Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last week, you know by now that the Green Bay Packers concluded the 2010-11 NFL season with their 13th World Championship.  (Yes, Pittsburgh, pre-Super Bowl history does count.  At the time, the Packers first two Super Bowl wins were considered almost an afterthought to the 5 NFL titles that the team won in 7 seasons under Vince Lombardi.)  And now that he can officially justify his ‘championship belt’, no player on the Packers is probably more satisfied than quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

He’s way too smart and media-savvy to say it publicly, of course, but somewhere maybe not so deep down inside Rodgers there has to be an overwhelming urge to plant one big ‘I told you so’ on his critics.  From barely being recruited out of high school through having an excruciating wait on draft day to having little kids literally curse at him during his first post-Favre training camp (and, BTW, if you’re the parent of one of those you should be ashamed of yourself no matter what the circumstance), Rodgers has  proven his doubters wrong every step of the way and clearly established himself as the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, with the uncertain status of labor negotiations in the National Football League as well as the current contract situations of a number of players on the team, that future is a little out of focus at the moment.  Many fans (as well as media members) appear to be looking at the youth of the team as well as the return of some key contributors from the injured list and are proclaiming at least the potential for a modern day ‘dynasty’.  I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade but to automatically assume more Super Bowl appearances for the Packers might be a bit premature.  Especially when you consider that it was a beneficial string of occurrences that allowed Green Bay to even make the playoffs in the first place.  As fans of the Milwaukee Bucks can well attest, what looks good on paper often doesn’t translate well to the actual playing of games.

The Packers are going to have a number of issues to resolve in the offseason before they can position themselves for another championship run.  They’ve already lost one coach (WR coach Jimmy Robinson to Dallas) and a number of players figure to depart as well.  Defensive end Cullen Jenkins appears as good as gone and right now it looks like even money or better that offensive linemen Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Mark Tauscher will be too.  Even the linebacking and receiver corps could take on a decidedly different look next season depending on the outcome of the draft and individual contract negotiations.  In addition, the NFL owners dispute with the players association will derail the Packers offseason program, one of the strengths of head coach Mike McCarthy’s administration. 

The Packers had to rely on superior team character and chemistry to overcome an inordinate amount of adversity this past year.  In his post-Super Bowl comments, Rodgers alluded to the “hunger” of some of the younger, unsung players who stepped up in place of injured starters.  With the accomplishment of a Super Bowl title in hand, if that drive is diminished even a little it might render it less of a defining factor.

To that end, here are a few key players (aside from the obvious stars) that I believe will bear watching heading into next season:

Mike Neal (DE)-Jenkins’ forthcoming exit opens up a spot on the line for the 2nd year player out of Purdue.  Neal showed a lot of strength and ability before he got injured.  He needs to prove he can continue to develop and stay healthy so he doesn’t become another Justin Harrell.

T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga (OL)-Assuming Colledge and Tauscher are gone, the Packers will need to rely on these two players to stabilize the offensive line.  Although drafted as the heir apparent to left tackle Chad Clifton, Bulaga looks to be a fixture on the right side for now.  Lang appears to be the best candidate to replace Colledge and should be an upgrade.  My concern for him is that he was clearly affected by missing last offseason with a wrist injury and his development could be further delayed by this year’s labor uncertainty.  An offensive line is generally only as good as its weakest link and it has to be one of the team’s priorities to keep a solid wall around Rodgers.

Morgan Burnett (S)-Another rookie who missed most of the season with an injury, Burnett needs to show he can recover with no ill effects.  Veteran Charlie Peprah capably replaced Burnett after he was lost for the season, but with cornerback Charles Woodson’s advancing age, he’ll likely be asked to play closer to the line in the future which makes it imperative that the Packers have someone with a little more athletic ability playing alongside Nick Collins in the defensive backfield.

Eric Walden (LB)-Walden showed the most promise of all the revolving door of linebackers that the Packers used opposite Clay Matthews throughout the season.  But he’s not a rookie and it remains to be seen if he was more than just a flash in the pan.

It will also be interesting to see how McCarthy plans to integrate running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley back into the offense.  Grant’s return would seem to provide an effective one-two punch with rookie James Starks, but then where does that leave Brandon Jackson?  Jackson is probably the team’s best blocker as far as blitz pickup and his departure could hinder the passing game.  Finley is obviously a transcendent talent, but he also needs to prove he can last a full season.  Plus, when Finley was still available early in the season, it was almost as if Rodgers was overly reliant on him much in the same manner as Favre used to be with Sterling Sharpe.  Once Finley went out for the year, wide receiver Greg Jennings became more of a focal point and the passing game seemed to open up.  The Packers need to find a way to reincorporate Finley without forcing the ball his way.

The Packers obviously have the pieces and administration in place for a bright future.  But I plan on enjoying this championship for what it was without placing too much burden of expectation on the team going forward.

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After the Wisconsin Badgers lost last week at Penn State, I promised on twitter that I would forgive them if they beat Ohio State so I guess I have to make good on that promise.  Admittedly, I didn’t hold out a lot of hope when they clanked up a bunch of bricks in the first half at Iowa the other night and it certainly didn’t look good yesterday when they were down by 15 points in the second half.  But, if nothing else, the Badgers proved that they can still hold serve at the Kohl Center against the best teams in the country.  And make no mistake, despite yesterday’s loss, the Ohio State Buckeyes are still the class of the Big(11)Ten, if not the nation.

