NFL Nation: Bart Starr

Storied pasts loom over Cowboys, Packers

December, 13, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- As the Cowboys walk to the team meeting room every day, they are met with pictures of Dallas' five Super Bowl winners. Each collage has a team photo and pictures of smiling players, coaches and executives from winning NFL championships.

At Lambeau Field, the photos from the great moments in Packers history line the wall from the tunnel to the locker room. When the stadium was renovated years ago, they took a row of old bricks and moved it to the new tunnel so players can say they walk over the same ground as the greats who played at Lambeau Field.

With a loss Sunday, though, either team will need even more help to just make the postseason.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo and Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/David StlukaCowboys QB Tony Romo, right, and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers know the burden that comes with playing for franchises trying to recapture past glory.
Like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, the Cowboys are constantly chasing ghosts from past teams.

The Packers and Cowboys have combined for 18 NFL championships (Green Bay 13, Dallas five) and nine Super Bowls (Green Bay four, Dallas five). They produced one of the NFL’s iconic games -- the Ice Bowl -- in the 1967 NFC Championship. They were coached by legends in Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi. They rekindled the rivalry in the 1990s, meeting in the playoffs from 1993 to 1995.

The current teams carry something of a burden with them because of the successful pasts.

“We always look at it as a sense of pride and energy to tap into,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. “We think it’s very important to have that and recognize it and honor it, so I always refer to it as there’s pride in the bricks of Lambeau Field and it’s something we need to tap into. We talk to our current team about it and how important it is to win and represent the Green Bay Packers the right way.”

Jason Garrett does not talk about the expectations laid out from the likes of Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Mel Renfro, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. He talks about the standard those players and teams set.

“You want to be in a place where there’s a high standard for achievement,” Garrett said. “I think that’s a good thing. That brings the best out in people. What we try to do each and every day is be our best. Come to work as players and coaches and put our best foot forward and get ready for our challenges each week and again, embrace the past. That’s a good thing. ... That drives us. That’s part of what drives us to achieve, really, each and every day, and certainly each season.”

Tony Romo is constantly measured against Staubach and Aikman. Aaron Rodgers is measured against Bart Starr and Brett Favre, but he has the Super Bowl ring that Romo is still looking for, having beaten the Steelers at AT&T Stadium in Super Bowl XLV.

Rodgers has 23 teammates on the roster with a Super Bowl ring.

Romo hopes one day to have his own, so he and his teammates can have their pictures on the wall holding the Lombardi Trophy.

“You want to be a part of a storied franchise,” Romo said. “It just makes it important. You want a challenge. You want it to matter, and you want it to be important. That’s what’s great about this organization and great about our fans.”
HOUSTON -- Right now the Texans' Gary Kubiak has a 61-62 career record as a head coach. He is in his eighth season with Houston, having been hired in 2006.

Kubiak
Team owner Bob McNair has shown patience with Kubiak, who's had two 6-10 seasons -- his first year with the team and his fifth. Until this year, when the Texans embarked on a franchise-record losing streak that currently sits at nine, Kubiak had made steady improvement after the most recent 6-10 season.

This kind of patience doesn't exist anymore. It's been nearly two decades since the last example.

Thanks to Michael Bonzagni of ESPN Stats & Info for poring through the list of longest-tenured coaches for me. Of the 87 men who have at least eight years of experience as an NFL head coach, 24 have a career record under .500 -- including Kubiak.

Among those with at least eight years experience and a losing record, Kubiak is one of four who spent that whole time with one team. The other three all returned for a ninth year.

John McKay, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in his first season, only coached the Bucs to three winning seasons. He had a losing record in his eighth year and went 6-10 in 1984, his final year coaching.

Bart Starr began coaching the Green Bay Packers in 1975 and went 4-10. He only coached two winning teams, one in the strike-shortened 1982 season. That was Starr's eighth season with the Packers and his team made the playoffs. After an 8-8 record in his ninth, he was fired.

Wayne Fontes had four winning seasons with the Detroit Lions from 1988-96. One came in 1995 when the Lions went 10-6 and made the playoffs but lost. Fontes led the Lions to the NFC Championship game in 1991, but his subpar seasons meant he was constantly on the hot seat.

Falcons overcome Matt Ryan's bad day

November, 18, 2012
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Matt Ryan Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan threw five picks and no touchdown passes, yet the Falcons still came out with a win.

ATLANTA -- His on-field performance was not sharp, but Matt Ryan's memory sure was.

As he walked out of his news conference after the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-19 at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, I asked the quarterback if he had ever thrown five interceptions in a game before.

The wheels turned for all of about three seconds before the answer came.

"No, that’s it," said Ryan, who had thrown only seven interceptions in the season’s first nine games. "Let’s keep in that way."

In a five-year NFL career, Ryan never had thrown more than three interceptions in a game and he only threw three a couple of times. At Boston College, William Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia and even in youth leagues, Ryan never had a five-interception game.

It truly was an historic day for Ryan, on many levels. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan became the first quarterback to throw five interceptions with no touchdowns and still win since Green Bay’s Bart Starr in 1967.

"Good company to be in," Ryan said with a slight laugh when told of his new place in the record books.

Ryan and the Falcons can afford to chuckle just a little bit about this one. They’re 9-1 and they know they got lucky.

They quickly fell behind 13-0 as Ryan threw three interceptions in the first quarter and the offense never got into much of a rhythm. Against most teams (maybe as many as 30 other teams), Ryan and the Falcons would have been blown out of the building.

But they were playing the Cardinals, who started the season 4-0 but have fallen apart with quarterback Kevin Kolb injured. They started John Skelton and yanked him in favor of third-string rookie Ryan Lindley, who had never taken an NFL snap before Sunday, when they held a 13-3 second-quarter lead. When’s the last time you heard of a team yanking a quarterback when it held a 10-point lead?

