Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup Lessons: Be Thankful for NFL Officiating

Like many American football fans, I have taken to watching the Yanks in the World Cup over the past week.  And, I am happy to share with you the reason why Americans have had such a difficult time acclimating to the most popular sport everywhere else in the world.  Many point to the low scoring affairs, or even how games end in ties without the possibility of extra innings.  Other decry the commercial-free boredom of over-strategic bouncing of the ball back and forth for an attempt on goal every five minutes or so.

I've been able to work past those issues.  So why is it that Americans can't affinate with a sports that drives a near-global insanity?

That's it.  Because the sport itself is insane.

Americans have a charged relationship with its sports officials.  We ride the refs in basketball games, we scream for yellow flags to be thrown in football, and we question every called third strike.  But, in the end, those officials have a responsibility to the integrity of the sports they are presiding over, and in the end, while we don't agree with the calls, we respect them. 

Oh, sure, we know to expect anything when Jeff Tripllette is the referee, and we know Ed Hochuli will inundate us with over-explanations for his calls.  But, no matter what, the officials are responsible for making calls public to the teams and the fans.

But on Friday, we saw the American team mount a near-historic comeback after falling behind at halftime to Slovenia 2-nil (for those of you not familiar with soccer, this is like falling behind 28-0 at halftime of an NFL football game).  However, with only five minutes to play in regulation, a go-ahead goal by Team USA was called off by the official, Koman Coulibaly. 

The television screen showed an "offsides penalty" (for those of you not familiar with soccer, this is like cherry-picking in basketball), but it was clear that the Americans were not offsides.  Okay, to be honest, it wasn't clear to me, because I really don't quite understand what makes someone offsides and what doesn't, but it was really clear to the television commentators. 

Several replays were shown, and all we could see were Slovenians hanging all over Americans, and Maurice Edu succeeding in striking a goal despite nearly getting his ankle cut out under him.  But most of all, we saw midfielder Michael Bradley repeatedly and angrily asking Coulibaly to explain what the call was (first in English, then in French), but getting no response.

Do you get what I'm saying?  The referee disallowed the goal and never gave a reason.  Tweet:  no goal.  Can you imagine this happening in the NFL?  Greg Jennings catches a go-ahead touchdown with minutes to play, but Scott Green throws a yellow flag, gives the Packers a ten yard penalty, and takes the points off the board without identifying what the foul was, or who it was on?

Insanity.  Pure and simple. 

Like USA coach Bob Bradley, we all expected the official to explain himself soon after the game.  Nope.

We then expected a FIFA official to clarify or explain the ruling.  Nope.

We hoped perhaps someone would at least admit it was a bad call and apologize, even if it still meant the game ended in a tie.  Nope.  Apparently, it is the insane culture of soccer that the officials have full reign on the field, and nobody steps forward to correct it, even when it is clearly and egregiously wrong.

I awaited for word from some of our international soccer fans to come to the defense of the American team, but the response was essentially a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, "That's the way it is.  Now you Yanks can go what we went through back in 19-whatever, and have twenty years to be bitter about it."

My God...everyone accepts this insanity.  It's no wonder soccer fans around the world are as insane as they are, why every game seems to be life and death.  Soccer teams and their fans are not in control of their own destiny...the officials are, and the justice they dispense are almost on a whim.

There's a reason why I don't watch the NBA much anymore:  the game I loved (a la "Hoosiers") has been reduced too often to a game of players driving at the basket with the intention of drawing fouls.  But soccer takes that to new heights, with players quite literally flopping left and right and squalling to the ref to award them penalty kicks.  That's bad enough, but even in the limited World Cup action I've watched, the penalties are far from consistent.

In most of our US sports, while we may complain about refereeing, and even complain about critical calls (or non-calls) when it affects our team, there's mechanisms in place to keep the officiating on the level.  Obviously, in the NFL and the NBA, there is instant replay, with football coaches able to initiate them with a toss of a yellow flag.  Even more impressive is the willingness of the sports to discuss and explain critical calls after the game with the media, particularly the NFL.

Sure, the MLB still sticks with the old-time traditions of humans making the calls without recourse, but at least you know what the call is based on, whether it be whether a runner got in under the slide or not, or if the strike zone is a little higher than usual.  You may disagree with it, and instant replay could prove it wrong...but at least the ump said "safe" or "out".  He didn't just take a run off the board and walk away.

Think about poor Rob Green, the English goalie that muffed the American team into a draw with an inexplicable mishandling of a routine desperation kick from outside the box.  In addition to being immediately benched (despite playing a flawless game otherwise), he became the laughing stock of the Old World, and even his English Premier league may be out several million pounds as a result of public opinion.  You get the feeling that English fans will never let him forget this one mistake.  It could quite literally affect the rest of his career, and certainly, when he is on the visiting team in Jolly Old England, the fans will remind him of it for years.

American fans are usually more forgiving.  Even Aaron Rodgers' overtime fumble for a touchdown that ended the Packers' playoff run didn't reduce his value in the eyes of his coaches, teammates, and fans.  In fact, were all still quite fascinated with which ESPN commentators he's either dissing or dating lately.  American fans understand the game as a whole, and understand that many factors weigh in to a loss...that it doesn't come down to one play or one player.

For example, the goal that was disallowed last Friday was frustrating, but most American fans know that we should never have gotten down 2-0 to begin with, that our attacks were slow and our middle defenders were awry.  While upset about the call, we know that it should never have come down to that.

But if all our sports were officiated like World Cup soccer, well, I guess we'd all be a little insane, wouldn't we?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Murphy Leads the Enhanced Season Charge

Well, we can't say that the Packers President doesn't listen to the fans.

In a release today from, Packers chief Mark Murphy is one of the key figures in the attempt to change the NFL schedule from the 4-preseason/16-regular game season to a 2-preseason/18-regular game season.  The name for this idea is the "enhanced season".

Mark Murphy, president of the Green Bay Packers and a member of the league's negotiating team, briefed some national media on the proposal after the meeting, saying that it would not be adapted until 2012 at the earliest and suggesting the NFL would consider reducing the preseason from four games to two, adjusting roster size and injured reserve rules, and adding a bye week at the start of the regular season as part of the initiative. Murphy also said the NFL is studying the concept of adding its own developmental league -- likely in the spring -- within the United States to replace the league's past efforts in Europe.

Now, this isn't a new idea for Packer fans, and particularly their season ticket holders, who are obliged to purchase preseason game tickets at the same price as regular season tickets.  Season ticket holders grumble at spending $70 a seat to sit and watch the backups play against another team's backups, and still pay the same price for a cup of beer.  As a non-season ticket holder, I don't think I have ever attended a preseason game, simply for the reason that I don't want to pay that much money for something that has the fan energy of a community band concert.

So, on the surface, this sounds like the perfect solution.  Two preseason games (along with Family Night) and then the Packers can start playing for real.  More real games, more television games, more commercials, more advertising, and more happy fans.  Think of it...18 week fantasy seasons, records falling left and right with the extra two games.  It makes a lot of sense, and makes sense that Murphy, who represents the league's smallest market, would be championing this change for the shareholder owners of his club.

And, expansion of major league sports seasons is pretty common.  At the beginning of the 1900's, Major League Baseball had only a 140- game schedule, upped to 154 permanently in 1920, and to 162 in 1961.  The NBA started with a 55-game season that has expanded to today's 82.  Even the modern NFL has grown from a 12-game season to a 14-game season in 1961 to today's 16 (starting in 1978).  

