Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Piling On Brett Favre

Well, the Packer news must be trickling in slowly this week: there’s no new fuel in the Ted Thompson debates, McCarthy is busy saying non-controversial things, and the new coaching hires are barely making blips on the radar. No signings, no free agents, no big news….must be time to pile on Brett Favre!!!

Like many fans, I’m not sure what has become more grating, tired, and ironic: the annual waiting game Brett Favre takes in making his decision whether or not to return to the NFL, or the annual wailing and gnashing of teeth by an apparently bored media and fan base fretting about Brett Favre’s decision whether or not to return to the NFL.

Sadly, both have become as predictable as Tom Rossley’s playcalling.

Without any other major Packer headlines to write about (and without any other major headline to complain about), the media (and fans) have begun the annual dissection of all things Favre, questioning everything from his integrity, his ability, his desire, his parentage, and how much control he has over the Packer franchise.

No, seriously. Favre’s control over the Packers comes into question. I wasn’t making that up.

The news began innocuously enough, with media reports that head coach Mike McCarthy was on his way to Kiln to apparently sit on a tractor with Brett and talk with him about his future plans. McCarthy than debunked the report, stating that Ted Thompson has been in contact with him, but that he might meet up with him at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL.

Thus began the whirlwind.

Perhaps it came from a published comment by Ted Thompson that he was not going to pressure Favre into a decision right now, but suddenly, Brett Favre is now making the news. I spent the afternoon listening to Green Bay local talk radio discussing how it is wrong of Brett Favre to be demanding the Packer brass come kiss his boots and beg him to come back to the team.


How did we get from point A (no talks, giving Favre time) to point H (Favre is holding the franchise hostage) in such a short amount of time? I searched high and low for quotes from Brett Favre or the Packer brass that suggest anything like this to be remotely true, and found nothing.

Apparently, it’s the waiting that has people burning, and Brett Favre has been a lightning rod for many years for criticism and blame, perhaps no year moreso than this past season, where he threw for career highs in passes attempted and interceptions. Mike Sherman and Tom Rossley have already been fired for the 2005 campaign’s 4-12 effort, and Jim Bates was apparently not desirable enough as a head coach, and likewise, he didn’t feel the position of defensive coordinator in Green Bay was desirable any longer, either.

Perhaps, the blood trail for a horrendous season is still working its way down the food chain, and Brett Favre’s retirement, forced or voluntary, is the next anticipated step in the New Direction.

Why the hostility towards Favre and this decision? Well, the hemming and hawing does grow old. Some critics have labeled his season-to-season period of personal reflection as a lack of commitment to the team. While it indeed is tiring, I would much rather have Brett Favre make a wise, thought-out decision, than announce the day after the Seattle game that “Hey! All those fans cried ‘One More Year’, so gosh darn it, I’m givin’ it to them until they stop!!!”

Favre has stated many times that he wants to play until he feels he can no longer play a positive role with the team. This past season, then, is a strong test of his beliefs: was this a sign of massive decline, or an aberration brought on by injuries, poor coaching, and/or poor management?

Perhaps the biggest problem with this whole retirement talk is the fact that our favorite hillbilly keeps talking about it, yet another bullet in the arsenal taking aim at the target on Favre’s back. He certainly has talked about it enough, but we also know that he gets asked…constantly about it. And Brett Favre answers, for better or worse, honestly. That may be his biggest mistake.

Adewale Ogunlye, defensive end for the Chicago Bears, recently said, “I hate to say it, but it doesn’t pay to be honest. You suffer the consequences of speaking your mind if it isn’t what people want to hear. I wish you could speak your mind always.”

O-Gun, recently under fire for questioning the amount of positive hype the Carolina Panthers were receiving, realized that the status quo for a pro athlete are the politically correct answers the media doesn’t want. “Team first” and “Mutual respect” are the mantras we normally hear from NFL players, not “I am the reason we’re winning”, or “These guys can’t hold a candle to us.” Especially if those statements are the truth.

