Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy New Year!

SAN FRANCISCO — You probably thought you would get to survive an entire Packer season without hearing from me, didn’t you? Well, it almost happened, but here I am, with two days left in the regular season. What would possess me to crawl out from under my rock at this time? A combination of three things. First, the desire to make one more attempt at letting remote Packer fans know that the game has been bumped to Sunday night on NBC, at 8:15 p.m. Eastern time, 7:15 p.m. Lambeau Field time, and 5:15 p.m. Pacific time. What with the Packers (incredibly) possibly still in the playoff hunt by that time, Packer fans should cancel their New Year’s Eve plans, and concentrate their mental energy on willing the Packers to victory over the Bears.

Second, believe it or not, a few readers have actually written to me wondering why I have not been writing, and urging me to do so. And no, they were not family members. Finally, I do feel a little guilty about not having had anything to say until now about the Packers’ trip to San Francisco 3 weeks ago. If the “West Coast Offensive” correspondent can’t report on that, then what can he report on?

So let’s talk about the game. The Freemans went with Peter and Andrew Chen. Long-time readers may recall that Andrew is a Bay Area high school Packer fan, and his dad Peter worked with me years ago. Peter sort of ghost-wrote a column for me last year after their pilgrimage to Lambeau field for the Browns game that year. Anyway, Peter had the foresight to call the 49ers ticket office looking for tickets for all of us, and found that they indeed had some, at face value, with the game day still months away at that time. It never would have occurred to me to assume that tickets would be available this way.

The Freemans and Chens sat in the very top row of the stadium – you might call the seats “Bob Uecker” seats, but we had a great perspective on the field and the game. Anyone who watched the game probably recalls the high percentage of Packer fans in the stands, complete with chants of “Go Pack, Go!” at points during the game, to the eternal consternation of the 49er fans in the stands. We have gone to every Packer game in San Francisco or Oakland since 1980, and in that time we have seen the attitudes of the 49er fans come full circle. During the 49er “glory days” in the 1980’s, the Packers and their fans were treated as harmless curiosities, even if the Packers won the game. During the flowering of the Favre/Holmgren Packers in and after the 1995 through 1997 seasons, it seemed as if many of the 49er fans were good-natured about the drubbings they received at the hands of the Packers. Yes, it was shocking to them (especially that first game in January 1996), but the 49ers had had plenty of good years, and maybe it was time for somebody else to get a chance at some glory.

Then, in the disastrous playoff game after the 1998 season (a/k/a the Terrell Owens game or Holmgren’s last game), the viciousness of the 49er fans seemed to come back. They were sick and tired of losing to the Packers, and were very happy to let the Packer fans in the crowd that day know how they felt. But in 2006, now that both teams are so far past their prime that they are in rebuilding mode, it seems as if the 49er fans don’t care that much if the Packers win yet again. After all, I imagine they told themselves three weeks ago, neither one of these teams is likely to go to the playoffs, and if by chance they do, they will not go far. In other words, the fact that the Packers are 10-1 against the 49ers during the Brett Favre era seems to give a lot more joy to me than it brings anguish to the 49er fans.

But just to make sure you know that the 49er fans were not ALL in a good mood on December 10, here are 3 quick vignettes. In the 4th quarter, in our section not far from our seats, a 49er fan was standing up, facing the top of the stadium, and yelling at some other fans, presumably Packer fans. Someone notified stadium security, and a couple of police officers were heading up the aisle to talk to him, probably just to tell him to knock it off. But just as they reached his row, the guy decided to throw his plastic cup at the other fans, resulting in his ejection. The second vignette happened after the game, on our way out of the stadium. There are long concrete barriers running through parts of the parking lot, so you have to find one of the gaps in the barriers to get through, or else climb over them. A 49er fan was nice enough to direct us to a gap hidden behind a camper truck. Except there was no gap, so we went out of our way for nothing. Ha, ha. Dumb Packer fans. Then, after reaching our car, we found ourselves waiting forever to get out of the crowded lot, sitting with our windows open next to a car occupied by a 49er fan male driver, and a Packer fan female passenger, also with their windows open. He proceeded to yell and scream at her, for 5 or 10 long, uncomfortable minutes, apparently because she had wanted to stay until the end of the game, while all the smart people had left earlier and were not stuck in traffic. A real classy guy, and a warning to all of us against mixed football marriages.

