 1999

Bye Week Comes Just in Time

When I saw the schedule this spring, the thing that I was most unhappy about was the early bye. Who needs a bye in week 4? Certainly it would be a lot better to have a bye week in the middle of the season, or maybe around 2/3 of the way through the year.

I'll tell you who needs a bye week. I do. And so do a lot of other Packer fans. Not since the 1989 "Majik Man" year have the Packers managed to make every game come down to the final two minutes. It is exhausting just to watch Packer games this year, and all of us fans need some time to rest up for the next game.

I have a feeling that the Packers could use the rest, too. Favre's thumb did not seem to bother him today (in the Vikings game), but I am sure that some time without getting sacked or abused would be welcome. And this business of bringing back the team at the end on your shoulders is obviously wearing on Favre emotionally and physically as well, as evidenced by his reactions after the Raider and Vikings games.

So the Packers are 2-1 at the bye, and tied for first place in the NFC Central. But for Brett Favre, they would probably be 0-3 and starting to think about next year. There is some good and some bad in this, very clearly. The good part is that we are witnessing the play of one of the all time great quarterbacks. There is no doubt about it. He is a very special player, who wants to win as much as we want him to win, and who has the talent to be able to make that happen even in situations where they probably ought to lose the games.

The bad part is that it looks like this team is going to have us on an emotional roller coaster all year long. Or are they? The defense is still adjusting to a lot of new starters, and to a new defensive coordinator, and other assistant coaches. Yet they are playing, already, much better than last year, and it is obvious that this year's "Anti-Moss" draft was a success. The new players held Moss to 2 catches, less than 20 yards, and what could have been the game-winning TD. I think that there is reason to hope that the defense is just going to get better and better as the year goes on.

What about the offense? Other than the 4th quarter comebacks, they have not really been that sharp. But they have some things to get used to as well. A new play-caller in Sherman Lewis. The absence of Robert Brooks. And now, sadly, the absence of Mark Chmura for the year and, I'm afraid, probably for his career. If the offense can continue to improve, this whole team might just be a juggernaut by late in the season. At the very least, they ought to be one of the contenders in the NFC. The Vikings are not what they were last year, and the Falcons are all but eliminated from playoff contention given their injury problems. The 49ers are, after an incredible run, done in my view. Despite the Cowboys' 2-0 record, there is no team in the NFC East that seems like a really good team, and in the NFC Central, I refuse to believe that the Lions are for real. So the Packers will be there in the end. With improvement and some good breaks, they ought to be in contention for home field advantage in the playoffs.

Have a great week off!

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

Opening Week

My family and I just returned from our annual trip to Wisconsin, before the kids started school this week. We were able to go to the last pre-season game last Thursday night against the Dolphins. After watching the first string defense struggle in the first three games, we were treated to a pathetic showing by the first string offense on Thursday. But the good news is, the backups bailed us out again! In all seriousness, I don't know if there is a team in the NFL this year that has the depth of the Packers. And if the first stringers can play to a reasonable facsimile of their level of talent, this team could be hard to stop.

An unexpected bonus of the trip was to meet the esteemed owner of the South End Zone web site. We were sitting in our car, getting ready to go into the stadium, when I saw a guy wearing California license plate LAMBEAU around his neck walking toward the stadium. Being the owner of the California license plate PACK FAN, I dashed across the street to compare notes with the guy. On my way it dawned on me that the owner of the license plate must be none other than Scott Crevier, since I have seen his LAMBEAU license plate on this web site many times. Indeed it was, and we met Scott and his wife, as well as the famous Packalope whose web site is linked to the South End Zone.

Lots of Packer news out here in the San Francisco Bay Area this week. The Packers traded Craig Newsome to the 49ers, and the 49ers cut pigeon-dancing Merton Hanks to make salary cap room for Newsome. There is some speculation that maybe the Packers will pick Hanks up (I sure hope not). The Raiders are heading to Green Bay to open the season on Sunday.

I was saddened by the trade of Craig Newsome. I'll never forget his return of the fumble for a TD in the playoff game here in SF back in January of 1996. He was a tough cornerback, and seemingly a good guy. I wanted nothing but success for him.

But the truth is that he has never been the same after the devastating injury on opening day of the 1997 season. He was one of the victims of Randy Moss and others last year, but everyone kept saying that it takes two years to come back from that sort of injury. Well, it has now been two years, and yet he continues to struggle. I saw all but two quarters of the pre-season games this year, and Newsome does not have it back yet. Fortunately, the rookie DBs drafted by Ron Wolf look like they are up to the challenge of replacing Newsome and containing Randy Moss. So while I don't think Newsome's loss will be significant to the Packers, I am sorry to see him go.

The fact that the 49ers would be prepared to give up a pick, maybe as high as the 5th round, for Newsome, says something about the quality of the 49er defensive backs. Merton Hanks was a pro-bowler only a couple of years ago, but he has declined rapidly since then. Remember him chasing Antonio Freeman in the game at Lambeau last year if you have any doubt about it.
But Newsome, in his current state, is not a significant upgrade for the 49ers, as they will find out as soon as they start to play him. Look for more long TDs against the 49ers this year.

On the Raider side, a two game road trip to Green Bay and Minnesota does not seem like a real great way to get off to a fast start. I, of course, would not mind a split for the Raiders so long as they lose the first game. But the consensus on sports talk radio around here seems to be that the Raiders have a better chance of "stealing" a win at Green Bay than at Minnesota. I think it is the other way around. True, the Packers' first stringers had their problems in the pre-season, but the problems the Vikings had seemed much worse to me. The Vikings are the consensus pick to go the Super Bowl this year from the NFC, and maybe they will, but I think there is a 50-50 chance that they will drop off badly. What are the chances that Randall Cunningham has two career years in a row? And what are the chances that Randy Moss is going to sneak up on anyone? We saw the return (temporarily, at least), of the old Randall in the NFC Championship game last year. Here's hoping he is back to stay.

