Archive for January, 2012

Goats, Colts, A Fallen Lion, And A Very Rich Prince
January 27, 2012

Just because something is interesting doesn’t mean that it’s good.

Case in point: This last week in sports, which was loaded with games and events that many of us couldn’t look away from even if we didn’t necessarily like what we were seeing.

Let’s start with Sunday’s NFL games. By almost all standards, the two games were a pair of the most dramatic, most compelling conference championship contests in recent memory.

But what ultimately made them most memorable wasn’t the toughness of Eli Manning, the tenacity of the 49ers defense, or the surprisingly stout play of New England’s defensive front, headed by tackle Vince Wilfork.

That’s what most of us watch sports – and particularly playoff sports – to see: Contests featuring feats of athletic greatness that are decided by which player or team ultimately makes the most awe-inspiring play.

Instead what we got were goats.

To my eye, San Francisco’s Kyle Williams’s acts of ineptness were both the most sympathetic and the most egregious. He was scary bad all game, from diving for punts to the two critical turnovers that directly led to 10 Giants points, including the game-winning field goal. But in his defense, Williams was filling in for an injured player performing a task he clearly wasn’t comfortable doing.

My compassion for Williams has also increased after it’s been revealed that he has since been the recipient of death threats via social media. One wishes that the reprehensible cowards that send these despicable tweets would have opportunity to say such things to Williams in person, if only so Williams would then have the opportunity to punch said lowlifes in the throat.

Of the other goats, I sadly have to lay more blame for his team’s loss on Baltimore’s Lee Evans for letting Sterling Moore knock that touchdown pass out of his hands than I do on Billy Cundiff for missing the easy chip shot field goal at the end of regulation.

Cundiff gets a bit of a pass from me because he earlier had made two field goals and, had he made that admittedly easy 31-yarder to tie the game, it would have only forced overtime. Evans hangs on to that perfect pass from Flacco and his team flat out wins the game and heads to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

Speaking of Indy, the backbiting between Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and quarterback Peyton Manning has been another fascinating storyline that has been tough to not follow this week.

But in the end, the power struggle is a sickening case of egotistical millionaires arguing with narcissistic billionaires, with Rob Lowe (who must be at least a thousand-aire) playing the meatiest supporting role he’s had since The West Wing.

Seems to me that Irsay is determined to run Manning out of town, an inconceivable goal given the disastrous impact Manning’s absence this past season had on the Colts.

In a NFL Network special that aired before Manning’s injury, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said that if you take Manning away from the Colts you have a “very below-average ball club.” What once seemed like hyperbole has proven to be instead a gross understatement.

Of course the unknown quantity here is Manning’s health: If Peyton ultimately can’t play football again, then Irsay is 100 percent right for moving on. You just wish that in doing so, he would show a little appreciation for Manning, as he is almost assured of not finding a quarterback of his class in this year’s – or maybe any year’s – NFL draft.

Any conversation about sports and money this week has to include a mention of Prince Fielder, who on Tuesday signed a nine-year contract with the Detroit Tigers worth a breathtaking $214 million.

Fielder’s expected departure from the Brewers is less a blow to Milwaukee’s team and its fans – hey, the man himself even said before the season was over that he was a goner – than it is a painful reminder that baseball, more than the other major sports, has yet to solve the glaring issue of small market vs. big market disparity.

Commissioner Bud Selig is quick to point out that baseball has had an impressively varied group of postseason participants in recent years, but that doesn’t hide the staggering salary disparity between its clubs: In 2011, the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox all had payrolls north of $160 million, while five teams had payrolls under $50 million.

No one can blame Fielder for taking the most money offered to him, but something is wrong when a small-market team like Milwaukee can be prepared to offer a rumored $120 million for Fielder and still not be considered a serious candidate for his services.

Given that both teams play in the same state, it’s impossible not to compare the Milwaukee Brewers situation in baseball to the Green Bay Packers situation in the NFL. Despite recent successes – which will be tough to maintain following the loss of Fielder and the likely suspension of Ryan Braun – the Brewers have, over their history, been a team of have-nots. The Packers, despite playing in the NFL’s smallest market, have a long history of being the haves.

Not that that fact provides much solace in Wisconsin this NFL postseason.

Finally, the saddest sports news from the past week was undoubtedly the passing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

At a time when Paterno’s life and unparalleled accomplishments in college football should be celebrated, it’s impossible not to feel at the very least conflicted or even somewhat distasteful showing admiration for the man after learning of what he didn’t try harder to prevent from going on under his nose at State College.

However, even the most jaded of us have to admit that Paterno was a man who inspired and improved the lives of countless young people.

But, like Kyle Williams and Billy Cundiff, Paterno is doomed to have his name forever linked to mistakes.

Sadly, unlike Williams and Cundiff, Paterno made mistakes that were not just not good. They were tragic.

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Is The Arrow Pointing Down On The Green Bay Packers?
January 18, 2012

When my visit to my parents’ home over the recent holidays was coming to a close, I found myself doing the clichéd “look back” before leaving.