Naturally, something that sounds so perfect simply can't be so perfect, and already there are concerns, many of them valid.  Most notably are the concerns from the NFLPA.

 "...the NFLPA had "concerns" about the reliability of the data the league provided regarding the impact of an 18-game regular season and injury risks, and how the league would provide "post-career health care." And, as well, how players would be paid, with [George] Atallah suggesting there would have to be "enhanced compensation," to the players since the number of meaningful games is expanding."

The use of the term "enhanced compensation" is definitely amusing, but the concerns from the players are pretty serious.  Every season, the NFL drafts and crafts players that run faster, hit harder, lift more, and work out more.  While the NBA and MLB have longer seasons, the physical impact of an NFL season is evident by Week 14, much less the playoffs.  It's a violent sport, which is why Tom Brady and (of all people) Ray Lewis spoke out in concern.

“I’ve taken part in several postseason runs where we have played 20 games," Brady said. "The long-term impact this game has on our bodies is well documented. Look no further than the players that came before we did. Each player today has to play three years in order to earn five years of post-career health care. Our Union has done a great job of raising the awareness on these issues and will make the right decision for us players, the game and the fans.”

Added Lewis: “I’ve been blessed to play this game for so long, but it’s time to start thinking about what legacy and impact changes like this will leave for the players of tomorrow and us after we retire. I know our fans may not like preseason games and I don’t like all of them, but swapping two preseason games for two end-of-season games -- when players already play hurt -- comes at a huge cost for the player and the team.”

The physical toil of a season is more considerable to me than the natural concerns over money--which Murphy rightfully points out will be based on the same percentages that divide the revenues now.  There's no doubt that the NFL is going to have to carefully bargain with the union in order to make the enhanced season a reality.

 The move would also make the NFL have the largest schedule increase over time.  MLB going from 140 games to 162 games is a 16% increase.  The NBA going from 55 to 82 games is a 48% increase.  At 16 games, the NFL already has increased its season length by 33%, and 18 games would be a 50% increase over from 12 games.  [And yes, I know I'm playing around with numbers.  Just take it at face value.  Hakuna Matata.]

As a Packer fan, it would be interesting to see how that extra regular season game would be awarded to season ticket holders...remember that both the Green and Gold Package ticket holders get a preseason game.  If one preseason game is eliminated, which package keeps the preseason game and which one gets another regular season game?  Naturally, the Milwaukee (Gold) fans will want the extra regular season game that they used to have.  Would the one home preseason game then alternate years?

Personally (and I only say this as a waiting list member), I'd offer a Gridiron package and make a whole new group that would get the preseason game and the extra regular season game, allowing a large number of willing people to leave the waiting list to get two games.  Those that wish to wait for Green or Gold tickets can remain on the list.  This way, the Green/Gold ticket owners still get their six/two regular season games and no longer have to worry about paying for the single preseason game.  A younger generation of season ticket holders get to be the preseason crowd and have their own "real" game.  Since it is unlikely that everyone would leave the season ticket list for those two games, the Packers would then have a pile of tickets to use as they wish...more tickets to sell locally in contests or even just sell on their website.

And again, this would cause tremendous strife amongst the fans, just as the change will cause plenty of strife amongst the owners and players (though I have no doubt the television networks would only benefit from such a deal, which may end up being the deal-sealer.  Money has a way of making things move).

But, perhaps the most interesting part of this whole situation is seeing our President, who was baptized into his job with FavreGate, becoming a vocal leader and representative of the NFL as a whole in just two short years on the job.  That's a good reflection on the Packers as an organization and the respect that he is garnering already.

RFA Tendering Process a Necessary Evil

As we are finally reaching the end of the tendering season, I spent a little time thinking about how restrictive RFA tendering really is for many players.  In particular, I think about how frustrating it is for Tramon Williams, who apparently signed his tender just before the deadline is scheduled to make $3.1M this year as a result, about six times what he made last year.

In reality, getting tendered after four years in the league has to be a bit scary for these young kids.  Sure, the tender amount is usually more than what their previous salary was, but it comes with strings attached.  Most of these guys are entering their fifth season, meaning they are in or approaching their mid-20's and their prime playing years.  But, they've gotten past that first rookie paycheck and many of them are maturing:  they've likely bought their first car(s), their first house(s), have gotten married and may even have kids on the way.

The shock of seeing that first contract run out and not being sure of what that income level is going to be next year is probably rather sobering for many of those RFA's.  And, the team holds most of the cards:  they control the tender level (and thus, their salary), the deadline, and the rights to the player as long as the tender is on the table.  But, even more disconcerting for the player is that it is a one-year deal with no guaranteed money, and the team can choose to cut that player at any time without any penalty.

So, that brings us to Tramon.  Frankly, he's been a very talented corner who, in my opinion, is as good as any other nickel back in the NFL.  If  you don't buy that, try this:  I'd be willing to bet you that Williams would be a starter on at least half the other teams in the NFL right now.  If you don't believe me, go through the depth charts of all the teams and let me know if I'm right.

And there's the rub:  Williams is the heir apparent to the two Pro Bowl cornerbacks we have right now, and will likely have several starts again this season due to injury, as Harris (35) and Woodson (33) are both aging gracefully, but still aging.  Harris, of course, is still a question mark as he recovers from injury.

And, simply put, the drop-off after Williams is steep.  There's plenty of projects and no groomed corners ready to take over in the event of emergency.  Williams, in many ways, is what Al Harris was when the Packers traded for him in 2003...a strong nickel playing behind two veteran All-Pros.

Williams is an RFA, though, and when the Packers placed a first- and third-round tender on him, they took away any chance of another team considering him.  So, despite being a solid player, a key part of the defensive secondary, and the heir apparent that may be called on sooner rather than later, his choices were limited.  $3.1M, take it or leave it.  The Packers even threatened to lower it after the June 15 deadline to 110% of his salary last year, a little less than $600,000.

The arbitrariness of extensions has to be weighing in on his mind, too.  Nick Collins, an RFA, signed his first- and third-round tender, but it was clear there was discussion about an extension before that....and he got it (3yrs, $23M, $14M in 2010).  In fact, plenty of money has been thrown the way of Collins, Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, and Ryan Pickett this doubt Williams has been waiting for his turn.

Instead, Williams signs the tender in lieu of the Packers' threat to fractionalize it, and now is in a position to have to prove his worth this season in order to garner that extension.  One torn ACL, and extension talks are put off for another year.

So, RFA seems like an evil thing, but it is also a necessary evil.  The Packers, as a team, don't have an infinite amount of money to throw at players, despite the uncapped year.  And after re-signing many of the UFAs (Pickett, Tauscher, Clifton), the Packers have to be hesitant before throwing money at every RFA they have. 

Thinking about that list of RFA's this year, each of them tells their own story of unreached potential or being stuck in that plane between serviceable and solid starter.

Tramon: the CB of the future, but not yet
Colledge:  inconsistent starter, constantly jumping all along the line
Blackmon:  injury plagued returner, trying to find his spot in the secondary
Kuhn: stalwart FB, but one of many
Jolly: rotational lineman plagued by off-the-field issues
Bigby:  oft-injured defacto starter at safety
Spitz: groomed to be new center, lost job and will compete with Colledge for G spot.

Collins was a RFA, but only by a technicality that stretched his RFA status an extra year under the terms of the expiring CBA, and the Packers obviously saw that he had reached his potential.  And there's the rub:  that fifth year of experience let the Packers know exactly where they were standing with Collins.  Remember, it was only last offseason many of us were still questioning whether he was as good as he played in 2008, especially when he was skipping OTAs. That fifth year is critical for maturity and evaluation.  Remember, Javon Walker was traded at the end of his fourth season...and a good thing, too. 