Let’s turn to noted receiver/philosopher Roddy White to truly put this one in perspective.

"The Cardinals are a good football team," White said. "No, I mean they’re a good defensive football team."

Say what you want about White, who draws a lot of criticism for his outspoken nature. But, more often than not, the man cuts straight to the point.

The Cardinals, at least right now, are a horrible offensive football team. Atlanta turned the ball over six times (running back Jason Snelling also lost a fumble), but Arizona managed only one touchdown. Skelton and Lindley combined for 41 net passing yards.

You can debate which of the three quarterbacks had the worst day, but Ryan was the only one who threw an interception. The Falcons never considered benching him and the record will show Ryan led the 20th fourth-quarter comeback of his career and his fourth this season. But Ryan, who completed 28 of 46 passes for 301 yards, will be the first to tell you he didn’t have a good day.

"I think that there are a lot of hats you wear as a quarterback," Ryan said. "Part of it is player and part of it is keeping everybody on the same page and being relaxed."

Ryan kept his composure and rebounded well enough for the Falcons to win -- this time.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Babineaux
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireJonathan Babineaux returned a fumble for a touchdown which helped dig the Falcons out of an early hole.
"We can’t turn the ball over the way we turned the ball over, obviously," said coach Mike Smith, who clinched his fifth consecutive winning season. "You can’t be minus-four in turnovers and, normally, you’re not going to win games. That doesn’t happen very often in the National Football League."

It doesn’t happen often because most NFL teams aren’t nearly as bad as the Cardinals on offense. But let’s give Atlanta’s defense, which held receiver Larry Fitzgerald to one catch for seven yards, some credit.

"They were put in some very difficult situations, in terms of field position and were able to step up and make some plays," Smith said.

Although Ryan’s interceptions frequently handed the Cardinals good field position, the defense generally was able to limit Arizona to field goals or got the Cardinals off the field. No play was bigger -- or more bizarre -- than the third play of Lindley’s first drive.

As Lindley was about to throw a pass, veteran defensive end John Abraham, who finished with two sacks, hit his arm and forced a fumble. A lot of Arizona and Atlanta players stood around, thinking the result of the play was an incomplete pass. But defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux saw the ball on the ground and alertly realized no whistles had blown. Babineaux scooped the ball up and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown that cut Arizona’s lead to 13-10 and put the Falcons back into the game.

"Our defense won the game for us," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "They bailed us out a bunch of times."

It should be noted that three of Ryan’s interceptions came on tipped passes, but the Falcons know they’ll have to be more efficient if they’re going to have any shot at winning in the postseason for the first time in the Smith/Ryan era.

"It says a lot about how we have that never (say) die attitude," Babineaux said. "But, at the same time, we’ve got to get back to playing Falcon football. You’re not going to turn the ball over like that and win many times."

Final Word: NFC East

October, 19, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:

Blasts from the past: Yes, it's a passing league, as you hear all the time. But the Washington Redskins haven't got the memo. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III (379) and rookie running back Alfred Morris (538) have combined for 917 rushing yards in Washington's first six games. That's the highest combined rushing yardage total by two rookie teammates through six games in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And it goes back further than this for the Redskins. Washington as a team has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of its last 12 games. The second-longest such streak in the league is two games, by the New York Giants and the St. Louis Rams. In conclusion, the Redskins like to run the ball, and for many reasons pose a different game-planning challenge than any other team the Giants have faced or will face this season.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Paul Frederiksen/US PresswireWashington QB Robert Griffin III has a chance to earn a rare achievement with a win over the Giants on Sunday.
Upstart vs. champ: If the Redskins win, Griffin would be the fourth rookie quarterback to defeat a defending Super Bowl MVP quarterback head-to-head. Really interesting list. Colt McCoy of the Browns beat Drew Brees and the Saints in 2010. Dieter Brock of the Rams beat Joe Montana and the 49ers in 1985. And of course, Kent Nix of the Steelers beat Bart Starr and the Packers in 1967. But seriously, no way you clicked on this blog today expecting a Dieter Brock note. Guy was 34 in 1985, but it was his only year in the league.

Burgundy kryptonite: In two games against the Redskins last year (both losses), Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw four interceptions and no touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Information tells us that Washington is one of six teams against which Manning has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his career. The others are Tennessee, Minnesota, Chicago, Baltimore and Buffalo.

Giants can run, too: Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw is the only player in the league who has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last two games. The last Giant to rush for 100 or more in at least three games in a row was Tiki Barber in 2006. Bradshaw has 16 rushes of at least 10 yards so far this year, in 92 attempts. Last year, he had 16 such rushes in 171 attempts. The Giants' offensive line is a much better run-blocking unit than it was a year ago. Their average yards per rush before first contact is 2.75, which is the fifth-best figure in the league. Last year, the Giants' average yards per rush before first contact was 1.89, which was second-worst in the league.

Got to go deep: Last year, on throws that traveled 20 or more yards downfield, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo posted a 53.2 completion percentage, 21.6 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns and only one interception. This year on such deep throws, Romo is 4-for-18 (22.2 percent) for 8.5 yards per attempt, one touchdown and one interception. The two bits of good news on this are that the Cowboys' offensive line looked much better last week in Baltimore and could start to give Romo more time to throw, and that Carolina's pass defense is allowing a 54.5 completion percentage on throws 20 or more yards downfield -- the second-worst such mark in the NFL.
Steve Young's winning touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the 1998 postseason stands above all San Francisco 49ers memories against the Green Bay Packers.

It can't fully overshadow the Packers' regular-season dominance in the series, however.

Any 49ers fan should find the chart appalling.

The Packers have won the last nine regular-season meetings between the teams, scoring at least 30 points in five of them.

