Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Year in Review: 2011

I wanted to do one final blog post in the year 2011, but was struggling to find a topic with the Packers forced to wait a few weeks for a meaningful game, NCAA basketball just starting up conference play...and nowhere near tourney time, and the Bucks, albeit garnering more of my attention than I anticipated, not worth talking about until we know for certain they are legit. Oh, and the final verdict on Ryan Braun should be coming up in a few weeks. Can't wait for that! So with that, I decided it would be a good time to, well, relive the good times - the most memorable moments in Wisconsin sports from the year 2011. I regret not doing this for the year 2010, but to be honest, it doesn't even compare to what we witnessed in the past 364 days. After about 15 minutes of research and personal bias, I was able to compile a top 10 Wisconsin Sports Moments list for all of us to enjoy. So before you go out and celebrate the arrival of 2012, the final year for us humans here on Earth, let's marvel in the glory that was the Green Bay Packers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Wisconsin Badgers, the Marquette [Warriors], and at times, the Milwaukee Bucks (well, not this year).

10. June 27 - Wilson becomes a Badger

Rumors swirled around Madison early summer that former NC State quarterback and minor league baseball player Russell Wilson, who had a year left of eligibility, would make his way to Wisconsin to leave baseball (for the time being) and play under center for the Badgers in 2011. Wilson earned the starting role over Joe Brennan to the surprise of only Brennan's parents and had a spectacular season, finishing second in the nation in pass efficiency while throwing for 2,879 yards, 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Those eye-popping numbers, along with the performance of Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball, helped lead the Badgers to their second consecutive Rose Bowl where they'll play Oregon on Jan. 2. Without Wilson, the offense likely would have had trouble overcoming their deficiencies on defense and been unable to win the Big Ten. Wilson's signing is one of several off-the-field moments that will make their appearance on this countdown.

9. March - Wisconsin, Marquette reach Sweet 16 (1st for MU since '03)

For the first time since 2005, two Division I schools from Wisconsin had made the Regional Semifinal game, or Sweet 16, in the same year (UWM, Wisconsin). For the first time EVER, Marquette and Wisconsin reached the Sweet 16 in the same year. Neither team had an exceptional regular season, with the Badgers earning a four-seed and the Warriors barely sneaking in with an 11-seed. Unfortunately, each team would lose to their respective opponents, Wisconsin to eventual runner-up Butler and Marquette to North Carolina in rather ugly fashion. Still, because March Madness is one of the most exciting times in sports and this accomplishment never occurred before, it ranks ninth in 2011 Wisconsin sports moments.

8. November 22 - Braun wins MVP

The Milwaukee Brewers had two legitimate MVP candidates after their National League Championship Series run and Central Division Championship in 2011 in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Although I truly believed Prince deserved the honor for protecting Braun in the lineup and having an almost equally impressive season, I knew deep down Brauny had a better shot at beating out Matt Kemp for MVP, and that he did. Braun was among league leaders in several categories and ended up hitting .332 with 33 home runs and 111 RBIs. His late-game heroics created hysteria among fans time and time again and I think his clutch ability was what pushed him above Kemp in the voting race for the award. Although Braun is now under scrutiny from Dodger fans who think he should give up the award, now is not the time to be negative...but those idiots can shut their pie-hole. The MVP belongs to Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin.

7. Fall - Rodgers' rewrites the record books

Holy cow. What a year for Aaron Rodgers. Not only was he the Super Bowl MVP back in February, but he's likely to win another MVP award for his ridiculous 2011 NFL season. Assuming A-Rod gets shut down against the Lions on New Years Day, here are his final numbers for the season: 4,643 yards, 68.3 completion percentage, 45 touchdowns, six interceptions, 122.5 quarterback rating. No, this isn't Madden 2012. This is real life. Not only does Rodgers currently have the highest passer rating of all-time throughout a career, he'll break the single season passer rating record. Also, there's not a doubt in my mind Rodgers would have taken the single season completion percentage record away from Drew Brees had our receivers not developed a chronic case of "the dropsies." He also set the Packers' single season record for touchdown passes. I'm certain I'm missing other various records Rodgers took from He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but let's hope he can do something else that douche never back-to-back Super Bowls.

6. September 23 - Brewers clinch second division title ever

Remember in 2008 when the Milwaukee Brewers clinched their first playoff birth in 26 years? Ryan Braun smacked the go-ahead two-run home run over the left field wall in the eighth inning to beat the Cubs and earn the Wild Card. Once again, a spot in the postseason was on the line when Braun stepped to the plate - in the eighth inning - against the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. Now granted it wasn't the most pressure packed situation with the Brewers having several games left to clinch the division, but the moment was still tense with over 44,000 packed inside Miller Park. With two men on, Braun launched a bomb out of the park to take a 4-1 lead and take the Central Division crown. It's one of those moments in sports where you wish you were there, but luckily there's another moment left on this countdown that I was fortunate to be a part of.

