Green Bay Packers: D is for Disappointing

Dom Capers II

This was going to be the year that the defense of the Green Bay Packers was going to approach the success it had had in the first two years that Dom Capers was the coordinator of the unit.

In 2009, which was the first year Capers became defensive coordinator, the defense was ranked No. 2 in the NFL. In 2010, the year the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the defense was ranked No. 5 in total defense.

Since then, the Packers have not come close to that success. From 2011 through 2016, the defense of the Packers has been ranked 32nd, 11th, 25th, 15th, 15th and 22nd.

Through nine games in 2017 the Packers are ranked 25th in total defense in the league, as the D is allowing an average of 357.4 yards per game. And based on the performance the defense had on Monday night versus the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, don’t expect the rankings to get any better throughout the rest of the 2017 season.

Just to illustrate how bad and inept the defense was on Monday night, the Lions did not have to punt once all evening. That is the first time that has happened for Detroit since the 1971 season.

Quarterback Matt Stafford just carved up the defense of the Packers, as there was little to no pass pressure from the Green Bay Front 7. The Packers did get one sack, but that was only when the Lions attempted a flea flicker pass.

In the game, Stafford completed 26-of-33 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. That adds up to a passer rating of 132.4.

That can’t happen against a Capers’ defense. Not if it wants to be successful. The key to any defense Capers runs, is putting pressure on the quarterback and disrupting his rhythm.

That isn’t happening in 2017 and that hasn’t happened consistently since 2010 either.

Currently, the the Packers are ranked 20th in passing defense, but that stat does not tell the total story.  The Packers are ranked 25th in the NFL in allowing opposing quarterbacks to have a very solid passer rating of 95.7.

And this is with a new and improved secondary, as the team drafted cornerback Kevin King in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft and safety Josh Jones in the second round. Plus, the team added cornerback Davon House in free agency, which is his second stint with the team.

But even when there is more talent and athleticism in the secondary, that won’t lead to success if there isn’t pass pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, which is supposed to lead to sacks, incompletions and interceptions.

It also doesn’t help when the two starting safeties of the Packers have largely been non-factors this season. Morgan Burnett has been hampered by hamstring and groin injuries, while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been largely invisible after going to the Pro Bowl and having second-team All-Pro status in 2016.

But again, the the number one reason why a Capers defense is successful is by bringing pass pressure and getting sacks. And that’s not happening this season.

The Packers are tied for 28th in the NFL with 13 sacks. That’s barely over one sack a game on average.

Clay Matthews can still play, but he is not the pass-rushing force he once was, as he has just 2.5 sacks so far this season. Nick Perry has been hampered by a broken hand, but does lead the team in sacks with four.

Meanwhile, Julius Peppers, who had 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions (both for touchdowns) in three years with the Packers, left the team this past offseason via free agency and now has 7.5 sacks for the Carolina Panthers.

It is not known how much or even if the Packers made an offer to Peppers to stay in Green Bay, or if Peppers just wanted to go back to the place he started his NFL career and where he calls home.

No matter, Peppers would have definitely helped the pass rush for the Packers this season. Much better than the players who back up Matthews and Perry at outside linebacker currently, that’s for sure.

Kyler Fackrell has been almost non-existent when he’s on the field, as he has just nine total tackles, zero sacks and multiple missed assignments. Ahmad Brooks can help when he’s healthy, but he’s missed the last three games due to concussion/back issues.

Vince Biegel IV

Fourth-round pick Vince Biegel saw his first action of the season Monday night at OLB, after starting the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. It’s too early to see how Biegel might be able to help the pass rush.

Speaking of draft picks, general manager Ted Thompson traded back four spots when the Packers had the 29th pick in the first round.  The Packers then selected King in the second round with the 33rd pick of the draft, plus got another fourth-round pick which they used to select Biegel.

King looks like he has some excellent upside with his size, speed and athleticism. But Thompson could have stayed where he was at No. 29 in the draft and selected OLB T.J. Watt, who is having a great rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As a matter of fact, I had the Packers taking Watt in both my first mock draft and my last.

Watt has 28 total tackles, four sacks and one pick for a Pittsburgh defense that has gotten back it’s old swagger. The Steelers are fifth in the NFL in total defense and are tied for fourth in sacks with 26. Opposing QBs only have a 74.4 passer rating against Pittsburgh as well.

That is how the a Capers defense is supposed to function.

Since Mike McCarthy hired Capers in 2009, it’s not like the Packers haven’t been successful. In fact, they have been very prosperous. The team has been to the postseason for eight straight years going into this season. That includes one Super Bowl win, three appearances in the NFC title game and five NFC North titles.

But it is also in the postseason where we have seen some of the cracks and deficiencies of a Capers-run defense. Granted, in some case there have been injury issues, like in the NFC title game versus Atlanta last season, but for the most part, the defense has been exposed in many of those games.

Since the 2011 postseason, the Packers have played in 11 games, winning five of them. In the six losses, the Packers have given up an average of 33.8 points per game. That won’t get it done.

Plus, in those same six losses, the Packers offense averaged 22.3 points per game. Three touchdowns per game usually gets a NFL team a win in the postseason.

So, what to do? I’ve heard a lot of talk from Packer Nation about firing Capers immediately. That will not happen. I do believe the writing is on the wall for a change this coming offseason though.

But right now, the Packers have some other big issues. The team is on a downward spiral due to the broken collarbone suffered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers lost that game and the two games since then, to see their record fall to 4-4 and two games behind the Vikings in the NFC North.

To make matters even worse, right offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a torn ACL against the Lions on Monday night and is out for the season.

Brett Hundley has struggled since taking over for Rodgers, but in the game versus the Lions, No. 7 showed some definite improvement.

Rodgers can come back from IR (injured reserve) in Week 15, but that will only happen if he his collarbone is fully healed and also if the Packers are still in postseason contention.

Aaron Rodgers after game with the Lions

This is what Rodgers said about his coming back last week when he spoke to the media.

“I want to be healthy. That’s the most important thing,” Rodgers said last Friday. “But if we’re healthy in eight weeks and it would make sense to come back, then I’m going to come back.

“The only reason to come back would be that I’m healed completely. If that doesn’t happen in eight weeks, there’s not even a conversation.”

There also won’t be a conversation if the Packers are out of contention for a spot in the postseason. There would be no reason to risk further injury to Rodgers for just the two remaining games of the season.

And based on the way that all three phases of the football team are struggling right now, the postseason does not look likely.

I do see the offense getting better behind Hundley at QB, but will that improvement be enough to overcome the issues that both the defense and special teams have right now?

To me, the answer is no.

Now, things could change. Maybe Biegel and fellow rookie Montravius Adams will add some spark to the pass rush. Adams would most certainly help, as the defensive line of the Packers has just two sacks this season, with Mike Daniels leading the way with 1.5.

But somehow things have to change on the defensive side of the ball. The good news is that I’m still seeing effort from the defensive players. Blake Martinez is playing exceptional and is fourth in the NFL with 74 tackles.

But the scheme is not working. Maybe that’s because Capers doesn’t have the players he needs to make it more successful. If that’s the case, then part of the blame need to go to Thompson.

Still, Capers has been defensive coordinator for the Packers now for nine years. Based on what has happened this season and looking at the totality of the work done by Capers in his tenure in Green Bay, I don’t see Capers returning for a 10th season.

 

It’s One Game at a Time for the 8-0 Wisconsin Badgers

Jonathan Taylor shakes Paul Chryst's hand

The 8-0 Wisconsin Badgers, who are ranked 4th in the country in both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the Coaches poll, have to feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield after the Playoff Rankings were announced on Tuesday night.

The Badgers are only ranked ninth in the rankings, as they saw six one-loss teams ranked ahead of them. The reason? The relatively weak schedule of the Badgers. Still, you play the schedule you are given and the Badgers have so far come out unscathed after eight games, which includes being 5-0 in the Big Ten West.

“We’re two-thirds done with our regular season and it’s how we finish,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said before the rankings were announced. “We finish by getting better. Good teams get better.

“We as coaches give them areas they can get better at and they’ve got to focus on that, champion that.”

The formula for the Badgers is to play one game at a time and to see where that puts them at the end of the season. Wisconsin has four games remaining on their schedule. They play 3-5/0-5 Indiana on the road on Saturday. and then play back to back games at Camp Randall Stadium against 5-3/2-3 Iowa and 6-2/3-2 Michigan.

The Badgers then finish the season in the annual Paul Bunyan Axe game against 4-4/1-4 Minnesota on the road.

The Badgers will focus on one opponent at a time, which has been the mantra of Chryst ever since he took over the team in 2015. Chryst has led the Badgers to 29-6 record since then, which includes wins in both the Holiday Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.

