Friday, August 5, 2011

TundraVision Heading Over To Cheesehead TV

Well, it finally happened.

Had a nice meeting with the omnipresent Aaron Nagler, who extended the invite for me to come on over and write for CheeseheadTV.  Against what you might believe, it wasn't an easy decision.  There's a bit of independence that I've gotten over the years just writing at my little blog, nice to not have deadlines or feeling like you might be pulled directions you weren't planning on being pulled in.  And CHTV is big, and I predict it is going to get even bigger.  That's cool and daunting at the same time, but I have a ton of faith in Corey's drive to keep pushing the envelope of what fan-based Packer coverage can do, and in Aaron's sheer force of will to keep CheeseheadTV at the forefront of the blogosphere.

In the end, it was Aaron's honest discussion of what he wanted me to do for CHTV.  The plan is for me to be a feature writer, which is really what I've been here.  The only problem is that when you put out two or three five-page-long articles a week (at best), you don't get a lot of traffic compared to the sites that are pumping out and tweeting 5-10 articles a day.  I realize I'm never going to be that guy who scours the news and quickly puts out a report citing the latest move and offering a quick two cents on it.  I'd love to, but the 9-5 job and family of five simply doesn't allow me to do it, and I am very thankful for both.

So, my goal has always been to "write a lot about a little", to try and tie different stories together and get a pulse not only on what's going on with the Packers, but with what is going on with the fan base, too.  Like it or not, we are a part of the story, because Lambeau Field would be pretty darned quiet without all those folks lining the seats.  CHTV is offering me the opportunity to write those longer, thoughtful articles without having to worry if people forgot the URL for TundraVision in the gaps between.

Believe it or not, Aaron, Corey, and I have gone back and forth on this for almost a year now.  Seems like the right time, and I'm glad to be an official part of the CHTV family.  I'm joining some fantastic talents that I've been honored to work with in the past: Corey, Aaron, Brian, Holly, Max, John, Jayme, and Andrew (who I actually haven't worked with yet, but look forward to it).  It also brings pretty much all of Cheesehead Radio under one roof, too.

In the next few weeks, the tundravision.com URL will redirect to CHTV, but the tundravision.blogspot.com will remain right here.  I'm superstitious enough that I like a permanent repository for all that I write, and so I will copy my articles back over here, as well as anything else I write that may not be CHTV-ready.

For those of you who have followed my writing over the last six years or so (whether you liked it or not), thank you for giving me the encouragement (or a chip on my shoulder) to keep at it.  Please bookmark Cheesehead TV and look for my first article there this upcoming Sunday.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

2011 Packers Shareholders Meeting Pics and Videos

Hey gang, thanks to the illustrious Jersey Al Bracco, I was able to attend my first Packer Shareholder's Meeting this year.  I didn't get in a whole ton of pictures, but I did get in a couple.  Here you go:

We sat over in the corner, somewhat away from the staging area, but very close to the player's tunnel, which was nice as folks would come out of the tunnel and we would get glimpses of them.   Before the game, Kevin Greene was standing there, and we found out later that his wife was singing the National Anthem for the second year in a row (apparently, she was good luck last year).  Estmated, almost 12,000 people were in attendance, and I was joined by what became an unofficial tweetup with TommyKGB, AlexTallitsch, jrehor, KelKelKelKel (though I didn't actually get to see her), LambeauJoe, PeteSeroogy, Hammen, and KyleCousineau.

 
Finally, the gentlemen in suits departed the players' tunnel to make their way to the  staging area.  Check out the reception garnered when Ted Thompson makes his way onto the field.  Given the reception he got here three years ago, I don't blame him a bit for not looking out way when we shouted his name, but trust me, there wasn't a Ted Hater in the house (and if there were, I think the Hater would have been facing off against 11,999 folks who sincerely wished to issue their displeasure with him/her).



Was asked on Twitter as to the condition of the field, which was rather diveted after the concert a month or two ago.  It still has a couple of spot that are bare, but not as much as a few weeks ago.  It will be interesting to see the condition at Family Night. If you open this picture and look just to the right of the white signs in the middle of the picture, you'll see one of the divets still there.



It's always a good day when Jason Wilde joins you.  Got to meet him for the first time, thanks to Alex Tallitsch browbeating him out of the bowels of Lambeau Field.  I posted this picture on Twitter, prompting Steve to respond: "and @KyleCousineau09".

Of course, I respond: Well, yeah. But everyone knows who Kyle is."

True dat.


After the meeting, Dan Lauria came out to do the reading from "Lombardi", which was a treat. Some folks were a little disappointed it wasn't longer, but listening to Dan do the "you get a seal here, and a seal here" line sent chills down my spine.

Complete random segue, but I once joined my cousin, who was a professional actor, on his film shoot in Arizona years ago.  I was an extra in the film, and appeared in a scene with H Richard Greene, who played Winnie Cooper's father on The Wonder Years.  So, was a little "Six Degrees" for me seeing Lauria come through the tunnel.

Not the best of quality, but here's a little video snippet of Lauria's reading from a distance.

Here's a little video of Mr. Lauria leaving the field. I am really not sure who is picking the music for Lambeau Field this year, but I am not sure "Glee" should be the album they pick most of their music from.
video


And finally, as the meeting concluded, here is a pic of Uncle Ted.  For someone like myself who's been an unabashed Thompson Critic over the years (who often got lumped in with the far more vitriolic Thompson Haters), it was very nice to see the extended standing ovation Thompson received during the meeting.  Well deserved, and while I don't plan on discontinuing my criticism of Ted (or any other player or coach who has earned it), I definitely stood with all of Packer Nation in thanking Ted for putting together a team that earned another Super Bowl trophy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Barnett and Colledge: Why One Left and One Should Stay

Yesterday, Nick Barnett ended his eight-year tenure as a Green Bay Packer, a productive and boisterous career that certainly made him a presence both on and off the field.  In the next few days, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge might follow him into the uncharted waters of free agency in this new world in the NFL.

I'm certainly sad to see Barnett go.  He was an emotional leader of the team and was one of the first accessible players on Twitter.  He was one of the first big guests on uber-fanshow CheeseheadTV, and was, overall, a class act.  He had his blemishes, too.  He disappeared for long stretches, seemingly reliant on his own emotion to be at a fever pitch to overcome dominant blocking.  He had a prolonged bout with the city of Green Bay over issues at his downtown nightclub.  And he has quit and rejoined Twitter several times over some TMI tweets, not the least of which was publicly complaining he was to be left out of the official Super Bowl team picture last February.

None of that matters, however, because the real reason he left can be summed up in two words:  Desmond Bishop.  Many in the media and the blogger fan base had called for Bishop to get his break for years, usually to try and supplant fellow MLB AJ Hawk.  Barnett's spot, however, was always safe, and he never seemed to have to compete for his position.

It what might be the premier crucible story of the 2010 Green Bay Packers:  injury-decimated team found they usually had equally, if not more competent talent waiting on the bench.  Bishop walked onto the field with solid production and far less theatrics.  While Aaron Rodgers won the Super Bowl MVP, Bishop has to be considered a close runner-up because of the heroic forced fumble to start the fourth quarter.  Without that one play, I don't know if the Packers own a Lombardi Trophy today.

So, Barnett, who entered the McCarthy era back in 2006 as the de facto starter and never once had to seriously accept a challenge to his position, found himself the odd man out.  Salary cap savings were more important than that emotional leadership, which the Packers also managed to find out they could come up without Mufasa.

Switch now to the curious case of Daryn Colledge, a guy drafted in 2006 to be the integral cog in the new Zone Blocking Scheme, and has had his ups and downs over that time.  He's gone from being the promising rookie to the underachieving veteran that was due for an upgrade, seemingly every single season.  Nearly every year he has been pencilled out of the projected starting lineup, even benched once during the regular season.

But, each and every time, Colledge has fought and earned his place back.  Every.  Time.

Look, Colledge may never reach Pro Bowl status as a guard in the NFL.  Hey...how many Packer guards have over the last forty years?  But Colledge has lived through his whole Packer career under the microscope and proven the doubters wrong...at least until the following year.

