Friday, December 5, 2008

Veggie-Friendly Green Bay Packers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Something is wrong in Titletown, and I am not just talking about the Packers' disappointing 5-7 record (although that certainly is wrong, too). Instead, I refer to the fact, disclosed in the Green Bay Press-Gazette this week, that Lambeau Field is considered the 5th most vegetarian-friendly stadium in the NFL by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They were impressed by the veggie bratwurst (veggie bratwurst?), peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, and baby carrots on the Lambeau Field menu.

Now, I have nothing against vegetarians. I have even, on rare occasions, gone out to dinner or lunch with vegetarians. But this "recognition" is bestowed by PETA, the very same group that famously demanded that the Packers change their name to something not associated with the meat-packing industry (not to mention their many other tasteless and offensive stunts). They suggested something like the Pickers (referring to pickers of fruits and vegetables) or the Six-Packers (referring to the obvious). Bob Harlan had the good sense to tell PETA, politely I am sure, to shove it. So when PETA starts to praise Lambeau Field for its veggie fare, it is time to add more meat to the menu.

Now we turn to the other little problem in Titletown, the 5-7 record and the fact that the Vikings lead the Packers by 2 games, and the Bears lead the Packers by 1 game, with four games to go. This is a real problem. Nobody likes to play the game that goes: "if the Packers win all their remaining games, and if . . . and if . . .," but unfortunately that is exactly where we find ourselves. The most obvious part of the problem is that there is no good reason to assume that a team that has won less than 50% of its games, and has lost 4 of its last 5 games, will go on a 4-game winning streak. At the same time, the Packers could easily win each of their remaining games (vs. Houston, at Jacksonville, at Chicago, and vs. Detroit). None of the opponents even have a winning record. So let's assume, for the sake of argument, and recognizing that there is no remaining margin for error, that the Packers win all those games. What then?

Well, the Vikings should certainly beat the Lions, but they could easily lose their last 3 games (at Arizona, vs. Atlanta, and vs. the Giants, even if the Giants bring neither Plaxico Burress nor his weapons cache to the game). The Bears could easily lose to the Packers and the Saints, and they could also drop a game either to the Jaguars or to the Texans. If all that happens, then the Packers win the division at 9-7, and the Vikings and the Bears both finish at 8-8, so we don't even have to figure the tie-breakers.

But, of course, this is still a little like tossing coins and looking for 8 "heads" in a row. So this is no time to be making travel plans for that home playoff game on January 3 or 4.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Pressure is On

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Tonight's game at New Orleans will go a long way toward showing if the Packers are going to make a run at the playoffs this year. After an abysmally bad showing against Minnesota, where they were lucky to even have a shot at winning the game, the Packers proceeded to crush their other historical nemesis, the Bears, the following week.

This marked the first time in Lovie Smith's tenure as head coach of the Bears that the Packers had beaten the monsters of the midway in Green Bay. As a result, the Packers were put back in charge of their own destiny. If the Packers win all their remaining games (admittedly, a long shot), they will win the division. But at least as of today, they don't need to rely on any other team. Let's hope that state of affairs continues.

The burning issue of the day, though, is which Packers are the real Packers? If the real Packers are the team that can't stop the run, can't get a running game of their own going, and misfire at the most inopportune moments, the team is in big trouble. If, on the other hand, Ryan Grant continues to run as he did last week against the supposedly good Chicago Bears rushing defense, if they continue to shut down the run like they did last week, and if the truly sensational Green Bay defensive backs continue to control some of the premier wide receivers in the league, then it is hard to see how they can lose another game.

So a visit to the Superdome, in prime time for all the nation to see, could not come at a better time. Sadly, with the departure of Brett Favre to the Titan-beating New York Jets, there are no remaining player links on the team to the Super Bowl XXXI Champions, who won their Super Bowl game in New Orleans almost 12 years ago. If I am not mistaken, Packers running backs coach Edgar Bennett will be the only member of the Super Bowl Champion team to be on the Packer sidelines tonight. Drew Brees and the Saints will present quite a challenge to the Packers tonight. The Saints have been scoring a lot of points, but the good news is that they give up lots of points, too. The Saints are in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing defense. So the Packers should have some opportunities to score some points. Wear some Mardi Gras beads and get ready for a good game.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bad Decisions

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Poor coaching decisions and tentative quarterback play. Those were the stories of today's game at Minnesota, and as a result the Packers lost their first game to Minnesota since Mike McCarthy became head coach.