Losing at Green Bay in Week 1 this season would saddle the 49ers with 10 consecutive defeats in a regular-season series for the third time in franchise history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The team lost 13 in a row to the Baltimore Colts from 1962-68. It lost 10 straight to the Los Angeles Rams from 1970-75.

The last time San Francisco claimed a regular-season victory over Green Bay was Nov. 4, 1990.

Joe Montana was the 49ers' quarterback, Brett Favre was in college, Aaron Rodgers was 6 years old and Bart Starr was the Packers' all-time passing yardage leader. Also that day, a 26-year-old Jim Harbaugh was completing 14 of 23 passes for 213 yards, one touchdown and a 105.9 NFL passer rating for Chicago during a 26-6 victory at Tampa Bay.

Enough is enough.

Thanksgiving Feast: 1962 grudge match

November, 21, 2011
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The buildup to our NFC North Thanksgiving Feast is going to short, intense and full of distractions. This week would have been busy even without Thursday's matchup between the 10-0 Green Bay Packers and the 7-3 Detroit Lions, so as of this moment I'm declaring complete and total pandemonium in the ring.

[+] EnlargeBart Starr
AP File PhotoDetroit's Darris McCord, 78, and Roger Brown, 76, sack Green Bay's Bart Starr on Nov. 23, 1962. The Lions dealt Vince Lombardi's Packers their only loss of a championship season, sacking Starr 11 times.
As we monitor the Chicago Bears' quarterback transition and the health status of the Minnesota Vikings' star running back, we'll start our Packers-Lions coverage with the story of a rematch nearly 50 years in the making.

If you qualify for AARP membership, or if you watched Bob Costas' weekly essay Sunday night on NBC, you know the Packers and Lions played a Thanksgiving game under similar circumstances in 1962. The Packers entered the game undefeated at 10-0, but the Lions handed them their only loss of the season.

Many people consider the 1962 Packers the best team in franchise history and one of the best in the history of pro football. It had 10 future members of the Hall of Fame, including fullback Jim Taylor, right tackle Forrest Gregg, quarterback Bart Starr, linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, defensive end Willie Davis, center Jim Ringo, halfback Paul Hornung, safety Willie Wood and defensive tackle Henry Jordan.

But on November 23, 1962, the Lions handed them a decisive 26-14 defeat. They sacked Starr 11 times and intercepted him twice.

Monday, the Lions made several members from that team available via conference call. On that day, recalled Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt: "We were all out to prove to the world that we were as good or better than Green Bay."

(Sound familiar?)

History tells us the Lions were hardly slouches in those days. They won the NFL title in 1957 and won the Runner-Up game in 1960 and 1961. But after opening the 1962 season 3-0, the Lions lost to the Packers in a game that has gone down in franchise lore.

Jerry Green of the Detroit News recalled that game in detail this season. The short version: Leading 7-6 with less than a minute to play, the Lions called a pass play. Receiver Terry Barr slipped, and Adderley intercepted Milt Plum's pass to set up Hornung's game-winning field goal.

Tempers flared in the post-game locker room, and defensive tackle Roger Brown said Monday that the Lions had a "vendetta" against the Packers in the Thanksgiving rematch. Added Schmidt: "We always felt down deep that we were a better football team."

The Lions were well-versed in Packers' coach Vince Lombardi's offense, and defensive coordinator Don Shula worked with Schmidt to recognize each play.

"They basically ran six or seven plays off a couple different formations," Schmidt said. "By the formation, I could call a slant to where they were going to run. Our defensive line penetrated them so severely that their offensive line lost their poise."

Said Brown: "We were determined to get to Bart Starr. I don't think the German Luftwaffe could have stopped us that day."

The parallels for this year's game are interesting, if not completely relevant. The Packers are again 10-0, of course, and the Lions are quite eager to demonstrate they are, as Schmidt said, just as good. Like the 1962 team, today's Lions are built around a nasty defensive line. I'm not sure if Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh and company will register 11 sacks Thursday of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but they'll be trying.

It's worth noting that the Packers rebounded from that 1962 loss to finish 13-1 and win the NFL title. The Lions finished 11-3 and made another trip to the Runner-Up game. If nothing else, it's nice to have a game this season that means something to everyone -- the teams, both sets of fans and the playoff race.

A look at Brady's no-interception streak

December, 19, 2010
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How long has it been since Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an interception? The Jets were considered the team to beat in the AFC.

If that seems like a long time ago, you're right.

Brady
Brady hasn't thrown an interception since Week 6 against the Ravens, a stretch of 268 attempts. That ranks sixth all-time.

He would climb into second place with 27 more interception-free attempts Sunday night against the Packers.

Here's the list of longest streaks:
  • Bernie Kosar, 1990-91 for the Browns -- 308
  • Bart Starr, 1964-65 for the Packers -- 294
  • Jeff George, 1993-94 for the Colts and Falcons -- 279
  • Rich Gannon, 2001 for the Raiders -- 277
  • Jason Campbell, 2007-08 for the Redskins -- 271
  • Tom Brady, 2010 for the Patriots -- 268

Brady has tied the NFL record with six consecutive games of at least two touchdown passes and no interceptions. In his past eight games he has 19 TDs, zero interceptions and only two ratings under 100.

The Patriots have a league-leading plus-18 turnover ratio and haven't committed any in five straight games, which is an NFL record.
After reading this week's Great Debate about the future of the Green Bay Packers' history books, Bryan of Madison, Wis., made a desperate plea:
Could you please pump the brakes on getting Aaron Rodgers fitted for his yellow Hall of Fame jacket and at least wait until he wins a single playoff game? Yeesh.

Our friends over at Cheesehead TV were a little more nuanced in their reaction, although I think the words "shut up" appeared a few times.

Dave of Annandale, Va., wrote that my "ignorance of Bart Starr is appalling" and is "typical of you modern-day 'experts' who think the NFL started in 1990."

