Tag Archives: Super Bowl

Packers lose Jordy Nelson, but the season must go on

25 Aug
Jordy Nelson Injury

Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson suffered a season-ending right knee injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Photo Credit: foxsports.com

An uncharacteristically cool day in August became a lot colder throughout Wisconsin when the Green Bay Packers officially announced they will be without star wide receiver Jordy Nelson for the entire 2015 season.

Nelson suffered a “significant right knee injury” during a non-contact play in the Packers’ preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

While it may feel like the season is over after such a devastating loss, in reality, the season is just getting started.

Hearts are understandably heavy among Packers fans in Wisconsin, but using Nelson’s injury as a rationale to reduce the number of preseason games would be unwise. Sure, it’s unfortunate that he suffered a season-ending injury during what quarterback Aaron Rodgers called a “meaningless game.” But it was the Packers’ first possession of just their second preseason game.

Nelson had every reason to be on the field. Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy made a point of giving his starters more playing time during the preseason to combat slow starts that have plagued the team early in recent seasons.

Injuries can happen at any time.

Just ask the Carolina Panthers, who lost their own star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the season after suffering a torn ACL during a joint practice with the Miami Dolphins.

The NFL schedule doesn’t slow down for anyone.

You can be certain no one in the Packers locker room is feeling sorry for themselves, especially Nelson. Quite frankly, there’s no time to grieve. In less than three weeks, the Packers open the regular season against the Chicago Bears. Nelson won’t be in the lineup, and nothing can be done to change that.

Instead, the Packers must focus on the players who will be available to them, and the options are plenty. If there’s any position on the Packers’ roster where they could afford a significant injury, it’s wide receiver.

There’s a silver lining in every situation. Because Nelson got hurt now, rather than just before or during the early stages of the regular season, other receivers will be given ample opportunities for reps and can better prepare for what lies ahead.

Truth be told, you can never replace a Jordy Nelson – on or off the field. It will be a collective effort. In 2014, he put together one of the best seasons in franchise history, racking up 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns.

But even in Nelson’s absence, the Packers have a number of offensive weapons. They had their sights set on breaking records this season, and their offense still has the firepower to rank among the NFL’s best in 2015.

With Nelson sidelined, opposing teams are more likely to stack the box to defend against the run, meaning Eddie Lacy will have to work even harder to shoulder the load and allow the Packers’ still-talented group of receivers to find holes in the defense.

There’s a reason Packers General Manager Ted Thompson resigned Randall Cobb to a team-friendly contract during the offseason. There’s also a reason Thompson drafted Stanford product Ty Montgomery in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft.

Those reasons have come to fruition faster than anyone could have expected.

The Packers also have a few second-year players who are primed for bigger roles this season, including wide receivers Davante Adams and Jeff Janis, and tight end Richard Rodgers.

Adams showed flashes last season and is the most likely candidate to receive Nelson’s share of targets in the passing game. He has received high praise from McCarthy, who referred to him as the MVP of the offseason. Adams and Montgomery have drawn rave reviews during training camp as well.

Considered by many to be “Jordy Lite,” Janis possesses the best size (6’3″, 220) and speed (4.42 40) of any receiver on the roster. A seventh-round pick out of Division II Saginaw Valley State a year ago, Janis is raw and needs to work on his route running ability. If he puts it all together, he could fill the deep-threat role as Nelson did, which would open up the passing game.

Richard Rodgers has emerged as the Packers’ No. 1 tight end on the depth chart. While he doesn’t scare opposing defenses with his speed, he has great hands and could be a threat down the middle of the field if teams decide to key on Lacy and the versatile receivers on the outside.

Let’s not forget about the “Aaron Rodgers factor” either. As the best quarterback in the league, Rodgers undoubtedly makes everyone around him better and has more than enough talent to work with.

In limited time, there’s a sense of urgency for the Packers’ young receivers to grow up quickly and establish a rapport with their MVP quarterback. The Packers’ mantra of “Next Man Up” will continue to be their rallying cry.

This team is far too talented and too well coached to let Nelson’s injury ruin the season before it even begins.

As long as Rodgers is healthy and under center, the Packers’ Super Bowl aspirations in 2015 remain very real.

Win it for Jordy.

Being a Blackhawks Fan in Wisconsin

2 Jun
Chicago Blackhawks

Photo Credit: picturepush.com

I’m not a Chicago fan. I’m a Blackhawks fan.

It wasn’t always this complicated.

