Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Something Died in Seattle

Elimination from contention is always a difficult time for any NFL fan.  Whether your team was ousted early in the regular season, during the playoffs, or in the Super Bowl itself, it is always painful.  But this was more painful than normal.  This loss will stick with us for a while.  Maybe forever.  Some part of me as a Packer fan died in Seattle Sunday.

“I don’t know if I can do this again,” I said to my 9-year old son after the game.  “It’s just too painful to be a Packer fan and be let down again like this.”  My son stared at me slack-jawed for a second, as if I’d just told him he was adopted.  “Dad… you don’t mean that.”  But I think I did mean it.  There is a pit in my stomach, a lump in my throat, and a void where all the excitement, emotion and promise of this season once was.

Of course, as an individual fan, I had nothing to do with this loss.  When you explain how you feel to a non-invested observer (one’s spouse... for example), you sound like a deranged person.  The outcome of yesterday’s game was completely out of my control.  Objectively, I know that.  If I step back, like some out-of-body experience, my behavior seems ludicrous.  Why was I shouting f-bombs and punching couch pillows?  Why did I ruin our family get-together by slamming the remote control and storming out of the room, as horrified extended relatives scurried for the exits?  How is it possible that I've spent multiple sleepless nights re-playing the game in my head?  It’s just a game.  A game in which I’m not a participant.  Such reactions from the players or coaches is understandable, but from a fan?  "Get a grip” I keep telling myself.

But I can’t get a grip.  I can’t forget this game.  And, tragically, no Packer fan will ever be able to forget it.  Every miraculous victory needs to have an epic failure on the other side.  A protagonist and an antagonist.  The Bills needed the Oilers in "The Comeback."  The Titans (thoughtfully reciprocating) needed the Bills in "The Music City Miracle."  The Patriots needed the Raiders in "The Tuck Rule" game.  These games and these situations are so unique, so unlikely, so memorable that they are solidified in the folklore of the NFL.  The Packers have now added their name to that ignominious list.  As fans, we won’t be able to forget this loss because it will be replayed, retold and rehashed for years.  Ask an Oilers fan about The Comeback.  It was 22 years ago.  The team doesn’t even exist in that city or by that name any more.  But the heartache of that loss still reverberates.

This loss will reverberate for Packers fans.  Every other playoff loss seems to pale in comparison.  First-round elimination by the Giants as the number one seed in 2011?  I got over it.  Fourth and 26 against the Eagles?  Distant memory.  Randy Moss wiping his ass on our goal post?  OK, that one sticks a bit.  But this one… this is the kind of loss you tell your grandchildren about.  It’s the kind of loss that you'll remember years from now where you were when it happened.  And, most regrettably, it’s a loss that will forever be associated with the Green Bay Packers, these players (poor Brandon Bostick), and this coach.  Losses like this strain an organization.  They erode trust and fray relationships.  They force you to scrutinize and second-guess.  And they often, fairly or not, cast the legacies of those most closely associated with them.

For me, still trying to process the loss days later, the person whose legacy I find myself most questioning is Mike McCarthy.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the guy to get fired.  With a 94-49 regular-season career winning percentage, he’s undeniably a great coach.  One of the Packer’s best, ever.  But his record in the playoffs tells a different story — just 7-6 in his career.  And if you take the unlikely 4-0 run in 2010 out of that record, he’s only 3-6 during the playoffs.  It’s easy to forget that the 2010 Super Bowl run depended on last-second interceptions in two games.  McCarthy could have easily been one-and-done had Tramon Williams not picked off Michael Vick with 33 seconds left in the Wild Card game.

It’s also easy to under-estimate the patience that Super Bowl season earned McCarthy.  Had that memorable championship run not happened, it’s hard to believe that the ensuing 4 years would have been tolerable for Packers fans or management.  McCarthy’s Packers have won the NFC North every year since, at an amazing 72% winning percentage during those four regular seasons, but have only advanced past the Divisional round once — this year.

At some point, that’s simply not good enough.  Call us spoiled, but one of the characteristic features of the Green Bay Packers is that we WIN FUCKING CHAMPIONSHIPS!!!  Sooner or later, there’s a Marty Schottenheimer moment, where you decide that a 5-13 playoff record overshadows a 2:1 regular season record. Were it not for the 2010 Super Bowl halo, McCarthy would almost certainly be fired this season.  His vanilla game plans, conservative play calling, and impetuous decision-making would have his job in jeopardy.  The fan base and Packer management would not accept another early exit from the playoffs during the prime of Aaron Rodgers’ career.  And the second-guessing, as loud as it's been this year, would have been triple the decibel level.

