Monday, January 31, 2011

Super Bowl Situational: The Steeler Penalty Hits

This week, I'm going to write each day about some situational adversity the Packers may be facing next Sunday in the Super Bowl. In my first piece, I am going to address the possibility of the Steelers propensity for hard, illegal hits and the effect it may have on the Packers' offense.

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The name of James Harrison may no longer associated as much with being a Pro Bowl linebacker as he has become the poster child for harsh hits in the NFL this year, as well as being the perceived target of Roger Goodell's mission to make an example out of illegal shots.

Indeed, not only does Harrison seem to relish the role of playing the hitman, he's insisted that it unified the in such a way that it may have save their season.

"We didn't worry about the calls," Harrison said following a six-personal foul day against the Raiders in November. "When you're getting a lot of penalties against you, it brings you together."

Not only have the Harrison and the Steelers not held back from the imperative sent down for the league office, they've vowed to hit harder and keep paying fines if they must, as such aggressive play is the identity of the defense.  Unfortunately, if they have held back until the Super Bowl, they have little to stop them from loading for bear against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

It's one thing to be scrapping your way through the AFC playoffs, know each game is a critical step towards the Big Game.  The last thing you want to do in the playoffs is make the dumb play that may not only cost you the game, but even if you win, could involve a suspension for the next game.  Not even Harrison is dumb enough to take a shot at Tom Brady's head or dive at mark Sanchez's knees after all of the fines he's taken this year with such a national audience and every NFL bigwig watching.

He's not going to risk his status to play in the Super Bowl.

But now that the Super Bowl is here, there's little to discourage a defense that may keep a Ken Stills-esque hit list on their terrible towels.  The chances that a referee is going to eject a player from the game is pretty slim, even in the face of a clearly illegal and vicious hit.  That is something often decided by the league afterwards, when fines and other punishments are assessed.

And what do the Steelers have to lose?  Having to sit the first game of 2011, assuming we even have a season next year?  Who cares if you have to sit out the first game of the season, especially if the rewards contributes to a Super Bowl win?  What would any NFL player be willing to do to hold the Lombardi Trophy high above their head:  sit out one game next year?  Two?

Therefore, the Steelers will be locked and loaded, and the bad part of it is that the Packers are vulnerable to such an attack.  First and foremost, the health of quarterback Aaron Rodgers has to be not only a concern for Packer fans, but a target for Steeler defenders who don't seem to mind whether or not their hits have an impact on the victim's health.

Rodgers has been vigilant in saying he didn't suffer a concussion against the Bears, but the naked eye still holds some doubts as to why Rodgers doth protest too much.  A third concussion in a season would have spelled a potential start by Matt Flynn in the Super Bowl, and I wouldn't want to admit to being a bit woozy either.  While such a concussion may not have been an automatic benching for the Super Bowl, it sure would have made for a lot of scrutiny of Rodgers in this already overhyped week.

You can bet, whether it is right or not, or whether they admit it or not, the Steelers would love to make Aaron Rodgers see stars, and I'm not talking about Fergie and Christina Aguillera.  Having Rodgers miss significant time in the Super Bowl would force the Packers to change their entire gameplan, as they did against the Patriots in the regular season.  And, while Matt Flynn put up a good fight, it wasn't enough in the end.

Worst Case Scenario:  The Steelers come aggressively off the edges, picking particularly on rookie tackle Bryan Bulaga playing on the biggest stage of his young career.  The Steelers are a high-risk, high-reward blitzing team, and the more the Packers become one-dimensional, the more aggressive the Steelers will be.

And by one-dimensional, I mean that James Starks and the running game will run into the brick wall that is the Pittsburgh run defense.  Starks' high running style will find it tough to make significant yardage against the D that held the Jets to 70 yards on 22 carries, and McCarthy will default to centering the offense almost completely around Aaron Rodgers in the backfield.

Yes, Rodgers lit up the Steelers defense in 2009, but that was just a regular season game and did not feature Troy Polamalu.  There's nothing to be left on the field and Rodgers will be under fire on every snap.  When Rodgers gets rattled, there's a chance he will resort to his old habits:  scrambling and holding on to the ball too long.  Both habits invite big hits.

It only takes one hit for Rodgers's status to be affected for the rest of the game.  With the largest television audience of the year having all-eyes on a groggy-looking Rodgers, the Packers' coaching staff will be under the microscope to take every precaution.

Best Case Scenario:  There's a lot of Packer fans who still remember safety Chuck Cecil fondly, but me?  Not so much.  Oh sure, we all remember the bone-jarring hits and the blood dripping from the nose, but not as many people remember poor Jerry Holmes, the cornerback who often became the whipping boy for giving up big pass plays.  What was often missed in the translation was as Cecil was taking his running starts for his big hits, he gave up his coverage and left Holmes (who was expecting over-the-top help) on an island.

The Packers will establish a run game....no, not the shotgun with Brandon Jackson trying to run away from people, but the inverted bone formation with Quinn Johnson, Tom Crabtree, and John Kuhn laying wood on the Steelers front seven.  The Packers don't have to gain a ton of yards, and even consistently gaining three yards a play is sufficient if it keeps the linebackers honest.

From that point, you let Rodgers work his magic, utilizing that play-action he's become so good at (and so effective with a potent run threat) and do the quick hitters and screen plays, getting the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. 

The Steelers are a smash-mouth team on both sides of the ball, and such teams live to change not only the gameplay of the other team, but to make the play scared.  The Packers need to deliver some smash-mouth football back at them, then use that dome turf to set Jennings, Driver, and Jones loose in the second level.

James Harrison, like Chuck Cecil, can't deliver a punishing hit if he can't get a running start.  Keeping his head (as well as all the heads of the defense) on a swivel trying to follow the play will negate the threat of the Packers getting beat up on the way to getting beat.

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Tomorrow:  The O.T.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The NFL Has Outgrown the Pro Bowl

T'is the season for a plethora of blog posts explaining how they should fix the NFL Pro Bowl.  Let's make a couple more adjustments to the rules, and somehow, it will all be fine and worth watching more than the commericials.

I'm here to tell you my solution:  it's time to give up on the Pro Bowl.

But the reason for my rather ultimate Solomon-esque decision isn't just based on how bored I was catching snippets of the game.  It's because of the nature of the game itself.  The NFL has simply evolved too much, and the Pro Bowl is like the prehensile tail that simply needs to fall off.

There are two major draws for any All-Star game in any sport.  The first, obvious one is to see the biggest stars of the sport all on one stage.  But having the stars there is useless if you aren't seeing the players able to go against each other, mano-y-mano, as a spectacle just ranking under the championship game itself.  So, we're dragging out the biggest names in the game to go onto a field and do little more than disappoint us, because they can't give us the game that we need to appreciate their talents.

Other sports can do this, because the basis of competition is still based in the rudimentary basics of the game.  Baseball is perhaps the best example we can use for a successful All-Star game, because the mechanics of each position is nearly independent of each other.  A batter doesn't depend on other players to swing the bat for him, and while some communication may be needed in the field, turning a double play is still based on basic individual execution of the fundamentals.

You can take a pitcher mid-season and throw him on a different team, and for the most part, he functions the same as he did on the other team.  Same can be said for position players.  A first baseman on the Blue Jays is going to still follow the same fundamentals as a first baseman on the Padres.

It's a little different in basketball, as you would figure most offenses (and defenses, for that matter) are highly dependent on knowing the scheme.  As a coach of both boys and girls basketball over the years, I've implanted some offenses that are pretty specific, if not complicated, for kids to understand.  And college coaches often take this to dizzying heights, as we can see from watching Memphis run the dribble-drive offense, or Dick Bennett run his swarming defense.

But basketball can always be turned back down to its "least common denominator", and become an individual game with basic fundamentals:  the pick-and-roll, the give-and-go, and the backdoor cut.  And at the level of talent the NBA has (with the streetball mentality it has taken on over the last twenty years or so), players can put on quite a show using just those fundamental skills, as well as individual matchups (just like baseball).

But the NFL has evolved so far, the fundamentals simply aren't enough anymore.  Oh, sure, forty years ago, football was still three yards and a cloud of dust, with defenders lining up one-on-one against their opponents and trying to win those individual matchups.   Whoever smashed more mouths and got more leverage would win.

Not anymore.  The NFL has become advanced tactical and situational gameplanning.  The game has evolved because of the constant chessmatches offenses and defenses play against each other.  When the offenses of the 70's and 80's became vertical passing games, defenses went with big front four formations with power blitzes.  This, of course, led to innovations like the West Coast Offense and zone blocking schemes to counter it.  Since then we've seen zone blitzes, the return of the 3-4, and playbooks so thick that you need a Wonderlic above 30 to understand it completely.

Misdirection, disguising coverages and blitzes, chop blocks and pick plays...everything has simply become more and more like surgical warfare than the simple game it once was.  It is the reason that the NFL has become what it has today: it is no longer simply a violent game of smashmouth football, but a one that appeals to the intellectual fans as well.   There are fans that are content to dissect a Dom Capers defensive formation and marvel at how effective it is in its complexity.

