August 16, 2017

The Long View: Bush and Hawk Get Cut

The Green Bay Packers cut linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday, the same day the Detroit Lions said goodbye to running back Reggie Bush. If this is the end for them it’s fitting that they go out together because they came into the league together, burdened with huge expectations.

Did they meet them?

Bush, a Heisman trophy winner at Southern Cal, was taken by the New Orleans Saints with the second overall pick in the 2006 draft. Hawk went to the Packers three picks later, fifth overall.

When a player is picked in the first round they’re expected to be a Pro Bowler. When they’re taken in the top five the hope, and the hype, is that they’ll end up in the Hall of Fame. Bush and Hawk have zero Pro Bowls between them and neither will make the Hall of Fame.

But are they busts?

Bush, who has been a hybrid in the NFL playing running back, receiver and returning kicks, accumulated 1,326 all-purpose yards and nine total touchdowns his rookie year and helped the Saints reach the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history (they lost to the Bears.)

Bush, despite battling injuries, contributed more than 1,000 yards in total offense in each of the next two seasons for the Saints (including three punt return TDs in 2008) and was a vital contributor in 2009 when the Saints advanced to their first and only Super Bowl, pulling off a huge upset of the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2011 Bush went to the Miami Dolphins and did something many thought he could not, rush for a thousand yards, 1,086 to be exact while also catching 43 passes for 296 yards and seven total touchdowns, numbers that he almost duplicated the next season in Miami.

Bush’s first year with Detroit in 2013 was the best of his career, statistically, with 1,512 yards from scrimmage and seven scores. This past season Bush appeared in just 11 games for Detroit with 550 total yards.

On draft day nine years ago if you had a crystal ball and saw that Reggie Bush would never win a rushing title, never make a Pro Bowl and play for three different teams you might have said he was going to be a disappointment.

But what if you looked into that very same mystical forecaster and saw that Bush would last nine seasons in a league when most players (especially small running backs) don’t last half that? And what if you were also told Bush would help a moribund franchise play in two conference title games and win one Super Bowl?

A.J. Hawk joined the Packers in 2006 and started all 16 games with 82 tackles, a number that he would never reach again.

But there are other numbers. Aaron James Hawk appeared in every game his rookie year and would do that again every year of his career except 2011 when he missed a grand total of two games.

Hawk was a starting linebacker in 136 of the 142 regular season games the Packers have played since 2006. He never had fewer than 53 tackles in a season, compiled nine career regular season interceptions and 19 sacks.

With Hawk, the Packers had the league’s second best defense in 2009 and fifth best in 2010, the year Hawk helped Green Bay win a Super Bowl, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let’s jump in the wayback machine and break out that crystal ball again. No Pro Bowls for Hawk, never led the league in tackles, didn’t create a lot of turnovers…but nine years as a starter means something. It means a lot of things.

If you’re still not impressed with Hawk or Bush we understand.   If you’ve read this far you’re obviously the demanding type and we respect that.

So let’s see how Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk measure up with other first rounders from 2006.

The first overall pick that year was defensive end Mario Williams who went to the Houston Texans. Williams played in two Pro Bowls for the Texans and two more since joining Buffalo in 2012 including the last two seasons and appears to still be going strong.

The third overall pick was quarterback Vince Young who went to the Titans. He was the offensive rookie of the year and appeared in two Pro Bowls. But his career came to an end with the Eagles in 2011.

Offensive Tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson went fourth overall to the Jets. He has made three Pro Bowls and is still going. Other future Pro Bowlers in the 2006 first round were Vernon Davis, Jay Cutler, Haloti Ngata, Chad Greenway, Antonio Cromartie, Tamba Hali, Davin Joseph, Jonathan Joseph, DeAngelo Williams, Marcedes Williams, Nick Mangold and Joseph Addai.

They all made at least one Pro Bowl but we confess there are a few in that group we’ve never heard of. And more importantly, perhaps, which one of those would you have rather had than Hawk or Bush? Ngata and Mangold almost certainly. The others spark a good debate.

The last player taken in the first round of 2006 was defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka who went to the Giants. Like Bush and Hawk, Kiwanuka was released this week. And like Bush and Hawk, Kiwanuka has a Super Bowl ring. Two of them.

Bush and Hawk might have a kindred spirit in Keith Van Horne, the All-American offensive lineman from Southern Cal who was taken by the Chicago Bears with the 11th overall pick in 1981. Chicagoans expected Van Horne to be a stud, a killer, an All-Pro, a legend.

He wasn’t. He was, however, a very solid football player, starting 169 games from 1981 until 1993. The Bears had great teams with Van Horne, making the playoffs seven times and winning one Super Bowl. There may have been other right tackles the Bears could have plugged in and had the same success. But the point is they didn’t need to look for another tackle because they had a good one.

Van Horne, Bush and Hawk are on the football’s Mount Rushmore of “take the long view.” All first round picks are expected to be great. Everyone wants a Lawrence Taylor, Peyton Manning, Patrick Peterson or J.J. Watt. But just because a first rounder doesn’t become a star doesn’t mean he was a bad pick. We all want winners, we all want stars and we all want it now. But patience can pay off. Availability, durability and determination cannot be measured at the combine.

Or maybe they can be and that’s really why Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk were taken so high, and lasted so long.

The future…what can you do with it?

 

Packers 55, Bears 14: The Worst of All Worlds

The 2014 season effectively came to an end for the Chicago Bears on Sunday night when they lost to the Packers 55-14 in Green Bay in a game that made us wish the universe had never come into existence.

The Bears trailed 7-0 after Green Bay’s first drive, 14-0 after the first quarter, 42-0 at halftime and at that point we had no tears left to cry, no cigarettes left to puff, no booze left to bathe in and we were only, seriously, hoping the Packers would not break the Bears’ NFL record of most points scored in a game.

That number is 73 and came when the Bears blasted the Redskins 73-0 in 1940. The Packers might have actually reached that mark in this one but they, mercifully, pulled quarterback Aaron Rodgers and some other starters from the game midway through the third quarter. This was after Rodgers had thrown six touchdown passes, all before halftime, while barely sweating a cheese curd.

