Thursday, January 12, 2012

Packers-Bears: The Pretend End of the Pretend Road

At last, to paraphrase my minivan, we have arrived at our destination. Route guidance will cease. Enjoy your stay.

I can’t remember why I decided to pursue an all-time-greatest-teams playdown. Oh, wait; I do. I had spent many months analyzing NFL teams and constructing all-time lineups as part of the process of writing a book called Jim and Kit’s Big Book of All-Time Football Lineups (note to self: whack the title), and once I had a sufficient supply of lineups and snide Leo Sugar references I felt duty-bound to do something with them, and if the book wasn’t happening the playdown was a reasonable second choice.

I suppose I could have just thrown a bracket up there and given it the Colin Cowherd treatment and run an illegal gambling operation and had everyone in the office chip in a twenty to play, but that’s not how I operate. Long and overblown, baby, with absolutely no income potential: that’s Big Kitty Style.

So I started this thing on May 20, 2011, with a running account of Chargers-Chiefs, and almost 235 days later to the day here I am, playing out a post-Pro Bowl finale featuring the Bears and Packers banging leather helmet against leather helmet in a commercial-free, flyover-less, non-Kevin Harlaned paean to the wonders of football longevity.

Let’s nuke the hecklers right away, because Lord knows I love explaining once again how the two overwhelming favorites to get here got here.

Forget that one of these teams is in my backyard and the other is just over the fence. The Bears are here because over 90-plus years they’ve assembled more high-quality linemen on both sides of the ball than anyone. Anyone; not even close. The Bears also have four Hall of Fame running backs, five Hall of Fame linebackers, the two greatest kick returners ever, and pro football’s very own Babe Ruth, all coached by the guy who gave the NFL CPR for a decade.

The Packers are here because it snowed.

Well, more than that. The Packers are here because they have four great quarterbacks, three tremendous wide receivers, six HOF running backs, the highest-rated defensive player ever (Reggie White), a slew of HOF linemen and three HOFers in the secondary, with Vince Lombardi driving the bus.

And because it snowed.

The Packers and Bears are 1-2 in all-time wins, and first and fourth in all-time winning percentage. They are 1-2 in Hall of Famers, and between them they have 22 World Championships – almost one-fourth of all NFL titles. Lest you think it’s merely a function of longevity, the other team that was there at practically the beginning, the ChiStlAz Cardinals, has two NFL championships and no Super Bowl wins, and the rest of the pre-1935 teams – the Lions, Eagles, Redskins, and Giants – have been the Pimlico clay to the Packers and Bears’ Secretariat.

Oh, there are differences. The Packers were never coached by anyone as large as Abe Gibron, though Mike Sherman's astonishing paunch-that-launched-a-thousand-ships wins extra points for its shock value. The Bears peaked earlier than the Packers; the team has two championships in the last 50 years, versus the Packers’ five. Contemporary history totally favors the Packers, notwithstanding certain moments from Devin Hester and Jay Cutler’s chins, but we’re talking history history, and that has the teams in nearly a dead heat.

There were other worthy candidates for the finals; the Colts, Rams and – yes, J.B. – the Vikings all could claim positions. Teams like the Cowboys, Chiefs and 49ers offered intriguing possibilities and upset potential. If scores of years and hundreds of games weren’t weighing down the results, there might have been more upsets. But statistical probability grinds a straight path through this canyon, and at the end of the path you find Bears-Packers. There will be no more explanations.

Instead, a pregame tale of the tape. The Bears have managed to turn an impressive historical assortment of offensive talent into a subpar historical offense. If you index their offensive rankings on a year-by-year basis the Bears have a historical offensive ranking of 89, against a baseline of 100. Conversely, the Packers have an indexed offensive ranking of 111 – exactly as much above the norm as the Bears are below the norm.

Defensively it’s a different story. The Bears are far above the norm, as you’d expect – their indexed rating is 118 – but the Packers are at 113. On pretend paper, this is a game pitting a below-average-offensive/very-good-defensive team against a very-good-offensive/very-good-defensive team.

