Archive for January, 2010

In Defense Of Brett Favre
January 25, 2010

Packer fan on Monday is happy.

Packer fan feels like Monday is “I told you so” day.

Packer fan told Viking fan that Favre would blow it.

Packer fan told Viking fan not to fall in love with Brett Favre.

Packer fan told Viking fan that Favre would break his heart like he had done to Packer fan so many times, most notably in the 2007 NFC Championship Game.

But Packer fan is missing the big picture.

Without Favre, the Vikings weren’t in the NFC Championship Game.

Without Favre, the Vikings probably weren’t even in the playoffs. (Has Packer fan never seen Tavaris Jackson?)

Without Favre, the Vikings wouldn’t have swept the season series with the Packers.

Without Favre in purple, the Packers would have won the NFC North in 2009.

Without Favre in purple, the Packers would have had an easier road to Super Bowl XLIV.

Am I saying that the Packers would be headed to Miami were it not for Brett Favre signing with the Minnesota Vikings? No. The Packers defense, which self-destructed all year against big-name quarterbacks, couldn’t get past the Cardinals and wouldn’t have gotten past the Saints either. And they certainly couldn’t have, as the Vikings defense did, held Drew Brees to fewer than 200 yards passing.

Heck, the Packers defense in 2009 couldn’t hold Tampa Bay rookie quarterbacks to fewer than 200 yards passing.

Packer fan laughing on Monday is either ignorant of two things or ignoring two things:

Favre, by making division rival Minnesota much, much better, got his revenge on Ted Thompson in 2009.

And Favre is not, although it’s easy to point to one admittedly stupid play, the reason the Vikings lost Sunday.

The Vikings lost Sunday because their offensive line couldn’t protect Brett Favre from getting the beating of his life.

The Vikings lost Sunday because Adrian Peterson is the most turnover-prone player in the league since Daunte Culpepper ruined many a Minnesotan’s Sunday afternoon. On top of the three fumbles that he was fortunate to recover, Peterson should get credit for that botched handoff exchange inside the New Orleans five-yard line that almost certainly cost the Vikings a touchdown.

The Vikings lost Sunday because their special teams couldn’t resist giving up a big play, in this case a 61-yard kickoff return that four plays later gave the Saints their first lead.

The Vikings lost Sunday because of two killer fourth-quarter fumbles by their normally sure-handed receivers Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin.

The Vikings lost Sunday because of a stupid penalty that put them in the third and long situation that made Brett Favre feel that he had to throw to get extra yards for Ryan Longwell’s should-have-been game winning field goal.

The Vikings lost Sunday because they picked the wrong side of the coin at the commencement of overtime.

The Vikings lost Sunday because of a very questionable pass interference call in overtime that put New Orleans in field goal range.

Was Favre blameless on Sunday? Absolutely not. His interception with seven seconds left to play in regulation was the most disastrous play in a day loaded with disastrous plays for the Vikings.

But Favre’s season, and that of the Vikings, was far more triumph than tragedy.

Although I would go broke betting on what Favre is going to do next, it seems relatively safe to say we’ve probably witnessed Favre’s final year as a Minnesota Viking or active player for any team in the NFL.

And that’s why Packer fan should be happy on Monday.

Because without Favre in Minnesota, the Packers become the team to beat in the NFC North.

With Favre in Minnesota, the Packers would remain a Wild Card contender with a promising young quarterback.

Who, when given a chance to win a game for his team in this year’s postseason, blew it.

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Don’t Fight The Inevitable
January 21, 2010

Some things are inevitable. And no, I’m not just talking about death, taxes, and the eventual Aerosmith reunion.

I’m talking about Jay Leno’s odd stranglehold on the American TV viewer.

As much as I dislike Leno and as much as I would like to see his future in television met with a resounding “who cares” by the American public, it’s inevitable that upon his return to The Tonight Show, he will immediately resume beating David Letterman’s head in. Ratings-wise, I mean.

I’m talking about my need to purchase electronics.

As much as I bristle at the notion of buying a Blu-Ray player, it’s inevitable that one day I will cave to the pressure put upon me by the endless sales reel that I hear every time that I’m at Target. (“Still watching movies on DVD? Still peeing in your pants, too?”)

In the world of sports, there are other things that are inevitable:

1. The Vikings will lose. There are a small percentage of Packers fans that have accepted Green Bay’s earlier-than-anticipated playoff exit and are now cheering on the quarterback who kept them at or near the top of the NFC for a remarkable 16 seasons.