Monday, July 19, 1999

Desmond Howard Returns

Can six months really have gone by since that unfortunate day in January? Can training camp really be starting in less than a week? It is high time that I shake off my post-season lethargy and sit down and write an article.

Of all of the things that have taken place this off-season, the one that I am most excited about is the return of Desmond Howard. His career with the Raiders was lucrative for him, but otherwise a disaster. While, presumably, the Raiders gave him a shot to make a name for himself as a receiver (why else would they have paid him that much money?), he did not pan out. He had decent statistics as a kick returner, but nothing like his year of glory in Green Bay.

So we now know that Desmond Howard is not a viable starting receiver in the NFL. OOPS! I guess we knew that before. It turns out that the great Al Davis was not smarter than the Packers and the Redskins and the Jaguars, after all.

But he is a heck of a kick returner. Who can forget the way he single-handedly destroyed the 49ers in the "Freezing Rain Bowl" in the first playoff game that year? Or the way he snuffed out the Patriots' comeback attempt, just like that? True, he didn't exactly set the AFC-West on fire during his two year stint with the Raiders. True, his year with the Packers could have been an extraordinarily lucky fluke. And even if it wasn't he could be all washed up now, three years later.

I'm betting that he is not washed up. I think the key to understanding Desmond Howard's phenomenal year with the Packers is the fact that they have had good special teams for a number of years. All kinds of players have been shuttled in and out (Schroeder, Preston, Beebe, even Robert Brooks a few years back) and they have all done pretty well, although some have had questions raised about fumbles, poor decision-making and the like. So my theory as to why Howard's years with the Raiders were not that spectacular is that the Raiders' special teams play generally does not match up with the special teams of the Packers. And the returner can't do it all by himself.

To put it a different way, the magic of 1996 resulted from the rare combination of really good special teams play, and a really good kick returner. (OK, and probably some good luck, too.) Take away one, and the magic disappears, which is what happened the last two years. Put them back together and the sky is the limit.

So we will see. If Howard still has it, his game could make a big difference for the Packers. If he doesn't, they can keep Arnold or someone else as their returner, and they have lost very little (basically just the signing bonus).

I'm looking forward to the season already.

Tuesday, January 5, 1999

End of a Season, Not an Era

Let's get it out of the way right at the start. Yes, it was a fumble. Yes, it was a bad call. So what? I have always considered it poor form to sit around and complain about bad calls. I have described the fans of other teams as "whiners" for sitting around complaining about bad calls. I'm going to try real hard not to do it myself, and I urge other Packer fans not to do so, either.

Now, the question whether instant replay should be brought back is a different matter. I am in favor of that, and have always been in favor of that. Not having instant replay review available is just crazy. The fans want it, the media wants it, the players want it, and maybe now even the team owners will recognize that it is required. People have always said that "one of these days" a bad call is going to cost some team a playoff game. It is very arguable that it happened twice this past weekend. If you agree with this, do something about it. Write to the League, or call the League. The address is:

National Football League
280 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Phone: (212) 450-2000
FAX: (212) 681-7575

Or sign the "cyber-petition" at Or do all of the above. But don't just sit around whining about bad calls.

As for the game, I went with my family, as we always do when the Packers are in town. But the atmosphere was different this time. There seemed to be far fewer Packer fans in attendance than there were for the last two playoff games here. Was it the weather, wreaking havoc with the plans of people who thought they would just fly out for the weekend? Was it the fact that a lot of the Wisconsin and ex-Wisconsin sports dollars had already been committed for trips to the Rose Bowl before this game became a certainty? I don't know, but the difference was noticeable.

The crowd was revved up to a feverish pitch throughout the game, much more like what I expect at Lambeau Field than like what I have come to expect at 3Com Park. I think there are two reasons for this. In the last two games, the Packers jumped out to a big lead, or were in control of the game from fairly early on. This really did take the crowd out of the game, whereas Sunday's game was both thrilling and close at all times. In addition, the dislike of the Packers by the 49er fans has grown exponentially since that first playoff game 3 years ago. This has gotten to be just like our "Dallas" and the crowd reacted just like Packer fans must have last year when Dallas came to Green Bay.

On the way into the stadium, we were taunted by some drunk, who informed us that the Packers are not going to the Super Bowl this year. I told him that neither of these teams are going to the Super Bowl this year. I believed it then, and I still believe it. These were two good, not great, teams fighting it out in what turned out to be a great game in all respects except for the final score. But neither team has what it takes to go to the Super Bowl. As a matter of fact, it is that belief that has allowed me to take this loss a little easier than the loss in the Super Bowl last year. It took me two months to sit down to write about that game, whereas I am writing about this one two days after the fact. I still have not watched the tape of the Super Bowl, but I am working my way through the tape of this game.

This just was not the Packers' year. That began to dawn on us at the time of the Minnesota and Detroit losses in Weeks 5 and 6. At least in my case, I deluded myself with the thought that the Packers would put it together later on in the season, as they worked through their injury problems. I also told myself that the Vikings would do their usual collapse. That didn't happen, either.

It was an unfortunate end to the season, but it is not the end of an era, even if Mike Holmgren leaves, and even if the Packers lose more of their players to free agency. This team still has Brett Favre as its quarterback, and as long as it does, it will be a contender, much as Denver has hung around with Elway for many years. Favre needs to play smarter, Ron Wolf needs to fill some holes, and he may need to find new coaches as things look right now. But I am confident that this team is not finished. As a matter of fact, I think the Packers have a better shot to be back in the playoffs next year than the 49ers, given the 49ers' age and salary cap problems.