Hangin’ with Havel!

 

Chris Havel’s sports columns will appear throughout the week on The FAN’s website. The columns are brought to you by these fine advertisers (click to go to their website/Facebook):

The FAN website column for Friday, June 1, 2018

From: Chris Havel, Sports Line
The FAN website column for Friday, June 1
Chris Havel’s sports columns appear during the week on The FAN’s website. The columns are brought to you by these fine advertisers (click on hyperlink to go to website/Facebook)

** Pine Acres Golf Course
Just a short “drive” north of Green Bay on Hwy. 41, Pine Acres has an awesome Friday Night Fish Fry. This 9 hole gem is in terrific shape. Check them out on Facebook.

** Townline Pub and Grill
This is THE classic sports bar, restaurant and banquet facility. Located in Howard-Suamico, Townline features home-made pizza, fajitas and the best burgers and wings around. See the daily specials at www.TownlineOnline.com.

** Crystal Springs Golf Course
This gorgeous 18-hole course begins and ends each 9 with a magnificent Par 5 to test your game. Crystal Springs has a locker room, range, chipping/putting greens, pro shop and locker room. The Jackson Point Grill offers a full menu. Go to www.crystalspringsgolf.com for details.

Thoughts on Packers’ second public OTA
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Here’s a “sports math” quick quiz:
Question: What does 80 plus 85 equal?
Answer: Seven (as in seven points).
For all of Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst’s offseason moves, the incredible upgrade at tight end tops the list. The Packers may not have the NFL’s highest-scoring offense this season, but they have a great chance to be one of the most dominant.
When the Packers’ Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis stand shoulder pad-to-shoulder pad they blot out the sky.
Green Bay’s veteran tight end duo is enormous. They also bring a combined 20 years of experience to the position.
All of that leads to this educated guess: Graham (6-7, 265) and Lewis (6-6, 267) are going to be a handful for opposing defenses this season. That’s based on just a glimpse of the Packers’ second public OTA practice Thursday at Ray Nitschke Field.
Everyone from the fans in the stands to Aaron Rodgers and DeShone Kizer found the big tight ends impossible to miss.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy spoke at length to the media about the offseason acquisitions at tight end.
Graham and Lewis aren’t kids anymore. They don’t run like they once did. That’s OK because the reality is this: Graham still runs plenty fast, and Lewis is so skilled and smooth he’ll be able to get open, too. Best of all, they catch it. At least they showed the ability to catch it with ease at the OTA practice.
Tight ends aren’t like receivers.
They don’t have to maintain high-end speed to be effective. McCarthy said there isn’t an edge rusher in the league that Lewis can’t block. And Graham is as dynamic a threat in the red zone as there is in the game.
Further, the Packers appear to be serious about using them.
They ran multiple “stack” or “bunch” formations with their tight ends, including holdover Lance Kendricks, who shouldn’t be discounted as a valuable third cog.
Rodgers threw to both Graham and Lewis frequently.
Once the pads come on we’ll see exactly what they can do in terms of blocking in the run game, but for now I’ll take McCarthy’s word for it.
Other OTA observations:
** Jamaal Williams is going to be the lead dog in the backfield.
The second-year running back looks like a man on a mission. The way he carries himself in practice, interacts with teammates and goes about his business professionally suggests he’s going to be the No. 1 back for a while.
Ty Montgomery has receiver skills, and Aaron Jones has breakaway speed, but it’s Williams who drew my eye. He’s so smooth and focused you would swear he’s a six-year pro.
I predict Williams will be the starting running back with Montgomery and Jones – if they stay healthy – providing a nice changeup to him.
Frankly, the running back position looks better than it has in a long time, and it starts with Williams at the top.
** The right side of the offensive line no longer looks like a mess.
The signing of veteran Byron Bell (6-4, 320) gives the line some much-needed depth at tackle. On Thursday, Bell rolled at right tackle and Justin McCray at right guard with the No. 1 unit.
That still leaves rookie Cole Madison to compete and either start or provide depth. Meantime, Bryan Bulaga, Kyle Murphy and Jason Spriggs can heal up.

MR. GOLF’S GOLF TIP OF THE WEEK
Stop by Mr. Golf, located at 3111 Monroe Rd., De Pere, and say hello to owner Jeff Aubry. Give him a call at 338-9535 or stop out and try their great range. It’s the best way to sharpen your game.

 

 

Brewers’ rookie makes
‘M’emorable debut

By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s tough to know which was nastier:
Chase Anderson’s stomach virus, which caused him to miss a start, or Freddy Peralta’s stuff, which caused the Rockies to miss most everything in the Brewers’ 7-3 victory Sunday at Colorado.
Peralta, a wiry right-hander, was called up from the AAA Pacific Coast League when Anderson had to be placed on the disabled list.
The 21-year-old delivered a Mother’s Day dandy.
Peralta – not to be confused with ex-Brewer Wily – mowed down the Rockies as if they were dry grass being cut by a razor-sharp blade. He carried a no-hitter into the sixth and got the win.
He finished with a Brewers’ rookie record 13 strikeouts.
“The pitching coach told me to smile, breathe and pitch,” he said. “So that was what I did.”
Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar hit home runs to back Peralta, and the Brewers won three of four to take the series.
Milwaukee (24-17) is at Arizona (24-16) Monday night.
The first-place Brewers got a shot in the arm from Peralta, who threw 98 pitches (90 of them fastballs) to confound the Rockies. Before being called up Peralta led the Triple ‘A’ Pacific Coast League in strikeouts with 46.
“He settled down after his first three pitches,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “After that he just kept getting better.”
Counsell seemed almost as if in awe.
Peralta’s 13 strikeouts were tied for the third-most by a rookie making his debut. Stephen Strasburg fanned 15 in 2010. Before that, powerful righty J.R. Richard of the Astros K’d 15 in 1971.
Aguilar was impressed with the 21-year-old’s debut.
“It was unbelievable,” he told MLB.com. “I’ve never seen their second baseman (D.J. LeMahieu) look like that, or (center fielder Charlie) Blackmon. They didn’t see the ball. It was unbelievable. Good for him. These guys are really good hitters, and he dominated, easy, with the fastball.”
Peralta came through with Anderson and Zach Davies both battling to get back from the DL.
Also, the Brewers’ bats came through, Saturday notwithstanding. Milwaukee’s eighth shutout this season – a 4-0 loss Saturday – ties last year’s season total.
Nevertheless, the Brewers won three of four at Colorado to move into first place in the National League Central.
Junior Guerra will open the series at Arizona, who has struggled of late while losing five straight games.
Milwaukee would be more than happy to extend that string.

MR. GOLF’S GOLF TIP OF THE WEEK
Stop by Mr. Golf, located at 3111 Monroe Rd., De Pere, and say hello to owner Jeff Aubry. Give him a call at 338-9535 or stop out and try their wonderful range. It’s the best way to sharpen your game now that the weather is cooperating.

With the 14th pick, the Packers select …Vea?

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Few declarative sentences will stir as much anxiety and anticipation as this one: “With the 14th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Packers select …”

The fans’ reaction depends upon Green Bay’s choice, of course.

If it’s a receiver they’ll raise eyebrows. If it’s an offensive lineman they’ll raise hell. If it’s a defensive stud they’ll raise their glasses to toast the new GM.

So who’s it going to be?

The checklist seems fairly straightforward.

The Packers’ greatest needs are a pass-rushing linebacker and a bookend for cornerback Kevin King.

That’s it.

The top two are Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith and Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.

The next-best two are Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Odds are Smith and Ward will be selected in the top 10. The cost to Green Bay – to move up from 14 to 7 – would be its first, second and third-round picks. That’s a high price to pay for a single player, as starter-ready and talented as he may be.

It is likely Edmunds and Fitzpatrick will be “top 12” selections.

The cost to Green Bay – to move up from 14 to 10 or 11 – would be its first- and third-round picks plus considerations such as current players (Brett Hundley?) and late-round picks.

If Edmunds somehow slides to 10, the Packers should seriously consider pulling the trigger on a trade to acquire him. He would provide immediate pass-rush help while offering a long-term alternative to Clay Matthews and/or Nick Perry.

Ultimately, the Packers will probably sit tight, consider how great life might be with Fitzpatrick and King at cornerback, and do a lot of praying.

Indeed, if Fitzpatrick is there, the Packers shouldn’t hesitate. They should take him and count their blessings.

Fitzpatrick is a top five talent that will be a Day One starter opposite King. The Packers’ defense has to face Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky six times each season.

Good luck stopping that without strong cover corners.

However, if Smith, Ward, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are all off the board when the Packers are on the clock, the choice is easy: They should select Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea.

The Packers’ defense needs disruptors.

Vea, at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds, is exactly that.

He is a powerful man who possesses a rare combination of size, speed and strength. His legs are compared with tree trunks. He is the immoveable object. His heart also appears to be in the right place because he plays with passion.

When Vea is compared to players, rather than trees, the name mentioned is the Eagles’ Haloti Ngata, which is high praise.

Imagine a 4-3 defense that’s front four includes Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Vea and Muhammad Wilkerson, with Dean Lowry available in the rotation.

Vea’s sheer strength and size allows him to collapse the pocket.

That enables the pass rush to work all the better.

Clearly, the Packers would need help at cornerback and outside linebacker if they did choose Vea.

The drop-off, or cliff, at cornerback comes after the top four: Ward, Louisville’s Jaire Alexander, UCF’s Mike Hughes and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. Ward’s a top five pick, while the others are perceived as really strong mid- to late-first round picks.

After that the best options are LSU’s Donte Jackson, who ran a 4.32 at the combine, and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver.

Green Bay could select Vea at 14, trade back into the late-first round and still grab a starting-caliber cornerback.

Another scenario has Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry slipping into the 25-to-30 range, in which case Green Bay might be obliged to go that route and trade up.

Three outside linebackers the Packers should consider in the second round are South Carolina State’s Darius Leonard, Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter and USC’s Uchenna Nwosu.

All three would be upgrades to the front seven.

A receiver and an offensive lineman are in demand, too. Fortunately, the Packers can bolster both areas with quality players in the fourth round and beyond.

Look for the Packers to select Fitzpatrick if he’s there at 14.

If he’s not, they should select Vea with apologies to no one.

  1. GOLF’S GOLF TIP OF THE WEEK

Stop by Mr. Golf, located at 3111 Monroe Rd., De Pere, and say hello to owner Jeff Aubry. Give them a call to reserve time on the indoor simulator – a great way to beat the muddy blues.

Give Mr. Golf a call at 338-9535 or stop by and use the outdoor driving range to work out the winter kinks.

Bucks, Brewers cure for ‘Cabin Fever’ – sort of

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Those were my thoughts somewhere between Sunday’s umpteenth inch of record snowfall in Green Bay and the Bucks’ awesome second-quarter run against the Celtics.

About that time, the Brewers were taking a 2-1 lead on the Mets despite striking out an incredible eight straight times against New York’s ace right-hander, Noah Syndergaard.

For snowbound Wisconsin sports fans – especially those of the Bucks and Brewers – the noon starts were a godsend.

Obviously, the outcomes were especially disappointing.

The Bucks lost 113-107 in overtime despite Khris Middleton’s incredible 35-foot bomb with 0.5 seconds to make it 99-99 at the end of regulation. That came after the Celtics’ Terry Rozier feigned Eric Bledsoe out of his sneakers to nail a 3-point shot and give Boston a 99-96 lead with 0.5 to play.

Enter Middleton, who scored 31 points, as the Bucks’ big-shot maker. He nailed the 3-pointer and gave No. 7 seeded Milwaukee hope in its opener at No. 2 seed Boston.

That’s when the Celtics’ defense clamped down, the Bucks cooled off and Boston corralled its late victory.

The question is this: Are Bucks fans encouraged by the team’s second-half rally and late comeback? Or are they discouraged because the Bucks had a real chance to win and let it get away?

Frankly, the Bucks were fortunate to take it into overtime.

They committed 20 turnovers and were outscored 22-4 on second-chance points. They played better-than-I-expected defense, but when it mattered most Jayson Tatum hit the huge through-the-lane, over-the-head left-handed prayer that went in, and Al Horford played like a man on a mission.

Rozier’s 3-pointer was typical of the day. When the Celtics needed a big basket they got it.

Tonight, I suspect things will be different.

Markus Morris can’t possibly be as hot as he was Sunday. He could’ve made shots blindfolded. Also, the Celtics got too many second-chance points, which surely was a point of emphasis for the Bucks between then and now.

Furthermore, I can’t imagine Jabari Parker playing only 15 minutes. The Bucks can’t beat the Celtics in a seven-game series without Parker’s offense, especially the 3-point shot and slashing drives to the basket.

The Bucks will get Boston’s best shot early. It’s going to require an active Giannis, a much-better Bledsoe and Parker to stave it off, regroup and go on to register an upset.

It’s possible.

My two greatest takeaways from Sunday’s Bucks loss:

** No. 1 – They were way too sloppy to beat almost anyone.

** No. 2 – The Bucks are the more-talented team and should – that’s right – should win this series.

Tonight’s final: Milwaukee 102, Boston 99

The Brewers, 8-9, need to keep treading water until they get healthy and find a way to add another starting pitcher.

Brent Suter and Junior Guerra don’t appear to have what it takes to go deep into games (six innings or beyond) as a starter. I like Guerra’s chances better than Suter’s because his split-finger fastball – when it’s right – is the equalizer against left-handed hitters. Suter is incredibly effective getting out left-handed batters, which is why opposing managers stack their lineup with right-handed hitters against him.

Suter is better-suited to being a situational lefty out of the pen.

