Wednesday, December 25, 2002

We're Number Two!

“We’re Number Two! We’re Number Two!”

Okay, maybe it doesn’t have the same ring as the more traditional “We’re Number One” cheer, but in the NFL, being the number two seed in the playoffs is a vast improvement over being the number three seed. I didn’t really think that the Packers would move up to the number two seed. The Eagles refuse to lose a game (and they continued to win this week), and even though the Buccaneers have looked a little shakier in recent weeks, I didn’t really expect them to lose at home on Monday night.

As for the Packers’ win over Buffalo, for the second time this month, a Packer player played through a personal tragedy. In this case, Vonnie Holliday learned on Saturday that his second cousin, a rising star high school athlete, had collapsed and died that day. Holliday had to break the news to his relatives, many of whom had flown in on Saturday for the Packers’ game against the Bills. Holliday not only played Sunday, he set a team record for sacks in a game, by sacking Drew Bledsoe five times and forcing three fumbles in the process.

The Packers, by beating Buffalo, became the only team in the league this season to go undefeated at home. That is a matter of pride for the Packers and their fans. Mike Sherman emphasized this point by going around the stadium with several players after the game, to offer “high fives” to the fans, and by stating in his post-game comments that the Packer fans are undefeated this year at home.

The most striking thing about the game itself, other than Vonnie Holliday’s performance, was the wind. Both Sherman and Favre were emphatic in their post-game comments that the wind was MUCH worse than the previous week at San Francisco (not to mention that it was a lot colder). It was swirling, and moving mostly across the field (whereas in San Francisco it moved from one end of the field to the other), so that it was very difficult to either predict, or compensate for it. Sherman said that when the wind affects Brett Favre’s throws, you really know it is windy. Favre said that this was the worst combination of wind and cold in which he has played.

Then on Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers, another franchise with a storied history, did their friends from Green Bay an enormous favor by beating the Buccaneers, 17-7. It was the greatest gift from the Steelers franchise since the famous “Yancey Clause” game on Christmas Eve of 1995. In that game, Yancey Thigpen dropped what should have been a touchdown pass in the end zone late in the game, ensuring the Packers would win the NFC Central Division for the first time in the Brett Favre/Mike Holmgren era. The Buccaneers’ loss, combined with the Packers’ win over Buffalo, moved the Packers past the Buccaneers and, at least temporarily, into the number two seed in the playoffs. If they stay there, they will get a week off to get healthy before starting the playoffs at home, and in my judgment a much improved chance of hosting the NFC Championship game.

To maintain the number two seed, all the Packers have to do is beat the Jets in New Jersey on Sunday. That won’t be easy, as the Jets are playing pretty well. But the Packers, overall, are a better team, and therefore can and should win this game. If you want to get a little greedier, you could hope for the Giants to beat the Eagles on the same field in New Jersey on Saturday. If the Packers win and the Eagles lose, the Packers become the number one seed, and then we can all use the more traditional version of the cheer. The Eagles really could lose to the Giants, as the Giants have played very well in recent weeks, but then I have been saying that the Eagles were bound to lose some games ever since Donovan McNabb was injured.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Ninety Percent Solution

A few random thoughts and local flavor from the Packers’ big, wet weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. For me, the weekend started Saturday morning. On a weekend like this, I wear Packer stuff pretty much wherever I go and whatever I do. So my wife and I were at a meeting in San Francisco Saturday morning. When we were about to take a break, a guy said, "This has nothing to do with what we have been talking about, but what is with your Packer shirt?" I said "This is our big weekend - at least I hope it is." Later, talking on the side with him, I said, "We have never missed a Packer game in San Francisco or Oakland in over 22 years of living here." He said, "Oh, well if you have lived here that long you must have a bit of mixed loyalty." To which I replied, "Not for a minute, not even for a second." So we were on a roll.

Sometimes when the Packers are in town, we try to figure out where they are staying, and then hang around their hotel. We got our picture taken with Reggie White that way before the NFC Championship game after the 1997 season, for example. This year, we didn’t get the chance to go over there, but I did read in the paper that Packers’ plane was delayed because of the weather, but that the Packer fans waited as long as it took at the team hotel. You’ve got to love those Packer fans.

My theory has been that, if the Packers can just win all of their games, someone will slip up in front of them, and they may sneak into a number 2 (or even a number 1) seed. That would be a huge development, since it would give them a badly needed week off before their first playoff game. Well, the Packers have now won three games in a row. But then the Buccaneers pulled out another game on Sunday, when they certainly could have lost. And the Eagles can't keep winning with their third string quarterback. But they do. So all the Packers can do at this point is to keep winning and hoping.

We had a really fabulous time at the game on Sunday, along with maybe 20,000 fellow Packer fans. It is hard to estimate, but I think there were a lot more Packer fans this time than in the "Terrell Owens" game, for example. My shiny new NFC North Champions hat from the Packer Pro Shop (which arrived exactly when they told me it would, those guys at the Packer Pro Shop are great) made a big hit with lots of the fellow Packer fans. The weather was bad, of course. It rained, at times quite heavily, throughout most of the game. Because we were invited by a good friend to watch the game with a bunch of 49er fans in a suite, we stayed completely dry. But from our dry vantage point, the weather was bad, but not nearly as bad as it was for the NFC Championship game here after the 1997 season. That day we needed all the rain gear we could get our hands on.

As the game started, we realized that Gilbert Brown was not playing, which came as a shock, since we had not seen or heard any of the pre-game shows. That seemed like a really bad sign, but the defense played better against the run than it has in weeks. The first half seemed kind of sluggish, with both teams playing fairly conservatively, and it ended with the 49ers leading, 6-3.

