Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bye Week Blues

NFL Players and fans alike approach the bye week with mixed emotions. If your team is on a roll, like the Packers are this season, during the week you miss the adrenaline rush of anticipation for the upcoming game. There’s a void in your life. Your rhythm and routine seem disrupted. You might even feel a bit depressed.

On the other hand, since all the games so far have been nail-biters, full of stress and worry that the opposition was going to score late in the game and beat us, there’s something to be said for giving the old nervous system a week off to knit the frayed wires back together.

And the Packer players have more than frayed nerves: their bodies are starting to get seriously bruised and battered by this time of the season. They definitely can use a rest, and a break from the mental strain of preparing for each game (those that actually do prepare, that is).

Instead of moping around the house lamenting the fact there’s no Packer game, maybe we should get out and do new things this Sunday.

Physical Activity. Do you ever notice how NFL players seem to bounce back quickly from a bad loss, but fans of the teams remain in the dumps all week? The reason is physiological. Vigorous exercise releases chemicals in the brain that produce a feeling of bliss, even euphoria. This allows players to forget about last week’s loss and focus on the upcoming game.

(You remember euphoria…like when Al Harris picked off Hasselback in the 2003 playoff game and ran it back for a touchdown to seal the victory).

Getting out and exercising, then, is one way to rid the mind of Bye Week Blues. One disclaimer though: Tubby-wubbies who haven’t gotten up off the couch in, say, 25 years or so, should visit their doctor before starting any strenuous exercise. We don’t want to lose loyal fans to sudden heart attacks.

Attend Church on Sunday. Churches are those buildings you see people going in and out of while you’re on your way to the store to buy salami and cheese before kickoff. On Sundays in these buildings they put on several shows they call “services.” Churches usually have rousing music to begin the game, and a Coach who stands up and gives an inspirational message at half-time of the service. The Coach offers forgiveness to those in attendance for all the plays they messed up the previous week. And several lessons are usually read from the playbook. Prayer for the sick is always encouraged, whether you’re talking about an anemic offense, or a defense that has lost its way.

A pleasant surprise is that many churches serve delicious food between services. When you go, be aware that some terminology and customs may not be familiar to you. Be careful to not commit a faux pas such as asking why there aren’t any cheerleaders.

House Cleaning. I have a friend who, when the Packer games get too tense for her nerves to handle, immediately begins frantic house cleaning. She still pops in and out of the TV room to check on the score, but by keeping busy swinging the mop or broom, she finds that she is at least able to hold down her lunch. Her vacuum cleaner is so loud she can’t hear the inane commentary of the announcers, which is an added bonus. After our first six games this season, her house is pretty much spotless. A surgeon could set up shop in her kitchen and build up a successful practice. In fact, you can walk in her front door on a Sunday evening and immediately tell the how close the score was in the Packer game, by the overpowering scent of Pine-Sol wafting through her house.

Read a good book. If you enjoy non-fiction, I’d recommend a book titled The Making of a Bestseller. And reading a suspenseful novel about Green Bay Packer fans might be the next best thing to watching a game. In that case, I’d try a book titled Over Time.

Travel. Since gas prices are dropping back to reasonable levels, it might be a good idea to re-invent that old pastime, The Sunday Drive. Get in the car right before kickoff and explore our great country for three hours or so. See the vibrant Fall colors. Stop and buy a pumpkin or two. Bring plenty of music CDs so you aren’t tempted to check the scores of other games on the car radio. And never, ever, stop at a sports bar for lunch. You trying to take a break from the tension of football, remember. Packing a tasty picnic lunch and a blanket to spread out in a verdant meadow is a much better idea.

But, as you venture out into nature always remember: Don’t Feed the Bears.

Use Technology to Create An Imaginary World. I have a video collection of 50 or so Packer games I have taped over the last ten years. We usually play these during the long offseason, but it might also be fun to put one of these in the VCR this Sunday, and pretend that game is "live". This is analogous to a nicotine patch for the smoker who just can’t seem to quit even for a week. And, in the glorious little world of my VCR, the Packers always finish the season 16-0. Strange, but I can’t ever find the tapes of the games we lost. Except the tape of the playoff loss to
Philadelphia that featured the gruesome Fourth-and-26 play. One morning I found that tape crushed to little bits on the driveway.

