Think back, for a moment, to where the Packers were a year ago today.
They had given up 51 points to the Arizona Cardinals two weeks earlier, absorbing yet another numbing playoff loss, and were swimming in questions about how they’d possibly be able to put together a good enough defense to get them deep into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings were mere hours away from playing in the NFC Championship Game, 60 minutes from riding Brett Favre, the Packers’ former quarterback, into the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years.
Now, imagine on that night, you get a Dickensian visitor, a ghost of playoffs future, who tells you the following things:
–The Vikings will not go to the Super Bowl, in large part because of a back-breaking interception from Favre in the game’s final seconds.
–The Packers will enter the season with lofty (and well-publicized) Super Bowl aspirations. They will sign no one of note, and they will be affected in 2010, in quantity and quality, by more injuries than any team in the NFL.
–In spite of all those injuries, and in spite of an 8-6 record heading into two must-win games to close the season, they will claim the NFC’s final playoff spot, beat a team (the Philadelphia Eagles) and a quarterback (Michael Vick) that has terrorized them for years and topple the NFC’s No. 1 seed on the road.
–And finally, they will meet the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game, knocking Jay Cutler out of the game and hanging on for their first Super Bowl berth in 13 years, almost solely on the strength of the defense that had been so porous a year earlier.
How many lines from that ghost would you have believed? Any of them?
What a ride this has been.
To use the phrase “roller coaster” to describe what’s happened to the Packers in the last 12 months is an insult to what they’ve overcome. If this was a roller coaster, it would have featured such violent turns and sharp swings that safety concerns and lawsuits would have followed mere weeks after its opening. Many fans (including me) were ready to bury them after a 7-3 loss to the Detroit Lions. Some of us (including me) were questioning coach Mike McCarthy’s future with the team after a last-minute meltdown against the New England Patriots. And a few of us (Chris and me) were questioning whether to go to the Dec. 26 game against the Giants, knowing there wasn’t much shot of a deep playoff run this year.
And now, here we are, celebrating the team’s fifth Super Bowl berth. I can’t believe any of it.
I’ve watched the Packers go to two Super Bowls in my lifetime. The first Packers team that did it (the 1996 squad) was such a dominant force, so certain of its place in line after a loss in the NFC Championship Game the year before, that a march to a world championship felt inevitable. Go back and look at the scores of those games. It’s easy to forget just what a juggernaut that team was. Those of us in our younger years may never see a Packers team that good again.
The next Packers team to go to the Super Bowl, the 1997 squad, survived against bad teams for the first two months of the season before going on a businesslike, if not predestined, run to Super Bowl XXXII. That team was on top, and trying to stay there. The whole thing felt joyless, and the loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl certainly finished the year that way.
What a lightning bolt, then, this team has been. These Packers entered the season with as large of a collection of impact players as any team in the NFL. But they were young, and thin in spots, very much a product of their time in a parity-ridden NFL. And the names went down, one after another — Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, Jermichael Finley, Brandon Chillar, Mike Neal, Mark Tauscher — as the Packers’ resolve and depth were stretched further and further.
There was no preordained march to the Super Bowl this year. No, this was an inconsistent, frustrating, maddening season that somehow led to the most exhilarating playoff run any of us have ever seen.
We have never watched a Packers team like this one.
So what’s to be made of it? Well, credit must be given, first of all, where it’s due. And after I spent the final weeks of the season saying McCarthy needed to coach over his head, to prove he could take a team deeper into the playoffs than his talent suggested he should, he’s outdone himself and taken his sixth-seeded Packers all the way to the Super Bowl, where many thought they’d end up in August, but not in November. So, to Mike Mac: Well done. My hat is off to you. And whatever nits I might pick (playcalling chief among them), I’m done doubting you.
Next on the list is Ted Thompson, whose batting average this season is as close to 1.000 as any general manager I’ve seen. People were ready to vilify Thompson for trading Favre and refusing to accede to his demands. But Thompson bugged me long before that — namely, since 2007, when he’d drafted Justin Harrell, then come short of delivering Favre the weapons he needed to win in the last years of his career. He was playing for the future, I thought, when he had everything in front of him in the present. But in reality, he was about two or three years in front of everyone else. Could the Packers have gone to the Super Bowl after 2007? Yes. Should they have? Yes. But time proved what Thompson probably already knew: The Packers weren’t going to win a title with Favre. So Thompson went ahead, building the team he thought he needed to win, and took the ‘07 run as a bonus. He bugged us because he didn’t do what made sense for the Packers in the short-term, and he didn’t shed much light on his plans for the team. But you don’t want a GM who feeds the rumor mill. You want a steady hand who’s going to build a championship team. And Thompson has done it. As McCarthy said a few minutes ago in his press conference, Thompson is why the future looks so great for the Packers.
And lastly — though I’m cutting this short for brevity’s sake and because there’s plenty of time to analyze the rest of the season before Feb. 6 — we come to Aaron Rodgers. The Packers cast their lot with Rodgers in 2008, effectively splitting the fanbase in one of the most controversial decisions in team history. And under a blinding media spotlight that has often treated Rodgers harshly simply because of who he replaced, he has made few missteps. He is more athletic than Favre, makes far fewer suspect decisions (Brian Urlacher’s interception yesterday notwithstanding), and throws a cleaner deep ball. He’s replaced a Hall of Fame quarterback and gotten his team back to the Super Bowl quicker than any Hall of Fame successor in history, even sooner than Steve Young did it in San Francisco. He’s one game from putting himself on the short list of the best QBs in the game, if he’s not there already, and from permanently separating his legacy from Favre’s.
These three were always going to fly or fail together. They cast their fortunes together in 2008, and weathered heaps of scrutiny in 2009. And now they end the 2010 season in the Super Bowl.
What a ride it’s been. We’ve never seen anything like it. And we might not again.
So, in conclusion, Packers Nation, I’m going to make a proposition: Don’t rush past this moment. Resist the Twitter-fueled temptation to start breaking down the Super Bowl matchup. Hold off on worrying about how the Packers will stop James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, or what they’ll do to slow down Ben Roethlisberger.
Take a few days to enjoy this, to look back on how far this team has come. Because it’s damn remarkable.
In fact, it’s one of the great moments we’ll experience as Packers fans. Ever.