The Good, the Bad and the Raji

Posted August 23rd, 2014 @ 08:08pm

We've seen the last of the Packers starters until opening night, and that's a good thing. We've seen enough to give us hope that the Packers will compete for a Super Bowl, but the loss of B.J. Raji tempers the excitement in a big way.

It's become a rite of late summer: who will go down before the season starts to derail optimism? Last year it was Bryan Bulaga. Before Friday night, the Pack had lost top reserve Don Barclay and promising rookie Jared Abbrederis to ACLs, but neither of those losses resonate like the loss of Raji does.

We've heard much about the new leaner, younger look on the defensive line. The centerpiece, of course, was supposed to be Raji, back at the nose where he belongs, recommitted to the game and ready to play for a contract. Now, a torn bicep will cause him to miss the 2014 season and the Packers have a mammoth hole at the nose, one of the most vital spots in Dom Capers' defense.

You'll hear Packer fans scream at Ted to bring back Ryan Pickett or Johnny Jolly, but I don't see it happening. The team wants to be young and athletic at the nose, so look for Josh Boyd to get the first shot, with intriguing undrafted rookie Mike Pennel also getting a look. Former Viking Letroy Guion looked like a long shot to make the roster. Now, expect him to get a closer look from team doctors--to see if he's ready to take the field. Also, remember, the Pack will be in the nickel about half the time, with Datone Jones and Mike Daniels comprising the front.

If you would have asked me to name the three guys most vital to a defensive improvement in 2014, I would have said a healthy Clay Matthews, Hyde/Clinton Dix at safety and Raji at the nose. It's a big loss.

Offensively, I have no worries. Granted, 9-20 for Aaron Rodgers is not a number we're accustomed to seeing. But in 39 plays, Rodgers directed three touchdown drives in 39 plays. The chemistry with the wide receivers was off, but the screen game with Lacy and Harris was impressive. As was the 35 yard seam pass to rookie Richard Rogers on the first drive. Zero concerns about the offense. Zero. Rookie center JC Tretter looks up to the challenge and the unit as a hole is run blocking very well.

As for the defense, outside of the missed tackle meltdown that was the Maurice Jones Drew 40 yard touchdown scamper, it performed as you would hope against the Raiders: five consecutive three and outs, some hard hits and good pressure on the quarterback. Julius Peppers has shown enough to get us a little excited and the Pack's secondary appears to be infinitely deeper than it was a year ago.

The biggest roster question I see is whether the Pack keeps two or three QBs. I'd be surprised if they keep three; I think they'd rather keep an extra linebacker or wide receiver. I'm not sure who gets the call between the two: Flynn makes the most sense, but I have a feeling McCarthy would rather keep Tolzien, if he has to choose.

We do know there will be no panic in Titletown as the braintrust looks to cut down to 75 by Tuesday. They'll roll out the next man up theory and hope and pray that Boyd or Pennell is ready for his close up.

It's late August, which means we're talking about season ending injuries. Again.


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"Packer Preview" Owes A Debt to Brett

Posted August 5th, 2014 @ 06:08pm

On Sunday, August 31st, I'll settle in behind the mic in the KFAN studio and kick off season number 19 of "Packer Preview," the first and to this day the only, team-centered radio show airing on its arch rival's flagship station.

It would never have happened, if not for Brett Favre. The only way it gets off the ground is if the team is a Super Bowl contender. When I first pitched the show to the brain wizards at KFAN in the summer of 1995, the Pack was an up and coming powerhouse, led by its precocious and magical young quarterback. But KFAN was coming to the end of its first contract as the home of the Vikings and the last thing they wanted to do was stir things up with a Packers show.

But the Vikings flipped the rights to WCCO after the season, so I went back to the goochies and reminded them that the Pack was coming off an NFC title game appearance and would be a Super Bowl favorite in '96. "Packer Preview" was green-lighted and my first season was Brett Favre's Super Bowl season.

The Packers have always been incredibly popular in the Twin Cities, dating back to the time before the Vikings came to be. My dad grew up in St. Paul in the 40s and he was a Packer fan. Add in the number of people (like me) who discovered what a great metropolitan area the Twin Cities is and migrated over from the land of cheese, and you understand why you'll undoubtedly find one of us on your block or at your office.

By the mid-90s, Packer mania was rampant in the Twin Cities, since it looked like Favre, Reggie and the Packers were ready to take over and win a few Super Bowls. OK, that didn't happen but the Packers won one, lost one and were a perennial playoff player. And the appetite for Packers conversation was immense.

And it allowed me to remain on the air at KFAN, even when they reclaimed the rights to the team in 2000. My show got bumped back an hour from 9am to 8am (and this season we're on from 7am-8am), but they allowed me to stay, understanding that ours was a unique rivalry and the truth is, they've been one of Clear Channel's shining stars for years because they like to think and program outside the box.

But back to where I started. Favre is the reason my show ever happened, but longtime listeners know I was not pleased with #4 as the messy separation and divorce went down. For 16 seasons though, he gave us, week in and week out, NFL theater at the highest level. Every game was an adventure and we never felt we were out of a game until the last second ticked off. It was never dull. As a child of the 70s, I saw plenty of dull Packers seasons.

