Monday, December 28, 1998

Not Ready for Prime Time Packers?

After a long absence from the playoffs, the "Cardiac Cards" are back as the NFC's last wild card team. Thinking about the Cardiac Card nickname got me to thinking what the catch phrase would be for this year's version of the Green Bay Packers. All I could come up with was the Not Ready for Prime Time Packers. We know for sure that they are not ready for prime time, because they lost all 4 of their night games this year (Minnesota, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay). Should we take any solace in the fact that the game, at San Francisco this Sunday, is being played in the afternoon, and not at night? Maybe.

It is a weird and wonderful twist of fate for me and my family, living here in the San Francisco Bay area, that the paths of the 49ers and Packers have crossed so many times in the last 3 years. We were lucky enough to have been there at Candlestick Park when the Packers took the wind out of the 49er sails for the first time, back in January of 1996, and we were there in the downpour last year, when they did it again. I am scouring sources for tickets again right now, and hope to be there again this Sunday.

This will be a week filled with hype around here. There will be non-stop sports talk radio about the 49ers and Packers. They will get Max McGee, or Jim Irwin, or Mike Holmgren, or Bob Harlan or who knows who else, as guests on the sports talk shows. They will have people calling in to whine about the Don Beebe touchdown, the absence of Jerry Rice last year, the absence of Steve Young the year before that, and a lot will be said about the absence of Bryant Young this year. It will be virtually impossible to get any work done this week (which is too bad, because I've got a lot of work to do).

There is no bulletin board material for the Packers just yet. On the local pre-game show yesterday, they had an interview with Gabe Wilkins where he talked a little bit about the Packers having the 49ers' number. He almost had a quotable quote, where he talked about how "we'll end that streak [next] week..." before tailing off with a barely audible "...hopefully" at the end. Ken Norton did say that the 49ers have played like "doo-doo" against the Packers in the past games, which I suppose excludes the possibility that the Packers were just a better team in at least some of those 5 games.

There has been a good deal of talk, so far, about how the 49ers are "due" to win a game against the Packers. I interpret that as showing MUCH less confidence than saying the 49ers WILL beat the Packers, or the 49ers are a better team than the Packers. Steve Mariucci had that "deer in the headlights" look during his press conference yesterday, even more than usual. Despite the 49ers' convincing victory over the Rams, he just seemed to be totally distracted and stressed out. There is much talk in the papers about how he may be fired if the Packers beat the 49ers again, usually as part of a plan to bring Holmgren here. And, strangely, Mariucci himself contributed to the craziness by telling John Madden, before yesterday's game, that Bill Walsh "might" be back with the 49ers as early as Monday. Madden of course blabbed this to the national audience during the game. Mariucci was swarmed after the game to be asked about this, and his story was that he was just "repeating" to Madden a "rumor" he had heard (apparently from the infamous Fred Edelstein). But why would he tell this to Madden? He had to know that it would create an uproar. Could he have been "instructed" to spread this rumor? By whom? There is nobody home in the front office, of course. And if he was not instructed, then why would he say such a stupid thing?

As for the game, I am nervous. I don't think either the Packers or the 49ers have much shot at going to the Super Bowl this year, although obviously funny things can happen in the playoffs. But we all know that the Packers have looked MUCH less consistent this year, losing three games to non-playoff teams (Pittsburgh, Detroit and Tampa Bay). Counter-balancing this somewhat is the fact that the 49ers have shown that they are capable of losing to just about anyone this year, although they have done a better job than the Packers have of pulling out most of the close ones. And then there is the "Packers have the 49ers' number" factor. I think there are two aspects to this, both of them good. The Packers' coaching staff really has a very good understanding of the 49ers, both because of Holmgren's years with the team, and because of Shurmur's many years of coaching against the 49ers. And then there is the psychological aspect of it. Much like the Packers could not find a way to beat the Cowboys until they were well past their prime, the same factor weighs on the 49er coaches and players. Are the Packers well past their prime at this point? I don't think so. But they are seriously hampered by injuries, which could have the same effect.

There is no secret about the weaknesses of the 49ers: defensive backs and, now, defensive line. All it will take is a quick strike or so by Favre and Freeman, and a serious, even if not overpowering, running game by Levens, and the Packers will be in good shape. So I am (cautiously) predicting a Packer victory, but I think it is going to be close and nerve-racking this time.

Wednesday, November 18, 1998

Packers Roll in NY on Way to Minnesota

OK, I promise not to overreact to this victory. It was just the Giants, who aren't very good anymore. And once you get ahead and on a roll, sometimes you just keep rolling, as the Packers did Sunday, on their way to a 37-3 win over the G-Men.