To get back to the current week, the ironic thing to me is that I think there is an excellent chance that the Packers will be out of playoff contention by the time the game starts. Starting as early as Saturday night, if the Giants don’t lose their game to Washington, the Packers’ chances will become very slim indeed. For more about the Packers’ chances, take a look at this article:

If the Packers are eliminated by the time the game starts, NBC won’t have the possible playoffs to hype during the game, so they will have no story to go with except for the possibility that it is Favre’s last game. Which, I am sure, they will hype non-stop.

My predictions: the Packers will lose to the Bears, and of course miss the playoffs. It is obviously possible that the Bears either will sit so many of their starters that the Packers will pull out the upset, or that the Bears’ emotional level will be so low-key that the Packers overcome the Bears’ [choke] superior talent. But given the rivalry behind this game, I just don’t think that will happen. The Bears would love nothing more than to have a four-game winning streak against the Packers. I also predict that Favre will come back in 2007. The Packers’ improvement in the second half of the season ought to have the same impact on Favre as on the fans – to create greater optimism for next year. When the Packers were 4-8 and coming to town to play the 49ers, I did not honestly think it was reasonable to argue that the Packers would end up at 7-9 or 8-8, or that they would have a shot at the playoffs in their final game.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Mike Holmgren, 1-2 in Super Bowls

There are basically two ways a Packer fan can react to the fact that Mike Holmgren took the Seahawks to the Super Bowl this year. Some Packer fans I know take a generous attitude, and wish him well. They say, Mike Holmgren was a great coach for the Packers. He left Green Bay for his own reasons, and while many of them would have preferred it if he stayed, they harbor no ill will toward him. Therefore, these fans were happy for Holmgren to take the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, and they were rooting for the Seahawks today. They were also rooting for Holmgren to become the first head coach ever to win the Super Bowl with two different teams.

Then there are those with a more vindictive point of view. They too believe that Holmgren was a great coach for the Packers, but they can never forgive him for abandoning the Packers at a time when they had much more talent than they do right now, which led (at least arguably) to some wasted years and wasted chances for the Packers. While the more generous fan might say that Holmgren left so that he could satisfy his desire to try his hand at running the whole show, the more vindictive fan would say that he left the Packers to fuel his personal ego and ambition, at the expense of the team he had built with Ron Wolf.

Me? I am a vindictive SoB. I had no mixed feelings about rooting for the Steelers today. Oh, I like Matt Hasselbeck as a player, and he has improved to the point where he is one of the better quarterbacks in the league. And I am a fan of Shaun Alexander, and think he is a real star. But everything else had me pulling for the Steelers. The Steelers are an old-time NFL team with a long and glorious history, even though they were switched to the AFC at the time of the NFL-AFL merger. Pittsburgh, like Cleveland and Green Bay, represent (at least in my mind) the "regular Joes" of football fans, people who care about the tradition and history of the game. People who show up in good weather and bad. Seattle, like San Francisco and Los Angeles (when they had a team) have fans that (again, to me) are closer to the "fair weather fan" mentality. Certainly in San Francisco this is true.

The 49ers didn't even sell out their stadium when we moved to the San Francisco area in 1980. And most 49er fans seem to think that the NFL must have been founded around 1981, when the 49ers started winning.

Plus, the Steelers had a coach who was hired at the same time as the Packers hired Mike Holmgren, but who had the loyalty to stick with his team even in years when they were not at the top of the league, and who was not driven by personal ambition in the same way Mike Holmgren was. So, without any hesitation, I salute the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight, and offer congratulations to Bill Cowher, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, and the rest of the Steelers.