Wisconsin born and raised, I didn’t grow up in a hockey family – I never skated. I never watched the games. When hockey highlights showed up on SportsCenter once in a blue moon, it was my cue to get off the couch and make myself a snack. It may as well have been a commercial break.

I honestly couldn’t care less about the sport. I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t want to. I couldn’t comprehend why fully grown men were allowed to drop their gloves and attempt to beat each other to a pulp. What’s the point?

Boxing on ice, I called it.

I never would have foreseen myself becoming a hockey fan, let alone supporting a team from Chicago. I hated hockey without ever giving it a chance. But perhaps I hated Chicago more.

Much more.

When I departed for college, I wanted to make a concerted effort to broaden my horizons, try something new. And boy, did I ever get the opportunity to do so.

During my freshman year, I met a guy down the hall who eventually became one of my best friends. He was from Illinois – a Chicago Blackhawks fan.

Naturally, I was around hockey more and more as the year progressed. It was only fitting that my first experience viewing a full-length hockey game featured a fight between goaltenders, something that rarely happens. But how would I know? I was a novice. More boxing on ice, I thought.

Over time, I learned about the sport.

The NHL All-Star Break was approaching, and I took it upon myself to watch all the festivities, including the Fantasy Draft. One of the alternate captains was Patrick Kane from, you guessed it, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sure, I had heard of household names like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin as I scavenged through my house for food with SportsCenter in the background during yesteryear. But Kane was the first player I gravitated toward, the first player I knew. Whenever he played, I wanted to watch.

Initially, I felt out of place cheering for a team from Chicago, but I got over it relatively quickly. After all, I came to the realization that Wisconsin doesn’t have a professional hockey team. We have the Milwaukee Admirals – the AHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators.

Be that as it may, the more I seriously followed the Blackhawks, the more ridicule I received from family, friends and even acquaintances who, quite simply, didn’t understand my point of view. Most of them still don’t.

Coincidentally, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup the year before, in 2010. Not only was I a “traitor,” I was a “bandwagoner.”

I couldn’t decide which one was worse. It’s just how things worked out.

People know me for my sports prowess, my dedication and passion as a fan. When questioned about my fanhood, that’s not something I take lightly. Someone once asked how I can be a Packers fan and a Blackhawks fan, suggesting I should be ashamed. That nearly drove me over the edge.

Let me be clear: the Packers will always be atop my team totem pole. I don’t have a tattoo of the logo on my chest for nothing.

My support for the Blackhawks in no way reflects how I feel about other Chicago teams, notably the Bears and Cubs.

I find great solace in the fact that the Bears only have one Super Bowl and nine World Championships, as opposed to the Packers’ four and 13, respectively. And no part of me wants to see the “Lovable Losers” at Wrigley Field win their first World Series in more than a century. Thank you, Steve Bartman.

The Bears are to the Packers what the Cubs are to the Brewers.

But what about the Blackhawks?

There’s no hockey rivalry for folks from Wisconsin to get upset about. It’s only a Chicago thing to them.

Yes, I understand the Blackhawks reside in the Windy City, but please save your breath if you plan on telling me how close it is to Milwaukee and everything we hold dear as Wisconsinites. I don’t need a geography lesson.

Chicago is just a city. The Blackhawks are so much more than that.

I fell in love with hockey and the Blackhawks to the point where I wanted to share it with someone, the same way my friend did with me.

I force-fed my old man with more hockey than he could handle until he reluctantly began watching Blackhawks games with me on a regular basis. He was even more dead-set against being a hockey fan than I was at first. But just a few years later, we’re splitting a subscription to NHL GameCenter so we have access to every game.

He sarcastically tells me how he was perfectly happy with the way things were before I introduced him to hockey. He didn’t need the additional stress that comes along with being a Blackhawks fan: the Game 7s, the mad scrambles with an empty net. Yet he thanks me for bringing it all into his life.

Being a Blackhawks fan in Wisconsin is unique – a fraternity of sorts. I’ve come across fellow Blackhawks fans a number of times, but conversations don’t usually take place. We smile, nod and continue on. We already know what it’s about: pride.

For 18 years, I wedged the door shut on something that has increasingly become a huge part of my life. I was close-minded and ignorant – oblivious to the possibilities that have since become a reality.

I’ve been to the Blackhawks Convention, several games, including Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, and even a Stanley Cup victory parade with two million strong; none of them cared about my ties to the Packers or Brewers.

Being a Blackhawks fan in Wisconsin isn’t as sacrilegious as it seems. Open your mind. Give it a chance. There’s no better time than the present.