Then things changed in a hurry. We had assumed that the Packers would pick on the 49er defensive backs throughout the game, after watching the way the Eagles second and third string quarterbacks picked them apart a few weeks ago. In the first half, the Packers went with a more balanced attack, and the running game was not working that well. But the Packers marched down the field on the opening drive of the second half, throwing on 6 out of the 8 plays in the 79-yard drive, and scored a touchdown to take the lead. Four plays later, the Packers intercepted Garcia on a deflection, and quickly moved 29 yards for another touchdown, throwing on 4 out of the 6 plays on that drive. These drives were classic examples of using the pass to set up the run.

The momentum in the game had changed dramatically. We were struck by the fact that these two drives had resulted in touchdowns against the wind, meaning that things should be easier for the Packers and harder for the 49ers in the 4th quarter. After the second touchdown, it seemed as if the Packer fans were about to take over the stadium, as their cheers seemed almost as loud as the noise being made by the 49er fans at other points. In fact, if the 49ers had not scored their only touchdown of the day on the very next drive, I think the crowd would have been mostly Packer fans by some time in the 4th quarter.

But of course they did, and as a result, the game ended up as a nail-biter. On the final drive, as the 49ers moved methodically down the field, the game had every appearance of being headed for another Terrell Owens disaster, just like the playoff game after the 1998 season. But the Packers played better on defense this time, and Jeff Garcia made a couple of critical bad decisions on the last few plays. His incompletion on first down from the Packers’ 14 yard line was a bad choice. He could have run for 8 to 10 yards. And his fourth down pass was completely unfathomable to me (but totally welcome). Owens was covered tightly, and so presumably Garcia worked through his progressions leading to an incomplete pass to the tight end at about the 7 yard line. But the problem with the pass was not that it was incomplete, but that it had absolutely no chance of getting a first down. What Garcia did, most likely, was to follow the progression rules of his system, without applying the judgment factor that says in a case like this it is better to try to force a pass to someone in the end zone than to throw a pass at the feet of the tight end at the 7 yard line. That is a mistake that Brett Favre (or Steve Young, for that matter) would never have made.

And so the Packers emerged with the win, for the 9th time in 10 tries in the Brett Favre era. Living here through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the glory years of the 49ers, it sometimes seemed as if no team would get the upper hand on the 49ers for long. And yet, starting with that first playoff game between the Packers and the 49ers after the 1995 season, Brett Favre and the Packers have beaten the 49ers 90% of the time. That is the best record the Packers have against any team in the Brett Favre era, other than a couple of teams that the Packers have only played 2 or 3 times. Yes, it is even better than the Packers’ record against the Bears over that period of time. This era is not going to last forever, so enjoy it while you can.

Traffic was unbelievably bad on the way home. California drivers don't know how to drive in the rain. But this gave us plenty of time to listen to the 49er post-game show on the radio. There were heavy doses of whining and complaining. Several callers felt that Gilbert Brown (!?!) should have been penalized for what they called his "forearm shiver" on Garcia. Then there was complaining about Steve Mariucci, and how he can't get the job done (the point being that the reason he was brought in was to beat the Packers). There was complaining about play-calling (the 4th down play, the 49ers didn't throw downfield enough, Garcia should have run for the first down, how could they call a running play to Garrison Hearst when they needed a touchdown, etc.). The host of the show wasn’t buying most of the complaints. So then he was accused of being too supportive of the team, and not critical enough. Then they complained about the 49er ticket holders selling their tickets to Packer fans. This was just great fun. It made the 2 hour plus trip home a lot easier to take.

Then, Monday morning, on John Madden's call-in on KCBS radio, they discussed the Packer-49er game. The sports guy said that the 49ers, to a man, say that they are not that concerned about having to go on the road during the playoffs, and that they can win on the road, including Lambeau Field. He asked Madden if he agrees. Madden: "Uhhhhh, no. When you talk about playing the Packers in Lambeau Field in the playoffs, now you are talking about not just a 5 year or 10 game streak, you are talking about a team that has NEVER lost a home playoff game in history." Sports guy: "Someday they are going to lose a playoff game at Lambeau Field." Madden: "Yeah, but it won't be to the 49ers."

Sunday, December 8, 2002

Eerie Parallels?

Much has been made in the last few weeks about the parallels between this season and the 1996 season, which ended with the Packers' victory over New England in Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers rolled their way to an 8-1 record in 1996, before injuries started to take their toll. With a depleted group of receivers, they lost a couple of games in a row (to the Chiefs and then to the Cowboys) to drop to 8-3. Then, the team rallied, after signing Andre Rison as a replacement receiver, and did not lose a game for the rest of the year, including the crowning glory Super Bowl victory in New Orleans.

But before getting back on track, they looked like they were in danger of losing their third straight game, at St. Louis (not a very good team at the time), where they trailed 9-0, and then 9-3 at the half. Doug Evans sparked the comeback in the third quarter when he intercepted Tony Banks' pass and ran it in for a touchdown to put the Packers in front, and they never relinquished the lead.

The same general story can be told about the 2002 season, so far. The Packers had an 8-1 record, before injuries (most recently to Chad Clifton) started to catch up with the Packers. The Packers lost consecutive road games at Minnesota and at Tampa Bay. They then played a game against a lesser opponent, the Chicago Bears, and they played poorly in the first half, trailing 14-6 at the half. And once again, defensive plays sparked the comeback, first, an amazing all-out effort by Javon Walker (playing defense after Favre's pass was intercepted on the last play of the half), running down the Bears' ball carrier who seemed surely on his way to a touchdown. And then, the other Walker, Rod, pulled an equally amazing defensive play in the second half to steal the ball away from the center and quarterback just as it was being snapped, with the Bears poised to score from the Packers' 1 yard line. The Packers roared back to win that game, and continued the win streak this week against Minnesota.

