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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

Great (And Not So) Expectations

The Fairly Detached Observers

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It’s a key part of the Athletes’ Manual of Cliches, right up there with “We’re taking this one game at a time.” When asked if they’re the favorites to win this year’s championship, coaches and players often do a variation of “Who, us? No, we’re the scrappy underdogs. It’s those other guys who are riding for a fall.” There’s no controlling the fans, though, and right now Wisconsin’s favorite football team is inspiring some lofty dreams. Meanwhile, fans of the top college team have lowered their sights and Milwaukee’s baseball fans are dealing with unfulfilled hopes.

Artie: Quick, I’ve gotta know! When and where is the Super Bowl this season?

Frank: That’s Feb. 7 in Miami. What’s the urgency?

Artie: I need to book my flight and hotel room, and figure out whether I’ll finance ‘em with a Potawatomi jackpot or a Ponzi scheme.

Frank: Don’t forget to budget a grand or two for a ticket. But again, what’s the rush?

Artie: The way the Packers have rampaged through the first three exhibition games, they’re a lock to be on the field at good ol’... um, what’s that stadium called?

Frank: Everyone knows it’s Joe Robbie Stadium... no, it’s Pro Player Stadium... no, Dolphin Stadium... no, make that Land Shark Stadium, based on a naming-rights deal for some beer that Jimmy Buffett brews.

Artie: Excellent name, ‘cause the Packers will be chomping up the NFL for the next five months!

Frank: Hey, you’re too early. We’re going to predict the NFL season for our readers a week from now. 

Artie: That’s professional blathering. This is purely the enthusiasm of a fan.

Frank: You do understand these first three games don’t count, right?

Artie: Not in the standings, but they show beyond a doubt that the Pack is bound for glory!

Frank: No denying that they’ve looked mighty impressive in beating Cleveland, Buffalo and Arizona.

Artie: That’s Arizona, the defending NFC champs, and on their own turf.

Frank: The Packer first-stringers totally stomped the Cardinals in the first half, on both sides of the ball.

Artie: As in 38-10. So what if the scrubs let it get close at the end?

Frank: The starters in the new 3-4 defense continued to create turnovers and scored a touchdown. And the offense under Aaron Rodgers was, well...

Artie: Absolutely superb! Rodgers showed accuracy, arm strength, touchpassing when he needed it and the mobility to get out of trouble.

Frank: For the second straight game he had a passer rating over 150, according to my former Journal Sentinel colleague, Bob McGinn—who I’m convinced is the only guy in the world who knows how to calculate the dang thing.

Artie: I know two guys who certainly don’t.

Frank: It’s based on completion percentage and yards, interceptions and touchdowns per attempt. I went to the Internet and found that the highest possible rating is 158.3. So for two weeks, Rodgers has been close to Super QB.

Artie: And why should that change? That TD pass to Jordy Nelson was a thing of beauty—hit him right in stride with a strong throw that also had touch.

Frank: I’ve been very impressed with Rodgers’ legs, too. He seems to have a great instinct for where the pressure is coming from and how to escape. In Arizona he broke off a long run and also threw a TD pass to Jermichael Finley off a scramble.

Artie: And Rodgers seems to have great chemistry with the other guys.

Frank: He’s nice and calm during the drives, but anyone who thought they’d lost Brett Favre’s boyish enthusiasm after touchdowns wasn’t watching the Arizona game.

Artie: So what’s gonna stop the march to Miami? The only possible thing is injuries.

Frank: The Vikings and Bears might play a role, too. And there’s always the shape of that thing they kick and throw around; sometimes it takes crazy bounces.

Artie: OK, I’m willing to wait a week to tell folks precisely how the season will go. But I’m not waiting on those reservations!

Frank: Or the Ponzi scheme. Readers, beware.

Out of the Ashes

Frank: Fans of the Wisconsin Badgers probably aren’t going into the season opener Saturday with visions of a championship.

Artie: A year ago, the Badgers were nationally ranked heading into the season. This year they’re off the radar screen.

Frank: That’s what a 7-6 season, capped by a thumping by Florida State in the Whatever-It-Was Bowl, will do.

Artie: Well, they’ve ensured themselves of at least a .500 record by taking Cal Poly off the schedule.

Frank: They beat that lower-division team only in overtime, and only because Cal Poly missed two extra points. This year they have Wofford in Week 3 as the lowerdivision sacrificial lamb.

Artie: There’s no point in predicting the Badgers’ record until they start the Big Ten schedule with Michigan State on Sept. 26. Unless they’re totally crummy, they’ll gobble up the cupcakes of Northern Illinois, Fresno State and Wofford, all at home.

Frank: We’ll get back to the Badgers when they play meaningful games. Last year they blew a 19-0 lead at Michigan in the Big Ten opener, then lost a late lead against Ohio State and got trampled by Penn State, both at home.

Artie: At least this year they don’t play Penn State or Illinois, which is supposed to be pretty good. But they have to go to Columbus, and the home games against

Michigan State and Iowa won’t be easy, ain’a?

Frank: The Badgers are mighty young. Jeff Potrykus of the Journal Sentinel noted that among the first two squads on offense and defense, there are only seven seniors, but 14 freshmen and 21 sophomores.

Artie: Plus they’re starting over at quarterback, with junior Scott Tolzien instead of senior Dustin Sherer, the starter at the end of last season. The QB play last year was terrible, and it seemed like every other play the Badgers were getting penalized.

Frank: This time they’re in good shape in the expectations category. A 6-2 or 5-3 record in the conference would draw raves.

Spring Ahead, Fall Back

Artie: Speaking of lowered expectations, I doubt I’m the only fan who’s shifting focus from the Brewers to the Green and Gold.

Frank: That happens every year; the Packers rule pro sports here. But the Brewers sure played themselves out of the great expectations of April. At the All-Star break they were 45-43 and 2 1/2 games off the division lead—and facing a stretch in which 36 of 42 games would be against teams with losing records.

Artie: And they ended August where?

Frank: At 64-66, trailing St. Louis by 12 games in the division. Even with a weekend sweep of Pittsburgh, they went 16-20 against the sub-.500 teams.

Artie: And the reason? Lousy pitching.

Frank: Injuries to Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush played a part, as well as the lack of a trade to get big-time pitching help. But even with Suppan and Bush back, there’s no reason to think they’ll make a big push in September with a schedule that includes almost nothing but winning teams.

Artie: They’ll be lucky to finish at .500. My question is this: Are those mini-magnets they’re hawking in the Journal Sentinel for putting on the refrigerator or the toilet?

Frank: Thanks to a Colorado losing streak, the Brewers began September only 7 1/2 games back in the wild-card race. But they have to pass five teams.

Artie: Including the Giants, who have what the Brewers don’t—good starting pitchers. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and a suddenly reborn Barry Zito. They don’t have much hitting, but they don’t need much hitting.

Frank: It’ll be mighty interesting this weekend when the Giants visit Miller Park.

Photo: Will Bucky dig himself out of last year’s disappointments?

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