I never used to have a hockey team. Now I do.

And it’s not a Chicago thing.

Green Bay Packers Draft Preview

28 Apr
NFL Draft

The 2015 NFL Draft begins Thursday night in Chicago.
Photo Credit: gannett-cdn.com

With the 30th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers select…

Ah, it’s that time of year, football fans: draft week. Optimism reigns supreme throughout the league’s 32 front offices and fanbases alike. Every team has a chance to win Super Bowl 50. Except the Bears, which is ironic considering Chicago is the host location of this year’s draft.

All jokes aside, the dawn of a new season is upon us. And with that season comes an opportunity for the Packers and their fans to move on from arguably the biggest collapse in NFL postseason history. The Packers’ 28-22 overtime loss against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game will never be erased from memory. It stings. It will always sting. But it’s time to move on.

No Super Bowl festivities took place in Titletown at season’s end. Yet there were still celebrations in the form of going-away parties for A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones. Packers fans even offered to help pack their suitcases for them as they departed for their new homes in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, respectively.

OK, maybe that didn’t happen. But I’m sure no one held the door for them on the way out of Green Bay.

The duo’s abysmal performance on gamedays surely had Packers fans raising their right hands and insisting they could play the inside linebacker position more effectively. And, to be fair, some of them probably could.

Funerals took place to mourn the careers of cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Davon House, who left the fruitful pastures of Green Bay for train wrecks in Cleveland and Jacksonville. But both players will rest peacefully, knowing they’re being paid a pretty penny to never sniff a Super Bowl again.

Nevertheless, the offseason continued. Free agency came and went. Outside free agents remained unsigned. And as sure as the sunrise, Ted Thompson haters came out of hibernation, equipped with pitchforks and picket signs.

I don’t understand how so much unwarranted criticism can be directed toward a general manager who has led the Packers on one of the most successful stretches in franchise history. It’s not good enough, apparently. As human beings, and especially sports fans, we’re never satisfied.

This generation of Packers fans has become accustomed to winning, seemingly unaware of the preceding dark ages that took place during the ’70s and ’80s. Coaches and general managers from other teams would threaten to trade players to Green Bay if they underperformed. It was a wasteland.

The Packers are thriving in today’s NFL, and their fans should appreciate these times because success doesn’t last forever. Keep things in perspective.

Year in and year out, fans beg Thompson to forgo his obligation to the salary cap and throw massive sums of money at free agents who, in all honesty, are free agents for a reason.

Packers General Manager Ted Thompson

Packers General Manager Ted Thompson.
Photo Credit: fansided.com

Money. Injuries. Age. Regardless of the red flags pinned to each free agent’s backside, more often than not, a cheaper asset is available in the draft.

And how, exactly, has Thompson managed to build a perennial contender?

Through the draft.

This is where Thompson earns his money. Sure, he has undoubtedly made some poor selections he’d like to have back, but it’s unrealistic to expect any general manager to hit home runs with every draft pick.

For the free agency fanatics, consider this: a bad draft pick is far less detrimental to a team’s salary cap than a free agent acquisition that doesn’t pan out. You don’t build a roster through free agency. You merely supplement it. Thompson has done that. Next time the Packers win a game, win the division, win the Super Bowl, don’t forget about the man in the booth who makes it all happen.

And I digress. Let’s get started.

With key contributors returning, such as Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga, the Packers remain equally as formidable as the squad that came within 3:52 of reaching the Super Bowl last season. A strong draft could potentially put the Packers over the top. And for a team that’s built on a draft-and-develop philosophy, that’s not such a bad proposition.

But there are holes to be filled.

Inside Linebacker

Hawk and Jones aren’t coming back, much to the relief of many fans. But someone has to step in alongside probable starter Sam Barrington and fill the void, make a difference – something Hawk and Jones didn’t do, at least not in a positive way. Clay Matthews moved inside temporarily last season to help shore up the run defense, but the Packers would ideally like to send him back outside as a permanent pass-rushing threat.

A number of quality inside linebackers could be available to the Packers in the first round. At 30th overall, the best options will likely include Eric Kendricks (UCLA), Benardrick McKinney (Mississippi State), Stephone Anthony (Clemson), Denzel Perryman (Miami – Fla.) and Paul Dawson (TCU).

Inside linebacker is the Packers’ greatest need, but none of the aforementioned prospects received a first-round grade and there isn’t a standout player in this class.

Thompson believes in drafting the best available player, not necessarily based on need. He doesn’t reach for players, either. For that reason, the Packers could go a different route.

