Monday, March 31, 2008

What If: Barry Sanders Was A Packer?

Reflecting back on the career of Brett Favre, I sometimes have to begrudgingly admit that when trying to compare him amongst the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Favre Detractors will often point out he only won one championship in his long career.

First of all, let’s set the record straight. The Packers only won one championship during Favre’s career. As much as the media has hyped Brett Favre as being the only reason the Packers are in existence, reality reminds us that it takes a team to win a Super Bowl.

So, if the Packers could have won another championship, when would it have been? The Sherman tenure had a lot of potential, but even Lee Remmel, long time Packer historian, characterized Mike Sherman as an overachiever. With the exception of 2003, I’m not sure if there was a season that might have come together for a deep playoff run and actually beat the AFC champion Buccanneers (2002) or Patriots (2003).

I like to look back, however, at the early 90s, when the Packers were on the rise. It took them all the way until the 1996 season to finally break through, with powerhouse teams like the 49ers and the Cowboys always thwarting their playoff runs. The Packers were an innovative team with a great coach, a solid defense, a GM with a Midas touch, and of course, a quarterback with all the potential in the world, going through his own growing pains.

Often cited by Favre’s Detractors was the 1989 draft, in which by virtue of winning the last game of the 1988 season, the Packers fell out of the #1 pick overall and missed out winning the Troy Aikman sweepstakes. We all know how that one win affected the draft, and in effect, the future of the Packers. The Cowboys picked Troy Aikman, considered one of the top 20 quarterbacks of all time, and the Packers took perhaps the biggest draft bust of all time, offensive lineman Tony Mandarich.

There are those who propose that had the Packers ended up with Aikman, there would have been no Favre in green and gold, and that the Packers might have been the superior team in the early 90’s, when Aikman was truly in his prime.

I make a counter-contention, and one that doesn’t rely on changing the results of the 1988 season in order for it to happen. Troy Aikman was gone when the Packers went to pick at #2, so there’s no way to get around that. But Troy Aikman wasn’t the biggest piece of that Cowboy dynasty. He was a steady, accurate quarterback, but benefited greatly from perhaps one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history, excellent receivers at both the WR and TE positions, and of course, a fantastic defense.

The Cowboys, as we know, had built a lot of that team from the windfall of players and drafts picks afforded them by the fleecing of the Vikings for Herschel Walker in 1989, and the biggest bonus was the first rounder they got from Minnesota in 1990: running back Emmitt Smith.

Aikman benefited from having one of the greatest running backs (by some accounts, the greatest running back) in the backfield with him, accompanying a solid defense and efficient passing game with a back who started making the Pro Bowl his rookie year, and didn’t stop for six consecutive seasons after that.

Aikman in Green Bay would have had some of the workman-esque (pun intended) corps of Packer running backs Don Majkowski and Brett Favre had to work with until 1995, when Edgar Bennett became the first 1,000 rusher since 1978.

If you’d like to know what that might have looked like, take a look at Aikman’s rookie year with the Cowboys, a year that many started thinking of Aikman as a bust on a horrible team, when he went winless in 11 starts.

So, what is my contention? Instead of thinking about what we couldn’t have had anyway, think about what we could have had. Right behind Tony Mandarich at #2 was Barry Sanders at #3, taken by the Detroit Lions. He was right there for the taking. Now, let’s imagine a Packer team throughout the early 90’s with Barry Sanders as our running back, instead of Brent Fullwood, Vince Workman and Darrell Thompson.

Starting in 1993, the Packers started making the playoffs every year, clearly a team on the rise, with an exciting quarterback on one side of the ball, and an exciting defensive end on the other. During Favre’s first three seasons as the Packers’ QB, he went through some clearly painful growing pains. I still remember the time when fans started applauding when he finally started to throw the ball out of bounds instead of to an opposing player.

But those seasons, including 1995, always saw us match up against an opponent that managed to take us out of the playoffs, usually the Cowboys. Barry Sanders ran for a minimum of 1,100 yards every season from his rookie year on, and during those 1993-1995 seasons, he averaged over 1,400. Imagine that running attack paired with a young Brett Favre at quarterback, taking on the Cowboys on their home artificial turf.

Now, I know what you are saying. Barry Sanders might not have been as effective on grass as much as on the turf he used so well in Detroit. It also would guess that the Packers might have used him differently, too, and not been the same player as he was with the Lions.

I say that Sanders might have been even more effective than he was in Detroit. The Lions’ big mistake was so centralizing their offense completely around his ability to make his own plays, running an ill-fated run-and-shoot offense, knowing he could make a good run with only five blockers in front of him.

Mike Holmgren wasn’t going to break from the offense he knew and trusted…the WCO in its heyday, before defenses learned to play it effectively. Barry Sanders would have been in a pro set more often than a single-back set. If you ever watch a highlight of Barry Sanders, you will see that he utilizes his blockers as well as any of the great running backs (you just don't notice it because he blew by them so quickly). Now, add to that the passing threat of Favre (something the Lions never had), and you would see not only a running back that would gain 1,000 yards in a season, but also catch another 1,000 yards in receiving yards to boot.

Sanders may not have won as many rushing titles as he did, but the screen passes he would have caught from Favre would have been just as electric and effective as any of his runs.

Oh, what might have been. Instead of struggling to play with the big boys for so many playoff seasons in the years before 1996, they might have been the big bully on the block. Imagine the Packers with what most consider a top-ten quarterback of all time teamed up with a consensus top-five running back of all time?

It’s not just a pipe dream. It was all possible, with just one pick in the 1989 draft, and perhaps, the Team of the 90’s would have been same as the Team of the 60’s.

Troy Aikman was a very good quarterback, but he was far from the only cog in the Dallas machine. Had he been selected by the Buccanneers instead of the Cowboys, he might have been the next Tim Couch or Jeff George. And, you give the Packer offense Barry Sanders as a weapon, and not only might we have won the Super Bowl in 1997, we might have won in 1995, too. Maybe, even another before that.

