On Messrs. Gutekunst and Rodgers

As every American sports fan is now aware, Green Bay Packer Quarterback and reigning National Football League Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers has indicated that he wishes to leave the Green and Gold.  Although Mr. Rodgers has expressed affection and respect for the team’s coaching staff, fans, and the city of Green Bay, it is apparent that he has been irritated with Packer General Manager Brian Gutekunst ever since Mr. Gutekunst traded up in the first round of the 2020 draft to select Utah State University Quarterback Jordan Love.  (Mr. Rodgers has nonetheless also professed his love for Mr. Love personally.)  (An aside:  despite Mr. Rodgers’ positive remarks about the coaching staff, one has to wonder about his true estimation of its competence, given the key blunders it made in last season’s playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  They have certainly made me wonder.)    

Mr. Rodgers is 37 and certainly toward the end of his career, but his performance last season, taken together with the manner in which Tom Brady, 43, led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory, would seemingly indicate that he is capable of several more very productive – and perhaps elite — seasons. 

I concede that I have paid less attention to the machinations between the Packers and Mr. Rodgers than I would have several years ago.  In addition to Mr. Rodgers’ professions of respect and affection for just about everybody in Green Bay except Mr. Gutekunst, I do understand that a number of learned analysts have speculated that Green Bay might garner as many as three first round draft choices from the right bidder in trade for Mr. Rodgers.  It also appears from my limited information that — in my estimation, most crucially — Mr. Gutekunst has done a good job leaving the impression that he wants Mr. Rodgers to start in Green Bay for the foreseeable future. 

If I was advising Mr. Gutekunst, I would suggest that his dispute with Mr. Rodgers is, at bottom, a public relations battle … and that he holds the better hand.  Mr. Rodgers has several years remaining on his contract.  Unless the Packers are confident that Mr. Love will quickly have the necessary skills to lead the team to a championship, the Packers should hold firm and not make a trade.  Mr. Rodgers will then be left with two options:  play or retire.  If he actually gets on the field, no one that has ever seen him perform could believe that he will ever devote less than maximum intensity to his performance.  If Mr. Rodgers plays well, Mr. Gutekunst will look like an empowered genius for sticking to his guns and the team gains further time for Mr. Love to gain experience; if Mr. Rodgers plays poorly, his antics will cause him, and not Mr. Gutekunst, to bear the onus if the team starts slowly.  On the other hand, if Mr. Rodgers retires in the face of consistent Packer declarations that they want him to stay, the perception will seemingly be that he chose to leave Green Bay, not that the Packers discarded him – which will enable Mr. Gutekunst to avoid at least some of the imbroglio that engulfed former General Manager Ted Thompson when he engineered Quarterback Brett Favre’s departure and will perhaps cause generally patient and good-natured Green Bay fans to provide Mr. Love greater leeway than will be the case if they believe that the team could have continued to enjoy the services of Mr. Rodgers.

There is, of course, the contrary notion:  if the Packers can indeed get three first round picks for Mr. Rodgers, squandering that many additional first rounders over a few-year period in the event Mr. Rodgers actually retires rather than play in Green Bay would deprive the team the opportunity to build an elite squad that would consistently challenge for a championship for a decade.  Trading Mr. Rodgers nonetheless seems to me a more dicey strategy.  First — and I may have to eat these words — I don’t think Mr. Rodgers will retire. Second, the NFL is a “Quarterback League”; unless the coaching staff is confident that Mr. Love will soon be good enough to win a championship, the team will probably need to sacrifice a couple of the first round picks it obtains in a Rodgers trade to move up in a future draft to secure a prospective elite quarterback talent.  [Even this will still be a gamble (consider Alex Smith, drafted ahead of Mr. Rodgers, and the six quarterbacks drafted before Mr. Brady)]. Third, Mr. Gutekunst has not shown the drafting acumen to provide confidence that he would effectively exploit the high-level picks he would have at his disposal.  

A final aside:  I find Mr. Rodgers’ fit of pique absurd.  I would submit that it is of no account, in this context, how well he has performed during his career, or whether Mr. Love will be a worthy replacement.  Many that follow these pages are now retired; many worked for significant operations; all are well aware of the emphasis that sophisticated organizations place upon succession planning.  Hiring someone you believe will be a suitable successor for a key employee who is unquestionably nearing retirement is simply what smart firms do.  Mr. Gutekunst was apparently willing to place a large wager – indeed, one that may well determine his professional destiny – on his selection of Mr. Love.  Despite my misgivings regarding his acumen, that’s his job.  Given the number of years remaining on Mr. Rodgers’ contract, Mr. Gutekunst was presumably — and arguably reasonably — calculating that he was providing his coaching staff several years to groom Mr. Love to assume his projected responsibilities.  Mr. Rodgers is by all accounts highly intelligent; he should understand and have taken no offense at this.  He’s indulging in a hissy fit.  That said, while in the long run, Mr. Gutekunst’s legacy in Green Bay will probably be judged primarily by the performance of Mr. Love, or whomever else ultimately replaces Mr. Rodgers, in the short run, the Packer General Manager’s standing will likely depend upon how adroitly he handles the current contest of wills with Mr. Rodgers.

