American Football: History stacked in favour of the Pack

Super Bowl XXXI New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers Preview by Matt Tench
When the Green Bay Packers last made it to the Super Bowl, America was at war with Vietnam, Watergate was an unknown Washington hotel and the Beatles were top of the charts. More to the point, Brett Favre was not yet born, Bill Parcells was a 26-year-old college coaching assistant and the very words "Super Bowl" were meaningless.

Back in January 1968 an era was ending. The Packers, coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, were the NFL champions for the fifth year in seven, and their match-up with the Oakland Raiders, the title holders of the young rival league, the AFL , was widely regarded as an intriguing coda to the season, rather than its climax. A year earlier, in the first such battle between the two leagues, the Pack had crushed the upstarts from Kansas City in a game that failed to sell out. The Raiders were dispatched with similar disdain, but soon the game would never be the same again.

Lombardi, burnt out by creating his Titletown dynasty, moved away from coaching duties to become general manager. Twelve months later he left the team. Meanwhile the Kansas City owner, Lamar Hunt, adapting the name of his children's new "Superball" toy, suggested what had been known as the "world championship" game be called a "Super Bowl". The toy did not last, the event did.

The next time it was played Joe Namath a garrulous quarterback with the New York Jets, guaranteed victory for his AFL team over the overwhelming favourites from Baltimore. It was a ludicrous promise, but one Namath kept, to firmly establish the Super Bowl as the legitimate finale to the American football season.

The Packers, who have never come close to returning to the big game until recently, can expect huge support across America when they play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans on Sunday, partly because of the memories stirred of Lombardi, an icon without parallel in his sport. But their popularity goes deeper than that, and for the NFL their presence in the game's showpiece could not be better timed. The Dallas Cowboys may be America's Team - a hard-won status they show signs of taking for granted - but the Pack represent something more fundamental. They are the game's soul.

In an era when money appears more important than anything including history and loyalty, the Packers stand for tradition and trust. The last few years have seen another old franchise disappear from Cleveland, Los Angeles lose both its teams and Houston engaged in a messy separation from the Oilers. The Packers were founded in Green Bay in 1919, will see in the new millennium there, and in all probability the millennium after that.

For more than half a century they have enjoyed the support of probably the most fanatical fans in the country, and the intensity of their following provides practical as well as emotional reasons for their stability. In 1950, needing to raise money to save the franchise, the club offered shares to its fans which were non-transferable and offered no return. They were all taken up, giving the people of Wisconsin a tangible stake in the future of their team.

The Packers are also a glorious enigma in the modern sporting world, one that offers a lasting tribute to Pete Rozelle, the former NFL Commissioner, who died recently. With a population of just 96,000 Green Bay has comfortably the smallest local fan base in the league, a statistic that would almost certainly be fatal in the television age, had Rozelle not persuaded the NFL owners in the Sixties that TV revenues should be divided equally. As a result the Packers, who have no trouble filling their 60,000 stadium, can compete in every way with teams boasting much bigger and more lucrative markets.

Far from having difficulty selling out, Green Bay's problem is satisfying a voracious desire to see the Pack. The waiting list for season tickets can be as long as 35 years, which helps explain why they are so well supported on their travels: it is the only way many fans are able to see them. At Lambeau Field (named after Curly Lambeau, their founder and first coach) the fans frequently endure Arctic conditions - it reached -27C with the wind chill in last week's victory over Carolina - an act of lunacy almost on a par with the mass wearing of cheese-shaped hats, a sartorial statement that invites ridicule even when judged by the mind-boggling standards of sports fans.

We can expect plenty of promotion for Wisconsin's principal product this week as the Cheeseheads assemble, and no lack of confidence that they will be rallying to a winning cause. Mike Holmgren, the first of Lombardi's six successors to compile a winning record, has assembled a team that began the season as Super Bowl favourites and, despite the odd hiccup, go into the big game with that status enhanced.

In Brett Favre, Holmgren boasts the best player of the last couple of years, a quarterback who combines poise and panache in the pocket, and is capable of dismantling accomplished defenses with practised ease. For a spell in the middle of the season Green Bay's biggest concern was their own casualty rate, with three of Favre's favourite receivers, Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman and Mark Chmura suffering serious injuries. Of the three only the unlucky Brooks will miss Sunday's game, though, and the acquisition of a couple of wily veterans - Keith Byars and the mercurial Andre Rison - gives Favre a plethora of targets.

As utilisers of the West Coast offense, passing will always be at the heart of the Packers attack, but their running game can also be productive, with Dorsey Levens a burgeoning threat both as a rusher and receiver. Defensively the Pack also rank with the league's best thanks to a corps, led by Reggie White, the greatest defensive end of his generation, which specialises in shutting down the opposition and pilfering turnovers.

Perhaps as important as the personnel, the Pack will go to New Orleans with the enormous psychological fillip of being the NFC team, the conference to provide the last 12 Super Bowl winners.

This uneven distribution of wealth has vexed commentators for a decade now, and in the last six months two of America's most influential publications, Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News, have predicted the end of an aura. The News did so just seven weeks ago, analysing why four AFC teams had what it takes to beat NFC opposition. Unfortunately all four - Denver, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Kansas City - have been knocked out leaving the Patriots as contestants who must battle an inferiority complex as well as the opposition.

As a team that started the season badly, took a while to get going and were rendered virtually impotent offensively by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game a week ago, the Patriots would appear to go into the biggest game in their history with little going for them. What they do have is Bill Parcells.

While not quite a martinet in Lombardi's class, Parcells is a head coach of the old school. He won two Super Bowls while in charge of the New York Giants where he established a reputation as a demanding, uncomplicated leader, quick to find fault, and has never been one to allow his players to get ideas above their station. "The Big Tuna" he was called by the local media, a soubriquet that combined a certain affection with a great deal of respect.

He is also a superb tactician, and it is the second of his Super Bowl triumphs that will give the Patriots the most reason for optimism. The Giants went into that game against a brilliant young Buffalo Bills team, portrayed as an ageing outfit about to get its come-uppance. Instead Parcells' devastatingly effective game plan kept the Bills' potent offense off the field, and the Giants won by a point.

The Patriots' chances of success on Sunday would seem to revolve around their ability to do the same. It will not be easy, though, partly because the Packers are less brittle than the '91 Bills, but mainly because the Patriots are very different from Parcells' Giants.

His New York teams were founded on a dominating defense plus an offense that ran the ball. The Patriots' defense, despite a Herculean effort against the Jaguars, has never been especially impressive, while its offense is focused around the passing of Drew Bledsoe. However, in Curtis Martin, Parcells does have a running back every bit as good as any he coached in New York, and it will be a surprise if Parcells' plans do not involve Martin rushing for more than 100 yards.

The Packers, though, will surely be waiting for him, and in White and his cohorts on the Green Bay defensive line, have the muscle to repel him. If so, Favre will do the rest to make Green Bay into Titletown once more.

Then again, the Big Tuna in the Big Easy does have a certain ring to it...