That approach has led the Badgers to an unbeaten record up to this point and the team will be favored to win all four of their remaining games. If indeed that happens, the Badgers will win the B1G West and take on the Ohio State Buckeyes most likely in the B1G Championship Game.

A win in the Big Ten title game will most certainly gain the Badgers a spot in the four-team playoffs.

But for now, the Badgers will just focus on the upcoming opponent and nothing more.

This week it’s Indiana.

“They don’t give you anything,” Chryst said. “I see that in this defense. You watch them, are they playing fast? Are they playing physical? To me that means the players understand what they’re doing and they go play fast.

“Those are the things you see from their defense. A good defense doesn’t give you anything, you have to go earn it. When you put on the tape, you see it’s a really good defense.”

The top player for the Hoosiers on offense is wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr., who goes 6’4″. Cobbs leads the Big 10 with 54 receptions.

“It’s a challenge with his physical size and you add the scheme to it,” Chryst said. “They do a great job with the slot (receivers). Across the board, they may present the biggest challenge offensively with the style and their ability to run the football. They commit to that. Our guys have to play sound defense.

“I know our guys are looking forward to because they know it’s going to be a challenge.”

In terms of what the Badgers will do, the story will remain the same. Control the time of possession with a punishing run game on offense and also play their usual aggressive and effective brand of defense.

Wisconsin is ranked second in the country in time of possession, as the Badgers hold the ball an average of 35 minutes per game.

The Badgers are ranked 16th in the country with an average of 245.8 yards per game. The ground game is led by freshman phenom Jonathan Taylor, who leads Wisconsin with 1,185 yards on 161 carries (7.4 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns.

NFL scout Chris Landry loves what he has seen of Taylor.

“Taylor is a really big-time back if folks haven’t seen him,” Landry told me recently. “I think people kind of assume that Wisconsin is going to have a good back every year and maybe that diminishes the value of each individual one, but this kid is special. This kid has real special qualities. And he’s exerting it at a very young age.”

Jonathan Taylor I

Taylor is listed as questionable versus Indiana after injuring his ankle against Illinois last week, but has practiced this week and should play.

Even without Taylor, the Badgers have a stable of other running backs who can get the job done. Backs like Bradrick Shaw (279 yards rushing and two TDs), Garrett Groshek (219 yards rushing and two TDs) and Rachid Ibrahim (116 yards rushing). Plus, Wisconsin also has Chris James (148 rushing yards), who has been out the past three weeks due to a leg injury,  and is now listed as questionable for the Indiana game.

The passing game of the Badgers has been a bit uneven the past few weeks, as quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown some untimely interceptions, but overall the play of No. 12 has been solid. For the year, Hornibrook has thrown 13 touchdown passes versus eight picks for 1,570 yards and has a 64.3 percent completion percentage.

The two biggest threats for the Badgers in terms of receptions are wide receiver Quintez Cephus (28 catches for 477 yards and five TDs) and tight end Troy Fumagalli (27 catches for 387 yards and three TDs).

Like past years, Wisconsin’s offense has a huge offensive line leading the way. The line this year doesn’t have a senior in the group, as the Badgers lineup junior Michael Dieter (6’6″, 328) at left tackle, sophomore Jon Dietzen (6’6″, 336) at left guard, redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz (6’3″, 316) at center, junior Beau Benzschawel (6’6″, 317) at right guard and sophomore David Edwards (6’7″, 317) at left tackle.

The defense this year is led by Jim Leonhard, who is the third defensive coordinator the team has had in three years.

This is only Leonhard’s second season as a coach in college football and he’s already a defensive coordinator after spending his first year as defensive backs coach.

Leonhard certainly has the pedigree to be successful at Wisconsin, as he was a former walk-on who started his collegiate career in 2002 under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

The 5’8″, 188-pound Leonhard led the country in interceptions in 2002 with 11 and finished with 21 picks in his career as a Badger, which ties him for first for the most in history of Wisconsin football. Leonhard was also named All- Big 10 for three straight seasons, as well as being named All-American for those three seasons too.

Leonhard also played 10 years in the NFL with a number of teams and finished with 427 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 36 passes defensed, 14 interceptions (one for a TD), two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Landry is also impressed with Leonhard.

Jim Leonhard II

“Jim is an outstanding young coach,” Landry said. “He’s an outstanding young coordinator. He understands the game from the back end very well. He’s really adjusted to putting fronts and coverages together. I think he’s done an outstanding job. This is very good Wisconsin team.”

The statistics bear that out. Wisconsin is ranked fifth in the country in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, fifth in rushing defense, fifth in sacks, sixth in red zone defense, 15th in passing defense and No. 1 in team passing efficiency defense.

It’s truly a team effort on defense, but some standouts include outside linebacker Garrett Dooley (6.5 sacks), inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (three interceptions, including one for a TD) and cornerback Nick Nelson (14 passes defended, which is third in the country).

The kicking game has also been solid for the Badgers, as Rafael Gaglianone has converted 8-of-10 field goals and is a perfect 36-of-36 in extra points, while Anthony Lotti has averaged 40 yards per punt.

Bottom line, the Badgers have an opportunity to have a very special season. Maybe the greatest ever in Wisconsin football history. But there will be no looking ahead.

Except for focusing on the opponent next on the schedule. That formula has worked well so far in the 2017 season for the Badgers and perhaps it will beyond as well.

The Bye Week and the Lions are a Good Combination for the Packers

Lions vs. Packers

As the 4-3 Green Bay Packers prepare for their Monday night meeting against the 3-4 Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, there is some good news and bad news heading into the game.

Let’s start with the bad news first. Brett Hundley has not exactly set the world on fire since replacing Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback of the Packers, after No. 12 broke his collarbone early in the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 15.

Since then, Hundley has completed 30-of-58 passes (52 percent completion percentage) for 244 yards, which includes throwing just one touchdown pass compared to four interceptions. That adds up to a very poor 39.8 passer rating.

Granted, Hundley had to face one of the best defenses in the NFL when he had to come in relief of Rodgers versus the Vikings, but it was expected that he would do much better against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau, seeing as they were ranked 26th in the NFL in total defense going into the game on October 22.

Still, Hundley has the potential and talent to be much better, like he showed in his career at UCLA and also with the Packers in the 2015 preseason, when he led the NFL with 630 passing yards, completed 45-of-65 passes (69.2 percent), plus had seven TD passes versus just one pick.

The Packers don’t expect Hundley to even come close to the numbers (13 TD passes vs.  three picks for 1,385 yards and a 103.2 passer rating) that Rodgers was putting up prior to his injury, but they need Hundley to take his game up a notch or two.

And history says that he just might do that against the Lions. For one thing, Mike McCarthy has a 9-2 record after the bye week since becoming head coach in 2006. In addition to that, McCarthy has never lost a game at Lambeau after the bye week.

That includes beating the Lions three times after the bye week, which includes two victories at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.

Overall, McCarthy and the Packers seem to have the number of the Lions. Since 2006, the Packers have a 18-4 record against the Lions. That includes a 10-1 record at Lambeau against Detroit.

As a matter of fact, the Lions have only won one game in the state of Wisconsin since 1991, and that was in 2015 when Mason Crosby had a chance to win the game in the final seconds, but he badly miss-hit his 52-yard field goal attempt.

Both the Packers and Lions are struggling on both sides of the ball right now. The Lions are ranked 19th in total offense in the NFL currently, while the Packers are ranked 22nd. In terms of total defense, the Lions are ranked 21st, while the Packers are ranked 23rd.

But even with those less than mediocre stats, there are more factors besides history which can help Hundley and the Packers on Monday night against the Lions.

For one, the entire starting offensive line practiced on Tuesday, as left guard Lane Taylor returned. It would be a huge development if the Packers will have the services of Taylor, left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Bryan Bulaga on Monday night.

That is especially important, due to all the injuries (most notably at offensive tackle) and the line-shuffling the team has had to go through up to this point in the season. Consistency on offense starts in the trenches in the NFL.

Another reason to be excited is the new and improved running game which has put rookie running back Aaron Jones into the limelight. Since Jones has come onto the scene, No. 33 has rushed for 346 yards (5.6 yards per carry average) and scored three touchdowns.

In fact, Jones has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the games he has started at running back.

With Jones and also Ty Montgomery at running back, plus having receivers like Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, not to mention a tight end like Martellus Bennett, Hundley has a number of weapons to work with.

But the biggest factor which might aid Hundley as he goes up against the Lions, is the return of Rodgers, who came back to Green Bay on Tuesday after being in the Los Angeles area for several days for his surgery and his initial recovery.

McCarthy sees that as a big plus, as he talked to the media on Tuesday.

