Guest Insider: The San Francisco perspective

Jan. 9, 2013

In today’s blog, we talk with two award-winning Bay Area reporters – one current, one former – who cover or have covered the NFL.

John Branch is a Bay Area-based sports reporter for the New York Times. He joined the Times in 2005 and covered the New York Giants for three seasons, including during their 2007 Super Bowl season. He’s covering the San Francisco 49ers this week in their run-up to Saturday’s game.

David White is pastor of Porterville (Calif.) Church of God. Before answering his higher calling, he was a sports reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, covering the 49ers in 2010 and the Oakland Raiders during the four previous seasons.

Here’s what we talked about:

Q: How do 49ers fans view Packers fans?

John Branch: They think of Packers fans as like the old-time, real blue-collar NFL fans. The cold weather, the small market, a lot of history. 49ers fans would love to think of themselves that way, but they’re not like that. They cringe when people call them wine-and-cheese fans. I think there’s a lot of respect and tiny bit of awe.

Q: You both covered the New York Giants when they stunned the Packers at Lambeau Field in the 2007 NFC Championship game. What did you take from that, and other games you’ve covered involving the Packers, about Packer Nation?

David White: It amazed me the cold people put up with to watch their team. I remember that NFC Championship game, it was minus-26 when we got off the plane in Appleton. I thought, ‘Why does God hate Wisconsin?’ It was snowing, too. I loved it. You couldn’t get a hotel room, the whole state travels up to Green Bay to watch the game. And the tailgating. It looks like God dropped a stadium from the sky in the middle of a neighborhood. If it rains here (in San Francisco), it hurts attendance. I was amazed at the weather they would brave. Phenomenal. Them and Chiefs fans are the two best I’ve seen.

JB: There are very few NFL cities where the team is the focus of the entire city. In New York, maybe 30 percent are Giants fans, 30 percent are Jets fans and 30 percent don’t care. In Green Bay, a vast majority care. Denver is close, but not near Green Bay. I think that’s tremendous. It’s as much of a college atmosphere as you could get. It’s more personal, it feels more authentic than a lot of places where the team might be the flavor of the month if they’re successful.

Q: What’s the mood in the Bay Area? Do fans see this game as just one on the road to completing what the 49ers didn’t finish last season? Or, does the playoff history between these two teams have folks worried?

JB: I have not heard a lot about the history between the teams. The story here is Aaron Rodgers. True or not, the story is his animosity toward the team. It’s his first time playing at Candlestick. It’s more of a personal thing. The Bay Area is pretty ethnocentric, they only worry about things that matter to them. Aaron Rodgers is the one. I think people are nervous. Last year’s run felt like a surprise. There was a lot of regret that they lost to the Giants at home in the NFC Championship Game. This does not feel like a surprise. There’s angst and pressure going into these playoffs. The expectation is higher because of what they did last season.

Q: Did Jim Harbaugh make the right move by replacing Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick at midseason or too risky in the midst of a potentially special season?

JB: That debate is not finished. At the time, it was a raging debate. There are still people out there who feel it was the wrong move. It’s simmered down because he has played well down the stretch. Now, if he comes up short, it will be compared to last year. Harbaugh may have risked that. I think this is really a turning point in how people feel about Harbaugh. He’s never really had pressure. Now he has pressure. He has to reach or exceed what he did last year, and also there’s the pressure because he made the change. So far, it’s seemed to work out. But the true test is this weekend or next weekend.

DW: I think he risked too much. He made a change when he didn’t have to. Long-term, yes, but how many times do you get this chance? I didn’t like the move. It was working, (Alex Smith) was playing lights out. You don’t risk a Super Bowl season for the guy who will be the long-term guy. This guy couldn’t beat the Rams. They could be the No. 1 seed. This could’ve waited until next season. Alex Smith got them to overtime in NFC Championship Game. They’re not scoring more this year. It changed the offense’s identity. Sometimes, I think coaches think they’re really smart and this was to show how smart he is. Mike Singletary, they said he was crazy for making all the quarterback changes. He was losing, so they fire him. When Harbaugh does it, he’s a mad genius. When you’re winning, you get away with it.

Q: What do you think is the main factor or matchup that will determine the outcome Saturday?

JB: Colin Kaepernick. The game turns on his poise. Whether he has a turnover or not. Whether he makes that one or two brilliant plays that made Harbaugh make the change. I think Harbaugh saw Alex Smith as a governor on their aspirations.

DW: Justin Smith. Can he use his arm and shoulder at all? He’s a tough guy, but he doesn’t have the same mobility. Aldon Smith is extremely talented, but his success has a lot to do with Justin Smith holding up guys. If he can’t, it becomes a shootout. Then I like Aaron Rodgers over Colin Kaepernick. Frank Gore can’t run out of this pistol offense.

Q: What’s your prediction?

JB: I sort of like the Packers. If I had to predict, I’d say 24-20. For all the Pro Bowlers the 49ers have – and that’s a false measurement – the quarterback, the kicker, they’re a little banged up, the Packers are healthier. Those are pretty big factors.

DW: Packers by 8.

Q: David, if the game comes down to a Hail Mary pass, does The Big Guy owe the Packers one?

DW: Probably not. But God owes Green Bay for the bad weather.

About this blog

Get Green Bay Packers updates as they happen from our reporting team: (from left) Mike Vandermause, Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty.

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Football fans

If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports