Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Most Compelling Super Bowl Story Line

"If you don't think you're a winner, you don't belong here."

Vince Lombardi

I've heard a lot of story lines surrounding this year's Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers.

Considering that the Packers are one of the teams competing in the game, I've been kind of surprised by the fact that no one has mentioned that last September was the 40th anniversary of the death of Vince Lombardi, the man who coached the Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls and whose name is on the trophy for which the teams will be playing.

That doesn't include a report that Packers coach Mike McCarthy wants to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay. I didn't include it because it doesn't count. Mike Holmgren used to say the same thing when he was coaching the Packers in the Super Bowl in the 1990s.

In fact, any Green Bay coach would be expected to name that as his goal. If he didn't, he ought to be run out of town.

To look at Lombardi was to see football personified in a single man.

He was truly a block of granite, a nickname he earned as a lineman at Fordham — stocky with an angular face that resembled a block, stern, unyielding, dedicated to a goal.

His name spoke of epic duels waged in the snow and the rain and the mud, of a relentless quest for perfection.

The first time he met with his players in Green Bay, Lombardi warned the Packers, in fact, that they would do precisely that, "knowing full well that we will not catch it." But, he said, "We are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we catch excellence.

"I am not the least bit interested,"
he said, "in just being good."

Unfortunately, far too often in the four decades that have passed, the Packers seem to have been willing to settle for "just being good," for not constantly striving to meet Lombardi's standards. A quarter of a century after Lombardi died, the Packers still had not returned to the Super Bowl.

The Packers have won only one Super Bowl since Lombardi's death. Their game with the Steelers will be only their third Super Bowl since he's been gone. Holmgren coached in the other two. This will be McCarthy's first.

If the Green Bay coaching staff is ever going to invoke Lombardi's memory for inspirational purposes, now is the time to do it. Given their history since Lombardi left the scene, it may be decades before they get another chance.

The Packers probably could use a Lombardiesque pep talk. They may be 2½–point favorites, but they have lost their last three games against the Steelers, and two of those losses were recent enough that many of the players on both of the current rosters probably participated in them.

That's bound to put a mental whammy on a team, no matter how well it has been playing — and everyone agrees the Packers have been playing pretty well of late. But they seemed to be hitting their stride when the playoffs began in January 2010, too.

In 2009, Green Bay won seven of its last eight regular–season games. The exception? A 37–36 setback at Pittsburgh. (Bucky Brooks at says there are things today's Packers can learn from that experience.)

Before that, they met in Green Bay in 2005. The Steelers won that one, too, 20–10.

In 1998, they played for the last time in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh won on that occasion, 27–20.

The last time the Packers beat the Steelers was on Christmas Eve 1995. The victory clinched their first divisional title in nearly a quarter of a century.

Fifteen years is a long time to wait between victories against anyone. A lot can happen in that time. The Packers played in a couple of Super Bowls, the Steelers played in three. But, when they face each other on Sunday, I believe it will be the first time in the postseason.

Certainly, it will be their first–ever meeting in the Super Bowl.

From that perspective, it's a clean slate.

And, while the Packers may be the favorites on Sunday, that didn't keep Peter King of Sports Illustrated from predicting that Pittsburgh will win.

He acknowledged both teams' proficiency on defense. I guess there's no disputing that. Pittsburgh had the second–best total defense (in terms of yards allowed per game) in the NFL; Green Bay's was the second–best in the NFC. Green Bay's pass defense was fifth in the NFL (Pittsburgh's was 12th), and, although the run game probably won't be a factor, Pittsburgh's run defense was the NFL's best (Green Bay's was 18th).

All that, says King, will go out the window on Sunday. It's a fast track, indoors, protected from the elements.

If he is right, though, logic says that should favor the Packers. Green Bay was tied for third in the NFL in total offense, ranked fifth in passing (with the NFL's seventh–rated passer and its fourth–most productive receiver) and averaged almost exactly what Pittsburgh did on the ground.

Lombardi was far more inclined to run the ball, but that was a different era. In all the relevant areas, it seems like this year's Packer squad is a worthy heir to those teams Lombardi coached in the 1960s — a potent offense combined with a punishing, smothering defense.

Now, if only the desire can match the talent ...

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