The freezing weather that hits Green Bay each winter gives the Packers a playoff advantage so obvious and unfair that it should be changed someday — no later than next year if not next month.
As you know, the Packers almost never lose at home when the temperature slides under the freezing point.
The problem isn't the bitter cold as such. If it's a 27-degree afternoon, it's 27 on both sides of the ball, as they always say.
The problem is that, year in and out, the Packers have experienced more arctic-weather games than any opponent. And experience teaches — as the Packers have demonstrated and as teams from Florida have discovered on northern visits to places that aren't even as cold as Green Bay.
A Wintertime Edge is Troubling
THE SUFFOCATING HEAT of Florida occasionally gives the Miami Dolphins a weather-induced advantage down there, too, but that's only in regular-season games. The Packers' wintertime edge in the playoffs is so troubling — as evidenced by their winter record — that it should be removed by moving their playoff games to, say, Arizona, or even Chicago. It's cold in Chicago, too, but not so impossibly cold as Green Bay though just a short drive away. Moreover, for many of Wisconsin's well-heeled Packer fans, Chicago isn't much farther off than Green Bay.
Those who reside in Green Bay would be inconvenienced, true, by trips to Arizona or Illinois (but every game's on TV). Packer backers might also reflect on one other truth: As an NFL town, Green Bay only exists by reason of the magnanimity of the club owners in other NFL towns, who have agreed to pool their revenues and share many millions of dollars with Green Bay. That couldn't happen in baseball, in which the New York Yankees, for instance, keep most of their millions and thus win most of the time. For the privilege of NFL membership, Green Bay might consider giving the other NFL members a fairer shot in the playoffs.
Both Bays and Philly Still in Race
AS A REFUGEE from the Midwest, where I spent 21 winters, I can testify that you never get used to winter weather, as the Packers always say. But with experience, you do learn the nuances of navigating the icy blasts of December and January. You learn what can't be easily done, and what you can do more easily, and that helps either on the ice, if you're a speed skater, say, or on a football field. Most significantly, your cold-weather successes automatically boost your cold-weather confidence.
Thus, three days before Christmas, the Packers will have the advantage in this week's game over even the Buffalo Bills. Though it's cold in Buffalo, too, the Bills who have never played in Green Bay will be shocked by the way it is there.
Altogether, three teams remain in the drive for all-the-way home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay as well as Green Bay. And it's a given that there is almost always an advantage in playing at home anywhere.
But in December or January, the weather can make the biggest difference, as it did last Sunday in San Francisco, where cold rain and a cold wind gave a Wisconsin-like edge to the Packers. From the start, they felt right at home. The fair-weather 49ers plainly never did. At the key position, Packer quarterback Brett Favre was obviously more comfortable in the unfriendly elements than 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia. Final score: Green Bay 20, San Francisco 14.
Is Mariucci Another Dusty Baker?
SOMETHING ELSE IS amiss this year on the 49er team. It's hard to put a finger on what that is, but it's clear enough now that the talent level in San Francisco is as high as, for instance, Green Bay's.
The 49ers employ the league's best player, Terrell Owens, and another good receiver, Tai Streets, plus a passer who can get them the ball, Garcia.
What's more, their one-two punch at running back with Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow is the envy of most opponents, and their offensive linemen seem comparable with most, as do their defensive players.
If the problem is on the 49er coaching staff, it is seated, most likely, in the play-calling as directed by Coach Steve Mariucci, who seems to get more conservative by the year. On a club with pass-first personnel, San Francisco's running backs carry the ball too often on first-down plays. They would gain more yards more often as counterpunchers if Garcia and Owens initially established the pass on first down.
Interestingly enough, following the lead of the San Francisco Giants — who wouldn't rehire World Series Manager Dusty Baker last season — the 49ers are dragging their feet this winter on a new contract for Mariucci.___
Has Ram Passer Bulger Healed?
THE MAIN QUESTIONS facing the St. Louis Rams this week, after their slim win over faltering Arizona Sunday, 30-28, are whether quarterback Marc Bulger is sound and whether he will do any more damage to his bad hand in his next start, scheduled for Seattle Sunday.
It was hard to tell in the Arizona game whether his injured finger is well enough for him to be playing. The wound is on the index finger, the most important digit a passer has for the science of correctly directing a football.