Cornerback

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the Packers’ first-round selection at 21st overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Photo Credit: jrn.com

With the departures of Williams and House, the Packers need to address cornerback early in the draft. Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde were primarily slot corners last season. Hyde also played safety until rookie fan-favorite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took over full time. Either Hayward or Hyde will be thrust into a starting job opposite Sam Shields. But depth at the position must be improved.

The following cornerback prospects have more talent than their inside linebacker counterparts and could potentially be available when the Packers are on the clock: Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest), Byron Jones (Connecticut), Marcus Peters (Washington), Eric Rowe (Utah) and Jalen Collins (LSU).

Defensive Tackle

Defensive tackle isn’t as much of an immediate need as inside linebacker and cornerback, but it’s worth considering for the future. B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion are both returning on one-year deals, which is encouraging in the short term but concerning in the long term. Additionally, Raji missed all of last season with a torn biceps, and Guion was arrested during the offseason.

The best options at defensive tackle who might be available at 30th overall are Malcom Brown (Texas), Eddie Goldman (Florida State), Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma) and Carl Davis (Iowa).

The Packers could also address tight end, but unless they land Maxx Williams (Minnesota) or Clive Walford (Miami – Fla.) it’s not worth taking one until later in the draft.

Most experts agree this is a relatively weak draft class. Many believe the bottom of the first round will feature second-round talent. This puts the Packers in a difficult position – a position I wouldn’t be surprised if Thompson trades out of.

As a matter of fact, that’s my prediction, albeit an unsexy one.

Trading down would allow the Packers to acquire an extra pick and select an inside linebacker at the top of the second round, where the value matches the need.

Thompson loves to trade down. Historically he’s been successful in doing so. With the 30th overall pick in hand, the Packers are in prime position to move out of the first round and still draft a player near the top of their board.

Over the years, fans have come to expect the unexpected from Thompson. It wouldn’t surprise me if he selected an offensive lineman and sent Packers nation into an uproar.

Regardless of how Thompson handles the draft, the Packers are locked and loaded for another Super Bowl run this season.

Enjoy the ride.

Winning means more to Randall Cobb

8 Mar
Randall Cobb

Randall Cobb scored a career-high 12 touchdowns for the Packers last season.
Photo Credit: fox11online.com

Welcome to Green Bay Packers immortality, Randall Cobb.

It’s far too early to label Cobb as a future Packers Hall of Famer, but he took a big step in the right direction on Saturday, when he accepted a 4-year contract worth $40 million to remain in Green Bay. The deal includes $17 million guaranteed.

A whirlwind of media activity reported Cobb received at least six or seven offers from other teams during the early stages of the NFL’s legal tampering period prior to the start of free agency on Tuesday.

Cobb’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, was seeking an annual salary of $12 million, and the Oakland Raiders announced they were willing to pay $11 million for Cobb’s services. An inevitable bidding war between the Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, among others, would have increased the value on Cobb’s price tag if he reached free agency.

But Cobb chose Green Bay.

It doesn’t matter who you cheer for – unless you’re a disheartened Jaguars or  Raiders fan reeling in the sorrows of continued mediocrity – it’s easy to respect a professional athlete who leaves a sizable chunk of change on the table to stay put.

For that reason, Cobb has instantly earned the good graces of the Packers faithful. If he wasn’t a fan-favorite before, he certainly is now.

Sit back and watch those jersey sales skyrocket, Randall. I’m already on board.

From day one, it was evident Cobb knew what it takes to be a Packer. He never seemed like a money-grabber who would attempt to gouge the front office for every penny when his rookie contract expired.

Cobb’s departure in free agency would have been an unfathomable, albeit totally realistic, possibility. General Manager Ted Thompson doesn’t allow his coveted assets to sign elsewhere unless he has a justified reason for it.

After rejecting the Packers’ initial offer – a 5-year deal worth $8-9 million annually – it appeared as if Cobb’s asking price was out of the Packers’ range.

Cobb was unfairly compared to Greg Jennings and James Jones throughout the process, as fans feared he would leave for more money.

When Jennings and Jones left Green Bay, both players were pushing 30 and already had a Super Bowl title to their name. At that point in their respective careers, I don’t blame them for cashing in one last time. Don’t forget, the Packers never offered Jones a deal when he departed for the Oakland Raiders a season ago.

In any profession, the goal is to maximize earning potential. I doubt any of us would walk into our employer’s office on a Monday morning and ask for a pay cut. Why should athletes be held to a different standard and settle for less money? Especially when that athlete is a thriving 24-year-old superstar entering the prime of his career?