“When he walks in the room, he has great presence,” McCarthy said talking about Rodgers. “So it’s great to have him back. I think really him stepping away and being out of town, I think, really helped him deal with his situation. But he’s Aaron. I’m not going to say it, but he feels good about the way things are going so far. I got a full, detailed look at everything with him and Dr. McKenzie this morning. Yeah, it’s great having him back in the building.”

Mike, Aaron and Brett

McCarthy also talked about how Rodgers can help Hundley.

“The biggest thing he can get to Brett is just to play a little faster,” McCarthy said. “That’s something as a football team we need to do a better job of. We need to play faster, both offense and defense. So Aaron can assist in that.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve got to get dialed into the game plan (for the Lions), and that process is the same for Aaron that it is for any quarterback. He’ll definitely help Brett with that.”

Hundley stayed in Green Bay during the bye week as he continues to try and get more comfortable running the offense of the Packers. The Packers are also adding another practice this week, which will only help Hundley as he continues to get reps.

“He [Hundley] was in here working out pretty much during the course of the week,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s always beneficial when you can step away from the normal schedule and push the focus toward the individual, and he’ll have an extra practice today. We’ll be able to do some situational work, he’ll have an extra two-minute drill that he’ll participate in today. We’ll be able to get into the whole normal down and distance run and pass game today, so he’ll have a head start and have extra work going into the Monday night game.”

Bottom line, as Zeke Bratkowski told me a couple of weeks ago, the key for Hundley is to stay within himself and also within the offensive concept of the team.

Add that together with all of the other positive things which are going on for the Packers currently, and Green Bay has a great opportunity to go 5-3 on the season and 2-1 in the NFC North on Monday night.

Jerry Kramer Talks About the Packers Playing at Milwaukee County Stadium

Packers Sideline at County Stadium

Jerry Kramer did not have real good memories of playing games at Milwaukee County Stadium at the beginning of his career. In 1958, Kramer’s rookie year, the Packers were 0-2 at County Stadium, as the team finished a woeful 1-10-1 under head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean.

In 1959, which was the first year that Vince Lombardi became head coach (and general manager), the team also went 0-2 at the home of the Milwaukee Braves, although the team vastly improved it’s season record to 7-5.

In 1960, the Packers did split the two games the team played in Milwaukee, plus went 8-4 for the season and won the Western Conference title. But the Packers lost the 1960 NFL title game to the Philadelphia Eagles, 17-13, which turned out to be the only postseason loss in the Lombardi era in Green Bay.

The Packers only played two games in Milwaukee per season when the schedule was just 12 games. But in 1961, the NFL started a 14-game schedule, which meant that now three homes games would be played in Beertown, while the other four would be played at City Stadium (now Lambeau Field) in Green Bay.

The Packers first started playing some of their home games in Milwaukee, starting in 1933. The first location was Borchert Field in 1933, followed by State Fair Park from 1934 through 1951 and then Marquette Stadium in 1952.

The Packers started playing in the then new County Stadium starting in 1953 and that continued through the 1994 season. Starting in 1995, the Packers started playing all eight of their homes games at Lambeau Field, although they still allot two games per year for Milwaukee season ticket holders.

Going back now to 1961, Kramer had another bad experience at Milwaukee County Stadium, as the Packers lost the season opener there (making the Packers 1-4 at MCS at that point under Lombardi). If that wasn’t bad enough,  Kramer broke his ankle in the next game in Milwaukee versus the Minnesota Vikings covering a kickoff.

“I remember that play pretty well,” Kramer told me recently. “I decided I was going to break the wedge. I was going to go right in the middle of it and make something happen. I don’t know if I slipped or they just knocked me on my ass, but the injury turned out to be pretty serious.

“I broke my leg below the knee and separated the bones in the ankle. It was really painful because the bones were separated. A week or so after the injury, the doctors decided to put a pin in the ankle to pull the bones back together.

“When you think of a pin, you think of something small and delicate, but this was a stone bolt. It had a screw head, a square nut on the opposite side of my leg and it had washers on it. I didn’t think about it at the time, but the washers pulled the bones back together.”

In another story that I wrote about the 1962 Packers, Kramer talked about how arduous and difficult it was to rehab from that injury, not to mention feeling like he didn’t play a big part in the NFL title that the Packers won in 1961.

“I really didn’t feel like I was a part of the championship team in ’61,” Kramer said. “There’s something about a team, a tight team, that once you are no longer making a contribution, you don’t feel like you are part of things.

“You still go to the meetings. You still hang out in the locker room. But you aren’t contributing. I just felt like I wasn’t part of that tight-knit group. I missed that. That’s why I was looking forward to having a great season in ’62.”

Getting over the ankle injury was the first step.

“I wasn’t told how serious my ankle injury was,” Kramer said. “But there was some concern. I separated the bones in the ankle and the doctors had to put a pin in to hold it together. I had a significant amount of pain for about 10 days due to the pressure by the washer on the bolt they put in my ankle.

“For my rehab, I tried to run a little bit. I had a buddy who played in the Canadian Football League and he and I would chase rabbits in the desert in the Boise area. We didn’t catch any, but it helped us occupy our minds while we were running for about an hour.

“When training camp opened, my ankle was still a little stiff. I found that skipping before warmups was very helpful. Skipping helped to put more pressure on the tendons and the ligaments in the ankle. I sure got quite a few interesting looks while I was doing my skipping exercise!”

Even though Kramer had broken his ankle, the Packers went on nine-game winning streak at County Stadium starting with that game against the Vikings.

And as it turned out, even with the Packers starting out 1-4 at County Stadium with Lombardi as their head coach, the team eventually ended up 20-6 overall under Lombardi at the stadium right off of I-94.

County Stadium II

One of those victories was the 1967 Western Conference title game versus the Los Angeles Rams. More on that game later.

Kramer talked about why playing Milwaukee became a very pleasant experience for the team.

“It really wasn’t that difficult playing in Milwaukee,” Kramer said. “It was a couple hours by bus. And we enjoyed the trips down there, as we would BS with each other, listen to music or play cards.

“And on the way home, Coach Lombardi stopped a number of times at a liquor store and would get three or four cases of beer for the team. We sure as hell appreciated that gesture.”

Kramer also talked about the accommodations in Milwaukee.

“We stayed at a nice hotel,” Kramer said. “The Pfister was an old hotel, but it was a classy hotel. That was pleasant. The whole trip was good, as people were always nice, just like in Green Bay.”

In another story I previously wrote about Emlen Tunnell, Kramer talked about a great time he and some of his teammates had at the Pfister thanks to Tunnell’s connections in the entertainment business.

“Then another time we were in Milwaukee one night and Ray Charles was performing in this hotel (the Pfister),” Kramer said. “We went in to watch him during his second session, as he had already done an early show.

Fuzzy [Thurston], myself and some other players quietly found a table near the back. Emlen saw us and he told us to follow him. Ray was sitting at the piano getting ready to start his set, while Emlen had the help get us a bunch of chairs and then put them around the piano. We were sitting six feet away from Ray having a beer while he was performing. It was a priceless moment.”

When the players went out to dinner in Milwaukee during their stay there, more times than not, the destination was Frenchy’s Restaurant on North Avenue on the east side of Milwaukee.

“We went to Frenchy’s quite a bit,” Kramer said. “It was our favorite spot.  One time a bunch of us went there and all of us had lobster, while Bob Long had a hamburger. Then we split the bill evenly. You should have seen the look on Bob’s face after that!”

From 1959 through 1967, the Packers played a lot of memorable games at County Stadium.

There was the late comeback against the Baltimore Colts early in the 1965 season, when backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Max McGee, as the Packers won 20-17.

Or the 1966 season opener, when the Packers beat the Colts again 24-3, which was highlighted by two pick 6’s, as both linebacker Lee Roy Caffey and cornerback Bob Jeter returned interceptions for touchdowns versus Johnny Unitas.

Lee Roy Caffey II

Or how about the 55-7 blowout of the Cleveland Browns in 1967, when Travis Williams of the Packers returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same quarter.

But the best victory for the Packers under Lombardi in Milwaukee had to be the 1967 Western Conference title game, which was held eight days before the legendary “Ice Bowl” game.

I also wrote about that game previously, and Kramer will never forget the pre-game pep talk by his coach.

“We really got fired up in the locker room when Coach Lombardi gave us his Run to Win speech,” Kramer said. “That got us pretty high. The ring I wear, from Super Bowl II, has Run to Win on the side of it.

“He gave us this wonderful speech of St. Paul’s epistle,  about when all the runners are running the race, only one can win, and we run, not just to be in the race, but we run to win. That got us pumped up pretty good.”

There were a number of factors as to why the Packers were 28-7 victors over the Rams that day. Kramer talked about three of them.

