Nik Kovac – Milwaukee Record http://milwaukeerecord.com Music, culture, gentle sarcasm. Fri, 14 Dec 2018 21:24:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.0.1 http://milwaukeerecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/cropped-mrapp-32x32.jpg Nik Kovac – Milwaukee Record http://milwaukeerecord.com 32 32 Read Before Kickoff, Week 17: Packers vs. Lions http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-17-packers-vs-lions/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-17-packers-vs-lions/#respond Fri, 29 Dec 2017 06:06:06 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=44541 hen the 7-8 Green Bay Packers travel to the 8-7 Detroit Lions this New Year’s Eve, it will be the last calendar day of 2017 and the last day of both teams’ 2017 seasons. The Lions were in the hunt longer, not losing their last hope until last week in Cincinnati against the six-win Bengals. […]

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When the 7-8 Green Bay Packers travel to the 8-7 Detroit Lions this New Year’s Eve, it will be the last calendar day of 2017 and the last day of both teams’ 2017 seasons.

The Lions were in the hunt longer, not losing their last hope until last week in Cincinnati against the six-win Bengals. During that game, Detroit was ahead in every quarter, but the quarterback threw a terrible pick right before halftime, the kicker missed a long one after a receiver dropped a third down, the defense extended a fourth quarter drive by holding, and then the offense killed the next drive the same way. Somehow they found a way to lose to Andy Dalton by nine points. Yes, these are the same old Lions.

SCOUTING THE LIONS

For a detailed look at the names and jersey numbers of this ultimate opponent, please consult our November scout, published just before they humiliated Brett Hundley and Mike McCarthy (it was the game after our bye week) at Lambeau Field, leading 30-10 before a meaningless touchdown on the last, untimed play of the day.

Not much has changed about the Detroit football team since we wrote that Week 9 preview. The only starter on injured reserve is strong safety #32 Tavon Wilson, who has been replaced by the slot back #28 Quandre Diggs shifting further inside, freeing up playing time for the rookie draft pick #30 Teez Tabor to play outside, while their weakest link, #24 Nevin Lawson, plays the slot.

Right corner #23 Darius Slaymade the Pro Bowl this year, and last week he flashed some of that talent, breaking up a couple of early passes and drawing offensive PI against all-worlder A.J. Green. But Green had the last laugh, eventually catching 60% of his targets—including a huge third down on the game-winning field goal drive—and earlier he put Slay on the ground with this move after the catch. As we said back in November, Slay is considered the rainmaker for this defense, but he is often left high and dry.

The only other good player in the secondary is free safety #27 Glover Quin, and even he lost track of a backup tight end to allow the Bengals’ first touchdown and first lead.

Right end #94 Ziggy Ansah had two monster sacks against Andy Dalton, one where he swallowed the left tackle whole and another where he slalomed around him as if the track home had rails.

The offensive line has been battling injuries all year. Packer fans who had been reading right guard #76 T.J. Lang’s injury reports for half a decade will not be surprised that the overcompensated old man coming off hip surgery had his back clench up early in the year, then suffered a concussion mid-year, and missed the win-or-die Bengals game with a foot injury. Perhaps it’s the same one he re-broke in his last game with the Packers this past January? If he’s a no-go, then at least two starters are out, one’s out of position, and even a backup will have to shift over one spot. Even when healthy, though (as we said back in November), this unit is overpaid and ineffective.

The only receiving weapon we didn’t mention in November that we should have is wide receiver #11 Marvin Jones, who is leading the team with 1,020 yards and 8 touchdowns, primarily because it’s still #15 Golden Tate that draws most of the safety help.

Scatback #25 Theo Riddick, all five foot nine inches of him, is now the nominal starter on all three downs because #21 Ameer Abdullah got benched. But when they need hard yards on early downs, now the ball goes to undrafted rookie #38 Tion Green, who stands a full three inches taller.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

As shaky as this Detroit secondary usually is, Lambeau this November was an exception. That game was decided in the first three quarters, and during that stretch Brett Hundley threw 25 passes to gain 97 yards. Less than 4 yards an attempt. By the time he got the ball in the last quarter, the score was 20-3, and so he padded those stats some against a prevent defense.

As bad as the defense had been in big spots this season, and in even bigger spots over the past seven years (as we lamented in last week’s column), the fulcrum of failure this season has been at quarterback. With a healthy Rodgers, no one doubts that we’d be at double digit victories by now, even with Dom coaching the D and Mike coaching whatever it is Mike coaches when Aaron is healthy (because Aaron coaches the O).

Saturday night at chilly Lambeau was yet another bread crumb in the trail that would lead any competent scout in the NFL to conclude that Hundley should head north for Canada. Four-down football is just too much for him. So how did our personnel people, who got to watch every practice for three years, not know this? And why did Ted not sign Colin Kaepernick as soon as Rodgers went down?

With a competent NFL quarterback starting these past two months, we wouldn’t have just squeaked by the Bears, Bucs, and Browns—we’d have won those games going away—and we probably would have found some way to win a couple three of the six Hundley has lost so far. We could have been at minimum an average NFL offense, instead of embarrassing ourselves most weeks. Last week, when the defense held the Vikings to their lowest yardage total of the season (helped by Case Keenum misfiring several), Brett Hundley proved to be by far the worse of the two backups.

True, there was that one deep ball Trevor Davis could of had if he’d seen it, but the rest of ‘em were too far off even to get intercepted. And then there were the open receivers we could see from the balcony, but he couldn’t from the pocket, or especially when he rolled out. There were also the two interceptions, which were each awful in their own ways.

On the first, if the cover safety underneath the route didn’t pick it, the deep safety over the top would have. If there’s a possible way to throw two interceptions on one play, a man named Brett could discover it.

On the second, it was desperation time, but instead of at least heaving up a prayer, he checked down on fourth down! With two minutes left and sixteen points still to score. And the guy he checked down to was wearing the wrong colors.

Bob McGinn, ever the contrarian, insisted this week that Hundley “showed maturity beyond his years” in the two-interception, zero-point effort.

Tom “Spoon” Silverstein, McGinn’s former colleague and now rival, was much more clear-eyed. Spoon described Hundley as “a backup quarterback who through eight starts plays like he’s a hologram programmed only to do two things: scramble and throw the ball away out of bounds and overthrow receivers running deep.”

Ted’s failure to sign Kaepernick and Mike’s Fox-News-approved stubborn sass when asked if the available veteran might be better than the in-house garbage is the epitaph by which this season should be remembered. “The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be,” sums up 2017 about as well as “We’re nobody’s underdog” encapsulated 2010.

If Hundley wins in Detroit on Sunday, it’ll be because the Lions no longer care. For the three quarters this season when this average defense did mind if the ball moved, Hundley obeyed their commands.

OTTAWA FIRES

If we win this last game, the Lions will still finish second in the division because of tiebreakers. But even when the standings don’t matter, the games still do.

Especially against a border rivalry that predates football. Just as every skirmish against the Vikings can be seen as a continued ritual of violence between our Ojibwe and Dakota ancestors struggling for control of Minnesota and Wisconsin, ancient fires also burn on either side of the Great Michigan Lake.

On the Wisconsin side, the Ojibwe presence is still strong—six of our eleven federally recognized reservations are Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa)—and in Milwaukee everyone knows the Potawatomi are still here, as they are one of the largest private employers in town, and their local landholdings are expanding.

In order to get to Wisconsin, according to the old stories, the Ojibwe and Potawatomi passed through Michigan first on their way from the salty Atlantic coast hundreds of years ago. Going back in time, the name for these early American travelers was simply Anishinaabe—meaning “original people” in the Algonquin language—but as the migration lengthened so, too, did the distances between groups, and around Michigan many of them became known as the Council of of Three Fires—the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Ottawa—separate, but still allied.

The Ottawa never crossed Lake Michigan in significant numbers, but their presence on either side of Lake Huron—in Michigan and Canada—has been a defining pivot in the international history of the region. Two hundred and fifty-four years ago, in late spring, the Ottawa attacked the same city the Packers will on Sunday.

That war began on a Saturday, the seventh day of May, 1763. “The Detroit Indians struck first,” wrote Richard White in his definitive history of our region from 1650 through 1815, “but they believed that surrounding peoples had already determined to go to war. Pontiac, in his speech to the Detroit Indians urging them to attack, asked them to do only what their neighbors had already decided to do.”

Pontiac was an Ottawa leader, and although most modern historians—including White—believe his role in plotting the entire theater of battle was later exaggerated in the 19th and 20th centuries (the war is still often called “Pontiac’s Conspiracy”), there is no doubt that it began with an attack he led on a Saturday in Detroit.

Fort Detroit never fell, even though eight others would, from the top of lower Michigan to the eastern shores of Lake Erie.

It was a revolt of the Great Lakes against the British, and it began three weeks shy of 12 years before “the shot heard round the world” was fired on a mid-April Wednesday in Massachusetts.

That Wisconsin schoolchildren know more today about Lexington in 1775 than Detroit in 1763 is a great tragedy of our region’s curriculums. The shores of our mighty lakes have been molded by legendary footsteps. The Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions are part of a proud tradition of resistance. On Sunday, the last day of 2017, they will do battle for the 177th time.

Even if the rest of the world will soon forget what happens this Sunday noon, Packer fans will be watching and remembering.

Exile was watching last week, during his non-triumphant return to the holy land. He opens the show with that story, then Bob and Jeff complain about too many Vikings fans too close to the field. Curious wants to know about the “cage rush,” and then, in the second hour, Wildcat Mark and South Side Jim preview all the college bowl games.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 16: Packers vs. Vikings http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-kickoff-week-16-packers-vs-vikings/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-kickoff-week-16-packers-vs-vikings/#respond Fri, 22 Dec 2017 06:10:54 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=44379 en weeks ago the Packers were 4-1, Aaron Rodgers was the odds-on MVP favorite, and the 3-2 Vikings had, in the two weeks prior, lost at home to the Detroit Lions, then barely survived the limping Chicago Bears on national TV. Six days after a pathetic effort from Bear QB Mitchell Trubisky was nearly enough […]

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Ten weeks ago the Packers were 4-1, Aaron Rodgers was the odds-on MVP favorite, and the 3-2 Vikings had, in the two weeks prior, lost at home to the Detroit Lions, then barely survived the limping Chicago Bears on national TV.

Six days after a pathetic effort from Bear QB Mitchell Trubisky was nearly enough to beat them (the punter threw one touchdown and Mitch bounced another off the safety’s hands), the Vikings’ strong-side linebacker, Anthony Barr, landed with as much momentum as he could on top of Aaron Rodgers.

Immediately afterward, Barr showed no remorse. Thirteen days later, rather than apologize for causing severe injury and then taunting a fellow athlete while he walked to the medical tent, Barr added quite a bit of insult. “If he takes the lick and keeps it pushing,” Barr typed, “we aren’t STILL talking about this. get over it. #13dayslater”

Mr. Anthony Barr can rest assured that even 13 years from now, when he is long retired, all serious Packer fans will still be talking about his reckless play, his obscene taunting, and his lack of remorse or respect even after 13 days had passed.

That Aaron himself will not be able to visit revenge upon Mr. Barr and his teammates this Saturday evening is a tragedy—but it is not because the collarbone is still broken. #9weekslater and that steel-plated collagen and calcium did finally heal, but the opportunity for this next game to matter was lost last Sunday…and Aaron helped lose it.

We’ll talk more about why Green Bay didn’t beat Carolina in a minute. In the meantime, those Packers remaining on the active roster will be up against this Minnesota team, again:

SCOUTING THE VIKINGS

For a detailed look at the key names and jerseys numbers, please consult our scouting report from ten weeks ago. Since that was published the Vikings have won eight of nine games and clinched the NFC North title.

Of the eleven players on defense and eight on offense that I recommended keeping an eye on back then, all of them should be suited up this week. A few guys were banged up on the way (especially along their already mediocre offensive line), but the tight end’s and left tackle’s ankles, the left guard’s calf, the center’s shoulder, and the right tackle’s brain and back all appear to be healthy enough for football now.

WR Stefon Diggs’ groin (which caused him to be an unexpected scratch against us in October and kept him out of another game after that) doesn’t appear to be holding him back anymore, although he is now clearly the #2 WR after Adam Thielen, who has the fifth most receiving yards in the NFL so far this season.

Overall, their offense still has mediocre talent well-disguised by the effective scheming of coordinator Pat Shurmur. The play calls are a little less gimmicky than they were early in the year, especially now that QB Keenum (98.9 rating) and WR Thielen (Pro Bowl) have established their starting bonafides. They still kill you with crossing routes from trips formations, but instead of bunching all the eligibles tight, now they’re spreading it out more. This has freed up some wheel and out routes for RB McKinnon, who snuck out of the backfield for 115 receiving yards in last week’s division-clinching rout of the Bengals:

The defense is fierce and elite as ever—probably the best in the league. They are strong and fast at all three levels and so healthy it’s almost like karma took the year off.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

The mathematically eliminated Packers are suddenly a tough scout, since young backups Montravius Adams, Vince Biegel, Kyler Fackrell, Josh Hawkins, and maybe even Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown will probably get long looks while the walking wounded veterans wonder what went wrong with the defense this year.

What did go wrong with the defense?

Dom Capers has been in charge of it since 2009. His first two seasons were championship-level based on the eye test, the traditional stats, and the advanced metrics. Oh, and the trophy test, too. The next seven have fluctuated between mediocre and abysmal, also by all four measures.

