Monday, September 8, 2008

This Is A Statement Game! Sort of. Maybe.

You are hearing a lot of fanfare and chatter today in the NFL, but most of that is surrounding the knee of Tom Brady, the splash of Matt Ryan, and the shifts in the power bases across the NFL as teams like the Bills and Bears look like world-beaters.

But one place you're mysteriously not hearing a lot of excitement coming from is Green Bay, even though they are coming off a 13-3 record, a field goal away from a Super Bowl appearance, and return nearly every starter from 2007. They are starting this season in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football, at home in hallowed Lambeau Field, against their most bitter rival of the last ten years or so, the Minnesota Vikings.

And the silence is deafening.

Oh, certainly, there are some obligatory potshots from the Viking players, who always have to launch a couple of verbal salvos before each game, a fine tradition started by Chris Hovan and carried on by former Packer Darren Sharper. But even those seem tentative and have a wait-and-see feeling to them.

Ah, yes...."Wait and See". That time has come, hasn't it?

As the Packers head into a season that should be marked by predictions of greatness, assigned to post-season positions of glory next to the Cowboys and Giants; instead there is a collective hedging of bets, to "wait and see" what this season has to offer, with many having difficulty seeing us winning the division, much less the conference crown.

Why is this? Why the uncertainty of a successful season? The Green Bay Press-Gazette writers, led by sports editor Mike "Thompson is my Homeboy" Vandermause, spent the summer writing article after article blasting Brett Favre, exalting the GM of the Year, and making Aaron Rodgers out to be the poor kid doing everything right. Yet, when it came time to make their predictions on the Packers' regular season record, even Vandermause couldn't predict more than a 9-7 record for the Green and Gold, nor could he predict the Packers to win tonight's game.

Shouldn't this be a statement game, like the Giants made last Thursday against division rival Washington, or like the Cowboys made yesterday against the Browns? Yes, these were both teams that an NFC contender would be expected to win, but they both did so, in convincing fashion.

The Packers return every starter from last year, save Corey Williams and Brett Favre. That team, as Charles Woodson noted, is the core group that went 13-3 and should be expected to do just as well this year. The excitement for the game tonight should be through the roof, as this is a chance to show that the Packers belong, with or without Brett Favre.

But, that excitement isn't there. Even coach Mike McCarthy gave some cautionary advice that, perhaps, expectations shouldn't be that high for this year.

Every year, people ask that question, and I'm trying to win them all. I'm trying to win the game against the Vikings. I don't know how people can go out and say, 'Well, we need to win 10 games this year.' I've never looked at it that way. I understand 10 (wins) gets you in the playoffs probably, so I understand the mind-set, but every year is so different. I was on a team in Kansas City that went 13-3, and we said we're going to bring everybody back and do it again. It doesn't work that way.

As a Packer fan who watched the Favre debacle this summer, I find this very disconcerting. The Packers have changed very little since last year. Jon Ryan has been upgraded with veteran Derrick Frost. Brett Favre, for all the drama, must be considered less promising an option at quarterback than Aaron Rodgers. Therefore, Rodgers must be considered an upgrade, at least in Thompson's and McCarthy's eyes. That leaves Corey Williams, who was essentially traded straight up for Brian Brohm, our third-string rookie quarterback.

Is Corey Williams really worth four games himself? Is he the reason we go from 13-3 to, as Vandermause predicts, 9-7? Why are the Vikings, who finished 8-8 last year and are often the target of ridicule of Packer fans, the winner of tonight's game, in Vandermause's eyes?

Let's be honest. We know Williams isn't the reason for the doubt. In the mass media's eyes, the difference comes down to Brett Favre. And, while that does play largely into people's doubts, those of us who follow the Packers almost exclusively know that the issues lie far deeper.

* The offensive line is in major flux. Thompson has decided to rebuild through the draft, and the seven players he has drafted to man the interior line since letting Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera go were all beat out this preseason by a fourth round rookie. Then, he got injured, along with starting center Scott Wells.

* The running game is a major dice roll. Ryan Grant is untested this preseason and Brandon Jackson was more and more limited as August rolled on. Not bring able to count on a running game to take pressure off of the passing game, without having a Brett Favre under center, makes for a very difficult situation against an already powerful run/pass defense.

* The defensive line was porous this preseason, with injuries piling up along the line and rushers racking up yards.

All of this adds up to the exact situation we didn't want Aaron Rodgers to be placed in. I understood years ago that Favre was being kept around to take the shots instead of Rodgers as Thompson rebuilt the line and running game. Favre willingly allowed himself to be a part of that, and I predicted that when the pieces were all in place, Rodgers would step into the situation that Favre never had.

But that's not what is happening, and why I think there is reason for hesitancy on the part of fans and media to buy in to the idea that the Packers are, again, contenders for the conference crown. Rodgers is being placed behind a porous interior line and a potentially non-productive running game...exactly what Favre was placed behind in 2005 and 2006.

Thompson takes complete accountability for whatever is on the field tonight. He has had four years to build this team around whomever is under center, and while you can't argue with the receiving corps he has assembled, both this offense and defense need to mature. Now. He wanted to build with young players who would compete and develop over time.

Time's up.

The lack of veteran leadership at running back, quarterback, and along the interior offensive line completely fall on his "draft-only" approach to building a team. Whether or not that becomes a factor this year has yet to be seen, but a 1-3 preseason means the Packers are 6-5 in their last 11 games.

Maybe McCarthy is right. Maybe we shouldn't actually expect any carry-over from last season and that everything changes year to year. Maybe Favre really did have a larger impact than they are willing to admit, and the one interception against the Giants outranks the incredible load he carried throughout the season.

Maybe we need to keep our expectations low, regardless of last year's record or playoff drive.

That, in itself, is a pretty big "statement". Now, it is time for the "game". Hopefully, the statement made during that game is louder than anything else we're hearing now.

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