Winter of ups and downs takes Packers by storm
Oregon teammates weather bad news and some great plays
It was Sunday, Dec. 21, and the Green Bay Packers were in Oakland, preparing for a Monday night game against the Raiders.
Place-kicker Ryan Longwell had played college ball at California, so he collected three teammates Ñ punter Josh Bidwell and quarterbacks Brett Favre and Doug Pederson Ñ and trekked with them to a favorite hangout in Berkeley for dinner.
The foursome was enjoying food and conversation when Pederson's cell phone rang, and Favre's world stopped.
The call brought news of the death of his father, Irv, from a heart attack.
'Brett reacted as you might expect,' says Bidwell, a Creswell native and one-time University of Oregon standout. 'He was crushed Ñ just devastated. It totally changed everything we were doing. We were just trying to be there for him, to give him any support possible.'
There wasn't a lot Favre's teammates could say. They didn't have to.
'I am just glad it was the four of us together,' says Longwell, a Bend native. 'Doug is Brett's best friend on the team, and their wives are close, and we are all pretty tight. Brett was heartbroken, but I think he was glad we were there with him.'
Favre chose to play against the Raiders, achieving a career-best passer rating in leading his team to a 41-7 blowout in perhaps the most dramatic moment of the 2003 NFL season.
'The last thing any of us thought was he would play,' Longwell says. 'But he talked to his family and sorted through his thoughts and realized the best thing he could do for himself was play. We wanted to win that game for Brett and rallied around him. It was magical.'
Bidwell says it might have appeared that Favre was uncaring about his father because he didn't sit out the Oakland game.
'It was just the opposite,' Bidwell says. 'They were best friends. It speaks to how much he loves his dad. I wasn't surprised Brett played, but I was surprised how focused he was. It was a tribute to his strength and character. He dedicated the game to his father and then came through with an amazing performance.'
On the roller coaster
It was the most stirring of a series of emotional scenes in the past few weeks for Green Bay, the latest a heart-stopping overtime playoff victory over Seattle last Sunday.
The Packers had to win their final four regular-season games just to get into the playoffs. They survived that and the death of their leader's father, and now face another challenge: a second-round date Sunday at Philadelphia.
'We have been on an emotional roller coaster as a team for the last month,' says Longwell, in his seventh season as Green Bay's kicker.
Longwell, 29, could have been left with an empty feeling against Seattle if not for Al Harris' 52-yard TD interception return in overtime. Longwell, who made 23 of 26 field-goal attempts during the regular season, missed on a 47-yard try as time expired in regulation at Lambeau Field. His attempt was on line but a few yards short, which was no surprise on the freezing, blustery day.
'I needed another five yards or 20 degrees,' Longwell says. 'I was kicking into a 25-mph wind, and I swung as hard as I could. I hit it well, just a couple of yards short.'
With 12 seconds to go, the Packers had the ball on the Seattle 30-yard line with one timeout left. They chose to give the ball to Ahman Green in an attempt to break a run of five yards or so, but he got only one yard.
'Brett wanted to roll out and throw a little out pattern, but he was overruled,' Longwell says. 'I knew it was going to be tough from 47 yards. In Lambeau, those 35- to 38-yarders can be tough in weather conditions. My kick was the equivalent of a Hail Mary.'
Longwell had an excellent season, passing the legendary Don Hutson to become the franchise career scoring leader. Longwell has made at least 80 percent of his field goal attempts in six of his seasons, and his 82 percent career success rate is an NFL record.
'It was the most consistent season I have had,' Longwell says. 'I had only one kick off line. The other two (from 45 and 49 yards) came up short in rainstorms at Lambeau. I didn't miss inside 40 for the first time in my career, and I kicked off well.'
For the fourth time in his career, Longwell is an alternate for the Pro Bowl.
'They only take one kicker in each conference, so it is one of those things,' he says. 'I would absolutely love to go some year, but the kickers in the domes or warm-weather places are going to have the best chance at great numbers. If I never make it, it won't detract from my career.'
Punter 'up in the air'
Bidwell, 27, tied for 14th in the NFL in punt average (41.7) and 15th in net average (35.1) in his fourth season as Green Bay's punter. He punted five times for a 38.4-yard average Sunday in 1-degree wind chill conditions.
'This time of year, you don't get any good-weather games in Lambeau,' Bidwell says. 'It's like punting bricks. Even if you hit it well, it's not going to go very well or high.
'My season hasn't been as consistent as I would have liked. I let a couple of punts get away from me. But I put up pretty good numbers and limited my touchbacks. I have adjusted pretty well to the climate here.'
Bidwell set a franchise record for most punts (308) without a block, which he sees as both significant and ironic.
'When I was a rookie, I was almost fired because they thought I was too slow to punt,' he says. 'I didn't believe that, but that was brought out and everybody jumped on that bandwagon. I guess I have proved that not to be the case.'
Longwell is in the third year of a five-year deal worth $7.5 million, making him one of the highest-paid kickers in the game. Bidwell, making $605,000 this year, is in the final year of his deal and is looking for a contract that will include a signing bonus of at least $1 million. The Packers may not be willing to pay that, especially in light of Longwell's deal.
'Ryan's contract won't help me,' Bidwell says. 'Very few teams pay a lot of money for both a kicker and punter. To be honest, Ryan has earned every dime, and is probably underpaid. I have never seen anybody who hits a perfect ball every time like he does, no matter the weather conditions. People cringe when having to kick off the frozen tundra, and he has been 80-plus percent on it.
'I don't know if I will be back. It's up in the air. I'm going to weigh my options and see if I get a chance to punt in a more punter-friendly environment. I want to do what I can to be in the league as long as possible, and better weather (or a dome) would help. I don't know what the Packers' intentions are. They haven't been very open to discussing things yet.'
Longwell, Bidwell's best friend on the Packers, says he will be missed if he leaves.
'I hope and pray Josh will be back,' Longwell says. 'This is the first year of our renovated stadium, and we have found it to be a heck of a lot windier and gustier than the old place. There is a learning curve because of that, and Josh has had a solid year in a very difficult place to kick. I hope the team decides it is too big a risk to lose him. Field position is huge in the NFL, and it is a mistake to scrimp at that position.'
Though they ride a five-game win streak, the Packers are five-point underdogs Sunday at Philadelphia. On Nov. 10, the Eagles scored a touchdown with 27 seconds left to claim a 17-14 win over the Packers. Still, the Packers like their chances.
'It is such a different feel from last year, when we kind of limped into the playoffs,' Longwell says. 'We know we are facing a big challenge, but we have a healthy team and a good thing going in the locker room. We will go up there and throw everything we have at them.'