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Cold forces you to keep your edge


Jesse from Pawnee, IL

I greatly respect your thoughts on football – being only 20 years old I still have some learning to do – however, I believe that no matter how pass-oriented the game may get, I still hold to Lombardi's philosophy that the game of football is all about blocking and tackling. If you can't get past that, your passing game is useless. Thoughts?

You're never going to see me write that blocking and tackling aren't important. Coach Lombardi may have been wrong when he said football is first and foremost a running game and that will never change, but if that was his way of saying football is first and foremost and blocking and tackling game and that will never change, then he was right. It all starts with blocking and tackling. If you can't block, you can't do anything on offense; if you can't tackle, you can't stop anything on defense. Having said all of that, let me also stress how dramatically the game has changed during my lifetime and how it is still changing in the direction of the passing game. Last week, I got a question wanting to know what defined the strong and weak sides. I answered that the tight end determines strong and weak. Once upon a time, that was absolutely the truth but, apparently, not anymore. I got a call from Kevin Greene, who gave me a tutorial on how the game has changed. He told me that the grouping of the wide receivers is what determines strong and weak now because it is the pass, not the run and the unbalanced-line advantage the tight end poses to one side of the field, that most concerns defenses. Jesse, you're young and learning, and I'm old and still learning. The game continues to evolve.

Brendon from Monterey, CA

I believe you on BAP, but that dangled-from-a-light-tower stunt sounds like a good opportunity to finally make a video that readers won't complain about.

Especially if they drop me. I'd like to see the ratings on that video.

Mark from Matawan, NJ

Why don't the current Packers run their old Packers sweep plays from the 1960s? It was a very effective play.

It was a great play; it was a thing of beauty and I miss seeing it. I saw tape recently of Jim Brown on a quick-trap play. It was beautiful to see it blow open and watch Brown burst into the clear within the blink of an eye. Some teams still run the traps, though it's becoming increasingly difficult to find 300-pound linemen quick enough to make that play work. The reason you don't see the Packers' old sweep being run these days is because it takes too much time for the blocking to form. That play was run in the days of two-gapping, which is a defensive line technique in which a defensive lineman plays on the head of an offensive lineman, takes on the block, stands up the blocker, reads the back and accepts responsibility for the gaps to the defensive lineman's right and left. It was an engage-and-shed technique. Nowadays, defensive line play is all about gap-control; getting in the gap and penetrating into the backfield. There aren't many two-gapping teams left, though some of the 3-4 teams will do it with their linemen so they can allow their linebackers to penetrate. The bottom line is that penetration kills slow-developing plays by disrupting the blocking scheme. In today's game, a linemen, linebacker or safety would shoot the gap, cut Kramer and the rhythm and scheme of the play would be immediately ruined. Zone-blocking is the rage these days; walling up to deny penetration and then allowing the back to find a lane and run to daylight.

Zach from Woodstock, IL

You have mentioned Pete Rozelle's leaguethink many times over the course of your articles. Could you elaborate on what exactly leaguethink was?

Owners thinking as one league, not 32 individual teams.

Terry from Tucson, AZ

I've got to take issue with you on the statement that Bart Starr's passing would take him out of the top 10. Starr led the NFL in passing several times and, at the time of his retirement, his completion percentage was the highest in NFL history. His record of 294 pass attempts without an interception stood for 20 years and still ranks third. I may be wrong, but I think he still ranks as the best postseason passer in NFL history, and all of this in an era when passing was much less-favored by the rules than it is today. For what reasons do you discount his passing ability?