If you only look at the final score, you would think that this was a pretty close game. The Packers only lost by the score of 28-27, and they would have won the game if only Mason Crosby could have made the 52 yard field goal at the end of the game. But that is misleading. In reality, the Packers were beaten solidly, and only outstanding and opportunistic defensive and special teams play kept the score within reach. The interception return touchdown by Nick Collins and the punt return touchdown by Will Blackmon are obvious examples, but the only other touchdown the Packers scored was set up by Charles Woodson's interception. Take away these plays and the score might have been 28-6.

In other words, the offense played with consistency all day long. And it was not pretty. Without taking anything away from the Vikings, who played well on defense, it seems to me that Aaron Rodgers and the coaching staff deserve a lot of blame for today's game. Rodgers may not have made the sort of catastrophic mistakes made by Gus Frerotte today, who was intercepted three times and as a result had no business winning this game. But the two safeties taken by Rodgers, either of which provided the margin of victory, were bad enough. The first one was probably caused by watching too many crazy Favre tosses over the years, although the announcers were probably right in saying that they would not have called the safety against Favre. And the second one was caused by a bad decision to try to escape the pressure by retreating into the end zone. But Rodgers, more generally, just seemed tentative today, holding onto the ball too long and taking too many sacks, and "double-clutching" on passes rather than being decisive.

The coaching staff deserves some blame, too. Everyone knew, going into the game, that the Vikings are pretty tough against the run, and more vulnerable to the passing game. Why, then, did the Packers run more than 50% of the time on first down instead of trying to use the passing game to open up the running game? How many times do you have to find yourself in 2d and long before trying something else? Two other odd coaching decisions merit mention. On the final score on the long run by the Vikings, what is the point of challenging whether the runner scored? If the challenge had been upheld, the ball might have been on the one foot line. Is there any prospect that the Packers could stop Adrian Peterson four times in a row? The chances are overwhelming that the challenge will be rejected (and the Packers lose a time out) or that the challenge is upheld, more time runs off the clock, and then the Vikings score anyway. The way things turned out, the lost time out on the challenge did not matter, but this is just not smart football.

The other coaching issue came on the final drive. The Packers got a good kick return, and started on their own 41. The first play resulted in a 19-yard gain after Driver pulled in a deflected pass, to the Vikings' 40. And then the Packers called a run, another run, a pass with not much chance of getting a first down, and then tried and missed a 52 yard field goal. If you are at the 10 or 15 or even 20 yard line, I could see the old run-run-pass-kick series of plays, even though a field goal can be missed from anywhere on the field. But how in the world do you play cautiously to set up the winning field goal, at a time when that field goal will be over 50 yards? I don't care if you are playing in a dome and if you have the best kicker in the history of the game (which the Packers don't), that is just not playing the percentages. Play aggressively, and take your best shot when you run out of downs or run out of time. But don't play it safe on the assumption that you can count on a 50 plus yard field goal to win the game.

Now the Packers find themselves looking up at both the Bears and the Vikings, with the Bears coming to Lambeau Field next week. This game becomes a must-win game. It is hard to see how the Packers can expect to win the division without beating the Bears this week.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Show Us Something

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — I have gone to (by my count) eight Packer games at Candlestick Park, although there could have been one or two more pre-season games that are not recorded on Six of the eight featured Brett Favre as starter, one had Don Majkowski as the starter, and last Saturday's game was started by Aaron Rodgers. This was only the second Packer loss I have witnessed at Candlestick Park, the other of course being the Terrell Owens game. The Packers were obviously in that game until the end, since they only lost it in the closing seconds on that disastrous pass. So it should be obvious that this was by far the worst Packer performance I have ever seen in San Francisco.