Cliché is the way to go in the NFL, and the greatest and most beloved players, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, are masters at not saying anything interesting. Speak the truth, and face it: the media and fans will jump on your like starving wolves.

Warren Sapp caught a lot of heat years ago when he gave Chad Clifton a season-ending blindside block. He was confronted at the end of the game by head coach Mike Sherman, who attempted to tell him how out of line he was. Sapp endeared himself to no one, even his own fans, stating he made perfectly legal blocks and that Sherman was out of line disciplining him, and that if he was so tough, he should put a jersey on himself and face Sapp like a man.

Trouble is, Sapp spoke the truth. It was legal, and not even flagged. It wasn’t Sherman’s place to confront Sapp, either…it should have been Clifton’s teammates who should have stood up to Sapp, each having their own jersey’s on.

But, a week later, Sapp crumbled to cliché, saying that he had a lot of respect for Clifton and expressed hope for his best in recovery, calling him a true warrior.

Brett Favre speaks the truth, from whether or not he’s sure about retirement, to even questioning in December whether he felt the Packer truly wanted him back in 2006. Wisdom may suggest Favre start saying, “no comment” when asked about retirement, and extol the Packer brass in public, regardless of what he perceives in terms of personal respect from them.

But wisdom may not be one of Favre’s positive attributes. And there’s nothing the media and rabid fans love more than priceless fodder for their articles and blogs.

In December, I predicted that Brett Favre would announce his retirement shortly before the Super Bowl. I still see no reason why that shouldn’t come to pass. Favre has better things to do with his day than struggle with the politics of a new regime dedicated to rebuilding.

Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have carefully chosen their words, saying that they would be open to Brett’s return, that he can take his time in deciding. Now, tell me…do you think that is wisdom, or honesty?

Fallacy Number One: Brett’s retirement has many people believing that we will simply add more and more money to this great pile of salary cap we have to spend this offseason. This, unfortunately, isn’t the case. If he does retire, the Packers will only gain around $5 million in space. If that happens, and assuming Aaron Rodgers is given the reins, the performance incentives in his contract will kick in, adding another $3 million to the cap. Now factor in the need for at least one veteran quarterback to be signed (Craig Nall made $656,000 last doubt he’d want at least that to remain), and you realize that Favre’s departure does give us anything more to spend in 2006.

Fallacy Number Two: Brett’s failure to decide is giving Ted Thompson less time time to decide how he will approach free agency and the draft, according to some. Amusingly, the same folks who wholeheartedly support Thompson’s moves and direction and capability to build a winner, are the same folks who fear that a late decision by Brett Favre will suddenly throw all of Ted’s plans into the lurch, and cause a franchise-wide panic as the best-laid plans of McCarthy’s and men are rendered useless.

This is laughable. If Thompson, who is paid a pretty significant amount of money to make plans anticipating every possible speedbump, isn’t planning for either future, then he really shouldn’t be in the position he is in.

Furthermore, Favre returning or going isn’t going to impact the plans much, anyway. If Favre says, it will be Favre, Rodgers, and a minimum-salary guy. If Favre leaves, it will be $4 million Rodgers, a veteran backup, and another player able to contribute if needed (Nall?). In any case, Thompson is not going to be investing any draft picks or significant money into quarterbacks, with Rodgers already under contract. There are more significant areas Thompson needs to invest in: guard, defensive end, linebacker, defensive back, running back. Favre’s return or retirement isn’t going to affect that.

Fallacy Number Three: Favre must commit for two years, or not at all, according to Mike Woods. This also is silly. Why would you ask Brett Favre to commit for two years when your head coach is only signed to a three-year contract? By asking him to commit for two years, you are also committing to him for two years. When he does retire after that time, McCarthy will be sitting in his lame-duck year without Favre for the first time. This isn’t a situation McCarthy or Thompson would want. If anything, this is more of a hopeful threat by some who want to force Favre into making a decision by blowing him off the fence and back onto his tractor.