In 1995, despite Edgar Bennett's 1,000-yard season, the Packers finished a woeful 24th in rushing offense. Barry Sanders finished with more rushing yards that season (1,500) than the entire Packer backfield combined. The Packers lost to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game that season by eleven points, but actually led by three going into the fourth quarter. It took Emmitt Smith's running attack in that quarter that put the Cowboys over the top: two touchdowns in the 4th quarter, plus 50 yards to boot.

What if the Packer would have had a running back that could take over a game like that? Troy Aikman sat back as almost an observer in that fourth quarter, as his defense and running back ground it out.

This is to take nothing away from the Super Bowl team of the 90’s that we’ve all grown to love, or from the legacy of Brett Favre, who still numbers among the best of all time at his position.

But, football is a game of inches, and that pick in the 1989 draft was perhaps the difference between a championship team and a dynasty, right here in ol’ Green Bay.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Time for Thompson's Picks to Step Up

Mike McCarthy has talked about players "grabbing the rope", especially about young players who need to step up and establish themselves. He's certainly had no shortage of young players to choose from in his two years as head coach.

But with the departure of Brett Favre, the venerable lightning rod of leadership and criticism, McCarthy is left with the task of building this team post-Favre. As several other Sherman holdovers also approach the sunset of their Packer careers--Donald Driver, Al Harris, and Chad Clifton--the time has come for the players that Ted Thompson has drafted to "grab that rope".

In his first three drafts, Ted Thompson has come away with a stunning 34 draft picks, mostly a result of his penchant for trading down to stockpile more picks. This compares to the 21 picks that Mike Sherman acquired in his first three drafts, and 31 picks that Ron Wolf used in his first 12-round drafts.

Mike Sherman was perhaps not the most astute drafter in the history of the Packer organization, and his penchant for trading up to get the player he wanted ended in disaster on more than one occasion. Therefore, when Thompson began trading down, it was cheered by many because, they figured, trading down=smart and trading up=dumb.

Frankly, any of those strategies are smart or dumb, as is staying just depends on who you have doing the drafting and how good the scouts and talent evaluators are. But in theory, when you trade up, you are trading quantity for quality. When you trade back, as Thompson has done, you trade quality for quantity.

Of Thompson's 34 picks, an amazing 23 remain on the present roster. That's a pretty big chunk of your team that are draft picks with three or less years of experience, and also a testament to Thompson's hands-off approach to free agency.

In contrast, of Wolf's first 31 draft picks, only 17 remained on the roster going into his fourth season. We do remember that Wolf was more liberal with his use of free agency, trades, and other signings, just a much a sign of Wolf's style as a sign of the very new nature of salary caps and free agency of the time.

But Wolf's 17 picks going into 1995 also gave us nine starters, and very solid starters at that. Robert Brooks, Edgar Bennett, and Mark Chmura started from the 1992 draft; Wayne Simmons, George Teague, Earl Dotson, and Doug Evans from the 1993 draft; and Aaron Taylor and Dorsey Levens (at fullback) from the 1994 draft. All but Levens were well-established and all were major contributors for the 1995 team.

In contrast, Thompson's picks also estimate around 8 starters for the upcoming season, but the term "solid starter" doesn't apply to as many of them.

Aaron Rodgers is penciled in to start, and still doesn't have any competition for the job.

Korey Hall is also pencilled in to start, though John Kuhn or a new acquisition would challenge him for his job.

Greg Jennings is well-established at WR, and looks to take over the #1 spot when Driver retires.

Mark Spitz and Daryn Colledge both struggled at guard this past season, and offensive line still remains a top concern this offseason.

AJ Hawk is a solid, if unspectacular starter at linebacker.

Brady Poppinga has struggled on the other side, and Brandon Chillar has already been brought in to challenge him for his starting job.

Nick Collins has held on to his starting job, despite struggles with coverage and assignments.

There are some other draft picks, such as Tony Moll, Adrien Barbre, Aaron Rouse, and Justin Harrell who may challenge for spots, and of course, Mason Crosby is our kicker.

But none of these players appear ready to truly shine at their positions. While Jennings, Collins, and Hawk all earned Pro Bowl 2nd or 3rd alternate status last season, all of the 2008 Packer Pro Bowl picks and first alternates were Thompson free agents (Woodson) or Sherman holdovers (Favre, Driver, Kampman, Harris, Barnett, and Clifton).

All of those players are well-established veterans, and we wouldn't necessarily expect young draft picks to be earning Pro Bowl berths. But Ron Wolf also supplemented his talented picks with veteran talent, utilizing free agency to completely redo the roster, with only LeRoy Butler as any holdover from the previous regime by 1995. Reggie White, Brett Favre, Keith Jackson, Frank Winters, Sean Jones, Gilbert Brown, and George Koonce were all acquired by other means than the draft by Wolf, and their contributions were monumental.

This is not to compare Thompson unfairly to Wolf, who was the GM in a different time, when free agency was in its infancy and there were nowhere near the salary cap pressures yet. In addition, Wolf benefited from many of these older free agents willing to come to Green Bay and work for a lesser salary in order to be a part of a championship.

But the pressure is on 2007's Executive of the Year to have his strategy pay off, capitalizing on an unexpected run at the Super Bowl to give this team what it needs to win today as well as tomorrow. Some of the picks from his first few years will need to step up and show they are as much "quality" as they were a part of "quantity".

It cannot be lost that Ron Wolf's fourth draft was probably one of his most successful, bringing 4 solid starters by the end of their rookie seasons (Newsome, Henderson, Freeman, and Timmerman) as well as an future All Pro special teamer (Travis Jervey).