So, are the Packers on their way to home field advantage, a cruise through the playoffs, and another Super Bowl win? Who knows, but it looks like it will be much harder to pull off a Super Bowl victory this year. The parallels simply don't hold up when you look more closely. The Packers, in 1996, were a really dominant team, except for that stretch in the third quarter of the season. They started strong, and they finished strong, and they were never in much danger of losing any of the three playoff games that year.

This year, the Packers had a few convincing wins in the second quarter of the season, but otherwise every game has seemed in danger of being lost. Unlike 1996, when Desmond Howard was the Packers' secret weapon on special teams, this year, the Packers' special teams have been ordinary at best. But why take my word for it? During the Tampa Bay game, the announcers said that they had asked Brett Favre to compare this year's team to the 1996 team. Favre said that the 1996 team was much stronger than this year's team. The announcers seemed surprised to hear this, but anyone who has watched all of the games would have to agree with Favre.

Home field advantage itself is going to be difficult or impossible to achieve this year. The Packers are tied with the Eagles and the Buccaneers for best record in the league at 10-3, but both of those teams have tie-breaker advantages over the Packers, so even winning their remaining games will not guarantee home field advantage. Just today, the Buccaneers played the Falcons. You might think the Falcons, with the sensational Michael Vick, would have a shot to beat the Buccaneers, but the game was not close. The Eagles, with their third-string quarterback, went to Seattle to play the Seahawks. But again the game was not competitive. The 49ers, who trail the Packers by a game, had a game they easily could have lost at Dallas, but they rallied to win it at the end of the game. So, today at least, the Packers got no help whatsoever from other teams. And they are going to need help to get the home field advantage.

Next week, the Packers travel to the birthplace of the West Coast Offense, San Francisco. The 49ers seem vulnerable, based on their last couple of games, and yet despite their vulnerability they have managed to pull out wins in most of their games. The Packers don't have to look very far to get a game plan as to how to beat the 49ers. All they have to do is pull out the tapes of the Monday night victory by the Eagles (another West Coast Offense team) against the 49ers a couple of weeks ago. The Eagles, with their second and third-string quarterbacks, clearly displayed the weakness of the 49ers defensive backs. If the offensive line can give Favre some time, he should be able to carve the 49ers up. I will be there, of course. I have never missed a Packer game in San Francisco or Oakland in the 22 years I have lived here.

Friday, November 22, 2002

Must-Win Game?

Must-win game? The first reaction is “of course not.” The Packers are 8-2, and they lead their division by 5 games with 5 games left in the season. There will be no must-win games for the Packers until the playoffs.

Still, there is an uncomfortable feeling that this week’s game at Tampa will determine home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. And that is a big deal for both teams. It is a big deal for the Buccaneers because of the oft-cited statistic that the Buccaneers have NEVER won a game, in the entire history of the franchise, in cold weather (where the kickoff temperature is below 40 degrees). It is almost as huge a factor for the Packers. The Packers have never, in the history of Lambeau Field, ever lost a home playoff game. They have won plenty of games on the road, in the regular season and in the playoffs, but their recent history is not as good. In fact, the Packers have lost the last 2 playoff games they have played on the road (at St. Louis last year, and at San Francisco after the 1998 season). So the Packers would prefer not to have to return to Tampa or New Orleans or San Francisco in January (not to play a football game, anyway).

So let’s look forward to the end of the season. Realistically, there are only 3 teams in contention with the Packers for the home field advantage in the NFC, the Buccaneers, the 49ers and the Eagles. The Packers and the Buccaneers are both 8-2 at the moment, and the 49ers and Eagles are both 7-3.

The Packers’ schedule is: at Tampa, Bears at Green Bay, Minnesota at Green Bay, at San Francisco, Buffalo at Green Bay, and at New York Jets. My best guess is that the Packers will lose 2 of those games, and end up at 12-4.

The Buccaneers’ schedule is: Green Bay at Tampa, at New Orleans, Atlanta at Tampa, at Detroit, Pittsburgh at Tampa, and at Chicago. My guess is that they will end up at 12-4 or 13-3, AND that they will get their first-ever cold weather win at Chicago.

The 49ers have Philadelphia at San Francisco, Seattle at San Francisco, at Dallas, Green Bay at San Francisco, at Arizona, and at St. Louis. I would imagine that they will end up at 11-5 or 12-4.

Finally, the Eagles play at San Francisco, St. Louis at Philadelphia, at Seattle, Washington at Philadelphia, at Dallas, and at the New York Football Giants. But the key factor in the case of the Eagles is that they have lost Donovan McNabb, probably at least for the rest of the regular season. How will they do with Koy Detmer behind center? Hard to say, but I would be surprised if they end up better than 10-6.

So, when you think about it, this really is a key (almost must-win) game for the Packers. If the Packers win, they will probably end up at 13-3 and with the home field advantage. The Buccaneers won’t be able to catch the Packers unless the Packers lose two more games, and the 49ers won’t be able to catch the Packers unless they beat the Packers straight up AND pick up another game somewhere along the way. The reverse is pretty much true if the Buccaneers win. They would probably end up with a 13-3 record and the home field advantage.

The only difference is that the Buccaneers face what I consider to be a tougher schedule. It is a little easier to imagine the Buccaneers losing more than one game in the games against New Orleans, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh (or maybe even at Chicago if you really believe in the cold weather jinx), but I would not count on it.

This game, which will be shown to 87% of the country by FOX, is the biggest game of the year for either team. If the Packers can win (which would be their first win at Raymond James stadium, by the way) they will be well on their way to securing home field advantage. [Ed. note - the Packers lost to the Buccaneers, 21-7.]

