Now that eight months and change have passed since the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, and now that the team finally got to go to the White House and meet the President, and now that the lockout is over and the 2011 preseason is under way, it’s time to take a look back at the incredible run by the NFL champions.
The Packers didn’t just add another trophy to their display case, although that by itself is always great for the fans and the organization. Green Bay managed to come out on top in spite of an unprecedented number of injuries, a somewhat unexceptional (considering the end result) regular season, and a number of monkeys on its collective back, including one particularly bothersome primate.
The 2010 season, before the playoffs anyway, didn’t feel like one of those classic championship seasons. Sure, there were blowouts and close wins, but at no point during the 16-game schedule did I (or most fans, I bet) feel like the Packers were embarking on a legendary season. There were no major comeback wins (a couple of comebacks, but they ended in losses), no extended winning streaks, and no real “statement” games against quality opponents. The Pack seemed incapable of finishing close games (their six losses were all by no more than four points), and only capable of blowing out unmotivated squads (the woebegone Cowboys, Vikings, 49ers, and Bills, and a surprising no-show by the Giants). They had a couple of close, gritty wins – on the road against Philadelphia and the New York Jets, and at home versus the Vikings – but none of them suggested that this was a team of destiny (if you believe in that sort of thing). If anything, the Packers seemed to be underachieving, needing to win their final two games (with some outside help) to grab the last wild card spot in the NFC. They looked like they were going to be one and done in the playoffs.
However! The regular season was not without considerable accomplishment. To wit:
1. The Packers won in Philadelphia for the first time in 48 years.
2. The team finished the season with 15 players on injured reserve – a staggering number. This included their starting tight end, halfback, safety, and several linebackers.
3. Green Bay got revenge – nay, justice – on Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. In 2009, Minnesota thoroughly embarrassed the Packers, sweeping the season series decisively. That was a jagged pill for Packer fans to swallow, having their legendary quarterback march into Lambeau Field (playing for a hated rival) and “stick it” to the team that traded him after an ugly standoff in 2008. In The Big Payback, the Vikings lost a winnable game in Lambeau in 2010, then got spanked in front of the home crowd in the Metrodome by the Packers, 31-3. The Vikings tanked and missed the playoffs in one of their more embarrassing seasons. For Cheesehead Nation, it was nothing short of cathartic.
4. The Packers annihilated the Dallas Cowboys, 45-7, which is always great.
But it was the playoffs where the championship march began in earnest (which makes sense, I guess, but you get my point), and the team still had a few ghosts to exorcise along the way. Mind you, even the way they clinched the playoff berth felt unpromising – a 10-3 home win over a Chicago Bears team that claimed to be trying but, having already locked up its own playoff seeding, was probably mailing it in, at least subconsciously. Even so, the game was a struggle to win, and it was unclear whether the Packers were truly up to the task of winning on the road in the Wild Card round, let alone four in a row.
And then it started. A 21-16 upset of the Eagles in Philly, which slayed a few recent demons for Packer fans:
1. The “Fourth and 26” playoff choke job in the 2003 playoffs;
2. The home playoff loss to Michael Vick and the Falcons after the 2002 season. Vick was now the quarterback of the Eagles, but back before his time in the clink, he stunned Titletown by defeating the Packers on their turf for the first time in postseason history.
3. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers led his team to a playoff victory for the first time. Not as big of a deal as the media made it out to be, since it was only his third year as a starter. But it was a step in the right direction, and washed away the bad taste of that 51-45 Tecmo loss to Arizona the year before.
The following week, Green Bay delivered its most emphatic victory, 48-21 over Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, significant because:
1. The Falcons were the team to beat in the NFC and beat the Packers earlier in the year. That game, in Atlanta, was a heartbreaker; Rodgers led his team on an epic 90-yard drive in the final two minutes, and threw a clutch, scrambling, game-tying touchdown pass on fourth down. It was all for naught, as a huge face-mask penalty resulted in a game-winning 47-yard field goal for Atlanta.