The point is:  are any of these RFA's worth spending Pickett/Collins/Clifton money on?  No, and that is what RFA is all about.  It takes those players that are on the cusp and allows teams to keep them without having to invest a large amount of long-term coin, strapping them with a contract they can't jettison.

For every Williams that the setup seems unfair with, there's a Johnny Jolly that makes it necessary.  Jolly has the potential to grow into a starter, a productive one at that.  But, he also has the potential to crash and burn, both on and off the field.  If he were an UFA right now, there's no doubt some team would be willing to throw a moderately priced contract offer at him (heck, look at what the Browns paid Corey Williams) that would force Ted Thompson to make a choice on whether he thinks he's worth the risk or not. 

It's too bad that it puts so much power in the hands of the team, but the alternative would be even worse.  In many ways, as these players enter their fifth season and UFA (assuming the CBA is renegotiated by then), they are put in the position to prove it or lose it...and cash in if they meet that potential, either here or with another team.

Look for a group of players who have signed their tenders to prove themselves this year.  For one, I think Williams will get his reward this year, while the loser of the Spitz/Colledge battle may not.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jolly Signs His RFA Tender; Bibgy and Williams "Holding Out"

So, according to Greg Bedard, Johnny Jolly signed off on his RFA tender last night.  My reaction?  Meh.  Apparently, after a couple of seasons of boneheaded moves, common sense (or self-preservation) kicked in at the eleventh hour.  After trafficking codeine, drawing key penalties by hitting other players with his helmet (and vowing to do it again), and coming dangerously close to violating the terms of his bond by appearing in a party flyer (with a Packer logo in it), he finally decided that guaranteed money is better than none.

The risk for the Packers is low, as RFA's can be cut at any time with little penalty other than signing bonuses, if any.  Jolly is a decent rotational player, but as we've seen with Corey Williams, rotational players can be jettisoned and replaced with other rotational players.  If Jolly thought he was going to get a long term deal with his legal issues still over his head, he was pipe dreaming.

This brings us to our last two RFA "holdouts" (they are technically not holding out since they are not under contract), Atari Bigby and Tramon Williams.  Bedard tweeted earlier today that the rationale for Bigby not signing was that the difference between his tender and the 110% it could be reduced to was negligible.   I'm not sure I understand his reasons, but finding out Drew Rosenhaus was his agent was no surprise.  If I'm correct, wasn't he representing Javon Walker during his pouty-smurf routine?

Bigby has been the defacto starter for several seasons now, but since his strong 2007 rookie season, he's been marred by injuries.  He's shown streaks of being that same physical, ball-hawking player, but last season was a wake-up call when Jarrett Bush and Matt Giordano were called into starting roles.  Without Bigby (and the questionable release of Anthony Smith), the safety position was dangerously thin much of the season.

So, the Packers have taken steps to shore it up, moving Wil Blackmon from corner to safety and drafting a Collins clone in Morgan Burnett, who has been somewhat of a darling during OTA's (not that we should put much stock in that...remember Jeremy Thompson was last year's darling).  However, the Packers have Nick Collins, Burnett, Blackmon, Charlie Peprah, and Derrick Martin on the depth chart without Bigby.  Rosenhaus, long famed for placing the needs of his clients over his own monetary gain *cough*, is taking a gambit that the Packers regard him as highly as he does.  Given that the Packers have reported sent Bigby a letter letting him know they intend to reduce his tender offer to 110% of his salary last year, it doesn't look like they have as much faith as Drew.

Finally, we have the guy with the chips on his side of the table, Tramon Williams.  Tramon has been an excellent nickel back and spot starter for the past few seasons.  Has he been spectacular?  No.  Has he been consistent?  No.  The difference lies, however, in that the depth chart at cornerback is dangerously thin.  With Blackmon moving back to safety, the starters are Charles Woodson, the AP Defensive Player of the Year, and Al Harris.  However, Woodson is 33 and Harris is 35, and there is much concern about Harris's progress recovering from injury last season, leaving the spot opposite Woodson in some doubt.

After those two, the drop-off after Williams is steep:  Brandon Underwood, who is embroiled in legal issues; Pat Lee, the oft-injured former second rounder; and Josh Bell, the talented kid who gave up the winning touchdown to the Steelers last year.  The Packers like to send the message that they are confident about Lee, but I'm guessing like most of us on the outside, we'd like some proof before we rubber-stamp playing hardball with Tramon.

It is not out of the realms of possibility to say the Packers could be entering September with Harris on the PUP list, Underwood on the suspension list, Lee injured again, and praying Woodson doesn't start showing his age. 

Williams has the better hand, and in an uncapped year knows the Packers can't use the excuse of not having the space to give him a decent deal (especially after the one given to Chad Clifton).  The Packers are wise to wait with Williams, and not give him that deal until Bigby and Jolly have both point in starting a feeding frenzy. 

My last point is that it is intriguing that the Packers had this vaunted defense all of last year, ranked #1 overall for quite some time...until we met playoff caliber teams like the Steelers and the Cardinals, who made our defense look like the #32-ranked squad.  All three of our remaining RFA's were from that defense, and it is no wonder that Dom and Mike are scrutinizing that squad very, very carefully.

The only other team that had more RFA's as of yesterday were the Saints, not unusual for a Super Bowl champion team, when many players look to cash in (or hold out).  Is the Packer defense on that level, that players were holding out to the last minute and beyond?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Apologies? Good. The Need to Apologize A Lot? Not So Good.

It's been a couple days of apologies from Packer players lately, insuring that our hopes for an eventful offseason come true (though perhaps not in the way the we would have wanted).  Personally, I was hoping for a free agent signing or something.

Let's do the roundtable of apologies (and non-apology) and my two cents on each.

Brandon Underwood:  Underwood apologized to his teammates Wednesday for the mess he found himself in after Clay Matthews' golf outing in Lake Delton.  Underwood looks to be potentially facing a charge of intention of solicitation of prostitution, but it also looks as if he was the target of a robbery-gone-awry from a pair of ladies who turned it into a poorly-structured claim of sexual assault.

When the news broke, I cautioned folks to hold off on judgment.  Having lived through the 1985 dual-sexual assault cases of James Lofton and Mossy Cade, both players fought a PR battle as well as their own legal battles.  What always baffled me is how the Packers ended up cutting Lofton, an iconic player who ended up being acquitted of his charges, while they hung on to Cade, a little-known cornerback who served a year of jail time.

In short, the two women appear to have targeted Underwood, money did exchange hands (according to the police reports), and then they couldn't quite get their story straight as to who assaulted them when they were caught trying to rob Underwood.  The police have turned the case over to the District Attorney without a recommendation of charges against Underwood.

My guess is that no charges will come against Underwood, as it seems clear he was likely a target of a crime.  More importantly, though, is the judgment that will be coming from two other sources:  Roger Goodell, who has taken a firm stance on players placing themselves in questionable circumstances; and Underwood's wife, Brandie.

My unsolicited two bits:  Brandon, the time has come to grow up.  I know there are many guys on the Packers and other teams that screw around, but you've been called out in a very public way.  Adding to the fact that your position coach called you "immature" last year and a teammate said you've been "a problem" for a while tells me that this incident may not be as isolated as you'd like it to be.  Dan Artkush seems to think that your position is pretty safe, but I think the time has come to apply yourself professionally (and personally), because I'm not as sure.  Ted Thompson is the guy who coined the phrase "Packer People", and there are going to be people watching him quite closely to see if that was just words or a real philosophy.

