Sunday, March 5, 2006

Mario Williams: Draft Me, Green Bay!!!

It’s always darkest before the dawn. Right?

Well, sunrise must be approaching soon, because this past season and offseason have been among the gloomiest in recent history. A frustrating offense, horrid special teams, and only slightly improved defense led to a 4-12 season, the mass firing of most of the coaching staff, and the ongoing drama over Brett Favre’s retirement-or-not as we finally get close to free agency.

So what’s our ray of sunlight through this misery?

“I’d love that. Playing for the Packers, that’s a dream man,” Mario Williams said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’d love to play in Green Bay.”

Conductor, strike up the orchestra. John Facenda, time to resurrect your voice from the great beyond. Already the debated top defensive player in the draft, North Carolina State defensive end Williams walked into the NFL combine last weekend and erased any doubt. Ted Thompson, Packer GM, was less quoted as much as he was drooling about his admiration for Super Mario.

"I really think it's where I'm going to end up," Williams said. "I mean, it would be a great feeling. You always hear everybody talk about Lambeau Field."

The fan discussion has gone from deciding whether or not we take Williams or Hawk at #5 in the NFL draft to hand-wringing if Williams will even be available at #5 anymore.

"I've thought a lot about playing there," Williams said Saturday. "I would love that."

One thing struck me as interesting, though.

"Reggie White was my favorite player," Williams said. "I always loved watching him on TV. It would be pretty amazing for me to have the chance to play at the same place he did."

Talk about ghosts of Lambeau. How many times have we heard this over the years? Potential draft picks and free agents who talk about being able to line up on the field with Brett Favre, or playing on the same grass as Reggie White?

Then I think: when Reggie White racked up three sacks against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in 1996, Mario Williams will still in fifth grade. When Reggie retired, Williams had barely played his first snap in high school.

Soon, very very soon, we will be drafting players out of college who have no memory of the Packers’ last Super Bowl appearances, who will never claim to have watched Reggie play on television…and someday, will not even remember seeing Brett Favre play.

I am reminded of my revisionist fellow Packer fans, who preached that it is time for us to stop hanging on to our past, that our last championship was nearly ten years ago, and that it is time for us to cut the umbilical cord clinging us to players and coaches from that time.

And then, I think of Mario Williams, who may not be as glowing or gushing about Green Bay had it not been for those “Glory Days Redux” in the 90’s. What if Mario hadn’t started watching football until 1999, and saw only the Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman era of Packer football? Do you think he would still be as excited to be a Packer?

After firing Mike Sherman, Ted Thompson hired a darkhorse candidate as head coach, Mike McCarthy (perhaps the darkest horse he could find), and both declared their number one goal was to obtain “Packer People” in the restructuring of the coaching staff and roster.

No one has ever truly defined what “Packer People” are, but by using the old definition of “Packer People”, there are some troubling signs in Packerland.

By my own definition, I believe the term “Packer People” is similar to “True Packers” or “Packers-For-Life”, players who have demonstrated not only great play, but dedication to the franchise, so that their name has become synonymous with the green and gold.

Some of the players still with the club don’t appear to be as excited about playing on the same field as Reggie anymore.

Brett Favre, future Hall of Famer and Packer-for-Life, can’t seem to decide whether he wants to come back for another year or not. In fact, he’s commented that he needs to see what level of commitment Thompson has to improving the roster before he commits himself to Thompson and the new regime.

William Henderson, the only other link back to the Super Bowl teams, has announced he will test free agency at age 35, and is seeking a sizable signing bonus. While the former Pro Bowler has lost a step, he has fended off challenges for his starting spot for the last six years. He’s willing to up and leave for the right price. So much for the hometown discount.

Ryan Longwell, the Packers’ all-time leading scorer, has given no indication that he is going to return, and the whisperings have former teammate John Bidwell telling him to come to Tampa Bay, where the golf courses are open year-round and his kicking percentages are sure to look much better. Plus, he’d hold for him.

We’ve been reminded that this is a business, particularly when Mike Sherman was fired, Jim Bates quit, and players like Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera were allowed to leave without much of a fight. Favre, Henderson, and Longwell are also reminding us that this is a business, and that Packer-For-Life isn’t a permanent thing anymore.

How long will jubilant desires to play in Green Bay, like that of Mario Williams, continue? One could just as easily say that the thrill of playing on the same field as Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, and Ray Nitschke should have been enough for generations of rookies to want to play in Lambeau Field. However, Bruce Clark, a defensive end drafted only 11 years after the Packers’ previous Super Bowl, didn’t want to play in Green Bay so adamantly, he bucked the entire NFL just so he wouldn’t have to play there.

The Packers are now about nine years removed from their previous Super Bowl. Soon, the kids we’re drafting will have never known a time in their life where Green Bay was considered World Champions.

So, are we doomed? Will the Packers fall into the two decades of gloom that came after the Glory Years hangover?

Should Ted Thompson call and beg guys like Brett Favre and William Henderson to return, just to continue to give this team a link to its past?

No. Those players are making their own choices. They will decide if playing in Green Bay is worth their time and the money they would receive. Ted Thompson shouldn’t be in a position to beg for his veterans to stay.

But, if the Packers are lucky enough to draft a kid like Williams, who wants to play here next April, the onus is on Ted Thompson to create the feeling of tradition, pride, and excellence that keeps the best people here, and the next-best wishing they were here.

A downward spiral, even in today’s wacky world of free agency is still a very real possibility, and Green Bay isn’t exactly the most happening, urban, or cool place for young athletes from larger areas or from the South. Ask the Arizona Cardinals about that.

But Ted Thompson has made it clear that he plans to take this team in a new direction. Funny how the old direction is what has Mario Williams excited to be a Green Bay Packer.

Let’s hope now that we’ve seen a ray of sunshine after our long night, that our next day is as long as the one we enjoyed through the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Change is inevitable, and time marches on…but change is the only thing that stays the same. Let’s hope Green Bay being a prime place athletes want to play at also stays the same, after the old “Packer People” are gone.

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