“I think one of the big things that we did in that game was to put Marv Fleming next to Forrest Gregg to help control the effectiveness of Deacon Jones,” Kramer said. “They just neutralized him. Bart [Starr] had a big game and so did our running game.

“I also remember that Henry Jordan had a hell of a day. Henry had 3.5 sacks and seemed to be on top of Roman Gabriel all game long.

“Plus, Travis [Williams] was the X-factor in the game. I remember blocking on Merlin [Olsen] and I looked outside and Travis was about even with us, but near the sideline running towards the end zone. And I knew that this play was over. He was gone.”

Williams ended up gaining 88 yards in the game and scored two touchdowns.

In the 61 years that the Packers played in Milwaukee at the various venues, the team usually played quite well in the regular season. The overall record for the Packers in Milwaukee was 105-61-3, which adds up to a .631 winning percentage.

Again, the team was 19-6 under Lombardi in the regular season at County Stadium, which was even better than that, as the team had a .760 winning percentage.

The Packers also won the 1939 NFL title game at State Fair Park by beating the New York Giants 27-0.

Vince and the boys at MCS in the playoffs vs. the Rams

And speaking of the postseason, the Packers put an exclamation point on their years of playing at County Stadium under Lombardi by beating the Rams 28-7 on December 23, 1967. Eight days later, the team won it’s third straight NFL title in the “Ice Bowl” versus the Dallas Cowboys and then won Super Bowl II a couple of weeks after that, defeating the Oakland Raiders 33-14.

You can be absolutely sure that Lombardi had some beer brought on the bus on the happy ride back to Green Bay after the Packers beat the Rams on that very memorable late December day in 1967 at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Zeke Bratkowski Talks About the Mindset of Brett Hundley

Brett Hundley II

Back in the 1960s, Zeke Bratkowski of the Green Bay Packers was widely considered to be the best backup quarterback in the NFL, as he backed up Bart Starr. In the years that Vince Lombardi was head coach, Bratkowski bailed out the Packers on a number of occasions, winning games either as a starter or in relief of an injured Starr.

Bratkowski seemed to have his finest moments against the Baltimore Colts. Three times Bratkowski had to come into the game due to injuries to Starr versus the Colts and in all three instances, the Packers came from behind to win.

The most notable game was the 1965 Western Conference Championship Game at Lambeau Field. Going into that game, the Packers seemed to have a huge advantage at the quarterback position, as Starr would be going up against halfback Tom Matte, who had to play quarterback due to injuries to both starter Johnny Unitas (knee) and backup Gary Cuozzo (dislocated shoulder).

Matte had played quarterback at Ohio State, but was mostly a running QB for the Buckeyes.

The advantage was soon wiped away on the very first scrimmage play of the game, when linebacker Don Shinnick recovered a Bill Anderson fumble and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.

Starr tried to make a tackle near the end zone on the play and hurt his ribs in the process. No. 15 was forced to leave the game due to the injury, although he still came into the game to hold on extra points and field goals.

Into the game came Bratkowski and he led the Packers to a 13-10 overtime victory, as he threw for 248 yards.

Due to his expertise of being as good as it gets as a backup QB in the NFL, I thought it would be nice to speak with Bratkowski about the current state of affairs at quarterback in Green Bay, especially in the aftermath of the broken collarbone suffered by Aaron Rodgers.

It’s yet to be determined whether Rodgers will miss the rest of the 2017 season or still be able to come back late in the 2017 campaign.

Rodgers broke his collarbone early in the game last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, as linebacker Anthony Barr took Rodgers to the ground on his right shoulder after No. 12 had already thrown a pass. But because Rodgers was out of the pocket, no penalty was called.

Backup quarterback Brett Hundley came into the game unexpectedly against one of the top defenses in the NFL, as Minnesota is currently ranked fifth in total defense. As one might expect, Hundley didn’t have great success in his first real playing time in a NFL regular season game, as he was under constant pressure behind a once again banged up offensive line, which saw three starters (LT David Bakhtiari, LG Lane Taylor and RT Bryan Bulaga) leave the game.

Hundley threw one touchdown pass versus three interceptions for 157 yards, as he completed 18-of-33 passes. No. 7 was also sacked four times.

In what seems to be a Twilight Zone episode, the Packers and their fans now know that Rodgers will be gone for quite some time and that Hundley will be taking snaps at quarterback for the Packers for the next several games.

Which is why I wanted to get Bratkowski’s opinion on what the mindset of Hundley should be, as he is about to get his first NFL start against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field this upcoming Sunday.

“As a backup, you have to prepare like you are going to start, even when the starting quarterback will be playing,” Bratkowski told me on Monday. “Now that he has this one game under his belt, things should improve as he gets more reps.

“I thought Brett did pretty good, considering who he was playing against and the fact that he came into the game cold.”

Bratkowski sees positive things ahead for Hundley, who is now in his third season in the NFL.

“He has had two-plus years of sitting, listening and watching Aaron [Rodgers] prepare and play,” Bratkowski said. “The new technology also helps now with the iPad, where you can look at the other team and their tendencies. You get all of the computer data pretty quickly.

“So between getting help from the coaches and his own study, it’s definitely preparation time. In that preparation, the simplicity of his outlook needs to be studied. For instance, he’ll be going up against New Orleans, who will score some points. He’ll have the challenge there to try and match them.

“He’s got to play not to lose the game. Be aggressive in what you do and take what you can get. You want to stay within the confines of the concept. That would be the best advice I could give him. The Packers have a good concept. They have good and solid receivers, which includes the running backs.”

The Packers will know later in the week whether any or all of the three injured offensive linemen will be able to play against the Saints.

Brett Hundley III

 

Speaking of the Saints, Hundley has a very pleasant memory of playing against them in the final preseason game in 2015. In that game, Hundley completed 16-of-23 passes for 236 yards and four TDs with no interceptions. Hundley’s passer rating in that game was 142.4.

Yes, I know that was just the preseason. But it was during that 2015 preseason when the Packers realized they may have something special with Hundley. Similar to how Rodgers played in the 2007 preseason when Brett Favre was in his final year as the starting QB and how Matt Flynn kept getting better in the preseason backing up Rodgers for four years.

During the 2015 preseason, Hundley led the NFL with 630 passing yards, completed 45-of-65 passes (69.2 percent), plus had seven TD passes versus just one pick. That added up to an overall passer rating of 129.6.

Bratkowski talked about some other factors that will help Hundley in playing quarterback.

“Brett has good escapability,” Bratkowski said. “Similar to Aaron. The receivers of the Packers do a great job of finding an open spot when the quarterback scrambles.

“The receivers for the Packers are experienced. They will be able to help Brett throughout the week in their film studies. Letting him know what has worked in the past against the defensive backs they will be facing.”

Unlike the game against the fifth-ranked Minnesota defense in a hostile environment on the road, Hundley will be facing the 26th-ranked New Orleans defense at the friendly confines of Lambeau Field.

Bratkowski will be there to witness the game as a matter of fact. Bratkowski will be joined by many of his former Green Bay teammates like Starr, Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, Chuck Mercein, Boyd Dowler, Carroll Dale, Ken Bowman, Bob Long and Marv Fleming, as the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame will be hosting a special 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct., 21, in the Lambeau Field Atrium.

In addition to that, the Packers’ 1967 championship team will also be honored.

Bratkowski is looking forward to see his old teammates again, plus is anxious to see how Hundley will perform in front of the home crowd. Bratkowski talked about a couple of other things which will help Hundley succeed.

“An effective running game will help,” Bratkowski said. ” That helps the play-action passing game.”

What also helps is communicating well with the coaching staff.

“I don’t know what Coach [Mike] McCarthy will give him in terms of running the whole offense, but the most important meeting a quarterback can have is when he tells his coach which plays he’s comfortable with.

“Make a list of things that you like. List some things that you might not understand or don’t particularly care for. It’s not that you are being negative, but there are some things that you are more comfortable doing. That’s a big meeting, because the coaches will ask the quarterback that during the week.

“For instance, Brett will be very effective bootlegging and getting outside of the pressure. Plus, as I know from watching him in college at UCLA, that Brett can take off and run. That’s a big plus for him.”

Bratkowski also knows that New Orleans will try some things on defense to confuse Hundley.

“The Saints on defense are going to test Hundley,” Bratkowski said. “They know he’s young and inexperienced. So they are going to give him different looks.”

The key for Hundley according to Bratkowski, is to stay within himself and the offensive concept of the team.

“Brett needs to take what the Saints give him,” Bratkowski said. “That will work out extremely well for him. Don’t ad-lib. Do the reads according to what you have been taught. Just stay simplistic and trust what you have been taught and have learned.”

