Monday, July 25, 2011

2010 Packers: Charmed?

As I watched the Women's World Cup, I was haunted by a feeling, almost like I had seen this show before.  Something eerily familiar about all this, I kept thinking.

* Strong team players, with a particularly charismatic team leader.

* Slow starters, almost needing to have their backs against the wall before waking up.

* Despite outplaying their opponents, often relied on big, heroic plays at the end to pull out a win.

Who am I talking about?  Well, sure, I'm talking about Hope Solo and the Women's National Team, but we could also easily be talking about the 2010 Green Bay Packers.  And we almost....almost....saw a complete repeat of last February's cardiac events, with near-misses and heroic finishes needed to pull out game after game.


Yes, the margin of victory for the Women's World Cup was pretty slim, coming down to penalty kicks that never should have had to happen in the first place.  Missed opportunities came back to haunt them in the final game against Japan:   shot after shot taken on goal with nothing to show for it was the story of the first half.

But, you say, these were the Cardiac Girls, the ones who fought back against Brazil with a man down on an amazing header by Abby Wambach and penalty kicks to win.  And the ones who looked to be in trouble against France until two late-game out-of-a-hat goals by Wambach and phenom Alex Morgan prevented another overtime.

As someone who doesn't even watch soccer, both of those games took me out of my seat and cheering loudly, and the decider against Japan was no exception.  But waiting until the last minute didn't blossom for the Americans against a team with perhaps more destiny and fate on their side than themselves.

And the defeat was crushing.  While we can be proud of Team USA for making it so far, you still had a feeling that something was stolen from us, that after so many emotional, come-from-behind wins that there was nothing we couldn't do.

Notice my involuntary pronoun shift in that last paragraph?  I was about to go back and fix it, but then I realized that it was exactly those emotional climaxes that shifted ownership of the American team from "them" to "us".  "We" were going to win the World Cup, because we had fought through so much adversity together.

And why it was such a disappointment to "us" in the end.

We were saved from a similar disappointment this year when the Packers didn't fade away with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball 20 feet above a receiver's head in overtime.  But let's be honest: the table was set for it.

The Packers went on the most amazing six-game winning streak in the history of the NFL, and you can mark that down.  But ever since the start of the Mike McCarthy Regime, I've often noted a reliance on the Big Play to pull games out at the end.  The Packers putting a team away early (or vice versa) is a pretty rare event.

Now, is that a bad thing?  I suppose not.  It certainly makes watching games more interesting and exciting when the Packers are protecting a narrow lead against a surging offense late in the fourth quarter.  Hey, anybody leaving the game early to beat traffic usually missed something big.

And that is what is the biggest difference between this team we are celebrating now and the the one that won the 1996 Lombardi Trophy.  The 1996 team was a slow, steady build, eventually evolving into a team that was expected to win, and did.  They won by building a lead in the first half, then allowing Dorsey/Edgar to grind out the second half along with the defense.  That team demoralized opponents and we expected nothing less than a Super Bowl win.

This team?  Nobody other than a couple of cocky players looking for T-Shirt slogans really predicted the Packers to win it all, and once the MASH unit of injuries hit, the playoffs looked bleak, much less making the title game.  Games were won or lost by narrow margins, often in the final moments.  Following the loss to the Lions, Packer fans were calling for the firing of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson again, despite the fact that a mere two months later they would be Super Bowl Champions.

That is the life as a fan of the Cardiac Pack, a team that capitalized on opportunities, with perhaps a little help from destiny.

The streak started on the heels of a late-game collapse in which a win looked certain against the mighty Patriots, but the Packers defense gave in and fell behind by four points with seven minutes left to go, concluding with a Matt Flynn sack-and-fumble to end the game deep in Patriot territory.

From then on, the Cardiac Pack never put anyone away, and always seemed to come up with a way to win in spectacular fashion.

*  The Packers hosted the Giants, and held a narrow lead until the final 19 minutes, when three fourth-quarter interceptions and short-field scores sealed the game, following a lull in the offense in the second- and third-quarters.

*  In the season finale, the Packers beat the Bears in a game that might be described as a battle to see which team would lose the least.  The Packers' offense was a near no-show, and the defense had to pile on Jay Cutler to keep the Bears at bay.  Even so, Cutler led a late drive that would have knotted up the score, only to be thwarted by Nick Collins' heroic interception.