Taking players from each of their teams, throwing them together in a lump, and asking them to just play a simplified game is like taking one or two of the best dancers and actors from every Broadway musical, throwing them on a stage and asking them to perform brilliantly with only a few days of rehearsal.  In a way, that is what the NFL has become...highly specialized players who need months of OTA's, minicamps, and a full preseason to even begin processing the dependence on both the scheme and the players around them to be successful.

In other words, you cannot get NFL-caliber performances anymore out of players in such an exhibition.  You heavily dilute the quality of what the players can do, and not only is it not good enough for us, it's not good enough for them.

What would I want to see, because sure, I'd like to see Aaron Rodgers rubbing shoulders with Payton Manning and Tom Brady, is simply exhibitions of talent.  I know they do it already with long-ball throwing contests and obstacle courses.  Why not have the AFC take on the NFC in some position-specific "Battle of the Conference Stars"?

Sound ridiculous?  Not as ridiculous as the game we just watched, with professional millionaire heroes to fans everywhere walking through blocks and throwing interceptions left and right.  It's time to end the Pro Bowl, not because it is stupid or boring, but because the NFL has outgrown it

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cutler Reaps What He's Sown

There's a lot of folks out there in the media and press conferences rising to the defense of Jay Cutler...and rightfully so.  Cutler was branded a faker and a quitter long before the game was even over, long before he was even aware people were criticizing him.  Bear players and assorted media types spat over Cutler's injuries, more the ones to his pride and ego than the ones to his knee.

"Wait and see before you pass judgement," they cried.  And they were totally right.

The news is out.  Cutler has a Grade II MCL tear-slash-sprain.  According to some experts hearing the diagnosis, they concur with the decision for Cutler to have sat out the game.

So, there you go.  We now know the whole story.  And now, I'm going to pass judgement. 

Jay Cutler is still a douche waffle.  He's a whiner, a crier, and a pretender.

You see, I thought of this yesterday, after all of the criticism came flying in.  What if the medical tests were to have come back negative?  What if he was fine, or the injury was just the kind he could have gotten treatment on and gone back in the game?  What if, after having Urlacher defending his honor to the death, and Cutler upset that his toughness was in question (while breaking down in tears), there really had been nothing medically wrong with him, at least seriously?

I'll tell you what.  If I were that team doctor, with the organization looking over my shoulder, I would give a pretty vague diagnosis that did not throw the organization's star under the bus.  Lie?  No.  Exaggerate, absolutely.

But, come on, you say.  This is America!  There's no way a licensed medical official would ever misdiagnose a patient in order to fulfill their requests, right?  And, of course,  no one in America is addicted to painkillers, either.

Look, I'm not saying that the medical staff is lying.  But, as a sports physician mentions, such a tear has the capability of being in a wide range of severity.

Dr. David Thorson, who works with the U.S. Ski team, added that trying to continue to play would have increased the chances of Cutler tearing his ACL, a knee ligament that requires upwards of six months of rehabilitation.

With the Grade II MCL tear, the usual healing time, which doesn’t require surgery, is three to six weeks. Thorson added that Grade II MCL tears are the trickiest to diagnose. A Grade III is a complete tear, and a Grade I, he said, is just stretching, with a couple of fibers potentially tearing.

Grade II MCL tears are somewhere in the middle.

“The reality is, it’s not black and white,” he said. “How do you know if Grade I doesn’t have a few fibers torn? You can’t tell it, until you do an imaging study.

So, this injury could be pretty close to a complete tear.  It could also be pretty close to a stretch and several fibers tearing.  Who knows?  

The point isn't whether or not this is being exaggerated, however.  I'm not a doctor and have no idea myself.  

The point is that Cutler has brought criticism on himself, in every way possible.  He's asked for it, and when confronted with the fruits of his discontent, he again throws himself into the victim's role.  But you can't simply erase the temper tantrum he threw to get himself out of Denver, once he heard a rumor that he might be in a trade proposal.  He did his best impersonation of Mike McKenzie and got himself out of there.

Since joining the Bears, he's been a bull in a china shop, too.  Friction with coaches, friction with teammates, and prickly exchanges with the media have put him under the microscope.  But he has consistently dismissed the criticism with a wave of his hand and a "I don't worry about it.  I don't care what my public image is."

His body language and constant sulking is obvious to even a football neophyte, such as my wife, who yesterday came to me during the game after watching Cutler for the first time in her life and asked who the big crybaby was for the Bears.  Yet, he has been unrepentant and, in fact, seemingly proud of the way he acts, letting teammates and coaches do the defending for him.

So, when you're on the second-biggest stage the NFL has to offer and you don't come through, it's hard not to expect the criticism.  Suddenly, Cutler is aware of his public image, and isn't all the happy with it.  Funny how that works.

You only need to take a look at the guy on the other sideline for a lesson in how you conduct yourself and how it pays off in the end.  Aaron Rodgers has been acutely aware of his perception in the public eye since the day he was drafted.  Yes, he has every reason to have a chip on his shoulder after falling in the draft, after spending three years behind Brett Favre, and after being painted as Thompson's best boy in the Favreageddon Fallout. 

And he has handled himself with aplomb, even in the face of unwarranted criticism, as we saw last week with Mike Florio.  He's been gracious and a professional, and when things go south for Aaron, people treat him the same way back.

Yes, Rodgers has had an up-and-down season, moments where the offense has sputtered under his control and left it to the defense to save the day.  Conversely, he's had moments of complete mastery of his craft, showing he can dominate a game.

In five of his last seven games, Jay Cutler had a passer rating above 100.  Aaron Rodgers had the same ratio in his last seven.  And neither quarterback had a day to remember on Sunday.

Cutler finished the day 6-14, for 80 yards and an interception.  A miserable day, and his body language showed his frustration.

Yet, if you look closely at Rodgers' day, he was close to being a goat, too.  Sure, he started out like gangbusters, looking like the same guy who carved up Atlanta.  But after he was hit on a rush by Julius Peppers, you saw something come off his accuracy...leading to the poor throw to Donald Driver that bounced off his foot and was intercepted.

When he was picked off by Brian Urlacher in the red zone, Rodgers' stats took a nosedive.  He went 5-9 for only 34 yards since that interception, leading to five punts in five possessions, possessing the ball for only 10:30 the rest of the remaining 23:50 left in the game.

In the end, the ball kept get turned back to the Bears, who gained more and more confidence against an increasingly exhausted Packer defense.  

You see my point?  Rodgers could have been the heel in the situation, especially had the Packers lost.  But seriously, do you think he would have taken any of the derision Cutler did, even if we would have found out he had his bell rung by Peppers back in the first quarter (which I'm not convinced he didn't)?  

No way.  Heck, Rodgers can fumble away the game in the shadow of his own goal posts, and Packer fans still rise to champion him.  But Rodgers has demonstrated so many times before he makes a mistake or has a bad stretch that he's the consummate team guy and willing to be his own worst critic that we know he's going to bounce back and still be that guy we will root for.

But what has Cutler put in that "respect bank"?  Nothing.  He does what he wants, acts how he wants, says what he wants, and doesn't apologize for anything.

If Rodgers would have left in the third quarter because he had a slight concussion, no one would have questioned his motives.  We know he will play every second he can, and doesn't quit unless he must.  Cutler might be in the same boat, but because of his antics, people don't believe it.  It colors people's entire impression of him.

In the end, Jay Cutler had a bad game and will be crucified for it.  Aaron Rodgers had a bad game and was the first player being celebrated in the locker room...and the first thing he did was give credit to the defense that rose up when he had a bad day.

If you don't constantly act like a whiny little prima donna, people won't treat you like a whiny little prima donna.  Get it?

Aaron Rodgers does.  Jay Cutler doesn't. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Packers Report Card: B for "Bears Down", and "Bound for the Super Bowl"


Overall: B

The Packers are going to the Super Bowl, and beat their longtime division rivals in order to do it. But the game was far from a piece of art. After a fast start, marked by touchdown drives with excellent playcalling through the air and on the ground (the naked bootleg by Rodgers after bringing in BJ Raji as a blocker was brilliant), the Packers' offense seemed to flounder after Rodgers threw a red-zone interception in the third quarter. The pressure fell up on the defense, who had to stay on the field and defend after five consecutive punts. When the Bears benched Jay Cutler and brought in third-stringer Caleb Hanie, the team rallied around him and scored touchdowns on two drives in the fourth quarter. But heroic interceptions by BJ Raji (returned for a touchdown) and Sam Shields (stopping a game-tying drive) spelled the difference in the game.

Rushing Offense: C+

You could easily give the Packers' run game an A in the first half, when James Starks ran for 51 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. But in the second half (and actually, starting at the end of the second quarter), the run game gets an F for Starks' 12-for-23 yard showing.  More importantly, the run game was unable to help generate the clock-eating drives a championship team needs to put a reeling opponent away. Starks demonstrated his ability to chug forward in the first half, turning short gains into long runs, as well as making something out of hits in the backfield. But when the Bears defense turned up the intensity, both Starks and the run game turned into a non-factor.