Still, it was only the second Packer win on outdoor Astroturf in the entire Holmgren - Favre era. That made it a bit more satisfying. And for once, an opposing quarterback didn't come off looking like a future hall-of-famer against the Packer defensive backs. (See Cunningham, R., Batch, C., and Stewart, K., not to mention Garrett, J. from a few years ago.)

Darick Holmes finally gets his chance to run against the Giants, and he not only scores a touchdown, but gains over 100 yards AND did a pretty nice job of picking up some blitzes (which was what the coaches were concerned he might not be ready for).

As a matter of fact, if they had a definition of "Total Domination" in the dictionary, they would probably have a shot from this game.

But I promise not to overreact. The reason is simple. Out here in the San Francisco area, we see this sort of thing all the time. The 49ers roll over some second-division team (funny how they always seem to be from the 49ers OWN division), and the 49er "Faithful" (as they call themselves) celebrate the victory as if they just beat the defending world champions. But the Packers, and the Bills, and now even the Falcons, have demonstrated that seven 49er victories over mostly crummy teams does not turn the 49ers into world-beaters. And a crushing win over the Giants will not do the trick for the Packers, either.

So how do the Packers match up with the Vikings? Not real well, at least on paper. Everyone knows that the Vikings were built for artificial turf, while the Packers were built for grass. As a result, in the dome, the Vikings' speed has traditionally caused a lot of problems for the Packers. Cunningham is having a better year than Favre, and the Vikings' receivers as a group are having a better year than the Packers' receivers. The Vikings' running game is much better than the Packers', unless last week is a good indication of what Darick Holmes can do (let's hope so). The Packers' defensive line is better than the Vikings' defensive line, but for some reason they were not able to bother Cunningham at all in the first game (I read somewhere that his uniform was clean after the game, despite the weather). So it makes sense to see that the Vikings are favored to win the game. None of us can or should be shocked if the Vikings win.

Still, somehow I feel that the Packers have a good chance in this game. Call it the "revenge" factor, call it the embarrassment factor, call it the aging champions summoning up the will to defeat the rising challengers. I am looking (and hoping) for big games from Favre, Holmes, Butler, White and Brooks. It seems like Brooks has been coming on in the past few weeks, and this would be a heck of a game for him to shine.


It's time to look down the road a bit. If the Vikings win this game, they pretty obviously have the division locked up. The reverse is not necessarily true, but if the Packers win, I think they will win the division, probably on a tie-breaker with the Vikes. Here is a peek at the games ahead for each NFC Contender.

Green Bay. Road games at Minnesota, Tampa and Chicago. Home games against Philadelphia, Chicago and Tennessee. I think they will go 4-2 or 5-1, ending up at 11-5 or 12-4.

Minnesota. Home games against Green Bay, Chicago and Jacksonville. Road games at Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee. I think they will go 3-3 or 4-2, ending up with a 12-4 or 13-3 record.

Atlanta. The Falcons play at home against Chicago, Indianapolis and Miami. Road games at St. Louis, New Orleans and Detroit. ALL DOME GAMES! These guys look like they are going to go 5-1 on the way to a 13-3 record and possible home field advantage.

San Francisco. Home games against New Orleans, NY Giants, Detroit and St. Louis. Road games against Carolina and New England. They could win all of these games, but I think 4-2 is more like it, leading to an 11-5 record.

Dallas. Home games against Seattle, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington. Road games at New Orleans and Kansas City. That looks like about a 3-3 to me, giving them a 10-6 record.

Somebody has to win the last wild card, but I am not sure who. My best guess is the Cardinals, mainly because the Saints have too many good teams left to play.

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

49er Game/Mid-Year Review

The Packers ended the first half of the season on Sunday with a big bang, beating the 49ers by the score of 36-22. Ironically, I was not home in the SF area for the game. I had to travel to the Eastern Time Zone for a Monday meeting. Normally I would have flown Sunday afternoon, but that would have required me to miss the entire game. So I flew on an early Sunday morning flight, which was scheduled to arrive 22 minutes before kickoff. To make a long story short, I ended up missing most of the first quarter, but got to watch the rest of the game.

As we all know, things got pretty hairy in the third quarter, as the 49ers erased an initial 16-0 deficit and ultimately went ahead, 22-19. Meantime, Favre started throwing interceptions and incompletions all over the place. I was really concerned that this game was going the wrong way. Unlike most of the Packer-49er games, this time the 49ers had recovered from the hole the Packers had put them in.

And then, if you will excuse the Maddenism, BOOM! The game was over in what seemed like 5 minutes. Another beautiful bomb of a TD pass to my very distant cousin Antonio ;-), and best of all, the defense swarming over Steve Young like a pack of starving dogs. And just like that, the game was over.

