Monday, August 31, 2009

Go "All In" on 2009 Packers' Season

Over at ACME Packing Company, Mitchell writes an impassioned plea for Packer fans to curb their enthusiasm. He cites some holes in the roster (Crosby, Hawk, Johnson) and lays out the rather logical argument that the preseason is historically not a precursor for success in a season, despite all the positives we've seen so far from the Green Bay Packers.

And, in many ways, he's totally right. The competition hasn't been top-notch, preseason football is more about internal struggles rather than trying to win football games, and quite simply, it's a long season and there are a ton of things that can go right or wrong between now and the end of it all.

So, it is logical to take the three-game preseason win streak with a grain of salt. Hedge our bets. Keep a sensible, realistic view of the situation.

And, I'm here to tell you....so what?

Since when has football been a sport based on logic and rational thought? Heck, if being a realist and wanting to see more proof of success in the regular season is what you want, more power to you. That's very logical and intelligent of you.

But, come on. This sport isn't based on logic. It's based on passion. That's what being a fan is all about. We ignore facts and logic all the time when it comes to this game. Why? Because it's the Green Bay Packers. And, it's about time we start acting like fans again.

In my time writing about the Packers, I've had the pleasure of meeting some of the brightest Packer fans there are. I've seen laymen no more accredited than myself break down the zone blocking scheme in minute detail. I've had Packer fans present me with pages and pages of statistical evidence designed to prove their hypothesis correct, whatever that hypothesis might be. I've seen folks draw up historical trends dating back years to compare a present day GM, QB, or coach to a distant measuring stick. Very, very heady stuff.

But, this game wasn't designed to be understood only by college graduates. It's designed for Everyman, guys who paint their faces and paint their cars and build shrines to the team in their homes.

And, you know what? When it is fourth and one yard to go in the fourth quarter, down by five points, guess where all that logic goes? Personally, I have no idea, because I am too busy standing on my couch screaming at the television. And any self-respecting Packer fan is doing the same thing, wherever they are.

A three-game preseason winning streak? You know what? Go for it. Get on board the bandwagon with both feet and grab the reins. Make hotel reservations in Miami for February 7th. Heck, you can probably cancel it, if you have to, with little penalty.

Buy in to this team, their quarterback, their leaders, their offense, and their defense. Figure that the Cardinals are probably as strong of a team that the Packers will face on their regular season schedule, and the Packers have a legitimate shot to be in every single game. Get excited.

Seriously. Let's get excited. We deserve it.

I'll admit that I am probably am usually one of the more critical voices when it comes to the Packers. But, I'm ready to take my optimism to the next level. How about you?

Go in your closet and pull out that old Favre and KGB jerseys and donate them to Goodwill. Head down to the Packer Pro Shop and get your new red Aaron Rodgers jersey or your new green BJ Raji jersey. Consider spending $300 a seat for scalped tickets, go to the game, and scream your head off until the final gun. Even if they lose. Make Lambeau Field the home field advantage it once was again.

Don't have money in today's economy to put towards jerseys or trips to the Mecca? Then call your friends over for each game, move the couch ten feet from the television and drink your favorite beverages with your fellow fans. Passionately explain why that zone blitz failed to work while your friends roll their eyes at you and grab another beer. Forget what you were talking about mid-sentence as Charles Woodson forces another fumble.

But, most of all...believe.

This is football. It isn't your marriage, your career, your health insurance, or your 401(k). In the end, football is a simple diversion of passion, something we don't have to hedge our bets on or play conservative with the market. It's an escape when those real things in our lives may not be going as well as we would like, and something we can grab onto and believe in.

And the 2009 version of the Green Bay Packers is looking like something we can grab by the horns and hang on tight to. Why not?

You know what? We might be disappointed in the end. In fact, chances are pretty high that the Packers will not be playing in the 19th game of the season, much less win it.

So what? That's why they erase the W-L records and start over every season. But, the 2009 version of the Packers appear ready to achieve something, perhaps even something special. And, just like back in the early 1990's, there comes a time where we, as fans, have to come together and believe that this team is going somewhere, even if it doesn't make sense. Those players feed off of our passion. It only makes sense: if they believe, we believe. And if we believe, they believe.

And it's time. The past five years have likely been the most divisive of any five-year span in the 90-year history of the Green Bay Packers. We've had fans taking sides on almost every issue, from trying to prove Brett Favre as hero or goat in the 2005 season, to Sherman versus McCarthy, to dissecting every Ted Thompson draft pick and (lack of) free agent moves, to Favre vs. Rodgers and Favre vs. Thompson. All small micromanaged postulates backed up by formulated rationale and statistics, punctuated with insults at our fellow fans.

We've spent more time fighting with each other than standing with each other. And, it is time to get behind this young team and put an end to it. Period.

So, go ahead. Be irrational. If it is your cup of tea, ignore logic and facts and statistics and those people who try to turn this game into thesis statements or fantasy football. Stand together with your fellow Packer fans and start imagining names like Rodgers, Jennings, and Woodson becoming as legendary as Starr, Hornung, and Nitchske, or Favre, White, and Butler. Could there be a player on the field today that will have a street named after them? A number retired by the Packers?

Imagine trophy number four.

Guaranteed, we'll have at least one game that will be such an exhilarating victory that you will hug that brother-in-law you've vowed never to talk to again. And, there will be at least one game that will be such a disappointing loss that you'll want to vow never to watch another game. Happens every season.

Hey, if you want to hedge your bets and wait, that's totally fine. Just don't spend time telling the rest of us that "you told us so" later on, with your pages of statistics and historical trend charts. If folks want to believe this is a special team with unlimited potential, regardless of the logic that refutes it, that's their right, too.

There's been discussion lately as to what a "true Packer fan" really is. In my opinion, a True Packer Fan stands not only behind their team, but stands alongside each other, passionately cheering for one goal...their team to win.

So hop on board the Packer Express. As a certain coach once said, "the train has left the station". We have no idea where the tracks will lead us, but as another coach once said, "the journey is its own reward."

Friday, August 28, 2009

As Brohm's Critics Rise, So Do His Defenders...

About a week ago, I wrote an article concerning Brian Brohm's progress, which was met with a bit of criticism for those telling me that I was pulling some sort of "Chicken Little" routine with a third-string quarterback.

Then, another poor showing in a preseason game (and continued poor efforts in practice) combined with an injury to #2 QB Matt Flynn suddenly put more folks into a concerned mode with Brohm.

As criticism of Brohm mounts, so do those folks that rationalize and defend him. Bruce Smith at PackerChatters (who I think could mount an intriguing defense for T.J. Rubely if he wanted) pens a short piece telling us that the hysterics need to chill out.

Fast forward a year and Brian still hasn’t proved his NFL worth yet, in fact he has struggle like a young QB adapting to the shift to the NFL. I am sure everyone remembers Aaron Rodgers struggles.

Brian Brohm may or may not ever make it as an NFL QB, but one thing is for sure he needs more time.

Nothing is worse for a young QB’s development than becoming sports writers and fans favorite whipping boy.

Mike Vandermause, speaking of whipping boys, also writes a piece today telling us that the Brohm experiment is far from over.

That’s why the hysterical notion that Brohm’s NFL career in Green Bay is on the line based on the way he plays in the remaining preseason games, starting tonight at Arizona, might be over the top.

Brohm hasn’t proved his NFL worth yet, and if he can’t flourish in the quarterback-friendly environment fostered by McCarthy, maybe he’ll never get it.

But despite his struggles, six preseason games isn’t much to go on. Brohm needs more time, and it would be premature for the Packers to pull the plug.

Did you happen to notice the common theme in both articles? "Hysteria"? If you are critical of Brohm, you must be hysterical. I find this somewhat amusing, particularly in Vandermause's case, because he spends over half his article essentially agreeing with the criticisms, yet still manages to belittle the others who express them.

Look, no one has to be "hysterical" over Brohm in order to have concern or to be critical of his performance. I have often stated that there is no one immune for criticism: not players, coaches, GMs, or those that write about them. Playing the "hysterical" card is simply a way to try and trivialize an opinion you don't agree with by belittling them.

Why do it? The facts are on the table. Brohm is struggling and doesn't appear ready. Period.

Is having a project as your third quarterback a bad thing? Not if you can afford it. But, we've been spoiled by having our starting quarterback not miss a start since 1992 (Favre, then Rodgers). This is not the way it normally goes for most NFL teams.

And that's not a cut on or a comparison for Aaron Rodgers. It just stands to reason that we can't expect him to make every start for the next 10+ years. He has suffered a serious injury in every NFL season he's played, and that is why it is so important to have a serviceable backup.

But Matt Flynn was hurt last week and he hasn't thrown all week, forcing Brohm into the role of our only backup in tonight's game. This is a preseason game, but it isn't impossible that this could be the scenario in a regular season game.

As long as the two guys in front of him stay healthy, Brohm is safe continuing to develop. But if Flynn's injury extends into the regular season, or if Rodgers suffers an injury to his shoulder, similar to the one he had last year...well, speaking of T.J. Rubely...do you want Brohm as your #2?

Steve Wyche reported at NFL.com that the Packers may be interested in trading for one of the Buccaneers' mediocre quarterbacks:

"The Bucs will deal Leftwich, McCown or Johnson — all their quarterbacks except first-round draft pick Josh Freeman — for the proper compensation, several sources said. A late-round draft pick and/or a player might be all they’re offered.