Rushing Defense: B

The Packers have made their post-season sweep a possibility by neutralizing the opposition's running back and forcing them to pass their way against a very formidable secondary. While the Packers were very effective stopping the Eagles' LeSean McCoy and the Falcons' Michael Turner, they had mixed results with the Bears' all-purpose back Matt Forte. After being mostly limited in the first half, Forte finished with 70 yards on 17 carries, but added another 90 yards on 10 receptions. Using the screen as an extended run game, it opened up the offense for a second-half comeback with Forte leading the charge. Third-string quarterback Hanie seemed to energize the offense around him, and Forte became the focal point.

Passing Offense: C

Much like the running game, Aaron Rodgers picked up where he left off in Atlanta, immediately targeting Greg Jennings on his first drive, eating up chunks of yardage for two touchdowns early. Jennings finished with 8 receptions and 130 yards on the day, but he and Jordy Nelson seemed to be the only receivers he could consistently get the ball to. After Chad Clifton was hurt in the first quarter, Julius Peppers beat TJ Lang and got a hit on Rodgers that seemed to rattle him the rest of the day. Rodgers threw two out-of-character interceptions that could have been far more costly than they were, including the foolish force in the red zone, picked off by Brian Urlacher. This was easily Aaron Rodgers' worst game in quite some time.

Passing Defense: B+

The Packers were on their way, stopping Forte on the ground, then frustrating Jay Cutler, who was 6-of-14 with an interception.  Eventually Cutler was benched for the game. Second-string quarterback Todd Collins fared even worse, leading Bears coach Lovie Smith to make the gutsy decision to go with Hanie the rest of the way. It proved to be a good decision, as Hanie caught the Packers' defense off-guard and exhausted after having to be on the field so much of the second half.   Hanie finished 13-for-20 for 153 and led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but also made two critical mistakes: interceptions by BJ Raji and Sam Shields ended the Disney-esque comeback for the Bears.

Special Teams: A

Once again, the Packers' special teams came to play against the Bears, just as they did in Week 17. If not for Raji and Shields, punter Tim Masthay might be the game's MVP, punting eight times for a 41.8 average and placing five punts inside the 20-yard line. Jarrett Bush downed a punt on the one, and almost downed another, but was unable to get two feet back in bounds before touching the ball.. Deven Hester, the Bears' dangerous returner, was kept at bay with a combination of directional kickoffs and deep, high-hanging punts that gave him little room to maneuver. The Packers' returners were again mediocre, with Starks stumbling on the poor Soldier Field turf (later replaced by Charles Woodson), while Tramon Williams made a dangerous catch on a bounce in front of two Bear players, fumbling the ball on the hit (luckily recovered by the Packers' Brett Swain).

Game Day Over/Unders (Really)

Just a late list for those of you looking for the latest lines to place your bets.  Good luck!

Number of Jay Cutler is sacked: 5.5

Number of times Jay Cutler points at an offensive lineman and emotionally tell the the sack was their fault: 5.5

Number of Deven Hester return touchdowns: 0.5

Total number of Bears' touchdowns: 0.5

Total number of players who will slip and fall on the Soldier Field turf today: 32.5

Number of head coaches who will say at halftime they plan on putting on longer cleat spikes in the locker room: 2

Number of times Jay Cutler is distracted from game play and begins building sand castles in the turf: 1.5

Number of penalties called by Terry McAuley and crew: 64.5

Number of people in attendance at the start of the game: 61.500. 

Number of people in attendance at the start of the fourth quarter; 2,500 (all Packer fans)

Number of asterisks the Bears will attempt to put after the final game score in their publications: 1

Number of rushing touchdowns by the Bears, team: 0

Number of rushing touchdowns by BJ Raji: 0.5

Number of touchdowns thrown by Aaron Rodgers: 4.5

Number of cancer patients ignored by Aaron Rodgers: 0

Number of sacks by Clay Matthews: 3.5

Number of interceptions by Tramon Williams: 1.5

Number of complete emotional breakdowns by Jay Cutler: 14.5

Number of points scored by the Packers: 24

Number of points scored by the Bears: 16

Number of elated Packer fans, worldwide: 5,234,982

Number of Bears fans who will be content with a surprising season and celebrate the great times: 0

GO PACK GO!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Packer Fan/Media Whore Dance

Last week, the flammable relationship that Packer fans have with certain national "journalists" hit a crescendo when, in order, ESPN's Colin Cowherd refused to say a nice thing about the Packers following their trouncing of the Falcons, and PFT's Mike Florio went on a rant about what a turd Aaron Rodgers was because he apparently didn't approve of cancer victims.  Now, Skip Bayless has thrown his hat into the ring, claiming that Ted Thompson ruined two Super Bowl opportunities by running off Favre, and as a result, karma will bite Aaron Rodgers as they lose to the Bears.

In each and every case, Packer fans have lit up the blogosphere, the twitterverse, the radio show lines, and anything else they can find.  The audacity of Cowherd to be a Packer "Hater", despite the evidence that they just knocked out the #1 seed on the road!  The idiocy of Florio to pass judgement on Rodgers without knowing the whole story, then viciously defending it in the face of the facts!  Now, the pure ignorance of Bayless to claim that the Packers are doomed, still somehow under the Curse of Brett, and that Rodgers is to blame for all that goes wrong.

You're right, Packer fans.  Sic' em.  They do deserve criticism for making such remarks.  Unfortunately, that's what they are counting on.

I've never been a huge fan of the mainstream media when it breaks from doing the job they are supposed to be doing:  reporting the news and letting us draw our own conclusions.  The ESPN-ization of sports media is pretty much parallel with what we're seeing almost all the news media, with FOX News taking the right, MSNBC taking the left, and forcing us to choose sides.

The same folks and Fox and MSNBC know where their bread is buttered.  Rally the troops and make your money off of criticism that you know will draw salvos from the other side.  Heck, I may not agree with either wing, but if you paid me enough money, I sure could make it sound like I do.

The point isn't making sense, and certainly no longer reporting news.  The point is garnering reactions.  The worst thing you can do as an "entertainment journalist" is to be ignored.  So, you must stir the pot in order to keep yourself in the public eye and get people to respond to you.  Heck..journalists were the ones who originated the theory that "there's no such thing as bad publicity"...it's just lately that they decided to apply it to themselves.

So, when you are dealing with a former blogger like Florio, who must demonstrate web traffic in order to justify NBC Sports' investment in him as a legitimate entity, every now and then he has to publish something that garners attention.  And, of course, ESPN has pioneered the art of turning their prognosticators into "personalities" that are marketed.

So, the question is:  who do you rip on to get the most emotional response.  Oh, there's always the big stories like LeBron, Tiger, Brett, etc.  But if you were sitting at your desk, and you had to get a fiery reaction from one NFL fan base, which would be the most logical choice, especially if you don't care if what you're saying is true or not.

Well, personally, I'd pick a fan base that is extremely passionate, and Packer fans certainly fall into this category, along with a lot of others.  I mean, face it:  if you rip on the Lions or the Bills, the fans would quietly agree, and that doesn't get you the attention you need.  So, you rip on the passionate fan bases, like the Eagles, Bears, Cowboys, or Packers.

But it isn't just the passion.  Passion is immensely important, but even passionate Falcon fans seemed to curl up and accept the inevitable right away last week.  Viking fans are famous for turning on their team the second they disappoint.  No, you need a team that is not only passionate, but loyal to a fault.

And I say loyal to a fault because, as Packer fans, we are probably the most loyal fanbase of any team in professional sports...even if it means defending those in the wrong.  Heck, you only need look at the reaction of half the fan base in 2008 when the whole Thompson/Favre fiasco went down.  Some may have backed Thompson, and others may have backed Favre...but there was no backing down by anyone.

Like I said, to a fault.  Eagle fans may be passionate, but they turn on their own second they falter.  Other big city teams always have another option to turn to when controversy hits, too.  Hey, if the Giants fall apart and get a little criticism, you can always turn to the Knicks, the Nets, the Yankees, the Mets, the Jets, the Islanders, Broadway, etc...

So, the media whores like Florio, Cowherd, and Bayless are looking for customers to help them out with their own self-promotion.  Who can they consistently count on to rise to object, so much so that they will do their own journalistic research and contact their bosses?  It's Green Bay Packers fans, gang, and seemingly, we oblige them every time.

Is it wrong?  Should we, as Packer fans, keep responding as we do?  It sure would cut down on the amount of unwarranted criticism and mainstream trolling that these media whores do.  It's like your mom told you when it came to handle the neighborhood bully:  just ignore them and they'll go away.  They're only trying to get you to react to them.

In my younger years (you know, like back in 2009), I would heartily say yes, ignore the clowns.  But in my wizened aging process, I'm understanding the dance.  It would be terrible for the Packers and their small-market to become "ignored" in the mainstream media.  Devastating.  Deadly.  Look at other small-market teams like Buffalo and Carolina, teams that don't make the playoffs and simply disappear from the public eye.  No one cares.

