The Green Bay Packers and the Incredible Weight of the Last Decade
For more than 10 years Wisconsin sports have languished just shy of ultimate victory. This year could finally be different.
Time has taken on a profound new meaning in the pandemic, I think we would all agree. I’ve been pondering time quite a lot, its passage, how it trickles or how it rushes.
A decade is a long time. A decade is nearly half of the entire time that I’ve walked on this planet. Add a year to that decade to make it a nice ripe 11, and you have exactly half the time I’ve been strutting about.
It’s this odd, incongruent number I come to now as the Green Bay Packers ready themselves to face a formidable foe this coming Sunday afternoon. Eleven might not seem like much, but as it happens it is the exact amount of time between the present moment and the last time that the Packers triumphed in full Super Bowl glory. And the intervening years have been anything but kind.
Now, I know what you might say: “Every sports fandom thinks they are the most maligned! You’re nothing special!” But alas, I have incontrovertible proof to firmly cement not only the Packers but all of Wisconsin sports as burdened beyond belief.
The problem of the last decade for the three major league teams that call Wisconsin home (the Packers, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Milwaukee Bucks) is not performance. If you simply would like to see abject misery year in and out, you must look elsewhere. (I recommend a fascinating video by SBNation’s Jon Bois, who proves quite resoundingly that the lack of success encountered by the Cleveland Browns over the last two decades is nothing short of witchcraft.) No, there are no dregs in Wisconsin sports, only competitors. Yet, in its own way that almost makes the lack of success worse.
Since Aaron Rodgers and his Packers triumphed in that Super Bowl 11 years ago, he and his cohort have reappeared on the NFL’s second-biggest stage, the conference championship, four more times including this year’s upcoming game. The result from the forthcoming contest notwithstanding, the Packers have lost every single time, including a brutal 22–28 collapse six years ago against the dastardly Seattle Seahawks.
Beyond the pall of American football, however, heartbreak takes form elsewhere too. The aforementioned Milwaukee Brewers have been to two championship-qualifying series as a part of the MLB playoffs, first in 2011 and again in 2018, the latter of which included a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And so too have the Milwaukee Bucks been competitive yet ultimately unsuccessful, competing in a championship-qualifying series against the Toronto Raptors and losing in six games after initially going up 2–0 in 2019.
But this anecdata is of little use in the comparative sense. So, I resolved to look at the fate of all “media markets” (the term applied here contextually rather than literally) in championship-qualifying games or series over the last 11 years in such markets that have, like Wisconsin, representation among the Big 3 of North American sports: football, basketball, and baseball. (My profuse apologies to the NHL.)
What I found was startling. As you can see from this crudely drawn chart, the combined Wisconsin sports markets of Milwaukee and Green Bay place third for most appearances in championship-qualifying games and series over the last 11 years, trailing only the comparatively much larger Greater Boston/New England market and the domain of San Francisco/the Bay Area, and tied with the larger still Los Angeles metro area. And yet, despite eight appearances in championship-qualifying games and series, Wisconsin sports teams have only one victory to celebrate: the Packers’ appearance in the lonely 2011 Super Bowl.
In fact, when taken as an overall record, no market has fared worse that Wisconsin over the last decade in such contests. Milwaukee/Green Bay’s mark of 1–6 (the fate of the Packers in this eighth appearance yet unknown) is not only the worst when compared to the big markets of Boston, New York, and LA but is the among the worst of any market that has been to more than one championship-qualifying contest and hosts an NBA, MLB, and NFL team.
At 0.142, Wisconsin pro sports teams have a worse record and winning percentage than does Houston (2–4, 0.333), Detroit (1–2, 0.333), or even Chicago (1–4, 0.200). (That last comparative in particular really gets my goat.) And while it’s true that there are two markets that have not won any of the championship-qualifying games or series that they’ve appeared in, neither has appeared in more than two such contests (both the Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Suns failed to qualify for their championships in 2015 and 2010 respectively, and the Minnesota Vikings were routed in the 2018 NFC Championship game).
Frankly, it’s not even the absence of actual championships won that’s really all that bothersome. Of all the sports markets considered, only four (Greater Boston, the Bay Area, LA, and Miami) have won more than one championship in the last 11 years, while the same number (Atlanta, Detroit, and the aforementioned Minnesota and Arizona/Phoenix markets) have won exactly zero. Yet, no other collection of teams have had so many golden opportunities only to capitalize on exactly none of them than have those in the state of Wisconsin.
No other market has ever had an abundance of talent quite like Milwaukee/Green Bay has either. As I commented on a year and a half ago and as pointed out vociferously by JR Radcliffe of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Wisconsin has a very legitimate argument to be considered the MVP capital of all North American sports. As Radcliffe lays out in this USA Today article, the Milwaukee/Green Bay market over the last 25 years is home to more MVPs than anywhere else (this time including all four major North American sports leagues, even the NHL) other than the Bay Area. And with Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA’s MVP award again for the 2020 season, and Aaron Rodgers likely to win the NFL’s MVP for its 2020–2021 season, the state of Wisconsin will be able to claim 10 MVPs over the last quarter-century on all three of its major professional sports teams. And while the Bay Area is still able to claim more with 12 total, when calculated out per team (the Bay Area boasts five, formerly six, professional sports teams) Milwaukee/Green Bay has won a whopping 3.33 major awards per team compared to the Bay Area’s meager 2.4.
It is this sort of gaudy weight that presses now upon the Green Bay Packers. The success of this NFL season is couched not only in the context of their own past failures but in the summation of all the failures of Dairyland athletics. They boldly call Green Bay “Titletown” not only because it possesses the most total NFL championships full stop (not bad for a sleepy hamlet of about 100,000 people) but because the very name of the most legendary Packers coach is etched into the championship trophy for all time. The names of Lambeau and Starr and Lombardi are all synonymous with winning. And yet, if one merely glances at the track record of the Green Bay Packers for the last 11 years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Titletown moniker is an aberration.
This year could be different though. In the past, there have been plenty of excuses: bad play-calling on the part of Mike McCarthy, arrogance stemming from the core of Aaron Rodgers’ being, just plain dumb bad luck. And if Green Bay loses again on Sunday there will surely be finger-pointing galore (coordinators Mike Pettine and Shawn Mennenga may be among the first dominoes to fall).
Yet, as a viewer and as a fan, I’ve been waiting all season for that other shoe to drop. I held my breath as the Packers eked out a close win against the Carolina Panthers, as they trailed the Chicago Bears narrowly in the second quarter of the final week of the regular season, and as the Los Angeles Rams made some key stops and drove to tie late in the game last week. And yet, every week, I’ve been likewise astonished. The defense has held where it never has before, the special teams have managed at least average kick returns, and (perhaps least surprising) the offense has churned at a rate unlike any I’ve seen, and that’s even in comparison to other record-setting Packers units. There’s a good reason why Aaron Rodgers is likely to earn his record-tying third MVP award, and it’s frankly been a pleasure to watch.
Time has taken on a profound new meaning during the pandemic. Forced inside, relegated to stare at screens day in and day out I’ve likely watched more Packers football (more football entirely) than I have since high school. And yet, it is exactly that kind of intense focus that not only makes this moment so laborious but will make its triumph that much more jubilant, provided it comes. For a decade-plus Wisconsinites have watched their sports icons come oh so close and have been crushed every time; I can only imagine that upon its arrival, the release from such painstaking suspension should be ferocious indeed.