Cobb didn’t have to settle. But he gets it. He wants to win.

The richest players in the NFL are those with a Super Bowl ring.

Cobb also realizes that the value of catching passes from reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers outweighs the monetary value he could have found elsewhere. Would it really be worth $2 million more each year to play alongside Derek Carr or Blake Bortles?

The idea of teaming up with a young, unpolished quarterback must have held substance in Cobb’s decision to return to Green Bay. One doesn’t simply file for divorce from the best quarterback in the game.

Other receivers dream of Cobb’s situation.

Cobb has a unique and versatile skill set, but his success is due largely in part to his triggerman. Last season, Cobb posted career-highs of 91 catches, 1,287 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

Thanks, Mr. Rodgers.

Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson

In 2014, Packers receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb became the first duo in team history to each score more than 10 touchdowns in a single season.
Photo Credit: driverlayer.com

Let’s not forget about Cobb’s running mate, Jordy Nelson, either. Polar opposites in terms of playing style, yet equally talented, Nelson and Cobb are the most formidable wide receiver duo in the NFL. In 2014, they became the first tandem in Packers history to each catch more than 10 touchdown passes in a single season.

They have a golden opportunity to continue something special in Green Bay.

Nelson and Cobb are under contract through 2018. Rodgers is signed through 2019. The Packers will be able to keep the band together for the foreseeable future, something that could spell trouble for the rest of the league.

By staying in Green Bay, Cobb has placed himself in a prime position to receive another massive contract when he’s 28. That will take care of itself. For now, he has his sights set on the greater goal: winning his first Super Bowl.

That could happen sooner than later.

Ball-Out Fallout: The Real Issue With the Dez Bryant Ruling

13 Jan
Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers acknowledges the home fans at Lambeau Field following a 26-21 victory over the Cowboys.
Credit: bleacherreport.com

A week removed from a conspiracy theory that turned Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones into Hugh Hefner – except instead of Playboy bunnies, he had NFL officials wrapped around his finger – the Cowboys were on the receiving end of a controversial call of their own in the Divisional Round of the NFL postseason.

Most of you have probably seen Dez Bryant’s “catch-that-wasn’t” by now. It’s nearly impossible to scroll through any social media feed without stumbling upon an image, video or opinion about the topic. Some opinions are stronger than others. Just ask any sympathy-seeking Cowboys fan or even Bryant himself, who insists it was a catch.

Bryant, normally a fiery competitor, was in disbelief after his catch was overturned late in the fourth quarter. He looked like a self-pitied adolescent whose old man took away his PlayStation.

Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was shocked after his catch was overturned.
Credit: cbssports.com

Hold on, let me get my violin.

Amidst the chaos, “catch” has lost all meaning.

No, literally.

Once the officials overturned the ruling, the outcome of Sunday’s clash between the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers became irrelevant.

Packers win? Cowboys win?

It no longer mattered. Forget about the game.

Because this, this is what people would be talking about.

It’s a call that many believe single-handedly cost the Cowboys the game and sent the Packers to Seattle for the NFC Championship game against the Seahawks.

Wait, the stakes were that high? You wouldn’t know it based on how much media coverage has been centered around a non-catch which, at this point, has no significance. What’s done is done.

The Packers are essentially being discredited for their victory because of an accurate call based on a rule. I’m not sure what’s so difficult to understand. Bryant initially caught the ball, but as he went to the ground, the ball came loose, resulting in an incompletion. He did not complete the process of the catch. The rule was properly enforced. If you want to be upset about something, be upset about the existence of the rule, not the call itself.

It’s truly a shame that one play, one call, one rule is overshadowing what was otherwise a tremendous duel between two of the NFL’s most storied franchises. But I’m not surprised by the nation’s reaction.

We love controversy. This is the NFL edition of reality TV. It would have been too perfect, too easy for the game to be decided by the players – not sexy enough for national media coverage.

As the fallout continued, I read an opinion of a Cowboys fan who had the audacity to suggest the Packers should forfeit the game because of the call.

Come on. Let’s be real here.

Did the Cowboys forfeit after they benefited from questionable officiating in the Wild Card round against the Detroit Lions?

I didn’t think so.

Except this time, the officiating wasn’t questionable. The refs got it right.

I can understand the frustration of Cowboys fans everywhere. If Bryant would have come down with the ball and Dallas would have gone on to win the game, we all would have been blessed with witnessing another bro-mantic embrace between Jones and Governor Chris Christie in the booth. Yeah, because that’s good TV.

