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Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009

The Tides of Enthusiasm, They Ebb and Flow

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It was a weekend of screen-watching for the Observers. They saw the latest rebuilt squad of Milwaukee Bucks go 1-1 to open the NBA season. There was the World Series, with Frank's Yanks taking charge in Philadelphia. And of course there was the second version of the football game toward which all of civilization has been building for 10,000 years, this time with Brett Favre facing the Packers at Lambeau Field. After the Vikings' 38-26 victory, the Packer fan in the partnership was none too chipper.

Frank: So, my friend, what's your reac...

Artie: Fire them all!

Frank: Um, you mean anyone associated with the two losses to Brett and his purple pals?

Artie: Well, we can start with the special teams coach, Shawn Slocum, whose guys couldn't keep Percy Harvin from running wild on kickoff returns. And Dom Capers, whose defense put virtually no pressure on Favre for the second straight game. And of course the head man, Mike McCarthy, whose offense gained all of 47 yards in the first half. Start with that troika.

Frank: Kinda harsh. The Pack is 4-3 and in the thick of the playoff race. And after being down 24-3 in the third quarter, they made a big comeback.

Artie: All right, it got better after Harvin's long touchdown catch, when three Packers wiped each other out to let him waltz home.

Frank: That reminded me of the "helicopter" play in Super Bowl XXXII, when three Packers hit John Elway in midair but he spun into a key first down.

Artie: This one was worse. And let's not forget, as McCarthy keeps saying, penalties don't mean anything. Except when they do.

Frank: Such as?

Artie: First quarter, Packers up 3-0. Harvin takes a kickoff 77 yards but the defense holds 'em to a field-goal try—or would have, if Johnny Jolly doesn't head-butt somebody for a personal foul. The Vikings use the second chance to punch it in for a 7-3 lead.

Frank: It was early, but that made a big difference.

Artie: The crowd was totally energized by the defensive stop, and it all died. But hey, penalties don't mean anything and we've gotta keep our guys aggressive.

Frank: That wasn't the only time a penalty hurt.

Artie: In the second half, a face-mask grab by B.J. Raji put the Vikes in position for another TD. Of course McCarthy will say, "We'll get that fixed," but it ain't getting fixed.

Frank: As painful as it may be to admit, Favre played mighty well in both "payback" games—seven TD passes and not a single interception.

Artie: But how the hell do they fail to put any meaningful pressure on Favre in two games? The Minnesota offensive line is not that much to write home about.

Frank: It seemed like in the first half the Packers didn't really try to pressure Favre. In the second half they were in his face more, but his quick throws beat the blitzes—especially on the clinching TD to Bernard Berrian.

Artie: It seemed like both times the Packers thought the main thing was to stop Adrian Peterson—which, for the most part, they did. But that can't be everything with the Vikings.

Frank: Meanwhile, the Vikings swarmed all over Aaron Rodgers again. Eight sacks in October and six this time. Things got better in the second half, but even when Rodgers had a couple of long runs, it was the result of strong pressure.

Artie: I've been a Rodgers defender, but a couple of the sacks were clearly his fault for holding the ball too long.

Frank: So as a Packer Backer, would this have been easier to absorb if the first-half blowout had just continued?

Artie: No way. At least they didn't just lie down. And don't forget, there's still a chance they can match my prediction of a 13-3 record.

Frank: That's gonna take a nine-game winning streak. But they should clobber the hopeless Buccaneers and get to the halfway point at 5-3. They probably can't catch the Vikings in the division, but they'll be in the wild-card hunt with the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Falcons and, yes, the Bears.

Artie: That makes the home game against Dallas on Nov. 15 mighty big. But right now I'm just thinking about how they lost at home to a division rival. The only thing keeping me off the ledge is that there's a new episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to watch. Right now my enthusiasm for the Pack has definitely been curbed.

The Kid Has Game

Frank: But how about your enthusiasm for the Bucks and their rookie point guard, Brandon Jennings?

Artie: Sky high!

Frank: The kid almost had a triple-double in the loss at Philadelphia, and in the home opener he had 24 points and led a third-quarter blitz that wiped out Detroit.

Artie: That was incredible. The third quarter has been the Bucks' downfall the last three or four years...

Frank: As it was in Philadelphia.

Artie: But then to see what this kid did Saturday night was amazing. They're down by 11 at halftime but Jennings scores 16 points in the third quarter and electrifies the crowd with a drive where he wraps it around his back for a reverse layup.

Frank: A little Bob Cousy touch, although he may not know who Cousy is. To hear the Bucks' TV guys talk, they're already reserving a spot for him at the Hall of Fame. I'd wait a bit longer than two games, but I understand that those guys are trying to sell tickets. And what Jennings did was impressive, no doubt. His weakness is supposed to be his jump shot, but it didn't look that way.

Artie: More than the numbers, though, was the way he got the crowd going. The Bucks haven't had that kind of guy for a long time.

Frank: Wasn't Ramon Sessions that way a couple of years back?

Artie: Sessions was a solid player, but Jennings looks like something special. He really related to the crowd—waving his arms after that fabulous drive, urging them to pump up the volume. Jennings was acting just like a 20-year-old kid should. I thought I was watching a college game.

Frank: It's obvious that Jennings sees his great opportunity. He can make himself the face of the franchise.

Artie: It's a great story. He grew up in Compton, Calif., one of the toughest places in the country. But he got through it. And now that he's here, his mother is with him and he's living in St. Francis, where he can walk to the Bucks' practice facility.

Frank: So he's not trolling at Victor's every night. For one thing, he isn't old enough yet.

Artie: He's just what a mid-market team needs, someone who can get the fans interested again.

Frank: Especially since the Bucks, despite his heroics, didn't look overpowering against two of the weaker teams in the Eastern Conference. Let's see how they do over a longer stretch, and against tougher teams.

Artie: True enough, but Jennings and Hakim Warrick at the power forward are giving the Bucks some real energy.

Stride On, LeBron

Frank: It looked for a while like the NBA would start the season with replacement referees, but the league and the refs' union worked out a contract.

Artie: During the exhibition games Mavericks owner Mark Cuban—no friend of refs—said the subs were doing fine, "just calling what they see." And I thought, "Does that mean someone will call traveling when LeBron James takes his five steps, ball in one hand and a Samsonite suitcase in the other?"

Frank: Kiss that dream goodbye.