The Bears are the first team in 90 years to give up more than 50 points in two straight games, after their previous 51-23 loss to the Patriots. And, going back to last season, the Bears have allowed more than 50 points in three of their last 11 games.

And this was after the Bears had a bye week. Imagine if they’d had three weeks to get ready.

What other numbers are there? Do they even matter?

We, truly, are not trying to be cruel but the fact is the Bears were massacred so thoroughly that NBC executives were left scrambling for their copy of “Heidi.”

The Bears are 3-6. They have talent but the team is going nowhere and, to listen to Chicago fans, the only thing that can be done is to make wholesale changes to the roster, the coaching staff, the front office, Soldier Field and maybe the Bill of Rights.

We still love these damn Bears. The Bears are in our Chicago blood. That’s why this hurts so much. Foolish as it might seem, we are not giving up on them. We just hope they haven’t given up on themselves.

 

Bears 27, Packers 20: At Last

For the past 20 years the Green Bay Packers have dominated the Chicago Bears primarily because Green Bay’s quarterbacks have been Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers whereas the Bears quarterbacks have been Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer, Steve Walsh, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Rick Mirer, Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jim Miller, (pause and catch your breath.  OK, start again.) Chris Chandler, Henry Burris, Kordell Stewart, Rex Grossman, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Jonathan Quinn, Kyle Orton, Brian Griese, Jay Cutler, Todd Collins, Caleb Hanie, Jason Campbell and Josh McCown.

But on Monday night the Bears beat the Packers, 27-20, in Green Bay because, for the first time since Johnny Carson retired, Chicago actually had a better quarterback and, just as surprisingly, a better plan.

Bears quarterback Josh McCown played terrifically, if not brilliantly, subbing for the injured Jay Cutler and was far superior to Packers signal caller Seneca Wallace.  Wallace, of course, was only playing because Aaron Rodgers was injured on the first series of the game after leading Green Bay down the field like a hot knife through knackwurst, effortlessly carving up the Bears’ defense before getting hurt on a sack by Bears defensive end Shea McLellin.

So in came Wallace, who was bad.  And the Bears topped the Packers for the first time since 2010 because, as an organization, they had put two capable quarterbacks on the roster while the Pack only had one.

Duh, right?  But amazing.  For frickin’ once the Bears had an organizational view, a game plan, field execution and a quarterback that, all told, were better than those of the Packers.

And it took all that to win by a touchdown.

The Bears got lucky.  Maybe that’s what we should have said first.  If Rodgers’ left (non-throwing) shoulder doesn’t go places it wasn’t intended to the Packers beat the Bears almost certainly, no matter how well McCown, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery played because Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in football and the Bears’ defense is about as reliable as a Nicolas Cage movie.  Sure, it can surprise you but wait for it to show up on Netflix.

But Rodgers went down on a clean play and the Bears, who have known nothing but injuries this season, were finally in line to catch a break so stick that in your Winnebago and back off for a second, OK?

The Packers have had a ton of injuries, too, maybe even more than the Bears, but the NFL is largely about weathering injuries and making sure you have a decent quarterback and the Bears might actually have two of them.

McCown finished 21-of-42 for 272 yards and two touchdown passes: a 21-yarder on an acrobatic catch by Brandon Marshall in the first quarter on a ballsy throw just as McCown was about to be sacked, and another on a six-yard strike to Jeffery in the fourth.  And, just as importantly, McCown was not intercepted in this game, aiming low and away, putting his passes where only his receivers or the grass could touch them.  He was accurate and refused to be intimidated by the circumstances (he’s 34, after all) and thus let the Bears’ coaching staff stick with a game plan that looked very much like it probably would have if Cutler – or Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees – had been playing.

The Bears threw the ball on their first six offensive plays and only turned to the run not because they had to, which is probably what everyone expected from the very beginning, but when they wanted to.  This, in Bearsland, is revolutionary offensive stuff.

The exemplification of this attitude and execution came in the fourth quarter.  The Bears got the ball at their own 11-yard line with 9:48 to play and held the ball for the next nine minutes, perambulating down Lambeau’s green way with urgency, purpose, focus, attitude, serenity and success, resulting in a Robbie Gould 27-yard field goal that put the Bears up 27-20 and left the Packers in a bad spot, with little time.

The key play on this final Bears drive came early on and, if the Bears do end up making the playoffs, could be a season-definer.  It was fourth-and-one from their own 32 and Chicago went for it.  Forte ran left, was hit behind the line of scrimmage, but then punished his way for a three-yard gain and a first down.  Somewhere George Halas was smiling.  Vince Lombardi probably was, too.

The Bears are now 5-3, same as the Packers, and own the tiebreaker over the Pack as they get ready for the NFC North’s other 5-3 team, the Detroit Lions, at Soldier Field.  The word is that Cutler will be back from his groin injury for the Lions game but, with the way McCown has played over the last six quarters, the Bears can let Cutler take a little bit more time.  This is not to say that Chicago has a quarterback controversy.  Don’t be silly.  If McCown has another great game then it might be time to get silly, but not now.  But the victory over the Packers, and McCown’s charming competence, give the Bears a little breathing room.  If keeping Jay out another week lets him get back to 100% then do it.  That’s what Josh McCown is for.

The Bears still have a lot of bricks to lay.  They gave up 199 yards rushing to the Packers and can’t really be criticized for their tackling because they didn’t really tackle at all.  Running on the Bears is easier than farting in a cornfield and strong safety Chris Conte is the smelliest kernel in Chicago.

Mr. Conte was serviceable, promising, and sometimes pretty darn good in his first two seasons but, at the ripe old age of 24, seems to have lost a step, his grip and probably his starting job.  Bears fans have clamored for years to move All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman to safety and Conte is, regrettably, only providing more ammunition for this argument.  Move Tillman to safety and put the capable Zack Bowman in at corner.  Or, if you’re of the mind (understandably so) that you don’t make a great player learn a new position, then simply put Conte on the bench and bring in Craig Steltz, Anthony Walters or Sean Cattouse.  Or go shopping.

The Bears’ special teams remain an adventure.  Adam Podlesh averaged only 35 yards a punt and had one punt blocked and Devin Hester had no long returns.  Special teams in Chicago used to be quite special.  Now they’re a broken pencil.

But who gives a fly’s eye?!  Really!  We beat the stinkin’ Packers!  Yes, Rodgers was hurt and yes, if both teams were at full strength – which never happens in the NFL – the Packers probably are better.  But stop giving me that look, damn you, and hand me a Schlitz, light my cigarette, play some Clash on the jukebox and let us love this damn thing!

Bears 27, Packers 20.  Rejoice.  Revel.  Relax.  Repeat.

49ers 45, Packers 31

The second game on the playoff schedule had the Green Bay Packers heading out to San Francisco to take on the 49ers.  The Packers were coming off a 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings and the 49ers had a first round bye.  The 49ers won the toss and elected to receive.  Return man LaMichael James fielded the kick at the five and returned it 23 yards to the 28.  A nine-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree and two carries by running back Frank Gore moved them to the 47.  On second and six, quarterback Craig Kaepernick looked for tight end Vernon Davis and the pass was picked off by cornerback Sam Shields and returned for a 52-yard touchdown.  Kicker Mason Crosby made the point after and the Packers took an early 7-0 lead.

From their 20, the 49ers went to work again.  Short runs by Gore and Kaepernick set up a third and two at the 28.  A defensive holding call gave them five yards and a first down.  On third and ten from the 33, Kaepernick rolled to his left and lofted a pass to Gore.  The play went for 45 yards and Gore was finally dragged down at the Packer 22.  On third and eight from the 20, Kaepernick took things into his own hands and ran up the left side for a 20-yard touchdown.  Kicker David Akers made the point after and the game was tied at seven with nine minutes to go in the first quarter.

The teams traded punts and with 3:13 remaining in the first quarter, the Packers got the ball at their 20.  Three carries by running back DuJuan Harris got ten yards and a first down.  On third and five from the 38, quarterback Aaron Rodgers let one go down-field and the pass was caught at the San Francisco 18 by wide receiver James Jones.  Harris took the ball right up the middle on the next play and the Packers went up 13-7.  Crosby made the point after and the Packers now led 14-7.

With 11:43 remaining in the second quarter, the 49ers started their next drive from their 20.  Kaepernick hooked up with Crabtree on first down for a gain of 15.  They got to midfield and were forced to punt.  Punter Andy Lee got off a high punt and return man Jeremy Ross muffed the ball at the nine-yard line.  It was recovered by 49er safety C.J. Spillman.  That set the 49ers up nicely.  On third and goal from the 12, Kaepernick found Crabtree across the middle for the touchdown.  Akers made the point after and the game was tied at 14 with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter.

A holding call on the kickoff return moved the Packers back to their seven-yard line.  On third and seven from the 26, Rodgers looked for wide receiver Jordy Nelson and the pass was picked off by cornerback Tarell Brown at the San Francisco 13.  He returned it to the Packer 48 and the 49ers were in business again.  Some good running by Gore and James got them down to the 25.  On third and nine from the 24, Kaepernick scrambled down to the nine for a first down.  After his impressive run, he was flagged 15 yards for taunting.  They still had a first down, but the ball was moved back to the 24.  On second and six, Kaepernick put one up the left side to Crabtree for a 20-yard touchdown.  Akers made the point after and the 49ers now led 21-14 with 5:26 to go in the first half.

Starting at their 20 again, Rodgers scrambled for a nine-yard gain and Harris ran up the middle for three yards and a first down.  Then, Rodgers completed a pass to tight end Jermichael Finley for a gain of 19.  Harris ran off right tackle for a gain of three and safety Dashon Goldson came in late with a brutal helmet to helmet hit.  That cost him 15 yards and the Packers got a first down at the San Francisco 31.  Three plays later, Rodgers looked for Jones in the end zone and found him for a 20-yard touchdown.  The extra point was good and the game was tied at 21 with 2:33 to go in the half.

Two scrambles by Kaepernick netted 22 yards and had his team moving in the right direction.  On third and ten from the 42, he took off again for 18 more yards and a first down at the Packer 40.  They got as far as the 18 when they were faced with a fourth and one.  With time running short, Akers was called on for a 36-yard field goal attempt.  The kick was good and the 49ers took a 24-21 lead into the locker room.

The second half started with each team unable to move the ball very well.  With just under 12 minutes to go in the third quarter, the Packers took over at their 11.  Two completions to wide receiver Greg Jennings gave them a first down at the 43.  Then, two completions to Nelson got them into San Francisco territory.  A carry by wide receiver Randall Cobb went for 19 yards and a first down at the 22.  The drive stalled at the 13 and Crosby snuck the ball just inside the right upright for a 31-yard field goal.  That knotted the game at 24 with 8:25 to go in the third quarter.

Starting at their 20, Kaepernick hooked up with Crabtree again for gains of 18 and six yards.  Then he totally caught the Packers off guard.  From the shotgun, he took the snap and bolted up the right side for a 56-yard touchdown.  Some good down-field blocking helped him out too.  Still, I knew Kaepernick was fast, but, I didn’t know he was THAT fast!  He left the Packer secondary in the dust.  Akers made the extra point and the 49ers now led 31-24 with 7:07 remaining in the third quarter.

That long run seemed to ignite the 49er defense.  They allowed the Packers only 21 yards on their next drive and forced a punt.  Punter Tim Masthay got off a good one that was fair caught by Ted Ginn at the seven-yard line.  Two carries by Gore and a 16-yard completion to Crabtree made it first down at the 31.  Another holding call on the Packers gave them another first down at the 39.  On second and eight from the 41, Davis caught a pass for a gain of 44 and they were knocking on the door again.  Gore ran straight up the middle and was brought down at the two.  He finished the drive on the next play with a two-yard touchdown run.  Akers made another point after and the 49ers went up 38-24 with just one quarter to go.

The Packers went from their 11 to their 49 and on third and five, Rodgers saw Jennings behind the secondary on the left side.  The ball hit his hands and fell incomplete.  That was a killer for them.  If he had been able to catch that pass, he may have scored and the Packers would have been right back in the game.  Instead, it led to another punt.