Fallacy Number Four: Brett Favre loves the attention, and is using his power to force McCarthy and Thompson to beg for his return. This particular hateful line rings Machiavellian, as if Favre is sitting in Mississippi, spinning his little web of deceit and spite, hoping to quickly demonstrate the same control over the new regime as he had over Mike Sherman.

Quite the conspiracy theory. This sounds much like the rumor being spread a couple months ago that Favre had his own personal gold-plated locker room, complete with wet bar and personal massage therapist, because he was too good to interact with his peon teammates.

While it was true he occasionally changes in the trainers’ room to escape the media horde, it was a much juicier story to paint Favre as a bad teammate, just as it is more fun to paint Favre as expecting Thompson and McCarthy to worship at his altar in order to get him to return.

All in all, its time to take a step back. If the Super Bowl finishes up and Favre hasn’t made a decision as yet, it will be time to crank up the anxiety meter a notch.

But for now, let’s take Thompson at his word and assume Favre has time to decide. This is, of course, assuming that Thompson is worthy of trust, and that he won’t choose the cliché over the truth.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Oh, That Crazy Chris Havel....

I am a person who doesn't like to accuse other of being "on Kool-Aid", or taking some sort of foreign substance that would make them susceptible to crazy talk, loony ideas, flashbacks to the 70’s and 80’s, or dreaming of Gilbert Brown in a cheerleading outfit.

However, Chris Havel approached levels of such impossible optimistic thinking today that even Pollyanna herself checked into Bellin Psychiatric for a two-week stint treating her depression.

In his article printed in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on Wednesday, January 11, Havel outlined his “plan” for future success under Thompson, which most seem to center around somehow convincing Brett Favre to resume taking snaps under center in 2006.

Now, in the last couple of months, Chris Havel has taken the approach that not only was Mike Sherman responsible for the decline of Brett Favre, but the decline of play on the field, the decline of personnel integrity, and the decline of the Roman Empire. Havel took an extraordinarily hard line against Sherman, seemingly burning every bridge he might have with the former head coach, had he been retained.

However, after Sherman was relieved of his coaching duties on Monday, Havel and many of the others who were burning effigies of the former head coach spent several days in self-congratulation. However, others questioned the move, and whether or not such a firing was in the best interest of the franchise, or at least, if Thompson had enough of a sense of direction to point the team in a different one.

Once he completed helping with the bronzing of a new statue of Thompson, to be placed between the statues of Vince and Curly in front of the Atrium (it took a while, as there was much consternation as to which of Thompson’s facial expressions to use: unaffected, cryptic, or enigmatic), Havel and many others who now celebrated Sherman’s firing now took aim at what they called the “doom and gloomers” of Packerdom, ridiculing them for being so judgmental of such a wonderful man who fired the man with the black moustache.

As we sit and wait for the puffs of white smoke to emerge from the Packer Vatican, letting us know which of the qualified, yet unproven, candidates will be taking the whistle on the sideline in 2006, Havel gave us his reasons as to why we should not be so negative. According to him, it is as easy as A, B, C…

A. We must convince a future Hall-of-Famer (and recently, Target-of-Blamers) that the $12 million he would be owed for the 2006 season is too much for his services, and that he would be happier with his salary being “downsized” because of the other changes he proposes Thompson will make.

B. Hire Jim Bates as Thompson’s “new direction” he gave as the only reason for firing Sherman, both to the fans, the media, and Sherman himself. This would be interesting, as Bates was not only 4-7 in Miami, but was a Sherman hire himself.

C. Promote one of Bates’ defensive assistants to defensive coordinator. To my knowledge, the defensive assistants, other than perhaps Bob Sanders, have come under enough criticism over past several seasons to make this a questionable move, also: Baker, Duffner, Jackson, Nunn, and Washington? Doesn’t this smack of cronyism? Wasn’t that one reason Sherman was let go?

