It seems like a new generation of Green Bay Packers fans are taking over – they’re taking over Facebook; they’re taking over Twitter; they’re taking over ticket sales. In the end, that’s a great thing. Passing of the torch of fandom is what it’s all about to keep this team’s nation alive and inspired.
But it also seems this newest generation of fans who grew up with Brett Favre, Reggie White, and divisional, conference and Super Bowl championships is a bit spoiled. Just today I read a tweet that asked the esteemed Aaron Nagler if he thought Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy would be on the hot seat if they had another season like the last. Nagler’s answer was direct and to the point:
Yes, another division title puts them on the hot seat. RT @rammer919: Does another year like last put MM and TT on the hot seat?
— Aaron Nagler (@Aaron_Nagler) February 19, 2013
And Nagler’s right … it seems that many of those who are following the Packers and the NFL these days are satisfied only when a team – the Packers, specifically – win. Yes, that is the ultimate goal in the National Football League, but it’s not reality. There are up years, there are down years.
Let’s go back 30 years to the 1980s – we’ll skip the 1970s, they were painful enough. Championships were a thing of the past, a thing of the 1960s, a thing that involved a guy named Lombardi. Just ask Bart Starr, the Packers beleaguered coach in 1980, not the beloved hero of the past that he is in 2013. Just ask defensive lineman Ezra Johnson whose actions with a hot dog produced more ink than anything the Packers did on the field.
What I’m about to describe was just the first game of the first season of a decade of desperation for the Packers franchise, a decade when the rival Chicago Bears dominated early and often and won their only Super Bowl. It was the beginning of a decade that saw one division championships for the Packers – that’s right, one – and that’s diminished because it was during the strike-shortened season. Championships were figments of our imaginations. We had forgotten the excitement of watching a team that year-in and year-out competed for the top spot.
And while it’s a joyful moment in Packers history, this moment I’m about to describe was probably the best and only moment when Packers fans could truly hold their heads high – it was mostly downhill from there.
You see, the Packers finished 1979 at 5-11, suffering through many injuries and the worst run defense on the planet.
When the Packers got back to training camp in 1980, hopes again were high – that was until the team took to the field. They lost every preseason game and were shut out in three of those four games. They were horrendous and even their star wide receiver James Lofton was getting into the act, calling Packers fans names
and giving them the finger. Coaches were fired, the team was booed off the field, and fans were calling for the head of Bart Starr – and that was all before the season even started.
To top it all off, there was the incident involving Johnson and his hot dog. It was the final exhibition game of the season and the Packers were being shut out. It was late in the game and Johnson was seen eating a hot dog on the sideline – an action that the media and many fans found reprehensible in light of the fact that the Packers were being decimated on the field.
In fact, the Packers’ defensive line coach, Fred vonAppen eventually resigned over the fiasco. He learned that Johnson had been eating the hot dog during the game and wanted his hide. Though Johnson was fined $1,000 and made to apologize to his teammates, that wasn’t enough for vanAppen, who resigned in disgust. Johnson said he didn’t mean anything by it. “I was just hungry,” he said. “I didn’t wave it around or anything.”
For all of you who don’t remember, it was may have been one of the lowest of lows in Packers Nation. It’s funny today, but it wasn’t back then. The Packers seemed in total disarray.
But then something happened – at least for one day – and it was centered around Chester Marcol, the Packers place kicker who had been one of those injured in 1979 and would be cut later in 1980. But for one shining moment in the first regular season game at Lambeau Field he propelled himself into team lore on one play.
The Packers played the Bears in the opener, Lambeau Field was jammed and both teams’ defenses were stellar – the Packers’ in particular. Coming off a season when they ranked dead last in run defense, the Packers shut down Walter Payton that day – they kept him to 65 total yards on 31 carries. But the Packers offense was nonexistent that day, too. The only scoring they could muster came off the leg of Marcol, who converted from 41 and 46 yards to match kicks by the Bears’ Bob Thomas.
The game went into overtime and the Bears received the ball first. The Packers’ defense again rose up and shut down Chicago who punted to the Packers. Quarterback Lynn Dickey then proceeded to hit Lofton on a 30-plus-yard completion that moved the Packers deep into Chicago territory. After three runs, the Packers and Marcol lined up for the field goal. The snap was true, Marcol moved forward and put his foot into the ball. However, the push from the Chicago line crumpled the Packers wall and Alan Page squarely blocked the kick.
For the Bears and their fans the seconds after the block were an insane nightmare. The ball Page blocked caromed right back to Marcol who caught the ball, hesitated in shock and then took off around left end untouched for the winning touchdown. Lambeau Field broke into pandemonium and at least for one day all was well in Green Bay and Bart Starr’s job was safe.
But that was about it for the highlights for that year. The Packers finished 5-10-1 in 1980; 8-8 in 1981; 5-3-1 in the strike-shortened 1982 season (1st in the Central Division, if you can call it that); and 8-8 in Starr’s last season as head coach. Mediocrity and less continued when the promise of a new coach in Forrest Gregg materialized.
But the wins and championships were as few a far between. In 1984 and 1985 the Packers finished 8-8. That’s when Gregg cleaned house, got rid of Lynn Dickey and Paul Coffman, among other high profile players, and then had a banner year of 4-12 in 1986, and 5-9-1 in 1987 before he was fired.
Lindy Infante was hired in 1988 and the Packers had another competitive year with a final record of 4-12. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Packers finally fielded a competitive team, finishing 10-6 and finally winning the Central Division. However, the winning fever in Green Bay was shortlived as the Packers again went into the tank in 1990 (6-10) and 1991 (4-12) before Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren came to town.
That’s when many of those younger Packers fans started understanding and following the game of football.
It’s great that these 20-somethings have known only winning and have come to expect it … setting the bar as high as we can is what the National Football League is all about. But understand, young Packers fans, that this team has been around for nearly 100 years and has had many ups and downs.
When a fan thinks management is on the hot seat because they win a divisional championship, but fall in the playoffs, that is being spoiled rotten. Consider the alternatives. Enjoy what you have now, because it could be gone tomorrow and not return for many, many years.
Some of us older fans understand that and will take a division championship any day, even if they falter in the playoffs.
We’ve seen a lot worse.