But the Packers have prevailed, prevailed over Florio, prevailed over Cowherd.  Yes, the whores are still employed and will come back to slander another day, but they know where to go when they want a fan base to fight back, and that's right here.  Cowherd could try and tear apart the Raiders and all he'd hear is crickets, even if he stretched the truth in what he said.  Florio could pass moral judgement over Josh Freeman and, other than a couple of reactions locally around Tampa, that would be the end of it.

Gee, no fun there.  Let's go after Green Bay.

POW!

In just a few days, Aaron Rodgers (through no fault of his own) went from national heel to national hero.  That is thanks to the efforts of passionate and loyal Packer fans, but don't doubt for a moment that Florio was hoping for a reaction from us.  Maybe it didn't pan out as well as he would have liked, as demonstrated by his sniveling apology last week, but you can't deny that there are lot more people out there, Packer fans and non-Packer fans alike, who not only know more about Aaron Rodgers than they did before, but also know Florio's name.

It's a dance, one that we play because we are passionately loyal, and that makes us a target of media whores that want to illicit a reaction.  You'll probably notice that the same guys make a point to try and rattle the cages of fans of many other teams, professional and amateur.  Some, like CBS's Gregg Doyel, make a point of it to publish the protests of people who write back into him.  It's a game to him.  It's a game to all of them.

And, in a way, its a game to us, too.  But, as we saw last week, and will see many times over again, Packer fans win in the end.

Tomorrow's Game Renews Faded Rivalry

How big is this?  You mean this once-in-seventy-years matchup between the oldest rivals in the NFL in the biggest game they can possibly play against each other?

Well, of course it is huge.  I mean, it's "our most hated rival" and "a trip to the Super Bowl".  Heck, nothing could be bigger.

But it isn't just "big".  It's important.  It's historical.  And, it's relevant.  There's a reason this is huge to Packers and Bears fans.

But it shouldn't be more important to anyone besides Bear and Packer fans.

I have been a "Packer fan" all my life, but we all know there's a difference when you are young, wear a jersey, and go play outside while your dad watches the game on television.  There comes that point when you are completely taken in by the competition and the drama, and you are hooked.

I was raised in a Packer household.  My father, who hailed from Upper Michigan, was a reformed Lions fan who attended the Ice Bowl with 350,000 other people.  My mother was raised in Fontenoy (and a +1 to anyone who can actually place that little burg that doesn't even reduce the 55 MPH speed limit while driving through), a hop-skip-and-jump from Green Bay.

The magic day came for me on September 7th, 1980, while hanging out at my grandparents' house in Upper Michigan after recently moving to Green Bay.  As usual, everyone was watching the game while my sister and I were elsewhere.  But, for some reason that day, I decided to sit and watch the game, starting at halftime.  And naturally, it was against the Bears.  The game was tied 6-6 at the end of regulation, and just the thought of a sudden-death overtime kept me glued to the paisley couch, waiting to see what would happen next.

Over the course of the rest of the season, my obsession with the Packers would erupt.   But, the seed was planted in that overtime period, when two of the Packer names forever enshrined in my brain set up the game-winning field goal attempt:  Lynn Dickey hit James Lofton for a 24-yard gain.  Some four-eyed guy (later known to me as Chester Marcol) came out to kick the field goal, and for the first time in my life, I was on the edge of my seat along with my father and grandfather.

As we all know, even if we're too young to have seen it ourselves, Alan Page blocked that kick and I soon realized that the Bears might win if they ran it back...but Marcol took the ball and ran like a panicked chicken  along the left sideline for a touchdown.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my first Packer game...at least, the first one that completely transfixed me.

But, since those days, the Packers/Bears rivalry hasn't been what it once was.  In fact, at my age, I almost seem to be a "parting of the Red Sea", with people older than 40 clinging to their never-dying passion that the Bears are THE team to beat in the division, while those younger than me miss the impact of the rivalry.

And, it makes a lot of sense.  No, the Bears and Packers haven't retired their rivalry with each other, and certainly, the proximity of Wisconsin and Illinois makes sure it will never fade.  But rivalries are born and bred when two powerhouses go toe to toe with each other with everything on the line, with the pride of proving oneself to the other...

...of ruining the dreams of the other team.

And no two teams did that to each other through the pre-Super Bowl years better than the Lambeau and Lombardi-coached Packers against the Halas-coached Bears.  The two teams hated each other, yet desperately needed each other to prove their worth against.  There's a reason George Halas helped bail out the Packers on more than one occasion:  Halas needed the Packers to show the world he could still beat them, year in and year out.

Admittedly, out of the 30+ games I've been in attendance at since that day in 1980, I don't think I've ever been to a Bears game.  One big reason is the primary source of my tickets, those that belonged to my Fontenoy grandmother, were distributed to her kids and grandkids each season:  but never the Bear tickets.  My grandmother attended that game every year herself.  The rest of us could squabble over the rest of the schedule, but the Bears game?  That was hers.

I can remember Mike Holmgren's first year in 1992, when asked about his reception in the community.  He smiled as he talked about the little old ladies he would meet at the grocery store, that would ask him his plans, than finish with an admonishing "Well, you just make sure to beat those damn Bears."  One of those old ladies could well have been my grandmother.

In a way, it bring a different light to Bears' coach Lovie Smith's public and nowhere-near-secret proclamation that, when hired, his first and foremost mission was the beat the Packers.  No, not win the division or win a Super Bowl...just to beat the Packers.  Whether we think he was a moron or not for doing so, he understood the history of the rivalry.

But, when I look back on the last ten years or so, what team have I scrambled to get tickets for?  The Vikings.  Whether we like it or not, the Vikings have been the rival in recent memory, and why perhaps the younger generation gets a lot more fired up about facing the guys in purple than the guys in that really, really dark blue.

But, as I said, your rivarly is your peers, the ones whose dreams you destroy, and the ones who destroy yours.  Since I began my obsessive Packer fandom on that day in 1980, I have lived through the Super Bowl Shuffle years, the days when the Bears were the dominant team in the division.  From 1983 to 1988, the Bears went 10-2 against the Pack.  In those days, those embarrassing days to be a Packer fan, the Bears took pride in kicking us around, but face it:  we weren't the #1 target on their list.  When you are a Super Bowl contender, year in and year out, beating the worst team in the division is just another mark on your checklist.

The Packers developed a lot of animosity towards the Bears in those days, but the rivalry didn't intensify because the Packers could never return the knockout blow.  We were so wrapped up in our Forrest Gregg-Walter Stanley years of implosion, how could the Bears view us as anything else besides a sure win?

Don't understand where I'm coming from?  Fast forward to the mid-1990's, when the Packers were the team to beat in the division.  From 1992 through 2003, the Bears won just four games against the Packers.  Do you think when the Packers were struggling to get through the playoffs in those early Holmgren days, we were really putting the Bears in the center of the bullseye?

Of course not.  We didn't think of the Bears and Vikings and Lions as the teams we needed to beat.  The teams that we were focused on were the Cowboys and the 49ers.  Those were our peers, the ones who had shown us the door in the past, and the ones we knew we had to defeat in order to advance to the dream. 

The Bears? They were just another sure win on the way to the playoffs.  Not that they liked it that much, and there's a reason why Smith made beating the Bears his #1 goal, just as the Vikings suddenly geared up to beat the Packers as soon as we came down from the Holmgren High we had been on for so long.  They resented being the easy win.

The Vikings instigated a rivalry with the Packers in the early 1990's, and we unfortunately viewed it likewise, simply because we had come back down to earth and viewed our division foes as rivals again.  And the Vikings and Packers have had some pretty epic games since then, thanks to guys like Chris Hovan, Antonio Freeman, and of course, Brett Favre.

When it comes down to it, since 1980 (and probably even before that) the Packers and Bears haven't been in the position to ruin each other's dreams very often.  Read that carefully...one team always seemed to be in the driver's seat, while the other was just looking up at them.  It has been a rarity for the Packers and Bears to be truly fighting it out for a division crown in the same season.

And that is what makes this game so important...maybe even more important than the win itself, this game gives new life to the rivalry.  For many fans, it may be the first time they've ever truly seen the Bears as a bigger game than the Vikings.  And, as the Vikings have proven that "they are who we thought they were all along", shriveling up and finishing in last place in the division, there couldn't be a better time for the NFL's most historic and treasured rivalry to blossom once again.

This game represents the biggest possible game the Bears and Packers can play.  The winner of this game will have a bullseye on their back for years from the loser.  We'll have the "rematch games" next season, the "revenge games" in the playoffs in future seasons.  We'll be interviewing Aaron Rodgers and asking him about this game, even years from now.  This game will be featured in 20 years on ESPN as one of the greatest games in the rivalry, the one that started the rivalry anew.

This game...this rivalry...is real.  It's isn't bred from redneck defensive players like Chris Hovan or Jared Allen trying  to make a name for themselves.  It isn't about a longtime loser like the Vikings trying desperately to pick our roster and use it against us.