The Perspective of an Aging Packer Backer

I know; it was extremely disappointing – indeed, wrenching – for many of those that follow these pages to watch the Green Bay Packers lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that the Packers should have won.  I doubt many, if told before the game that the Green and Gold, playing in Lambeau Field, would intercept Buccaneer Tom Brady three times, would have predicted a Packer defeat.  Since I consider the officiating mistakes and the two teams’ physical miscues to have about evened out, I would place the loss at the feet of the Packer coaching staff:  it was inexcusable not to impress upon the Packer secondary, with seconds left in the first half, what any sixth grader would realize – Don’t let a receiver get behind you; in going for two points after a touchdown with a lot of time left in the game, rather than taking the almost certain PAT, Head Coach Matt LaFleur was oblivious to what the late Marquette Coach Al McGuire called the “rhythm of the game” – that more points were certain to be scored by both teams and what was needed at that point was to maintain momentum – i.e., avoid the risk of emotional deflation that would necessarily occur if the two-point attempt failed (as it did); and Mr. LaFleur’s coaching malpractice involved in kicking a field goal rather than going for the tying touchdown in the waning minutes.

Fine.  I’m not sure that this would have as readily occurred to me 20 years ago, certainly not 30 or 40:  it is only a game.  Speaking as someone who our nieces and nephews used to say was as entertaining to watch, watching the Packers play, as the game itself – someone who has recorded the vast majority of Packer games for decades rather than watch them live, since his wife didn’t like putting up with the disgruntlement on Sunday nights that invariably accompanied a loss – Packer fortunes, or indeed those of any team, while providing a pleasant distraction from the many cares we face, are indeed that – a distraction.  On the macro level, even if Packer Quarterback Aaron Rodgers never plays another game, Packer fans can look back on the last 29 seasons – since then-Packer Quarterback Brett Favre threw his first touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor in September of 1992 – and truly say that while the team has at times been an underdog in a given contest, there hasn’t been a game in almost the last 30 years, with Messrs. Favre and Rodgers at the helm, that at the beginning, the team had no chance of winning.  I doubt another pro football franchise can say the same.  We Packer fans have no kick [so to speak ;)] coming.  Was it disappointing for Mr. Rodgers that he didn’t win last night?  Sure.  Given his salary in the tens of millions of dollars – or the fact that every Green Bay player earned at a rate of over $500,000 this season — does his or their disappointment rank with the millions upon millions of afflicted we have around the world?  Obviously not. Regrets devoted to sport today might better be centered on the passing of Henry Aaron, a giant of a man who I submit remains baseball’s true home run king.

So let us reflect on what I consider the brightest national note of 2020 – that by the virtue of a relatively few votes in the states of Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, we avoided becoming prey to a leader I truly consider deranged, and subject to fascist tendencies.  At the same time, we remember the arguably hundreds of thousands of avoidable American deaths and millions of lives needlessly and terribly disrupted by his twisted malfeasance in dealing with the Coronavirus.  Let us look forward with hopes of doing better in this still-new calendar year.  We are led by a good man who truly means well.  The vaccine, despite distribution hiccups, is in the offing.  Most economists cited in the Wall Street Journal believe that our economy will strongly and quickly rebound.  While we cannot bring back those we have needlessly lost, or repair all of the economic loss so many have suffered, as we remember them we can hopefully be part of a renewal that will make the lives of at least some of us, here and around the world, at least a little better.

I recognize that this note sounds less like the vehement lament of a dedicated Packer backer than the ruminations of an aging citizen; I confess that my thoughts didn’t cover as wide an expanse in the moments after the Packer game as they do as I type this; but age does have its benefits.

Stay safe.

Snow Shoveling Reflections

It’s snowed some in Madison during the last week.  Enough to require tending, but insufficient to require focus; the kind of chore that allows one’s mind to wander.

In order to be a successful President, one needs many qualities; some need to be visible, others perhaps best kept from public view.  I would venture that one of those that needs to be apparent to our people, whether real or feigned, is empathy for them.  President-elect Biden clearly genuinely possesses this attribute, to even an unusual degree.  That said, there are other qualities that a President must manifest to our people and the world in order to be successful:  among them, that s/he is decisive; and that s/he is a winner.