If there was a lesson, a silver lining, that could hopefully come from Sunday’s loss, it is to finally vanquish that lets-play-not-to-lose-the-game mindset that has plagued McCarthy’s teams.  In the playoffs, you need to play to win.  When a team turns the ball over to you 5 times, effectively handing you the game on a silver platter, you need to STEP ON THEIR FUCKING THROATS.  What separates the good teams, as the Packers under both Rodgers and Favre have consistently been, from the great teams is a killer instinct.  It’s what the Belichick-Brady Patriots have demonstrated year after year -- a no-holds-barred will to win, even if it involves deflating balls.

There are still a few years left.  Even though he turns 32 next year, Rodgers should have a few more runs in him before the era is over.  To be at the precipice this year, in this game, is an incredible missed opportunity.  But there’s still time to write a legacy closer to Brady’s than Peyton’s.  It’s a high bar for next season — Super Bowl or bust.  But that, in the end, may be the only way to cover up the bitter taste of Sunday’s epic defeat.  The only way to resuscitate the part of my Packer fandom that died in Seattle.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Finally Some Luck in the Bye Week

It's difficult not to draw comparisons between the 2012 season and 2010 season.  Maybe that's just me consoling myself -- trying to muster up some degree of re-assurance that we can overcome the loss of so many starters.  By my count, we are currently down 10-12 starters due to injury: some are on IR (Desmond Bishop, Bryan Bulaga, Nick Perry, D.J. Smith); some we hope to get back later this season (Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson); and some we hope to get back in the next couple weeks (Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, John Kuhn, Jerel Worthy, Sam Shields).  Whether this is 10 or 12 depends if you count D.J. Smith and Jerel Worthy (both, technically, not starters at the outset of the season but beginning to fill/take that role).  Regardless, that's a lot of impact players -- nearly half the starting team.

Any way you slice it, that's a lot of adversity to overcome.  But the attitude in the locker room, as in 2010, seems to be good.  Next man up.  And it has been encouraging to see young guys like Casey Hayward, Dezman Moses, and M.D. Jennings step into the void and make an impact.  It was also encouraging to see James Starks and Alex Green pick up their game last week.  And James Jones and Randall Cobb have risen to the occasion as well.

Fortunately, we finally got some good news during our bye week.  While our players recuperated, the rest of the NFL played out as well as we could have hoped:

  • The Bears finally met an opponent with a winning records and fell like a cheap tent.
  • The Giants lost and just looked miserable doing it.  Can't get punk-slapped by the Bengals.
  • The 49ers kissed their sister with a tie against the Rams.  Not as sweet as a loss, but we'll take it.
  • The Falcons finally lost one of about 8 games they easily could have lost this season.
  • The Cowboys beat the Eagles in the Mediocrity Bowl.
  • The Vikings sent the Lions back to Detroit, the team that may still worry me the most in the NFC North.

The only team we might care about (in terms of tie-breaker scenarios) that didn't lose is the Seahawks.  But overall, this bye week couldn't have gone better -- with all our key rivals for divisional and conference supremacy taking a step back.

We're going to need a little luck, because the Packers are going into the season-defining stretch of their schedule, with 4 division games in the next 5 weeks (and the 5th is against the Giants).  The Packers have the chance to get the upper hand on the NFC North and the inside track on the post-season, if they can continue their winning streak through this stretch -- or at least win 4 of 5.  With 3 losses already, the Packers could possibly afford a loss or two and still be in good shape for the post-season.  It will be hard, with the injury bug in full-force, but all these are win-able games.

Keep your fingers crossed that rather than folding to this adversity, that this year's team channels the 2010 team's determination and gets this season fully back on track.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pack on Track

I, like many Packer fans, was getting a little panicky after the Colts loss last week.  It felt like the season could suddenly be in question.  That another road loss to the undefeated Texans could send us reeling.  Aaron Rodgers's response?  "Shhhhh..."

The Packers came out with both fists blazing Sunday night.  Part of it was the law of averages -- after so many bad calls and bizarre plays this season, the luck of the draw finally seemed to be on our side with multiple Houston mistakes and 3 Packer take-aways.  But with Jennings, Benson and Raji out, Finley limited, and Williams, Shields and Perry leaving the game with injuries, the Packers still put a beat-down on the team many thought was the best in the NFL -- demonstrating on national television why they should still be in the discussion for Super Bowl favorites.