In that regard the pretend game is not much different from this week’s semi-pretend national-championship college-football game. It took about 10 minutes of watching LSU and Alabama this season to recognize that ‘Bama has a pretty good offense and a stellar defense, and LSU has a dysfunctional offense and an exceptional defense. Was there ever really any doubt that anything would happen in the Faux National Championship other than exactly what happened? I realize the endless weeks of buildup boosted the GNP by keeping 197 quasi-expert commentators employed through the holidays, but really. Step back, view things dispassionately, call it like you see it, and move on.

Leaving the world of real pretend national championships to return to the more comfortable yet lower-paying world of pretend pretend world championships, the crucial question is the eternal crucial question: How much weight do you give prewar performances, and how do you adequately weight the accomplishments of prewar players?

From 1921-41 the Packers were 163-65-18; the Bears were 177-62-30. The Packers are down 14 in the win column, but only down three in the loss column. That suggests some schedule-padding on the Bears’ part, not to mention a whole bunch of quasi-exhibitions ending in either scoreless ties or blowouts.

Yes, blowouts. The all-time Bears have scored 24,234 points. The all-time Packers have scored 24,975 points. However, if you want to start NFL time at 1946, the Bears have scored 18,973 points to the Packers’ 20,245. The Bears ran up the scores through the ‘20s, picking on the likes of the Akron Indians and the Louisville Colonels. The Packers had their games with the Racine Tornadoes of the football world but did proportionally less barnstorming than the Bears, holding down their numbers and creating an historical statistical dead heat that’s actually anything but.

Speaking to that point, the Bears have 16 HOFers who began their careers pre-war. The Packers have eight. The players can’t be thrown out because their accomplishments are legitimate, and they obviously outperformed their peers. But their contributions need to be discounted about 20 percent in this milieu to account for schedule-padding and generally inferior competition.

One note on that 20 percent discount: Almost every great lineman of the 1930s except for the centers Mel Hein and Alex Wojciehowicz played for the Bears, because when the NFL draft was instituted the Bears drafted linemen when almost every other team drafted skill-position players. The fact that the Bears had all the good linemen and were not flat-out dominant throughout the era suggests three things: the skill-position players were overrated, the offense was antiquated, and the great linemen may not have been all that great. You could discount these players – Fortmann, Stydahar, Kiesling, Musso, Turner -- 30 percent and not be overdoing it.

Outside of the dead-ball era, the difference between the two teams is one-seventh of a game per year – a dead heat record-wise, like we said, though inside that dead heat the Packers scored more points, won more championships, and played defense about as well, and the only reasonably good Bear quarterback, Sid Luckman, padded his stats during the war years. So you could read the tea leaves and say there’s a case for the Packers.

There’s also a case for the Bears. There’s the 1940 NFL Championship, the 1983 Bears, arguably one of best teams ever, and Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and Dick Butkus – players who shifted the game’s tectonic plates.

We could find a dozen more reasons why this game is basically dead even, so we might as well play it out, knowing that there will eventually be a winner.

(This is not an empty declaration. Two years ago the championship game of the Australian Football League, that delightful mélange of volleyball, rugby, and fragmentation bomb, ended in a tie, so the next weekend they played another one. Imagine if you tried that with the Super Bowl. Al Michaels would blow a motherboard.)

The Packers kick off on a blustery 12-degree day at Soldier Field. Sayers runs the ball out to the 40, and the Bears immediately take advantage of the field position by running three plays for seven yards and punting.

The Packers get the ball, get a first down and nothing more, and kick back to the Bears. The Bears run five and kick back to the Packers, who go three-and-out and kick back to the Bears. The Bears gain ground steadily on these exchanges, moving their starting field position from their own 40 to the Green Bay 44.

The Bears pound the ball close to field-goal range, only to come away empty-handed when Reggie White strips the ball from Sid Luckman and Willie Davis returns the fumble to the Bears 34. At that point Starr goes to work methodically, using Forrest Gregg’s ability to neutralize Doug Atkins on the pass rush to connect on a series of short passes to Hornung, Canadeo, and Sterling Sharpe. That softens the middle for Jim Taylor, who hammers it into the end zone from seven yards out, putting the Packers on top 7-0.