D. Somehow convince Steve Mariucci, who is making more money to not work than Mike Sherman, that he would like to come back and work under Jim Bates as offensive coordinator, because Favre would be more comfortable with that. If not Mariucci, another recently fired head coach, Norv Turner, and buddy of Thompson, will also be willing to take a demotion with the Packers.

E. Promise Favre that, despite Thompson’s constant assertations (and one-year track record: Klemm and O'Dwyer, anyone?) that he will make a splash with at least two prime free agents, including guard.

F. Sign Terrell Owens. Yes, you read that correctly, sign Terrell Owens, because he will help turn this franchise around. He will (probably) have respect for Favre, therefore, he will (probably) behave himself and (probably) be the threat, not the distraction, he can be.

G. Draft Mario Williams. Doable.

H. Trade Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for a pick. Also, trade Robert Ferguson for a mid-rounder. Both of these trades are questionable, in that not many folks are going to trade a valuable, first-day pick for an undersized, one-dimensional pass rusher who will also bring a $4 million dollar cap hit. As well, we will suffer a $5 million dollar acceleration on our own salary cap.

And, anyone who truly believes that Ferguson will bring anything higher than a seventh rounder is fooling themselves. Would you trade for Ferguson, if he were on another team?

Chris Havel, who at one time was regarded as a journalist with precision-like accuracy, has attempted to spin a positive future with Thompson by switching to buckshot. So, Thompson will be okay if he cuts Favre’s salary in half, convinces head coaches that they should be coordinators, signs the biggest cancer in memory, and gets trade value for the players we no longer want.

I think he forgot step I: sign Shaun Alexander, Brian Urlacher, and Antonio Gates to veteran’s minimum contracts with incentives.

There’s no reason to try and spin Thompson into some sort of genius, able to make these moves. We are in competition with 31 other teams for the same players and coaches, and like it or not, this is a team in flux, not the storied championship team we’ve been able to sell this franchise as for the past 15 years.

Thinking we can perform amazing feats as Havel described, with a second-year executive who has done little to prove his mettle so far, is simply unrealistic, and to me, seems to be a sell job by someone who got his way with Sherman, and suddenly is realizing that he opened himself (and the man who gave him his wish) up to criticism.

This really isn’t that hard. Thompson has one important job right now: hire the best coach for this team. If that person happens to be Bates, so be it, but we need to hire the best coach, not the best person for “continuity” in convincing Favre to stick around. If Thompson is a man of his word, which has yet to be proven, he will be looking in a different direction, a direction that will take us to his ultimate goal.

Once that happens, he will be expected to do everything in his power to build the best team he can. Whether that is for 2006 or for the future remains to be seen, but those choices have completely different paths to greatness. If he wants to win in 2006, it will affect everything from how we draft to how we approach free agency. If he is building on a three-year plan, look for big differences once we get past pick #5 in the draft, and don’t expect any big-name free agents to be wearing green and gold this season.

Thompson is the ultimate poker-face. His expressions and words give us no clue as to what moves he plans to make. Therefore, it is with each move he does make that we will understand if he is truly playing with a full deck.

And if he signs Terrell Owens, my guess would be he’s playing with jokers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Thompson: Look For The Best Coach, Not The Anti-Sherman

increasing sense of micromanaging will generally put your job in jeopardy. It is questionable as to whether or not GM Ted Thompson was being genuine in his efforts to give Sherman a fair chance, or to field a winning team, but as a result, the crosshairs will now shift to the man who will be the most tenured man-in-charge within one year: a new head coach combined with a new team president means Ted Thompson will bear the brunt of any future failings.