When the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) staged a strike in 1981 not allowed by law, believing that President Ronald Reagan had no choice but to accede to its demands, he instead fired the strikers and installed substitutes.  His presidency was then undoubtedly in psychological peril – if a plane had crashed due to the incompetence of a substitute controller, all would have justifiably blamed Mr. Reagan, and his Administration would have been figuratively over. No plane crashed.  Whatever one thinks of what he did – there is much educated commentary to the effect that PATCO’s unauthorized action and Mr. Reagan’s aggressive response had a sharply deleterious long term effect on the American labor movement — the general public perception at the time was that Mr. Reagan had “stood tall”; and – since no plane had crashed – that he had prevailed, was a winner.  After what was considered too much well-meaning but ineffectual equivocation by President Jimmy Carter, the majority of Americans supported it.  It set a tone that despite an outwardly amiable manner, Mr. Reagan was not to be trifled with – an impression that served both him and the country well throughout his presidency.   

Current media reports indicate that Mr. Biden is electing not to “weigh in” on Congressional Democrats’ impeachment efforts.  I would suggest that if such reports are accurate, the President-elect is making a strategic mistake.  I believe that he should indeed carefully weigh, and then weigh in upon, whether he wants the Senate to conduct an impeachment trial of then-former President Donald Trump during the first days of the Biden Administration.  More important than the time that the trial will syphon from Biden priorities, if the trial goes forth, Mr. Biden must win to maintain momentum with the American people, and Mr. Trump must lose – i.e., Mr. Trump must be convicted.  (I give little credence to the argument that no matter the outcome of the impeachment trial, Republicans need to be “put on the record” for supporting Mr. Trump.  Any Senate Republican who places political considerations above Constitutional duty when voting to acquit Mr. Trump will have first calculated that there will be no significant adverse consequence to being “put on the record.”) 

By all accounts, the President-elect enjoys a reasonably amicable relationship with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.  Mr. Biden should call Mr. McConnell directly, and essentially say this:  “Mitch, you want Trump gone as much as I do.  You know he should be convicted.  One thing neither of us want is to have him acquitted at trial – it’ll look like he won and we lost.  If you can guarantee me 20 Republican votes to convict [note:  only 17 Republican votes are needed if all 50 Democrats vote to convict, but in such a toxic environment, a little leeway would seem vital], I’m going to tell Pelosi and Schumer that I think they should get the ball rolling right now, while the iron is hot.  If you can’t, I’m going to tell Pelosi that I strongly believe that she should hold the impeachment article for a while.” 

If Mr. McConnell would say that he could deliver the 20 votes, the impeachment track would be clear.  If he would say that he couldn’t guarantee a Trump impeachment conviction, if I was Mr. Biden, I’d call Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and strongly encourage her to hold the impeachment article – not send it to the Senate – until a more propitious time; that the important thing was to avoid a political imbroglio that would endanger the COVID relief package and perhaps delay or derail Administration Cabinet appointments.  If Ms. Pelosi at first demurred – either out of understandable desire to see Mr. Trump punished, or out of concern for her ability to hold her caucus in line – I’d point out, as incoming President of the United States, that I considered it to be in the nation’s best interest for her to temporarily defer; that I saw no value in “making a statement” in a losing cause that would give Trump oxygen; that we needed to win — and McConnell couldn’t assure me we would.  If she needed cover, I was ready to say during my inaugural address that while I would put the full support of the Biden Administration behind all law enforcement efforts to immediately bring to justice all those responsible for the storming of the Capitol, I had asked the House of Representatives to delay for a period in forwarding the article of impeachment against Mr. Trump because I didn’t want any attention diverted from Congress’ need to pass a COVID package to combat a disease that had already killed 400,000 Americans. 

I submit that such a declaration would show both empathy and a clear exertion of leadership of his party by Mr. Biden, who at times has appeared an affable “Not Trump” figurehead. It’s hard to believe that Ms. Pelosi would disregard a request from the incoming President of the United States that he indicated he felt was in the best interests of the nation (which I consider a clear contrast to the obsequiousness of the Congressional Republicans over the last four years, who constantly kowtowed to the illiberal actions of a grotesque psyche that they well understood cared only about what was in his own best interest.)  The delay in proceeding with the impeachment trial provides the added benefit of a sword over Mr. Trump’s head, and does nothing to delay the many criminal investigations reportedly hounding him.

To use one of Mr. Trump’s favorite phrases:  we’ll see what happens.

Two ancillary, yet particularly distressing impressions: 

The most grievous accusations I have heard relating to the events of January 6, save those leveled at Mr. Trump himself, are that Republican members of Congress may have assisted rioters by facilitating their reconnaissance of the Capitol layout in the days before the attack, and may have been texting seditionists during the attack regarding the location of Ms. Pelosi.  If/when authorities establish that these accusations are baseless, such should forthrightly be announced.  If, on the other hand, investigators uncover sufficient evidence of such a conspiratorial relationship between any member(s) of Congress and the rioters to support an indictment against the member(s), such member(s) should be immediately expelled from Congress, face the maximum charges – including sedition – that such evidence will support, and if convicted receive the severest sentence allowed by law.