On another topic, manager Craig Counsel needs to understand that five innings out of Jhoulys Chacin is a bonus. The pitcher appears dreadfully out of shape, and his half-hearted jog to first base on a ball hit in the hole at shortstop – he was thrown out by a half-step – was regrettable. The Brewers had the go-ahead runner on third base at the time.

Also, it’s time that Jesus Aguilar becomes the full-time starting first baseman. The platoon with Eric Thames is hurting Milwaukee at the plate and in the field.

It’s not even so much that Thames (five home runs) is playing poorly, but rather Aguilar always hits, is a superior defensive first baseman and has more than enough power.

 

  1. GOLF’S “GOLF TIP OF THE WEEK”

Stop by Mr. Golf on Green Bay’s east side located just off GV where they have great deals on golf clubs, shoes and apparel.

Say hello to Jeff and tell him “Havel” sent you.

The tip this week is to be patient, continue to do flexibility and strength exercises, and create a check-list of goals this golf season. So often we seek to improve, but where are we trying to take our game? Without a plan the odds for success go way down.

At Mr. Golf, Jeff will help you create a plan to get your golf game in tip-top shape by the time the Green Bay-area weather cooperates.

Brace for Brewers,
Bucks & NFL draft
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Villanova did it in dominant fashion. Notre Dame did it on a last-second shot.
Both were incredibly fun to watch.
Congratulations to the Wildcats and the Lady Irish on capturing NCAA basketball championships this weekend. A very special mention goes to Milwaukee native Arike Ogunbowale, who hit the game-winners against UConn and Mississippi State.
It capped off a crazy men’s tournament that saw top seed Virginia and its terrific coach, Tony Bennett, fall to the 16th seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers. It also featured the ascension of Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean in what became the tournament’s top storyline.
Bennett, the AP’s Coach of the Year, will be fine. The 2017-18 Ramblers and Sister Jean will be immortalized, right along with the Retrievers, if only in Baltimore and Chicago, respectively.
Meantime, a potentially epic Master’s waits to tee off Thursday.
Tiger Woods chipped in for eagle during his practice round, perhaps an ominous foreshadowing for the rest of the field. Then again, the rest of the field looks pretty capable. Phil Mickelson is swinging it, Jordan Spieth and Ricky Fowler are hungry and Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and others are eager to tee it up.
That leaves the Bucks, who continue to founder, and the Brewers, who ate up the Padres for three straight wins before choking on dessert (aka St. Louis) in the home opener.
The Bucks’ flashes of first-rate play are routinely interrupted by lengthy lapses unbefitting this team. Giannis and the Bucks are fun to watch, to be sure, but don’t expect much this post-season.
The defense is too inconsistent, the offense is too loose and current head coach Joe Prunty will be gone at season’s end.
The Brewers’ fortunes are much brighter.
Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich are a dynamic duo at the top of the batting order. In fact, Cain, Yelich, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana are as potent a top five as any in all of the National League.
Corey Knebel, Josh Hader and Matt Albers all have thrown it well out of the bullpen. The staff’s ace, Chase Anderson, was excellent in a one-hit, six-inning no decision at San Diego. Anderson will be looking for his first win tonight in the Brewers’ second game against St. Louis at Miller Park.
Oh, by the way, there is also this event called the NFL Draft April 26-28. The Packers, who have been successful in free agency, are doing their due diligence as the draft draws near.
It was interesting to hear GM Brian Gutekunst and head coach Mike McCarthy discussing the team’s efforts in free agency.
Both seem pleased with the acquisitions of DeShone Kizer, Mo Wilkerson, Jimmy Graham, Tramon Williams and improved draft position in the fourth and fifth rounds.
I can’t say that I blame them for being pleased.
Graham’s impact on Green Bay’s offense is flying under the radar. The fact is it can’t be overstated. Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw for an NFL-high 38 touchdowns last season. Ten of those went to Graham, who seems to be on every Seattle highlight that doesn’t feature the Seahawks’ defense.
Graham is going to have Packers’ fans singing Gutekunst’s praises for signing him and McCarthy’s for feeding him. This isn’t going to be Martellus Bennett 2.0.
It doesn’t mean they’re going to rest on any laurels. That’s hardly the case given the sense of urgency and commitment shown by both men in terms of upgrading the Packers’ roster.
Gutekunst and McCarthy are under no allusions.
They know all the work that needs to be done in Green Bay, and obviously they’re paying attention to significant upgrades made by the rest of the NFC North.
While the GM and coach keep working, the rest of us can sit back, enjoy the Master’s and the Brewers, and count the days until the NFL draft.

MR. GOLF’S “GOLF TIP OF THE WEEK”

I have been disciplined about going to Mr. Golf’s driving range this spring. I have made at least 10 visits to the driving range, which is more than twice as many as all of last season.
The benefit is that my swing truly looks and feels better than it has in years. The problem is while my mind is willing, and I’m making the effort to practice, my body is saying, “Whoa!”
This week’s tip is simple: Make an effort to increase your strength, flexibility and endurance. PGA.com professionals can’t overstate the importance of getting your body right, too.
The trouble (excuse) is that there isn’t enough time.
If that’s the case, focus on increased flexibility. Go to PGA.com or merely Google the words “golf exercises” and you’ll have plenty of ammo to work with. Now you’ve got to get to it!

Golf Fitness Tip
Of the three major components of fitness (strength, endurance and flexibility) flexibility is probably the most important for having a powerful and effective golf swing. A good way to develop flexibility is Yoga. Take a class or even get a book. It will make a big difference in your game, especially in the long term. It will also help you with your overall fitness and general health. (Hey, that sounds good!)
Yoga Book for Golfers
Yoga Video for Golfers
Find a Yoga Instructor
I’ve been doing regular stretching since 1976 (…wish I would have started earlier! ), on the average of at least 5 days per week. If I could only afford the time for one type of exercise stretching or Yoga would be it — not because I’m a California weirdo, but because it is the one that has the most noticeable positive impact on my game and the way I feel, physically and mentally. Continue below for more suggestions.

CB leapfrogs DE as

Packers’ No. 1 need

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFL’s free-agent cornerback pool has effectively dried up.

Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Tyrann Mathieu, Mo Claiborne and Rashaan Melvin are among the biggest names to get big pay-days with new teams.

The Packers aren’t among them.

That’s despite the fact that Green Bay’s first-year GM, Brian Gutekunst, has been extraordinarily active this offseason.

The Packers traded cornerback Damarious Randall to Cleveland for quarterback DeShone Kizer and improved draft positioning.

They also signed tight end Jimmy Graham, an impact player on offense, to give Aaron Rodgers a dynamic red-zone weapon. In addition, they added Muhammad Wilkerson to shore up their defensive front. Wilkerson, a veteran who brings toughness, immediately improves the Packers’ rotation at defensive end.

Despite the obvious upgrades at tight end, backup quarterback, defensive end and draft positioning, fans shrug and say, “Yeah, but what about cornerback?”

What about cornerback?

The Packers currently have Kevin King, Quinten Rollins, Josh Hawkins, Herb Waters and a couple of other unknowns.

Clearly, they are going to add to and upgrade the position between now and the start of training camp.

The question is how?

Veteran E.J. Gaines, formerly of the Bills, reportedly plans to visit the Arizona Cardinals. Another veteran, Delvin Breaux, reportedly plans to visit the Denver Broncos. Gaines, a sixth-round pick in 2014, has just three career interceptions. Breaux, who had a strong 2015 season in New Orleans, has suffered with back-to-back broken fibulas each of the past two seasons.

But despite these causes for concern, one or both could be off the market by the time this is published.

Bashaud Breeland, formerly of the Redskins, reportedly received interest from Green Bay before signing with Carolina (and subsequently failing his physical). Breeland remains a free agent, but reports indicate it could be several months before he recovers from a ATV accident and is able to pass a physical.

The Packers signed Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller to an offer sheet on Friday. The Bears had five days to match. They took five minutes, or so it seemed, to elect to pay Fuller big money.

At least the Packers are aware of the holes at cornerback, and are trying to explore all avenues to plug them.

The best guess here is this: The Packers add a veteran cornerback or two (how about Tramon Williams and Davon House)?

The Packers also will draft an edge pass rusher at No. 14 plus two cornerbacks and a receiver among their next three selections. They are positioned to make that happen with top 100 prospects.

The Packers’ fans have their fingers crossed.

  1. GOLF’S “GOLF TIP OF THE WEEK”

(From the PGA.com website)

How to choose a golf instructor?

By John Hughes, PGA

The programs the men and women of the PGA or LPGA complete are intense, include first-hand experiences over a longer course of time, and are constantly required by the organizations to re-educate themselves on a regular basis.     When seeking a golf professional to help you with your game, insure that the individual has an active accreditation with the PGA or LPGA, or another accreditation association that places more value on education over a longer period of time, versus just a couple of weeks of training.  Be sure the instructor is remaining active in the association he or she belongs to and is constantly educating themselves on the latest innovations of technology and instructional methodology.  And most important is to be sure that the instructor has a history of creating positive results for the clients he or she serves.

No matter what affiliation of accrediting association the instructor is part of, asking for and receiving references from the instructor is a great way to confirm if this is the instructor for you.

To find an instructor near you, please visit PGA.com and enter your zip code.

Packers sign Graham,

Mo; say bye to Jordy

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers mean business.

That’s the overriding message as the NFL’s free agent-signing period opened today, with Green Bay acquiring Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson to lead the way.

The Packers’ defense improved significantly especially if Wilkerson can reclaim his pass rush-ability that he flashed with the Jets. Wilkerson (6-4, 280) gives Green Bay a formidable front with Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry.

Furthermore, I expect the Packers to add at least more two cornerbacks in the draft, one cornerback in free agency, an edge rusher in the draft and free agency, and a receiver in the draft.

Early Tuesday, the Vikings reportedly agreed with quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84-million guaranteed contract, while the Bears landed receiver Allen Robinson on a major deal.

Meantime, Green Bay’s “aggressive” new regime had done nothing. That left the Packers and their fans to fear the worst: new GM Brian Gutekunst – despite what I have been saying on The FAN – is Ted Thompson 2.0!

All I can text is OMG.

Or, I suppose, “I told you so!”

Gutekunst is his own GM. He has had a front row-seat to “The Best & Worst” of the Packers under Thompson. It appears to me he has embraced the best, discarded the worst, and adopted his own overarching principles and beliefs to run the show here.

If there’s a GM in recent memory – Packers or otherwise – that has been this impressive, this soon, I can’t recall.

Wilkerson gives stability and credibility to the defensive line.

Graham makes the offense deadly in the red zone.

Graham, the 6-foot-7, 266-pound tight end, reportedly was in talks with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers before he signed. Apparently, the future HOF quarterback wasn’t leaving anything to chance, or perhaps the new front office encouraged his recruitment of a top-end talent at a position of need?

That’s purely speculation, but whatever the means the end result is that Graham is the weapon the Packers’ offense has sorely needed for far too long.

He can move the chains, stretch the defense and attack in the red zone. Last year, he caught 15 of 24 red-zone targets for 10 touchdowns in Seattle. If he can continue to play at that pace, and with Rodgers at quarterback it’s more likely he’ll be even better, the Packers have acquired a big-time offensive weapon.

This is the team’s most explosive tight end since an aging Keith Jackson, or perhaps the speedy Jackie Harris, or maybe the ultra-dangerous Jermichael Finley.

Whomever he compares with, it’s sure to be favorably.

The Packers’ other momentous roster move Tuesday was the release of surefire team Hall of Fame receiver Jordy Nelson.

One of the Packers’ all-time greats, Nelson’s $10.25 million contract became too much to absorb this season. Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy alluded to this move in his post-season remarks at the combine when he suggested Nelson and Cobb weren’t quite the same players they once were.

Nelson ranks third in Packers’ history with 550 catches, fifth in receiving yards (7,848) and second in touchdowns (69). Rodgers and Nelson teamed up for 65 touchdowns, surpassing the team record of Brett Favre-to-Antonio Freeman for 58 touchdowns.

Now, it’s up to Graham to replicate the mojo Rodgers shared with Nelson, and Wilkerson is being paid to be a nasty lead dog on the newly revamped defense.

That’s a terrific day’s work for Gutekunst.

And free agency is just beginning.

 

Packers trade Randall

to Browns for Kizer

By Chris Havel

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers capped the NFL’s crazy, carousel-like week Friday by taking a spin of their own.

Green Bay sent cornerback Damarious Randall to Cleveland in exchange for quarterback DeShone Kizer. The Packers and Browns also swapped their fourth- and fifth-round picks, meaning Green Bay chooses first in each of those rounds.

Almost as an aside, ex-Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson made a free-agent visit to Green Bay before going ahead with planned visits with New Orleans and Oakland.

Meantime, Packers first-year GM Brian Gutekunst and head coach Mike McCarthy presented a unified front this week.

The key conclusions to draw:

** No. 1 – It is clear the Packers ARE going to be players in free agency. Whether or not they sign Wilkerson doesn’t change the fact that they brought a quality player in BEFORE free agency. The Packers’ 53-man roster for 2018 is far from set.

Before fans criticize the Packers for trading Randall they would be wise to wait for the other cleat to drop. Who knows? Perhaps ex-Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman will read David Bakhtiari’s tweet for help and come to Green Bay.

If you think there’s no way, you haven’t been paying attention. Whether it’s Sherman or another cornerback help is on the way.

** No. 2 – The Packers aren’t going to suffer players that tend to be disruptive finger-pointers (see Randall).

McCarthy made his displeasure with Randall clear last season. He benched the cornerback in Week 4 against the Bears and had him removed from the sideline in the second half.

Randall appeared to get the message.

