Archive for August, 2009

2009 Wisconsin Badgers Football Preview
August 30, 2009

Packers fans, after three dominant preseason performances by Green Bay, have every reason to be excited about the upcoming NFL season.

Badger football fans are perhaps a little less enthusiastic about Bucky’s 2009 season, which begins Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium against Northern Illinois.

Why so cautious? Well, last year’s 7-6 campaign took Wisconsin from the status of elite Big Ten team to average Big Ten team. And it took head coach Bret Bielema from being a wunderkind to being a coach on the hot seat, particularly when he was called for a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the November 1 loss against Michigan State. Many then made the connection between the team’s overall lack of discipline and its leader’s lack of discipline.

Let’s face it: Bielema’s record has been going in the wrong direction since taking over in 2006, from his 12-1 debut to 9-4 in 2007 to last year’s 7-6. Despite his strong relationship with athletic director Barry Alvarez, Bielema knows he has to reverse that trend to keep his job.

But can he?

Heading into a season with an inherent quarterback controversy is never good, and that’s exactly what the Badgers have. Even the coaches can’t decide, as the official depth chart reads “Scott Tolzien or Curt Phillips” as the starter. Given the buzz that Phillips generated in camp, I would expect him to be the eventual starter once the conference schedule begins in late September, particularly if Tolzien reminds anyone of 2008 stillborn starter Allan Evridge. And if both Tolzien and Phillips flame out, Dustin Sherer, who I thought showed vast improvement over the final few weeks of 2008, is waiting in the wings.

But a wise man — was it my father? Al Michaels? Thomas Dewey? — once said, if you don’t have one starting quarterback, you don’t have any. That’s the situation the Badgers are in.

Fortunately, whoever lines up under center will have some talent around him. P.J. Hill is gone, but John Clay is back. And for a traditional run-first team, the Badgers have a solid receiving corps, with returning starters David Gilreath, Garrett Graham, Isaac Anderson, and Nick Toon.

While the so-called “skill” positions boast some familiar faces, the lines do not: Both the offensive and defensive fronts will feature three new starters, while two of Wisconsin’s starting linebackers have a total of three starts. The secondary, with Jay Valai, Shane Carter, and Niles Brinkley, is more experienced, and if Aaron Henry can come back from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of last season, the Badgers defensive backfield should be solid.

Of course, considering how porous and penalty-riddled the Badgers’ defense was last year (forget Rob Zombie; the defensive performances against Minnesota, Cal Poly, and Florida State to close out the 2008 season still keep me up at nights), the personnel turnaround on that side of the ball could be one of this team’s strengths.

Another of the Badgers’ strengths is its schedule: They get the first four games at home, most of their road games are against conference opponents that should be weaker (Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern), and they don’t have to face Penn State (whew) or Illinois at all. By far the toughest game will be Ohio State in Columbus on October 10.

One anomaly in the schedule in the fact that the Badgers will play the Gophers in Minnesota on October 3 — much earlier than they typically meet — which is just two days before Brett Favre’s Vikings play the Packers in Minnesota. (That’s assuming Brett Favre hasn’t retired again before week four of the NFL season.) Forget the Middle East; the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry will be the border battle that first week of October.

Here’s a capsule look at the Badgers’ 2009 football schedule with my gut predictions:

September 5. Northern Illinois. The Huskies led their conference in team defense in 2008. Of course, that was the MAC Conference. Final: Wisconsin 35, Northern Illinois 10.

September 12. Fresno State. This was a big game last year, when both teams were expected to do big things in 2008. No such luck this year. Final: Wisconsin 27, Fresno State 17.

September 19. Wofford. You know when the Badgers football schedule comes out and there’s always that one team on it that you’ve never heard of before and you wonder aloud where they’re even from? Well, I’ll tell you. Wofford College is in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their mascot is the Terriers. They play in the same conference — the Southern — as Appalachian State. Remember when Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007? A great story, but don’t expect a sequel here. Final: Wisconsin 49, Wofford 7.

September 26. Michigan State. The Big Ten opener is an intriguing one. The Spartans are a trendy pick in 2009, but they’ve lost running back Javon Ringer and quarterback Brian Hoyer. This could come down to what type of quarterback play the Badgers are getting. If the Badgers are getting even adequate play at QB, the home team should prevail. Final: Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 17.

