Full disclosure, in the form of a fun fact: I am related to Ron Wolf, the architect of the Packers of the 1990s. Though he was with several teams before the Packers (including the Jets, where Wolf missed out on picking Brett Favre by one pick), I came of age at the time when the Packers were just becoming an NFL powerhouse again.
Despite my youth growing up in Woody Allen territory in New York City, I have somehow grown an affinity for the Annie Hall regions of Wisconsin. I am not sure whether this is the product of my connections to Packers royalty, or if my connections to Packers royalty drew Wisconsinites to me.
Either way, I know one thing: the 1996 Packers season, with the possible exception of the 1994 New York Rangers and 1996 New York Yankees, was the most magical sports season of my life. In the wake of the recent career choices of Brett Favre, it is important to remember why.
As history remembers it, 1996 was the year Brett Favre's immunity to criticism from commentators began. He had won a Super Bowl early in his career, and would never have to deal with the same pressures as Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, or (at the time) John Elway. In reality, the legend of Brett Favre had begun four years earlier.
He was a fan favorite in Green Bay right after his very first win in 1992, and had already won the first of his three MVP awards in 1995. The mere fact that Favre had made football relevant in Wisconsin again was enough.
It's important to remember that the reason the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996 was not because of Favre's magic, but because Favre's young genius at quarterback was surrounded by one of the most stacked, consistently underrated powerhouse teams of a generation. A team that was arguably better in that season than any other season a team has had since the 1989 San Francisco 49ers, including some of the better Patriots teams of this decade.
Outside of Wisconsin, it is rarely remembered that the first step to rebuilding the Packers franchise after decades of doormat status was not Brett Favre, but LeRoy Butler. A second-round draft pick in 1990, he was the first piece of the puzzle Wolfe brought to what would become modern-era Packers.
In a way, Butler is even more definitive of the Packers' '90s revival than Favre, as Butler, who played his entire career with the Packers, retired in 2001, before the Brett Favre retirement talk had even begun. In the meantime, he was a Pro Bowler four times, All-Pro five times, and part of the all-decade team of the 1990s.
There are only nine safeties currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and LeRoy Butler has yet to be named a semifinalist after two years of eligibility. With Rod Woodson's induction in the most recent class, however, expect Butler's candidacy status to rise. Butler is already in the Packers Hall of Fame, but he may very well have earned that if he had done nothing but invent the Lambeau Leap.
Another move that completely changed the fortunes of the franchise was the signing of Reggie White in 1993, the season after Favre became the starting quarterback.
It was almost impossible to attract black players to the remote, cold town of Green Bay after free agency began in the NFL, but the White signing showed ambivalent NFL players that, contrary to common logic, Packers fans were less aggressively racist if players underperformed. In reality, if you succeeded in Green Bay, you were essentially a god in that town—and the entire state—for the rest of your life, even more so than a former Notre Dame player would be in South Bend.
So in the 1993 offseason, the Packers signed Reggie White, the most coveted free agent, and one who was later declared the best Eagles player in the franchise's history. Yet, he may not have even been the fourth best player on the 1996 Packers. In addition to Favre, White, and Butler, the Packers had a running back tandem of Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens.
A full decade before running back tandems became the norm in the NFL, the Packers had Bennett, a running back who had rushed for 1000 yards the year prior, and a top-notch receiver for his position, increasing sharing the spotlight with his former fullback, Dorsey Levens, who was just as versatile.
Levens eventually became the more remembered player of the '96 team, but Bennett, the breakout star of the previous season, was humble in a way few backs were expected to be at that time. It's difficult to imagine the limits of his potential, but his career was basically over after rupturing his Achilles the following preseason.
With William Henderson emerging at fullback in his second second season, the backfield blocking only got stronger with Levens' growth into the running back role, a transition Bennett had made before him.
The receiver most frequently remembered as Favre's favorite early target, Antonio Freeman, was arguably the third best receiver on the team by the end of year, behind Robert Brooks and the late season acquisition of Andre Rison [corrected thanks to Derek Lofland].
Though Mark Chmura is something of a walking punchline now, it's often forgotten that the three-time Pro Bowler tight end was the second-string tight end that season. The star tight end that year was All-Pro Keith Jackson.
Jackson, who had been named All-Pro four times previously, had his best season in '96, finishing second on the team in receptions (40), third in receiving yards (505), and first in touchdowns (10), which was even more impressive for a tight end then than it is now. If fantasy football was as widespread, Jackson's '96 season may have been remembered as the best fantasy season for a tight end ever, if not for the fact that Shannon Sharpe happened to revolutionize the position the same year.
Furthermore, having Don Beebe, a veteran of the four Bills Super Bowl losses, as a fourth string receiver almost made it unfair for opponents. There was simply no weakness to exploit in shutting down Favre and the Packers offense.