In all seriousness, I’m human. I sympathize with Cowboys fans that this happened the way it did at such a critical point in the game, but I simply can’t endorse not giving the Packers their due diligence.

Did the ruling of an incompletion change Dan Bailey’s missed field goal in the second quarter? What about DeMarco Murray’s fumble in the third quarter? One (right) call doesn’t decide the game, ladies and gentlemen. It didn’t cost the Cowboys anything.

It would be foolish to assume the Cowboys would have automatically won the game if the call on the field was not overturned, yet that seems to be the popular opinion. They would have had the ball at the one-yard line with a chance to retake the lead, but nothing is guaranteed in the NFL.

What if Tony Romo botched the snap on the next play? He’s done it in big moments before. (Seattle, anyone?) What if the Packers defense made a goal-line stand? These what-ifs are every bit as relevant as saying, “what if Bryant made the catch?”

But for the sake of conversation, I’ll entertain the thought of a Cowboys touchdown on that drive. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say the Cowboys scored and converted the two-point conversion to take a three-point lead (see, I’m even being generous with my assumptions). The Packers would have gotten the ball back with no less than three minutes remaining and a timeout, needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win. With the best quarterback in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers and a hot offense, I like those odds.

After all, in the real game, the Packers drove down the field and killed the clock after the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs.

Not only did the Packers kill the clock, they also killed the Cowboys’ Super Bowl hopes and advanced one game closer to another title. That should be the focus of the game.

Now, can we get back to football?

 

Packers can learn from Brewers’ collapse

27 Sep
Carlos Gomez

The Milwaukee Brewers will miss the playoffs after the best start in franchise history.
Credit: gettyimages.com

From April 5 to September 1, the Milwaukee Brewers stood atop the National League Central standings. During a sizable chuck of that span, they also boasted one of the best records in Major League Baseball.

Something special was brewing in Milwaukee. The Brewers weren’t considered a contender by many during Spring Training, but the sky appeared to be the limit for baseball’s smallest market team in the early stages of the season. The Brewers performed well in every facet of the game, and with each win, their fan base grew hungrier for the first World Series championship in franchise history.

Oh, how quickly things can change.

Prior to the All-Star break, the Brewers lost 11 of 12 games. They continued to unravel in the second half of the season, and their reign in the division disappeared, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates lurking in the rearview.

The Cardinals have always been a thorn in the Brewers’ side. Despite the Cardinals’ revolving door of players, or so it seems, they manage to compete every season. They’re the class of the NL Central, no question about it. But once the Brewers ultimately fell out of first place, they had no one to blame but themselves.

Their confidence from the beginning of the season was long gone. Instead, their disposition changed. They became complacent, seemingly aware of their eventual fate. They played not to lose, rather than to win.

There was still hope that the Brewers could salvage the season and sneak into the playoffs as one of two Wild Card teams, but even that was too tall a task for the struggling ball club.

The Brewers plummeted in the standings, losing 16 of 19 games in late August and early September. Although not yet mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, the Brewers were finished.

For 150 days – a franchise record – the Brewers led the division, but their poor play down the stretch proved costly. Now they’ll be watching the playoffs from home, wondering what could have been.

With Brewers season coming to a close, Wisconsin is transitioning to full-fledged Green Bay Packers mode. The Packers can learn something from the Brewers’ epic collapse, with the same aforementioned mantra: It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.

Unlike the Brewers, the Packers have gotten off to a lackluster start this season and haven’t resembled the Super Bowl favorite many expected them to be. They were embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks in the season-opener, 36-16, and struggled mightily on offense last week against the Detroit Lions, scoring just a single touchdown in a 19-7 loss.

They’re a few Jets mistakes away from being winless through three games.

However, at 1-2, the Packers aren’t panicking. They’ve been in this position before – the past two seasons, as a matter of fact. Both times, they went on to win the NFC North.

History tends to repeat itself, but it’s never guaranteed.

The Packers must play better, plain and simple. They’re held to a much higher standard than the Brewers due to their exceptional run during the past 20 years in which they’ve been a perennial contender. In the past five years alone, the Packers have made the playoffs each season and won Super Bowl XLV in the 2010 season. That has resulted in lofty expectations.

When the Packers don’t fulfill their potential, it causes an understandable sense of urgency among the fans, who have perhaps become a bit spoiled by recent success.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers only needed one word to address the fans. He was even courteous enough to spell it out.

