Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The hatred continues...

An escalation in the annual border battle

September 2, 2008 12:00 PM

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

The owner grits his teeth. The coach white-knuckles his microphone, choosing his words ever so carefully. Eyes blaze. Nostrils flare. Emotion betrays decorum for the briefest of moments.

No one, however, has acknowledged the newly intensified rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Not in so many words. Not yet, anyway. We're only at the beginning of a long week before the teams' season-opening game Sept. 8 on ESPN's "Monday Night Football". There is plenty of time to revisit the summer-long drama that ultimately embroiled both franchises.

It all decants to two questions: Did the Vikings toss a smoke bomb across state lines? And, in retaliation, did the Packers sling their mud into the next stall?

The true answers might never be known, but in this case perception bleeds into reality. To explain, let us begin with some history.

The Packers have won the division four times since the Vikings' last division championship in 2000. Green Bay has taken the last four games between the teams, an irregular blip in what is traditionally an even rivalry. (The last time a team won four games in a row was when the Vikings did it over the 1992 and '93 seasons).

So with particular interest, the Packers watched Minnesota launch into a free-agent spending spree within days of quarterback Brett Favre's retirement announcement. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf committed $60 million in guarantees to acquire defensive end Jared Allen, receiver Bernard Berrian and safety Madieu Williams. The thinly-veiled implication: Favre's retirement had opened the Vikings' door of opportunity.

A few months later, Favre began considering a comeback. In the course of deliberations, he spoke with Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and, reportedly, head coach Brad Childress. After those discussions -- and similar talks with Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, Detroit president Matt Millen and others -- Favre decided to resume his career.

As they dealt with Favre's late turnabout, the Packers' back stiffened. It wasn't a secret that Favre had looped the Vikings into his decision-making process. But what had the Vikings told him? In the mother of all conspiracy theories, did the Vikings intend for their advice to throw the Packers into chaos on the eve of training camp -- the proverbial smoke bomb across state lines?

Forget for a moment if the Vikings tried steering Favre their way. There was never more than a remote chance of that happening. But, the Packers wondered, did the Vikings encourage Favre to seek his release to plant internal confusion and a public distraction?

Absent a transcript of the conversations, there is no proof. But suffice it to say, some Packers officials had their suspicions. We asked coach Mike McCarthy about the prospects of Favre playing in the NFC North this summer, and here's part of what he had to say: "I'd really like to share my opinion on that, but I'm not going to do that."

Asked again, McCarthy shook his head and said: "That's why I'm holding on to this mic," glancing down at his white-knuckled grip.

I ran the scenario by a number of people with Vikings connections whom I trust. Their responses indicated this: Where there is a smoke bomb, there is fire. The Vikings might not have intentionally set out to spark trouble inside the Packers' offices, but let's just say it didn't bother them, either.

At least, not until the Packers accused the Vikings of tampering with Favre -- a serious allegation in a league that has set out to clamp down on illicit conversations between contractually-bound players and other teams. The Vikings were livid, convinced the Packers conjured up the allegations to take public attention away from the Favre drama -- and, in a worst-case scenario, compel an eager commissioner to rob them of a draft pick.

"Don't involve us in your family business." That's how one Vikings official explained the team's collective outrage.

I asked Wilf about the tampering charges prior to the Aug. 8 preseason opener at the Metrodome. Wilf looked at me ferociously. For a second, I glanced around to see if something more serious was happening elsewhere. Finally, Wilf said: "Let's just say I can't wait for the first game."

So where does that leave us? It's fair to say the front office and coaching staffs of these two teams are particularly motivated for this game, whether the affronts are real or imagined.

Players, on the other hand, probably won't reach that level of enmity even in the minutes before Monday night's game. In general, NFL players don't usually get caught up in traditional or geographic rivalries. They change teams too often and have too many friends around the league to stir up hatred for another player because of the uniform they wear.

Yes, Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams and Allen sounded off earlier this summer to Yahoo! Sports, suggesting they were coming after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Ryan Grant. But the Packers realized long ago that Williams' annual rhetorical jabs are not to be taken seriously. Allen might prove the same way. Few Green Bay players will take the bait.

For the people who care, however, the fundamentals of this rivalry shifted over the summer. It moved from competitive to contemptuous. So let the game(s) begin.

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