Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Is Brett Favre crazy, or perhaps forgetful?

By now, most have you have probably had a chance to read about Brett Favre's press conference yesterday, where he proclaimed the following and stunned the assembled reporters:

"I really feel, as far as talent is concerned, this is the most talented team that I've been part of as a whole."

He said that.

It's been reported by about 275 different sources and counting.

The assumption working its way around the world now is that Favre is either 1) crazy, or 2) trying to make everyone feel good so they'll play better. Has anyone ever considered the possibility that Favre was serious? I know. Blasphemous thought. How could this ragtag group possibly be more talented than, say, the 1996 team that, you know, WON THE SUPER BOWL?

(In Favre's defense, and to be totally fair, he did say that this year's team is also "one of the most unproven", but that came after his bomb about it being the most talented, so most reporters aren't going to remember that part.)

Well, I'm all about being accurate. So before I make fun of Brett for being ridiculous, let's take a look at the two teams and figure out if Brett might have a point. Remember, this is based on talent. For the sake of giving the current version of Favre the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to cut him some slack in some areas as we look at these teams.

For the sake of argument, I have decided to use what I believe was the starting lineup for the Packers' Week One win over Tampa Bay in 1996, combined with players who came in over the course of the season and made an impact. I will use the best possible starting lineup for the 2006 Packers, based on the rosters as we have them right now. Certain positions will be listed deeper than starters, only because depth is important, but I don't feel like getting too fussy about the depth chart of the 1996 team. Much of that will be gleaned off available game notes from that team.

1996--> Brett Favre, Jim McMahon
2006--> Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers

Advantage: 1996. Favre was younger and more athletic then. Today's Favre just isn't that good at making plays on the run, and he has to learn a new offense to boot. He certainly could be good, but anything that brings Favre even close to his 1996 form would have to be considered a miracle.

Running back
1996--> Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens, Travis Jervey
2006--> Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, Samkon Gado

Advantage: 2006. I'm going to take a lot of heat for this, but Green has proven himself. Levens was a one-hit wonder who held out in 1998 and was never the same again. Bennett was nothing more than a good interior runner, and Jervey was a fumbling machine. The three combined for 13 total scores in 1996, which isn't nearly as impressive as I would have guessed.

1996--> William Henderson
2006--> William Henderson

Advantage: 2006. What Henderson may have lost in footspeed, he's made up for with his blocking acumen. He's still as good a pure fullback as there is in the NFL. And he's also remained a decent weapon as a receiver.

Wide receiver
1996--> Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman, Don Beebe, Andre Rison, Terry Mickens
2006--> Donald Driver, Rod Gardner, Robert Ferguson, Greg Jennings, Marc Boerigter

Advantage: 2006. Yes, I'm serious. This group is led by a Pro Bowler, and Gardner and/or Ferguson will have a huge year. Jennings is much more talented than Mickens was, and Boerigter, as a big target, fits perfectly into the system.

(NOTE: If Rison had actually started the season with the team, this would end differently. But he only played in five regular-season games.)

Tight end
1996--> Keith Jackson, Mark Chmura
2006--> Bubba Franks, Donald Lee

Advantage: 1996. This isn't even funny. Jackson was awesome, and Chmura was coming into his own. Franks and Lee don't come close.

Offensive tackle
1996--> Earl Dotson, Bruce Wilkerson, John Michels (?)
2006--> Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, Kevin Barry

Advantage: 2006. Dotson and Wilkerson were journeymen-types, while Clifton and Tauscher are both among the better tackles in the league.

Offensive guard
1996--> Aaron Taylor, Adam Timmerman, Lindsay Knapp (?)
2006--> Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, Junius Coston

Advantage: 1996. As mediocre as Dotson and Wilkerson may have been, Taylor and Timmerman were both very, very good. The new starting guards fit the cut-blocking scheme well, but it's hard to imagine that they'll be really good right out of college.

1996--> Frank Winters, Jeff Dellenbach
2006--> Scott Wells, Junius Coston

Advantage: 1996. Winters was a superior center. A tad dirty, but always willing to go the extra mile to block for his running backs or protect good friend Favre.

(Plus, the "Three Packerinos" FOX NFL Sunday ad was one of the funniest things any Packer player has ever appeared in.)