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Mid-Season Review

What a difference a month makes. After the first quarter of the season, the Packers had a 3-1 record, but that was about the only good thing that could be said about it. They had just barely survived an overtime game against Atlanta. They were beaten, pretty solidly, by New Orleans. They almost allowed themselves to be caught from behind by the Lions. And then only a blown chip-shot field goal saved them from going into overtime against the Panthers. So, their 3-1 record was not far removed from a possible 1-3 or even 0-4 record.

And now, four games later, the Packers have a 7-1 record, the best record in the NFL, and a commanding four game lead in the NFC North. Despite an incredible spurt of injuries, especially on defense, the play of the team has improved from week to week in the second quarter of the season. The best part about these last four wins is the way that the backups stepped forward to make things happen, especially on defense. Darren Sharper, who returned to the field last night, even commented on this on ESPN, saying something to the effect that the backups had showed the way, by playing like starters, and now that the starters are back, it is up to the starters to keep it rolling.

There were three things about last night's game that were really special for me. First and foremost, the look of happiness on Favre's face during the game, and on the sidelines after he was taken out of the game in the fourth quarter, to cheers of "MVP" from the crowd. It is hard to imagine that there is anyone playing the game today who is such a kid at heart. I do wish he would stop head-butting and slapping around his teammates (especially Donald Driver) - someone could get hurt! Second, the return (in a HUGE way) of the screen pass. Because of Favre's knee injury, it makes sense that they would rely more heavily on the screen pass, but I hope they continue to do it even after his knee is fully healed. The screen pass has long been well-executed by the Packers, and the one that went for a 23-yard touchdown was a textbook example. Finally, the looks of unhappiness, throughout the game, on the face of Cris Carter (the sanctimonious one). I did not realize that most Packer fans feel the same way about him that I do until I heard the boos every time he caught the ball (or fumbled it, or popped it up for the interception).

As the second half of the season starts, everything now turns to the home field advantage in the playoffs. The Packers will win the division - only an Oakland Raiderian collapse could prevent the Packers from being the champs of the NFC North. But every game is still critical, in order to play at home in January.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

The Brad Hoover Syndrome

Those who saw the game Sunday against the Patriots probably saw the sign in the stands saying "You've Just Been Favre'd." And that is certainly true of the Patriots game, the Bears game before it, and various other games so far this year. Of course it is not a one-man show, and there are plenty of supporting characters who deserve credit for the Packers' 5-1 record so far this year.

Ahman Green is frequently a big factor, and he certainly was on Sunday by bringing balance to the offense (something the Patriots did not have, seemingly by design), and by chewing up the clock and yards in the 4th quarter. The new receiving corps is frequently a factor, too, although not so much in the Patriots' game given the weather conditions and the game plan. But in the Bears' game, the receivers came through in a big way, starting with the 85-yard bomb to Driver. That play was a thing of beauty, in so many different ways. First, Favre had all day to survey the field after rolling left. Then he threw the ball about 60 yards in the air. Driver got separation from the defensive back by a couple of steps. Then Favre hit him perfectly in stride. And finally, Driver actually caught the ball and was never in danger of being caught from behind. At least five things happened on that play, all of them perfectly, and as a result it was a great play to open the scoring against the Bears. Not only did it put 7 points on the board, but it had to have an effect on the Bears' coverage schemes for the rest of the game, which had the effect of opening up the short passing game and running game.

Still, a lot of it comes back to Favre, who just turned 33 last week and is in some ways having the best year of his career.

But the big surprise in week 6 was the defense. So many players were out of the game, including Holliday, Johnson, Sharper and McKenzie. The Packers started a defensive back they just signed a few days before the game (Westbrook). My attitude, going into the game, was that there was very little chance that the Packers would win this game. They were playing the world champions, on the road, with numerous injuries to starters on defense. Sure, the Patriots had not been playing well in the last couple of weeks, but still, they would surely eat the Packers' makeshift defense alive. Frankly, the first drive played right into my worst fears, as the Patriots marched relentlessly from their 20 yard line into Packer territory, until Brady launched a pass downfield, and that brand-new defensive back, Westbrook, intercepted it at the 8 yard line. Starting with that play, the Packers' defense really stepped up, playing far better than I would have hoped or expected.

One of the pivotal plays, of course, was the Tom Brady lateral in the last couple of minutes of the half, right after the Packers had scored to make the score 7-3. Brady looked right, spun around to the left, and lofted a too-high pass toward Kevin Faulk. The ball went off his hands and rolled around on the ground while Faulk, KGB, Hardy Nickerson and many others looked on. Watching the game on TV, I found myself yelling "PICK UP THE BALL!" Not that I was certain that the ball was a lateral pass (and therefore technically a fumble), but it sure was in the realm of possibility. Especially as the official just stood there, rather than picking up the ball, giving the alert observer a hint that maybe the ball was considered to be a LIVE BALL. Finally, as the seconds ticked by, rookie Marques Anderson showed that his head was in the game, as he came racing from many yards away to try to fall on the ball (it was eventually recovered by KGB). A heads-up play by another substitute starter.

The Packers, for once, found themselves on the positive end of what I think of as the Brad Hoover syndrome. Many times, over the years, the Packers have gone into a game knowing that the other team is missing a critical starter. Troy Aikman can't play, and so somebody noone ever heard of named Jason Garrett is the starting quarterback. Packer fans are licking their chops, but Jason Garrett (or Brad Hoover, or whoever) plays like a hall-of-famer and the Packers lose. It has almost gotten to the point where I wince if the other team has starters on the injury list. Finally, the Brad Hoover syndrome worked in the Packers' favor, with a bunch of backups playing way over their heads to bring home a victory for the Packers.

Thursday, October 3, 2002

3-1 Underachievers

Two more weeks under the Packers' belts, and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the Packers are now 3-1, in sole possession of first place in the NFC North, and tied for the best record in the NFC. The bad news is that the Packers have given their fans almost no reason to think that they can continue to win 75 percent of their games.