So what? It's only a pre-season game. I know, it was only a pre-season game. But when team management goes out on a limb by trading away a franchise player like Brett Favre (whatever the merits of the disputes between the sides), a lot of attention is naturally going to be focused on how the successor fares on the field. That is why the first pre-season game was a success, even though the Packers lost. Rodgers got on and off the field quickly, had some success, and even built a 10-point Packer lead. That is also why the systematic destruction of the Packers by the 49ers last week is a bigger deal than it would be in any other season. The natives are starting to get restless, and according to a Mike Vandermause column in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, even the crowds at pre-season practices are dwindling to numbers not seen in 15 years.

After getting home from the game Saturday night (traffic was light, since the stands were half full to start with, and since 49er fans were leaving to high fives throughout the third and fourth quarter), I watched Brett Favre's brief and successful debut with the Jets, and then I watched about the first quarter of the Packer game. The very best thing I can say about it is that the Packers did not look as bad in the first quarter as they did for the rest of the game. If a couple of dropped passes had not been dropped, maybe things would have looked a lot better. But they were dropped, and so the Packers never really got anything started.

And all this happened against the 49ers, to make things worse. Not only did the Packers own the 49ers throughout the Favre era, with the single exception of the Terrell Owens game, but the 49ers were not expected to be any good this year, coming off their 5-11 season last year. In fairness to the 49ers, they also looked pretty good last night against the Bears, so maybe they have turned the corner with their new QB, and will have a better year than I (and many others) had expected.

(As a side note, I learned by listening to the 49er radio broadcast in the stands that Charles Woodson became something of an oenophile during his time with the Raiders, and has his own wine being released this fall, under the name "24." No, he is not a Jack Bauer fan, but instead he named the wine after his player number with the Raiders. That is all well and good, but really, shouldn't a football player from Ohio, who played at Michigan, Oakland and Green Bay, have his own line of beer, or brats, or cheese or ribs, or something other than wine?)

Getting back to football, this leads us to tonight's game at Denver. The last time these teams met, on Monday night in mid-season last year, there were lots of fireworks, with Favre hitting Jones on a bomb in the first quarter, and Jennings on another bomb in overtime. Greg Jennings apparently will play tonight, and as a result Packer fans will be looking to see how Rodgers and Jennings look. It would be nice if other injured players (especially Ryan Grant) would also play tonight, but at least Jennings has been cleared to play. If Rodgers does not connect on some long balls to Jennings or someone else tonight, the suffocating pressure he is under is only going to get worse.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Final Thoughts on Favre

SAN FRANCISCO — The unthinkable happened last week when Brett Favre was traded to the New York Jets. I initially wrote "two weeks ago" before I checked the date of the trade and realized it was only a week ago. More proof that this saga has been going on too long. So now Wisconsin CBS stations are making plans to show as many Jets games as possible, the NFL Network is planning to show Favre's pre-season debut with the Jets on Saturday, and I am sure that, later in the season, some Jets' games will be moved to prime time under the NFL's flex schedule plan.

Meanwhile, in Aaron Rodgers' first start for the Packers, he looked good, in fact better than the box score suggests. The interception bounced right off the receiver's numbers, and there were several dropped passes that could have padded his numbers. Rodgers was pulled pretty quickly, and was all smiles after the game. I discovered this week just how divisive the Favre situation has become for Packer fans. I sent around a copy of an article about Favre to a small group made up of mostly family members, along with a few others with whom I regularly correspond on Packer matters. Instead of sending the article to all recipients as "bccs," I sent it with all recipients being shown on the "To" line. It is now three days later, and responses are still going back and forth among the recipients, some of whom don't even know each other, arguing about who is more at fault, taking shots at each other, and suggesting that others should calm down. I am ready to move on to the current season, and I will just add that I am disappointed with the way the Packers handled this situation, and I am even more disappointed with Brett Favre for the way he has tarnished his reputation in my mind.