The Bart Starr Endorsement of Jerry Kramer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Bart and Jerry

A couple of weeks or so before Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers was nominated as a senior candidate by the Seniors Selection Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 23, Peter King of SI’s MMQB wrote this as part of his answer in a mailbag chat with one of his readers who asked about Kramer and his possible enshrinement in Canton:

Finally, a few years ago, I asked Bart Starr if there was anyone else he thought had been forgotten unjustly in the Hall process, and he said left tackle Bob Skoronski. He was effusive in his praise of Skoronski. I asked him if he wanted to mention anyone else, and he said no. Did he forget Kramer? I suppose it’s possible. But I gave him his chance, and he didn’t mention Kramer.

This was not the first time King has brought up the conversation he had with Starr.

That is why I wanted to get in touch with Bart Starr, Jr. to see if that statement to King by his father was misinterpreted.

In talking to Bart Jr., he told me that his dad may have indeed misunderstood King’s question. Starr may have mentioned Bob Skoronski, because he felt that No. 76 was one of the unsung teammates of his who he felt deserved a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In terms of Jerry Kramer, Starr had always felt that No. 64 deserved a place in Canton and should have been inducted decades ago. To Starr, that was always a given.

Bart Jr. also mentioned that his father had been suffering from some memory loss and dementia issues around the time of this interview, which also may explain his response to King.

Starr, who is now 83, was debilitated in September 2014 by two strokes and a heart attack.

Since that time, Starr has received stem cell treatment, which has definitely helped No. 15 in his rehab process. Starr is now able to speak and walk, after being at first being confined to a wheelchair due to the effects of the stroke.

That treatment and other arduous rehabilitation allowed Starr to travel from Alabama to Wisconsin to honor Brett Favre on Thanksgiving night in 2015, when the Packers played the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.

When Starr made his appearance at halftime of the game to salute Favre, it was a very emotional setting, especially knowing what Starr had overcome to just to be in Green Bay.

When I talked to Jerry Kramer about seeing that moment, he recalled it vividly.

“The thing about that setting at Lambeau on Thanksgiving that made my heart go pitty-pat, was when Bart got out of the cart to say hello to Brett,” Kramer said. “And he said, ‘Hey Mister. How are you doing, Brett?’

“That term Mister, was what Coach Lombardi you to say when he wanted to chew our ass. As in, “Mister, what in the hell are you doing?’ In the last 10 years or so, Bart has adopted that Mister term as a greeting.

“To me, hearing him say that to Brett, told me that not only was his mind working, but his memory was working as well. That really got me pretty emotional.”

In terms of Starr’s current health, the former Alabama Crimson Tide star had a setback about six months ago, but Bart Jr. told me that his father is now at the highest point he has been at this year in terms of his health.

Which is why Starr is planning to make another trip to Green Bay next weekend when the Packers play the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame will be hosting a special 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct., 21, in the Lambeau Field Atrium.

In addition to that, the event also will honor the Packers’ 1967 championship team. A number of players from that team will be at the event, which now includes Starr, as well as Kramer, Chuck Mercein, Dave Robinson, Boyd Dowler, Carroll Dale, Ken Bowman, Zeke Bratkowski, Bob Long and Marv Fleming.

Bart's Sneak

From talking with Kramer and Mercein recently, they were thrilled and elated that Starr might also be at the event.

Back now to Starr’s comments to King from a number of years ago. When I talked to Bart Jr., I wanted to see if he might be able to address that issue with King.

Yesterday, I received a text from Bart Jr. that certainly does speak to that issue.

Hi Bob- Peter may be pleased to know that today we mailed a letter to the Hall of Fame on behalf of Jerry. Dad’s endorsement could not have been stronger or more sincere. Our entire family has been among Jerry’s greatest admirers for more than 50 years, and we look forward to celebrating with the Kramer family in Canton.

Thank you and very best wishes,

Bart Starr, Jr.

That celebration will be one for the ages, as Kramer will be joining Starr, as well as other teammates like Robinson, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Paul Hornung, Willie Wood and Henry Jordan as having forever a place among the best of the best in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kramer will also be joining the man who made it all possible for he and his teammates, head coach Vince Lombardi.

Yes, it will be quite the celebration on that August summer day in Canton in 2018. You can be very sure, that I also plan on being there for that epic event.

 

A Scout’s Take on the 5-0 Wisconsin Badgers

Jonathan Taylor II

So far five games into the 2017 season, the Wisconsin Badgers have to feel good about themselves. The Badgers are a perfect 5-0 for the season, which includes starting out 2-0 in the Big 10, after victories against Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium and against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

The success of the Badgers this season has not been a surprise. Certainly not to NFL scout Chris Landry, who I talked to back in July about who were the football teams to watch in the B1G this season.

“I like them,” Landry said back in July about Wisconsin. “They are the favorite in the West for me because of their schedule. They’ve got a good team.

“I think there is, in my view, four really good teams in the Big 10 conference. Wisconsin is one of them and the other three are in the East. Ohio State is really good. Penn State is really good. Michigan is getting better and better. So, there are four teams who are really good.”

I had another opportunity to talk to Landry again this week 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show.

I wanted to get his take on freshman running back Jonathan Taylor and the great success he has had already this season, as well as his opinion about the job new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is doing.

Landry addressed the question about Leonhard first.

“Jim is an outstanding young coach,” Landry said. “He’s an outstanding young coordinator. He understands the game from the back end very well. He’s really adjusted to putting fronts and coverages together. I think he’s done an outstanding job. This is very good Wisconsin team.”

This is only Leonhard’s second season as a coach in college football and he’s already a defensive coordinator after spending his first year as defensive backs coach.

Leonhard certainly has the pedigree to be successful at Wisconsin, as he was a former walk-on who started his collegiate career in 2002 under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

The 5’8″, 188-pound Leonhard led the country in interceptions in 2002 with 11 and finished with 21 picks in his career as a Badger, which ties him for first for the most in history of Wisconsin football. Leonhard was also named All- Big 10 for three straight seasons, as well as being named All-American for those three seasons too.

The former Tony, Wisconsin native also played 10 years in the NFL with a number of teams and finished with 427 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 36 passes defensed, 14 interceptions (one for a TD), two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Jim Leonhard

In terms of how Leonhard has directed the Wisconsin defense so far in 2017, let’s take a look at where the Badgers are ranked in a number of defensive categories.

Wisconsin is ranked No. 10 in total defense,  No. 9 in scoring defense, No. 4 in rushing defense, tied for No. 8 in red zone defense, No. 9 in sacks and No. 13 in passes intercepted with eight, three of which were returned for touchdowns.

After talking about Leonhard, Landry turned his attention to Taylor, the very talented freshman running back.

“Taylor is a really big-time back if folks haven’t seen him,” Landry said. “I think people kind of assume that Wisconsin is going to have a good back every year and maybe that diminishes the value of each individual one, but this kid is special. This kid has real special qualities. And he’s exerting it at a very young age.”

The stats certainly bear out Landry’s opinion.

Taylor is currently seventh in the country and first in the Big 10 in rushing, as No. 23 has run for 767 yards and nine touchdowns on just 97 attempts. That’s a 7.9 rushing average in case you were wondering.

Against Nebraska last week in front of almost 90,000 raucous fans in Lincoln, Taylor rushed for 249 yards and two touchdowns on just 25 carries.

Taylor has now rushed for over 200 yards twice as a freshman, becoming only the second player to ever do that in Wisconsin history. The first player to do that was Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999.

Landry also talked about the state of this current Wisconsin team, who has gone 26-6 in two-plus years under head coach Paul Chryst.

“I like this Wisconsin team,” Landry said. “I really thought at the beginning of the year that they were a good team, but they were going to be fodder for anyone who wins the East, but I’m here to tell you, although I don’t see Wisconsin as a team who would win if they made it in playoffs, I think right now, they would match up very well and have a great chance of beating Penn State or Ohio State. They are better than Michigan right now.

“Now, can they get much better? Time will tell. I think that this is not only just a good team, with a soft schedule and on the soft side of the conference, but I think they are pretty good. And I think right now they are as good as anyone in the Big 10.”

The soft schedule that Landry speaks of, has seven games remaining in the season. The opponents are:

  • Purdue (home)
  • Maryland (home)
  • Illinois (road)
  • Indiana (road)
  • Iowa (home)
  • Michigan (home)
  • Minnesota (road)

Landry also put out a warning for the Badgers about their upcoming opponent this Saturday, the 3-2 Purdue Boilermakers.

“I don’t think they [Wisconsin] are going to lose to Purdue, but there is no doubt that the best playcaller in college football right now, with the least amount of talent, is Jeff Brohm of Purdue,” Landry said. “He’s getting stuff done without any real playmakers.

“Now I don’t think they [Purdue] have enough to beat Wisconsin at Camp Randall, but I’m very curious to see how they play this week.”

