Sunday, May 31, 2009

Green Bay Packers Eyeing a “Special” 2009 Season

by Al Bracco

Shawn Slocum

The 2008 Packers season has been categorized in many ways. “Special” was not one of them. It was the start of a new Favre-less era, the year the defense became an absolute horror show, Aaron Rodgers showing he can put up top-10 quarterback numbers, the purging of the defensive coaching staff, etc., etc.

While the defensive struggles have been talked about ad-nauseum, I don’t believe the Packers’ special teams struggles have been emphasized enough. In the interest of fairness, lets take a look at what happened and what’s being done about it.

First, a few fun facts about 2008 to paint a picture:

The Packers were 32nd in the NFL in Kickoff return yardage.
The Packers were 20th in the NFL in Kickoff coverage.
The Packers were 26th in the NFL in field goal percentage
The Packers were 27th in the NFL in average punting yardage

However you picture “awful”, that’s what you should be seeing in your mind’s eye right now.

So how does this get fixed? Well, if you’re Mike McCarthy, you start by encouraging Mike Stock, your 69-year old special teams coordinator to “retire” (just days after he told Green Bay beat reporters how he planned to be back for another year).

“Should I be looking over my shoulder? Do you know something I don’t know?” Stock kiddingly asked following the team’s Christmas Day practice. “It all depends on one thing and one thing only: How long does he (McCarthy) want me to stay? That’s what it depends on.”

Yes, after his post-season interview with Mccarthy, Stock suddenly changed his mind and decided to retire after three years with the Packers and 44 years in coaching overall. Call it a win-win.

Unlike his search for a new defensive coordinator, McCarthy did not look far from the team to fill the special teams position. On January 15th, 4 days before announcing Dom Capers’ hiring, McCarthy promoted Shawn Slocum from his special teams assistant position to Special Teams Coordinator.

Slocum had spent the last three seasons with the Packers and before that, coached 15 college seasons for four different schools. He was a special teams coordinator at both USC and Texas A&M, and was also an assistant head coach at Ole Miss. So the Packers seem to have an experienced coach whose time has come for his first pro coordinator position.

With the coaching positions settled, the Packers now turned their attention to their roster.

Tramon Williams, a solid special teams contributor was tendered a one year offer. Free Agent Anthony Smith, who played mostly on special teams last year, was signed to the roster. Soon after that, Jarrett Bush was re-signed and not many people would question that his positive contributions to the team have all come on special teams.

Next up was the re-signing of Michael Montgomery as some DL insurance and more special teams help. Despite missing a lot of time with injuries, Montgomery has 13 special team tackles for the Packers, including two in the 2007 playoffs.

Soon after, the Packers signed free agent Duke Preston from the Buffalo Bills. His bio on their web site describes him as “as a key player on special teams and a valuable reserve on the offensive line”. A bit surprising, but good news.

Restricted free Agent TE Tory Humphrey, who has 9 special teams tackles in 24 games for the Packers, was re-signed to the team.

A week before the NFL draft, Ted Thompson signed his three remaining restricted free agents, Atati Bigby, John Kuhn and Ruvell Martin. All three have seen important special teams action for the Packers.

Then along came the draft, and the special teams theme continued.

BJ Raji - OKay, so he’s the exception to the pattern I’m working on here…

Clay Matthews III - 3-time special teams player of the year at USC. Need I say more?

TJ Lang - Converted from defensive line, TJ played special teams in at least his first three years at Eastern Michigan and won several “Championship special teams player of the game” awards.

Quinn Johnson - A converted linebacker, he was described this way in a CBS sports profile: “Quinn Johnson just likes to hit people whether lined up on offense, defense or special teams units.” I love guys who love to hit.

Jamon Meredith - Says Meredith,”I’ve never played special teams but if they teach me how to play it I’ll go out there, man. I’ve always thought about being a wedge-buster or a punt protector. If they ask me to be on special teams, I’ll be happy to.” While this probably won’t happen, at last he’s willing.

Darius Wynn - Who? Impossible to find much info on this guy. Has he ever played special teams? Who knows?

Brandon Underwood - Special teams player of the year at Cincinnati. His played the all-important “gunner” position. Check.

Brad Jones - A four-year special teams player at Colorado. Says Jones, “I love special teams.” Check again.

After the draft, the Packers signed 11 undrafted free agents. For any of these guys to make the team, they will have to be impact special teams players. WR Jamarko Simmons and RB Tyrell Sutton have both been quoted as being ready to take on that role.

And finally, what about the kickers? Mason Crosby did have an off year, but the Packers seem unconcerned and committed to him. I think there needs to be some competition in camp. Much like they’ve done with the punters. There are three punters currently on the roster and it is a wide-open competition. May the best (and most consistent) punter win.

