Sunday, January 16, 2011

The 12th Man

Some 24 hours ago, I wrote that the best NFL playoff games this weekend would be played yesterday.

I still feel that was true, and that won't change, even if today's games turn out to be classic cliffhangers.

That Pittsburgh–Baltimore game was a real cliffhanger, wasn't it? And, while the Green Bay–Atlanta game didn't turn out to be close, I think it was a real milestone in the relationship between Green Bay Packer fans and Aaron Rodgers.

When his career is over, I believe football historians will look back on the events of Jan. 15, 2011, and say that was when he really began to assume the role of elite NFL quarterback.

As I have mentioned here frequently, I have been a Green Bay Packers fan since I was a child collecting football cards, and Vince Lombardi was coaching the team.

In hindsight, I suppose I wasn't so different from those who came of age as football fans some five years later, when Miami was the king of the hill. Or a few years later, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were dominating. Or the following decade, when the dynasty was in San Francisco.

And I guess that many of today's young NFL fans have been conditioned to think of the New England Patriots as the modern dynasty — even though it has been a few years since they won it all.

There have been lots of popular teams over the years. Usually, they have been led by the greatest quarterbacks of their era.

And frequently — not always but often — those quarterbacks have worn number 12.

As I watched Rodgers pick apart Atlanta last night, I couldn't help thinking of the great players I remember watching who wore that number.

Sure, number 4 was unique, like Brett Favre, but 12 has always signified a certain steadfastness to me. Roger Staubach wore that number. So did Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw and Bob Griese and Jim Kelly. The Patriots' fans know Tom Brady wears number 12.

That number almost seems magical to a football fan. Twelve, of course, is only one more than the number of players on each side in a football game. Consequently, there is a tendency to speak of one's home fans as the "12th man" in recognition of their efforts to boost their team's morale.

It's a tradition that goes back nearly 90 years, and it originated at Texas A&M. Various NFL teams have used it over the years, but most don't use it anymore. They were discouraged primarily because A&M owns the trademark on the phrase, and they were concerned about litigation.

Ironically, two teams who will meet today — the Chicago Bears and the Seattle Seahawks — were among those who used it in the past and still use it — or a variation — today.

The Seahawks continue to use it. They settled out of court with A&M, and, if next week's NFC championship game is played in Seattle, you will undoubtedly hear references to Seattle's "12th man."

The Bears, on the other hand, stopped referring to their fans as the "12th man." They call their fans the "Fourth Phase." The logic is that the first three phases of football are offense, defense and special teams.

It's kinda the same thing. Anyway, if you hear "Fourth Phase" mentioned this afternoon, that's the background — in a nutshell.

There was a time, I have been told, when the Packers, like several other NFL franchises, used the "12th Man" reference. It was kind of the hot football–related phrase for awhile, sort of like "friendly confines" in baseball.

And I guess that was OK by Packer fans. Since the Lombardi days, it always seemed to Packer fans that number 12 was worn either by backups or starters who never seemed to live up to their hype. Bart Starr wore number 15, then a couple of decades went by before Favre arrived.

They are the only two quarterbacks to lead the Packers to the brink of a Super Bowl. There have been other quarterbacks who came to Green Bay and much was expected from them — guys like Lynn Dickey and Don Majkowski come to mind, but there were others. They all fell short. I guess there was a considerable gap between the potential and the reality.

But that will change next Sunday. There is no such gap with Rodgers.

The Packers will be led this time by an honest–to–god "12th Man" — and he seems to be at the top of his game.

It ought to be fun.

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