He picked off a pass in three straight games and finished with a team-high four interceptions. Then he sat out the final two games with a knee injury and according to ESPN reports, some within the team felt he could have played through the injury.

The topper was Randall’s criticism of ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was fired after the season. It prompted McCarthy to share this after the season:

“I’ll tell you what I told Damarious: He needs to focus on himself. He’s got to clean his own house. That’s what I look for him to do in the offseason. We all understand what happened in the Chicago game, but I thought from the Chicago game on, he played at a very high level. He probably played the best football of his career, but then he didn’t play the last two games.

“He needs to go home and self-evaluate and clean his own house. We all need to clean our own house.”

It turns out McCarthy’s own housecleaning included Randall. Now Randall can clean his new house in Cleveland.

** No. 3 – Gutekunst isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. I won’t be stunned if he continues to use trades as an avenue to upgrade the roster. It seems to be the wave in the NFL right now.

Frankly, the first-year GM is doing what strong GM’s should do by supplying the coach with players best-suited to win a title.

Clearly, McCarthy’s patience with Randall had run out.

What the head coach perceived as a distraction, the GM perceived as a means to upgrade in three ways.

First, he sent Randall packing, which also reinforced this message to the team: The GM is going to support his head coach in terms of not keeping a player he may not want.

That’s significant.

Second, Gutekunst leapfrogged a total of 25 draft picks by swapping spots with Cleveland. Gutekunst still has 12 draft picks, but he now holds four of top 101, plus the first pick in the fourth round when the NFL Draft’s Day 3 kicks off.

That means Green Bay will have all night to decide which player still on the entire board is best-suited to help them. It also means other teams will have all night and the next day until 11 a.m. to also draw their conclusions and perhaps come calling.

Third, Gutekunst heard McCarthy’s plea for help at backup quarterback and responded in a big way.

Please don’t confuse DeShone Kizer with Brett Hundley.

Kizer starred at Notre Dame, was the 52nd player taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, and played OK given the almost impossible, trial-by-fire situation he faced as a rookie on the worst team.

Hundley had three years in the system and looked lost at times.

Kizer, who just turned 22 in January, started 15 games at Cleveland last season. That alone deserves a meritorious achievement award.

He was sacked 38 times (eighth-most) and constantly under pressure. His quarterback rating of 60.5 was bad, and his league-high 22 interceptions were even worse.

However, he still threw for 11 touchdowns and 2,894 yards while keeping the Browns competitive in numerous games.

I expect Kizer to outplay Hundley in training camp, although that presumes Hundley will be here. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hundley is part of a draft-weekend trade.

Hundley was 3-6 as a starter, but twice needed overtime to win, and that against NFL weaklings Cleveland and Tampa Bay.

When Aaron Rodgers griped about HIS quarterbacks coach, Alex Van Pelt, being let go he forgot about Hundley’s apparently substandard preparation as well as performance.

That was on Van Pelt.

Ultimately, the Randall trade creates a temporary void in the Packers’ defensive secondary.

They have Kevin King, Quinten Rollins returning from Achilles surgery, and Lenzy Pipkins and Josh Hawkins. Whether Davon House will be back after his one-year deal expired is unknown.

That’s it at cornerback.

I should clarify: That’s it for now. Give it a few days.

Free agency hasn’t even officially begun yet.

Brewers keep rolling;

No NCAAs for Bucky

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The question speaks to both the promise and potential for Wisconsin’s sports fans: Which of the in-state teams will best-satisfy their fans’ fondest wishes this year?

It merits debate between the Packers, Badgers (football and basketball), Brewers and Bucks.

Historically, the easy answer has been, “The Packers.”

So long as Green Bay has its front office and head coach in place, and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers have to be considered a legitimate threat to go deep into the playoffs.

On the other hand, the Packers are coming off a 7-9 season.

Reality bit as the Vikings’ Anthony Barr KO’d Rodgers to effectively end Green Bay’s season on Oct. 15. Many might’ve suspected as much, but watching the “worst-case scenario” unfold was a brutal dose of reality.

There was only one logical conclusion. The Packers’ roster needs work. In fact, it needs lots of work.

The Packers’ frenetic-but-necessary offseason of change gives hope that Green Bay will recapture its place among the NFC’s elite, but as last season proved there are no guarantees.

A championship is possible for the Packers, I suppose, but right now an NFC North Division title looks like it’ll require a whole lot of heavy lifting. I’ll have to see the draft and free agency before I can honestly say I think Green Bay is up to the task.

The Badgers’ football team is another story.

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst led the Badgers to one of their finest seasons in history. While Wisconsin missed its chance to participate in the College Football Playoffs, it did finish on a strong note by hammering the Hurricanes, 34-24, in Miami, to close the season.

Jonathan Taylor is one of the top running backs in the nation, and he’ll be working behind what is annually one of the top offensive lines in the Big Ten, if not the nation.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook needs to find consistency. If that happens, and the defense can replenish its depth chart (it should be able to), the Badgers should be a serious playoff contender.

To me, the Wisconsin football team has the best chance to make its fans drunk with delight.

The Badgers’ basketball team is a close second. In the past month, I have come to regard head coach Greg Gard as one of the finest around. He took an injury-ravaged, senior-absent team with a target on its jerseys and made it better.

In fact, he made it a lot better.

Wisconsin (15-18) won four of five down the stretch by riding Ethan Happ, Brad Davison and a determined group around them. The Badgers’ Big Ten Conference Tournament win over Maryland was impressive, followed by a rugged 63-60 loss to the eventual NCAA Champion Michigan State Spartans.

With D’mitric Trice, Kobe King and Trevor Anderson being available next season, the Badgers should be a Top 4 team in the Big Ten, and a surefire NCAA Tournament qualifier.

I think the Brewers are going to win more than the 86 games they did a year ago.

Why?

Let me count the ways: ** No. 1 – They are significantly better defensively.

The outfield added Gold Glove athletes in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Shortstop Orlando Arcia is going be better defensively with an entire big-league season under his belt. Already, he ranks among the most sensational shortstops.

** No. 2 – The pitchers and catchers have had a season together. Manny Pina, Stephen Vogt and Jett Bandy have worked, at one time or another, with Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Brent Suter, Brandon Woodruff and the rest.

It also matters with the relievers, Josh Hader and Corey Knebel, when late-inning jams leave no room for miscommunication.

** No. 3 – The hitters have shown exceptional plate discipline. I realize that it comes and goes, but the Brewers appear to take each at-bat seriously. That comes from having keen competition. There are several key jobs up for grabs (second base, first base, etc.) and the bats likely will decide who starts and who doesn’t.

** No. 4 – I know it’s early, but Chase Anderson and Zach Davies have looked strong thus far. That’s not surprising. However, the sharp early showings of Yo Gallardo and Junior Guerra do qualify as pleasant surprises.

Gallardo’s velocity is back in the low-to-mid ‘90s, which is plenty fast enough for him to be effective.

Guerra, you may recall, was the Brewers’ Opening Day starter who injured himself trying to get out of the batter’s box. Guerra’s season played out the like opener: It was a disaster.

The good news is Guerra’s velocity and control have returned – he threw 22 strikes on 24 pitches the other day. He also had three strikeouts and is positioning himself to win a spot in the rotation.

Then there is the Milwaukee Bucks, a team guaranteed to make you leap off the couch and shout superlatives and/or epithets with equal regularity.

The Bucks can be great and awful all on the same possession.

Right now, it appears Milwaukee is trying to be too cute on the offensive end, while leaving the dirty jobs undone.

The rebounding is atrocious. Turnovers have come too common. Tough defense is left for only the most crucial moments, which lately has been code for “too little, too late.”

The Bucks have great potential this post-season, but I’m not sure they’re gritty enough to battle the big boys.

There you have it: The Badgers’ football team, followed by the Packers and Badgers basketball as the teams most likely to have terrific 2018 seasons.

That, of course, means the Bucks will go deep into May, and the Brewers will win 92 games.

Brewers’ bats busy;

Bucks inconsistent

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s suddenly become a busy sports week, what with the Packers preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and the Badgers bracing for Maryland in Thursday’s first round of the Big Ten Conference basketball tournament.

First-year GM Brian Gutekunst’s news conference Wednesday in Indianapolis will be of great interest. I’m curious to learn how far he will go in discussing his team’s philosophy in terms of player acquisition.

Gutekunst has said the Packers will be thorough in researching potential free-agent acquisitions. That way, if a player becomes available, they won’t have to hesitate to make the deal.

The resurgent Badgers gave top seed Michigan State a bit of a scare in a 68-63 loss in Sunday’s Big Ten regular-season finale.

The Badgers tackle Maryland in the first round with the winner facing top seed Michigan State in Friday’s quarterfinals. I predict Wisconsin KO’s the Terps before being eliminated by the eventual NCAA Champions.

Meantime, the Brewers’ bats are banging away in spring training while the Bucks are spinning their wheels down the stretch.

The Brewers, 3-1 in Cactus League play, have been strong at the plate at the outset.

They outlasted the Cleveland Indians 7-6 on Monday in a game that featured Hernan Perez driving in a pair of runs while Keon Broxton and Jesus Aguilar had two hits each.

Last week, I tuned in to see Eric Sogard line a triple to right field, and Jonathan Villar drive a double off the fence in left.

Let the competition at second base – which also means at the plate – begin between Perez, Sogard and Villar.

Even Ryan Braun could get into the act: His assorted baseball gloves for this season arrived from Wilson. They included an infielder’s glove in case Braun gets time at second base.

Chase Anderson pitches Tuesday for the Brewers, the latest expected to throw an inning while knocking the rust off.

It’s only 30 days until the Brewers’ opener at San Diego. Between now and then, Anderson and Zach Davies need to be ready to go in order for Milwaukee to get off to a decent start.

Milwaukee’s Bucks are trying to start fast during the stretch run. They opened with an impressive overtime victory at Toronto, which came into the game as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.

Giannis has been amazing and the Bucks’ ball movement and defense were outstanding against the Raptors. It carried over for one half into the New Orleans game Sunday, with the Bucks leading 66-49 at the half.

The Pelicans promptly erased the entire deficit and went on to beat the Bucks, who are 33-26 with 23 games to play.

Milwaukee’s interim head coach, Joe Prunty, has the Bucks on the right path. Jabari Parker’s return has been significant and his role will continue to grow in the coming weeks. By the playoffs, Parker will be a player for opponents to reckon with.

While Tyler Zeller is finding his way, Khris Middleton is finding his range. Middleton has been shooting the lights out, and Eric Bledsoe seems to be more comfortable each night out.

The Brewers’ outlook is sunny and the Bucks are at least more interesting than they’ve been in recent memory.

Packers face key calls;

Brewers’ outlook sunny

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – This is the quote/unquote “Dead Zone” on the 2018 sports calendar.

The Daytona 500 has come and gone, the Eagles clinched Super Bowl LII and NCAA men’s and women’s basketball is still awaiting the conference tournaments and March Chaos.

The NHL and NBA playoff chases haven’t truly begun in earnest, while Major League Baseball teams are a still days away from spring training games.

The NFL’s offseason hasn’t started yet.

Free agency is still in its early stages, while the NFL scouting combine hasn’t been held yet.

It begs the question, “So what’s there to talk about?” My answer: Are you kidding me? There’s always more to talk about than time to cover it.

Let’s start with the Packers and free agency.

The name that should make Packers’ fans leap with joy is Jimmy Graham. The 6-7, 265-pound tight end is going to be a hot commodity in free agency, with teams such as New England (if Rob Gronkowski does indeed retire), the Houston Texans (whose WR, DeAndre Hopkins, has already started recruiting the TE on Instragram), the New Orleans Saints (who have $32 million beneath the cap) and of course the Packers.

Graham would be a perfect fit.

He caught 56 passes for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns last season in Seattle. He isn’t quite the deep threat that he used to be with his 4.53-second 40-yard dash time out of college, but he is a deadly weapon in the red zone and over the middle.

Packers’ GM Brian Gutekunst said he plans to be in on every available player, including free agents. He can send a strong message by courting Graham and perhaps signing him.

I’m certain Aaron Rodgers would be on board.

If the Packers sign Graham, extend Rodgers and add a veteran offensive tackle and edge pass rusher in free agency, it would set them up sweet for the April 26-28 NFL Draft.

Beyond impending free agency and dreaming big, the state’s sports fans have been treated to some unexpected but much welcomed strong play by the Badgers.

Wisconsin’s 73-63 victory in overtime Monday night at the Kohl Center wasn’t always pretty, but it ended beautifully. It was Wisconsin’s second straight win and assured the Badgers of being no worse than a No. 10 seed going into the Big Ten Conference Tournament.

On the heels of the Badgers’ 57-53 upset of sixth-ranked Purdue last week, it appears head coach Greg Gard has his team playing defense much more to his liking.

Wisconsin held the Golden Gophers to zero field goals in the final 5:56 of regulation. It allowed the Badgers to overcome what at one point appeared to be an insurmountable deficit. Wisconsin closed on a 22-5 run to seal it after trailing 58-51 with less than six minutes to play.

Ethan Happ had a modest 10 points and four rebounds, but his five assists out of double teams – coupled with Brad Davison’s and Brevin Pritzl’s 3-point shooting saved the day.

Today, Marques and I will talk Badgers with the great Matt Lepay, which is always a treat for us and the listeners.

We’ll also have heavy-duty Bucks talk as the Giannis-led Milwaukee squad heads into its 25-game stretch run. Milwaukee has been a pleasant surprise since Joe Prunty took over for Jason Kidd as interim head coach.

The Bucks have responded by playing much stouter defense, and the return of Jabari Parker and the addition of big-bodied Tyler Zeller have taken some rebounding-interior defense pressure from the rest of the squad.