The 49ers took over at their seven and some more carries by Gore and Kaepernick had them moving again.  The Packer defense was getting worn down and frustrated.  It seemed like after every play, players had to be separated.  There were no personal fouls called, but it was obvious these teams do not like each other.  Some more tough running by Gore brought the 49ers down to the Packer 27.  A holding call moved them back ten yards.  A four-yard run by Kaepernick and a 14-yard pass to Crabtree made it fourth and one at the 18.  On fourth down, defensive tackle B.J. Raji jumped offside and that gave the 49ers a first down at the 13.  Gore ran up the middle for 11 and on second and goal from the two, running back Anthony Dixon finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run.  Akers made his final extra point attempt of the night and the 49ers now had a commanding 45-24 lead with 3:34 to go in the game.  Rodgers would hook up with Jennings for a three-yard score, but it was too little too late.  Final score: 49ers 45 Packers 31.

For the Packers, Aaron Rodgers completed 26 of 39 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.  James Jones led the team in receptions with four and receiving yards with 87 and a touchdown.  DuJuan Harris had only 11 carries in this game and ended up with 53 yards and a touchdown.  As a team, the Packers rushed for 104 yards on 16 carries.  Defensively, linebacker Brad Jones led the team with nine solo tackles.

For the 49ers, it was a great night for Colin Kaepernick as he completed 17 of 31 for 263 yards, two touchdowns through the air and two more on the ground.  His lone bad spot was an interception early in the game that was returned for a touchdown.  Michael Crabtree led the team in receptions with nine and receiving yards with 119 and two touchdowns.  Kaepernick paved the way on the ground with a quarterback rushing record of 181 yards and two touchdowns.  Frank Gore also had a good night with 119 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown.  Gore also caught two passes for 48 yards.  As a team, the 49ers rushed for 323 yards on 43 carries.  They out-gained the Packers in total yards 579-352.  Defensively, linebacker Patrick Willis led the team with seven solo tackles, one sack and a tackle for a loss.

Up next for the 49ers will be the winner of the Seahawks-Falcons game.  If the Falcons win, the 49ers will travel to Atlanta.  If the Seahawks win, they’ll head to San Francisco.  The Falcons and Seahawks are the early game today followed by the Texans and Patriots.  I’ll return with recaps of those games later today.  Until then, take it easy and enjoy the games.

 

 

 

 

Packers 24, Vikings 10

With the Minnesota Vikings defeating the Green Bay Packers in the final game of the regular season, that meant they would face off again in the first round of the playoffs.  So, on a cold night in Green Bay, the Packers and Vikings took the field and met for the third time this season.  Kicker Mason Crosby booted the ball five yards deep in the end zone and return man Marcus Sherels returned it to the Viking 32.

Starting quarterback Christian Ponder missed most of practice all week and tried to give it a go in warmups before the game.  He was unable to go and that meant Joe Webb would be the starter.  Like everyone expected, running back Adrian Peterson was a huge part of the game plan.  Two carries netted seven yards and on third and 3 from the 39, Webb took off up the right side for a 17 yard gain.  Just like that, the Vikings were in Packer territory.  Three more runs by Peterson moved the ball to the 18, but they would only get as far as the 15 and have to settle for a field goal attempt.  Kicker Blair Walsh made it from 33 yards out and the Vikings had an early 3-0 lead with nine and a half minutes to go in the first quarter.

That was all the scoring there was in the first quarter until with six minutes to go, the Packers started their next drive from their 18.  Running back DuJuan Harris got things started with two runs for eight yards.  On third and two, running back Ryan Grant got the call and gained two yards.  However, the Vikings were flagged for a neutral zone infraction and that gave the Packers a first down at the 31.  A short scramble by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a 16-yard pass to Harris moved the ball to the Packer 49.  From there, Rodgers found tight end Jermichael Finley for ten yards and Harris for 12 more.  On second and 11 from the 25, Rodgers found Grant on a screen pass that went for 16 yards.  That made it first and goal at the nine and Harris ran up the middle for an apparent touchdown.  He was ruled down at the one, but the Packers challenged the play.  After review, it was ruled that he broke the plane and the call was reversed.  Kicker Mason Crosby made the point after and the Packers led 7-3 as the first quarter came to an end.

After the teams traded punts, the Packers got the ball at their 27 with a little under eight and a half minutes to go in the second quarter.  Passes to tight end Tom Crabtree and wide receiver James Jones moved the Packers to the Viking 39.  On fourth and five from the 34, Rodgers threw a short pass to wide receiver Greg Jennings who took it all the way down to the two-yard line.  An incomplete pass to Finley and two unsuccessful runs by fullback John Kuhn put the Packers in a fourth and goal situation from the one.  Instead of trying again, Packer head coach Mike McCarthy opted to go for the easy field goal.  The 20-yard attempt was good and the Packers increased their lead to 10-3 with 3:25 to go in the first half.

The Vikings had a quick three and out and the Packers took over at their 38 with just under two minutes to go.  Deep passes to wide receiver Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings gave the Packers a first and goal at the three-yard line.  This time, there would be no easy field goal attempt.  Kuhn ran off right guard for a Packer touchdown.  Crosby made the point after and the Packers now led 17-3 with 38 seconds to go in the first half.  The Vikings couldn’t do much with the ball with the little time that was remaining and the first half ended on an incomplete pass intended for wide receiver Devin Aromashodu.

Starting at their 20, the Packers went right to work.  Two runs by Harris and a nine-yard pass to Jones gave them a first down at the 37.  Another pass to Jones and two more to Harris quickly put them at the Viking 20.  The drive stalled at the 14 and Crosby was once again called on for a field goal attempt.  But, there would be no field goal attempt this time.  The Vikings were flagged for 12 men on the field and that gave the Packers a first down at the nine.  From the nine, Rodgers found Kuhn across the middle.  Kuhn bounced off a couple of Vikings and landed in the end zone for another Packer touchdown.  Crosby made the point after and the Packers now had a commanding 24-3 lead.

