What We Learned
Three things we learned after the Bucs-Packers game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They won't be making the playoffs, but the Green Bay Packers finished making a strong December statement Sunday at a freeze-dried Lambeau Field, beating the postseason-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-14 on Ryan Longwell's 22-yard field goal in overtime. Green Bay finished 4-0 in December, and upped its record to 9-7 in head coach Mike Sherman's first season.
1. It was a day made for the frosty tableau of Lambeau Field. But in the end, it wasn't the cold that got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Something far more unexpected did the job.
For all the incessant media coverage of the Bucs' inability to ever win in temperatures below 40 degrees, Tampa Bay was within a 40-yard Martin Gramatica field goal of burying that infamous streak. But Gramatica, who had already converted twice in the game (from 38 and 43), missed just wide with nine seconds remaining in regulation, ruining what could have been a glorious day in team history.
Gramatica, nicknamed "Mr. Automatica", could have done Tampa Bay's postseason chances a world of good. While his failure didn't end the Bucs' season by any means -- they had already clinched a playoff berth last week -- it might have resulted in Tampa Bay having an extremely slim chance to become the first ever team to play the Super Bowl on its home field.
As is, the Bucs (10-6) slipped to the NFC's fifth seed, meaning they will have to play any and all of their playoff games on the road. They'll start that sojourn next week at fourth-seeded Philadelphia (11-5).
No wild-card team has ever won three road playoff games and the Super Bowl. New England in 1985 was the closest, winning three road games before losing big to Chicago in Super Bowl XX.
The Bucs, who gamely fought back from a 14-0 deficit in the third quarter, could have made it far easier on themselves. With a win and a Vikings loss at Indianapolis, the Bucs would have defended their NFC Central title and earned the conference's No. 2 seed, meaning they would have had next week off and a home divisional playoff game.
The difference between the No. 2 seed and the No. 5 is huge. And Tampa Bay may again learn it in the coming weeks.
The irony is that Gramatica's postseason will include for the first time a Pro Bowl trip to Hawaii, as the NFC kicker. When he lined up for the 40-yarder that could have won the game, he was 28-of-33 on the season, and 7-of-8 from 40-49 yards. One of the most accurate long-distance kicker in the NFL, Gramatica was 12-of-16 from 40-plus yards this season.
But maybe the only kick Bucs fans will remember is the one at Lambeau. The one that could have ensured at least one more warm-weather game-day Sunday in Tampa Bay this season.
2. Boxed in as they are by the salary cap, the Packers still are fast approaching a day of decision regarding increasingly undisciplined wide receiver Antonio Freeman.
Freeman missed two team meetings Saturday morning, showing up almost an hour late. Sherman responded by doing what he had to do, declaring Freeman inactive for Sunday's important regular-season finale.
It would be one thing if Freeman's tardiness was an honest mistake that prompted remorse. But according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first reported the incident, Freeman was hardly apologetic about his actions, and balked about being disallowed to take part in Saturday morning's walk-through workout.
More and more in the past two years, Freeman has evolved into the kind of player the Packers simply can't count on. Even his friend and quarterback, Brett Favre, reacted with disappointment Sunday, saying Sherman did the right thing by the team by sitting Freeman down.
While he played hard and well in earning his seven-year, $41.8 million contract in early 1999 -- which included a $10 million signing bonus -- Freeman since then has shown questionable effort and judgment. The perception is that he personifies the type of professional athlete whose motivation level dropped noticeably after receiving big money.
While never a burner, some scouts believe Freeman's ability to create separation and find the open spaces on the field has slipped since as well the past two years. Some believe that Freeman is ill-suited for the true No. 1 receiver role and is incapable of elevating the play of others around him unless he is on a very strong team to begin with.
The Packers are no longer one of the league's elite, and thus Freeman's tendency to blend into the pack hurts even more, given the size of his salary. Green Bay may in reality be limited in their options and can't afford to cut their ties to a player who is fast approaching malcontent status.
If the Packers released Freeman this offseason, they would have to eat more than $7 million in signing bonus acceleration in 2001, all but wrecking their chances to improve the roster. If the Packers do make a move, rest assured it will come before March 15, when they owe the underachieving Freeman a $1.7 million roster bonus.
Were this Freeman's only lapse in judgment, it would be forgivable. But he also missed a team meeting in October, being fined by $9,000 by Sherman, and also was docked $10,000 by the NFL in November for angrily slapping a ball out of a game official's hand in Tampa Bay. His legal troubles also have been an issue in recent months, including an arrest for switching vehicles at the scene of an auto accident; a warning for speeding; and a suspension of his license for failing to appear in court on a different speeding ticket.
Whether he knows it or not, Freeman is very close to ending his Packers career by his own hand. This weekend's transgression could very well have hastened the day of judgement.
3. It was a move that was barely noticed when it was made. But when Green Bay traded cornerback Fred Vinson to Seattle in April for running back Ahman Green, it turned out to be one of the steals of the year in the NFL.
Green had never been a lead back with the Seahawks, but he is exactly that with the Packers. Green has evolved into such a factor in Green Bay's offense that many have theorized that he will get every opportunity to unseat the injury plagued Dorsey Levens as the team's starter next year. If nothing else should motivate Levens to get healthy this offseason, a Green highlights tape should do the trick.
Green scored both of Green Bay's touchdowns against Tampa Bay, scooting in from 3 yards out in the first quarter, and making it 14-0 with a 2-yard plunge in the third. That gave Green 10 rushing touchdowns this season, more than any other Packers runner since Terdell Middleton (Terdell Middleton?) had 11 in 1978. Green also had three receiving touchdowns this season, giving him a team-high 13 overall.
With 1,175 yards rushing this season, Green posted the fourth-best rushing total in team history. That's better than Paul Hornung ever did, and more than John Brockington managed. Only Jim Taylor (twice) and Levens ever ran for more yards in a Packers uniform.
Entering Sunday, Green had superbly seized his unexpected opportunity, averaging 112.4 yards rushing in the past five games. Green's 64 receptions also lead Green Bay before Sunday, and his 1,582 total yards ranked fifth in the NFL with one week remaining.
Against Tampa Bay, Green did nothing but boost those totals, rushing 27 times for a team-high 74 yards and the two touchdowns, and catching a Packers-best nine passes for 78 yards. The nine receptions tied his career high and 78 receiving yards established a new one.
When Green limped off the field in overtime with a sore ankle, taking his 152 yards of offense with him, even his absence wound up helping the Packers. Untested second-year running back De'Mond Parker replaced him, producing the game-winning field goal drive's final 43 yards on five runs and one pass reception.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.