Tampa Bay doesn’t want to carry four quarterbacks on its final 53-man roster, so teams could wait until final cuts to see if the Bucs release one of the three. However, several teams — the Bears, Bills, Saints, Patriots and Jaguars — could be in the market for backup quarterback help. The Packers already are."

Would I be interested in seeing one of these guys brought in to compete with Brohm? Absolutely.

Why? Is it because I went off my meds this week, screaming aimlessly and incoherently while trying desperately to avoid the chunks of sky falling pell-mell around me?

No. It is because Mike McCarthy told us three years ago that they believe wholeheartedly in competition, and that competition makes the talent work harder and the best rise to the top.

“I want to see our guys grab the rope. And if they don't, there'll be someone else lined up right behind them.”

I'd love to see a kid like Josh Johnson come in and battle Brohm to see who would be the more promising project QB to keep as our #3, but who can also come in and not hurt the team if he was needed in a pinch. I think its pretty clear to Brohm that he's out of the #2 battle, but what else does he have to fight for when you only have three QB's on the roster? He's guaranteed a spot, isn't he?

Brohm, according to every scouting report from his draft year in 2008 was a can't-miss prospect with first-round potential. He was perhaps the most NFL-ready quarterback that year.

But it's not 2008 anymore, and all those pre-draft hype statements are quickly erased by whatever you do on the field as a pro. The question isn't whether or not Brohm deserves more time or has the potential to develop. The question is whether the Packers can afford to have him as a third quarterback on the regular season roster again, especially with Flynn ailing.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Poppinga Refuses To Go Quietly Into The Night

In March of 2008, I wrote an article about Brady Poppinga, noting how quickly Packer fans will turn on a beloved player in the face of non-production. In fact, this was the first article I wrote on TundraVision, which brought a very polite response from a poster named "truebluesportsfan" on SportSpyder suggesting I stop writing articles and use my free time more wisely.

Now, I didn't let that negative response to my first attempt at blogging get me down and make me quit. Amusingly enough though, Brady Poppinga isn't allowing negativity to get him down, either. As Bruce Smith notes over at PackerChatters, Poppinga has again forced the coaching staff to keep him on the roster despite what sometimes appears every effort on their part to replace him.

Now, mind you, I have nothing against Brady in the least. When he was drafted, he seemed much the Typical Ted Thompson pick...the unknown workout warrior that was under the radar, a bit of a tweener that other teams may have skipped over. But, Thompson was convinced his coach would find a place for this over-enthusiastic, full-speed kid.

The quote that sticks out most in my mind that seemed to get the most excitement from Packer fans was Poppinga's response to whether he thought he would get more playing time at defensive end or linebacker: "I'm a malleable piece of clay."

That kind of ambitious, team-oriented attitude harkens to a more recent quote by a more recent linebacking pick, Clay Matthews, who described his and fellow pick B.J. Raji's style of play: "That's one of the things I think that they drafted us for is the type of character that we are and how we work hard for everything and how we haven't been handed everything. We're go-getters and that's what we plan on doing here is getting after it."

Certainly, no one is going to knock Poppinga's motor or his enthusiasm for all things football. But, that man-crush fervor that he got before he ever played a down in green and gold waned as he showed what he had. While I'm certainly the first to excuse rookie and young guy mistakes, Poppinga showed time and time again that he was a liability in pass coverage. This certainly had some influence over the signing of jack-of-all-trades Brandon Chillar, who is exceptional at nothing, but decent at most things, including dropping back in coverage.

When I wrote that article back in 2008, my point wasn't to derail Poppinga, but to point out how quickly fan support can turn on you when you don't produce. It's a sad fact of football fandom...it seems our amount of "love" for a player directly depends on what he's done for us lately. The fact that David Tyree appears on the verge of being cut from the New York Giants certainly shows how fast you can go from being on top of the planet to looking for a job...and really, having no one who once celebrated your name in ticker-tape parades not even shrug about your fate today.

This offseason seemed to be spelling an end to Poppinga's tenure in Packer country...a switch to a new defensive scheme, the drafting of a first-round outside linebacker and the move of our best defensive lineman back into the other OLB spot seemed to automatically remove all consideration of a starting nod for Brady. The OTA surge of Jeremy Thompson seemed to suggest that the "malleable piece of clay" may even be expendable.

And few Packer fans wept. After all, we all had our Hawk, Barnett, Matthews, and Kampman jerseys hanging up in the closet. How much more room do we have?

I give Brady Poppinga credit for what he's done this preseason. There's a considerable probability that had Jeremy Thompson and Clay Matthews not struggled with injuries through most of training camp that Poppinga would have been running with the third team in practice and would be clawing his way just to get a roster spot.

But, thanks to those injuries, Poppinga is getting a chance to shine once again, reminding us all of the excitement we once had for his potential.

I don't know about you, but it makes me realize how fickle we fans can be. It's nothing to be proud of.

In the end, I certainly believe that Clay Matthews is still going to be given every opportunity to earn that OLB position. Thompson paid a high price for him and after suffering through criticism for the Hawk and Harrell picks, it's doubtful that Matthews is going to be on the bench very long.

But Poppinga has risen to one of the challenges that scares football players the most. Perhaps as much as injury, you would have to think that men like Poppinga fear becoming irrelevant and expendable. If your life is this boy's game that you love to play, which poison would you pick? Would you rather be hurt and rehabbing, or healthy and forgotten?

Poppinga recently commented on that rookie enthusiasm and where it has taken him today. "I'm enjoying myself very thoroughly," Poppinga said. "It's a process. When I came in here, I was a malleable piece of clay four years ago. Now, I'm breaking that clay pottery down - boom! - to build it back up. So it's a process. But I think I'm taking the necessary steps, and I'm enjoying the moment."

I give Brady Poppinga a lot of credit for taking his chance and running with it. There are plenty of players on this roster who have been given chances time and time again and just don't seem to take advantage of them. Popp may not finish this season as a starter, but after starting training camp as not much more than an afterthought, he's established himself once again as a productive player.

And certainly not expendable.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: The Buffalo Aftermath

On a beautiful night, the Green Bay Packers played their #1 offense and defense a little later into their second preseason game and came away with a feel-good 31-21 win, including a 21-0 first half the featured great performances by the starters.

Here are the TundraVision QuickHits:

* Level of Competition Okay, I will be honest. When the Packers shut out the Cleveland Browns last week, I was satisfied but held back my optimism due to the fact that, simply put, Cleveland sucks. I didn't see them as much better competition than the last game the Packers played, which was against the pathetic 0-16 Detroit Lions. So, while I liked what I saw, I wanted to delay my bubbly over-enthusiasm until they could do it twice.

And that they did. The Bills would have to be considered a "step up" in terms of competition, and the Packers not only duplicated their dominance, but the first team improved from last week and dominated. I figured, "Hey, the Bills beat the Bears last week. They have to be at least an average NFL team."

Now, mind you, looking a little closer, the first half scores for both of the Bills' two games prior to tonight were a 21-6 trailing of the Titans, and a 6-6 stalemate against the Bears and a bumbling Jay Cutler. So, perhaps, the Bills are not that much improved over the 25th-ranked offense and 14th-ranked defense from last season, and conceivably not much more of a challenge than the Browns.

But, for reasons I will list below, I am officially unleashing my optimism for this upcoming season. And, I am looking forward to seeing how the Packers' 3-4 fares next Friday against last years' 4th-ranked offense when the Packers play the Cardinals.

* Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood Okay, if you had a choice between a quarterback who goes 1/4 for 4 yards, or one that goes 8/9 for 98 yards and 2 TD, which would you choose?

The past week's F-Word drama could have rattled the nerves of the Packers, and particularly of the young quarterback who has been trying so hard to get out of his shadow, but Rodgers is no longer a kid. He has matured into a starting QB in the NFL with poise, maturity, and confidence.

Now, I will say this: Aaron Rodgers is a very good quarterback. That's the bad news. The good news is that he has a chance to be a great quarterback, and that is going to be because he has some amazing receivers. Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley, and Donald Lee all demonstrated remarkable catches today, but more importantly, they were able to twist their bodies and catch the ball with their hands away from their body. Not difficult, diving catches to save their quarterback from a bad throw, but catches that allow the incredibly accurate Rodgers to throw the ball away from defenders and place it where only the receiver can catch it.

Not to bring up the F-word, but Ron Wolf always bemoaned that he didn't get a certain ex-quarterback a some great receivers to throw to. Credit Ted Thompson for getting Aaron Rodgers a stableful of them. Instead of having a quarterback who makes his receivers great, you have a quarterback and receivers making each other great.

* Driver Keeps On Ticking Did you notice the catches Donald Driver had today, and the awareness and control he had with his body? In the first quarter, Rodgers tossed him a sideline route that he caught on the three yard line, falling down. But, as the defender had run past him, Driver twisted his body on the ground, instinctively not turning over or putting his body or elbow out of bounds, despite momentum taking him there. He couldn't see the line...he just knew where it was. He stayed in bounds and had an opportunity to advance the ball further, although the defender came back and touched him down.

On his touchdown catch, he again showed fantastic body control in twisting his body to force his second foot down in-bounds, preserving the touchdown. A lesser receiver would have struggled to drag that second foot down with the momentum carrying him out.

Like Michael Jordan, Driver is simply learning new tricks as he grows older, but is still as deadly.