For your viewing pleasure, Ted Thompson has drafted the following offensive players in his time in Green Bay as GM:

1. Junius Coston
2. Wil Whittaker
3. Daryn Colledge
4. Jason Spitz
5. Tony Moll
6. Allen Barbre
7. Josh Sitton
8. Breno Giacomini
9. TJ Lang
10 Jamon Meredith
11. Bryan Bulaga
12. Marshall Newhouse
13. Derek Sherrod
14. Caleb Schlauderaff

Now, Thompson has drafted enough guys over his tenure to make almost three full squads of offensive lines.  And, as we enter Thompson's seventh season as general manager, 40% of the offensive line positions are still, barring injury, being manned by Mike Sherman holdovers.

That's a big deal to me, especially how after nearly every single draft, pundits and armchair quarterbacks around the Packer Blogosphere had every one of these guys, at one point or another, penciled in as a starter in the near future. 

I've made the point many times in the past how 60% of the offensive line had been unable to be "upgraded", that the threesome of Clifton, Tauscher, and Wells were still better than the talent brought in to replace them.

And now, out of fairness and common sense, I'm going to apply the same point to Daryn Colledge.  You see, unlike Barnett, the Packers were never afraid to challenge Colledge at his position.  And let's face it:  at one point or another, both Barnett and Colledge had some underwhelming games.  But Barnett kept his spot, year in and year out, and when an injury finally made him sit the sidelines, the coaches realized that Bishop was ready and willing to not only equal Mufasa's production, but exceed it.

Yet Colledge has been written off, time and time again, with one of those names on that list.   Many of the names that were the presumed heir apparent are no longer with the team, and Colledge has always taken his guard spot back.  Now, I understand the logic:  the Packers have a ton of young talent and could use the salary cap room.  Colledge has been steady-but-not-spectacular, and perhaps we have the OL version of Desmond Bishop on the roster already.

Perhaps.

And perhaps not.

Daryn Colledge might take his Super Bowl Ring and head off to some other ZBS team and cash in, finishing his career someplace other than the one where he's always had to prove himself.  Colledge himself said that he doesn't think the Packers want him back.

"The Packers have had a lot of years to re-sign me if they wanted to, so it looks like they might just let me go to free agency," Colledge said. "Whether that’s a business decision or a personal decision, I don’t know."

Sometimes, when you've had so much doubt in a player and hoped to upgrade them over and over again, there's a point where it is just best to part ways and give the player a shot with a clear slate.  Maybe Daryn is tired of always having to fight for his job, too.

But if the Packers are smart, you keep the guy whose proven himself again and again.  After all, why are Clifton and Wells still starting ahead of all those guys Thompson has picked to replace them?

Mason Crosby: Supply and Demand

Nobody should have been surprised when Mason Crosby was inked to a new 5-year deal with the Green Bay Packers.  You might have been surprised when you eyeballed the contract details.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Crosby's new pact will pay him $14.75 million with $3 million guaranteed.

Crosby, who will turn 27 in September, has spent each of his four NFL seasons with the Packers. He connected on 22-of-28 field goal tries and all 46 point- after attempts for 112 points last season.

The Colorado product has made 107-of-137 field goal attempts and all but one of his PATs over his career. He's also kicked at least two 50-plus yard field goals in each of his four seasons and is 10-of-21 lifetime from at least 50 yards.

Now, I realize we've moved a long ways away from the time that Ron Wolf let Craig Hentrich walk because he couldn't see paying a punter....any punter....a million dollars a year.  Hentrich left and signed a veteran's minimum contract with the Titans, had a twelve-year career post-Packers, and was respected as one of the best at his position.  And yes, he finally got paid his worth with Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the Packers went into a cesspool of punters, a revolving door of mediocrity that finally seemed to come to an end in 2007 when the Packers picked up Jon Ryan...only to cut him two years later and again have indecision at the position until present-day punter Tim Masthay established himself last season.

In other words, kickers and punters are often looked at as interchangeable, dime-a-dozen players...that is, until you don't have a good one on your roster. 

Crosby's statistics are probably best summed up as average.  For all the ballyhoo about the strength of his leg, his long-distance kicks have been below 50% for his career.  At the end of the 2009 season, special teams coach Shawn Slocum decided to, mid-season, completely break his kicking mechanics down to square one.  Last year in training camp, interventions to his kicking style began all over again.

His 2010 campaign was, at least, an improvement over the drama from the end of 2009 and the 2010 offseason.  However, he finished with a field goal percentage of 78.6%, right around his career average and has never hit that elusive 80% mark, a Mendoza Line of sorts for kickers.   That percentage placed him 30th overall in the NFL last year during the regular season.  His 50% percentage from 50+ yards ranked him in a tie for 17th overall.

In other words, when it comes to kicking field goals, we're still working on the theory that Crosby is still a work in progress and is going to eventually develop into the kicker we felt we drafted...because his stats don't back up a contract that places him in the top five kickers in the NFL.

But, we go back to the punters.  Thompson already went through this once with Jon Ryan, thinking he could find something better on the waiver wire and brought in Derrick Frost to replace him.  While this isn't the time in Thompson's career to be throwing poo towards him for his prior mistakes, you can't deny that the Frost-over-Ryan move was perhaps one of the most poorly thought-out moves Ted has ever made.

So, you have a stable kicker in Crosby, one still with a world of potential (and you get the feeling with proper coaching, he's start reaching that potential).  What are the other options out there?  Some undrafted rookie like Dan Bailey, who ended up in Cowboys training camp?  Some castoff from another team, like Kris Brown, and hope it isn't Derrick Frost all over again?

The Packers, perhaps moreso than any other team in the NFL, have learned some pretty hard lessons on letting talented specialists go and not having a decent replacement waiting in the wings.  I've been pretty hard on Mason over the past few years (although far rougher with his coach, Shaun Slocum), but recognize this is simply a case of supply and demand.  There's no one out there that you can count on to kick better than Crosby, and when you can't count on a kicker to do better than 75%, you stick with what you know.

The difference is that now we've given Crosby the kind of money that you give kickers who consistently make field goals at a clip in the mid-80's and low-90's.  It's a smart move by Thompson, who has likely learned from his own mistakes, to keep a relatively solid guy in the fold.  By not keeping him at a hometown discount, however, Crosby will have more of a microscope on him over the next few years.

It's up to Slocum and Co. to make Crosby into that kicker we hoped we'd get when we drafted him in the 6th round in 2007.

Monday, July 25, 2011

2010 Packers: Charmed?

As I watched the Women's World Cup, I was haunted by a feeling, almost like I had seen this show before.  Something eerily familiar about all this, I kept thinking.

* Strong team players, with a particularly charismatic team leader.

* Slow starters, almost needing to have their backs against the wall before waking up.

* Despite outplaying their opponents, often relied on big, heroic plays at the end to pull out a win.

Who am I talking about?  Well, sure, I'm talking about Hope Solo and the Women's National Team, but we could also easily be talking about the 2010 Green Bay Packers.  And we almost....almost....saw a complete repeat of last February's cardiac events, with near-misses and heroic finishes needed to pull out game after game.

Almost.

Yes, the margin of victory for the Women's World Cup was pretty slim, coming down to penalty kicks that never should have had to happen in the first place.  Missed opportunities came back to haunt them in the final game against Japan:   shot after shot taken on goal with nothing to show for it was the story of the first half.

But, you say, these were the Cardiac Girls, the ones who fought back against Brazil with a man down on an amazing header by Abby Wambach and penalty kicks to win.  And the ones who looked to be in trouble against France until two late-game out-of-a-hat goals by Wambach and phenom Alex Morgan prevented another overtime.

As someone who doesn't even watch soccer, both of those games took me out of my seat and cheering loudly, and the decider against Japan was no exception.  But waiting until the last minute didn't blossom for the Americans against a team with perhaps more destiny and fate on their side than themselves.

And the defeat was crushing.  While we can be proud of Team USA for making it so far, you still had a feeling that something was stolen from us, that after so many emotional, come-from-behind wins that there was nothing we couldn't do.