They came close to losing to the Lions in Detroit, in a game very reminiscent of last year's Thanksgiving Day affair. And then the Packers barely survived the invasion of the Panthers, with a missed chip shot field goal being the only thing that saved the Packers from overtime. On the plus side, the defense actually looked quite a bit better against the Panthers, despite the fact that they continue to give up big plays at the most maddening moments. And given the slew of people on both offense and defense who were on the injury list, maybe surviving a scare for a 17-14 win isn't so bad. None of us who saw it will soon forget Mike Sherman's temper tantrum on the sideline after the officials originally ruled Bubba Franks' touchdown pass an illegal forward pass. Whether the purpose of the tantrum was to stall until the replay official upstairs had time to call for a replay, or whether he was trying to fire up the team, or whether he just plain lost it, it was a sight to behold.

And now it is Packer-Bear week. It has been said many times, but it really is true that this is the greatest rivalry in the NFL, maybe in all of professional sports. It has everything you could want in a rivalry. Over 80 years of history, big city vs. small town, a genuine historical dislike between the teams and the fans. Halas vs. Lambeau and Lombardi, Nitschke vs. Butkus, and I could go on and on. Both teams have been hit hard by injuries early this season, so a big part of the game may be which team has been able to adjust better to the personnel changes. I would be more worried about this game, given how the Packers have been playing, it I had not seen the Bears blow a 20 point lead in week 3 to lose to the Saints, and then lose again in week 4 to the Bills. So the Packers have a decent shot at this game.

The key to the Packers season, as things appear right now, is for them to keep winning most of the close games until they get healthier, and until the defense gets to the point where it is playing more consistently. Last week was a real improvement for the defense, and this week would be an excellent time to keep that momentum moving in the right direction. I can't wait for Monday night.

* * * * * *

This week's column is dedicated to the man who took me to my very first Packer game, 40 years ago this week. That man was my Dad, who died peacefully last week at age 90, unfortunately a few days before we arrived for a visit. Continuing the generational tradition, my wife, kids and I stayed in town and went to the Packer game on Sunday. Thank goodness the Packers kept up their end of the bargain by winning the game. Oh, by the way, that first Packer game I went to, 40 years ago, was also a Packer-Bear game. Packers 49, Bears 0, September 30, 1962.

Friday, July 19, 2002

Cause for Concern

One win, one loss, both against teams that look as if they are better than anyone assumed. Things could be a lot worse, right?

Of course they could, but let's take a closer look at what has happened. Michael Vick became the new starter for the Falcons, and proceeded to force the Packer defense to chase him all over the field on an unseasonably hot Green Bay day. By the time the first quarter was over, the defenses on both sides must have had very little left in the tank. But the burden was worse for the Packers' defense, who had to continue to chase Vick. When you look at it this way, the fact that the Packers won the game in overtime, rather than being an embarrassment for the Packers, is actually quite an accomplishment. I was convinced, and my attitude was, "let's see what the defense looks like against the Saints before getting too concerned."

Well, the defense looked pretty terrible, and this time not even Brett Favre could bail out the team. True, the Saints also look better than expected, having beaten the Buccaneers in Week one, and having replaced the departed Ricky Williams with Deuce McAllister without missing a beat. But that doesn't change the fact that the Packers didn't just lose the game. Instead, the Packers lost the game AND the defense looked old, slow, and tired.

So I am concerned. And I was concerned before I found out that Ahman Green would probably miss this week's game. Before I learned that Mark Tauscher would miss the rest of the season. Before the Lions announced that they would start Joey Harrington. Before it dawned on me that this will be the first regular season game in Ford Field. The Packers just have too much history making new starters look like Hall-of-Famers. Especially on artificial turf. Especially in domes. So now I am really concerned.

I have seen the view expressed that the Packers now face two eminently winnable games against Detroit and Carolina. And if they win both of those games to get to 3-1, things will almost automatically look more positive than they do right now. But it just doesn't look that automatic to me. Heck, the Packers almost lost to the equally bad Lions last year on Thanksgiving Day. And the eminently beatable Panthers are sitting at 2-0, so maybe they are not such a bad team, either.

The third game of the season can't really be a "must-win" game. The Patriots last year started out 0-2, and lost their Pro Bowl quarterback for most of the year. But if the Packers don't win this game, it looks like it will be a long season.

The Butler Did It

Just a few days ago, my Packers Trivia calendar asked this question: "who is the only Packer player to have played for each of the last four head coaches of the Packers?" The answer, of course, was Leroy Butler. The only Packer from the Lindy Infante era still active as a member of the team.

Until yesterday. Leroy Butler retired yesterday, due to the fact that his shoulder has not healed properly. Ever the team player, Butler was concerned about holding a roster spot open for him through training camp and the pre-season. What if, after holding the roster spot, the shoulder still hasn't healed? Then the team would have suffered from devoting the spot to him. So he leaves, after a long career, but before Butler or the team had hoped.

Butler will be missed by the team, and by the fans. He was, after all, one of the leaders of the team on defense throughout his career. He also originated the Lambeau Leap, on an icy day in Green Bay at the end of the 1993 season. Butler stripped the ball from the Raider ball-carrier, it was scooped up by Reggie White, who soon lateraled the ball to Butler who carried the ball into the end zone and into the stands. I remember that game, since it was carried on TV here in the San Francisco-Oakland area, even though the Raiders then played in Los Angeles. The Raiders seemed completely psyched out by the cold, and the Packers cruised to a 28-0 victory. Butler's touchdown made the score 21-0, and it was about that time that a Raider-fan friend of the family called to wave the white flag.