5. The Packers don't lose for 362 days

Dec. 19 was the last time the Green Bay Packers knew the feeling of defeat up until they fell at Arrowhead Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 17, nearly a whole year later. I know some of you probably took that loss a little harder than you should have simply because we all forgot what it was like to suffer through a Packer game like we did a few weeks ago. Failing to make history and go 19-0 is a little disappointing, but like the Packers, my main focus is winning the coveted Lombardi Trophy. Rodgers had a career high five touchdown passes last Sunday night and sealed the top seed in the NFC, which was the final remaining regular season goal for the Green and Gold. Perhaps another 362 day stretch of not losing has just begun.

4. December 3 - Badgers win thriller against Michigan State

The Badgers suffered one of the most heartbreaking defeats I can remember when their undefeated season was interrupted by a Hail Mary against the Spartans in East Lansing. Next week's loss against Ohio State wasn't much easier to swallow, and the Badgers all of a sudden faced an uphill climb to even reach the Big Ten Championship Game after having hopes of reaching the National Championship game. Wisconsin still found it's way to Indianapolis, and a familiar opponent stood in their way of grabbing a Rose Bowl birth - the Spartans. Down 39-34, Russell Wilson found sophomore wide receiver Brandon Duckworth on a prayer fourth down throw, much like the one Michigan State threw up several weeks ago, and the Badgers would take the lead on a Montee Ball touchdown run. Punter Brad Nortman's flop would allow the Badgers to keep the ball up to the final whistle, and in two days it will be Wisconsin squaring off against Oregon in Pasadena. Have fun in the Capital One Bowl, Sparty. You earned it.

3. February 12 - #1 Ohio State goes down in the Kohl Center

The unbeaten first ranked Ohio State Buckeyes came into Madison on a crisp, cool February evening to face a talented Wisconsin team led by Jordan Taylor and current Milwaukee Buck Jon Leuer. A legitimate National Title contender led by freshman big man Jared Sullinger and several other veteran players, the 18th ranked Badgers had other plans and knocked off the top team in the country. Fans rejoiced and (rightfully) stormed the court to lift Leuer up on their shoulders and celebrate one of the biggest victories in Wisconsin men's basketball history. Although the Badgers would have a rather disappointing end to their season, this win was one of the most exciting moments in the past 12 months not only in Wisconsin sports, but in college basketball.

2. October 7 - Tony Clutch walks the Crew into the NLCS

In the most exciting moment during my lifetime watching the Milwaukee Brewers (Braun's HR in '08 is a close second), the Brewers' electrifying outfielder Nyjer Morgan stepped to the plate with a man on second and one out in a tie game in the tenth inning. It was Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series and the crowd was on pins and needles, reminding me of the regular season finale I attended between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers when a playoff birth was on the line. Similarly to that game, I was present when Tony Plush punched a base hit into center field, allowing speedster Carlos Gomez to round third and beat the throw home and give the Brewers and exhilarating 3-2 win and a spot in the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Fans stayed for nearly a half hour after the game to celebrate and revel in the moment with confetti floating down all around them. It was the farthest the Brewers had made it in the playoffs since 1982, when they also squared off against the Cards. And just like '82, Milwaukee would fall to St. Louis, but the season was a success and the big off-season moves to bring in Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Nyjer Morgan and the in-season moves to bring in K-Rod and Jerry Hairston Jr. paid off. Morgan's walk-off Game 5 base hit would be number one almost any other year, except...

1. February 6 - The Packers win Super Bowl XLV

The NFL is the most popular sport in America, and the Super Bowl is the most-watched event in the country year after year. The Green Bay Packers, who sneaked into the playoffs as a six seed with a 10-6 record, were forced to win three road games in order to reach the Super Bowl last season and they did just that, first winning in Philadelphia, then Atlanta, then Chicago, all places of which they had played during the regular season. Now, a team that needed help to reach the playoffs, a team that was 3-3 and 8-6 at different points of the season, a team that had 16 players on injured reserve, had SOMEHOW found its way to Dallas to play the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 45. Memorable moments included an interception returned for a touchdown by Nick Collins, a couple of thread-the-needle touchdown passes by Aaron Rodgers to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and of course, the forced fumble by Clay Matthews when the Steelers were driving down the field to take the lead with all momentum on their side. After the fourth down stop by the Packers defense, it was all over and the Lombardi Trophy was back in Green Bay for the first time in 16 years.

Has there ever been a year like this in Wisconsin sports? I don't think so. We witnessed the Badgers in the Rose Bowl, two Sweet 16 teams, the Brewers two wins away from getting in the World Series and the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers...all in the same year! Incredible. To expect anything of the sort in 2012 seems unrealistic, but fans will naturally have higher expectations of all their professional and collegiate teams. One question remains: can the Milwaukee Bucks get the state of Wisconsin on their side and rise to the occasion? We'll see, as they were the only major sports team unable to find success in 2011. Looking forward into 2012, Wisconsin has two top 25 teams, the Rose Bowl game and a one seed in the NFC, but before we bring in the new year, remember the fun ride we had as fans and continue to relive these moments.

