Packers: Lombardi’s Legacy

Senior writer jclombardi highlights Lombardi’s team.

Lombardi would have loved this homegrown Packers bunch: 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 vying for the Lombardi Trophy?  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. What would Vince say about these Aaron Rodgers-led Packers and their impressive wild-card playoff run? 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. 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.”

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