Because I was out of town, I of course missed all of the immediate post-game flavor from the local news and sports talk shows. But now that I am back, I am devouring the Monday and Tuesday newspapers, and catching as much sports radio as I can. There seems to be an air of acceptance now, that the 49ers just can NOT seem to beat the Packers. Yes, there is some spin doctoring going on. Steve [I-hope-he-is-not-our-coach-next-year] Mariucci now says that both Marquez Pope and Merton Hanks were hurting, and that he hopes they will be healthy if the 49ers meet the Packers again. And there are a lot of fingers being pointed at J.J. Stokes for dropping what could have been a touchdown pass, and then for pushing around a couple of reporters in the locker room after the game. But basically, this time I think they finally get it.

As a final note on the 49ers, they are clearly every bit as obsessed with the Packers now as the Packers used to be with the Cowboys. Mariucci has reportedly instructed that no one on the team is to speak about, or even think about, the Packer game after midnight last night (Monday).

So where do the Packers stand at mid-year? Their record is 6-2, which is not too bad considering that I thought they would be 5-3, on their way to an 11-5 record, before the season started. The Packers have played better than I had feared they might, after how they performed during the pre-season. But they have some major holes and question marks:

  • The absence of a running game is a big problem, although there have been some signs of life in the last two games.
  • The defensive backs have gotten burned badly in a couple of games, but have played effectively in other games.
  • This Favre 2-3 interceptions per game stuff has got to stop. The Packers cannot continue to dodge that bullet from game to game.

    The 49er victory, coupled with the Vikings' loss, certainly improves the prospects for a favorable playoff spot. Has the Vikings' traditional second half collapse started a little early this year? It will be interesting to see. The problem, I am afraid to say, is probably STILL the 49ers. Even if the Packers do catch the Vikings for the division, I don't know that they will be able to stay even with the 49ers. The Packers will lose a couple more games, but the 49ers, in their division, may not. This could lead to another NFC Championship game in San Francisco.

    The Packers are about to start a 3 game road trip, with each of the 3 games on the dreaded artificial turf. The Packers only play two more games against teams with a current winning record, and they play them both in the next 3 weeks (Pittsburgh and Minnesota). Two out of three on the road trip would be a great result, three out of three almost too much to dream about. Travis Jervey's skills (speed) are ideally suited to astroturf, and he even prefers the stuff. This would be an excellent time for Jervey to have a few good games.

    The Packers are now 6-2. They should be able to win their last 4 games (although the game at Tampa is far from a "gimme"). I'd say they are on their way to a 12-4 or maybe even a 13-3 season.
  • Thursday, October 29, 1998

    The Mood in San Francisco

    Packer-49er week. Remember when Packer-Bear week was all we really cared about? Seems like a long time ago. When the Packers and the 49ers play, these days it is a really big deal, not just for me, living here in the San Francisco area, but for all Packer fans everywhere.

    The mood here in San Francisco is more hopeful about this game than they have been the last couple of times around. I remember very well the mood in January of 1996, when the Packers beat the 49ers in the playoffs for the first time. The mood was arrogant indifference. The Packers were nothing but a speed bump on the road to the 49er-Cowboy NFC Championship game. Or so they thought.

    The three games after that involved, to an objective observer (unlike me), superior Packer teams playing really good 49er teams. So the locals were apprehensive, even if they talked a good game on the outside. They still have not abandoned all of their arrogance, though. There was an article in one of the papers Wednesday mentioning that the 49ers have excuses for the previous 4 games, some more legitimate than others. The January 1996 playoff game was a fluke. The 1996 Monday nighter had the bad call on Beebe's touchdown. The January 1997 playoff game had an injured Steve Young. The January 1998 playoff game had more bad calls, on a 49er catch ruled out of bounds in the end zone, and on William Henderson's non-fumble. Don't you just love these guys?

    This time, the 49er fans see that the 49ers have a much better shot at it than the last few games. The Packers have very little running game, while the 49ers' running game has been much better. Steve Young has not been making many mistakes this year, while Brett Favre has been making them in bunches. Both sets of defensive backs have been giving up a lot of touchdowns, but the 49er fans think they may have fixed that problem by benching their high-priced free agent, Antonio Langham. (I remain unconvinced about that, but we shall see.) The 49ers have done a better job than the Packers have of pulling out games they easily could have lost. The Packers have even shown that they are not invincible at Lambeau Field. All of this translates into a much better chance for the 49ers.

    The truth is, I can't argue with them, which is why I am very uncomfortable about this game.

    What will it take to win? A lot depends on Brett Favre. If he has another off day, this game is over early. But if he is "on," and if the defensive backs have a good game, I think the Packers can pull it out. Oh, and it wouldn't hurt if Travis Jervey could pop a long gainer here and there. I've got my fingers crossed.