Try as they might, the Vikings just didn’t have the ability to come back from such a deficit.  What followed the touchdown by Kuhn was a whole lot of nothing.  The Packers ran the ball and took time off the clock.  However, there would be one more touchdown.  With four minutes to go in the game, wide receiver Michael Jenkins got loose and was wide open on the right sideline.  Webb spotted him and hit him in stride for a 50-yard touchdown.  Walsh made the point after and the Vikings now trailed 24-10 with a little over three minutes to go.  The Packers ran six plays and punted the ball back to the Vikings with 19 seconds to go.  Needless to say, that’s not enough time to score twice.  Final score: Packers 24 Vikings 10.

For the Vikings, Joe Webb completed 11 of 30 for 180 yards, one touchdown, one interception and one lost fumble.  He also had 68 yards rushing on seven carries.  Michael Jenkins and tight end Kyle Rudolph tied for the lead in receptions with three apiece.  Jenkins had the most receiving yards with 96 and one touchdown.  Adrian Peterson ended up with 99 yards on 22 carries and the Packers did a good job of not letting him get loose.  All totaled, the Vikings had 167 yards rushing on 29 carries.  Defensively, linebacker Chad Greenway led the Vikings with ten solo tackles.

For the Packers, Aaron Rodgers completed 23 of 33 for 274 yards and one touchdown.  He spread the ball around to ten different receivers and DuJuan Harris led the team in receptions with five.  Greg Jennings was the leader in receiving yards with 61.  Harris had the most rushing yards with 47 on 17 carries and one touchdown.  As a team, the Packers had just 76 yards on 31 carries.  Defensively, cornerback Sam Shields led the Packers with five solo tackles, two passes defensed and an interception.

With that win, the Packers head out to the Bay Area to take on the San Francisco 49ers next Saturday.  They met in week one in Green Bay and the 49ers came away with a 30-22 win.  A lot has changed since then.  In that game, the “replacement refs” threw 18 flags for 143 yards.  Something tells me that won’t happen this time and it should be a close game.

 

Endgame

It is time for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to call up the referees, clear his throat, and say “uncle.”

Then he should empty a bag of money on the table and watch the zebras dance.

Monday night’s debacle of an ending to the Packers-Seahawks game was the most embarrassing moment of the NFL season and the worst thing to happen on primetime TV since the debut of “Whitney.”

The replacement officials are like a gang of sloths trying to play pinball.  And tonight, they determined the outcome of a game by ruling that all an offensive player has to do to be credited with a catch is be in the same state as a defender who has two arms wrapped around the ball.

The replacement officials just declared that Eleanor Roosevelt won the 2000 presidential election.

Golden Tate just showed up at M.D. Jennings’ house and claimed to be the rightful owner of his colon.

Please, Mr. Goodell.  Give the regular officials their money, their security and Dan Dierdorf’s parking spot.  The NFL is becoming a reality TV show in which the camera always follows the chubby, pasty guy while the bronzed babes dance in the out-of-focus background to polka music.

Game over.  Refs win.  If not, football continues to lose.

 

Packers 23, Bears 10: The Godless Ghouls of Green Bay

The 208-mile road from Chicago, Illinois to Green Bay, Wisconsin is littered with Jay Cutler’s teeth, Clay Matthews’ sweat and the bloodied, massacred corpses of Santa’s elves.

Green Bay is a cold place.  A cruel place.  It’s the home of soul-choking linebackers and ice-blood Crabtrees.  There is a flashing neon sign just outside Green Bay that says “Go Home or Die Slow.”  Dogs in Green Bay walk on their hind legs while smoking cigars.  Green Bay cats recognize various forms of stone and nylon.

The kings of Green Bay are the Packers, but the Gods of Green Bay are the relentless winds of time and inevitability that blow smoke into the eyes of Chicago visitors while also chewing their abdomen and crotch-kicking their faith.

The Packers beat the Bears, 23-10, Thursday night at Lambeau Field and afterwards the Wicked Witch of Wisconsin used Toto to sponge her stretch marks.

This game was supposed to be a showdown.  Instead, it was a letdown, a beat down, a clown hanging and a bible burning.  For Bears fans, this nationally televised contest was a lot like slow dancing with Cee Lo Green.  In a sauna.  Sober.

The Bears had a lot of confidence entering this game having defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the season-opener.  After all, if you can crush a lizard surely you can kill Godzilla.  It was close for the first half with both Chicago and Green Bay’s offensive lines playing an exciting new game from Hasbro called “Sack Me, Please!” which kept the offenses stagnant and the scoreboard lonely.  Then, just before halftime, with Green Bay leading 3-0, the Packers – who are known to operate unmanned drones and whistle show tunes during a neutering – were lined up for a field goal but instead punter Tim Mashtay flipped the ball to tight end Todd Crabtree who lugged that bean 27 yards for a very sneaky touchdown.  Three million Chicagoans then moaned in unison: “That’s not fair!”

It was 10-0, Packers.  It felt like a pigskin enema.

The gentle devils from Wisconsin’s north forgot to take their mercy pills in the second half, eventually building a 23-3 lead and dominating the proceedings like a drunken carnival barker in a caravan of mutes.  The Bears did score a touchdown in the fourth quarter when Cutler hit Kellen Davis for a 21-yard strike but, by that point, it merely felt like someone decided to let the old folks take off the roller skates before lining up for lunch.

The Bears have now lost to the Packers five straight times and it feels like 405.  It also feels like the ghost of Larry Fine asking you to cuddle.  The Bears are now 1-1 and that Super Bowl talk heard throughout Chicago a few days ago now seems more like the hallucinations of a homeless man dry-humping the splintered wooden bench in front of Dunkin’ Donuts.

Is the season over?  No.  Chicago’s defense played well and the Bears played most of the second half without running back Matt Forte and, it must be said, there was a call or two by the rent-a-refs that didn’t go Chicago’s way, and Brandon Marshall dropped a certain TD pass in the third that would have made it 13-7 and, who knows?, possibly could have changed the tempo of the entire game and maybe even the outcome.  So yes, it was bad, but not hopeless.  The Bears simply need to do a better job of blocking for Cutler.  That’s simple, yet not easy.

