Monday, January 14, 2002

Nothing to Lose

I was just a kid when Lambeau Field opened in 1957. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the last game to be played in Lambeau Field before the extensive renovations, which are already underway. Looking up at the Club Seats and Luxury Boxes after the game, I could almost imagine the demolition crews in there, probably starting today, smashing things in preparation for the unveiling of an even-better Lambeau Field in the future. For those of you close enough to go take a look, you should take a trip to Lambeau Field this year to see how the renovations are progressing. The new brick facade is coming along, and it really is starting to look nice.

Although the timing was off, the military jets doing their flyover during the national anthem was an impressive spectacle. So was the flag ceremony in the middle of the field. I did wonder why the 49ers didn't join the Packers in coming out to grab the edges of the flag, but maybe they were told not to do so.

Gilbert Brown opened the game with a bang, sacking Garcia on the first play. I heard a nice story on the radio show after the game. Gilbert is evidently opening a car dealership in Fond du Lac. Some kid who, according to the person who called into the show, has had "a lot of adversity in his life," came in to see Gilbert during the past few days, when he was present at the new dealership. According to the caller, Gilbert was as nice as could be to this kid, and promised him that his first "grave digger" celebration would be for him. The caller said "you should have seen this kid's eyes when Gilbert told him that." I can only imagine what his eyes looked like after the first play of the game.

The much-maligned receiving corps redeemed itself somewhat yesterday. It was nice to see Antonio Freeman score the first touchdown of the game, which means that he extended his team record of catching a touchdown in four straight playoff games. He was also the leading Packer receiver in the game, and he has been the leading Packer receiver in 6 straight playoff games. Dorsey Levens, meanwhile, has had a catch in 12 straight playoff games, another Packer record. Bubba Franks got into the act, too, and his catch for the second touchdown had a very different "degree of difficulty" from his usual, 1 yard touchdown catch.

And how about Corey Bradford just stealing the ball from the defensive back on the long catch in the 3rd quarter. Bradford, talking about the biggest play of his career, said he had cried during the pregame introductions after hearing Mike Sherman's speech about all of the great players who came out of that North End Zone tunnel over the years, reminding the players that when they left the field on Sunday, it would be the last time any players would ever go out that tunnel. The tunnel will be demolished now that the Lambeau Field season has ended.

Bradford's catch belongs in the season's highlight reel, but amazingly, it was not even the play of the day. That play had to be the McKenzie to Williams tip for the interception that helped preserve the Packers' lead, followed by the 93 yard drive to sew up the ballgame. From now on, when someone talks about Elway's "The Drive" against Cleveland, I will just tune it out and think of Favre, driving down the field, completing third down passes whenever it was necessary to keep the drive moving. I will also think of Freeman's ill-considered exuberance in holding the ball up after catching one of those third-down passes. (At least he had enough awareness to admit, in post-game interviews, that it was a bonehead thing to do.)

This game was really all about the kind of player Brett Favre is. He was frustrated during the first half by the relatively conservative offensive game plan. He said he had talked to the coaches during the halftime break, saying that they should open it up, and "leave nothing on the field." And he just came out and took control of the game in the second half. He also took sole possession of second place on the all-time record list, for having a touchdown pass in 11 straight playoff games. Only Dan Marino has more, at 13.

And for their great effort yesterday, what is the Packers' reward? A trip to see the Super Bowl favorite St. Louis Rams. I see that the Rams are favored by 9 points. It is easy to understand why. They have blown a lot of teams out this year, only losing a couple of games when they had enough turnovers to beat themselves. The Packers have been good this year, frankly beyond my expectations and the expectations of most Packer fans. But let's not forget that the Packers also lost 3 games this year to inferior opponents (Minnesota, Atlanta, and Tennessee). And some of their wins were nailbiters (Tampa Bay, at Chicago, at Detroit, at Jacksonville). This translates into a maddening inconsistency by the Packers, although I suppose you could argue that you can't be too inconsistent and still end up with a 12-4 record (now 13-4).

Being objective about it, the Packers will probably lose this week. But with Brett Favre at quarterback, who knows? I suppose I feel the same way about the Rams game that I felt about the Green Bay at San Francisco game after the 1995 season. I briefly considered not going to that game, because I did not want to suffer through watching the Packers lose the first playoff game I ever attended. Better to suffer in solitude, I thought. Then I said to myself "What the hell are you talking about? You have never been to a Packer playoff game in your life, and here the Packers are playing in the playoffs in your back yard, and you are thinking about not going?" So my family and I went to the game, a game I will never forget.

Football miracles can happen, and it helps if you have Brett Favre, Ahman Green, and Gilbert Brown on your side. Other teams have gotten good in a hurry and cruised through the playoffs (perhaps prematurely) despite doubts about how good they are. The 1981 49ers were one example. The Rams, in their Super Bowl year, were another. So were the Ravens, last year. So it doesn't have to be a gradual progression like it was for the Packers under Holmgren (1-1 in playoff games after 1993 season, 1-1 after the 1994 season, lost in the NFC Championship game after the 1995 season, and finally won the Super Bowl after the 1996 season).

The Packers truly have nothing to lose this week. Everyone expects that they will lose to the Rams. They may as well play loose, take their shots, or as Brett Favre would say, "leave nothing on the field," and see what happens.

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