Friday, January 27, 2012

Return to Titletown

I remember, as a child, watching the Green Bay Packers play on TV.

Vince Lombardi was their coach, and I was becoming interested in football cards. My cards of Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Willie Wood, Donny Anderson and all the others were my prized possessions.

I believed the Packers were the best in football — and they were. But I believed it would always be that way — and it wasn't.

Frankly, it seemed like kind of a dirty trick to me, hooking me as a Packers fan at an early age and then reducing the Packers to NFL bottom feeders for many years.

I can't tell you how often I longed on Super Sunday — as I watched the Dolphins or Steelers or Cowboys or 49ers win it all time after time — for the Packers to just get to a Super Bowl.

I always told myself I wouldn't mind if they lost the game. I just wanted them to play in the Super Bowl, the game everyone watched.

Of course, that wasn't true. The longer I waited, the more I wanted to see the Packers win. Just getting there wouldn't be enough. Eventually, I had to acknowledge that.

But, for a long time, the possibility of the Packers being in the Super Bowl was extremely remote. The Packers usually failed even to make the playoffs. In fact, they typically did so spectacularly. They were frequently among the first to be mathematically eliminated from the playoff discussion.

A Packers Super Bowl appearance was strictly hypothetical for Green Bay fans.

That changed 20 years ago. With a few exceptions, the Packers have become fixtures in the NFL playoffs, and they have actually been to three Super Bowls in those two decades, winning two and losing the NFC Championship game on two other occasions.

It changed when Brett Favre took over as the Packers' quarterback. Not right away. Favre led Green Bay to the playoffs almost from the start, but the Packers in those days reminded me of the Tin Woodman in "The Wizard of Oz" — a little creaky at first but gradually picking up speed as the oil spread to its extremities.

The Packers of the early '90s returned to the playoffs as a wild–card team in 1993 and 1994, then won their division in 1995 and made it to the NFC title game, where they lost to Dallas.

It was 15 years ago that the Packers finally returned to the Super Bowl for the first time since Lombardi's day. Their opponent in the New Orleans Superdome was the New England Patriots.

That might seem rather unremarkable to modern football fans, who have seen both teams in multiple Super Bowls in recent years, but it certainly made Super Bowl XXXI intriguing. At the time, the Patriots had only been to one other Super Bowl more than a decade earlier and had lost in rather spectacular fashion to the Chicago Bears. And the Packers, of course, hadn't been to the Super Bowl in three decades. On the basis of that, I wasn't sure that either team had an advantage.

The Packers, however, had made an impression on the guys who determine the point spreads in athletic contests, presumably based on Green Bay's recent upward trajectory in the playoffs. New England, on the other hand, was considered something of a flash in the pan, having rarely been seen in the postseason since losing the Super Bowl to Chicago.

Anyway, the Packers went into the game favored by 14 points. As a lifelong Packers fan, I felt a certain amount of gratification, naturally, but I also felt a bit anxious as Super Sunday approached. Everyone was treating the outcome as a foregone conclusion, and the last thing I wanted the Packers to do was to treat the game as if victory was assured.

Initially, it seemed my fears were justified. At the end of the first quarter, New England led, 14–10, but the Packers scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter and went to the locker room with a 27–14 halftime lead.

In hindsight, I needn't have worried. As it turned out, the Packers won by precisely 14 points, thanks to a jaw–dropping 99–yard third–quarter kickoff return for a touchdown by Desmond Howard, who became the first special teams player to win the Super Bowl MVP.

Howard's return certainly deserved recognition, but I always felt that Green Bay's victory on that day was more of a team effort, with many people making significant contributions.

Howard's return did, in fact, stop New England's momentum dead in its tracks. The Patriots had just scored a touchdown that brought them within six points of the Packers, and Howard's return took all the wind from their sails.

But defensive lineman Reggie White did his part as well, setting a Super Bowl record for sacks. I can vividly remember seeing White pick up Patriot offensive linemen and toss them aside as if they were rag dolls.

And Favre, who is considered by nearly everyone to be a lock for the Hall of Fame, threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. He was the first Super Bowl–winning quarterback to account for three touchdowns or more and not be named MVP.

That didn't seem to bother Favre at the time. "We etched our place in history today," he said after the game, putting the team's accomplishment over everything else.

Favre, like most observers, probably figured he would have other opportunities to be named the Super Bowl's MVP. But he didn't.

He did play in another Super Bowl — the following year — and lost it. Only once has the Super Bowl MVP come from the losing team — and it wasn't Favre.

When Favre is inducted into the Hall of Fame, there will be many achievements to be listed beneath his name — but Super Bowl MVP will not be among them. And, in some ways, that seems unfair. All the other Green Bay quarterbacks who took the Packers to the Super Bowl were named Super Bowl MVP — including Aaron Rodgers, Favre's successor.

But Favre has a special distinction that may not always get the attention it deserves. He revived a proud but moribund franchise — as did Bart Starr in the 1960s — and is responsible for the virtually dynastic status the Packers enjoy today.

It sure is a different world from the one in which I grew up.

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