On a much warmer day, Butler repeated the maneuver in September of 1996, against the Chargers. This time the Packers cruised to a 42-10 victory, and Butler cruised 90 yards for a touchdown and Lambeau Leap with his second interception of the day.

Butler was selected for the Pro Bowl in both 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998. He is certain to be elected to the Packers Hall of Fame, and likely to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I was supposed to go to what turned out to be Butler's last game as an active player, on November 18, 2001, but missed it due to a death in the family.

Butler says he wants to stay with the team this year as a consultant. The Packers would be nuts not to make room for him. and I am sure that they will. He will, as a consultant, continue to provide the sort of leadership for the young players that he did as a player.

Thursday, January 24, 2002


"The Packers' season came to an end on Sunday with a crashing thud. They were destroyed by a far superior St. Louis Rams team, blown out by the score of 45-17. Just like those early playoff years of the Favre/Holmgren era, they met up with a team (the Cowboys then, the Rams now) that they seemed to have no chance to beat."

At least that is what you would think if you missed the game, woke up on Monday morning and just read the final score. But on closer inspection, this game had a different feel to it. Oh, the Rams' victory was no fluke, and the Rams are certainly the better team. But unlike the feelings of despair in those years against the Cowboys, when it was clear that the Cowboys were so much better than the Packers that the Packers would never beat them until the Cowboys were well past their prime, this time the Packers seemed pretty close to the victors. Take away the ridiculous number of turnovers (PLEASE take them away!), and the Packers played right with the Rams. In fact, it could be argued that they outplayed them. The Packers had more rushing yards, more passing yards, more time of possession, more of most everything except points, where there was a huge deficit.

So what happened? Well, obviously, enough turnovers for 4 games (6 interceptions, tying a playoff record, and 2 fumbles lost). But the interesting question is, why? Antonio Freeman's fumble was mostly just a great play by Aeneas Williams in stripping the ball. Ahman Green's fumble was the result of poor ball-carrying technique, something he will work on in the off-season.

And then there were the interceptions. The first one (returned for a touchdown) was the obvious result of either Favre or Schroeder making a mistake, but without knowing the details of what the Packers' offensive system is for adjusting routes on the fly, it is difficult to know whose fault it was. Certainly, Schroeder's adjustment (to head up field) was a good idea in the abstract (i.e. apart from whatever the system calls for), because he would have been wide open for a long gain or a touchdown. But Favre and Schroeder have frequently seemed not to be on the same page this year, and as much as it is nice to see the local Sheboygan boy make good, I am not sure he will be back.

Four of the interceptions came on tipped balls, so there was a certain fluky aspect to those interceptions, although there is plenty of room to question both Favre's judgment on some of the throws, and the inability of the Packer receivers to pull the balls down.

More and more, and after re-watching most of the game, I am coming around to the view that the problem was a combination of several factors: (1) a slightly over-aggressive (and thus risky) approach to the game plan; (2) the fact that this risky approach came home to roost in the form of several early interceptions, one for a touchdown and one for a near touchdown, so that early in the second quarter the Packers were down 21-7; (3) the fact that one of the breaks that could have kept the Packers in the game (Rossum's kickoff return for a touchdown) was called back on a penalty; and (4) the fact that the early 14 point lead allowed the Rams to start playing almost a prevent type defense, which, combined with the continuing aggressive approach by the Packers' offense, led to an obscene number of interceptions.

What I mean by the slightly over-aggressive approach is this. The Packers seemed to come into the game with the attitude that they needed to score a lot of points to win the game, so they went right after it, somewhat aggressively, from the start. No jockeying for field position, not a lot of runs or short passes, but a lot of medium range or longer passes. Now that is not a bad thing; in fact I think it was a good strategy. But unfortunately it is a higher-risk strategy, and it backfired on the Packers when the early turnovers started putting extra points on the scoreboard for the Rams. And as the Rams got ahead, and as the minutes for a possible comeback ticked off the clock, it led to an ever-increasing sense of desperation for the Packers, so they started putting the ball up even more, trying to squeeze it into small spaces, etc. And this just allowed the Rams' defensive backs to have a field day.

Mike Sherman, in his dual role as head coach and general manager, will have a busy off-season. It will have been a successful off-season, in my view, if he is able to upgrade the wide receiver corps. Right now, the Packers' wide receivers are not keeping defensive coordinators from sleeping at night. The Packers need a substantial improvement of at least one of their starting wide receivers, whether through maturation of players on the existing roster, through free agency, or through the draft. A relatively modest improvement at wide receiver will really open up the running game, and help to take some pressure off of Favre.

And then, if he has some free time left over, it would be good if he could figure out a way to keep the team better motivated against bad teams. The Packers lost three games to non-playoff teams this year, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Turn one of those losses into a win, and the Packers would have won the division and had a bye week in the playoffs. Turn two of them into victories, and the Packers would have had home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Games against bad teams are always important, every year. But looking back at the 2001 season, the importance of those games could not have been clearer for the Packers.

Monday, January 14, 2002

Nothing to Lose

I was just a kid when Lambeau Field opened in 1957. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the last game to be played in Lambeau Field before the extensive renovations, which are already underway. Looking up at the Club Seats and Luxury Boxes after the game, I could almost imagine the demolition crews in there, probably starting today, smashing things in preparation for the unveiling of an even-better Lambeau Field in the future. For those of you close enough to go take a look, you should take a trip to Lambeau Field this year to see how the renovations are progressing. The new brick facade is coming along, and it really is starting to look nice.

Although the timing was off, the military jets doing their flyover during the national anthem was an impressive spectacle. So was the flag ceremony in the middle of the field. I did wonder why the 49ers didn't join the Packers in coming out to grab the edges of the flag, but maybe they were told not to do so.