But instead of looking at Thompson's picks with confidence, we continue to hedge our bets, hoping Rodgers can stay healthy, hoping one of the guards will finally step up and establish himself consistently, hoping Hawk will live up to his draft position and play like an All Pro, and hoping that Collins will start to improve more. We also know that some of the starters, like Poppinga and Hall, may just be there until someone better comes along.

At some point, Ted Thompson is going to have to play his cards to insure that when the rest of the Sherman holdovers are gone, his own picks will be able to continue to carry this team. Last draft, we saw Thompson do something he hadn't done in his previous two drafts: he didn't trade down on the first day. Why? Perhaps is looking at a need for quality over quantity, and didn't think he could afford to do his patented trade-downs and not get the high-quality talent he needs.

This draft, picking 30th, its a sure bet that the first- and second-tier players will be gone before Thompson even gets a chance to trade down. For a team that has already lost its starting quarterback, knowing that our offensive tackles and cornerbacks aren't getting any younger, this has to be a bit of pressure on Thompson this offseason.

To his benefit, he hasn't panicked yet, only signing a mid-range linebacker to a modest contract. But all that ails this team isn't going to be fixed in the 2008 draft. The free agent market is pretty dry this year, with mostly aging veterans still available. But the Packers haven't been linked to many of those free agents, anyway.

This means that, consistent with the Thompson credo, the players presently on the roster are going to have to "grab the rope" and step it up in 2008 and beyond. Hopefully, Ted Thompson was able to find just enough quality amongst all of that quantity he invested in.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Brady Poppinga: Can You Feel The Love Tonight?

Last week, I wrote a blog article about the reason Brett Favre so polarized his fan base was because he became such a personal entity to the common man, which for some people, was about as comfortable as a straitjacket. We tend to be fickle fans, cheering a name and wearing a jersey one minute, and quickly moving on once that player starts to fizzle.

No one may be personifying that more than linebacker Brady Poppinga, who is seeing what was once a groundswell of fan support quietly disappear into the night. This morning, I opened the Green Bay Press-Gazette to see a fan poll as to which veterans should get their contracts extended this season. Brady Poppinga received only 5.2% of the vote, trailing Ryan Grant, Atari Bigby, and "Someone Else".

This is a far cry from the excitement he generated after starting one game as a rookie in 2005, before suffering a somewhat serious ACL injury. The fourth-round draft pick was high on everyone's list for 2006, with fans and media alike citing his "good motor" and "high intensity". He was, by all definitions, Ted Thompson's best example of "Packer People".

He was also perhaps the best-suited physically for playing the strong-side linebacker, at least given what we had on the roster at the time. In 2006, rookie AJ Hawk was slotted in on the weak side, appropriate as he was a bit shorter and stouter (6'1", 247 to Poppinga's 6'3", 245). The strong side linebacker lines up over the tight end, has to fight off his blocks, and is the one who needs to cover him on pass plays. The former defensive lineman, Poppinga, seemed best suited for the job.

But this "good motor, high intensity" guy, who makes you fall in love with his style in play just hearing him talk about it, couldn't meet the expectations that we may have set for him after that one-start 2005 season. After starting 12 games in 2006 and 15 games last season, his play has remained average. In fact, he saw his tackles drop by almost 20% and didn't get a sack all season in 2007.

But most glaring has been his deficiencies in pass coverage--somewhat of a Achilles' Heel for many on the Packer defensive side of the ball--as opposing tight ends repeatedly burned the Packers through the air. As a former DL, Poppinga has struggled to make that transition to a coverage linebacker, and it has cost us repeatedly.

So much so, that Ted Thompson's only investment thus far in the free agent market was for 6'3" Brandon Chillar, a linebacker from the Rams whose claim to fame lies in the area that Poppinga's doesn't: pass coverage. The announcement that Poppinga's job was the first one targeted for competition got a collective non-reaction from a fan base and media that once loved the "good motor, high-intensity" linebacker.

Ted Thompson has stated that Poppinga "is our starting SAM", but acknowledges the fact that Chillar brings competition to the position. In contrast to Brady's shrinking tackle totals, Chillar has recorded totals of 27, 52, 56, and 65 the past four years (Poppinga had 60 in 2006, 50 in 2007).

Scott Linehan, the Rams coach, called Chillar "assignment-sure", and the linebacker has actually played at all three linebacker positions.

If nothing else, it can now be stated that our linebacker depth is that much better than last season, when there was little along the second string behind the starting three. The question is who is going to be the depth, Chillar or Poppinga?

If Poppinga returns to a reserve role, or a specialist role (allowing Chillar to come in on passing downs), he will likely become the special teams demon that got people excited about him to begin with in 2005, where a "good motor, high intensity" player is served best of all.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Packers Wise To Wait on Ryan Grant

Ryan Grant wants to get paid. Ted Thompson has around $33 million dollars to do it with. Makes sense, right?

However, Thompson doesn't appear to be in a hurry to up Grant's contract into some long-term deal. And now, Grant has subtly hinted that he might become a training camp holdout unless that happens.

However, as much as I like Ryan Grant and his feel-good story of the final ten games of the regular season, the Packers are wise not to put all their eggs into Grant's basket at this point. While he's certainly a valuable asset and our projected starter for the 2008 season, he needs to prove that he can continue to be a viable threat in the running game before we lock him up.

Now, I know what you're saying. "But, he was second to only LaDanlian Tomlinson in rushing over the last ten games!". Or, "We have $35 million to spend this offseason! We have to spend it somewhere!". Or even, "If we lose Grant, we have no running game at all!"

Let's take these one at a time:

"But he was second only to LaDanlian Tomllinson in rushing over the last ten games!" Yes, he was, and we all certainly saw the impact he had on the offense in that time. However, Mike McCarthy has shown his ability to make adjustments in his scheme as time goes on, tweaking for the abilities of his players (or lack of abilities, as the case may be). In the beginning of the season, McCarthy all but announced that after Week 1, he was essentially giving up on the running game. Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn could only muster 48 yards between them in the first game.

