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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

PACKERS’ SCHEDULE

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Normally the announcement of the Packers' schedule doesn't stir the Observers into joining the largely pointless analyzing more than four months before the games begin. But in this case they'll make an exception.

 

Artie: Right now the 2013 slate does not look good. The only thing that seems favorable is that for the first time in team history they don't have any back-to-back games on the road.

Frank: Mike McCarthy says he likes that, but how much does it really matter?

A: Not much. If there were consecutive road games against, say, the Browns and Cardinals, I'd take those over games against the 49ers and Giants no matter where they were.

F: But just in terms of logistics, for road games they almost always fly out the day before the game. It's not like they're stuck away from home for a week.

A: Now, it would be bad if they had to play on the road in a "short week"—and waddya know, they do! They're in that stinkin' Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit again, four days after they host Minnesota. I just hate that!

F: Fortunately, they have only one other short week—Chicago on Monday night, Nov. 4, and Philadelphia six days later. But at least those are the one set of consecutive home games this year.

A: But here's another problem. They get their bye week at the end of September after they've only played three times!

F: That popped out at me, too.

A: Some people say the timing of the bye doesn't matter because there are always injuries. But as the weeks go by the wear and tear affects everyone on a team! It stands to reason that later in the season more guys will be banged up, even if they can keep playing. I'm sure McCarthy would rather have the bye much later.

F: Just in terms of who the opponents are, the Packers didn't have much luck. Aside from the six games against the Bears, Lions and Vikings, the rotation of inter-division play has them playing the AFC North and NFC East. That means, among other things, a game against the Super Bowl champions in Baltimore.

A: Plus they play the Steelers, who I'm sure will be tough despite missing the playoffs last year, and Cincinnati, which did make the post-season.

F: And the NFC East means another road game against the Giants, as well as another one I'm sure you noticed.

A: You mean the one on Dec. 15, when they have to play the Cowboys in Dallas for the umpteenth straight time?

F: I know you believe that's true, but you're still obsessing from the '90s, when it did happen seven straight times. Actually, four of the last five meetings have been in Green Bay, including the last three in 2008-'10.

A: You're dreaming it! I'm here to tell you that's not so, to the best of my recollection at this point in time.

F: You sound like a Watergate felon, or Oliver North.

A: That's how I see it at this time and any other time.

F: Returning to reality, I think you remember accurately that the Giants stomped all over the Packers last year in Jersey. The Cowboys could be tough—they've got to fulfill their potential some year—and there's Washington, too, although who knows whether Robert Griffin III will be healthy again by Week 2.

A: I wouldn't mind if he missed that game.

F: But on top of everything, the two games that could be called "discretionary"—with opponents based on the Packers' record last season—turn out to be against the Niners and Falcons.

A: And they have to open the season in San Francisco, the site of their playoff debacle in January. Plus you know the Falcons will be in the chase again for home-field advantage when the Pack hosts 'em in December.

F: As we've said many times, the common procedure of "ranking" schedules based on the opponents' previous records has very little meaning.

A: It's malarkey, is what it is. At this point the draft hasn't happened, there are no injuries from training camp or the exhibition games. By the time the season starts some of these teams may be devastated or vastly improved.

F: But when you're talking about opponents who have been consistently strong in recent years, like the Falcons and Giants, or teams that played in the last Super Bowl...

A: Both of those teams!

F: You can be reasonably sure those games will be tough.

A: So when you factor in their own rugged division, two potentially tough inter-division series, throw in the Niners and Falcons, and an early bye and the Turkey Day game—man, that's a handful for the Pack!

 

GOLDEN CLAY

F: The other big news in Packerland was Clay Matthews' big contract extension, which runs through the 2018 season.

A: The five-year total has a stated worth of $66 million, but of course in the NFL salary figures are almost meaningless because they aren't guaranteed.

F: But the signing bonus of $20.5 million is. And the most important numbers are the "cap figures"—how much their top defensive star will count against the NFL salary cap. Those are the ones that struck me.

A: After tweaking the remaining year on his current contract, his cap number will be $6.71 million this season. Then it will rise to $11.1 million, then 12.7, 13.75 and 15.2 before dipping to 11.4 in 2018.

F: Those are some pretty hefty numbers. And I've got to think that like most of these huge NFL deals, Matthews' will be restructured in a few years to get those cap "hits" reduced.

