Thursday, January 24, 2002


"The Packers' season came to an end on Sunday with a crashing thud. They were destroyed by a far superior St. Louis Rams team, blown out by the score of 45-17. Just like those early playoff years of the Favre/Holmgren era, they met up with a team (the Cowboys then, the Rams now) that they seemed to have no chance to beat."

At least that is what you would think if you missed the game, woke up on Monday morning and just read the final score. But on closer inspection, this game had a different feel to it. Oh, the Rams' victory was no fluke, and the Rams are certainly the better team. But unlike the feelings of despair in those years against the Cowboys, when it was clear that the Cowboys were so much better than the Packers that the Packers would never beat them until the Cowboys were well past their prime, this time the Packers seemed pretty close to the victors. Take away the ridiculous number of turnovers (PLEASE take them away!), and the Packers played right with the Rams. In fact, it could be argued that they outplayed them. The Packers had more rushing yards, more passing yards, more time of possession, more of most everything except points, where there was a huge deficit.

So what happened? Well, obviously, enough turnovers for 4 games (6 interceptions, tying a playoff record, and 2 fumbles lost). But the interesting question is, why? Antonio Freeman's fumble was mostly just a great play by Aeneas Williams in stripping the ball. Ahman Green's fumble was the result of poor ball-carrying technique, something he will work on in the off-season.

And then there were the interceptions. The first one (returned for a touchdown) was the obvious result of either Favre or Schroeder making a mistake, but without knowing the details of what the Packers' offensive system is for adjusting routes on the fly, it is difficult to know whose fault it was. Certainly, Schroeder's adjustment (to head up field) was a good idea in the abstract (i.e. apart from whatever the system calls for), because he would have been wide open for a long gain or a touchdown. But Favre and Schroeder have frequently seemed not to be on the same page this year, and as much as it is nice to see the local Sheboygan boy make good, I am not sure he will be back.

Four of the interceptions came on tipped balls, so there was a certain fluky aspect to those interceptions, although there is plenty of room to question both Favre's judgment on some of the throws, and the inability of the Packer receivers to pull the balls down.

More and more, and after re-watching most of the game, I am coming around to the view that the problem was a combination of several factors: (1) a slightly over-aggressive (and thus risky) approach to the game plan; (2) the fact that this risky approach came home to roost in the form of several early interceptions, one for a touchdown and one for a near touchdown, so that early in the second quarter the Packers were down 21-7; (3) the fact that one of the breaks that could have kept the Packers in the game (Rossum's kickoff return for a touchdown) was called back on a penalty; and (4) the fact that the early 14 point lead allowed the Rams to start playing almost a prevent type defense, which, combined with the continuing aggressive approach by the Packers' offense, led to an obscene number of interceptions.

What I mean by the slightly over-aggressive approach is this. The Packers seemed to come into the game with the attitude that they needed to score a lot of points to win the game, so they went right after it, somewhat aggressively, from the start. No jockeying for field position, not a lot of runs or short passes, but a lot of medium range or longer passes. Now that is not a bad thing; in fact I think it was a good strategy. But unfortunately it is a higher-risk strategy, and it backfired on the Packers when the early turnovers started putting extra points on the scoreboard for the Rams. And as the Rams got ahead, and as the minutes for a possible comeback ticked off the clock, it led to an ever-increasing sense of desperation for the Packers, so they started putting the ball up even more, trying to squeeze it into small spaces, etc. And this just allowed the Rams' defensive backs to have a field day.

Mike Sherman, in his dual role as head coach and general manager, will have a busy off-season. It will have been a successful off-season, in my view, if he is able to upgrade the wide receiver corps. Right now, the Packers' wide receivers are not keeping defensive coordinators from sleeping at night. The Packers need a substantial improvement of at least one of their starting wide receivers, whether through maturation of players on the existing roster, through free agency, or through the draft. A relatively modest improvement at wide receiver will really open up the running game, and help to take some pressure off of Favre.

And then, if he has some free time left over, it would be good if he could figure out a way to keep the team better motivated against bad teams. The Packers lost three games to non-playoff teams this year, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Turn one of those losses into a win, and the Packers would have won the division and had a bye week in the playoffs. Turn two of them into victories, and the Packers would have had home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Games against bad teams are always important, every year. But looking back at the 2001 season, the importance of those games could not have been clearer for the Packers.

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.

Monday, January 7, 2002

Unfinished Business

The Packers' offense had a nice little tune-up for the playoffs on Sunday. [Ed. note - the Packers beat the Giants, 34-25.] The offense, at times, looked really sharp, with even the normally-missing-in-action Corey Bradford playing a big part (mostly because Antonio Freeman was held out of the second half with a rib injury). Ahman Green gained over 100 yards, Schroeder and Bradford each had over 100 yards receiving, and Favre had over 300 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions, and one sack . . . sort of.

The defense was a little shakier. They gave up a ridiculous number of yards (524), including allowing the longest running play of the year for the Giants, and Ron Dayne's longest run of his NFL career (61 yards). On the other hand, it is hard to get too worked up about this, since for most of the game the Packers had the game pretty well in hand, and to that extent a lot of the yards were of the bend-but-don't-break variety. It looks like Gilbert Brown will be back for the playoffs, and man, oh man, is his presence needed to stop the running game.

Even the special teams were productive. Dorsey Levens had the longest kickoff return of the year for the Packers (and his longest career kickoff return) in the first half, only to have an even longer one at the start of the second half. Not much punt return yardage for the Packers, but at least Freeman caught the ball this week instead of letting it bounce right by him as he did last week.