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireAaron Rodgers is the first quarterback ever to produce consecutive 4,000-yard seasons at the start of his career.
Dan of San Diego wasn't thrilled with my explanation for Rodgers' fumble at the end of last season's playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals. "You need to stop being an enabler to those crybaby Packer fans," Dan wrote.

Thanks to everyone who read and reacted to a serious debate written with what I thought was an obviously light-hearted approach. Trust me, I am well aware that the statistical odds are stacked against Rodgers surpassing Favre in any way. Believe me, I am well versed in the nature of Starr's career. My approach to him in this debate was more flippant than ignorant, but I guess he is one of the untouchables. To be clear, I don't actually think Bart Starr was a mere caretaker of the Packers' championship teams in that era.

With the calendar showing almost two weeks until the start of the regular season, Tuesday was simply a good moment to have some fun with what is an emotional and at least somewhat relevant corner of the NFC North. Nothing more and nothing less. Even if it's mere speculation, I do think it's worth considering what limits -- if any -- Rodgers has on what could be a historic career.

Knowing that this post was coming, I asked Rodgers an open-ended question last month on the general subject. I wanted to know if he had spent any time thinking about where his career might take him. After all, many of the game's all-time greats didn't open their careers as strongly as Rodgers has.

After a pause, here is what Rodgers said:

"Not really, to be honest with you. I'm a pretty regimented guy. I'm blessed with one of the great teachers in the game in [quarterbacks coach] Tom Clements. And we're always working. His best quality is not letting me be content with where I am as a player, and to always point out things I can improve on. That's how I stay motivated in the offseason. One thing I do realize is that as our team's success goes, then all of our individual success goes. And keeping that I mind, I think we can all have a lot of success this year."

OK. let's adjourn until such time that we can nominate Charles Woodson as the best defensive back in Packers history. Too bad for Herb Adderley, Willie Wood and Mossy Cade.
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Assuming he retires, Brett Favre will one day enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a sack of NFL records to his name. He'll have more attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns (and interceptions) than any quarterback who has played the game.

But a funny thing happened when Favre left Green Bay after the 2007 season: His successor made arguably the best debut in the history of the league. Indeed, Aaron Rodgers is the first quarterback ever to produce consecutive 4,000-yard seasons at the start of his career.

At 26, Rodgers' career remains a mostly unwritten story. But after throwing for 8,472 yards in the past two seasons, and then picking up this summer with a red-hot preseason, the possibilities are endless. ESPN.com national columnist Gene Wojciechowski and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert are here to ponder the question: Could Rodgers ultimately go down as the best Packers quarterback of all time?

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre and Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerBrett Favre (left) and Aaron Rodgers will be forever linked in Green Bay.
Kevin Seifert: Gene, I'll admit it: When I eagerly agreed to take part in this debate, I didn't take a minute to look at the actual numbers. I figured Rodgers is young, Favre is old and soon enough the gap would start closing. Like Rodgers, I am young. But unlike him, I'm a little stupid.

The raw numbers suggest that Rodgers will need to play another 13 or 14 seasons at his current pace -- even if the regular season moves to 18 games -- to overtake Favre from a statistical standpoint in Packers history. That's not to say it can't be done. All he would have to do is be in condition to throw for 4,000-plus yards when he's 40 years old. I know a guy who did that.

Favre's longevity has been his greatest career asset. The chances of Rodgers -- or anyone else for that matter - playing at such a high level for so long are not high. So for the purposes of this debate, I think we might need to rely on less objective measurables. Rodgers might not reach Favre's gross numbers, but that doesn't mean he won't one day be considered the better quarterback.

I think Rodgers is already a smarter passer. He's thrown a combined 20 interceptions in two seasons as a starter. Favre has thrown more than 20 interceptions in five single seasons as a starter.

Gene Wojciechowski: I'm sorry? Rely on less objective measurables? As the great Lee Corso says, "Not so fast, my friend."

Rodgers could end up as the greatest Packers quarterback of all time. And I could grow a full head of hair by daybreak.

Before Cheeseheads everywhere take that as a rip on Rodgers, remember a few things: I own two Packers jerseys (a Hornung and a Sharpe), my family is from Wisconsin and I've lived among you. But Favre's career numbers make it almost impossible for Rodgers, even with all his considerable talent, to surpass Favre.

I did the math. He'd have to average 4,000 passing yards for the next 15-plus seasons (at 16 games per season) to catch Favre's current total passing yards. He'd have to average 30 touchdown passes (which is what Rodgers had last year) for the next 14-plus season to reach Favre's 497 career touchdowns. He'd have to average 350 connections for the next 15-plus seasons to reach Favre's career completion totals.

Favre has 285 consecutive starts, the second most in the history of the league. Do we really think Rodgers will get to that number? Favre also had started 61 games and thrown for about 15,000 yards by the time he was 26. At the same age, Rodgers has thrown for 8,801 yards. And the scary part? Favre isn't done yet.

Yes, Rodgers is a remarkable talent. He's made a believer out of me with his arm and his toughness. But I'm not sure what you mean by a smarter passer. Didn't his postseason end with an interception?

KS: Hey, hey. Be nice, Gene. I'm just some blogger sitting in a (Wi-Fi enabled) igloo up north. But let's address your claims so I can keep my fingers from freezing.

First, Rodgers' postseason didn't end on an interception. It was on a fumble when a free blitzer grabbed his face mask and cheated Packers fans everywhere out of a trip to New Orleans. Not my guy Aaron's fault.

The thing I like most about Rodgers is that he's an aggressive, downfield passer without being a reckless gunslinger. Like Favre, he gets big chunks of yards. (In fact, he gets more.) But unlike Favre, he avoids unnecessary risks to do it. It's a rarity to see Rodgers throw a ball up for grabs or into double coverage.