Aaron Rodgers:  A-Rodge backed off his somewhat-controversial smack-down of ESPN reporters Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski with an apology...not for the comments themselves, but for how they were delivered.

"Unfortunately the message of really in jest talking about that, it was probably inappropriate for that setting and I didn't mean to offend anybody personally," Rodgers said today. "I have a lot of respect for those guys and what they do. It's something that I know is more difficult than it looks at times and I meant no personal disrespect to anybody and I apologize if any of them took offense to what I said. Unfortunately the translation is often lost when it's on radio, not on TV."

When asked if he regretted any of his statements, Rodgers said, "I regret that it was an inappropriate setting, I think, for those comments."

Now, Rodgers' initial comments garnered a wide range of responses from Packer fans, ranging from concern to outright glee.   There was certainly no one coming to the aid of Kornheiser, and even he himself seemed to agree with Rodgers' assessment of him.

That stated, there are a large percentage of fans who are "stoked" by Rodgers' "fiestiness" and willingness to "say it like it is".  And, I myself have no problem with having a quarterback who is able to rise to his own defense.  However, Rodgers has endeared himself to many Packer fans by being the ultimate strong, silent leading man.  He could have teed off about his draft-day fall back in 2005, but he didn't.  He could have whined from the bench in 2006 about how he should be starting ahead of Brett Favre, but he didn't.  He certainly could have spoken his mind during FavreGate in 2008, insisting he was the better man for the job and what a diva Favre was, but he didn't.  And he's had every opportunity to tell everyone he told them so since then, but he hasn't.  All he's done is bide his time, work hard in practice, and let his play do the talking for him.  And there isn't a Favre Lover out there who can criticize how he's handled himself.

Don Banks' story over at talks about a Rodgers that has chosen to be vocal behind the scenes, as he reveals it was Rodgers who spearheaded the "Come To Jesus" team meeting after the Tampa Bay debacle that changed the fortunes of an entire season.

"It was the first time in my five years here that we had a players-only meeting that was actually productive,'' Rodgers told me. "It was all about conflict. It was guys getting on the linemen about blocking, linemen getting on the receivers about catching the ball, guys getting on me about getting the ball out of my hands quicker. Everything just got out on the table. It was all out there, and the great thing was we were able to talk through our issues and move forward. And from that day on, I felt a different air of confidence about our team. We believed in each other and it was a different group of guys, a different team after that.''

This is the Aaron Rodgers we look to as an icon, a team leader, and a hero.  My question is, if you want to add fiesty, tell-it-like-it-is cocky quarterback to the description, why would you choose to start with a tool like Kornheiser?

My unsolicited two bits:  Aaron, you've kept a stiff upper lip and hid your feelings about how things went down for a long time, and like it or not, we respect you for it.  You've not given your detractors any extra ammunition and slowly silenced them with your play.  As a former Favre Acolyte, I wear my red #12 jersey with pride because of how you have handled yourself as much as your play.

So, that stated, if you really want to get this off your chest, don't waste time with the media.  Launch a smirky, tongue-in-cheek salvo at the guy who has been the center of many of your struggles:  Favre.  Ask him why he's not coming back this year.  Mention some of his diva behaviors in the locker room and wonder aloud how Jared Allen likes tiptoeing around him when he's in a bad mood.  Mention you're going to ask Mike to play safety at the end of the Vikings game so you can have one of his interceptions.   
Heck, if you're going to stir up the pot, this is the way to guarantee that not only will all of Packer Nation be behind you, but so will most of the national audience (and media).  Favre will have no choice but to return to defend his honor, and this time, it will be the final showdown.

Don't waste time with the media hacks.  You won't win in the end.  If you want to cleanse yourself of what ails you, take it to the source.  And we'll all be behind you 100%.

Johnny Jolly:  No, there isn't an apology forthcoming from the Jolly camp, but there should be.  This week's news featured a two-time felon being called as star witness against Jolly, followed by yet another delay of the trial that will now fall on the first day of training camp.  All this over 200 mg of codeine.  In 2008.  The swift wheels of justice don't roll that way when the defendant is apparently Jolly or the Williamses in Minnesota.

But Jolly didn't clean up his act, getting in trouble last month for fliers sponsoring a party at a Houston nightclub, which got him back in hot water with the judge, as he is prohibited from using alcohol or drugs as terms of his bond.  It probably didn't help matters much when the flier featured a picture of Jolly with a backwards baseball cap next to a picture of him with his Packer helmet on.

Add to it all that he still has not signed his restricted free agent tender, and you have what amounts to an ongoing headache for the Packers.  The doubts are creeping in this "Packer People"?  Nicholas Kashion over at the Bleacher Report says that the Packers would be foolish to sever ties with Jolly, citing a long list of statistics that prove he is far too valuable to cut over a small issue as being accused of a crime.
If the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him they would have gone to trial by now.  Their constant posturing in the media shows just how weak their circumstantial case against Jolly is.  They are now resorting to getting multiple felons to attempt to tarnish Jolly's image by leaking stories of alleged past misdeeds on the part of Jolly.  

True?  Perhaps, but the point still stands that if there are more alleged misdeeds, they are likely to come to light, and Roger Goodell will put his stamp on Jolly at the conclusion of the trial (estimated to be January 2023), regardless of the outcome.  And as for his production, Greg Bedard tweeted an interesting statistical analysis that suggests Jolly hasn't been as rock-solid as many of us presume, ranking just behind Jarrett Bush in defensive ratings.  I don't put a ton of stock in over-conglomerized statistical amalgomations, and this one seems a little slanted against defensive linemen.

My unsolicited two bits:  Johnny, you haven't offered an apology for this ongoing saga, and even Brandon Underwood apologized to the team for dragging them into the public eye with his questionable decision-making.  'Tis the season for apologies, so it might be a good time to give both your teammates, your coaches, and your fans a chance to see the Jolly that we want to see on the team...a little repentance, even just for the distraction this is causing, would be nice.  It's a 3-4 defense and the Packers have already added Mike Neal in the draft, and he sure comes off to me as Packer People. 

Mike McCarthy spoke out Thursday in reference to Underwood's situation that the Packers are making the papers too many times for the wrong reasons. 

"I’ll just address the activity this past week that we have had as a football team. We talked about it this morning in the team meeting. We discussed the fact that we are in an offseason program and we’re in the paper way too much with things other than football. We all have a responsibility and an obligation to represent the Green Bay Packers properly. Every decision we make, both on and off the field, has consequences, and poor judgment was made. With that, the circumstances are what they are. We have dealt with it as a football team and frankly we have moved on."

Certainly, the Jolly situation has to fall in this same category; and while Rodgers' statements and subsequent apology were far less serious, after suffering through FavreGate, McCarthy is acutely aware of how bad press can affect your team.

The 2010 version of the Green Bay Packers has a lot of optimism and hopes for a team on the rise and able to contend deep into the playoffs.  Let's hope that the Packers stop needing to apologize and keep the focus on the field, where it belongs...for all of us.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Kornheiser v. Rodgers, Round One

In an entertaining and surprisingly frank interview with Homer on ESPNRadio in Milwaukee, Aaron Rodgers offered some pretty scathing criticism of ESPN journalist and ex-MNF color commentator Tony Kornheiser.  Apparently, Kornheiser was not only intolerable in front of the camera, but also behind the scenes.