Rodgers' 338-yard, 6 touchdown performance was epic (bonus for me: he's on my fantasy team as well!).  Putting the league on notice that even with half his horses nursing injuries, Rodgers can shred one of the best defenses in the NFL.  In fact, by yards allowed, the Texans were the top defense in the league coming in to Sunday.  Which brings us to a very important point: the Packers have faced some seriously talented defenses so far this season -- having now played 4 of the top 5 defenses in the NFL: the Texans, 49ers, Cowboys, Bears, and Seahawks.  One might reasonably expect the offense to struggle at times against these opponents.

As emphatic as Sunday's win was, the Packers need to maintain their intensity over the next 3 weeks.  The Rams in St. Louis next week are always tough, and have a very stout defense (#7 in the league).  Then the Jaguars and Cardinals at home, and the Cardinals also are very solid defensively (#10 in the league).  If Green Bay can hold serve through these three games, they would go into their bye week 6-3 and in very reasonable shape to contend for the NFC North.  But it will be a battle.  With 5 of their last 7 games against NFC North opponents, the season will likely be decided late.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Maybe We're Just Not That Good

This is what I remember thinking after the Packers lost to the Redskins on October 10, 2010 on a last-second field goal.  The Packers lost several of their players to injury that game, and it seemed like a downward turn in the season.  That feeling was amplified when the Packers lost again at home the following week to the Dolphins.  And that's how I felt today -- questioning whether the Packers are really as good as everyone thought.

This game was on ice.  A 21-3 lead at halftime against the worst team in the NFL last year with a rookie quarterback.  But two key injuries to Benson and Raji seemed to sway the game -- making the Packers one-dimensional (except for Green's long run in the fourth quarter) and resulting in 5 sacks in the second half, while the Colts were able to consistently rush the ball, setting up Reggie Wayne for big gains.

The Packers defense continues to be a work in progress.  They just don't seem to be able to get the stops when they need them.  Shields was inconsistent -- some nice plays, but victimized too much including a critical 25-yard pass interference penalty.  Nobody in the secondary seemed to be able to tuck away interceptions.  Although Casey Hayward got one, the usually sure-handed Tramon Williams dropped at least two, as did Woodson.  Luck is good, but no defense should be picked apart by a rookie.  He finished with 362 yards of passing.  Ugh.  Feels like this is going to be another long season on the defensive side.

The offense, which operated like a the well-oiled machine we've come to expect in the first half, completely stalled in the second half.  The inability to run the ball after halftime made the Packers look inept.  They just couldn't get anything going.  It was like a different team.  Were they over-confident?  Did they mail it in for the second half?  Were the injuries to Benson and Finley too much to overcome? I just don't have answers to these questions.  But if, as a team, they are so precarious, it does not bode well for the season.

Going to Houston to face the undefeated Texans next week is going to be a tough order.  We could be staring at 2-4.  And the NFC is going to be tough this year.  Just in our division, the Bears, Vikings and Lions all are looking good.  The Falcons and 49ers are rolling.  It's still early to hit the panic button -- after all, they managed to come back from a 3-3 start in 2010 to win the Super Bowl.  But they better get it going here soon, or it could be a challenge to even make the playoffs.

Monday, October 1, 2012


That was close.  A 1-3 start would have been a problem.  And we were, once again, only one or two calls from it going the other way.  McCarthy's relief was palpable.  Although it was impressive that the Packers were able to put the Seattle debacle behind them (at least in their offensive performance), hopefully the Saints game served as a "teaching moment" for the team.  Key take-aways:

  1. Replacement refs can still screw you over -- three really big mistakes by the "real" officials: the push-off against Morgan Burnett on the Saints' opening touchdown, the un-willingness to over-turn Jimmy Graham's catch that was clearly pinned between his ass and the ground, and the failure to call Sproles's fumble on the kick-off return.  All atrocious.  The crowd at Lambeau was seething.  God help them if those calls had been made by replacement officials.
  2. Be more prudent with your challenges -- I find McCarthy can be a little aggressive with the challenges at times.  His first challenge seemed to be more of a time-out than a challenge.  That seemed unlikely to be over-turned.  His second challenge was more sound and he had to throw the flag, but when it didn't get over-ruled he was done.  And, of course, that decision almost cost the Packers the game when they were out of challenges and could not get another look at what even the most brain-dead replay official could see was a Sproles fumble that would have sealed the game.  I, by the way, think it's time to update the challenge rule, but will save that for another rant.
  3. Zone defense sucks -- last week in Seattle it was the offense that was stubborn to adjust their game plan as Seattle mauled Rodgers in the first half, but they eventually did in the second half.  About 3 long Colston receptions into this game, it was obvious that the zone coverage the Packers were employing on defense was not going to work.  Yet they stuck with it all day, giving up multiple 3rd-and-long conversions and 429 yards through the air in the process.  The Packers' defensive secondary continues to look confused.  Sam Shields' blown coverage on the 80-yard touchdown was inexcusable -- just a pure, obvious mental lapse thinking he had safety help.
  4. Gotta get big plays -- the Packers thrived on big plays last year.  Long passes on offense.  Take-aways on defense.  They aren't getting or creating those plays as much this year.   The turn of events where Harrell fumbled on the goal line ("Just, whatever you do, don't turn the ball over!!!" were without doubt the last words he heard from McCarthy before taking the field for his first regular season NFL snap) to be shortly followed up by a Drew Brees bomb for a touchdown was a 14-point swing that the Packers were truly lucky to overcome.
So the win is a relief, but the team still feels like it needs to get their heads on right.  Indianapolis will be playing with emotion after their head coach was diagnosed with leukemia, and the Colts have put up a pretty good fight.  Losing to an inferior team to start a 3-game road stretch would not be a good next chapter to this season.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Was Monday's Finish the Worst Call in NFL History?

The regular refs are back, but the scars of Monday night's debacle will linger.

Like most NFL fans, I've been consumed by the aftermath of the Packers stunning loss on Monday night -- lapping up all the news and analysis I can.  It occurred to me that what the media tried to characterize as a "controversial call" was anything but.  There was no controversy over that call.  Everyone knows it was a colossal screw up.

I have never, ever, in my 42 years of watching sports, heard such universal, unanimous, un-wavering agreement by everyone that watched a game that a call was botched.  I have yet to hear a single person defend it.  Hell, I haven't heard a single person even explain it.  The refs on the field Monday night certainly couldn't explain it.  The Seahawks fans can't explain it (every Seattle fan I heard call in to NFL Radio admitted it was a travesty).  Most Seahawks players like Marshawn Lynch have agreed that Seattle didn't win that game.  Golden Tate admitted he pushed off.  Even Pete Carroll can't defend it, offering on NFL Network one of the most talking-without-saying-anything explanations that "Whether they missed the push or not, obviously they missed the push in there, in the battle for the ball.  But that stuff goes on all time.  They see it, they don’t see it.  That happens with the official officials.  And so the result is they called it, the league backed it up, game over, we win."  Nice sportsmanship.  Dick head.

The only people, evidently in the entire world, who thought that play was a Seattle touchdown are side judge Lance Easley, who I think was just confused when he called it a touchdown on the field (back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn, standing two feet away, begged to differ -- as infamously captured in this photo), replay official Howard Slavin and referee Wayne Elliott.  I'm not sure which of these guys got cut by the Lingerie Football League, but it would be hard for any of them to make it even there.  The only thing more insulting than the call, was the NFL's statement in response, which acknowledges both the offensive pass interference and the fact a "simultaneous possession" call can be reviewed (and over-turned), yet at the same time declared the result final.

With such a preposterous conclusion and the hasty resolution of the referees' strike that it precipitated, it begs the question: was that the worst call ever in the NFL?  I did a little research on other notoriously bad calls, and here are the top 5 plays that would even be contenders:

  1. The Thanksgiving Day coin-toss where Jerome Bettis called tails but the referee heard heads.
  2. Jerry Rice's fumble (that was never called) in the '99 Packers-49ers wild card game.
  3. The infamous "tuck rule" game in which Charles Woodson's strip of Tom Brady was over-turned.
  4. The Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris
  5. The Seattle Sacrifice where M.D. Jennings was robbed of a game-winning interception which finally prompted the NFL to resolve its labor dispute.

I believe #5 is your winner for several reasons:

  • No other play (except the Immaculate Reception) decided the game -- they were all pre-cursors that set up the final play.
  • No other play had such indisputable visual evidence -- there wasn't even replay in 2 of the other 4.
  • No other play was so unanimous -- fans from opposing teams in each of these plays saw it differently.
  • No other play was officiated by replacement refs.
It's no contest in my opinion.  The only hopeful news from all this is that the Packers seem to be using it as motivation.  McCarthy, to his credit, seems to have moved on.  That was his, and Charles Woodson's, message to the team.  They can't dwell on this.  They need to get ready for the Saints.  We all can only hope that a one-game difference in record won't come back to haunt them.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The NFL Should Over-rule Their Own Refs

The "Monday Night Mugging."  Like all notoriously controversial plays, this play needs a nickname.  So it won't be forgotten.  So it goes down as a black mark, as an asterisk, in the annals of NFL history.