Then there is the other 99 percent of green and gold supporters, all of whom should go to bed very happy on Sunday night.

Look, the Vikings have had a terrific season and Packers fans should be envying their trip to New Orleans. But there are several logical reasons why the Vikings have little chance to advance to Super Bowl XLIV.

The Vikings’ 2009 offensive stats are great, but they aren’t as good as the Saints’. Favre’s team scores fewer points, passes for fewer yards, and runs for fewer yards. And the Vikings commit more penalties. (The Vikings are still more disciplined than the Packers, but outside of Gilbert Arenas, who isn’t?)

Defensively, the Vikings have been better than the Saints, but those stats can be misleading. The Purple People Eaters Mark II don’t play as well on the road (they were gashed at Arizona, at Carolina, and at Chicago in the latter half of the season), and they haven’t played as well overall since losing linebacker E.J. Henderson and since cornerback Antoine Winfield has been hobbled by a foot injury.

Overall, the Vikings secondary is as questionable as Heidi Montag’s sanity, a fact hidden for most of the season by their terrific defensive line and their terrific pass rush. But with DE Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams question marks for Sunday’s game, the effectiveness of that pass rush is suddenly in doubt – not to mention their run-stopping ability.

But stats aside, the Vikings will lose simply because they are the Vikings. Going back to their last two NFC Championship appearances, they lost in 1999 when they were clearly the better team and they got embarrassed 41-doughnut in 2001 when they were far too good to be embarrassed 41-doughnut.

Could the Vikings beat the Saints and still prove the inevitable to be inevitable? Technically yes, since Minnesota could then go on and lose in the Super Bowl. But the Saints are much stiffer competition than either the Colts or the Jets. The inevitable will happen Sunday.

2. Nice Guys Finish Last. Going back to the Leno/Conan drama, there are numerous show-biz stories – far too many to detail here – that collectively dispel the long-held notion that Jay Leno is a nice guy. (The last couple of weeks should have erased whatever doubt was in anyone’s mind.)

That brings us to the Jets/Colts championship game: There is no doubt that Colts head coach Jim Caldwell – a Wisconsin native – is a decent, honorable family man who did not deserve the outpouring of criticism that came when he elected to sit many of his starters the last two weeks of the season. (Imagine what outcry he would have heard if Peyton Manning had torn his MCL and ACL playing in a meaningless game in week 17.)

There’s also no doubt that Jets head coach Rex Ryan – like his father Buddy Ryan and mentor Brian Billick – is the biggest tactless jerk since Kanye West. Ryan has already declared that he would be “shocked” if his team doesn’t beat the Colts on Sunday.

Unfortunately, Ryan’s braggadocio is well-placed. I think the Jets will win on Sunday

The Colts, despite their gaudy record, played in close games all season, barely squeezing out victories over mediocre teams like the Jaguars and the 49ers.

If the Jets can keep Peyton Manning and the Colts offense in check — just like they kept Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense in check – they should win.

The similarities between the Chargers and Colts are even more obvious than the similarities between “Ghostbusters” and “I Want a New Drug”: The Chargers owned the second-worst rushing attack in football last season. The Colts own the worst. The Jets’ defense, while it is statistically the best in the league overall, is particularly dominating against the pass.

If the Jets – with stud cornerback Derrelle Revis blanketing Reggie Wayne – can frustrate Manning into throwing a couple of errant passes (just as they did with Rivers), they will advance to New Orleans.

It seems odd, but the pressure is really on Peyton Manning in this game. He has to realize that his chances to move the ball against the Jets will be few and far between, and he knows he will get little help from Joseph Addai, Mike Hart, and fantasy football bust Donald Brown.

On the other side, Jets QB and professional Mark Consuelos look-alike Mark Sanchez can use his running game to calm his nerves. He just has to be smart enough to take advantage of the plays in the passing game when they present themselves later in the game. And they will present themselves later in the game.

I’m not thrilled at the prospect of hearing Rex Ryan run his mouth for the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, but as I’ve learned to accept the fact that the McDLT is never coming back, I’m expecting to have to learn to accept Ryan’s jabber jawing.

3. The Wisconsin Badgers Men’s Basketball Team Will Keep Winning. By most accounts, Bo Ryan’s team should be panicking right now. After losing arguably their best player in junior Jon Leuer with a wrist injury on January 9, the only thing more miserable than the team’s shooting percentage is the trailer for that new The-Rock-As-The-Tooth-Fairy movie.