Notice my involuntary pronoun shift in that last paragraph?  I was about to go back and fix it, but then I realized that it was exactly those emotional climaxes that shifted ownership of the American team from "them" to "us".  "We" were going to win the World Cup, because we had fought through so much adversity together.

And why it was such a disappointment to "us" in the end.

We were saved from a similar disappointment this year when the Packers didn't fade away with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball 20 feet above a receiver's head in overtime.  But let's be honest: the table was set for it.

The Packers went on the most amazing six-game winning streak in the history of the NFL, and you can mark that down.  But ever since the start of the Mike McCarthy Regime, I've often noted a reliance on the Big Play to pull games out at the end.  The Packers putting a team away early (or vice versa) is a pretty rare event.

Now, is that a bad thing?  I suppose not.  It certainly makes watching games more interesting and exciting when the Packers are protecting a narrow lead against a surging offense late in the fourth quarter.  Hey, anybody leaving the game early to beat traffic usually missed something big.

And that is what is the biggest difference between this team we are celebrating now and the the one that won the 1996 Lombardi Trophy.  The 1996 team was a slow, steady build, eventually evolving into a team that was expected to win, and did.  They won by building a lead in the first half, then allowing Dorsey/Edgar to grind out the second half along with the defense.  That team demoralized opponents and we expected nothing less than a Super Bowl win.

This team?  Nobody other than a couple of cocky players looking for T-Shirt slogans really predicted the Packers to win it all, and once the MASH unit of injuries hit, the playoffs looked bleak, much less making the title game.  Games were won or lost by narrow margins, often in the final moments.  Following the loss to the Lions, Packer fans were calling for the firing of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson again, despite the fact that a mere two months later they would be Super Bowl Champions.

That is the life as a fan of the Cardiac Pack, a team that capitalized on opportunities, with perhaps a little help from destiny.

The streak started on the heels of a late-game collapse in which a win looked certain against the mighty Patriots, but the Packers defense gave in and fell behind by four points with seven minutes left to go, concluding with a Matt Flynn sack-and-fumble to end the game deep in Patriot territory.

From then on, the Cardiac Pack never put anyone away, and always seemed to come up with a way to win in spectacular fashion.

*  The Packers hosted the Giants, and held a narrow lead until the final 19 minutes, when three fourth-quarter interceptions and short-field scores sealed the game, following a lull in the offense in the second- and third-quarters.

*  In the season finale, the Packers beat the Bears in a game that might be described as a battle to see which team would lose the least.  The Packers' offense was a near no-show, and the defense had to pile on Jay Cutler to keep the Bears at bay.  Even so, Cutler led a late drive that would have knotted up the score, only to be thwarted by Nick Collins' heroic interception.

*  In what would be Aaron Rodgers' first playoff win, the Packers went to Philly and dealt the Eagles a loss, in which once again both team played sloppily.  Again, a Packer lead was once again threatened with a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, and then Michael Vick pitched a pass into the end zone, down by only five points.  Tramon Williams made the game-sealing interception, and the Packers' advanced by the skin of their teeth.

Against the Falcons, who had beaten the Packers earlier in the year, Green Bay fell behind early after several miscues.  With their backs against the wall in a playoff game, the Packers fought back with four interceptions and 48 points, crushing the Falcons almost out of necessity to bring themselves out of the funk they were in to start the game.

*  In the NFC Championship game, the Packers went out and established themselves early against the Bears, knocking Jay Cutler out of the game and looking like they would finally cruise to a win.  Could it be that easy?  No way.  The Packers' offense once again looked rattled, with Rodgers having his worst game in recent memory.  Protecting a 21-14 lead with an exhausted defense, the Bears almost pulled off a late-game drive to tie up the score with their unknown third-string quarterback.  And, once again, Sam Shields made the critical last-second heroic interception that sealed the game against a team that probably should have been dismissed long before.

* Finally, in the Super Bowl itself, the Packers established themselves early and looked to cruise to an easy Lombardi Trophy, but a series of injuries to some key players (Driver, Woodson, Shields) took all the air out of their sails and gave the momentum back to the Steelers.  The Packers looked like zombies on both offense and defense until the end of the third quarter, seemingly in need of a wake-up call to remind them that this was the Super Bowl.  They got it, with a heroic forced fumble by Desmond Bishop at the start of the fourth quarter, that set up a set of lead-preserving drives by Rodgers (a touchdown and a field goal).  However, it was now the defense that faltered, allowing a long touchdown and two-point conversion that kept the Steelers within a touchdown with two minutes left to go.  The gassed and depleted defense reached as far down as they could and ended what could have been a game-winning drive with 49 seconds remaining...on a gut-check stop by, of all people, Jarrett Bush.

Now, before you start flooding my comments with accusations of negativity and "why can't you just be happy the Packers won", let me assure I am nothing less than thrilled that they won.  My point is that this victory was one of heart-pounding emotion, with nothing guaranteed week-to-week and requiring extraordinary efforts late in nearly every game to finish the drive to the trophy.

While the 1996 Super Bowl win was glorious, it was the end of a five-year journey marked by steady improvement.  Our present-day Packers have been nothing less than a roller coaster, taking us from season to season, and often, game to game, with ups and downs and fantastic heights and demoralizing lows.  The streak through the post-season was never an easy task, and there were doubts in each and every game.

Some of us believe that Fate and Destiny are nothing more than the names of  dancers down down at the local gentleman's club, but the Packers have been bitten by seasons of destiny gone wrong.  You only need to look back at the charmed post-season of 2003 following the death of Irv Favre to know how you thought miracles would happen every week, and how the disappointment of 4th-and-26 ripped the team apart over the following two years.

Perhaps the Packers were, like the USA Women once believed, a team of destiny.  Perhaps you believe that they were nothing more (or less) than a scrappy team that willed itself to victory.  Either way, the look on the faces of Hope Solo and Abby Wambach illustrate the impact of those emotional wins going unfulfilled at the very end, when you need it most.  Certainly, watching Brian Dawkins intercept Brett Favre's pass in overtime in 2003 was crushing for a team that thought the magical ride would go on forever.

The 2010 Packers got to ride the magic carpet all the way to the end, and certainly, it had as much to do with Ted Thompson's talent acquisitions as well as the ability of McCarthy to spit-and-wire a team together after it was decimated by injuries.

But, if you believe in magic, or fate, or destiny...the 2010 Packers were rode it all the way to the end.  In some ways, it makes this team just a little more endearing than that 1996 team, that one that was built with Hall of Fame bookends on each side of the ball and the perfect game plan every week.  This team of injury fill-ins and wondering what team would show up each week had us rooting for our underdog, and they rewarded us each week with miracle endings....and a Lombardi Trophy.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guess Who I Used To Lift Weights With?

I read with enormous....well, ambivalence...the series of articles over at All Green Bay Packers by the esteemed Adam Czech on the Packers and Professional Wrestling.  Not, of course, because I find Adam's material normally disinteresting--on the contrary.  I just don't particularly follow professional rasslin' like I did back in the glory years of the early 1980's.

But, I must chime in with an anecdote of my own, and the reason why when Adam does bring up the old school wrestlers on Twitter that my ears perk up.

I had just moved to Green Bay in seventh grade, and that was when my obsessive passion for the Green Bay Packers took off.  Each day after school, I'd walk over to my Green Bay Press-Gazette paper route drop off point and spend 15 minutes meticulously going over the sports section before actually getting my peeps their papers.  I bought a guy's single season ticket off of him in 1983 and attended every home game by myself.

But, as I approached high school, I began to dream of my high school football career.  Now, going to a very small parochial school in Green Bay, the most contact sport we offered during my middle school years was soccer, and I had never even put on pads before my freshman year.

 During the 1982 season, I had stopped at the downtown YMCA on my way back from the Gold Mine at Port Plaza mall and saw the answer to all of my prayers:  a "Lift Weights with the Packers" brochure.  I was in heaven.  Not only could I rub shoulders with Lynn Dickey and James Lofton, but I could get myself in playing shape under their expert tutelage.