Defensive end
1996--> Reggie White, Sean Jones, Keith McKenzie, Gabe Wilkins
2006--> Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Aaron Kampman, ?

Advantage: 1996. Duh.

Defensive tackle
1996--> Gilbert Brown, Santana Dotson, Darius Holland
2006--> Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, Kenderick Allen, Colin Cole

Advantage: 1996. Also...duh. Brown was in his short prime, and Dotson was a quality pass-rushing tackle. And the overall strength of that 1996 defensive line is probably what did the most to carry that team to a championship. The Packers have the start to a good group in Pickett, but the others are either untested or unproven at this level.

Outside linebacker
1996--> Wayne Simmons, Brian Williams, George Koonce
2006--> A.J. Hawk, Ben Taylor, Nick Barnett (?), Brady Poppinga

Advantage: 2006. I'm very high on Hawk, and Barnett makes a great tandem with Hawk if the coaches move him outside. Poppinga could also be a huge part of this defense if he's recovered from knee surgery. Simmons was spotty, but played with attitude, and Williams was a great athlete.

Inside linebacker
1996--> Ron Cox, Bernardo Harris
2006--> Nick Barnett, Abdul Hodge

Advantage: 2006. Barnett is a proven talent, while Cox was just a journeyman. Hodge is an animal, and he will end up starting here eventually. It's nice to see some attitude in this group, and Hawk and Hodge both bring that.

1996--> Craig Newsome, Doug Evans, Tyrone Williams
2006--> Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Ahmad Carroll, Mike Hawkins

Advantage: 2006. Evans was good, but Newsome was injury-prone and only an okay player. Williams had great talent, but couldn't stay out of trouble and often played with poor technique. Harris and Woodson are both elite talents, and the coaches think either Carroll or Hawkins will emerge as a solid nickel back.

1996--> LeRoy Butler, Eugene Robinson, Mike Prior
2006--> Nick Collins, Marquand Manuel, Marviel Underwood

Advantage: 1996. Duh. Butler was great at making plays near or behind the line of scrimmage, and Robinson, pre-arrest, was as good a centerfielder as you could find. Prior played special teams and was also a factor in dime coverages, bringing great veteran savvy, like Robinson.

I think we all like Nick Collins, but his only similarity to Butler at this point is the number on his jersey. Manuel could be really good against the run, allowing Collins to play a Robinson-like centerfield.

1996--> Chris Jacke
2006--> Billy Cundiff

Advantage: 1996. I just don't know enough about Cundiff to say anything nice. Jacke is forever a part of Packer lore for that overtime game-winner on the Monday night against San Francisco.

1996--> Craig Hentrich
2006--> Jon Ryan, B.J. Sander

Advantage: 1996. Ryan has a great leg, but we've yet to see him perform in a game. Sander sucks. Hentrich, meanwhile, was All-Pro caliber, and the position has suffered greatly since he left for Tennessee as a free agent.

1996--> Desmond Howard
2006--> ?

Advantage: 1996. It won't matter who returns kicks and punts this year. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to match the magic created by Howard in his only productive NFL season. The Packers' special teams group now doesn't even belong in a comparison with the 1996 team. Those guys covered kicks, blocked for their returner, and had tremendous depth because Ron Wolf drafted so well.

Out of 17 positions rated, the 1996 Packers have the advantage in ten, while the 2006 Packers take the advantage in seven positions. Not bad at all.

My conclusion is that Favre's comments aren't as far-fetched as many will assume them to be. People might think I'm crazy for even trying to compare a Super Bowl champion to a team that was 4-12 last season, but this isn't about results. It's about overall talent. The 1996 Packers got by with somewhat marginal talent at wide receiver because of Holmgren's play-calling acumen, Favre's playmaking ability, and the tight ends they had. They got by with marginal offensive tackles because the rest of the line was so good, and teams were afraid to pin their ears back against the Packers because they were so dog-gone good at screen and dump-off passes. So while they were really good on offense, they weren't the most talented Packer offense of the last 15 years.

And I think I can speak for all of Packer Nation when I say I hope Favre ends up being right about the 2006 team. On paper, it's just hard to argue that he is...right now.

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