If you don’t know what I mean by a “look back,” then just think of the final episode of Three’s Company, when Jack, Janet, and Terri give their apartment one last onceover before leaving it for the final time.

(I’ll give you a moment to dry your eyes after remembering that emotional scene, a scene which is apparently not available anywhere on-line for me to link to.)

My reasons for the “look back” were simple: My parents are getting older and it’s inevitable that at some point they will sell the house I grew up in. So I feel like any time I’m there could be my last.

Now, three days after their shocking defeat in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, I find myself taking a mental “look back” at the Packers 2011 season for a similarly simple reason: We may not see anything like it anytime soon.

Oh, I can already hear the grumbling. Yes, the Packers, despite high-profile vets like Charles Woodson and Donald Driver (who is the subject of much trade talk), are still a very young team. And as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, the Packers will be competitive. It’s not panic time in Green Bay.

Or is it?

As players and coaches alike said after Sunday’s loss, to be involved in the Green Bay Packers franchise is to be burdened with the highest of expectations.

There is no tolerance in Green Bay for any “we’re making progress” or “three-year rebuilding plan” talk. Despite the awful showing on Sunday against the Giants, fans will be expecting Mike McCarthy and Rodgers to be bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back “home” in 2013.
And, unless there are major, unforeseen, and seismic changes in Green Bay, the Packers will be one of the teams most heavily favored to win Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans.

But history is not on their side. Instead, it suggests that the arrow is pointing down on the Packers.

Consider the trajectory the Packers went on in the mid-1990s: Two straight wild-card round victories following the 1993 and 1994 seasons, followed by a divisional round victory after the 1995 season, followed by a Super Bowl championship after the 1996 season. Then there was the Super Bowl loss to Denver, then a wild-card loss the next season, and then two years out of the playoffs.

After “recovering” from the surprisingly smooth Favre-to-Rodgers transition, the Packers found themselves on a similar, but much more accelerated course: A wild-card loss in 2010 followed by a Super Bowl championship in 2011. But just as this Packers team climbed back to the top of the mountain faster than the team of the 1990s did, with Sunday’s loss, they have now fallen much faster as well.

But wait, you say. Super Bowl champs can bounce back after playoff losses. Well, sure. But in the past ten years, only the Patriots and Steelers were able to win additional championships after first failing to defend their title. (The Giants could join that group this season.) Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and New Orleans could not, with only Indianapolis even advancing to the title game again.

But if you say it’s not necessarily relevant to see what other teams have been able to do, then let’s return our focus to this Green Bay Packers team. What changes they will either have to overcome or have to institute in order to put the Title back in Titletown?

Unfortunately, it’s a lot.

The Packers have already lost their respected director of football operations Reggie McKenzie to the Oakland Raiders. As Oakland’s new GM, he might tempt members of the Packers organization to come along with him. One of those most likely to leave is offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who has now interviewed with Miami and Tampa Bay about their head coaching openings. Assistant coaches Winston Moss and Tom Clements have also been rumored to be leaving for supposed greener pastures, and even defensive coordinator Dom Capers, despite his defense’s pitiful performance this year, could be lured away from Green Bay.

Fans may wish “good riddance” to Capers after watching him lead the NFL’s worst defense in 2011. But whether or not Capers (and his toupee) ride out of town, it’s clear to anyone with eyes in their head that some sort of major overhaul – starting with the defensive front, who put as much pressure on Eli Manning on Sunday as a cool breeze puts on the Empire State Building – needs to be made to the Packers’ porous defense.

But even if necessary adjustments are made, be it on the field, in the coaching ranks, or both, change is tough. And it might not work.
That’s the sort of uncertainty facing the Packers in 2012 that wasn’t foreseen last year.

The offensive side of the ball is certainly open to less immediate criticism (Sunday’s game largely notwithstanding), but in addition to Joe Philbin’s future, there are unanswered questions here as well.

Will free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn leave to compete for a starting job elsewhere? It would be a surprise if he doesn’t, given how sought after he will be and how much money will be thrown at his feet. And though his departure will not matter much if Rodgers stays healthy, it could be huge if Rodgers doesn’t.

Will TE Jermichael Finley resign? Packers fans may not want him to return after his untimely drops this season, but the team could do far worse at the position. Despite what some would consider a disappointing season, Finley still finished third among NFL tight ends in touchdowns.

What needs to be done with the running back position? Ryan Grant is almost certainly gone, and James Starks isn’t the answer to this question any more than Tim Tebow is the answer to who the next governor of Wisconsin might be. But what’s clear is that Aaron Rodgers can’t continue to be the team’s best rusher. That’s a formula that’s not going to work long-term.

Oddly enough, the sexiest headline – What will Green Bay do about Donald Driver? – is probably the least concerning to Packers fans. While it will be sad to see him go (and it seems highly likely that he will finish his career with another team), wide receiver continues to be the position where the Packers have the greatest and most impressive depth.

Provided, of course, those receivers can do a better job than they did on Sunday holding on to the ball.

But in the big picture, wide receiver is the area of smallest concern for fans of the green and gold who hope that they won’t “look back” on Sunday’s game as the beginning of the end of the dominant Rodgers era for the Packers.