The Bears rivalry has been in mothballs far too long.  It is as real as NFL football can get, and just like Lambeau and Halas, we need this rivalry to sharpen our blades, to prove ourselves against.  While Jay Cutler is almost as clownish as Favre in Purple, he still represents the true target that the Packers defense must crush.  He's the new Punky QB that the Packers want to turn into Punky Brewster.

There are no pretenders in this game, not like Hovan or Old Favre or Charles Martin or Kenny Stills.  There are warriors on both sides of the ball, veterans desperate for a ring (Brian Urlacher, Charles Woodson, Donald Driver, and Olin Kruetz), and young players in their prime ready to get it for them (Devin Hester, Tramon Williams, Julius Peppers, and Aaron Rodgers).

That silence you've heard most of the week is respect...respect for this rivalry, perhaps respect that (other than Cutler), there are no punks or pretenders on either side.  Either team can win this game, and send the other home while taking a trip to the Super Bowl themselves.

There will be a winner and loser tomorrow, but both teams win in a bitter, closely-fought game that sets the table for years of division battles, hated rivalries, and border wars.

We may hate the Bears, but we are a better team for having this long-storied rivalry.  It's been asleep for far too long.  It's time to wake up the Bears and unPack the whoopass. 

And tomorrow's game is just the beginning.  Enjoy every second of it.

John Rehor's Fox 11 Appearance!



The irrepressible John Rehor of Green Bay Packer Nation and my fellow co-host on Cheesehead Radio braved the elements to appear with Rachel Manek on Good Day Wisconsin on Fox 11.  Of course, after braving living with Bears fans for his entire life, how tough can a little cold weather be?

Good on you, John!  Making all of us Packer fans proud!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rodgers, Fans Enjoy Rare Moment at Concert

Late last night while perusing Twitter, a tweet came through that none other than QB1 had appeared on stage at a Brad Paisley concert at the Resch.  This was of instant interest to me, while sitting in my living room editing the night's podcast of Cheesehead Radio, because my friend who works in the room next door to me had announced upon leaving for the day that she was headed out for said concert.

I immediately texted her (because she would never go near Twitter) and chided her by saying, "Rodgers onstage right now?  You so suck."  The response I got brought a smile even as my heart sank, "Rest of the team onstage now too," she said.

Okay, wait a minute....since when does a Packer fan have to go to a country music concert in order to see their favorite players.  Of course, it brought back memories of when Don Majkowski made surprise appearance onstage with the band Poison, singing "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" with Brett Michaels.  This was at the height of his popularity (yes, it was a small window), and had everyone in the Brown County Arena swooning.  They were also covering their ears, as Majik wasn't exactly magic at singing on-key.

So, today, I asked my friend flushed with green-with-envy fashion to describe the scene.  Here's my living-vicariously-second-hand account.

Brad was singing when a man came onto the stage, with his head down.  The big screens captured the man, but no one was able to figure out who it was.  My friend wondered why the heck security hadn't tackled him yet.  The man came up directly behind Paisley, who was at the mike, yet the man's head was still lowered.

With the image in full-bodied high-def on the big screen, the man raised his head with the priceless smile that could only belong to Aaron Rodgers.  The crowd reacted in full force, with scream and impromptu chants of "Go Pack Go".  According to my friend, the crowd's reaction was so long, so intense, and seemingly increasing the longer Rodgers stood on stage, Paisley's voice and instruments could no longer be heard over the throng.  So, he stopped and allowed Rodgers his moment, realizing, at least momentarily, that he had been upstaged.

Soon thereafter, Rodgers was joined onstage by what she describes as "half of the rest of the team", all up on stage, exchanging high fives with the audience and absorbing what can only be described as pure love from the crowd.

At the end of the concert, Paisley came out for his encore in a green-and-gold jersey, a green-and-gold guitar to thunderous approval from a crowd that got far more for its money that they might have dreamed, as they all sang "Alcohol" together in chorus.

It's a moment that is rare for Packer fans, even in this area.  The closest the masses get to the Packers is either in a stadium or perhaps at training camp, a time when the players' focus is all business.  But, these moments are just as rare for the players, a time when they can just stand in front of a throng of approving fans without having to be in full gear, in a mindset of the dance we do as athletic performers and the fans cheering them on in competition. 

For a moment, Aaron Rodgers didn't have to worry about his autograph obligations, keeping his game face on, or focusing on the Bears.  He had a moment to soak in the appreciation that Packer fans have built for him, and in a way, he returned the favor with little more than a public appearance.  With the biggest game in his life (thus far) less than 72 hours away, he and the rest of the Packers had just a moment to stop and smell the roses with the fans.

And, speaking of roses, did Rodgers sing like Don Majkowski did? 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In The End, Justice (and Rodgers) Prevails

I shan't bore you with a link to the video we've all seen a million times of Aaron Rodgers allegedly dissing a cancer victim.  Nor will I give Pro Football Talk the service of a link to Mike Florio's eternally-sophomoric rumor site.  What I will do is let you know that, sometimes, justice does actually prevail.

Two days ago, based on the words of one impulsive, attention-mongering blogger, the man so many of us Packer fans have embraced not simply as the heir apparent to you-know-who, but the leader of the team that is riding high towards a Super Bowl was the target of derision nationally.  Fans passionately rose to Rodgers' defense, but in the end, it took the work of bloggers like Aaron Nagler, Packer Ranter, as well as WBAY and Jan Cavanaugh herself.

You can read the blow-by-blow in a lot of places.  What gets me is the wave of admiration that is flowing from the national media after Florio's about-face apology today.

Says Greg Doyel, regurgitating a lot of what we Packer fans already knew (and what we tried to tell Florio):

These were stories with context, like the one from the MACC event with the signed football, or the one from two Christmases ago when the Packers invited 75 kids from the Boys & Girls Club to a local bowling alley for soda, pizza and bowling with players. All of it free, of course. Before the event, the Packers called back and said they could accommodate more kids, so make it 100. At the event the kids were surprised with $100 each to shop for presents, accompanied by various Packers.
One was Aaron Rodgers.
He funded the whole thing himself.
And never told anyone.
That story is from 2009, but it didn't start to circulate for 12 months. Why? Because Rodgers never told the media. He was trying to help some kids, not himself. 

Now, I don't fault Gregg Doyel for wanting to jump into the fray and associate his name with this story, as that's kind of his thing anyway.  But I appreciate that there is a media guy who's willing to come forward with the facts as we Packer fans have known them, the same ones Florio dismissed with a wave of his hand.

Yes, suddenly it is pretty fly to be in Aaron Rodgers' corner.  Mike Vandermause finally chimed in, too.

Green Bay Community Church pastor Troy Murphy has known Rodgers for three years and speaks highly of him.

“If there’s one guy that I have seen when I have been with disability veterans, cancer people, anybody that’s ill, Aaron, he loves those that have been distressed,” said Murphy, who traveled with Rodgers on an offseason trip to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, to spend time with soldiers on their way to Iraq.

Murphy remembers one instance when Packers players behind closed doors met with a child in a wheelchair.

“Aaron was the first guy up there sitting with him,” Murphy said. “He spends time, talks with him, hangs out with him. Aaron does more of that stuff, he’s a phenomenal guy that way.”

None of this is meant to nominate Rodgers for sainthood. But it gives a much more accurate glimpse into his character and stands in stark contrast to Florio’s harsh, judgmental tone based on a 2-second video clip.

One might ask Vandermause why it took him two days to pose these opinions, too.  Perhaps there was a stunned lag on the part of the national media, seeing which way the tide would turn.

But, San Francisco area sports blogger Avinash Kunnath took Florio to the same harsh levels of criticism that he had laid on Rodgers to begin with, despite having no vested interest in the Packers.

No, in Mike Florio's world, CLEARLY it makes more sense that Rodgers is just an evil super villain that stomps on the dreams of his suffering and devoted fans. That is the story that needs to be reported, because people need to be torn down the moment they've been vaulted up. Maybe Florio should look in his backyard at the Packer quarterback he just picked up for an example of that narcissistic arrogance.

Now, I have seen numerous Packer bloggers say much the same thing, but this is a blogger who cares as much about the Packers as he does the Lions...and in fact, may harbor enough ill will towards Alex Smith to invite a little criticism of Rodgers.  But he doesn't.


Going to the opposite coast, Buffalo blogger Matt Cooper throws in his two cents, stopping short of the mass boycott called for by most Packer bloggers, but issuing his disapproval nonetheless.

He goes on to say: “The fact that Rodgers would crap on a rare moment of happiness for someone whose entire life in consumed by fighting the disease and contending with the physical, mental, and emotional effects of it should make the stomach churn of anyone who has cancer, or who has seen a loved one stricken by it.”  Apparently, Florio believes that Rodgers was “treating a cancer patient like a panhandler with leprosy” [which I think is sensationalism and much more insulting than not signing a hat, making a joke out of the situation and seemingly almost trying to make the poor woman feel worse].

Now, I'll be honest.  Since Florio has already offered his mea culpa (as opposed to his he-a culpa he tried to issue a day earlier), I will expect more of the national and local media will continue to chime in support of Aaron Rodgers.  And good on Aaron for it, as it is and has always been well-deserved.