I paid my own fee with my paper route money, and walked myself down from my old house on Monroe Street to the YMCA, all ready to get ripped.  I walked in, waiting to see which superstar would be in charge of my complete physical transformation.  Mark Murphy? Johnnie Grey? Larry McCarren?

There before me sat two extremely large guys, and in later years, the irony of the television show "Newhart" would only have made me stifle a laugh at the fact that they were both named Larry.  Where's Daryl?

Yes, Larry Rubens, a backup center behind McCarren, and Larry Phohl, a former CFL offensive lineman on injured reserve, were the two lucky guys who would be guiding my journey into muscles.

Rubens was a an understated guy, who did seem to come into the program with a serious attitude about working with the youngsters.  I didn't know then (as I know now) that each player has a requisite number of hours they must do for community service, but if Rubens had drawn the short straw, he didn't seem to mind.  He saw that I was far from the gym rat he was probably hoping to work with, and while the other teens in the program seemed to already know what they were doing, Rubens started me off from scratch and often took me aside to go through the basics.

Pfohl, on the other hand, was a jovial guy whose voice always seemed just a little louder than it needed to be.  He always had a smile on and didn't mind razzing the kids, something that took mickey out of the 120-pound weakling that was me.  He certainly wasn't a bad guy, but I always looked back and thought Rubens sensed that I was pretty self-conscious and Pfohl's playful banter set me back a bit.

Out of the ten sessions, I went to about six.  I remember a day where Pfohl had made an off-cuff remark to the guys about how they needed to work harder or they'd end up like me, and I chose to take a few sessions off after that.  When I came back a few weeks, later, both Larrys called me by name and welcomed me back.  I finished the session and got my little certificate.  I never got an autograph from them, but that was a personal choice.

Fast forward about six years.  I had moved from Green Bay and finished high school in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, and my football career was something far from stellar, despite my six weightlifting sessions with real-live Packers.  I had started my undergrad degree at UW-Platteville, which at the time proudly hosted the Chicago Bears training camp.

In the summer of 1988, having worked with the university housing department as an RA, I got a call in July that they needed a shuttle bus driver for the players to go from their dorm to the practice field.  At that point, I didn't have a summer job, so I was thrilled get out of my parents' house and live in the dorm for the rest of the summer.  I drove a little mini-coach bus back and forth each day and transported players that today we still remember by name:  Singletary, Tomczak, and Harbaugh...as well as any number of little-known to unknown players trying to make the roster.

One day, I perused the training camp roster and was astounded to see a very familiar name:  Larry Rubens.  He got on the bus, looked a little older but still the same face.  One day, I initiated conversation (which was a no-no for us anyway) and asked him if he remembered doing a weight lifting program back in Green Bay in 1982.  He looked it me with a puzzled look, nodded "sure" and went to sit down.  Pwned.

The next day, though, he got on the bus with a big smile and said, "Hey...I do remember you!" (that was cool).  We shook hands and I thanked him for putting up with a scrawny kid in the weight room and being patient with him.

He then said, "Hey!  Do you remember that other guy that did the program with us?"  I nodded, remembering the loud, somewhat obnoxious Larry Pfohl.

"Do you know what happened to him?" asked Rubens.

"Actually, I did try and follow you guys for a while," I responded, trying my best to not sound like a stalker.  "You guys were both playing for Memphis in the USFL last I had checked."  This was true, and why I was surprised to see Rubens on the roster for the Bears.

"Yup," replied Rubens, "But do you know what he does now?"

I shook my head.

"He's a professional wrestler."  Visions of small-time wrestlers in Georgia or Minnesota came to mind.  In this corner, the Crusher, Larry Pfohl.

Rubens went on, "Do you know what name he goes by now?"  I shook my head.

"Lex Luger."

I was astounded.  Even at that point I had stopped watching professional wrestling, but Luger was a name everyone knew.  Here was Rubens, the nice-guy who helped a dorky kid learn to lift 25-pound weights without killing himself still fighting for roster spots in the NFL, while Pfohl, the cocky guy who never played a down for the Packers, was now world-renowned.

I followed Luger's career as closely as I could without actually getting back into watching wrestling as a whole, amazed that he eventually squared off against the guys I once loved to watch, like Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage;  and with even more intense jealousy, watched him have an on-stage AND real-life relationship with Miss Elizabeth.

To this day, I can honestly state that I used to lift weights with Lex Luger.  The statement itself sounds a lot more impressive than the actual story, but now, you have both.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bloggers Can't Have Their Cake And Then Bite The Hand That Feeds Them

 At the time this article was published, the foregoing belief on Twitter was the Anthony's Smith's Twitter Jail time was due to being reported (in fact, as I learned this halfway through writing the article and included this information).  Soon after it was published, we learned that Smith was auto-banned due to tweeting too much in a time period.

I included an immediate post-script acknowledging this, and said I would republish the article with the information corrected.  I removed three instances claiming that "somebody reported Smith" to the Twitter, as well as my firm belief that Alex had nothing to do with it.

I have included the original article in the comment section of this one.

 **************************************************************************

If there was no other reason to plead with the players and owners to settle the work stoppage and get everyone back to football, tonight's blowup between CheeseheadTV's Alex Tallitsch and Green Bay Packer Anthony Smith left many heads shaking.

In short:  Smith, the boisterous and confident tweeter, decided to spend much of Saturday afternoon coming up with his own responses to the trending hashtag #fourwordsaftersex, apparently offering many of his own off-color one-liners while interacting with other Tweeters who were doing the same thing.

Tallitsch, longtime Packer blogger, took umbrage to seeing a Packer representing the Green and Gold with street-alley humor and told Smith straight out he didn't like it.  This set off a war of words between the two, resulting in Smith's pre-emptive block of Tallistch's Twitter account before Tallitsch could unfollow Smith.

Now, I know Alex.  And I am fortunate enough to have shared a beer with him.  Alex was one of our original hosts of Cheesehead Radio last year and is an incredible talent.  There's a reason that he has 6,700 followers on Twitter and has tweeted 22,000 times.  He has a passionate following among Packer bloggers, and it is well-deserved. He has also aired his displeasure with Anthony Smith several times on his blog, so no one should have been too surprised when he took exception to some below-the-belt humor from Smith.

I also had the pleasure of having Anthony Smith on Cheesehead Radio last week.  He's a boisterous personality, a Packer, and a Super Bowl Champion.  Now, mind you, after he publicly announced pre-show that everyone should "loosen their jocks and panties" for the show, I was half-expecting to be censoring out a couple of words post-show to avoid a "Mature" rating on iTunes.  On the contrary, Smith was a total professional (if not a gentleman) on the show and gave a great interview.

There's a lot of emotions and "stances" on this issue.  Should Packers be squeaky-clean at all times when they are in the public eye?  Should fans judge players on their personalities or based on their play on the field?  Does Smith have his First Amendment rights to free speech?  Likewise, does Alex have those same rights, too?

All of the questions are worthy ones, and all can be debated.  But, I want to address the one that weighs most on my mind:   his #fourwordsaftersex brainstorming session--that while offensive to many, was no different from hundreds of thousands of other Tweeters who regularly post offensive subject matter to trending topics.

I mean, there's a reason it was a trending topic, and it wasn't Anthony Smith that started it.  Now, maybe Smith crossed a line that a professional football player shouldn't, but under normal circumstances, that would be Aaron Popkey's job to supervise and discuss it with players that are getting a little too jiggy with their tweets.

But Alex's actions in how he handled Popkey's job in lieu of the lockout has repercussions for all bloggers.  You see, what's happened in the last year or so, especially for Packer bloggers, has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Last year at this time, while being a part of the also-revolutionary Packer Transplant Blogcasts, Aaron Nagler and Corey Behnke often called for the credentialing of bloggers, so that we would have the same access to players and coaches that professional journalists do.  It was a rather radical idea, not one that endeared bloggers to media writers, who justifiably protected that perk from the start-ups that wanted equal access.

But, with Nagler's persistence, several writers at CheeseheadTV were partially credentialed for the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft.  Don't second-guess what Aaron and many other bloggers have fought for and how powerful it is in the evolution of sports coverage.  It's amazing.