As Jon wrote on this site last night, junior guard Jordan Taylor is the engine that drives this machine.  He proved it again yesterday by almost personally willing the Badgers to victory with his second half performance.  While forward Jon Leuer receives much of the accolades as a candidate for the Naismith award, it is Taylor that is the difference maker for Wisconsin.  Which begs the question of why Illinois’ Demetrius McCamey is a finalist for the Bob Cousy award as the best college point guard in the country while Taylor is not.  Even his own coach openly questioned McCamey’s work ethic (  http://es.pn/gL5kwy ) while Badger coach Bo Ryan forced Taylor to sit out a practice this week in order to rest his star player. 

And I hate to confess this, mostly because he’s been my whipping boy for the last 3 years, but the Badgers have been playing better since  Ryan reinserted senior Tim Jarmusz in the starting lineup.  Perhaps it’s just coincidence but Jarmusz has been playing better too, hitting a key 3 point basket in the overtime win at Iowa.  On the other hand, I’ve liked freshman guard Josh Gasser almost from day one.  He’s singlehandedly changed the name of UW’s former star recruit to “Vander Who” in the eyes of Badger fans.  Credit also belongs to forward Mike “Carrot Top” Bruesewitz, who supplied an unlikely dagger yesterday with his 3 point basket from the top of the key with the shot clock running out.

Wisconsin will rarely overwhelm opponents and their often quite frustrating to watch, as anyone who witnessed that game against the Hawkeyes will confirm.  They’re still overly dependent on the 3 point line which screws them when the jump shots aren’t falling.  But their defense will always keep them in games and, as usual under Ryan, they continue to get better as the season moves along.  And they will once again be a factor as the conference and NCAA tournaments come around.  That’s something I didn’t really anticipate at the start of this year.  I guess we all should know better by now.

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Regular readers of this space will know that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve considered the National Basketball Association a relevant part of my interest in sports.  The reason why was reinforced this week with the retirement of Utah Jazz’ coach Jerry Sloan after 23 years with the organization.  At 68 years old, it’s understandable that Sloan would want to hang it up.  But it’s odd that he chose to do so mid-season only a week after signing a one year contract extension.

Reportedly, Sloan had recently clashed with some of his players, notably point guard Deron Williams, and unlike years past upper management backed the players.  In this day and age when “The Association” markets itself on its superstar players and the dictates of its teams usually depend on the whims of the same, Sloan was something of a dinosaur.  I grew up watching him as a hard nosed guard with the Chicago Bulls as he often tormented my Milwaukee Bucks.  Sloan brought the same hard edge to his coaching career, teaching his teams to play the right way.  His philosophy helped keep the Jazz in contention many years when their talent level fell short of their rivals.

He was the last vestige of a better time in the league and his farewell is emblematic of what is wrong with today’s NBA.  He will be missed.

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RANDOM SAMPLINGS:  Wisconsin’s presence on the PGA Tour has focused mostly on Madison residents Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly.  Now they appear to be getting some company as Menominee Falls native Mark Wilson won his second tournament of the year with last weekend’s playoff victory in the Phoenix Open.  Wilson flaunted his Wisconsin roots by sporting Packer colors on Super Bowl Sunday, complete with a cheesehead while walking up the 16th fairway.  Wilson jumped from 91st to 51st in the world rankings with his win and has already qualified for this year’s World Match Play and guaranteed himself a spot in the majors………..The Los Angeles Clippers took some of the luster off of tonight’s showdown between Cleveland and Washington by losing to the Cavs the other night.  The matchup of the Wizards road record vs. Cleveland’s overall record is the NBA equivalent of the irresistable force against the immovable object………..Speaking of the NBA, I thought it was laughable when reports surfaced earlier this week that the Lakers were interested in acquiring disgruntled forward Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets.  No doubt Anthony would have created a buzz in L.A. but he wouldn’t provide what they need and would not have made them a better team………..If I were former Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha, I’d be really pissed that they acquired all that pitching after I got fired………..It occurs to me that the St. Louis Cardinals might be in a bigger bind with their first baseman Albert Pujols than the Brewers are with Prince Fielder.  I believe the Cards rely on Pujols even more than Milwaukee does on Fielder.  And while fans in Wisconsin are pretty much resigned to losing Fielder eventually, there might be a fan revolt if Pujols leaves St. Louis…………With the resurfacing of Daytona speedway, we might see even more carnage than normal in this year’s 500.  Restrictor plate racing is always an adventure and practice speeds have reached over 200 mph.  If last night’s Bud Shootout was a preview, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Thanks for reading.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend.  And remember, only 4 more days ’til pitchers and catchers report.

 

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  • foundinidaho

    Jerry was my “much” wealthier neighbor in Utah – which is to say we lived in the same small town south of SLC. Never met him, but everyone said he and his wife were superb people. I fell in love with the Jazz while there, but my interest has waned – and now most of the players I liked are gone. Plus Coach. Sad, I think Larry Miller is spinning in his grave.