Sunday, November 25, 2001

Strange Week of Football

This past week has been a strange one for football. First the Packers lose a game to the Falcons, at home, in which they were favored by 10 points. And to make matters worse, Leroy Butler was lost for the season. I was supposed to go to that game, but was unable to go as things turned out. Just as well. It would have been a terrible game to witness in person.

Then, after a short week, the Packers seemed to have everything together for a rare easy win at the Silverdome. And then, just as everyone was getting ready for the Thanksgiving dinner, the Lions almost put together a miracle finish, but fell short on the final two point conversion. The Packers escaped with a 29-27 win, and their fans could finally enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, after what seemed like the longest closing minutes ever in a game.

Then came a Sunday of football with no Packer game, and no other games that mattered much to the Packers until the Sunday night game. (Needless to say, I watched the early games anyway.) The Sunday night game was the Bears at the Vikings. Given the way that the Vikings blew the Packers out in the dome, and then blew the Giants out there just last week, one would assume that the Vikings would continue their explosive ways. But wouldn't you just know it? The Vikings' offense turned anemic, just when the Packer fans needed a little help from the men in purple. So the Bears go to an 8-2 record, and it is time to realize that they must be for real. (The rematch between the Bears and the Packers in two weeks looks like it will be an enormously important game.) The only consolation from the Sunday night game is that it looks like the Vikings really are dead now. Their record is 4-6, and I imagine they will finish up with a record of about 6-10.

So what to make of the Packers? They started the year strong, but have faltered somewhat in the middle part of the season. They certainly do not look like the dominant team they were in 1996, for example. But they are still sitting at 7-3 and within striking distance of the division lead and a likely opening week playoff bye. The Atlanta game shows that there is really no game they can take for granted, including of course next week's Monday night game at Jacksonville. It would be nice if the Packers got it all together as the season winds to a close, in much the same way that the Ravens did last year. But right now, there is no strong evidence to suggest that this will happen.

This strange week of football will end with Monday night's Tampa Bay at St. Louis game. Personally, I am hoping the Buccaneers win it, because I am not all that worried about the Buccaneers now, and would rather see another loss for the Rams. But the way things have gone this week, the Rams will probably blow the Buccaneers out.

Sunday, November 11, 2001

Mid-Season Review

On a Veteran's Day that seemed a lot more important than other Veteran's Days in my life, the Green Bay Packers renewed their acquaintance for the 162nd time with their oldest rivals, the Chicago Bears. Coming into this game, the Bears led the historical series 84 to 71, with 6 ties (including the Bears' victory in the only playoff game between the two ancient enemies). The miracles ran out for the Bears today, and the Packers prevailed, 20-12. In so doing, they moved back into first place in the NFC Central, with a 6-2 record, equaling the record of the Bears. The Packers also advanced their Division record to 3-2, with a road game remaining at Detroit on Thanksgiving, and home games against Minnesota and Chicago in December.

This game was arguably the most significant game between the Packers and the Bears since the early 1960's, because it was a battle for first place in the Division and because it gave the winner the opportunity to open a 2 or 3 game lead over the Buccaneers and Vikings. The Buccaneers ended up beating the Lions in Detroit to improve their record to 4-4, but the Vikings continued their fall by being blown out for the second game in a row, this time by Philadelphia, dropping their record to 3-5.

The Packers did get off to a slow start, though, including the obligatory stupid throw by Brett Favre for an interception in the first quarter, and another extra-effort fumble by Ahman Green. But the Bears only scored field goals all day long, and so the score was only 6-0 after these mistakes. I attribute the Bears' lack of success both to their conservative play-calling, and to a strong Packer defense, even though the defense did not have a lot of high profile plays (no interceptions and no sacks, for example). The defense basically just played it straight this game, and was able to pretty much control the game without taking any big risks.

On the offensive side, boy, what a difference Bill Schroeder's return made, as the offense looked sharp after its early struggles. Favre ended up throwing two touchdown passes, a 41-yarder to Schroeder in the first half, and a 9-yarder to Antonio Freeman in the third quarter. And what a pleasure it is to see Ahman Green just grind out the yards, and chew up the clock, late in the game.