It certainly should be a great chess match between Brohm and Leonhard this week, as the Badgers will certainly play at their normal aggressive level on defense this week.

On the offensive side of the ball, Taylor has to be licking his chops, as he’ll be facing a defense which is ranked No. 66 in the country in rushing defense, as the Boilers have allowed an average of 151 yards per game on the ground.

When it’s all said and done, expect the Badgers to improve to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the B1G West.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Jones Adds a New Dimension to an Already Dangerous Offense

<> at AT&T Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.

Going into their Week 5 game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers had averaged just a paltry 74.5 yards per game on the ground. The season had started slowly for starting running back Ty Montgomery as well, as he had gained just 152 yards on 46 carries with two touchdowns, which equates to 3.3 yards per carry average.

All that being said, the running game wasn’t helped due to the fact that the Green Bay offensive line had used four different line combinations in each of the first four games because of injuries to both starting tackles, David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bryan Bulaga (ankle).

But the Packers were still 3-1 in those four games, mostly due to the incredible play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an improving defense that also is dealing with key injuries.

In the Week 4 contest versus the Chicago Bears, the Packers saw Montgomery get off to a quick start with 28 yards in five carries. But in that sequence of carries, Montgomery broke some ribs and was forced from the game. That led to the entrance of rookie running back Aaron Jones.

Like Montgomery, Jones played very well behind an offensive line which had Lane Taylor at left tackle, Lucas Patrick at left guard and Justin McCray at right tackle.

Jones had 49 yards in 13 carries and one touchdown. No. 33 opened some eyes on the Green Bay offensive coaching staff with that performance.

So with Montgomery not be able to play against the Cowboys in Week 5, Jones got the opportunity to start at running back. And did Jones take advantage of that opportunity. The rookie out of Texas-El Paso gained 125 yards on 19 carries (6.6 yard average) and a touchdown.

Jones also caught a pass for nine yards and looked solid in his pass protection picking up blitzes.

And Jones did that behind an offensive line that had Taylor starting again at left tackle, while McCray moved to left guard, as Bulaga returned to play right tackle.

Thanks to another impressive and winning performance by Rodgers on the last drive of the game for Green Bay, the Packers are now 4-1. But it was the success of the running game which caught everyone’s attention.

Up until the game versus the Cowboys, the Packers had only rushed for 298 yards in four games. In the Dallas game alone, the Packers rushed for 160 yards.

Green Bay certainly liked what they saw of Jones in college at Texas-El Paso.

Jones had a great career for the Miners, as he rushed for 4,114 yards (6.3 average) and 33 touchdowns. Jones also added 71 catches for 646 yards and seven more scores.

The 5’9″, 209-pound Jones was second-team All-Conference USA in 2014 and first-team All-Conference USA in 2016.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Jones ran a 4.56 in the 40 and excelled in a number of other drills, including the vertical jump (37.5 inches) and broad jump (127.0 inches), plus posted a very impressive 6.82 three-cone time.

When the Packers drafted Jones in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft, this is what NFL scout Chris Landry said about that selection:

On tape, Jones is a determined inside runner with plus vision, darting quickness, and serious big-play ability. In 2016, Jones led the nation in touchdown runs that began outside the red zone (12), including nine TD runs of 40-plus yards. While probably not an NFL workhorse, Jones is one of this year’s top sleeper running backs.”

Jones was one of three running backs who the Packers selected in the draft, as Green Bay also took Jamaal Williams of BYU in the fourth round and Devante Mays of Utah State in the seventh round.

Although Williams was selected a round before Jones, it certainly appears that Jones has earned the right to be on the field much more often due to his productivity.

Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Packers has noticed. At his press conference on Monday, McCarthy praised his rookie running back, but also said that he’s going to need some help.

at AT&T Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.

“I hope I have a 1-4 punch,” McCarthy said via Packers.com. “That’s why we drafted three running backs. It takes time. It’s a young man’s league, I get it, and Aaron had an opportunity he cashed in. I’m proud of him. He’s earned more opportunities moving forward.

“But this is not a one-man show. It’s going to take them all. I want to make hard decisions who’s on the 46(-man roster on game day).”

What this also means is that when Montgomery gets healthy, the Packers could have a running back combination similar to how the Atlanta Falcons utilize Devonta Freeman and Telvin Coleman.

Just imagine a running game getting the type of production that Atlanta gets each week from their two backs. Add that type of performance to an offense which already has a prolific passing game with Rodgers throwing to the likes of Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Martellus Bennett, and you are looking at a really dynamic offense.

Just like the dynamic offense that quarterback Matt Ryan of the Falcons leads.

Plus, with the return of Bakhtiari to the lineup, the Packers can start utilizing the best offensive line that they can put on the field each and every week.

The Packers know how important a productive running game can mean to their offense with Rodgers at quarterback. In the 2010 postseason and an eventual win in Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers played lights out (nine TD passes vs. two picks for 1,094 yards and a 109.8 passer rating), but it was the emergence of rookie James Starks who made a big difference with the offense that postseason.

Starks gained 315 yards in four games in the postseason, which led all NFL running backs.

If a defense has to contend with another weapon on offense, namely a productive running back, it really opens up the passing game.

at AT&T Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.

Case in point, in the game against Dallas, Rodgers used a play-action fake to Jones, which froze the linebackers and safeties of the Cowboys for a moment, and that led to an easy touchdown pass to wide open Nelson.

Bottom line, the Packers saw how effective their offense can be behind a steady and productive performance by a running back (Jones) in their game against the Cowboys.

Couple that together with bringing back two key players (Bakhtiari and Montgomery) who are getting close to getting back on the field, and one can envision one of the top offenses in the NFL week in and week out.

The Packers will face a very tough Minnesota Viking defense this upcoming Sunday. The Vikings are seventh in the NFL in total defense, which includes being 20th in passing defense and seventh in rushing defense.

The Vikings have only allowed 80 yards per game on the ground. If the Packers can get their running game going similar to how it produced against the Cowboys, it would open things up for Rodgers to exploit the secondary of the Minnesota defense.

Time will tell how Jones will perform down the road in the 2017 season for the Packers in the running game, but in a small window (174 yards on 38 carries, a 4.6 average and two TDs), that future looks very bright.

Not just for Jones, but for the entire Green Bay offense.

Green Bay Packers: Catching Up with “Ice Bowl” Hero Chuck Mercein

Chuck Mercein I

We are nearing the 50th anniversary of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl”, when the Dallas Cowboys met the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field on December 31, 1967.

It’s apropos that the Packers and Cowboys would meet during the 2017 NFL season, although the meeting will take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington this upcoming Sunday.

It’s very possible that both teams will meet again in the postseason later on, just like they have done twice in the past three seasons. And you never know, that game could take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

I had an opportunity to talk with two of the stars for the Packers on that extremely cold day on New Year’s Eve in 1967, guard Jerry Kramer and fullback Chuck Mercein.

I talked with Kramer first and we talked about the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl”, especially about that epic 12-play, 68-yard drive to win the game in the final seconds, 21-17.

What made that drive even more remarkable, was that up until that point, the Packers had run 31 plays for -9 yards in the second half before that incredible march of the frozen tundra started.

While we discussed the drive, Kramer talked about the many players who came up big in that drive. Obviously there was quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Donny Anderson, wide receiver Boyd Dowler, left tackle Bob Skoronski and Kramer himself.

Plus, there was also Mercein. In fact, Mercein picked up 34 of the 68 yards in that extraordinary drive just by himself.

Kramer certainly remembered how important No. 30 was for the Packers in that drive.

“Chuck was huge in that drive for us,” Kramer said. “He went to Yale and he had the intellect to prove it. Plus, Chuck was a tough kid and he was strong. In fact, he threw the shot put 61 feet one time. That was  stunning. I set a state record in high school in Idaho in the shot put with a toss of 51 feet, 10 inches. And Chuck beat that by 10 feet.

“Chuck made a number of big plays for us in that drive. Hell, Chuck came up big for us the week before in the playoff game against the Rams as well. I remember Chuck talking to Bart shortly after he missed Willie Townes on a block and Donny was tackled for a big loss. That was the first time I recall Chuck ever talking to Bart in the huddle.

“Chuck told Bart that the linebacker was going back really deep and that he would be open on a swing pass because of all the room he was given. Sure enough, Bart throws a swing pass to Chuck that gains 19 yards. That was a really key play for us in that drive.”

Later in the evening, I had an opportunity to talk with Mercein. Not only to talk about the “Ice Bowl”, but also his strange set of circumstances joining the NFL and also the Packers.

Mercein came into pro football in 1965, which was a point in time when the NFL and AFL were bidding against each other for the top players in college football.

Mercein was certainly that coming out of Yale, which is why he was named to the College All-Star squad to play against the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1965. Mercein score 10 points in that game, as he also kicked as well as playing fullback.