In this era of pinball offenses, records are broken weekly, it seems. Most of today's QB records will be taken with a grain of salt, as fans try to compare Montana to Elway to Manning to Rodgers to Luck, etc.

But Favre's two most meaningful records will stand the test of time. The consecutive game streak will never be broken. His wins record may be broken by Manning (Favre leads by 19), but 186 wins by a starting QB will look impressive for as long as the NFL is around.

We Packers fans didn't like the way it ended. Favre put the Packers in a very difficult spot and the team made what I thought was the only decision to make. But he is one of the greatest QBs of all time and certainly one of the three greatest Packers (I still put Hutson and Nitschke ahead of him. After much reflection, I reluctantly put him ahead of Starr).

It's been seven years. It's time to move on and recognize where Favre sits in the annals of Packers lore. It was never a question that his would be the sixth number retired.  I thought this would be the year. The December Monday night game against the Falcons seemed like the perfect platform--honoring Favre with the team that drafted him in the house. But by next year the new and improved Packer Hall of Fame will open and this will become its signature event.

Then on one special night next season, maybe the opener, we'll see #4 join the other hallowed Packer numbers: 3, 14, 15, 66 and 92. Precisely where it belongs.


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One Week Down, One Player Down: Business As Usual

Posted August 2nd, 2014 @ 01:08am

We almost made it. We almost got through the first full week of the Packers training camp without losing a player to a season-ending injury. Almost. There has been no confirmation from the Packers at the time I write this, but it appears rookie WR and Badgers' fan favorite Jared Abbrederis is done for the season with a torn ACL.

Here we go again. We'd like to believe the team has absorbed more than its share of major injuries in recent years, but after one week our faith is already being tested. Immediately the Twitter trolls reminded me that he would have been a bit player at best on this year's roster, but they miss the bigger point. Now we're probably a couple of years away from seeing him at full strength and his development will happen at a snail's pace.

The truth is, he was battling to win the #5 receiver spot, behind Nelson, Cobb, Boykin and fellow rookie Davante Adams. He had a shot to win a returner job, but the team has other candidates who will get a shot to replace Cobb, most notably the now healthy DuJuan Harris.

It's a buzzkill that a wildly popular local kid who improbably made it big with the Badgers will have to get healthy and wait a long while to start his NFL career. Many of you were excited to see what he could bring to the team as a rookie. Big picture, the injury doesn't impact this year's team in a major way. Fellow rookie Corey Linsley's shoulder injury is also worth watching. Linsley faces an uphill battle to unseat JC Tretter at center, but it depletes the team of depth at the position, should his injury be serious.

What else did we learn from afar after the opening week of camp? Mike McCarthy wants to turn up the tempo on offense, knowing that his quarterback can take advantage of most defenses, if he can control the tempo. If he can keep his running back on the field on third downs, it will help in a major way. So Eddie Lacy will get plenty of work as a receiver and blitz protector this preseason. By all accounts Lacy looks ready to pick up where he left off and emerge as a top five back.

The tight end job will be a dogfight, between Quarless, Bostick and Rodgers. I get the feeling the team sees Quarless as a second teamer and hopes one of the other two flashes, because they both have big play capabilities. Rodgers appears further along than most expected. It will be very interesting to see if he gets time with #12 in the second and third preseason games. I think he and Bostick will battle for the job tooth and nail over the next few weeks.

Defensively, the headline of the week was the cast of characters who weren't in uniform. The list looks like it's straight out of Groundhog Day: Perry, Neal, Worthy, Guiton (OK, Guiton wasn't on the team last year, but as maybe the second most significant free agent signing it's disappointing to see him sidelined already). Perry and Neal returned later in the week and both find themselves fighting for playing time behind Matthews and Peppers. Worthy, who injured his back while working out on his own, will be lucky to make the team. The team's patience has to be wearing thin.

I'm excited to see Raji, Daniels and Jones up front. This unit's performance will have the biggest impact on how much Capers' defense improves this season. Raji is motivated in a contract year and comfortable back at the nose--he had a very strong first week. Daniels appears to want the Richard Sherman role (vocal, nasty leader). If he can earn it on the field, more power to him. Jones needs to show his #1 pick chops, after an ankle injury slowed him last season.

The secondary looks to be much more competitive, with the return of Casey Hayward and the eternal promise of Davon House, both of whom had strong opening weeks. Micah Hyde has the early lead over Ha Ha Clinton Dix, opposite Morgan Burnett at safety. The preseason games will sort out if the depth chart changes. A healthy Sean Richardson is also playing himself into the mix. The Pack may actually have some depth at safety this year.

The biggest news of the week was the extension for GM Ted Thompson. McCarthy's will follow soon, as the Packers' front office/head coach will continue its uncommon stability through the end of the decade. Teams with that kind of stability are always in the mix: witness the Pats, Ravens and Steelers.

Looking forward to our first look at the team next weekend. For now, we'll follow another week of practice, collectively holding our breath, hoping the team can get through it without hearing that dreaded three letter word: ACL.

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"Packer Preview" returns for a 19th season on the home of the Vikings, KFAN on Sunday, August 31st. This year's time slot: 7am-8am Sunday mornings on KFAN and Feel free to sleep in and podcast at your leisure.

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