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.

Running the Table

Due to retiree traveling over the last weeks ;), I haven’t been as closely attuned to the performance of the Green and Gold as I normally would be.  I was literally wowed by the bravura performance of Aaron Rodgers against the Bears in the opener; after that, although aware that the team had had its ups and downs and that there were claims that some of its difficulties arose from questionable officiating, I hadn’t really had an opportunity to again study the Packers in action until last Sunday.

Yesterday, I checked the NFC North standings and schedules.  It’s still too early to think about Wild Card chances; I focused on Green Bay’s chances to win the NFC North title.  If I’m reading the standings correctly, it seems overwhelmingly likely that if the team runs the table – not unheard of in the Rodgers era – it will win the Division.  The Packers will play both the Bears and Vikings one more time.  If Green Bay beats Minnesota and Minnesota otherwise wins out, Green Bay would prevail due to the head-to-head tie breaker.  Although Chicago could survive the loss to Green Bay and win the Division if it otherwise wins out, it has to play the Vikings twice and the Rams once down the stretch; if it loses just one of those games and Green Bay does run the table, Green Bay would prevail over Chicago due to the head-to-head tie breaker.

That said, while I look to the Packers’ game tonight against the Seahawks with a bit of optimism, it’s pretty tempered.  Aaron Jones certainly seems to be a growing offensive force for the team, and they have a couple of young receivers that seem able to stretch the field.  The defense played well against Miami (conceding that Brock Osweiler isn’t Tom Brady or … Russell Wilson).  That said, last Sunday, Aaron Rodgers didn’t look to me like … Aaron Rodgers.  Realizing that this is all relative – Rodgers, even slightly off, is still one of the best in the game – he seemed … different.  I felt I saw changes like those you might note in a friend that you haven’t seen for a while.  It was hard to tell whether it was lack of communication with his young receivers (when he scrambles, they don’t seem to anticipate or come back to him the way Jordy Nelson did), a still-impaired leg, spotty protection (he was chased a lot), or … perhaps some loss of arm strength (he threw a couple of un-Rodgers-like floaters against Miami).

Another concern:  I’ve seen a short video interview in which I didn’t detect much of the swagger that Rodgers has had in past years.  I didn’t see any of the “RELAX” or “We’ll run the table” sentiments that have heralded past stretch runs.

I’ve discovered since last Sunday that my reactions aren’t unique; apparently, Bill Belichick was caught on a mic during the Green Bay-New England game questioning Rodgers’ arm strength.  (I must concede that getting an impression from the TV that I later found was more or less confirmed by Scowling Bill did make me feel like a knowledgeable fan.)  There are apparently other Packer fans who share the concern that Rodgers isn’t “right.”

While Green Bay may perhaps not need to run the table to secure some playoff berth, if Aaron Rodgers isn’t the Aaron Rodgers of old – even if this is a temporary condition that will resolve with rest for next year – it will be difficult for Green Bay to go anywhere.  I will be watching tonight with the hope that he will play like he has in the past – which obviously gets harder and harder for him as he ages (as it does for us all).  If we don’t get a good outcome tonight, I’ll start to place more focus on watching the development of what appears to be a crop of promising young players (among them, Mr. Jones; Jaire Alexander; and Marquez Valdes-Scantling) that will help us in the future.

On Craig Counsell

Conceding that my close attention to Major League Baseball waned in the late 1980’s as our family grew, I’ve always felt that the best manager I’ve ever seen was Billy Martin.  Because of his managerial skill, Mr. Martin was asked to manage [and because of his vitriolic nature, ultimately asked to leave  😉 ] multiple organizations.  With each team, he would assess the talent that he had, and won Divisions, Pennants, and World Championships with different strategies and different arrays of talent:  when he had great power, he relied on offense and the homerun; when he had starting pitching, he relied on his corps of starters and his defense; when he had speed but little power, he’d steal a base, hit and run, and manufacture offense; when he had a great closer, he’d build his game strategy to maximize his closer’s effectiveness.