* The Defense Is Swarming and Aggressive Last season, when you watched the defense play (particularly the front seven), they always looked like they were running in mud. The Bob Sanders defense was a "stay back and see what they do first" defense, reducing risk by rarely blitzing and hoping to contain offenses. It was the 4-3 version of a prevent defense, and often, it prevented us from winning. It's no wonder we had so many interceptions last season: quarterbacks were fooled by the front seven moving so slowly and indecisively that they didn't expect the secondary to move so fast.

Not anymore. The defense played like they were on rocket powered roller skates all through the first half. Rushers and blitzers got upfield fast, often overpowering their blockers (give it up for BJ Raji, by the way). Receivers were blanketed, and if a rusher or a reciever got the ball past the line of scrimmage, they were swarmed...fast. Not just time-fast, but by fast-moving defenders, who would come flying in like there were electromagnets attached to the ball.

I am giving a game ball to Dom Capers. I don't know if it is the 3-4 scheme itself, or simply the philosophy change of "attack!" instead of "read and react", allowing the talent that we have on the defensive side of the ball to actually play the kind of defense they were drafted for.

* Sitton Spin On the fourth-and-one play where Grant was stuffed for a loss inside the red zone, I decided to rewind and see who missed the block. Josh Sitton completely whiffed on his block, and that man penetrated to make the stop on the play.

So, later on, when Ryan Grant scored on the touchdown to the right corner of the endzone, I rewound again to see who had hit their blocks. What I noticed, however, was that Sitton again missed his block completely. The defender burst into the backfield and, luckily, ran into Korey Hall. However, if for any reason Grant would have had to turn that run inside, he would have been bulldozed by Sitton's man for a loss.

Now that the Packers have used the same running play to score a TD with Grant in consecutive weeks, teams are going to have tape on it and be game planning for that outside run.

Sitton is not making the decision at center any easier. It may be that Jason Spitz may have to move back to guard until someone else is able to man it consistently.

* Run game still in overdrive I noted that the Bills had held their first two opponents to 73 and 57 yards rushing, and figured we wouldn't see the crazy 200+ yards rushing like we had last week. The Packers gained only 108 yards rushing, but starter Ryan Grant had 43 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown, and looked to only be running more and more downhill as his short time in the game went on.

My underdog favorite, Tyrell Sutton, took over in the second half and essentially duplicated Grant's performance with 49 yards on 11 carries, with a touchdown. What I love about Sutton is not only his tenacity and vision while running, but that he is developing a good rapport with Quinn Johnson. I'm starting to enjoy watching Sutton getting a handoff, and right around his first or second step, there's a loud snap of pads as Johnson levels the guy in front of him. Credit Johnson for opening the hole that allowed Sutton to score.

On the other hand, Kregg Lumpkin may have moved himself down to 5th on the depth chart with negative rushing yardage and a nasty fumble that effectively ended his night.

Brohm Gets Chance, Flynn gets hurt I took a little flack for an article I wrote last week showing some concern about Brian Brohm's development. The counterargument was that we have a Pro Bowl quarterback (well, not yet) and a solid backup that could start for an NFL team (well, probably Buffalo) ahead of him.

I was somewhat surprised to see Brohm given the nod to go in with the second teamers. Perhaps Mike McCarthy felt it was fair to have the two backups switch off as they did last preseason. Perhaps with the criticism Brohm has been getting for much of training camp, we wanted to give him a fair chance to prove himself with better players around him. In any case, Brohm had his chance to do it...12/19 for 83 yards and an INT comes out to a 50.9 efficiency rating, which is 50.9 points higher than he had last week.

But he still looked confused and lacking in self-confidence out there. He went 2/4 on his final drive in the fourth quarter, but was relying heavily on an audible quick slant to Kyle Heckendorf, which was how he completed both of his passes (missing badly on the first of three tries). Sutton rushed seven times on that drive for 38 yards and drew a 15 yard facemask penalty.

However, an injury to Matt Flynn's arm brought Brohm's development into higher concern. If Flynn is hurt for a stretch of time, Brohm moves up to backup...and that is something he's not ready for. Greg Bedard is convinced that the Packers showcased Brohm to dangle him for trade bait. Hmmmmmm.....

* Guacamole Sandwich Breno Giacomini did a terrible job blocking Copeland Bryan, who was able to circle around at full speed and smash pretty hard into Matt Flynn's arm, which caused a fumble that Breno had to pick up.

Those are the kind of plays that can bury you on the depth chart or make people look really carefully at Duke Randolph when it comes to final cut time. Flynn left the game with a shoulder sprain that everyone appears tight-lipped about for now. I have a feeling this is going to be on McCarthy's "medical situation" list for a while.

* Collins give us a scare After making a great play deflecting a pass to be intercepted by teammate Brady Poppinga, Collins left the game with a rib "medical situation". Luckily, the results came back negative, and I'm sure he'll be held out practice until the soreness is gone. But, I was feeling the world "jinx" come to mind when I thought of my article this past week naming Collins as one of the five players we could least afford to lose to injury.

*Yeah, so you say now... I don't mean to skeptical, but MM says he's going to make a final decision on the offensive line after this game. Hopefully. "I'm hopeful that the film will give me that strong opinion one way or the other. That's something we'll definitely take a close look at as a staff and I'm hopeful that will happen. But I'm not making any guarantees. Just want as much information as we can so we can make a good decision."

Gotta say, though, the first string line has looked awfully good last week and this week both in pass protection of Rodgers and opening holes for the running backs. Let's hope it is due to their own improvement and not the level of competition.

One way or the other, though, I really-really-really hope McCarthy can find the right five guys and give them the opportunity to mesh and know their roles inside and out. The Offensive Line Shuffle needs to end.

----

Lots more we can talk about, as we always can after a good game. The Packers are not only 2-0, but the new 3-4 defense didn't allow a point to be scored against them until 1:09 remaining in the third quarter of their second game. If our first team offense and defense can continue to play at this level in the regular season....playing some old guy on the Vikings will be the least of our things to look forward to in 2009.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Five Injuries the Packers Can Least Afford

Injuries are a part of the game, no doubt. Training camp is critical, because not only are you trying to discern your starters, but you are also trying to establish quality depth. At some point or another, to varying degrees, every NFL team has to cover on the field for an injury.

Some years are worse than others. The Packers, it seems, are on a three-year cycle of crippling injuries. In 2002, the team finished with a basketball team of starters on injured reserve. In 2005, the Packers had perhaps their worst season for injuries in franchise history. And last year, 2008, while the Packers didn't have the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" injuries they had three years previous, critical injuries to Nick Barnett, Cullen Jenkins, Al Harris, and Atari Bigby set the defense back considerably.

If you are a little superstitious (like me), you are going to follow the trend and see our next snakebit year should be in 2011...a long ways away.

But, the odds are very high that a Packer player is going to be placed on season-ending IR in the first half of the season. What makes for interesting discussion is which players we can least afford to have working on the stationary bike until 2010.

In order, here are my top five players the Packers can least afford to lose to injury in 2009:

#5 Charles Woodson

As the Packers make their transition to a 3-4 defense, the responsibilities of the secondary changes also. Our cornerbacks, long regarded as perhaps the best tandem in the NFL, have built their reputation on tough, bump-and-run man coverage. Al Harris, the other corner, has always excelled at that, but Charles Woodson, a former first-round pick, has proven his athletic ability will allow him to play zone as well.

Harris has gotten some flack in the Packer Blogosphere and in the media that not only might he be average (at best) in zone coverage, but that he has lost a step with age and may be better served in the nickel role. While I don't quite buy that (yet), the fact that Tramon Williams has shown the ability to be a serviceable starter last season (despite his quiet training camp) allows for some insurance for Harris.

But the loss of Woodson to injury this season would place Williams in a starting spot, and leave Harris at the other. The lack of progress of the other corners behind them (Pat Lee hasn't blossomed quite as much as many of us had hoped) would already weaken a secondary that relies on many DB's to substitute and even play linebacking roles in the 3-4 nickel and dime.

#4 Chad Clifton

Clifton, you say? The old guy is on his last legs, you say? He may be a creaky old veteran, but he and Daryn Colledge are presently the only two offensive linemen who are already pencilled in to a starting spot along the line. No, Clifton isn't the stalwart he once was, but he is a crafty veteran who is invaluable in protecting the quarterback's blind side at left tackle.

I'm still not sold on a lot of the young talent we have on the offensive line. Many of them may develop into solid starters someday, but right now, no one appears to be stepping forward and commanding the other three starting spots (and Colledge himself is nowhere near Pro Bowl level yet, either). There's a lot of average talent along the line.

In many ways, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have benefitted from having two veteran bookends on the offensive line for many years. But with the loss of Mark Tauscher on the right side, Clifton stands as the lone bookend remaining. Since the other offensive line positions are all still entertaining auditions, the thought of adding a fourth open spot would likely be less a competition as much as sticking bodies into the spot and hoping something sticks. That doesn't bode well for Aaron Rodgers' blind side.

#3 Nick Collins

I've certainly given Collins his share of criticism over the years, his summer holdout not adding to the love. But when Atari Bigby went out in the first game of 2008, a revolving door of average players tried to fill his place. The constant was Nick Collins, who played at a Pro Bowl level and turned into a legitimate playmaker.

