Commentary: NFL gets it right with opener at Lambeau
LOS ANGELES Say all you want about the NFL, and we do plenty of that here in jilted Los Angeles.
Call it greedy and arrogant, and you won’t be wrong.
But never call it unlucky or stupid.
Thursday night’s league opener sends New Orleans to Green Bay. The last two Super Bowl champions will slug it out before a national television audience that will tune in and stay there until the Super Bowl in February. The NFL is the ultimate television sport, featuring the competitive and violent tendencies that appeal to the ultimate sports fan. It is a rough and rugged reality, worshiped by millions who also use it for their organized fantasy.
Since 2002, the NFL has matched its previous two Super Bowl champions in its opener. Since 2004, the most recent champion has been the host. This year, opening in Green Bay works on so many levels.
This is the first game after an off-season labor dispute. That always carries with it anger and bad blood. Fans want to read about trades and expectations. For months, all they get is collective bargaining and salary caps. They, like those of us who have to write about it, know it is mostly a fraud and will end in time for the games, which it did.
In any major sport, getting the buzz back after a buzz-kill is difficult. But the NFL is getting on with the rest of its post-labor-dispute life perfectly.
It is going back to its roots, to a place where fans tailgate in snow banks and embrace it; where Lambeau Field is named after the team’s first coaching legend and nearby Lombardi Avenue is named after its next one; where a football team is as cherished as deer-hunting season.
The reality is that the NFL has become boardrooms, three-piece suits and Tim Leiweke talking about bonds and interim financing. When the success starts being measured in the billions, there is no turning back.
But the NFL will always need to be, in some form, the Packers and Green Bay.
It is a place, and a team, whose most famous football moment was a one-yard quarterback sneak. The dazzling San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s had “The Catch.” The Packers, on a day so cold that the wind chill was the only factor, had Bart Starr muscling into the end zone behind Jerry Kramer.
It is a place where the names Max McGee, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Ken Bowman, Willie Davis, Bob Skoronski, Willie Wood, Dave Hanner, Elijah Pitts and Ray Nitschke, as well as Starr and Kramer and at least a half dozen others, remain household words. That was more than 40 years ago in Green Bay, and their names retain reverence.
And it is a place that has lived somewhat uneasily through the flamboyancy and unpredictability of Brett Favre and now breathes easily with Aaron Rodgers under center. He may be a Cal grad, and by stereotype a potential flower child. But he has turned out to be more Wisconsin, more working class, more show-up-and-get-it-done-quietly than Favre, who brought Packers fans one Super Bowl title and several ensuing years of embarrassment.
Even star linebacker Clay Matthews, long hair flying from underneath his helmet, passes muster in Green Bay. They like it that his road to success includes making the team at USC as a walk-on. That work ethic works there.
Green Bay loved everything about its now deceased, but-never-to-die Vince Lombardi. It loved how he stalked the sidelines, growled at players, made the Packers’ signature play a simple power sweep, refused to give players big raises and then played Santa Claus at their kids’ Christmas parties. Lombardi ate steak, drank Manhattans and worked long hours every day. So, still, does much of Green Bay and Wisconsin.
A recent NBC commercial shows Saints fans marching in to their appropriate song, spotting the big trophy sitting amid green-clad Packers fans and calling out, “Hey, that’s our Super Bowl trophy.” Packers fans go silent. Then a young girl says, simply, “We call it the Lombardi Trophy.”
Which it is and always will be, whether or not it rests in Green Bay.
My brother-in-law Doug Born is long retired and even longer a Packers fan. As ready as the Packers players will be Thursday night, he will be readier. The hours in the day will lead to kickoff time, to the telecast, to a time when any excessive noise on the streets in any Wisconsin city will be unusual.
He will place the key plays in a memory bank, along with key plays from the Lombardi years, and months later, we will talk about them. He worked as a teacher and administrator all his life, raised a family, paid his bills on time and loved the Packers. He is Middle America, just like they are.
Tonight’s traditional opener could have turned out to be the Giants-Chargers, or the Jets-Cowboys. That would have been fine. The football, as it always is in the NFL, would have been compelling.
But this year, the Saints versus the Packers is perfect. The win-one-for-Katrina-victims is still a good story line. So is the back-to-the-basics of city and football in Green Bay.
Doug Born will be in front of his TV set, his game back, his game face on. Any anger over how close greed and ego might have come to wrecking his game will dissolve in tackles and touchdowns.
The big guys in the fancy offices at NFL headquarters in New York will know that, feel it, and smile a lot.
They will either think they are smart or lucky. They are both.