GREEN BAY PACKERS 2013: BACK TO THE TOP?
But remember, this team has won in the double digits for five of the last six years. And with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback high hopes are always reasonable.
Still, the NFL's brutal unpredictability means nothing, good or bad, is a lock...
Frank: Hey, did you see how Bob McGinn described the general manager while writing that the Packers should do more all-out tackling in practice?
Artie: I did indeed: “If serial worrywart Ted Thompson can't bear to watch, so be it.”
F: Well, I think “serial worrywart” describes a certain Packers fan I've been chatting with for five years.
A: I'll say it again: It's what I do.
F: You're not alone. Last week at Paddy's Pub my pal Matt Phillips, who's a big Packer Backer, expressed major worries. The first was that the offensive line will be a real liability.
A: I don't think the O-line is that bad. For one thing, in the exhibition games the first-stringers got pulled early. I'd call the line average, even with Bryan Bulaga out for the season and the rookie, David Bakhtiari, taking his place at left tackle. But it's true that there's no real depth on the line.
F: So if more injuries strike...
A: That's always the biggest factor for any team at any time and just about any position. But man, that O-line better do all it can to keep Mr. Rodgers healthy, given the turmoil at backup quarterback.
F: The Packers released B.J. Coleman and signed serial backup Seneca Wallace, who apparently hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since 2011.
A: Ouch! They also signed ex-Badger Scott Tolzien, cut by the 49ers, to the practice squad.
F: Matt also said he thought the opener in San Francisco might be disastrous. He said he watched the 49ers-Vikings exhibition game and that “whenever a 49er had to make a tackle in the open field, he made it. But I never see that with the Packers.”
A: Well, it's hard to say what the defensive secondary is gonna look like, at least for a while, because of injuries.
F: Tramon Williams is back on the field and had an interception in the last exhibition game, but Casey Hayward reinjured himself in the third game.
F: And Morgan Burnett went out too.
A: Both of them with hamstring problems, and those can really linger.
F: In the last few years the defensive backfield has broken down on a lot of long plays. Poor tackling was a part of that for sure.
A: But also they haven't been getting a consistent rush so the coverage has to last longer.
F: Which raises the seemingly eternal question of who'll get sacks besides Clay Matthews?
A: That's up in the air. Again. Still. The defensive line has looked good—and there they do have depth—but in Dom Capers' 3-4 the main rushers are the outside linebackers.
F: The last piece I saw in the Journal Sentinel seemed to focus on Nick Perry.
A: They had big hopes for him but his rookie season was cut short by a wrecked wrist. He wasn't very impressive in this camp but he's still making the transition from being an end in college to a linebacker here.
F: Back to the offense. Rodgers and the first string moved the ball easily in the exhibitions, though they didn't score a touchdown. And maybe the combination of tough competition in camp and a reworked contract heavy on performance bonuses will get Mason Crosby kicking consistently again.
A: I have high hopes for Eddie Lacy. He looked like a beast in the second exhibition game.
F: Randall Cobb is back on the field, and Jordy Nelson...
A: Tenuously, after his knee procedure.
F: And then, as usual, people are saying this is the season for a Jermichael Finley breakout.
A: He looked really good in the exhibitions, for the little time the starters played.
F: And he's keeping his mouth shut.
A: The trouble is, none of the other tight ends have stepped up. It's not even clear who the chief backup will be.
F: Well, what's your prediction for the Packers' record?
A: Based on going 1-3 in the phony games, you'd say they'd be lucky to go 9-7 for the season. But who was playing most of the time?
F: Not the starters.
A: Pete Prisco of CBSsports.com has the Pack at 14-2 and The Sporting News says 12-4. But worrywart that I am, I'll say 10-6 and winning the NFC North.
F: I'll stick with the 11-5 I predicted last year, which proved accurate, and the division title. But as our chart shows, neither of us has the Packers going all the way.
F: Who's going to be the biggest challenge in the NFC North? I'd say the Vikings, but is Adrian Peterson going to go for almost 2,100 yards again?
A: His lead blocker, the fullback Jerome Felton, is suspended for the first three games because of a DUI arrest.
F: And of course you've got to be able to throw the ball with some consistency so Peterson doesn't have five guys waiting for him every time. Can Christian Ponder deliver that? Last year he had a good game against the Packers in Minneapolis but he threw a crucial interception in the loss at Lambeau Field.
A: I don't see it happening for the Purple Guys. What a shame for the defector from Green Bay, Greg Jennings.
F: How about the Bears? As usual, they apparently have O-line troubles.
A: Which ain't good for the prospects of keeping Jay Cutler in one piece.
F: And they apparently have a Brandon Marshall problem too. He had hip surgery that may not have been completely successful, and last week the new coach, Marc Trestman, gave him four days off for “personal reasons.”
A: If Marshall is “unhappy,” coupled with hip trouble and a very shaky offensive line, Cutler will get very frustrated and start chucking the ball all over the place.
F: Just to avoid getting creamed all the time.
A: I don't see the Bears being anything special in Trestman's first year.
F: Now for the Lions. I hadn't realized until recently that they've added Reggie Bush.
A: Who hasn't been all that productive as a pro.
F: Just like Ponder and the Vikings, a big question is whether Matthew Stafford can have the consistency they need. He recently got a big new contract, but I guess he didn't look good in the exhibition games. Plus their star receiver, Calvin Johnson, has had some knee trouble.