There was a season-and-a-half stretch from mid-’14 to the end of ’15 when the pass defense appeared to be elite again—which was very not coincidentally also the time when we had our most athletic linebacker, Clay Matthews, playing on the inside where he could take running backs and chip-blocking tight ends out of the passing game. But the run defense suffered without Clay containing one of the edges, and so we moved him back outside and drafted two-gapping Kenny Clark in the spring of ’16, which has eventually helped the run defense quite a bit this season (ranked top ten in that category of DVOA for the first time since Capers’ first season here).

Never mind the regular season stats, the playoff failures of these Capers-coordinated defenses have become the stuff of anti-legend. It began on January 15, 2012 when Hakeem Nicks embarrassed Charles Woodson and Charlie Peprah in Lambeau’s south endzone. Three hundred and sixty-three days (including a Leap Year) later, Colin Kaepernick shredded us by air (263 yards) and land (181 yards) at Candlestick Park.

Fifty-one weeks after that, at home in single digit temperatures, the defense did stiffen a bit against double-threat Kaepernick (227 air yards, 98 by land), and had a chance to win the game slip through rookie Micah Hyde’s cold fingers, and then a chance to force overtime was several steps past the reach of a limping Andy Mulamba.

Fifty-three weeks more and all appeared right with the world once Morgan Burnett collected Russell Wilson’s fourth interception of the day, but cagey veteran Julius Pepper told him to stop running and proved the point (which didn’t need further evidence) that even a good defense won’t win if it doesn’t bother to try.

Another 51 weeks passed, and rookie Damarious Randall intercepted Carson Palmer in the end zone as the 4th quarter began. Minutes later, Randall deflected another end zone pass intended for Larry Fitzgerald, but it anti-miraculously meandered into Michael Floyd’s chest for the go-ahead touchdown. Then, in overtime, the rookie forgot to follow the Cardinals’ best receiver and the rest is anti-history. Say what you will about the strange details of that game, the history books will always record it as the only successful playoff game of Carson Palmer’s career, and it occurred courtesy of a Dom Capers-coached defense.

Fast forward yet another 53 weeks—and as good as Matt Ryan has sometimes been—only Dom Capers could make him look this unstoppable.

For this 2017 season—Capers’ ninth as a Packer—the final humiliation occurred in December instead of January, a mere 46 weeks after the last one. Make no mistake, defensively, it was humiliating. Especially from a preparation perspective. We told Dom, as did many others, that “#22 Christian McCaffrey is the primary receiving option, especially on early downs.”

Indeed, on the Panthers 15th offensive play of the game, it was second and goal, and Clay Matthews heeded our advice. From his right outside linebacker position in the nickel formation, he screamed across the ball to LOLB Ahmad Brooks and LCB Damarious Randall, “It’s that wheel route, it’s that wheel route.” RB McCaffrey was in the backfield just to QB Cam Newton’s right. TE Greg Olsen was lined up tight right, and WR Devin Funchess was wide right.

You know how NFL announcers love to talk about all the “film room time” quarterbacks supposedly put in during the work week? “He’s the first guy into the facility every morning and the last one to leave,” is the standard gush line. No one, in the history of the NFL, has ever tried to get away with saying that about Cam Newtown. This is a “student of the game” who couldn’t even pass his classes in the SEC without cheating. If you are a highly touted recruit to Florida, your classes are pre-passed. If you are cheating then you are misunderstanding the entire system.

Yet this is the same man who understood Dom Capers’ defensive system well enough to respond in Clay’s direction, “You been watching film, huh? That’s cool. Watch this.” Then he promptly threw a touchdown to a completely uncovered McCaffrey. The rookie running back could have run the wheel route if he wanted (he ran a slant instead) because Randall followed the WR inside and MLB Martinez and SS Jones both covered the tight end’s post route, leaving an entire side of the field open for the guy everybody but Dom Capers knew was Cam’s primary option.

It didn’t get better from there. Two quarters later the safety made the opposite mistake: instead of double-covering the tight end, Josh Jones forgot to cover him at all. In the last quarter, 2nd-year player Damiere Byrd scored his second touchdown of the half—and, incidentally, of his entire career.

It’s true that in big games, great players sometimes make winning plays, no matter how good the opposing scheme. But Dom Capers’ fire drill schemes have enabled no-names like Damiere Byrd and Carson Palmer to enjoy career days on big stages, and allowed elite players like Colin Kaepernick, Larry Fitzgerald, and Marshawn Lynch to score with way too much ease.

Over these last seven trophy-less years, wise scribes like Bob McGinn have periodically pointed out that it was Dom Capers who helped win us some big games—before we lost the even bigger ones. McGinn has also frequently remarked that Capers should be in high demand if we ever let him go.

I would agree with that, and would expect that if Ted Thompson had the guts to fire Mike McCarthy and all his assistants tomorrow, Dom would probably land on his feet faster than “highly successful” Mike. But there does seem to be something about Dom that causes doubt, not just with fans, but with the very players he commands.

All the way back in 2011, when the team was 15-1 but the defense ranked last in the league against the pass, there were rumors flying all over local AM dials that multiple defensive veterans didn’t like the way Dom called games. I later confirmed – in a private conversation with one of those radio hosts—that Charles Woodson was the source of many of those rumors—and was one of the veterans who didn’t like Dom.

Last offseason, fresh off his first Pro Bowl and a one-year contract extension, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix went public (albeit somewhat obliquely) with his frustrations about Dom’s play calls.

So even if Dom is calling great schemes, the players aren’t listening. Is that his fault? Is it Mike’s for not creating clear lines of communication and authority? Is it Ted’s for drafting and signing players with dispositions toward insubordination and confusion?

Perhaps all of the above. Certainly something is rotten near Denmark, Wisconsin. In the ten years that the best quarterback in the history of the NFL has been throwing passes in Green Bay, the defense has been statistically in the league’s top ten just two of those years, and none of the last seven. (The offense has been top ten every time except for 2015 and this season.)

Yet, despite all these constant defensive failings, Sunday’s game was there for the winning. Even before Geronimo fumbled our last gasp away, Aaron had first Davante, then Randall, then Jordy open deep for touchdowns during the second and third quarters, but all three times he badly underthrew his three best receivers, and no-name defenders on the Panthers (including the emergency third-string nickel backer Colin Jones who only saw the field because one player was injured and another was benched for insubordination) were gifted easy stat stuffers.

Was his surgically repaired shoulder not strong enough to throw so deep? Clearly, no. Was it rust? Maybe. Or was it another example of his failure to play big enough in big games? If so, put another chip on that shoulder. His playoff record of nine wins and seven losses will stay that way for at least another calendar year.

THE CHARLOTTE GHOST WE COULDN’T KILL

Going into last week’s game, I openly mocked Panther owner Jerry Richardson for being a greedy, sadistic plutocrat with a bronze streak of narcissism, but I didn’t dare publish my suspicions that he was also a racist misogynist.

At the time that column went to press (just one week ago) all I had was circumstantial evidence, which I will now outline: Five weeks ago the Executive Director of Stadium Operations patiently gave two busloads of municipal officials a tour of the Panthers’ stadium. Throughout this tour, he continually referred to his direct superior as “Mr. Richardson” and kept talking about “how classy” he was.

To support this claim he gave three main pieces of evidence: 1) The midfield logo on the field depicts the NFL shield, not his own team’s black Panther image, unlike all of the other teams in the league. 2) He cared so much about “our aging fans” that he extorted several hundred million dollars out of Charlotte taxpayers in order to install escalators for their weary legs and bigger scoreboards for their fading eyes. 3) Every year Mr. Richardson and his executive team attend the Masters golf tournament in Georgia, and they consider this experience to be the “gold standard” of fan experience. Specifically, claimed our tour director, they liked the VIP tents, and so they hoist a few up every football Sunday in Charlotte. (The executive stayed silent on the issue of historic exclusive white and male membership at the Augusta club.)

Any time an immediate subordinate needs to be so publicly effusive for a boss, rather than feeling the unstated privilege to banter and wink about higher-ups, that is a serious red flag. “Mr. Richardson must be real piece of work,” I thought while staring disbelievingly at his Stalinistic statue outside the gates.

The day after Read After Kickoff went to press (and just minutes before actual kickoff) Sports Illustrated published a lengthy piece detailing just how awful “Mr. Richardson” really is. He routinely sexually harassed female employees and used racial slurs to address non-white male employees.

It would have been doubly sweet if the publicly owned Packers could have given this private owner a good-bye kick in the pants last Sunday, but such karma was not to be.

Deeper justice can still be had in Charlotte this offseason, however. Will Colin Kaepernick finally be able to break through the NFL blacklist he’s on by hiring himself to play quarterback once he buys the Panthers? Hard to believe Roger Goodell and his Trump-supporting owner bosses would ever that happen, but karma can’t stay undefeated forever, can it?

Is it darkest before dawn? Or before even less of a view? The solstice is here, and so the celestial bodies move…

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 15: Packers vs. Panthers http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-15-packers-vs-panthers/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-15-packers-vs-panthers/#respond Fri, 15 Dec 2017 06:05:57 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=44126 n the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters… God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and […]

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In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. [Genesis 1:1-2…31]

And on the seventh day God finished the work, and he rested. [Genesis 2:2]

The Packers of these past two months have not been a totally formless void, but they could certainly benefit from a good, strong burst of energy pushing them into new formations. If Aaron Rodgers is to approximate such a divine wind, there is a looming parallel: He will have to create victories for six straight weeks, and then—on the seventh week—he can rest.

Because that will be the off week before the Super Bowl.

This legendary journey must begin where South Mint meets West Stonewall, on the western point of diamond-shaped uptown Charlotte. Exactly one month ago, I was able to inspect the exact spot where this battle will commence on Sunday noon.

The service drive into the stadium, which the Packers will take—and through which I entered on a coach bus loaded with municipal officials ostensibly learning about “Urban Sports Venues and the Partnerships Behind Them”—is left (west-ish) off the curve of South Graham Street, right after you pass this monstrous sculpture of the single human who owns the football team named for two states with over 15 million total residents.

Outside of Lambeau Field, we have some sculptures, too. One is of the fans, and the other two are of the player/coach who helped get the team going (Curly) and the coach who brought us back to glory (Vince). None of the humans sculpted on the north plaza of our stadium have the unilateral power to sell our team. Because it’s our team. Literally. But in the Carolinas, not only are they at the mercy of just one man—they also have to pass by him in bronze every time they enter the palace.

SCOUTING CAROLINA

The Panthers this decade are hard to figure. They were the worst team in the league in 2010, which meant they could select #1 Cam Newton with the first pick of the 2011 draft. (The champion Packers picked last that year, selecting Derek Sherrod.) Then Carolina won six games, then seven, then twelve—until they lost at home, after the playoff bye, to the same Colin Kaepernick who beat the Packers at Lambeau the week before. The next year they won just seven games, but somehow made the playoffs and even won a postseason game. Then, in 2015, they steamrolled the league, losing just one game all year until the quarterback-less Broncos somehow embarrassed them in the Super Bowl.

Last year they were terrible again, winning just six games.

Now these 2017 Panthers have nine wins and four losses. They beat the 10-3 Patriots but lost to the 4-9 Bears.

Are they any good? As long as their leader is this petulant and this dismissive, it will always be hard to predict. The quick scout on Mr. Newton says that he can’t be tackled, but also that he can’t throw. He’s never had less than ten interceptions in a season, and never completed more than 62% of his passes.

The big uglies in front of him might be the best he’s ever had. #67 Ryan Kalil is playing center again, after missing ten games earlier this season. He’s a 32-year-old five-time Pro Bowler and now his younger brother, 28-year-old #75 Matt Kalil, is playing left tackle for way more money than he’s worth. The other tackle, #60 Daryl Williams, is still on his rookie contract, but is the second best tackle in the league (after our own David Bakhtiari) according to Pro Football Focus. The guards, #68 Andrew Norwell on the left and #70 Trai Turner on the right, both started in the Super Bowl two years ago, and have only improved since.

The running backs behind Mr. Newton are also pretty darn good. #28 Jonathan Stewartbeat the Vikings with long speed last week before hitting them right in the mouth at the goal line not once but twice. He’s the primary rushing option, and his backfield mate, #22 Christian McCaffrey, is the primary receiving option, especially on early downs.

McCaffrey, this spring’s 8th overall draft pick, is a special talent, so his 60+ catches through 13 games is not surprising, but the fact that he’s leading the team in receptions is a reflection of how sparse the other options are, and how inconsistent the quarterback is.

#88 Greg Olsen has been a great tight end in the past, but is now old and injured. #17 Devin Funchess is a big, strong (but not fast) wide receiver who pairs well with fast options across the field—like Philly Brown and Kelvin Benjamin used to be until they both left for Buffalo this year—but he is currently aided by a bunch of nobodies and therefore can’t get open against so much safety help.

Make no mistake, the strength of this team is the defensive front seven, and the mainstays are the same as they were two years ago for that 17-2 squad: #99 Kawann Short at the point and #59 Luke Kuechly right behind him.

315-pound Short’s interior linemate, #99 Star Lotulelei, is playing his way out of town so far this year, but #92 Vernon Butler, the guy the Packers passed on last year to draft Kenny Clark instead, is not yet earning his way onto the field.

The edge lineman, #97 Mario Addison and former Packer #90 Julius Peppers, are stuffing the stat sheet (9.5 sacks each already) but neither influence the offensive schemes the way Short and Kuechly do.

Next to Kuechly is old man #58 Thomas Davis, Sr., who at 34 has finally earned that suffix. He can still get to either sideline with oomph.