Some coaches have been mentioned, and perhaps, Thompson only threw away four cards, keeping his ace in the hole, defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who revitalized the defense with fundamentals and emotion this past season. Fan response (and even Thompson) has indicated that the "anti-Sherman" traits are desired for our new head coach: a fiery, emotional coach with that extra spark. Bates would fit the bill, but with Thompson's constant assertation that it is time to "go in a new direction", it seems unusual that he would then award the head coaching job in-house.

Thompson, to his credit, has asserted repeatedly that he is going into this process with an open mind, and without any pre-concieved notions as to who he wants or any specific traits he wants in a new head coach, other than having "that extra spark". This means, also, that we're hopeful he's a good judge of talent, both of players and of the man he chooses to lead them. Ron Wolf and Bob Harlan have become villified lately for their role in promoting Mike Sherman to the dual role of head coach and general manager in 2001, a move that some interpret as accelerating Sherman's love for control, like giving a free bar to an alcoholic. Thompson now must take accountability, one of his favorite words, for choosing the man and players that will replace the man who brought us three division championships.

My biggest fear, however, is trying to find the anti-Sherman, as it has been decided the cerebral, planned, charts-and-graphs approach to coaching is what needs changing. However, we've been down this road before. When Ray Rhodes was relinquished of his coaching duties after an 8-8 season, Bob Harlan and Ron Wolf gave in to looking for the "Anti-Rhodes"...someone to counter the laid-back lackof planning and discipline that Ray became notorious for.

Who did we get as the "Anti-Rhodes"? Mike Sherman.

Perhaps one of Sherman's greatest faults was surrounding himself with folks he knew would agree with him, particularly at the coordinator positions. Ed Donatell, Bob Slowik, and Tom Rossley all seemed to be cogs in the machine, extensions of Sherman's managing style, yes-men who followed his style of sticking to the game plan, regardless of circumstances; of side-stepping widely around Brett Favre, when he desperately needed little more than some frank guidance and direction; and allowing Sherman to run the show, right or wrong.

The best late move Sherman made was hiring Jim Bates as his defensive coordinator, a man very different from himself. One can just picture meetings of the top brass, in which Sherman was used to being the only voice heard, now to hear a gruff voice giving his opinions too. But the contrast provided balance to the defense this season, something desperately needed. The intellectual, organized practice-it-like-its-written-down mantra of the head coach now had its counter: a fiery, emotional, practice-it-like-you-play-it leadership in its defensive coordinator.

Two pair.

What if Tom Rossley was let go, and a similar personality to Bates was brought in to run the offense emphasizing accountability, execution, flexibility, and willingness to tell Brett Favre to make the safe read, not the big play?

Full House? Could be. We'll never know.

But that idea of balance is what should be looked at today. In the 1990's, Mike Holmgren had that balance in his staffing. He, the head coach, was the ego, the id of the team. Fritz Shurmur was the heart, the spirit of the team. Sherm Lewis the intellecutal x's and o's guy. That balance proved to be worthy of winning a Super Bowl.

If Jim Bates is made head coach, he will want structured, accountable guys at his coordinators, taking on the needs of players that his emotional rah-rah side doesn't reach. It's like any relationship: opposites attract because all seek balance. When the weights are tipped too much to one side, as it was during the past several seasons under Sherman's tenure, you can't make the equations balance every time.

In whomever we look to lead this team, though, it is important that Ted Thompson realizes this is now his most critical decision he will make in his career. Ron Wolf made two very risky moves his first year as general manager in 1992: no, not firing Lindy Infante, but trading a first-round pick for a third-string quarterback, and sending a second-round pick for an offensive coordinator a team didn't want to lose. Had either of those moves not paid off, Wolf would never have achieved the cult status he enjoyed.

Thompson now has his Favre/Holmgren to find, or risk finding his first decision, firing Sherman, to be the biggest mistake.

Hopefully, he tries to find the best balance of coaches to run this team, because the "anti-Sherman" isn't going to be any more successful than Sherman was as the "anti-Rhodes".