A: Stafford threw for 41 TDs two years ago but only 20 last year. And anyway, the Lions still have Jim Schwartz as the coach, and he's a little flaky. Sure, they could be a surprise team—every year there are a couple—but I doubt it'll happen.
F: We commented about this in April when the Packers' schedule came out, but looking at it again, boy, it sure doesn't look easy.
A: Three games right away that could all be really tough— at San Francisco, hosting Washington and at Cincinnati. All of them playoff teams last year. The Bengals made the playoffs last year and have talent all over, both sides of the ball. I've even seen one or two predictions of them in the Super Bowl.
F: Then Green Bay gets its bye real early, in the fourth week.
A: Which might help this year, with those hamstrung guys.
F: They also have to play the Ravens and Giants on the road, and in November there's two division games in five days, the Vikings at Lambeau and then the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.
A: Thanks a bunch, Roger Goodell!
F: They're playing both teams who were in the Super Bowl, the Falcons who were in the NFC Championship Game, and the Giants who beat them badly last year and in the playoffs the year before.
A: It's really ridiculous to go through the schedule and make predictions game-by-game. Who knows what'll happen to a team from year to year, or within a season? Especially with injuries.
F: Now, I won't deny you the opportunity to comment on the Dec. 15 road game...
A: Oh, look, the Packers are playing in Dallas! What a surprise that is! I don't think the Pack has played the Cowboys at home since the Ice Bowl.
F: And I will not deny myself the opportunity to observe that the teams' last three meetings, and four of the last five, have been at Lambeau.
A: I'm not buying it. It's just like the moon landings... They put up a “green screen” in Dallas to make it look like they were up here.
F: It's equally ridiculous to make predictions on the playoffs and Super Bowl in September, but of course we do it like everyone else.
A: Just for the hell of it I'm saying that Russell Wilson carries the Seahawks to the title—although it pains me because I still haven't gotten over the “Fail Mary” game last year where the Packers got jobbed.
F: I'm going with the Patriots, not for any great reasons other than they're always good and they can't fail to make the playoffs out of the AFC East. Of course I should point out that my brilliance resulted in predictions the last two years that San Diego would win the Super Bowl. Chargers fans can take heart; this year I'm ignoring them completely.
A: And like I say, there'll be some surprises for sure. Look at the Colts last year.
F: I heard this stat on ESPN the other day. Every season from 1996 through 2011 saw at least five changes in playoff teams from the year before. Last year snapped the streak, but there were still four new playoff teams, one-third of the field.
A: That's life on Planet Parity, aka the NFL.
THE NFL GETS OFF EASY
F: What do you think of the NFL's settlement with ex-players over compensation for brain-related injuries?
A: It seems like a drop in the bucket. The NFL makes something like $9 billion a year and they're getting off with spending $765 million...
F: Of which $675 million appears to be for actual medical treatment of retired players who have suffered cognitive impairment. But we're talking about thousands and thousands of ex-players, and long-term care is hugely expensive. I think a lot of the ex-players will still be way short of the money they need.
A: But the NFL gets to move on to the business of raking in the dough.
F: It's like the tobacco companies. They made lots of lawsuit settlements, with individuals and even states, for what seemed like huge amounts of money, but they're still in business. And as part of this deal the NFL won't have to release internal files that might show what it knew, and when, about the problems concussion-related injuries have caused in players.
A: And now they're done. Concussions are off the books.
F: But what about current players? The league has become vigilant about lessening head injuries, but there still are violent collisions on every single play and not all of the damage will be prevented.
A: Now they're getting worried about knees because the campaign against head injuries will have guys tackling lower. But if the knees are a no-no too, where the hell is anyone going to try to tackle someone? You've got to hit 'em somewhere.
F: As we've said before, what's really at stake here is the long-term survival of football.
“AX' GETS AXED
F: So John Axford is now a Cardinal.
A: Yep. For a "player to be named later," which to me means this player doesn't have a name yet, which means that he isn't even born! We may not see this supposed player for another 20 years.
F: Now you're just being silly. The Brewers announced Sunday that the player is a right-hander named Michael Blazek, who has a birth date of March 16, 1989.
A: Anyway, I hope St. Louis knows what it's getting… actually, maybe I don’t.
F: Maybe things will turn around for him there. Heck, this year things turned around a couple of times here! He started with a bad stretch, then had a great stretch and then another lousy stretch that sealed his fate.
A: It's always so unpredictable with relief pitchers.
F: Trading within the division isn't so bad with the Brewers so far out of the race. But it'll still be tough to see a guy who was a fan favorite two years ago, and a major reason they won the division, pitching against them in two series this month.
A: And what does this do to the Milwaukee Film Festival? Axford, who's a very smart and articulate guy, was a big spokesman for it.
F: It was highly unlikely that he'd be a Brewer next year. They avoided arbitration by signing him for $5 million but that was never going to happen again. He would have been “un-tendered,” which means not offered a 2014 contract at all.
A: That would have been a no-brainer. They gave him all the chances he could expect.
F: We'll see if Axford comes back to haunt Milwaukee next year. Whether he gets the chance probably will depend on how he pitches this month.
Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek also worries about the Brewers, Bucks, Badgers and Golden Eagles.