And in this case, at least, the numbers bear me out. In his first two seasons as a starter, Rodgers has thrown 58 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. In his first two seasons with the Packers, Favre threw 37 and 37.

Otherwise, I'm with you on the numbers argument. Like I said, it's going to be awfully difficult for Rodgers to play at such a high level when he is Favre's age. He's got almost no chance at the career totals, and his odds for overtaking Favre just in his Packers years aren't much better. But we already know that Rodgers, like Favre, is a gamer.

In 2008, he played with a sprained throwing shoulder. Last season, he played in all 16 games despite a foot injury that caused him to limp noticeably during some games in 2009.

I talked to Rodgers during training camp this summer. More than anything else, Rodgers said he is proud to have made every start since taking over as the starter. I realize his streak is only at 32, but he absolutely values that aspect of playing quarterback in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Andy KingBrett Favre had started 61 games and thrown for about 15,000 yards by the time he was 26.
To be clear, I don't think Rodgers is going to surpass 70,000 yards or 500 touchdowns in his career like Favre will. But I don't think Rodgers necessarily has to do that in order to be considered the greatest Packers quarterback of all time.

Longevity alone shouldn't guarantee that title to Favre. From what I've seen of Rodgers so far, I think he has a good chance to finish his career as a more accurate, less mistake-prone passer. Victories and championships also could tilt our judgment.

To this point, Rodgers' career record as a starter is 17-15. Favre's was 160-93 with the Packers, a considerably higher winning percentage. But in his first two seasons, Favre was 18-14.

GW: Well, it's not like I'm sitting in a palatial estate in Palm Springs watching a polo match while an attendant pulls a fresh frostie from the cooler for me. I'm just a state or two over, in Illinois, home of Blago and Bears hysteria.

But you're right and I'm wrong about the Rodgers interception. It didn't come at the end of the wild-card loss to AZ, but on the first play of the game and later resulted in a Cardinals touchdown.

You're also right about Rodgers' toughness, physical and mental. It was a humbling day when he was taken with the 24th pick--much later than he expected -- of the 2005 draft. But he dealt with it. And he dealt with the controversy surrounding Favre's messy departure from Green Bay. I'd argue that he handled it better than Favre or Packers general manager Ted Thompson. And he has played through injuries, significant ones. I'm sure that meant a great deal to him, as well as to his teammates, who had come to expect nothing less than Favre.

I agree with you about the pure numbers versus greatest Packers quarterback of all time. It isn't a prerequisite. In fact, I'd argue that Rodgers first has to surpass the legacy of Bart Starr before we start worrying about Favre. I'm guessing there are Packers fans who flip Starr for Favre.

Rodgers' early numbers are encouraging and impressive, but he has yet to lead the Packers to a division title or a playoff win in those two years.

KS: Bart Starr? Please. You mean the guy who was the caretaker on all of Vince Lombardi's championship teams? Was the book called "Run to Daylight" or "Pass to Daylight?" I can't remember. What? You say Bart Starr is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Er, lemme check that one out. ...

Anyway, I guess the premise of my argument is that Rodgers has established a high standard at the base of his career. It presupposes he continues that upward climb, and I think that will continue in 2010. I think the Packers will win the NFC North, make a deep playoff run and be one of two or three favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

If that happens with Rodgers at quarterback, I think I'll be on to something. If not, I guess I'll just be on something.

GW: How dare you mock the great Starr.

Anyway, is this what you would call a Seifert leap of faith? Rodgers does something for two seasons, so that means he'll do it for the next 10? The NFL is littered with guys who start fast and then, for whatever reason, can't sustain the production.

I don't presuppose anything. Rodgers has played two full seasons, that's it. I like what I see, but I'm not ready to say he's destined for football immortality.

In his favor: a wonderful feel for the game, a set of really good wide receivers and tight ends, a head coach who loves the passing game.

Not so much in his favor: an improved -- but still questionable -- offensive line, playing at Lambeau in the snow months (yes, I know, Favre did just fine), and a knack for suffering injuries.

I'm reserving judgment on the 2010 NFC North. I'm leaning toward the Pack, but you can't tell me Favre's Vikings won't be a factor. And I'm having a hard time forgetting about Green Bay's shaky offensive line last season and those 51 points Arizona scored in the playoffs against them. But that's just me, Mr. Negative.

KS: You said it, not me. I'm all sunshine and roses. Brett and Bart are both Hall of Famers. And Aaron Rodgers has a chance to be better than both of them. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Ikaika Alama-Francis a Fins name to watch

August, 30, 2010
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The Miami Dolphins head into their final preseason week not entirely settled at linebacker.

Tony Sparano is moving his players around in hopes of finding the right mix. Inside linebackers Channing Crowder and Tim Dobbins have been battling injuries. So Sparano is trying outside linebacker Charlie Anderson on the inside.

[+] EnlargeAlama-Francis
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIIkaika Alama-Francis is making a run at one of the starting outside linebacker spots.
An intriguing player to monitor is Ikaika Alama-Francis, a converted down lineman who didn't play high school football, has been mounting a summer drive to crack the starting lineup at outside linebacker.

After another solid preseason performance Friday night, Alama-Francis shared first-team reps with rookie Koa Misi at strongside outside linebacker in Sunday's practice. Misi still projects as the starter opposite Cameron Wake, but Alama-Francis has been a revelation.

"I love it, man," is what Alama-Francis told me at Dolphins camp three weeks ago.

Sparano has been steadily impressed with him at outside linebacker since training camp began. It's important for the Dolphins to find those types of players with Jason Taylor and Joey Porter signing elsewhere.

"He's a handful in the rush," Sparano said a week into camp. "He set the edge of the defense pretty well, strong guy and very, very smart."

When Sparano said that, Alama-Francis hadn't been an outside linebacker for long, just a handful of practices. But it wasn't the first time Alama-Francis had switched on a whim, and this change brought an opportunity to stick in the NFL after bombing out with the Detroit Lions.

