Friday, December 30, 2011

Packers-Colts: Longing and Belonging and a Fistful of Prop Snow in the Face

If you've been following our all-time playdowns as closely as I am, you're a liar. I'm the freaking author. On the other hand, if you've been following the playdowns semi-closely, you know the Colts' advancing to the semifinals is a point of some contention. People say they shouldn't have beaten the Vikings in the round of 16, the Cowboys in the quarters, or even the Eagles in the first round. Well, they did. They did because while the defense is little more than average the offense is consistently far above average. Put another way, they have not one but several of the most dynamic offensive players in professional football history at a rate of at least one to every position. Tight end, John Mackey and Dallas Clark. Wide receiver, Ray Berry, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne. Running back, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, and Lenny Moore. Oh, and quarterback, Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas.
If you're still unconvinced, here's the convincer. According to, the Colts have 13 offensive players among the top 250 players of all time – two in the top 11 (including player No. 1), three in the top 20, four in the top 30. Just doing the math, if there are 32 teams, there should be eight players per team, four on offense and four on defense. Thirteen offensive players from a team means there are more than 200  percent more offensive players from the Colts than from an average team. Throw in five defensive players, and the Colts have 18 of the top 250 players of all time, where the average team has eight – and all that with no Art Donovan, no Bubba Smith, no John Mackey, or no Dallas Clark. That's why the Colts are here.
And if you're unconvinced about the value of Peyton Manning versus his Colts counterpart, Johnny Unitas, consider this: The Colts lost Unitas and nearly won to the Super Bowl with Earl Morrall. The Colts replaced Manning with the closest thing to Morrall the waiver wire had to offer, Kerry Collins, and have nearly won Andrew Luck. Oh, and despite playing most of his career behind Jeff Saturday and an assortment of grain-storage buildings, Peyton Manning is almost never sacked.

The all-time Colts have more than enough line to block for Manning and all that firepower, and just enough defense. So enough about whether they belong. They're there.

Let's compare the Colts to the Packers. The Packers have 14 players in the top 250, eight on defense. (Twelve if you stretch and include Ted Hendricks, Emlen Tunnell, Steve McMichael, and Hardy Nickerson, all of whom spent portions of the back ends of their careers in Green Bay.) So the modern Packers are at a decided disadvantage – and they'd stay at a disadvantage, if we pulled a National Football League and started football time with the merger of the All-American Football Conference.
Unfortunately for the Colts, their time starts with NFL Football Standard Time. The Packers start their football epoch B.C. (Before Cleveland), and by doing that, they up the skill level tremendously. The Packers add the greatest receiver of the prewar era (Don Hutson), three of the best backs (Tony Canadeo, Clarke Hinkle and Blood McNally), and two great linemen (Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske). Throw those six players in the mix and the Packers have the edge, 19 to 18.

Close game, in other words. Both teams belong, and the game shapes up as an offensive powerhouse versus a strong, well-balanced defense.

Let's play this out.

The Colts get the opening kickoff and go three-and-out. The Packers get the punt and do the same. The Colts take over at their 37 after a decent Lydell Mitchell punt return and Manning goes to work. He hits Wayne, Moore, Berry, Faulk, and Mackey in succession, broken up by a couple of handoffs to Eric Dickerson. The drive takes the Colts to the Packers' 17, where it's third and five.
You know what Peyton Manning throws in these situations like you know your own name. Fade route to Reggie Wayne, touchdown, Colts up seven-zip.
Now it's the Pack's turn. With wide receivers like James Lofton, Sterling Sharpe and Don Hutson working against Bob Boyd and some sugar cookies, Bart Starr doesn't need to be Brett Favre; being Starr is plenty. Starr largely eschews the run in favor of out-routes and screens to Tony Canadeo. The Packers stretch and wedge and ply the ball down to the Colts' eight-yard line. A Gino Marchetti sack pushes the back to the 13. Starr figures if it worked for Manning, why not? He throws his own fade route to Hutson and the game is tied.
Fair enough. The Colts come right back. This time Manning, starting to feel the heat from Reggie White et al., makes better use of draws and screens with Faulk and Mitchell. He wriggles the ball down to the nine and lets Eric Dickerson take over from there. Three straight-and-I-mean-straight runs make it 14-7.
The Packers can't get into a shootout with the Colts, but they're willing to try. Starr continues to exploit the Colts' suspect secondary, in particular on a  57-yard Max McGee route with Hutson playing the part of ol' Max. Jim Taylor bashes it in from the five and we're tied.
Games sometimes veer from flurries of scoring to flurries of ... well, flurries, in the sense of tiny snowflakes being all the announcers have to talk about (except for Kevin Harlan, who never seems to talk about anything). In the case of this game and the Packers, it's Willie Wood, Charles Woodson, and Herb Adderley asserting themselves on the back end of the D and Willie Davis, Henry Jordan and Reggie White asserting themselves on the front. For the Colts, it's using Ted Hendricks as he was meant to be used – as a rogue force playing the whole field.
All of which is a long way of saying that Hendricks blocks a field goal as time expires in the first half, and the Packers and Colts go into halftime tied.
The teams come out in the second half to heavier snow – and if snow isn't Manning's kryptonite it's his triple-decker sauerkraut-and-toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce. After the Packers go nowhere after the second-half kickoff, Manning makes his first mistake. A pass steered in the direction of Ray Berry ends up in Adderley's hands instead. He returns the interception to the Colts' 39 and the Packers are in business.