It’s beyond the front seven where things get really iffy. Most of their corners are mid-round draft picks from last year, and none of them stand out. The only veteran is wanna-be-slotback #41 Captain Munnerlyn, but he’s throwing tantrums instead of displaying leadership this week. Both safeties have been around the block, and are in that journeyman sweetspot: not in any danger of getting cut nor of getting their agents rich, neither.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

Even with Aaron Rodgers under center, this Panther defense at home is tough to crack. Exhibit A is the last time Aaron himself tried to do so, two Novembers ago, when the Packers were 6-1 and the Panthers were 7-0. That Charlotte showdown ended in a 37-29 loss. With nine minutes to go, the score was 37-14. At halftime it was 27-7.

In that game, Aaron was sacked four times by two interior lineman, one middle linebacker, and one safety. All four of those marauders are still wearing Carolina jerseys. But the starting corners that day, Josh Norman and Peanut Tillman, are long gone, meaning that Aaron should be able to find open receivers more quickly this time, hopefully before the rush is even close to his healing collar bone. He did a lot of dancing in the pocket in that game, because James Jones simply could not get open against Norman.

The most intriguing part of Sunday, despite the obvious drama of Rodgers’s return, will be their offense vs. our defense. At cornerback, our best healthy cover guy appears to be Damarious Randall. Given that Devin Funchess is their only starting-caliber wide receiver, we should expect Randall to follow him across the field. Just like he did two years ago when both were rookies and Funchess beat Randall deep in the first quarter from wide right for a 52-yard bomb, and then again in the fourth quarter from the slot left for the touchdown that put them ahead by 23 with just nine minutes left.

Other than Randall, our best corner options are Josh Hawkins, fast but imprecise, and Demetri Goodson, experienced but recently surgically repaired. He’s healthy again for the first time in awhile, and one of the last games in which he played meaningful snaps was two years ago in Charlotte. So both Damarious and Demetri know this quarterback and this stadium—although most of their 2015 memories are not good ones.

Pass coverage can only be as good as pass rush, of course, and thus the game may very well turn on Clay Matthews’s and Nick Perry’s ability to pinch the pocket, and Blake and Jake’s ability to spy Cam once he’s off his throwing foot.

Cam does a lot of ball-fakes and misdirection in the backfield. His receivers are not good enough—and his throwing accuracy is not consistent enough—for the Panthers to run a classic pro style passing attack. They look more like Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box from the 1920s and 30s than most 21st century NFL offenses.

That means this game may be won or lost schematically: If our linebackers guess right, their offense won’t be able to do much. Much of this game will come down to Dom Capers subbing in the proper packages, and then Morgan Burnett making the right pre-snap adjustments.

On the other side of the ball, Keuchly and Davis usually do guess right, so Rodgers will have to be on his toes, and McCarthy may have to call some misdirections of his own in order to get the second level flowing the wrong way.

UNITING NORTH AND SOUTH

“Two States. One Team” is the motto plastered all across the Panthers website and inside the stadium. From our Yankee perspective, this might not seem like such a big deal. The Dakotas, for instance, do they really need to be two states?

But for the Carolinas, the dividing line has real historical meaning. North was more like Virginia, which meant coastal, intellectual, and tobacco. South was more like Deep South, which meant debutantes, heat, and cotton. There was also a huge distinction between East and West, especially in the wide state of North Carolina. Until recently, nobody lived in the western elevations. The piedmont foothills, where Charlotte sits 748 feet above sea level, never had much population—which meant it also never had many slaves.

Much has been made of historical geography this week in the wake of the huge black voter turnout in Alabama on Tuesday, which helped prevent a homophobic pedophile still pining for the days of slavery from becoming a U.S. Senator. It turns out that a map Lincoln used in 1861 that showed where the most people were enslaved still pretty accurately describes where black people live today in the Deep South—and thus where the Democratic votes are in the 21st century.

Take a close look at that 1861 map, and you will see that, compared to its neighbors above and below, North Carolina did not have as many slaves. This might help explain why Charlotte became a place toward which the grandchildren of sharecropping and the children of Jim Crow wanted to migrate. One hundred years ago Charlotte, with under 50,000 residents, was less than 10% the size of prewar Milwaukee. Now Charlotte, with 842,000 residents, is considerably bigger than we are.

This recent population explosion (almost 100 thousand new citizens every decade for a century) means that almost no one in Charlotte today is from Charlotte. It is often called the capitol of the New South (although Atlanta competes for this title, too) and, when you walk its uptown streets, you can really the feel the energy of this growth. Unfortunately, outside of the central business district, you can’t even walk at all, because they failed to install sidewalks and through streets.

Even though Charlotte is a brand new city, and so many of its residents were trying to escape the entrenched white supremacy of the more populated Black Belt and coasts, the patterns of American racial disparity are replicated there, as they are in Milwaukee and almost everywhere in this country. People move, but inequality doesn’t.

When I was there last month, the city had just elected Vi Lyles as its first black female mayor. Along with her came several new council members, including Braxton Winston, who started by fighting the power until he joined it. I met Mr. Winston at a workshop titled “A Public Health Approach for Reducing Crime” where he spoke up about the problems of his city. It ranks 50th out the biggest 50 cities, he said, for upward economic mobility out of poverty, even though it has so much new wealth. And he summarized the shape of its racial divisions as “the crescent and the wedge,” shapes used to describe the mostly black neighborhoods to the west, north, and east of uptown, and the mostly white neighborhoods to the south.

The exact shape of our dividing lines might be a little different, but Milwaukee is no stranger to racial segregation and entrenched poverty. There is a long history in this country of hopeful migrations (we would not exist at all without them), but the ideology of white supremacy seems to follow us everywhere we go, determining the patterns of where we live, what we learn, and how much we earn.

But the power to create is always balanced by the power to destroy (as any reader will discover if they keep turning the pages of Genesis). Human beings created race. It took hundreds of years. Hopefully the opposite task will be quicker. Last month’s elections in Charlotte, and this week’s in Alabama, might be a start.

Speaking of starts, Genesis Chapter One and Verse One of Chapter Two are featured on this week’s PackerVerse radio show. Nik and Jim perform dueling readings of different translations, and all callers agree that Aaron will need a break six weeks from now.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 14: Packers vs. Browns http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-kickoff-week-14-packers-vs-browns/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-kickoff-week-14-packers-vs-browns/#respond Fri, 08 Dec 2017 06:10:42 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=43878 unday noon on the south shore of Lake Erie will be Brett Hundley’s Super Bowl. And he knows it. If he loses this one game, then Aaron probably won’t be able to win the next seven (a loss drops our likelihood of making the playoffs from 85% to 24%). The team needs him to not […]

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Sunday noon on the south shore of Lake Erie will be Brett Hundley’s Super Bowl. And he knows it.

If he loses this one game, then Aaron probably won’t be able to win the next seven (a loss drops our likelihood of making the playoffs from 85% to 24%). The team needs him to not miss Geronimo when he is this wide open or throw toward Jordy when he is this covered. Against a winless team, one wonders if the Packers might need him to simply not throw at all.

These Cleveland Browns are not the ones we remember from the ’80s with Bernie Kosar, or our parents remember from the ’60s with Jim Brown, or our grandparents remember from the ’40s with Otto Graham. It’s not even the same franchise, except in name.

That team went to Baltimore and became a poem. To keep the name, the town appears to have given up everything else. The new “Browns” are are in their 19th season, only two of which have been winning, and only one of which has made the playoffs.

This 2017 version might be the worst yet, which is saying a lot because last year’s team won just one game in 16 tries. This year it’s been none so far after 12.

SCOUTING CLEVELAND

This team has been so consistently bad for so long that it is now stocked with more high draft picks than anybody else in the league. And, except at quarterback, those picks have been okay. But drafting Johnny Manziel in 2014, #6 Cody Kessler in 2016 and #7 Deshone Kizer in 2017 to play the game’s most important position has consequences, and so GM Sashi Brown was fired three days before kickoff.

The defensive line, for instance, has only four starting spots, but has five guys drafted 65th or higher in just the last three years. Not coincidentally, that position group is the strength of this team. Right end #95 Myles Garrett was this year’s #1 overall pick for a reason, and even though he missed the opening month with a twisted ankle and then another game with a delayed onset concussion, in the seven NFL games he has played, the 6’5″ 271-pounder has pressured the quarterback multiple times in each, including five total sacks so far.

On the interior, 6’2″, 350-pound #55 Danny Shelton was drafted with the 12th overall pick three years ago, and by some measures he’s become a dominant run stuffer in the A gaps. One of Bob McGinn’s anonymous scouts claims the media guide shortchanges Shelton’s full bulk by a generous holiday banquet. “Shelton is like 360 on a light day,” he told Bob on the phone. “His calves are as big as my hips.”

Lining up next to him in base is the undrafted #93 Trevon Coley, big enough to swallow most mammals whole but still 50 pounds lighter than Shelton.

Rotating on the edge opposite Garrett is last year’s 65th overall pick, #94 Ryan Nassib, and two years ago’s 51st, #44 Nate Orchard. Both of their snap counts have gone way up ever since #90 Emannuel Ogbah, last year’s 32nd, broke his foot last month.

Behind those big fellas, the linebackers are injured or ordinary. #51 Jamie Collins was their captain, and was paid like a superstar ($50 million over four years), but ever since last month his knee is not on the field. Badger fans will be looking for Waukesha West’s #53 Joe Schobert, the 99th pick last year, who is nearly leading the entire league in tackles so far this year, but he is more of scheme fitter than a game changer. He’s all over the field along with #58 Christian Kirksey, the 71st pick from 2014, yet both of them benefit by the lineman keeping them free of blockers.

The exterior of this defense is not elite. The safeties make more noise than the corners. #26 Derrick Kindred, last year’s 129th, cleans up a lot (46 tackles so far) after the cover guys allow catches. #22 Jabrill Peppers, this year’s 25th, plays so deep on most plays you won’t ever see him on TV, except when he’s returning kicks.

The face of this offense for a decade was left tackle #73 Joe Thomas, a former shot-putter from Brookfield Central who was recruited to Wisconsin as a tight end. 10,363 consecutive snaps and 10 consecutive Pro Bowls later, he had season ending triceps surgery two months ago. With his newfound spare time, Thomas decided to start a podcast empire by interviewing rookie tight end #85 David Njoku, who was drafted 29th overall this year after the Browns traded up for the Packer’s pick. I’ll save you the suspense: they’re both better at football than talking.

The remaining lineman feature two big money free agents. Right guard #70 Kevin Zeitler became the highest paid guard in the league when the Browns offered him $60 million to leave Cincinnati this offseason. He’s also the third Badger on the Browns, and all three are from Waukesha County. Next to him is center #64 JC Tretter, who became the highest paid Cornell grad in the league when the Browns gave him $17 million to leave the Packers.

But the big news on offense is the return these past three weeks of the team’s best two wide receivers. #19 Corey Coleman, last year’s 15th overall pick, returned last month after re-breaking one of his hands early this year. He was a major factor in his first two games back, but wasn’t targeted at all last week.

That might be because all eyes were on #12 Josh Gordon, a 6’3″ 225-pound speedster who would be Canton-bound by now if he wasn’t addicted to several drugs. Suspensions from those positive tests kept him out of the league for nearly three seasons until last week, when he caught four passes against the Chargers. But Kizer tried to throw his way eleven times, and at least one fan took the time to break down all seven misses, while another even charted some jams at the line on his untarggeted routes. If you’re only going to watch one video clip of Flash Gordon’s return, though, make it this one. YouTube user “Voch Lombardi” described Josh’s first catch as “easy peezy lemon squeezy.” The commentary only got tarter from there.

As all of those film breakdowns emphasize, it’s very hard to evaluate anyone else on this Browns offense because the quarterback is just so bad. Kizer’s college team—Notre Dame—got better as soon as he left, and it’s looking like the Browns will, too, once they draft somebody else next year.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

Nobody knows about bad quarterbacks limiting receiver outputs better than our very own Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. We don’t have a quarterback capable of going through progressions and staying cool under blitzes, so we should focus on letting our line and ends run block for Jamal Williams and Aaron Jones. Jamal is a jabber, Jones throws the hook; as last week’s overtime winning run suggests, Jamal can set up a team up by working the body and then Aaron can work his way around the edge for the kill shot. In overtime last week the two crucial plays both used the defense expecting Jamal to dive inside to perfection, as first Brett then Aaron delivered knockout sprints to the edge.

Running a lot will also allow our big uglies to be the aggressors against the strength of their defense: the line. If Garrett, Nassib, and Orchard are allowed to pin their ears back and hunt Hundley, then our timing will fall apart. Better to take it to them.

On defense, the heroism of Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels was obvious last week. They’ll be up against some expensive and highly drafted guards and center this week.

Our edge rushers should have another stat stuffing feast of pressures against the tackles, tight ends, and backs.

Can the secondary stop their many receiving weapons, including #29 Duke Johnson out of the backfield? If the Browns had a competent quarterback, probably not. But with Kizer tossing the oblong skin around, our secondary should have a field day.

It’s clear that last week, Coach McCarthy wanted Jordy to get the ball. Watching the tape of all that effort (a team-high 8 targets which yielded just 17 yards), Bob McGinn had this to say: “Watching Nelson maneuver is like seeing a Great Lakes freighter entering port. Everything is labored. There isn’t any suddenness.”

GREAT FOOTBALL ON GREAT LAKES

It’s probably not a coincidence that Bob McGinn used a Great Lakes freighter to describe Jordy’s movements this week, as the team is headed across three great lakes, just as the Edmund Fitzgerald once was on a fatal journey that inspired this song, a favorite of Bob’s (and of Jim From The South Side’s).