But even Nagler's access in major market issues doesn't allow all of us bloggers being able to have locker room access after every training camp practice.  And when it comes down to it, being credentialed means you simply get the same access as the media...the same carefully worded responses to questions in press conferences, the same avoidance of bulletin board gunpowder.

Enter the next revolution:  Twitter.  Over the course of the season and subsequent offseason lockout, the number of ring-toting Packer players on the social network has boomed.  And what we're finding is that they aren't commercial or politically correct.  Some of them pick and choose what they send out into the Twittosphere, such as @AaronRodgers12, but many of them use Twitter as if it were their own text messaging service.

On any given day, you can see a conversation between @RyanGrant25 and @Quinn_Johnson45, or @JermichaelF88 and @stickyshields9 as they decide where they are going out to eat that night, or what they did the night before, or how/where they are working out over the offseason.  In many ways, this is the access, the public access, that allows all fans (and bloggers) access to the players we love.

But, it is uncensored.  It is untempered.  It's exactly what the media usually doesn't get to see and often doesn't report:  the guys being themselves, and sometimes, saying stuff they wouldn't say in an interview.  There's a reason we always have a Twitterverse segment during our Packer News on Cheesehead Radio:  many times it isn't even just a tweet from a Packer player or a fan, its a result of a conversation between a Packer player and a fan.

Last year at this time, I wouldn't have even imagined Cheesehead Radio being able to land a player on the show.  We simply didn't have access to them, as Nagler opined often last summer.  Now, we do, and as a result we've been lucky to have some great Packer players on the show in the last month:  Tom Crabtree, Daryn Colledge, and Smith.

As bloggers, we've gotten one of the greatest gifts we could have ever ask for:  insight into the daily lives and thoughts of the players we strive to write about, and often, actual interaction with them.  We are no longer solely dependent on media sources for what's going on.  We can get it from the players themselves, and if that isn't revolutionary, I don't know what is.

But we have to accept that not every Packer is a choir boy.  Smith has always been boisterous and not known for his personal filter before he speaks, but that is who he is.  Whether you believe he is a bubble player or a solid backup in 2011 is irrelevant.  He's a Packer, wearing Green and Gold.

Does that put him on some sort of higher plane than everyone else, meaning a Packer can get away with anything?  Of course not.  Just ask Fuzzy Thurston.  At the same time, I take issue with Smith being vilified for making the same kind of crass comments as hundreds of thousands of other tweeters, simply because he is a Packer. 

Sometimes we get a gift that is far more than we would have ever expected.  We go from 2010 and having no access to 2011 and seeing many Packer bloggers with credentials and all of us with Twitter "inside access" to the lives of the players we are passionate about.  The stupidest thing we can do is to bite the hand that feeds us and drive them off of Twitter because of the hassles they endure from the people that follow them.

As Tweeters, we have the option to follow or not to follow.  Mr Chang said it best: "I have no fantasy that football players are a bunch of boy scouts. That why I don't follow a lot on twitter. My Packer people are the fans"

Was Alex "wrong" to stand up for his beliefs?  No, but there are other ways to deal with it other than going directly on to Twitter and starting a real-time flame war.. Hey...as bloggers, we've been writing critical articles about players for years.  Perhaps that is the smarter venue to voice our concerns about a player, instead of engaging them toe-to-toe in a real-time public throwdown.

As a blogger, I value the access I have to the players through Twitter, even if Randall Cobb won't follow me back (hint, hint).  The reality of the situation is that players are human beings and not all of them will view wearing the Green and Gold in the same vein as wearing a purity ring, even if we think it should.

Did I find any entertainment value in Anthony's contributions to #fourwordsaftersex?  Nope.  I'm a parent, and take a lot of pride in making sure my blog and Cheesehead Radio are suitable for my kids to read and listen to. (Of course, they don't. *sigh*)  But my kids don't have Twitter and I don't let them read my Twitter, either.  So, in the end, I'm not worried about censoring my timeline from any no-no words because my kids aren't reading them, and in the end, that's who I worry most about.  Personally, I didn't find the entire #fourwordsaftersex hashtag entertaining, period, because that's not what makes me laugh.*

But that's no reason for me to become the Packer Police.  I have a choice, and it is to follow or unfollow, just as I have to make that decision with many other people whose tweets I may find irritating, offensive, boring, or just plain stupid.  Sometimes, the person who is irritating/offending/boring/stupefying me is someone whose tweets I highly value, and I live with some of the garbage between the tweets that I enjoy reading.

And I enjoy being a Packer blogger and reading the tweets of the players, and I want to keep it that way.  And when other Packers see their teammates getting hassled, they will once again start censoring themselves and limiting our access to them.

-----

*  What makes me laugh, if raunchy trending topics don't?  Jon Stewart, Wipeout, and old videos of my kids eating their first birthday cake.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Off-Again, On-Again Love Affair With The Wide Receiver Position

I used to be the guy that loved the wide receiver.  You see, when I began as a fanatical follower of the Packers back in the 1980's, there were two guys that I was enamored with.  Their names?  James Lofton and John Jefferson.

They opened my eyes to what explosive offensive football could actually be.  Hey, before the acquisition of Jefferson, the running joke was Bart Starr's gameplan consisted of four plays: 1. Run 2. Run 3. Pass  4. Punt

But when Lynn Dickey was able to open up with Lofton, Jefferson, and tight end Paul Coffman, it was electrifying.  Images of that era are forever burned into my memory:  seeing Coffman hurdle a defender for the first time.  It was something I never imagined happening on a football field, and it blew my mind as to the boundaries of human limitations.

I remember Lofton running in open space, sometimes just baiting people in and maneuvering around them.  With the game clock ticking away, Lofton caught a pass and made a dash for the sideline with a defender closing in.  Just as he reached the sideline, he stopped short, allowing the now-relaxed defender to waltz by him, then turned on the jets up the sideline for a long gainer.

And I remember Jefferson, who was unfortunately never used as much as he should have been, often acting as the decoy drawing double coverage to open up the field for Dickey favorites Lofton and Coffman.  Every now and then, however, he would do something amazing that made you remember his glory days with the Chargers.  I remember Dickey throwing up a jump ball to Jefferson, who was standing in between three defenders.  All four went up for the ball, with JJ snatching it away mid-air, then landing with his wheels turning, squirting out as all three were still returning to the ground and into the end zone.

The television commentator: "Well, three-on-one: that's an even matchup for John Jefferson!"

There something about the position of wide receiver, working out there in open space--relying on speed and grace and agility instead of pure power.  Those players inspired me to play wide receiver in high school.

Caveat #1: My high school team didn't actually have a WR position, but a wing-back position in a wishbone offense, so the position was never really thrown to very often.

Caveat #2: the term "play" when I say "play wide receiver" might be better defined as "pretended" moreso than "actually saw time on the field".  Just sayin'.

No, given my lack of size, speed, strength, agility, coordination, and athletic ability, I'd never follow in the footsteps of my heroes, but I would continue to idolize them.  And I don't think there was a player I idolized more than when the Packers drafted Sterling Sharpe.

Again, he was graceful and speedy, but brought a new level of strength and cockiness to the position.  He dared people to stop him, not afraid to run through them as much as around them.  And, it didn't hurt that he wore the same number that I had when I played in high school (again, see Caveat #2 above).

He made Don Majkowski look a heck of a lot better than he was.  And he was Brett Favre's crutch in his tumultuous formative years, when having Sharpe there to catch 100+ balls a year might have been the difference between Holmgren sticking with Favre and not going with Mark Brunell.

He demanded the ball.  This was also something new that I hadn't seen before in my wide receiver heroes, but heck...he was darn good, and good things happened when he had the ball.  He had an infectious smile and made it look like he was having a blast on the field.  I still remember the play against the Lion in the playoffs one year where he caught the ball so far ahead of every defender, he walked up to the goal line and tried to just reach over the plane of the goal line.  A Lion defender snuck up behind him, and an uncomfortable instant replay was averted when Sharpe picked the ball up himself in the endzone, smiling like the cat who had caught the canary.