Alama-Francis is the son of Joe Francis, who backed up Bart Starr for two seasons with the Green Bay Packers. But Alama-Francis didn't play organized football until his sophomore year at Hawaii. He was a basketball walk-on, but football coach June Jones convinced him to convert.

The Lions drafted Alama-Francis 58th overall in 2007. He played tackle and end under D-line specialist Rod Marinelli, but started only two games over two seasons. The Lions cut him at the end of last year's preseason. He remained unemployed until November, when the Dolphins signed him to play defensive end at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds.

Then, with three offseason workouts to go before summer break, the Dolphins approached Alama-Francis about standing on two feet for the first time. No more springing out of a three-point stance. They wanted him to try outside linebacker.

Sparano and linebackers coach Bill Sheridan saw something in the way Alama-Francis moved for a player his size. Alama-Francis said he had "three good practices" to show he could handle the gig.

"That's not a lot," he said. "When they're throwing things at you to see how you'll react, you have to do the best you can with what's been given to you. But it was an opportunity, and I embraced it. I was thankful."

After those three OTA workouts, Sparano didn't view the move as experimental anymore. Alama-Francis is at about 275 pounds now.

"Moving from a different position, it's a total 180, dropping into coverage," Alama-Francis said. "When you're on the line, you're moving forward. When you're standing up, you see a lot more and you've got to be aware a lot more. Rushing the passer, coming off the edge and dropping into coverage, I'm excited about all that."

NFC North Hall of Fame debate

July, 5, 2010
7/05/10
12:00
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A weeklong look at current or former players or coaches with Hall of Fame potential in the division.

Chicago Bears: Brian Urlacher, middle linebacker

Claim to fame: Since joining the Bears in 2000, Urlacher has made six Pro Bowl teams and been named an All-Pro four times. He was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Tom Fluegge/US PresswireExtraordinarily athletic for a linebacker, Brian Urlacher has recorded 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks in his career.
Case for enshrinement: Urlacher was the best player on a defense that dominated the league during the middle years of this decade, one that overcame the Bears’ offensive woes and led them to the Super Bowl in 2006. As a middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme, Urlacher carried as much responsibility as any defensive player in the game -- calling defensive signals, chasing down ball carriers and covering the deep middle of the field during pass plays.

In that role, Urlacher has been an athletic playmaker unmatched in his prime, notching 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks, while getting downfield faster than any linebacker in the game.

Case against enshrinement: Injuries have slowed Urlacher in the past three seasons and he might not have compiled enough Canton-caliber seasons before that point. Detractors also could suggest he benefited disproportionately from the play of defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, who kept blockers away from Urlacher more often than not. Hall Of Fame voters haven’t been kind to even the best of Bears defenders. Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton are the only Chicago defensive stars from the 1985 Super Bowl team in Canton. Their teammate Richard Dent is now a six-time finalist for Hall of Fame induction but still is waiting for his official invite.

Parting shot: As we noted last fall, Urlacher might not stand as the best linebacker of his era. Ray Lewis, Junior Seau and Derrick Brooks might have something to say about that.

Detroit Lions: Billy Sims, running back

Claim to fame: He was a dominant runner during the early 1980s. Sims became the Lions’ all-time leading rusher even though a knee injury ended his career after 4 1/2 years. (Barry Sanders later overtook him.) Sims was a three-time Pro Bowl player, still ranks as the Lions’ No. 2 rusher, and has the second-most rushing touchdowns in team history.

Case for enshrinement: It’s obviously a long shot, but it’s important to remember how brightly Sims’ star shined during his brief career. He rushed for 153 yards in his first NFL game, led the league with 16 touchdowns as a rookie and finished his career with 5,106 yards in 60 career games.

His career ended midway through the 1984 season, at a time when he was averaging a career-high 5.3 yards per rush. There is precedent for acknowledging Hall-worthy careers cut short by injuries. Did you know that Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, forced to retire at age 28, gained fewer career rushing yards (4,956) than Sims in more games (68)?

Case against enshrinement: Sayers was a special case who was also a dangerous return man. In reality, it’s difficult for voters to consider a running back who ranks No. 106 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. But Sims was one of the NFL’s top players during the time he spent in the game.

Parting shot: Sims’ impact on the team also should be considered. The Lions were 2-14 the year before he was drafted. In 1980, they improved to 9-7. By 1983, they were division champions.

Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer, guard

[+] EnlargeKramer
David Boss/US PresswireThe Packers won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls during Jerry Kramer's career.
Claim to fame: During an 11-season career from 1958-68, Kramer was a five-time All-Pro. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s and was the only guard selected for the NFL’s 50th Anniversary team. Every other player on that team has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Case for enshrinement: As with most successful offensive linemen, most of Kramer’s contributions came in a team context.

During his tenure, the Packers rushed for 21,637 yards -- the second-highest total among all NFL teams over that period. Kramer’s blocking was one of the reasons fullback Jim Taylor posted five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Over that stretch, Taylor rushed for more yards than anyone but Cleveland’s Jim Brown. Overall, the Packers made the playoffs eight times in Kramer’s career and won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls.

Case against enshrinement: Guard isn't usually a highly valued position. In the history of the game, only 11 players who were primarily guards have made the Hall of Fame.

Voters could also be split on the source of the Packers’ running success, from Vince Lombardi’s coaching to the individual talents of Taylor and running back Paul Hornung.

Parting shot: Kramer made one of the most famous blocks in history, clearing the way for Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to win the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game.

Minnesota Vikings: Jim Marshall, defensive end

Claim to fame: Marshall set a then-NFL record by playing in 282 consecutive games, of which he started 270. He played in two Pro Bowls, four Super Bowls and recovered an NFL-record 29 fumbles.