The Badgers shot 20 of 52 from the floor against Northwestern, 19 of 47 against Ohio State, and 17 of 47 on Wednesday night against Michigan. That’s a lousy field goal percentage of 38.4. To put that in context, Iowa, the worst team in the Big Ten with an overall 7-12 record, is maintaining a field goal percentage of 42.7.

Without Leuer’s presence, the team is struggling to penetrate like my son struggles to beat me on The Price Is Right for Nintendo Wii (I guess six-year-olds just don’t know what mobile homes cost): The team’s been forced into more low-percentage three-point shots, and they’ve only hit 26 percent of them in the three games without Leuer.

Leuer’s teammates haven’t exactly been compensating for the loss of Leuer at the offensive end – Jordan Taylor has hit on just 12 of 29 shots since scoring a career-high 23 against Purdue, Tim Jarmusz is showing no signs of breaking out of his season-long scoring slump, and Keaton Nankivil has converted on just two of his 14 three-point attempts in the last three games.

But Bo Ryan’s team has won two of three games without Leuer because they continue to play great defense – seventh best in the country. As long as they can continue to hold teams to under 60 points a game, they will continue to win a majority of those games.

The Badgers also have the luxury of a deep bench, and everyone from Ryan Evans to Mike Bruesewitz to Rob Wilson – who scored 13 in the victory over Michigan – seems able to step it up whenever it’s needed. And it’s needed now more than ever.

While Trevon Hughes is obviously Wisconsin’s MVP with Leuer out, Jason Bohannon also deserves special credit this season for stepping up his game immeasurably. Although he had a rough night against Michigan (1-7, 0-4 three-point attempts), Bohannon is no longer just a threat from outside. He is now just as likely to drive hard to the basket, which has been a pleasure to watch all season.

The improvement in Bohannon’s production has been equaled over the last several months only by the improvement in David Letterman’s ratings.

Leno’s return to The Tonight Show on March 1 should be the inevitable end to Letterman’s brief resurgence; if the Badgers are lucky, they could get Jon Leuer back around the same time for the postseason.

But even without Leuer, a trip to the NCAA tournament – which would be Wisconsin’s twelfth appearance in a row – seems inevitable.

The Day After
January 11, 2010

As quickly as the Packers season ended Sunday afternoon in Arizona, I came to a sudden realization.

And no, it had nothing to do with a face-mask penalty that should have been called.

Nor did it have to do with how badly NBC has royally screwed themselves with this whole Jay Leno mess.

It had to do with the simple fact that I’ve been wrong about the Green Bay Packers all season.

Well, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I did predict the Packers to have a strong season, but it’s hard to defend that when faced with the cold reality that I picked the god awful Bears to win the division.

After watching the Packers struggle early in the season, I decided that they were going to be as relevant in 2009 as Vanilla Ice, and I threw my NFC North love behind the division-leading Minnesota Vikings.

This, of course, I did just in time for them to go on their 7-1 tear, after which I declared them a virtual lock to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIV.

And we all know now how prescient that was.

Along the way, I also criticized Packers games for being as stimulating as an infomercial for “Malt Shop Memories,” a position I took largely due to the inordinate amount of penalties the team committed, which often served to slow game action down to an insufferable crawl.

The Packers then went out and played in two of the most entertaining games of this or any year, on December 20 at Pittsburgh, and Sunday’s Wild Card playoff game at Arizona.

The two games had more in common then simply being entertaining. Both games came down to a deciding play. Both games featured two defenses that were as soft as a Larry King interview. And in both games, a seemingly wonderful performance by Aaron Rodgers was overshadowed by a better performance by an opposing veteran quarterback.

Is it fair to criticize a quarterback who turned in a team record-shattering performance like Aaron Rodgers did on Sunday?

Is it fair to criticize The Beatles for Magical Mystery Tour?

Well, it’s not fair, but neither was jumping all over Brett Favre when the 2007 Packers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC title game. (An on-line Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel poll shows that 80 percent of respondents think that Favre’s overtime interception was more costly than Rodgers’s fumble, even though Lawrence Tynes had to actually win that game whereas Rodgers’s turnover more directly gave the game away.)

There’s no doubt that for the most part, Rodgers played brilliantly on Sunday. But in a game where his receivers were running free all day, he missed badly on several critical throws, the most obvious coming on the first play from scrimmage in overtime where he missed a wide open Greg Jennings on a play that would likely have ended the game.

