By Ted Verges
What, you might ask, is a “railbird”? As the good people of Green Bay would tell you, a railbird is someone who watches the Packers practice football. I have been a “railbird” for a couple of decades. I will be watching the Packers practice again this August and will be posting my observations on Packer Addicts. I hope you enjoy them.
Since it is a slow news time for Packer information, I thought I would share with you some of my railbird memories of Packer practices from years past. This will give you an example of what you might expect should you choose to see what the “railbird” has to say from this year’s practices.
Let’s start with Donald Driver. As we all know Driver just retired after a long and productive career. Let me take you back to Driver’s rookie season. He was a low, perhaps 7th round, draft choice. I vividly remember some railbird conversations where various guys didn’t think Driver had a chance to make the team. The reason was he dropped an awful lot of passes. Some railbirds, me included, thought Driver had a chance to make the team, despite his drops, because A) he was getting open and B) the quarterbacks were throwing him the ball. Another Driver memory has to do with his willingness to help out other players. Remember a defensive back by the name of Chris Johnson? He came to the Packers advertised as the “fastest player in the draft.” Johnson was as advertised, but he was having lots of difficulties covering receivers in camp. He could run with them but had problems covering as the ball was coming down to the receiver. One day Driver stayed after practice, in the terribly hot temperatures, to work with Johnson. Driver was teaching the kid to watch the receivers face and when the receiver looked back for the ball that’s when Johnson should look for the ball. Driver was also teaching him to try to split the receivers hands. It was really hot and a long practice was over, but there was Driver out there helping out a young defensive back.
I wonder if many of you remember a halfback by the name of Tony Fischer. Fischer hung around the Packers and the league for a number of years even though he was, at best, a very ordinary running back. Fischer, however, had one excellent skill that was desired by many teams. He was an outstanding pass blocker and, therefore, was a good third down back. I remember Fischer stoning inside and outside linebackers on the blitz drill time after time. I have no doubt that somewhere in the training films of the Packers is a pass blocking film that stars Tony Fischer.
I was a high school football coach who specialized in offensive line play. When I went to Packer practices as a railbird I usually headed for the area where Coach Larry Bechtel was working his offensive line. Bechtel started his practice 15 minutes before the rest of the team in an area on the south side of the practice field. The action was close enough to the fence, so I could hear what was going on. And, boy, did I get an earful! While Bechtel was an excellent coach, he could be very profane! He usually worked his crew on a step drill where the line had to take just the first couple steps on the play he called. Heaven help the player who took some incorrect steps! Another thing I remember from those days was how helpful Mike Wahle was to the rookies. Mike was always helping the rookie linemen.
Speaking of offensive linemen, for a number of years they had an unofficial tradition among themselves. Starting with Frankie Winters, he always sprinted hard to be the first lineman to the next spot when they changed drills. Mike Flanagan continued the tradition when he took over the center position, but the tradition of having the center lead the line to the next spot ended with Flanagan. Another interesting offensive lineman was Mark Tauscher. Tauscher had a violent pass blocking technique on the one-on-one drill. He would get real low and real wide as he dropped back from his stance and then rise up with his head and hands and deliver a punch to the chest and a helmet to the chin. It was a forceful blow. Tauscher seldom lost those one-on-ones (they do keep track) and the defensive linemen looked like they’d rather not go against Tauscher.
Over the years, once in a while I’d get lucky and make a correct prediction based on my railbird observations. One such prediction involved Justin Harrell. Even though he was a first round pick, it became obvious to me that he wasn’t going to make it and it wasn’t because of injuries. Harrell didn’t want it. I don’t think he really wanted to be there because he was a complete loner. He very seldom socialized with the guys. Before practice a bunch of the guys would usually gather together on the practice field and laugh and joke around. Harrell was never in that group. He would be off by himself, not talking to anyone. He would stay off the practice field, sit in the shade, and not even go out and watch the defensive line drills. I very early predicted he would never make it. Another successful prediction involved a punter by the name of B.J. Sanders. While the rest of the team would be involved in things, the punters had to go off on their own and play catch by punting the ball back and fort from sideline to sideline. The distance from sideline to sideline is 53 and 1/3 yards. Sanders couldn’t kick the ball from one sideline to the other, often to the disgust of the other punter. How that man got drafted is still a mystery to me! Finally, another successful prediction involved Aaron Kampman. Remember when the Packers were going to the 3-4 defense and they were going to make an OLB out of Kampman? I remember the day that the Packers decided that experiment wasn’t going to work. They set up a drill for OLB’s to drop back into the flat and then come up on a halfback who was running a swing pass. The OLB was to make a two handed touch on the halfback. Kampman just couldn’t do it. The halfbacks were juking him out every time. He was a great defensive end and a credit to the team, but he couldn’t pass cover as on outside linebacker.
Sometimes the Packers have to find out if their rookies can handle the physical part of football. One such time involved the rookie Nick Barnett. Barnett was a little bit undersized for an inside linebacker. The Packers set up a drill to check Barnett out. It was a drill where the inside linebacker had to scrape off the tackle hole and take on the fullback on a lead play. About the third repetition it just so happened that it was Barnett’s turn to go, and he would be taking on William Henderson, our starting fullback and a physical blocker. Well, Barnett totally stoned Henderson in a collision that was heard all over the place. The Packers were satisfied that the kid could play! Last year the same sort of thing happened with Nick Perry who got matched up in a blocking drill against Jermichael Finley. The drill involved a tight end and an outside linebacker who was lined up with an outside shade on the tight end. The tight end was to either hook the linebacker or drive him to the outside. To his credit Finley gave good effort against Perry, but the drill ended in a standoff. I think the Packers felt better about both players.
This article could go on for many more stories, but I want to conclude with a positive observation about someone who, I think, is a really good coach . . . Kevin Greene. One day Greene came over to the bleachers near where I was sitting. He asked the people if they would save some room for his wife and children. Some folks seated near the railing said they would. When Greene’s wife and family walked in the people called them over to the saved seats. Greene saw this happen and came over to the crowd. He lifted a young boy from the family onto the field. He gave the child a ball and told the boy to follow him. Greene ran interference for the boy into the end zone and then showed him how to spike a ball. Greene then carried the boy back to his family and posed for pictures with them. Pretty nice, huh? One thing I’ve noticed and really like about Greene is that he uses a positive style of coaching where he puts his emphasis on the things guys do right rather than what they do wrong. I’ve often said that if you can’t play for Kevin Greene, you can’t play.
Packer practice starts next week. I’ll be there for some of them and will share my observations with you. I hope you join me and will enjoy my stories. And, let’s hope that it’s all good news and the Packers go on to have a great season.