What fascinates me is how a roller-coaster of public opinion has gone through tremendous downs and ups in the course of a few days over a situation that Rodgers didn't even remember or notice.  Think about that:  Rodgers walked through the airport with focused blinders on, didn't sign for anyone, and a few days later he's a villain.  Without barely a moment to even respond to it, a day or two later he's not only exonerated, but being exalted by the locals and nationals alike.

And we wonder why athletes seem like they're on a different plane than the rest of us.  Because, they are.  Dude, could you live like that?

Rodgers addressed the situation today in his usual, politically-correct-yet-honest way that we've grown used to:

"Well, Jen is a great fan and we have an incredible fan base that travels well and would like to thank all the fans that showed up in Atlanta. We had a ton of fans at the airport and a ton of fans that came back. I've met Jen on previous occasions, I've signed for her, and as the video shows on this trip I didn't see her and I didn't sign for her. This kinda has turned into something I didn't really expect but I think the people of Green Bay know how I feel about them and how much I appreciate their support. This turned into something I didn't really expect."

After years of dealing with a polarizing quarterback, I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm thankful for Aaron Rodgers simply because he helps sick kids, or even does it without the expectation of being congratulated for it.  I am thankful for Aaron Rodgers because he has tightroped over the flames of hell and has made it through unsinged every time.  From kids cursing him on the practice field to public potshots from a blogger who gives the rest of us a bad name, Rodgers handles the PR world as graciously as could be expected.

I'm sure he would have loved to returned volleys with Florio, but he's smart enough to realize that there's nothing Florio would have loved more than to been recognized and called out by Rodgers.  No, Rodgers just seems to say the right things...boring things, and sometimes even so-PC-you-wonder-if-Jeff-Blumb-has-a-teleprompter things...but they are the right things.

To that end, I am going to assign an adjective to Aaron Rodgers that I do not throw about carelessly.  It is the asset I value highest in my own personal and professional life, and am proud to assign it to our quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers.  Integrity.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Packers/Bears: Be Careful What you Wish For

There's a lot of Packer fans still drowning in the giddy wake of last night's whipping of the Falcons who are looking forward to playing in the NFC Championship Game against none other than the Chicago Bears.  After all, who else would we want to put our next whipping on other than our nearest and dearest hated rival?

And, can I find reasons why it would be simply a dream come true.  The chances that the Packers and Bears can meeting in the playoffs is scant enough year to year.  Heck, in the longest-running rivalry in the NFL, the Chicago and Green Bay have only met once in the playoffs, a Western Division championship game in 1941, won by the Bears 33-14.  The Bears went on to win the NFL Championship that year over the Giants, and since then, the Bears and Packers have never met post-season.

Heck, with the way the playoffs are set up now, it's almost impossible for the Packers and Bears to meet.  One team would have to win the division, while the other would have to win the wildcard.  It usually sets up an early meetup, much like the Packers and Vikings a few years ago, but to get to the penultimate game...the last opportunity for the two teams to meet before facing an AFC team in the Super Bowl?  The odds are astronomical. 

And, the intensity of the game would be epic, easily topping the enthusiasm the fans felt in 2007 or the Sherman playoff years, and rivaling the fever pitch of the mid-1990's.  It would be a game for the ages, a once in a lifetime event.

Heck, Brian Carriveau mentioned last night on his CheeseheadTV post-game show that he'd be likely trying to find a ticket, as would I.  Packer Universe would unite in a way we haven't seen for fifteen years, all for one game.

So, with all those positives, why should we be wishing for the Bears to win today?

Because we're thinking more about the personal agenda of beating the Bears, not the prize would should be focusing on. 

Come on, gang...let's not lose the ultimate goal here: Super Bowl or Die.  The object isn't to pick and choose who we beat along the way, it's to win each game, one at a time, to get yourself into the Game That Matters.  Heck, the Patriots had a perfect season in 2007, but no one remembers it because they lost the Super Bowl.

And the Bears are a dangerous team.  Yes, of course, so are the Seahawks, who beat the Super Bowl champs last week in a wild-card game, despite finishing the season with a losing record, and have perhaps the most raucous stadium in the NFL.  Hey...anyone we face in the playoffs are going to be dangerous.

But the Bears present their own brand of dangerousness.  Coach Lovie Smith has, since taking over the team in 2004, always put "Beating the Packers" as his #1 Priority every season.  It's a perhaps misguided tenet for a coach to target one team, especially one that has been far removed from the Holmgren/Wolf era, but unfortunately for the Packers, it's been an effective one. 

The Packers have only compiled a 6-8 record against the Smith-coached Bears, losing twice to them in 2007, the last time Green Bay went to the NFC Championship game.  The Packers split the series this year, losing by three early on and staved off a late drive to win the last game of the season 10-3.

Like it or not, the Bears almost always play the Packers tough.  It's a "throw-out-the-records" situation anytime these teams meet, and a playoff scenario is uncharted territory. 

Now, I'm not saying to pray we don't meet the Bears.  Heck, if you think about it, there's an awfully good chance it's going to happen anyway, and there's nothing we can do to control it.  But there is a decent analogy you can make that should make you pause before wishing for the matchup.

In the early 90's, the Packers' nemesis during the Packers' resurgence wasn't the Bears, it was the Dallas Cowboys.  You might sit back and ponder exactly how many more rings the Packers might have notched in that decade if Troy Aikman and Co. didn't keep knocking the Packers out of the playoffs every year...three years in a row.

In fact, the Cowboys went on a 7-0 run against the Packers over the course of Holmgren's pre-Lombardi Trophy years, including playoffs.  Even in the Packers' charmed 1996 season that eventually led to that trophy, the Cowboys whipped the Packers 21-6 down at Texas Stadium in November.

But as the Packers wrapped up home-field advantage and the confidence of the fans was swelling, many began calling for bringing the Cowboys to Lamebau Field, something that had never happened over the course of those seven losses.  It was time to deliver a crushing blow to THEM now, time to cleanse our spirits, right the wrongs, and purge the phantoms on the way to this Super Bowl we feel we've already won.

I can't remember who said it, but I remember driving to work when it came over the radio.  It was a respected former coach or player who said it, and the message was loud and clear.

"Packer fans, you do not want to play the Dallas Cowboys.  I don't care how good you think you are.

The Cowboys are a veteran team, a team with more rings in the last few years than you have playoff wins.  And yes, they're a little down this year (10-6) and could be beatable.  But why invite the team that has had your number 100% of the time to come play you, simply because you believe the only reason they can beat you is because they were playing at home.

(Heck, the Packers' last two playoff wins should be enough to refute that.)

If you end up playing the Cowboys, you will be playing a team that already has a psychological advantage over you.  You will not just be fighting the team on the other sidelines, but against ghosts that have haunted you for years.  Be happy if you don't face them."

In the end, the Carolina Panthers dispatched the Cowboys, the the Packers dispatched the Panthers the following week in the NFC Championship game on their way to the Super Bowl.  Hey, the Packers may well have beaten the Cowboys in the frigid game in January, just as they beat Carolina..  But, in the end, we don't care that much who we beat on the way, we care that the Packers beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

The Packers got their "revenge" the next season, when the Cowboys came to Lambeau and got beat 45-17, but that 6-10 team was merely a Barry Switzer-guided shadow of the team they once were.  Personally, I always felt that Cowboys game affected the Packers negatively.  To me, it was almost like they used their "powerup" to win that grudge game, to get that monkey off their back.  Then, they didn't have it when they faced the Broncos in the Super Bowl.  It was almost like the Packers lost their edge after that Cowboy victory, lost the chip on their shoulder that made it possible for them to persevere under the brightest spotlight.

Face it, if you could do it, wouldn't you trade the Cowboy win for the Super Bowl win?  Make it eight losses in a row to Dallas, but have a second Super Bowl ring?

The analogy between that Cowboys team of 1996 and the Bears of 2010 may not fit together like matching jigsaw puzzle pieces, but the there's enough there to make fans take pause before assuming a Bears matchup is our ideal matchup. 

Yes, the Bears are a bunch of pretenders, Jay Cutler is a crybaby, and we've already shown we can play with them.  And the Packers are on a roll right now, looking like they can take apart anybody on their own field.

But the Packers of 1996 were on a roll, too....and couldn't beat the Cowboys during the regular season.  The Bears have a knack for playing up for the Packers, and yesterday's playoff games are a testament to the power of motivation, confidence, and momentum.

Personally, I think if the Seahawks win, the Packers go to Seattle, take care of business with the same professional, focused attitude that they went into Philadelphia and Atlanta with.  Did you see the look in Aaron Rodgers' eyes as he took the field yesterday?  This guy was nothing but business.  Didn't matter who was on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

But if the Packers take on the Bears, there's an emotional ebb and flow that will be present simply because of who is across the line of scrimmage, both for Chicago and Green Bay.  It will make the game highly entertaining and highly intense, and most likely very competitive.

But, like the other two Bear games this year, it will also likely be very close, and require a last-gasp play to spell the difference between a win and a loss.  Let's go in with the attitude that it's just another team on the way to the Super Bowl, not take on a Lovie Smith-esque infatuation with proving a personal point on the way there.