We have heard multiple reports that a number of Republican House members believed impeachment of Mr. Trump was warranted, but nonetheless voted against the article because they feared for their personal safety or that of their families.  I would submit that such failure, although understandable in human terms, nonetheless constituted Constitutional malfeasance.  These politicians, despite their oath of office, seemingly think they have a seat on Student Council rather than in the legislature of the most powerful nation on earth.  They have forfeited the moral standing necessary to render judgment on any President’s recommendation to send our troops into harm’s way.  Although perhaps harsh, I believe that given the importance of their responsibilities, those that have openly admitted that their fears influenced their House impeachment votes should be encouraged to resign and if they refuse, should be expelled for dereliction of duty.

Although it was snowy this week, it wasn’t too cold.  Hopefully, next weekend, it will be very cold and very snowy in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  While there is no chance that Tampa Bay Buccaneer Quarterback Tom Brady, given his years in New England, will be intimidated by Lambeau Field conditions when the Bucs battle the Green and Gold for the National Football Conference Championship next Sunday, hopefully Mr. Brady’s teammates, more acclimated to temperate playing conditions, will be.

In any past year in which the Green Bay Packers were only a game away from the Super Bowl, mullings of their prospects for another Lombardi Trophy would have dominated shoveling ruminations, rather than being mere afterthoughts.  Hopefully, the affairs of our Republic will have stabilized sufficiently during 2021 that customary and more congenial thought patterns will primarily accompany snow shoveling in January, 2022; after all, Packer Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will then be but 38, and Mr. Brady continues to perform at a championship level at age 43.

The driveway and sidewalk are clear.  Time for some hot chocolate. 

Awaiting Opening Day … 2021

In January, 1942, a little more than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball – the team sport which then dwarfed all others in terms of public support – and indicated that if the Judge wished, baseball should continue despite the war.  The President wrote:

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going….  [U.S. citizens] ought to have a chance for recreation …. [Baseball players for whatever reason not able to serve the war effort] are a definite recreational asset to … [millions] of their fellow citizens – and that in my judgement is thoroughly worthwhile.”

An abbreviated MLB season opened a few days ago, to the completely understandable delight of millions.  I appreciate the point that Mr. Roosevelt was making 78 years ago, but for me, baseball’s relaxed pace and old world allure will need to wait a bit.  I don’t begrudge — indeed, I envy – those for whom the game provides a distraction in these times of political, health, and social crisis.  Perhaps, if the National Football League plays games this fall, I will be able to immerse myself in the short, intense once-a-week 3-hour distraction of the Sunday football rite ;).  As for baseball … hopefully, by next spring, the Coronavirus will no longer be raging, we will have put the blight of the Trump presidency behind us, and I can return to the languid charm of the game I love best.  So I’m hesitantly anticipating the prospect of the first pitch of Opening Day … in spring, 2021.  Hopefully, for me, it’ll then be time … to Play Ball.

A Coronavirus Kaleidoscope: Part XII

While President Trump’s mishandling of the COVID crisis appears at this point to have hurt his reelection prospects, it would seem that in Republican U.S. NC Sen. Richard Burr’s decision to temporarily step down as Chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, due to allegations that he traded stock inappropriately shortly after he received information in classified Senate briefings about the pandemic’s prospective effects on the economy, the virus may by carom have tossed Mr. Trump a high card. Throughout the President’s term and to the Administration’s evident displeasure, the Senate Intelligence Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Burr and the Committee’s Ranking Democrat Member, VA Sen. Mark Warner, has consistently reported on a bipartisan basis that Russia, and not Ukraine, interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The Wall Street Journal reported on May 15 that the last installment of the Committee’s findings, expected in coming months, is focused on whether the Trump Campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential contest. Mr. Burr’s vacation of the Chair, even on a temporary basis, may have given the Administration the opportunity to stifle and politicize the Senate Intelligence Committee in the same manner that for a couple of years it neutered the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee through its Republican Chairman stooge, CA Rep. Devin Nunes. Any Senate Intelligence Committee Republican that would even temporarily replace Mr. Burr as Chair is either a straightforward Trump supporter – ID Sen. James Risch, AK Sen. Tom Cotton, TX Sen. John Cornyn, and MO Sen. Roy Blunt – or has maintained a namby-pamby profile with regard to the President’s claims and antics — ME Sen. Susan Collins, FL Sen. Marco Rubio and NE Sen. Ben Sasse. None can be expected to resist the intense political pressure to downplay Russia’s involvement in the 2016 or 2020 elections certain to be applied by Mr. Trump and his cohort. To be sure, whether or not untoward behavior by Sen Burr is ultimately established, and regardless of whether the Trump Administration is exerting greater rigor in investigating Mr. Burr’s actions than it is similar behavior by Trump supporter U.S. GA Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Mr. Burr’s trades created an obvious appearance of conflict of interest and constituted a colossal failure in judgment. Since Mr. Burr, 64, has already indicated that he will not seek reelection in 2022, one can sympathize with any uneasiness he might have felt at the damage the virus would inflict on his retirement portfolio, but his lapse may have materially weakened our country’s security just as Mr. Trump calls for an investigation into an “Obamagate” that he cannot describe and craven U.S. SC Sen. Lindsey Graham has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs plans to hold hearings on – with the obvious intent to discredit — the Russia probe.

