Sunday, February 7, 2010

NFL Owners and NFLPA Better Think Twice

Enjoy the game today:  it may be the last of an era.

I know a lot of folks, friends of mine, who are facing layoffs, cuts to their jobs, or dramatic downsizing of their family budget.  These aren't slimy people or ne'er-do-wells, but good people with families to feed.  I don't claim a political affiliation other than reality:  the economy is wreaking havok on the lives of the common man.

Lori Nickel of JSOnline wrote up a nice summary of the labor issues involving the NFL and its players, as they squabble over figures of money that we last saw being offered as bailouts to banks and lending institutions, who then turned over that money to their CEOs as bonus checks.  America got their feathers ruffled over that, and soon, you have to think that the same indignation is going to be directed at millionaire players and their multi-millionaire bosses.

Essentially, it comes down to what everyone else is going through: the NFL is facing losses just like everyone else and looking wherever it can to make up the difference.  The documentation of the Green Bay Packers downturn, made public because it is the only publicly-owned team, is just a glimpse into what other teams are facing:  Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder are probably weathering the storm, but downtrodden teams from small markets are likely faring worse than the Packers and their eternally-fervent fan base and perpetually sold-out stadium.

But as an agreement over the $8 billion from the television contracts stalls, the resulting chaos will negate all the things that have made the NFL the #1 sport in America.  And when the people who make the NFL what it is feel like their product is changing for the worst, they will express their frustration.

And when they are sitting at home on a layoff, struggling to put together enough money for a grocery trip, they aren't going to be much too pleased with the idea that their hard-earned money for tickets, merchandise, and products advertised during games is being haggled over by millionaires who want to squeeze the other party out of just a little bit more.

In an economic crisis like this, the NFL can really drive a wedge between themselves and their fan base, much as baseball did back in 1993 when they canceled the World Series.  Many will tell you that there are many fans who still haven't come back since that debacle of greed.

In a nutshell, the two sides need to compromise quickly and get the reports of greed and doom and gloom out of the headlines.  This isn't your local factory losing money and going out of business...this is one of the strongest businesses in the nation fighting who gets the billions of dollars they are guaranteed to make even if they lock the players out.

I still claim to be a Bucks and Brewers fan.  I watched all three Wisconsin teams fervently as a teenager in the 1980's.  But there is a reason my NBA and MLB fandom has waned over the years.

I was probably as big of a Brewer fan as any back in the 80's.  I attended Game 3 of the World Series back in 1982.  I could tell you every name of every player and their stats.  I could predict when Ben Oglivie would foul off eleven pitches, and then pop out to the shortstop.  I can still tell you the name of the pitcher who gave up Rickey Henderson's record-setting steal.

But the game changed.  As revenues increased, the lack of a salary cap turned the Brewers into nothing more than a quadruple-A farm club for the teams that had deep pockets, resulting in a bitterness and resentment for big-market teams that fielded playoff contenders year after year.  The endless mediocrity of the Brewers in the face of big-spenders turned a lot of fans off, especially when young players developed internally would finally blossom, only to jump ship for a fat contract elsewhere.

Add  to that the cancellation of a season and the resistance to regulate and enforce steroid use, and it is no wonder why MLB has lost so much of its luster.  An unfair balance of power with players whose statistics now coming into question means this sport is not the same as the one I watched back in 1982.

The NBA, unfortunately, is just as bad.  The game has evolved into something much different than I used to watch with Sidney Moncrief and Bob Lanier in the 80's, when a semblance of team offenses were run, and defenses were more than just fouling.  The games has shifted away from the audience that enjoys the game of basketball featured in "Hoosiers" to the game seen on playgrounds.

But the "luxury cap" and soft cap of the NBA, as well as loose free agency rules, means that players tend to move freely from team to team after only a few years.  This has impacted my willingness to follow the Bucks as fervently as I used to, because it seems that every three years or so, the entire roster turns over.  I made an effort to start watching the Bucks again when the "Big Three" rose to prominence in 2001, but was turned off by Sam Cassell's repeated drives to the hoop (despite open players calling for the ball), then whining about a foul not being called.  And then, within two seasons after that, all "Big Three" players had departed the team.