October 3. at Minnesota. This will be the first conference game at the Gophers’ new TCF Bank Stadium, and while there will certainly be a lot of cardinal and white in the stands, I think the excitement of the occasion favors the Gophers. Plus, Minnesota has a brutal late September-late October schedule. This looks to be one they can win. Final: Minnesota 27, Wisconsin 24.

October 10. at Ohio State. Bret Bielema has yet to beat the Ohio State Buckeyes. I have yet to watch my DVD of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I think I have a better chance of crossing my item off of my to-do list in 2009. This should be Bucky’s toughest game this season. Final: Ohio State 38, Wisconsin 17.

October 17. Iowa. Like Michigan State, Iowa is a trendy pick in 2009. The two finished neck-and-neck in the standings in 2008. But Iowa finished stronger last season and retains more of its 2008 team than do the Spartans. In other words, I think Iowa will be the better team. Final: Iowa 24, Wisconsin 20.

October 31. Purdue. Coming off its bye week, the Badgers face what could be the Big Ten’s worst team in 2009. The Boilermakers have a new coaching staff, new quarterback, and have been going in the wrong direction for several seasons. This Halloween game doesn’t look too scary. Final: Wisconsin 41, Purdue 20.

November 7. at Indiana. If Purdue won’t be the worst team in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers will be. Final: Wisconsin 35, Indiana 17.

November 14. Michigan. Michigan was terrible last year, yet still beat the Badgers. They’ll be better this year. Final: Michigan 24, Wisconsin 21.

November 21. at Northwestern. The Wildcats were the surprise team in the Big Ten last year, winning nine games for the first time since 1996 and coming close to winning the school’s first bowl game in fifty years. Unfortunately, the team then lost its quarterback, starting running back, and three top receivers. That’s college football for you. Final: Wisconsin 17, Northwestern 10.

December 5. at Hawaii. You thought the Wildcats’ turnover was severe? Hawaii’s head coach recently said of his 2009 squad, “It’s an unknown team.” Well, they should be known by December. They’ll be known as lousy. Final: Wisconsin 35, Hawaii 20.

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Top Five NFL / TV Questions Of 2009
August 23, 2009

I had a thought the other day that I quickly dismissed as more my own personal bias than reality.

But then I heard a national sportscaster give voice to my exact thoughts on ESPN.

So is it true? Can sports fans really be more excited about the NFL preseason than about the final few weeks of baseball’s regular season?

In a word, yep.

Don’t believe me? Look at the ratings. ESPN drew 4.76 million viewers for its August 13 live broadcast of the Pittsburgh Steelers/Arizona Cardinals NFL preseason game. Three days later, ESPN could only attract 1.2 million viewers to its Atlanta Braves/Philadelphia Phillies MLB game.

Both games were on ESPN, both games started at 7 PM CST, and both games had to go up against CBS’s reality juggernaut Big Brother. And the viewership totals weren’t even close.

Now is a NFL preseason game inherently more entertaining than a late-August Major League Baseball game? I don’t think many sports fans would say yes.

But here’s what the NFL has going into its regular season that baseball does not have going into its final month: Drama.

Yes, Joe Mauer is a great story. Yes, the wild cards are somewhat up for grabs. But outside of the AL Central, none of the division races are really close. And look at the teams that are once again making their way to the postseason: The Yankees. The Cardinals. The Dodgers. Wow. I haven’t been so shocked since Kristie Alley gained all of her weight back.

In contrast, the NFL is brimming with fascinating storylines heading into September.

And since September also marks the beginning of the “traditional” TV season, and I am a “traditional” kind of guy, let’s look at the top five NFL questions through some TV-colored glasses:

1. Which experiment has a better chance of working, Brett Favre as a Minnesota Viking or NBC’s The Jay Leno Show?

Here are two things that two years ago I never would have seen coming: Favre in purple and a major television network (well, NBC) giving up five hours of prime time a week for what is essentially a late-night talk show.

The expectations for Favre are overwhelming. Ever since he expressed interest in playing for Minnesota over a year ago, every blogger, columnist, and reporter willing to weigh in on the subject (so pretty much half the world’s population) has commented that a quarterback of Favre’s skill and experience is the sole missing piece on a team with a terrific run game and a terrific run defense.

