Vince Lombardi would have loved this homegrown Packers bunch

Publish date:

His has been a renaissance season of sorts, the kind of fall and winter that only burnishes the legend and brings his always evocative name back to our lips once more.

I don't know if you've noticed, but Vince Lombardi is having a pretty good year. Between the smash Broadway play that bears his name -- now in the fourth month of its successful run -- to the enthralling HBO documentary that debuted in December, Lombardi is almost literally back on center stage this football season. It's a coaching comeback for the ages.

And can it be mere coincidence that the Green Bay Packers -- and in some ways they will forever seem like his Packers -- are back playing for a championship once again, one win away from vying for the Lombardi Trophy? And only the Packers' historic rivals, those same Chicago Bears that Lombardi battled, stand between Green Bay and a return to the Super Bowl. If you don't really believe in the power of karma, there might just be enough forces at work here to convince you otherwise.

With so much of the Lombardi mystique in the air these days, I went looking to channel Green Bay's iconic coach as a novel way to wrap my hands around Sunday's intriguing Packers-Bears NFC Championship Game matchup at Solider Field. What would Vince say about these Aaron Rodgers-led Packers and their impressive wild-card playoff run? What would he make of the biggest game in the long and storied Green Bay-Chicago rivalry, the oldest in the NFL? And could there be a convergence between the rise of these Packers and the renewal of our fascination with the man every subsequent NFL head coach has been measured by for more than four decades now?

David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the acclaimed Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, is as well-positioned and seeped in Lombardi as anyone to weigh in on those questions of the day. Especially since Maraniss, whose 1999 book was the inspiration for the Broadway play, has spent the better part of this football season reveling in both the success of the Lombardi theatrical production and the coach's former team (Maraniss is both a Wisconsin native and an unabashed Packers fan, in addition to being a part-time neighbor of mine in Madison, Wis.).

"I think this would be one of his favorite Packers teams ever, honestly,'' said Maraniss on Thursday from Washington D.C., where he continues to write a biography of President Obama that's scheduled for a spring 2012 release. "Because it's a real team, in every fashion -- on offense, defense and special teams. You really don't have any superstars. You have Rodgers emerging as a superstar, but he's not a showboat superstar. I think he'd be delighted with this team, because they do it the right way. Even more so than the 1996-97 Packers Super Bowl teams.

"That's partly because this team is so homegrown. In the old days, most teams were homegrown. There were some players he picked up early on from Cleveland in his Green Bay tenure. But they became almost life-long Packers in time. This team resembles that in many ways. There's no Reggie White-level free-agent signing. Charles Woodson, yes, but he came in years ago and by now it seems like he's been a Packer forever. This is a team Lombardi could have related to.''

Winning teams almost always have good chemistry, but Maraniss said these Packers seem especially close, and have forged the kind of bonds between teammates that Lombardi always stressed. What was true in the 1960s still holds relevance as one of the keys to successful team-building a half century later.

"When I heard that the whole receiving corps went down to Jordy Nelson's farm and spent time together last summer, that really touched me,'' Maraniss said. "Lombardi was great on race and really knew how to build a team. That was one of his strong points. I think this team's unity was symbolized when Donald Driver, and Greg Jennings, and James Jones and their wives all went down to [Riley County] Kansas and spent time with Jordy Nelson and his wife on the farm.

"You never really know what's going on inside a team's locker room, but from all indications this team does have that sort of unity, and Lombardi would love that. On a lot of teams, there always seems to be a real division between offense and defense, with some friction there. That doesn't seem to be the case here.''

Lombardi was a well-known perfectionist, so it's not as if he wouldn't have fault to find with this season's Packers. For starters, there's the Green Bay running game. It has been nearly non-existent for most of the year, after lead back Ryan Grant went down with a season-ending injury in the season-opening win at Philadelphia. The Packers ranked just 24th this season in rushing, barely cracking 100 yards per game (100.4).

"It would have driven Lombardi crazy,'' Maraniss said, laughing. "Because the power sweep was his signature play, and to not have that as their bread and butter, well, it wouldn't have happened if he were coaching. The eras of the game are different, obviously, but that would have driven him crazy not to have a running game to rely on.''

But in Rodgers, Lombardi would have found a reliable and play-making presence at quarterback, which has only grown even more so into the game's most pivotal position since his coaching era. Just as Lombardi helped mold Bart Starr into the cerebral and efficient passer he became, Rodgers has become something very similar as the unquestioned leader of the Green Bay offense.

"The way Rodgers studies the game is very reflective of Starr, who was a great student and a film-room guy,'' Maraniss said. "Lombardi kind of opened up Starr's brain and poured all this knowledge into it, and Rodgers studies like that, too. But he's got even more talent than Starr.