“R-E-L-A-X.”

That may be the best advice of all.

Packers fans must attempt to achieve perspective and realize just how good they have it. Not since Vince Lombardi’s glory days in the 1960s have the Packers sustained this much success.

Championships aren’t won during the first month of the season. The Brewers found that out firsthand, and now the Packers have an opportunity to do what the Brewers couldn’t: overcome adversity, improve and make a championship run.

It starts Sunday when the Packers travel to Chicago to face the Bears.

Aaron Rodgers

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ simple message for the fans after 1-2 start.
Credit: geeksandcleats.com

Packers are team to beat in NFC North

31 Jul
Packers defeat Bears

Aaron Rodgers’ 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, with 46 seconds left on 4th-and-8, gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title. They defeated the Bears, 33-28, at Soldier Field.
Credit: martynneil.files.wordpress.com

It was 4th-and-8 at Soldier Field. The Packers’ playoff hopes were dwindling. They trailed the Bears on the road, 28-27, in the 2013 regular season finale. The next 46 seconds would determine the winner of the NFC North.

We all remember the play.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the snap. He faced an immediate rush from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Fullback John Kuhn arrived in a knick of time, blocking Peppers just enough to prevent him from reaching Rodgers. The former MVP rolled out to his left and heaved a dime to Randall Cobb, who bolted past a flatfooted Chris Conte to haul in a 48-yard game-winning touchdown, propelling the Packers into the playoffs.

The Bears were stunned – an all-too-familiar feeling against their archrival. The Packers went on to win the division for the third straight season, but their playoff campaign was short-lived, as they were bounced from the postseason by the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round.

During the offseason, the gap continued to close in the NFC North.

The Bears improved their defensive line with free agent acquisitions Lamarr Houston (Raiders) and Jared Allen (Vikings). They also boast the best wide receiver duo in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There’s hardly a debate about that. The Bears’ offense could be one of the most explosive units in the NFL this season, but it may come down to the play of quarterback Jay Cutler, who Marshall recently declared will be the 2014 NFL MVP. If the league is looking to further investigate substance abuse among its players, Marshall could be their next target after such a ludicrous statement. Confidence clearly isn’t lacking in Chicago, but there’s quite a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Considering the hype in Chi-town, you’d think the Bears were the team with three straight division titles. That’s not the case. However, they remain the Packers’ most prominent threat in the division.

The Lions were perhaps in the best shape to seize their opportunity to win the division last season, but their discipline issues proved costly, as they were their own worst enemy down the stretch. New head coach Jim Caldwell – with his level-headed demeanor – will be a much-needed breath of fresh air for Detroit. Caldwell is more respected than former head coach Jim Schwartz. But let’s be honest, that’s not saying much. On the plus side, you most likely won’t see Caldwell trying to start a fight with an opposing coach after the postgame handshake, which can only be good news for Lions fans. The Lions added tight end Eric Ebron in the draft and former Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in free agency to complement Calvin Johnson in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if the Lions turn things around this season and make a run at the division title.

The Vikings can’t really be considered a serious contender in the division until they figure out their quarterback situation first. They have three quarterbacks competing for first-team reps in training camp, including their 32nd overall pick in this year’s draft, Teddy Bridgewater. The other potential suitors for the position include Matt Cassell and Christian Ponder, whose days as the Vikings’ starter appear to be all but over. If history is any indication, quarterback controversies don’t typically end well. It’s a shame, too. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is waiting for an opportunity to breakout. He’s one of the most explosive playmakers in the league, and he showed flashes of brilliance last season. The Vikings just need to find a way to get the ball in his hands. Of course, Adrian Peterson is always a threat in the Vikings’ backfield, but at 29 years old, he appears to be losing ground on his quest for a Super Bowl ring. Unless the Vikings turn it around, Peterson will be remembered as one of the best players to never win a championship.

Now, the good stuff.

The Packers are the class of the NFC North. That trend will continue until another team steps up and decides it’s had enough. Despite remaining in familiar territory atop the division the past three seasons, the Packers certainly can’t be satisfied with one-and-dones in the playoffs. They’re not far off from another Super Bowl, though.  Here are the four reasons why the Packers will win the NFC North in 2014.

Lack of experience within the division: Entering his ninth season, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is the longest-tenured head coach in the division by far. Bears head coach Marc Trestman is heading into his second season, and the aforementioned Caldwell – who has three years of previous experience as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts – and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer are entering their first season with their respective teams. Don’t underestimate the importance of having the same coaching staff year-in and year-out. It typically takes time for players to adjust to a new coaching style and system.