This past week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a lead member of the Administration’s Coronavirus Task Force, indicated in testimony to the Senate, “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control” if the economy is opened too quickly or inappropriately. Later in the week, Mr. Trump – who had earlier toured a Pennsylvania mask-manufacturing plant without wearing a mask — declared at a news conference with Dr. Fauci standing behind him, “Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back.” This dichotomy is obviously just the latest in a long line of conflicting messages sent by the two men (although I – presumably unlike the President — consider Dr. Fauci to have been extremely tactful in marking out their differences). What are the odds that either during the campaign, if the spotlight no longer shines so brightly on the government’s virus response, or after Election Day if the President wins a second term, that Dr. Fauci will be peremptorily removed from his post? The only saving grace: since he turns 80 this year, Dr. Fauci will be able to look back on a full career of service – rather than a career destroyed, like so many others, by Mr. Trump’s malevolence.

There’s a restaurant not far from our home. We first went there a number of years ago on a bitterly cold January Wisconsin night right after it opened, simply because it was too cold to go too far. Rick was our waiter. He and I hit it off immediately. There weren’t many people in the place. The food was excellent. We went back often. Over the years, the business has flourished – a product of wonderful food, excellent service and reasonable prices. Because we were early patrons, we are always treated like VIPs. Rick’s daughter is one of the hostesses. We are seated at one of Rick’s tables. We inquire about his family; he, ours. Since the pandemic hit, we have ordered out from the restaurant every weekend (before COVID, we went periodically, but far from every week). Since March, I, masked, have appeared in the parking lot at the designated time, and Rick, masked, has come out with our dinners. Last weekend, I asked him how it was going. His response: “It depends upon the numbers [of Wisconsin COVID cases]. If they stay stable, we’ll probably be all right [presumably, because traffic will pick up]. But if they go up [which will presumably keep traffic at its pandemic levels], we’re screwed.” For years, we’ve watched this team work hard, seen their efforts slowly bring success. This is just one of millions of groups that either has or soon could see years of effort wiped out … in a matter of 90 days.

This is a difficult time. It seems best to conclude with something I saw recently that although not COVID-related, may, given the time of year, bring a smile to baseball fans with long memories [and who don’t mind extremely blue language ;)]: the late Orioles Manager Earl Weaver in an exchange with longtime Umpire Bill Haller. (Umpires hated Mr. Weaver :)]. Part of the fun of the clip: Mr. Haller expressing doubt that Mr. Weaver would enter the Hall of Fame (he did). Others: the “Sigh; Here we go again” demeanor of Hall of Famer Oriole Firstbaseman Eddie Murray (No. 33); and the occasional views of Tiger Coach Dick Tracewski, a three-time World Series Champion.

https://twitter.com/Super70sSports/status/1261451987733839873

Stay safe.

On Fair Play

Major League teams are in the process of beginning their Spring Training schedules, after an off-season marred by continuing and I believe undisputed revelations that in 2017, the Houston Astros engaged in a scheme, involving participants from its front office to its manager, coaches and players, to employ videography accompanied by trash can banging to systematically steal opposing teams’ pitch signs and alert Astro hitters to the specifics of the next pitch. Such activity was in flagrant disregard of Major League Baseball rules. For those that don’t follow Major League Baseball (“MLB”), the Astros won the 2017 Major League World Championship after defeating the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. A number of Houston executives and 2017 Astro players hired into non-player roles on other teams in the years following the team’s championship have now been dismissed from their positions as a result of the scandal. No still-active players have been disciplined by MLB, reportedly due to a deal that MLB made with the players and their union that no player would face retribution for speaking truthfully to MLB investigators about the Astros’ program.

A deal is a deal, and given the deal, no players should be disciplined specifically for their participation in the scheme (although one questions whether any 2017 Astros player should be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame or for any front office, manager, or coaching position when his playing days are done). That said, MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred should, without any change in individual players’ statistics, forfeit all 2017 Houston victories in which the team employed the scheme, strip Houston of its American League and World Championships, and declare the Yankees the 2017 American League Champions and the Dodgers the 2017 World Champions. He should accompany such a ruling with an announcement that any player determined to have participated in such a flagrant rules violation (admittedly a subjective standard) after the date of the announcement will be suspended from baseball for one full season, with more severe penalties including an outright ban from the game for any subsequent flagrant rules violations.