The Packers are still the better team and a measuring stick for Lovie Smith’s little rascals.  The Bears will bounce back because, thank Jehovah, the St. Louis Rams now come to town.  Just as it was too early to declare the Bears Super Bowl-bound last week it’s too early to call them dead in the water today.  There are 14 games left and Chicago will have a lot of growing pains.  There will be ups, there will be downs, and there will be frozen boogers the next time these two teams meet, December 16, in Chicago.  The Bears will straighten out their blocking schemes by then.  You have my word and Mike Tice’s reputation to bank on.

The problem is, the Packers will probably be just as good three months from now as they are today.  So, the mantra in Chicago is to forget Green Bay for a while and remember to run, block, and keep cool.  Learn as you go.  Lead with your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Mike’s Mistake

As we all know by now, the Green Bay Packers are spending the rest of January ice fishing and curling instead of playing football after getting dinged by the New York Giants last weekend.  The surprising and ignominious early playoff exit by the 15-1 defending Super Bowl champs spoils Green Bay’s opportunity to be considered one of the greatest teams in NFL history and also frees up Lambeau Field for arctic cheese rolling through Valentine’s Day.

If the Packers had figured out how to rush Eli Manning and catch the ball – things they normally excel at – they would likely be headed for a second straight Super Bowl crown, putting them in the same historic huddle with the New England Patriots of 2003 and 2004, the Denver Broncos of 1997 and 1998, the Dallas Cowboys of 1992 and 1993, the San Francisco 49ers of 1988 and 1989, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1978 and 1979, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974 and 1975, the Miami Dolphins of 1972 and 1973 and the Green Bay Packers of 1966 and 1967 as the only NFL teams to repeat as Super Bowl champs.  Come to think of it, it’s a rather crowded huddle but still a very impressive one.

This season’s Packers have been compared to many of those great teams and others of yesteryear. If the Pack had won it all this year, they would have been in place to do something no NFL team has ever done which is win the league’s final game three straight times.  Between the first NFL title game in 1933 to the final one before the Super Bowl era in 1965, the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts all enjoyed back-to-back title runs but no team ever reached the threepeat.

Right now a 102-year-old man in Green Bay is pushing the biker girl off his lap and yelling “Wait a second there, fella!”  OK, OK, Grandpa, I’m gettin’ there.  Before the NFL started playing championship games, teams were voted league champions and Boise State didn’t have a chance back then either.  The Akron Pros (Lebron James’ high school team) were the first people’s choice as NFL champs in 1920. The league’s first dynasty was the Canton Bulldogs who won it all in 1922 and 1923 and then moved to Cleveland and won it all in 1924, but the NFL doesn’t officially recognize that 1924 team as the same franchise as the ’22 and ’23 teams.  But a few years later an indisputable back-to-back-to-back occurred when the Packers won it all, by vote, in 1929, 1930 and 1931.

There you go, old guy!  Now chow down a Werther’s and give your gal a kiss.

It will likely be a long time before any team ever wins three straight Super Bowls as it’s just too dang tough.  But every December or January that a defending champion gets knocked out of its repeat quest about ten million of us sad souls in NFL land of a certain age think back to the team that, we believe more than any other one-and-done, really should have been the list of repeat winners – the 1985 and 1986 Chicago Bears.

There is little dissension among NFL historians that the 1985 Bears team that throat-crunched the rest of the NFL en route to winning Super Bowl XX was one of the greatest teams of any single season.  The Bears had maybe the best defense ever seen that year, had Walter Payton and Jim McMahon on offense and had one of the most colorful coaches of all time, Mike Ditka, on the sidelines.  Those Bears were great, they were fun and they were also eternally infuriating.

With all that talent – Payton, McMahon, Jimbo Covert, Jay Hilgenberg, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Dave Duerson, Gary Fencik and on and on – the Bears were expected to win three Super Bowls, maybe four.  Maybe more?  That’s a tough call but they should have won at least two.  So why didn’t they?  We’ve heard a million explanations: they got too complacent, Ditka got too cool, McMahon couldn’t stay healthy, the ionosphere was acting oddly.  And all of those might be true.  But, like Green Bay’s disappointment this year, the Bears’ blunder might come down to simply this: they had a bad afternoon.

Twenty-five years ago this month the ’86 Bears opened the playoffs in defense of their Super Bowl title having polished off a 14-2 regular season (and are still the only team to ever win 29 regular season games in back-to-back years) by welcoming the Washington Redskins to town for a divisional playoff game.  McMahon, the starting quarterback, was hurt but the Bears had his capable backup, Steve Fuller, ready to go.  Fuller was a good player, knew the system, and actually started in a playoff game two years earlier when the Bears beat the Redskins in Washington.

But then came Mike’s Mistake.

Mike Ditka was not the greatest coach in NFL history.  He was probably not even one of the greatest.  He was good though, and likely the most famous, colorful and recognizable man to ever prowl a sideline.  Late in the 1986 season the Bears had signed quarterback Doug Flutie, the former Heisman Trophy winner who had become a refugee of the defunct USFL.  Flutie saw action in a few games and Ditka (gulp) chose to go with him against the Redskins in the playoffs.  Washington countered by putting five guys on the defensive line to stop Payton and dared Flutie to throw.  He couldn’t.  The 5-8 Flutie finished 11/31 for 134 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as the Bears lost, 27-13.

No repeat.  No dynasty.

No one knows what would have happened if Ditka had gone with Fuller at quarterback instead of Flutie.  No one, that is, except me.  Fuller was no Roger Staubach but he knew the offense, had the support of his teammates and was a solid passer.  If Fuller had started that game the Bears would have won, then would have beaten the Giants the next weekend in New York and steamrolled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.  There’s no guarantee they would have won three or four Super Bowls but they would have, should have, won two.

Analyze, reanalyze, overanalyze, drive yourself crazy.  Go ahead, it’s January.  Have a drink and a Werther’s while you’re at it.  There are a million reasons the 1980s Bears didn’t become a dynasty but the biggest reason, most obvious reason, is a very specific one: It should have been Fuller, not Flutie.  If so, the Bears would have repeated and would be on the earlier list that this year’s Packers wanted so badly to be included upon.

The 1985 Chicago Bears were so fun, colorful and damn good that maybe one Lombardi Trophy was enough.  But two would have been nice.

