Thursday, January 10, 2008

Endgame: Green Bay Packers

The NFL Playoffs are at hand. As such, Alex and Zac will be revisiting all twelve playoff teams, the characters that have made it to the final chapter in this season's story, and digging deeper to find out just who they've become having arrived at this point. Today, Zac takes a look at the Green Bay Packers.

If the Packers were a song:

Katrina & The Waves – “Walking on Sunshine”

The single most fun thing going on, even after all these years.

If the Packers were a political figure:

Mayor Mickey of Toontown

Where everyone is having a blast, the only authority figure you need is one just old enough to know the destination of the collective journey, but still crazy enough to join in with the madness.

Who are the Packers?

Brett Favre slapping high fives with an NFL official after a TD pass was one of my favorite moments of this NFL season in that it seemed to embody the way this entire year had been played, with each game being another pleasant surprise for Favre and company. That moment was also a very revealing one for anybody who has watched Brett Favre play over the last couple of years. There was something different, something MUCH more playful, in the way he responded to his success, the same way it’s been all year, and I’m beginning to think it’s about much more than Favre willing himself to a return to his glory days. I once thought that the Packers were an extension of the identity of Brett Favre, a point I stressed in my preseason evaluation of the team. I still believe that to be the case, but I think that my earlier analysis was unfairly one-sided. Watching Brett Favre play this year, two things are evident: The first is that he is still the driving force of the Green Bay Packers, and his identity is what shapes the team. The second is that, this year, Favre has been shaped by the team around him almost as much as they have been shaped by him.

The result is a team that has a veteran presence steering its resolve and a youthful exuberance making every play something worth watching. In his heyday, Favre was always a man carrying a team by sheer fiery determination. Those Green Bay squads were his responsibility, and he was ready to do whatever it took to make them great because he could. By contrast, this year’s team looks like the really cool high school class that everybody wanted to be in, and Favre is the Robin Williams of this Dead Poets Society. Greg Jennings’ game has grown in proportion to his smile, and James Jones has emerged as a sneaky slot threat, another credit to the Packers knack for finding receiving threats outside of the first round. Ryan Grant has a one cut and GO style that is akin to a contractor setting the nail and hammering it in; it’s efficient, precise, and devastatingly powerful. Oh, and Donald Driver has still got wheels. All of these pieces come together under Favre who, rather than constraining them to a slower, safer system, lets them run rampant and tries to step his game up to match their oace. The results are often breathtaking and always, for lack of a better descriptor, fun; Favre seems to take a childlike joy in discovering all the nifty things his offensive toys can do, and the team seems to be getting a kick out of seeing the old man smile. The results are also quantifiably outstanding; the Packers offense is the second best in the league in terms of yardage.

The defense is equally unpredictable, although not always with the positive results the offense has produced. The front four have the size and speed to wreak havoc on offenses, the linebacking corps is nothing short of stellar, and the secondary has gone from inconsistent to near shutdown caliber talent with the development of Atari Bigby. Still, with all of this potential, the unit has been far too average. Where the offense has excelled, the defense seems to be struggling to harness its firepower. The blame for that struggle and the responsibility for fixing it, then, falls on the veterans of the squad, Nick Collins and Charles Woodson, two old-school corners who know how to be great. When they keep everyone on the same page, the defense looks like it has as much fun destroying magic as the offense does creating it.

In the end, I like the Packers, and I like their chances in the playoffs, and it’s not only because of the Brett Favre revival tour. When the defense clicks and Ryan Grant finds his holes, this team is every bit as talented across the board as anyone they’ll be facing. They can go long, they can shut you down, they can make you pay for underestimating them on both sides of the ball, and, thanks to Grant’s sudden development, they can now move the ball the old fashioned way. They are, in many ways, the NFC’s perfect opposite to the AFC’s darling New England Patriots. Yet where the Pats often resemble a Ferrari, a top of the line machine with top of the line parts operating with an almost surgical precision, the Packers look like the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, a high powered joyride flying around the field without logical limits, their recklessness paying dividends in results. It’s that carefree quality that makes them the real team to beat in the NFC, regardless of records, and my personal favorite in the playoffs as well. There are teams that look more organized, and there are teams that seem to consistently play up to a specific level, but none of them make me feel the way I do watching a bunch of young guys having a blast, truly playing the game, and their old chaperones looking on and saying “to hell with it, let’s join in for one more go around.”

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