    Thursday, October 22, 1998

    Not Panic Time Yet

    These past two weeks have certainly been discouraging to Packer fans. The Packers end their home winning streak by losing to the Vikings on Monday Night Football, in a game where they were thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the ball. The game, as they are fond of saying, was not as close as the score. Well, OK, but surely they would feast on the lowly Lions on a Thursday Night Game. After all, they were starting a rookie QB, which was widely interpreted as Bobby Ross having thrown in the towel on the season. Outplayed again. The rookie QB, just like Randall Cunningham the week before, ends up looking like a Hall of Famer playing against the Green Bay defense. The improved (?) Packer run defense gave up two 70 + yard touchdown runs to Barry Sanders, one of which was called back on a penalty. The Packers made it close in garbage time, and even had a shot to tie the game on a hail Mary pass at the end, but again, the game was not as close as the score. This game was even more discouraging for me because I missed the beginning of it due to a late-running (West Coast) meeting at a firm retreat. When I got back to my hotel room, and my wife Judy told me it was 10-0 Packers, I assumed all was right with the football world again.

    So we have a two game losing streak. The Lambeau streak has been broken. And both losses have been to NFC Central teams. (At least the 49ers had the good sense to lose to an AFC team.) The Vikings lead the Packers by 2 games in the division, and both the 49ers and Falcons (did I type that right?) are a game ahead of the Packers for any potential wild card or home field advantage.

    I am thoroughly discouraged. But I am not hitting the panic button yet. Looking back at my pre-season predictions, I expected the Packers to be 4-2 at this point. I thought they would lose a home game, probably to Tampa Bay, and I thought they would lose at Detroit (they almost always have trouble there). So really, the Packers are exactly where I thought they would be. The only difference is that, after the 4-0 start, I had adjusted my expectations and started to think about running the streak to 8-0, and after that, who knew how far they could go? This is just another way of saying that serious fans overreact to wins the same way we overreact to losses.

    It may hearten some of you to remember that the 49ers are having some of the same problems. They lost several weeks ago to what everyone assumed (maybe incorrectly) was a bad team, the Bills. They barely beat the Jets in week one, and they barely beat the Colts this past week. So they could very easily have been at 3-3 by this point in the year. Unfortunately, they have done a pretty good job of coming away with the victory when it was close, and so they are 5-1 instead. Given their schedule, every chance for a loss is important, and it is a shame that they have pulled these games out.

    As for this week's game, I imagine that Eric Zeier will end up looking better than he deserves to look, but not quite as good as those "Hall of Famers" Cunningham and Batch. The Packers will win this game if they can just avoid the sort of disastrous mistakes they have been making recently. I'd like to see more emphasis on the running game (Jervey has looked a lot better than Harris to me), and I'd like to see better use of such simple devices as play-action passes and pump fakes. Something like 38-17 sounds about right to me.

    Next week's game? I can't even guess right now. I want to see how the Packers look after their two-game losing streak. I also want to see how the 49ers look now that they have benched the defensive back (Antonio Langham) who has been causing them so many problems. I am very concerned about the 49er game, but if the Packers can get some of their problems worked out this week, they should have a good chance.

    Sunday, September 27, 1998

    1998 Packer First Quarter Review

    The last two weeks' wins bring us to the one-quarter mark of the season. Where do the Packers stand? And what about the competition?

    The good news is that the Packers are 4-0, tied for first place in the NFC Central with the Minnesota Vikings. These first four weeks of the season have been quite reassuring to me, after a mediocre pre-season. I thought that the Packers would lose at least one, maybe two of the first four games. Compared to that kind of pessimism, 4-0 looks pretty good.

    The bad news is that the Packers have not looked like world beaters in any of the four games. In the first three games, it was the defense that really carried the load, looking similar to the dominating defense of the 1996 Super Bowl season. The offense, by comparison, looked sluggish, although there were some pretty good reasons for that. Robert Brooks was only available part time due to his back problems, and Dorsey Levens was, at first, rusty, and then injured. The last game is a puzzler to me. The Packer defense gave up 30 points to the Panthers? Who'd have thunk it? And after giving up 30 points, the Packer offense won the game anyway? Despite three interceptions and two fourth down turnovers? Who'd have thunk that? It was delightful to see the Packer offense start to click, to the tune of 5 TD passes from Favre in the Panther game, but what are we to make of the turnovers?

    Personally, I'm not going to dwell on the negatives from this game. Turnovers happen. Maybe the familiarity Gil Haskell (Panthers' offensive coordinator) has with the Packers' offense helped the Panthers design a defensive game plan that put them in a position to make the interceptions. Maybe the heat on the field just sapped the Packer defenders more so than the Panther offensive players. Despite those negatives, the Packers won the game. This high-scoring game was in some ways reminiscent of the Colts game last year, but this year the Packers won the game. So let's turn the page and go on.

    Now, let's take a look at the competition. The main Midwestern competition is, of course, the Vikings, who are also 4-0. I watched parts of their game on Sunday, and I was not too impressed. They almost lost to the Bears, and didn't look too good in the process. Next week's Packers-Vikings game will be a really big deal, but on Monday night? At Lambeau Field? I say the Packers will win the game.

