by Tuesday Morning Tailback
This week, the Tuesday Morning Tailback takes a break from bashing the National Football League to actually observe something positive. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, the two most successful franchises in the history of the league, are meeting for the first time to decide the world championship.
So, with a lockup or strike in 2011 looming ever closer and larger, and with the multitude of other self-imposed wounds by the league that this column regularly exposes, we will focus on what very well may be one of the last great events in the storied history of the NFL – Super Bowl XLV on Feburary 6th.
We will concentrate not so much on the current teams, although they are both excellent with top-notch young quarterbacks and two of the best defenses in the league. Instead we will look at the fantastic history of success that each of these franchises accomplished, as well as the incredible fact that, despite all the success that dates back some nine decades, they have never met before in a playoff or championship situation.
For about 35 years now, fans have been told how popular and great are the Dallas Cowboys. It is true, they have earned much of their popularity and accolades through success on the field, but, put in the proper context, they still lag behind a couple of franchises that earned a higher esteem.
Unlike the subjective “America’s Team”, which started as a marketing scheme to promote the Cowboys in the 1970s, Green Bay has truly earned its nickname of “Title Town”, through decades of success. The packers had one championship in the 1920s, four in the 1930s, one in the 1940s, five in the 1960s, and one in the 1990s. They are the only team in NFL history to win three consecutive league championships and they accomplished this twice – 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1965, 1966, 1967. They won the first two Super Bowls and the Vince Lombardi Trophy, perhaps the most coveted symbol in sports, is named after their legendary head coach in the 1960s.
Beyond this incredible success on the field, Green Bay, Wisconsin is the most unique setting in all of professional sports. It ranks 268th in population in the United States, an incredibly small town to be one of only 32 locations where the most popular sport on Earth is played. To put this in perspective, some of the U.S. cities that rank just ahead of Green Bay in population are Frisco, TX, Gresham, OR, High Point, NC, and Erie, PA.
But Green Bay is incredibly important to the NFL’s legacy because it is the last example of where professional football got it’s start. It was not in the larger cities, but those medium-sized – smaller cities and larger “towns” throughout the midwest. In their innagural season of 1919, the Packers played in a league with fellow Wisonsin teams in Oshkosh and Sheboygan as well as teams from Muncie, IN, Canton, OH, and Pottsville, PA. As the league gained popularity through the 1920s and 1930s, these small market teams either relocated to the major cities or disbanded, all except the Packers, who persisted in Green Bay through the decades, and with great success.
They did toy with the big city to an extent, playing multiple games in Milwaukee each season for several decades right up into the 1990s. But since 1995, they have played all of their games in Green Bay and all have sold out each and every one. The team is actually owned by the city of Green Bay as well as thousands of share holders, the only publically owned team in professional sports. You will not hear them be named as a candidate for relocation to Los Angeles, like will of teams in the much larger cities of Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Jacksonville. They are a true institution in Green Bay, WI.
It is true that the success of the Packers is a bit back-loaded, with 11 of their 12 championships occuring by 1967. The team entered a long period of mediocrity through the 1970s and 1980s, missing the playoffs for 19 of 20 seasons until the Brett Favre led ressurgence in the 1990s. Ironically, this is the mirror opposite of the Pittsburgh Steelers story. For just as the Packers went into decline following the Lombardi era, the Steelers went on a meteoric rise.
Chuck Noll became head coach of the Steelers in 1969, and pulled off two of the most incredible feats ever in football, which will probably never be repeated again. First, he drafted a total of nine future Hall of Fame players between 1969 and 1974. Next, he led his team to four Super Bowl victories in the mid-to-late 70s, more than any other coach in the “Super Bowl” era. All of those championships were accomplished with these “home-grown”, drafted players, most of which started and ended their careers as a Pittsburgh Steeler. There was absolutely no big name free agent signing to boost or replenish the team during this incredible run in the 70s. This was also an amazing turn-around, because prior to Noll’s arrival, the Steelers had never won anything.
In 1933, Art Rooney started the NFL franchise as the Pittsburgh Pirates, and would eventually change their name to the Steelers in 1940. The team nearly disbanded twice during World War II, when there was a serious shortage a personnel to play football, but in each case were kept alive by mergering with another franchise, once with the Chicago Cardinals (“Card-Pitt”) and once with their cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Eagles (“The Steagles”). In 1947, the Steelers lost to the Eagles 21-0 in a playoff game. It would be the teams only post-season appearance prior to 1972, when they won their first playoff game due to Franco Harris‘s famous “Immaculate Reception”.
In perhaps the most amazing turnaround of a franchise in sports history, the team that appeared in absolutely no championship games during their first 39 years of existance, has appeared in 15 conference championships during their past 38. Ultimately, the Steelers, who are still owned by the Rooney family, have won six Super Bowls. This includes two during the past five years, following the 2005 and 2008 seasons, and is more than any other team. They hope to up that record by making Super Bowl XLV their seventh.
Aside from their great traditions, another thing that can be said or both the Steelers and Packers is their similarities on other fronts. Both are named after prominent blue-collar industries in their respective region, in lieu of some grand, artificial mascot like the Benglas, Bears, Rams, and Redskins. Both having extremely loyal fans that “travel well”, occupying large portions of normally partisan stadiums. And both have maintained the same basic look that their teams donned during their glory years, foregoing the “trendy” new looks adopted by teams such as New England, Denver, and Seattle. So there is some higher sense of integrity with this contest, and that’s not to mention the current teams, which have proven they are the two best by their play on the field late in the season and through the playoffs.
This Super Bowl matchup did very nearly happen on two occasions in the 1990s. In 1995, the Steelers made it to Super Bowl XXX while the Packers barely lost the NFC Championship to Dallas. Two years later, the Packers went to the big game while Pittsburgh was upset at home by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship (due mainly to the support of two rabid Bronco fans in the upper deck of the northwest end zone).
So this week we congratulate the NFL on this historic Super Bowl, between two great teams from the heart of America, America’s team with the most championships all time against America’s team with the most Super Bowl victories. Ironically, this game takes place at the home field of the marketed “America’s Team” in Dallas. We sincerely hope the game lives up to its moment and the better wins through some memorable accomplishment on the field.
Next Tuesday we will return to bashing the NFL when we look at the asinine new playoff overtime rule – one of the potential new pit falls that can serve to ruin this historic Super Bowl.