Thursday, October 06, 2005

Me, Brett, Bart and the boys

I saw Brett Favre talking to the press last Monday night after the hard loss to the Panthers. The man looked awful: haggard, weary, out of answers. Spent. Kind of like the Packers franchise of late.

So much has been written about Favre the Man, Favre the Hero, Favre the Warrior, Favre the Metaphor, that some people are sick of hearing about him, while others are sick of hearing about how some people are sick of hearing about him. I won't get into that, except to say that the guy is two months older than me and looks more like 10 years. Though he's still a solid quarterback -- certainly better than the Anthony Wrights and A.J. Feeleys out there -- it's obvious he's coming to the end of the line. He'll retire, drop out of sight like he says he will, then turn up five years later in Canton.

But what of the Packers franchise?

Green Bay has been a contender for so long -- 12 winning seasons and one 8-8 in 13 years -- it's easy to forget that the team was a league also-ran and/or doormat for two decades. Between 1972, at the tail end of the Titletown years, and 1993, the first full season of the Favre-Holmgren renaissance(!), the Packers made the playoffs just once: in the strike-shortened 1982 season, when the playoffs were temporarily expanded from 10 teams to a 16-team tournament to try to make up lost revenue. Their 5-3-1 record that year was one of only three winning seasons in that 1973-93 span. (The others: 8-7-1 in 1978 and 10-6 in 1989. Neither was good enough for the playoffs.)

Growing up in Minneapolis, I didn't think much about the Green Bay Packers, even though they played in the NFC Central with the Vikings. It would be natural for teams in neighboring states like Minnesota and Wisconsin to have some kind of animosity, but the Packers always had more of a rivalry with the Chicago Bears. Those two had been in the NFL decades before Minnesota even had a team. The Vikes' main rival at the time was the Los Angeles Rams, whom they ran into every year in the playoffs.

Besides, when I started tuning in to football in the mid- to late 1970s, the Packers just weren't any good.

The coach at the time was Bart Starr, the Dave Campo of his day. It's a testament to the aura of the Starr name in Wisconsin that he lasted nine seasons as the Packers' coach. After three years, his teams were 13-29. After five, 32-46-2. And yet every year, here came Bart to lead the Green and Gold to another 5-11 finish. After nearly a decade of this, the Packers finally fired Starr. Come 1984, there was a new coach: Forrest Gregg, another hero of the Lombardi era -- though one who had coached the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl. Green Bay had a little less patience for Gregg, and he was gone after four years and a 25-37-1 record. Next up: Lindy Infante. The highlight of Infante's tenure was a 10-6 record in 1989 that won him NFC coach of the year and got Wisconsin all gassed up. But those wins came by 1, 2, 8, 3, 1, 4, 1, 1, 12 and 10 points. Winning that many close games is not a good sign, and the next two years the Packers were up to their old tricks at 6-10 and 4-12. Infante was fired, Mike Holmgren was brought in, and Green Bay was on its way back.

Throughout the whole brutal run, you could always count on the Packers to play the Vikings tough at home. Especially after the Vikings had moved indoors, and especially when the games in Green Bay (or Milwaukee) were played in November and December. Though the Vikings would usually lose, I still loved watching those games. I don't know why. Something about playing Green Bay -- the old-school nature of the team and the city, the NFL's last living link to the days of the Columbus Panhandles and the Minneapolis Marines and the Rock Island Independents. Company teams in small Midwestern cities, that sort of thing. I suppose it's the reason Chris Berman does his tired, John-Facenda-frozen-tundra-of-Lambeau-Field schtick.

While the Packers were letting coaches hang around way too long, they also tried out and discarded a series of quarterbacks: the immortal Jerry Tagge, the drifter John Concannon, the finished John Hadl, the unsinkable Carlos Brown. Lynn Dickey arrived in 1976 and stayed until 1985, throwing TDs and interceptions in equal numbers and occasionally being spelled by the likes of David Whitehurst and Randy Wright. As Dickey's tenure ended (overall passer rating as Packer: 71.4) in the mid-'80s, Gregg sprinkled in a few fellows whose best years were long ago and far away from northeastern Wisconsin: Jim Zorn, Vince Ferragamo, two-time USFL champ Chuck Fusina. Before the Robbie Bosco era could start, however, the Pack had their Majikal 1989 season.

I was in my sophomore year in college in the fall of 1989 and wasn't as interested in football as I was in getting drunk, getting women and getting drunk women. But it was hard not to notice that fans were abuzz over the Packers, particularly because my alma mater had a healthy Wisconsin contingent, who would gather with a party ball of Coors Light whenever the Packers were on TV (which wasn't often in the days before Sunday Ticket; usually only if they were playing the Bears). As the year wore on, it wasn't just the cheeseheads who were going gaga over the scrappy Packers. They were media darlings.

The '89 Packers are a story in and of themselves: So much hope -- Titletown is back! -- pinned to a team that had really accomplished so very little. Quarterback Don Majkowski -- runner-up for MVP! -- and the boys finished 10-6 on the strength of their Kardiak Komebacks, but no one examined what it meant that the team was always playing from behind or just barely ahead. It meant the same thing for the 1989 Packers that it did for the 1998 Cardinals: This was a bad team masquerading as a slightly-above-average one.

After two sorry seasons, Holmgren arrived from San Francisco in 1992. Majkowski would tear his rotator cuff that season and cede his starting job to Favre (who was going to get it anyway, but the injury was convenient; see the 2001 Patriots). The next year, Reggie White signed as a free agent. As much as Favre and Holmgren, White brought the Packers back to glory. White was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that brought free agency to the NFL, and tiny, small-w-white Green Bay was the last place Reggie White could have been expected to sign. He said himself that he never imagined it. God, he said, had told him his destiny lay in San Francisco. But upon further review, White said, he came to understand that by San Francisco, God meant the core of Bill Walsh disciples that Holmgren had assembled in Wisconsin. So he signed. The first major NFL free agent contract: Reggie White to the Packers, of all damn places.

It was clear that something big was happening in Wisconsin. I'd moved into the work world and had landed at a newspaper full of Packer fans, who were whipping themselves into a frenzy. The national sports media, which had cared little about li'l bitty Green Bay since Joe Namath put on pantyhose, had rediscovered Lambeau Field. John Madden and Pat Summerall were coming 'round more and more frequently. Berman started in with the voice. And the Vikings? Suddenly they were unbeatable at Lambeau, winning 35-21 in 1991, 23-20 in 1992, 21-17 in 1993.

White's signing led to others. He lobbied black players to give Green Bay a chance, and they did: Sean Jones, Santana Dotson, Andre Rison and others. The team got better: 9-7, 9-7, and 11-5. The fan base grew. The team quit playing half its home games in Milwaukee and came home to Green Bay for good. They started beating the Vikings at home and occasionally in Minneapolis. They made the playoffs. They lost to the Cowboys. Everyone said Favre couldn't beat Dallas. Then, in 1996, Carolina beat Dallas, Green Bay beat Carolina, Green Bay beat New England and Titletown really, truly was back.

Remember who was MVP of Super Bowl XXXI? Desmond Howard. Doesn't matter, does it. The iconic image is of Favre, running across the field after the 54-yard TD to Rison, helmet raised high in the air (you used to not get punished for that). He was young, still on the ascent, not yet kicked in the teeth by life. Twenty-six years old. Not a gray hair on his head.

How time flies.

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