Packers Report Card: Clipping the Falcons' Wings Earns an A+

Overall: A+

Going into yet another hostile environment on the road against a tough opponent puts a lot of doubt in everyone's mind...everyone, that is, except the Green Bay Packers. Even after a rough start, falling behind 14-7 on a Greg Jennings fumble, an Eric Weems kickoff return for a touchdown, then having James Starks fumble the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, the Packers didn't crumble. Even with a deafening crowd doing their best to keep the Falcons in the game, the Packers went on a succession of clock-eating drives that notched another four touchdowns on their next four possessions. The resilience shown by the Packers completely took the Falcons out of their conservative gameplan, and the more they took chances to catch up, the more mistakes they made. The Packers capitalized with four forced turnovers and owned time of possession (38:19 – 21:41). In a convincing 48-21 win, Tim Masthay never had to come in to the game to punt.

Rushing Offense: B

The hype before the game was that the Packers were now a balanced offense with the advent of James Starks' big game last week against the Eagles. To be expected, the Falcons appeared ready for Starks and limited him early. With a lead, Starks did come alive later on the first drive in the second half, rushing four times for 27 yards as the Packers scored a touchdown on an 80-yard drive. James Kuhn ran for a touchdown (and added another tough score on a screen pass), while Aaron Rodgers had a rushing score. Starks finished with 66 yards on 25 carries: while not dominating, it did show the Packers were willing to keep giving the ball to him.

Rushing Defense: A

Coming into the game, the Packers knew that they had to contain Michael Turner, the big, bruising running back who started out consistently moving the line of scrimmage back into the Packers' linebacking corps. But, as the Packers extended their league, the Falcons were forced to go away from the strength of their offense and try to pass their way to catch up...a strategy that played right into the hands Tramon Williams and Co. Turner finished with 39 yards on 10 carries, but had only one touch in the second half.

Passing Offense: A+

When the running game appeared to sputter early in the game, Aaron Rodgers did what he's done much of the season: he took the game on his shoulders. Luckily for the Packers, his receiving corps decided to join him today. Rodgers put on a clinic, carving up the Falcons' defense in grand fashion, throwing for three touchdowns and 366 yards, while only missing on five passes all game long. Much-maligned James Jones more than made up for his potentially costly drop last week by snatching a jump ball away from a defender in the end zone, and Jordy Nelson showed great concentration by placing a ball on the pylon with a defender reaching in. The early fumble by Jennings was costly, but he and fellow starter Donald Driver made up for it with strong hands and nary a dropped pass.

Passing Defense: A

The intent of shutting down Turner and the running game was to put the ball in Matt Ryan's hands and into the strength of the defense. Tramon Williams didn't disappoint, making yet another end zone interception in the first quarter, then closing the first half with a 70-yard pick-six that may have ended up being the dagger for the Falcons. In the end, Ryan did pass his way to another scoring drive in the second half, but finished with a 67.0 efficiency rating and in the end, couldn't generate more than one drive of over four minutes all game long.  Ryan was pounded for five sacks and six more hits.  Clay Matthews and BJ Raji made their presence felt in the backfield all day.

Special Teams: C-

Well, not everything could be perfect, even in a game like this. Eric Weems returned an early kickoff for 102 yards and a touchdown, while our returners' best returns were usually fair catches. Starks fumbled a kickoff out of bounds, and Mason Crosby clanged a 50-yard field goal off the left upright, although he did make two other field goal attempts. Following their third-quarter touchdown, the Falcons appeared to recover on an onside kick attempt, but it was called back due to an illegal touch by Falcon Michael Finneran...however, had he touched it a half-second later, there was still no Packer near enough to have taken it away from him.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Packers Must Force Falcons To Make Mistakes

First of all, I must announce my renewed optimism for today's game against the top-seeded Falcons:  my sister had a baby girl this morning, and perhaps in honor of today's game, named her "Victoria".  If I have to choose between that being a good omen for a Packer victory versus having Keyshawn Johnson pick the Packers to win, I'll take my new little peanut as a better harbinger of success.

But, in the end, it is going to come down to two teams that are competing for the right to advance to the NFC title game, and in the end, there couldn't be two more different teams facing one another today.

The Falcons are the conservative, stick-to-their-philosophy of a hard-nosed running game and putting their quarterback into the role of a game manager.  Defensively, they trust their front four to get pressure while dropping seven into coverage and waiting for mistakes.  They have a solid special team corps and a top-flight returner that can do some real damage.

The Packers, on the other hand, are unpredictable on offense.  Despite lip service given to the running game, they will only stick to it if (as McCarthy puts it) a "hot hand" steps up to take the rock and do some damage on the ground.  Otherwise, the Packers are a risk-taking offense that is far from patient and wants to get down the field fast or die trying.  Defensively, when they play back in coverage behind a three-man rush, it usually ends up hurting them in the long run, so look for Capers to bring the pressure and hide coverages.

In other words, the Packers are the risk-taking team, while the Falcons sit back and wait for you to make a mistake.

And, despite the Packers playing an almost-perfect game against the Falcons in the regular season, they still lost on the basis of just a few mistakes:  a Rodgers' fumble and a failure to challenge a Tony Gonzalez reception in time.  The Falcons didn't go out and take the game from the Packers...the simply stayed in the game and took advantage of the mistakes they eventually made.

So, the logical conclusion you might make is that the Packers must play a completely perfect game.  It's completely valid, but also completely impossible, at least, if the Packers play how they have all season.  There's not a single game that has gone by in which every squad has shown up and played to their potential, whether it be a special teams snafu or the passing game going completely down south.  Face it:  the game the Packers played against the Falcons, in which they lost by three points, was quite possibly the most complete game they played all season (at least, against a quality opponent).

So, the only other way to to win this game is to force the Falcons to do what they normally don't do:  Atlanta is going to have to be in a position to take risks and make mistakes.  And then, the Packers are going to have to take advantage of them.

And, it is going to have to start with Michael Turner, the bruising running back who can simply take over the ebb and flow of a football game by consistently moving the line of scrimmage forward.  The pressure Turner takes off of Matt Ryan is completely believable when you look at the impact an effective game has had for Aaron Rodgers.  The big difference is that Turner consistently does this for Ryan, while opposing Packer defenses are usually surprised when the Packers do it to them.

No, the Packers are not going to stop Michael Turner, but I have a strong suspicion Howard Green will be active this week to take up space and be an object a lot harder for the Falcon offensive linemen to move.  The Falcons are patient, however.  They don't view a three-and-out as a failure, because they know their defense will hold and keep giving them chances.  The Falcons consistently dominate time of possession because they take time off the clock, even when they don't score.

That is what must change:  the Packers have to keep the Falcons' drives short and sweet, get them off the field, and get them itchy to do something flashy when they come back in.  The more they feel like Ryan has to win the game with his arm, the more characters like Nick Collins, Tramon Williams, Clay Matthews, and Charles Woodson can tip the balance of the game with a turnover or a sack.

Secondly, the Packers can negate the Falcons' faith in Turner by taking advantage of his Achilles' heel as late:  fumbling the ball.  The Falcons didn't have a single turnover against the Packers, but against in the Falcons' last three games, they committed four, including a fumble by Michael Turner in each of the last two games.  We all know the psychological impact of fumbles, as we remember Ahman Green and how he kept having to focus on ball control.  If the Packers cam get him to fumble early and capitalize on it, the impact can be more than just those points on the board:  you can put a little doubt in Turner's mind and in the minds of those controlling the playcalling.  In a do-or-die game, you are far more likely to break from your game-planning mold when something isn't working...there's no next week to come back to.

Finally, the Packers have to strike early.  No, I don't think the Falcons will change their complete approach to the game if the Packers are up 13-0 at the end of the first quarter, but the longer that lead continues by more than a touchdown, the more the Falcons will be forced into doing what they are not used to doing:  taking risks.

In order to get that early lead, the Packers have to reduce their own mistakes:  number one, the receivers have to catch the ball this week.  Drops aren't just mental mistakes, they are costly minuses on any offensive drive, an instance of everything working on a play except the very end.  The Packers have been shying away from their bonafide corps of wide receivers the past few weeks as they have offensively been going towards a short-passing game and, occasionally, a power running game. 

Jason Wilde did a nice job investigating the usage of the Big Five formation, noting that the Packers have run out of it 30 out of 46 times this season.  I don't think that's the best usage of the spread, especially since the Packers have found so much more useful yardage out of their reverse-bone formation, especially when it is now pretty obvious to opposing scouts that the Big Five means a better-than-half chance they will be seeing a draw play.

The more players the Falcons are forced to bring into the box leaves more space available for guys like Driver, Jennings, and Jones to get open downfield, and Rodgers is at his best with time to throw (play-action) and throwing the ball on a dime.  It doesn't have to be a quick-strike offense, as we've seen how teams react to our 54-second drives (remember the Cardinals last year?), but good, momentum-turning drives that frustrate defenses.