I’ll be disappointed if the Bucks don’t finish 15-10 or better down the stretch. They’ve had time to relax and come together under Prunty, and they should be able to maximize the return of Parker, the addition of Zeller, and the chemistry that has been built between Eric Bledsoe and his teammates.

A glance at the rest of this week:

** Thursday: The Packers and free agency have been strange and rare dance partners. Who will be available in terms of “realistically” being pursued by the Packers? It’s a question of how much money the Packers will spend.

We’ll discuss the Packers’ best options.

** Friday: Our “Badger Breakdown” segment with Andy Coppens will focus on the Big Ten Conference tournament in, of all places, New York’s Madison Square Garden.

 

Eagles’ Pederson

MVP of SB LII

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While the Eagles and their fans joyously parade through the streets of Philadelphia let’s sift through the Super Bowl II confetti for a few tidbits, nuggets and leftovers …

** The Eagles’ 41-33 victory over New England at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis signals the NFC’s resurgence.

It is the stronger, deeper conference in every way.

It boasts the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles.

It features the lion’s share of the best and brightest quarterbacks, both young and old alike. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and a QB to be named (DeShaun Watson, perhaps?) doesn’t quite compare with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson and Jimmy Garappolo, not to mention Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, Jared Goff and the Super Bowl MVP, Nick Foles.

The Patriots have ruled the NFL roost forever.

But the loss to the Eagles had a ring of finality, and truth, to it.

New England’s dynamic duo of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady is the next-greatest tandem this side of Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr.

But even the great “Glory Years” Packers faded into folklore.

For the Patriots to reach eight Super Bowls in 17 seasons is ridiculous. To win five of the eight is amazing.

To sustain it for much longer is impossible.

Perhaps the Patriots get to one more Super Bowl with Belichick and Brady, but I doubt it. If it does happen, it’ll be as much about a weak AFC as it is a dominant Patriots team.

** The obvious question, in terms of the NFC’s return to power, is this: Where does it leave the Packers?

ESPN’s “way-too-early” power rankings have the Vikings fourth, the Packers eighth, the Lions 20th and the Bears 31st.

Green Bay’s offseason stands as recognition that significant changes needed to be made. It would’ve been irresponsible for the Packers hold tight while the rest of the NFC’s best swept past like they’re standing still.

President Mark Murphy, GM Brian Gutekunst, head coach Mike McCarthy and the rest need to be at the top of their game.

This is as pivotal and vital offseason as I can remember.

On Monday’s edition of Sports Line, Harry Sydney and I compared the Eagles’ and Packers’ opening rosters for the 2017 season. The gap was considerably in favor of the Eagles then, just as it is now.

Green Bay’s defense especially didn’t have nearly the horses that Philadelphia had to run the race.

That needs to change beginning with free agency.

At least two position units must be overhauled with significant help via free agency: The tight ends and the receivers. A lineup of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams isn’t reliable enough to believe it can be trusted an entire season.

Age, injury history and recent performance are factors that weigh against the Packers’ previously brilliant WR trio.

Now, Adams (and his concussion history), are all that stand between Aaron Rodgers and next-to-nothing to target.

Drafting a tight end within the first four rounds would be a logical move, but even that wouldn’t be enough to buoy the position group. Right now, it’s Richard Rodgers and nothing.

** Doug Pederson, who was Brett Favre’s understudy for seven seasons in Green Bay, turned in a brilliant coaching performance. If coaches could be the game’s MVP, Pederson would deserve thoughtful consideration.

Pederson’s gutsy 4th-and-1 decisions to go for it are ready examples of tremendous preparation, trust and execution. The Eagles’ head coach conveyed a calm, cool confidence that seemed born out of great faith in his program.

His aggressive play-calling resonated with Philadelphia fans and had some Packers’ fans wanting to see McCarthy be that forceful with his play calling.

The reality is Pederson’s personnel are much better right now.

The offensive line lost its best player in left tackle Jason Peters, and still out-played everyone including the Patriots.

The linebackers lost Jordan Hicks, their play-caller on defense, and still were able to close out New England.

Then, Wentz went down for the season.

Nobody panicked. They merely picked up the pace.

Foles stepped in, worked through a brief adjustment period, and led the Eagles to their first championship in 57 years.

Pederson kept it rolling along throughout.

To those who worked with him during his seven seasons in Green Bay, his performance in Super Bowl LII wasn’t a surprise.

In 2006, Sherman Lewis and Gilbert Brown talked about Pederson’s role as backup QB on the Super Bowl XXXI winner. Those comments were made in the book, “A Year of Champions: The 1996 Green Bay Packers.”

Lewis described Pederson as extremely confident and a natural born leader, great attributes to have as a head coach.

“Doug showed he has outstanding leadership qualities,” Lewis said. “He showed the staff he can move the team and win. He’s got a nice presence about him in the huddle. In addition, he has a good strong arm with the ability to throw on the run.”

Brown appreciated Pederson’s professionalism.

“A pro’s pro,” Brown said. “Doug understood the game as well as anybody, and he used that knowledge to help Brett and the offense in every way possible. He didn’t get much attention, but he didn’t need any. He was great in the locker room.”

In his quiet, understated way, Pederson was a vital resource to Packers’ head coach Mike Holmgren, Favre and the offense.

Clearly, Pederson was paying attention to everything going on.

Today, he stands as one of the NFL’s top head coaches, and his Eagles appear on the brink of a successful run.

The torch has been passed.

** For what it’s worth, I picked the Eagles 27-24, which covered both the spread (Eagles plus 4 ½ and the over/under 48), which puts me at 2-0 on the year.

Going forward with Hangin’ with Havel, I’m going to include a “rock solid lock” pick of the day.

Today’s game: Bucks (29-23) at Knicks (23-31)

Milwaukee, a two-point favorite, has won six of its last seven since ex-coach Jason Kidd’s firing. That includes a 92-90 nail-biter over the Knicks Friday night in Milwaukee.

Giannis sprained his ankle late in the game, but sounded hopeful that he’d be available for tonight’s game.

My pick: Bucks to win by 3 and cover.

Rooting for Eagles

easy call in SB LII

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It isn’t often that my head and heart actually agree with one another.

Super Bowl LII happens to be one of those moments.

Only a fool would bet against New England’s mythical head coach, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots’ ageless wonder at quarterback, Tom Brady.

OK, I’m a fool.

The Patriots are gunning for their third Super Bowl title in four seasons. That’s the stuff of greatness … the 1960’s Packers, 1970’s Steelers, 1980’s 49ers, 1990’s Cowboys … and so forth.

Standing in New England’s way is Philadelphia, the NFC’s No. 1 seed in name only according to many going into the playoffs. The Eagles are led by a second-year head coach, a backup quarterback and a defense that is too headstrong, too stubborn, too resilient, to realize when it’s finally met its match.

That’s OK because head coach Doug Pederson has been unflappable thus far, Nick Foles has been exceptional and the defense has been terrific.

Good for Philadelphia.

If anyone is able to stand up to the Patriots it’s a team that has had to endure a fair share of adversity to get here. The Eagles most assuredly qualify.

Injuries claimed Jason Peters, one of the NFL’s top left tackles, elusive third-down back Darren Sproles, and inside linebacker Jordan Hicks. All of that occurred before the Eagles lost MVP candidate Carson Wentz in Week 15 against the Los Angeles Rams. Wentz’s season-ending knee injury led to Nick Foles’ taking over at quarterback.

After a so-so start, Foles got comfortable and confident. He’s completing an unheard of 77.8 percent of his passes (49 of 63) in the post-season, many coming on RPO’s (Run-Pass Options).

He has three touchdowns and zero interceptions in victories over the Falcons (15-10) and Vikings (38-7).

Jay Ajayi, the lead running back, is a tough, no-nonsense ball carrier. He is perfect for big games and the spotlight because he doesn’t over-think it. He takes the toss or handoff, slides to a crease and then hits it.

Ajayi doesn’t shy away from contact and gets stronger as the game wears on. The Falcons had nothing like him to milk clock and salt away a 28-3 lead on the Patriots last year.

Legarette Blount is a goal-line and short-yardage banger, while ex-Wisconsin back Corey Clement is athletic and effective either between the tackles or as a receiver out of the backfield.

Eagles’ center Jason Kelce – brother to Travis Kelce of the Chiefs – is the best in the business. He should be able to neutralize much of what the Patriots’ defense tries to do in terms of pre-snap adjustments.

He’s also terrific sideline-to-sideline always hunting blocks, and he gets to the second level in a hurry.

Alshon Jeffrey and Zach Ertz lead a deep and capable receiving corps (wide outs and tight ends).

Then there’s the Eagles’ defense.

Philadelphia has given up a total of 17 points in two playoff games. The Falcons and Vikings were expected to put up that many points each in a single half.

Fletcher Cox is a man-eater in the heart of the defensive line. His supporting cast is active, relentless and well-oiled. The secondary is capable, especially if the Patriots’ wondrous tight end, Rob Gronkowski, is slowed by injuries.

In the end, I get why the Patriots are favored by 4 ½ points.

It’s New England. It’s the hoodie. It’s Tom Brady.

All that said, I’m going with the Eagles to win, 27-24, in what’s certain to be a thriller.

Ex-Badgers’ RBs in

SB LII limelight

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Corey Clement and James White find themselves in the center of the NFL universe this week.

The ex-Badgers’ running backs will play key roles in Super Bowl LII – White with New England and Clement with Philadelphia. The two “quote/unquote” third down backs are critical to their teams’ offensive success in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

While both starred at Wisconsin, Clement and White have taken different paths en route to their NFL success.

White was the Big Ten’s 2010 “Freshman of the Year” and had a strong college career despite splitting time with John Clay, Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball.

Because of that, perhaps, White slid to the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Patriots. He felt his way, learned the Patriots’ way, and continued to develop his first two seasons.

Last year, he capped a strong showing with a superlative Super Bowl LI performance. He set the Super Bowl records for most receptions (14) while scoring three touchdowns, including the first one scored in overtime in NFL history.

Clement, 5-10, 220, was part of the most successful class in Wisconsin football history (41-13). He finished eighth in career rushing average (5.4) and ninth in rushing touchdowns (36).

As a rookie in Philadelphia, Clement’s size and strength enabled him to be a competent ball carrier between the tackles, while his speed and athleticism made him a genuine threat as a receiver out of the backfield.

Clement rushed 74 times for 321 yards with four touchdowns this season. With Jay Ajayi grabbing the lead role, and LeGarrette Blount manning the short-yardage and goal-line situations, Clement became a third-down back.

It isn’t a crazy stretch to think that either Clement or White – and more likely both – will have a significant impact on the Super Bowl.

The Eagles boast the NFL’s No. 3-ranked rushing attack at 132.2 yards per game and a 4.5-yard average. The Patriots have the No. 20 running attack at 114.8 yards per game, but an ultra-effective 4.7 yards-per-carry average.

It’s an interesting difference in philosophy and style.

The Eagles are more content to bang away with Ajayi, Blount and Clement while relying on a truly clever run scheme. The Eagles’ center, Jason Kelce, is the best in the business. He sets the tone and the running backs follow it.

They trust Eagles head coach Doug Pederson to call running plays and stick with that part of the attack. The Eagles supplement that with the short passing game while relying on the tight ends and backs out of the backfield.

It’s a perfect fit for Clement’s diverse skill-set.

It’s much the same with White in New England.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder is adept as a receiver and a runner in an attack that coordinator Josh McDaniels insists on throwing out of the backfield.

White’s forte is moving the chains and turning what appears to be an inconsequential 6-yard grab into a huge play.

In a bit of irony, the Packers’ offense has been lacking a back with similar talents to Clement and White.

Both starred down in Madison, and both could’ve been had for a tremendously reasonable price. Either would look terrific in a Packers’ uniform.

Both will be key to their team’s success in Super Bowl LII.

Packers’ Murphy

gets unfair grief

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy on Monday introduced a new general manager and a new way of doing football business.

He named Brian Gutekunst the Packers’ general manager.

Then, he announced a new structure that splits former GM Ted Thompson’s previous job in half.

Gutekunst will be in charge of the Packers’ personnel department, which includes presiding over the NFL draft and having final say on the team’s 90- and 53-man rosters.

Russ Ball will be responsible for negotiating contracts and managing the Packers’ salary cap.

Mike McCarthy will continue in his role as head coach with largely unchanged duties. The difference is that the team’s president, rather than the GM, is in charge of hiring and firing the head coach.

Some in the media have portrayed this as a triangular structure fraught with peril. Talk about melodramatic. The reality is the Packers are the 16th NFL team to adopt this structure. It should be commended as the Packers getting with the times.

Instead, Murphy has been roundly criticized by those who wish to portray this as a power grab.

They say, “Oh no”“ the sky is falling because the coach, GM and financial manager all are reporting to the president!”

To that, I say, “What’s your point?”

Either you trust Murphy or you don’t. To my knowledge, Murphy has been an exemplary team president the past decade. The success on and off the field is undeniable.

Nevertheless, Murphy seldom stepped into the spotlight, not once showing any indication of having an ego to match the magnitude of his position.

It’s embarrassing to think those media members who had zilch to say about Murphy before Monday’s news conference suddenly have all kinds of negative opinions and assertions.

Where is this coming from?

I have the answer: Shortsightedness is one reason. Cryptic thinking is another. Believing the worst of a person in a position of authority may be a third.

The suggestion that Murphy – by having his three key football people reporting directly to him – is somehow his way of grabbing control makes no sense.

Unless the trio is Curly, Moe and Larry, the personalities involved matter far more than the distribution of power.

Putting Gutekunst, McCarthy and Ball in charge of their areas of expertise, and allowing them to proceed as they see fit, makes perfect sense.