There are five current NFL teams on the lakes. Besides the Packers on Green Bay, the Chicago Bears are further down Lake Michigan at the mouth of a wrong-way river, the Detroit Lions are on a river connecting Lakes Huron and Erie, the Buffalo Bills are on the falls connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario, and this week’s opponent, the Cleveland Browns, are on the south shore of the shallowest and least healthy lake: Erie, named after an Iroquois speaking tribe that “scattered everywhere since the destruction of their country” in the middle of the 17th century.

The further back you go into football history, the more you find yourself on the same shore of that very same lake, and in the small towns a little further south in the hills that drain to the Ohio River. Pro football began—in the decades before the NFL—with an association called the Ohio League in 1902. As soon as that league folded in 1919, the NFL (called the APFA at the time) was created—not coincidentally—in Canton, right in the heart of those small Ohio towns.

The intense rivalry between Canton and its neighbor Massillon was the engine of those early pro games, and the football spirit of these two towns continued at the high school level after the formation of the bigger, multi-state league. Paul Brown became an Ohio legend in the 1930s when he constantly beat Canton as the head coach of the Massillon Tigers.

Brown would go on to coach at Great Lakes Naval Academy during WWII (north of Chicago, this was also the football “school” where Bears founder George Halas would get his start). Paul Brown would then become, right after the war, the first coach of the Cleveland Browns. He was so good (they would win seven titles, four in the AAFC and three in the NFC just in his first decade) that they named the entire team after him. Then they fired him, in 1962, and he went on to found the cross-state Cincinnati Bengals—a team that his descendants still own.

So the Packers are returning to pro football’s roots this Sunday, where the Cuyahoga meets one of the big lakes.

Tune into this week’s PackerVerse radio show below, featuring Bob and Jeff up on Lake WannaSpilarski, Sonny, Curious Over the River, WildCat Mark, Jim From The South Side, and KB Just Getting Home in Madtown.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 13: Packers vs. Buccaneers http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-13-packers-vs-buccaneers/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-13-packers-vs-buccaneers/#respond Fri, 01 Dec 2017 06:03:31 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=43546 e didn’t go to Pittsburgh to beat the spread. We went there to beat the Steelers Failure in that task now means even five straight victories might not be enough. Here is the stark math: with five games to go the Packers are four games out of the division lead, and three games behind (factoring […]

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We didn’t go to Pittsburgh to beat the spread. We went there to beat the Steelers

Failure in that task now means even five straight victories might not be enough. Here is the stark math: with five games to go the Packers are four games out of the division lead, and three games behind (factoring in likely tie breaker scenarios) a wild card playoff berth.

Which team is more likely to lose three of their next five, Carolina or Atlanta? Because if one doesn’t, Green Bay is cooked already. And that’s the most unlikely of their necessary assistance. Seattle also needs to lose two of its next five and Detroit one of its next four. All of those things need to happen (in addition to the little detail of the Packers winning all five—including upcoming match-ups with Carolina and Detroit).

Staring at these standings and eyeballing the odds will cause human beings, like our man on the beat Tom Silverstein, to describe the playoffs as an “outside shot” even if we run the table again.

But the interconnected scenarios of these many looming results are simply too numerous for mere human minds. The New York Times has run twenty thousand simulations of the more than one septillion possibilities, ranked them in likelihood by Las Vegas-like standards, and concluded that—if the Packers run the table—their chances of making the playoffs are 89 percent.

That means they can stop worrying about the rest of the league and focus on the task at hand: the first of nine straight games they will need to win to bring the trophy home again.

SCOUTING TAMPA BAY

But before we lock in on the 2017 Buccaneers, can we pour some out for their 2010 squad? They finished 10-6 that year, as did the New York Giants, but neither made the playoffs, thanks to the fifth tiebreaker down the list, which allowed the Green Bay Packers to continue playing football.

This season, Tampa Bay already has seven losses, so they won’t be playing past New Year’s Eve, but they will be playing all of their remaining games against teams that might. That’s right, these Bucs are spoilers, so after we beat them Sunday noon, we must hope they run their own table against Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina, and New Orleans. If they do and we do, our playoff chances are 97 percent.

Going into this Sunday, Tampa has two bad options at the most important position. Seven weeks ago their starting quarterback, #3 James Winston, sprained his AC joint and hasn’t been right since. Yet even before his throwing shoulder started hurting every time he reaches, the head coach was having conversations like this with the #1 overall draft pick from 2015. “We don’t need you to lose a game for us,” Dirk Koetter awkwardly explained back in August, when the QB was still able to grab things off high shelving. Despite this careful advice, Tampa immediately lost six of the eight games Winston started this year.

His replacement, journeyman Harvard math major, #14 Ryan Fitzpatrick, is really good at standardized tests but not so good at throwing footballs. True, the team did win his first two starts this season, but that was against one of the McCown brothers and a tag team of Jay Cutler and Matt Moore. If you watch the tape of those “victories”—along with the other game and a half he’s played so far this past month in losing efforts—you will notice a throwing motion made more for a flat frisbee than an oblong pigskin.

It’s no wonder the Bucs have been loading up on double and even triple tight end formations with the wobbly sidearmer under center. He is an embarrassment to pro football as the New York Jets can testify to, along with several other NFL players who have watched tape of him trying to play their game.

And yet, Bob McGinn talked to two NFL scouts this week who said the Bucs are better off with Fitzy than Jameis. That says more about Winston’s reckless style and broken wing than it does about Fitzpatrick’s ability.

We might not know until kickoff which QB the Bucs will start, but as of Wednesday we knew for sure that two of their starting lineman are done for the year, and their swing backup, former Packer #62 Evan Dietrich-Smith, is in the concussion protocol. That means there will likely be at least two lineman with almost no 2017 snaps playing on Sunday.

All of their running backs are healthy, but the fact that they keep giving carries to four different guys indicates that none of them are special. #34 Charles Sims specializes in third downs, and he’s more of a threat to catch check downs (26 on the year) than take a handoff (just 13 carries). Because the Packers’ defense should force a lot of third downs against this depleted line, he’s probably the backfield jersey to most worry over.

Their top two wide receivers, tall #13 Mike Evans and fast #11 DeSean Jackson, are both legit NFL talents, but it is hard for them to get consistent looks given the mediocrity in the middle of the field.

At tight end, #80 O.J. Howard was picked 19th overall this May, but so far has only 20 catches in 11 games. Fitzpatrick did start looking for him in the second half last week, but his preferred seam target remains, unsurprisingly, his fellow Harvard grad, #84 Cameron Brate. All those opportunities might not just be Ivy League-bias, however, as even Florida State Seminole Winston was more likely to find Brate than the other tight ends.

The strength of Tampa’s defense is at the linebacker level, where they play three hats pretty far back in their standard 4-3 base formation. Weak-side #54 Lavonte David and middle-backer #58 Kwon Alexander are serious threats to thread gaps and make tackles for losses in the run game (both run sub-4.6 40s). Strong-side #51 Kendall Beckwith, meanwhile, is a fierce hitter who gets his 243 pounds to the boundary with momentum if not speed.

In front of these three up-and-comers the older lineman hold up well against the run, but do not generate much pass rush. The guy to look for is #93 Gerald McCoy, an 8th-year tackle with five Pro Bowls already who is leading the team in sacks (5) and pressures (20). He was also the star of this year’s Hard Knocks series on HBO, demonstrating incredible range. Here he is singing with his daughter then sparring with his son, dancing before his Friday workout, and deliberately provoking Ed Hochuli with his thighs and face.

The secondary is full of question marks. Left corner #24 Brent Grimes is the most consistent performer. Rookie safety #21 Justin Evans had a breakout performance last week even though he got beat bad on this trick play. At the other safety position old Bear #23 Chris Conte got benched for #43 T.J. Ward, and injury fill-in #29 Ryan Smith has been just OK at right corner.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

The last five games have taught us that elite cornerbacks are Brett Hundley’s kryptonite. Fortunately, there will be none on the field this Sunday. That, plus the very limited pass rush from the down lineman should mean that we can pass the ball. Even if their fast linebackers and veteran lineman fill the holes and contain our pedestrian running backs, the Buccaneers are the worst team in the league at stopping third downs.

If our defense cannot get good pass pressure going against this injury-riddled protection, then we are truly hopeless. However, both quarterbacks are shifty in the pocket and not afraid to scramble, so gap integrity will be important.

Assuming Kevin King’s left shoulder can stay in its socket, his match-up with Mike Evans (who has an inch and a half on our 6’3″ corner) will be one to watch. Morgan Burnett should be able to neutralize one of their tight ends, and Damarious Randall may often be in charge of the other one. Lately our formerly ginger nickel back is not afraid to mix it up in the run game, and that will probably be necessary again this week.

WHO ARE THE SEMINOLES AND WHY TWO WARS?

Three days past Christmas, 182 years ago, more than a hundred federal soldiers were six days’ march from Fort Brooke, an 11-year-old fortification built on a site that would, 14 years later, become the city of Tampa.

According to a major stationed at the fort who watched the march begin on December 23, 1835, their actions were “constantly observed” by “a negro named Harry” who “controls the Pea Creek band of about a hundred warriors, forty miles southeast.”

It was fifty miles to the northeast, however, where the march would meet its bloody end, likely partly as a result of scouting that Harry provided his Seminole allies along the Withlachoochee River. At the point where the road to Fort King (present day Ocala) crossed that river, the U.S. soldiers were fired upon by Seminole held Spanish rifles, which shot further and straighter than the 18th century muskets carried by the federal troops. Only two would survive.

Thus began what is now known as The Second Seminole War, or sometimes The Florida War. According to George Klos’s 1989 analysis of the conflict’s causes, this war was unique. “Unlike Indian removal in other parts of the United States,” he wrote, “land was not the main issue.”

Frank Laumer finished that thought in a talk he gave seven years ago at the Tampa Bay Historical Society. “The Seminole War was unique among the Indian wars,” he said, “in that it was the only war fought in order to take an entire land from one race in order to enslave another.”

Indeed, our country didn’t really even want Florida then, especially not its swampy muggy southern sections, which weren’t popular for orange production until the great freeze of 1894-95, nearly six decades after those rifle bullets were fired. What the United States wanted was an end to an egalitarian neighbor. Slaves escaping the cotton and sugar plantations of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina were “welcomed by the Seminoles and simply treated as people,” explained Laumer.

Many histories of that era claim that the so-called Black Seminoles were also slaves, just with new masters, and that the resulting conflict was thus over disputed property. The facts contradict that theory. “A Seminole was more of a patron than a master,” writes Glos. “The Seminole slave system was akin to tenant farming. Blacks lived in their own villages near Indian villages and paid a harvest tribute, a percentage of the yield from their fields, to the chief. Blacks, an Indian agent reported, had ‘horses, cows, and hogs, with which the Indian owner never presumed to meddle.'”

Not only weren’t the Seminoles masters, they also weren’t even landlords, as unlike the later so-called sharecropping system, they didn’t charge rent as debt. More like tax collectors, they took merely a percentage of the yield. “Basically,” summarized Laumer, “the Seminoles treated them as equal people, as indeed they were.” And there was intermarriage between blacks and Seminoles, meaning that some, like Harry of the Pea Creek band, could rise up the social ladder.

Seen through this lens, we can see why Grant Foreman wrote that “the war in Florida was conducted largely as a slave catching exercise.”

This slave catching exercise would eventually cost the United States over 30 million 1835 dollars, and 1,500 of the 60,000 mobilized federal troops would die in the six years and seven months it spanned. It is is thus often described as the longest and bloodiest of the “Indian wars” but really it was the opening salvo in the Civil War fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy. Or, viewed even more broadly, it was another “spectacular chapter in a long war that was declared when the the first Africans were brought chained to American shores,” a phrase from page 63 of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book.

When those troops were ordered, just before Christmas 1835, to march northeast from Tampa Bay toward Fort King, the majors and generals had a pretty good idea they wouldn’t make it. It was, like the Rio Grande in 1846, the Maine in 1898, the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, and the weapons of mass destruction in 2003, a contrived provocation. Economic interests (in this case slave plantation owners) wanted war, and politicians and generals were willing to trade lives for profit.

At the end of this seven year war all but 300 of the once 7,000 Florida Seminoles were either killed or marched to Oklahoma or—if they were dark enough—chained and sold into antebellum plantations.

Who were these Seminoles? Well, their name is not indigenous, derived instead from the Spanish “cimarron” meaning “runaway.” They were running away from the English invasion of their lands to the north. When later runaways joined them, they were welcomed. Of course, those attempting to chain rather than assist these escaped slaves were runaways themselves, having left their native Europe not long before.

“Applause for your verbiage” said Bob after he heard the game call from last Sunday brought to you by Nik and Keith at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. Bob is not long with his compliments, so tune in below to hear why he liked hearing all four of those touchdowns re-explained all over again. Jeff was on the call, also, and then Sonny, the Locker Room Poetry, Curious Over the River, Wildcat Mark, and Jim From the South Side, too.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 12: Packers vs. Steelers http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-12-packers-vs-steelers/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-12-packers-vs-steelers/#respond Fri, 24 Nov 2017 06:03:46 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=43289 fter eleven weeks of football, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a top three team, and the Green Bay Packers are in free fall. Such is the current wisdom. Las Vegas predicts this Sunday night fight will only be a fair one if Pittsburgh spots the visitors two touchdowns before the start. Cue the “We’re nobody’s underdog” […]

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After eleven weeks of football, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a top three team, and the Green Bay Packers are in free fall.

Such is the current wisdom.

Las Vegas predicts this Sunday night fight will only be a fair one if Pittsburgh spots the visitors two touchdowns before the start.