Making the Falcons bring more players into the box takes them out of their usual, conservative gameplan.  It puts their secondary into more one-on-one matchups with our receivers, and with Rodgers at quarterback, I'll take that matchup every time.

I predicted a 16-13 score on Cheesehead Radio this week, and I stand by it.  I think the Packers will have some slow going against the Falcons offensively, but their defense will do their job and keep the Falcons at bay.  In the end, the team that ends up on the better end of that score will depend on whether or not Mike McCarthy and the Packers can dictate the game to the Falcons, and force them to make the mistakes they usually do not.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cheese-apalooza Thursday Night!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Cheesehead Radio has bumped up Thursday night's broadcast to start at 6:30 CST as a part of your Thursday Night Overdose of All Things Green Bay Packers as we prepare for an epic showdown versus the #1-seeded Atlanta Falcons on Saturday.

Cheesehead Radio will start things off at 6:30 CST, a bit earlier than usual but no shortage of the usual information and debate you have come to expect.   Join us as C.D., Jayme, Jersey Al, John, and Holly as get you charged up for the prime-time matchup of the playoff weekend. We'll give you your Packer News, Cheese Curds rants, Extra Points of Contention, and Holly's always-perfect Opposition Research Minute.

Joining us for a return visit is Adam Schultz, the fantastic blogger for TheFalcoholic.com and host of The NFC South Report Podcast.  He's a great chat, and if you want the skinny on how the Falcons will matchup and handle the Packers' new running game, he's the guy with the answers.  Give us a call during the show at 917-932-8401!

And when CHR is done, swing on over to Cheesehead TV for the long-awaited playoff special episode of Packer Transplants, as Corey tells us his war stories from his trip to The Linc, and Aaron lines up a slough of surprise guests that you don't want to miss.  The whole gang from CHR will be in the live blog, so let's all make a Packer Night...It's Thursday Night Cheese-apalooza!!!
 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

No Excuses, No Regrets....and No Complaining?

An interesting debate popped up this week amongst Packer fans, as our team celebrated a massive playoff victory.  It seems that there were some folks who were complaining about how the team played, how plays were called, how the clock was managed, and it was causing some miffage for those who wanted to bask in the glory of the moment.

Perhaps it started at halftime, when Bill Johnson and Jason Wilde, the hosts of "The Green and Gold Show" over at ESPN Milwaukee, engaged in a virtual slapfight in over some of Jason's negative commentary.

Wilde: Packers head to the locker room, Eagles hear the boos. 14-3 Packers at the half. Should be 21-3 though. Costly drop by Jones. Ouch.

Johnson:  The Packers play a GREAT have in the playoffs, on the road, and all we can do is bitch about a timeout at the end of the half?

Wilde: Still worthwhile question, man

Johnson: Rarely wins or loses games. It's usually moot. Silly topic.

Wilde: Not saying it's THE BIGGEST DEAL IN THE WORLD. But it's a legit question. My goodness.

Johnson:  Not yelling. Calm down.

Now, this opened up commentary from all throughout the Packer Twitterverse on whether or not Packer fans should be raining on any parade.  When the game finally concluded, complaining continued, accompanied by complaining about complainers, which naturally led into the initial complainers complaining about not being allowed to complain.

And, I totally see both sides.  This was a monumental game for many Packers and their fans.  Heck, Aaron Rodgers just got his first playoff win.  And you're going to bitch about it?  Would you like some nit to go with your pick?

But this was a tremendous victory for many other reasons.  First and foremost, this has been a season of resiliency, a season pockmarked with key injury after injury and reaching farther and farther down the depth chart, the practice squad, and finally, the street free agent market to  ably fill certain spots on the roster.  It's a testament to Ted Thompson's ability to build a deep roster and bring in decent bodies to the team, without having to mortgage the future for Marshawn Lynch.

Listening to Charles Woodson make his post-game speech underscored what I've been trying to say all season:  you can't use the injuries as an excuse, as many tried to suggest after a regular-season loss or two.  The 2005 Green Bay Packers had just as many injuries as this year's squad, but their 4-12 record is testament to a team-wide surrender.  This teams fought to be where it is today, and a playoff win is all that more satisfying.

And it is also a great day for Mike McCarthy, who's sole playoff win in 2007 came under the auspices of Brett Favre and a core group of Mike Sherman holdovers who seemed to be making their last gasp before their window closed.  This is Mike McCarthy's team, and with all the "Fire McCarthy" speculation there's been over the course of the season, a 10-6 record with a road playoff win suddenly looks pretty darned good.

Naturally, from there you can go on to all the great stories:  Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, James Starks, Chad Clifton's resurgance, and the emergence of players like Josh Sitton, BJ Raji, and Charlie Peprah.

And, perhaps more importantly, you can celebrate the absence of negative stories.  We had no crises, no major drama, no Randy Moss sign-and-cuts, no controversy.  As Woodson so plainly stated, this teams has remained focused and left no regrets on the field.

So, when the Green Bay Packers narrowly win a playoff game on the road against a team (that, quite frankly, matched up pretty well against them), anyone complaining is just a pessimist, a nitpicker, and more than likely, not even a real fan.

Nope.

Oh, don't get me wrong...there's folks out there who are actually like that, who wouldn't give Ted Thompson or Mike McCarthy credit if they did win the Lombardi trophy six years in a row.  But, that's not what we're talking about.

We're talking about looking at weaknesses, gaffes, and breakdowns despite the win, something that can't be, nor should be, censored or ridiculed.  The whole of the game is open to celebration and to scrutiny, and it shouldn't be any other way.

Quite simply:  if you can't allow for criticism after the Packers win, wouldn't it serve that you can't point out the positives after a loss?

I'll be honest, after the Packers lost close games to the Falcons and Patriots, I couldn't help but be encouraged by their performances.  Heck, the Falcons game was lost because of one small stretch of events in the second quarter...otherwise, the Packers played a near-perfect game against Atlanta, who essentially played a perfect game.  And the Patriots game?  The best team in the NFL having to defend their endzone against a backup quarterback making his first NFL start?  Fantastic, and perhaps it was Matt Flynn's meltdown at the end of the game that was the only difference in who won or lost.

I don't want to go through life not being allowed to see the silver lining in a loss, simply because someone else dictates to me that a loss means that we should all be miserable and looking for fingers to point at the scapegoat, and nothing more.  But, that means that the opposite should also be true.

I was elated, even ecstatic after the game on Sunday.  I had just shook the windowpanes screaming after the Tramon Williams endzone interception, and as my wife heated up the supper I had missed to watch the game, I was in a daze, unable to form a coherent sentence (she will attest to this).  Trust me...I love to play the part of the rational fan, but on Sunday, I was a giddy kid again watching my favorite team, not worrying about articles or report cards or anything I had to do...I just lived in that moment and savored every second.

But in the end, the targets of criticism:  the accidental touching of a live punt, the first-half clock mismanagement, the critical drops by Jones and the other receivers, the inability of the offense to generate a game-sealing four-minute drive at the end of the game...all of these are legitimate topics of discussion.

And why?  Because the Eagles and the Packers are who we thought they were.  This is a wild-card weekend game, and both teams played like it.  Teams that play in the first weekend are usually teams loaded with talented players, but either have holes in their personnel and/or in their execution.  They are the warm-up act for the favored teams who are resting up, the teams expected to actually make it to the Super Bowl.

The Packers' victory was sensational, but the gaffes and failures have to loom large in the second season.  No, neither the Packers nor the Eagles are the Cowboys or the early '90's or the Patriots of the last decade, complete teams with nary an Achilles' heel.   As the Packers advance further in the playoffs, those gaffes will be more and more costly.

Green Bay and Philadelphia each had their share of dumb penalties, execution errors, dropped passes, and missed opportunities.  Do I believe that Green Bay was the better team that day?  Absolutely and unequivocally.

But that doesn't change the fact that Green Bay's advancement to Atlanta has everything to do with 5'11" Tramon Williams being able to win his individual matchup against 6'3" Riley Cooper.  Heck, if Tramon  stumbles on that play, it's the Eagles advancing on a last-second heroic touchdown by Michael Vick.

Or, if David Akers makes just one of his two missed field goals, the Eagles were already in field goal range for him on that final drive, only behind by two points.

Yes, it's a lot of "ifs", and luckily, ones we no longer have to worry about, as the Packers won this game on one of the most breathtaking finishes in recent history.  But to ignore those mistakes going into a game against the #1 seed in the NFC is foolish.

We can't saddle up James "Neo" Starks and simply assume that the Packers are going to walk all over the Falcons.  The Packers had to play a perfect game against Atlanta the first time, and very nearly did...and still lost.  Foolish special teams turnovers, dropped sure-touchdown passes, and turning the game over to the defense without a fight will not spell a victory in the ATL.

You can be certain that Mike McCarthy isn't glossing over those errors, so why should we?

If you are the kind of fan that doesn't want anyone to bring up any negatives simply because the Packers won, then you might be the same one that doesn't want to listen to reason when they lose.

In the end, it is the attitude of Charles Woodson that colors this team, and as fans we need to hold ourselves to the same standards:  no excuses, and no regrets.