Thursday, October 17, 2002

The Brad Hoover Syndrome

Those who saw the game Sunday against the Patriots probably saw the sign in the stands saying "You've Just Been Favre'd." And that is certainly true of the Patriots game, the Bears game before it, and various other games so far this year. Of course it is not a one-man show, and there are plenty of supporting characters who deserve credit for the Packers' 5-1 record so far this year.

Ahman Green is frequently a big factor, and he certainly was on Sunday by bringing balance to the offense (something the Patriots did not have, seemingly by design), and by chewing up the clock and yards in the 4th quarter. The new receiving corps is frequently a factor, too, although not so much in the Patriots' game given the weather conditions and the game plan. But in the Bears' game, the receivers came through in a big way, starting with the 85-yard bomb to Driver. That play was a thing of beauty, in so many different ways. First, Favre had all day to survey the field after rolling left. Then he threw the ball about 60 yards in the air. Driver got separation from the defensive back by a couple of steps. Then Favre hit him perfectly in stride. And finally, Driver actually caught the ball and was never in danger of being caught from behind. At least five things happened on that play, all of them perfectly, and as a result it was a great play to open the scoring against the Bears. Not only did it put 7 points on the board, but it had to have an effect on the Bears' coverage schemes for the rest of the game, which had the effect of opening up the short passing game and running game.

Still, a lot of it comes back to Favre, who just turned 33 last week and is in some ways having the best year of his career.

But the big surprise in week 6 was the defense. So many players were out of the game, including Holliday, Johnson, Sharper and McKenzie. The Packers started a defensive back they just signed a few days before the game (Westbrook). My attitude, going into the game, was that there was very little chance that the Packers would win this game. They were playing the world champions, on the road, with numerous injuries to starters on defense. Sure, the Patriots had not been playing well in the last couple of weeks, but still, they would surely eat the Packers' makeshift defense alive. Frankly, the first drive played right into my worst fears, as the Patriots marched relentlessly from their 20 yard line into Packer territory, until Brady launched a pass downfield, and that brand-new defensive back, Westbrook, intercepted it at the 8 yard line. Starting with that play, the Packers' defense really stepped up, playing far better than I would have hoped or expected.

One of the pivotal plays, of course, was the Tom Brady lateral in the last couple of minutes of the half, right after the Packers had scored to make the score 7-3. Brady looked right, spun around to the left, and lofted a too-high pass toward Kevin Faulk. The ball went off his hands and rolled around on the ground while Faulk, KGB, Hardy Nickerson and many others looked on. Watching the game on TV, I found myself yelling "PICK UP THE BALL!" Not that I was certain that the ball was a lateral pass (and therefore technically a fumble), but it sure was in the realm of possibility. Especially as the official just stood there, rather than picking up the ball, giving the alert observer a hint that maybe the ball was considered to be a LIVE BALL. Finally, as the seconds ticked by, rookie Marques Anderson showed that his head was in the game, as he came racing from many yards away to try to fall on the ball (it was eventually recovered by KGB). A heads-up play by another substitute starter.

The Packers, for once, found themselves on the positive end of what I think of as the Brad Hoover syndrome. Many times, over the years, the Packers have gone into a game knowing that the other team is missing a critical starter. Troy Aikman can't play, and so somebody noone ever heard of named Jason Garrett is the starting quarterback. Packer fans are licking their chops, but Jason Garrett (or Brad Hoover, or whoever) plays like a hall-of-famer and the Packers lose. It has almost gotten to the point where I wince if the other team has starters on the injury list. Finally, the Brad Hoover syndrome worked in the Packers' favor, with a bunch of backups playing way over their heads to bring home a victory for the Packers.

Thursday, October 3, 2002

3-1 Underachievers

Two more weeks under the Packers' belts, and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the Packers are now 3-1, in sole possession of first place in the NFC North, and tied for the best record in the NFC. The bad news is that the Packers have given their fans almost no reason to think that they can continue to win 75 percent of their games.

They came close to losing to the Lions in Detroit, in a game very reminiscent of last year's Thanksgiving Day affair. And then the Packers barely survived the invasion of the Panthers, with a missed chip shot field goal being the only thing that saved the Packers from overtime. On the plus side, the defense actually looked quite a bit better against the Panthers, despite the fact that they continue to give up big plays at the most maddening moments. And given the slew of people on both offense and defense who were on the injury list, maybe surviving a scare for a 17-14 win isn't so bad. None of us who saw it will soon forget Mike Sherman's temper tantrum on the sideline after the officials originally ruled Bubba Franks' touchdown pass an illegal forward pass. Whether the purpose of the tantrum was to stall until the replay official upstairs had time to call for a replay, or whether he was trying to fire up the team, or whether he just plain lost it, it was a sight to behold.

And now it is Packer-Bear week. It has been said many times, but it really is true that this is the greatest rivalry in the NFL, maybe in all of professional sports. It has everything you could want in a rivalry. Over 80 years of history, big city vs. small town, a genuine historical dislike between the teams and the fans. Halas vs. Lambeau and Lombardi, Nitschke vs. Butkus, and I could go on and on. Both teams have been hit hard by injuries early this season, so a big part of the game may be which team has been able to adjust better to the personnel changes. I would be more worried about this game, given how the Packers have been playing, it I had not seen the Bears blow a 20 point lead in week 3 to lose to the Saints, and then lose again in week 4 to the Bills. So the Packers have a decent shot at this game.

The key to the Packers season, as things appear right now, is for them to keep winning most of the close games until they get healthier, and until the defense gets to the point where it is playing more consistently. Last week was a real improvement for the defense, and this week would be an excellent time to keep that momentum moving in the right direction. I can't wait for Monday night.

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This week's column is dedicated to the man who took me to my very first Packer game, 40 years ago this week. That man was my Dad, who died peacefully last week at age 90, unfortunately a few days before we arrived for a visit. Continuing the generational tradition, my wife, kids and I stayed in town and went to the Packer game on Sunday. Thank goodness the Packers kept up their end of the bargain by winning the game. Oh, by the way, that first Packer game I went to, 40 years ago, was also a Packer-Bear game. Packers 49, Bears 0, September 30, 1962.