So I think by now, you get my point. The Packers have approached this off-season with a specific mindset — they are thinking special teams with every move they make. It’s a good strategy and I think Packer fans can rightfully expect a big improvement in 2009. Just one more reason to be optimistic about 2009 being a “Special” year.

——————

You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: NFL Touchdown, Packers Lounge, Packer Chatters , Jersey Al’s Blog and Bleacher Report.

Green Bay Packers OTAs Begin—And So Do The Surprises

by Al Bracco

packerotas-300x200

To start with, Justin Harrell made it onto the field. While we don’t know to what extent he participated, his presence indicates he has at least passed his physical. Harrell said he has been “pain- free for about four weeks.” My first reaction was “what the hell took so long”, but now I’m going with “well, that’s a start.”

Cullen Jenkins, Chad Clifton, Atari Bigby, Scott Wells and Nick Barnett were all kept out of activities as they continue to rehab injuries.

2009 draft picks Clay Matthews III (hamstring) and Brad Jones (groin) both missed the second day. Neither injury was serious and both are listed as day-to-day.

The first team defense had several early surprises. BJ Raji was at left end, Ryan Pickett at NT and Harrell at right end. Jeremy Thompson was the first team right outside linebacker, ahead of Brady Poppinga and the injured Clay matthews III. Kevin Greene seemed very enthusiastic with Thompson’s play during the practice. Could Poppinga be in trouble?

The Packers announced that they had signed exclusive rights free agent Tramon Williams to a one-year contract. This came not long after Packer Coach Mike McCarthy lauded Williams for his work ethic, “how he goes about his business”, and participating in OTAs without a contract. McCarthy thinks Williams has a “big future in front of him”. Al Harris, get your seat cushion ready…

It appears Matt Flynn has held onto his #2 QB spot on the depth chart, practicing with the second string offense while Brian Brohm saw a bit of action with the third stringers. That certainly doesn’t help the possibilty of getting any value for Brohm in a trade. I still feel the Packers need a more experienced backup.

Ryan Pickett said the coaches have not talked to him at all about possibly playing some defensive end. Sounds like Pickett is the primary NT and BJ Raji will be used at several positions on the defensive line.

Aaron Kampman isn’t talking. Since Dom Capers was hired, he has turned down several opportunities to talk to the media, specifically about the 3-4 defense and how his conversion to OLB is going. Speculation is running rampant that he’s not happy and trade rumors are even beginning to surface.

On a sad note, Willie James Collins Sr., the father of Packers safety Nick Collins, passed away on May 16 at age 56 after a long battle with cancer. This was the serious family issue Collins has been dealing with.

—————–

You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: NFL Touchdown, Packers Lounge, Packer Chatters , Jersey Al’s Blog and, of course, Bleacher Report.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

BJ Raji - Packer Player Profile

B.J. Raji stood outside the Boston College Sports Complex and unsuccessfully tried to hold back the tears. Just two days before the end of training camp in 2007, he had just been told he was academically ineligible to play football for the entire 2007 season.

It wasn’t because of his grades. An academic advisor had miscalculated his credits, and through no fault of his own, Raji was three credits short of the NCAA’s requirements. It would become a test of his character, and one that he would pass with an A+.

B.J. Raji, whose real name is Busari, grew up in Washington Township, NJ, the oldest of three children. His father had emigrated from Nigeria to the USA, where both parents are Pentecostal ministers.

He attended Westwood Regional High School in Bergen County NJ, where besides football, he played basketball for two years. He gave up basketball when he realized “I wasn’t going to get any taller, and I wasn’t going to be Allen Iverson.”

On the football team, he was a three-year starter on both offense and defense, and received some personal tutoring from former NY Giant J.T. Turner.

Raji broke out in his senior year, recording 75 tackles, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He earned NJ All-State honors and was selected to play in the Governor’s Bowl, where top HS seniors from New Jersey and New York compete before their college careers begin.

Raji received offers from several Division I colleges, including Wisconsin (ironically) and Rutgers. He chose Boston College because he liked the campus, and they have a strong recruiting presence in North Jersey.

As a freshman with the Eagles, Raji cracked the DL rotation and appeared in eight games.

His sophomore year, he started all 12 contests at right defensive tackle, registering 27 tackles (20 solos), 1.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss and one pass breakup.

As junior year rolled around, Raji’s weight had ballooned to 350 pounds. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski insisted he get down to the 320-330 range by the season’s start, and B.J. did just that.

He went on to have a solid, if unspectacular season, earning second team All-ACC honors. He finished the season having started 12 games, with 23 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

Raji was primed for his senior season, working incredibly hard in the offseason and reporting to training camp 20 pounds lighter than the previous year. As training camp drew to a close, he got the horrible news about his academic ineligibility.