Rodgers also continued his habit of holding on to the ball too long, contributing mightily to his five sacks, the most times he had been sacked since the inexplicable November 8 loss to Tampa.

Worst of all, Rodgers committed those two massive turnovers.

The interception on the first play started the Packers down the hole that they didn’t start to climb out of until the third quarter.

And the fumble in overtime was inexcusable, regardless of how you felt about Michael Adams’s face-mask yank or the helmet-to-helmet hit that Bertrand Berry laid on Rodgers two plays earlier.

But clearly, anyone looking for goats for Green Bay’s quick playoff exit would have to look no further than the Packers’ pass defense.

The unit was awful, as Arizona’s receivers were shockingly wide open all day, particularly in the middle of the field. Yes, Kurt Warner is good, but not even Joe Montana lining up against the cast of High School Musical should be allowed to throw more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four) for 13 yards per pass play.

The Packers’s sixth-ranked pass defense now looks like more of a result of who they faced (Daunte Culpepper, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Leinart) than how stout they were. After all, Ben Roethlisberger piled up 503 yards on them, while Brett Favre torched them for 515 yards and seven touchdowns in two games. Hey, even Tampa rookie Josh Freeman got three of his year’s ten touchdowns in his win over Green Bay.

But the Packers lousy defense did not stop at pass coverage. The Cardinals were not afraid of running on the Packers and notched an impressive 156 yards on just 23 rushes for an average of 6.8 yards per rush. And the Packers tackling was atrocious, particularly on Early Doucett’s second touchdown, where several defenders converged on the second-year player only to collide in an embarrassing heap while Doucett strolled into the end zone.

It’s a testament to the talent on the Packers that their defense can play so poorly, the offense can make so many mistakes, and yet they found themselves in a position to win the game in the extra period.

(I’ll give McCarthy a pass: I hated the decision to have Mason Crosby kick a 54-yard field goal that Crosby predictably missed. The miss gave the Cardinals a great chance to go up 24-0 that only Charles Woodson’s strip of Larry Fitzgerald prevented. I also hated that he didn’t let more time run off the clock before the Packers tied the game at 45. With 1:52 left, Arizona marched right down the field and should have won the game on an easy field goal that Neil Rackers missed horribly. But I had major love for the onside kick in the third quarter that continued the Packers’ momentum.)

If there’s a silver lining, the Packers should enter the 2010 season with a chip on their shoulder that may eliminate the slow start that plagued them in 2009. If they can play 16 games next year at the level they played the final eight games this year, they will run away with the NFC North and make a deep playoff run.

Of course, when it comes to the Packers, I’ve been wrong before.

When The Packers Go Marching In (To February)
January 6, 2010

One of the most peculiar things about having children is dealing with their short memories.

For example, recently my wife and I were reminiscing with our son about a friend of his that he had when he was between three and four years old.

My son and this child were inseparable at daycare, enjoyed several play dates together on the weekends, and for months not a day went by when we didn’t hear our son tell a story about this other child.

He now claims to have absolutely no recollection of this kid. It’s like the preschool version of an adult breakup where someone pretends to have forgotten someone who stole money or who posted naked pictures of their trysts on Facebook. Except in my son’s case, when he claims to have forgotten, he really has forgotten.

Football analysts tend to have short memories as well. Just a week after declaring the Minnesota Vikings’ 2009 season done after the purple had lost three out of four, many of those same analysts are now touting them as the best team in the NFC simply because they beat up on a completely disinterested Giants team at home to end the season.

It’s like the eighties teen sex romp The Last American Virgin: The movie was full of rottenness, but the ending was so interesting, that some people remember the entire movie fondly.

I wouldn’t necessarily argue that at some point in the season the Vikings were the best team in the NFC. But not now.

As the NFL’s second (or third, if you insist on paying attention to those preseason yawnfests) season starts, the Green Bay Packers are the best team in the conference and will represent the NFC in Jimmy Buffett Stadium on February 7.

Some may assume that I would use the Packers’ beatdown of the Cardinals in week 17 as evidence as to why I feel they will at least win Sunday’s rematch. But I don’t.

In fact, I disagree with Mike McCarthy’s decision to play his starters for the majority of a meaningless game. McCarthy came out of the game not only unscathed but applauded for his tactics in gaining an undeniable psychological edge over Arizona heading into their playoff meeting.