"You know who was better than Tony Kornheiser? Dennis Miller was ten times better.  Dennis Miller was a great comedian, but one of the worst Monday Night Football guys ever. And he was ten times better than Tony Kornheiser. His stuff was actually funny. Tony wasn't funny at all. He did absolutely no research. We'd sit in those production meetings and he would add absolutely nothing to the conversation. I'd be like, 'What are we doing here? This is stupid.'

"You get in there with Tony and he's asking you all these dumb questions that have no application to the game you are playing or anything you are doing....He's terrible. . . . I don't think he's funny. I don't think he's insightful. I don't think knows, really, anything about sports."

Now, Rodgers isn't saying anything about Kornheiser that most of us haven't already said about him.  What is unusual is the candor that an NFL starting quarterback takes in a public tar-and-feathering of a name journalist. Rodgers went on to offer an integrity-wash of more-respected ESPN personality Ron Jaworski.

"I like him, but, when I was coming out, he did the worst segment in the history of TV about me talking about my fundamentals. It was not even close to anywhere near my fundamentals. The first time I met him, someone introduced me to him and I said, 'Yeah I know him. He's the guy who ripped me before the draft.' The rest of the night he told me how great I was. I was like, 'I know your song and dance.' And now he loves me." 

I don't recall the segment that Jaworski had done, but it seems like ARodge is holding a bit of a grudge over the draft-day coverage that most of us know is useless a day after the draft, anyway.  I'm going to offer a little bit of criticism for Rodgers, and as usual, I will take a beating for it.  People forget that I am an Aaron Rodgers fan, but praise and criticism come when you earn it, and I think he's earned a little bit of criticism here.

First of all, Kornheiser.  Kornheiser is the epitome of the angry sportswriter sitting at his desk trying to make a name for himself.  He is at his "best" (if you can all it that) when he is arguing and being belligerent, either in print or on the screen, thus why he was tabbed by ESPN to do a show like PTI.  He tries to make it tolerable by being self-depreciating, as if ripping on himself makes it okay to rip on others, too.

But excelling at getting into fights and raising your voice doesn't translate to mainstream sports journalism, and as we found, certainly doesn't translate to facilitating the showcase football game of the week in front of a national audience.  He not only simply enjoyed hearing himself talk for the sake of talking, he often tried to get into vocal competitions with Jaworksi as if he were on PTI...which is a total turnoff for football purists who just want to watch the game and get insight from the commentators.

Kornheiser is the middle-aged uncle that every family has that comes to every reunion or family function, has a couple of drinks, and starts pushing buttons until someone responds to him.  Maybe its politics.  Maybe its how this cousin is treating her sister.  But, you can tell he's in his element when someone tries to challenge him, as a sneer comes across his face waiting for the next counterpoint he can shoot down.  Loudly.

Last year, I wrote an article on how the ESPN-ization of sports journalism was changing the landscape of how we watch sports.  There were a couple of folks who missed the point, as I am completely aware that some journalists have been crooked and slanted since the days of the Black Sox.  But what ESPN and their imitators have done is try to make the journalists into "personalities" as large as the sports they cover, injecting themselves into the sports stories themselves, instead of covering or commenting on them.  ESPN took Self-Depreciating Cranky Guy and made a show around him, and then tried to cross-market him to a larger audience on the biggest stage.

So, yes...Kornheiser is a tool.  A one-trick pony that is best suited for PTI and print journalism.  And Rodgers' comments were probably right on the mark.  That stated, my father always said something when I was debating challenging the status quo in my profession:  "You could be right.  Dead right."  In other words, I could be right in what I say or in why challenge my bosses, but in the end, I could suffer for it because of how or when I choose to do it.

This is not to say that the media are the "bosses" of athletes, but they do have control over what is said about you and how the public perceives you.  Kornheiser is the type of guy to hold a grudge, and ESPN has already established itself as the All Things Favre Network.  No doubt that they may circle the wagons around Kornheiser, or at least, sit back and allow him to tee off on Rodgers any chance he gets.

That's the funny thing:  many media guys can dish it out, but can't take it.  I don't worry a bit about Rodgers deflecting criticism.  He's been Mr. Teflon, and deserves a medal for smoothly and classily handling every shot he's taken following FavreGate.  Giving credit to Jeff Blumb, his GM, his coach, and his fellow players for circling the wagons around him, Rodgers has proven to be worth all their efforts and has paid off big time.

But the interview had the air of a man who has found comfort in his status.  Yes, it was entertaining, and yes, Rodgers is an engaging guy who speaks his mind.  But I don't think you'd hear him shooting down ESPN journalists a couple of years ago.  He is definitely more comfortable with his position and we're starting to see a guy willing to let the words flow for an eager interviewer.

Favre developed this trait to severe and profound proportions by the end of his tenure with the Packers, but he always maintained a good working relationship with the press.  Wisely so, because when he began making some idiotic decisions and statements, he always had several journalists in his corner.  The Sal Palantonios and Mike Florios were few and far between in those early days of FavreGate.

You never know when something is going to happen later on...a marriage, a divorce, a solicitation of prostitution, a poorly phrased comment.  A domestic incident can be downplayed by the press or completely blown up.  Real journalists just present the facts, but "personalities" will inject themselves into the story, and both Jaworski and Kornheiser are just the kind of guys that fit that description.

Naturally, I get a kick out of hearing our fiesty quarterback send some criticism back at the folks who have piled in on him the past three years, and maybe the days of Aaron's stiff upper lip are gone.  But, as much as  I detest the "entertainment sports media", it isn't the best idea to create enemies with them.  You don't know what the future may bring, and there are many Packers who once walked on water with their fans, who then found themselves fighting a public relations battle as they fought their own legal or personal issues.

Face it:  Kornheiser was foolishly placed in the position he was by ESPN.  Mike Sherman was foolishly placed in a dual-role position by Bob Harlan.  As much as we vilify both Kornheiser and Sherman for failing in those roles, what were their superiors thinking when putting them in those roles to begin with?

And Jaworski (and Kiper, and McShay) are all going to try and evaluate 300 players, touting their strengths and weaknesses based on their play in college and at combines...which almost all of us know, usually doesn't translate perfectly to the pro game.  Jaworksi was likely asked to do a spot as to why Alex Smith was ranking higher that Rodgers at the time, and that's what Jaws came up with.

Rodgers could have easily focused on the strengths of Tirico when asked, offered a smirky "no comment" when asked about Kornheiser, and simply brought up his disagreement with Jaworski's draft-day story and how it drives him today.  Politically correct?  Absolutely, which is what most NFL players not named Ochocinco tend to do.

As I said, I'm offering a critique of how Aaron Rodgers handled the situation, which means I am going to get deluged with "hater" comments and advice on pursuing other hobbies besides writing.  I love Aaron Rodgers and think he's a natural leader and a great quarterback, and the more they lower the number of sacks he takes, the higher his ceiling gets every year. 

I just don't think there's a benefit to throwing a "personality" such personal barbs.  All you do is give them more attention they don't need, and more ammunition to fire at you later.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ron Wolf's Top Ten Moves

Where were you eighteen years ago today?  If you are a Packer fan, you were probably checking the newspaper each day to find out what crazy moves new general manager Ron Wolf was making after being handed the keys to the organization.  Today, we regard him in high regard, as a man who rescued a storied franchise from the Lean Years, but in those days, let's be honest:  there were some doubts about his big-time moves.