On WIN-sconsin.

Friday, December 23, 2011


That's right. Not just the Milwaukee Bucks are getting previewed in this installment of the Balls, Brats and Beer blog; so are the two major college basketball teams in the state of Wisconsin from Madison and Milwaukee. Why? Because let's face it. I don't care what NBA franchise you are: you don't deserve your own blog post for a season preview, especially when your league couldn't figure out how to play a full season. In all reality, this works out nicely for my seasonal basketball preview. With the strike-shortened season beginning on Dec. 26 for the Buckaroos and conference play starting up for the Badgers the very next day (Marquette starts up Big East play on New Year's Day), now is the perfect time to dissect the big three if you will. To any of you clamoring about me ignoring the great institutions of UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay, consider this: I didn't even preview my own UW Oshkosh Titans' basketball season...or their football team, for that matter. So there. I think I've justified that decision.

2010-2011 Milwaukee Bucks: 35-47, 3rd in Central Division, 9th in Eastern Conference (missed playoffs)

That's right. The Bucks weren't even eliminated from playoff contention until the last week of the regular season, and only missed out of the playoffs by one spot! Gotta love the NBA. Two years ago, the Deer managed to go 46-36 to earn a six seed in, as always, a very weak Eastern Conference. However, times have changed because teams like the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks have loaded up, not to mention the on-the-rise Indiana Pacers and the New Jersey Nets, who will soon not only be moving to Brooklyn, but also likely acquiring Dwight Howard. That's just speculation, but I think it's inevitable. Anyway, back to the Bucks. Last season's result was certainly not a surprise for a few reasons. We obtained a career-loser in Corey Maggette, a move I hated from day one. We resigned John Salmons, who everyone knows only plays well immediately after getting traded to a new team. Andrew Bogut was playing with one arm. Too much was expected of Brandon Jennings, who went through his sophomore slump. Too many teams got better while the Bucks took a step backward. And finally, whenever something big is expected from the Bucks, they don't do something big. So what's changed for the 66-game 2011-2012 season in Milwaukee?

Key losses: G/F Corey Maggettee (traded to CHA), SG John Salmons (traded to SAC), G/F Chris Douglas-Roberts (tear), SG Michael Redd, PG Keyon Dooling, PG Earl Boykins

Key additions: SG Stephen Jackson, G Shaun Livingston, PG Beno Udrih, F Tobias Harris (rookie), F Jon Leuer (rookie), F Mike Dunleavy

Returnees: C Andrew Bogut, PF/C Drew Gooden, PF Larry Sanders, F Jon Brockman, F Ersan Ilyasova, F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, G/F Carlos Delfino, SG Darington Hobson, PG Brandon Jennings

So the Bucks lost six and gained six and got rid of A LOT of extra baggage with Redd's contract and Salmon's corpse. In fact, according to, they are under the salary cap, leaving them in good shape in the coming years. I believe that General Manager John Hammond pulled all the right strings during the offseason, getting rid of cancers and potential cancers and replacing them with guys that will contribute and avoid clashing with each other. Last season was a complete disaster chemistry wise due to having a ball-hog like Maggette and the team struggling with injuries, including...well...just about everybody. Now, with an extremely compressed 66-game schedule and even a few back-to-back-to-back stretches, depth is more important to have than ever. Here's a look at how I think the Bucks 12-man roster will shape up on Dec. 26:

PG: Jennings - Udrih (Livingston: Inactive)
SG: Jackson - Delfino (Hobson: Inactive)
SF: Dunleavy - Harris - Leuer
PF: Mbah a Moute - Ilyasova - Sanders (Brockman: Inactive)
C: Bogut - Gooden

I could very well be wrong on this estimate for a few reasons. First of all, head coach Scott Skiles hasn't been at all thrilled with the play of Ilysova and Sanders, who simply make too many mistakes and aren't decisive enough, but their defensive ability will be enough in my opinion to make the 12-man roster. There could also be a debate whether or not both Dunleavy and Mbah a Moute start over Delfino and Gooden, but Mbah a Moute is the team's best defender (Skiles' specialty) and Dunleavy brings a scoring presence along with Captain Jack. There are also some of you who are going to question me putting Leuer on the active roster, but how can you argue with his preseason numbers? Livingston has always been a guy I feel the Bucks eventually part ways with, Hobson needs to do more to earn a roster spot after being a D-leaguer last season and Brockman brings energy, but just doesn't do a whole lot out there. These are not only the 12 guys I want to see on a nightly basis, but they are also the 12 guys I truly think will be on the roster opening night at Charlotte, where we get to see our old friend Corey Maggettee. Again, look at the DEPTH on this team...not bad, right?