At that point, McCarthy gave the ball to Brett Favre and said, "Pass us to victory." And Favre did, averaging over 40 passes a game until the bye week in Week 7. Defenses started adjusting to the pass-happy offense, especially now that Favre was playing under control and effectively guiding the team. During that time, a revolving door of running backs, including Grant, continued to be little more than a mosquito-like distraction for defenses.

Following the bye week, Grant suddenly was a powerhouse, gaining 104 yards in his first game and not looking back. Was this a sudden change in Grant, or was it another subtle adjustment by McCarthy in his gameplanning and scheme? Favre only passed for 40 or more attempts two more times the rest of the season.

This is to take nothing away from Grant, but when you have a quarterback playing at an MVP level, forcing defenses to guard against the pass more than the run, it increases the chances for a good running back to become a threat. The question is, now that Favre has retired and our offensive philosophy will likely shift from where it was last season, will a running back have the same success with Aaron Rodgers running the show? Or, Rodgers' injury replacement quarterback?

We have $35 million to spend this offseason!!! Duly noted, and you can count me amongst the throng that looks at that number and gets antsy for something to be done in free agency besides signing a middle-of-the-road linebacker.

But, spending for the sake of spending is certainly not in Ted Thompson's gameplan, and throwing more money at Ryan Grant based on his performance last year doesn't appear to be his M.O.

On the other hand, Thompson has shown he would much rather spend free agent money extending contracts of players already on the roster, signing guys like Al Harris, Donald Driver, and Aaron Kampman to contract extensions before they hit the open market.

That practice, which most of us predicted would have a line of players outside his office asking for more money, has resulted in a greatly improved morale over the Mike Sherman period, when holdouts by characters such as Mike McKenzie and Javon Walker were a near-annual occurrence.

However, Grant isn't in the boat of being able to hit the open market for a long time. For $370,000, he is locked up as an exclusive-rights free agent, and isn't eligible for even restricted free agency until 2010. In other words, the only reason Ted Thompson has to give him a long-term deal is simply to make him happy.

This doesn't seem like Ted Thompson, a football version of Ebeneezer Scrooge when it comes to using his salary cap money for charity. However, Thompson may also be blinded by the dazzling rushing numbers he put up the latter half of the season and find Grant worthy of a incentive-laden extension, still allowing him to earn his reward on a more level playing field.

If we lose Grant, we have no running game! Shades of Samkon Gado, what is this? Ryan Grant is now the only running option we have? Well, certainly, it was good to have a back emerge out of the "talent pool" of young, raw runners we started the 2007 season with. Both Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn started out just as roughly as Grant though.

But, Wynn did have 78 yards rushing on 13 carries in a loss against the Bears before his season-ending injury. Also-brittle Brandon Jackson managed 113 yards in the season finale against Detroit. This season's rookie class also boasts a deep class of running backs that can be picked up, and we know somehow Thompson will come away from the draft with at least ten players. And there are several UFA's out there that are still available, if needed: Kevin Jones, Ron Dayne, and Michael Pittmann, to name a few.

How valuable, then, is Ryan Grant? It would be disingenuous to try and minimize him too much. Certainly, we would like to go into 2008 with him still in the backfield for the Packers, as he did establish himself as the season went on. He was well-hyped in our playoff run, and provides a somewhat familiar name for our offense now that our legendary quarterback has retired.

But, he also has a tendency to disappear in big games. After running for a 62 yard touchdown against the Cowboys, he only managed 32 yards on 13 carries the rest of the day. Against Bears, despite the glowing statistic of 100 yards on 14 carries, 90 yards were on 2 of those carries. That left 12 carries for 10 yards, and in a bitterly cold game, you can’t sit back and wait for the home run in between many strikeouts. And against the Giants in the NFC Championship game, Grant was a complete non-factor, gaining only 29 yards on 13 carries.

Grant is good, but still not consistent enough to demand top-dollar for his services, and certainly not based on just a half-season of work overshadowed by the best season Favre had since his MVP years.

So, was Grant's achievements completely a result of his skill and abilities, or did the coaches' schemes and the passing game's dominance pave the way for him to have a season that maximized a more limited ability that warranted but a sixth round draft choice in trade from the Giants?

If you're going to place your money on the answer to that question, I'd like to see another several games under his belt, surrounded by the players he'll be expected to play with for a while, before I sign the check.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ted Thompson Earns "Executive of Year" Honors

Well, I guess we can finally bronze that statue of Ted Thompson outside the Atrium.

The Sporting News selected Ted Thompson as its 2007 George Young NFL Executive of the Year, quite an honor for a general manager who still endures catcalls from the media and fan base for his sometimes maddeningly deliberate approach to building a team.

A lot of credit for Thompson's honor goes to the surprise finish the Packers had this season, going 13-3 in a season when few predicted them to have better than a .500 record. The Packers finished only three points away from a Super Bowl appearance, despite gutting a 4-12 team from 2005 down to its most basic players. Keeping Sherman holders Brett Favre, Donald Driver, Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, Aaron Kampman, Nick Barnett, and Al Harris, Thompson invested 34 draft picks over his first three seasons, many by virtue of trading down. An amazing 23 players from the last three drafts still remain on the Packer roster.

Furthermore, Thompson has remained out of the free agent cesspool, grabbing lower-profile players such as Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett, and Brandon Chillar for cheaper contracts than some of the huge money thrown at the big names. This practice has resulted in the Packers being nearly $35 million under the salary cap for 2008, once Brett Favre files his retirement papers and makes that cap space official.

Thompson beat out the executive officers of both the Giants and the Patriots in the vote, garnering 19 votes to the 9 votes for New York's Jerry Reese.

