American Football: 'Pack' on road to perfection
Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers' season for ages is helping Green Bay blow opponents away
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Thursday 01 December 2011
Much has happened of late in the hypercharged world of American football. The NFL, the world's richest sports league, endured an 18-week summer lockout as owners and players bickered over how to divide $9bn of annual revenue. College football, supposedly amateur but a giant industry in its own right, has been hit by scandal after scandal, culminating in the dreadful sexual abuse allegations at Penn State. One thing though remains constant. The Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers rule.
The 2010 season ended with the Packers capturing their fourth Super Bowl and championship No 13, the most of any NFL team. In 2011, Green Bay have continued where they left off. With two thirds of the regular season gone, they are a perfect 11-0. The Las Vegas bookies already have the Packers at almost even money for a repeat at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on 5 February. But an even more tantalising question simmers. Can the Packers do it without losing a single game?
In the NFL, invincibility – indeed, perfection given that tied games are all but impossible – is relatively simple compared to other leagues. The regular season lasts only 16 games. Win every one, and you gain a bye for the first play-off round and are guaranteed home field advantage for the next two. Only the Super Bowl itself is played on neutral territory.
In 1972, when the regular season consisted of just 14 games, Don Shula's Miami Dolphins became the first team of the modern NFL era to win it all, going 17-0. Since the introduction of the 16-game season in 1978, the benchmark has been set by the 2007 New England Patriots, led by quarterback Tom Brady, with an unbeaten regular season, followed by two play-off victories. But complete perfection eluded the overwhelmingly favoured Patriots, who lost Super Bowl XLII in the cruellest fashion, going down by just three points when the New York Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown with just 35 seconds remaining.
The current Packers are uncannily similar to the 2007 Patriots. Count the six successive regular season and play-off wins at the end of 2010, and they are already on a 17-game unbeaten streak. Both teams score seemingly at will; Green Bay currently average 35 points a game, close to New England's record 37 points-per-game haul four years ago.
Statistically, the Packers defense leaves something to be desired (although even that can partly be put down to the loss of star safety Nick Collins to injury). But in gridiron, like every other team sport, if you score more than the opposition, you win. The defense moreover has more than made up for its positional frailties by leading the league in interceptions.
"I don't believe anyone is going to beat the Green Bay Packers, I don't know of a way to beat the Packers," says Michael Irvin, TV analyst and star receiver on the Dallas Cowboy team that was as dominant in the early 1990s as the Packers are now. Tony Dungy, who coached the Indianapolis Colts to a 13-0 start in 2005, agrees. "I think they are going to go undefeated."
Green Bay's ultimate weapon is Aaron Rodgers. Great quarterbacks make great football teams, and Rodgers is having a season to rival, perhaps exceed, Brady's record-breaker of 2007. His introduction to the league wasn't easy – three seasons as understudy to the legendary Brett Favre, waiting for a retirement that never seemed to come. But in spring 2008, the Packers lost patience with Favre's annual "to-play-or-not-to-play" melodrama, and gave Rodgers the starter's job. Now the rich promise of youth is being fulfilled.
His figures through 11 games are on course to put him alongside not only Brady and Favre but the supreme NFL quarterbacks of any era. Thus far, Rodgers has thrown for 3,475 yards and 33 touchdowns, and surrendered just four interceptions. His pass completion rate of nearly 72 per cent, if sustained, would be an all-time NFL record.
He is on track to be only the third quarterback, after the legendary Dan Marino, and Drew Brees of the 2008 New Orleans Saints, to register a 5,000 yard season, and could yet beat the single season touchdown record of 50, thrown by Brady in 2007. As for Rodgers' passer rating – the most comprehensive measure of a quarterback's performance – it stands at an unheard-of 127.7.
But numbers tell only part of the story. The most mesmerising moment in all American sport right now is watching a Packers snap back from the line of scrimmage, and Rodgers in the "hole" wheeling, feinting and probing – before delivering a telepathic inch-perfect pass to a receiver who has found a gap that a split-second earlier did not exist. Every time the Packers gain possession, they look like scoring.
Even in the comparatively short NFL regular season invincibility is something very special. In 39 years, only the Patriots have managed it, though five teams have gone 15-1. Year after year, an all-conquering team loses end-of-season games when divisions are already won, and home field advantage in the playoffs is already secure.
Sometimes it is lack of motivation, sometimes a desire to protect key players from injury. The Packers need just one more win to wrap up their division, and only two more to be top seed in their conference. If they faltered in a meaningless game thereafter, they would not be the first team of destiny to do so.
A first test comes this Sunday, when they face the ever-dangerous New York Giants on the hostile territory of the MetLife Stadium, whose treacherous winds could betray even the laser bullets fired by Rodgers' arm. Then the Packers must meet their bitterest divisional rivals, the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions, albeit back in familiar, frigid Green Bay.
"We're getting better every week," says Rodgers, but he avoids mention of the unmentionable. "I think we're a long way from there [perfection]," he told an interviewer. "But if we're fortunate enough to be still undefeated after 14 or 15 games, maybe we can start talking about what you were talking about."
Untouchables: Three unbeaten sides
1972 Miami Dolphins The South Florida side won all 14 regular season games before marching through two play-off contests. Head coach Don Shula's side then defeated Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII, to make them the only team in NFL history to enjoy a perfect Championship-winning season.
2003-04 Arsenal Arsène Wenger's "Invincibles" won the title with 26 victories and 12 draws, making them the only team in the Premier League era to go a full season unbeaten. The closest the Gunners came to a defeat was away at Old Trafford, when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a last-minute penalty.
1925 South Sydney Rabbitohs Between 1925 and 1932 the New South Wales club dominated rugby league, winning the Premiership seven years out of eight, including their 100 per cent record 86 years ago.
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