Friday, November 11, 2011

Packers-Niners: Twisting by the (Talent) Pool

Packers-Niners. Just the mention of those teams conjures images of California-cool quarterbacks kneeling down at the end of games. If sometimes you toy with the notion that every game that has ever been won in the National Football League has been won by one of these teams, you wouldn’t be toying alone. And yet why does this game have the feeling of anticlimax?

Could it be that it’s because it’s been done better in real life? The bookend Packers-Niners playoff games – the Packers’ win in the rain in 1996 and the Niners’ down-to-the-wire win two years later – have everything you could want in a football game, including bratwurst and large, inexpensive beers. If they don’t include every player on each all-time team they include a more-than-representative sampling, especially in the Niners’ case.

But enough dealing with reality. Let’s jump back into the unreal world and take a hard look at these two make-believe teams. The Niners have a HOFer everywhere, but not always multiple HOFers. The Packers have multiple HOFers everywhere. Advantage Packers. But in certain key areas the Niners’ HOFers are better than the Packers’ HOFers. Would you rather have Joe Montana, Steve Young and Y.A. Tittle or Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers? Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens or Don Hutson and James Lofton? Ronnie Lott and Jim Johnson or Herb Adderly and Willie Wood (and Charles Woodson)? Advantage Niners.

However, in the lines and at running back, those brutal locales not too dissimilar from eastern Colorado, the Packers dominate. Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, Cal Hubbard, and Mike Michalske trump Bob St. Clair et al. Leo Nomellini and the interchangeable pack horses of the Bill Walsh era, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young cower in the massive shadows of Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, and Reggie White. Joe Perry and Hugh McIlhenny (and the criminally underappreciated Roger Craig and Rickey Watters) are strictly second-tier guys compared to Hornung, Taylor, Clarke Hinkle, Johnny Blood, Tony Canadeo, and Arnie Herber. And sorry Bill Walsh, but Vince Lombardi, Curley Lambeau, and Mike Holmgren take you down.

But it’s close. It’s very close. When you run the two-deeps on a continuum and cut off the top 15 players, they’re virtually identical. But when you get to players 47 and 48, it’s clear that the Packers have better talent.

So let’s do it that way. Let’s take the two-deep starting lineups of both teams, put them on continuums, and then see how the bottom tiers of both look.

Using a combination of Pro Football Reference’s Weighted Average Value and Elo Rater scores, here are the players scoring more than 100 on a combined index where the lower the score, the better the player:

Niners Packers

Roger Craig Dave Robinson

Bob St. Clair James Lofton

Harris Barton Jerry Kramer

Hugh McIlhenny Charles Woodson

Billy Wilson Donald Driver

Joe Perry Chad Clifton

Gene Washington Fred Carr

Brent Jones Hawg Hanner

Bruce Bosley John Anderson

Abe Woodson Bobby Dillon

Keena Turner Sterling Sharpe

Tommy Hart Lionel Aldridge

Ken Willard Mark Tauscher

Cedrick Hardman Ken Ellis

John Taylor Aaron Kampman

Dana Stubblefield Gale Gillingham

Merton Hanks Paul Coffman

Roland Lakes Mike McCoy

Guy McIntyre Willie Buchanon

Frank Nunley

Ken Norton Jr.

Eric Wright

Dwight Hicks

Forrest Blue

Woody Peoples

Kermit Alexander

Tim McDonald

Monty Stickles

Bruno Banducci

Howard Mudd

Hacksaw Reynolds

These lists don’t lack for good players, but they point up the problem with the Niners: there’s more bottom, and it goes deeper. Ken Ellis, Aaron Kampman and Gale Gillingham (and what is it with Gillingham getting nothing from history? I know the guy just died and we’re all rosy-eyed about his worth as a football player, but he was absolutely the best thing about the Packers after Lombardi left, and was every bit as good As Jerry Kramer, who gets plenty of forearm shivers from the football cognoscenti as-is) are very comparable to Hacksaw Reynolds, Tim McDonald (another head-scratcher as far as history goes), Forrest Blue, and Woody Peoples. But where the Niners offer up Bruno Banducci and Merton Hanks the Packers counter with Buckets Goldenberg and Jug Earpe – different, but better different. In this world, where a replacement-value guy is a five-time All-Pro, the Packers have better players.

Okay, so we’ve beaten that particular dead horse to death. Talent wins most but not all of these games. How does talent fare here?

Pretty well.

It’s a different sort of game, a little like a modern-day Jets-Patriots game minus the chubby guys in hoodies. The Niners want to throw it all over the field and worry about defense when they get there, while the Packers want to pound the ball and play defense and keep Brett Favre staked to the ground, Gulliver-style, on the sideline. (and yes, Aaron Rodgers is in charge of the little hammer.)