Such an approach is admittedly imperfect. The team most elevated in the standings by the recasting of the 2017 American League teams’ wins and losses will argue that it never had a fair chance to compete in the season’s playoffs, and the Yankees will argue that they never had a chance to contest the Dodgers for the World Championship. I would submit that such is irrelevant. The Astros, in 2017 an extremely talented team, would have earned a number of their forfeited victories without cheating. While there will be old-school sign stealing in baseball as long as there are bases in baseball – it’s as engrained in the game as the brushback pitch — it is a short step from the Astros’ technology-enhanced trash can banging to employment of sophisticated and undetectable technological means to gain illegal advantage in baseball and other professional sports. The point of the penalty is to make the consequences to the Houston organization and the threat to players’ careers for future violations sufficiently severe so that for the foreseeable future, every team and player will have significant pause before engaging in such a systemic flagrant violation of MLB rules.

I am tired of a culture that explicitly or tacitly condones and in some ways glorifies ignoring, bending, flouting, and breaking rules. We need honor again. Given the challenges we face as a nation, cheating in Major League Baseball is arguably “of as little account as sparrows’ tears,” as Ian Fleming concluded the James Bond thriller, You Only Live Twice; obviously, players have been seeking an illegal edge through spitballs, corked bats, and steroids for decades or more. That said, we have to start somewhere. Major League Baseball, given its proud claim to being the National Pastime, and its tens of millions of diehard fans across the political spectrum, seems as good a place to start as any.

An Optimistic Spin for the Green and Gold

After Green Bay’s victory over the Seahawks Seahawks this past Sunday, Quarterback Aaron Rodgers alluded to the obvious: not even all Packer fans have been that confident of the team’s ability or prospects this season. I would agree; I’ve been one of the dubious. Even last Sunday’s victory — eked out at home over a depleted Seattle squad – did little to dispel the notion that this season, Green Bay has been as lucky as good. We Packer fans know championship-caliber quality, and the general consensus is that the team – despite a creditable season from Mr. Rodgers and outstanding seasons from Wideout Davante Adams, Running Back Aaron Jones, Edge Rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and Cornerback Jaire Alexander — is not that good. We have also been acutely aware that if the team progressed in the playoffs, another match with the San Francisco 49ers – who drubbed the Pack in Week 12 – was a probable obstacle to returning to the Super Bowl. Mr. Rodgers himself seemed to waffle a bit after the Seahawks game when asked about the Packers’ prospects against the Niners this Sunday.

I would voice this small note of optimism: given their rout by San Francisco during the regular season, the Packers know what won’t work. For instance, the coaching staff cannot have any doubt that Green Bay’s normal offensive line alignment, which has held up reasonably well against most opponents this season, is not a match for a voracious Niner defensive rush. Winners don’t think about past routs; losers reflect. I would place more than a small wager that whenever Coach Matt LaFleur and his staff and Mr. Rodgers would awaken in the middle of the night since the San Francisco defeat, in addition to considering that week’s opponent, they would ponder: Knowing what we now know, what would we have done differently against the 49ers? I would suspect even in the midst of preparing for the Seahawks, the Packer coaching staff used part of its playoff bye week to lay initial plans for the 49ers.

To defeat San Francisco, the Packers will have to get lucky – perhaps through the recovery of a couple of turnovers deep in Niner territory converted into touchdowns during the first half. They will have to come up with new schemes to slow down the San Francisco pass rush – perhaps double tight end sets, a lot of fullback sets – and/or try something that the Niners will not have schemed for, such as placing Wideout Allen Lazard (big; good blocker; a receiver that can’t be credibly covered by a Niner linebacker) at fullback, or perhaps even a T-formation. They will need new schemes that will isolate Mr. Adams one-on-one against Niner Cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon or Emmanuel Moseley [i.e., the Niner cornerback that isn’t Richard Sherman ;)] – perhaps perusing old Packer playbooks for plays former Head Coach Mike Holmgren designed to get Wideout Sterling Sharpe in the open during the days that the entire NFL, including the vendors chucking peanuts in the stands, knew that Mr. Sharpe was Green Bay’s only genuine offensive threat. They will need to decide whether Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage have jelled sufficiently to cover San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who had by far the better of the matchup in the team’s first meeting – and if not, what to do about it. (Our old friend, Cornerback Tramon Williams, has played safety; is he a better cover option against Mr. Kittle?)

