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Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011

The Quest for Meaning Where There Is None

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Vince Lombardi might have disagreed vociferously, but when it comes to NFL preseason games—especially the openers—winning isn't everything or the only thing; it's nothing. Yes, the Super Bowl champions lost Saturday night to lowly Cleveland, 27-17, but is anyone in Packerland worried? Still, there must have been a few meaningful things in a meaningless game...

Frank:
I followed my long-standing practice of not watching games that don't matter. I did check in once, and when I saw Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines wearing a baseball cap I knew Priority 1 had been accomplished—keeping him in one piece.

Artie:
That's Priority 1 for a lot of years down the road!

Frank:
But tell me, as a Packer fan, were there any other pluses?

Artie:
Well, no big injuries to anyone else. Matt Flynn looked good in taking the team to 10 points after Rodgers produced the first touchdown. And someone else who definitely looked good was the rookie receiver, Randall Cobb.

Frank:
What? Randall "Tex" Cobb, the former boxer who played the psychopathic motorcycle rider in Raising Arizona?

Artie:
I'm reasonably sure this is another Randall Cobb, a second-round pick out of Kentucky. The Packers sure seem to have Donald Driver's successor; Cobb played the slot position, which involves the over-the-middle routes, and had three catches for 60 yards. And he showed something on kickoff returns, too.

Frank:
Anyone else impress you?

Artie:
The punter, Tim Masthay, continued his strong showing from last year. But as for the linemen, who knows? There were so many of them shuttling in and out after a while.

Frank:
I know my former Journal Sentinel colleague, Bob McGinn, said the Packers would use a realigned defensive front three. Of course McGinn, who loves jargon but doesn't love to explain it, lost me with all the "3-technique" and "5-technique" stuff.

Artie:
I was right behind you in getting lost. I guess it has to do with whether someone's straight-up on an offensive lineman or off his shoulder, ain'a?

Frank:
I think the numbers come from the traditional numbering system for the "holes" that running plays aim for, not some wide variety of methods for squashing a blocker.

Artie:
Basically, they moved Ryan Pickett to the middle as the nose tackle and B.J. Raji to one of the ends.

Frank:
And it wasn't a disaster, I take it.

Artie:
Correct. So Flynn looked good and Cobb looked good, and the third-string QB, Graham Harrell from Texas Tech, looked OK, too. But it's all relative; he was playing with and against guys on the line who may be stocking groceries soon.

Frank:
Speaking of Flynn, if keeping Rodgers vertical is Priority 1, doing the same with Flynn must be vital, too, in case Priority 1 fails.

Artie:
Especially considering Rodgers missed time last year because of concussions. Flynn had to play the second half at Detroit and the whole game at New England. And once someone has had a concussion or two, he might be more susceptible.

Frank:
Flynn played well against the Patriots, as I recall, although the team lost.

Artie:
He's well thought of around the league.

Frank:
Enough for a team to try to make a trade for him? I noticed that McGinn raised that question with someone he referred to as an NFL scout.

Artie:
I think McGinn has those unnamed guys shackled in his basement, desperate to swap quotes for food and water. I'm sure the Packers will get calls about Flynn, and he's eligible for free agency next spring, but Ted Thompson isn't foolish enough to deal Flynn this season.

Frank:
He's got to be pretty optimistic that the Packers can repeat.

Artie:
True, and what would happen if he dealt Flynn and then Rodgers got hurt? The attrition rate with QBs is so high, and there's no way they could just bring in someone to run that offense.

Frank:
Sounds like the Packers, in Flynn, have a kind of Prince Fielder situation. But if he helps them win again, it would be worth seeing him depart later.

Artie:
Flynn could well be somebody's quarterback of the future, but for the present he's needed here.

The Beat Goes On

Frank: The Brewers entered this week on a six-series winning streak—or putting it another way, two 8-1 stretches. That'll carry you in a division race!

Artie:
Especially when the Cardinals can't match a weekend sweep and fall another game back. And still another Monday night! That put the Brew Crew up by six, just as if they did pull off the sweep in St. Louis—but even better, because the season was down to 40 games.

Frank:
They may well have swept the Cards if Albert Pujols hadn't snapped a long slumber against Milwaukee last Thursday night.

Artie:
The way Pujols was tanking I'm surprised Tony La Russa didn't claim the Crew stole his star's HGH shipment.

Frank:
I'll let that pass. As stirring as the weekend was at Miller Park, the last two games against Pittsburgh were nail-biters. If I were a die-hard Brewer fan, I might worry that sooner or later the breaks will turn against them.

Artie:
Scoring just three runs in 19 innings is a little worrisome, all right, but then the Pirates' rise to contention—before their recent collapse—was based on strong pitching.

Frank:
Just as Milwaukee's surge has been fueled by pitching—26 "quality starts" in 34 games heading into this week, plus a solid bullpen. That's mostly compensated for sub-par defense, like the errors Sunday that put the potential winning run on base in the ninth and 10th innings.

Artie:
Defense has been a negative all year, and it ain't changing. And Fielder and Casey McGehee, the culprits Sunday, have consistently been, um, not great. There's always the danger it'll happen at a critical time.

Frank:
Like the two-out, third-strike wild pitch that got away from the Pittsburgh catcher in the eighth inning, keeping the inning alive. The catcher tried to make a backhand stab instead of blocking it.

Artie:
But the Brew Crew still needed a hit to drive in the run, and Ryan Braun delivered it.

Frank:
Just as Josh Wilson got an RBI hit Friday night after a bobbled grounder prevented an inning-ending double play.

Artie:
That's what good teams are supposed to do.

Frank:
Every game is filled with lucky/unlucky breaks. A line drive blazes right into someone's glove; a broken-bat dribbler stays fair and dies in the grass. The key is how often you capitalize on the good luck and work around the bad.

Artie:
Remember, the Brewers got hosed on two tag plays Sunday—when Mark Kotsay wasn't tagged near third base and when a Pirate was tagged at second—right in the belly!

Frank:
They don't show controversial stuff on the scoreboard, but the TV monitors around the stadium show the game feed, including at least some of the replays. I was there Sunday, and I can attest that after the play at second, a lot of people were yelling. But for sheer noise, the most remarkable moment was the second-inning standing ovation when a .154 hitter came to bat.

Artie:
The bobblehead boy of the day, Craig Counsell. The good news, I guess, is that his 0 for 3 only dropped him to .151. But they'll have a decision to make soon if Rickie Weeks' ankle is healing as fast as it seems to be. Jerry Hairston is good to have around because he can play the outfield, too. Felipe Lopez isn't hitting anything like he did when he was here in '09, but he's useful as a switch-hitter. Counsell sure looks like the odd man out, hometown guy or not.

Frank:
It could be dicey if Weeks is back on the early side of the "four to six weeks" estimate, which would be Aug. 24 or so. But by Sept. 1 the roster can be expanded. Maybe they'll be able to finesse the Counsell situation, then keep him off the postseason roster.

Artie:
"Postseason roster." That has a mighty nice ring!