But Favre at (almost) 40 is not Favre at 29. And after his first preseason start as a Viking in which he looked simply terrible (how terrible? He was totally outplayed by Tavaris Jackson), it’s completely unclear on whether the Vikings will get the mature, smarter Favre of 2007 or the injured, locker-room cancer Favre of 2008.

In contrast, the expectations for Jay Leno are small. Putting his show in primetime five nights a week is a cost-cutting move by NBC. While local affiliates may grumble about a lousy late news lead-in, if Leno is even remotely close to the ratings of other 9 PM shows such as CSI: Miami and The Mentalist, NBC will consider the move a success.

Answer: Leno.

2. Which disgraced public figure will be more immediately welcomed back into America’s hearts? Michael Vick or Michael Richards?

In my view, Michael Vick, no matter how well he’s been coached to say the right things in press conferences or on 60 Minutes, is still a lowlife. But he’s done his court-ordered time and it seems that the majority of Americans, save for animal rights groups, are willing to give him another chance. And in sports, little else matters if you’re winning. The Eagles are a very strong team and Michael Vick – however head coach Andy Reid chooses to use him – can only make them better.

Michael Richards has been largely out of the public eye since a humiliating and disturbing incident at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory in November of 2006 in which he repeatedly used racial slurs to berate members of his audience during a stand-up routine. While inexcusable, I would rate the public use of one word – however abhorrent the word – as less troubling than the abuse, torture, and execution of countless helpless dogs.

When Vick returns, he will be initially greeted with scores of public protests, which may turn ugly. When Richards returns, as part of a season-long story arc on Curb Your Enthusiasm that premieres on HBO on September 20, he will return triumphant along with Jerry, Elaine, and George as part of one of the most beloved casts in television history. Not only will the reunion be a welcome sight, Curb creator Larry David will undoubtedly make it hysterical.

Answer: Richards.

3. Who will make the better comeback: Tom Brady or Jenna Elfman?

Tom Brady had a season for the ages in 2007 as he led the New England Patriots to a 16-0 regular season. He threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns and had a 117.2 passer rating, which was the second-best season rating of all-time. Brady was named the NFL MVP for the season, as well as Offensive Player of the Year.

After missing basically the entire 2008 season after suffering a bad knee injury in week one, the question is whether Brady can once again make the Patriots the best team in the NFL. (Last year’s 11-5 team just barely missed qualifying for the postseason.) With Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and an underappreciated running attack joining Brady, New England should emerge as the AFC team to beat in 2009.

Jenna Elfman, who rose to fame as “Dharma” of ABC’s overrated Dharma & Greg, which ran from 1997-2002, is starring in a new fall sitcom for CBS entitled Accidentally On Purpose. AOP is actually her second comeback attempt following the dismal 2006 CBS sitcom Courting Alex which lasted just 12 episodes.

If the painfully unfunny promos are any indication, the only way that I’m going to catch any of Accidentally On Purpose is by accident. I predict that CBS will cancel the show by Christmas – on purpose.

Answer: Brady.

4. Who will benefit more by a change of address: Jay Cutler or Medium?

The fact that both former Broncos quarterback Cutler and former NBC drama Medium were shipped off during the summer seems best explained by one word: incompetency.

The Broncos, and new head coach Josh McDaniels in particular, were incompetent to let Cutler, a great quarterback with an unfortunate penchant for whining, go to the Chicago Bears. NBC, a network mired in fourth place, was incompetent to let Medium, a solidly-performing drama with a loyal audience, go to CBS.

Both Cutler and Medium will do fine at their new homes. But Cutler doesn’t have the receiving corps in Chicago that he had in Denver, and Bears fans aren’t likely to warm to Cutler should he not prove as mentally tough as the teammates he’s supposed to lead.

Meanwhile, Medium should be a slam-dunk ratings winner for CBS on Friday nights following the similarly-themed Ghost Whisperer and leading into the nerdfest Numb3rs.

Answer: Medium.

5. Which history is more likely to repeat itself: The Detroit Lions’ 0-16 record of 2008 or the Melrose Place phenomenon?

The updated Melrose Place series is the CW network’s second attempt to recreate FOX’s winning nineties lineup, following last season’s successful Beverly Hills, 90210 remake.