Gilbert Brown opened the game with a bang, sacking Garcia on the first play. I heard a nice story on the radio show after the game. Gilbert is evidently opening a car dealership in Fond du Lac. Some kid who, according to the person who called into the show, has had "a lot of adversity in his life," came in to see Gilbert during the past few days, when he was present at the new dealership. According to the caller, Gilbert was as nice as could be to this kid, and promised him that his first "grave digger" celebration would be for him. The caller said "you should have seen this kid's eyes when Gilbert told him that." I can only imagine what his eyes looked like after the first play of the game.

The much-maligned receiving corps redeemed itself somewhat yesterday. It was nice to see Antonio Freeman score the first touchdown of the game, which means that he extended his team record of catching a touchdown in four straight playoff games. He was also the leading Packer receiver in the game, and he has been the leading Packer receiver in 6 straight playoff games. Dorsey Levens, meanwhile, has had a catch in 12 straight playoff games, another Packer record. Bubba Franks got into the act, too, and his catch for the second touchdown had a very different "degree of difficulty" from his usual, 1 yard touchdown catch.

And how about Corey Bradford just stealing the ball from the defensive back on the long catch in the 3rd quarter. Bradford, talking about the biggest play of his career, said he had cried during the pregame introductions after hearing Mike Sherman's speech about all of the great players who came out of that North End Zone tunnel over the years, reminding the players that when they left the field on Sunday, it would be the last time any players would ever go out that tunnel. The tunnel will be demolished now that the Lambeau Field season has ended.

Bradford's catch belongs in the season's highlight reel, but amazingly, it was not even the play of the day. That play had to be the McKenzie to Williams tip for the interception that helped preserve the Packers' lead, followed by the 93 yard drive to sew up the ballgame. From now on, when someone talks about Elway's "The Drive" against Cleveland, I will just tune it out and think of Favre, driving down the field, completing third down passes whenever it was necessary to keep the drive moving. I will also think of Freeman's ill-considered exuberance in holding the ball up after catching one of those third-down passes. (At least he had enough awareness to admit, in post-game interviews, that it was a bonehead thing to do.)

This game was really all about the kind of player Brett Favre is. He was frustrated during the first half by the relatively conservative offensive game plan. He said he had talked to the coaches during the halftime break, saying that they should open it up, and "leave nothing on the field." And he just came out and took control of the game in the second half. He also took sole possession of second place on the all-time record list, for having a touchdown pass in 11 straight playoff games. Only Dan Marino has more, at 13.

And for their great effort yesterday, what is the Packers' reward? A trip to see the Super Bowl favorite St. Louis Rams. I see that the Rams are favored by 9 points. It is easy to understand why. They have blown a lot of teams out this year, only losing a couple of games when they had enough turnovers to beat themselves. The Packers have been good this year, frankly beyond my expectations and the expectations of most Packer fans. But let's not forget that the Packers also lost 3 games this year to inferior opponents (Minnesota, Atlanta, and Tennessee). And some of their wins were nailbiters (Tampa Bay, at Chicago, at Detroit, at Jacksonville). This translates into a maddening inconsistency by the Packers, although I suppose you could argue that you can't be too inconsistent and still end up with a 12-4 record (now 13-4).

Being objective about it, the Packers will probably lose this week. But with Brett Favre at quarterback, who knows? I suppose I feel the same way about the Rams game that I felt about the Green Bay at San Francisco game after the 1995 season. I briefly considered not going to that game, because I did not want to suffer through watching the Packers lose the first playoff game I ever attended. Better to suffer in solitude, I thought. Then I said to myself "What the hell are you talking about? You have never been to a Packer playoff game in your life, and here the Packers are playing in the playoffs in your back yard, and you are thinking about not going?" So my family and I went to the game, a game I will never forget.

Football miracles can happen, and it helps if you have Brett Favre, Ahman Green, and Gilbert Brown on your side. Other teams have gotten good in a hurry and cruised through the playoffs (perhaps prematurely) despite doubts about how good they are. The 1981 49ers were one example. The Rams, in their Super Bowl year, were another. So were the Ravens, last year. So it doesn't have to be a gradual progression like it was for the Packers under Holmgren (1-1 in playoff games after 1993 season, 1-1 after the 1994 season, lost in the NFC Championship game after the 1995 season, and finally won the Super Bowl after the 1996 season).

The Packers truly have nothing to lose this week. Everyone expects that they will lose to the Rams. They may as well play loose, take their shots, or as Brett Favre would say, "leave nothing on the field," and see what happens.

Monday, January 7, 2002

Unfinished Business

The Packers' offense had a nice little tune-up for the playoffs on Sunday. [Ed. note - the Packers beat the Giants, 34-25.] The offense, at times, looked really sharp, with even the normally-missing-in-action Corey Bradford playing a big part (mostly because Antonio Freeman was held out of the second half with a rib injury). Ahman Green gained over 100 yards, Schroeder and Bradford each had over 100 yards receiving, and Favre had over 300 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions, and one sack . . . sort of.

The defense was a little shakier. They gave up a ridiculous number of yards (524), including allowing the longest running play of the year for the Giants, and Ron Dayne's longest run of his NFL career (61 yards). On the other hand, it is hard to get too worked up about this, since for most of the game the Packers had the game pretty well in hand, and to that extent a lot of the yards were of the bend-but-don't-break variety. It looks like Gilbert Brown will be back for the playoffs, and man, oh man, is his presence needed to stop the running game.

Even the special teams were productive. Dorsey Levens had the longest kickoff return of the year for the Packers (and his longest career kickoff return) in the first half, only to have an even longer one at the start of the second half. Not much punt return yardage for the Packers, but at least Freeman caught the ball this week instead of letting it bounce right by him as he did last week.