When Aaron Rodgers took the field on Monday night, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation, I think the message was clear. Some in the crowd obviously thought it was his time, while others would have preferred to see Brett Favre on the field. But the standing ovation sent the signal that Rodgers is the starter now, and as loyal Packer fans, the fans in the stands wish him nothing but success. I feel the same way.

I will of course be in the stands in
San Francisco on Saturday to cheer on the Packers. Aaron Rodgers will presumably have lots of fans watching him, since he is from Chico, CA and went to college at University of California. I am hoping that Rodgers will play for most or all of the first half, and that most of the players who sat out last week's game will be playing this time. Before leaving for the game, I will first set my recorder to capture a game on the NFL Network that I always wanted to see again. On Saturday, at 1:00 pm EDT, noon CDT and 10:00 a.m. PDT, the NFL Network will show the September 20, 1992 Cincinnati at Green Bay game. Yes, the third game of the 1992 season, when Don Majkowski was knocked out of the game, Brett Favre came in to relieve him and pull off the first comeback victory of his career. This game was not on TV locally in San Francisco, and it was several years before DirecTV got the NFL Sunday Ticket. But as luck would have it, the Freeman Family chose that day for a pilgrimage to the (now defunct) Packer bar in Redwood City, CA. So all of us, including our 2 and 5 year old kids (now 18 and 21) were able to witness Brett Favre's first win. More next week after the San Francisco game.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Unhappy Dilemma

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — The last couple of weeks have brought the Packers and their fans to the edge of a cliff. Brett Favre wants to return; the Packers evidently don't want him as a starter; but they also are unwilling to release him, and probably don't want to trade him to a team they will face this coming year.

What to do? Favre's point of view seems to be that the Packers forced his hand in deciding whether to come back in early March, long before he was ready to make that decision. So, since he wasn't ready to commit to a 100% desire to return, he decided to retire. Plus, he says, Ted Thompson lied to him three times. Oops, he didn't actually call Ted Thompson a liar, he said he was untruthful. Good to know that he was only untruthful, not a liar. The Packers' unspoken point of view is, as best I can understand it, that they are tired of Favre jacking them around every offseason about whether he will retire, and so, once he said the magic words that he would retire in early March, they decided to move on with Aaron Rodgers as the starting QB. And while they would (reluctantly?) welcome Favre back, he would have to ride the bench and hold the clipboard for Aaron Rodgers.

The situation is made worse by the public relations campaigns the two sides are waging against each other. Favre presumably was behind Al Harris' comment to ESPN in early July that Favre "had the itch" to come back. The Packers then started the PR war in earnest, by pointing out that when Favre first made some (private) noises about possibly coming back in March, the Packers made plans to come visit Favre in Mississippi in late March, but that Favre then changed his mind again and told them not to come. So at that point, the unspoken point seems to be, they decided they had had enough of Favre's indecision, and decided to "move on" with Rodgers as the starter.

Favre responded in his TV interview on the FOX News Channel by saying that the Packer execs were down in Florida anyway for the owners' meeting, so the supposed visit just involved stopping off on the way back to Green Bay, and that since he was still not ready to decide at the time, he told them not to bother stopping off. He tossed in additional charges about the Packers sending his old friend James Campen down to try to talk some sense into him, and about a bizarre trip to Mississippi by Thompson after the draft. Favre says he assumed Thompson was coming to invite him to come back, but it turned out that the actual purpose of the trip was for Thompson to ask Favre if the Packers could dismantle his locker and ship it to Mississippi. Sorry, but that story sets off my BS Detector. I don't know what the trip was about, but somebody (most likely Favre) is telling a tall one about that trip.

This is starting to sound like a nasty divorce, where each side charges the other with various acts of disloyalty. I have seen some of those, where the friends and family members are caught in the middle. The unbiased observer listens to the complaints of each side, and comes away with the impression that each side has some good points, but that they are wildly skewed by the angry filter through which they pass.

native and life-long Packer fan Greta Van Susteren of the FOX News Channel scooped all the sports reporters to get this story. She has interviewed Favre before and has good rapport with him. FOX News showed the interview in three segments last week, but it turns out that the uncut interview is available in 6 segments online, and it is interesting because things were cut out of the televised segments that help to shine a little extra light on the situation. The uncut videos may be found by going to,2933,384601,00.html. Greta did a nice job, and probed a little on some of the key questions, such as when she asked Favre if he is now 100% committed to playing. His verbal answer was "right," but his non-verbal cues told me that he is still not 100% committed.