While no one is happier to re-visit Melrose Place than me – I still recall wistfully the original’s final shot of Heather Locklear and Jack Wagner cavorting on the beach to the tune of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” almost as wistfully as I recall Joyce DeWitt turning out the lights on Three’s Company‘s finale – the television universe is simply too fragmented nowadays for the remake to be able to recreate the popularity and buzz of the original. However, that will matter little to Thomas Calabro if the show can recreate 90210‘s modest success long enough for him to end his ten years of living on the dole. And I think it can.

But woe are the Detroit Lions. New QB Matthew Stafford and the continuing emergence of Calvin Johnson should make them better, but one look at their schedule reveals only two or three games I would even give them a chance in.

But fear not, Detroit sports fan: The NHL preseason begins September 14.

Answer: 0-16, baby.

Packers Continue To Make Mangini Miserable
August 16, 2009

Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini must be wondering what he’s done to cheese off Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson.

First Thompson and McCarthy ship Brett Favre off to New York, where the aged and injured quarterback’s late-season collapse in 2008 led to Mangini being fired as the Jets head coach.

Then Saturday night McCarthy and Thompson humiliate the Cleveland Browns in Mangini’s first game as the Browns’ head coach.

Granted, it was only a preseason game, but both the Packers and the Browns have a lot to prove this season. The Packers are trying to prove that last season’s 6-10 record – only their third losing season in twenty years – was a fluke. And the Browns are trying to prove that their 10-6 2007 season – their best year since coming back to the NFL in 1999 – was not a fluke.

The Packers made a much more convincing case Saturday night.
The starting offense, led by second-year QB Aaron “Thank you for not signing Michael Vick” Rodgers, was extremely sharp, the team got some major contributions from some perhaps unlikely players, and the revamped 3-4 defense (barely) pitched a shutout – all positive signs for a team that hasn’t played well since a 37-3 beatdown of the Bears on November 16, 2008.

But maybe Packers fans should curb their enthusiasm. Having to fill time, the normally spastic announcer Kevin Harlan admitted in one of his quieter moments that the Cleveland Browns were “not one of the NFL’s elite teams.”

Yes, and newly evicted Big Brother 11 contestant Chima was perhaps “just a tad unbalanced.”

What fans generally hope to see out of preseason games is a sharp first-string squad. They got that on Saturday, particularly out of the offense.

In leading the offense to two scoring drives of 78 and 69 yards, Rodgers looked very solid, made good decisions, went mobile when he had to and was patient when he could afford to be. Most impressively, he connected with five different receivers on five pass completions, notably the 53-yard touchdown strike he threw to Donald Driver to cap the game’s first drive.

Other players who contributed mightily to the offense included Matt Flynn, who was an extremely efficient 5-of-6 on his two drives. Flynn, who to my eyes is miles past Brian Brohm on the Packers’ quarterback depth chart, provided the night’s throwback to the “anything can happen” days of Brett Favre when he was able to scoop up a batted-down pass and run for a seven-yard gain in the second quarter.

Later on, when Brohm was largely unable to get anything done through the air, undrafted rookie free agent running back Tyrell Sutton and second-year RB Kregg Lumpkin kept drives alive.

Sutton in particular was impressive, rushing 16 times for 91 yards. And Lumpkin, who finished with 48 yards on just eight carries, had a eye-opening run in the fourth quarter when he implausibly turned a loss into a 14-yard pickup.

Trouble on the offensive side? Well, for a team that supposedly made limiting penalties in training camp a high priority, they committed way too many – nine for 52 yards. Seven of those were on the offense, and four came in one drive, pushing the team out of field goal range.

Also, while the play of Sutton and Lumpkin was a nice surprise, the fact that Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson, and DeShawn Wynn didn’t distinguish themselves from running backs further down the depth chart may present a problem.

Having five competent backs is nice, but having one single stud and a couple of complementary players would be preferred.

Then of course, you have Brohm, who had for him what was the disadvantage of being the featured quarterback for the night. Playing the entire second half, Brohm completed only three of ten throws, with two interceptions, including his first throw of the game.

Brohm is quickly looking like a bust, and as a second-round pick, an expensive one at that.

With his incompetency on display, Brohm would have fit right in with the Browns quarterbacks, although Brady Quinn, in a battle with Derek Anderson for the starting job, distinguished himself Saturday as the best QB on the Browns roster.