“The first week or two, I said to myself, “Man, this is going to be tough,” Raji told The Boston Globe before the 2008 season. “But then I decided that I could use this for better or worse, depending on what I did. I made the decision to make things better by turning my attention to my schoolwork and trying to make the best of it.”

He also decided to help out however he could. He participated in every practice, playing for the scout team and handing out pointers to the guys actually playing in games.

“There wasn’t any sulking about it,” his defensive-line coach, Jeff Comissiong, said. “It helped him to understand that he needed to prioritize things in his life. It helped him mature quite a bit. And his teammates had more respect for him because of it. He was doing everything he can to help out. It was fun having him around because it was like having another coach around.”

Raji got through that difficult year and came back stronger and more motivated than ever. Projected as a third round draft choice before his final season, he moved up into first round territory with a fantastic senior year.

For much of 2008, Raji was unblockable and showed what a truly dominant force he can be when in shape and motivated. He played in 13 games and recorded 42 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks from the defensive tackle position.

Raji was invited to, and played in, the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. He had a superb week of practice and game play. He often outworked, and embarrassed some of the best guard and center prospects in the draft. That showing safely moved Raji into the top half of the first round.

Next, at the NFL Scouting Combine, Raji bench pressed 225 lbs., 33 times, which was fifth best amongst all 53 defensive lineman, and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.13 seconds, not bad for someone who weighs 337 pounds. He raised some eyebrows when he displayed a lot more quickness in the drills than was expected.

Raji quickly became a favorite of Green Bay Packers fans for their first selection with the ninth pick of the draft. For once, the fans and the Packers’ GM were on the same page. Raji was selected by Ted Thompson and the Packer faithful rejoiced. For many Packer fans, I think Raji stirs memories of Gilbert Brown.

With a new actor in the starring role, could this script be called “Return of the Gravedigger”?

—————–

You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: NFL Touchdown, Packers Lounge, Packer Chatters , Jersey Al’s Blog and Bleacher Report.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

WARNING! Brett Favre Virus Sweeping Across the Internet...



Computer Security experts today are warning the public of a nefarious computer worm that has infected millions of computers. Dubbed the "Brett Favre" virus, this nasty piece of malware spams your computer with false and exaggerated Brett Favre content.

Favre news stories, articles, videos, blog posts, board posts—everywhere you surf, this virus will inundate you with everything Brett Favre. Is Brett Favre retired? Will he come back to "stick it" to Ted Thompson?

Will he play for the Vikings? Is he meeting with Brad Childress? Is he mowing his lawn? Evidently this virus has conjured up thousands of topics regarding Brett Favre and spread these alleged "articles" throughout the Internet.

The virus is believed to have first been planted on several popular Internet sports sites. As unknowing fans visited these sites, they were infected with the worm, which then started generating Brett Favre content and posting it on web sites throughout the Internet. Within hours, there were over one million Brett Favre articles on the Internet.

This virus is also the first to use Twitter to help spread its payload. Twitter fans everywhere report getting flooded with tweets about Brett Favre, with some claiming to be from Brett Favre himself.

"Blew out a wheel on my tractor," read one tweet. "If Ted Thompson comes down here, I'll shoot him like I did that deer yesterday," read another. These and other obvious fake tweets are being generated non-stop by this hard-working worm.

In an interview this morning, Ronald Wolf of the the organization called C.E.R.T. (Computer Emergency Response Team) said "This virus has built an army of zombie computers, all generating Brett Favre content at an alarming rate. It's a dangerous situation and it's wreaking havoc with web servers and computer networks everywhere."

"Just go to any Internet sports site," Wolf explained, "you will see nothing but Brett Favre news stories and articles. Could real people actually be writing so much about Brett Favre? No, it's the work of these zombie computers." Wolf went on to say he feels partially responsible, having identified and developed this particular virus in 1992.

Security experts at the top anti-virus companies are working around the clock looking for a way to stop this virus. One of the problems, they say, is that even when you think it's gone away and seems to be dormant ("retired", in computer-speak), it just comes right back.

For now, there is no known way to stop it, but they say the best approach is probably to just ignore it and it will retire itself.

There is no guarantee that the article you are reading right now is real. Yes folks, Brett Favre has gone viral.


Real Brett Favre and Green Bay Packer content can be found on NFL Touchdown.

You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco's articles on several sports websites: NFL Touchdown, Packers Lounge, Packer Chatters , Jersey Al's Blog and, Bleacher Report.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

New Green Bay Packer Clay Matthews: Is He Worth It?