    At 0-4, the Bears are dead, although they look just good enough to win a few games here and there and cause some problems. Let's hope they don't pull off a win against the Packers. If the Lions lose Monday night, as I expect, they will be dead, too (in fact, they are probably dead even if they win). The much-hyped Buccaneers? If they win Monday, they will be 2-2, which will make it a little early to write them off. Still, my basic attitude about the Buccaneers is the same as someone who wrote in to Sports Illustrated, after SI picked the Buccaneers to go to the Super Bowl. This reader said something to the effect that "if the Buccaneers go to the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback, I'll eat my cheesehead."

    NFL Rules dictate that someone must win the NFC East, but right now it is not clear that there are any real candidates to do so. Which brings us to my neck of the woods, the NFC West. Both the 49ers and the Saints are 3-0, but I strongly suspect that there is no real competition between the two. The 49ers look like they are on a roll, such that they will end up with a record anywhere between 12-4 and 15-1. I almost said 16-0, but that would mean that they beat the Packers on November 1, which I believe (hope? pray?) that they will not.

    The next quarter of the season will be pivotal. The Packers play the Vikings at Lambeau, followed by Detroit on the road, and then home games against Baltimore and San Francisco. If the Packers can win the next four, they will be well on their way to a very special season. Right now, to be perfectly honest, they don't look consistently sharp enough to win the next four in a row. They need to put the pieces together in a more complete fashion, and they need to do it in a hurry. Let's hope that they do.

    Monday, August 31, 1998

    Three Game Losing Streak

    It's only pre-season. I know. They only had one day of practice between the Denver and Miami games. I know that, too. And I could not see the Miami game, so it is a little tough to make very much out of a game I did not see.

    But try as I might, I just can't find any reason to feel overly optimistic about the upcoming season at the moment. From what I have seen of the Packers in the pre-season, they are just way too sloppy. Mistakes, turnovers, and penalties. Oh, sure, the Packers will probably be contenders, no matter what. As long as Favre stays healthy, they will win enough games to be in the hunt by the end of the season. And if they straighten things out, maybe that will even turn out to be good enough.

    The trouble is, my expectations are so much higher now, and for the last couple of years. I desperately don't want them to stumble out of the gate with a 2-3 or 3-2 record after 5 weeks, looking up at Tampa Bay or Minnesota in the standings. I want to see the Packers just switch it on and start blowing people out, like they did in 1996. We'll see. Maybe these guys are such old veterans that they can just turn it on when needed. The return of Robert Brooks (assuming that he does play in the opener) will certainly help. And now the Packers and Dorsey Levens have some kind of a deal done. His return will help, too, although it seems questionable whether he will play immediately.

    The end of a three game losing streak is probably a bad time to pull out the regular season schedule to count up the predicted "Ws" and "Ls," but here goes. I end up with a prediction of 11-5. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the home win streak is going to come to an end this year. In fact, based on the pre-season showing, I can see the Packers losing a couple of games at home this year. If that happens (which I hope it does not), my guess would be that they lose one of the first two weeks (Detroit and Tampa Bay). Probably the Tampa Bay game. And then, and I really hate to say this, but I have a bad feeling about the San Francisco game on November 1.

    On the road, I can see losses at Detroit, at Pittsburgh and at Minnesota. That would fill out a 6-2 record at home, 5-3 on the road, for a total of 11-5. Good enough to make the playoffs, maybe good enough to win the division, definitely not good enough to win home field advantage. Good enough to go the Super Bowl and to win it? The truth is, you just can't tell right now. It all depends on momentum and talent at the end of the year, with the extent of injuries and depth figuring into the mix. The Packers might be the best team in the league come playoff time.

    Unfortunately, they sure don't look like it right now.

    Wednesday, August 19, 1998

    Packers Lose to Oakland Raiders?

    The questions in the Freeman family in the last couple of days have been "Are the Raiders that much better? Or are the Packers that much worse?" We went to a couple of Raider games last year, including the Packer pre-season game, and believe me, this was one bad team. They had no heart whatsoever, and with the exception of a couple of games, they just seemed to quit when they would get behind in a game. Losing to the 1997 Raiders would definitely not be taken as a good sign.

    Well, it is beginning to look as if the Raiders are a much improved team. Jon Gruden may actually do some good things for this team, at least until Al Davis starts to meddle with him. So maybe it isn't quite so horrible to lose to the Raiders as one might expect.

    Seriously, I am not too concerned about this loss, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, any time the offense spots the other team 17 points on turnovers, it can be a bit difficult to catch up. A pass bounces off of my namesake's hands, and is returned for a touchdown. TWO fumbles on the center-quarterback exchange. Interceptions like that just happen once in a while, and fumbled snaps are not going to happen very often in the regular season, because one way or the other, the QB and the center will at least be used to working with one another.