Admittedly, pretending an old game is new requires a certain suspension of disbelief, because you will see taped commercials for TV series that were cancelled a long time ago and you only have a dim memory of having seen them. But despite the passage of time, some things do remain constant, such as the remarkable breadth of John Madden’s waistline.

Watch Other Teams and Poke Fun at Them. If you simply can’t spend an Autumn weekend without the NFL, watch the Packers’ rivals play and laugh at their miscues and foibles. You’ll quickly see that ours is not the only team that has suspect play calling from time to time, or inexplicably fumbles the ball at the absolute worst moment. We sometimes take the Packers, and their tradition of excellence, for granted—especially in the last 15 years of almost uninterrupted winning. Put yourself in the other teams’ cleats for a while. For instance, pretend to be Vikings fans for a day, and then you will truly appreciate how lucky you are to root for the Green and Gold, kind of like when your mom urged you to eat those yucky lima beans or the broccoli on your plate—and appreciate that you have food at all—because there are starving children in other lands.

And cheer up! It’s not that long ‘til the 29th.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Coping With Defeat

Now, you really didn’t think the Pack was going to finish 16-0, did you?

Even so, watching the third and fourth quarters of the game vs. the Bears was like enduring slow, painful torture. Even consumption of a tasty anesthetic lager didn’t seem to ease the suffering. And it was a strange, almost surreal sensation when the game ended, as though the numbers on the scoreboard had somehow been transposed to make it appear as though--NO!--we lost.

In times like these it’s helpful to step back and examine the situation with a fresh perspective. Here are some positive things that happened Sunday night.

Continuing to Build Team Chemistry. The game defined the term “team effort.” When rookie sensation James Jones fumbled away scoring opportunities not once, but twice, on other teams he might have encountered cold stares and even harsh words from his teammates when he got to the sideline. Not our Packers. Perhaps worried that the promising young player might go into a irreversible funk, veteran stalwarts like Brett Favre and Charles Woodson made a couple of foolish, ill-timed errors of their own, an interception and a fumbled punt, so their teammate would not feel isolated. This kind of unselfishness is what builds a championship mentality.

Discovering a New Frontier of Play Calling. There was something very unusual at the start of that game that clearly bodes well for the future. I’ve heard it originated in a mid-week strategy meeting between the Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator. The Coordinator had noticed that when the Packers were on offense, it appeared there were several players standing next to Brett, looking eager but perhaps a bit left out of the action. He mentioned to the Head Coach that these players didn’t seem to have much to do during the course of the play. “Any ideas?” he inquired of his boss, who thought carefully and then remarked, “We could have Brett hand the ball to these guys once in a while. And they could… run with it.”

“What a great idea!” the Coordinator exclaimed. “The other team will never expect it.”

“That’s why I get paid the Big Bucks,” said the Head Coach.

Helping Those in Need. You always get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside when you reach out to someone who’s going through hard times. So, at least for one night, we made the Bears fans happy, let them again experience the joy of winning on national TV. Most of us have friends or colleagues who are fans of our rivals from Chicago. We’ve felt their pain and desperation as they sank to 1-3 on the season (while we tried hard not to giggle). And with true Green and Gold generosity, we helped them rise above their struggles and experience what we’ve been enjoying for eight consecutive games. Packer fans are truly amazing people.

Guarding Against Overconfidence. Every year it seems there is a team that sprints out to a 5-0 or 6-0 start, then fades in November and December, and exits the playoffs after the first game. The cause of these late-season collapses is often simply overconfidence: the players get the erroneous notion they are invincible, start to relax, and forget the hard work--and lucky breaks--that enabled them to start off so well. The Packers were far too clever to fall into this trap. They knew that a bitter loss like the one they suffered on Sunday night could serve to keep them hungry, focused and motivated. They can come out fresh in the next game vs. Washington, without that heavy burden of having to keep a winning streak going.