It is many of these CBA agreements that keeps the NFL in a prominent position:  the NFL has boasted a level playing field and allowed teams to keep the faces of the franchise in the fold.  The Packers never really contended throughout the 70's and 80's until that hard salary cap was enforced in the early 1990's, and that sharing of revenue (that MLB refuses to adopt) brought the Packers back into glory.  Face it:  do you think we'd be watching a Super Bowl today with a team from Indiana and a team from Louisiana without that revenue sharing?

It's one thing to alienate your fan base by squabbling over billions of dollar in the middle of a recession.  It is another to lock the players out and take games away from the fans over that greed.

But if the NFL goes into the uncapped year, with no ceiling or basement, and starts allowing massive free agent movement to boot?  Changing the makeup of the game, forever removing the parity and level playing field?

As in the case of major league baseball, three strikes, and you're out.

But, sadly, we've witnessed it too many time over the last few years:   greed rules, and unfortunately, gets rewarded in the end.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Favre's Legacy

During the tumultuous summer of 2008, Ted Thompson once tried to claim that he was dragging his heels in the decision to release/trade Favre because he was "trying to preserve his legacy".  I thought it was a somewhat faceteous statement at the time, a feined personal concern for someone that he professionally wanted to see off his team and off his ledger.

Almost two years later, and following the Vikings' loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs, I'm ready to weigh in.

I am one of the few Packer fans who has also maintained a steady Favre fandom.  Unlike most, I do not believe the two have to be mutually exclusive.  I didn't miss a Packer game this year, and cheered them on from start to finish.  When the ball fell from Aaron Rodgers' hand and found its way into the wrong end zone, I was devastated.

But I also followed Favre's meanderings with the team I hate, the Minnesota Vikings.  I didn't harbor ill will towards Favre, however, for wanting to go there.  I also didn't fault him for allegedly wanting to "stick it" to the Packers.  After all, there were plenty of Packers who insinuated they wanted to "stick it" right back, and millions of Packer fans who didn't even bother to insinuate.  It's a part of the game, part of human nature, and for as much as we claimed we no longer held alliegance to All Things Favre, we found ourselves again caught up in his soap opera.

His legacy is tarnished in my eyes, however...but not for the reasons most Packer fans would list first.

I do not begrudge Favre for his temper tantrum of 2008.  It was his choice to retire and wait as long as possible before unretiring, and I don't fault the Packer administration for moving on without him.  But it was his right to play football.  Ted and Mike dragged their heels on the release/trade that was bound to happen, and that's where the drama came from.  I said then, and say now, when he asked for his release, they should have given it to him and let him go off and do his thing.  The Packer administration should be concerning themselves with all things Packers, not Bears or Vikings.  Those organizations do enough to sabatoge themselves without our help.

I do not begrudge Favre for allegedly wanting to seek revenge against Ted Thompson.  Over time, the message became distorted in that Favre wanted to seek revenge against "the Packers", which I don't believe was ever the case.  As Packer fans, we chose to align with Thompson as being "The Packers" and therefore equated his grudge with a man as becoming a grudge with "us".  If that is the case, we are just as guilty as Favre was.

I do not begrudge Favre for wanting to play for the Vikings.  Yes, it's a division rival, but it was also the perfect scenario for an aging quarterback.  A buddy as your head coach, your ex-coffee fetcher as your OC, the best running back in football behind a solid offensive line and a great defense.  Did he have revenge in mind by simply going to the Vikings?  Could be part of it, but come on...he could have gotten the same revenge opportunity in Chicago or Detroit.  He wanted the opportunity to play with a good team and get his diva treatment at the same time.

I do not begrduge Favre for playing for the Vikings.  Is he a traitor?  Maybe, but face was great drama all around.  It was good for the NFL, good for the Vikings, and whether we want to admit it or not, in the end it was good for the Packers.  Sure, the two losses put the Packers into a funk for a while, but without those two losses the Packers would have never reached their "Come To Jesus" meeting after the Bucs game. The emotional losses were devastating, but the Packers would never have made the playoffs if they hadn't hit rock bottom and come together as a team, focusing on the players wearing green instead of some other player wearing purple.  And Aaron Rodgers is a keeper, and he's proven it.