    The other thing is something I have heard out here, even from Raider fans. The idea is that you have some teams, like Green Bay, and San Francisco, and Denver, who know what they are doing, are very good teams, and have continuity with the team from last year. They would like to win the pre-season game, but they are more interested in seeing how their players perform, and they don't really care. And then there are teams like the Raiders, who were awful last year despite a lot of talent, and who have a new coach, new coordinators, and really desperately want to win the game to make a statement. In other words, I guess, "they wanted it more." I don't completely buy this idea, but I suppose that there is something to it.

    Now if you carry out the "they wanted it more" theory to the next game, you would predict that the Packers will beat the Broncos next Monday night in Mile High Stadium, basically because they have a score to settle. Certainly, Mike Holmgren will be all over the team this week because of the poor performance against the Raiders, and they should not need a lot of extra motivation to take things out on the Broncos. And if the Packers really are a better team than they showed in the Super Bowl in January, then with all of these factors working, they should win the game.

    OK. Write it down. The Packers will beat the Broncos, and we will all feel a lot better.

    Tuesday, August 4, 1998

    It's Never Too Soon to Start Worrying

    You probably think that I am writing these words as a nervous Packer fan. After all, the Packers barely escaped Tokyo with a 27-24 victory over the Chiefs in the American Bowl Saturday night, after fumbles on the first two offensive possessions led directly to two touchdowns for the Chiefs.

    Actually, "It's Never Too Soon to Start Worrying" was the headline of Tim Keown's article in the Monday San Francisco Chronicle, and he was talking about the 49ers. They, too, managed a close victory, also over a quality opponent (the Patriots), by the score of 14-13. Basically, the 49ers offense performed poorly on Sunday, accounting for 7 points in the entire game. If the Patriots' quarterback didn't fumble in the end zone in the second quarter, the 49ers probably would have lost the game.

    Of course, who cares about the 49ers game, or for that matter the Packer game at this stage of the "season?" They were just first exhibition games, a week earlier than most teams start their games, and the starters played one quarter or less. Still, the much ballyhooed (at least here in Northern California) new 49er "aggressive offense" was not a smashing success in its debut, and the reserves (at least on offense) did nothing. The 49ers rolled up 13 first downs and only 53 rushing yards, while the Packers had 23 first downs and 225 rushing yards, by contrast.

    So, if you want to take anything away from the first week of exhibition games, I think the lesson is that the Packers have very good backups, at least on offense. I have been concerned about the depth of the squad, what with the free agency losses. But the backups impressed me on offense, to the point that I now think the Packers could get by for awhile despite injuries or holdouts of offensive starters.

    It is natural for long time Packer fans to feel that "It's Never too Soon to Start Worrying," but I think our West Coast competition has more to worry about right now than we do.

    Tuesday, March 10, 1998

    Ray Nitschke Remembered

    I'm going to jump in with my own Ray Nitschke remembrance. It picks up on an interview I heard on KCBS radio in San Francisco Monday morning. John Madden has a segment each morning, where he talks about whatever is on his mind. Unfortunately I missed the first minute or two, but caught the end. He was talking about Ray Nitschke, and was making the point that he (Madden) had spent enough time around Nitschke to KNOW that Nitschke considered it an honor when someone asked for his autograph, and that he was genuinely happy to give one. My personal encounter with Nitschke bears this out.

    It was 1989 (the "Majik Man" year). A semi-business meeting was scheduled for a Saturday in September in Chicago. Checking the calendar and realizing that the Packers were playing the Saints in Lambeau Field the following day, and being no dummy, I decided that I really needed to go to the Chicago meeting myself rather than sending someone else. I decided to take my dad to the game, something I had never done, since our tickets come from my wife's side of the family.

    I boarded a plane at O'Hare about 5:00 in the evening on Saturday, heading for Appleton. The plane was scheduled to stop in Green Bay first and then continue to Appleton (makes no sense geographically, but must have made sense to United Express, or Air Wisconsin, or whoever it was at that time).

    As I was waiting for the plane to get going, I noticed that the last guy to get on the plane, right as they closed the door, was none other than Ray Nitschke. (It is hard to miss him, even in a non-football setting.) For some reason, he was always a special Packer to me. My wife and I even named one of our cats after him (the cat is now 12 or 13 years old, and is showing his age).

