NFL Playoffs 2011: The Rise of the Green Bay Packers
To many football fans, the current domination by the Green Bay Packers probably seems like it came from nowhere. It's understandable if you aren't a follower of the team, considering they were 10-6 last year before going on their Super Bowl run and stringing together 19 consecutive victories.
However, I assure you that the current success being enjoyed by the Packers and their fans (and owners) did not arise out of thin air.
It took patience and huge momentum swings to get to this point. It took a lot of yelling at my television and a lot of heartbreak to finally arrive at this point.
This is my list of the top five circumstances that led to the Green Bay Packers' current domination. This will be fun for Packers fans to reflect on, and it will be insightful to those of you who are rooting for struggling franchises.
The Packers took the long, hard road to get to the top, but when you put it in perspective, it's clear that the journey is the reward.
Tough Losses Make Victories Sweeter
It's not about getting knocked down, its about getting up.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
I remember our defensive tackle at the time, Corey Williams, falling to his knees and sobbing like a child. I felt the same way he did in the bitter, 30-degrees-below-zero cold.
With Aaron Rodgers under center in his first playoff game two seasons later, I was numb to it. Seeing another overtime playoff loss was devastating, of course, but I'd already sat through excruciating losses to end the 2003 (fourth-and-26 game vs. Philadelphia) and 2007 (game mentioned above) seasons. So nothing that happened on that day surprised me.
When the Packers made that run in the playoffs last season, I felt invincible. No loss could hurt as much as those two losses, and I think the team felt that way, too.
I know a lot of the current players weren't there in Jan. 2005 when Randy Moss "mooned" the crowd at Lambeau Field (I was), but enough of them were that it resonates through the locker room.
When Tramon Williams ended the Eagles' season with an interception in the end zone off of Mike Vick, it felt like they were exercising demons. Vick had burned the Packers in the 2002 playoffs when he became the first opposing quarterback to break the Lambeau mystique in the playoffs as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
The Packers beat Vick that day and the Falcons the next week—both on Tramon Williams' interceptions.
As Aaron took a knee in each of those games, I remembered Vick running free through the Packers' secondary. I remembered Moss "mooning" the crowd. I remembered the Giants running out onto the field in celebration, and I remembered Rodgers dropping the ball while coach McCarthy fell to his knees in the 2009 Wild Card Game.
And those thoughts in my brain made running through the playoffs that much better.
Invading Gillette Without Rodgers
Sometimes Losing Isn't Losing.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
On a chilly New England evening on Dec. 19, 2010, the 8-6 Green Bay Packers waltzed into Gillette Stadium to face the 12-2 Patriots. Earlier in the week, Aaron Rodgers had been ruled out due to a concussion he had suffered the week before in Detroit.
With Matt Flynn at the helm and the entire country watching, the Packers took the heavily-favored Patriots to the brink in what would be their last loss in the next calendar year. The game gave the team confidence that, even without Rodgers, they could compete with what was thought to be the best team in the NFL.
The players didn't know it at the time, but the game was rendered meaningless when earlier in the night, DeSean Jackson stunned the New York Giants with a punt return as time expired. That loss by the Giants meant that Green Bay controlled their destiny regardless of what happened in New England.
On the opening kickoff, Mike McCarthy called an onside kick which was recovered by the Packers.
Matt Flynn played valiantly, and other than communication issues in the final seconds, he out-dueled Tom Brady on the night.
The defense played outstanding, and after the game, reporters asked McCarthy if he was proud of his underdog Packers performing so well. His response gave me and the rest of the Packers nation chills: "We're nobody's underdog..."
Hiring Coach McCarthy
The Leader of The Pack.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
As a Packers fan in early 2006, I distinctly remember being disappointed when the Minnesota Vikings hired Brad Childress as their new head coach. It may seem funny now because in the years that have followed, it seems that folks have forgotten that, at the time, Childress was a trendy pick for teams seeking new head coaches.
I had envisioned Childress patrolling the Lambeau sidelines and eventually leading the Packers to a Super Bowl. But, just like the Vikings always do, they made the big splash in free agency and hired the most sought-after coach available at the time.
Following the Childress hiring in Minnesota, I looked inward and had sold myself on our defensive coordinator at the time, Jim Bates. The Packers had a solid defense in 2005 (seventh overall), and I figured that Brett Favre would know the offense better than any coach they brought in. It made sense to me, but the Packers decided against the hire.
I remember it seemed like the Packers had settled for Mike McCarthy. We had done the opposite of the Minnesota Vikings—a trend that would repeat itself continually over the next few years. They had made headlines with the hiring of their coach, while our hiring seemed to land with more of a thud than a splash.
At the time, the Packers took criticism from both the media and the fan base for hiring coach McCarthy. He was a little-known offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had finished the ’05 season with the last-ranked offense in the NFL.
In retrospect, McCarthy’s hiring was the first in a long line of unpopular decisions made by GM Ted Thompson that eventually worked out (more on that later).
Never having heard of McCarthy before the hire, I was skeptical and with good reason.
I could only go off of what the media was saying about him, and I couldn’t escape the fact that we had hired an offensive-oriented coach who just led his team to the worst offensive rank in football.
I couldn’t help but feel that the front office was wasting our last shot at a championship with beloved longtime quarterback Brett Favre. Rebuilding was not something he had time for, and that’s what it felt like was happening.
All of my worries virtually disappeared with Mike McCarthy’s first press conference when I distinctly remember hearing coach McCarthy use the phrase “Packer People.”
I was in love.
I like to consider myself a football purist. I’ve never liked the NBA style of building through free agency. There is something special about rooting for your guys. I’ve also always believed that the Packers should be held to a higher standard than other teams, and the same goes for their players.