But my adoration of Sharpe--and my love affair with the wide receiver position in general--came to a screeching halt in 1994.  Sterling Sharpe's neck injury ended his playing career, and no one was giving the Packers a chance to even reach 8-8 without their Most Talented Player.  I fiercely defended Sharpe from his detractors and also believed the Packers were going to suffer a huge setback without him.

But 1995 was the year everything changed.  The Packers weren't a worse team without Sharpe, they were a better team without him.  Favre, no longer pressured to feed the ball into a WR who kept demanding the ball, saw his quarterback rating jump nearly ten points.  The ball was spread out evenly between new team leader Robert Brooks, Mark Ingram, and the running backs and tight ends...basically, whomever was open.

If you can remember back to that time when the Packers (unexpectedly) made the playoffs, you might remember a feature by NFL Countdown where Favre, Brooks, Bennett and all the gang openly talked about how Sharpe had held the team back with his "me-first" attitude.  They gushed about the team-first attitude that had propelled them into being perhaps the only team with a chance to prevent the Cowboys from making it a three-peat that year.  There wasn't even an inkling that the players remotely missed Sharpe.

Chris Berman cut to Sharpe, who had been a part of the studio team in his first year away from football, and you could see the tension and anger in his face and body language.  He yelled his response (surprise!), saying he wasn't a me-first player and he had always been committed to the team above all.  The words seemed to echo in the empty studio where was was being filmed.

At the end, Berman attempted to mend the fences by telling Sharpe, "Sterling, all the guys I talked to miss you, wish you the best, and they wish you were there to be a part of this."  It was in stark contrast to everything we just heard the players actually say in their interviews.

I wanted to rise up to defend my old hero, Sharpe, whose jersey I proudly wore and cheered every time he caught a pass.  But reality set it, as the Packers went deep into the NFC playoffs that year, farther than they had ever gone with Sharpe.  And, of course, the next year the Packers won it all with guys like Antonio Freeman and Andre Rison playing at the wide-out position.

Meanwhile, this coincided with the time when the me-first wide receiver began taking over the league.  Guys like Michael Irvin, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Keyshawn Johnson made no bones about being "the guy" and demanding the ball.   The showboating, the grandstanding, the obnoxious behavior all started turning me off to the "Highlight Wide Receiver" that ESPN now seemed to love and give 24/7 attention to.

But ever since the departure of Sharpe, the Packers have employed the team-oriented wideout.  Who can forget the day after Favre's father passed away, when Donald Driver, Javon Walker, and even Robert Ferguson (of all players) swore that whatever Favre threw that Monday Night against the Raiders, they would catch for him?  And they did it.

Wideouts with attitude problems (Koren Robinson, Terry Glenn, Bill Schroeder, even Walker) were quietly excised from the team.  The Super Bowl-winning stable of receivers--Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones--were a case study of ego-less, team-oriented talent.  When Jennings, the clear primary threat, was essentially a non-factor early in the 2010 season, many rushed to his interview podium to ask how upset he was at not getting the ball enough.

Naturally, even if Jennings was upset, he never let on.  And as the season progressed, and the injury-riddled Packers found their footing offensively, Jennings again assumed his role as the #1 receiver.  Had that been Sterling Sharpe (or Owens, or Keyshawn), that lull in production could have exploded on the field and in the locker room.

So, no longer have I been that "WR guy" that I was as a kid.  Perhaps, like my musical tastes, my appreciation for the game of football has matured.  Just as I have put my Debbie Gibson cassettes into the storage unit and downloaded The Best of the Eagles on iTunes, I no longer have solely WR jerseys in my Packer closet.  I value the impact of a running game, dissect the ins and outs of Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, and have measured the impact of special teams on a win or loss.

Hey, 20-Year Old Me would have taken umbrage with 2010 Me for all of those articles I wrote petitioning Mike McCarthy to quit throwing the ball so much and commit to the running game.  But, 2010 Me has realized that it takes more than that explosive Dickey-to-Lofton passing game to win a championship.  Perhaps, in the dark decades of the 70's and 80's, when my formative years as a Packers fan were established, finished 8-8 and having an exciting passing game was the best we could hope for.

But with two Lombardi trophies under our belt since those days, you realize the impact of what a complete team effort requires.  Oh, don't think I've totally lost my WR fettish.  When I wore my Packer jersey each week from the Patriots game through the Super Bowl (without washing it), it was none other than my #85 Jennings jersey.  But I would have been just as happy wearing my Rodgers, Hawk, Matthews, or Bulaga jersey.

The reason I write this, however, is that WR passion from my youth was stirred just a bit this past draft when the Packers took Randall Cobb in the second round.  Ted Thompson has made it a habit of drafting some talented, team-oriented wideouts in almost all of his drafts, but Cobb brings just a bit of swagger to the position.

Normally, that bit of bravado would throw some yellow flags up for me, because heaven knows I've learned my lesson.  But Cobb has already established through the media and his Twitter account that, despite bringing some of that electrifying agility to our return game and offense, he has sought out the team veterans to create relationships with them...nothing required during offseasons when there isn't a lockout.

A players who hit it big in college, both as a returner and a receiver, but also as a Wildcat quarterback, could easily step into the big leagues believing the spotlight should be on him, and we've seen it over and over again through the years.  But it's been noted that at Kentucky, where his pure athleticism would have been enough to warrant his playing time, he established himself as a team leader, needing no prodding to put in the extra time watching tape or conditioning.  He bonded with his coaches, viewing them as family, not as "the Man busting my hump".

And coming into perhaps one of the healthiest team environments in the NFL will seal the deal that this kid will be a playmaker, an electrifying player who has awakened the hope in me of looking forward to a wideout that will awaken my childhood passions for seeing the wide receiver dominate the field again. 

No, I don't expect Cobb to supplant Jennings as the #1 receiver, but I do hope that he can enter the game and make cornerbacks desperately call for safety help over the top.  I'm hoping he's a guy who can stretch the field and force defenses back, creating for room for guys like Ryan Grant and James Starks to find a hole.

But, yes...there's an immature part of me that longs to see Cobb catch a ten-yard slant and dip and bob, shift and weave through defenders for a long touchdown, just like I used to cheer for in awe with James Lofton and Sterling Sharpe.  There's a part of me that, despite every effort I've made to wean myself away from glorifying the wide receiver position, wants to see this corps have the kind of season that will help Aaron Rodgers challenge Tom Brady's 2007 campaign and 50 passing touchdowns.

When we saw the Packer offense sputter several times at the end of the season and into the playoffs this past year, relying on the defense to pull out the game for them, the addition of Cobb could be the difference between nail-biting finishes and putting inferior teams away early.

Is that wishful thinking on my part?  It could be.  Cobb hasn't even put a jersey on yet and run in shorts, much less taken an NFL hit. 

But that's 20-Year-Old Me talking.  Now, where is that storage unit with my Debbie Gibson tapes again?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tempering Our Highest of Expectations for 2011

I've been commissioner of my football fantasy league for 14 years.  We were one of the first leagues to use Commissioner.com long before it was bought out by CBSSportsline (a fact I remind them of every year I negotiate my league fee).  After all that time, I've come to a conclusion.

You see, I've won my league three times in that time period, and in each of those championship seasons not once did I actually win my division crown.  Yep, in all three championships, I was a wild card who just happened to be the team to win both games in the playoff weeks.  Teams that had dominated, gone the whole season with perhaps just one loss, often fell apart in the final weeks as their players were rested for the playoffs, or suffered injuries late in the season.

Thus, my conclusion:  winning a championship is all about who's hottest, lastest.

At least in fantasy football:  the real game is obviously a far more complicated animal not driven purely by statistical number-jumping.  But, looking closely at the Packers' over time, being the hottest team lastest may have equaled a Super Bowl trophy, and give us pause before anointing  any "dynasty" labels.

You see, I've long noticed that the Packers under Mike McCarthy have been an up-and-down team, with streaks of wins and streaks of losses.  I surmised in the past that McCarthy's Packers seem to need to have their backs against a wall in order to truly get it together, and if you really think about the end of last season, with every game over those last six essentially an elimination game (on the road, nonetheless), it only adds to my theory.