Alright. Prediction time. Last season, I thought the Bucks would earn a five seed in the Eastern Conference and make a run at 50 wins...(face palm). Okay, that was stupid. In hindsight, I should have factored in the problems I mentioned before involving injuries, Jennings' slump and Maggette-spaghetti. This season, there are three teams I KNOW will finish better than the Bucks: Miami, Chicago and New York. Who will probably finish better than the Bucks? Indiana, Atlanta, Boston and Orlando. That leaves one more playoff slot in the East, and yes, I believe the Bucks can snag it. They could actually earn as high as a five seed because of the following reasons: Boston is old, making it harder to play a compressed schedule, Atlanta lost Jamal Crawford, a key contributor, and who knows how the Dwight Howard saga will end. With Jennings expected to bounce back (and be healthy), Bogey's right arm back to somewhat-full strength, and new additions I really, really like...

Regular Season Record: 36-30
Playoffs: Six seed, lose in 1st round

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Now for real basketball, the kind that takes place at the college level. The state of Wisconsin has four Division I teams, but there are only two that I consistently follow/give a crap about. The Green Bay Phoenix haven't had much of a program for as long as I can remember while UW-Milwaukee has had it's moments, most recently winning the Horizon League and then losing in the Conference Tournament final to eventual runner-up Butler. That leaves the Marquette Warriors and Wisconsin Badgers. One team plays up-tempo, the other plays slow. One team plays in Madison, the other plays in Milwaukee. One team is mostly white, the other mostly black. BUT, there is one similarity between these two - they both reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, riding the winning wave the Green Bay Packers began in February. Currently, the Warriors stand at 11-1, ranked 10th in the country while the Badgers are 10-2, standing at 14th in the polls.

2010-2011 Marquette Warriors (Golden Eagles): 20-14 (9-9), T-9th in Big East, Sweet 16 in NCAA

After barely sneaking in the tournament last season as an 11 seed, Marquette went on to upset Xavier and fellow Big East member Syracuse to reach the Regional Semifinal against North Carolina, who slaughtered the Warriors by 18. Now led by seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, the Warriors only defeat so far this season came at the hands of LSU down in Baton Rouge earlier this week. I really didn't think it was fair for the Tigers to march their football team out there, but hey, whatever it takes to win. In college basketball, letdown games come about just as often as someone imitating Aaron Rodgers' belt celebration, so I didn't really get too hellbent over this loss. I think the biggest storyline for Marquette heading into their conference opener against Syracuse on Jan. 1 is the health of Chris Otule, the opening day starter at center. Coming into this season, MU finally had some size with Otule and backup Davante Gardner, but Otule suffered an ACL injury a few weeks back against Washington and the decision to bring him back this season or not is still being mulled over by head coach Buzz Williams. To not have Otule there toward the end of the season puts a lot of pressure on Gardner to pick up the slack and stay out of foul trouble and also brings us back to the typical small lineup Marquette always finds themselves using. Fortunately, their is a ton of talent in that small lineup. Freshman newcomer Todd Mayo (yes, O.J. Mayo's little bro) can flat out score the basketball and sophomore Vander Blue will combine with Mayo to help take the pressure of DJO and Crowder in terms of scoring while transfer and hometown guy Jamil Wilson brings some athleticism and length.

This team has the ability to light up the scoreboard, but can also play the half-court game, which I believe is a valuable asset. Many experts are picking the Warriors to finish toward the top of the Big East among teams like Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut, and I feel compelled to agree. Of course, a lot of this depends on the senior leadership of DJO and Crowder helping some of the younger guys along as well as the potential return of the 6'11" Otule, but I think this team has what it takes to win 24 or 25 games and earn a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. With a fairly favorable conference schedule, my official prediction falls at:

Regular Season Record: 24-8 (13-5), T-3rd in Big East
NCAA Tournament Seed: Four
NCAA Tournament Result: Sweet 16

2010-2011 Wisconsin Badgers: 25-9 (13-5), 3rd in Big Ten, Sweet 16 in NCAA

Every year, the Badgers aren't expected to make much noise in the Big Ten, and every year, they do, because that's just how Bo Ryan rolls. Unfortunately, Ryan's teams never seem to be built for the style of play that wins games in the tournament. You know, teams that shoot the ball before the shot clock reaches .000001 seconds left. Watching the Badgers play basketball is an acquired taste to say the least. Last season, Jon Leuer helped lead Sconnie past Belmont and Kansas State before Leuer completely fell apart against Butler in the Regional Semifinal. With Leuer now in the NBA, Jordan Taylor assumes the leadership role for the Badgers, which we are still waiting to see translate over to the court. He's only averaging 11.8 points per game, but he still has that assist/turnover ratio at an impressive 3.2. I get the feeling that Wisconsin and Taylor are just starting to figure things out, which is good because they kick off Big Ten play at Nebraska two days after Christmas. This team lost two close games to North Carolina and Marquette so far and has also struggled through victories at UWM and vs UNLV as they gear up for what is a daunting Big Ten schedule. There's no question that it's now officially the second toughest conference in the nation. So other than Taylor, who will need to step up this season? The current leading scorer is Jared Berggren at 12.3 PPG, but I suspect JT will soon overtake that category. Ryan Evans is becoming more of a force on the boards and now has a starting role along with forward Mike Brusewitz and guard Josh Gasser, who has improved his jump shot since last season. Speaking of jump shots, sophomore Ben Brust has come out of nowhere to light it up from three on a couple different occasions, so we'll see how often Bo turns to him when the Badger offense needs a spark. Other than that, there isn't a whole lot to talk about regarding what may have been...believe it or not...a slightly overrated team coming into the season.