"In some ways, though, they're the same kind of quarterback in that Starr had to win the respect of the coaches and players before he did anything in Green Bay. And Rodgers had to do that, too. The hard way. But he's done it. He didn't come in with any great fanfare. He was a first-round pick, but he was completely overshadowed by Brett Favre when he arrived.''

For Lombardi, this week's title-game showdown with the Bears would no doubt have received his full fury in terms of preparation and his legendary ability of focus on the challenge at hand. Just as current Bears head coach Lovie Smith said beating the Packers was his top priority upon being hired by Chicago in 2004, Lombardi made conquering Chicago his No. 1 goal, Maraniss said. This will be the rivals' 182nd meeting, but only once before have they played in the postseason, and not since December 14, 1941.

In other words, it doesn't get any bigger than this Packers-Bears game, with a trip to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas awaiting the winner.

"It's quite something,'' Maraniss said of the matchup. "Lombardi felt the same way about the Bears. He often said he felt his very best Packers team was the 1963 team that got beat by the Bears twice, and didn't even make it to the playoffs. And the '63 Bears went on to win the NFL championship that season against the Giants.

"His first win with Green Bay came against the Bears in the 1959 opener at home. Green Bay won 9-6 and his players carried him off the field on their shoulders afterwards.''

If you were to name two of the coaching icons of the NFL, Lombardi and George Halas would be in your first sentence, and the two did battle while remaining good friends during their years in the Packers-Bears rivalry. Halas even recommended Lombardi to the Green Bay ownership when the Packers were searching for a new head coach in 1959.

PHOTO GALLERY: Inside the Packers-Bears rivalry

"He had a special relationship with Halas,'' Maraniss said. "As a high school coach, the first book Lombardi read was about the T formation, by Clark Shaughnessy and Halas. After Lombardi's Packers beat the Giants for his first NFL championship in 1961, at the banquet in Green Bay, Halas was one of the guest speakers. I can't really imagine that happening today. They would snarl at each other sometimes while scouting each other's teams from the opposite sideline, but they had a lot of respect for each other.''

Nobody has ever confused current Packers head coach Mike McCarthy with Lombardi, but with a win on Sunday -- and Green Bay is favored -- he will become just the third man to lead the Packers to the Super Bowl. And Maraniss did catch a little whiff of Lombardi's demeanor in something McCarthy said last week.

"They're very different men, because Lombard showed all his emotions all the time, and McCarthy doesn't show much at all,'' Maraniss said. "McCarthy's got no famous sayings, and his press conferences are pretty forgettable. But one thing's the same. Last week, it struck me when he said 'We'll play anyone, anywhere, anytime. We're ready.' That was the first time I thought, he's got some of that same fire. I could see the fire was there. He's probably a tough coach. And he was feeling it a little bit. And he also knows he's got tremendous talent on that team. That B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews draft [in 2009], what a draft that was. What monsters they are.''

Indeed. But I couldn't help but wonder, in addition to the monster year being turned in by Matthews, what would Lombardi say about the long and flowing hair of the play-making, second-year outside linebacker?

"He'd say, 'Get your goddamn hair cut,' '' Maraniss said. "Without a doubt, he'd want it cut. And Clay Matthews would cut his hair for Lombardi. I know he would.''

Maraniss is superstitious about his Packers, as Lombardi famously was. So while he won't yet acknowledge that Green Bay's destiny might be a return to the Super Bowl this season, in a year heavy with Lombardi retrospectives, he sees the signs that something special might be building.

"I know this: I moved up to Green Bay in November 1996 to start the Lombardi book, and the Packers never lost a game after I got there, and won the Super Bowl,'' he said. "The circle of that year, and then with the book going to Broadway this year, with Lombardi rising again, it has a nice symmetry to it. He's been dead for 40 years, but there's something about his persona and his character and mythology that has kept him alive. I'm a very superstitious guy, and you've got to beat the Bears first, but so far there's been some really good karma.''

Last Saturday night in Manhattan, while the No. 6-seeded Packers were laying waste to the top-seeded Falcons in the NFC divisional playoffs, a standing room only crowd was at the Circle in the Square Theater watching that night's performance of "Lombardi.'' The show just passed its 100th performance this week, and Maraniss is amazed at how Lombardi's story has continued to resonate, even with children who have no idea of who the man was and what he meant to the game of professional football.

"The audiences are amazing and there are a lot of kids there,'' Maraniss said. "I think because it's an honest story. It's about what it takes and what it costs. It's not as sugar-coating of Lombardi at all. I've seen a lot of fathers take sons and a lot of mothers take sons. The kids are connecting to it. It doesn't seem irrelevant to them at all. It's been great that way.''