Additionally, we saw the Lions and Bears unravel with an opportunity to take control of the division at the end of last season while the Packers were ailing. Let’s face it; neither team had much experience with a division lead during the past few seasons, and that won’t change until they start winning meaningful games in November and December. The Packers have proven to be the team with the most resilience in the NFC North, and McCarthy’s experience is primarily responsible for their stranglehold on the division.

Julius Peppers and an improved defense: The Packers don’t have the reputation of being an aggressive team in free agency. That altered a bit in March when they scooped up Peppers, who spent the last four seasons with the rival Bears. Those in Chicago hold a firm belief that Peppers has lost a step. They accuse him of taking plays off. Regardless of their beef with Peppers, they most likely aren’t happy about seeing him end up in Green Bay, especially opposite Clay Matthews. Peppers and Matthews have never had the benefit of being paired with another player of their caliber.

They do now.

The Bears misused Peppers as an every-down player, which may have resulted in his declining performance. He’s no spring chicken anymore. The Packers plan to use Peppers in a variety of positions, formations and situations, maximizing his effort when he is on the field. He also has been reunited with Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who coached Peppers for several seasons in Carolina. The comfort and familiarity will allow Peppers to excel in the Packers’ defensive system. Even at 34 years old and in the twilight of his career, the aging Peppers is a physical specimen and has the ability to make a difference. He has almost everything – size, speed, versatility, athleticism, and now, added motivation from his doubters. If he can put it all together this season, he might end up with the one thing he doesn’t have: a Super Bowl ring. If nothing else, the Packers have acquired a seasoned veteran who will be a mentor to their young crop of defensive players.

The team selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall pick in the draft, and he may not even start due to Micah Hyde’s transition from cornerback to safety. Even so, the Packers have a lot of depth at the position. Paired with Morgan Burnett, either player will be an upgrade over Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings, who started for the Packers in 2013. Also in the secondary, cornerback Casey Hayward is fully healthy, after missing a majority of games with hamstring issues last season.

In recent years, the defense has been the Packers’ weakness. It finished 24th overall last season. With the addition of Peppers, as well as returning players, there’s no reason to believe the defense won’t be average, at the very least. It is poised to become a top-10 unit this season. Defensive end Mike Daniels already has expressed his desire for the defense to have a more physical mentality and match the offense’s production. If the offense and defense are clicking at the same time, the Packers will be even more of a threat, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Eddie Lacy: Roll tide, right? The reigning offensive rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy, put the Packers on his back last season when Rodgers was out for seven games with a broken collarbone. He often faced stacked boxes due to the Packers’ lack of reliable quarterback play, but his punishing running style allowed him to grind out 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Packers plan to increase Lacy’s role in the offense and involve him more in the passing game. His 35 receptions last season are nothing to scoff at, but you can expect that total to increase this season. There are so few three-down running backs in the NFL, but Lacy is a true workhorse in the Packers’ backfield.

With Rodgers’ return, Lacy will undoubtedly face more favorable defensive looks in 2014. It’s no wonder Lacy is always smiling. He knows what lies ahead. Now that the Packers have a formidable rushing attack with Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris, the possibilities are endless for the Packers offense.

Aaron Rodgers: It’s enviable that Brandon Marshall thinks Jay Cutler will be the MVP in 2014, but for that to happen, Cutler would need to be the best quarterback, and player, in the league. He’s not even the best quarterback in the NFC North. Injuries happen to every team during the course of the season, but the Packers had the worst injury bug in the NFL last season. They lost Rodgers for seven games, and that alone is enough to make the argument.

When Rodgers is playing, the Packers are as dangerous as any team in the NFL. He’s that good. Not only that, he has a mutually beneficial relationship with Lacy. In total, Rodgers and Lacy only played in six games together last season, but the pair will make each other better. If teams stack the box to defend against Lacy, Rodgers will beat them through the air. If teams play deep in the secondary to defend against Rodgers, Lacy will run wild. And the last thing opposing defenders want is to face Lacy head on. Ultimately, defenses will have no choice but to respect the running game, leading to a plethora of opportunities for Rodgers. On paper, it would seem the Packers offense will be unstoppable in 2014. The end result will be one of the best seasons of Rodgers’ career.

The pieces are in place for the Packers, but the Bears and Lions won’t back down, either. The NFC North will be one of the most interesting division battles to follow in 2014, but when all is said and done, the Packers will be on top.

Who do you think will win the NFC North?