Much has been made of Mr. LaFleur being the first Packer coach – amidst extremely august company, including St. Vincent Lombardi – to make the playoffs in his first year. I would submit that this Sunday is the first true test of his coaching acumen. Packer fans with longer memories well recall Green Bay’s visit to San Francisco in early 1996, when the Packers, then considered merely upstarts coached by Mr. Holmgren and quarterbacked by a young Brett Favre, confronted the intimidating San Francisco 49ers quarterbacked by Steve Young, who in the preceding 15 years led by Joe Montana (who remains the best all-around QB I’ve ever seen, notwithstanding the respect appropriately due Tom Brady) and Mr. Young, had won five Super Bowls. That day, the Niners may have been looking past the Packers to the Dallas Cowboys. The tone of the game was set early by a fumble recovery/TD by Cornerback Craig Newsome, but the outcome was decided in part by three long passes from Mr. Favre to Tight End Keith Jackson, who had had a hallowed career but had been little used by the Packers during the regular season; the Niners hadn’t schemed for Mr. Jackson. Defensive Coordinator Fritz Schumer and his staff installed a dozen new defensive formations for the game, which completely disrupted the Niners’ storied precision passing routes. Packer backers’ reaction starting the game was resignation, then successively followed by pleased surprise, stunned disbelief, and finally … euphoria. At the time, the outcome was considered “shocking”; I would submit that in the Favre-Rodgers Era, the win ranks in significance only behind the team’s two Super Bowl victories.

Given the period Mr. LaFleur and his staff have had to think about the 49ers, it’s time to see whether they are, indeed, able to devise something new. French novelist Honoré de Balzac is said to have observed, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” I would suggest that the bottom of every renowned coaching career, there is an early unexpected win. While no victory this weekend will equal that long-ago Packer victory over the Niners that completed the team’s transition from disrespected doormat to bona fide powerhouse, Green Bay’s game plan Sunday will enable us to begin to assess whether Mr. LaFleur might someday be able to claim a place beside his legendary innovator-predecessors, Messrs. Lombardi and Holmgren. Win or lose, we will still have better memories of this season that we had any reason to expect when it began.

The Green and Gold After the Bye

There is little to add about a week of impeachment hearings presenting largely undisputed accounts of our Chief Executive’s scheming against another American and his rationalizers’ sophistic defenses; perhaps because this note addresses football, it occurred to me that the evidence we heard this week might best be characterized by the legendary postgame assessment once offered by late Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings Coach Denny Green: The President and his agents are … who we thought they were.

Even so, as the Green Bay Packers come off their bye week, it seems appropriate to point out this fall’s other momentous occurrence: the team’s 8 – 2 start. It enters its 6-game stretch run this weekend.

The statistical good news: Green Bay enjoys a one-game lead in the NFC North; it has beaten every NFC North opponent; if the season ended today, the team would have the second NFC playoff seed; and absent a complete implosion, the Pack should secure at least an NFC playoff spot.

The good news on offense: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers seems as good as ever and has been deadly effective in taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. I would suggest that Aaron Jones is the best Packer running back since Ahman Green, and with Jamaal Williams as his alternate, the Packers have a strong running game. Davante Adams’ short-term injury enabled Green Bay to develop other receivers, and it can now put more credible receivers on the field on any given play than any defense can effectively cover.

The good news on defense: The unit is unquestionably improved over last year. Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark all made the list of Pro Football Focus’ top 25 pass-rushers after Week 9. I consider the defense to have been generally decent so far against the run. Middle Linebacker Blake Martinez remains a tackling demon. Jaire Alexander has been overall effective at one corner, and Kevin King has been generally credible as the “other” corner.  (More on the Packer secondary below.)

All that said … I would submit that the team is not as good as its 8-2 record would indicate. It is arguable that Green Bay could just as easily be 5-5, perhaps worse.

Although the team deserves kudos for exploiting the breaks it has received, Green Bay has been … lucky. It got to play a lot of its early games at home, while the offense was learning Coach Matt LaFleur’s new system; but more importantly, it seems – even if one is an avid Packer-backer – that the team has been the recipient of a lot of advantageous calls and situations through its first 10 games. Officials’ mistakes clearly led to Green Bay’s win over the Detroit. The Packers won their first game in part due to questionable decision-making by Chicago Quarterback Mitch Trubisky. They won their second by catching Minnesota before Vikings’ Quarterback Kirk Cousins found his groove. Their third win demonstrated that Denver Quarterback Joe Flacco’s best days are behind him. Their road win over Dallas resulted primarily from Cowboy turnovers. The Oakland game was in doubt until Quarterback David Carr’s ill-conceived attempt to extend the ball over the Green Bay goal line resulted in a fumble that completely altered the game. They eked out a victory over Kansas City without playing NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. They secured their last victory on what seemed to me to be a somewhat questionable call that the Carolina running back was stopped short of the Green Bay goal line as time expired.

I would suggest that Green Bay’s offensive pass protection has been uneven.  The team’s renowned left tackle, David Bahktiari, hasn’t appeared as solid as in past years. If Mr. Rodgers was any less mobile than he is, the team’s impressive receiving corps would perhaps be of limited value.  Weak pass protection could be hard to correct, and might haunt Green Bay when it plays the San Francisco 49ers — who feature the best pass rush in football – this weekend.