But still, the Bears won the last two weeks on miraculous, end-of-game comebacks to tie the game in the 4th quarter, followed by wins in overtime. Amazingly, this game almost seemed set up for the same kind of finish. The Bears trailed by 8 points for much of the 4th quarter, and so a touchdown and 2 point conversion could have sent the game to overtime. But after driving most of the length of the field, the Bears' drive stalled at the 15 yard line of the Packers, and the victory was preserved.

Halfway through the season, the Packers find themselves in great shape. They are tied for first place in the division, and only the Rams have a better record in the NFL. I, frankly, expected the Packers to be no better than 5-3 at this point of the season, so they are ahead of my personal projection. They look like they are on the way to something like an 11-5 season, and if they can avoid mistakes and key injuries, they could have a really sensational season.

Sunday, November 4, 2001

The Favreian Dilemma

Today's game, in which the Packers beat the Buccaneers by a final score of 21-20, highlights a problem the Packers have had, on and off, for the entire Brett Favre era. The problem is that Favre is not only the Packers' best player, he is also sometimes the Packers' biggest problem. Not in the way that Terrell Owens, Randy Moss or Brian Cox can be problems for their teams.
The mature Brett Favre seems to be a good citizen, on and off the field. But Favre's somewhat reckless style, in addition to leading to some of his most astonishing, creative, and sensational plays, also leads to his tendency to turn the ball over and create points for the other side.

Today's game is a perfect example. The Buccaneers scored 20 points, and almost won the game. Some could even say they should have won the game, although I would disagree. What is clear is that 17 of those 20 points were scored after Favre's two interceptions and Ahman Green's fumble. If Favre's third "interception" had not been overruled on replay when it was determined that the ball hit the ground before the interceptor gained control of the ball, chances are good that the Buccaneers would have picked up the game winning points on the drive that would have resulted from that turnover. In other words, mistakes by the Packers' two best players on offense led to 85% of the Buccaneers' points today. Take away those mistakes, and the game isn't even close. (To illustrate this, consider the fact that when Ahman Green scored on his long touchdown run, the total offense of each team was Green Bay, 323 yards, Tampa Bay, 121 yards.)

So couldn't we just get all the good plays out of Brett Favre, but tell him to be a little more careful about where he throws it? Or couldn't we get all the good plays from Ahman Green but tell him to hold on tight when he is struggling for extra yards? Well, I guess it does not really work that way. They should certainly be told to be more careful with the ball, and in fact I would argue that Favre is a lot more careful with the ball than he was earlier in his career. But just like you have to take all of the calories along with the ice cream sundae, we have to accept that Favre's basic style of play is going to lead to some mistakes on most days, along with all of the great plays. If the Packers were as dominant as they were in 1996, the mistakes would hardly matter at all. But they are not, and as a result they will certainly lose some games that they should have won. This team would not be 5-2 without Brett Favre and Ahman Green, make no mistake about it.

* * * *

On a lighter note, I am going to award today's game ball not to Brett Favre, or to Ahman Green, or even to Allan Rossum, but instead to Judy Freeman (my wife). When the score was 17-7 in favor of the Buccaneers, she told me I should move the Packer flag on our house back to its original location. My mind raced back to the fact that I had moved the flag bracket from the left side of the garage to the right side, JUST BEFORE THE DISASTROUS GAME AGAINST THE VIKINGS! And here it was, 17-7 in favor of the Buccaneers. Now I am not as superstitious as I used to be, but faced with these facts, why take the chance? I ran outside, screwdriver in hand, and moved the bracket back to the left side, after which the Packers ended up winning the game. Coincidence? You be the judge. Are all football fans this superstitious, or is it just us Packer fans?

And then, to put the icing on the cake, when the score was 20-14, Buccaneers, and the Bucs were lining up to punt, Judy said "it would be nice if you run the ball in right now." Ten seconds later (did you see Rossum's acceleration through the hole?), the Packers were ahead.

Having witnessed these events, you would think I would be smarter than to go out to do some yard work during the late game, with the Bears losing, 21-7 and a couple of minutes left. I thought the game was under control. But for the second week in a row, the Bears came back from a 14 or 15 point deficit in the closing minutes to win the game in overtime. Now that is a scary prospect if the Bears have developed into a team that can come from way behind and win games. Since the 49ers and the Browns don't seem to know how to beat the Bears, the Packers will have to take care of the Bears by themselves.