Cue the “We’re nobody’s underdog” tape.

That’s what Coach McCarthy said right after his team’s sixth loss on December 19, 2010. The full quote is, “I don’t care what you guys think. We came here to win. We’re nobody’s underdog.”

Back then, Aaron Rodgers had a concussion. A 25-year-old Matt Flynn was forced to start and finish the game. And the way he finished it was humiliating. Or so it seemed at the time.

Seven seasons later it’s barely Thanksgiving, and our team is already teetering on the brink of another sixth loss. All the while these next three games, minimum, must be played without Aaron Rodgers.

Is there any chance this 2017 version of the quarterbackless Pack can win five of the next six, as the probabilities indicate will be necessary to make the playoffs?

If such an unlikely march is to begin, it will happen versus these names and jersey numbers:

SCOUTING THE STEELERS

On paper, at every position but tight end and left guard, this offense is elite. Their stutter-stepping backfield ace, #26 Le’Veon Bell, has averaged almost five yards per carry three years running, to go with almost ten catches every week. Yet management was understandably wary of his genre-busting contract demands, so he is playing on a one year deal—with what can only be described as reluctance. So reluctant that his rushing average is under four yards for the first time since he was a rookie.

Still, he was the juice that fueled every scoring drive against the same Baltimore defense that didn’t allow a point at Lambeau Field.

And he continues to have the second most receptions on the team, behind only #84 Antonio Brown, the highest paid wide receiver in the league who earned all that money last week against the Titans:

Rookie second-rounder #19 JuJu Smith-Schuster is rapidly ascending the depth chart ahead of the oft-suspended #10 Martavis Bryant, and together they form the most talented wide receiver trio in the league. They’re not burners but all three of them are strong, athletic, and run great routes.

This bevy of eligible receiving options (minus the pedestrian tight end #81 Jesse James) should mean that the 35-year-old #7 Ben Roethlisberger is poised for a career resurgence, and yet he has already thrown ten interceptions through ten games, half of them on the same day. With Ben, it’s all flips, shovels, and running heaves these days. When he does go deep it’s more buckshot than smart bomb.

This Sunday there will be a key piece of his protection missing. Without the previously injured and now suspended #77 Marcus Gilbert at right tackle, the entire offense could stall. It already happened in the five games he has missed with a sore hamstring this year.

One big ugly doesn’t usually make so much difference—especially a seven-year vet who’s never sniffed a Pro Bowl—but it makes sense when you think about the way Roethlisberger plays his position. He’s always been more of a hustling gamer than a precision, system passer—and now that he’s an old dog the tricks are getting staler. Given his tendency to react and shift around his blockers, it’s actually the frontside tackle who matters more than the blind side. He needs to be given immediate options to either step up or amble wide, and then he can create a lane to shovel it to Bell—or catapult the rock further downfield toward Brown if the linebackers cheat.

It helps that the right guard #66 David Decastro and the center #53 Maurkice Pouncey are both first-round picks on deserved second and third contracts, meaning when Gilbert’s on the field Roethlisberger has a solid wall of three to his front and right. The guys on the left side are both undrafted, and the guard, #73 Ramon Foster, is a very weak link, as Hassan Ridgeway demonstrated with ease last month.

On defense, the Steelers run a 3-4 just as the Packers and Ravens do, but unlike Green Bay’s system and the one in Baltimore that stifled the Packers, the Pittsburgh defensive lineman are tall and sleek, not short, stubby anchors like Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels, or the Jabba the Huts in Baltimore. They penetrate more than they two-gap, and the ends are the best two pressure guys on the team. #97 Cameron Heyward has seven sacks and 15 pressures, while #91 Stephon Tuitt has nine pressures.

Such end-driven pocket pushing is unusual in a 3-4 scheme. As well as this speaks to the length and sleekness of both 300-pounders on the line, it is also a criticism of the outside linebackers, who don’t get home enough. #48 Bud Dupree is a borderline first-round bust from the 2015 draft on the left side, and this year’s first-rounder, #90 T.J. Watt, has shown a few flashes in space but cannot yet consistently beat left tackles up the field. After he stuffed the stat sheet in his pro debut, many Badger-crazed Packer fans were calling for a new GM because Ted passed on the local boy, but T.J.’s two months of mediocrity since have put most of those pitchforks back in the shed.

One Pittsburgh player Ted wishes he could have drafted is the lightning fast middle backer, #50 Ryan Shazier, who went 15th overall three years ago, leaving the Pack to settle for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix six picks later. Shazier leads the team in tackles by a mile, and he often finds his way into passing lanes down the deep seam.

The secondary behind him is not elite, and half the starters are banged up. Right corner #25 Artie Burns was last year’s first-rounder, but his elite speed is meaningless when he’s running the wrong way. Free agent left corner D.J. Hayden has a broken leg, which has pushed journeyman #27 Coty Sensabaugh into service on the left and tiny rookie #31 Mike Hilton into the slot. Given that, you’d think the free safety would cheat to their side, but #23 Mike Mitchell disagreed on this Keystone Cops play:

He doesn’t just line up wrong, he’s also gimpy this week, which caused one of Bob McGinn’s scouts to spit out this gem: “Michell can’t afford an ankle injury because he can’t run, anyway.”

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

After last week’s amateur display of quarterbacking, it’s hard to imagine a Brett Hundley-led squad matching up well against any professional outfit. But I will repeat what I said after the New Orleans game when Marshon Lattimore made Hundley look JV: Really good cornerbacks can destroy Hundley’s confidence early. Lattimore did it by jumping a slant, and Jimmy Smith did it in a clever switch-off in the end zone. For a split second it looked like broken coverage, but it was a trap.

Here’s the good news: neither Marshon Lattimore nor Jimmy Smith plays for the Steelers. Their best healthy corner is ranked #58 by Pro Football Focus. It’s true that overall the Pittsburgh passing defense is highly ranked, but I think that’s more due to their interior pass rush, their fast linebacker, and a high-scoring offense that puts other teams in desperate situations early.

In other words, this is best kind of good defense for Brett Hundley to be facing. If the line can pass protect and if—this one is a big “if”—the Steelers don’t score a lot of points early, then Hundley should be able to complete some passes, move the chains, and justify the irrational confidence he continues to swagger around with.

Given how tall and skinny their defensive front is, and how small the interior backers are, this should really be a night full of Aaron Ripkowski lead blocking for Jamal Williams and Devante Mays. Last week McCarthy got spooked by Mays’ early fumble, and tried to take advantage through the air of all the single high formations the Ravens were showing. In retrospect, it was a terrible decision not to pound the rock with both backs.

Without Kenny Clark, can our defense tackle Le’Veon Bell? Without Kevin King, can we cover all three of their elite wide receivers? Probably not. If this defense is going to win many plays, it’s going to be by sacking the quarterback and/or hurrying him into interceptions. Without a consistent pass rush, Ben and Le’Veon will pick us apart. Vince Biegel needs to get motivated to show up his more highly drafted college teammate across the field, Nick Perry needs to bullrush the backup right tackle, and Clay Matthews needs to line up inside and run some stunts with Mike Daniels against the left guard and tackle. The rush needs to come from these regular upfront guys, because our corners aren’t good blitzers and Ben is too big to let any skinny guy bring him down.

PITTSBURGH MACHO

On the day, eleven years ago, when Ted Thompson hired Coach McCarthy, he introduced the new guy to the media by saying, “I like that Pittsburgh macho stuff.” Asked to elaborate about the macho-ness of their interview, he responded that their getting-to-know-each-other-time “wasn’t like chick-movie stuff. It’s about what you believe in, what’s most important to you. When you ask those questions, you can go way down deep in a person’s soul.”

I thought going deep into a person’s soul was “chick-movie stuff,” but I’m not a professional NFL scout. Ted is. He knows from macho, and he particularly likes the Pittsburgh variety.

Not the downtown business where the two rivers meet by the tall buildings, but up in the hills some, along a winding neighborhood of 8,000 inside the 15th ward, is a place known as Greenfield. “McCarthy never said so”” wrote Rob Reischel in his Nobody’s Underdog biography of Coach, “but he probably wished Thompson had called it ‘Greenfield Macho.'”

“We don’t say we’re from Pittsburgh,” said Bernie O’Connor, one of Mike McCarthy’s 70-plus cousins. “We’re from Greenfield.”

McCarthy’s own comments about his upbringing are as maddeningly simple yet unclear as Thompson’s famous “macho” descriptor itself: “I grew up the right way,” he said before the Super Bowl seven years ago.

The next year, he elaborated a bit more on the concept for Reischel’s book: “The bar was packed at eight in the morning, it was packed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it was packed at midnight. That’s just the way you grew up. It’s a blue-collar environment. I just think people were brought up the right way.”

The bar he’s referring to was owned by his parents 50 years ago, when it was called, creatively, Joe McCarthy’s Pub and Grill. Then it became Chaser’s In The Run and now it’s known as Zano’s Pub House. According to the bar’s Facebook page, this Sunday there might be home cooking from Carl and specials on Tornado drinks.

I may not know exactly what “macho” is, or the perfect “right way” to be brought up, but I expect that Coach McCarthy does not include the drinking of Tornado cocktails in either definition.

Down the hill from Zano’s, a football game will be played, and if the Packers can win, it will be done in the trenches. If there’s any fancy dancing in the open field, that will be not be a good sign. Not with this team. The only way forward, for now, is to be macho, play the right way, and maybe win ugly.

(Or be Pittsburgh stubborn and throw the ball into every damn corner, blitz from crazy angles, and go for it on stinking fourth down, all while muttering “nobody’s underdog” over and over again under your breath.)

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 11: Packers vs. Ravens http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-11-packers-vs-ravens/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-11-packers-vs-ravens/#respond Fri, 17 Nov 2017 06:20:55 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=43067 here was never going to be a good time for Brett Hundley to start his football career in Green Bay. From the moment he was drafted, his purpose was to look good in training camp so that he could be traded after two or three years. The only scenario in which he might get more […]

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There was never going to be a good time for Brett Hundley to start his football career in Green Bay. From the moment he was drafted, his purpose was to look good in training camp so that he could be traded after two or three years. The only scenario in which he might get more than a few post-August snaps was the current one: a serious injury to Aaron Rodgers.

Still, the first quarter in Minnesota might have been the worst time for his chance to happen. That’s because these middle six games on the Packers’ schedule all feature top defensive opponents according to advanced metrics. The Vikings have a great secondary and fast linebackers, the Saints feature the best young corner in the league, the Lions tackle and cover well as a unit, and the Bears have good pass rushers and clever blitz schemes.

On the next two Sundays it only gets harder. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are traditionally known for defense, and this year is no exception. For the first of these next two tests, this is what Brett Hundley (career so far: 1 win, 2 touchdowns, 3 losses, 4 interceptions) will be up against:

SCOUTING THE RAVENS

The only football team ever named after a poem is now on its third generation of great linebackers. In only their fifth year of existence, middle linebacker Ray Lewis led the franchise once led the franchise to a dominating Super Bowl victory. Twelve years later the 36-year-old Lewis was a shell of his dominating presence, but his team won the trophy anyway, partly due to the emergence of outside linebacker #55 Terrell Suggs.

Another five years later, Suggs is still getting sacks at the age of 35, but the best linebacker on the team is now a man one decade his junior, #57 C.J. Mosley, who plays the middle with some thump and disrupts passing lanes just like Grandpa Ray used.

Officially the Ravens still run a 3-4, but it often looks more like a 4-3 because Suggs plays on the edge of the line so much, and he almost never drops into coverage anymore.

Next to Mosley in the base defense is #48 Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor, an undrafted second-year find out of I-AA Portland State. Despite his lack of pedigree, he is not a liability. He’s built more like our nitro backer/safeties (217 pounds) and will probably be covering Lance Kendricks over the middle (or Randall Cobb if we can confuse them).

The three best guys on the line are also from lower division colleges: 340-pound #98 Brandon Williams is in his fifth year out of Division II Missouri Southern, and this spring became the highest paid nose tackle in the NFL. 339-pound #97 Michael Pierce was undrafted last year out of I-AA Samson, but has played in all 25 games of his pro career so far. Last year’s fifth-rounder, 260-pound hybrid #99 Matthew Judon, emerged out of Division II Grand Valley State to terrorize the Bears last month with two sacks and twelve tackles.

The Ravens rotate in a lot more than just those three guys up front, and sometimes play formations with six or even seven hats on the line. The unpredictability of who’s rushing and who’s dropping has helped the Ravens lead the league in interceptions so far this season.

The crazy blitzes and zone drops have confused and hurried opposing QBs, but the main reason the Ravens are averaging 1.5 stolen passes a game is that they have the deepest secondary in the NFL. Both corners, the slot guy, and the free safety each have multiple interceptions, meaning this year’s 16th-overall draft pick, #29 Marlon Humphrey, can’t even get on the field for more than a dozen snaps per game despite how well he is playing.

None of the Packer corners would get any snaps on this team, and a healthy Morgan Burnett would probably be their #2 safety, behind #32 Eric Weddle and ahead of strong safety #23 Eric Jefferson.

LC #24 Brandon Carr, RC #22 Jimmy Smith, and nickel back #21 Ladarius Webb are better overall than any group Brett Hundley has seen yet, including the freaky fast Viking duo of Rhodes and Waynes.

The good news is that these Ravens are almost as bad at offense as they are good at defense. They have no playmakers at any of the skill positions, and QB #5 Joe Flacco has been massively overpaid ever since he won the Super Bowl MVP five years ago. With 10 interceptions through nine games, he’s got a chance to throw more picks than millions earned this season. It could be close.