While I am excited to see Bigby come back and hopefully return the form he was showing before he was hurt last year, Collins offers the ability to help cover for his absence better than Bibgy might the other way around. I've often said that our safety corps are made up of strong safety types, mostly hard-hitting run stoppers who struggle in coverage. Collins came of age last year and showed he was able to play the free safety position more than adequately.

I don't know if the Packers have another free safety on the roster. Bigby is a good run stopper, and Rouse also fits that strong safety mold. Could Anthony Smith come in and fill Collins' spot? Chances are, nowhere near as well.

#2 Ryan Pickett or Cullen Jenkins

I cite both of these guys at #2 because either of them are critical to the development of the 3-4 defense this year. Pickett is considered the only body type on the roster suitable to play nose tackle, other than late-signee BJ Raji. And the effects of the loss of Jenkins last year to injury was immediate and palpable.

The Packers simply don't have a lot of developed talent along the defensive line. Michael Montgomery and Johnny Jolly are ideally your non-starters who work in the rotation, but we've seen the defensive line struggle when those players are forced to start and the rotation depth is limited. While I have high hopes for BJ Raji, counting on him to have the same impact as Jenkins or Pickett (without having them alongside him) is pretty everly-optimistic for a rookie.

Justin Harrell appears on his way to again being a non-factor this season, and that leaves Alfred Malone and a bunch of undrafted free agents to fill in the gaps. Not a positive position to be in. Not having Harrell developed in 2009 has really hurt the Packers' depth this year.

#1 Aaron Rodgers

Of all the players on the roster, no injury would cause a more drastic impact on their side of the ball than that of Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers has demonstrated his ability to lead the team and play through pain. He has incredible accuracy and has developed pocket maturity. He is the defacto leader on offense.

And, there's literally no one proven behind him. If we were to lose Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 with a season-ending injury, a la Atari Bigby last year, the onus would fall on young Matt Flynn. While Flynn has developed over his rookie season efforts and has has more poise in the pocket, he does not possess Rodgers' arm strength or the ability to make the difficult NFL throws. In fact, he's a bit of a scrambler that would open himself up to hard hits.

Again, he may develop the skills needed to be a starter in the NFL in time, but in 2009 he isn't there yet. Even more concerning is the lack of development of fellow second-year quarterback Brian Brohm, who is simply not ready for prime time. It is likely the offensive game plan would have to be modified to give the replacement QB shorter, higher-percentage throws to make instead of the wide-open game that Rodgers enjoys and does well with.

The lack of quality depth behind Aaron Rodgers makes his injury status the most critical for 2009. Trust me, every hard hit he takes will come with a cringe from Packer fans, as well as Packer coaches.

Do you agree? Is there another player that you think should be on this list?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So, what do we do with Brohm?

Yes, it's early. Yes, there's a lot of time that will pass between now and the final cuts. And, it's not like there are 4-5 quarterbacks on the roster right now.

But, the Packers can rest a little more easily that Matt Flynn is show a lot of progression in his game, and has essentially nailed down the #2 spot on the depth chart. That's a relief to me, who fretted over Rodgers' injury history and lack of veteran depth all last season.

Give Flynn credit. He's scrappy, has good legs, and makes the safe passes well. If Rodgers has to go out for a series, or the rest of the game, I feel like Flynn can come in and give the team a chance to win. Maybe more importantly, he is less likely to make a fatal mistake.

In fact, if A-Rodge has to miss a game, I think Flynn could command the team with a scaled-back gameplan. However, am I convinced he could take over from Week 4 on and the Packers wouldn't miss a beat? Not yet.

However, that puts us in the same spot as well over half the teams in the NFL. Not everyone has a starter as a backup.

Now, the problem comes with Brohm, a second-round pick last year that most assumed was the clear-cut #2, with a weak-armed Flynn as a project player. A year later, those roles are painfully reversed, at least for Brohm.

Brohm played the entire second half against the Browns, and finished with a 0.0 quarterback rating, though that was attributed to the two interceptions he threw, one off a tipped pass, and one off his arm getting hit on the throw. That stated, I've seen several quarterbacks throw two interceptions and still get their rating out of single digits.

You might also make the argument that he was playing with third-stringers. That's true, but he was also playing against third-stringers...of one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

I have nothing against Brohm, but I am growing concerned that the Packers are again heading into the season set with their three quarterbacks, regardless of how they are performing.

If the Packers are interested in anyone else, the window is closing soon. On September 1, the Turk will cut down the roster to 75 players, and on the 6th, it will go to 53. With a load of offensive linemen, linebackers, receivers, and running backs that the Packers will want to continue to look at, it is unlikely that the Pack would be able to afford a spot for a fourth quarterback after August 31.

And, it's not likely that there are too many veterans out there for the Packers to snag. J.P. Losman and Brooks Bollinger, two vets with starting experience (that I would consider signing to compete with Brohm) have signed contracts with the UFL. That leaves guys like Jamie Martin, Drew Henson, Ken Dorsey, and Marques Tuiasosopo who might be available. Yuck.

You might be able to convince 39 year old Trent Green to come out of retirement, but after watching how the Vikings handled that situation the past few days, I have a strong feeling the Packers won't be following suit.

So, it puts the Packers in somewhat of a quandary. Essentially, you are putting faith in Aaron Rodgers to stay healthy for another season. Now, I'm sure if we go down the list of #3 quarterbacks in the NFL, there's aren't a whole lot of solid vets occupying that spot, so perhaps the panic button isn't worth pressing yet.

And maybe developing slowly is what Brohm needs to do. In watching him against Cleveland, I thought he looked titchy in the pocket and went through his reads laboriously slow. However, those were the same criticisms I had of a second-year quarterback during his second training camp in 2006. His name? Aaron Rodgers. He ended up doing alright after a while, didn't he?

But, Rodgers, even then, still seemed to have more instinct and certainly more mobility. Flynn is mimicking those traits far more than Brohm is at this point.

I do find it interesting that he continues to wear a glove on his throwing hand. Back during my flag football days in the 1990's, if I was QBing my team I would also wear a glove on my throwing hand. Why? I have a large enough hand, but most of it is in my palm. Big palm, average sized fingers. So, the receiving glove allowed me to have just a bit more tack on the ball and kept my spirals tighter. Brohm has stated his reason is similar...he has sweat on his hand that makes it hard to grip the ball.

The difference between Brohm and me? One if us is getting paid to be an NFL quarterback, and small, sweaty hands don't bode well for longevity. Just ask Daunte Culpepper.

There are those out there that are ready to stick a fork in Brohm right away, but it's unlikely that Ted Thompson will cut a second-rounder in his second year, especially when he has two guys set ahead of him. But the observations that he doesn't appear to have improved much at all over his forgettable rookie training camp has to be at least a slight concern.

My guess is that Brohm will likely get another half of play against Buffalo, but isn't going to get any time with the #2's. It's pretty clear that Flynn has earned that second-string spot, and it's hard to argue that he should have to play after Brohm. Brohm is going to have to make a statement with JaRon Harris and Brett Swain running his routes instead of Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Such is the life of a #3 trying to claw his way up the food chain.

Hopefully, Brohm will get the time he needs to develop and slow the game down for him. But, his road seems to be getting harder to tread each week, and another goose-egg in the quarterback rating might put the Packers front office into a heightened alert status.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In the End, The Thompson/Favre Standoff Failed

So, Brett Favre got his wish and lined up behind center of the Minnesota Vikings, preparing to take on another NFL season and face off against his old team. This, despite the efforts of the Packers front office to prevent it from happening in the summer of 2008.

Yes, today is a day of catcalls, jeers, creative insults, and "Cash for Clunkers" jokes, all directed at a man who is regarded by most Packer fans as Judas Iscariot reincarnated as a hillbilly. But, as the clamor settles down and we focus on the players that really matter to us (the gentlemen in green and gold playing against the Bills this weekend), we might do well to review the standoff last summer that led to so much of the turmoil we are feeling today.

Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and the Packers' brass took a hardline with Favre and stuck to their guns. But, in the end, all they did was delay the inevitable, and at a cost that may overshadow what we celebrated as a gain.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not disagreeing with the Packers' decision to go with Aaron Rodgers as the quarterback. In fact, I support it wholeheartedly. I am also not disagreeing with the front office decision to not bring Favre back to the team, even as a backup. They made a decision and stuck with it.

I give Thompson and Co. credit for how they handled last year's offseason up to a point. After the 2007 season ended, the resumed their usual "we aren't giving Brett any deadline to make a decision" line (through gritted teeth), and waited it out. When Brett came forth and announced his retirement, they graciously showed him the door, and after he left, slowly watched him leave and kept the door open for a month or so, allowing him time to change his mind.

But, at some point, Thompson and McCarthy closed that door, crossed the Rubicon, and decided that it was time to move on. When Favre started waffling and inquiring about returning to the team, the leaders (perhaps clumsily) deflected his advances.

But, at the point where Favre said, "If you don't want me to play for you, grant me my release," is where I start to question how Thompson handled the situation. Even Ron Wolf granted the release of Reggie White in 2000 when he came out of retirement, allowing him to join a team that was on the Packers' schedule that year (and ended up a Packers' loss). But, Thompson refused. Favre requested a trade to a list of teams that he'd be interested in (namely, the Vikings), and again, Thompson refused.

This started the mother of all wars in the media, with months of he-said, she-said melodrama and splintering fan bases. Perhaps Thompson felt that this was in the best interest of the team. Perhaps he felt it was critical to keep him off a division rival's roster. Perhaps he felt that it was important to keep him off the Packers' schedule. Perhaps he simply wanted to not give in to the Will of Favre, as so many had done before him (and in retrospect, would do again).

