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Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014

Green Bay Packers: Painful To The End

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Frequent readers of this page might remember that they saw the same illustration back in mid-November. But there's no better symbol for the Packers' 2013 season—or, for one of the Observers, the bitter playoff loss that ended it.

The conversational replay began within minutes of San Francisco's winning kick.

 

Artie: Well, that was difficult. It ended in the most depressing way possible.

Frank: Just like the Saints-Eagles game, but with more fans—and colder ones—struck silent.

A: I tried to match Lambeau's frozen faithful in giving extra effort. Out of respect for the conditions I added an extra ice cube to each of my cocktails during the game. I even got off the couch a couple of times, stretching to keep myself limber. I didn't want to tighten a hamstring or buttock.

F: You can look back with pride, knowing you did everything you could.

A: But I had a sinking feeling within the first few minutes, when Sam Shields got hurt during the 49ers' opening series. And when Mike Neal went down a few plays later I was really convinced. How can you win when that stuff happens on top of already missing Clay Matthews, Casey Hayward and Johnny Jolly?

F: And don't forget they later lost left tackle David Bakhtiari and had linebacker Andy Mulumba playing on one leg at the end. I was wondering how many guys would be able to play at Carolina if they'd won.

A: We might have seen Ted Thompson suiting up. Well, it wouldn't have been a Packer game without at least two or three guys getting knocked out. The whole season was just unbelievable.

F: I would say the future is very bright because next season can't possibly be as bad in terms of injuries...

A: But it seems like we say that every year.

F: Remember, three years ago they fought through a lot of injuries on their way to a Super Bowl triumph. But of course what added the nth degree to this year's problems was going without Aaron Rodgers for essentially half the season.

A: OK, maybe it won't get worse, but even if next season equals this one it'd be a disaster. Besides Rodgers and Matthews and Randall Cobb, look at all the other guys. Right from the get-go they lost offensive tackle, Bryan Bulaga, in the freakin' intrasquad scrimmage! And Hayward, who was coming off a great rookie season, wound up logging, like, less than a half of actual playing time in real games.

F: His was the worst of quite a few hamstring problems.

A: They really do have some kind of problem there. I don't know what it is, bad luck or some kind of conditioning thing. Or maybe part of it is that they've got so many young guys; could it be a way they play that leads, not to recklessness but to not knowing when to hedge things a little?

F: Eddie Lacy comes to mind in that regard. He's an absolute beast; it was amazing how hard he ran against the 49ers. But how long will he last at the pace he sets? He'll batter a lot of tacklers along the way, but the guy who delivers the blow is absorbing a lot of impact too.

A: Lacy kind of reminds me of Jerome Bettis, although I think he has more quickness. Anyway, around the time of the Pittsburgh game Bettis made the comment that in his first couple of years he went all-out, until he realized he wouldn't last too long that way. So he learned how to turn his body the right way, just got smarter about how to take punishment.

F: He lasted, let's look it up... 13 years and 13,662 yards. But I'll bet he still feels every one of 'em. But back to the game. With all the injuries the real pain must come in knowing they still could have won.

A: If that pass down the stretch had been even six inches lower, Micah Hyde probably would have held it for a “pick six,” or at least put the game-winning drive in Aaron Rodgers' hands, not Colin Kaepernick's.

F: There are all sorts of things that could have been decisive. Go back to the opening minutes when Michael Crabtree caught a pass for a first down but then lost the ball near the sideline. M.D. Jennings had a clear shot at the recovery but it slipped away and went out of bounds. A few plays later the Packers were down 3-0.

A: But really, I have to go back to the injuries—not just for this game but the whole season. The cliché is that “you can't use injuries as an excuse,” and coaches say that all the time, but I just don't buy it! When you're missing so many starters, which means you have so many inexperienced guys trying to fill in, that's not an excuse, it's a reason you wind up at 8-8-1.