Flacco does still throw a lovely deep ball, but those gorgeous arcs aren’t landing where he wants them to anymore. And other than #18 Jeremy Maclin there’s no wide receivers or tight ends worth targeting. His leading receiver so far this year is the backup running back, #37 Javorius Allen. Their leading rusher, #34 Alex Collins, was cut by the Seahawks in training camp even though his contract was for the league minimum.

Their offensive line is a bunch of nobodies other than their very highly drafted left tackle, #79 Ronnie Stanley, who was the best ranked rookie tackle in the league last year and is off to another good season.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

As bad as the Ravens’ offense has been so far this season, it remains possible that they’ll score points against this Green Bay defense. Inexplicable gaffes in the coverage schemes are traveling like a hot potato throughout the secondary. For several weeks Damarious Randall acted like he didn’t care, then just as soon as he got a bit focused, Davon House began lolligaging at the snap and then running to nowhere during key plays. Through it all, Ha Ha Clinton Dix is consistently having his worst season mentally and physically. He is disorganized and his hips just don’t swivel anymore. Morgan Burnett can’t stay healthy and so suddenly even safety is not a position of strength.

Clay Matthews is still stout against the run but can’t sack anybody anymore, and Nick Perry remains the king of sack stats but doesn’t affect most plays. The good news is that the tackles and interior backers are finally strong, and if they continue to stuff even good running teams like the Bears, then it’s possible the rest of the unit will coalesce around them.

If they don’t, there is no chance Sunday, because Brett Hundley is going to be lucky to outscore the Ravens’ defense, much less their offense. If there is a blueprint on how to find cracks against them, the Viking rolled it out in the 3rd quarter last month:

Against two straight 5-man blitzes, Minnesota covered 40 yards in two plays by sneaking to the spots where the aggressive defenders had just been. First a tight end leaked out against the run of movement, then the running back hit the hole that Suggs was vacating for a twist action. Did they get lucky? Maybe. But it shows that the right call can always be the antidote against fast talent so eager to anticipate. Can McCarthty outsmart Harbaugh even though the Ravens are coming off a bye and so have double the prep time? If he can’t, the season is in jeopardy. Never has there been more pressure on Coach.

THE BALTIMORE STRUGGLE

Ever since he was declared a genius two years ago, Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates has become the public heir to James Baldwin’s immense legacy. Toni Morrison declared this on the jacket of his best-selling book that explicitly took its cues from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

Since then Coates has written his longest work of prose yet, which is likely to be another bestseller.

These two most recent books deal with subjects of tremendous scope, but it was his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, which is his most intimate and personal. Most of its autobiographical details take place in the city of Baltimore.

The book begins with a customized and annotated map of the Baltimore streets he walked as a youth.

“We were another country,” he writes, “fraying at our seams…We lived in a row house in the slope of Tioga Parkway in West Baltimore.” This is less than four miles from where the Ravens play home games.

“My father was Conscious Man…From the day we touched these stolen shores, he’d explain to anyone who’d listen, they infected our minds…But none of it made sense. I was young and could not see the weaponry my ancestors had left for me…Slowly I came to feel that I was not the only one who was afraid.”

Toward the end of this debut memoir, Coates finds a way to begin speaking clear-eyed truths to American power structures, and especially to the tropes used to describe crime. “Politicians step up to the mic,” he says, “claim the young have gone mad, their brains infected, and turned superpredator. Fuck you all who’ve ever spoken so foolishly, who opened your mouths like we don’t know what this is. We have read the books you own, the scorecards you keep – done the math and emerged prophetic.”

He wrote this in 2008, eight years before Hillary Clinton would be famously confronted by her “superpredator” comment during the 2016 campaign.

Coates might not be a prophet, but he does have the hard-earned ability to see through and reveal the self-conscious veneers of our culture’s many lies. By some definitions, that’s all a prophet is.

Wanna get ready for this Sunday by reliving last week’s glory in Chicago? Then listen below to both halves of Nik & Keith’s live game call at Linneman’s.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 10: Packers vs. Bears http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-10-packers-vs-bears/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-10-packers-vs-bears/#respond Fri, 10 Nov 2017 06:58:36 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=42928 Watch the game at Linneman’s this Sunday at noon. Nik and Keith will be calling all the action on the stage, next to a nine-foot screen. There will be enough chili and beer to go around. n his way to the Illinois country in the late winter of 1677, Father Allouez passed near the Potawatomi […]

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Watch the game at Linneman’s this Sunday at noon. Nik and Keith will be calling all the action on the stage, next to a nine-foot screen. There will be enough chili and beer to go around.

On his way to the Illinois country in the late winter of 1677, Father Allouez passed near the Potawatomi villages around Green Bay. He learned that a young man whom he had baptized had been killed by a bear in a particularly gruesome manner. The bear had “torn off his scalp, disemboweled him, and dismembered his entire body.” The bear had, in short, treated the young man as a warrior treated the body of an enemy. Allouez, being acquainted with the hunter’s parents, detoured to console them. He prayed with the parents, comforting the distressed mother as best he could.

Afterward, “by way of avenging…this death,” the relatives and friends of the dead man declared war on the bears. They killed more than five hundred of them, giving the Jesuits a share of the meat and skins because, they said, “God delivered the bears into their hands as satisfaction for the death of the young man who had been so cruelly treated by one of their nation.”

So wrote Richard White on page 10 of his epic Great Lakes history, which is already past its 20th printing, and is constantly cited by other historians of our region.

There it is written that 340 years ago (at a minimum) the rivalry between Green Bay and the Chicago Bears began. Since the NFL has been keeping score (from 1921 on) it is now 95 Packer wins, 94 Bear wins, and six ties. After our fresh kill this September, the ledger has been weighted to the Packer side of justice for the first time since 1933.

Will the Bears regain equilibrium on Sunday noon? To prevent this reversion, we’ll have to beat these guys:

SCOUTING THE BEARS

For a detailed look at the key names and jersey numbers, please consult our scouting report, published before that Thursday September meeting eventually won by the Packers 35-14. Most of the principals from that six-weeks-ago clash remain—except, of course, for the two players (Glennon and Rodgers) playing the position that matters most.

In that story we wrote that “#10 Mitch Trubisky, who is much more athletic than Glennon…will probably be the starter by the end of the season.” Indeed, that happened even sooner than most thought. After #8 Mike Glennon wobbled two interceptions and coughed up the ball another two times (including the unprecedented kick fumble), he has not played another snap since.

In those intervening four games, with Mitch as their starting QB, the Bears have won two and lost two. Both times they lost, it was Mitch’s fault, as he threw a late interception first in a tie game against Minnesota, and then with a one-score deficit against New Orleans.

In the two games they won, Mitch was hiding in plain sight. Watching his tape against Baltimore, it’s hard to imagine the quarterback of a winning team that scores 27 points looking any more inconspicuous. Other than his wobbly and underthrown touchdown pass to tight end #88 Dion Sims, the rest of the Bears scoring happened this way: a field goal drive of 60 yards during which he did not complete a pass, a touchdown drive capped by a running back option toss from #29 Tarik Cohen, a 90-yard pick six by #38 Adrian Amos, and an overtime field goal set up mostly by a 53-yard handoff to #24 Jordan Howard.

The only time I’ve ever seen a winning NFL quarterback appear more underwhelming was in the very next game Trubisky played, during which he only attempted seven passes in four quarters! Both Bears touchdowns were scored by the defense in that 17-3 win against Carolina, and the one time Trubisky got near the end zone he stumbled his way into a tackler.

Nothing summarizes this ineptitude better than than his first two and a half quarters in the NFL. He led seven drives, six of which ended in punts and during the other he was strip sacked. The eighth drive ended in punt formation again, but then #16 Pat O’Donnell faked it and threw a touchdown. That’s right, in the four games Mitch has started, the punter and the backup running back together have thrown for as many touchdowns (2) as the quarterback. (And neither one of their scoring throws bounced off the safety’s hands.)

Despite this ever-worsening series of statistics and the horrific film underlying it, Bears fans—god bless their desperation—remain convinced this inaccurate and uncertain rookie is their messiah. Tribute songs are pouring in from local radio stations, and one in particular might tug a bit at the tender nerves of Packer fans:

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

“Let Him Throw” arranged to the music of the movie Frozen‘s “Let It Go” could also describe the repressed angst of Packer fans wishing Brett Hundley would get a little air under the ball every now and then. In his two NFL starts, against the Saints and the Lions, he has yet to complete a pass more than 20 yards down the field, and the majority of his attempts have been within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

There’s no question that against the Vikings, when his entry was unexpected, he was held back by the play calls and the lack of practice reps with the starters. But Hundley and Coach had seven full days to get ready for the Saints, then an unusually long 15 day stretch to prepare of the Lions. Did McCarthy just forget to install the dinner portion of his Applebee’s menu?

Probably not. On the first drive of the game, after McCarthy broke type and took the ball after winning the toss, he did so with the confidence that a play like this one, the 12th of a methodical and clever drive, would work. Jordy Nelson was wide open. It was supposed to be the shot of confidence that the young QB—and the jittery home crowd—needed. The interior protection was there, Jordy ran the perfect route, the safety bit on the play action, and…

And Brett Hundley got spooked by an irrelevant outside rusher and didn’t even look downfield much less step into the safe part of the pocket to make his throw.

It was after this quarterback failure that the all too familiar in-game coaching disasters of McCarthy really began to shine through. He blamed the wrong player for that missed play. Yes, if Aaron Jones had picked up his block better Hundley might not have been spooked, but that’s like blaming a church mouse for all the sinning in the pews. McCarthy benched our best running back after that since he couldn’t bench our quarterback.

Why couldn’t he bench our quarterback? Because Hundley’s backup, Joe Callahan from a D3 college in Delaware, is terrible and does not belong in the NFL. McCarthy angrily defended Joey Delaware at a press conference, but then didn’t have the guts to insert him when it mattered. Because McCarthy knows quarterbacks, and he knows Callahan is garbage. That’s why the Packers already cut him twice and two other teams have cut him once. (He was so bad McCarthy barely even gave him any snaps in the preseason.)

So instead McCarthy benched our best remaining player on offense—Jones—and just blindly hoped for the best after his brilliant 15 play script ran out. Such faith works when Aaron Rodgers is preaching the service, but not with these other guys.

Defensively, McCarthy has never known what’s going on, as evidenced by the fact that he wasn’t aware, while it was happening, that Clay Matthews didn’t get on the field for the crucial moments in the 2014 NFC title game collapse. Now we can add to that list of oblivion his ignorance of Mike Daniel’s pre-game bravado on Monday. If he really had his hand on the pulse of this team, Daniels would have been reprimanded before he ruined our first—and only—defensive stand of the game, not after.

It’s also worth noting how bad the defense also got in 2013 in the games immediately after Aaron Rodgers broke his other collar bone. Back then, on the PackerVerse radio show every week, several callers wryly remarked that we didn’t realize our quarterback was actually our best defender, too.

But, once again, it turns out that he still is. When an opposing offense knows that the other team is going to score 30 every week, it puts tremendous pressure on every drive, and forces them to throw past the sticks on most third downs because they’re afraid to punt. This makes our blitzes more effective and also increases the chances for incompletions and interceptions. Last Monday night, Detroit probably figured from the jump that 20 points would be plenty to win, and so they threw shallow crossing routes and screens on third down hoping the YAC would move the chains, but not fearing if it didn’t. It did, and our defense never adjusted. Playing a mediocre quarterback on offense—like Brett Hundley clearly is so far—decreases our defense’s margin for error and increases the play options for the opponents’ offense.

MESSIAH STORIES

Thirty years plus a week ago, on November 3, a young teenager in Milwaukee gave birth a son. The biological father’s identity is unknown to the general public, but reportedly he was an African-American collegiate athlete. Within five weeks, the baby boy was transported to a small town along the Wolf River. Most of his next four years were spent on the southern tip of a wide, shallow, and reedy lake nestled between the upper and lower Fox Valleys.

The parallels in the early lives of Colin Kaepernick three decades ago and Moses three millennia ago are striking. “When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank.” [Exodus 2:3]

Of course the Moses story in the Torah is also strikingly similar to the Jesus story in the Gospels. Depending on the beliefs of the reader, this is either a divinely ordained symmetry or a clear case of the Gospel writers using Exodus as a template. The broad plot points shared between the two biographies are: Mysterious Father, Adoptive Parent(s), Mystical Signs of Mission, Physical Exile from the Holy Land, Social Banishment Upon Return Resulting From a Challenge to Orthodoxy and Power Hierarchies, Consensus About His Importance By All Sides, and finally the Deliverance of His People But Not of Himself.

Nearly all of these plot points—except the final one—have already occurred in the biography of Colin Kaepernick. If we take Wisconsin as Jerusalem, and Packer Fans as the Chosen People, then we see his father’s promotion to manager of a cheese factory—and the family’s subsequent move to a faraway facility in central California—as a deeply symbolic move into exile—taking his “culture” with him but living amongst foreigners and then eventually leading the enemy’s army into battle—and twice defeating his home team in the playoffs, once in California and then again in Wisconsin. When all appeared lost during the Super Bowl in 2013, with his adopted team down by 22 points, suddenly a deus ex machina occurred in the form of an unprecedented electrical delay at the mouth of our continent’s biggest river—a mystical intervention which changed the game and nearly led to a miraculous victory for the armies of Northern California.

Moses worked for Pharaoh, too, until he saw the injustices against his own people. “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.” [Exodus 2:11]

“This is what lynchings look like in 2016!” Kaepernick wrote on Instagram and Twitter when video of Alton Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge became public. “Another murder in the streets because the color of a man’s skin, at the hands of the people who they say will protect us. When will they be held accountable? Or did he fear for his life as he executed this man?”