I do not begrudge Favre for beating the Packers.  Hey, there was a lot of smack from our side of the Mississippi River.  Nick Barnett hinted at how he would no longer be wearing a red jersey.  Many of us declared Favre would end up black and blue, sacked and hit, and throw interceptions at critical times.  In the end, Favre played two textbook games against us at quarterback, and our vaunted defense couldn't touch Brett or his passes.  We booed him loudly, taunted him, ridculed him...and he walked off of Lambeau Field as the victor.  We were reduced to living vicariously through other teams, hoping they could be the ones to dish out the punishment and embarassment that we couldn't.  And for 17 games, we were again forced to face reality....this was not the same Favre that left us.

Ted Thompson may have been trying to save Favre from these shots to his legacy, but in the end, they really weren't what he had to be concerned about.  In fact, Favre's escapades in going to the Vikings and playing against the Packers cemented his status as a Hall of Famer and, perhaps, one of the greatest of all time.

The shot to his legacy didn't happen because he was a Viking.  The shot to his legacy happened because he threw a pass that shouldn't have been thrown.  It didn't matter if the jersey he was wearing was green, purple, orange, or polka-dotted. 

When he threw his "last pass", it was on a scramble, across his body, trying to fit it into a tiny window.  We've seen him throw these kinds of passes successfully many times over the last 17 years.  But, we've seen him throw the interceptions at the worst possible moments, in the playoffs...not many times, but enough times. 

It was inexplicable.  It was inexcusable.  It was thoughtless, reckless, and a season-killer.

I will be the first to point out that the rest of the Vikings didn't show up to play that day.  Jared Allen was invisible and the defense was shaky.  The offensive line was porous and finally gave Packers fans a reason to cheer at Favre's injuries.  Adrian Peterson may have gotten his 100+ yards and a couple of touchdowns, but his production was scattershot and his ball protection was terrible.  And all of those things led to the Vikings loss as much as Favre's last-second pick.

But, you see, no one cares about the whether the Vikings won or lost.  And in the end, Packer fans seem satiated, if not celebratory, at the fact that Minnesota's season came to an end in the same manner as a couple of ours.

But that one throw changed Favre's legacy forever, as unfair as it is.  Call it "Scott Norwood-itis".  Those mistakes on a big stage help define your entire career.  One split-second brain fart changed how Favre would be percieved for the rest of his life.

Had Favre slid, thrown the ball out of bounds, or completed a short pass, his "legacy" would have been saved.  It didn't matter if Longwell hit the field goal or not.  It didn't matter if the Vikings won or not.  Favre wouldn't have been the one to hang the loss on.  Following a statistically  masterful season, he would have been put up one more notch on the totem pole of The Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time.  One split-second decision changed all that.

Tom Brady could have been the "perfect quarterback", leading an undefeated team to a Super Bowl.  But one split-second, lucky reception by David Tyree changed the entire legacy of that season.  Now, no one looks back on the 2007 Patriots as the best team of all time, but as just another good team that couldn't finish.  Where will Tom Brady finish in the pantheon of Great Quarterbacks?  After his injury in 2008 and a less-than-Brady-like season in 2009, some of the luster has left his star.  But had he quarterbacked the perfect season?  We'd view him much differently.  We'd be talking about him with Montana and Unitas and Starr.

As Packer fans, we've had it wrong.  It's been fun getting our undies in a bundle, booing and calling him Brent, but that's not the legacy that Favre should have been worried about.  Even now, are we obsessing about "Favre as a Viking" anymore?  Nope, because he lost and they lost, and all is right with the world.

Brett Favre spent the better part of eighteen games worrying about the legacy he should have been worrying about:  shaking the legacy of the spoiled, gunslinging, error-prone playoff goat.  And he did it nearly flawlessly.

Except for one split-second decision that cost him more than a game or a season.  It cost him dearly in terms of his legacy.