F: There's plenty more to say about the playoff game, as well as the Badgers' tough loss in their bowl game. So we invite folks to join us at expressmilwaukee.com.

 

ONE ESCAPE TOO MANY

F: For much of the game it was a battle of two Houdinis. Kaepernick pulled almost 100 rushing yards out of his hat and Rodgers pulled off two fantastic plays to Cobb by escaping the 49ers' consistently strong rush. Rodgers and Cobb did the same thing to win the game in Chicago.

A: What makes Cobb so good at what he does is that in high school and a handful of games at Kentucky he played quarterback. So he knows what a QB needs from a receiver in terms of finding the open space when the original play breaks down. If they'd won, those two plays would have gone down in the Packers' lore.

F: Especially the first one, when Rodgers was in the clutches of at least two 49ers. It reminded me, and at least one of the post-game analysts I heard, of Eli Manning's miraculous escape in the '08 Super Bowl, which led to that once-in-a-lifetime “helmet catch” by David Tyree. The ref in that game said he was an instant from whistling the play as a sack, and I was wondering how close Rodgers was to being declared “in the grasp.”

A: But in the end it was Kaepernick who made the most important escape—thanks to Jarret Bush going too far inside on his rush.

F: Kaepernick broke it outside, outran the hobbling Mulumba and got the 49ers a first down in decent field-goal range.

A: He has some kind of magic over the Packers, you betcha. And it's not like he had a terrific season, at least not based on what he did last year. He wasn't mediocre but he did have some struggles.

F: But not when the opponent wears green and gold.

A: And just to be clear, the 49ers are a darn good team. Quite often the loser of the previous year's Super Bowl doesn't even make the playoffs, but now they're 13-4. I enjoy watching them—except for the head coach. He's hard to take.

F: Yeah, Jim Harbaugh's intensity is kind of creepy-looking.

A: But the other thing—just to belabor my point— is that the 49ers were a lot more healthy. They were missing a starting cornerback, Carlos Rogers, but that was about all.

F: In the Packers' secondary Davon House didn't play badly in place of Shields.

A: True, but Crabtree still caught eight balls for 125 yards. He's not speedy but he sure knows how to get open. When you're facing him and Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, you'd better have your top guys out there. Plus if Neal hadn't been lost there might have been a better rush on Kaepernick. Most of the time he wasn't pressured at all.

 

AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NFL...

A: I think you should check your mail this week for a note, maybe even a certificate, of appreciation.

F: Which is coming from where?

A: The city of San Diego, in gratitude for finally breaking your habit of picking the Chargers to win the Super Bowl.

F: Well, it was only the two previous seasons, as I recall. But yeah, this year I not only dropped them as a Super Bowl pick, I ignored them completely in our NFL predictions.

A: And of course they not only made the playoffs—thanks to a byzantine set of circumstances over the last two weeks—but also won their first-round game in Cincinnati. So I think you deserve credit.

F: It's a little like what happened in 2009, when I dropped my practice of picking the Yankees to win the World Series. That was, of course, the only year of our association in which the Yankees did go all the way. But I tried that “ignore the Yankees” tactic again last season and this time the Yanks played down to my expectations.

A: You've heard me refer to one of us as “The Cooler” in terms of lousy predictions, but now I'm thinking of a song from the '60s by the Hollies called “King Midas in Reverse.”

F: That's one I don't remember. Let me check the web for some lyrics... Oh yeah, they do seem to apply:

 

He's King Midas with a curse

He's King Midas in reverse....

 

He's not the man to hold your trust

Everything he touches turns to dust...

 

A: I think the song also applies to someone who didn't win in the first round. When I was watching that colossal rally by Indianapolis to beat Kansas City, it occurred to me that Andy Reid is the Tony Romo of coaches.

F: Which is to say...

A: That Andy Reid is NOT a good coach.