After all, who was Ron Wolf?  As far as we knew, he was the guy who helped lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an 0-28 expansion franchise start, and took the fall for it back in 1978.  He was a VP who got caught between two "good old boys" in owner Hugh Culverhouse and coach Jim McKay, and when it was time for heads to roll, Wolf was the odd man out.  While he went on to establish himself in front-office and scouting positions with the Raiders and Jets since then, there were more than a couple of rumblings if this guy making wholesale changes with the Packers was playing with a full deck.

At that point, however, Packer fans were ready for change.  After years of seeing a .500 season as overachieving, the Packers seemed on the cusp of something special under Lindy Infante in 1989, narrowly missing the playoffs.*  However, that was the zenith, and the Packers quickly took giant steps backwards before finishing in an all-too-familiar 4-12 season in 1991.  Packer fans had suffered through years of uninspired play, and that 1989 season gave them a taste in their mouth for more than what Starr, Gregg, and now Infante was giving them.

For years, Packer fans had cried for "the coffers to be opened" and to see the Packers go out and spend the money that other franchises were willing to cough up for good players.  With the advent of free agency and the salary cap, Wolf found himself in the perfect storm, as far as GMs go.  He had a green light to spend some money, additional revenue brought it due to the sharing rules, and availability of veteran players never before seen in the NFL.  So, what did he do?  Sent a second-round pick to the 49ers for a head coach--a guy who had never been a head coach at any level.  Then, he sent a first-round pick to the Falcons for a third-string quarterback that looked to be a bronco in dire need of being broke.

June of 1992 was a season of anticipation:  was this team going to implode under an inexperienced coach, a bomb of a quarterback, and the loss of our draft picks?  Even then, you couldn't say that Wolf wasn't a guy who was afraid to take risks.  In the end, this is what made him such a commendable general manager:  he took tremendous risks that ended up paying off in the long run, no matter how questioned they were at the time.

For me, a "risk" is defined as a move that goes beyond the daily humdrum of managing the roster of a team.  Simply making a draft pick, even if it successful, isn't a risk.  Even if you pick a future Hall of Famer in the fourth round, it is still more of a reflection of your scouting (and a little bit of luck) as opposed to making some sort of calculated risk.

Risks can, however, be a trade-up in a draft (or even a trade-back), changing your fortunes and the value system that the draft allots for each team.  A trade-up sacrifices quantity for quality, while a trade-back does the opposite (at least in theory).

Otherwise, risks are moves that are out of the ordinary:  trades, free-agent signings, and the like.  And Ron Wolf made a slough of such moves on the way to making his five-year plan a reality, culminating with two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and one Lombardi Trophy.

In honor of those days when you couldn't wait to get the paper to find out what was happening next in a quickly-evolving regime change, here is my list of Top Ten Moves Made By Ron Wolf

10)  The firing of Lindy Infante.  Normally, I wouldn't count such a firing as any sort of risky move.  In fact, it is usually customary for a newly-hired general manager to bring in his own coach, so there really was no surprise that the well-liked Infante was let go.  But, it wasn't just the firing of Infante, it was the immediate message sent to the rest of the team and the fans that things were going to be different.

On the day Infante was fired, Wolf went in to the locker room to address the team, and by his own recollection, Wolf said he didn't make a whole lot of friends that day.  But, the country-club atmosphere that had been prevalent under Infante  had stalled the development of the team, and Wolf let it be no uncertain terms...that every player was here only as long as it took Wolf to find someone to replace him.

While usually guarded, his candor sometimes got the best of him when speaking with the media, and what he said surprised many fans.  Wolf announced that offseason that, after examining the roster, he didn't see any players on the roster that fit his plans, and that he didn't expect many of them to be around within a year or two.  This hit many fans (and players) sharply:  despite their 4-12 finish, there were still some popular players on the team:  Don Majkowski, Chuck Cecil, Jackie Harris, Mark Murphy, and Vince Workman were all fan favorites that would soon find their days numbered.

And in the end, Wolf was true to his word.  It is one thing to make threats, and another to follow through on them.  After Sterling Sharpe's career-ending injury in 1994, less than a handful of players who graced Infante's roster in 1991 remained on the 1995 team:  Butler, Jacke, Jurkovic, and Ruettgers.

9. Bag o' Donuts via Plan B.  James Campen had been one of those popular Packers under Lindy Infante, but injuries had been a problem since coming to the Packers in 1989.  Enter Frank Winters, a journeyman center who came to the Packers the same way Campen had, by way of long-gone Plan B free agency.  Winters immediately connected another new recruit in 1992:  quarterback Brett Favre, and became close friends and roommates on the road.

When Campen succumbed to injury in 1993, it was Winters who stepped in to start at center during Week 4.  Winters' held onto the starting spot for eight seasons following, but his first season might have been the most important one.  1993 was Brett Favre's crossroads season, with 24 interceptions and a stubborn penchant for risk-taking that nearly had him benched for Mark Brunell.   Having his best friend taking over under center certainly had to help Favre's confidence as that season of growth went on.  It certainly didn't hurt that Winters was renowned for his hustle and his workmanlike approach to the game, something that tempered Favre's easy, lighter approach.

My favorite memory of Bag o' Donuts was that dreaded game against the Vikings in 1995, when both Favre and Ty Detmer left the game with injuries, and TJ Rubely was left to come into the game to hang on to a lead against the Vikings.  As Rubely foolishly audibled out of a quarterback sneak into a passing play, it was Winters who was screaming, "No!  Don't do it!!"  In the end, Rubely threw an interception, the Vikings won, and Winters was left glaring at Rubely (who found a pink slip in his locker the next day).  I have little doubt that when Favre needed to be grounded, Winters was the man on the field to do it.

Jersey-born Winters was a popular player who felt a duty to play his hardest for his teammates, and whose toughness and effort never stopped until the whistle blew (and several times, afterwards).  Winters was the epitome of the kind of player Wolf wanted to fill his roster and change the paradigm of the team.

8.  Bad Moon Rison.  The Packers were 6-1 and had their tickets already punched for an appearance in the 1996 playoffs.  Every piece that Ron Wolf had put together was in place for this season, and the preseason favorites were playing every bit the part...that is, until #1 wide receiver Robert Brooks tore his right knee into two or three pieces and went on the IR list.  Like any GM after the trade deadline, Wolf gave Mike Holmgren time to see if the team could compensate for the loss. 

But a 2-2 record dropped the team to 8-3 and doubts were beginning to creep in.  Don Beebe, so instrumental on special teams and as a #3 receiver, was unable to play at the level of a starter, and the Packers' offense began to sputter.  With the trade deadline past, Wolf found any options to upgrade the position very limited:  most players available off the street weren't going to outplay Beebe, and that wasn't going to be good enough.

Except for the troubled Andre Rison, he of the infamous burning house by his ex-girlfriend only a few years prior.  Off-the-field issues haunted him in Atlanta, and followed him to his short stints in Cleveland and Jacksonville.  The nickname "Bad Moon" wasn't just a play on his name:  his reputation as a malcontent preceded him, such as when he lashed out against boo-bird fans in Cleveland with an obscenity-laced tirade.

But he was also the only receiver available that would legitimately upgrade the receiving corps, and Wolf felt it was worth the risk to the locker room.  Besides, Wolf had several aces up his sleeve:  Rison wasn't going to be walking on to a young team with a greenhorn head coach.  Some of the first faces that Rison encountered entering the locker room were strong, veteran leaders such as Reggie White, Sean Jones, Eugene Robinson, and Don Beebe--men who were on their last ticket to a Super Bowl ring and set the tone for the team. 