Although I’m but a bandwagon fan of the current Milwaukee Brewer team (although a true fan of the 1982 World Series team), I’ve now seen enough that I consider Craig Counsell — although toiling in a small market during Baseball’s Big Money Era may prevent him from ever mounting the victories and championships that Mr. Martin did – to be every bit as adept as Mr. Martin was.  He only had one pitcher win as many as 10 games this year and has only one position player – Mr. Yelich (despite my enduring affection for Charlie Moore) – that is better than the 1982 counterpart.  [Although I’m happy to debate, I’d submit that the ’82 team was markedly better than the current Brewers at catcher and all infield positions; that Ben Oglivie (40+ homeruns in ‘82) and this year’s Ryan Braun are a “push” in leftfield; and that although they brought very different skills to their teams, Gorman Thomas and Lorenzo Cain are a “push” in centerfield as well].  Mr. Counsell nonetheless managed his team to as many victories (in 162 games) as the ’82 Brewer team.

Mr. Counsell doesn’t seem to get rattled; he’s been able to leverage a bunch of different talents to the team’s best advantage; and by all accounts, he’s been able to juggle a number of personalities and egos to maintain a loose clubhouse.  Whether Milwaukee wins or loses the pennant or – if it gets that far – the World Series, he’s done an incredible job, and the Brewers and we Brewer fans — true or bandwagon – are fortunate to have him.

Let’s Hold Off in Counting our Chickens …

As we approach today’s Game 3 of the Milwaukee – Colorado NLDS, I admit that I was a bit disconcerted by the way the talking heads covering the Brewers’ second victory over the Rockies so cavalierly dismissed Colorado’s chances of coming back to win the series.  Those of us with longer memories will recall that even in the Brewers’ most renowned season to date, 1982, they fell behind the California Angels 2-0 in the ALCS … and sent California home by winning three in a row.  For those with more recent memories, our son reminded me yesterday that in the 2011 NLDS, the Brewers beat the Diamondbacks in the first two games in Milwaukee, then lost the next two games in Arizona, and only went to the next round by beating the D’Backs in Milwaukee in Game 5.

I would suggest that while Brewer fans might understandably feel optimistic, no chickens should be counted until the third victory has … hatched  😉 …

If You’re Going to Be the Best …

In early June, I entered a post noting that baseball is a long season, and that the Milwaukee Brewers’ performance up to that time – then the best record in the National League, with a 3+ game lead on the Chicago Cubs – would only mean something if the Brewers stood up through the summer; what would matter was where the team stood after Labor Day.

We’re now well past Labor Day.  As of today, Milwaukee has, through acquisition of additional talent and adroit use of its pitching staff, played incredibly well down the stretch; it is but two games behind Chicago for the NL Central lead while building a four and half game advantage for a post season Wild Card berth.

While it will be validating for Milwaukee to reach the postseason at any level, I’m not a big fan of baseball’s Wild Card playoff.  Unlike the NFL, where every playoff game is “sudden death,” it seems odd to me – recognizing the seasonal constraints that Major League Baseball faces when it extends its playoff period — that a Wild Card team that labors over countless series of games to reach the postseason has to win one game or be eliminated.

That said, the system is what it is.  There is, however, a way for Milwaukee to avoid the risk of a “one and done”:  win the National League Central outright.  The team has one game left with the Cubs – tonight.  If it wins, it will be only one game behind Chicago, with each team having about 15 games to play; I’ll personally like its chances of winning the Division.  If it loses, Chicago’s three-game lead in the Division – while anything can happen in baseball – will be formidable.  Chicago has already won a World Championship with primarily the same cast as it has now.

So what will it be for the Brewers?  In a phrase that all sports fans have heard countless times (which doesn’t make it less true):  If they want to Be the Best, they have to Beat the Best …

It’s a Long Season …

We Milwaukee Brewer fans are understandably pleased with the team’s fast start; beginning action today, Milwaukee is in first place in the National League Central Division (three and a half games ahead of the formidable Cubs), and has the best record in the National League.