That’s called leadership. It’s called giving direction. It’s called being on top of the franchise that’s been entrusted to you.

Yet, Murphy is getting flak on some fronts.

It is true Murphy could’ve given Gutekunst the power to hire and fire the head coach, but he elected to seize control and remove that element from the coach-GM working relationship.

He did it for a reason, my best educated guess being that it creates a dynamic of Gutekunst and McCarthy truly being in this together.

Murphy has taken clear steps to improve the communication and collaboration at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.

One might quibble about the personalities involved, be it McCarthy as a coach, or Ball as a salary guy, or Gutekunst as a talent evaluator, but to criticize the structure is knee-jerk.

This is nothing like what’s happened in the Packers’ past.

That’s because it’s known as forward, progressive thinking.

Trust me, at some point in the next two seasons, I’ll be kind enough to refrain from saying, “I told you so … or not.”

Job No. 1 for Packers’ next GM: Build a “D”

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mike McCarthy’s fire was on full display during Thursday’s season-ending news conference.

Too bad the Packers’ pass rush didn’t bring it like that.

McCarthy talked a lot about “fits” though he never mentioned the “fits” fans often had watching Dom Capers’ defensive unit being skewered by opposing offenses.

In an informative Q&A session with media, McCarthy offered several telling and insightful comments. Among those that jumped out at me was the belief that Green Bay’s defense needs to be better than its offense.

McCarthy said exactly that to reporters, adding that there are four ways to accomplish that: Player acquisition, player instruction, player finances and player performance.

Aside from the alphabet, that might be the first time “D” came before “O” in Green Bay.

It was a necessary and refreshing statement.

Aaron Rodgers, at 34, isn’t the same quarterback he was at 29. He has had more wear and tear, including the broken right clavicle this past season.

McCarthy needs to go back to square one: Do everything he can to make the quarterback position successful. If that happens, the team wins.

To make it happen, the defense has to be significantly upgraded. It begins with a new defensive coordinator and the culture and mentality he sets in place.

Frankly, the Packers need pass rushers, pure and simple. Right now, they can’t get to the opposing quarterback consistently. Against the best teams that isn’t going to be good enough.

The Packers’ next GM must be able to recognize and acquire high-end pass rushers, the more the merrier.

If my math is correct, and the Packers do indeed receive a third round compensatory pick for the departed T.J. Lang in free agency, Green Bay would select at 14, 36, 78 and again somewhere in the mid-90s. That’s four Top 90 players, including two in the top third.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Green Bay went for edge rushers with both selections. The only exception might be if a Top 3 quarterback somehow becomes available at 14.

McCarthy also needs to mold an offense designed to rely on the run almost as much as the pass. It also has to have a dynamic that allows it to move the chains and eat the clock. Ball control is going to be more critical as Rodgers gets on in years.

Rodgers has to be able to throw when he wants to, as opposed to because he has to.

A No. 2 receiver to go with Davante Adams, a high-end tight end and continued development of the running backs are all critical on McCarthy’s “To Do” list.

McCarthy and the Packers’ next GM face a big task: Rebuilding the defense. McCarthy needs to make the right choice at coordinator and the GM needs to acquire enough talent at pass rusher.

That alone sounds like two big jobs for one offseason.

Packers clean house:

Thompson steps aside

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Packers president Mark Murphy’s assessment of outgoing GM Ted Thompson was spot on.

“I think his record speaks for itself,” Murphy said Tuesday. “I realize that he’s a little bit of a lightning rod for our fans, but when you step back and look at it, what he’s accomplished as a GM speaks for itself. It was never about him. He’s a very humble man. He’s tremendously loyal to the Packers.”

Murphy’s comments came after news that Thompson was no longer the Packers’ GM but would continue with the title, “Senior Advisor to Football Operations.”

Of all Thompson’s personnel moves the best was his first: He drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Now, it seems like a no-brainer.

Back then, it was more than a bit controversial to spend a first-round pick on a quarterback when the legendary gunslinger, Brett Favre, was still able to play at a Pro Bowl level.

That set the stage for one of the great handoffs in NFL history: Favre to Rodgers.

B.J. Raji, Nick Collins, Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and so many other draft picks were key figures on the 2010 Super Bowl championship team. All were selected by Thompson.

Murphy will be hiring the Packers’ next GM.

Clearly, the Packers’ director of operations, Eliot Wolf, is among the leading candidates to replace Thompson.

For my part, I’d like to see Wolf in the role for many reasons. Here are two: ** He knows the inner-workings of the franchise, including the personnel department, coaching staff and roster. He would hit the ground running for the 2018 NFL Draft in late April.

** Wolf has had a front-row seat to Thompson’s way of doing things. He also has input from his Hall of Fame father, Ron, and certainly fresh ideas of his own he’d like to implement.

That’s all good stuff.

Thompson also cleared up reports that suggested the Packers’ Board of Directors pressured Murphy into the change.

“There’s no truth to the story that I was directed by the board (of directors) to make a change,” Murphy said Tuesday. “Our board doesn’t operate that way. It was my decision to move the way we have, and this is going to be my hire. I keep our executive committee (apprised).”

The Packers also parted ways with several members of the defensive staff, including coordinator Dom Capers.

Murphy made it clear that head coach Mike McCarthy was in charge of that hire, and that it was independent from his own GM search.

“Mike has that authority (to hire),” Murphy said. “Things move quickly on the coaching side. You don’t want to put yourself at a disadvantage.”

The Packers also extended McCarthy’s contract through 2019. There’s no lame duck here.

“Mike is our man,” Murphy said. “He is our coach. We have all the confidence in the world in Mike that we’re going to have great success moving forward.”

My preference would be hiring a defensive coordinator from outside, although defensive backs coach Joe Whitt and assistant head coach, defense, Winston Moss, also is a possibility from within.

At any rate, the winds of change are sweeping through 1265 Lombardi Avenue. Thus far, the moves are not only solid, but necessary.

Packers-Bears game

early tipping point in

NFC North Division

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Bears (1-2) enter tonight’s NFC North Division matchup against the Packers feeling ecstatic in the wake of a rugged 23-17 overtime win against the Steelers.

The Packers (2-1) aren’t feeling nearly so frisky.

The offensive line is in tatters following a bruising 27-24 overtime win against the Bengals. The top five tackles are out: starters David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bryan Bulaga (ankle) are unavailable tonight. Also out are Kyle Murphy, Jason Spriggs and Don Barclay, all of whom are on injured reserve.

That leaves Adam Pankey at left tackle, Justin McCray at right tackle and newly acquired Ulrich John to back them up.

None is a household name beyond his own house.

The Packers must rely on Aaron Rodgers’ nimble feet to avoid disaster and powerful right arm to win the day.

So what’s new?

The combination has been successful, but it puts great stress on both the quarterback and the available weapons.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy must walk a fine line.

He needs to be aggressive and creative in his play-calling in order for the Packers to lead with their best punch: The offense. Likewise, he has to be careful not to put Rodgers in harm’s way.

Frankly, there aren’t many NFL teams that could expect to win despite losing their top five offensive tackles.

In Green Bay the mantra is: Rodgers will conquer all.

So how do the Packers get past the upstart Bears?

Here’s a roadmap to victory:

** The Packers need to play an up-tempo style on offense. The no-huddle might be too much to ask, given the number of new players and moving parts, but a “sugar” huddle could work.

By “sugar” huddle, I mean getting the play in, hustling to the line of scrimmage and snapping the football. The idea isn’t so much to create great mismatches – although it’s one goal – but rather to prevent the new tackles from “over-thinking it.”

Pankey and McCray are in an unenviable situation.

They are expected to protect the franchise – aka Rodgers – without missing a beat, or a block. On the other hand, if they were that sure-fire dependable they would’ve been starting long before this.

** Take shots deep against the Bears’ secondary.

Obviously, that suggests Rodgers will have time to take shots downfield. But how can that be given the Bears’ above-average pass rush and the Packers’ lack of experienced tackles?

That’s simple: Go into the play knowing Rodgers is going to have to buy time – almost like a “Hail Mary” situation – and rely on roll-outs, boot action and misdirection.

If Rodgers is going to extend plays better that they’re planned rather than off the cuff. It’s like the “apparent” chaos in the red zone when a play breaks down. In truth, the Packers have practiced for the inevitable red zone breakdowns that may occur.

** Employ an array of single-, double- and yes even triple-tight end formations to keep the Bears’ defenders guessing.

Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Richard Rodgers represent a deep, experienced and talented tight end group. I wouldn’t be surprised if all three have key roles tonight.

They are adept at setting an edge in the run game, finding the soft spots should the Bears play zone and making big plays when split wide against linebackers.

The tight ends are critical to the Packers’ success tonight.

** As much as the Packers need to run the football with a modicum of success, this isn’t the game to push that goal.

Green Bay’s running attack may grow legs as the season rolls along, but to expect Ty Montgomery and perhaps Jamaal Williams to penetrate the Bears’ front seven to great effect is akin to whistling while you pass a cemetery. It might bring comfort in the moment, but it’s not going to save the day.

** Rely on brisk special teams’ play to be an asset, rather than a liability. The Packers can’t afford special teams’ miscues. Muffed punts, poor snaps, missed field goals and blown tackles are going to be difficult to overcome with such a slim margin for error going in.

Prediction time: I suspect tonight’s Bears-Packers game will be similar to the Bengals’ game. If you’re looking for the Packers to be in mid-season form forget it. They’re in survival mode.

Fortunately, they’re also in Green Bay.

If this game were scheduled for Soldier Field, rather than Lambeau Field, the challenge may be too much to overcome. As it stands, the Packers should find a way to come out on top in a close one: Packers 24, Bears 23.

The reward will be a 3-1 win-loss record, first place in the NFC North and a 10-day stretch to heal up for what’s to come.

 

Brewers-Pirates ties,

Clemente on mind as Hurricane Maria punishes Puerto Rico

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While the Brewers wrap up a three-game series tonight at Pittsburgh, I’ll pause to say a prayer for the earthquake victims in Mexico City, as well as those in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that were ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

The natural disasters’ aftermath is difficult to watch on TV.

In Mexico City, neighbors and family members are pulling loved ones – some alive, some dead – from beneath the rubble of a 7.1 monster’s devastation.

In San Juan, the hearty citizens are coping with neither water nor electricity while surviving in the aftermath of a 140-mph demon.

Meantime, in Pittsburgh, the Brewers are trying to defeat the Pirates and pull even with the Colorado Rockies in the National League wild-card race.

The juxtaposition of life and death is painfully obvious.

What matters? What doesn’t?

The Brewers’ hunt for October is paramount to long-time fans, and understandably so. I count myself among them.

But I also would like to count myself among those who pause to be grateful for everything we have in this great country of ours.

Baseball, in general, and the Brewers in particular, represent one of my favorite diversions from life’s occasional difficulties.

Ever since Robin Yount was dubbed “The Kid” by the great Bob Uecker, the Brewers have been a welcome outlet despite the wide range of emotions they evoke.

Tears of joy, tears of sadness … they make you feel it all.

They make you feel alive.

Tonight’s game at Pittsburgh is intriguing on its own merit, although I wouldn’t discount the ancillary stories.

In many ways, they rise to a higher level of importance.

While Hurricane Maria’s viciousness is being unleashed upon San Juan, I can’t help but think of one of my childhood heroes, and one of Puerto Rico’s national heroes, Roberto Clemente.

Clemente, perhaps the greatest Pirate of all-time, died at age 38 in a plane crash. He was on an aid mission to help victims of a mammoth earthquake that ravaged in Managua, Nicaragua.

The Dec. 31, 1972, plane crash that killed Clemente and three others occurred shortly after takeoff, landing in the waters of Puerto Rico not far from where Hurricane Maria made landfall.

While Clemente was boarding the ill-fated flight, Expos pitcher Tom Walker (who was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico) asked to join him on his mission of mercy.

Whether it was because of the plane’s load limit, or the fact that Walker was single and Clemente wanted him to enjoy New Year’s Eve is unclear, but Clemente told him to stay.

Tonight, in Pittsburgh, Neil Walker is going to be in a Brewers uniform trying to help them defeat his former team – the Pirates.

Obviously, that wouldn’t be the case had his father not heeded Clemente’s words.

Walker has been a godsend for Milwaukee. The switch-hitting second baseman has been a guiding veteran force while the young Brewers find their way in an unexpected pennant race.

Walker’s story just might be recounted on tonight’s broadcast.

Another story undoubtedly will focus on baseball’s all-time rise in home runs. Hitters are swinging for the fences – and belting baseballs over them – at a record rate. Last night, the previous single-season record for total home runs was crushed.

Some say the home run rise is due to a nasty return of PEDs. Some say it’s because the baseballs are wound tighter. Some say it’s because the hitters are being encouraged to swing away and say, “Oh, well,” if they strike out in the process.

The “modern” analytics suggest it’s best to take your hacks. Strikeout totals, not surprisingly, also are at an all-time high.

Interestingly, the great Roberto Clemente weighed in on this very topic many seasons ago.

Clemente hit .317 during his 18-year career.

The 15-time All-Star also smacked 240 home runs and drove in 1,305 runs.

Clemente’s view on hitting was this: “I am more valuable to my TEAM hitting .330 than swinging for home runs”

At the 1971 All-Star Game, a reporter asked the 12-time Gold Glove winner when he was going to get his 3,000th hit.

Clemente replied, “Well, uh, you never know. I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, ‘you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know.”

Clemente swatted a double for his 3,000th hit on Sept. 30, 1972, at Three Rivers Stadium.

It was the final at-bat of his career.

 

Packers-Seahawks

opener a severe

stress test for both

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Expect the unexpected.