By his own admission, Rison turned into a "perfect gentleman" and a team player, and the Packers' fortunes immediately turned for the best.  With Rison in the lineup, the Packers finished the season 5-0 and dominated the playoffs.  In the Super Bowl, "Bad Moon" caught Brett Favre's first pass for an 54-yard touchdown and set the tone for the team victory.  Rison's touchdown was more than a fluke play, but a great example of teamwork and communication.

"It was a check off to me," said Rison in 2006.  "Antonio would have been outside and I would have been inside. But I was outside, and Free went inside from the outset. Brett relayed the signal and then we hit it."

Rison left the Packers after that season with a Super Bowl ring on his finger and memories that would last for the rest of his life.  Wolf apparently wasn't so confident in his attitude (or talent) to keep him around for more than half a season, but he served his purpose with flying colors.  Rison never achieved the same glory anywhere else, despite playing for seemingly every other team in the league.

Without Rison, Brooks' injury looked to be a train derailer.  Wolf took a risk that might have derailed the team in a different way.  Give credit to Wolf for not only making this move to bring in the mercurial hired gun, but having the leadership in the locker room to keep Rison in check.

7.  Desmond Howard  Desmond may have not been the biggest risk Ron Wolf ever made, but by far, he paid perhaps the highest of dividends.  Howard was a big-name, former Heisman winner, former 4th-pick overall that had never blossomed in the NFL as a wide receiver.  The Redskins had him returning kicks his first two seasons, then tried to make him focus on starting at WR only.  The experiment failed, and he was left exposed in the expansion draft after that season.  Jacksonville picked him up in 1995, only to release him after the season.  It was starting to look as though Howard was going to be just another draft-day bust.

The Packers signed Howard in July of 1996, just before the start of training camp for a palty one-year contract of $300,000.  Certainly, no risk involved for the Packers here...if he didn't pan out, just let him go.  But, Wolf didn't need another wide receiver, at least at that moment.  Robert Brooks, Antoio Freeman, and Don Beebe were as good of a top-three set in the NFL, and Howard was brought in for one purpose:  as a returner.

But the first day of practice, Howard left with a hip pointer and all involved started to believe that this might be the end of the line for the man who originated "the Heisman pose" for future college hopefuls to emulate.  At that point, who did Howard turn to?  None other than Reggie White, who began prayer sessions with the discouraged former star.  Finally, Howard was healthy enough to play in an exhibition game and returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown.

The rest, as they say, was history.  Howard set the NFL record for most punt return yards in a season...shattered it, in fact...and delivered in the playoffs with two return touchdowns against the 49ers and a 99-yard return in the Super Bowl that slammed the door shut on a comeback attempt by the Patriots.

It was, as they say, the perfect storm.  Howard had great God-given talent, but like any returner, depended on the blocking he had in front of him in order to succeed.  The Packers had a veteran-laden roster, with many veterans (and starters) willing to play special teams.  This well-disciplined bunch did their job well, leaving Howard with the hypothetical "one man to beat" on a consistent basis.

Howard went on and suckered Al Davis out of millions of dollars as a free agent a year later, but the impact he had on the Packers' Super Bowl team is forever etched in stone:  he won the Most Valuable Player award for the game.  Pretty good for a guy signed for a song and who nearly gave up in the preseason.

6. and 5.  Santana Dotson and Sean Jones  Patty, the draft guru at Packerchatters, has often told me that "you can never have too many defensive linemen", which is why I curtail criticism of the Packers picking up DL in the draft (unless his last name is Harrell). The line is too critical to your defense, and is usually peppered with players prone to injury (and attitude issues).  Which is why it may surprise you that the Packers' Super Bowl starting lineup featured a defensive line that wasn't made up of one single Wolf draft pick.  Obviously, Reggie White was a free agent and Gilbert Brown (in his first season as a starter) was a waiver pickup from Minnesota.

In fact, Wolf had only invested three draft picks in his 1992-1996 drafts (Darius Holland, Gabe Wilkens, and Shazzon Bradley), and don't forget he had twelve rounds to play with in 1992.  No, Wolf knew that the line was where everything on defense started, and as Infante holdovers like John Jurkovic moved on and the draft picks didn't develop quickly, he went out and solved the problem via free agency.

Jones came aboard in 1994, already a force in the NFL.  He already had a Pro Bowl under his belt, along with 88-and-a-half sacks while playing for the Raiders and Oilers.  Mind you, as Jones became a free agent, Wolf did play his usual game of hardball with him.  In the end, the quibble over the last $200,000 of his contract went in the Packers' favor, as Jones realized how special it was going to be to play alongside Reggie White on the Frozen Tundra.

In his three seasons with the Packers, he added another 24-and-a-half sacks to his resume, and while he statistically tailed off during the Super Bowl year, you could attribute that as much to the development of the talent around him as to his age (34).

One big part of that talent was the acquisition of Santana Dotson during the 1996 offseason.  Dotson was probably Wolf's easiest sell.  Not content with the talent on the roster following the departure of stalwart and popular tackle Jurkovic in 1995, Wolf didn't wait to see who might develop in what he deemed a critical year.  He signed Dotson, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1992 for a blue-light special, thanks again to the Packers' #1 recruiter, Reggie White.

"I remember when I was a free agent, Reggie called and when he asked me to be a part of something special, the deal was done," Dotson admitted. "It didn't matter what Ron Wolf said or didn't matter what Larry Brooks, the defensive line coach said. When Reggie called me, and I was at home in Tampa Bay, I was going to Green Bay. It was a done deal."

Together, Dotson, White, Jones, and Gilbert Brown struck fear in the eyes of any offensive line they faced.  With Brown able to eat up two blockers and White commanding an extra one, there was no shortage of directions this line could come at you from.  The Packers finished with the #1 defense in the NFL that year, in no small part due to the defensive line.

4.  Eugene Robinson.  The Packers added many veterans at the end of the five-year plan to round out the roster, but few of them made as important an impact as Eugene Robinson.  Robinson was a ten-year vet from the Seahawks who relished the opportunity to come to a contender in Green Bay, but the upgrade at free safety over George Teague was very evident because of what it did for LeRoy Butler.

Butler was one of the very few holdovers left from the Infante regime, and he moved from cornerback to strong safety, and he was the prototype.  He loved playing close to the line, loved helping in run support, and loved to rush the quarterback.  But Teague wasn't a strong enough free safety to hold his own in the backfield and allow Butler to wreack havok near the line of scrimmage, so Butler's opportunities were limited.

Enter Robinson, a natural quarterback of the defense whose instincts and speed allowed Butler more freedom to roam, and that he did:  Butler never had more than one sack in any of his previous six seasons, but with Robinson alongside him, he piled up 6.5 sacks in 1996 and another 3 in 1997.  Many of us remember Butler's play in those Super Bowl seasons, counting up his sacks and often seeing him disrupting plays as linemen were occupied blocking Reggie White and Co. 

In addition, Robinson was another leader of the team, a vocal veteran who took his turn in the locker room with inspirational speeches.  While he became the butt of jokes later on after joining the Atlanta Falcons in 1998 and being arrested for an offer of prostitution (the same day he was awarded the Bart Starr Award for his "high moral character"), there's no doubt that he made an impact on the Super Bowl Champion Packers with his efforts both on and off the field.

In 1996, not only did the Packers finish #1 in overall defense, but #1 in overall pass defense.  Robinson's prototypical free safety play and control of everything happening in front of him, was a huge part of keeping that ranking when the rushers didn't get to the quarterback.