Actually, Quinn led the Browns on two drives that should have amounted to 10 points, which is why I’m not quite prepared yet to declare Dom Capers’s new 3-4 scheme an unqualified success. (Hey, it’s one preseason game. Nothing is proven yet.)

On Quinn’s first drive, he led the Browns methodically down to the Packers’ 13-yard-line, where the drive eventually stalled. A holding penalty on the ensuing field goal led to a re-kick and a miss.

Later, in the second quarter, after Quinn ripped off four complete passes in a row, fantasy dud Braylon Edwards dropped a pure and easy touchdown throw from Quinn in the end zone. On the next play, Quinn was picked off by Packers safety Anthony Smith, one of four Packers interceptions on the night.

With Brett Ratliff playing the entire second half, the Packers’ shutout was then pretty secure. But the defensive unit, though solid, perhaps wasn’t quite as stout as the final stats (191 yards allowed, four interceptions) would indicate.

However, the new 3-4 scheme did result in much more pressure on the quarterbacks, which rattled Anderson and Ratliff, if not Quinn, quite a bit. It remains to be seen if the Packers will be able get the same results on the superior quarterbacks in the league, of which there are many.

While much of the pregame questions swirled around how defensive stars Aaron Kampmann and A.J. Hawk would adjust to the 3-4, the defensive MVP for the evening turned out to be inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, who recorded three tackles, a sack, and an interception.

Bishop’s play, along with the contributions of Lumpkin and Sutton, were examples of what makes preseason games tolerable – the fun is in seeing what players take advantage of their increased playing time by making contributions that may win them roster spots.

On Saturday night, the fun for Packers fans was also in seeing the looks of utter disbelief on Eric Mangini’s face as perhaps the reality of the long and difficult season he has coming became readily apparent to him.

The Packers travel to Cleveland this October to play the Browns in a regular-season game; given the misery that Thompson and McCarthy have already bestowed upon Mangini, I doubt that’s a Sunday he’s looking forward to.

Complaints And Grievances In Green Bay
August 10, 2009

At the Madison Mallards game Saturday night, I was unfortunate enough to spend some quality time with a fan full of nothing but bitterness (well, and maybe some Bud Light Lime).

Oh, he wasn’t bitter at Maynard G’s team. He was steamed at the overworked, underpaid people manning the concessions booth.

His ire was raised when he first tried to order at the “pick up” window and was told he’d have to go back in the other line to order. It was a scene reminiscent of “The Movie” episode of Seinfeld, when George mistakenly stood in the “ticket holders” line instead of the “ticket buyers” line, forcing Elaine and Kramer to take in Rochelle, Rochelle instead of the more desirable Checkmate.

The fan then did his best George Constanza impression, ranting to no one in particular about how he’d been wronged and how the food service was better in Eau Claire, where he was obviously from. I kept waiting for him to bellow “We live in a society, people!”

Later in the pick up line, the perturbed fan went for my order, even though my order of a popcorn, a water, a cheeseburger, and french fries had little in common with his order of two sodas and a popcorn.

When I informed him that the order was in fact mine, he took the opportunity to complain that the staff shouldn’t trust people to pick up the right order, despite the fact that by trying to make off with my order, he himself was the sort of customer that he was bitterly complaining about.

When he acknowledged that he was in the wrong, I said to him, “No problem. Have a good night.” Then I threw in, “I can tell you’re having a rough time,” which was my polite way of saying, “I have to assume that you’re not this big of a jerk all of the time.”

The incident with the crabby fan put me in the mood to complain. So here are my top two complaints about what’s going on with the Green Bay Packers.

1. Seriously, Michael Vick? I have to assume that nothing is going to come of the reports that the Packers have had serious internal discussions about signing the disgraced quarterback. Because it makes almost no sense.

I say “almost” because Vick will likely be able to be had on the cheap. But even if the Packers could sign him for a couple of tickets to the upcoming Rick Springfield cruise, they should stay far away.

Even before Vick’s dogfighting scandal, I wasn’t a fan. Sure, he’s an amazingly mobile quarterback, but he’s barely a 50 percent passer. His career quarterback ranking is 75.7, which is lower than Minnesota’s much-maligned Tavaris Jackson.