Case for enshrinement: If “answering the bell” is one of the main prerequisites for NFL players, then Jim Marshall is one of the greatest of all time. Although some of the stories have been embellished a bit over time, suffice it to say that Marshall battled through enormous pain and legitimate injuries to play for so long and at such a high level.

A punter (Jeff Feagles) and a quarterback (Brett Favre) have since surpassed his record, but it’s doubtful a defensive lineman ever will approach it. It would take 17 seasons of starting 16 games to do it. (Or 15 years if the NFL moves to an 18-game season.)

The longevity mark sometimes overshadows Marshall’s skills as a pass-rusher. Although sacks weren’t an official statistic then, the Vikings credit him with 127 -- only three fewer than teammate and Hall of Fame tackle Alan Page and 13 more than newly elected tackle John Randle.

Case against enshrinement: Like it or not, one of those 29 fumble recoveries always will haunt Marshall’s candidacy. In 1964, he picked up a fumble against San Francisco and ran 66 yards in the wrong direction for what was ruled a safety.

Parting shot: Another factor that might not be fair but is worth considering: Two members of the Purple People Eaters, Page and Eller, are already in the Hall of Fame. Would voters agree that 75 percent of one defensive line should be enshrined?

Best Packers Team Ever: 1962

July, 1, 2010
7/01/10
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Notable players: Fullback Jim Taylor, right tackle Forrest Gregg, quarterback Bart Starr, linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, defensive end Willie Davis, center Jim Ringo, halfback Paul Hornung, safety Willie Wood, defensive tackle Henry Jordan.

[+] EnlargeJim Taylor
AP Photo/Bill IngrahamIn their 49-0 win over the Eagles, Jim Taylor and the Packers gained a total of 628 yards.
Analysis: There are notable players, and then there are the best of the very best. All 10 players listed above have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In other words, nearly half of the Green Bay Packers' 1962 regular lineup were among the best of their era. That type of talent collection could never be replicated in today's era of superstar contracts.

Under Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, this Packers team shut out two of its first three opponents and won its first four games by a combined score of 109-14. It went on to finish the season 13-1, leading the NFL in both points scored and fewest points allowed, and won the league championship with a 16-7 victory over the New York Giants. There hasn't been another one-loss season in Green Bay ever since.

The Packers have won 12 titles in their history, including five under Lombardi, but the 1962 team was a powerhouse unto itself. If you've read David Maraniss' biography of Lombardi, you understand why: This edition of the Packers recorded a pair of 49-0 victories and set an NFL record for highest average point differential in its games (19.1 points). Here are some other notable marks:

  • In the second 49-0 drubbing, this one at Philadelphia, the Packers gained -- yes -- 574 more yards than the Eagles (628-54).
  • The 49-0 victories are the two biggest shutouts in team history.
  • The 1962 Packers scored 53 touchdowns, the second-most in team history despite a 14-game season at the time. Its 36 rushing touchdowns remain an NFL record.
  • The defense led the NFL with interceptions (31) and fewest passing yards allowed (2,084).
The season's running performance was the grist for Lombardi's epic "Run To Daylight" with Bill Heinz. While Hornung is often remembered as the Packers' top back, in 1962, Taylor led the team with 1,474 yards and an amazing 19 touchdowns.

The Giants were hell-bent on revenge in the championship game, having lost to the Packers 37-0 the year before. The game was in New York, but the Packers controlled the game throughout in 17-degree weather at Yankee Stadium. The Giants' only score came on a blocked punt. (Check out this NFL Films video on that game. Cool stuff.)

Most impressive win: It's hard to overlook an NFL title game, but beating any team 49-0 and outgaining it by 574 yards is a stunning demonstration of dominance.

Did you know? Nitschke was the MVP of the championship game but might have had a bigger impact on the league a few hours after the game. As the story goes, Nitschke appeared on the television show "What's My Line?" wearing his trademark black rimmed glasses. A film producer named Ed Sabol bought the rights to that appearance for $3,000. Sabol's company eventually became known as NFL Films.

Honorable mention:

1966: Won Super Bowl I after finishing the regular season 12-2. Its two losses, to San Francisco and Minnesota, came by a total of four points.

1996: Led the NFL in points scored and fewest points allowed, the only team to do so in the past 36 years, and won Super Bowl XXXI.

1929: Clinched the Packers' first NFL Championship, this one based on final standings, with an undefeated record (12-0-1).

Best Eagles Team Ever: 1960

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
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Notable players: LB Chuck Bednarik, WR Tommy McDonald, SE Pete Retzlaff, LB Maxie Baughan, QB Norm Van Brocklin, FB Ted Dean, DE Marion Campbell, CB Tom Brookshier

[+] EnlargeNorm Van Brocklin
David Boss/US PresswireNorm Van Brocklin quarterbacked the Eagles to the 1960 championship.
Analysis: Because we reward championships -- even when there weren’t a lot of other teams. The Eagles beat Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the championship game at Franklin Field, and that’s saying something. Bednarik remains an iconic part of the franchise’s history. In a win over the Giants in 1960, he famously knocked out Frank Gifford with a punishing blow. Gifford didn’t get up that day, and he also missed the following season.

Van Brocklin was at the end of the career, but he made his final season count by delivering bombs to McDonald and Retzlaff. McDonald, a Hall of Famer, averaged more than 20 yards per catch in 1960. He scored a 35-yard touchdown in the Eagles’ classic 17-13 win over the Packers. The Eagles won their other two titles in the late 1940s under coach Greasy Neale, but the ’60 team made more of an impact in the community. It’s only appropriate that the Eagles will break out the kelly green jerseys for the season opener against the Packers. Too bad they can’t play at Franklin Field (they supposedly looked into it).