Sure, Wisconsin may still be able to run the table when it comes to home conference games and still have a successful regular season overall with their slow it down, shot clock draining style of basketball, but it just never seems to bring success in March, which is when a lot of people flip on the NCAA Tournament and actually care about college basketball. Teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana are all going to give Wisconsin trouble in what is one of the strongest Big Ten fields in quite awhile. With that being said, here is my prediction:

Regular Season Record: 22-8 (11-6), 4th in Big Ten
NCAA Tournament Seed: Five
NCAA Tournament Result: Round of 32

There you have it. No surprise, but I'm predicting each of the three major basketball teams in Wisconsin reach the postseason. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see UWM sneak in there with Butler having a down year. Feel free to chime in with your feelings regarding my predictions and how you feel these teams will fare as we move into 2012, the year humanity will cease to exist.

May everybody have a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Stay safe!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dealing With Imperfection

WIN-sconsin. I think most of you are now familiar with the term coined by us Wisconsinites late last summer. It was very fitting and also probably the first time in my life this combination of the words "Win" and "Wisconsin" was deserved when referring to the high level the state's sports teams were playing at. The Brewers were heading into the playoffs, the Badger football team seemingly couldn't be defeated and the Packers were the reigning Super Bowl Champions and hadn't lost since December of 2010. For the first time in my life, I felt spoiled as a sports fan. Never had these three teams been this successful at the same time. Never. But all good things must come to an end. The Brewers were eliminated by the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. A few months later, the Ryan Braun news surfaced. The Badgers lost in heart-breaking fashion two weeks in a row, although they were able to pull it together and reach the Rose Bowl for the second consecutive year. And then there's what happened early this week...Marquette's undefeated season came to an end in a loss against LSU on Monday. Well, that DID actually happen, but nobody cares about non-conference basketball. Let's get to what I'm actually referring to:

December 19, 2010. I was back home for Winter Break just like I am right now, watching the Matt Flynn-led Green Bay Packers play the juggernaut New England Patriots at Foxboro Stadium. The Packers were 8-5, barely clinging on to their playoff hopes. Green Bay would eventually lose, albeit by only four with a chance to go ahead at the end, but this was also the last time the Packers would lose until last Sunday, December 18, almost a year later. Ironically enough, the last two Packer losses have occurred while I've been back home, so I think I know how to fix this problem...move far, far away and never come back. No? I thought it sounded reasonable.

The fact of the matter is, this day was going to come eventually. Yeah, it was against the 5-8 Kansas City Chiefs, but who cares? Anyone can beat anyone in professional sports on any given day...especially when you're down to only two starting offensive linemen, you're number one wide receiver is out and your defense is somehow incapable of stopping Kyle Orton. I could go a little more in depth as to why the Packers lost, but I don't think anyone wants to relive the feeling of pain and anguish that we hadn't felt in almost exactly a year. In one sentence, it was a combination of injuries, dropped passes, failing to challenge what should have been a touchback, the inaccuracy of Rodgers, a team playing for its coach and having a piss poor excuse of a defensive strategy for a guy who was cut in favor of Tim Tebow. Final result: Chiefs 19, Packers 14. Should have been a whoooooole lot worse.

13-1. You know...that's a record I can live with at this point of the year. Better than losing in late January, that's for sure. What's even better is that no team is closer than two games behind Green Bay, which means it's extremely likely the Packers hang on to the number one seed and get home field advantage in the NFC. All that needs to happen is either one more 49ers loss or one more Packers win and by God, if the Pack loses to Josh McCown and the team that calls itself a professional football franchise, then it doesn't deserve to get the one seed. That's not something I'm even going to think about right now. What's important to think about is how the Packers now gear up for the postseason, both physically and mentally.

Here is the current Green Bay offensive line:
LT - Marshall Newhouse (Chad Clifton)
LG - Evan Dietrich-Smith
C - Scott Wells
RG - Josh Sitton (Derek Sherrod)
RT - T.J. Lang (Bryan Bulaga)

The players in parenthesis are currently injured, Sherrod done for the season after a gruesome leg injury. Other regulars who have been hampered by injury might remind you of the list the Packers compiled last season. Greg Jennings, James Starks, Alex Green, Andrew Quarless, A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal, Vic So'oto, Frank Zombo, Nick Collins. I'm probably missing a few here and there, but that number is getting awfully close to the number of players injured by the end of the '10 season, granted not all of the players I listed are on injured reserve. What was 'good,' if you will, about the Packer injuries last season were that many of the notable ones occurred early on in the season, giving the Packers time to recover and plug in new players to get adjusted to more playing time. What concerns me is that this season, many injuries, especially up front, are coming toward the end of the year and guys are playing in spots they aren't used to (i.e. Lang at right tackle), making it harder for the team to mesh together with so many players in new roles. But really, that's a fairly minor concern for a few reasons...Jennings will be back, which I think is the biggest reason Green Bay had trouble moving the ball on Sunday. Also, Clifton and Bulaga, the two starting tackles (and the two most important spots on the offensive line), should be healthy for the playoffs. Bishop should be back. Pickett should be back. Really, it comes down to the Packers willing to let everyone get healthy in time for what's really important: the playoffs. Of course, obtaining the one seed is the main goal right now, and that is unlikely to avoid Green Bay's grasp.