    I decided that I would ask for his autograph, but thought I would leave him alone until just before the approach to the Green Bay airport. When the time came, I pulled my copy of Ray Nitschke's Packer Report out of my briefcase, and walked to the front to ask for his autograph. We talked for awhile. I explained that I was a subscriber of his, living in California, but was going home and was going to the game with my dad. He said that was just great (and I think he really meant it, too). He wrote a nice note for me on a piece of stationery I handed him. I then started blubbering something about what a great honor it was to meet him. He brushed the blubbering aside with something like "aw, go on." He could not have been nicer. I'm looking at his note now:

    To Tom Freeman
    "A Super Packer Fan."
    Best of Luck. Always
    Keep Happy & Well -
    Love Ya - God Bless
    Friend in Green Bay
    Old "66"
    Ray Nitschke

    As a little postscript, for several years I have been meaning to send Ray Nitschke a picture of Nitschke the cat, explaining that we named the cat Nitschke because of his red hair and sweet disposition. Unfortunately, I never did. What they say is true - if you have something nice to say or do, do it before it is too late.

    Monday, March 9, 1998

    Super Bowl XXXII Post-Mortem

    Well, I guessed wrong on the Super Bowl. Probably almost everyone reading this article did, too. I just felt so sure that the Packers were the better team, and I figured that the better team usually wins in the Super Bowl. Now that more than a month has gone by since the Super Bowl, I am finally coming to grips with writing this brief post-mortem.

    I have seen some fellow Packer fans argue that the Packers ARE the better team, but they just had a bad day on January 25. I'm not prepared to go that far. About as far as I would go is to say that if the Super Bowl were replayed 10 times, the Packers MIGHT win the majority of those games. And I'm not even real confident about that any more.

    It's not like the Packers outplayed the Broncos but lost the game due to some bad call, or due to some fluky play. The Packers were just pushed around by the Broncos for much of the game, especially in the second half. With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to put 2 D-linemen on the inactive list, combined with Gabe Wilkins' early game injury, just put too much burden on too few D-linemen in the second half.

    I do wonder why more wasn't done to adjust to the way the game was unfolding - maybe stacking the line of scrimmage, daring Elway to beat them with the passing game. Maybe the Packers did adjust, and it just didn't work, but watching the game in the stadium (i.e. without benefit of TV commentators), I did not see the adjustment.

    I also question what seemed to be the almost-total abandonment of the running game in the second half. The statistics in the game show that Levens was running for a pretty good average, and run defense was supposed to be a glaring weakness of the Broncos. And the game was always a TD or less away from a tie game in the second half. Oh, what a couple of sustained drives on offense might have done for the tiring Packer defensive line. But for whatever reason, they did abandon the run, and the rest is very painful history for us Packer fans.

    As this is being written on March 9, the year of 1998 seems like a nightmare. The Packers lost the Super Bowl, and now have lost Craig Hentrich, Edgar Bennett, Doug Evans, Gabe Wilkins, Eugene Robinson and Aaron Taylor. And yesterday came the sad news of the death of Ray Nitschke, one of my personal heroes.

    But I prefer to look at the bright side. The Packers did win the NFC Championship, before my very eyes in the rain at 3Com Park. They did finish as the second best team in the league. They have the best quarterback in the league. They have locked up Robert Brooks, and taken steps to lock up Antonio Freeman and Dorsey Levens, at least for this year. And, according to published reports, the Packers are still the favorites to win Super Bowl XXXIII. They are listed as 5-2 favorites, followed by San Francisco and Denver at 5-1.

    Things may look a little dark now. But longtime Packer fans know that things could be a whole lot worse.

    Only four months to training camp....

    Thursday, January 15, 1998

    San Diego, Here We Come!

    Two weeks ago, I wrote that I felt pretty good about the Championship Game against the 49ers, but admitted to some trepidations about the game. After all, the 49ers had Home Field Advantage, had a good defense, etc., etc., etc.

    A young man by the name of Jarrod Leder wrote a response to my article (BEFORE the game), pointing out eight analytical reasons why the Packers would win the game. Slightly condensed, here they are:

    1) The 49ers are an untested team. [...] The Packers had to beat three of the five (not including themselves) best teams in the NFC TWICE!!!! Plus one for the Pack.

    2) Barry Sanders. [...] The biggest reason why the Packers are only rated 7th in the league in defense is because of this man. He racked up close to 300 yards on the Packers this year and the 9ers didn't even play him. Plus two for the Pack.

    3) Brett Favre. He has a 94.1 QB rating in the playoffs which is higher than Young. [...] Plus three for the Pack.

    4) Gilbert Brown. Nobody in the league can run on this defense when he's in there and healthy. [...] Plus four for the Pack.

    5) Packers secondary vs. untested receivers. Evans and Williams are [...] the most dominant tandem in the league and you can quote me on that. Plus five for the Packers.

    6) Dorsey Levens. He's a freight train in the playoffs. [...] Plus six for the Packers.

    7) Home field, Shmome field. The Packers won all three games of a late season road trip which included winning at Minnesota (the 49ers didn't do that) and Tampa Bay (the 49ers didn't do that either). [...] The Packers have no fear of playing on the road. [...] Plus seven for the Packers.