Whatever the reason, the Packers allowed this drama to escalate all the way into training camp. In the end, Thompson thwarted any efforts Favre had of joining his desired re-locale, and eventually traded him to NFL Siberia, the New York Jets...perhaps the last team Favre himself would want to join. Favre was not only blocked from the team he wished to join, but was in perhaps one of the worst situations he could be in when it came to the potential of making the playoffs.

In the end, what Thompson got for the Packers was a Favre-less schedule and a third round draft pick. Many at the time hailed the move as a winning one for the Packers.

But, a year later, the Packers may have been better off giving Favre his release, or better yet, granting his request for a trade. It seems sacreligious now to willingly allow Favre to have joined the Vikings, but in the end, how much better off were the Packers?

* The distractions and unrest caused by the media and fan blitz last summer have been cited more than once by folks trying to come up with reasons as to why the Packers lost seven more games than last year. This would have been eliminated quickly by granting Favre's request earlier...putting the onus of the request on Favre and Favre alone, not on Thompson, McCarthy, or Aaron Rodgers.

* Looking at the 2008 stats of Favre and Jackson/Frerrotte side-by-side, they are almost identical (and identically mediocre). It is easily convievable to think that a Favre-led Viking squad would have finished 10-6, just like last year. The positives that Favre may bring with his presence and leadership may likely been countered by his propensity for turnovers.

* Using that same logic, the Packers would have likely finished 6-10 last year regardless, a season marked by Mike McCarthy stating "We need to clean up our house". But, how much did those early distractions contribute to the Packers cluttered season? Would a quick tie-cutting with Favre have allowed McCarthy to establish a more focused environment with Rodgers as his leader? Would Rodgers have to put up with pint-sized fans using the F-word at him?

* The rationale oft-cited about holding on to Favre in order to gain "value in return" for him not only pales in the face of the Wolf/Reggie situation mentioned earlier, but also in what we actually gained. The third-round pick was bunched up with several others to move up into the first round and get a now-injured linebacker and a project offensive lineman. Had the Packers demanded a first-rounder from the Vikings (a price they would seem willing to have parted with), they could have picked up Clay Matthews with the 22nd overall pick and still had the second- and third-round picks that Thompson usually excels at.

* Favre returned to the #1 spot in jersey sales for the Jets last season. Meanwhile, the Packer Pro Shop reported a significant drop in sales. While the economy is partially to blame, you don't need to look too far on the internet to find there is a small (but loud) contingent of fans who have sworn off the Packers based on how the felt their hero, Favre, was treated.

* While many fans won't care, the anger and revenge factor by Favre would have been lessened by granting him his quick release/trade. There's little doubt that Favre didn't like Thompson much before last summer, but not allowing him to play for his own team, not allowing him to play for his desired team, and not allowing him to play with any team until halfway through the preseason schedule sure didn't make that anger and resentment any better.

* Finally, the Packers appear to have what they least wanted, a year later: Favre will face them twice on their schedule. Is revenge a factor? Possibly. But, you can guess that those two games will be not only the most spirited games the Packers will play in the regular season, but the hype and national attention will be enormous. The Packers missed out on that publicity, attention, and exposure for their new quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, by working so hard to avoid it last summer.

Look, I am not writing this in any way to provide some sort of defense for Favre's actions over the last year or so. He left the house willingly, and Thompson gave him time to renege before closing the door behind him for good. His actions since that time have been at best selfish, and at worst, completely lacking in integrity.

But, the decision by Thompson and the Packers to have a two-month staring contest that bled into training camp, coupled with a trade that was designed to be to the advantage of the Packers (and the detriment of Favre) didn't work out the way they wanted. It could have, and should have, been handled better. And smarter.

Favre is a jerk and is does what he wants to serve his own best interest. However, Thompson is paid to be the executive leader of the franchise and to do what is in the team's best interest. Last summer's standoff seems rather futile and unnecessary today, as Favre got what he wanted anyway.

Wow. That's all I can say. Wow.

Wow.

ESPN one-ups Jay Glazer by reporting that Brett Favre will actually sign with the Vikings, pending a physical.

A source close to Brett Favre said the quarterback, pending a physical, will sign a contract with the Minnesota Vikings for between $10 million to $12 million, according to ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen.

Vikings coach Brad Childress confirmed in an e-mail to The Associated Press Tuesday morning that Favre, 39, was traveling from Mississippi to meet with the team.

Asked if the plan was to sign Favre on Tuesday, Childress replied: "In a perfect world."

Wow.

I am in amazement. I knew this was a possibility, but really, really hoped it wasn't going to happen. But, it looks like every effort will be made on Favre's part to play this season.

On Favre's behalf, I don't think it is smart. I think if he was truly committed, he should have signed on last May, showed up for OTA's, skipped most of the contact drills and familiarized himself with his teammates and the offensive scheme.

I just got done bemoaning the effects of a prolonged absence from training camp would affect BJ Raji. Favre actually extended that by a couple of days. This does not bode well for his ability to not only work with his team, but unless he's been doing more than throwing a ball occasionally with high school kids, increases the likelihood of injury, especially at his advanced age.

For the Packers, seriously, I think this is great news. We now have a reason to get really excited about two games on the schedule, assuming Favre passes his physical and stays healthy until then. I think Childress would be wise to not start him every game, or at least, take him out in the latter part of games that are out of reach, so he's healthy for the "important games" and, if it so happens, the playoff run and playoffs.

The $10-12M contract? Unbelievable. Wow. No way would I pay that for Favre, especially after holding out this long. Low base, big incentives based on stats and team success.

I may even have tickets lined up for the home game. Wouldn't miss it for the world.

For those Favre fans who breathed a huge sigh of relief when he announced his re-re-retirement a few weeks ago, this has to be a tough spot. But, face it...the burden of stress is far more on the other side of the Mississippi River. Favre can be a coach-killer. Look what it did to Eric Mangini. The unreal expectations of magic from a 40-year old quarterback will be a source of consternation for the coaches, players, and Favre himself.

It's their problem now. The Vikings should have laid down the law back in May or June and stuck to their guns. By all rights, they waffled themselves, all the way up to giving the man eight figures three weeks into training camp.

Wow. It's going to be a ride, though.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Glazer: Cite a Source, eh?

I always tire of the Favre circus. I certainly fault Favre for not squishing these rumors as they get started, but this kind of stuff from Jay Glazer bothers me.

But until I see it more consistently, I'm absolutely convinced. Why? For starters, because everyone else on the Vikings seems to be convinced of the same thing. I mean damn near everybody!

During my two days in Mankato, nearly everyone I talked to within the team talked about Favre joining not as an "if" but rather a "when."

Players, coaches, team employees ... you name it, they seem to believe it. The case for a Favre-Vikings marriage seems more likely than not when we look at the overall picture of clues.


Okay...

"everybody else on the Vikings"

"damn near everybody"

"nearly everyone"

"Players, coaches, team employees.."

I'm sorry, but out of "everybody", you couldn't find one of them willing to go on record with a quote? Out of every "player, coach, and team employee", you can't name one of them?

It's this kind of National Enquirer tabloid reporting that gets everyone's undies in a bundle. Who knows, Glazer may be on to something, but this kind of journalism is what gives the media a bad name.

Kind of like "Unnamed Sources". I've already called out Glazer in the past for trying to be the first with a scoop, even if it means making some of it up along the way.

Like it or not, the media will continue to milk Favre because we respond to it. Each and every time. Glazer has to get a blog out designed to bring some website hits, guess whose name he pulls out of the hat, right after Michael Vick?

The report that Glazer is miffed that ESPN isn't buying what Glazer is selling means that ESPN is either trying to cut down a network rival's scoop or they also see it as Glazer trying to make a little news off their golden boy.

The Offensive Line: Quantity Over Quality?

Back in Ted Thompson's first years as general manager of the Packers, I expressed concerns about his penchant for trading back in the draft. Indeed, he did it quite often in those first three drafts, to the sheer jubilation of some and concerning to others.

For those who celebrated the trade-backs, Mike Sherman was often used as the measuring stick as a measure of the intelligence of the moves. After all, Mike Sherman traded up, and since he traded up and those picks didn't always work out, trading up was bad. So, it stood to reason that trading back must then be "good". Since Thompson was rebuilding the team, it was important to have quantity over quality. Mike McCarthy announced that roster spots would have competition, and that said competition would raise the level of play.

As you can guess, I wasn't one of those who celebrated the trade-backs (and was bemusedly intrigued when those same folks decried Sherman's trade-ups backtracked to defend Thompson's draft-rocking move to get Clay Matthews in April). I was nervous that that quantity over quality wouldn't necessarily make talent rise to the top, but simply allow average talent to play to its potential, and we would end up with a roster full of average players that would create an average team, even if coached well and playing solidly together.

Yes, you can guess I was one of those people who craved a solid free agent signing, or swinging a deal to bring a solid talent to an area where it was truly needed (in those days, the offensive line or the running back corps). Today, I understand the benefits of avoiding the expensive world of free agency, but my concern about quantity over quality may be starting to manifest itself.