The second concern I have is in regards to the defensive unit. By this time of year last season, the defense was beginning to click and the bend but don't break mentality was in full force. If you watched that Kansas City game, the defense was bending to the point of nearly snapping in half, but let's be looked horrendous. Maybe that had to do with gameplanning for Tyler Palko instead of Kyle Orton (we saw what happened when the Bears trotted out Caleb Hanie in the NFC Championship game last season), but the defense was unable to force any turnovers and as a result, the Chiefs moved the ball at will. Here's the interesting stat of the day: when was the last time the Packers failed to create a turnover? December 19, 2010 against the New England Patriots. That's right. The last time Green Bay lost a football game. 19 games later, and Dom Capers' defense didn't manage a forced fumble or an interception, resulting in a loss. I don't know what the deal is this season. Whether it's the loss of Nick Collins, an aging Chuck Woodson, Clay Matthews failing to reach the quarterback enough, or the overall inability to rush the passer, something isn't there yet. There are still two weeks to get on a little run, so it's nothing to get our panties in a bundle over. I thought the Oakland game was a start, but the Kansas City game was a step backward. We'll see how the defense (and the offense, for that matter) can close out the season without some of its key pieces. For now, let's forget about the failed attempt at an undefeated season and relish in 13-1, the best record in all of football.

Figured you might want a little update in my football life. Well, I doubt it, but you'll get it anyway. In fantasy football, I once again entered an auction league to go along with the two leagues I play in with friends, one of which is for money. I'm currently in the finals in my league that's for money ($80 to the winner!) with friends and I'm also in the finals in the auction league for the second year in a row. In case you forgot, I finished third in the money league last season and won the auction league, so I'm sitting pretty once again. As far as the third league I'm in, my commissioner failed to alert me that he would be rewarding a ridiculous amount of points for defenses, AND it was a PPR (points per reception) league, meaning a wide receiver gets an additional point for each catch they make. Think this might have affected my draft strategy a bit? The answer is yes, and the result was going 7-6 and losing in the first round of the playoffs two weeks ago. Good thing no one cares about that league. Besides, I won it last year. Gotta share the wealth.

As far as guessing games with the spread...same old story. Last year, I went 132-124. Through 15 weeks this season? 112-112. Imagine that. So I'll have to go 20-12 over the last two weeks, which are always hard to guess, in order to match my 2010 effort. Wish me luck!

I'll be back soon with a Milwaukee Bucks' season preview. Whether you want to read it or not is an entirely different issue. Perhaps they'll join in on the WIN-sconsin fun? Only time will tell.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My take on Braun, the Pack and Roses

My goodness. It's been far too long, my friends. A busier-than-anticipated fall semester has finally drawn to a close and this blog has missed the Badgers thrilling Big Ten Championship Game victory and a baseball off-season I'd rather forget. But one thing this blog hasn't missed is a Packers' loss, which is why I'm almost afraid to post here for the first time in nearly two months. Since nobody was exactly clammering for me to get back on this thing, I'm guessing everyone was able to go on with their everyday lives, but I thought I'd still enlighten you on what has been going on recently in the Wisconsin sports scene.

We'll go from least important to most important, in my mind at least, and start with the Wisconsin Badgers' trip to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year. Yeah. This is the least important of the three. Two weeks ago to the day, the Badgers pulled out one of the most thrilling victories I've seen in college football for quite a while. Well, other than that one game in East Lansing a few months ago. It was a game that featured little defense, a couple of bonehead mistakes from Michigan State and the emergence of a future star at wide receiver. That receiver I speak of is sophomore Jeff Duckworth, who made a couple of crucial plays that the Badgers needed in order to win the Big Ten Championship. His most notable play was hauling in a 36-yard prayer from the game's MVP Russell Wilson on fourth down to essentially keep the Badgers alive. The real crime is that Wilson won the inaugural BTC MVP because I can think of a few players who deserved it more.

The most obvious candidate is soon-to-be most touchdowns in a single season record holder Montee Ball. Not only did Ball have four rushing TDs to bring his season total to 38, but he also completed a beautiful 32-yard pass to Wilson. Heck, if the Badgers don't end up finding an efficient replacement for RusselMania next season, they could just turn to Ball to play quarterback and running back at the same time. That is, if Ball decides to return for his senior year, which I have a feeling he will. I hope. Ball needs just two touchdowns to break the all-time record of 39 TDs in a season held by Barry Sanders. To be fair, Sanders recorded this feat in only 11 games, and the bowl game didn't count toward his total. How many scores did Barry get in the bowl game that season? Five. Oh well. Times have changed and Montee is going to take full advantage of that.