Quick takes on Sunday’s game: Regardless of what anyone says about the long layoff, the biggest factor that played into the Packers’ sloppiness was the horrible situation that surrounded Joe Philbin. There’s obviously never a good time for that sort of tragedy, but as it happened, the tragedy took the team out of the football world at the worst possible time. Biggest play of the game was not the Hail Mary at the end of the second half or the Bradshaw run that set up that play. In contrary to popular opinion, those plays did not deflate the Packers as they basically dominated the third quarter. The biggest play of the game was the Ryan Grant fumble and subsequent return in the fourth quarter. Still seemed likely that the Packers could come back until that play happened. As had been proven already in the Saints/49ers game and Texans/Ravens game, teams simply don’t win when they give the ball away on multiple occasions. Despite how well Eli Manning played, because of the Packers’ turnovers and dropped passes, I’m more prone to say the Packers lost the game than the Giants won.

NFC Divisional Playoffs: Could The Giants Win?
January 13, 2012

I guess you can’t blame Wisconsin sports fans for feeling pessimistic in 2012.

The list of things to grumble about has gotten pretty long in the New Year: The Badgers’ football team lost the Rose Bowl and then a bunch of coaches followed offensive coordinator Paul Chryst out of town. Badger center Peter Konz declared that he’s entering the NFL Draft. The Badgers men’s basketball team fell out of the national rankings. The Brewers decided to re-sign Manny Parra.

And then there’s the unseemly off-field incidents ranging from the curious – UW senior associate athletic director John Chadima’s decision to resign in the face of reported allegations of misconduct – to the tragic – the death of the son of Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.
Things have gotten so bleak that many Packers fans have begun to lose hope, with some of them fearing that Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the New York Giants could be the Pack’s last game of the season.

Really? The Green Bay Packers? The defending Super Bowl champions? The team that toyed with perfection for much of the regular season? The team that led the league in scoring? The team that was second in the league in turnover differential and second in the league for fewest penalty yards? The team that features QB Aaron Rodgers, nearly every pundit’s pick for league MVP?

Well, some would say, it’s also the team with the league’s worst defense. And sure, Aaron Rodgers is terrific, but he’s also been spending valuable playoff preparation time filming lame commercials for an insurance company.

So, should Packers fans be worried? Do the New York football Giants have a playoff run in them to match their Super Bowl championship 2007 season?

Perhaps. Let’s see how the Giants could win:

1. The Giants run the ball successfully. Given the Giants’ (largely unearned) reputation as a ground-and-pound team that move the ball with seasoned backs Ahmed Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, it probably surprises many to learn that the Giants had statistically the worst rushing attack in the league in 2011 with a paltry 89.2 yards per game. However, in walloping the punchless Atlanta Falcons in last week’s Wild Card game, the Giants nearly doubled their season rushing average, gaining 172 yards on the ground with an average of 5.5 yards per carry. If the Giants can repeat that performance, they could pull off the upset.

2. Eli Manning outduels Aaron Rodgers. Don’t laugh. It’s possible. While Rodgers has been off-the-charts spectacular, Eli has had a more than respectable season, actually surpassing Rodgers in yards thrown. The biggest difference between the two (although Rodgers tops Eli in basically every other category): Manning has thrown 16 interceptions, while Rodgers has tossed only six. But Manning’s wideouts are almost as dangerous as Rodgers’s: The group of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, and Jake Ballard combined to catch more passes for more yards than the Packers’ group of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, and Jermichael Finley. Of course the Packers also have James Jones and rookie Randall Cobb. One of them could be a difference-maker Sunday.

3. The Giants get consistent pressure on Rodgers. One of the Giants’ strengths is their defensive line, with standouts like Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul combining for 17 sacks and five interceptions in their last five games. It’s a great group, and they should be able to get their licks in this Sunday: Rodgers was taken down 36 times this season, and Matt Flynn was sacked three times in the Rodgers-less season finale against Detroit. All told, Rodgers was sacked three or more times in six games this season. It would surprise no one if that number became seven this weekend.

4. The dreaded intangibles. Putting aside the tragic situation that has obviously distracted Joe Philbin over the last several days, there are so-called intangibles that seem to work out in the Giants’ favor. Most obviously is New York seems to be the leading candidate to be the 2012 version of the 2011 Packers: Last year the Packers entered the postseason on a hot streak, going to the home of the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Falcons and blowing them out en route to the Super Bowl. This year the Giants are that hot team with the chance to upend the No. 1 seed. And who could forget the outcome the last time the Giants visited Lambeau in the postseason? But though the Giants have won four of their last five games, the Packers proved last year that beating the Falcons in the postseason was no difficult task. And if either quarterback is going to throw a late-game interception as happened on that frigid January 2008 night, this time it’s unlikely to be the one playing for the Packers.

Prediction: The Giants are a scary team with arguably a more balanced offensive attack and an inarguably better defense. But the Packers have the better playmakers and are much more likely to win Sunday’s turnover battle. Those facts alone should be enough to put Packers fans’ minds at ease. Final score: Green Bay 31, New York Giants 24.