    8) I've been right about every Packer game this season including the loss to the Colts (no joke). [...] I have the same feeling about this game that I had for the Cowboy game in November. I had a feeling the Packers were going to completely crush the 'Boys. Plus eight for the Packers.

    WOW!! Jarrod, "you da man" as far as I am concerned. As I told him after the game, looking back on it now, it all seems so clear that the Packers were the better team, by far, and that they should have been able to win the game easily. Still, all those many years of something going wrong didn't allow me to realize, before the game, just how right Jarrod was.

    Well, here we go again. My immediate, waterlogged reaction after the Championship Game was that the Packers would easily beat the Broncos. This lasted all the way home from 3Com Park. But then, I started to think of all of the talent John Elway has shown over the years, all of his comebacks, the clutch catches by Sterling's little brother, the strong running game led by Terrell Davis. Doubt started to creep in again.

    No, forget it. The Packers will win this game, and they will win it solidly (no point-spread prediction here, though). Even if the Broncos are better than the 49ers, itself a dubious proposition to anyone who saw the Monday night debacle between those two teams a few weeks ago, the fact is that the Packers are just the better team, and are on a mission of their own, to make more history for themselves and for our glorious franchise. So sorry, John Elway, that "sentimental favorite" business carries no weight with me, with millions of other Packer fans, or with the World Champion Green Bay Packers themselves.

    I have not heard from Jarrod yet about the Super Bowl, but await his analysis with great anticipation.

    * * *

    On the way out of the Superdome last January 26, we heard a rhythmic chant arise from our fellow Packer fans. "One and Two, Thirty-One and Thirty-Two." (Or for the Romans among us, "I and II, XXXI and XXXII.") It has been a long year since then, with a lot of ups and downs. The Packers have persevered, and are packing their bags for San Diego. All that remains to make this year's dreams come true is for them to win the game.

    Monday, January 5, 1998

    Battle By the Bay

    The Green Bay Packers are headed back to the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row. The trip to San Francisco was guaranteed when the 49ers beat the Vikings on Saturday, and the Packers finished off the Buccaneers. Once again, for the umpteenth time, the Vikings AND the 49ers conspired to do exactly the opposite of what the Packers needed to have happen. This has been going on since at least as far back as the 1989 "Majik Man" year, and it does not look like it will stop any time soon.

    In the Freeman household, the 49er victory over Minnesota, while disappointing, at least has a silver lining. We figured that this would happen, and so rather than planning on going back to Green Bay for a playoff game, we saved the airfare and planned on going to the NFC Championship game here in San Francisco.

    This week's game will bring back memories for all us, I'm sure. Was it really only two years ago that the Packers were the new kids on the block, sort of like this year's Buccaneers? They came out to San Francisco after beating the Falcons in the first round, and noone gave them a chance. They were facing the world champions, after all, on the road. I remember wavering as to whether I really wanted to go to the game, thinking it would be a miserable day for Packer fans. Then I said to myself, "What am I thinking about?" This was a Packer playoff game, something I had never been to in my life. So we located four tickets, packed ourselves into the minivan, and headed for San Francisco. What a game that was! I don't think I will ever forget the way the Packers took it to the 49ers that day. The fumble return, the way Wayne Simmons was beating up Brent Jones, Antonio Freeman signalling first downs, Keith Jackson open down the middle of the field, even John Jurkovich covering Jerry Rice on a zone blitz. It represented a legitimate beginning of the changing of the guard.

    The interesting thing was the reaction of the 49er fans. They couldn't quite believe what was happening, of course. But they were generally very nice to us Packer fans. (The "Piss on the
    Packers" T-shirts they were selling in the parking lot are another story, but they were available at sizeable discounts after the game.) The 49er fans even wished us well the following week
    against, as it turned out, Dallas.

    I think the atmosphere will be different this time. I think the cute novelty of the cheeseheads, and the Holmgren/Sherman Lewis/west coast offense connections have worn off with the 49er
    fans. They are starting to work up a fair amount of negative feelings about the Packers. Now that the Packers have beaten the 49ers three times in a row (twice in the Playoffs), the Packers are beginning to be to 49er fans close to what the Cowboys were to the Packer fans. Judy (my wife) heard someone call in to a talk radio show the other day with terrible things to say about any 49er season ticket holder who would dare sell seats to Packer fans.

    Anyway, the Freemans will be there again on Sunday, along with thousands of other Packer fans. I still feel pretty good about the game, since I really believe that the Packers are the better team. Sure, I wish the game was at Lambeau, but they are good enough to win on the road, and now all they have to do is prove it again. Judy is more nervous about the game, and our kids are still in that stage where they just believe the Packers will win every game. I hope we can fill every available seat with Packer fans, and eliminate whatever limited home field advantage there is in Candlestick Park.