Well deserved? Certainly, Ted Thompson has silenced many of his critics this past season (not the least of which was yours truly), and the Packers should celebrate Ted's accomplishments. To his credit, he has stuck to a plan he created back in 2005 and the results of not panicking or giving into the pressures of the media or fans, despite the occasional P.R. negativity, is commendable.

His finest move was the much-decried hire of Mike McCarthy, who came to Green Bay as the offensive coordinator of the 32nd-ranked offense in the NFL the year previous. The McCarthy hire established proper GM/coach relations that had been messed up under Mike Sherman's ill-fated dual role. McCarthy's ability to take the sometimes young and raw talent that Thompson provided and make it work makes his selection a wise one.

The fact that McCarthy was also able to take the last two years of Brett Favre's career, rein him in, and make him into an MVP candidate again is testament to what a coach means to all players, not just the young ones that need to be developed.

Ted Thompson, hopefully, isn't going to spend too much time admiring his new statue: he has a lot of work yet to do. Favre's retirement is a sign that the leftover talent from the previous regime isn't going to last much longer: aging players like Driver, Clifton, Harris, and Woodson may soon require Thompson's draft picks to start playing like solid starters. Despite having 23 draft picks on the roster, only 7 are projected in a starting role in 2008, and some of those, like Daryn Colledge and Brady Poppinga, are expected to have to fight for their job.

Let's hope that the 2007 season is the start of something big for Thompson and the Packers, not the end of a far-too-short era. I have faith that Ted Thompson will stick to his plan, and continue to build for the future. However, the present is also calling, and all eyes will be on him this offseason as the expectations have risen for both the GM of the Year and the team he manages.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rodgers, Gray, and Why I Don't Get Autographs

The following is an unpublished article originally written on November 4, 2006. Given that this is to be Aaron Rodgers' long-awaited debut year, I thought I would finally get it in print.


I received a call on my phone today. It was my daughter, who was at Austin Straubel airport in Green Bay, waiting with her grandmother to pick up her arriving grandfather.

Why did she call me? Because she happened to be at the airport at the same time the Green Bay Packers were loading the airplane to fly out to Buffalo. With a giddiness I could hear in her voice, she told me how she saw Brett Favre and A.J. Hawk up close. She even said, “Good luck!” to the coach, though she didn’t exactly know what his name was. She seemed almost as excited to be sharing this information with the biggest Packer fan in her life as she was to have seen the Packers herself.

I then asked the question, “Did you get any autographs?”

While she responded no, she didn’t, my own question sent me on a journey in the Wayback Machine, remembering when I was around that age, when the idea of seeing a player inspired awe. It also taught me a lesson I’ve followed to this day.


As a 12 year old, I had recently moved from the Wisconsin Northwoods to the middle of Green Bay, and fully immersed myself in becoming a fervent Packer fan. Yes, I was that kid who had the entire roster memorized, read the Yearbook front to back, and would even sit back with the Press Guide for fun. My classmates and I spent our outdoor time at St. James Park, each pretending to be a different NFL player as we played pitch-and-catch.

I also was starting for my school’s 7th grade basketball team. My father, probably greatly relieved that I was finally showing interest in sports, took the “for sale” sign off of my jacket and decided to take me to a UW-Green Bay men’s basketball game. It was pretty cool, my first time in the Brown County Arena (soon to be followed by my first Quiet Riot concert). I settled back in my seat and watched the Phoenix tee it up in the ol’ barn.

It wasn’t too long before I noticed a murmuring going through the crowd around us. People were looking around and pointing behind me. I looked behind me and saw an African-American man sitting up about seven rows, across the aisle. The name “Johnnie Gray” kept floating in and out of my ears.

Needless to say, the game we had paid money to watch was no longer of much interest to me. This was Green Bay, a football town, and I wasn’t the only one. I started pestering my father about whether or not I should ask for an autograph. He discouraged me, and since he seemed to be sitting unbothered, I returned my eyes to the game.

It wasn’t long before someone broke the ice, and asked him for an autograph. Like a hawk, I noticed this, and procured my own pen and UWGB program. I was the sixth person in line, and, like my daughter, was just in awe of this man who played the game that I watched religiously every Sunday.

I returned to my seat, happy, content. What happened after that, however, burned in my memory for the rest of my life. As I snuck looks back at Johnnie, I saw the line for autographs was now ten people. Then, it was twenty. Then, thirty. The understaffed Arena employees were busy trying to rearrange the line, as it was blocking not only Johnnie’s view, but the view of dozens of other Phoenix fans. However, it did very little, other than to advertise to more people that there was something worth waiting in line for.

As you can guess, Johnnie Gray, who came to the Arena to unwind with a basketball game, got up and left a little before halftime. I’m not sure what disappointed me more: his leaving, or the childish protests of the forty-or-so people in line who did not get an autograph. I felt guilty for being a part of ruining a man’s evening. No, more than that…I felt guilty for being a part of ruining the evening of a man who I idolized. I looked at the signed program in my hand and felt my cheeks flush. I shot angry glares at the people who were laughing around me.

That was the last autograph I’ve ever asked of anyone. If anything, I will ask for a picture, if it is the right setting, but since that day, asking someone to sign a piece of paper seemed like I was crossing a line. The advent of eBay selling autographed memorabilia for hundreds of dollars, seeing athletes charge kids $20 for a signature, and seeing grown men standing in a line with fifteen footballs has done very little to change any opinion I have about autograph-hunting.

I listen to Johnnie Gray weekly on his local radio show, and have been tempted on many occasions to call in and tell him the story, and how that piece of paper he signed affected my values.

In the summer of 2005, I brought my young son to his first training camp. We sat and watched them go through drills, peering through the chain-link fence on bleachers. We took a break, got an ice cream treat, wandered through the Atrium, and then returned to watch the end of practice.

We also went and stood outside the fencing where the players would return to the locker rooms. We watched unknown player after unknown player ride in on their bikes and wave off the mob of autograph hunters who called out their names, begging for a signature. My son and I took a spot away from the mob, as I put together names to go with the numbers we saw.