I’ve only personally been impressed by Vick twice, once when he ran for 173 yards against the Vikings in 2002 (in the process accounting for practically all of his team’s offense), and also later that season when he led the Falcons over the Packers 27-7 and singlehandedly ended the Packers’ undefeated playoff record at Lambeau Field. And both of those instances were over six years ago.

Add to Vick’s questionable NFL quarterbacking skills the fact that he hasn’t played in the league for over two years and will undoubtedly need time before he can be expected to compete on the NFL level. Add to that the fact that the organization and Aaron Rodgers in particular do not need any 2009 drama swirling around the team’s quarterback position.

Then add to that the immense public relations disaster that will greet any team foolish enough to sign Vick. Most Packer fans laughed when PETA took on the Packers over their name’s roots (the team was named after the Indian Meat Packing Company) and suggested “Pickers” or “Six-Packers” instead. Methinks many fans, even those like me who believe that PETA is way too radical, would agree with the animal rights organization’s inevitable outcry over whichever team takes on Vick.

Now the Packers rumored interest in Vick may well be strictly in his athletic ability; in a league in which so-called trick formations and plays are becoming more and more commonplace, it’s not impossible to accept that his presence in the Packers backfield would stress out opposing defensive coordinators.

But this is a team that was fine on offense last year – fifth in overall points scored and eighth in yards gained per game. The Packers need to focus on improving their defense. They don’t need to waste time focusing on defending a wrong-headed decision to sign Michael Vick.

2. The B.J. Raji situation. Speaking of the defense, one player who was supposed to take a large role in the Packers’ new 3-4 scheme, first-round draft pick B.J. Raji, has so far failed to impress in camp. That’s because he hasn’t shown up.

Not much has been made public about how far apart the Packers are money-wise with Raji’s agent, but we do know, thanks to Raji’s mother, that Raji has been “cooking and all of that, fixing up his townhouse” in his new hometown of Green Bay.

Well, at least he feels confident enough in eventually signing with the Packers that he bought property in Titletown.

But wait, didn’t we also hear that Brett Favre had bought a condo in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina? And we all know that the purchase didn’t foreshadow a signed contract with the Vikings. (Unless you’re one of those who feel the Favre/Vikings saga is not yet over. In which case, in the words of Big Brother’s Ronnie, “I absolutely feel sorry for you.”

I will also feel sorry for those who had high hopes for the Packers’ new 3-4 defense should Raji miss much more training camp; Raji’s role, as a starting defensive end, was hoped to be significant in Dom Capers’s new scheme.

It’s rumored that the negotiations between Raji, the ninth-overall pick, are tied to the negotiations between the 49ers and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who San Francisco picked tenth.

Apparently Crabtree is looking for a contract more in line with a top-five pick. If he gets it, Raji’s agent will undoubtedly ask a deal commensurate with Crabtree’s deal, which could throw a serious wrench into the negotiations between Green Bay and Raji.

All of this is bad news for the Packers, as they not only are trying to make the most of what was for them an unusually high draft pick in 2009, but they also need to compensate for their last first-round draft pick, Justin Harrell, who’s been the biggest bust since Viva Laughlin.

But maybe Raji, who chose Boston College after being recruited by Rutgers and Wisconsin out of high school, just doesn’t like America’s Dairyland. Hey, if he really is that Wisconsin-phobic, I hear there’s a condo in Edina that’s sitting empty if he wants to try his luck across the border.

What A Difference A Year Makes
August 2, 2009

What a difference a year makes.

Last August 2, despite having just been swept in a four-game series by the hated Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers were thirteen games over .500 and had the second-best record in the National League.

Behind the newly-acquired CC Sabathia, the splashiest free-agent acquisition in club history, the Brewers would go on to win 20 of 28 games in the month of August.

This year, despite a weaker NL Central, the Brewers are two games under .500. The team hasn’t won a series in a month, despite playing the worst teams in baseball — Pittsburgh, Washington, and San Diego — in that stretch.

And this year’s big trade? The Brewers reacquired previously spurned teammate Claudio Vargas, the type of blah move typical of small-market, out-of-contention teams and hardly the sort of season-altering move that despairing fans and Ryan Braun had been hoping the team would make.

The reliever showed his thanks to the Brewers by allowing a run in his first inning pitched, increasing his ERA by more than half a point in the process.

Brewers fans, it’s over.

