Wednesday, December 28, 2005

End Of The Season and Sherman's Future

I’m very excited for Sunday. For two reasons.

One is a good reason: I am going to my first (and only) Packer game of the 2005 season, to see the final game against the Seahawks. I don’t get to many games in a season, so when I walk around the Atrium and the concourse, I really do cherish the time.

The other reason, however, is probably less exciting than it is a sense of foreboding, because I’m waiting for a press conference from Ted Thompson that may come as early as Sunday night, making an announcement that will set the Packers’ future in motion.

That decision, of course, will start with Mike Sherman’s job, which one has the feeling has had a decision made on it already, win or lose against Seattle. I’m sure a crushing loss against Mike Holmgren’s backups at home could speed up that announcement, though.

I have a strong feeling we are looking at Mike Sherman’s last couple of days as Packer head coach. Some will celebrate, some will wail. Some will quickly change their “Bad News” to “Good News” and pop open some champagne. Some will wave goodbye to a Packer era, and look forward to whatever changes are coming on the horizon, with foreboding or hopefulness.

Chris Havel had a scathing article about Mike Sherman in Wednesday’s Green Bay Press-Gazette, calling for Sherman to be fired by Ted Thompson. This was surprising and very bold by Havel, a reporter I’ve followed very closely since he first began writing for the Packers.

You can read his article and get all of his opinions about Sherman, but the fact he’s written the article at all gives us some interesting conclusions that we can jump to, none of which seem too improbable.

First of all, it is very rare, especially in a small market like Green Bay, for the local writer to call for the head coach’s dismissal in such a grandiose way. While I would expect this from the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal writers, the usual Pollyanna editorials of the Press-Gazette normally wouldn’t tread into this territory.

So, why would Havel break the ice? Using a little deduction, one can definitely assume that, if Mike Sherman is definitely staying on as head coach, or even has a solid chance at staying, a primary local reporter would never burn his bridges with the head coach for the next season (and possibly beyond). Havel is either very brave, very foolish, or knows something we don’t.

Havel is fairly outspoken, but tends to thrive in finding ways to cleverly craft words together to put people in a light he chooses (usually negative), not blatantly rip someone else’s livelihood. This is abnormal for Havel.

Havel is also fairly well respected not only in the community, but by the team. He’s a bit negative, and definitely chums with Favre, but no fool.

That leaves one option, which is he knows something we don’t. I don’t think Havel would make these statements without knowing he has a new coach to appeal to next season.

To me, this means one thing: Sherman is a goner, and Havel knows it. This isn’t just an opinion piece. It’s a eulogy.

If you’ve also listened to Havel on his radio show, you’ve heard that he’s been very less than appreciative of Sherman’s coaching style as of late, and been quite vocal in his disgust with him. What makes a man so angry? Losing? No, Havel has covered losing teams before, and never been this focused.

If you want to make a man mad, hit him where it hurts. Where does Havel hurt? Easy. Brett Favre.

Chris Havel has written two books with Brett, and has openly admitted it’s foolish for him to bite the hand that feeds him. If there is any such thing as a “Favre Acolyte”, Chris Havel would be the presiding cardinal of the church.

Some of this may simply stem from the fact that Favre has had such a terrible season, throwing 28 interceptions and looking to add to that total on Sunday. Havel may see the same things many of us have seen: a coach who has not only mishandled the needs Favre has as a player, but an increasing amount of reliance on Favre to pull games out single-handedly, and allowed him to take the lion’s share of blame when he can’t do it.

Sherman doesn’t hold Favre accountable for his mistakes on the field, and keeps allowing him to make the throws that hurt the team, without making it clear that he needs to adjust. Sherman and his staff are a bit intimidated of Brett Favre, and Favre doesn’t thrive under those circumstances. He needs a father figure who is going to put him on the wall if he needs it. Mike Holmgren did that. So did his own father, Irv, even when Brett was a professional player.

Using some inference, though, the possibility also exists that Havel’s cash cow has come to an end, and that it is all over but the crying for Brett Favre’s career in Green Bay. That would make a man pretty upset; knowing that book #3 isn’t coming. Havel may also know that Favre will indeed call it quits, whether based on tangible information, or just a feeling after working with him for so long.

That’d make me pretty angry at the person I hold responsible for coaching. And Havel is.

My deductions on Favre’s retirement are more observation and guesswork based on this article.

But, when it comes to Mike Sherman and his future with the Green Bay Packers, I think Havel has sent the public more than just another anti-Sherman rant.

He sent notice that Sunday night will be much more eventful than Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Let's Make A Deal!!

Anyone else remember the game show “Let’s Make a Deal”?

Monty Hall was the host, and it ran seemingly forever in the 1970’s. Like “The Price is Right”, this show constantly gave contestants a shot at winning great products of the time, except, instead of having to guess prices, they just had to guess at the unknown.

For example, a young woman dressed as Gumby would be brought up as a contestant, and be shown a prize under a box. It was something worthwhile, like a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni and a new blender. However, then Monty would ask that Gumby Girl if she wanted to take the sure thing (the blender) or take a chance on what was behind Curtain Number Two. No hints. No lifelines. No immunity necklace. Just blind luck in guessing right, either risking it all or standing pat.

Perhaps she chose to keep the known item, and missed out on a new washer and dryer behind the curtain, and the crowd would groan agonizingly for Gumby. Or, perhaps she would risk it all, and there would be a beautiful model feeding a carrot to a goat in exchange. She only got to keep the goat, though.

Either way, the contestant was at a crossroads. Move on and hope for the best, or take what you have and run.