The categories in which Starr was successful as a passer are generally associated with a quarterback's ability to manage a game, which I credited in my ranking of Starr as one of his greatest strengths, and it is a strength to which I assign great weight. When I think of a quarterback as a prolific passer of the ball, I don't think in terms of completion percentage; I think in terms of yards passing and touchdowns. Starr threw for 24,718 yards in his career. Dan Marino threw for 61,361 yards. Starr threw 152 touchdown passes; Marino threw 420. Marino completed nearly two thousand more passes than Starr attempted. Marino's stats are those of a prolific passer and they are shared by many. Starr's stats are those of a game manager. I really don't understand your complaint; I put Starr at five and Marino at 10. I think you're being overly sensitive about the remark that Starr wouldn't rank in the top 10 based solely on passing; I think most would agree with me on that. Dan Fouts threw for 43,040 yards and 254 touchdowns and I would never include him in my top quarterback rankings because he was one of the worst postseason quarterbacks in history. Hey, Kerry Collins has thrown for 40,441 yards and 206 touchdowns. Prolific passers are a dime a dozen; championship quarterbacks are to be treasured, and I believe I have shown proper respect to one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.

Daniel from Houston, TX

I believe Ted Thompson drafts BAP; however, how does one explain the coincidence of drafting two quarterbacks in 2008? To spectators, it looked like he was addressing the quarterback position based on our need for competition in the backup quarterback spot.

Are you saying Aaron Rodgers wasn't the best available player when he was picked? Sometimes need and value meet. Sometimes you get lucky.

Mark from Appleton, WI

If the Packers' 13-3 1996 team so thoroughly dominated the NFL and trounced the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, what happened that only two years later the team was a shadow of its former self, losing Super Bowl XXXII and then spiraling downward from there?

Reggie White was nearing the end of his career; that's what happened. He was the heart and soul of that defense. You don't lose a player of White's greatness and not take a hit.

Cole from Oshkosh, WI

You said D.J. Williams offers flexibility as opposed to Finley offering length. How would this be used?

Williams can be used as a fullback, H-back, wingback, in the slot, split wide, as an in-line tight end, sent in motion; he lets you do a lot of things with his "O."

Bart from Bartlett, IL

I just listened to an interview with D.J. Williams on Milwaukee radio and he is obviously such a good guy. It makes me wonder if the Packers don't draft according to BAPC (Best Available Player with Character). I like football players as people and it seems, outside of a handful of guys who get a lot of press when they act up, that most NFL players are really good guys. Having covered the league for so long, would you agree that most NFL guys are smart, polite, stand-up guys? Most of them seem to come across as such.

My opinion of NFL players is that the vast majority of them are regular guys. It's always been that way. Yeah, as their salaries have skyrocketed through the years they've taken on some of the trappings that come with it, but deep down inside they are still regular guys you can engage in conversation. I covered baseball in the 1970s and the thing I hated most about covering a baseball game was going into the clubhouse after the game. There were so few guys that had something to say. It was such a relief every year when training camp started and I could get back to football; the writing became so much easier because the interviews were so much more productive. After a couple of months of getting shooed away by baseball players, it was wonderful being welcomed into the dorm rooms of great football players and talking about a sport we both loved. I like to interview football players and coaches, and I don't think that'll ever change.

Max from Terrebonne, OR

How about ranking the pre-1960 quarterbacks? Layne, Luckman, Herber, Isbell, Conerly, Tittle, Graham, Albert, Baugh, Friedman, Waterfield, VanBrocklin.

Charlie Conerly was the quarterback of the first pro game I ever saw. Bobby Layne was my first favorite pro football player. Y.A. Tittle and Norm VanBrocklin played into the '60s, as did Layne and Conerly. Otto Graham is clearly the best of the group you've mentioned. I didn't see the others play and I don't know enough about them to rank them. I know they played with a ball that looked like a pumpkin. If you put that ball into the hands of one of today's quarterbacks, he might ask you what you want him to do with it. I'm going to tell you that from the group you mentioned, other than for Graham, I'm going to favor Layne for a couple of reasons: 1.) He won a lot of championships with the Lions in the 1950s. 2.) He had a flair for the game that won my heart forever. Oh, how once more I'd love to see Layne moving his team down the field with two minutes to play, the right sleeve of his white shirt blood-stained from wiping it across the bloody nose that was always left defenseless by a helmet that never included a facemask. Years later, when I began my career as a reporter, I learned of Layne's off-the-field flair, and I liked him even more. If ever there was a regular guy, he was it. My jersey number in high school was 22, and it wasn't because Elijah Pitts wore that number.

