How Sweet It Is

February 7, 2011

Wow.

What else can I write after a game like that? Fourteen years of frustration and, for one night anyway, it was all worth it.

Everyone has heard that the journey is more important than the destination. It’s a cliché, but it’s right. I will not be on cloud nine for anywhere near as long as the fourteen years it took to get there. But for now it feels pretty damn good. I just wish I had the eloquence and writing talent to write something more profound.

I thought about chronicling the pain of being a Packers fan the last fourteen years. There was the Super Bowl XXXII loss that didn’t feel painful at the time because we all assumed that Brett Favre would lead us back there soon; The Catch Part II after the referees blew a call on a Jerry Rice fumble; the short-lived Ray Rhodes era; 4th and 26; a loss to the Vikings in the 2004 playoffs; three Favre retirements; blowing the NFC Championship Game at home in 2008; three more years of Favre and Aaron Rodgers comparisons; and the Vikings and Favre coming thisclose to causing the entire state of Wisconsin to implode in 2010.

Then I decided that wouldn’t be fair. Only nine other teams have won the Super Bowl since Green Bay won in 1997. That means fans of 22 other teams don’t really care to hear about my thoughts on the Packers’ pain (not that anyone really wants to read my thoughts in the first place). To top that off, I live in Minneapolis now, where the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl and have more Super Bowls losses (four) than twenty other teams have appearances. And for most Viking fans, none of those Super Bowl losses would even crack their list of the top ten most painful moments in their history.

So yeah, I would be a little out of touch with my readers if I complained about the Packers’ stumbles. Instead I’m going to write about Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre for the first and only time. Unoriginal, I know, but at least this one is a personal story and not one of those canned columns that AP and ESPN writers crank out each week. This is a story about how Aaron Rodgers made it fun to be a Packer fan in Minneapolis again.

******************

I’m not the type of guy that loves or hates people I’ve never met. I did not really get the whole fascination with the Bill O’Reilly/Barack Obama interview before the game. If I don’t understand how a person can hate another person that he or she has never met, then I certainly don’t care to watch two people that barely know each other argue over who hates who.

For the same reason, I had trouble understanding the people that supported Favre when the Packers cut him loose after he waffled on retirement for three straight years (causing the Packers to waste two early round draft picks on quarterbacks). I liked watching him play as much as the next Packer fan, but the whole cult of personality thing? That’s Mao and Kim-Jong Il territory, not one-time Super Bowl winning quarterback that I’ll never meet territory.

Now obviously that’s adult me talking. Young me would vehemently disagree. I became a Packer fan after the 1992 season, Favre’s first with the Packers.* I stuck with them for the next three years even though they were knocked out of the playoffs by the Cowboys each year. This was brutal because the Cowboys were the bandwagon team of the decade, so there was no shortage of kids at school to rub each loss in. I’m nothing if not stubborn, so that just made me love the Packers and Favre that much more. I worshiped Favre, the only public figure before or since that I can say that about. By the 1996 Super Bowl season, nine out of every ten of the outfits I wore to school had some sort of Packer emblem on it (yeah, I was that kid).

* True story: I was a big sports and numbers guy. I literally stared at the statistics in our newspaper’s sports section for an hour a day. In 1992, I didn’t have any allegiance towards any NFL team, but I followed the standings religiously. The Packers finished 9-7 and lost out to the Washington Redskins on a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot. The Pack hadn’t been to the playoffs in eleven years, so I felt bad for them and starting rooting for them the next season. Eighteen years later, here we are. Oh, how an eight year-old’s mind works.

Time went on. I was still a huge Favre and Packer fan, but things change as you get older. I stopped wearing Packer clothes every day. I still loved Favre. Loved that the media dubbed him America’s quarterback. Loved every time he broke a new record. Loved that I happened to be in attendance when he threw his record-setting 421st touchdown pass. But I didn’t idolize him like I did when I was younger, partly because I was older and partly because, after the 2001 playoffs, I knew that the Packers would never win another Super Bowl with Favre at the helm.

For that reason, I was on board with GM Ted Thompson when he refused to let Brett Favre come back after his third flirtation with retirement in three years. I was apathetic when he went to the Jets. I wished him well, but I didn’t know the guy, so I didn’t really care. The Packers and Jets weren’t scheduled to play that season, so it was fine by me if he wanted to go play in New York.