Staying Right on Track. Let’s not forget how far above expectations this team has performed in the first five weeks, reversing the trend of dismal 1-4 starts the last few seasons. If we look at the Packers’ last three championship teams, here’s how they began the year:

1996 4 Wins, 1 Loss

1967 3 Wins, 1 Loss, 1 Tie

1966 4 Wins, 1 Loss

Feel better?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

My Favorite Year

Most of us have a favorite Packer memory, a season or even a game that stays with us forever. Packer fans are always at the top of the league in terms of their appreciation for the great teams and players of the past. As well we should—ours is the team that has won the most NFL Championships—12--a total only the Chicago Bears are anywhere close to reaching, with 9. (The New York Giants are a distant third, with 6).

Twelve Championship seasons—that’s an entire library of wonderful memories for generation after generation of Green Bay fans to enjoy. Sports memories are powerful things. It’s almost as though the excitement we experienced and the inspiration we received from a special game or an unforgettable season never fades, and we can tap into it as needed, sort of a bank account of exhilaration that can’t be overdrawn. After all, the whole point of having a passionate rooting interest in a team is that part of their success belongs to you.

I wrote a novel with the central premise that a group of lifelong friends who grew up in the 1960’s wish they could re-live the legendary Ice Bowl game—and their wish comes true. The effect of this magical event on their lives is profound: By reliving that moment of victory from long ago, they learn how to become winners in their own present-day lives.

If you’re too young to remember the Ice Bowl, you undoubtedly have another Packer memory you cherish just as much. Maybe it was the terrific 1996 season, when Green Bay won the Super Bowl, erasing all those years of frustration and failure that had occurred since Vince Lombardi retired. Going back a little further, who could forget the improbable success of the 1989 team, when Don Majkowski led the team to one amazing last minute victory after another, with a group that talent-wise wasn’t anything close to being championship material. Sometimes the best, most lasting memories are made when something wonderful happens that you didn’t expect. Which brings us to 2007.

When the 2007 schedule came out, the Packers’ prospects for the first 5 games looked grim. Right out of the gate, four playoff teams and a game at the Dome of Doom in Minnesota. Ouch! The consensus forecast by fans and media seemed to be that the Pack would win 7, 8, or 9 games this season—at best.

But Packer fans had a wish of their own for 2007: that Brett Favre would get to experience another season of greatness, and finish his career on top, as we all know he richly deserves. We probably would have been willing to borrow a couple of victories from future years (with apologies to Aaron Rodgers), if that were possible, and give them to this year’s team—and Brett.

After watching Sunday’s game against the Vikings, the improbable seems to be coming true. Even well-known skeptics and outright curmudgeons in the media are waxing poetic about the Packers. In four short weeks the Packers have gone from supposed also-rans to: “A legit team”; “An elite team”; “One of the four best teams in the NFL”; “A Super Bowl Contender”; “The Year’s Feel Good Story”.

As for Brett, he’s gone from being regarded by the press as an intriguing has-been to a player being spoken of as being in the running for MVP. Wistful nostalgia for the past has been replaced by eager anticipation of the future. Everything old is somehow new again.

These first four games have been amazing to watch. There is clearly something special going on this year. We were supposed to be satisfied with a gritty young team that would use stout defense and conservative games plans to stay in close games, and maybe win a few. Well, Greg Jennings blazing 57 yards through the Chargers’ secondary to score a go-ahead touchdown didn’t look gritty to me. It looked brilliant. It looked like what everyone expected the high-powered Chargers’ offense to do. It looked like a team that doesn’t let the concept of losing enter into their thinking process.

Sure, lots can happen between now and the end of the season. Lots of teams that start 4-0 sputter and stall by December. On the other hand, history has shown that Green Bay Packer teams that have started 4-0 tend to…win Championships.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if twenty years from now, you and your Packer buddies are having a back yard get together on a hot night in August, discussing the Packers’ prospects for the upcoming season with the aid of a few cold beverages, and one of your friends asks you, “What do you think was the most exciting Packer season ever?”

“You mean, what was My Favorite Year?”

“Exactly,” he says as he helps himself to yet another of your beers.

“I’d have to say 2007,” you say without hesitation.

“That was a season for the ages, wasn’t it,” he’ll reply. “The team achieved the impossible.”

And for a few moments it will be totally quiet in your back yard, as the memories come back, fresh and everlasting.