As contradictory as the statement may be – after all it’s not unexpected if you expect it – it does seem to be great advice, especially when it comes to NFL season openers.

Just ask New England.

If those first three paragraphs seem familiar, if not redundant, it’s because that was the opening of my Seahawks-Packers preview column.

The Packers’ 17-9 victory over Seattle Sunday at Lambeau Field proved the point.

When the Las Vegas odds-makers are that far off – Las Vegas had the Packers as a 3-point favorite in a high-scoring (51 point over/under) game – it suggests the unexpected.

A defensive struggle against the Seahawks is the rule. The Packers’ defense being the unit causing fits is the exception.

Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers can be proud of his defense’s performance in the opener. They dominated on third down, held their ground on first down, and played fast, smart football for the most part.

Mike Daniels was the game’s MVP, but it wouldn’t have happened without big efforts from Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and especially Nick Perry.

Early on, Perry and Daniels set the tone.

They had a meeting at the quarterback on every other down, or so it seemed in the first quarter.

The Seahawks’ Russell Wilson never had a chance to get his feet set and throw it downfield. In fact, he didn’t have many chances to slide out of the pocket and make plays downfield, either. To the Green Bay defense’s credit it played sound, consistent, fundamental football.

Safety Kentrell Brice was on the field a lot. So were Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett and even Josh Jones to a lesser extent.

Offensively, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers were able to do enough in the second half to claim victory. The positives:

** Ty Montgomery had 24 touches, including 19 carries, in what qualified as a good day’s work.

Montgomery needs as much experience as he can get. That’s especially true in the run game and in pass protection. On one occasion, he knocked right tackle Kyle Murphy off his block in a weak attempt to provide help.

On the whole, Montgomery played well though.

The best thing is he hasn’t even scratched the surface.

Here’s a prediction: In the next three weeks, Montgomery’s headlines will be all about his great versatility. He’ll be catching passes out of the backfield, and out of the slot, and creating match-up nightmares for opposing defenses.

Montgomery is a byproduct of his past and the Packers’ future.

Green Bay has elected to utilize the running back position in a more unconventional way. They’ll hand it off or toss it and run between the tackles, to be sure, but that alone isn’t enough.

The Packers demand that Montgomery be strong in pass pro, a rugged runner inside and a threat in the passing attack as a receiver.

The great thing he possesses the skills.

As the season unfolds, and Montgomery gets more established as a running back, I suspect Jamaal Williams’ role as a runner will expand. In turn, Montgomery may have fewer snaps on obvious run downs, but be more dangerous the rest of the time.

** Murphy played well enough to give the Packers’ offense hope that it can survive without the services of Bryan Bulaga at least on a limited basis.

The Packers’ offense would love to have Bulaga for Sunday night’s game at Atlanta. The more experience a line has in a loud, hostile environment the better.

If necessary, though, Murphy appears to be able to bridge the gap.

** Finally, the Packers’ offense still has to utilize its double-tight end formation to the fullest.

Perhaps Sunday night’s game will be a coming-out party for the tight ends, and in particular Martellus Bennett.

The Packers’ defense looks promising, the special teams’ look solid and the offense is teeming with proven talent and unlimited potential.

Final score: Packers 30, Falcons 28.

 

Packers-Seahawks

opener a severe

stress test for both

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Expect the unexpected.

As contradictory as the statement may be – after all it’s not unexpected if you expect it – it does seem to be great advice, especially when it comes to NFL season openers.

Just ask New England.

The Patriots waltzed into Thursday night’s regular-season home opener as the reigning Super Bowl champs and 9-point favorites over an allegedly overmatched Kansas City squad.

They walked away in resounding defeat.

The Chiefs’ 42-27 victory left Patriots quarterback Tom Brady questioning his team’s effort and many NFL observers questioning the Patriots, period.

To believe this is the beginning of the end for New England head coach Bill Belichick’s rule over the NFL is a gross overreaction. The Patriots will be near the finish line. Whether they cross it first remains to be seen.

However, New England’s loss should be a cautionary tale as the Packers go into Sunday’s 3:25 p.m. regular-season opener against Seattle at Lambeau Field.

The perceived gap between the Packers and Seahawks (Green Bay is a 3-point favorite) is much closer than that between the Patriots and Chiefs.

I doubt anyone in the Packers’ locker room is taking Seattle for granted. On the other hand, if they needed a ready reminder of what could happen, the Chiefs-Patriots game provided it.

Frankly, I believe the Packers are going to beat the Seahawks. I see something along the lines of 31-20 for a final.

It isn’t that I don’t believe Seattle is capable of winning. In fact, the Packers couldn’t have been given a more difficult two games to open the season than Seahawks and at Atlanta.

The Seahawks are among the NFC’s top teams.

Eight of their 11 defensive starters have played in at least one Pro Bowl. They can rush the passer, stop the run and play terrific defense on the backside.

Safety Earl Thomas is a special player who covers ground the way former Packers’ safety Nick Collins did back in the day.

Thomas missed the Packers’ 38-10 blowout victory over Seattle a year ago. He is healthy this time and ready to roll. His presence alone is the single-greatest difference in a year.

The Seahawks’ offense still features Russell Wilson, Jimmy Graham and a cast of receivers who are better than most casual fans suspect. Toss in (or to) Eddie Lacy and/or Thomas Rawls and the Seahawks’ offense remains a handful.

The Packers would be in a difficult spot without the offseason acquisition of seven battle-tested veterans, including four on defense. Ricky Jean Francois and Quinton Dial bring size, talent and toughness to the defensive line.

Ahmad Brooks brings pass rush ability.

Davon House is an experienced, above-average cornerback who will be a strong addition to the position.

Former Falcons’ linebacker Chris Odom also should play a role. Add right guard Jahri Evans and tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, and the Packers had one heck of an offseason.

Each fills a key role.

The intriguing aspect is seeing how it all unfolds.

Seattle is renowned for being a rugged, physically imposing defensive team with KO capabilities on special teams and an offense that’s built to go hand-in-hand with that style.

In the not-too-distant past the question would be: Will Aaron Rodgers and the offense put up enough points to KO Seattle?

Coming into Sunday’s game the question is: How much trouble might Green Bay’s double-tight ends, healthy backs and receivers and robust offensive line cause for the Seahawks?

I suspect plenty.

The Packers will score at least 30 points. Take it to the bank.

I can’t see the Seahawks’ offense keeping pace. Seattle may try to play keep-away from Rodgers by being conservative and utilizing the clock. That’s where the Packers’ revitalized defense comes into play.

From Kenny Clark to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix the Green Bay defense appears to be built on a strong foundation. For the first time in a while I’m sure defensive coordinator Dom Capers has the horses to run the race.

Win or lose, the Packers’ fans are going to learn a lot about their team in the season opener. I’m confident it’ll be a win and what they’ll learn is the Packers truly are “all in” for the 2017 season.

Are you ready for some football?

I thought so!

 

 

Packers preseason

ends with a blessing,

rather than a bang

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ pre-season finale served a handful of purposes.

First, it wrapped up what has been a productive, mostly drama- and injury-free training camp and pre-season.

The Packers’ 24-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Thursday night’s Shrine Game at Lambeau Field was low key as finale’s go.

Second, the Packers will field a team better-equipped to do battle with the Seattle Seahawks in the Sept. 10 season opener, and again the following Sunday night in Atlanta.

The injuries have been limited.

Bryan Bulaga and Nick Perry are expected to return from ankle injuries in time for the Seattle game. Clay Matthews has experienced groin tightness but nothing that will sideline him.

Dean Lowry’s knee injury proved to not be serious. He also is expected to go against the Seahawks.

Damarious Randall returned from the concussion protocol, Ty Montgomery battled through some soft-tissue issues and Davon House missed time with a hamstring pull but is now a full go.

In terms of being a better team, let me count the ways:

** 1 – The addition of defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois and linebacker Ahmad Brooks has given the Packers’ defense a decidedly tougher mentality.

Both played on a first-rate 3-4 defense at San Francisco. The Packers’ linebackers won’t be confused with Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Brooks.

On the other hand, the Packers at least HAVE Brooks.

Francois also is a rugged veteran who reminded everyone of it during training camp and the pre-season games. Guys like Francois come in, do their job well and play to win. There’s no drama, no assembly required and no missing time with hurts.

** 2 – The Packers’ defense has a new look that will be unveiled as the regular season unfolds. That is the ability to deploy multiple safeties both in and behind the front seven who are fast, strong and in most cases experienced. They also have – for the most part – excellent ball skills.

Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a terrific tandem. Factor in Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans and rookie Josh Jones and it’s loaded with potential.

It’s a way for Capers to combat offenses that utilize running backs, tight ends and occasionally big receivers (the Falcons, for example) to control the middle of the field.

With Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Jones and/or Brice lurking it’s going to be more difficult for quarterbacks to be certain of a receiver’s being open.

It’s better to play defense on the attack – by that I mean bringing up tough, big safeties that can blitz, fill run gaps or cover a wide receiver if necessary – as opposed to dropping linebackers and corners into zones.

** 3 – Aaron Rodgers and the offense are ready to roll.

It’ll be interesting to see how head coach Mike McCarthy chooses to deploy his tight ends and running backs against the Seahawks. He could use a heavy dose of double-tight end with Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. He could deploy two tight ends and three receivers. He could even go four wide receivers and a tight end.

The options are many. We’ll find out how readily available the Seahawks will have answers.

** 4 – The kicking game in particular and the special teams’ units in general look good.

Special teams’ coordinator Ron Zook deserves high marks for getting his units up to speed.

This is such an improvement over his predecessor that I won’t even bother to mention the ex-teams coach by name.

Also, it’s time to have Trevor Davis return kicks as well as punts. Jeff Janis isn’t the answer.

** 5 – The Packers were active in free agency, at least compared to past forways, and continue to try and improve. It shows in the signing of Brooks within days of his release from the 49ers.

The next step is deciding on the final 53-man roster and 10-man practice squad.

I’ll hit all of that in a Sunday column.

 

Packers preseason shows potential for double-TE domination

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis.  Through two pre-season games the Packers appear to be on track with just 19 days between now and the Sept. 10 regular-season home opener against Seattle.

Injuries have been held to a reasonable minimum, especially with word that defensive end Dean Lowry’s knee injury isn’t serious.

The rookies and undrafted free agents are displaying genuine quality competition as they battle to make the 53-man roster. Young players such as cornerback Josh Hawkins and others have forced the coaching staff to take notice.

All four quarterbacks – top to bottom – have looked sharp.

Even head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff have kept mistakes to a minimum while searching for answers as the season fast-approaches.

Here’s what we know with a fair degree of certainty:

** Aaron Rodgers has had an excellent off-season, training camp and pre-season.

The perennial Pro Bowl quarterback looks like a man on a mission to realize his stated goal for the Packers.

“We need to play our best football in the biggest moments” Rodgers said this off-season.

That was a mouthful.

The Packers trail only the otherworldly New England Patriots in terms of sustaining success. Now, in the wake of eight straight post-season appearances, Green Bay wants more.

It needs more.

The thought of winning just one Super Bowl with Rodgers running the show is difficult to accept. The majority of Packers fans realize how challenging it is to win a championship.

In the mid-to-late ’70s and ’80s the Packers existed in a baron wasteland devoid of any meaningful success.

Thanks to the Packers gods that has changed.

Green Bay’s fans fully expect their team to flatten the NFC North, capture the conference title and KO whichever team the AFC sends to meet it in the Super Bowl.

It’s a lot easier said than done, of course, but that’s the expectation and for good reason.

Here are two of the best:

** 1  The defense simply can’t be as bad as it was a year ago.

Kenny Clark and Lowry have elevated their games. Clay Matthews comes in healthy, and Nick Perry looks like a player who is going to kick butt after a breakthrough season.

Kevin King, Josh Jones and Hawkins have all flashed, and it appears King is going to be in the starting lineup.

Situational pass rushers such as Kyler Fackrell and Jayrone Elliott need to step up, and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett can’t be forced to do all the heavy lifting.

The rush-cover balance needs to get in sync. The good news is the Packers have options in the secondary, unlike last year, and a stout front with Mike Daniels, Clark and Lowry.

** 2  The Packers double-tight end formation is going to be a major pain in the butt for opposing defenses.

I’m not sure how you defend Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Jordy Nelson, DaVante Adams and Ty Montgomery in the red zone.

In the Packers 21-17 victory at Washington, Rodgers hit Bennett for a touchdown when the big tight end beat Redskins linebacker Zach Brown in the corner of the end zone. Brown is one of the best cover linebackers in the league, so it mattered.

Frankly, Rodgers could’ve gone to Kendricks, who was open on the other side, or even Adams in the slot.

The options were many. The answers were few.

Clearly, there is plenty of work to be done, and nobody in their right mind believes the Seahawks and Falcons are going to bring anything less than their best against the Packers.

The challenge is real. Thus far, the Packers look up to it.