In many ways, the 2005 Green Bay Packers, and particularly rookie General Manager Ted Thompson, are now that gal from the 70’s dressed up as Gumby, faced with the critical decision of standing pat, or taking a risk for something better. Like the game show, he could end up with a shiny new Dodge Aspen station wagon, or he could end up with a goat.

Or, if he chooses wrong, he’ll end up being the goat. Either decision has a chance for failure and a chance for success.

With the Packers now struggling at 3-11, playoffs out of the realm of possibilities, and seemingly, the wheels coming off last week in Baltimore, there is a strong public outcry for taking what is behind Curtain Number Two. Now.

Let’s see what is the known quantity, what was presented to Ted under the box that he can choose to keep and put off the curtain for a while.

He has a coach and quarterback under fire. Mike Sherman is finally showing signs of losing his team on the field, though most other losing teams lost it long before the Packers did. He’s demonstrated enough to win, though not much more once the regular season ends. And now, he has guided his team to a probable top-five pick in the draft.

Brett Favre is a past MVP and future hall of famer. But what we care about right now is the present. Favre is a tremendous leader, caught in a chicken-or-egg conundrum as to whether his struggles are a sign of decline, or merely the result of the injuries, execution, and motivation around him. With him, you have a name player with the potential to come back next season and resume his 4000+ yard/30 TD/17 or less INT performances, as well as wily know-how. Without him, you start a young player who only weeks ago was so unconvincing to so many fans (and possibly Thompson) that they were actively pondering Matt Lienart, as a first round quarterback for two years in a row.

Along with these two huge decisions come many other seemingly minor decisions. Do you keep an aging yet productive player like William Henderson? Do you roll the dice and trade away our primary but injured and disgruntled wide receiver Javon Walker for more draft picks. Do you do away with above average but struggling vets like Grady Jackson, Mike Flanagan, Robert Ferguson, and Ryan Longwell, trusting the draft and reserves will provide quality replacements? Do you max out the salary cap, or spend a year letting dead space disappear so you can make a strong run in 2007?

There, obviously, is no easy answer to these questions, but there are endless opinions on them. In one camp are the traditionalists, those who view this season as an aberration, an unfortunate blend of injuries and infusion of young players into a rarely altered system. Sherman can easily have this team back to ten wins next season with Favre and good use of our draft picks, as well as one or two key pickups on the free agent market.

In the other camp are the revolutionaries, who not only demand the firing of Mike Sherman, but the not-so-subtle hint for Brett Favre to leave, the cutting of any veteran player who didn’t meet expectations, all the assistants except for Jim Bates, and most of the front office and secretarial staff. For every season we delay this cathartic move, we delay the return to respectability and winning.

Both camps have excellent points, but both camps also have blinders on to the negative impacts of their chosen paths of righting the ship.

Standing pat, maxing out the cap, and continuing with veteran players who may simply not have enough to ever win another division title, much less a playoff game, may indeed cripple this team financially for a long time. In addition, continued losing may return Green Bay to its Siberia status among potential free agents, something we haven’t had to deal with since Reggie White decided Siberia ain’t such a bad place after all.

Mass changes will indeed bring the future closer in a speedy way, but what is that future? Will a new coach be as successful as Mike Sherman was, better, or will he be as successful as Steve Mariucci in Detroit, once hailed as a sure return to glory? Will Nick Collins define the “Thompson Draft”, or will Will Whitaker? Will our drafts bring us solid starters, or solid backups that end up starting? Siberia again looms uncomfortably on the horizon.

For many fans (and writers), the future is bright, for what could be worse? But after so many years of winning, it is easy to forget the 29 years of losing known as the “Dark Ages”, the period following the “Glory Years”. The revolutionaries point to the fact that with today’s free agency and salary caps, it won’t take 20 years to build a team back to a powerhouse status. After all, look at teams like Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, who rose quickly back to prominence after seasons of mediocrity.

However, look at teams like Arizona, Detroit, and Houston. These teams haven’t seen a successful program in years, and seemingly, everything they try to change just brings them back full circle to rebuilding…again. The salary cap and free agency makes today’s NFL much trickier than the olden days, when a veteran player was usually around until the team chose he wasn’t anymore. It is a fickle mistress, bringing success and glory to those who use it wisely, and financial misery to those who make mistakes. In your hands you can hold a trophy, or have your hands held by the shackles of players gone by who still cripple your cap, or take up roster spots because they are too expensive to cut.

So, what will it be? Keep what you have, or take the chance on Curtain Number Two? Shall we keep what we have and hope we can return to being “pretty good”, or strip everything down and roll the dice on whomever can come in and hopefully do the job better?

Ted Thompson has proven nothing so far, other than the ability to keep a secret. Can he rebuild this team from scratch? Or, can he take the steps necessary to keep it intact and plug enough holes to make it competitive again? Is the team’s performance a sign it is time to move on and drop all the ballast, or is it full of the same players that once dominated offensively, along with an optimistically improved defense?

Are our special teams problems a result of the coaching, or the result of so many injuries that most of the squads are manned by street free agents instead of the training camp backups now forced to start?

Either way, when you’ve been successful for so long, Ted Thompson has a lot of big decisions to make, and decisions that will be met derisively by one camp or the other…unless he is very successful. Such is the disappointment of a 14-year sugar high that you finally crash from.

So, what will it be, Ted? Will you keep the blender and Rice-o-Roni, or take a chance on Curtain Number Two? And trust me, “Let’s Make a Deal” never had so many viewers hinging on any of its contestants’ decisions.