Also last August 2, the Brett Favre saga had officially become the nation’s most talked-about soap opera, as  the newly-reinstated Favre was about to fly to Green Bay, where he would eventually be told by Mike McCarthy that he wasn’t in “the right mind-set” to play for the Packers. He would be traded to the Jets on August 7.

Fast-forward a year later, and a surgically-repaired Favre has turned down an offer to go the Minnesota Vikings — the same team that the Packers prevented him from playing for a year ago.

Despite many in the media insisting that Favre will still change his mind and play this year — possibly joining a team in need mid-season — and despite Favre’s odd decision to continue to practice with a Mississippi high-school team, I believed Favre when he spurned the Vikings by saying that he felt his body just wasn’t up to another NFL season.

Favre (and drama) fans, it’s over.

Favre’s decision to stay retired surprised so many people (including me) simply because it seemed to fly in the face of logic. If he ultimately wasn’t going to play, then why have the surgery to repair the torn biceps tendon? If he ultimately wasn’t going to play, then why say things like “we’regoing to have a good offense” in relation to the Vikings? If he ultimately wasn’t going to play, then why did he make us suffer through that appearance on that godawful Joe Buck HBO show? 

Simply put, Favre wants to play but knows he can’t. His decision to stay retired may have been the only logical, rational, thought-out decision he’s made since his initial retirement in March of 2008.

That’s why I believe it’s over.

I believe it’s over even though the Vikings just signed potential rookie wide receiver sensation Percy Harvin — the type of weapon Favre kept hoping  Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson would bring to Green Bay — to a five-year deal.

I believe it’s over even though, in another bizarre twist to this story, presumed Vikings starting QB Tavaris Jackson sprained his left knee during the first day of practice. When I first heard this, I had to think that the defensive lineman who rolled over on Jackson had been paid to do so simply so Brad Childress would have a good reason to reconnect with Number 4:

Childress: “Brett? You all done with your hunting and fishing?”

Favre: “Who is this?”

Childress: “It’s Brad. Hey (barely able to stifle laughter), T-Jack took a nasty hit today in practice and looks like he’ll be out for a while (or as long as we can keep him bound and gagged). So, what say you get on up here and put on some purple and we go to work?”

Favre:  “If you call me again, I’m going to tell Longwell to shank some kicks. He still owes me for a deal I got him on an ATV.”

With Favre out of the picture, Minnesota, with losers Jackson and Sage Rosenfels now competing for the QB position, is in trouble. (Star Tribunecolumnist Jim Souhan compared Favre’s absence at Vikings training camp to the E Street Band showing up without Bruce Springsteen.)

What spells trouble for Minnesota spells good news for Green Bay.

You remember the Green Bay Packers, right? NFL team that plays up in northern Wisconsin in the smallest market in the country?

After a wildly eventful off-season last year, the Packers have had by far the quietest off-seasonof any team in the NFC North. That isn’t to say the Pack don’t have issues, chief among them the off-season switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 under new (and fantastically toupeed) defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

But a defensive switch isn’t as sexy a story as the Bears acquiring Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, or the Lions grooming first pick overall Matthew Stafford to take over their UFL-grade team, or the Vikings getting burned one last time from Brett Favre.

No doubt Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, after the circus atmosphere of last August, are happy to open training camp under the radar of the national media.

Last year there were endless questions about how Aaron Rodgers was going to perform in his first year as a starting quarterback; turned out all of that hand-wringing over his ability to play was largely a waste of time.

Now the main question surrounding Rodgers is wondering whether he or Cutler is the best quarterback in the division.

Both Rodgers and Cutler have faced difficult situations; last year Rodgers handled his team’s flirtation with the possible return of Brett Favre with remarkable maturity. Crybaby Cutler handled his team’s flirtation with Matt Cassel with remarkable immaturity, resulting in the trade to Chicago, a town not prone to embracing soft football players.

Though both have impressed on the field, give me a player with Rodgers’s thick skin over an ultra-sensitive one like Cutler any day.

With Favre out of the picture, a year of experience behind Rodgers, and a defense that is sure to improve over last year, I like the Packers to contend very strongly with the Bears for the NFC North crown.

The 2009 Packers quietly developing into a contending team? That’s more than I can say for the 2009 Brewers.

What a difference a year makes.