Confidence. Pride. Knowing you belong among the elite.
There are so many good stories to be told about the Packers of the 1990's, most of which center around names like Favre, White, Butler, or Howard. But the one name that still brings back the feelings of knowing your team is more than just a pretender is Craig Newsome.
The 1995 season was a watershed season for the Green Bay Packers. In the first three years of the Holmgren/Wolf regime, the Packers had compiled three consecutive 9-7 records, entering the last two years as wild-card playoff teams. This, of course, sent our rabid fanbase into a manic state, which isn't too difficult. A 10-6 team in 1989 recently rewarded the quarterback marred by injury and inconsistency with a Packer Hall of Fame bust.
However, the Packers still were a young, struggling team that seemed unable to get over the hump to join the true powers of the day, Dallas and San Francisco, as contenders. In 1993 and 1994, the Packers dreams were crushed in the second round of the playoffs by the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers were simply a good team, but boys playing among men when it came to the real teams battling it out for the Super Bowl.
The end of the 1994 season also brought the end of Sterling Sharpe's career to a neck injury. The feeling at the time was that the 1995 season would be a down year, as there were no established wide receivers on the roster that could fill his 90+ receptions-a-year shoes.
As the Packers started 5-4, the best many Packers fans were hoping for was another wild card berth, and likely, another early booting from the playoffs.
But the Packers found their groove after November, finishing 6-1 and taking their first outright Division crown since 1972.
But the doubt still lingered. Even though Favre had the first of his MVP seasons, Robert Brooks adequately filled the shoes of Sharpe with a less-selfish 102 receptions, and a defense that ranked 4th in points allowed, deja vu struck. There was still the sickening feeling that following an easy first-round win over the Atlanta Falcons, that the Packers would be facing elimination facing one of the "big boys" on the block, in this case, the defending Super Bowl Champion 49ers, on their home field.
The 49ers were heavily favored and most Packer fans, though optimistic, knew this would be another trial by fire against a far more proven opponent.
What happened in the first half of the first quarter of that game on January 6, 1996, changed how the Packers would be viewed by the nation, the media, their opponents, their fans, but most of all, themselves.
On their first possession, the Packers had their drive stalled, and watched as Chris Jacke had his field-goal attempt blocked. "This is not how we wanted this game to start," we thought, "giving them an emotional advantage right off the bat." A sinking feeling hit many of us at that point, despite there being a lot of game left. We'd seen this game before, we thought.
As the 49ers came back from commercial, however, and took their first snap, the Play Of Confidence unfolded for all of us to behold.
Head Coach Mike Holmgren, very cognizant of the 49er mystique after his years there as an offensive coordinator, told his team before the game to not give the 49ers or their fans any reason to light a fire under themselves. Just do your job, make plays, and act like you've been there before.
On the 49ers first play, Steve Young, the all-everything quarterback for several seasons, swung a screen pass out to fullback Adam Walker. Wayne Simmons, the fiery linebacker for the Packers, crunched him like beetle three yards behind the line of scrimmage, and sent the ball out onto the turf.
Cornerback Craig Newsome then made the two most important plays of that game, plays that brought a level of pride among all in Packer Nation that day. First of all, he picked up the ball and ran 31 yards into the end zone, putting the Packers up 7-0 in a hostile environment.
But, perhaps just as important is what he did afterwards, something that doesn't show up in any box score: Craig Newsome slowed to a halt in the endzone, put his hands on his hips, and looked up at the crowd and the scoreboard. He didn't dance. He didn't taunt. He didn't even strut around or do some hand jive with his teammates.
He stood proud, tough, strong in the end zone, then made his way back to the sideline.
At that moment, Packer fans, who had moments before been fretting about whether or not the Packers were going to be able to come back in this game, felt the swell of pride and confidence. This was not the same team that had bent to the greater powers as in past years, content to beat the poorer teams but unable to beat the elite.
Craig Newsome made a loud, clear statement, and the entire NFL took note: The Green Bay Packers BELONG now. This isn't a quirk or an accident, this isn't a charmed team or a string of good luck. The Packers had the swagger to go with the glitter, the confidence to go with the excitement.
From this point forward, if you slap us in the face, we will bust you in the chops.
The rest of the game was a battle of heavyweights, with the Packers seemingly making every play that they needed to along the way, harassing Young, memorably pancaking tight end Brent Jones repeatedly, and holding the 49ers to but a field goal in the first half.
The Packers dominated that game against the defending champs, with only a late TD by the 49ers making the score look as close as 27-17 can. True, the Packers did travel to Dallas the next week and lost the NFC Championship game in another epic battle, 38-27, in which the Packers actually led going into the fourth quarter. All that was proved was that the Cowboys merely outlasted the Packers, instead of purely beating them, and the Packers were now equals.
The Packers were no longer awed by the team across the line of scrimmage. When that game was over, even Troy Aikman admitted that the better team didn't win that day.
The end result is that the Green Bay Packers believed that they were among the elite that day, starting with a fumble return by a corner who made the play and acted like that's exactly what he expected to happen.
As the present-day Packers enter their fourth year under the Ted Thompson regime (and the third under head coach Mike McCarthy), there are a lot of parallels that can be made between that 1994 team and the team that went deep into the playoffs last year. 1995 and 2008 are both watershed years, with both teams losing a cornerstone player that many don't believe can be replaced. Both teams come in with as many doubts as they do hopes for infamy.
This is the year that we need to see another Newsome make a play and tell the Giants, Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, and yes, the Cowboys, that the Packers are more than a one-year wonder or a team riding on the coattails of a now-departed superstar.
No, it doesn't mean we need a "Playmaker". We need more guys like Craig Newsome, a "Player that makes Plays", especially when going against the elite competition in the league. Let's hope that the fade-outs we witnessed when playing teams like the Cowboys and the Giants, in must-win situations, are replaced by well-executed plays by men who believe that they, too, BELONG.