Monday, February 7, 2011

Celebrating the World Champion Green Bay Packers

(Photo by Corey Wilson of the Green Bay Press-Gazette)

I have a few observations from watching hours of post-game coverage, some live, and some on tape.  I will have more to say on the game itself later, but just wanted to comment on a few things from the moments of celebration.

As soon as the game ended, the idea sprang to mind that this game was a microcosm of the season as a whole.  I thought it was an original thought, but then I saw Chris Berman and others use the same term.  Berman, being an Ivy Leaguer from Brown, is obviously a smart guy, so it is a good thought, even if not original.  But this game really did capture the whole season.  Excellent play for most of the game by Aaron Rodgers, lots of dropped catchable balls, big plays on defense (especially the interception for a touchdown by Nick Collins and the forced fumble by Clay Matthews), a lull in the middle of the game, and finally a game-winning stand by the defense.  If that does not replicate what happened this season, I don't know what does.  [Ed. Note: I meant to mention the injuries to critical players, yet another way in which this game mirrored the season as a whole.]

Turning over the ball to the Steelers, with two minutes left, reminded the football guys on TV of the Super Bowl between the Steelers and the Cardinals two years ago, where the Steelers got the ball with about 2 minutes left and went down the field to win the game.  But I could not get the image of the 2009 Packers - Steelers game out of my mind, where the Packers took a 6 point lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers drove for the game-winning touchdown on the final play.  Not this time, though.  The Packers' defense would not let that happen.

And it still is true that the Packers never trailed in any game, all year long, including the playoffs, by more than seven points.  That is a remarkable accomplishment.

I saw Greg Jennings, on the post-game show, talk about how "our no. 1 receiver, Donald Driver, went out with an injury."  Now, everybody knows that Greg Jennings is the Packers' no. 1 receiver, and has been for several years.  But what a classy, deferential move for Greg Jennings to describe Donald Driver that way.

Donald Driver spoke about the fact that sometimes you get injured, that you hope it doesn't happen in a Super Bowl, but that he is fine with it.  He said that his teammates told him that they would win the game for him.

I saw Charles Woodson, asked about his reaction to breaking his collarbone, saying that he broke down and cried, more so than he had done since he was a little kid.  And yet I also heard that, during halftime, he spoke to the team and told them just to play their hearts out and win the game.  I assume that he tried to talk at greater length to the team, and just could not get the words out.

Desmond Bishop, referring to Woodson breaking down, described how powerful it was to him to see his idol, Charles Woodson, break down like that, and how it motivated him to go out and win the game for Woodson.

Speaking of Donald Driver and Charles Woodson, you could not miss them standing on the sidelines, cheering on their team.  I thought Jay Cutler was unfairly criticized for not coming back into the NFC Championship Game, but it is undeniable that he mostly sat on the bench or stood by himself, and appeared to be sulking or feeling sorry for himself on the sidelines.  Totally different deal with Driver and Woodson, and I would have expected nothing less of them.

I heard Charles Woodson tell an anecdote to show how loose the Packers were before the game.  He described how, on Saturday night, backup defensive end C.J. Wilson sat down and started playing the piano. He said that he had always heard that Greg Jennings can sing, but he had never actually heard him, until Jennings (who, I believe, also plays the guitar) joined in with Wilson and started singing for the team, on the night before the Super Bowl.

I saw one of the players (can't remember who said this) tell the interviewer that Mike McCarthy had the team members measured for Super Bowl rings Saturday night.  What a great way to bring home the immediacy of the task in front of them, and to emphasize that they expected to win the game.  That was something that Mike McCarthy said all week, along with the statement that "This is our time."

And I heard Aaron Rodgers talk about how the team is made up of high quality players, and high character players.  From everything we can see, as fans on the outside looking in, that is true, and I think the comments quoted above by various players tends to show it is true.

Finally, I heard the tail end of a radio interview with Dom Capers, who was asked about the loss of Woodson, and for a time, Sam Shields, and he said that the game plan went out the window.  But it was the Super Bowl, with an extended halftime, and as a result, the defense had time to make the numerous adjustments that were necessary to win the game.  It was certainly closer than we hoped, and every Packer fan had to be having heart palpitations during parts of the third and fourth quarters, but when it counted, the offense drove down the field to score more points (unfortunately, only a field goal), and then the defense rose up and forced a turnover on downs.

Let's relish this win, and look forward to the fact that the Packers are well positioned to have more shots at the Super Bowl in the coming years.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

More Thoughts and Super Bowl Prediction

"We have four quarters left."  Throughout the playoffs, Mike McCarthy has discussed the Packers' goal to play 16 quarters of football in the playoffs.  The time for those last four quarters has arrived.  Charles Woodson, by contrast, focused on the word "one," in his famous speech after the NFC Championship Game: "One mind, one heartbeat, one goal, one more game."  (This is the same speech in which he called out the President for saying that he would go to the Super Bowl if the Bears won.)