In 2007, the Packers went 13-3 and went deep into the playoffs. Ted Thompson won the GM of the Year award that year, and things looked great for the Packers. But looking at the Pro Bowl roster that year, the Packers that were represented were all holdovers from the previous regime: Brett Favre, Donald Driver, Chad Clifton, Aaron Kampman, and Al Harris. That's not intended to be any sort of indictment against Thompson: he was wise to keep solid veterans from the Sherman team while trying to rebuild. However, as those players continue to age and move on, the team that remains is the one Thompson claims responsibility for.

There are a couple of positions that I think are now being affected by the "quantity over quality" strategy, most significantly, the offensive line.

Ted Thompson took a lot of heat for letting stalwart veteran guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera leave the team. I understood the move at the time, given the precarious state of the salary cap. However, the problem is not Thompson letting two expensive veterans leave, it is with his strategy in replacing them.

With his flurry of trade-backs, Thompson attempted to restock the offensive line with young players that he hoped would fill in the new Zone Blocking Scheme nicely. No, there were no big names in those picks, no free agents, no trades for veteran players, but a lot of kids who got playing time right away. In those first four drafts, Thompson invested one second round pick (Colledge), one third round pick (Spitz), two fourth round picks (Coston, Sitton), and three fifth round picks (Coston, Moll, Giacomini). Given the Packers still had bookend tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, along with solid Sherman holdover Scott Wells, the guards spots were the only ones that needed to be filled.

And yet, none of thsse players stepped forth in those years to truly take a firm hold of those positions and hang on. Daryn Colledge is considered our most solid lineman, yet is far from earning Pro Bowl honors. Now, as the Packers attempt to push Wells out of the lineup and replace him with Spitz, they have to deal with the concerns that I had years ago: no one is stepping up and playing above an average level despite "competition".

In fact, Aaron Nagler comments today that not only were "pencilled-in" starters Spitz and Sitton far from impressive, the guy they've been trying to push out (Wells) actually played the most solid game. Meanwhile, with Tauscher's Packer career likely over due to injury, Brian Carriveau notes that Tony Moll continues to get playing time at tackle ahead of Giacomini and rookie Jamon Meredith.

In other words, we have a mess. We have too many guys that the Packers have invested time and energy into, and none of them appear ready to step forward and command their spot. We have a lot of good talent, but (with the aging of Chad Clifton), no great talent along the line.

In other words, the guys we end up cutting this year may not necessarily be playing that much worse than the guys that are starting.

But you can't say Thompson hasn't addressed the line: in fact, if you include this year's two draft picks and Wil Whittaker from 2005, Thompson has drafted an average of two offensive linemen per year...but only two first-day picks. That's quantity.

But not necessarily quality.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

TundraVision Quickhits: Preseason Game 1

All in all, you have to be pretty satisfied with a 17-0 victory in preseason. No, it really doesn't count for much, but a win is always better than a loss. Certainly, you had to be happy that our #1's defeated the Cleveland Browns' #1's 14-nil in the Packers' first two possessions.

Now, a detractor can point out that the Browns offense was ranked 31st overall last year, and that Browns defense was ranked 26th. In other words, we shouldn't get too excited (or overconfident) in beating a far lesser team, much like the somewhat hollow "ending the season on a positive note" last year when we beat the Division III Detroit Lions.

But, that is the beauty of the preseason. If you win, you don't get too excited, and if you lose, you don't have to assume the worst. This is far more about getting timing and execution down rather than worrying about the final score, and in the early going, to really try and settle some starters at their positions. The real excitement comes in examining some of the individual performances.

* Aaron Rodgers Pressure Awareness Maturity

On the first quarter touchdown strike to Donald Driver, Rodgers was able to move around in the pocket and delivered a beautiful downfield pass to Driver, who needed the time to shake defender Eric Wright on the way. This wasn't just a great play, but an illustration of how far Rodgers has come.

Early in his career, Rodgers seemed nearly unaware of pressure around him, taking unnecessary shots as he was so locked in on going through his progressions. Later on, and even a little into last season, Rodgers seemed to have "happy feet", moving around haphazardly in the pocket and affecting his throws. Rodgers, unlike most quarterbacks who throw off-balance, didn't throw high, but often threw low, bouncing his passes to his receivers.

On the touchdown play to Driver, you saw Rodgers move the pocket up while keeping his feet under him. Rodgers has a quick-fire delivery, and being able to do that while balanced is critical. Those three years on the bench were perhaps the best thing that happened to Aaron Rodgers because his raw talent has developed and the game has slowed down for him, allowing him to do many things at once instinctively instead of thinking about it too much.

* Responsibilities of the Safety

One of the drums I beat most often is the use of the safeties. I'm not concerned about the ability of our secondary to force turnovers. In fact, the "big play" was rather commonplace in the early part of 2008. I'm far more concerned about coverage responsibilities and their use in the 3-4.

On Josh Cribbs' end-around on the Browns first possession, you saw a little misdirection catch the Packers off-guard. More importantly, you saw OLB Brandy Poppinga up on the line of scrimmage and go in to blitz. As I wrote earlier, one of my concerns was with the responsbility of the safeties to come up and "fill in" for the blitzing linebackers, and in this case, Nick Collins moved up from his safety spot to fill Poppinga's spot.

My initial trepidation was that the safety responsbilities would leave corners on an island in pass coverage, but in this case, it left the left side of the field open for Cribbs to rush the ball 29 yards for a big play that put the Browns in Packer territory. Poppinga took the bait of the tackle he was rushing against, took the inside route to the quarterback, and was promptly sealed away from the rusher. Collins came up full-blast to fill in, and had to quickly turn around and go into catch-up mode.

Now, mind you, this was a first, initial attempt for these players at running a new scheme, so I'm not calling this out as a dire emergency. But, it is important for the defensive coaches to note it, because now other teams have it on tape and will exploit it if the Packers do not figure out a way to counter it. Naturally, the easy solution is to insure that Poppinga holds his contain on the outside instead of taking the bait and going in, but I'm sure Capers is going to take a long, hard look at this one play and figure something out.

* Kampman Still Developing

I love Aaron Kampman. I think he's a great player and an even better person. But I am still not convinced that he is going to be a great OLB.

At times, he still looked out of his element. On one play where he was to drop into coverage, he looked more like a basketball player doing a shell drill, bouncing from place to place around Mike Furrey, who eventually caught the pass. He also whiffed once on Jamal Lewis charging in on a run stop. Kampman is at his best when he is able to put pressure on the quarterback (which he did) and when he is stout against the run. This is a whole new skill set for him and he still didn't look comfortable 100% of the time.

The conundrum may come in if you have Jeremy Thompson and Clay Matthews outplaying Kampman, simply because they may be more fluid at the position more often. Do you turn Aaron Kampman into a part-time player if that ends up happening?

* Is there any room on the Jermichael Finley bandwagon?

I've been tough on the kid since he was drafted, not because I thought he was a bad kid, but because I thought he was going to be a one-dimensional receiving tight end that was a luxury with our present receiving corps. What I wanted was a ferocious blocker that would open up our running game and our receivers on short passes.

What I saw yesterday is a kid who is on his way to becoming a complete package at tight end. I'm not even going to comment on his receiving which we assume is already part of the deal, and he looks far better at than last year's difficulties.

What I'm going to comment on is the blocking Finley did on Ryan Grant's touchdown run, where it looked like he took out his guy and another one along the way. That was one example of a lot of nice blocks he had in this game, and is enough to convince me that he may indeed be a complete tight end.

* The screen pass is not a legitimate weapon yet

Even Wayne Larivee mentioned how this team is built for the screen pass, but we just can't seem to make it the weapon they had in the 1990's. The question may be whether or not the screen pass is able to be built in to a zone blocking scheme, which usually requires pulling linemen outside to help block.

The question may also go to whether or not defenses have adjusted in general to stopping screens, something everyone had to face when WCO's reached their peak in the 90's and early 2000's. Misdirection is a critical element of both the ZBS and the WCO, however, and that is a great way to continue to advance the ball up the field without counting on the "big play".

* The Packers are back in their "Big Play" mode

Four interceptions. Three sacks. 53-yard touchdown pass. The Packers of the first half of 2008 relied on big plays to start out with a 4-3 record. But, as the season went on, those big plays became far more scarce. In the Packers' final seven losses, the big plays dried up.

Trust me, Big Plays win games. But you can't rely on Big Plays, especially as teams get stronger and have more tape on you as the season goes on. Our running game on Saturday did fantastically against the Browns, with only DeShawn Wynn having a rushing average below 4.0 ypc, But, the Bills defense next week may provide much of a stiffer challenge (allowed Tennessee and Chicago only 50-odd yards rushing in each of their preseason games).

It is critical to couple the Packers' ability to make the Big Play with a consistent nickel-and-dime threat that can both free up the Big Play, but take the game over when the Big Play is taken away.

Yesterday was a great example of that kind of two-pronged attack, with the first string offense scoring on both their drives, and the first string defense stopping both of Cleveland's drives.

*Penalties, penalties, penalties....

Lost in the myriad of the blamestorming session that took place after the 2008 season was the fact that the Packers was the second most-penalized team in the NFL last year. Now, I'm not going to sit and break down "combat penalties" versus "non-combat penalties"...that's a job for Mike McCarthy. I do know, however, that it is a lot harder to win a game when you have double-digit flags called against your team every week. The Packers had nine penalties called against them yesterday, and at least one other that was declined. Many of them were "non-combat", which means before the ball was snapped.