Like Moses, Kaepernick subsequently challenged his people to more closely follow the laws. “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.” [Exodus 32:19-20]

Moses was upset because this golden calf was a clear violation of the Second Commandment against the making and worshiping of graven images. [Exodus 20:4] In a strange bit of symmetry, the ritual Colin refused to participate in—civic worship of a colorful flag—is also a clear violation of the same commandment in Torah. But the laws more clearly on Colin’s mind during his protest were the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which are all under renewed attack in this century.

And now Colin’s protest has evolved into a direct attack on the financial underpinnings of the entire league. This is not unlike what Jesus did according to Matthew 21:12-13. “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,”My house shall be called a house of prayer” but you are making it a den of robbers.'”

If the messiah prophecy is to come true for a third time, then the Packers must soon hire Kapernick to be our quarterback. Then he must win for two months and deliver us to the edge of the Promised Land. There from the top of Pisgah’s Mountain, right around Christmas 2017, he will give the ball back to Aaron Rodgers, and Colin will then watch his people, festooned in Green and Gold, cross the wide Mississippi River to a land flowing with trophies and rings.

Tune into this week’s PackerVerse radio show, with Wildcat Mark in studio remembering games of Soldier Field past, back when nobody watched the pro game.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 9: Packers vs. Lions http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-9-packers-vs-lions/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-9-packers-vs-lions/#respond Fri, 03 Nov 2017 05:20:06 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=42680 ext up for the Green Bay Packers is the one divisional opponent who has not broken our quarterback’s collar bone. It’s hard to hate these Detroit Lions. Even back when Ndamukong Suh was a Lion and was stomping on Packers we didn’t get that mad, because his cheap shots didn’t injure us and did get him ejected and suspended. […]

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Next up for the Green Bay Packers is the one divisional opponent who has not broken our quarterback’s collar bone. It’s hard to hate these Detroit Lions.

Even back when Ndamukong Suh was a Lion and was stomping on Packers we didn’t get that mad, because his cheap shots didn’t injure us and did get him ejected and suspended.

There’s also the fact that every time we play against them in big games (playoffs in ’93 and ’94 seasons, division-deciding match-ups at the end of ’14 and ’16), they find a way to lose.

As Milwaukee-born Patrick Noth rhymed on his 2017 release “Green And Gold”: “Minnesota’s team is garbage and the Bears still suck / But honestly, Detroit, we wish you the best of luck.”

No matter how fiercely this team is named, the closer we look the more cuddly friends we find curled up in every corner.

But in early autumn games, before the ground is frozen, these big cats have scratched us plenty lately: On Thanksgiving 2013 they destroyed the mighty Matt Flynn 40-10. Ten months later even Aaron Rodgers could only score once, and their offense wasn’t just effective—it was humiliating. Bob McGinn was reminded of that pathetic defeat when writing about our whimpering loss two weeks ago to New Orleans: “Not since Game 3 of 2014 has the Packers’ defense closed a defeat with so little pride. On that afternoon at Ford Field the Lions were able to run the ball 12 times in a row to eat up the final 6:54 in their 19-7 triumph.”

Then, on November 15, 2015, Detroit finally ended over two decades of futility in Wisconsin when Mason Crosby missed a game-ending field goal. That’s three times in the last four years the Lions have beat the Packers in pre-December action.

Can the Packers reverse that trend and keep their record above even? To do so they’ll have to beat these names and jersey numbers:

SCOUTING THE LIONS

True to their recent streaky form, the Lions started the year 3-1 and then lost the next three. Last year, they started 1-3, then rallied to 9-4 before losing their last four. The other time Rodgers broke his collarbone, back in 2013, they were 7-5 after thrashing us on Thanksgiving, and then lost their last four.

#9 Matthew Stafford is in his 9th season as the starting quarterback, and his 2nd without Calvin Johnson. Strangely, the loss of Megatron—all 77 unguardable inches—led to Stafford’s best statistical season: his usual gazillion yards with his lowest full-season interception total ever (10) and an NFL record eight 4th-quarter comebacks. (He’s on a similar pace so far this year for hella yards, couple TDs a game, and single-digit INTs.)

In Detroit they are calling Stafford’s new approach “Cooter Ball” in honor of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. (Cooter, Packer fans will remember, replaced Vince Lombardi’s grandson Joe halfway through the 2015 season.) Stafford hardly ever throws deep anymore, hoping instead that wide receiver #15 Golden Tate and halfback #25 Theo Riddick will gain plenty of yards after the catch.

Beyond those two, however, the rest of their eligible receivers are just guys. #85 Eric Ebron was drafted four years ago with the 10th overall pick, but is living proof that being tall and fast does not necessarily mean you have two functioning hands. Against Carolina a month ago his early drop in the endzone was the difference, and he responded to the subsequent boos by telling fans to “Stay Woke.”

The other tight end, newly acquired #87 Darren Fells, is bulky and slow like our Martellus Bennett, but unlike Ebron and Bennett, can actually catch.

Speaking of bulk, the Lions were supposed to have their best batch of big uglies in a decade. They had recent top draft picks at center, left guard and tackle in the cupboard, and then they emptied the piggy bank to replace the right side of the line—for two guys with deep Wisconsin roots. All Packer fans remember how much the Lions overpaid for the 30-year-old, surgically repaired hip that hinges inside our former right guard #76 T.J. Lang. But most of us probably missed that, less than a week before Lang robbed them, the Lions were mugged by West Allis Nathan Hale grad #71 Ricky Wagner, forking over more money than any other right tackle had ever received in NFL history.

Was all that cash and drafts worth it? Not so far. Stafford has been sacked 25 times in seven games, 4th-most in the league. Last year’s first rounder, #68 Taylor Decker, has been out all year after June shoulder surgery and probably won’t be back by Monday. His replacement got replaced last week, but the revolving door at left tackle has not been the main weakness. Right tackle and guard, despite being laden with gold, are not standing, and the left guard, last year’s 3rd-rounder #60 Graham Glasgow, got beat badly for a strip sack against Carolina.

The best statistical measure of any offensive line (other than sacks allowed) is rushing yards gained, and third-year starting running back #21 Ameer Abdullah is still in search of his first 100 yard game, and the Lions haven’t had a 100 yard rusher since…sorry to bring this game up again…but it’s been since Thanksgiving 2013, when Reggie Bush made our linebackers look JV.

On defense, everybody in Detroit thinks they’re good again, and the stats suggest they might be. But from what I’ve seen on film, they don’t have enough blue chippers. Drafting linebacker #40 Jarrad Davis with the 21st overall pick this spring was an excellent decision. His speedy presence in the middle has allowed #59 Tahir Whitehead to move to the strong side, which was needed since he is too slow to play middle.

Davis’s speed helps in pass coverage, of course, but is most spectacular in run defense. I counted three tackles for loss against Carolina (his first game back from a September concussion) all of which appeared to occur immediately after he was shot out of a cannon. This rookie appears to be their best player on defense.

All four lineman are good, but none of them great. Strong safety #32 Tavon Wilson plays in the box like a linebacker, and comes out of his own cannon in run support.

The pass defense is as vulnerable as ever, as Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees have all proved in the last month. #23 Darius Slay is supposed to be the rainmaker in the secondary, but against Carolina first he was too short, then too slow, and before the Lions knew it they were losing by two touchdowns.

Yet Slay is still clearly better than his fellow cornerbacks, and so almost every offense has come out targeting #24 Nevin Lawson‘s side of the field. As bad as Lawson has been on the edge, nothing is more tempting than the slot when #28 Quandre Diggs is lined up there, which is on most plays.

Free safety #27 Glover Quinn has good range and isn’t afraid to jump a route, but he has a lot of shaky teammates to cover for all at once.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

Two weeks ago I wrote that the Saint’s rookie phenom Marshon Lattimore might be a shutdown corner and in retrospect I may have understated his case. In the two games since, Lattimore made our Brett Hundley and then the Bear messiah Mitch Trubisky look like they weren’t ready for the NFL yet.

Why do I bring this up now? To suggest that Hundley’s terrible performance against the Saints might have been partly due to our coaching staff’s failing to account for just how good Lattimore is. On a portentous third and short early in the game, Hundley checked to what he thought was an easy slant to Davante Adams, but Lattimore ran the route better than Adams. This early and simple failure may have shaken Hundley’s—and the coaches’—confidence for the rest of the contest.

Now that Coach McCarthy and Mr. Hundley have had an entire bye week alone together it’s possible they have made the adjustments every relationship needs to survive and thrive. And maybe the return of the old flame will be the third wheel they need to really get balanced.

The Lions probably have a better front seven and box eight than the Saints did, so it will be harder for Aaron Jones to repeat what he did two weeks ago. Except that the entire offensive line ahead of him looks healthy together for the first time all season, so as long as Jones can dodge the run blitzes of linebacker Davis and strong safety Wilson he should have room to run.

On defense, this looks like the week we get to see what Vince Biegel is all about. If we can finally get some edge rush, then the good work of Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark on the inside should be more obvious and fruitful, and the confusion of our young pass defenders might get masked. The return of Morgan Burnett could also be crucial for the organization of our defense. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked hopeless these past few weeks without his battery mate.

THE MILWAUKEE LIONS…AND TIGERS

Another reason many local Packer fans might have a soft spot for our Detroit football rivals is that, for most the past decade, their best player on defense was one of our classmates and neighbors—Milwaukee native, MPS grad, and All-Big Ten Badger DeAndre Levy.

Levy went to Milwaukee Vincent 10 years after I went to Milwaukee Riverside, and he was the beginning of a 21st century wave of MPS students who are populating NFL rosters. Most of them got their first pads from Earl Ingram and the Neighborhood Children Sports League.

After Levy (Vincent class of ’05) was drafted in the 3rd round by the Lions in 2009, it was current Packer Lance Kendricks (King ’06 and MacDowell Montessori ’02) going in the 2nd round to the Rams in 2011, then Brandon Brooks (Riverside ’07) was drafted in the 3rd round by the Texans in 2012. During Brooks’ season the Riverside Tigers beat the King Generals 51-0 on their way to a City Conference title and a berth in the state semifinals. Five years laterRiverside coach Pat Wagner got the mighty Tigers back to the state semifinals, this time led by Eric Murray ’12 who was drafted last year in the 4th round by Kansas City.

So that’s four MPS grads in the NFL this decade, two of them from Riverside University High School. Of those two, Brooks is the starting right guard for the team with the best record in the NFC, and Murray is the special teams ace and dime back for the team with the best record in the AFC. Back in September when the Eagles visited the Chiefs, Coach Wags was in the stands and snapped this photo of #79 Brandon Brooks crouched a few yards away from where #21 Eric Murray is standing pre-snap.

Murray is working his way into the rotation hoping to earn a lucrative second contract, and Brooks already cashed in big-time when he left Houston for Philly. Neither one of them have been outspoken—yet—on the social justice issues of our time, but Kendricks and Levy have been.

Kendricks joined Martellus Bennett and Kevin King on the Lambeau sideline in October to protest the racism of our current U.S. President. “You wear this jersey at this bar,” he preached to Packer fans, “and you’re proud of what we’re doing on that field, and we’re busting our ass for you. But when we voice our opinion on a social issue, you’re against us?”

The same week Levy was testifying before Congress trying to convince lawmakers and billionaire owners to believe in science. “The moment I said anything about it,” he explained to Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas…

“I had two calls telling me I shouldn’t talk about it. And I don’t know if it was because of CTE or if it’s because the general NFL rule, like only football, only talk about football, only think about football. So I posted simply the research…Nobody wants to talk about anything other than football, but it didn’t sit well with me when I’m talking about brain injury, you know, my brain. It’s not my shoulder. It’s my brain. It controls everything I do. It controls everything we think, we feel, and if I don’t have the right to speak about that as a player, I think it kind of really speaks about the culture of the NFL, what the conversations are. I think that’s indicative of the conversations that we don’t hear, the closed-door conversations between the owners. They still are trying to find ways to silence us.”

Levy is clearly not afraid to speak truth to power. Two Aprils ago he challenged his entire gender. In a startlingly honest open letter about his own sexual evolution and the international problem of sexual assault, he wrote: “It’s important for men, especially in a hyper-masculine culture that breeds so many assholes, to stand up and challenge the values that have been passed down to us. This is not just a woman’s problem.”

How has the league rewarded Levy’s eloquence and activism? By blackballing him and trying to take away money he is contractually owed, of course. Colin Kaepernik’s mistreatment has gotten most of the attention this season, but Levy’s saga is equally heartbreaking and unjust.

When we root against the Lions on Monday night, let’s pour one out for the brilliant NFL career of one of Milwaukee’s own, even though he got many of those tackles and interceptions while playing against our beloved Packers.

His NFL career across the great lake might be over, but the man is only 30 years old, and has a lot more left to give back to his home city and state. We should support him and his causes going forward. Maybe we’ll get to vote for him someday. I think he’d make a great governor.

Tune into the post-bye-week edition of The PackerVerse radio show with callers Bob and Jeff, Sonny, Curious Over the River, and Jim From the South Side along with Wildcat Mark in studio on Center Street.