Mercein talked to me about the ongoing process of bidding for his services between the two leagues.

“I knew the Buffalo Bills were going to draft me in the AFL to replace Cookie Gilchrist, who was going to retire,” Mercein said. “I was already in discussions with the Bills before the NFL draft even took place.

“So when the NFL draft did take place, my phone rang right away in the first round around the eight or ninth spot in the draft, when I talked to William Ford, who owned the Detroit Lions. He told me that he wanted me to play fullback for the Lions, because Nick Pietrosante was retiring. I thought that was very fortuitous, because it looked like I would be able to play right away there.

“The first question Ford asked me was whether I had been talking to the AFL at all. Of course, I said yes. I didn’t have an agent then. None of us had agents then. I was very open and honest with him. He also asked if I had signed anything. I said no. He then asked where I was in my negotiations with the Bills.

“I was frank with him. I said that the Bills had offered me a three-year, no-cut contract, with $25,000 per year in salary and $25,000 a year in bonuses. So basically it was for three years and $150,000.

“And Ford says, ‘No, we could never pay that!’ I said that I didn’t understand his position. Ford then told me he wasn’t going to get into a bidding war with the AFL. So then I asked him what he would offer me. Ford said he could give me one year with $25,000 in salary and $25,000 in bonuses.

“I mean, I was married with a kid coming in August, so I told him him if that was his best offer, not to draft me. So, he didn’t. The Lions took Tom Nowatzke instead. Anyway, the phone didn’t ring at all again in the first round, so I was a little upset. It didn’t ring in the second round either. Finally I get a call in the third round at the the first pick of that round by the New York Giants.

“Wellington Mara (owner of the Giants) told me that Alex Webster was retiring and he wanted me to replace him. I was a bit wary at that time. So I told Mr. Mara that I had heard this before and that if he wasn’t going to compete with the offer I received from the Bills, then we should stop right there. I gave him the terms and Mara said that he would compete with that offer.

“Wow, I was excited. I then asked him one more question. I asked why the Giants took Tucker Frederickson, who also played fullback, in the first round and then wanted to take me. Mara told me that Allie Sherman (head coach of the Giants) told him that Frederickson was going to play halfback (because Frank Gifford had just retired) and that I was going to play fullback. So I said great and I thought I was all set.”

Things didn’t turn out quite the way Mercein had planned playing under Sherman in New York. For one thing, Frederickson did not play halfback for the Giants, but instead played fullback, which made Mercein his backup.

Right away Mercein had been misled by the Giants. But it was not the fault of the owner.

“That did not happen because of Wellington Mara, who was not that person. He was very honest and was a great guy. He was really wonderful to me and helped get me over to Green Bay when he recommended me to Coach Lombardi.

“It was all Sherman. I never trusted him again after that. He also wasn’t that happy with me because I went to Yale instead of a bigger program. I did have over 50 offers from from various schools, including those in the Big 10, but I liked Yale because of their standards academically and the fact that they were undefeated  my senior year in high school. Plus a good friend of mine, Mike Pyle, was on that team.”

In his rookie year with the Giants, Mercein rushed for 55 yards and scored two touchdowns, plus kicked a field goal.

In his second season with the G-Men in 1966, Mercein led the team in rushing with 327 yards, plus caught 27 passed for 152 yards. All that happened while Mercein was hurt for half of the year.

Even with the nice year Mercein had in 1966, Sherman didn’t give Mercein a fair shake in 1967 competing for playing time and instead cut the fullback at the end of training camp.

Mercein was later brought back to the Giants, but only to be used as a kicker. Sherman told Mercein that if he missed a kick he would be waived again. Mercein made an extra point on his first kicking attempt, but because the Giants were holding, it didn’t count and the next attempt was 15 yards further out. As luck would have it, Mercein missed the kick and his time with the Giants was over.

Mercein was all set to sign with the Washington Redskins after his release by the Giants, as he had played for head coach Otto Graham in the College All-Star game, but before that could happen, he received a call from Wellington Mara.

The night Mara called was the same day that both halfback Elijah Pitts and fullback Jim Grabowski were lost for the season with injuries when the Packers played the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium in Week 8.

Chuck Mercein III

“So the phone rings and it’s Wellington Mara,” Mercein said. “He told me that he had heard that I was talking to the Washington Redskins about playing with them. He was also very apologetic about what happened with me in New York. Anyway, he said if I didn’t sign anything, that he had recommended me to Vince Lombardi and that he was interested in bringing me to Green Bay. Mara told me the next call I would be getting would be from Lombardi himself.

“Sure enough five minutes later, Lombardi calls. It was quite something. It was like the voice of God on the other end of the phone, as I had so much respect for him as a coach and the Packers as a team. Lombardi was very frank about everything and he said that the Packers could really use my help. He also said that I could help the team win another championship.

“I told Coach Lombardi that I would be thrilled to join the team. After I hung up, I told my wife to unpack the car because we were going to play for the Green Bay Packers.”

The Packers were 6-1-1 when Mercein joined the team and were well on the way to winning the NFL Central division championship.

After the season-ending injuries to Pitts and Grabowski, the Packers utilized Anderson and rookie Travis Williams at halfback, while Ben Wilson and Mercein split time at fullback.

It’s amazing to know that even with the loss of Pitts and Grabowski, plus knowing that this was the first year under Lombardi that both fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung were no longer in Green Bay, that the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967.

Mercein was embraced by Lombardi and his teammates on the Packers when he came aboard the team.

“Right away, Lombardi welcomed me,” Mercein said. “I had to earn his trust, obviously. It wasn’t easy at first, but the players were very welcoming and it was just a wonderful time.”

By the end of the season and into the postseason, Mercein became the starting fullback. In the Western Conference Championship Game at Milwaukee County Stadium versus the Los Angeles Rams, Mercein scored on a six-yard run in the Green Bay’s 28-7 victory over the Rams.

No. 30 also helped open some holes for Williams, who received most of the playing time at halfback, as the “Roadrunner” rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns.

That set up the NFL title game the next Sunday at Lambeau Field versus the Cowboys. Unlike the game against the Rams, Lombardi gave most of the playing time at halfback to Anderson, instead of Williams. Mercein remained the starter at fullback.

The 1967 NFL title game was later nicknamed the “Ice Bowl” because it was extremely cold that day in Green Bay, as the game-time temperature was 13 degrees below zero.

If you added the wind, it was bone-chillingly cold, as there was a minus-48-degree windchill for the game.

The Packers the jumped to an early 14-0 lead as Starr threw two touchdown passes to Dowler. But fumbles by Starr and punt returner Willie Wood led to 10 points by the Cowboys and the score was only 14-10 at the half.

The Packers couldn’t do anything in the second half until their final drive, while the Cowboys were moving up and down the field. Thankfully the defense of the Packers, led by linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, kept Dallas out of the end zone in the third quarter.

But on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys ended up taking a 17-14 lead when wide receiver Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Dan Reeves on a halfback option pass.

That was the score when the Packers started their 68-yard trek down the frozen tundra of Lambeau Filed with just 4:50 remaining in the game.

The drive started with Starr completing a swing pass to Anderson which gained six yards. On the next play, Mercein ran the ball for seven more yards off tackle to the 45-yard line and near the sideline of the Packers.

Chuck Mercein II

Mercein vividly recalled that moment.

“I remember that play well, as it was the our initial first down of the drive,” Mercein said. “That was a big confidence booster for me and the team. Because at that point, none of us had done anything in the second half. I’ll never forget because I kind of got shoved out of bounds right in front of the Green Bay bench. I could hear Coach Lombardi yell, ‘Atta boy, Chuck!’ That really brought my spirits up. It was wonderful.”

On the next play, Starr completed his only pass to a wide receiver in the drive, as Dowler caught a pass that gained 13 yards and another first down. Dowler ended up having to leave the game for a bit, as he was shook up a little after his head hit the frozen turf hard after he was tackled.

This is when Mercein and the Packers had a hiccup in the drive. Defensive end Willie Townes broke through and tackled Anderson for a nine-yard loss.

Mercein explained what happened on the play.

“It was the Green Bay sweep and my responsibility was to block the defensive end there,” Mercein said. “I expected Townes to be on my outside shoulder, but he rushed inside instead, and I only was able to brush him with my left shoulder. I didn’t give him a good enough pop and he was able to get through and put us in a big hole.

I felt particularly bad about that because of my bad execution. It was the lowlight of the drive for me.”

Mercein would make up for that mistake soon enough, however.

First though, Starr completed two swing passes to Anderson which gained 21 yards to the 30-yard line of the Cowboys and another first down by the Packers.

It was at that point when Mercein caught the 19-yard swing pass from Starr after first conferring with No. 15.