Finally, a player with number 12 on his jersey walked up, and instead of ignoring the wolves, he slowly walked towards them. He signed a couple, only to be badgered by waving arms holding hats, footballs, notepads, and T-shirts. For each one he signed, it seemed ten new people appeared out of nowhere, all yelling, “Aaron! Over here!” If he moved one direction, a disturbing version of “The Wave” occurred, as people pushed and shoved to get closer, still waving their item in his face.

It seemed eerily familiar, and just as sad, as that day many years ago. Unfortunately, the pretense of a line had been lost, replaced with the jostling of arms and insistent begging.

I pointed the man out and told my son, “See that man? His name is Aaron, and he’s going to be the next quarterback for the Packers. Someday, you’ll see his #12 jersey throwing the ball instead of #4.”

Other rational people in the crowd started telling the player, “Just go, Aaron.” The mob was still growing, and becoming ruder by the second. He stayed out for nearly ten minutes, looking very patient, but also a little overwhelmed. He looked over at the fence where only one man and his son stood, watching patiently and smiling.

Aaron Rodgers, perhaps trying to show the rabble that he would reward people who were polite, walked towards me. We just smiled, and my son waved and said, “Hi, Aaron!” A-Rod looked at us, almost quizzically, and seemed almost ready to say something to us. If he did, I missed it, because the mob had rushed over by my side of the fence and knocked my son down.

Shortly after that, the future quarterback of the Green Bay Packers went inside. I don’t know if that was his first time trying to tackle the mob, or if he was a little more cautious in subsequent trips back to Lambeau Field. The trouble is, I think he was the only one who learned a lesson that day.


I certainly have no harsh feelings towards those fans that are fervent in their passion, and I remember that childlike era in my life, when meeting a player in “real-life” was the only true definition we had of “awe”. Certainly, autographs are a great way to prove your fandom, and the fact they sell for a bunch of money doesn’t hurt either.

But today, when I asked my daughter if she got any autographs at Austin Straubel Field, she was probably confused at my reaction when she answered, “No.”

I said, “Good.”

Rush to Retire Brett's #4?

Ryan Wilson, on his AOL Fanhouse blog, cites John Lombardi's question as to why Reggie White had his number retired posthumously, nearly six years after he retired and months after his death. The question asks if there was potentially some sort of conspiracy theory as to why Reggie had to wait, while the Packers appear to be tripping over themselves to honor Favre while he may still be mulling whether he is going actually retire or not.

What could the conspiracies be? Could it be Reggie's persecution for some careless words spoken during a 1998 speech that got him labeled a "racist" and "politically incorrect"? Could it be his stance on homosexuality, which as a Baptist minister, he felt compelled to share with the world? Or, perhaps, even more sinister, could it be that he was black and Favre was white?

All of these ideas are absolutely ridiculous.

Reggie White will go down in history as one of the greatest Packers of all time, enshrined in both the Packer Hall of Fame and in Canton, a wrecking ball on the field and an inspirational leader off the field. But, unlike most of those truly honored by having their number retired by the Packers --Bart Starr, Ray Nitchske, Tony Canadeo, and Don Hutson--Reggie White was not a lifelong Packer.

Furthermore, his most statistically impressive seasons were actually with the Philadelphia Eagles...a team that also elected to retire his number with their team in 2005.

The question isn't whether or not Reggie White compares to Brett Favre, but whether or not Reggie White, bless his soul, deserves to have #92 retired. The idea of being defined as a Packer Forever seems to be a constant with those four, as well as Favre. I remember at one time, there being a public statement that no more numbers would ever be retired for the Green Bay Packers (this was back in the 80's), so I was surprised when a player, great as he was, received the honor when he only played part of his career with the team.

The fact that the Eagles also retired his number is either testament to White's greatness, or a reminder that sometimes retiring numbers is as much a public relations ploy as it is granting an honor.

Brett Favre spent his entire career with the Packers (minus his forgettable rookie season), won a Super Bowl (more than Hutson or Canadeo) and finished statistically on top of nearly every record at his position, as did Don Hutson. Favre's popularity certainly also ranked up there with each of these players, though certainly, the rush of being in five championships has to put Nitschke and Starr on even a higher plane than Favre.

I questioned passing out retired numbers like candy when White's number was retired. Such an honor is limited (you only have so many numbers you can retire). I also questioned Don Majkowski's induction into the Packer Hall of Fame at around the same time, because it seemed to cheapen the honor for others who really deserved it, like Jerry Kramer or Willie Wood, but didn't get a number retired. Majkowski played one good season, and only four seasons in all for the Packers. If you're going to give him a place in the Hall, why not Darrell Thompson? Why not Walter Stanley? Why not Mark Koncar?

Reggie White was a great player. Packer Hall of Fame? Absolutely. Maybe a spot in the Ring of Honor at Lambeau Field. Absolutely. Number retired? Sorry, I don't buy it.

Favre has in his career earned all of those unwritten criteria for having all those things and his number retired. He has the statistics, he has the longevity, he has the popularity, and he has the claim to being a Packer over his entire productive career.

If honoring Reggie White were an equally slam-dunk decision, why did the Eagles wait twelve years after he left the team to retire his number?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Time Has Come: Al Harris to Safety

As the Packer offseason chugs vaguely again towards the draft, few moves have been made in free agency by General Manager Ted Thompson…to no one’s surprise. This has been his M.O. since he arrived in Green Bay, and his consistent belief in both his ability to find gems in the draft and to develop the talent presently on the roster has garnered him praise, particularly in the wake of a Cinderella season that brought the team to the brink of the Super Bowl.