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Read Before Kickoff, Week 7: Packers vs. Saints http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-7-packers-vs-saints/ http://milwaukeerecord.com/sports/read-before-kickoff-week-7-packers-vs-saints/#respond Fri, 20 Oct 2017 05:05:12 +0000 http://milwaukeerecord.com/?p=42013 he four times that Mike McCarthy has faced a Sean Payton offense since they both started head coaching in 2006, the Packers have given up 34, 51, 34, and 44 points. In one of those games, Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb managed to outscore the New Orleans Saints 42-34, but the other three were decisive […]

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The four times that Mike McCarthy has faced a Sean Payton offense since they both started head coaching in 2006, the Packers have given up 34, 51, 34, and 44 points. In one of those games, Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb managed to outscore the New Orleans Saints 42-34, but the other three were decisive losses, two of them by more than 20 points.

In the 10 seasons that Rodgers has been the starter, he has lost by more than 20 points only five times total. Twice it was at the hands of Drew Brees and the scheme of Sean Payton.

Will Brett Hundley be able to do any better against this quarterback and head coach?

SCOUTING THE SAINTS

This offense has led the league in yards gained in two of the last three seasons, while placing second the other year—and yet they have finished out of the playoffs in all of those campaigns, with identical 7-9 records. Knowing that, you won’t be surprised to learn that the defense—during that same span‚finished fifth-to-last, second-to-last, and second-to-last in yards allowed.

This year the offense is still good, and the defense might be better. Here are the names and jersey numbers of players to watch for on Sunday:

#9 Drew Brees still holds the career Big Ten records for passes, passes completed, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. Coming out of Purdue way back in 2001, however, every NFL team passed on him in the first round because he is short (six-foot even), slow (more than a tenth of second slower than Rodgers, who also dropped in the 2005 draft because of speed concerns), and his arm strength is average. Now that the year is 2017, you can add “old” to that list.

When I watch tape of Brees, I see what the scouts saw 16 years ago. He’s fidgety in the pocket, he leans his head back hoping to give his low eyes a slighter better angle downfield over the taller rushers and blockers, and then he releases the ball like a goblin on tippy toes. It’s never pretty, and on top of that he makes his share of bad decisions, averaging about an interception per game throughout his long career.

And yet, when you check the scoreboard or the stat sheet, you can’t argue with the results. He’s won 140 games including a Super Bowl, and if he plays ’til he’s 40 at this pace, he will retire as the NFL leader in passing yards and TDs (he’s currently third on both lists).

True to Payton’s complicated spread scheme, the ball moves all over the field. Six players have at least 10 catches this season through five games—both running backs, a tight end, and three wide receivers.

Brees’ favorite target this year and last year, by a wide margin, is #13 Michael Thomas. The 2nd-year, 2nd-rounder has size (6’3”, 212) but not speed (his 4.56 40 time exactly matches our Davante Adams’). Yet thanks to Payton’s creative calls he is somehow always open.

It only cost the Saints $3 million guaranteed to lure #19 Ted Ginn, Jr. away from Carolina this off-season. The 10-year veteran is on his 6th contract, none for big money. Ginn has never put it all together, but he has also never lost his blazing speed. He usually lines up in the slot, but is often in pre-snap motion and is always a threat to take a pitch around the end. He also returns punts.

They had to dangle six times as much ($18 million guaranteed) to get #82 Coby Fleener away from the Colts two years ago. The 6’6″, 251-pound tight end actually runs faster (4.51) than all the wide receivers but Ginn, and is not a threat to block. His sole function is to be a big, tall slot receiver down the seams. When Payton decided that the weakness of the Detroit Lions defense was against runs, not passes, he played his backup tight ends more than the expensive starter.

A lot more. According to Bob McGinn, “Fleener…played just 18 snaps Sunday against Detroit compared to [#89 Josh] Hill‘s 48 and [#84 Michael] Hoomanawanui‘s 41.” It worked. The Saints gained 193 yards on the ground with just 186 in the air while scoring 52 points (albeit only 31 of them on offense).

All but four of those rushing yards were earned by the hard-charging tandem of #22 Mark Ingram and #41 Alvin Kamara. Ingram, like Ginn, was overdrafted many years ago but has hung around long enough to now be under-appreciated. Last week Ingram demonstrated both his toughness for the hard yard as well as his explosiveness.

Kamara was the 67th overall draft pick this spring, and his versatility out of the backfield is exactly what an evil genius like Sean Payton needs to keep defenses guessing. Against the Dolphins in London, Kamara was the team’s leading receiver, catching all 10 passes thrown his way. Two weeks later he rushed 10 times for 75 yards, showing both shiftiness and force. He set up the Saints’ final offensive TD by running first inside for 12 yards then outside for 13—including a dramatic hurdling of the safety—on consecutive plays.

Ahead of Brees and the backs are five good lineman—including two recent first-round picks and two newly acquired, expensive free agents. The best of the bunch, though, is probably the left tackle #72 Teron Amstead, who was merely a third-round draft pick five years ago but is now earning $13 million per year. On the other side is right tackle #71 Ryan Ramczyk, the last pick of this spring’s first round and a native of Stevens Point who made the transfer from D3 in Point to D1 in Madison and now is an NFL starter.

The Saints’ defensive signal caller, MLB #53 A.J. Klein, is also from a small town in northern Wisconsin. Back in high school he was a two-sport star for the Kimberly Papermakers. (Really, the Packers should be called the Papermakers, too, given the relative strengths of the meatpacking vs. papermaking industries in the lower Fox Valley.) Klein went to Iowa State before backing up Luke Kuechly in Carolina for four years. The Saints liked what they saw when Kuechly was hurt last year, so they gave Klein almost $10 million guaranteed to make the move.

The four man line ahead of Klein looked great in their last three victories against Carolina, Miami, and Detroit, but over the long haul is probably merely good, not great.

287-pound #94 Cameron Jordan usually squares up at left end to bull rush (although the sack against Cam Newton occurred when he confused the Panthers by lining up on the right side) and he’s been on a tear lately, with four sacks and three turnover plays in the last three games. Overall, he fits into that same category as Ginn and Ingram—a long ago 1st round pick (2011) on the journey from overdrafted to underrated. Before this year started, he had 46.5 sacks in six full seasons.

The right end, 261-pound #57 Alex Okafor, has a linebacker number because that’s what he used to be when he played in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme. He’s a little too big to be a 3-4 outside backer and a lot too small to be a 4-3 end. That’s why he signed for just $1 million guaranteed this offseason.

On the inside, third-year third-rounder #95 Tyeler Davison was the fourth best tackle in the league last week according to Pro Football Focus, and second-year first-rounder #98 Sheldon Rankins is now starting next to him. Whoever is replacing Lane Taylor on Sunday will have a full plate of young, fast, highly-drafted, 300-plus-pound men running stunts, garnished with lots of exotic linebacker and safety blitzes.

Other than the 11th overall draft pick this spring, #23 Marshon Lattimore, who appears to be a legit starter if not a shutdown island, the Saints are pretty desperate at cornerback. After benching some other options, it now looks like undrafted #20 Ken Crawley is the starting left corner, and two safeties, #32 Kenny Vaccaro and #25 Rafael Bush, are playing nickel and dime slot back. The actual starting safeties, #43 Marcus Williams deep and #48 Vonn Bell in the box, were both drafted in the second round the last two years, and neither one looks special yet.

HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP

This is normally the part of the column where I say Aaron Rodgers can definitely take advantage of the [insert NFL team nickname]’s secondary. Well, Sam Bradford, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford have already picked apart this Saints pass defense (only Cam Newton and Jay Cutler couldn’t). Now that Mr. Rodgers will be busy having objects surgically inserted into his collar bone, all eyes will turn to our third-year, fifth-round draft pick, the guy who stayed in college one year too long.

Hundley did not look good last week, but it was against the best secondary in the league with three backup lineman trying—and failing—to protect him from a fierce four-man rush. Not just backups, but three guys—Justin McCray, Lucas Patrick, and Ulrick John—who have so far spent the majority of their post-college careers not on NFL 53-man rosters. In other words, all three have been available at no cost to all 32 teams for months if not years, and nobody wanted them until the injury-stricken Packers got desperate.

It looks like Lane Taylor is out for sure this week, and the smart medical move would be to let our $12 million-per-year left tackle’s hamstring fully heal through this week and then the bye week, so at least two of those three nobodies will probably be back out there (although John was so bad that Adam Pankey might get a shot this time).

The last time the line was this depleted before kickoff was three weeks ago against Chicago, and McCarthy responded by calling a bunch of run plays so that his fresh-faced big uglies could be the hunters instead of the prey. It worked, and Tom Silverstein is suggesting they do the same thing again. It should also help them that this week is—like the Chicago game—at friendly Lambeau Field, meaning they should have some peace and quiet to hear the snap count—unless the same idiots who did the wave during the opening game while our offense was on the field show up again. (The fact that resale ticket prices are now dropping could be good news in this regard, since it won’t just be entitled and held wealth hogging the seats.)

Even though the “Can Mike McCarthy prove he’s a ‘highly successful coach’ by scoring points with Brett Hundley?” storyline is dominating most thoughts going into Sunday, I actually think the “Can Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers hold a Sean Payton offense to less than 34 points for the first time ever?” plot on the other side of the ball will be more fascinating to watch unfold.

Our best corner Kevin King is back from his concussion already, but our best safety Morgan Burnett is almost certainly out for awhile with a nasty-looking hamstring limp, and Quinten Rollins is no longer on the active roster, while Davon House and Damarious Randall were both limited participants so far in practice this week with nagging soft tissue injuries.

Still, I expect Dom Capers to be ready on Sunday. King and Josh Hawkins are both really fast, and—if Dom has to—he will play all four of his remaining safeties in the dime package, just like Sean Payton is doing. If Nick Perry and Clay Matthews do their damn jobs and pinch the pocket, Brees will rush throws and make bad decisions.

Blake Martinez and Josh Jones will have their hands full trying to corral these running backs, but if Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark (who was the best interior lineman in the league last week according to the PFF rankers) can keep the blockers off the second level, then our nitro backers have proven they will make the tackle.

Will our schemes be flexible enough to not be surprised when Kamara runs quick routes out of the backfield, or Ginn and Thomas catch bubble screens, or Fleener sits in a zone? If history is any guide, Payton is too clever for Capers, but history is behind us, and Sunday noon is still in the future.

THE FLOODS ALREADY AND THE FLOODS TO COME

When the New Orleans Saints did win that Super Bowl after the 2009 season, it was celebrated nationally as a civic balm for the wound of Hurricane Katrina, which hit in August 2005.

Such myth talk is ridiculous. The only way football helped with the flood was by providing a large place of shelter for the displaced, and even there football failed its fans.

It wasn’t just football that failed New Orleans in 2005, of course. And it wasn’t the first time, by any means, that the U.S. government misunderstood water and then unnecessarily harmed black people as if for sport.

On April 15, 1927 an inch of rain fell per hour on New Orleans for the better part of a day. This was after months of hard rain upstream had already killed hundreds and displaced almost a million. The bankers in town panicked and decided to preemptively dynamite some levies and flood two black parishes in order to save the white part of town. It turns out this was, from an engineering perspective, completely gratuitous. The city was under no threat from upstream flooding, and—to this day, more than 90 years later—the mighty Mississippi River has still never flooded New Orleans. Almost everywhere else in Louisiana and Mississippi and even western Tennessee and eastern Arkansas is constantly under such internal threat, but New Orleans the city is vulnerable to storm surges from the sea, not to rising river banks.

Then, as now, natural disasters have a way of revealing and deepening social inequality. Just as Trump was more concerned with past Wall Street debt than current human suffering in Puerto Rico, the debt-holding class of New Orleans in 1927 also viewed its darker neighbors as expendable.

It wasn’t just the dynamiting of the levies in April 1927 that reinforced such a caste system. Three months later, upriver in Greenville on July 7, a white policeman murdered a black man, James Gooden, on the pretense that he wouldn’t get into a work truck to help buttress a new levee. In fact, Gooden had been working on the levee all night, and had just arrived home to rest. This story is told on pages 332-5 of John M. Barry’s remarkable book, Rising Tide, and retold in a 1997 New York Times review.

A local white plantation owner, Will Percy, tried to pacify his black neighbors by saying, “I look into your faces and see anger and hatred…I have struggled…to help you Negroes. Every white man in town has done the same thing…During all this time you Negroes did nothing, nothing for yourselves or for us…I am not the murderer. That foolish young policeman is not the murderer. The murderer is you! Your hands are dripping with blood. Look into each other’s face and see the shame and fear God set on them. Down on your knees, murderers, and beg your God.”

In response to this speech, the author John Barry concludes, “The bond between the Percys and the blacks was broken. The Delta, the land that had once promised so much to the blacks, had become, entirely and finally, the land where the blues began. The black audience did get down on its knees. But what they prayed for Will did not know.”

The intersection of getting down on our knees and police killing black men is still very much here, in Milwaukee and in New Orleans and way too many other places.

Over 84,000 people recently attended the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, and they selected as its best film The Blood Is At The Doorstep, which profiled Dontre Hamilton’s mother, Maria, and his brothers, Nate and Dameion, during their grieving and their activism after a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot Dontre, who had been taking an afternoon nap, 14 times.

Is Milwaukee-native Colin Kaepernick a better quarterback than our current backup Joe Callahan? By every measure, of course. Was Ted Thompson’s decision to stick with Joe this week a political decision made partly in fear of his bosses, the people of Wisconsin? Probably.

If we, as Packer fans and United States citizens, want a better world and a better football team, then we better start acting like it, and we better start voting like it.

Listen below to the latest episode of our PackerVerse radio show on FM 104.1 in Riverwest, Wisconsin. Wildcat Mark and Bulldog Kathy visited the Center Street studios this week, joined on the phone lines by Bob and Jeff, Double G, Sonny, Curious Over the River, Jim From the South Side, and KB in Madtown.

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