The "penalty situation" (as MM may himself call it) is, to me, an indicator of exactly how much the discipline has improved over last year. Sure, hard hitting in training camp and "teaching" instead of coaching are all great things, but at some point, MM has to get his team playing with poise and control.

* I'm on the Tyrell Sutton bandwagon

...and have been since he was signed back in May. The next preseason game may be a maker or breaker for him, since Lumkin had an excellent game yesterday, too. But Sutton is downright slippery. The Packers may have to find a place for him, but I have a strong suspicion if the Packers try to bury him on the practice squad, he won't be there long.

5'8" and 217 pounds? They guy has a lower center of gravity standing up than most do with bent knees. He's a guy that may not be good at anything than just simply getting yards when you need them, and given how the Packers finished last season, that may be enough to get him a roster spot.

* Matt Flynn is Ty Detmer reincarnated

Small frame, not a cannon for an arm. Good, safe passes. Has a little flair to him. Made a nice pass to Jordy Nelson that was unfortunately called back. Great heads-up play in catching his own pass and making something of it.

Not the guy you really want to take over your team for a long stretch of time, but certainly capable of finishing a game and making a spot start with a scaled-back game plan.

If Rodgers can prove to have Favre's durability, there's no reason that Flynn can't be the next Ty Detmer.

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All in all, a very satisfying preseason win against fairly poor competition. Next week's game against the Bills will prove a slightly more capable opponent, and we'll get a chance to see the 3-4 up close and personal against an offense that might be able to challenge it a bit more.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Danger Looms Over Defensive Line

First of all, we get the news that Justin Harrell's back is back to its old tricks again.

Then, as if the BJ Raji situation isn't bad enough, he leaves town in what might be interpreted as a negotiating ploy.

And we were worried about Nick Collins?

Let's admit one thing: our defensive line was not the strength of the team in 2008. When I was looking at where we needed to draft, I pinned that position group up at the top of my list. Tyson Jackson was my first choice, followed by Raji.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the longer it takes Raji to sign, the less of an impact I expect him to make in 2009. As other people panic as the days go by, I simply write off more and more any productive contribution from Raji this year.

But the news from the Harrell front is not only unsurprising, it is very unfortunate. Many, including the Packers, placed a high value on having him finally able to contribute in 2009, and many in the Blogosphere were placing their bets that he was finally going to live up to his draft status this year.

Right now, given this is the same back that has drastically limited his ability to see the field in the past, and I certainly am not going to bet any real money that he will this year, too.

So, the defensive line is somewhat in peril, with two expected key contributors (and expected starters) looking more and more like they will contribute minimally, at best. Michael Montgomery, whose name was almost invisible most of the offseason, is suddenly lining up with the #1's and the hope he can play like a #1 is reaching a fever pitch.

Two first-round draft picks along the line, one looking to finally solidify his "bust" label, and the other shooting himself in the foot before his career even starts, thanks to his agent. From Jamal Reynolds to Cletidus Hunt to Joe Johnson to Donnell Washington, it sure seems like the Packers can't catch much of a break in this decade along the line.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Talk With Mark Murphy: Family Night Re-Entry

I spoke on the phone today with Mark Murphy (who promptly returned my request). We spoke for about five minutes, and in that time I did let him know that I supported the decision for safety for all involved.

What I did suggest to him, however, was to develop a system so that parents could take their children out of the stadium and into a more comfortable atmosphere in the event of dangerous weather. We were essentially trapped on the uncovered part of the upper concourse, and I had one kid who was terrified of the lightning.

We spoke to security, who told us if we left the stadium, we would not be readmitted, because there was no one at the gates to check the tickets. I watched many parents make the frustrated decision with scared or exhausted kids to leave the stadium, knowing that if they re-opened the bowl five minutes later, they were out of luck.

For preseason games and regular season games, I can understand keeping with the no re-entry policy. However, in an event where children under five are commonplace, it would have been very comforting for a lot of parents to bring the kids back to a familiar van, pop in a DVD, and let them watch or fall asleep while waiting to find out when/if the scrimmage would be continued.

I suggested a wristband exit/re-entry, only in the event of an extended weather delay.

He was very polite and discussed it with me. He did say that he would have to check league rules to see if it were permissible, but would throw the idea past the director of security.

Yes, that would be several more people to pay in the night, but if you figure that if only 10,000 of the FN ticket holders cash in on the HOF offer, that's $100,000 right there. This way, parents at least have the option to leave in the event of a storm and be able to return for the fireworks with their kids. The 10,000 who remained at the end to see the fireworks (like myself) have little reason to complain that we didn't get our money's worth, but the 40,000 who left frustrated, not to return, didn't have the option to come back.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How Long Before Raji Becomes Irrelevant?

There's an elephant in the room, and no, I'm not talking in a literal sense.

We've all been grumbling and expressing concern over BJ Raji's extended holdout from the Packers, now going into its second week. Without a doubt, he's missed a lot of practice and install work with the defensive scheme, and even if he showed up for today's 2:00 practice, he'd still be a physcials and testing away from the field for any practical work.

But the elephant that I speak of is the increasing risk of injury, making BJ Raji an expensive liability to carry on a roster, and the rising likelihood he won't be a major contributor this season.

As a top-ten pick, there's always pressure on those rookies to be able to come in and at least contribute something right away. Certainly, given the question marks along the defensive front (Jolly's legal issues, Harrell's injury history, Jenkins' recovery), Raji was being projected at least as a major rotational player along the line, if not the straight-up starter next to Ryan Pickett.

There's been precious little information from Raji himself or on his workout regime. The last I heard was that he was hanging out at his house in Green Bay, waiting for his contract to get finalized. We have no idea with the big boy is spending his time doing some regular workouts or sitting on the couch, playing Madden and eating Cheetoes.

But even if he is working out, there's no substitution for the conditioning the comes with being in training camp. Last season, Ryan Grant claimed he was working out regularly and staying in game shape, but like nearly every other holdout over the years, he tweaked his hamstring once he came to camp and tried to jump into speed along with everyone else.

With every passing day, Raji become less and less relevant to the Green Bay Packers plans for 2009, Note Josh Sitton, last year's rookie who may have challenged for a starting spot in the preseason. Once injured, he never got the opportunity to pick up where he left off during the season, despite returning halfway through.

And while our defensive line really can't afford to shrink its depth any more, you start to wonder if Raji may have already reached a point of no (or little) return for 2009. His maturity was already in question coming out of Boston College, and his weight has fluctuated over his college career (over 350 pounds in 2006)

Why was he suspended academically in 2007? Seriously, how hard is it for a scholarship football player to pass his classes at a major university? Does Raji have the self-motivation to keep himself in shape while we wait another week or two for the rest of the first-rounders to sign?

The only winner in these situations are the agents, who are the ones setting this whole debacle up for these young kids blinded by dollar signs. The idea these agents are telling them that they need to hold out until "they get what they deserve"( i.e. $20M in guaranteed money instead of $15M despite never playing a down) is a huge sign that the draft pick signing paradigm needs to be turned on its nose and redone.

But, that is a discussion for another day. Today, we continue to await the arrival of what we hoped to be not only our starting defensive end, but our nose tackle of the future and the insurance policy for Justin Harrell own injury history.

And with each passing day, the need for Justin Harrell to blossom and stay healthy grows more and more, because Raji becomes less and less likely to make an impact in 2009.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

To Hide or Not To Hide

An interesting blog discussion broke out between Brian Carriveau at Railbird Central and Aaron Nagler at CHTV in regards to how much Dom Capers should let loose in the preseason.

From Brian:

[McCarthy said], "We were going to play the defense that we ran in the first seven installs. The volume was cut back. The focus was to let the players line up and play. I did not want a lot of motions and shifts from the offense. The volume of pressures was cut back, because really tonight's emphasis was on evaluating our players. But as we go through it, there's certain things we'll rep in training camp, and there's targets that we'll hit with our defense. But what you show and what you don't show, that's obviously for us to watch in the future." I think hiding things is overrated. It's not like anything the Packers would have done as far as blitzing would have been something any team in the NFL hasn't seen before.


Which earned this response from Aaron:

This is true to some extent. However, what the NFL HASN’T seen before is how Capers chooses to use his personnel, which players will be used how and in what packages. Capers has no history whatsoever with any of these players, so opposing offensive coordinators will be unable to key on what, say, Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop coming into the game at the same time means, at least not for the first few weeks. That alone is reason enough to keep things vanilla before Week One, which is what I fully expect to see starting next Saturday against the Browns.


Good opinions from both sides, and in my own, both have merit.

The element of surprise is critical in the NFL, and I've spoken many times about how important it is to try and catch a team off guard. Offensively, I've always liked the West Coast Offense because it keeps defenses off balance with misdirection. In many ways, with the Packers essentially have a blank slate defensively with the conversion to the 3-4, and we should play up that advantage as much as possible (think of the Big Five formation, and how that took defenses out of their comfort zone at first).

But, as Rick Cina at PackerChatters has mentioned to me many times over the years, so much of your success on the field comes simply from execution. The success of your coaching, your schemes, and even your talent is predicated on proper execution. A lesser team with great execution can beat a better team that doesn't execute. ("That's why they play the game....")

The best example of this is the offensive line of the early 2000's, when Mike Flanagan would come to the line of scrimmage and tell the defense what play they were going to run. And then, they would run it and gain 11 yards with Ahman Green running the ball. There were no secrets, and as Brian states, it's not like there's a whole lot NFL coordinators (and players) haven't seen before.