Now that draft euphoria was worn off, let's meet the Packers' second first-round pick:

Clay Matthews III didn't start as a 166-pound linebacker his Junior year in High School, even with his father as his coach. Nor did he start a college football game until the fourth game of his senior season. He played as a stand-up DE, not a linebacker, when he finally became a starter.

Clay Matthews III was not even rated by NFL scouting services coming into his senior season. He also started a "White Nation" Facebook group as a Junior in College as a joke.

Are you worried yet?

Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers traded a second-round and two third-round draft picks for the opportunity to select Clay Matthews. Giving up all of that for a player with only 10 starts in college and taking him in the first round? Does this not go against all logic?

Logic would dictate that Packer fans should be (as always) calling for Ted Thompson's head. Just what exactly was this pick based on? If you look at it closely, it's really based on three things:

G.A.P.—Genetics, Attitude, and Potential.

Genetics

You can bet that Thanksgiving Day at the Matthews household includes a few footballs being thrown around before dinner.

Clay's grandfather played DE for the Forty-Niners in the 1950s. His father was an All-American linebacker at USC and played 19 seasons in the NFL. Ans his uncle, Bruce, was an All-American offensive lineman at USC, also played 19 seasons in the NFL and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of fame.

"He's got some interesting traits that are not unlike his father," said Ted Thompson, "The Clay who played for Cleveland for a long, long time. He's got the ability to extend his hands and leverage against offensive linemen and stay on his feet...I just think he brings a lot to the table."

Obviously, Clay Matthews III has great bloodlines. If football players were bought like racehorses, he would have sold at auction for a lot of money.

But this is the NFL—do bloodlines really mean that much? Probably not, but it certainly can't hurt, so we have to look at it as a positive.

Attitude

Matthews has been told his whole life that he was too small, too slow and not good enough to be a football player.

In High School, his own father wouldn't start him as a junior. Even after a growth spurt, hitting the weight room, and having a good senior year, major colleges weren't interested.

His father tried to convince him to go to a small school where he could play, but Clay insisted on going to USC and trying out as a walk-on.

Pete Carrol kept him on mainly out of respect to his USC-alumni father and brother.

"I thought it was intriguing," USC coach Pete Carroll says of Matthews' arrival, "He had that big family background here. So I thought, 'OK, is there some magic in here somehow?' But I didn't see it. He just looked like a nice, hardworking kid who was undersized, just not physically able to match up."

His teammate, Rey Maualuga says of him, "I just remember how little he was. But he was always in the weight room three times more than anybody else." Indeed, as Matthews was named USC's top weightlifter on the team three times.

Against all logic, Matthews was confident he could succeed at USC, home of five-star prospects and blue-chip players.

"I knew if I came to USC and they gave me a shot, that I could play", says Matthews, "I also knew if I was going to hang with these guys, I'd have to work really hard and be really persistent. I just kept working and working and getting bigger and faster and better. I knew I was capable of playing with the best athletes in the nation. Maybe I was crazy to have that mind-set, but obviously that's better than saying you can't."

After a red-shirt season in which Matthews grew into his current 6'3", 240lb frame, the hard work and never-say-die attitude got Matthews on the field as a special teams player.

He had great success in that role, being named special teams co-player of the year three times. As a senior, Pete Carroll wanted to get his athleticism and pass-rushing ability on the field, so they moved him to the 'elephant" DE position, where he became an important contributor to the USC defense.

"Clay is the most famous walk-on we've ever had here at USC," said Pete Caroll, "Because he's done so much and he's come so far. He's really transformed his whole makeup. It's a remarkable story, I think, because he was just a skinny kid who wanted to play football. Now here he is, a tremendous player on our team, and he's going to be a tremendous player on the next level, too."

Potential

That magic word that can be used to turn a negative into a positive. For example, you can say that Matthews has limited experience, having only started 10 football games in college. Or you can say that Matthews has only just begun to scratch the surface of his talent and has potential to continue his rapid development.

NFL Combine results are, in a large part, a measure of a player's potential. Matthews shined at the combine, recording a 4.58 40-yard dash, 35.5" vertical jump, 10'1" broad jump, and an above-average Wonderlic score of 26.

The Packers staff watched a lot of tape on all three USC linebackers. Reading through their comments after the draft, it's obvious they felt Matthews had the most "potential" to become an impact player for the Packers.

Analysis

So Ted Thompson decided to pull the trigger on this trade, which even he admits was a little one-sided on paper. The Packers could have had three new players for our team instead of one. With only ten college games to use as a track record, what did he base this trade and pick on? G.A.P.

I'm cautiously optimistic, but Packer fans better hope that turns out to be enough.


You can find Jersey Al Bracco's articles on several sports websites: NFLTouchdown.com, Packers Lounge, Packer Chatters , Jersey Al's Blog and of course, Bleacher Report.