Now, as for the sack. For over 57 minutes, the Packers did not give up a sack, despite the fact that Michael Strahan's pursuit of the sack record was about all the Giants had to play for. In the closing minutes of the game, Favre kept the ball on a naked bootleg to the right side, Bubba Franks whiffed on a block, and Favre flopped to the ground right before Strahan (gently) jumped on him for the sack. The whole thing looked like a dive to me, even watching it the first time live. Then when FOX showed a replay of Favre and Strahan chatting before the play, well, let's just put it this way . . . you don't have to believe in a second gunman on the grassy knoll in order to understand that this sack was a setup. I am not getting all worked up about it, but I do think it cheapens the record.

And this brings us to: the Packers and the 49ers, in the playoffs. According to Brett Favre, Steve Mariucci called him, earlier in the season, to wish him a happy birthday. Mariucci said that he would see Favre in the playoffs in San Francisco. Favre replied that they would see each other in Green Bay for the playoffs. It has seemed likely for a couple of weeks now that it would come down to this. And it is really fitting, too, given that the Packers started their run to greatness in the 1990's when they came out here to San Francisco after the 1995 season and knocked off the defending champion 49ers. They beat the 49ers in the playoffs three years in a row, before finally getting beaten by the 49ers after the 1998 season, on the famous Terrell Owens catch (which I will see about 100 times on the San Francisco TV stations this week).

That catch left a really bad taste in my mouth, as my family and I rushed out of 3Com Park that day as the scene there started to get ugly. That day was the end of the road for Mike Holmgren and Fritz Shurmur as Packer coaches, it was Reggie White's last game as a Packer, it was the last game announced by Jim Irwin and Max McGee, and it was the last time the Packers were in the playoffs, until this Sunday. This time, the game will be in Green Bay, and we will just have to wait and see if the Packers' record of never having lost a playoff game in Wisconsin remains intact. I like the Packers' chances.

Anyway, how is this for a pipe dream? Packers beat the 49ers in Green Bay this week, and the Bucs beat the Eagles. The following week, Green Bay goes to Chicago and wins, while the Bucs knock off the Rams in St. Louis, as they did earlier this year. The following week, the NFC Championship game is Tampa Bay at Green Bay. OK, I will grant you that it is improbable, but it could happen.

Tuesday, January 1, 2002

2001 in Review

Last night, we brought to a close a year many of us would rather put behind us, and today we welcome what we hope will be a much better year. Outside the football world, 2001 was a terrible year. A controversial Presidential election split the country right down the middle as the year began, and the stock market and the whole economy were in the tank. Then came the unfathomable terrorist attacks by Bin Laden's foot soldiers. Thousands of our fellow citizens lost their lives because of a handful of religious fanatics. And on and on. It was a year we will never forget, and a year that helped us football fanatics to put our fanaticism into some perspective, for a change.

But back to the Packers. 2001 started off quietly, too quietly, as the Packers were out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. On the bright side, that string of four straight victories in December, 2000 against NFC Central opponents left us with a sense that 2001 could bring better things for the Packers.

And sure enough, the Packers started out the 2001 season with a bang, winning the first three games in a fashion that was impressive, except for nagging doubts about the quality of their opponents. They then dropped a close game in Tampa, and then quite unexpectedly beat the World Champion Ravens in Green Bay. That was, in some ways, the high point of the season. Since that time their record has been 7-3, which is pretty good, but the three losses were to teams they should have beaten, and a couple of the victories required either miracle finishes (in Jacksonville) or serious nail-biting (in Detroit, and in Chicago). Most frustrating of all was the Packers' tendency to lose an "easy" game immediately after an important victory. All of this leaves one thinking wistfully of what might have been if the Packers had not dropped one of those games.

Sunday's game looked like it might fit right into that mold. The Packers had made the playoffs the week before, and now the Packers had no running game, the passing game was mostly misfiring, and the defensive line was being gashed by the Vikings' running backs, despite the total absence of any passing game from the Vikings' third string quarterback. The Packers were letting the Vikings hang around through the entire game, and when the Vikings scored to go ahead in the 4th quarter, 13-10, it looked like an upset in the making. But then the Packers turned it on, Packers marched down the field on the next drive, and went ahead for good.

What was the story? Were they just toying with the Vikings? Not exactly. It turns out from the post-game interviews that there was method in the Packers' madness, at least on defense. They were determined not to let the Vikings' receivers (especially Randy Moss) get open, and if that meant less attention to defending the run, so be it. The Packers were pretty sure that the Vikings would not win the game on the ground, and it turns out they were right. On offense, the picture is more complicated. The running game was not working, but the passing game was also misfiring, with a combination of off-target passes and dropped passes. This is the kind of inconsistency we have seen on and off all year, except this time it did not cost the Packers the game.

My sense is that the Packers are a year away from doing any serious damage in the playoffs. Living here in 49er country, the 49er fans seem to have the same question about their team that I have about the Packers: how is this team going to beat the Rams? The answer is that neither the 49ers nor the Packers have much chance of doing that. Of course, on any given Sunday anything can happen, but speaking for myself, I am not making any reservations for New Orleans.

Still, the season for the Packers has at least two weeks to go, and that is a much better situation than the Packers found themselves in a year ago. There are no guarantees, but the Packers have a reasonable shot of beating any other NFC team in the playoffs, except the Rams in the dome. So if things go right, the Packers could even end up in the NFC Championship game, and I suppose if someone else knocks off the Rams (like the Buccaneers?) they could possibly end up in the Super Bowl. But that seems like too much to ask of this team. A much more likely scenario is a first-round victory, followed by a frustrating loss in the second round. That will have been a very good season for the Packers, and something to build on for next year.

In the meantime, Happy New Year to Packer fans everywhere, and to all Americans.