Then came Favre’s move to the Minnesota Vikings. I grew up in Nebraska where there was not many Viking fans, for whatever reason. Our rival was the Bears. Obviously, that changed when I moved to Minneapolis in 2007. The Packers are the Vikings’ natural rival, but it goes beyond that. After years of failure, the Vikings have a serious inferiority complex going on. I’m used to it now, but I found it a bit bizarre at first. In Omaha, I only cared if the Packers won each week. In Minneapolis, Vikings fans still call it a good week if they lose, so long as the Packers don’t win. I can’t really pass judgment on this cynical attitude because being a Viking fan is borderline masochistic. The bottom line is that the Vikings have such low expectations of their own team that they take joy when the Packers fail.

So you can understand how much it sucked being a Packers fan in Minneapolis in 2009. 12 year-old Seth would have spontaneously combusted if future Seth could travel back to 1996 and tell him: “Hey, you know that whole Favre and Packer love you have? Well Favre doesn’t care about any of that. Thirteen years from now he’s going to join the Vikings in a blatant attempt to stick it to the Packers. Oh by the way, you’re going to live in Minneapolis so you will get to hear this EVERY SINGLE DAY.”

Now all of a sudden I turned into an unpleasant fan. I rooted for the Packers to make it to the Super Bowl, just like every year, but I couldn’t handle this Favre/Vikings love affair. When it turned out that the Vikings were actually pretty good, my biggest fear was that they’d win the Super Bowl. I wanted them to lose more than I wanted the Packers to win simply because of one guy that I had never met. And that wasn’t fun.

Every Vikings fan knows how this story ends. It took until the final fifteen seconds in regulation of the NFC Championship Game, but the real Favre finally showed up. The Vikings lost, Favre disgraced himself on and off the field the next season, with one magical playoff run Rodgers and the Packers brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay, and I still haven’t gotten tired of watching SportsCenter for the fifth consecutive time this morning.

Last night a member of ESPN’s football crew mentioned something about Favre being “the elephant in the room,” to which Trent Dilfer replied that Rodgers’s career doesn’t compare with Favre’s yet. Well of course it doesn’t. Rodgers has been an NFL quarterback for three years and they are comparing him to the guy who holds pretty much every career quarterback record, both good and bad.

These analysts have missed the point for two years now. The elephant in the room has nothing to do with a comparison of the two – NOBODY in Green Bay thinks Rodgers’ career can be compared with Favre’s at this point. That’s insane. No, the elephant in the room was Packers’ fans fear that Favre would win a Super Bowl with the Vikings before Green Bay won another Super Bowl. Favre was the only public figure I idolized – and you can almost certainly say the same thing for every Wisconsin resident between the ages of 14 and 32. Do you realize what a Favre Super Bowl win with the Vikings would have done to the collective psyche of Green Bay fans? It’s tough to imagine…but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

********************

So this seems like a story about Brett Favre. Superficially, I suppose, it is. But Favre is only a small part of the story.

The real story is about sticking with a team, sticking with a group of players, and waiting for that one big game. The actions of one flawed man made thousands of Packer fans question why they followed a team whose leader turned out to be more concerned with spite than his own legacy. Why bother, when rooting for a team is irrational in the first place? Why bother, when there is a 31 out of 32 chance that we will end up disappointed? Why bother, when the face of the franchise for fifteen years apparently doesn’t care anywhere close to as much as fans do?

Aaron Rodgers and his teammates showed us why. The hope that the Packers will be that one team that ends the season with the Lombardi Trophy. The hope that your GM was right all along. The hope that through thick and thin, everything will work out and all the agony will all be worth it.

For one night anyway, all those hopes made sense.

Advertisements

Perfection (an ode to Aaron Rodgers)

January 16, 2011

“Maybe I’m just so pumped up for the playoffs, but I thought there was a slight tremble in his voice when he mutterred (sic) ‘Atlanta’ in his interview after the packers (sic) win over the eagles (sic). If he’s not then he sure better be, with our defense starting to peak at the perfect time. They’ll be scraping Rodgers leftovers off the Ga Dome turf come Saturday night.” – poster War Bird, on a Falcons message board before the game

Fantastic.

Amazing.

Masterful.

Pick your superlative – they all fit Aaron Rodgers’ performance last night. Rodgers put up not only the best performance in Packers postseason history, but one of the best performances in NFL postseason history.* His 86.1 percent completion percentage was the fifth best in postseason history and only Tom Brady in the 2007 divisional playoffs threw for over 300 yards and had a higher completion percentage than Rodgers.

* And that’s not even a Packers’ fan’s subtle knock on Brett Favre. Favre and Rodgers have different skill sets. Favre’s the gunslinger; he’s just not the type of quarterback that could put together a complete clinical destruction of a team like Rodgers did last night.