Even so, only a third of the season has passed.  While many teams over the years have come back from mediocre starts to win championships, and a terrible start lasting into June almost invariably dooms a team’s season, a strong start is generally indicative of … not much.  The Brewers have had great starts in the past.  The 1987 team began 13-0 on its way to a 20-3 start — and didn’t make the playoffs.  Even the great Robin Yount – Paul Molitor World Series team of 1982 had better than a six game lead in late August – and still needed two Yount home runs on the last day of the season to squeeze into the postseason.

So while we Brewer fans are enjoying the ride thus far, the time to start thinking about playoff possibilities is after Labor Day weekend, not after Memorial Day weekend.  The elation and the anguish of baseball share the same journey:  It’s a long season.

2018 Packer Draft: After Day Two

To start with the positive [which one of our sons says I never do when it comes to Packer drafts 😉 ]:  It certainly appears that Brian Gutekunst and his team are as focused on the Packers’ weakness at cornerback as I habitually am, and the Packers seem to be getting good marks from most commentators for selecting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson.

Now, to revert to my customary form 🙂 … at 5-foot-10¼, Mr. Alexander seems to have a mountain to climb (figuratively, and, against some of the NFL’s sizeable receiving threats, literally) to avoid ending up as another Terrell Buckley and Ahmad Carroll (for those with shorter memories, two shorter corners selected in the first round by GB who never lived up to the hype).  I’ve seen it said, “Heart is more important than hype,” and while I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment for life generally, all the heart in the world isn’t going to be enough for a corner under 5’11” against the likes of receivers such as (to pick memorable examples from the past) Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens.  Mr. Gutekunst must be projecting Mr. Alexander to be his slot corner, and Mr. Jackson to be someone who will be able to take over after learning from Tramon Williams (I confess a fondness for Tramon; great to have him back, even if he is now a bit long in the tooth.)  Let’s hope.

An observation:  if I was Quinten Rollins, I’d have my bags packed (Mr. Rollins was another corner who was ballyhooed for his athleticism who has never really matured in the way GB obviously hoped).

Another observation:  by ignoring edge rushers with the first two picks and selecting ILB Oren Burks in the third round rather than an edge rusher, Mr. Gutekunst and his team have clearly made the bet that they can get a quality 2018 out of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, and, based upon what the staff must have seen in practice, that if/when one of these two injury-prone players go down, Vince Biegel (picked in last year’s draft by Ted Thompson rather than T. J. Watt; another sore point, given Mr. Watt’s stellar 2017) will — having gotten over his injuries — be an impact contributor.  Let’s hope some more.

On we march!

Hopefully, Delay Wasn’t Opportunity Lost

The Wisconsin State Journal was reporting in the days leading up to the Packers’ selection of Brian Gutekunst (whose name I can’t yet pronounce) as their new General Manager that the Packers had an interest in hiring Seattle General Manager John Schneider.  As reported by The Wisconsin State Journal and The Seattle Times, Mr. Schneider, a Wisconsin native, had an out in his Seattle contract until 2016 that would have enabled him to go to Green Bay if he wished.  That right was eliminated from his current contract, and Seattle reportedly rejected Green Bay’s request to interview Mr. Schneider for the GB GM role.  After that, GB CEO Mark Murphy turned to Mr. Gutekunst.

Mr. Gutekunst may, despite his lack of experience as a General Manager, prove to be an excellent choice for the role; that said, the team clearly had an interest in Mr. Schneider, who already has an excellent track record as a GM.  Given the rumblings about former Packer GM Ted Thompson’s performance that predate the expiration of Mr. Schneider’s last contract, let us hope that we don’t find that Mr. Murphy lost a better GM because he waited too long to pull the plug on Mr. Thompson.  Of one thing we can be sure:  if Mr. Thompson had been in Mr. Murphy’s position, such a delay is not a mistake that Mr. Thompson would have made …