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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

Super Bowl Express Can Use a Restart

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Wisconsin was the center of the golf world last weekend and baseball had plenty of interesting, though Brewer-less, races going. But the first rule of Badger State sports fans was already in effect: Once the Packers hit training camp, nothing else comes close in importance. And once they face another team, even when it doesn't mean anything… well, to one of the Observers, the 27-24 loss to Cleveland in the preseason opener definitely had meaning.

Frank: I surprised myself and watched the first half Saturday night, but I rely on your judgment as a Green and Gold follower. What did we learn?

Artie: That they can stop shooting their mouths off about the Super Bowl and start shaping up on defense and special teams. Anyone who didn't know the two teams would have thought Cleveland was the Super Bowl contender, not the Pack.

Frank: That sounds a mite harsh.

Artie: Just showing you the ups and downs of fandom.

Frank: Surely there were some pluses, at least on offense.

Artie: Aaron Rodgers was exceptional, 12 for 13 and a touchdown. Just the timing of his passes, the accuracy and the zip. Holy cow, is he ready for the season! And his stats mean the offensive line was protecting him well against a lot of blitzes. OK, that's it for the pluses.

Frank: The minuses were obvious. The Browns' long TD drive to start the game; Ryan Grant's fumble on his first carry to help make it 14-0; three TDs against the first-string defense; a muffed punt and dropped kickoff by rookie Sam Shields.

Artie: The defense and special teams began right where they left off last season. But one thing was odd; I started to wonder if there were referees on the field, especially since the Packers were involved. It was well into the second quarter when the first penalty was called.

Frank: Let's call that a half-plus.

Artie: Mike McCarthy will assure us, as usual, that the problems will be "cleaned up." That terminology always bugs me because there's something delusional about it. You can work on things, but you can't play this game again. What came up in specific situations might not happen next time because you'll be playing a different team with different schemes.

Frank: Your doubts are in mid-season form.

Artie: Well, if they stomp Seattle this weekend I'll be back on the Super Bowl bandwagon.

Frank: How about Grant leaving the game after just two carries with a shot to the head?

Artie: He did look groggy. I know he said that if it was the regular season he'd have returned.

Frank: But they eventually determined he suffered a concussion, and there's mounting evidence that getting your "bell rung" repeatedly can lead to serious brain-damage issues. If this happened on his second touch of the year, how many times will it take to really hurt him?

Artie: It wasn't a hit where you said, "Whoa, is he gonna get up?" And the experts are talking more and more about cumulative damage.

Frank: I don't see how any of these guys isn't taking a huge risk. Whether you clinically diagnose a concussion or not, the brain has to be sloshing around whenever there's a solid hit. Do they take any fewer shots to the head than boxers do?

Artie: And a lot of boxers wind up with brain damage.

Frank: The NFL has posted strongly worded warnings in all locker rooms about symptoms that players should look for. And it says this: "Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family's life forever."

Artie: But how many players will heed the signs? It's like using steroids; guys like Lyle Alzado and Mike Webster knew the risks but used ’em anyway. And they died relatively young, at least partly because of the ’roids.

Frank: It's a pact with the devil. "I'll give you money, fame and maybe a Super Bowl ring, but my payment will be years taken off your life." How many players would balk at present-day success even if they may be severely brain-damaged at 50?

Artie: Or younger. They found that Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who died in an accident last December, had degenerative brain damage. He was only 26 and had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

Frank: Michael Wilbon said on ESPN that the brain-damage issue could, over 20 or 30 years, actually kill football as a competitive sport.

Artie: That's not being too apocalyptic, if that's the right word. At the very least, it could drastically change the nature of the game.

Frank: Wilbon said there was no way his young son would ever play football. If I had a son, I'd say it too.

Artie: And if enough parents start saying it, and the pool of youth and high-school players dries up, where does that leave the sport?

Frank: Football may have passed the breaking point in terms of the laws of physics. Mass and momentum and speed—300-pound men moving faster than smaller players did 40 years ago.

Artie: Not that other sports don't involve risks.

Frank: There are a lot of concussions in soccer. I remember reading about studies involving repeated heading of the ball, especially in kids.

Artie: And baseball! Corey Koskie's career ended when he suffered a concussion chasing a fly ball—and his head never hit the ground, only snapped back. Mike Matheny quit because his bell got rung too often on foul tips. Justin Morneau has been out for weeks with a concussion.

Frank: You never know how any brain will react to repeated blows, or even just one. But football takes the risks to extremes.

Oh, the Dire Straits

Frank: So in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, a German guy beat a guy named Bubba in a playoff.

Artie: And a third guy thought he was in the playoff but he wasn't because on the 72nd hole he didn't think he was in a bunker but he was, and then did something that got him penalized.

Frank: When stuff like this happens, golf lovers often go into rhapsodies about the sacredness of the rules. To me it's just goofy.

Artie: Anyway, the winner, Martin Kaymer, was praised on CBS as a superbly "disciplined" player. Well, duh! He's a German, ain'a?

Frank: The Bubba, last name Watson, let it rip on the last playoff hole and splashed out for double-bogey.

Artie: The third guy, Dustin Johnson, can actually take consolation from missing the short putt that he thought would give him the title. If he'd made it, the two-shot penalty for the bunker bungle might have sent him into Lake Michigan.

Frank: Of course if he hadn't hit a lousy tee shot he wouldn't have found out there was a bunker where all he saw was spectators.

Artie: All week the crowds flattened this bunker into something that just looked like Wisconsin lakeshore.

Frank: I guess Johnson was supposed to think, "Sand equals bunker," and the rules posted in the clubhouse warned there might be bunkers in unlikely places. But wasn't there a PGA rules official on the course? Why didn't he say, "Dustin, take a good look"?

Artie: It's up to the player to ask for a ruling. Another of those bylaws that uphold golf's supreme integrity, or some such blah-blah.

Frank: So Johnson "grounds" his club before swinging, which is a no-no in sand because it might change the lie. In this case the sand was so packed that it made no difference—which made no difference to the authorities.

Artie: That's the official story, but I know the real reason for the penalty. I was puzzled by the hubbub until I got a good look at Johnson's outfit. Those low-hung hip-hugger slacks with the white belt—he looked like Peggy Lipton from TV’s "The Mod Squad" in the ’60s. It all became clear: He's out because they finally noticed he's wearing women's pants!

Frank: Not something the PGA wants publicized, I'm sure.

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