So who's the second MVP candidate? I think you know where I'm going with this one: Badgers' punter Brad Nortman. Nortman showed what the Milwaukee Greater Metro Conference is all about and went down after a Michigan State player who won't be named (I don't want him getting any death threats) plowed into Nortman after punting the ball away late in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin up 42-39. I think it's fair to say that the hit wasn't hard enough to make an 8-year-old girl crumble over, but everyone knows that if Nortman doesn't go with the flow and fall down on that play, the referee doesn't throw his flag. The rule is that if you run into the punter, it's a penalty. That's exactly what the Spartans' player did, and that's why the Badgers were able to seal a trip to the Rose Bowl to play Oregon on Jan. 2. Sucks to suck, Michigan State. Take that hail mary and shove it where the sun don't shine.

Oregon, who is ranked fifth in the country, should very well be playing in the National Championship. Instead, their kicker had other ideas and missed a chip-shot field goal to beat USC last month, leading to them pummeling UCLA in order to get into the Rose Bowl. It's a classic matchup of speed vs. power. On offense, the Badgers arguably hold the edge at both quarterback and running back, but Oregon has faster players at each position, which could pose some trouble for a Badger defense that I continue to lose faith in week after week. Basically, it's going to come down to whether or not the Badgers can outscore the Ducks because with their speed, they'll be able to rack up tons of points on the slow defensive line and the extremely porous secondary of Wisconsin. This is the game where Russell has to prove to Badger fans that he was the right choice. This may sound ridiculous, but Wilson shrunk a little bit in the team's losses to Michigan State and Ohio State earlier in the year. Granted, he put up pretty decent numbers in each game, but it took the Badger offense way too long to get going in each of those games, and in the end it bit them in the rear end because it came down to the defense trying* to get the job done. A slow start isn't going to cut it against Oregon - I can guarantee you that. I predicted the Badgers would get to the Rose Bowl again this year and only lose one game (they lost two), and I'll predict that they come up a bit short for the second year in a row. Sorry. Just going with my gut.

Okay. Spent a little bit more time on Wisconsin than I planned, but now it's time to move on to the second most important on-going story in the state. This was tough for me, especially since I'm a bigger baseball fan than anything, but the Ryan Braun scandal still takes a back seat to the undefeated run of the Green Bay Packers simply because of the timing. As everyone knows by now, Braun tested positive for having synthetic testosterone in his system and the news was leaked a week ago even though Major League Baseball has yet to complete the appeal process. Thanks, ESPN. I was alerted of this news while at the library studying diligently for my brutal finals week and my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. Suffice it to say, but I was no longer in the mood to study and my night at the library was cut short.

Of course, I went on to read anything and everything I could related to this devastating news and began to build hope that the decision to suspend Braun for 50 games next season as the result of using performance enhancing drugs could be reversed, or at least reduced. Braun took a second drug test immediately after hearing of his positive test and tested negative. From what I've heard, between the time he took the two tests, there is no way that amount of testosterone could have left his body, which could mean the first test was a farce and was somehow messed up. That's the most hopeful solution Brewer fans can hope for. I've also heard that Braun's suspension could be reduced from 50 games to 25 games because the substance he tested positive for wasn't a performance enhancing drug. Of course, missing Braun for any sort of extended period would be a killer for this Brewer team, who has gotten better at third base (Aramis Ramirez) and shortshop (Alex Gonzalez) and remained strong at the tail end of the bullpen (K-Rod), but has a huge question mark at first base (Prince Fielder leaving, Mat Gamel arriving).

Here's the final and most preposterous (although not out of the question) rumor I heard regarding Braun. He has herpies. Some dude commented on that he has a friend who is a trainer on the Brewers' staff. This trainer relayed him the information that Braun has herpies and the medication that he was given by his doctor to treat the condition is what triggered the spike in testosterone. Let me tell you something. If this were somehow true and I was Braun, not only have I been getting a lot of tail, but I'm almost willing to take that suspension rather than face such humiliation. Since the medication was prescribed from a doctor though, this would mean the suspension would go bye-bye and Braun would be able to play without sitting out any time.

So many different scenarios! Of course, what people keep complaining about is the following:

- No one has ever successfully overturned a positive drug test in the MLB (Wrong: yes they have. Normally, the appeals process goes through BEFORE THE POSITIVE TEST BECOMES PUBLIC, so we never know if someone has won an appeal that tested positive before.)

- Players are guilty before proven innocent (Sure, that's fair. But who cares? If Braun gets through this without being suspended, then I don't get what the big deal is. If you have the viewpoint that his reputation is tarnished no matter what, then that's your problem. Let the process play out.)