It is hard to see how there will be a happy ending. Either the Packers trade or release Favre, which will make the fans crazy, or Favre calls the Packers' bluff and comes in as a backup, making everyone unhappy, or Favre comes back as the starter, with an undetermined amount of damage being done to the relationship of the Packers with their presumed future starter, Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers and others have mentioned that Joe Montana finished his career with the Chiefs, Joe Namath with the Rams, etc., but I think these cases do not really prove the point. Take the 49ers and Montana, for instance. The 49ers were notorious in having the attitude that it was better to release or trade a player a year early than a year late. They released or traded a number of players before the end of their careers, including Montana. To some extent, the attitude was "to hell with the fans' views, we are running this team." Plus, the 49ers had Steve Young sitting on the bench, who had proven himself many times, both in the USFL and when taking over for Montana during the extended periods when Montana was out with injuries. By contrast, Aaron Rodgers is almost totally untested, although his performance in relief against Dallas last year was encouraging.

The key difference, however, is the relationship between the team and the fans. Our team's fans own the team, and as a result the Packers have always had a unique relationship with their fans. So, unlike the situation in
San Francisco, or Oakland, or any other NFL city, if the fans are mad enough about the Favre situation, and make their voices known, I don't see how the Packers can just ignore the views of the fans. Years ago, I wrote to Bob Harlan to complain about the way that the Milwaukee season ticket holders were losing a game when their tickets were transferred to Green Bay. Harlan called me personally to explain why the team did what it did. I can guarantee you that I would not have gotten a similar call from Eddie DeBartolo or from Al Davis if I had written similar letters to them.

Packer fans should make their views known to the team, especially with the shareholders' meeting coming up on Thursday. Call the office and tell them what you think. Better yet, if you know any members of the Packers' organization, or any members of the Board of Directors, let them know what you think. Personally, my hope is that either Bob Harlan or Ron Wolf (who is moving back to
Green Bay) will come out of retirement to help mediate a resolution to this controversy.

While there is no perfect solution, and every solution has down sides, it seems to me that the best resolution possible is for Favre to come back as the starter, with the Packers trying to sign Rodgers to a contract extension on the same basis as they would have done so if he had had a successful year as starter. The down sides to this approach are several. First, Favre may flame out, meaning that last year's performance was a bit of an anomaly for him at this age. Second, Rodgers may not agree to the contract extension, and decide to go elsewhere after this year as a free agent, meaning that the Packers have to start over from scratch looking for a QB of the future. Or, Rodgers may sign but turn out to be a failure, in which case the Packers will have overpaid for him. But the reason I think this is the best possible solution is that the Packers were one drive away from the Super Bowl last year, so they obviously are a very talented young team, and I just cannot believe that they have a better chance going to the Super Bowl this year with Aaron Rodgers at QB than with Brett Favre.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Magical Day at the Old Ballpark

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — For the first time since the "Terrell Owens game" in San Francisco after the 1998 season, all four members of my family attended a playoff game together last Saturday, along with our friends Myles and Jordan Abbott. We met our friends Dick Karth and Cathie Sunday after the game and went to dinner together. We could have had an even bigger reunion, since my brother Bruce was also in the crowd, although we unfortunately were not able to figure that out until too late. I credit my daughter Sarah for pushing hard for us all to go to this game. We had originally planned to go as a family to the Minnesota game in November, but the trip fell through at the last minute. When that happened, she insisted that, since we had to cancel that trip, we simply must go to a home playoff game if the Packers got that far. I also credit my wife Judy and my son Ben for resolving some tricky schedule problems to make sure we could all go to what turned out to be a vividly memorable experience.