Oh, sure, there's always a nutty thing that comes along every so often...the Big Five, the Wildcat Formation, the Zone Blitz. But teams figure out ways to combat it after they see it, and the tricky formations become just another bullet in the arsenal. And that is the key.

For the Packers to surprise the offenses consistently, it isn't going to come down to unveiling some exotic formation in Week 4 that sends the offensive coordinator scrambling. Once you run it, every OC in the NFL now has it on tape and will start planning for it. That's one play in one game. What about the other sixty-three?

No, the Packers have to execute everything well. That is the most critical attribute of the success of Dom Capers' 3-4. Whether the OLB drops in coverage or blitzes, whether the safety helps over the top or replaces a blitzing linebacker, whether the DE pulls a stunt or pushes outside...what matters is that the Packers have many things they can do well.

There's nothing in Capers' arsenal that hasn't been done before, and it is still the Packers' defense that are at the disadvantage. Every offense they face this season will have played against a 3-4 more times than the Packer defenders have played in it. The Packers must know what they are doing on the field when the regular season starts, and the more they hold back now, the less experience they have to rely on when it counts.

No, I don't think they will come out against Cleveland and throw everything and the kitchen sink at them. But there's no reason to hold back, either. The veterans don't have the fallback of last year's scheme, and what's changed are more than wrinkles.

In the end, you want the offense to know all the possibilities that could be coming at them, and to guess wrong, or better yet, just plain get beat. In order for that to happen, the Packers have to execute like they've been playing in the 3-4 for years.

The Soggy Family Night Experience

Well, I wished to have a much more meaty report today, after watching the Family Night scrimmage, then watching the DVR and trying to fill in the gaps between what most people saw on television and what the feeling was at Lambeau Field.

However, the feeling at Lambeau Field was mostly soggy. A lightning storm forced the bowl to be cleared before the scrimmage was scheduled to start, and fans were not let back in until just before 10:00 for a jersey giveaway (nope, I didn't win any) and a fireworks show set to music.

All in all, it was a bummer for me and my own family, but in talking with several fellow Packer fans in the concourse, my losses were minimal. One guy I spoke to drove all the way from Minnesota, and wasn't looking forward to a five-hour drive back after standing in the rain for nearly two-and-a-half hours.

We started out at a little before 5:00, walking from our parking spot behind Kroll's into the stadium area. It had a much more toned-down feel than when there are regular season Packer games. A lot of folks sitting in camp chairs, ladder golf games set up, many canopies sitting behind cars, and of course, far more little kids than you would ever expect to see during the rowdy and drunken pre-game festivities of the regular season.

We walked across the Lambeau Parking lot to get our first glimpse of the new Ray Nitchske field, which didn't disappoint in its majesty. I was a little disappointed they didn't have the bleacher areas open for families to explore, but in all, it was worth a look and a photo op with the kids.

We then walked back across to the stadium and looked at, again, some rather low-key parking lot festivities. Being we had never gone to the Tailgate Zone before, we went to see how much admission was. We were pleasantly surprised to find it was free, other than paying for your food and drink. However, there was a kids' tent with inflatable contraptions that we had to fill out a waiver for. So, we waited in line for about ten minutes, only to find that we had to wait until 6:30 for our "turn". We went into the food tent and got a couple of snacks (in retrospect, I wish we had gotten our actual supper food then, given how the rest of the night was to go).

We came out of the food tent as the kids were getting twitchy and were lucky enough to have the Tundra Drumline come in and give us a short performance as we waited. We got in line for the Kid's Tent at about 6:10 and got in right at about 6:30 (although they were letting groups from our time spot in early as the previous groups had families leave early).

The kids did a couple of activities before we were asked to leave early as the "inflatables were on a timer and they would start deflating, and they didn't want any kids on them when they did." So, we got our tickets and set out for Lambeau. The ticket reading was somewhat different this year. The lady had a laser that she pointed at our tickets, and eventually, it beeped and let us in. It took a while, and I understand when they opened the gates at 5:30 why the wait appeared to be so long. I am hoping they don't use this procedure for the regular tickets, because it was far from speedy and efficient.

Once we got in to our nosebleed seats in section 336, we did the wave a couple times and watched the players go through some of their warmups. We didn't get in until 7:10, a bit of a bummer because I like going down to the rail and getting a close look beforehand.

However, we had only been sitting for about ten minutes when they made an announcement that we had to leave the stadium due to a lightning storm coming through. The crowd on the upper concourse was pretty massive, and of course, everyone wanted to crush themselves into the part behind the press boxes that was roofed in. We didn't make it there, and given my youngest was in near-hysterics from the lightning that was going off, we didn't want to have claustrophobia added to her list of concerns.

So, we tried to order some food and eat out on the concourse, which was crowded and difficult to do. As time went on, the precipitation ranged from mist to drizzle to a light shower...but we never really got pummelled with rain. On the other hand, we were facing south and could see the storm going by, and the lightning strikes were pretty visible...I would say we got some sort of lightning strike every minute or two, and every five minutes or so we got a pretty big one with a good crash of lightning.

Now, I like a good lightning storm, usually from the safety of my screen porch. It's a little different to be stuck on the top of a football stadium surrounded by wrought iron. While I wasn't too nervous, the ladies in my family were literally starting to duck from some of the strikes that surprised us.

My girls decided to do some time in the bathrooms with their iPods and cellphones, as they felt a little safer there. My son and I spent most of our time "manning it up" in the drizzle.

Looking around, parents were playing what seemed to be a game of Survivor with their kids. Many of them toughed it out, letting the kids play swordfights with the seemingly endless supply of Thunder Sticks that were passed upon entering. But, as the minutes ticked by, families gave up as their children became frightened, bored, wet, tired, and/or irritable from waiting in a lightning storm.

I might have joined them, but we did ask and we were told that there would be no re-entry if we chose to leave. That was disappointing, as my youngest was quite shaken by the storm, and we had a relative close by that we could have crashed with until they made a decision one way or the another. The reason I was given for no re-entry was that there was no one working to check tickets.

Being this is the second year of a weather delay for Family Night, I am really hoping they start revising that particular policy. Many parents would have liked to at least gone to their cars and put in a DVD for the kids to watch while they were waiting. You could see some of the frustration on the parents' faces as they left the gates, knowing if they decided to let folks back in within five minutes, they had no way to turn around and come back in.

Another slight annoyance was the fact that there were no announcements made to the fans from about 7:45 until almost 9:00. I realize that they likely wouldn't have told us anything different, but when you are dealing with tired, nervous kids (and their tired, nervous parents), a little reassurance now and then would help a lot. Since my cell tower was knocked unconscious by the storm, I had no way to check radar to see if this was going to be over in 5 minutes or 5 hours.

Eventually, enough people moved out and we could get under the ceiling, so we all headed to one of the ramps to wait it out and people watch the folks in the parking lot. At one point, I was looking up the ramp, speaking with a fellow Packer fan, when I saw a huge crack of lightning behind him that looked like it struck the concourse. At 9:00, the lightning was still going strong.

Finally, they made the announcement to go back in shortly before 10:00 (quite possibly, at our last possible second before we left). Like most, we decided to forego the nosebleed seats and moved up to about the 20th row and had a wet seat. Amusingly enough, it was right at the moment they announced that we could return that the heavens finally opened up and the rain came down in torrents for about ten minutes.

Tom Milbourn introduced and had some short talks with Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Grant, and AJ Hawk, who all gave props to the fraction of fans who stayed to the end. Other Packers were out there, too, including Daryn Colledge, Alfred Malone, and Tramon Williams, who all helped pass out jerseys when they were called off (and just a hint: if you want a jersey, get your seat in sections 101-105)

At the end, the lights dimmed and we watched a pretty nice fireworks show that was perhaps the best-synced show I've ever seen with the music. The fireworks were obviously not the same caliber you might see in a Fourth of July show (which I'm sure is unsafe in a stadium setting), but there were enough of them to keep the sleepy kids more than captivated and singing along with the music. That's one thing the televised version can't show...how you crane your neck around almost 360 degrees to see the different colors being shot off in different places around the stadium.

One suggestion: turn off the video screens. At times, they were brighter than the fireworks, since the picture was zoomed in on the real thing.

A caveat: this was the easiest experience I've ever had with traffic as I left the stadium. We were back on the highway in no time.

Mark Murphy announced that to make up the canceled scrimmage to fans, they will be able to exchange their ticket for a free admission to the Hall of Fame with a paid Stadium Tour. I do appreciate the offer by the Packers, who may or may not have been obliged to offer anything. Given the ticket holders had the opportunity to see the fireworks and win a jersey, they could have said that they offered what was reasonably expected.

However, the offer isn't much consolation for those folks who made long journeys with small children, or those who have done the tours and Hall of Fame before. I wish that the Packers would give the ticket holders first-chance at the tickets for Family Night next year, or offer a discount.

All in all, we had a chance to get the kids inside Lambeau and watched a good fireworks show for $10 a head. It's not what you wished it could have been, and while my kids probably weren't as interested as I was to see Jermichael Finley or Jeremy Thompson in action, I certainly was a little bummed.

But, kudos to the Packers and local officials for keeping the players and the fans safe, first and foremost. Given a bar was struck by lightning and burned halfway down only 15 miles from the stadium last night, safety is first priority.