Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Something Died in Seattle

Elimination from contention is always a difficult time for any NFL fan.  Whether your team was ousted early in the regular season, during the playoffs, or in the Super Bowl itself, it is always painful.  But this was more painful than normal.  This loss will stick with us for a while.  Maybe forever.  Some part of me as a Packer fan died in Seattle Sunday.

“I don’t know if I can do this again,” I said to my 9-year old son after the game.  “It’s just too painful to be a Packer fan and be let down again like this.”  My son stared at me slack-jawed for a second, as if I’d just told him he was adopted.  “Dad… you don’t mean that.”  But I think I did mean it.  There is a pit in my stomach, a lump in my throat, and a void where all the excitement, emotion and promise of this season once was.

Of course, as an individual fan, I had nothing to do with this loss.  When you explain how you feel to a non-invested observer (one’s spouse... for example), you sound like a deranged person.  The outcome of yesterday’s game was completely out of my control.  Objectively, I know that.  If I step back, like some out-of-body experience, my behavior seems ludicrous.  Why was I shouting f-bombs and punching couch pillows?  Why did I ruin our family get-together by slamming the remote control and storming out of the room, as horrified extended relatives scurried for the exits?  How is it possible that I've spent multiple sleepless nights re-playing the game in my head?  It’s just a game.  A game in which I’m not a participant.  Such reactions from the players or coaches is understandable, but from a fan?  "Get a grip” I keep telling myself.

But I can’t get a grip.  I can’t forget this game.  And, tragically, no Packer fan will ever be able to forget it.  Every miraculous victory needs to have an epic failure on the other side.  A protagonist and an antagonist.  The Bills needed the Oilers in "The Comeback."  The Titans (thoughtfully reciprocating) needed the Bills in "The Music City Miracle."  The Patriots needed the Raiders in "The Tuck Rule" game.  These games and these situations are so unique, so unlikely, so memorable that they are solidified in the folklore of the NFL.  The Packers have now added their name to that ignominious list.  As fans, we won’t be able to forget this loss because it will be replayed, retold and rehashed for years.  Ask an Oilers fan about The Comeback.  It was 22 years ago.  The team doesn’t even exist in that city or by that name any more.  But the heartache of that loss still reverberates.

This loss will reverberate for Packers fans.  Every other playoff loss seems to pale in comparison.  First-round elimination by the Giants as the number one seed in 2011?  I got over it.  Fourth and 26 against the Eagles?  Distant memory.  Randy Moss wiping his ass on our goal post?  OK, that one sticks a bit.  But this one… this is the kind of loss you tell your grandchildren about.  It’s the kind of loss that you'll remember years from now where you were when it happened.  And, most regrettably, it’s a loss that will forever be associated with the Green Bay Packers, these players (poor Brandon Bostick), and this coach.  Losses like this strain an organization.  They erode trust and fray relationships.  They force you to scrutinize and second-guess.  And they often, fairly or not, cast the legacies of those most closely associated with them.

For me, still trying to process the loss days later, the person whose legacy I find myself most questioning is Mike McCarthy.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the guy to get fired.  With a 94-49 regular-season career winning percentage, he’s undeniably a great coach.  One of the Packer’s best, ever.  But his record in the playoffs tells a different story — just 7-6 in his career.  And if you take the unlikely 4-0 run in 2010 out of that record, he’s only 3-6 during the playoffs.  It’s easy to forget that the 2010 Super Bowl run depended on last-second interceptions in two games.  McCarthy could have easily been one-and-done had Tramon Williams not picked off Michael Vick with 33 seconds left in the Wild Card game.

It’s also easy to under-estimate the patience that Super Bowl season earned McCarthy.  Had that memorable championship run not happened, it’s hard to believe that the ensuing 4 years would have been tolerable for Packers fans or management.  McCarthy’s Packers have won the NFC North every year since, at an amazing 72% winning percentage during those four regular seasons, but have only advanced past the Divisional round once — this year.

At some point, that’s simply not good enough.  Call us spoiled, but one of the characteristic features of the Green Bay Packers is that we WIN FUCKING CHAMPIONSHIPS!!!  Sooner or later, there’s a Marty Schottenheimer moment, where you decide that a 5-13 playoff record overshadows a 2:1 regular season record. Were it not for the 2010 Super Bowl halo, McCarthy would almost certainly be fired this season.  His vanilla game plans, conservative play calling, and impetuous decision-making would have his job in jeopardy.  The fan base and Packer management would not accept another early exit from the playoffs during the prime of Aaron Rodgers’ career.  And the second-guessing, as loud as it's been this year, would have been triple the decibel level.

If there was a lesson, a silver lining, that could hopefully come from Sunday’s loss, it is to finally vanquish that lets-play-not-to-lose-the-game mindset that has plagued McCarthy’s teams.  In the playoffs, you need to play to win.  When a team turns the ball over to you 5 times, effectively handing you the game on a silver platter, you need to STEP ON THEIR FUCKING THROATS.  What separates the good teams, as the Packers under both Rodgers and Favre have consistently been, from the great teams is a killer instinct.  It’s what the Belichick-Brady Patriots have demonstrated year after year -- a no-holds-barred will to win, even if it involves deflating balls.

There are still a few years left.  Even though he turns 32 next year, Rodgers should have a few more runs in him before the era is over.  To be at the precipice this year, in this game, is an incredible missed opportunity.  But there’s still time to write a legacy closer to Brady’s than Peyton’s.  It’s a high bar for next season — Super Bowl or bust.  But that, in the end, may be the only way to cover up the bitter taste of Sunday’s epic defeat.  The only way to resuscitate the part of my Packer fandom that died in Seattle.