I have been to a home playoff game that was cold - I almost said too cold, but of course there is no such thing for a Packer fan (NFC Championship game vs. Carolina) and to a game that was too warm (SF @ GB, after the 2001 season) and to the only two home playoff games that ended in defeat for the Packers (Atlanta, after the 2002 season, and Minnesota, after the 2004 season). But every time I go to a home playoff game, I dream of a game like Saturday's game. Light snow, getting heavier and heavier during parts of the game, until the field is covered. Snow, accumulating on top of the hats of the fans and the coaches; snow causing players to slide 5 or 10 yards when tackled. Snow, just light enough to make it possible to see the action on the field, but just heavy enough to affect everything and everyone in the stadium.

It was magical out there. The beauty of the snow falling against the dark sky. It brought back memories of snow falling when we were kids. It is remarkable that watching some of the best athletes in the world playing for their playoff lives can evoke memories of childhood games in the snow, but that was the unique thing about this game.

There were great story lines, too. The fact that the Packers could come back from their 14 point deficit and win the game convincingly. The remarkable story of Ryan Grant's redemption, in that the coach didn't bench him after his fumbles, but instead believed in him enough to stick with him and to allow him to set Packer playoff records for rushing yards and touchdowns in a game. It just doesn't get any better, and this game will be unforgettable to anyone who was there (and to many who were not).

Of course, the forecast did not call for this much snow, so when it started to snow lightly hours before the game, we decided it was time to head for the stadium. By game time, the weather was foreboding enough to cancel the flyover by the Navy pilots, which was disappointing not only because the flyover is such a great event, but because we had met the parents of one of the pilots at our hotel, who had flown in for the game and for the chance to see their son fly.

Still, expectations were high as kickoff approached. And then - those two critical turnovers by Ryan Grant, leading to a quick 14 points for the Seahawks. Could anyone in the crowd be blamed for thinking that things would only go downhill from there? Think, in particular, of that St. Louis playoff game after the 2001 season. It is all too common for a team in a hole to keep digging deeper and deeper. And (as he admitted in his press conference) Brett Favre has a history of trying to get it all back at once. Thankfully, QB coach Tom Clements came over to remind Favre that there was plenty of time left, and not to try to do it all immediately. From that moment on, the Packers just dominated this game, and won the game without difficulty.

Flying home Sunday evening was also part of the Green Bay experience. I of course know that there are a lot of Packer fans in the San Francisco area, because we used to see them in sports bars, and they buy up lots of tickets whenever the Packers play either the 49ers or the Raiders. But I was still surprised by the number of Packer fans on our plane flying out of Chicago. The Giants-Cowboys game had just started when we took off, so I had made arrangements for people to leave us phone messages with the final result. To our pleasant surprise, the pilot gave us several updates on the game. There were only two problems. First, at least part of the crew was from Chicago. Could the pilot be a Bears fan, just toying with the Packer fans on board, or were we just paranoid? And second, at one point he reported that the Giants were ahead, 27-17, but then later he came on to announce that the Giants had won, 21-17. Obviously, something was wrong with at least one of those scores, but we didn't know what.

When the pilot announced that final score, a huge cheer went up from the passengers. The guy across from me immediately started making plans to come back for this week's NFC Championship game, which got me to thinking that maybe I should do the same. The NFC Championship game is a very special game, and it doesn't come around very often. When you stop to think of the fact that the Packers have only hosted one other NFC Championship game since the end of the Lombardi era 40 years ago, you realize how historic this game Sunday will be, win or lose.

The Giants are playing some great football right now, having beaten the Buccaneers and the Cowboys, and having given the Patriots a run for their money in the final game of the regular season. So they are not pushovers by any means. This is actually the 6th NFC or NFL Championship game between these two teams, and the Packers lead the series, 4-1. Included among these championship games is the 1961 matchup, the very first NFL Championship game held in Green Bay, in which the Packers clobbered the Giants, 37-0. Can they do it again, or will the upstart Giants pull off another upset on the frozen tundra? My money is on the Packers.