31-for-36. 366 yards. 3 touchdowns. 1 rushing touchdown. 10-for-10 on third down. Touchdowns on five straight possessions against the fifth best scoring defense in the NFL. Drives of 81, 92, 80, 80, and 50 yards. Pick any stat you want – it’s all incredible.

*********************

“When our big dog is playing well, all the other big dogs roll behind him.  And that’s how we roll.” – Packers wide receiver Donald Driver

Rodgers got off to a rocky start. The Falcons’ pressure forced him to hurry his first pass of the game, an incompletion to running back Brandon Jackson. On the Packers’ third play, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a quick slant over the middle for thirty yards, but Jennings fumbled. The Falcons recovered and scored seven plays later, sending the already raucous Georgia Dome crowd into a frenzy.

On the ensuing drive, the Packers seemed content to run forty seconds off the play clock every play to help slow the Falcons momentum. Running backs James Starks and Brandon Jackson ran the ball on five of the Packers’ first six plays on the drive, until they faced a third-and-7 at the Falcons 41.

And then the clinic began. Rodgers was hit from behind as he tossed the ball to Greg Jennings over the middle. It didn’t matter. Jennings caught the on-target ball for the first down.

Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson with an eight yard completion on third-and-3 from the 16. On second and goal, the Falcons again closed in on Rodgers. And again, it didn’t matter. Rodgers hung in the pocket and hit Nelson for six-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.

Final tally for the momentum changing drive: 13 plays, 81 yards, 7:56 elapsed.

********************

“We had our (No.) 12 rolling. Man! When he’s playing like that . . . boy, he makes us a tough team to beat.” – Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings

And just like that, the Falcons stole momentum back. Pro Bowl kick returner Eric Weems took the ball two yards deep in the end zone. Fourteen seconds later, he had the record for longest play in postseason history and the Falcons were back up 14-7.

The Packers have struggled to find their own dynamic return man since the heyday of Desmond Howard and Allen Rossum ten years ago. It was painfully obvious in this game. On the Falcons’ kickoff, James Starks dropped the ball out of bounds at the eight-yard line, leaving Rodgers 92 yards away from the end zone.

Now down 14-7, the Packers decided to abandon their “control time of possession by running the ball” plan. Good decision.

Rodgers hit Jennings for six yards. Then Driver for 24. Then Jennings for 12. After a rare incompletion, Rodgers made perhaps his best play of the game. Falcons safety William Moore came unblocked around the outside. As Moore went in for the tackle, Rodgers pulled a Vick-like spin move and Moore whiffed on the tackle. Rodgers rolled out to the right and threw a perfect pass on a rope to a covered James Jones, who toed the sidelines for 34 yards. Trent Dilfer on ESPN broke the play down after the game; it turns out Rodgers was in the air when he threw the bullet.

Three plays later, the Falcons finally stopped Rodgers on third down…but only because cornerback Chris Owens tackled Greg Jennings in the end zone before Rodgers got the pass away. With new life, the Packers scored three plays later on a John Kuhn 1-yard run to tie the game at 14.

******************

“Aaron was unbelievable and our whole offense was unbelievable.” Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett

The game started to look like last year’s devastating 51-45 overtime loss to the Cardinals, in which neither team was capable of stopping the other. But on the next drive, Matt Ryan caved. Already in field goal range, Ryan forced a deep pass to Michael Jenkins. The ball was underthrown and Jenkins slipped, allowing Packers cornerback Tramon Williams – the hero of the Packers’ win over the Bears to qualify for the playoffs – to intercept the pass in the end zone.

Rodgers took over on the 20 with a quick six-yard completion to Andrew Quarless. The Falcons then tried to pressure Rodgers again. And again, it didn’t matter – Rodgers took off for a six-yard scramble.

On the next play, the Falcons tried dropping eight into coverage. Didn’t matter. Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for 20 yards. He then hit Andrew Quarless for eight more. After an incompletion (gasp!), Rodgers made another highlight reel play.

Facing third-and-2 from the 40, the Falcons defensive ends got past the Packers’ line around the outside. Rodgers stepped up into the pocket and – channeling the spirit of a certain former Packers quarterback – flung the ball back across his body to Donald Driver for a twenty-yard completion.

On the next play, Rodgers threw a perfect pass to James Jones in the corner of the end zone for the 21-14 lead. Poor Brent Grimes couldn’t cover the play any better. Rodgers went into the locker room 18 for 21 for 234 yards and two touchdowns.