The result is much like the recent Jets-Patriots tussles, where the Patriots get the best of the stat sheet but the Jets win. In this case, as the snow swirls around Lambeau and the in-ground turf heaters create a surface of a consistency similar to those things they called “steaks” you used to get at Ponderosa, the Niners take the opening kickoff, run it out to the 47 courtesy of a great Abe Woodson return, march it down to the 24, and miss a field goal. The Packers stumble out to the 32 and punt. The Niners run the punt out to midfield, run and pass it down inside the 15, and throw an interception (Bobby Dillon). The Packers run back the interception to the 21, pound it out to the 24, and punt. The Niners take a penalty on the runback that lands them at their own 33 and fly down the field to the Packer 42, where the drive stalls and the Niners punt it into the end zone. When the quarter ends at this point it’s a mercy-killing.

Perhaps energized by the Packer band’s version of “Ride My Seesaw” at the quarter break, the Packers mount a drive … actually, they get a first down. Overwhelmed by this display of offensive prowess, Abe Woodson fumbles the ensuring punt and the Packers recover at the San Francisco 38. The Packers don’t do much with the field position; a Starr-to-Hutson square-out takes the ball down to the Niners’ 19 before the demi-drive stalls. Chester Marcol doesn’t miss, however, and the Packers take a middlingly late 3-0 lead.

At this point San Francisco has 87 yards, two turnovers and no points. The Packers have 30 yards and three points.

And the beat goes on. The Niners roll up 53 yards on a drive that ends in a field goal blocked by Fred Carr and Ted Hendricks. The Packers go three-and-out. The Niners roll up 31 yards and punt. The Packers go five-and-out. The Niners roll up 40 yards before two penalties and a sack end their drive. The Packers get the ball on their own 32 with 1:53 left in the half.

Finally, some semblance of offense. A 13-yard Tony Canadeo scamper is followed by a Starr-to-Lofton post pattern that takes the ball down to the San Francisco 22. A flare pass to John Blood McNally takes the ball down to the 5, and that’s close enough for Jim Taylor to bash it into the end zone in three tries. Marcol’s extra point makes it 10-0 Packers as the halftime gun fires.

The Niners can’t be expected to stay down forever, and they don’t. After another Green Bay three-and-out to start the second half, Steve Young enters the game in relief of Joe Montana and immediately catches fire. He hits Jerry Rice for 19 yards and Terrell Owens for 23, scrambles for 11 and hits Hugh McIlhenny on a swing pass that goes for 18 yards and a score. Tommy Davis’ extra point (at last! Something through the uprights!) makes it 10-7.

At this point, the lid is officially off and the game is officially not the game of the first half. Starr begins to click hisownself. On a 77-yard drive Starr hits Lofton for 22, Hutson for 31 and Sharpe for 11 and a touchdown. Young answers with a 73-yard drive that culminates in an eight-yard Brent Jones TD strike. On the Packers’ ensuing series, Starr audibles out of a dive play to Jim Taylor and calls an option pass. Cecil Isbell hits Sharpe in stride from 57 yards out, and suddenly it’s halfway through the fourth quarter and 24-14 Green Bay.

The Niners make it interesting. Young alternates Perry runs and passes to Rice and Jones on a 65-yard drive that takes the ball down to the 8 – field-goal range for Tommy Davis. Now it’s 24-17 and a seven-point game.

With six minutes left the Niners kick off to the Packers. The Niners get the ball back with 47 seconds left in the shadow of their own goalposts.

They don’t go gentle into that good-and-cold eastern Wisconsin night. Young’s bomb in the direction of Terrell Owens draws a pass-interference penalty, bringing the ball out to midfield. Two more passes, and the Niners are inside the Packer 30 with 25 seconds left.

With no timeouts left Young rolls right, Reggie White hot on his trail. Young underestimates White’s closing speed one last, fatal time. White closes the gap, flings a huge paw around Young, drives him to the turf and refuses to get off the quarterback until the clock reads triple zeroes. The gun fires, the game ends, and the Packers survive.

“Survive” is the operative word. The Packers are outgained by 85 yards, 462 to 377. Surprisingly, no one runs much, not even the Packers. Jim Taylor gains 71 yards in 15 carries, Canadeo 19 in six, Hinkle 14 in three, and Ahman Green 11 in one. McIlhenny gains 37 yards on six carries, Joe Perry 22 in 12, Craig 21 in three, John Henry Johnson five in three, and Young 24 on two scrambles.

Starr throws for 306 yards and two TDs, but his numbers are eclipsed by the combination of Montana (174 yards, two interceptions) and Young (179 yards, two touchdowns).

The Packers came in feeling like they had to run to win, and they won it by passing. Football is funny that way.

Determining who is best positioned to win a game is a question of talent. Actually winning a game is something else altogether.

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