The Bears get another great kickoff return – out to the Packer 48 – but do nothing with it, in the process pointing up the Bears’ major flaw, something that had appeared in previous games but had always been subsumed by strong line play and good defense. Sid Luckman is an overrated quarterback – he’s one of two prewar QBs to start for an all-time team, and he ain’t no Sammy Baugh -- but beyond him the Bears have no quarterback, so he has to play. If he’s able to hand the ball off to Payton and Sayers most of the game and only throw the ball as a change of pace, he’s fine. But shut down the run and force the pass and Luckman has neither the skills nor the skill players to play effectively.

And that’s what happens here. White, Davis and Jordan (with help from Ray Nitschke) control the running game. Adderley, Woodson and Wood cover the receivers. On defense, the Bears aren’t quite strong enough in the D-line to put consistent pressure on the Packers’ quarterbacks (Brett Favre gets a couple of series after Bart Starr gets knocked woozy in the second quarter), and don’t have the D-backs to run with the receivers.

The result deteriorates like the grass at midfield. Pressed into a passing situation, Luckman throws a flare meant for Bill Hewitt right into the arms of Charles Woodson, who undercuts the route, breaks beautifully on the ball, and returns the pick to the Bears 35. The drive produces a Chester Marcol field goal – matched after a long return on the ensuing kickoff leads to a short drive for a three-pointer.

With the lid off the goal and the Bear mystique shattered, the Packers move right back down the field. This time it’s Favre, hooking up with Sharpe on a 24-yard catch-and-run and Hutson on a 45-yard post-corner route that puts the Packers up by two touchdowns.

The Bears are not equipped to play from behind. The Packers’ front line attacks the run with abandon and let their defensive backs handle their business – which they do without difficulty. Offensively, the Packers dial back the aggressiveness as gameday turns dark and blustery; they tack on a third-quarter field goal and withstand a very late Bears touchdown to prevail 20-10.

The stat sheet doesn’t have much to say. Taylor runs for 61 yards and a score. Hornung and McNally each catch four passes out of the backfield. Lofton has a couple of catches, Hutson catches five with a score, and Sharpe snags four.

Defensively, White has 2.5 sacks, Davis has 1.5, and designated pass rusher Ted Hendricks gets home once. In addition to Woodson’s pick, Bobby Dillon and Leroy Butler intercept Luckman, whose day is generally luckless.

Speaking of the Bears’ offense, their vaunted running attack doesn’t amount to much. Even with Bronko Nagurski leading the way, Payton can only manage 71 yards on 19 carries. Sayers is even less productive, with 59 yards rushing, though he does catch six passes for 81 yards. In fact, the passing yards are almost exclusively allocated from the tight end down; Harlon Hill’s two catches and Bill Hewitt’s three are hardly the stuff championships are made of.

So there you go. It pains me greatly to anoint the Green Bay Packers as the champions of the first-and-only Football With 1 Stick Gum all-time playdowns. Why does it annoy me? For those outside of the Packers’ sphere, it seems like hopeless homerism. For those inside the sphere, it’s the only possible outcome. And personally, I have a tremendous antipathy towards the Packers. When the Packers win it buoys the spirits of those around me, and has that pleasant residual effects. But at the same time, it's so cliched. It's like yet another riff on the "Hoosiers" theme starring Dennis Quaid, where the plucky band of underdogs hit the winning shot as time expires. I'm quite anti-cliche, thank you; I love underdogs like Matthew Stafford loves corn dogs, but I prefer the ones with the funky uniforms that get eliminated in round 2. The Packers, the Titletown ouevre, the innumerable houses and mailboxes and lawn tractors and pickup trucks and silos and tea cozies dolled up in green and gold, it gets old after a while. Especially when there's a team like the Saskatchewan Roughriders out there needing some love.

In the end, the weight of talent over time couldn't be denied. The Packers got a few breaks but generally had the most balanced team from line-to-backs on both sides of the ball. They had enough prewar players to create a deep roster and enough great postwar players to provide the necessary punch. There could have been many other outcomes, but this is the one that got home this time.

Fortunately for pretend matchups like this, there’s always a tomorrow. And it starts today. But only after I savor this one for a couple of minutes.

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