 

The FAN website column for Friday, Aug. 11

Packers’ preseason opener a positive
for defense, teams

By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was 21 pre-seasons ago when a former and soon-to-be-again famous receiver/return specialist was about down to his last at-bat with the Packers.
Green Bay’s GM, Ron Wolf, loved Desmond Howard.
He believed the former Heisman Trophy winner could be a valuable player as both a return ace and a slot receiver. It turned out that Howard simply couldn’t cut it as a wide-out.
He was too small, too slow and too iffy on difficult catches.
Then, in a single pre-season game, Howard captivated his critics and proved the future Pro Football Hall of Fame GM as being correct. Howard won a roster spot as a return specialist, and went on to have one of the greatest seasons in team history.
The Packers went on to win Super Bowl XIII, Howard would be named the game’s Most Valuable Player, and perhaps none of it would’ve happened if not for a “meaningless” game in August.
Today, I am looking at an aspiring NFL receiver/return specialist named Trevor Davis with similar thoughts.
Davis, a second-year receiver out of Cal, was determined to do everything in his power to make the Packers’ 53-man roster. With that in mind, he sent video of each and every punt return he made during this past off-season to special teams coach Ron Zook. He intended to show Zook and the Packers just how serious he was about returning punts and playing football.
The extra effort paid dividends Thursday night when Davis corralled a long punt, feigned left, cut right and exploded past would-be tacklers for a 68-yard touchdown return.
The Packers went on to a 24-9 victory over Philadelphia in their pre-season opener at Lambeau Field.
Davis picked up several excellent blocks along the way, including a dandy by second-year safety Marwin Evans.
If Davis continues to have a strong camp and plays well in the remaining three pre-season games he quite likely set the stage for work as the full-time punt returner against the Eagles.
Other observations from the Packers’ pre-season opener:
** Kenny Clark is the real deal.
The second-year pro out of UCLA scarcely resembles the young pup that showed up a year ago. Clark, at 6-3, 314, was active and explosive as he shoved around the Eagles’ offensive line.
I really liked Clark as a rookie. He was just 20 years old when he arrived in the NFL, which is a tall task when you’re facing grown men in the trenches.
Clark responded by learning, taking his lumps and finishing strong. This past off-season he was dedicated to becoming stronger and it has paid off.
** Dean Lowry is right there with Clark.
It all starts up front for the defense and Mike Daniels, Clark and Lowry are a good place to begin.
Lowry has made great strides and Daniels appears to be his same old ornery self.
The defensive line may be the second-most improved unit behind the tight ends.
** Rookie running back Jamaal Williams is going to have a significantly positive impact on this season if he stays healthy. Williams, as predicted, is a tough runner inside the tackles. He makes what appears to be a 2- or 3-yard gain that actually turns out to bring up second-and-5.
Ty Montgomery also looked good in spite of the fumble.
It’s better to be reminded about ball protection in the pre-season opener as opposed to the regular season.
Montgomery will be OK, especially as a pass catcher out of the backfield. It’s my best guess that Williams will become the so-called “four-minute back” when the Packers have fourth quarter-leads and are trying to work the clock.
** Justin Vogel had a strong night as a punter.
In fact, he’s so good that I’ll cut him slack for wearing the legendary No. 5 on his jersey. That’s so long as he changes it so something more appropriate after the final roster cut.
** The snap, the hold and the kick were good last night.
It was all in sync and nothing to see there.
Mason Crosby is quietly becoming one of the great players – that’s right, I said players – in team history.
** Everyone who likes Josh Jones and Kevin King raise your hands? OK, you all can put them down now.
As I suspected it was unanimous.
Jones flashed the awareness and physicality that he has become associated with. He will be interesting to watch as the season progresses.
King, the lanky, 6-3, 200-pound cornerback, is a willing hitter. He got beat a couple of times but that’s the best way to learn.
They make the secondary faster, stronger and more athletic. They are the type of pieces to grow with and build around.
** Injuries were the night’s only dark side.
Malachi Dupre took a shot that forced him out on a stretcher, but the rookie receiver sent out a tweet that he’ll be OK.
Don Barclay, the journeyman offensive lineman, appeared to injure his ankle. Barclay, who was a disaster as a back-up tackle, was actually a very do-able back-up center.
Now that plan has been turned upside-down.
I’ll be curious to see how McCarthy and the personnel people respond.

The FAN website column for Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017

Packers’ preseason opener offers shot at roles, playing time,

especially QB Hundley

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Pro athletes aren’t the only ones who can be superstitious. Fans and even ex-pro athletes also have their moments.

When Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a season-ending knee injury the question was posed: Who should the Dolphins sign – Jay Cutler or Colin Kaepernick?

Frankly, I would have stayed with backup Matt Moore as the starter and signed a lesser quarterback not named Cutler OR Kaepernick but that’s just me.

The Dolphins went with Mr. Sour Puss for $10 million in addition to another possible $2-to-$3 million in incentives.

So I posed the question during a commercial break on Sports Line: What would the Packers do if they were in a similar situation?

Crickets chirping … silence … more crickets … nothing.

Finally, my running mate, Harry Sydney, says, “C’mon, man. We can’t go there. It’s bad luck.”

Eric Fischer, our producer/intern, agreed.

He acted as if he’d rather be sprayed by a rabid skunk than pose that question in “Last Caller Standing” format to listeners.

OK, let’s forget the potential nightmare of a Rodgers injury.

However, there is the reality of what to do in terms of his backup, Brett Hundley, this year and beyond.

Hundley, a fifth-round pick in 2015, has played well in the preseason. He has been everything the Packers thought he could be when they drafted him out of UCLA to be Rodgers’ understudy.

Hundley drew praise during his rookie preseason.

Last year, he was beleaguered by an ankle injury and did little.

Hundley’s understanding of the offense, strong arm and quick feet make him a valuable commodity. He played well in the Packers’ Family Night practice at Lambeau Field, when he connected with tight end Richard Rodgers for a long touchdown.

He played in four regular-season games in 2016 in mop-up duty.

“It’s a little hard when you get put in at the end of games and you get a drive or two to get out there,” Hundley told reporters earlier this week. “I feel like this is the time I’ll be able to get some rhythm down (rhythm) is the big word or key word for it, and be able to get going and get into a rhythm as a quarterback and get back out there and have some fun and maybe get hit once or twice.”

Nobody wants to see Rodgers or Hundley get hit.

It’s why Rodgers likely won’t play Thursday night against Philadelphia in the Packers’ pre-season opener at Lambeau Field.

For Hundley, it means an opportunity to sharpen his game, and to shine for his current team and other teams’ scouts.

There has been talk that the Packers had received offers during the draft for Hundley, but nothing good enough to make GM Ted Thompson bite.

Frankly, if Hundley was going to be traded, that would’ve been the most likely time.

Each day that the regular season draws nearer is another day it makes less sense to trade Hundley. He is the best option to keep the Packers’ offense afloat for a quarter, a half or a handful of games if necessary.

Hundley is the prototypical “draft and develop” success story. He’s too valuable to trade until either this season’s mid-point – depending on how the Packers are playing – or next spring.

My advice right now is to do nothing.

There is no precedent for another team to come offering a first- or second-round pick for the Packers’ backup QB. However, a third-round pick is reasonable based on Green Bay’s history with Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, Mark Brunell and others.

The third round appears to be the cutoff. I might be tempted, but I still would feel better with Hundley on the roster, as opposed to a big question mark at backup QB and an extra pick next spring.

For years, some Packers’ fans greatest criticism of Thompson was his apparent aversion to “going for it” by being aggressive in free agency. The reality of the Hundley situation is that by keeping him, the Packers ARE being aggressive. They’re making the statement that this season is more important than next spring’s draft.

If Rodgers were to miss a handful of games, I believe Hundley would still give Green Bay a chance to win, which could be crucial to staying in the playoff hunt.

Hundley’s presence – regardless of the obvious fact that Packers’ fans hope he never has to play – gives Green Bay its best chance to survive without Rodgers on a short-term basis.

If the Packers truly believe they are going somewhere this season, the best move is to make sure Hundley goes nowhere.

 

The FAN website column for Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017

Packers’ Rollins has ‘outplayed’ everyone at the corner position

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

 

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers get back to work tonight at 6:15 p.m. at Ray Nitschke Field.

After two padded practices and a day off Wednesday here are several early conclusions:

** Quinten Rollins is recapturing the confident, consistent play that made him a contributor in the Packers’ playoff win at Washington two post-seasons ago.

Rollins, who battled injuries during a slump-ridden sophomore season, has been accountable and available thus far.

Joe White, the defensive backs coach, had high praise for Rollins while admitting it should be fairly obvious.

“He’s pretty much outplayed everybody,” Whitt said.

Rollins, who is entering his third season of organized football, seemed to struggle with the physical and mental demands of an NFL season.

In his third season, he appears to have matured in all ways.

Clearly, Rollins’ strong play makes for an interesting situation among the cornerbacks.

Davon House has been very good since his return after a stint in Jacksonville. House prepares and practices like the veteran he is and that’s had to be a positive on the position group.

Rookie Kevin King is dealing with a shoulder injury, but when he’s been on the field he’s played well. He has flashed the range (a wiry 6-foot-3 frame), the ball skills and the speed that made him an early second-round pick.

Whitt told reporters he’s going to ask Aaron Rodgers to start testing the Packers’ top pick.

“I’m going to ask Aaron to throw more his way. When you see 6-foot-3 over there pressed up, the ball’s going to go the other way.”

Meantime, rookie safety/linebacker Josh Jones continues to impress. Jones’ ball skills are a pleasant surprise for me.

I knew he was a legit hitter and willing tackler.

What I’ve been impressed with is his ability to drop into coverage in zone, or to turn and run with running backs or tight ends in man-to-man coverage.

Jones’ awareness belies his inexperience, at least early on.

** Packers GM Ted Thompson has no timetable or date or plans to announce his retirement. Thompson, 64, teased the media by noting that the only time he’s asked about retirement is during news conferences in Green Bay.

He also joked that the media “would have to wait to see the end of the movie” to find out.

Joking aside Thompson said he feels “good to go” which is welcome news for Packers fans.

** On another front, Thompson said he has long supported the new roster reduction change in which teams’ rosters go from 90 to 53 in a single cut.

“I think it gives you more opportunity to see things, to weigh what you think you have against what other people might have … there’s a lot of mistakes made on that cut down to 75 and it helps you get through that last (preseason) game.”

** Defensive linemen Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have been really strong thus far.

Both second-year pros appear stronger, more confident and more active in camp so far.

The offseason programs seem to have had an impact in terms of quickness and explosiveness.

** Meantime, rookie defensive lineman Montravius Adams’ foot surgery to repair a stress fracture qualifies as a major disappointment. I thought Adams could generate interior pass rush, which is something defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit could really use.

Instead, we’ll have to wait and see with Adams.

It’s unfortunate.

 

Pads come on, turf flies as Packers turn up the heat at camp

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN for Sunday 7/30/17

GREEN BAY, Wis. – True to its namesake Ray Nitschke Field bore the brunt of the punishment during the Packers’ lively, first-time-in-pads popping Saturday morning practice.

Pads smacked and turf flew as the Packers’ players leapt helmet-first into the initial padded practice of camp.

The pace appeared quick without being hurried.

After all these years it’s still impressive to see how much teaching, coaching, learning and training head coach Mike McCarthy’s staff and players accomplish in minimal time.

While the half-line running drill was pitting running backs and offensive linemen versus the defense’s front seven over here, the wide receivers and defensive backs were dueling 1-on-1 over there.

It is fast-paced and furious, if all too brief compared to the NFL’s training camps of old, although much can be learned.

For instance, my initial disappointment in rookie Montravius Adams’ inability to practice was impossible to hide.

I had ghastly flashbacks of Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy, Khyri Thornton and other not-so-illustrious defensive ends who were oft-injured and painfully inconsistent when healthy.

Because McCarthy’s daily briefing occurred before practice, rather than after, I’m not sure why Adams sat out. Clearly it’s unfair of me to draw any serious conclusions, but I’ve got to admit it’s a setback when a rugged, tough, exceptional looking athlete such as Adams works through two non-padded practices, only to be unavailable when the lights (and the pads) come on.

I guess I’ll have to chill, though I am curious as to Adams’ status.

Other first day in pads observations:

** The running backs position group appears to be deeper, more decisive and more talented than any in recent memory.

Not since Eddie Lacy’s first few seasons has the position been this diversely skilled and seemingly polished.

Subsequent practices, the Family Night Scrimmage and preseason games will determine the backs’ pecking order, but early on Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Davante Mays seem prepared to stage a serious battle to back up Ty Montgomery.

By the way, Montgomery looked smooth as silk – both his hands and his feet – as he snatched quck tosses, snared checkdowns in the flat and hauled in wheel routes down and up the sideline.

So far, all I can say is so good with the running backs.

For whatever it is worth two previously nondescript backs – William Stanback (43) of Virginia Union and Khalif Phillips (34) of Charlotte – looked to have nice acceleration, hands and awareness.

You heard it here first.

** Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks are an imposing duo when they stand side-by-side in the huddle. Bennett looks like he’s a half-foot taller than everyone else. Kendricks is strong, wide and quick.

You’ll like it when you see it.

Trust me on that.

** The Packers’ secondary featured Kevin King (20) at right cornerback and Davon House (31) at left cornerback in their first-team base unit.

King competes and his quickness and skills are apparent to the most novice football aficionado.

House just steps into the huddle as if he belongs. I can’t imagine House not being a key player in the defense.

Speaking of key players, rookie Josh Jones (27) lines up pretty much with every group and sub-package the Packers play.

He’s at safety, in the slot and at inside linebacker (a lot) throughout the course of practice. Jones is like that thoroughbred that you let have its head and fly. He appears to be of the belief that “the more, the better” and so forth.

I am intrigued by Jones’ upbeat attitude, range and attention to what he’s doing on and off the field. It’s early but Jones really and truly looks the part of an NFL defender.

** It’s always great to see familiar and friendly faces such as Johnny Gray at training camp. Gray, one of my running mates on Green Bay Game Day, looks and feels great.

He’s the best at mixing fun (surprise) with business – what’s going on during the practice – and it’s always an honor.

El Syd, aka Harry Sydney, also was bopping up and down the sideline with both the music during TV timeouts and the action when it warranted. El Syd and I will be back at it Tuesday on Sports Line as Harry will be hosting the Harry Sydney Open on Monday at Fox Hills Resort in Mishicot. Harry’s My Brother’s Keeper benefits men of all ages and is a necessity here.