But what if Charles Woodson would have suffered a more severe injury? What if Aaron Rodgers and not Wes Welker had torn his MCL and ACL while padding a 26-point lead in the third quarter? (And has McCarthy seen his backup quarterbacks lately? That’s a more forgettable group than the cast members from Saturday Night Live‘s 1985-1986 season.)

Should one of his best players gone down on Sunday, McCarthy would have been the least popular person in Green Bay since Brett Favre succumbed to the evil charms of Brad Childress.

But while I disagree with McCarthy, I understand why he did it.

He knows he has a very talented but young and undisciplined team. One look at the total penalties and penalty yards his team amassed this season tells him that his players’ abilities are sometimes overshadowed by their rawness.

McCarthy gambled that the risk of his young players losing their focus while sitting out a winnable game was greater than the risk of one of his stars suffering a serious injury. And of course even the most “professional” of teams (yes, that’s you, Indy) haven’t perfected the art of succeeding in the postseason after purposefully tanking in weeks 16 and 17.

No, I give the Packers the best odds to emerge from the NFC for this basic reason: All throughout the first half of the season, while the Packers were struggling to achieve a 4-4 record, Packers fans’ mantra was this: “If we could just figure out a way to protect our quarterback, we’d be so good.”

Well, they did and they are.

What has made the Packers so good since cleaning up their offensive line issues has less to do with their passing game and more to do with Ryan Grant: Fewer sacks equals fewer negative plays equals more manageable down-and-distances equals more offensive balance equals more Grant. Which has been a very good thing.

Which brings us back to Arizona. No team in the NFL, at only 365 rushing attempts all season, is less interested in running the football than the Cardinals. Last year they were able to surprise teams in the playoffs by running the ball effectively, but that’s a strategy they’ll unlikely be able to repeat against the Packers’ No. 1-ranked rush defense. (Arizona tallied 48 yards rushing in week 17.)

With Anquan Boldin at the very least hobbled by a left ankle injury and Charles Woodson being able to cover Larry Fitzgerald one-on-one as well as anybody, the Cardinals’ passing attack will be seriously depleted.

And while I think the Cardinals’ defense will play well, Rodgers will get his while the Packers defense will knock Warner into serious retirement comtemplation.

Retirement comtemplation? Did someone mention Brett Favre? While the Minnesota Vikings enter the postseason with a ton of issues, Favre’s play — to the annoyance of Packers fans waiting for the December swoon — has not been one of them.

But nearly everything else has been. The offensive line has been lousy, giving Favre no time to throw and Adrian Peterson no room to run.

Peterson has been fumble-prone, with his most glaring gaffe coming in overtime against Chicago that cost the Vikings not only a win but also a chance to secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

The Vikings defense has been questionable, with four of their last five opponents able to run for over 100 yards over their usually unpenetrable defensive front. Defensive playmaker Antonie Winfield has been slow to recover from a foot injury. Defensive leader E.J. Henderson is out. Their always-suspect pass defense was exploited in recent weeks by the average likes of Jay Cutler and Matt Moore.

Vikings fans should be downright horrified at the possibility of a third Packers/Vikings tilt this season. Packers fans should be licking their chops at such an opportunity.

They should also be licking their chops to play the Philadelphia Eagles. While it’s not completely unrealistic to expect a bounce back performance from Philly after being embarrassed last week, Andy Reid’s team simply doesn’t have the running attack or the defense to match Dallas’s.

The biggest concern anyone should have over picking Dallas next week is placing trust that Tony Romo, having at least temporarily silenced his critics by playing well this December, will suddenly turn into the NFL’s version of Reggie Jackson.

As much as I like Dallas’s run game and their defense, Romo is no Brett Favre. Though more experienced, Romo is also no Aaron Rodgers. Maybe more importantly, Dallas’s receiving corps is to Minnesota’s and Green Bay’s what American Pie 7 (yes, you read that right, there have been seven of them) is to the original.

That leaves us the Saints. The team that not long ago seemed as unstoppable as Phil Collins circa 1986. But just as the days of Sussudio and Invisible Touch (sadly) came to an end, so does it seem it’s time to bring the curtain down on the Saints, who haven’t had a decisive victory since November.

But seemingly every year a team that many have written off makes a run. Perhaps this is the year the Saints pull that trick.

But I doubt it. Regardless of who they have to play or where they have to play it out, it’s the Packers coming out of the NFC.

But if it is indeed New Orleans who travels to Miami in February, then all of us who overlooked the Saints would have to blame it on our short memories.