What a week this must be for Woodson.  Even though I live in Oakland Raider territory, I pay as little attention to the Raiders as possible.  Which is easy since most of their home games are blacked out anyway.  But as a result, I guess I did not realize all the things that were going on with Charles Woodson when he was a Raider.  One of the local ink-stained wretches wrote a very nice piece on Woodson this week, reflecting on the years he covered him when he was with the Raiders.  Woodson was arrested a couple of times, while enjoying way too much of the nightlife, and he would fall asleep in team meetings, getting by on his pure athletic ability during the games.  But just look at him now and the transformation he has undergone with the Packers.  He has settled down, started a family, become a student of the game, and a leader on and off the field.

Woodson is one of only two current Packers to have played in a Super Bowl before.  I remember about half of that Super Bowl very well.  We were in Utah, and watched the first half of the game, and a little more, in our hotel room.  But the Jon Gruden-led Buccaneers were beating his former team, the Raiders, so badly that by some point in the third quarter we decided the rest of the game was not worth watching, and we went out to do other things, listening on the car radio instead.  So Woodson saw his former team blown out in the Super Bowl, then saw his career head downhill until the Packers were the only team that would take him.  He then saw his current team fall just short of the Super Bowl after the 2007 season, and then lose its Hall of Fame Quarterback.  I imagine that, in training camp of 2008, he must have wondered if he had enough time left to get another shot.  And yet here he is, preparing for Super Bowl XLV.

One more note before getting to my prediction.  ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, and my friend Dick Karth, brought a great article to my attention, written by Wright Thompson of ESPN.  It is about Vince Lombardi's house in Green Bay.  Just go read it - you won't regret it.  (Vince Lombardi Lived Here.)

The expectation of most commentators, as well as those who set the point spread, is that the Super Bowl will be a close game.  That is not necessarily good news, since the Steelers seem much better than the Packers in finishing on the winning side of close games.  I find it not at all surprising that the point spread is only 2 or 3 points, but I don't think it will be that close.

First, let's take the intangible or psychological elements.  Yogi Berra was supposed to have said that "90% of the game is half mental."  While his math is questionable, and he was of course talking about baseball, still there is a significant mental aspect to the game of football.  One of the themes of the media coverage this week is how much of an advantage the Steelers get out of the fact that they have been to two recent Super Bowls, and that many, if not most, of the Steelers have Super Bowl experience.  I don't see this as much of a factor.  I am perfectly prepared to concede that the experience factor is a plus for the Steelers.  But I believe that the Packers get at least as much of a psychological edge from the desire to go out and get Super Bowl rings for their aging veterans, guys like Charles Woodson and Donald Driver, plus the desire to take the Brett Favre monkey off of Aaron Rodgers' back, so that they can put the issue behind them forever.

On the purely physical side, I think a few comparisons are pretty clear (feel free to take issue in the comments): (1) the Steelers have a better running game; (2) the Packers have a better passing game; (3) while the defenses in general are pretty equal, the Packers defensive backs, as a unit, are better; and (4) the Packers receivers, as a unit, are much better.

The point of treating the defensive backs and receivers as units is this.  The Steelers have a great defensive back in Troy Polamalu, assuming he is completely healthy, a great young receiver in Mike Wallace, and a great aging veteran receiver in Hines Ward.  Let's just say (without quibbling about which is better) that they are roughly the equivalent of Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver on the Packers side.  But even if Charles Woodson is balanced out by Polamalu on the Steelers side, with the development of Tramon Williams and Sam Shields this year, along with Peprah and Collins, I think the overall group of defensive backs likely to get significant playing time in the game is just stronger on the Packers's side.  Same story for receivers.  The Packers' third and fourth receivers can run circles around the third and fourth receivers for the Steelers (although, in fairness, their tight end, Heath Miller, is much better than the Packers' tight ends with Jermichael Finley on injured reserve).

I think the depth at receivers and defensive backs will be the difference in the game.  In the Packers' 3 and 4 receiver formations (not to mention the 5 receiver set), who is going to cover all those guys?  The Packers need a game plan involving protection for the quarterback on long balls, and quick release on all others.  If they have that, and if they continue to have at least a credible running game, I think the Packers win the battle of the Packers' offense against the Steelers' defense.  On the other side of the ball, the depth at defensive backs (and lack of depth of the Steelers' receivers) should allow the Packers to be good enough in coverage to avoid getting burned like the last time they played the Steelers, while freeing up Dom Capers to run some creative blitzes by Woodson, Williams, and others.  Add in the relative weakness of the Steelers' offensive line (particularly if rookie center Maurkice Pouncey does not play) and there is the potential for the Packers' defense to do some real damage.

If the game ends up being close in the final minutes, I will be terrified, because of the Steelers' superior ability to pull out games in the closing minutes or seconds.  But if the Packers get ahead early and keep the pressure on on offense and defense, this game might not be as close as some expect.  I am picking the Packers, by a score something like 34-24.