And next season, in order to make another Super Bowl run, the Rams are going to need, first of all, a completely-healed index finger on Bulger's passing hand. If the bothersome ligament is reinjured now, it could permanently affect him.
Rams Need Physical Training
RECENT GAMES HAVE also provoked some doubts about Ram physical-fitness supervision in general. At 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, Bulger doesn't appear to have the upper-body strength an NFL quarterback needs.
That's a problem easily fixed by physical-training experts like the people who, between seasons, toughened the upper body of Tampa passer Brad Johnson. This year, Johnson seems much stronger. And next year, Bulger ought to be.
From this distance, in fact, it seems clear that both Ram quarterbacks, Bulger and Kurt Warner, need some expert physical-training advice.
It isn't true that Warner's lack of mobility in the pocket is inbred and changeless. Of the two kinds of strength that physical experts talk about — overall strength and explosive strength — it's the latter that Warner must have to get quicker in the pocket as well faster out of the pocket on scrambles. And the experts can improve any man's explosive strength.
Too Much Bad Advice for Martz
BY HEEDING THE advice of talk-radio and national-TV talkers, the Rams have, temporarily at least, reduced the efficiency of running back Marshall Faulk. In no sense is Faulk a first-down runner against an eight-man front. The talkers have all been wrong about that.
They have all mistakenly attributed last winter's Ram defeat in the Super Bowl to Coach Mike Martz's failure to run Faulk. And, getting louder and louder, they've kept urging Martz to run him more often this year.
The result is that the Ram offense has not only slowed down but has also basically lost Faulk to his injuries.
A year hence, the Rams can only regain Super Bowl form with the strategy Martz used to reach two of the last three NFL championship games. This year, his critics seem to have forced Martz away from that strategy, which has two principal parts:
Send the passer out to throw the ball on nearly every down.
Use Faulk as a once-in-awhile counterpuncher, varying the Ram passing game with the draw plays and the other occasional plays that made Faulk a terror in St. Louis after an ordinary career in Indianapolis.
Joe Buck and His Two Analysts
PLAY-BY-PLAY announcing is an art form that can be improved in football telecasts, and Joe Buck keeps improving. The transition from baseball to football is so difficult, though, that, so far, only Vin Scully has really mastered both sports.
Moreover, every case is different, and in Buck's case the major difference is that he has two analysts seated beside him. This deletes the necessity for a play-by-play man to analyze or comment at all, except rarely, and briefly.
From beginning to end each Sunday, Buck should focus on the ongoing game information that only he can provide. There is simply no other way for FOX viewers (or football-game viewers on any other channel) to see or keep track of what's happening on the field. The screen is too small. And the cameras are necessarily everywhere and nowhere.
Specifically, here's what football viewers want to hear from Buck on each play as soon as possible:
Down and distance and the position of the ball on field. Nothing is more important.
The approximate length of the gain or loss on the last play, which can and should be estimated immediately. The official number can be worked in later if necessary.
Also helpful are two other things: (1) Ahead of most plays, the names and placement of the wide receivers and running backs. (2) Afterward, names of the pass-coverage guy or the tackler (and perhaps the nearest blocker) if that information is available.
And for any play-by-play announcer, that's a load. He has the most trying job in a football booth. When he does it properly, he's busier than any coach. He has the time to focus on nothing but ongoing game facts.
Five Guesses on the Big Games
New England to beat the New York Jets by a touchdown this week on the Patriots' new field at Foxboro. There is some danger that the Patriots are looking past the Jets to the really big one next week, Miami. But Bill Belichick is a coach who rarely lets such a thing happen.
Oakland to win by a point or two over Denver in Oakland. But it's never a surprise when the Broncos take out the Raiders.
Green Bay by a touchdown over Buffalo in a classic Lambeau Field confrontation of cold-weather teams, only one of which, Buffalo, loses sometimes on winter days.
Kansas City over San Diego by a field goal at Arrowhead Stadium. This is LaDainian Tomlinson's last chance this year to prove he's more running back than Priest Holmes, who likely will not play.
Tennessee by plenty over Jacksonville at the Nashville Coliseum in the early stages of an AFC Southern rivalry that someday will be the biggest in the South if not the NFL.