“Sure enough, I was open just like I expected and Bart flipped the pass to me that got caught up in the wind a bit and I caught it over my outside shoulder, ” Mercein said. “I was able to outrun linebacker Dave Edwards and took the pass to the 11-yard line, plus was able to get out of bounds.”

The next play was a running play, known as a give play to Mercein.

“Bart saved that give play for the right exact time,” Mercein said. “Bart later said it was the best play call he ever made.”

On the give play, left guard Gale Gillingham pulls to the right, which then opens up a hole as defensive tackle Bob Lilly followed Gillingham down the line. Still, left tackle Bob Skoronski had to seal off defensive end George Andrie to make the play work.

“The hole was great and I can still see that hole,” Mercein said. “I can still hear myself clomping down on the ice with the noise of my cleats hitting the ice. It was very loud. Forrest Gregg was coming down from the right tackle spot and if I could have cut, I think I could have scored.”

As it was, the Packers had a second and two from the three-yard line of the Cowboys. Anderson than took a hand off from Starr and to many it appeared that Anderson scored on the play. But the referee instead placed the ball about 18 inches from the goal line and it was first and goal.

Then on two straight dive plays, Anderson slipped both times trying to score and didn’t get in. It was now third and goal when the Packers called their final timeout with just 16 seconds to go in the game.

Bart Starr QB sneak II

I’ll let Mercein explain what happened next.

“Bart came into the huddle and called a 31 wedge play,” Mercein said. “We had put that play in earlier in the week when Jerry [Kramer] suggested it to Coach Lombardi because Jethro Pugh played high on short-yardage plays.

“We didn’t have many goal line plays. We definitely didn’t have a quarterback sneak. Anyway, when Bart made the call, I was excited. It was brown right, 31 wedge. The 3-back, me, gets the ball and goes to the 1-hole, which is in between the center and the guard.

“I take off thinking I’m going to get the ball and after one and a half steps or less, I see Bart was keeping the ball. Now I’m thinking that I can’t run into him because that would be assisting him and be a penalty. But I can’t really stop, so I go flying over the top of Bart with my hands in the air, not because I’m signalling touchdown, but to let the refs know that I wasn’t assisting Bart.”

The Packers won the game 21- 17 on that legendary play as Starr was able to find his way into the end zone behind Kramer’s classic block on Pugh.

After the game, Mercein heard some kind words from Grabowski, who said that he couldn’t have played any better at fullback.

That victory put the Packers in Super Bowl II in Miami, where they would be facing the AFL champion Oakland Raiders.

Now one would think that Mercein would be starting again at fullback for the Packers, especially after playing so well against the Rams and Cowboys.

But shortly before the game, Mercein heard some very disappointing news from his head coach, who said Wilson would be starting at fullback instead.

“I was terribly disappointed,” Mercein said. “I didn’t understand why. I knew I was a little banged up. But Coach was a real hunch player and it was hot down there in Miami  and it was the kind of weather that Ben Wilson was used to playing in, as he had played at USC.

“Plus, Ben was fresh and he hadn’t played a lot. So it was just a hunch, but it turned out to be the right hunch as Ben had a big game.”

The Packers beat the Raiders 33-14 and Wilson led the Packers in rushing with 65 yards.

Looking back on that year with the Packers, there are a lot of fond memories for Mercein.

“The 1967 season for the Packers was a team effort,” Mercein said. “Coach Lombardi made that team what it was. He was the difference. He made us all better. He made me better. Bart better. Jerry better. Boyd better. That’s what a great coach does. He takes players and makes them better than they thought they could be.”

Packers vs. Bears: Green Bay Can Jump Ahead in the Series for the First Time in 85 Years

Packers-Bears Helmets

The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have been playing against each other since 1921 when the NFL was called the American Professional Football Association. Since the two teams have been battling each other, in a series which goes back almost 100 years, the teams are tied with 93 wins apiece, with six ties.

Just to show you how even this series has been, the Packers have scored 3,300 points in 192 games, while the Bears have scored 3,284.

When the Packers beat da Bears 30-27 last December at Soldier Field, Green Bay was able to even the series between the two clubs for the first time since 1933.

And with a win on Thursday night at Lambeau Field vs. Chicago, the Packers can hold an edge in the series for the first time since 1932, when they held an 11-10-4 mark over the Bears.

That’s 85 long years ago, folks. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was just elected to his first of four terms as President of the United States that year.

In terms of where each stands in NFL lore, the Packers have been in the NFL since 1921 and have won 13 NFL titles and four Super Bowls.

The Bears have been in the NFL since 1920 and have won nine NFL titles and one Super Bowl.

No team in NFL history has won more NFL championships than either the Packers or Bears.

Just looking back on the history between the two teams, it all started with George Halas (with the then Chicago Staleys) and Curly Lambeau. Each were founding members of their respective clubs, not to mention also being the head coach.

From 1921 through 1949, when the Packers and Lambeau took on the Bears and Halas, Green Bay went 18-32-4 in the regular season versus Chicago and also 0-1 in the postseason.

During that period, the Packers and Bears were considered the cream of the crop in the NFL, as Green Bay won six NFL titles, while Chicago won five.

When Vince Lombardi was the head coach and general manager of the Packers from 1959 through 1967, Green Bay won 13 of 18 games against Halas and the Bears. The Packers also won five NFL titles and two Super Bowls during that time, while the Bears won the 1963 NFL title.

The quarterback for the Packers in the Lombardi years was Bart Starr. No. 15 was 12-2 versus Chicago in that period.

Bart vs. da Bears

Jerry Kramer told me a great story about the game when Starr showed the Packers that he was truly the quarterback to lead the team under Lombardi. And the game was against the Bears.

“We were playing the Chicago Bears,” Kramer said. “Bill George was their middle linebacker at the time. On a deep pass attempt, George thought he would try to intimidate Bart.

“Bill took about a five-yard run and he gave Bart a forearm right in the mouth. George timed it perfectly and put Bart right on his behind. He also cut Bart badly, from his lip all the way to his nose. After that, George said, ‘That ought to take care of you Starr, you pu**y.’ Bart snapped right back at George and said, ‘F— you, Bill George, we’re coming after you.’

“My jaw dropped after that exchange, as I was shocked. Meanwhile Bart was bleeding profusely. I told Bart that he better go to the sideline and get sewn up. Bart replied, ‘Shut up and get in the huddle.’

“Bart took us down the field in seven or eight plays and we scored. That series of plays really solidified Bart as our leader and we never looked back.”

In terms of the overall series, the Packers fell behind the Bears mostly because of their play in three decades…the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s. The Packers were just 39-79-2 in the ’50s, 57-82-5 in the ’70s and 65-84-3 in the ’80s.

The Bears really dominated the series when Mike Ditka was head coach of the Bears from 1982 through 1992, as the Bears won 13 of 18 games. Da Bears won Super Bowl XXV during that period.

The Packers have been able to tie the series with the Bears over the past quarter century thanks to the quarterback play of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have won two Super Bowls in that time, one with Favre leading the team (Super Bowl XXXI) and one with Rodgers leading the team (Super Bowl XLV).

Mike Holmgren was the head coach of the Packers when the team won Super Bowl XXXI, while current head coach Mike McCarthy was on the sideline when the Pack won Super Bowl XLV.

Favre was 22-10 versus the Bears in his career in Green Bay, while Rodgers has been even better than that. No. 12 is 14-4 against Chicago (plus is 1-0 in the NFC title game).

Rodgers has been magnificent for the most part when he plays the Bears. In the 18 regular season games he has played versus Chicago, No. 12 has thrown 38 touchdown passes, compared to just nine interceptions for 4,417 yards.

Rodgers celebrates at Soldier Field

That adds up to a stellar career passer rating against the Bears of 105.7.

So far in three games in the 2017 NFL season, Rodgers has thrown six touchdown passes versus three interceptions for 967 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 93.1, which would be great for just about any other QB in the NFL, but not Rodgers.

Why? That mark is 10 points less than his career passer rating of 103.8, which just happens to be the best rating in NFL history.

But when it comes to playing the Bears, Rodgers always seems to be on his A game. Yes, there will be some issues with a very banged up offensive line playing in front of No. 12 on Thursday night.

But if history is a blueprint for the future, expect a big night for Rodgers on Thursday. The frosting on the cake would be a Green Bay victory which would put the Packers ahead in the series with the Bears for the first time since 1932.

That would be two years before Starr was born. 37 years before Favre was born. And 51 years before Rodgers was born.

Together, the three greatest quarterbacks in the history of the Packers have gone 48-16 versus the Bears.

A win on Thursday night would take that mark to 49-16 and Rodgers would improve his individual record to 15-4.

Expect that to happen.