F: Not a good big-game coach, at least. I remember that was the rap against him in many of his years in Philly. It's kind of unfair because Reid took the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games, including four straight from 2001-'04. But he only made it to one Super Bowl and lost to New England.

A: As I recall one of the issues in Philly, including in that Super Bowl, was Reid's clock management or lack thereof.

F: Right, and there was some of that in the Indianapolis game too. He burned off two of his timeouts early in the second half and took his last one coming out of the two-minute warning when they were trying to drive for a winning field goal.

A: I really think Reid got more credit than he deserved for KC's big turnaround this year. Yeah, they were coming off a 2-14 season but that team had some real talent, and they had one of the easiest schedules in the league this year.

F: Well, being rid of Reid didn't help Philly much. They lost to New Orleans in a way that must have seemed all too familiar: A last-play field goal.

A: Like I said, the most depressing way to lose.

 

ANOTHER TOUGH ONE FOR UW

F: So it's four straight Jan. 1 bowl losses for Wisconsin, but just like the previous three Rose Bowls, the Badgers were right in the Capital One game against South Carolina.

A: Nothing to be ashamed of, absolutely. A couple of plays here and there...

F: Which reminds me that before the season began you mentioned that UW's defensive backfield was going through a big turnover, with several young guys taking over. And several of the key plays by South Carolina were long passes that were pretty well-defended but nevertheless grabbed over the D-backs.

A: Hey, remember, that's a pretty good passing team there. The quarterback, Connor Shaw, was one of the most accurate in the college game this season.

F: I remember hearing the TV guys say he came into the game with only one interception in something like 259 throws.

A: And in this game he was 22 for 25. So it wasn't like he came out of nowhere to surprise the Badgers.

F: And really, a couple of those long plays had some luck to them. Remember that one where the receiver somehow reached back and tipped the ball to himself? A couple of others came down to the receiver out-fighting the defender for the ball.

A: Like I said, if a couple of plays go the other way.

F: Gary Andersen sure noticed. The Journal Sentinel had this quote from the UW coach after the game:

 

“The receivers made contested catches... The defining moment is on contested footballs, and that's really the identification of a talented defensive back. They should be able to run, change direction. But when that ball is in the air and it's contested, who's going to get it? Today South Carolina won that many times. And it's a defining moment for us and we need to understand it and get better.”

 

A: I'd say that's a pretty clear message to his guys.

F: It seems to me that these days so many games in both college and the pros wind up coming down to those “contested catches.” Not just on Hail Marys or “fade” routes in the corner of end zones, but on lots of medium-to-long range throws down the sidelines. Whether the QB is leading the receiver or throwing to the back shoulder, it seems like the whole design of the play is to create those “jump ball” situations.

A: And it makes sense because these days so many teams are going for wide receivers who are really tall, like 6-foot-4 or 5, while defensive backs are still primarily about 5-11 or 6 feet.

F: Look at the Packers' comeback wins over Dallas and Chicago. In each of those games there was one of those jump-ball plays with a tall wide receiver—Dallas' Dez Bryant and Chicago's Alshon Jeffrey—that would have ended the Packers' hopes. In both cases the receiver got his hands on the ball but Sam Shields battled hard enough to disrupt the catch and the pass fell incomplete.

A: Bryant, Jeffrey, the Bears' Brandon Marshall and the Lions' Calvin “Megatron” Johnson—those are the prototypical NFL receivers these days. I suppose those guys are athletic enough to be D-backs themselves, but when you've got someone that size you want him on offense, not defense.

F: Not many D-backs will be able to out-jump those guys, so what becomes crucial is getting your hands into the receiver the split-second after he touches the ball, even if it's only to whack him across the arms and knock it loose.

A: Anyway, the UW secondary did lose too many of those 50-50 chances, but the game was still closer than the 34-24 final.

F: UW had plenty of chances, even in the final minutes. But it was tough to lose Joel Stave down the stretch and have to turn to Curt Phillips at QB. Not that Phillips is unskilled, but he'd hardly played all season.