I’ll be manning the mike with Eric the Intern on Monday as the Packers are off Sunday but get back to work Monday morning.

Until then ….

 

The FAN website column for Thursday, July 27, 2017

Packers’ camp opens with bright outlook

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ first day of training camp opened beneath a sun-washed sky on a gorgeous Green Bay Chamber of Commerce kind of day.

Fans of all ages surrounded Clarke Hinkle Field as if it was the center of the universe. For all intents and purposes, it is their universe – their Packers football universe. Fans plan their summer vacations around training camp.

Packers President Mark Murphy marveled at the wide-eyed and curious making a human chain perhaps six deep around the practice field.

“This is always a great day,” Murphy said as he surveyed the spectacle that is a Packers’ training camp practice.

Today’s practice drew its usual share of “oohs” and “aahs” from the fans. Great catches by Jordy Nelson and Martellus Bennett, among others, sparked cheers.

The occasional dropped pass or errant throw elicited a healthy dose of encouragement from fans.

Here are a handful of observations from the first practice of training camp. The pads don’t come on until Saturday morning’s practice so it’s wise to reserve judgment.

Then again, this much we know:

** Martellus Bennett (80) and Lance Kendricks (84) most definitely look the part. The tandem appears imposing, talented and confident. Richard Rodgers (82) also looks leaner and a bit quicker and sharper than last year.

In short, the Packers are long on tight ends.

The way they play on offense is going to be influenced by the tight end position’s remake than any other offseason move at any other position.

The Packers can go double-tight end and balance up the defense. That allows them to run or throw with equal ferocity.

They can mix and match personnel up to and including: Two backs and one receiver with the two tight ends; one back and two receivers; or three receivers and no backs.

My best five-man weaponry: Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb or Kendricks (depending on the matchup), Ty Montgomery and Bennett.

That’s a lot of explosiveness.

** Montravius Adams (90) only has his jersey number in common with B.J. Raji. Adams, at 6-4, 304, is long-levered player who just might be able to generate pass rush at either tackle or end in a 4-3 front.

He has long arms and obvious suddenness.

Where it goes from Day One remains to be seen with Saturday’s practice being the first chance to appraise.

I’m as curious about Adams as almost any other player on the roster.

** Kenny Clark (97) is a monster.

He just turned 21 but looks much thicker, stronger and more explosive than a year ago.

And I liked him a lot as a rookie.

He progressed as the season unfolded, survived a down-turn in late November into early December, and rebounded to finish strong. Clark’s a winner. Packers’ fans will begin to appreciate him more and more as this season plays out.

** The Packers have 11 cornerbacks on the roster.

The starters on Day One appear to be Davon House (31) and LaDarius Gunter (36) on the outside with Damarious Randall (23) lining up in the slot.

That leaves Kevin King (20), the Packers’ first overall pick, along with Quinten Rollins (24), Demetri Goodson (39), Herb Waters (26) and Josh Hawkins (28) as the holdovers. Newcomers include Daquon (38) and Donatello (44) – that’s Holmes and Brown – as well as Pipkins (41) and Pringle (46) Lenzy and Raysean – to round out the position.

Early conclusions suggest Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers don’t want to rush King. I like the strategy of easing him into the job.

House’s appearance with the first unit might surprise some, but based on his experience and production it makes sense.

Gunter earned the spot based upon last year’s play. Earning the opportunity is one thing. Keeping the job is quite another.

Either way, Gunter will be on the 53-man roster.

 

The FAN website column for Wednesday, July 26 2017

The five best things about Packers’ camp opening

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It doesn’t seem fair to limit it to five.

The Packers’ start of training camp Thursday offers so many reasons to be excited, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

So 10 it is:

** No. 1 – It means there’s only six weeks between now and the Sept. 10 regular season-opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field.

It’s doubly important in that Green Bay travels to Atlanta to play the NFC’s defending champions the following Sunday night.

What better way to get the Packers’ attention than to open with back-to-back games against two of the NFC’s best. What better means to accurately assess where the Packers are early than with top-flight in-conference competition.

Is the Packers’ defense good enough? Can Ty Montgomery carry the load at running back? Will Aaron Rodgers and the offense start strong and never look back?

The games against Seattle and Atlanta carry an importance that extends beyond getting off to a fast start. It should be a great gauge as to where head coach Mike McCarthy’s team is in early September, and where it needs to be by mid-December.

Fans won’t have to wait and wonder for long.

** 2 – Until this week the 2017 rookie draft class is little more than a talent pool of potential based upon success at the college level. That changes in earnest when the pads come on this week.

For the first time we will be able to compare and contrast the rookies against the veterans. It won’t be OTA’s, mini-camps and college highlight videos.

It’ll be grown men going helmet-to-helmet. No, this isn’t your father’s training camp, but it remains a grind nonetheless. It will test the rookies’ bodies and minds.

Will Kevin King, Josh Jones and the rest stay healthy?

Will they be able to compete from Day One?

In the case of King and Jones they better be able to.

Will they blend in with regards to working their technique in drills, battling in one-on-one drills and playing efficiently and effectively during the live periods?

All those questions remain. The answers began to reveal themselves on Thursday.

** No. 3 – What is the role for newcomers Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks at tight end? Will the Packers be operating out of more double-tight end formations? Will we see both Bennett and Kendricks line up wide with a pair of quick receivers lining up in the slot?

The possibilities are almost endless.

It’s refreshing to have top-rate personnel at a key position that has been underutilized in recent seasons.

** No. 4 – It’s always fun to watch Aaron Rodgers do his thing.

Rodgers is one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks and it appears he’s had the offseason to take it even higher.

He appears to be in a great place both physically and mentally. At 33, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit. If anything his offseason commitment to preparing himself has been inspiring.

He weighed a tight 218 pounds early in the offseason. His arm strength remains on the “shock and awe” category to this day.

Furthermore, it appears GM Ted Thompson has done an exceptional job surrounding Rodgers with what he needs most. He has a lifeline at tight end. He has a stable of potentially capable running backs. His offensive line is established.

Last, but not least, there are the receivers.

This might be the best collection of weapons ever for Rodgers, especially when you include the tight ends and Montgomery out of the backfield.

** No. 5 – It’s time to see what the Packers truly have on defense. Can they get to the quarterback when they bring five pass rushers? They better be able to or it’s going to be awful difficult to beat teams such as Atlanta.

What is Josh Jones’ role going to be? Will defensive tackle Montravius Adams make an immediate impact as an interior pass rusher? That would be a godsend.

How long will it be before Vince Biegel is on the field and ready to challenge for snaps as an edge pass rusher? Meantime, will Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell be able to take advantage of the reps they receive in his absence?

Finally, and perhaps most important, will Clay Matthews and Nick Perry become the book-end pass rushers they’re paid to be? It’s essential that they deliver this season.

They are the defensive team leaders. When Matthews and/or Perry perform the defense wins more often than it loses. When they don’t deliver it leads to a flood of points and losses.

It’s time to get the season started. It’s time to get some answers.

In the words of ex-Ravens linebacker Bart Scott: “Can’t wait!”

 

Sports’ dead zone doesn’t exist today

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. –

This is the alleged “dead zone” of the sports calendar. I write alleged because I totally disagree.

There is no such thing as a sports’ “dead zone” any longer.

It doesn’t exist.

There is too much media coverage, too much social media availability and too much interest for it to be otherwise. Frankly, there is too much money in play for it to be otherwise.

The question is this: What do sports talk hosts choose to talk about? Clearly, there are options. The trick is to pick one, decide upon an interesting angle and then explore it.

I actually listened to a national radio show discuss August’s Connor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather bout at length. And I enjoyed it.

The four-city non-news tour I could do without, but the actual bout and outcome is interesting.

In the case of McGregor-Mayweather the four-city tour is an attempt to drum up interest to watch McGregor go down fast and hard. If they’re into it that sort of outcome they’ll definitely get their pay-per-view money’s worth.

My surprise is that I actually stayed with the McGregor-Mayweather discussion, mostly because I’m curious to learn exactly how badly “Money” will take McGregor apart.

It isn’t going to be pretty, but it cost a pretty penny.

In other sports news, the Brewers kick off their second half at Miller Park against the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’ll be interesting to see the Brewers’ focus, as well as their interaction with fans and each other. Success can do strange things to the best of folks, especially when they’ve had a week to ponder on their own magnificence.

It seems doubtful the Brewers (50-41) will fall prey to vanity. So many in the lineup and on the roster are being paid like paupers, compared with the majority of their big-league counterparts.

As dangerous as success can be the quest for the life-changing contract trumps all. In fact, they aren’t mutually exclusive. If the success is handled correctly, or as Packers head coach Mike McCarthy would say, “Stacked upon each other,” it’s all good.

Zach Davies is going to start tonight’s game, with Jimmy Nelson to follow. I like the order. Davies is a steady, reliable hand who brings out the best in the Brewers’ bats.

Nelson, the undeniable staff ace, has the type of stuff to get the Phillies in a 0-and-2 hole at the plate and in the series.

My question is this: What can deny the Brewers?

The list is surprisingly brief.

The Brewers needed to add another arm and they did with the trade for ex-Yankees lefty Tyler Webb. The move allows Josh Hader to likely join the starting rotation sooner than later.

It also gives manager Craig Counsell the flexibility out of the bullpen with a reliable left. He loses Hader but gains Webb.

As a bonus, if Hader joins the Brewers’ rotation it would be somewhat formidable. You’d have righties Matt Garza plus Davies and Nelson. None of those three is similar. You also have Brent Suter, a soft-throwing but aggressive lefty, and Hader, who has big-time stuff.

The second half is shaping up nicely for the Brewers.

It’s time for them to get off to a good starting beginning tonight

 

Wednesday, July 12 2017

Brewers always entertaining; now they’re winning

Baseball fans thrilled with Milwaukee’s unlikely but exhilarating ascent

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers are the talk of Wisconsin, if not the baseball world, for the incredibly pleasant surprise that is the first half of the 2017 season.

Las Vegas believed the Brewers were a 71-91 team, thus the over/under betting line on total wins of 70 ½.

Who wouldn’t want to make that bet now?

The Brewers (50-41) sit atop the National League Central by an impressive 5 ½ games. That they are ahead of the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs and the perennially pesky St. Louis Cardinals is nothing short of shocking.

Even the most ardent Brewers fans couldn’t have seen this coming.

The question is why? Why are they so surprisingly good?

The answers are numerous and varied.

Clearly, the Cubs and Cardinals have been underperforming in a very big way. Both clubs – but especially the Cubs – will be better after the All-Star break than they were before it.

That means the Brewers will have a tiny margin for error.

To do the unthinkable and actually WIN the NL Central the Brewers will have to do a bit of upgrading, maintaining and hoping that:

** Chase Anderson returns sooner than later from his oblique injury and that when he does he recaptures his prior form.

It could happen, but that’s asking for a lot.

** Whether Anderson does or doesn’t return to form the Brewers must add another starting-caliber pitcher. They are in position to do so because they’ve got a cornucopia of outfield talent and big-league hitters who could be traded.

That list begins with Ryan Braun.

I love Braun, and if he stays and hits like he’s capable of, he could be a positive factor down the stretch. The problem is the Brewers don’t appear to need more hitting, but rather more pitching. Who doesn’t in the majors?

If GM David Stearns can make a move involving Braun he ought to pull the trigger. I’d be less inclined to give up young talent, however, because the future is difficult to predict.

That’s especially true of baseball at the highest level.

The Brewers’ 71 remaining games will be a grind. Clearly, the schedule doesn’t get easier with several extended road trips against playoff-caliber teams (Nationals, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs and Cardinals).

My greatest concern is that the starting pitching won’t hold up.

Jimmy Nelson is developing into the staff’s ace.

He has the best stuff among the starters and he has the experience to blossom into a potential 20-game winner. Those are rare these days.

Mighty mite Zach Davies (10-4) has been quite reliable. He pitches well enough to give his team a chance, and then he relies on their big bats to help him finish the job.

Davies’ terrific run support is one reason he’s been so successful, but let’s not discount his influence on the lineup. His position-playing teammates know a couple of things when Davies is on the mound.

First, he’s going to work fast and throw strikes. That tends to equate to fewer base runners, fewer long innings and less of an opportunity to fall asleep on defense.

Anyone who has played baseball at a high school level and beyond knows that teams rally around the starting pitcher. Whether it’s Nelson, who can dominate, or Davies, who merely seems to get the job done without fanfare, teammates respect pitching that gives them a chance.

Nelson and Davies have done that routinely.

Junior Guerra needs to recapture his form, while Matt Garza appears to be pitching better now than at any point in his time with Milwaukee. If Garza can sustain that it’s a huge bonus.

Wily Peralta seems to be a lost soul, while Brent Suter is a crafty little left who understands the subtleties of pitching. Whether he can weave his way through big-league lineups on a consistent basis will be interesting to see.

Out of the bullpen the Brewers are blessed

Neftali Feliz’s awful start as the closer would’ve been a greater disaster if not for Corey Knebel, the Brewers’ lone All-Star.

Knebel showed some mettle by coming back last Sunday to notch the save against the Yankees a day after blowing a late lead. That was wise for manager Craig Counsel to get him back on the mound after the rough night.

This is crazy, but that’s the first I’ve mentioned Counsel, who has been doing a manager-of-the-year job thus far.

No matter what comes after the All-Star break nothing can change the fact that the Brewers have outperformed all expectations to this point.

It’s certainly made for a quick transition from spring training to training camp, which is just 15 days away.