Prior to the 2010 season, the Green Bay Packers had put up streaks as follows over McCarthy's tenure as coach:

4-8
16-2
5-4
2-7
4-4
7-1

Breaking down last season as a microcosm, the streaks (fully aided and abetted by injuries) continued the pattern.

2-0
1-3
4-0
1-3
6-0

What's my point?  Well, you can take it however you like, but if you are a streaky team, there's something to be said for going on one of your hottest streaks in January.  In fact, that's probably the best time to do it.  And, the Packers did that last year.

Not that there's anything derogatory about it in the least...and if the streak equaled a Super Bowl trophy for the Green Bay Packers, it's the greatest streak in the world.  In fact, just like most of the season, many of those games were never put away until late in the fourth quarter, requiring a herculean interception on a game-tying or game-winning drive to restart our arrested hearts again. 

The New And Improved Cardiac Pack, indeed.

The interesting question for 2011 is going to be if the Packers are going to swagger onto the field like defending champions, or if this will continue to be the same streaky club we've seen over the last five years.  You can make a case for it either way.

On the former's argument, the Packers have been perpetually one of the youngest teams in the league since McCarthy took over as coach, which may factor in to the Packers previous streakiness.  With a Super Bowl victory, a lot of these young players have grown up fast, seeing what the fruits of their labor can bring.  The Packers return a matured core group of players who led the team to the Super Bowl last year, including most of the team leaders.  More importantly, they return their GM, Coach, and defensive coordinator that built and guided this team to that Super Bowl.

Not to be overlooked, of course, is that the Packers won the Super Bowl with a M*A*S*H unit on the field.  In addition to returning those starters who were on the field in North Texas, the team will be bringing many key veterans off the IR and back into training camp.  How much more lethal could the Packers have been with Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Jermichael Finley, Morgan Burnett, and Brad Jones on the field?  We will soon find out, giving the Packers plenty of options in shaping their starting lineup, as well as allowing Mad Scientist Dom Capers even more ingredients to experiment with in his kitchen.

However, looking at the "glass-half-empty" side of it all, the Packers will continue to be a young team, and frankly, a team that had a hard time putting together complete games, even in their final six-game winning streak.  Aaron Rodgers had plenty of rough games later in the season, and the offense disappeared for quarters at a time.  On many occasions, I used the word "ugly" to describe a Packer late-season win.  The Packers won, but this isn't necessarily a team that consistently fires on all cylinders.

And, while I look forward to seeing many of our injured veteran players back, there are many who wonder if the Packers weren't actually better off with Ryan Grant and Nick Barnett out of the lineup.  Losing Grant meant that the Packers had every excuse to keep the ball in Aaron Rodgers' hands, and many of us at least quietly admit that Desmond Bishop appears to be a better fit in Capers' 3-4 scheme than Barnett.  Bringing back Grant in a "backfield by committee" means forcing carries to keep everyone happy, and there aren't enough middle linebacker positions for the starting caliber MLB's we have. 

Heck, even veteran backup Charlie Peprah has earned his spot next to Nick Collins.  Now we're going to bring back Burnett?  And, there are some journalists who have tossed it out there than Finley's subtraction may have actually added to the offense, that he was too much of a focal point for Rodgers before his injury.

Now, before you pile on and accuse me of heresy with assorted colorful adjectives, my goal is not to rain on our Packers' victory parade, nor to be overly negative as we approach a highly-anticipated 2011 season, already with the high expectations of being a "dynasty" season.  Not my point, not my intent.

However, I would gently remind each of us that there is no greater feeling that the slow build from zero expectations to the mighty heights of supreme victory, something we've felt twice in the last twenty years under two different GMs.  But, there is no greater disappointment than watching our highest expectations fall apart, either.  The eventual decline of a team can be torn apart even faster by the emotion and anger than comes from disappointed fans.  You've invested your emotion on nothing less than a Super Bowl, and to not get a return on that investment is hard to take.

As the Packers (hopefully) square off in the season opener against the one team we were most happy not to face in the playoffs last year, we're going to hope for a convincing 1-0 start to 2011, and many will quickly extrapolate that to mean we're Super Bowl-bound again.  I'm reminding all of us that every team is 0-0, and it will take a long seventeen weeks before we know who is even in the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl.

The Packers are in as good of a position to make it back to the Super Bowl as any team in the league.  They said the same thing about the Saints last year at this time, too.  The important thing is to cherish our Super Bowl win and our tenure as defending champions but, as McCarthy preached so much to his players last year, to take each game as they come instead of looking ahead.

Every season starts our with hopes, dreams, an aspirations of greatness, and this year is no different.  I fear, however, for the number of people who will scream, wailing and gnashing teeth, if the Packers don't suddenly start out 4-0 and sit atop the NFL rankings each week.  I've learned many times over the last few years that what happens early in the season is far from a predictor of how the season will turn out.

In the case of Mike McCarthy's Packers, you can likely count on a dizzying roller coaster ride that will hopefully end up at the highest point, just like last year.  Sit back, enjoy the journey.

Friday, June 3, 2011

My Humble Opinion: Ted Thompson > Ron Wolf

We were doing the post-Super Bowl gushfest episode of Cheesehead Radio when we had a caller, the inevitable victory cry not only for the Packers, but a taunt for those who had doubted the master plan of the General Manager.

"So," said the caller, "what do all those Thompson Hater have to say now?  Super Bowl Champs, baby!"

In turn, Jersey Al, Holly, John, and Jayme all went around the table (truthfully) stating that they had never been overly critical of Ted Thompson, much less a Hater.  A silence settled on the broadcast as they waited for my response.  If we were all live in the same room, I have a feeling that five sets of eyes (including those of the caller) would have been squarely on me.

And, I gave my mea culpa...with qualifiers.  I said that I had never been a "Thompson Hater", but had been a pretty consistent Thompson Critic over the years.  Now, someone could do a little history, whether it be here on the blogs or on the Packerchatter forums and might have found the "not a Hater" claim a bit dubious (and, thanks to a couple server crashes, some of my most venomous Thompson criticisms from 2005 no longer exist in cyberspace).

But I have been a critic of Thompson for quite some time.  Some of it stemmed back to my disapproval of how he handled certain situations, such as leaving lame-duck head coach Mike Sherman in the lurch until late August before signing him to an extension.  I thought it further eroded his credibility after having just been stripped of his GM duties to begin with, and was further inflamed when he was fired just five months later.

I stated that summer, that following January, and still state now:  he should have let him go right away. Clean break, let Sherman get a fresh start somewhere else.  Instead, he became the fall guy for a miserable 2005 campaign which we now recognize as a cap-clearing year.

And I criticized him for stating he was "in it to win today" in 2005, when a certain quarterback was essentially running for his life behind "starters" named Klemme and Whitaker, while handing the ball off a guy named "Gado" and throwing to a guy named "Taco".

I also criticized him for Favregate, and while I completely supported his decision to "move on" in March of 2008, I thought he unnecessarily created a schism among the Packer fan base by allowing the story to drag out throughout the summer instead of finding a quick and quiet end to it all.  Not to say The Quarterback Formerly Known As #4 was clear of any blame, completely the opposite.  But Thompson had the ability to pull the pin, grant a release right away, and let the chips fall where they may.

While many disagreed with me then, and still do today, it's pretty clear that giving Favre his release when he first requested it likely would not have added any Lombardi Trophies to the Vikings' display case, nor removed the one the Packers just won this past season. And the momentum from 2007 might have carried over to 2008 instead of imploding.

And, of course, I criticized Thompson's approach to building a team.  I questioned the draft-only mentality, the eschewing of free agents, and the proclivity to sign people off the street...rather than invest a draft pick in trade for known value.  And I thought I was right.

And I was wrong.

Oh, I still won't cry defeat on how Ted handled some in-house personnel moves, and I think even he would be gracious enough to admit that he probably wishes he could go back in time and do some things differently.  But when it comes to building a team, I have to admit that Thompson broke the mold...specifically, the mold that I had set as the ultimate measuring stick that should obviously equal a Super Bowl victory:  the measuring stick of Ron Wolf.