It's not much of a business, as it turns out. A pass to Sharpe and a couple of Jim Taylor runs move the ball to the 30, where Chester Marcol is called on to not run with a blocked field goal, and he performs his task admirably, putting the Packers ahead 17-14.

At this point the snow takes over, and Eric Dickerson tries to. He bulls the ball downfield into field-goal range, leaving the kicking duties in the hands of long-time bad-weather kicker Adam Viniatieri.

Now is the time when poetic justice should assume power, and the Green Bay Ted Hendricks should block the kick of his former team, forcing the Baltimapolis Ted Hendricks back out on the field to stop the Packers, but that doesn't happen. Fred Carr doesn't even get an island-sized paw on it. Instead, Viniatieri simply pulls it left.

There's not much after that, fans of offense, lovers of the Washington-Baylor Alamo Bowl. Everyone sort of slips and mucks around for 10 minutes, Manning throws a pick to Dave Robinson, and Reggie White supplies the exclamation point with an exuberant belly-whopper of a sack. The gun fires and the Packers escape with a 17-14 win.

What a gyp! What a dirty, rotten gyp of a game! To have a absolute upset-in-the-making, one of the greatest pretend games in the entire history of made-up football games, ruined by the oldest trick in the book – a blast of stage snow in the face.

Okay, but think about it. The game is played in Green Bay in winter. It snows in Green Bay in winter. One of the greatest real games in history, the Ice Bowl, was played in Green Bay and was made great in part by the temperature. See, it gets cold in Green Bay in the winter. The game itself minus the temperature was no greater than a score of other games. Add the temperature and – voila! – instant classic. And a cup of instant coffee to go with it.
Besides, there's nothing that says the Packers wouldn't have won the game on a dry Green Bay field on a placid Green Bay winter's day. The superior Packers lines and a better Green Bay secondary were starting to assert themselves before the snow. Bart Starr didn't have a multitude of weapons to attack the colts with; he just had the right weapons. You don't need four great running backs and seven great wide receivers; two of the former and three of the latter work fine.
Of all the great players in this game, Sterling Sharpe really stands out. The receiver was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before the neck injury. As it stands, his seven-year numbers compare very favorably to Lofton, Steve Largent, Berry, and Bob Hayes. Sharpe pulls down 11 balls in this game for 117 yards. Hutson is fine – five catches for 87 yards and a TD – but no one matches up with Sharpe.
Dickerson has a nice game for the Colts – 97 yards rushing, mostly in the second half – but Manning's numbers fall off a ledge once the snow starts. He finishes 21 of 38 for 225 yards and two scores, but also an interception and three sacks. Manning's had better games, and that's part of the point. Most of Manning's better games have not occurred in big games in bad weather. This game is completely in character for Peyton Manning and the Colts – even if it took a silly vaudeville prop to do it.
So the stage is set for the last game in our all-time playdowns. Sorry, all you non-traditionalists and disavowers of the NFL's prewar past: It's Packers-Bears.
Let the railleries begin.

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