- Braun should have to hand over his MVP to Matt Kemp (Shut up. SHUT up. SHUT UP. All of a sudden, Dodger fans are coming out of the muck that is their organization and bantering for Braun to give up his MVP because he's a "cheater." Dear lord. The MVP award almost NEVER goes to a player on a team that didn't make the postseason unless it's a transcending player like Albert Pujols. Also, the positive test was in October, AFTER the regular season and AFTER all the baseball writers had voted for the award. Therefore, Braun didn't cheat during the regular season, or in any previous season for that matter, because he has been tested multiple times and it's random. Besides, his numbers this season were just like any other season, maybe slightly better, but since he was on a 96-win ball club, he was rewarded with an MVP. So once again, SHUT UP.)

Unfortunately, the appeals process won't be over until January, so I'm stuck here waiting anxiously for redemption. I've almost never felt more depressed than when I read the text message announcing Braun's positive test and potential suspension. He's one of my few heroes and someone I look up to as a role model, and for this positive test to be upheld would certainly be devastating. That's the only word I can use to describe it. Even if it comes down to Braun accidentally taking something he didn't know had an illegal stimulant in it, there's no excuse. You have to know what you put in your body. Here's hoping this all just goes away.

Let's sandwich this bad news with another bit of good news. Great news, as a matter of fact. Do you remember the last time the Green Bay Packers lost a game? Well, it was literally one year ago. 19 games in a row the Packers have won. How ridiculous is that? What's funny is that coming into the season, people were forgetting about the defending Super Bowl champs. It was all about the Eagles and the Cowboys and the Saints and the Falcons...who would end up going to Super Bowl 46 from the NFC? Well, here's a thought: maybe the team that would be returning 16 players from injured reserve? Okay, so not all 16 players were returning, but the Pack would be getting guys like Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and Morgan Burnett back on the field in 2011. Low and behold, here we stand: 13-0 with three very winnable games remaining to become the second team ever to complete a 16-0 regular season. I hope the '72 Dolphins are shaking in their old, torn up boots.

Of course, along the way Green Bay has lost Nick Collins for the season and had guys like James Starks, Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk, Frank Zombo, Chad Clifton, Josh Sitton, Andrew Quarless and now Greg Jennings miss extended time due to injury. The defense has had its issues, especially in games against the Saints, Chargers and Giants, but this season has been all about Aaron Rodgers and the Packer offense. Rodgers is having perhaps the best single season a quarterback has ever put together, or at least one of the better ones we've ever seen. There hasn't been much of a run game, and Finley hasn't contributed nearly as much as people expected coming in, but the beautiful thing about it is that Rodgers always makes sure everyone is involved, forcing the defense to be even more on its toes. Jennings and my boy Jordy Nelson have had career years (Jennings was just cut short), James Jones' hands have been sure, and Donald Driver continues to get it done at 107 years of age. Helping out with field position is rookie Randall Cobb, who already has two returns for touchdowns...look out, Devin Hester. More will be expected of Cobb, fifth in catches among receivers, with Jennings out, but with Jennings expected back for the Divisional Round of the playoffs, his injury shouldn't be a long-term problem.

On defense, the numbers tell that it's been a struggle, but things are going to come around with this bunch. One number that shouldn't be overlooked is the number of takeaways this unit has, something that Dom Capers takes a lot of pride in. This defense has players like Chuck Woodson, Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Tramon Williams, who are going to step their game up now that it's getting colder out and the Green Bay offense simply won't be quite as effective as a result, especially going up against a higher level quality of opponents. The most important part about being 13-0 isn't the chance to become the second team in NFL history to not lose a single game throughout the regular season and the playoffs; it's about having that home field advantage, something the Packers apparently didn't need last season. Unlike last season, having basically nothing to play for at this point of the season could be a little concerning, but I haven't seen a team as mentally strong as this group of guys, and having a week off to start the playoffs while being a one seed is something I think this team would prefer over last year's scenario.

Getting back to people forgetting about the Packers...heard of that Tebow guy lately? Thank God for him. I'll go on the record and say that I love every second of it. Seriously. I love Tim Tebow. Talk about him all you want, ESPN. Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith going at it each morning on First Take is surprisingly one of the most entertaining things on television, although I can't stand it when Skip talks about Rodgers. Sorry he hasn't had any come from behind fourth quarter victories this year like your beloved Tom Brady. He hasn't been in the position to. And the one time he did have to have a late drive to win the game when the Packers were tied with the Giants with 56 second left, he waltzed down the field to set up a walk-off field goal. Anyway, back to Tebow. He's 7-1 as a starter, isn't necessarily good at what he does, and has the whole nation mesmerized, helping to take a huge chunk of attention off the Pack...just as they'd prefer it.

So let's just say January is another huge month for our beloved sports teams. It'll start off with the Rose Bowl game, then the NFL playoffs will get going and eventually the final verdict will come forth on Ryan Braun. Enjoy your break if you just got done with finals like me, good luck if you are yet to take them and have a merry Christmas if I'm not back on here before then. Once the new year arrives, it'll be time to avert your attention back to the greatness that is Wisconsin sports.