*  In what would be Aaron Rodgers' first playoff win, the Packers went to Philly and dealt the Eagles a loss, in which once again both team played sloppily.  Again, a Packer lead was once again threatened with a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, and then Michael Vick pitched a pass into the end zone, down by only five points.  Tramon Williams made the game-sealing interception, and the Packers' advanced by the skin of their teeth.

Against the Falcons, who had beaten the Packers earlier in the year, Green Bay fell behind early after several miscues.  With their backs against the wall in a playoff game, the Packers fought back with four interceptions and 48 points, crushing the Falcons almost out of necessity to bring themselves out of the funk they were in to start the game.

*  In the NFC Championship game, the Packers went out and established themselves early against the Bears, knocking Jay Cutler out of the game and looking like they would finally cruise to a win.  Could it be that easy?  No way.  The Packers' offense once again looked rattled, with Rodgers having his worst game in recent memory.  Protecting a 21-14 lead with an exhausted defense, the Bears almost pulled off a late-game drive to tie up the score with their unknown third-string quarterback.  And, once again, Sam Shields made the critical last-second heroic interception that sealed the game against a team that probably should have been dismissed long before.

* Finally, in the Super Bowl itself, the Packers established themselves early and looked to cruise to an easy Lombardi Trophy, but a series of injuries to some key players (Driver, Woodson, Shields) took all the air out of their sails and gave the momentum back to the Steelers.  The Packers looked like zombies on both offense and defense until the end of the third quarter, seemingly in need of a wake-up call to remind them that this was the Super Bowl.  They got it, with a heroic forced fumble by Desmond Bishop at the start of the fourth quarter, that set up a set of lead-preserving drives by Rodgers (a touchdown and a field goal).  However, it was now the defense that faltered, allowing a long touchdown and two-point conversion that kept the Steelers within a touchdown with two minutes left to go.  The gassed and depleted defense reached as far down as they could and ended what could have been a game-winning drive with 49 seconds remaining...on a gut-check stop by, of all people, Jarrett Bush.

Now, before you start flooding my comments with accusations of negativity and "why can't you just be happy the Packers won", let me assure I am nothing less than thrilled that they won.  My point is that this victory was one of heart-pounding emotion, with nothing guaranteed week-to-week and requiring extraordinary efforts late in nearly every game to finish the drive to the trophy.

While the 1996 Super Bowl win was glorious, it was the end of a five-year journey marked by steady improvement.  Our present-day Packers have been nothing less than a roller coaster, taking us from season to season, and often, game to game, with ups and downs and fantastic heights and demoralizing lows.  The streak through the post-season was never an easy task, and there were doubts in each and every game.

Some of us believe that Fate and Destiny are nothing more than the names of  dancers down down at the local gentleman's club, but the Packers have been bitten by seasons of destiny gone wrong.  You only need to look back at the charmed post-season of 2003 following the death of Irv Favre to know how you thought miracles would happen every week, and how the disappointment of 4th-and-26 ripped the team apart over the following two years.

Perhaps the Packers were, like the USA Women once believed, a team of destiny.  Perhaps you believe that they were nothing more (or less) than a scrappy team that willed itself to victory.  Either way, the look on the faces of Hope Solo and Abby Wambach illustrate the impact of those emotional wins going unfulfilled at the very end, when you need it most.  Certainly, watching Brian Dawkins intercept Brett Favre's pass in overtime in 2003 was crushing for a team that thought the magical ride would go on forever.

The 2010 Packers got to ride the magic carpet all the way to the end, and certainly, it had as much to do with Ted Thompson's talent acquisitions as well as the ability of McCarthy to spit-and-wire a team together after it was decimated by injuries.

But, if you believe in magic, or fate, or destiny...the 2010 Packers were rode it all the way to the end.  In some ways, it makes this team just a little more endearing than that 1996 team, that one that was built with Hall of Fame bookends on each side of the ball and the perfect game plan every week.  This team of injury fill-ins and wondering what team would show up each week had us rooting for our underdog, and they rewarded us each week with miracle endings....and a Lombardi Trophy.

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