Jordan from Cedar Rapids, IA

It has been stated for years (especially during the Favre era) that the low temperatures in Green Bay give the Packers a distinct advantage. Do you think that is true and, if so, has that changed over the past few years?

Against a team that has lost its edge or isn't quite sure about its edge, yeah, the weather can be a major advantage. Cold weather is something you overcome with will and enthusiasm. You have to attack it; you have to prepare your mind for it. I covered a game at Lambeau late in the 2004 season. It was a viciously cold night and all week long the forecast for bone-chilling temperatures was the big story. Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, temperatures hovered around 70 degrees; there was absolutely no preparing for what the Jaguars were going to experience weather-wise in Green Bay. I remember Byron Leftwich talking about driving with all of his windows down early in the morning, trying to get the feel of the cold. What the Jaguars did was prepare themselves mentally for what they were going to face. They found their edge and they kept it and they won the game. The Jaguars were in the playoff race. It was a chance for a young team to define itself, so finding their edge wasn't difficult. What about a team playing out the string? What about a beat up team? What about a team that's lost its confidence? Those are the kinds of teams that have trouble coping with the cold.

Dominick from Aurora, IL

With the revamping of the sound system and jumbotrons, is that going to change the classic feel of Lambeau?

No, it's just going to make the experience more enjoyable. When I was a kid and I went to games at Pitt Stadium, the scoreboard displayed the score, the down, the distance and the yard line. It also had a little ball that lit up next to the name of the team whose yard-line the ball was on. That was it. Is that what you want? Hey, it's old and it sure would help give Lambeau Field that old-time feeling, but that's about all it would do. Progress stops for no one. What's important is being able to embrace progress without rejecting the past, and that's been accomplished a couple of times in Lambeau makeovers and it'll be accomplished again. It's just gonna get better.

John from Terre Haute, IN

You must be an idiot to leave Favre out of the top 10. Marino did not have one title. Brett holds all the records and one Super Bowl. You have not learned much in 25 years. Face it, you don't like Favre and it has clouded your judgment. Get over it, dude. It's just a game.


Craig from Tinker Air Force Base, OK

How do you expect the players and coaches to handle the pressure that comes with the target on their backs next year?

You handle it by working harder. It's the only way because your opponents will be working harder to beat you. Beating the Packers will make their day. When you're the Super Bowl champion, you sneak up on no one. You are everybody's circle game.

Dave from Newark, CA

How about describing the best defensive coordinators? Capers is at the top of his game. How would you rank Dick LeBeau, Fritz Shurmur, Buddy Ryan, Tom Landry, etc?

Landry invented the 4-3 and the "Flex." Ryan invented the "46." Capers and LeBeau brought the zone-blitz into prominence and then took it to a higher level. Shurmur is credited for having invented the "Big Nickel." I don't know how to rank a cast that esteemed. I'm partial to Coach Capers; this is my third team with him.

Dennis from Ottawa, IL

How would you rate Lombardi in his personnel job? It has been said several times that Jack Vainisi was the mind behind the major picks that made that juggernaut. Who did he pick that was in that mold?

Coach Lombardi shouldn't be judged solely as a personnel man for the players he drafted. He gets high marks for knowing how to use Paul Hornung and Willie Wood. He gets high marks for knowing what drafting at the bottom of the order every year and in the AFL era would do to his team, and then boldly doing what he did to get younger in the backfield with Jim Grabowski and Donny Anderson. Coach Lombardi gets high marks for doing the tough stuff, such as letting Hornung and Jim Taylor go. Lombardi knew football talent when he saw it. Herb Adderley and Dave Robinson are the picks that sealed the deal on defense for the Packers.

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