In fact, if the NFL has any integrity, they should retroactively change the result of the Packers-Seahawks game tonight.  The job of the NFL is to ensure the game is decided by the players on the field, not by the referees.  The League has taken a huge gamble, in the face of increasingly vocal criticism and ever-mounting evidence of ineptitude, by going with substitute refs.  And now it's blown up in their face.  Roger Goodell should be ashamed.  He better damn well be on the phone as we speak with McCarthy and Thompson and Murphy, and, by proxy, every Green Bay Packer shareholder, explaining what the hell he's going to do to make this right.

The brand of the NFL is tarnished by tonight's result.  That is the judgment of Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Jon Gruden, Adam Schecter, and countless other commentators, experts and analysts.  I have never, in all my years of watching football, seen and heard such unanimous consensus that the officiating of a game was incompetent.

The focus has, rightfully so, been on the last play of the game.  But that was merely the most visible and consequential mistake of the night.  Arguably the more egregious blown calls were Erik Walden's roughing the passer penalty that negated a Packer interception, and the positively ridiculous pass interference call on Sam Shields that kept the Seahawks drive alive and changed the field position battle dramatically in the fourth quarter.  And there were numerous other missed calls, like Browner's blatant cheap shot on Jennings, that were just flat-out missed.  (By the way, Browner better get a fine for that hit.  Player safety, my ass!)

Short of Goodell picking up the phone and doing the right thing to change the outcome of this game (something I admit will never happen, by the way), and short of the NFL actually resolving this labor dispute and getting the real refs back (something that, by most accounts, doesn't sound imminent), the League must, must, must take measures to attempt to return a shred of integrity to this game:

First, they need to insist that referees confer on the field to make the on-the-field call to the best of their ability.  On the final play, one ref called it a touchdown and the other (who had a better view, by the way) called it an interception.  There was minimal conference or discussion, which places the onus on replay to overturn the ruling on the field.  I know the refs have been criticized this season for slowing down the pace of play, but having differing opinions by the judges on the field is absolutely unacceptable.  They need to force them to take the time to get it right -- even if it means games take 6 hours to finish.

Second, I'm sick and tired of coaches, players and fans trying to intimidate these referees.  Just like John Harbaugh's antics and incessant complaining in week one, Pete Carroll, I believe, influenced how these referees called the game.  I also think the crowd influenced how these referees called the game.  By any measure, this game was completely out-of-control.  The Seahawks had 14 penalties.  Players were pushing and shoving after every play.  It's just not fun to watch.  And, frankly, when the thing becomes a bar fight, it plays to the disadvantage of the organizations with the class and self-respect to play the game by the rules.  They should start ejecting coaches who come out on the field and players who start shoving.  End of story.  They have to clean it up, before players start getting hurt.

Third, they need to give these refs more support.  I would start by adding more officials on the field.  These guys simply don't have the skills, athleticism or training to cover the game.  They should have one ref watching each receiver because the pass interference stuff has been out-of-control.   They should also add more officials on cameras and replays.  Frankly, I would almost support the entire game getting called from the booth if they had enough cameras.  Let the officials on the field focus entirely on keeping things in control, but make the calls upstairs.  At the very least, the booth judges need to be more aggressive in over-seeing the officiating that's happening on the field.

My final thought on this outcome is that it was not only unfair for the Packers, but it was unfair for the Seahawks.  The Seahawks played a damn good football game.  Their defense was relentless -- totally knocked the Packers out of their rhythm, forced nine sacks in the first half, made the Packers one-dimensional.  Russell Wilson, who every Wisconsinite has a soft spot for, had a solid performance -- put his team in position to win.  But instead, what he'll be remembered for, at least in this game, is a freebie.  A victory that was stolen.  A result he didn't fully earn (and that certainly goes for Golden Tate, whose blatant push-off of Shields was un-sportsmanlike at best).  That's not fair to Wilson.  That's not fair to the players on either team.  And, most of all, that's not fair to the fans -- many of whom I suspect are starting to regard this season with the same asterisk as the 1982 players' strike.