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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

Sadly, Time's Right for a Change of Seasons

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Sunrise, sunset. Last weekend saw the Green Bay Packers open training camp for a season that many expect to be glorious, even as the Milwaukee Brewers all but proved their season won't fulfill the hopes of April. Getting swept by fifth-place Houston canceled out the mini-surge of a week earlier and left the Brewers far behind St. Louis and Cincinnati with barely one-third of the season left.

Packer Fever always seizes Wisconsin when camp opens, but the Brewers' woes ensured that this year's version will be especially strong.

Artie: You got back from New York just in time for one of my favorite things—Bob McGinn's position-by-position analysis of the Pack in the Journal Sentinel. I live for this stuff!

Frank: Nobody covers pro football—or any other sport—the way my former colleague Bob covers the Packers. The detail he goes into! Take his player charts, the number of heights he gauges to the half-inch.

Artie: Let's see... Six of the 14 offensive linemen, five of the 10 defensive linemen, three of the five tight ends, six of the 10 wide receivers—all 6-foot whatever and a half.

Frank: And the weights—McGinn doesn't settle for the usual figures ending in 0 or 5. He gives us linemen who are 286, 303, 312, 314, 328, 337, or linebackers at 237, 247, 254 or 256.

Artie: It's fascinating. Do the guys' personal doctors ever get this precise? And all the other stuff—dropped-pass ratios, hang time on punts calculated to two decimal places, the same for pass-release times or frequency of every formation.

Frank: McGinn is the Stephen Hawking of NFL writers. He sees the football universe in ways no one else does. You stand in awe of the minutiae, but you're also a little afraid. I'd love to see his "war room" at home. It must be wall-to-wall shelves of tapes and printouts.

Artie: I'm pretty sure McGinn, in a super-detailed way, thinks the Packers could have a super-duper year.

Frank: But I know you like to give more succinct forecasts, like the ones in your column every December: "This year—sucked. Next year—probably suck even more."

Artie: I've never been proven wrong yet.

Frank: But I suspect you won't use that word about the 2010 Packers.

Artie: Well, as training camp begins—things could change with cut-downs, injuries, whatever—without being too grandiose, I say they'll be in the Super Bowl, but I'm not ready to say they'll win it.

Frank: Seems like you had ’em in the Super Bowl last season, too.

Artie: And I still do!

Frank: In some parallel universe you were probably right. But let's go into a little detail about this season. There's a problem on the D-line now that Johnny Jolly won't be jollying things up for the whole season.

Artie: His suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy will mean some real juggling. Which is a shame because he really played well last year.

Frank: Except for that head-butt that enabled the Vikings to continue a scoring drive at Lambeau Field.

Artie: The good news is that the Pack has depth in D-linemen. They moved Ryan Pickett from tackle to end and made B.J. Raji the No. 1 nose tackle. But see, it's the little extra something like Jolly...

Frank: I wouldn't call him a little anything.

Artie: But just that one extra good player that can separate early dismissal from the playoffs from Super Bowl status.

Frank: Like the Giants of ’07. One reason they ruined the Patriots' perfect season was that they had, like, 12 effective defensive linemen.

Artie: At any position, having that extra "piece," as they say, is crucial. By the way, when did players become "pieces"?

Frank: It flatters the coaches' self-image as grandmasters of the most complex game ever conceived. Kind of like McGinn's chess-like analysis of a blood-and-guts game—a true source of wonder.

Artie: There are some other question marks for the Pack. Does Al Harris come back from what everyone says was a horrific knee injury? But to me, the key thing is better special teams. They were ranked last or close to last in the league last season.

Frank: The punting was lousy, as we all remember. But you also mean return yardage, made and allowed, on punts and kickoffs?

Artie: They use all those categories to come up with one ranking for special teams. And the Packers ranked way, way down.

Frank: Just like they ranked near the worst in penalties, for at least the third straight season.

Artie: But of course Mike McCarthy will say what he always says about a glaring problem: "We'll get that fixed," or "cleaned up," or "taken care of." Drives me crazy! A Super Bowl team is good in all areas, or at least competent. If you have that one really crappy aspect, it can kill you.

Frank: What about the offensive line? To me, it always seems like they have questions about where certain guys will play.

Artie: In ’08 they thought it would be good to have guys ready for multiple spots. That turned into "master of none, jackass of all." Last year they tried to be more stable, but it didn't pan out. Jason Spitz got hurt and Scott Wells had to step in at center, where he did well. Chad Clifton was hurt and they tried Daryn Colledge at left tackle, which didn't work...

Frank: And Allen Barbre was lousy at right tackle.

Artie: Mark Tauscher, who wasn't even signed, came back to replace him and things got better.

Frank: This year they seem to be relying heavily on Clifton and Tauscher to play younger than they are, if that's the right expression. At the skill positions everything seems great, but you never know when injuries will strike. How about the linebackers? Last year rookie Clay Matthews came on strong as a pass rusher.

Artie: And they need that from the other side, especially with Aaron Kampman in Jacksonville. Another rookie last year, Brad Jones, showed some promise as well. It's not a position of dire need, but more depth can never hurt.

Frank: That'll do for now. In the Sept. 9 issue we'll proclaim our can't-miss predictions for the whole NFL.

The Big Chill

Frank: Remember that glimmer of hope we saw for the Brewers? What can we say after two poundings at home by Cincinnati and the three-loss, two-run weekend in Houston?

Artie: How's this? Getting swept after the ’Stros unloaded Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman makes me confident the Crew can definitely lose 90 games.

Frank: By the way, let's drop that "Cooler" label you pinned on me regarding the Brewers.

Artie: You left town, they won seven straight at home. Solid evidence, ain'a?

Frank: As you know, I keep my baseball ticket stubs and record the scores and outstanding plays. This year, when I'm in the stands the Brewers are 11-9 and when I use my Baseball Writers credential to sit in the press box, they're 3-1. That's 14-10 overall, a .583 winning percentage.

Artie: OK, the Brewers are Self-Coolers. Especially the alleged Big Two; Ryan Braun's tailspin has lasted weeks and Prince Fielder can't do a thing with guys on base.

Frank: And what luck! Randy Wolf pitches six scoreless innings Sunday, then gets nailed on the wrist by a line drive. The relievers throw 10 straight balls and pitch No. 11 becomes a grand slam.

Artie: Other teams must have a "book" on Braun that he's not adjusting to. He's swinging at horrendous pitches, down and away or down and inside. Reminds me of the Corey Hart of September ’08, totally lost.

Frank: But the Hart of August ’10has turned a strong season into athree-year, $26.5 millioncontract. Meanwhile, the Brewers say Mat Gamel, until now a third baseman,will get time at first basein Triple-A—a big hint thatFielder will be traded this winter.

Artie: I say deal him to San Francisco for the highly touted 21-year-old left-hander, Madison Bumgarner. I'd do it now, even-up.