3.  The hiring of Mike Holmgren.  Now, in retrospect, The Walrus seems like a no-brainer today, but in reality, he was the third-year offensive coordinator of a team that had been steered by Bill Walsh for many years before that.  Moreso, he had no head coaching experience at any level.  Not everyone was convinced that Holmgren was going to suddenly turn the Packers into the 49ers, especially when our defense was just as anemic as our offense, which most expected Holmgren to focus on.

The decision to go with the high-potential assistant coach as opposed to a veteran coach (Wolf had considered both Bill Parcells and Chuck Knox) was a big risk to take, especially when you consider that Holmgren was still under contract, and the 49ers were not willing to release him without compensation from the team who wanted him.

But Holmgren was the darling of NFL teams in January 1992, leaving his interview in Green Bay without a contract and began a tour of other teams with head coaching vacancies.  Wolf knew this was the guy he wanted, but played a delicate game to not put himself in a position to seem desperate or to give his new coach too much power.  Finally, on January 11, the Packers signed Holmgren as head coach, and sent their second-round pick to the 49ers as compensation for allowing him to break his contract with them.   Such compensation is a rarity in the NFL, both then and now, as most coordinators have verbiage in their contract that allow them to take another job as long as it is a promotion.  Other teams simply allow a man to break their contract as a good faith move.  But, the 49ers played hardball, and there are many GMs that would have hedged at giving a conference rival an extra first-day pick.

In the end, whomever the Packers could have gotten in the second round paled in comparison to the young coach who brought the team together on the field.  And, in 1995 and 1996, the Packers happily gave the 49ers a little payback in the playoffs for that lost pick.

2)  The trade for Brett Favre.  At one point in Brett Favre's struggles in the early 1990's, Mike Holmgren had to look at his undisciplined protege and tell him, "Listen, you and I are attached at the hip."  If one went down, they both went down.  And both would have Ron Wolf to thank for it.

Wolf's trade for Favre is well-documented and is still listed as one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history, yet you would have a hard time convincing anyone of that at the time.  I remember watching the 1991 NFL draft and hoping the Packers would draft this kid with the funny last name, but the Falcons scooped him up two picks before the Packers' second rounder.  After the Packers picked Esera Tuaolo with that pick, the New York Jets picked Browning Nagle, but a certain Jets' personnel director had been equally disappointed when Favre had been selected.  That man was Ron Wolf.

The next year, when Wolf was in the Packers' fold, he designated two key positions he needed to fill to establish leadership on the team, and that was head coach and quarterback.  After getting Holmgren in January, he set his sights on Favre, who was toiling as a third-string quarterback with Atlanta and had laughable stats in very limited playing time.

Moreso, Favre was becoming a discipline problem: a partier that refused to prepare, take coaching, or show up on time.  He was a diva that felt he should be starting ahead of Pro Bowler Chris Miller, and rebelled against coach Jerry Glanville's attempts to shape him up.  The divide grew wider as Glanville told Falcon GM Ken Herock that while Herock could force Favre to take up a roster spot, he wouldn't do anything else besides hold a clipboard.

Can you say, "risk"?  Certainly, Favre's behavior over the last few years certainly would corroborate the Favre we've heard about in Atlanta but didn't think existed anymore.  But Wolf was keenly aware of these issues with Favre and felt that he could get him for a first-round pick.  In reality, he might have gotten him for a fourth rounder had he played it out, but Herock wanted to prove his pick as worthy, despite everyone else in his organization telling him it was a waste.

Now, at the time, most of us knew Favre was a project and "the quarterback of the future".  A first-round pick for a guy who was a second-rounder the year before and had done nothing to improve on his value since was the very definition of "risk".  But Wolf knew even more about Favre's behavior at the time than most of us did, which makes the move even more daring.

In the end, Favre captured three MVP trophies and the hearts of many Packer fans who dared to hold him up to Bart Starr in comparison.  Perhaps there is no higher praise for a Packer quarterback.  In the end, Wolf trusted the scouting he had done a year earlier and did what it took to get the player he believed had the potential to be better than just another good quarterback.

1)  Reggie.  After Wolf's and Holmgren's first season, the Packers were back on their way to respectability.  They improved to 9-6, winning six in a row in the second half of the season.  Favre had taken over as the starter and had already began to capture the imagination of the fans with his youthful, risk-taking play.  Sterling Sharpe benefited immediately from the West Coast Offense, catching 108 balls and becoming Favre's favorite target.  And yet, in a transitional year, a rebuilding year, there was still this feeling that not all the pieces were there.  The team's nucleus was getting younger, there was the feeling that the team needed some glue to hold it together.

What they got was cement.  And they got it using the newly-implemented free agency, allowing an already legendary player still in his prime to go to the highest bidder.  Six teams began lobbying for Reggie White's attention, whose contract had expired with Philadelphia.  Many of the contenders were the usual suspects;  New York, Washington, Atlanta.  But one of the teams in the bidding was new to the table:  the Packers.  No one expected the Packers to ever be serious with big-time players.

That is, until this penultimate day.  Ron Wolf and the Green Bay Packers had come to play, and they played well.  Reggie was given a tour of the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame, instead of wined and dined at exclusive restaurants.  Wolf and Holmgren weren't afraid to invoke the spirits of the Glory Years to speak to the tradition of the the Packers, instead of the Siberia reputation it had developed during the Lean Years.  Holmgren made comical phone messages pretending to be God, telling the spiritual White that Green Bay was The Promised Land.

But in the end, Ron Wolf made perhaps the biggest move in Packer history, outbidding the big players and offering White a four-year, $17-million contract, at that point the biggest for a defensive player in NFL history.  It also set in motion the template for unrestricted free agency that we still see today.  For the usually financially-tight Packers, this was the very definition of "opening the coffers" and shelling out the money for the big-time players.

And, in the end, Reggie White was the glue that bonded this team together.  His on-the-field ferociousness was matched by his locker room spiritual leadership.  Furthermore, his signing brought legitimacy to the Packers, leading other veteran players to believe there was something good happening up in Green Bay.

Because of his MVP honors, there are many that would say that Favre was the bigger move than White's, but I have to disagree.  Without White, the Packers would not have been a #1 overall defense in 1996, and Favre alone would not have attracted so many free agents (particularly on defense) to come to Green Bay at a cut-rate price.  Favre obviously was a huge part of the team, but White is the one that made the team.  In order to bring White here, though, Wolf had to spend an amount of money that likely made many long-time board members pass out in the meeting room.


So, there you have my list of Wolf's Top Ten Moves, the biggest risks he took along the way to bringing a third Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay.  Obviously, I didn't include Wolf's many draft selections in this list, simply because those aren't "risks" asmuch as they are a result of scouting and, oftentimes, luck.  While Mark Chmura, Edgar Bennett, and Antonio Freeman all played key roles in the building of a Super Bowl champion, this article was meant to note the high-risk/reward that comes along with moves like trades and free agency, and how he used it to turn this team into a champion.

We also have to note that not everything Wolf did turned to gold.  For every Andre Rison, there was a Mark Clayton.  For each Santana Dotson he brought in, there was a Bryce Paup he let get away.  But when the end result is a Lombardi Trophy, everything gleams like gold, and the black marks seem to get lost in the luster.

I'm sure there are some names I left off this list that some will disagree with:  Keith Jackson, Gilbert Brown, Jim McMahon, Don Beebe all come to mind as honorable mentions.  These are my top ten moves that Wolf had to pull the trigger on...feel free to comment and voice your opinions!
* The NFL playoffs expanded to include a third wild-card team in 1990.  Had that happened a year earlier, the Cardiac Pack would have made it in to the post-season.