The defense around White and Butler was no less intimidating. Opposite LeRoy Butler was Eugene Robinson, who later became more famous as a Pro Bowler and model of pre-Super Sunday bad behavior with the 1998 Atlanta Falcons.
In 1996, however, Robinson was already a 12-year veteran who was enjoying his first year with the Packers after 11 star-studded and consistently undervalued seasons with the Seahawks (undervalued in this sense that his two Pro Bowls with the Seahawks were seen as not reflective of how great he was).
There may have never been a safety combination as dominant as Butler and Robinson that year, which makes it all the more amazing to think that Darren Sharper was drafted the next season.
There was Doug Evans at corner, the third Packers defensive back with five interceptions in the regular season, fan favorite DE-DT hybrid Gabe Wilkins, and the fan favorite to end all fan favorites in Gilbert Brown, perhaps the only interior lineman ever not named Tony Siragusa to be the sole player in a nationally broadcast TV ad.
I have left out Frank Winters, the Packers center for the first 11 seasons of Favre's tenure, who made his only Pro Bowl that season. I have also left out Desmond Howard, the former Heisman Trophy winner who became a force of nature returning the football in the late regular season and playoffs, rivaling the peaks of Dante Hall and Devin Hester.
Howard was at best the 10th best player on that team, a fact I only mention because Hester has been the Bears' best player for the past two seasons, which may help explain their lack of post-Super Bowl loss success.
And that, of course, leaves Favre. It's difficult to remember young Favre at this point, with his larger legacy now being his seemingly endless retirement saga of last decade or so.
He is now more annoying about it than Roger Clemens, and his latest quest seems destined to make Favre the most universally reviled player in the NFL for any team's fans, including his own, should he sign with the Vikings (he probably will, and the Vikings' most prominent fan on the Internet has some issues with that).
Yet, for anyone who's rooted for Favre, as I have both as Packers and a Jets fan, there's some truth to Favre's persona which eventually formed the overwhelmingly annoying cliches we now associate with him.
First off, the truth behind the "gunslinger" myth. Part of what made Favre so exciting in his heyday was the fact that he was more successful while being reckless than any franchise quarterback had been at the time.
He may have single-handedly aged Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren at 10 times the normal speed in his first few seasons, but Favre's MVP titles and Super Bowl victory showed that, in a generation where Bill Walsh had begun to make quarterbacks puppets for ridiculously complex offensive schemes, a free-spirited quarterback with a classic football sensibility could still thrive in the league.
In reality, Favre's dominance at this time proved to be more of a throwback, or an exception. The success of young Favre's recklessness gave more leeway to eventual busts like Ryan Leaf, Rex Grossman...and old Favre (not to mention to Andy Reid's reputation as a disciplinarian).
Secondly, "he looks like a kid out there." For all his manipulations of the media, what has never been in question about Favre is his true love of playing football. At age 27 in 1996, Favre's hair was still consistently brown, and he was chasing women in deodorant ads and somewhere in between a painkiller and an alcohol addiction. He was not yet the salt-and-pepper haired guy looking like a manufactured Joe Six-pack while shilling for jeans (did I mention I bought my first new pair of jeans in 12 years after that ad campaign?).
In all honesty, he really did look like a kid out there. So much so that everyone was ready and willing to overlook his alcohol and painkillers addictions. He was the most entertaining player of the era, and drew more eyeballs every time he played than any one player, including Barry Sanders. For lack of a better comparison, he was to 1995-1998 what Michael Vick was to 2002-2005.
Favre has become so tied to the memory of the year not just for his role as a dominant quarterback, but also because he reflected the spirit of the team in the way few quarterbacks have.
The Patriots of the 2000s, who resembled something like a cold, emotionless machine perfectly programmed to win, had GQ poster-boy Tom Brady at the helm.
The 1990s Cowboys, best remembered for cocaine, heroin, hookers, and being crazy enough to win even with Leon Lett being Leon Lett, had a hard-assed conventional quarterback in Troy Aikman keeping it all together.
In 1996, Packers fans, like Favre, were still wide-eyed, dough-faced, and grinning like a child at the prospect of having their football team relevant again. After a few years of steady progress, the Super Bowl victory came at the time where expectations were high, but still not so high that the victory wasn't an amazing, welcome surprise.
This wasn't a shockingly awesome rise to the top like the 1999 Rams, 2002 Patriots, or 2008 Cardinals, a welcome relief like the 2007 Giants, or a "finally" moment like the 2006 Colts or 1997 Broncos. This was a victory that came at the perfect time, and for the perfect franchise for this to happen to.
The Packers are seen as a model franchise, both within the NFL and as a sign of the NFL's organizational effectiveness in the landscape of American sports. Since 1992, the Packers have had the best overall regular season record, but still that one Super Bowl victory.
Nonetheless, the seemingly eternal quality of the ties between pro football, Wisconsin, and the Packers was crystallized that season, and that's not something even Brett Favre can erase.