The rich tradition and history dictate that when you put that uniform on, you are representing the pride of every other player who called themselves a “Packer,” and clearly, we now had a coach that agreed.
Coach McCarthy’s Mission Statement
“The foundation for the new direction of the Green Bay Packers will be constructed with three key components of obtaining "PACKER PEOPLE," creating “STABLE STRUCTURE" and concentrating on "CHARACTER AND CHEMISTRY."
A positive environment will be created with "LEADERSHIP" that keeps its eye on the target of establishing a championship football team.
The direction will be fueled with constant communication to ensure everyone is on board. We will attack the voyage with energy and enthusiasm to overcome the obstacles that we will encounter.
This vision is enhanced with resources and tradition that stands in the forefront of professional sports organizations.
I am honored and privileged for the opportunity to lead the Green Bay Packers on a new journey back to the pinnacle that bears the name of “Coach Lombardi.”
We now had a coach who felt the way I did, and when I met him at Packers “Fan Fest” in 2008, I reminded him that it meant a lot to me that he had kept his word. None of this current success would be possible without coach Mike McCarthy leading the way—his way...
Beating Brett Favre
Getting Past #4 was Crucial in this Packers Run.
Jim Prisching/Getty Images
Brett Favre is the greatest player to ever put on a Green Bay Packers uniform. For nearly two decades, he embodied everything I believe the franchise stood for.
His record of consecutive starts is, to me, the most impressive record in all of sports. He returned glory to a franchise that was starving for it for over 30 years.
While in Green Bay, Brett Favre was one of us. He was part of our Thanksgivings and Christmas dinners. The town named streets after him, and the fans named their children after him. That's why it hurt so bad to watch him put on that ugly purple Minnesota Vikings uniform.
Everything written above is concerning the fans' relationship with Brett Favre, but the players had a unique relationship with him, too.
For a long time, Brett Favre was the Packers. The team went where he took them, and arguably, no player represented an entire NFL organization the way Brett Favre did. When he left, especially under the circumstances with which he left, the team lost its identity.
Aaron Rodgers' first season as a starter was handcuffed by the lingering drama leftover from Brett Favre. Unnamed veteran starters were talking about wanting "their quarterback" back.
Rodgers had to change the culture and start erasing the negative legacy that Favre left in the locker room. Rodgers started having team get-togethers at his house.
He remembered the way Favre treated him and other young players and did the opposite. Rodgers got to know the players on his team, not as teammates, but as friends. When they step on the field now, they trust each other because they know each other.
As great as he was and as great as those teams were, that never happened when Favre was the quarterback.
After erasing the negative Favre legacy leftover in the locker room, the next step was to erase that memory on the field. Favre signed with the Vikings to start the '09 season and beat Green Bay in the two games they played that season, allowing the stigma to linger.
In 2010, the Packers were 3-3 heading into a Sunday night showdown with Favre at Lambeau Field, after having lost their two previous games on overtime field goals.
Their season could go either way, and this was the last time they would get a shot at him in front of the Lambeau faithful. The game was a classic and, in my opinion, the greatest Packers game I've ever seen.
Up until A.J. Hawk's interception, Favre had played two flawless games against the Packers. When I look back on the 2010 Green Bay Packers, it is clear to me that play changed everything. In one moment, Favre was invincible, and in the next, he was lying on the ground watching A.J. Hawk run away with his ball.
Favre would throw two more interceptions—one of them for a touchdown—in the game. The Packers won on a failed Favre-to-Moss Hail Mary, exercising not only the Favre demons, but erasing the Randy Moss memories as well.
In time, I'm sure the significance of that victory will be revealed by the players involved. For now, we know that after that game, the Packers went on to win 21 out of 23 games (and counting) where Aaron Rodgers started and finished the game.
Nowadays, Packers fans are naming their children after Aaron Rodgers, including one of my closest friends, Amy P., whose son Aaron has only been a part of one loss in his lifetime. Of course it could be that he is somewhat of a good luck charm, but that's something to be decided in the playoffs!
Greg Jennings Embodies the Packer Way
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Coach McCarthy has kept the promise he made in his opening press conference and built a team of "Packer People" who represent the foundation of pride and hard work laid by Curly Lambeau and continued by Vince Lombardi.
Let's examine the moves made by the Green Bay Packers since Mike McCarthy took the head coaching job starting with the players they have drafted.
A.J. Hawk and Greg Jennings continue to play huge roles for the team. In 2006, they also drafted Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz, who played huge roles along the offensive line during the Super Bowl XLV run.
James Jones, Desmond Bishop and Mason Crosby continue to be consistent playmakers in all three phases. Desmond Bishop was always a fan favorite, but had to wait for Nick Barnett to get injured before breaking through to the starting lineup next to A.J. Hawk. Together, they lead one of the most consistent MLB duos in the NFL.
In this draft, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and Josh Sitton were selected, and the three of them are what turned the Packers' offense from great to legendary. Jordy Nelson is the most efficient receiver in the NFL in 2011, and Finley is virtually impossible to cover. Josh Sitton continues to be the most consistent lineman the Packers have on the roster.
The draft that put the Packers over the top saw B.J. Raji taken ninth overall, and in a rare move, Ted Thompson moved up in the draft to the 26th overall pick to select Clay Matthews. The two of them made an immediate impact, but it wasn't until the 2010 playoff run that the draft truly paid off.
Raji's interception for a TD in the NFC Championship Game took the Packers to the Super Bowl, and Clay Matthews' forced fumble to start the fourth quarter won the Super Bowl.
T.J. Lang was also drafted in '09 and has been the most versatile lineman the Packers have.
Overall, the Packers have 47 of 53 players on the active roster that have never played for anybody other than the Packers. This is a team of Packer People, and they win in the tradition laid by Vince Lombardi.