Get over it, right?

Nope.  Not yet.

 

 

Giants 37, Packers 20

After defeating the Atlanta Falcons at home last week, the New York Giants made it to the next round of the playoffs and headed up to to the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion, Green Bay Packers.

The Giants got the ball first and started at their own 20.  Quarterback Eli Manning completed passes to wide receivers Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz that moved the ball to the Packer 42.  A short run by running back Ahmad Bradshaw and a 13-yard pass to tight end Travis Beckum got the Giants a first down at the Packer 18.  They would get as far as the 13 and kicker Lawrence Tynes made a 31-yard field goal to give the Giants an early 3-0 lead with eight and a half minutes to go in the first quarter.

Packer kick returner Randall Cobb returned the kick to the Packer 21. On the return, it looked like he fumbled, but the replay showed his knee was down.  Two passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to tight end Jermichael Finley and a pass to wide receiver Greg Jennings got them to the  Giant 31.  The drive would stall at the 29 and kicker Mason Crosby made a 47-yard field goal to tie the game at three with five and a half minutes to go in the first quarter.

On third and 11 from their own 19, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks caught a pass for 15 yards to move the ball to the 34.  Manning found Nicks again on the very next play.  Nicks caught the pass, bounced off some Packer defenders and ran the rest of the way for a 66-yard touchdown to give the Giants a 10-3 lead.

The kickoff by Tynes went out of bounds and the Packers got good field position at their own 40.  Some running by Rodgers and running back Ryan Grant moved the ball to the Giant 49.  An 11-yard pass to wide receiver Jordy Nelson gave them another first down at the 38.  From the 38, wide receiver Greg Jennings caught a six-yard pass and appeared to fumble.  Replay showed the play over and over again and it sure looked like the ball was coming out before his knee was down.  But the replay official didn’t see it that way and ruled Jennings was down.  An offside penalty on the Giants and a 16-yard pass to wide receiver James Jones got the Packers another first down at the 11.  On second and seven from the eight, Rodgers found fullback John Kuhn for a touchdown and that knotted the score at ten.

With momentum in their favor, the Packers tried an onside kick.  It was recovered by the Giants and they had good field position at the packer 41-yard line.  A pass to Beckum and a nine-yard run by Bradshaw moved the ball to the 21.  That was as far as the Giants would go and a 39-yard field goal attempt was blocked.  The Giants couldn’t capitalize on the good field position and the score remained tied at ten.

After a punt by the Packers, the Giants moved the ball through the air from their own 20 to the Packer 34.  On second and five from the 34, Manning looked for Nicks, but the pass was picked off by safety Morgan Burnett at the 13.  He returned it 12 yards to the Packer 25.

On third and seven from the 28, Rodgers found Jennings for a gain of ten and a first down.  From the 38, Kuhn ran up the left side and the ball came loose.  Safety Antrel Rolle picked it up and returned it nine yards to the Packer 34.  Once again, the Giants couldn’t get the ball into the end zone and settled for a 23-yard field goal to put them up 13-10 with just under two minutes to go in the first half.

The Packers couldn’t get anything going and punted.  The Giants took over with 41 seconds remaining.  A nine-yard catch and a 23-yard run by Bradshaw gave the Giants a chance to try a long field goal from the Packer 37 before halftime.  But the kicking unit stayed on the sideline.  Manning took the snap and launched a bomb to the left side of the end zone where it was caught by Nicks for a 37-yard touchdown to end the half.  At halftime the Giants had the momentum and a 20-10 lead.

Another touch-back got the Packers the ball at their own 20.  A 14-yard pass to Jennings and a 15-yard scramble by Rodgers got the Packers to their 49.  A 16-yard pass to wide receiver Donald Driver moved them into Giant territory.  On first and ten from the 30, defensive end Osi Umenyiora sacked Rodgers and forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Deon Grant.  However, the Giants couldn’t capitalize on the turnover and punted.

Passes to Driver and running back James Starks got the Packers to midfield.  Starks got the call on the next two plays and the Packers found themselves in Giant territory again.  On third and five from the 17, Rodgers fired a pass to Finley across the middle.  Finley couldn’t hang on to it and Crosby was called on for  a 35-yard field goal attempt.  It was good and the Packers now trailed 20-13.

The Giants punted on their next possession and the Packers once again moved the ball into Giant territory.  But, on fourth and five from the Giant 39, Rodgers was sacked by linebacker Michael Boley for a loss of six yards.  Clinging to a seven-point lead, the Giants knew they had to get a drive going and get some more points.  Passes to Cruz and Manningham and a defensive holding penalty moved the ball to the Packer 28.  Another pass to Cruz put the ball at the 17.  Runs by Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs inched the Giants a little deeper into Packer territory.  But on third and five from the 12, Manning was sacked by linebacker Brad Jones.  Tynes made his 35-yard field goal attempt and the Giants now led 23-13 with just under eight minutes to go in the game.

On second and five from the 34, Rodgers found Grant for a gain of ten. Grant was hit by safety Kenny Phillips and the ball was picked up and returned to the Packer four-yard line by linebacker Chase Blackburn.  On first and goal, Manning hooked up with Manningham for a four-yard touchdown to give the Giants a 30-13 lead with 6:48 to go in the game.

Facing a 17-point deficit, Rodgers knew he had to get his team going.  On third and ten from the 24, a pass to Driver fell incomplete.  However, a roughing the passer penalty was called on Umenyiora and that gave the Packers a first down at the 39.  A pass to Cobb for 21 and a 16-yard scramble by Rodgers got them down to the Giant 24.  On second and two from the 16, Driver caught a 16-yard touchdown pass to make it 30-20 with 4:45 to go.

An onside kick by Crosby was recovered at the 50 by Cruz and the Giants knew a couple of first downs would get them a win and a trip to San Francisco.  On third and 11, Manning found Cruz wide open for a gain of 17.  Bradshaw ran up the left side for 24 yards to give the Giants a first and goal at the ten.  On second and 14, Jacobs ran up the right side for a touchdown and that gave the Giants a commanding 37-20 lead with 2:36 to go.  One last desperate attempt by Rodgers was picked off by Grant and the Giants came away with a huge playoff win on the road.