A: Well, in a couple of years the league's new TV contracts should kick up the salary cap quite a bit. But of course the duration of Matthews' contract depends on how he performs on the field.

F: On that basis there's no reason to think he won't be worth the money. The consensus among NFL analysts—even the Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn, a tough judge to be sure—is that no one plays harder on every single down than Matthews. But how about that hamstring problem that seems to nag him every year?

A: He missed four of the 16 regular-season games last year, but that was the only one of his four seasons in which he played fewer than 15 games. But you're right, it is a worry.

F: The next big Packer news will come Thursday, when the NFL draft begins. As usual, we see no point in speculating about whom they might take. We'll wait to comment on whom they do take.

A: But McGinn and his anonymous NFL sources are going all-out, as usual, to analyze virtually everyone who might put on an NFL helmet. And as usual, I'm convinced those sources are imaginary. I envision McGinn being like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy—down in the basement interviewing cardboard cutouts of celebrities, except in this case they're all labeled "NFL Scout."

F: As I've said before, the depth of Bob's research is unlike any other writer's—but maybe not that unlike.

 

THINK NOTHING OF IT

F: It happens so often that it's almost uncanny. All a team needs is for us to highlight its weaknesses and voila! The team turns things around.

A: The Brewers, the Packers, the Bucks... well, maybe not the Bucks, but usually our criticism is the straw that stirs a revival.

F: The latest proof is the Brewers—labeled "Hurtin' for Certain" in last week's column, then sweeping the world champion Giants and the Cubs to run their winning streak to seven games.

A: The funny thing is that the Brew Crew won the finale in St. Louis and the opener against San Fran before that column appeared in print.

F: But they must have sensed that they were about to draw the Observers' flak and decided to do something about it. No need to thank us, guys. Inspiration is our business.

A: Of course beating the Cubs is no great shakes, but they sure looked good against the Giants.

F: I was on hand for two of those games, and the way they roughed up Barry Zito and Matt Cain was impressive. Zito has always had trouble at Miller Park but he did come in with a 14-inning scoreless streak. And Cain is supposed to be one of the top starters in the game.

A: Ryan Braun seems to have gotten his home-run stroke back, after looking pretty bad in a few strikeout-filled games.

F: And the emergency first baseman, Yuniesky Betancourt, was a revelation against San Fran. He not only hit a couple of dingers, including a grand slam, but he made several really fine plays at first.

A: Talk about a fortunate last-minute addition! Maybe all along it was first base he was supposed to be playing instead of shortstop, like he did here in 2011. Or maybe it doesn't say much for the "demands" of playing first; after all, that's where they stuck Dick Stuart, the legendary "Dr. Strangeglove."

F: He and Ron Roenicke are talking about how much more patient he is at the plate. Of course it's a fine line; a little difference in the contact point turns a grand slam into a popup—and the same old criticism of "that free-swinging Yuni."

A: Plus Betancourt has always been a really streaky hitter.

F: But if he continues to contribute a lot and play a nice first base, I wonder if we'll see a scenario in which Corey Hart returns from his knee problem in late May...

A: If that's when it happens...

F: And Hart finds he can't get back into the lineup, either at first or in right field over Norichika Aoki.

A: They're paying Hart too much to keep him on the bench.

F: Betancourt made some terrific diving plays to create outs, but in the games I saw he didn't have to contend with any errant throws.

A: If he had a twin brother or a clone playing short, that would produce a lot of bad throws.

F: Good thing neither of those alter egos is possible.

 

EYE ON COLLEGE HOOPS

F: Did you notice that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is calling for the NCAA to reduce the 35-second shot clock for men's basketball? I've always wondered why it was that high, considering that the women's shot clock is at 30?

A: I suppose it would be all right to cut the men's to 30, but no way should it get any nearer to the NBA's 24 seconds. But I watch a lot of college hoops...

F: Plenty more than I do.

A: And I don't see any great need to change it much.

F: I guess the aim is to boost scoring, but when I do watch college basketball I don't find it to be necessarily a dull or ugly brand of the game.

A: Me either. The entertainment value is terrific! I think scoring in the college game goes through up-and-down periods, as with any sport. The main problem I see right now is that almost all of the best players stay for one year and then head off to the NBA—before they've really developed their own games. Speed up the game? That's great; all we need is college basketball with even more missed shots.

F: We took note a few weeks ago of Jay Bilas' comments that the college game isn't as good as it used to be. Bilas' big points were that there's way too much off-the-ball contact and that teams are being coached to try to take charges every chance—and being rewarded by referees way too often.