Moreover, I would submit that although the team’s secondary seems manned by a strong blend of experience and talented young athletes, its most critical defensive weakness has been its pass coverage.  It gives up too many big plays. The team’s two losses have come against two very able veteran Quarterbacks, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers. There has been a stream of blown coverages over many weeks, and the middle of the field is frequently open. The League has recognized that the young secondary hasn’t yet figured out how to cover crossing routes. After the promising start, veteran Adrian Amos and Packers’ first round draft pick Darnell Savage have more recently appeared to make every opposing tight end look a Hall of Famer.

On a brighter note: the secondary is young, fast, aggressive, and athletic. Blown assignments and deficient crossing coverage techniques are vulnerabilities that young, able athletes can perhaps improve upon. If Green Bay can shore up its pass coverages, it might make a real run. If it can’t, it could well be fodder down the road for a hot Kirk Cousins, a Drew Brees, a Russell Wilson, or – if it would somehow manage to get that far – a Tom Brady. Their next receiving test will be the 49ers’ Tight End George Kittle, one of the best in the NFL. Mr. Kittle has missed San Francisco’s recent games; perhaps Green Bay will catch another break if he is not sufficiently recovered to play.

And yet … I’m not sure that there has ever been a season that I’ve more appreciated the Packers. Despite the NFL’s commercialism, apparent inability to control unwarranted player ferocity, and the indisputable evidence of brain injuries and other physical damage the game wreaks on its players (I hope that none of our grandsons ever play the game), the Packers are the one diversion that actually takes my mind from the constitutional challenges confronting our nation. So indeed, this weekend … I’ll be Waiting All Day for Sunday Night …

On the Milwaukee Bucks

Those that read these pages have undoubtedly gleaned that my sports interests center upon the Green Bay Packers and the NFL, the Milwaukee Brewers and Major League Baseball, and the Wisconsin Badgers and college basketball. My interest in the NBA has been dormant for decades; I last followed the league to any extent in the era when Magic, Bird and Michael ruled the court. (I have heard that since those years, there have been a number of players who were actually not bad, including a couple named James and Curry.)

Even so, I was quite taken aback to see a piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago that flatly declared: “[I]t’s time to acknowledge the [Milwaukee] Bucks for what they are: the best team in the league this season.” The team clearly has a raft of fine players, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, apparently a very pleasant young man whose name I wouldn’t dare attempt to pronounce (and of whose spelling I am confident only because I Googled it). Subject to better memories than mine, I don’t think any sane sports fan in the last 40+ years would have considered the Milwaukee Bucks the best team in the NBA – not since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in his early years, Lew Alcindor) and Oscar Robertson.

We have an avid Bucks fan in our extended family. He recently wrote me, indicating that if I watch the Bucks, I’ll be taken with Mr. Antetokounmpo, and adding: “Seems like the Milwaukee sports teams are taking the torch for Wisconsin at the moment.” Given the Brewers’ past season and the Bucks’ current run, one can’t disagree. I’m thrilled for him and all true Bucks fans. Perhaps it’s again time to jump on a bandwagon 😉 .

Wintry Musings

While snowblowing yesterday, I reflected upon the truly uninspired (or, if you prefer, lethargic, languid, listless, lifeless, spiritless, or … feel free to consult your thesaurus if you think there’s a more suitable adjective) performance by the Green and Gold this past Sunday, and compared it with the replay I happened to see of the Cleveland Browns’ energized performance in the final minutes of their narrow loss to the Baltimore Ravens.  My interest in the Browns has been piqued this season not only due to their recent resurgence from perpetual doormat but because Eliot Wolf, after being passed over after last season for the Packer General Manager post in favor of Brian Gutekunst, had immediately left Green Bay to become Assistant Manager in Cleveland.  As the snow flew, I pondered:  Based upon what I saw of the teams’ play in the final week of the regular season, whose position would I rather be in:  Mr. Gutekunst’s, or Mr. Wolf’s?  (It was a much easier question to answer than how to avoid having icy mist blow back in my face.)  I did indeed consider posting something about the apparent contrast after the driveway was cleared.  Opted for a wonderful cup of coffee instead.

Last night, I opened The Wall Street Journal, and found that its sports columnist, Jason Gay, included this aside in his review of the upcoming NFL playoffs:

“Perhaps I should put myself up for the desirable [Head Coach] opening with the Cleveland Browns, or the sketchier one with the Green Bay Packers.  Settle down, Cheeseheads:  the Browns are indeed a better job right now than the Packers.  The Pack may be the more august franchise, they may have an all-timer in Aaron Rodgers, but how many good days does A-Rod have left on the frozen tundra?  Cleveland, meanwhile, is young and stacked and shredding generations of football self-loathing.  Plus:  [Baker Mayfield, Cleveland’s young quarterback].  Love that guy.”

There was clearly no need for me to post.  And that coffee was mighty good.