For the Giants, Eli Manning completed 21 of 33 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.  Hakeem Nicks caught two touchdown passes and he and Victor Cruz combined for 12 catches for 239 yards.  Brandon Jacobs ran for a touchdown and he and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 95 yards on 21 carries.  Defensively, the Giants forced four turnovers, allowed 25 first downs and 388 total yards.  They sacked Rodgers four times and Michael Boley led the team with eight solo tackles, two sacks, three tackles for a loss and one pass defensed.

For the Packers, it was an uncharacteristic day for them as the receivers dropped passes throughout the game and they fumbled the ball away three times.  Aaron Rodgers completed 26 of 46 for 264 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.  He spread the ball around to nine different receivers and Donald Driver led the team with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown.  Rodgers also led the team in rushing with 66 yards on seven carries.  Grant and Starks combined for 77 yards on 14 carries.  Defensively, the Packers allowed 19 first downs, 420 total yards, forced only one turnover and sacked Manning only once.  Safety Charlie Peprah led the team with nine solo tackles and one tackle for a loss.

The Giants will be heading out to San Francisco to take on the 49ers on Sunday at 6:30 eastern time.  They met in week ten at San Francisco and the 49ers came away with a  27-20 victory.  As I mentioned in my Saints-49ers article, they met in the playoffs in 2003 and the 49ers came back from 24 points down and won 39-38.  Will the upcoming meeting be just as exciting?  Time will tell.

 

 

They’re Pistols

Thirty-two years after his final game and more than two decades after his death, Pete Maravich remains a unique and divisive figure in the history of American sports.  Maravich was perhaps the most entertaining basketball player of his time and certainly the most watchable college basketball player of all time.  In three seasons at LSU (1968-1970), Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game and, with his colorful socks and mop of hair, looked like the lovechild of Pete Seeger and Elgin Baylor.

Maravich was born in Pennsylvania but his blood was Cajun as he played college ball in Louisiana and then, after spending his first four NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, moved to the New Orleans Jazz for whom he would play five seasons including his most spectacular.  Maravich was flashy, brilliant, confounding, frustrating and, deservedly, a Hall of Famer and it’s painful and supremely unjust that he died so young, of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, in 1988 at the age of 40.

Much of what makes Maravich such a debate starter is his style of play and philosophy toward basketball.  He scored a lot, yes, but wasn’t so keen on trying to stop the other guy from scoring.  Maravich said he never understood his defensive detractors noting that when he would look at the box score at the end of the game and he had scored 40 points and the guy who was guarding him had scored only 20 “isn’t that defense?”

Maravich’s blood, hubris and plan of attack is alive and well in the state of Louisiana and has long since captured the hearts and minds of the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints are football’s merry band of Pistol Petes adorned not with sloppy socks but a regal fleur-de-lis.  And while Sean Payton’s apostles don’t shoot jump shots they do run a fast break offense that scoffs at ball control and clock management and lives by the belief that footballs were created for the one and only purpose of being moved past the goal line.

The Saints unapologetically pistol-whipped the Detroit Lions, 45-28, on Saturday night in New Orleans in their NFC wild card game, rolling up an NFL playoff record 626 yards of offense.  Quarterback Drew Brees, as always, was the point guard of this pigskin blitzkrieg completing 33 of 43 passes for a Maravichian 466 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a whole lotta funk and fun.

The Saints are to offense what Picasso was to nudity.  They make the practice of moving the football a transcendent, Avant-guard affair in which shock is common, yardage is sacred and points are more valuable than time.  Whether it’s through the air or on the ground, New Orleans never concedes that another touchdown cannot be compiled and only turns off the guns when the game is safely in hand as it was tonight when the Saints, graciously, took a knee at the end rather than punk those Lions with a 52-spot.

It seems as if nothing can stop the Saints as long as…they’re playing inside.  Especially on their home carpet.  The Saints are now 9-0 at home this season, averaging 41.5 points per game and, in their last three home games, including the playoff victory over Detroit, have scored exactly 45, 45 and 45.  But on the road the Saints turn from Pete Maravich into merely George Gervin, putting up 27.2 points per game.  It seems the only thing that might be able to slow down Brees, Payton, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Robert Meachem and the rest of the French Quarter is an act of God.  The Saints are sinfully offensive but can they score in the cold?  The rain?  The wind?  San Francisco?

New Orleans now has a date in San Francisco with the 49ers who sport the NFC’s top defense, allowing just 308 yards per game which is what Drew Brees can usually rack up with a sneeze.  The weather forecast for San Francisco next Saturday is sunny and 60 degrees so maybe the indoor Saints won’t turn blasphemous in such conditions.  If the weather holds, the Saints will roll and will almost certainly find themselves in Green Bay a week later for an NFC Championship game tussle with the Packers which will be a rematch of the NFL’s opening night thriller.  The Packers won that one, 42-34 at Lambeau Field on a warm September night.  The average high temperature in Green Bay is 24 degrees in January which is a field goal below New Orleans’ road game points average.

Pete Maravich was unstoppable but he never had to play at Lambeau in January.  If the Saints can get past the Niners then brave the elements and beat the Packers (assuming, of course, Green Bay makes it that far) it will be a religious experience and a remarkable triumph.  It can happen so long as the Saints think warm thoughts and keep on chuckin’.

…As the Saints continue their playoff march they are accompanied in their home state by the quest of Pistol Pete’s alma mater to claim college football’s national title.  LSU hosts Alabama at the home of the Saints, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in the BCS Championship game on Monday night.  With a victory, the Tigers will claim their third national championship since 2003 and Louisiana will be to football success what California is to fake body parts.

Is there something in the water?  In Walker Percy’s 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome, a heavy supply of sodium is added to the drinking water and LSU’s football team goes unbeaten for three years.  No mention was made of the Saints, though.  Back in the 1980s, the Saints had a good defense but were nothing like the offensive juggernaut they are today.  Back then, a team averaging 41 points per Sunday in New Orleans was something that not even science fiction dared to play with.

The truth has turned out to be more fantastic than fiction.