Most impressive win: Definitely the title game against the Packers. In his second season as head coach of the Packers, Vince Lombardi had Jim Taylor, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Max McGee, Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg on offense. This was a dynasty in the making, but the Eagles forced the Packers to wait a year before Green Bay won the NFL title in ’61.

Best player: McDonald was a burner, but I’ll go with Bednarik because he gave the team its identity. He played center and linebacker.

Honorable mention

2004: Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens formed one of the top combinations in the league, and Brian Westbrook was dangerous as a dual threat. This was a superb team -- as evidenced by its playoff run without the injured T.O.

1980: Eagles fans have fond memories of Wilbert Montgomery carving up the Cowboys in the NFC title game for 194 yards and a touchdown. Nose tackle Charlie Johnson helped anchor a dominating defense.

2002: Duce Staley ran for 1,000 yards and had 500 yards receiving. The Eagles were deep enough that they made it to the NFC title game during a season in which A.J. Feeley had to start five games because McNabb was injured. I don’t have to remind you what happened against Tampa Bay in the playoffs. By the way, the Eagles dominated the Bucs in a 20-10 win earlier that season.

Manning, Montana and Super Bowl legacies

February, 8, 2010
2/08/10
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The Colts' loss to the Saints prevented Peyton Manning from joining seven other quarterbacks with undefeated Super Bowl records in multiple starts.

The chart shows those seven quarterbacks, including 49ers great Joe Montana (4-0).

The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, 2-0 as a Super Bowl starter, has the best chance of joining Troy Aikman in the 3-0 club, which once featured Tom Brady.

Terry Bradshaw (4-0), Montana and Aikman held a significant advantage over more recent Super Bowl quarterbacks. Each played before salary-cap implications prevented their teams from stockpiling talent. The cap was in place while Aikman was playing, but the Cowboys weren't affected as much until later in the decade.

Kurt Warner's Hall of Fame checklist

January, 15, 2010
1/15/10
12:00
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Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner is making a strong case to get into Canton.
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt announced a fateful decision Aug. 30, 2008.

Kurt Warner had beaten out Matt Leinart as the starting quarterback. It was big news at the time.

"If you look at just our (2007) season where we ended up playing three (quarterbacks), I think it is a pretty high percentage that Matt is going to play this year at some point for us," Whisenhunt said heading into that 2008 season.

At that stage of his career, Warner was still convincing coaches he could limit turnovers well enough to make all those touchdown passes matter more. Though he had led the NFL in touchdowns over the second half of the 2007 season, he was still breaking free from a five-year period featuring 27 touchdowns, 30 interceptions and questions about his viability.

Seventeen months since Whisenhunt chose his starting quarterback, Warner has helped his coach rank among the greats in postseason winning percentage. Counting playoffs, Warner has thrown 72 touchdown passes with 31 interceptions and a 23-13 starting record over the past two seasons.

Instead of debating whether Warner should start over Leinart, the more relevant question has become whether Warner deserves Hall of Fame induction once his career is finished. The case is getting stronger by the week.

An updated look at his Canton credentials:

1. Longevity.

The great quarterbacks had staying power. Warner has played in 124 regular-season games, about 60 fewer than the average for the 14 quarterbacks enshrined over the last 25 years. This is one of the few categories where Warner doesn't measure up.

On the other hand, Roger Staubach played only seven more games. Like Warner, he was an elite big-game quarterback. No one questions Staubach's Hall of Fame credentials. And Warner, playing in a pass-happy era he helped christen, certainly has better stats.

2. Production.

Here is where Warner's relatively short game log works to his advantage. He has put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in less time than players already enshrined. His offenses in St. Louis scored 526, 540 and 503 points in consecutive seasons, setting a standard that holds up well across any era.

Of those 14 quarterbacks enshrined since 1985, none could match Warner in completion percentage, yards per attempt or yards per game. Steve Young is the only one with a higher passer rating than Warner. Dan Marino is the only one with more 300-yard games (Warner has 52, twice as many as Jim Kelly, who played in 36 additional games).

3. Postseason success.

Only Bart Starr (104.8) has a higher postseason passer rating than Warner (104.6) among NFL quarterbacks all time. Warner closed the gap to within a couple tenths of a rating point with his five-touchdown, zero-interception performance against the Packers in the wild-card round.

Warner has averaged 312.3 yards per postseason game, most in league history. And unlike the other four players in the top five on that list, Warner has won a Super Bowl. He has played in three of them, posting the three highest yardage totals in the game's history.

Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman and Staubach are the only quarterbacks with more postseason victories than Warner.

Warner, with a 9-3 record in postseason, needs two more victories to match Aikman and Staubach on the all-time list. Beating the Saints in the divisional round Saturday would move Warner out of a tie with Starr (9-1), Donovan McNabb (9-7) and Kelly (9-8) for sole possession of eighth place on the list.

Warner has passed for at least 365 yards in half his 12 playoff starts. No other quarterback has hit that mark more than three times in postseason (Peyton Manning). Warner owns three of the 23 postseason performances in which a quarterback threw at least four touchdown passes (Montana, Manning and Daryle Lamonica each did it twice).

4. Unique legacy.

Warner's rise from supermarket shelf stocker to Super Bowl hero gives his legacy another dimension. Leading two previously dormant franchises to the Super Bowl also separates Warner from the typical Hall of Fame candidate.

Not many Hall of Famers would lose jobs to Marc Bulger and a young Eli Manning before working feverishly to beat out Leinart. A thumb injury doomed Warner in St. Louis. The Giants and Cardinals weren't going to leave a first-round choice on the bench (Warner's passer rating with New York, by the way, was higher than any Manning posted until this season).

It's been a strange career for Warner, no question.

"Regardless of how it happened, I just think Kurt has done things that I don’t know anyone else has done," Young told Bernie Miklasz during a recent radio interview.

It's tough to write the history of the game without sharing Warner's remarkable story.

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