*******************

“Win or lose, I’m moving Aaron Rodgers onto my Barry Sanders Memorial ‘Do Not Gamble Against Under Any Circumstances’ list.” – ESPN’s Bill Simmons on Twitter

The Packers would have been happy to go into the half up 21-14. But then Matt Ryan caved again. Ryan drove the ball to the Packers 26 before Clay Matthews sacked him back at the 35 with ten seconds left in the half. The Falcons were forced to use their last timeout.

Coach Mike Smith controversially called for a quick out pattern to pick up more yards for kicker Matt Bryant. The same Matt Bryant who once kicked a 62-yard field goal for the Buccaneers.

Of course, it’s the Falcons who would say the play call was controversial. Packers fans would use the word “thankful.” Tramon Williams intercepted Ryan’s pass and ran it back 65 yards for a touchdown to give the Packers a stunning 28-14 halftime lead.

*******************

The Falcons tried playing zone coverage. They tried playing man-to-man. They tried mixing zone and man together. They tried blitzing Rodgers. Nothing worked.” – D. Orlando Ledbetter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the second half, the Packers took over at the 20 needing a touchdown to put the game away. As Packers fans know, putting teams away has not exactly been the team’s strong suit this season.

It started off exactly how Packers fans feared. On the first play of the half, the Falcons finally got to Rodgers as John Abraham sacked him for a ten-yard loss. Abraham, now infamously, mimicked Rodgers’ championship belt celebration. That would turn out to be a mistake.

On second and 20, Rodgers hit Jennings for seven yards. Then he pulled off some more magic. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas came around the left end unblocked. Like he did to Moore earlier in the game, Rodgers spun and left Nicholas grasping for air. He rolled out to his left and threw across his body. His dart to a covered James Jones resulted in a 15 yard gain and another first down.

Just to mix things up, Rodgers handed the ball to James Starks for four out of five plays. A few plays later, facing third and seven from Atlanta’s 32, the Falcons brought six on the rush. The Packers picked it up. Uh oh. Rodgers hit a streaking Jordy Nelson for 14 yards and the first down.

He then hit Nelson for 11 yards and another first down. On the next play, the Falcons finally had every receiver covered. It didn’t matter. Rodgers scrambled for a seven-yard touchdown run, capped off with an emphatic championship belt celebration.

*******************

“I know this sounds crazy, but Aaron Rodgers throws like Dan Marino & moves like Steve Young. He really does. I’m still not over it.” – Ross Tucker, ESPN.com

Now down by 21, Ryan had no answer. The Falcons went three and out on their next possession and punter Michael Konnen shanked the punt. The Packers took over on the 50. That was just too easy for Rodgers.

On third and six from the 46, Rodgers hit Nelson for eight yards. On third and five from the 33, Rodgers hit Driver for 22 yards. Finally, Rodgers hit the immortal John Kuhn from six yards out for the touchdown.

After three quarters, Rodgers was a staggering 27 of 31 passing for 330 yards and four total touchdowns (three passing and one rushing).

****************

“Around the league, they will call this teaching tape. They will put on this performance by Aaron Rodgers and say this is how you play the quarterback position.” – Trent Dilfer, ESPN

On the next possession, Matt Ryan finally led the Falcons on a touchdown drive to pull back within 42-21. Poor Matt – aside from the terrible interception at the end of the first half, he didn’t play all that bad.* He went 20-for-29 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The first interception was a poor pass, but would have been broken up if his receiver hadn’t fallen down.

* Yeah, I’m aware that’s a big aside.

But he ran into a buzzsaw on this night. Rodgers made him look so bad that at least 95,000 people on Twitter made some variation of “the artist formerly known as Matty Ice” joke.

****************

“Aaron Rodgers is better than your quarterback. 31-36, 366 yards and 3 scores. For the record, at least one of those was a drop.” – Stephen Douglas, The Big Lead

When it was all over, the Packers had won 48-21. The 48 points were the most that the Packers franchise has ever scored in the playoffs. And it really wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated.

This was the type of game that was so good that the team’s fans stay up late to watch SportsCenter air the same highlights over and over again. I know I did. You don’t get chances to watch perfect games that often; when it happens to a team that you follow, it’s all the better.

Rodgers might not be able to capture that magic again next week. Who really knows what will happen on any given week? Although Packers fans appreciate just how good Aaron Rodgers is, nobody could see this coming.

For one night anyway, he was perfect.

**************

“I would never have imagined that happening.” – Falcons coach Mike Smith

Me neither.