2. The verdict was supposedly already in that Falcons QB Matt Ryan was the next Joe Montana, and a step ahead of Rodgers. Ryan is a talented quarterback, of course, and he’d beaten Rodgers’ Packers twice already. But the “Matty Ice” talk was officially put to rest in 2010 when cornerback Tramon Williams stepped in front of a simple out route and took it to the house at the end of the first half.
3. You can count this toward the Falcons/Vick home upset in 2002 as well. There’s no real Falcons-Packers rivalry to speak of, but perhaps one is just getting started.
Next, in the NFC Championship game, the Packers played some sloppy football but got by their arch rivals, the Chicago Bears. This helped Packer fans forget that:
1. Green Bay choked away the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau in 2007;
2. The Packers beat themselves with 18 penalties in a September 27 loss in Soldier Field;
3. The 10-3 season finale felt like a gift from the Bears;
4. Beating their number one rival in front of their home fans, in the bitter cold, in a game with the Super Bowl on the line, is almost as good as it gets. Almost…
The Super Bowl
Winning the Super Bowl speaks for itself. Beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL gold standard the past six or seven years, made it extra special. Finishing on top after all the injuries, close losses, the last minute playoff berth, and the road wins made the whole season epic.
But probably the most significant aspect of the Super Bowl win was that it vindicated the Packers’ decision in 2008 to move on from the Brett Favre era and hand the reigns to Aaron Rodgers. This could not have been an easy decision. Favre showed in the ensuing seasons that he had plenty left in the tank, and Packer fans were not only split by their opinions, many of them actually chose Favre (and, ultimately, the Vikings!) over the Packers. (I can only presume that these pathetic groupies have come crawling back quietly into the Cheesehead fold, their purple and gold #4 jerseys in Goodwill drop off boxes across the Badger State, or on the backs of African orphans half a world away.) At the time, although I supported the team and its decision, a part of me thought that perhaps general manager Ted Thompson, team president Mark Murphy, and head coach Mike McCarthy had all gone a little crazy. Favre, then 38, was a known commodity who had just had an outstanding season. Rodgers was an unknown – at least to the fans. Only the team’s steadfast dedication to Rodgers gave fans any sense of security. Although the Packers struggled to get over the hump in 2008 and 2009, and Favre played brilliantly in the latter season, it was Favre’s last-minute interception in the NFC Championship Game against the Saints that reminded Green Bay fans why (at least in part) he was traded. That season-killer was a classic Favre play, an unnecessary turnover when the Vikings only needed a few yards to attempt a winning field goal. And although Packer Country was humiliated by the 2009 series sweep by Minnesota, it could take some satisfaction knowing that old #4 had done in his team once again, and simultaneously spared us the further ignominy of seeing the Vikings win a Super Bowl with our erstwhile Hall of Fame quarterback.
(Someday, soon I’m sure, someone will write a book about the whole Favre/Rodgers/Super Bowl saga, similar to Michael Leahy’s superb “When Nothing Else Matters,” about Michael Jordan’s stubborn comeback with the Washington Wizards. I have a feeling that as popular as Favre was, there must have been some contempt from younger players for the special treatment afforded him in his last seven or eight seasons.)
Of course, these are story lines that played out over three seasons, not one. The Packers’ 2010 campaign did not have the David vs. Goliath feel of the ’07 Giants, who slew the mighty Patriots. Nor did it have the date-with-destiny vibe that the ’09 Saints carried with them to the title. The closest recent comparison is probably the ’05 Steelers, also a six seed that went on an impressive playoff roll on the road. But even that is a flimsy parallel; really, the story of the 2010 Packers is the culmination of a series of developments and events that began in March of 2008, when Brett Favre announced his retirement. Or perhaps it was set off by Favre’s game-killing pick in the NFC title game against the Giants, two months earlier. Or, maybe we can go back to the 2005 draft, when Green Bay scooped up Rodgers late in the first round after 23 other teams passed on him. Whatever the starting point, it was a dramatic journey, and the Packers – for the 13th time in their history – came out on top.