However, with the unexpected salary cap bonus offered through Brett Favre’s retirement, the pressure will go up a notch for Thompson this year to insure the development of the team without the presence (and salary cap figure) that often served as a lightning rod for Thompson’s fans. With a team seemingly on the brink of greatness, the pressure goes up a bit. Drafting 30th, Thompson will find less and less options for quality trade-downs, and the fizzle of Justin Harrell and Brandon Jackson last season means that this offseason needs to count.

The timing is important: the team established itself as an unexpected power in the NFC, and needs to keep that momentum going. With the most salary cap flexibility in Thompson’s tenure, it’s time to fill holes and solidify this team to continue to play up to expectations.

So, I offer my free, unsolicited piece of professional advice to Thompson, a guy who has focused on defense since he arrived: finish the defense and get a top flight free safety.

Knowing that Thompson likes to keep out of the high-stakes cesspool that is free agency, this is easier said than done, but the importance should be lost. Thompson has seemingly valued hard-hitting safeties since he’s been here, bringing in Mark Roman, Nick Collins, Marquand Manuel, and Atari Bigby to be the enforcers. Yet, for all of their great hits, they have struggled in coverage and help over the top. Aaron Rouse, a linebacker pretending to play safety, is in the same mold.

Our passing defense has indeed improved from the embarrassment it was in the Manuel years to a middle-of-the-pack squad in 2007. But, despite the accolades that our cornerbacks team of Charles Woodson and Al Harris were among the best in the league, both are over 30 years old and will likely never get any better.

In particular, Al Harris, despite making the Pro Bowl, looked slow and frustrated as Plaxico Burress abused him in the NFL Championship game. At 33 years old, it isn’t unlikely that he is about to follow the same career slide that Antonio Freeman did in the late 2000’s.

Like Freeman, Harris isn’t blessed with blazing speed, but has always compensated with smarts and effort. But every player hits that fateful season when they lose a step, and in Freeman’s case, that step was simply too much for him to make up with effort. Freeman’s career in Green Bay ended with a whimper because he simply couldn’t get from point A to point B fast enough to use his smarts and skills.

Harris has compensated for his lack of speed by excelling at bump coverage, but an athletic receiver like Burress showed us a glimpse of what is possibly the near future, and when a cornerback can’t keep up with a receiver, his career is effectively over.

So, we find ourselves in the market for a cornerback. Since that appears to be on the forefront of our wish lists (and, amazingly, last on the draft lists the past few years), let’s imagine 2008 and how Harris, who is still under contract and would cost $1.2 million to cut, can still fit in: as our new free safety.

This is nothing against Nick Collins, who has struggled to replicate his rookie season success, or Atari Bigby, who generated excitement with his big hits and excellent playoff game against Seattle. But, the point still stands that both players struggle both in coverage and haven’t been able to run the defense like a quarterback.

Like a quarterback, you ask? Perhaps one of the finest strong safeties in recent memory, LeRoy Butler, hit his strongest stretch of his career in the 1996 and 1997 seasons, making All-Pro three years in a row in those seasons and in 1998. While many factors aligned in those seasons for the Green Bay Packers, Butler’s 13.5 sacks in those three seasons marked a tremendous difference from any other season he had, when he only had one season with more than one sack. The difference?

Eugene Robinson. The free agent free safety brought a level of control to the defense that seemingly transformed the entire squad. Not only did it allow the Packer defense to be ranked #1 overall in those two seasons, but allowed LeRoy Butler freedom, to play closer to the line. This was possible because Robinson was able to direct the defense from the backfield, had enough speed and range to help out in coverage, but most of all, was smart.

Oh, and by the way, he was 33 when he played with the Packers in 1996, the same age as Al Harris.

The question is three-fold. First: Would Mike McCarthy be willing to move Harris to safety? Both Collins and Bigby are somewhat established, even though they both tend to play the same kind of position: the hard-hitting run stopper. Harris and Woodson are revered as a tandem of bump and run corners.

Second: Would Harris, a proud cornerback, be able or willing to make a switch to safety? Harris, while never resorting to Mike McKenzie-esque shenanigans, has withheld his offseason services in the past when he wasn’t happy with his contract. Would he see being asked to move to free safety as an insult or a way to extend his career?

Third: Is Ted Thompson, then, going to make the investment for a prime cornerback, which are traditionally more expensive than safeties? DeAngelo Hall just signed a Raider contract that will pay him Favre-esque numbers. Is getting a guy who can play opposite of Woodson without a drop-off from Harris going to be possible? Is such a guy out there an available, and if so, would he fit into Thompson’s philosophy of finances? The draft position makes finding the next DeAngelo Hall difficult, and the best corners are already off the free agent market.

Three hard questions that, in all likelihood, will have Al Harris lining up at cornerback next season. Simply put, I don't see Ted Thompson shelling out for a top-flight cornerback, and I don't know if Harris would accept a change at this point.

But it still stands that this defense has operated for years without the smooth free safety it has needed, a position that relies on smarts, discipline, and coverage instead of hard hits and speed. It's more important for a free safety to know where to rotate his coverage and take the right angle than it is for him to hit hard or have blazing speed. Al Harris deserves a chance to continue to be a great contributor for the Packers for many seasons to come, and this change would give him the chance to not only to that, but make this pass defense into a Super Bowl defense.

Why We Loved (and Hated) Brett Favre

As the dust has settled on the retirement of Brett Favre and his glorious Packer career, there are still the dying battle-cries going between those who have been perceived as the “Favre Lovers” and the “Favre Haters”. Why has this odd battle between all self-proclaimed Packer fans continued for so long? Why has the legend of Brett Favre split the fan base in such a polarized way?

In an amusing anecdote, an old childhood friend of mine was quoted by Peter King in January talking about what Favre has meant to the Packer fandom, going as far as to admit he dreamed of going mall shopping with Brett. Other than that little slip of T.M.I., my buddy talked about how inspirational Favre has been, how the dreams of this little town have ridden on his shoulders for so long, how he would be unable to go to work the day after Favre would announce his retirement.

And, so it was true on that day. But, as the Peter Kings and John Maddens of the world glorified Favre’s name, while the Dr. Z’s and Sal Palantonio’s piled on with words intended to diminish his accomplishments, the question that I ask is “why”?

Why did Favre turn some Packer fans into zealot-crazed Brett fans, who toiled to find any excuse for his mistakes or decline in play? And why did Favre turn other Packer fans into cult-like missionaries crying against anything he said or did, actually calling for Aaron Brooks to be brought back as a better option than Brett?

The answer, in my opinion, doesn’t actually come from his play on the field. Oh, you will certainly find many who will categorize every single interception and every time he didn’t pull out a game in the final minutes, but that’s not where it started. Some will point to his flippant press conferences, saying he undermined his teammates and coaches with politically incorrect, honest opinions.

It all comes down to one thing: Brett Favre let us in.

He let us in, and we saw him as more than a name and a number. We knew Brett Favre more than we’ve known any quarterback, any player in recent memory. For most of us, it increased our own emotional investment in him, our own reasons to root “for” a player as well as a team. He became larger than life, when in actuality, he was one of the only “real life” players we watched.

Most of our quarterbacks nowadays are supposed to be stoic field generals. We tend to frown upon the emotional and wild personalities, such as Ryan Leaf and Tony Romo. What do you know of the life of Peyton Manning, beyond his television commercials and the fact he wears #18 for the Colts? Is he married? Does he have children? Has he ever said anything to really tick you off? What has he gone through in his life that drives him?

But we don’t know those things. Tom Brady has personified that now-you-see-me-on-the-field, now-you-don’t-off almost perfectly until this past season, when his relationship and parental issues crept into the news. We don’t expect that from our offensive leaders. We expect strong, stoic leaders who do and say the right things.

Oh, sometimes, you get a guy like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, guys who try to “let us in” with their antics on the field, but NFL fans know an act when they see it. Anyone notice how quiet Chad Johnson got when he stopped producing and his team stopped winning in 2007? Look-at-me antics aren’t letting us see the real person inside, just the caricature they want us to see.

But starting with Brett’s somber press conference, with his coach, his GM, his owner, and his fiancée at his side, announcing that he was addicted to painkillers and was seeking treatment, Favre let us in to see the human side of his life, the painful side, the things we don’t allow anyone else to see. Even coming forward as he did regarding his painkiller addiction was far different from the “no comments” and other assorted denials we hear when today’s players get caught. Denial is the politically correct way to deal with such accusations. Admitting you have a problem is the difficult and correct way to deal with it.

As time went on, the snowball of humanity grew. We saw him play with injuries that most players would have sat down with. We saw him continue to play with a youthful exuberance on the field that we wish other uninspired players would learn from. We saw him go through a very public death of his father, a very public death of his brother-in-law, his wife’s very public battle with breast cancer, and his family’s loss in Hurricane Katrina.

That snowball grew for everyone: not just his fans and growing fanatics, but the paparazzi-like media, who started treating every story about Favre as if it were about Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. Why? Because they knew there was an audience for all things Favre, and they write about what is going to sell copies.

On the other side, though, are the Packer fans who grew contemptuous of this snowball. They, too, spent some time with their Favre jerseys on, cheering him on. But around the early 2000’s, the backlash started. As that media snowball made the Packers into “Favre’s Team”, soon Favre started getting the blame whenever the “Green Bay Favres” didn’t win a Super Bowl. And in some ways, they had reason to do so.

Many football fans don’t want to get involved with their players. They don’t want to know where they came from, where they live, who they’re dating, or what they eat for dinner. All they care about are the cold, hard statistics, the biggest being wins and losses. As we saw Al Harris get eaten up by Plaxico Burress in the NFC Championship game in January, many of us started immediately brainstorming replacing Harris at corner, whether by the draft or by free agency.

Easily substitutable. Pay no mind Harris was a hero in the 2003 playoff game against the Seahawks and had played at a Pro Bowl level for some time. When an NFL player falters, he is expendable. Period.

It’s like we view our players as Madden players. When your starting quarterback falls below an overall rating of 90, don’t you start looking for another digital field general? Do you care about that other quarterback? No…he’s a name and a number, both of which are easily replacable.

Until we start talking about Brett Favre, who for many fans was completely irreplaceable, not just because of his play on the field, but because he allowed us to feel something beyond the name and number. For most of us, this created perhaps the fiercest loyalty to a player in decades, and for most, in memory.

For others, it was a ball and chain. It was an inconvenient loyalty that drove them crazy when the statistics said there is no reason any quarterback with 29 interceptions in a season should ever see a start again in their career, and yet, there he was again.

The insanity worked both ways, both for the Favre Fanatics who would have rather seen the whole team sacrificed, the future mortgaged, to give Brett a chance to prove himself as worthy of his hype, his reputation, his loyalty. And, there were those who took any comment, any bad decision, any “holding the team hostage” to discredit that hype, that reputation, that loyalty.

There would never have been a battle if it weren’t for one thing. Brett Favre broke the rules. He broke the mold of the great quarterbacks, the stoic, impenetrable façade that all are supposed to have, like Starr, Unitas, and Montana. He became more than a name we chanted, a number we wore on our own backs.

We cared. We cared about this man and his triumphs and his failures. We cared because he let us in and see parts of his life we would have kept secret. We saw him take his weakness and turn it into strength, and we cheered him for it, for making us a part of it.

And in some cases, we turned bitter at him, felt used and let down when he didn’t live up to the feelings we were supposed to have, when the facts and statistics didn’t support what we, deep down, wanted to feel.

As Favre rides off on his tractor into the sunset, hopefully the zaniness on both sides of the coin will take a deep breath and appreciate Brett Favre for the things he really was: a gunslinger, a winner, a risk-taker, an improviser, an ironman….and a real person, just like us.