Now, as for the sack. For over 57 minutes, the Packers did not give up a sack, despite the fact that Michael Strahan's pursuit of the sack record was about all the Giants had to play for. In the closing minutes of the game, Favre kept the ball on a naked bootleg to the right side, Bubba Franks whiffed on a block, and Favre flopped to the ground right before Strahan (gently) jumped on him for the sack. The whole thing looked like a dive to me, even watching it the first time live. Then when FOX showed a replay of Favre and Strahan chatting before the play, well, let's just put it this way . . . you don't have to believe in a second gunman on the grassy knoll in order to understand that this sack was a setup. I am not getting all worked up about it, but I do think it cheapens the record.

And this brings us to: the Packers and the 49ers, in the playoffs. According to Brett Favre, Steve Mariucci called him, earlier in the season, to wish him a happy birthday. Mariucci said that he would see Favre in the playoffs in San Francisco. Favre replied that they would see each other in Green Bay for the playoffs. It has seemed likely for a couple of weeks now that it would come down to this. And it is really fitting, too, given that the Packers started their run to greatness in the 1990's when they came out here to San Francisco after the 1995 season and knocked off the defending champion 49ers. They beat the 49ers in the playoffs three years in a row, before finally getting beaten by the 49ers after the 1998 season, on the famous Terrell Owens catch (which I will see about 100 times on the San Francisco TV stations this week).

That catch left a really bad taste in my mouth, as my family and I rushed out of 3Com Park that day as the scene there started to get ugly. That day was the end of the road for Mike Holmgren and Fritz Shurmur as Packer coaches, it was Reggie White's last game as a Packer, it was the last game announced by Jim Irwin and Max McGee, and it was the last time the Packers were in the playoffs, until this Sunday. This time, the game will be in Green Bay, and we will just have to wait and see if the Packers' record of never having lost a playoff game in Wisconsin remains intact. I like the Packers' chances.

Anyway, how is this for a pipe dream? Packers beat the 49ers in Green Bay this week, and the Bucs beat the Eagles. The following week, Green Bay goes to Chicago and wins, while the Bucs knock off the Rams in St. Louis, as they did earlier this year. The following week, the NFC Championship game is Tampa Bay at Green Bay. OK, I will grant you that it is improbable, but it could happen.

Tuesday, January 1, 2002

2001 in Review

Last night, we brought to a close a year many of us would rather put behind us, and today we welcome what we hope will be a much better year. Outside the football world, 2001 was a terrible year. A controversial Presidential election split the country right down the middle as the year began, and the stock market and the whole economy were in the tank. Then came the unfathomable terrorist attacks by Bin Laden's foot soldiers. Thousands of our fellow citizens lost their lives because of a handful of religious fanatics. And on and on. It was a year we will never forget, and a year that helped us football fanatics to put our fanaticism into some perspective, for a change.

But back to the Packers. 2001 started off quietly, too quietly, as the Packers were out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. On the bright side, that string of four straight victories in December, 2000 against NFC Central opponents left us with a sense that 2001 could bring better things for the Packers.

And sure enough, the Packers started out the 2001 season with a bang, winning the first three games in a fashion that was impressive, except for nagging doubts about the quality of their opponents. They then dropped a close game in Tampa, and then quite unexpectedly beat the World Champion Ravens in Green Bay. That was, in some ways, the high point of the season. Since that time their record has been 7-3, which is pretty good, but the three losses were to teams they should have beaten, and a couple of the victories required either miracle finishes (in Jacksonville) or serious nail-biting (in Detroit, and in Chicago). Most frustrating of all was the Packers' tendency to lose an "easy" game immediately after an important victory. All of this leaves one thinking wistfully of what might have been if the Packers had not dropped one of those games.

Sunday's game looked like it might fit right into that mold. The Packers had made the playoffs the week before, and now the Packers had no running game, the passing game was mostly misfiring, and the defensive line was being gashed by the Vikings' running backs, despite the total absence of any passing game from the Vikings' third string quarterback. The Packers were letting the Vikings hang around through the entire game, and when the Vikings scored to go ahead in the 4th quarter, 13-10, it looked like an upset in the making. But then the Packers turned it on, Packers marched down the field on the next drive, and went ahead for good.

What was the story? Were they just toying with the Vikings? Not exactly. It turns out from the post-game interviews that there was method in the Packers' madness, at least on defense. They were determined not to let the Vikings' receivers (especially Randy Moss) get open, and if that meant less attention to defending the run, so be it. The Packers were pretty sure that the Vikings would not win the game on the ground, and it turns out they were right. On offense, the picture is more complicated. The running game was not working, but the passing game was also misfiring, with a combination of off-target passes and dropped passes. This is the kind of inconsistency we have seen on and off all year, except this time it did not cost the Packers the game.

My sense is that the Packers are a year away from doing any serious damage in the playoffs. Living here in 49er country, the 49er fans seem to have the same question about their team that I have about the Packers: how is this team going to beat the Rams? The answer is that neither the 49ers nor the Packers have much chance of doing that. Of course, on any given Sunday anything can happen, but speaking for myself, I am not making any reservations for New Orleans.

Still, the season for the Packers has at least two weeks to go, and that is a much better situation than the Packers found themselves in a year ago. There are no guarantees, but the Packers have a reasonable shot of beating any other NFC team in the playoffs, except the Rams in the dome. So if things go right, the Packers could even end up in the NFC Championship game, and I suppose if someone else knocks off the Rams (like the Buccaneers?) they could possibly end up in the Super Bowl. But that seems like too much to ask of this team. A much more likely scenario is a first-round victory, followed by a frustrating loss in the second round. That will have been a very good season for the Packers, and something to build on for next year.

In the meantime, Happy New Year to Packer fans everywhere, and to all Americans.