And I'm here to tell you that I believe, despite all of my previous ambivalence towards the job he's done, that Thompson not only lived up to the long shadow cast by Wolf, he may have exceeded it.  What irony, when so many of us thought the longest shadow was going to the one left by Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers.  In the end, I was far more accepting of Rodgers not being Brett than I was forgiving of Thompson not being Wolf.

And in the end, Thompson may actually have accomplished more in getting his Super Bowl ring.  Oh, time will tell the final tale in a decade or so, but in my opinion, Thompson changed the rules and succeeded in a far more difficult set of circumstances.

Looking back on the great Ron Wolf, there is a reason his name is emblazoned on the stadium wall at Lambeau Field.  He was the mastermind who brought together some of the biggest Packer Legends Of All Time via trade and free agency, and built a solid core through the draft.  A Lombardi Trophy sealed the culmination of his five-year plan.

But...

...what if Wolf actually underachieved, given the hand he had been dealt.  Oh, I know, this is heresy, but I have long been of the opinion that if it weren't for the dastardly Dallas Cowboys choosing that exact moment to have a dynasty in the early 1990's, the Packers might have more than doubled their Lombardi Trophy count.

You see, Wolf was a great GM, but he took over the Packers during the perfect storm. [If I ever write a book about Wolf's dominant GM skills, that would be the title of it: The Packers' Perfect Storm].  Green Bay had, for decades, been the Siberia of the NFL, in a league without free agency, a salary cap, or revenue sharing.  The Packers would draft players in the top ten of the first round who would jump to the CFL rather than play with the unlovable losers of Green Bay.  The Packers were long chided for sitting on a pot of money, refusing to break the bank to bring in top-notch talent.

The shifts in fortune actually started with the 1987 NFL strike, which ended with a favorable ruling for the owners that would have kept the Packers in their cycle of being the NFL's AA farm club.  But, subsequent decertification of the players union and class action lawsuits brought the two parties back to the table in 1989.  The two sides agreed to fundamentally change the structure of the league, allowing free agency after a delay of a few years.  They also agreed to revenue sharing, a salary cap, and perhaps most importantly for the Packers, a salary floor.

Plan B free agency started right away, but soon evolved after litigation by players and became full unrestricted free agency in 1992.  And, as we all know, this was the first year Ron Wolf took the reins for the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers were forced to spend their money now, and with revenue sharing, had the cushion to open the coffers and do it.  Wolf was an expert at finagling his draft picks and attracting free agents, but with a clean salary cap (and few big contracts), they were in prime position to make a run for the biggest name in free agency:  Reggie White.

Within a few short years, Wolf put together a team that never missed the playoffs after his first season.  But, it was the Cowboys who ended the Packers' playoff drives in 1993, 1994, and 1995.  The Packers continued to sign veteran free agents to get them over the "Cowboy Hump".  In 1996, the Cowboys finally declined, and the team that Ron Wolf built to beat the former dynasty easily ran roughshod through the regular season and through the playoffs.

In a way, that time period from 1992 (the beginning of unrestricted free agency) to around 1997 (when salary cap hell began decimating teams) was the perfect time to be a smart general manager for the Packers.  Wolf had the capital, the salary cap room, and was able to sell the storied tradition to potential free agents.  The question is, could the Packers have done even more?

When you look at the 1995 team that lost to the Cowboys in the NFC championship game, you see a team that was on the verge, that (without Dallas in the way) would have likely beaten the Steelers in the Super Bowl.  Conversely, the Packers could of (and in many of our minds, should have) beaten the Broncos in 1997, too.  Both the 1995 Dallas loss and the Denver Super Bowl loss were very winnable games, with a late Favre interception setting up the game-sealing Dallas touchdown.  And, some questionable strategy in  in the Super Bowl allowing Terrell Davis to score late in the game was a hole the Packers couldn't dig themselves out of.

Who knows what might have been if the Packers had selected Barry Sanders instead of Tony Mandarich.  The Packers had at least a three-year window from 1995-1997 and took one Super Bowl trophy out of it.

Now, on to Thompson.  For years, I evaluated Thompson by what he didn't do as Wolf had done.  He didn't sign a huge free agent to build the team around.  He didn't trade away draft picks for stars of the future.  And most of all, he traded down in the draft to bring in quantities of players that were supposed to compete and allow the cream to rise to the top.

All it is going to do, I said, is turn the Packers into a team that would never do particularly poorly, but would never have what it takes to get over the hump and go deep into the playoffs.  And had you asked me about six months ago, I would have repeated it again convincingly.

But Thompson matched Wolf in what would have to be considered the most imperfect storm.  He took over a bloated roster from Mike Sherman that, while not in salary cap "hell", didn't allow much wiggle room.  The league has normalized unrestricted free agency through trial and error, resigning the best of the best to cap-friendly deals, while allowing only flawed players to actually reach the market, making them far greater risks for the money.

But, most of all, the league has far more parity.  While you can win a Super Bowl with far less talent than the dynasty-level teams of the past, it's a lot harder to get there (and often requires a bit of good fortune along the way).

Hey, you put the 1996 Packers up against the 2010 Packers, who do you honestly think would win?  Reggie, Gilbert, Sean, and Santana going up against our offensive line without a consistent running game?  The 90's were the last of the dynasty teams: Dallas, Green Bay, Denver, and New England.

In retrospect, Thompson didn't have nearly the tools Wolf did, yet he won a Super Bowl in his sixth season just the same.  Wolf wrote the script.  Thompson reviewed it, kept just the parts he wanted, and then rewrote it to make it contemporary with the times.

Wolf took advantage of free agency and cap space.  Thompson avoided the risks that modern-day free agency came with and built a team almost purely through the draft.  Just when you thought you had him pegged as a conservative glorified scout, he blew your mind by trading the farm to take Clay Matthews in the first round in 2009.  No, not every pick or move has worked out, and the number of times he left positional groups woefully understaffed has been the cause of some justified consternation over the years.

But, in the end, and despite overwhelming odds, Ted Thompson matched Ron Wolf's Lombardi Trophy total.  No matter how you slice it, you can't emphasize how much more difficult of a job this was in today's times, that in an era designed to prevent dynasties, the Packers now appear to have the makings of one.

The years leading up to Ron Wolf's Super Bowl were a slow build, each year improving on the last until 1996 hit with a fever pitch with expectations so high anything less than a Super Bowl would be a disappointment.

Ted Thompson's prelude to a Trophy was anything but a slow build, with amazing highs and disappointing depths.  While the Packers may have come in to this season with predictions of "Super Bowl or Die", they were quickly muted when a slough of injuries decimated the team.  Super Bowl teams were supposed to dominate their games against mediocre opponents, not win or lose them by single-digits week after week.

But the team that Thompson built was designed for this era:  a flexible, fluid team with interchangeable parts and a coaching staff willing to redraw the schemes week-to-week to accommodate the players filling the roles.  In the end, season-ending injuries were compensated for with a long bench of talented young players once overlooked.

If the 1996 Packers had, early on, lost their starting playmaking tight end (Keith Jackson), their starting MLB (George Koonce), their starting strong safety (LeRoy Butler), their starting running back (Edgar Bennett), their veteran starter right tackle (Earl Dotson), and starting weak-side linebacker (Brian Williams), would they have persevered to the end with backups?  And having to win all their playoff games on the road?

It's hard to say, because these are two different teams, from two different eras.  But in the end, both teams brought impassioned fans a trophy (though it was more of a pleasant surprise this past year).  It's a testament to the foresight and planning that Thompson had to break the mold and traditional road map the many Packer fans had in our heads, and created a team that could survive parity with depth.

The Packers are poised with the return of many injured players (and a strong draft) to come back even better than they were last year.  But, as we've done with Ron Wolf, we can't evaluate a man's legacy until we can look back on it with an unbiased eye a decade or so later.

But I will put it on paper now:  even if Thompson's Packers don't win another Super Bowl, he achieved the same outcome against far greater odds than Wolf had.  I may never admit to "liking" Thompson, but I have a ton of respect for what he's done as the GM of the Green Bay Packers.