Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Ninety Percent Solution

A few random thoughts and local flavor from the Packers’ big, wet weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. For me, the weekend started Saturday morning. On a weekend like this, I wear Packer stuff pretty much wherever I go and whatever I do. So my wife and I were at a meeting in San Francisco Saturday morning. When we were about to take a break, a guy said, "This has nothing to do with what we have been talking about, but what is with your Packer shirt?" I said "This is our big weekend - at least I hope it is." Later, talking on the side with him, I said, "We have never missed a Packer game in San Francisco or Oakland in over 22 years of living here." He said, "Oh, well if you have lived here that long you must have a bit of mixed loyalty." To which I replied, "Not for a minute, not even for a second." So we were on a roll.

Sometimes when the Packers are in town, we try to figure out where they are staying, and then hang around their hotel. We got our picture taken with Reggie White that way before the NFC Championship game after the 1997 season, for example. This year, we didn’t get the chance to go over there, but I did read in the paper that Packers’ plane was delayed because of the weather, but that the Packer fans waited as long as it took at the team hotel. You’ve got to love those Packer fans.

My theory has been that, if the Packers can just win all of their games, someone will slip up in front of them, and they may sneak into a number 2 (or even a number 1) seed. That would be a huge development, since it would give them a badly needed week off before their first playoff game. Well, the Packers have now won three games in a row. But then the Buccaneers pulled out another game on Sunday, when they certainly could have lost. And the Eagles can't keep winning with their third string quarterback. But they do. So all the Packers can do at this point is to keep winning and hoping.

We had a really fabulous time at the game on Sunday, along with maybe 20,000 fellow Packer fans. It is hard to estimate, but I think there were a lot more Packer fans this time than in the "Terrell Owens" game, for example. My shiny new NFC North Champions hat from the Packer Pro Shop (which arrived exactly when they told me it would, those guys at the Packer Pro Shop are great) made a big hit with lots of the fellow Packer fans. The weather was bad, of course. It rained, at times quite heavily, throughout most of the game. Because we were invited by a good friend to watch the game with a bunch of 49er fans in a suite, we stayed completely dry. But from our dry vantage point, the weather was bad, but not nearly as bad as it was for the NFC Championship game here after the 1997 season. That day we needed all the rain gear we could get our hands on.

As the game started, we realized that Gilbert Brown was not playing, which came as a shock, since we had not seen or heard any of the pre-game shows. That seemed like a really bad sign, but the defense played better against the run than it has in weeks. The first half seemed kind of sluggish, with both teams playing fairly conservatively, and it ended with the 49ers leading, 6-3.

Then things changed in a hurry. We had assumed that the Packers would pick on the 49er defensive backs throughout the game, after watching the way the Eagles second and third string quarterbacks picked them apart a few weeks ago. In the first half, the Packers went with a more balanced attack, and the running game was not working that well. But the Packers marched down the field on the opening drive of the second half, throwing on 6 out of the 8 plays in the 79-yard drive, and scored a touchdown to take the lead. Four plays later, the Packers intercepted Garcia on a deflection, and quickly moved 29 yards for another touchdown, throwing on 4 out of the 6 plays on that drive. These drives were classic examples of using the pass to set up the run.

The momentum in the game had changed dramatically. We were struck by the fact that these two drives had resulted in touchdowns against the wind, meaning that things should be easier for the Packers and harder for the 49ers in the 4th quarter. After the second touchdown, it seemed as if the Packer fans were about to take over the stadium, as their cheers seemed almost as loud as the noise being made by the 49er fans at other points. In fact, if the 49ers had not scored their only touchdown of the day on the very next drive, I think the crowd would have been mostly Packer fans by some time in the 4th quarter.

But of course they did, and as a result, the game ended up as a nail-biter. On the final drive, as the 49ers moved methodically down the field, the game had every appearance of being headed for another Terrell Owens disaster, just like the playoff game after the 1998 season. But the Packers played better on defense this time, and Jeff Garcia made a couple of critical bad decisions on the last few plays. His incompletion on first down from the Packers’ 14 yard line was a bad choice. He could have run for 8 to 10 yards. And his fourth down pass was completely unfathomable to me (but totally welcome). Owens was covered tightly, and so presumably Garcia worked through his progressions leading to an incomplete pass to the tight end at about the 7 yard line. But the problem with the pass was not that it was incomplete, but that it had absolutely no chance of getting a first down. What Garcia did, most likely, was to follow the progression rules of his system, without applying the judgment factor that says in a case like this it is better to try to force a pass to someone in the end zone than to throw a pass at the feet of the tight end at the 7 yard line. That is a mistake that Brett Favre (or Steve Young, for that matter) would never have made.

And so the Packers emerged with the win, for the 9th time in 10 tries in the Brett Favre era. Living here through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the glory years of the 49ers, it sometimes seemed as if no team would get the upper hand on the 49ers for long. And yet, starting with that first playoff game between the Packers and the 49ers after the 1995 season, Brett Favre and the Packers have beaten the 49ers 90% of the time. That is the best record the Packers have against any team in the Brett Favre era, other than a couple of teams that the Packers have only played 2 or 3 times. Yes, it is even better than the Packers’ record against the Bears over that period of time. This era is not going to last forever, so enjoy it while you can.

Traffic was unbelievably bad on the way home. California drivers don't know how to drive in the rain. But this gave us plenty of time to listen to the 49er post-game show on the radio. There were heavy doses of whining and complaining. Several callers felt that Gilbert Brown (!?!) should have been penalized for what they called his "forearm shiver" on Garcia. Then there was complaining about Steve Mariucci, and how he can't get the job done (the point being that the reason he was brought in was to beat the Packers). There was complaining about play-calling (the 4th down play, the 49ers didn't throw downfield enough, Garcia should have run for the first down, how could they call a running play to Garrison Hearst when they needed a touchdown, etc.). The host of the show wasn’t buying most of the complaints. So then he was accused of being too supportive of the team, and not critical enough. Then they complained about the 49er ticket holders selling their tickets to Packer fans. This was just great fun. It made the 2 hour plus trip home a lot easier to take.

Then, Monday morning, on John Madden's call-in on KCBS radio, they discussed the Packer-49er game. The sports guy said that the 49ers, to a man, say that they are not that concerned about having to go on the road during the playoffs, and that they can win on the road, including Lambeau Field. He asked Madden if he agrees. Madden: "Uhhhhh, no. When you talk about playing the Packers in Lambeau Field in the playoffs, now you are talking about not just a 5 year or 10 game streak, you are talking about a team that has NEVER lost a home playoff game in history." Sports guy: "Someday they are going to lose a playoff game at Lambeau Field." Madden: "Yeah, but it won't be to the 49ers."

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