A: Bilas knows his stuff, but I still think the big thing is that so many of the great players are "one and done." Think back to when you had a Patrick Ewing playing as a senior, or a Ralph Sampson. Those were great days for the college game! Another thing is the whole AAU thing that the most talented kids go through from a real young age. They don't seem to be learning the fundamentals—even the fundamental of just plain shooting the ball.

F: Speaking of leaving early, how about Vander Blue telling Marquette he's skipping his senior season?

A: Just what the pro game needs, another guard who can't shoot.

F: I've heard that this draft pool is considered pretty weak, which may be part of his thinking. And he did have a solid junior year, including those last-second layups to win games against St. John's and Davidson.

A: But the last time the pro scouts saw him in a game was a 3-for-15 freeze job against Syracuse. And in the pros those layups are a lot more likely to be swatted away. I don't know if MU has any Slovakian language classes, but he'd better find one because I think he'll need it where he's most likely to play as a pro.

F: I noticed that one national star, Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, is resisting the temptation to go one and done. He'll be back after being named the Big 12 player of the year as a freshman.

A: That's really great—and Smart definitely would have been a top-10 pick in the draft. He's a point guard with that Trey Burke toughness but taller and stronger at 6-4 and 225 pounds.

F: Burke, at 6-0 and 190, is leaving after putting in two years.

A: Smart's decision will be good for him as a player and good for the college game.

 

A WITNESS TO HISTORY

F: Any thoughts about Pat Summerall, who passed away recently? For much of our lives he was one of the premier voices in NFL broadcasting.

A: I thought he was good during his early years with John Madden but toward the end I found him hard to listen to.

F: I always felt that way about Madden.

A: But Summerall too. I think that laconic style was the right mix with Madden's booming blather, but over the years it almost got to the point where it seemed like Summerall might be asleep.

F: I brought up Summerall because he was the key figure in the most significant NFL game I ever saw in person—and I mean the key figure on the field.

A: I know his big moment as a player was in 1958. You mean way back then?

F: Yup, the game that made him the toast of New York, and maybe helped open the broadcasting door for him.

A: I know he was a kicker, and his big moment was a huge field goal, ain'a?

F: You betcha. December of '58, the regular-season finale against Jim Brown and Cleveland at Yankee Stadium. It was 10-10 late in the game when Summerall—to the surprise of his teammates—came out to try a 49-yard kick. I have no idea how my father got the tickets, but he took me and one of my sisters and we had nice seats in the lower deck around midfield.

A: Well, I know Summerall made the kick because if he hadn't we wouldn't be discussing it.

F: A lot of things wouldn't have happened. A tie would have given the Browns the Eastern Conference title at 9-2-1 over the Giants at 8-3-1. But Summerall's kick for the 13-10 win forced a playoff of 9-3 teams the next week, also at Yankee Stadium, which the Giants won 10-0. And that's what put the Giants into the NFL championship game against Johnny Unitas and the Colts—the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played" because it was the first overtime game in NFL history.

A: Mighty significant stuff!

F: Now, one of the legends of Summerall's kick is that it sailed "through a blizzard." Not true; it did snow that day, and there was snow on the field when Summerall kicked it, but there wasn't any blizzard.

A: Still, a kick that long under those circumstances was hardly a gimme.

F: After the game my father took us out on the field—they let you do that at Yankee Stadium so people could get to the subway and elevated trains more easily—and we went to the approximate spot of the kick. And man, to my 8-year-old eyes it looked like the goalposts were a mile away. How could he have done it!

A: How could anybody do it, then or now?

F: Especially then! Nowadays the soccer-style kickers routinely make 50-yarders and 75% of their kicks, but I looked up Summerall's stats and for his career he made 100 of 212 field-goal attempts, about 47%—and that was a decent mark for the era. The legendary Lou "The Toe" Groza was 264 for 481, or about 55%.

A: That's the kind of stuff that would get someone cut today. Mason Crosby made 63% last season, 21 for 33, and people were outraged—me included.

F: The other great thing I remember Summerall for was a comment he made about another of his TV partners, Tom Brookshier.

A: Both those guys, as I recall, knew how to have a good time off the field.

F: Right. And in some magazine story I remember Summerall saying that Brookshier's ultimate goal was "to run out of money and breath at the same moment."

A: Would that we all could.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek could really use a bye week.

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