A: Only a handful of throws, as I recall them saying.

F: And he wound up throwing two interceptions. But also in the fourth quarter the Badgers turned the ball over when Melvin Gordon got stuffed on two straight short-yardage plays, even though UW finished with 293 rushing yards.

A: That was mighty surprising, you betcha. The same thing happened to Stanford against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, but you'd sure expect the Badgers to be able to pound out a yard in two tries.

F: As for the passing game, I'm sure South Carolina was double-covering Jared Abbrederis all the time. At least I'd assume so from his stats, just five catches for 30 yards. They were daring UW to beat 'em on the ground and with their tight ends.

A: And the Badgers darn near did it! It was a very entertaining game, and so what about the four straight bowl losses? Hey, you have to be pretty good just to play on New Year's Day.

F: One more thing about the game. I thought one of the best moments happened in the fourth quarter, right before South Carolina's last TD. Their running back Mike Davis fought his way inside the 1-yard line but suffered an ankle sprain and lay on the ground for several minutes. When Davis finally started off the field, UW linebacker Chris Borland made a point of walking up to him and giving him a pat on the helmet. Quite a nice gesture of sportsmanship.

A: From one guy who gave everything he had in the game to another.

 

A BOWLFUL OF FUN

A: And by the way, how was that bowl game you actually attended?

F: Ah yes, the Pinstripe Bowl—make that the New Era Pinstripe Bowl—at Yankee Stadium. As a new member of the Notre Dame extended family, with my brother's younger son a freshman there, I watched the Irish struggle a bit before putting Rutgers away, 29-16.

A: The Rutgers that will become a punching bag in the Big Ten next season, ain'a?

F: And the Rutgers that came into the game at 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference—the remnants of the old Big East. And having lost five of their last six games.

A: Some bowl-worthy squad!

F: Well, as a New Jersey school Rutgers sure filled the bill for putting fannies in the seats. They announced the crowd as a sellout of 47,000-plus, although there were clear patches of dark blue seats visible in the upper deck.

A: And after all, money is the No.1 reason for bowl games.

F: As we've said through the years in ridiculing the system of second-tier and lower bowls as a mockery of quality play.

A: Last month we pointed out that almost one-third of the 70 bowl teams had either five or six losses.

F: Having said all that, I have to admit that the Clines contingent—my brother, his two sons and I—had a lot of fun.

A: Well, you've now seen one more bowl game than I ever will.

F: Not that the Pinstripe Bowl was excellent football. But we had terrific luck in the Dec. 28 weather—approaching 50 degrees and nothing but sunshine. The very next day over in Jersey, the Giants played in a steady, cold rain that would have had us out of Yankee Stadium mighty quick!

A: The main thing, I reckon, was that you had a rooting interest.

F: Absolutely. A week earlier we'd been in Madison Square Garden to see the Notre Dame hoopsters lose a heartbreaker to Ohio State, and as you know I went to South Bend in November for the football game against Navy. Of course if my nephew wasn't at ND I wouldn't care a bit, but now I get caught up in the excitement and it's a fun reminder of my student days at Marquette.

A: When you lived and died with Al McGuire and his Warriors.

F: And when that huge band is out on the field blasting out the Notre Dame fight song, well, it's just cool to be a little part of it.

A: One of the three top fight songs, I think. Behind “On, Wisconsin,” of course, but right up there with Michigan's. And how were your seats?

F: Darn good for football—in the right-center field bleachers, not too low and down near one of the end zones.

A: And all for a mere....

F: Um, well, that's one of the less-appealing aspects of a bowl game. The tickets were 90 bucks apiece.

A: Ouch! Who do they think they are, the Milwaukee Bucks? That's like what it costs to get a decent view of the court at the Bradley Center.

F: Well, I guess I can attest that we paid for a better product.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek has suffered through Packer injuries for more than five decades.