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NFL: NFC Championship Game-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers

Wisconsin sports are a lesson in pain, the kind that comes from unfulfilled hope

This is an exercise in writing through it.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services LLC

The feeling from last night isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s become incredibly familiar. If you are a fan of Wisconsin sports outside of the Green Bay Packers, it’s one you are probably more familiar with than most. The Packers have done enough to supply the feeling by themselves, but the past decade and change has provided ample opportunities for the crushing depths of sport.

You see, true sports pain isn’t the Cleveland Browns. It is not the New York Knicks. Those are levels of gross incompetence that you understand will not bring you happiness. There is no hope. Without hope, there is only muted pain. Like the cliché goes, “It’s the hope that kills you.”

This is an exercise of catharsis. The majority, if not all, of my previous articles seek to find an answer or to further an understanding of a particular issue. This one does not seek to do that. This is me and my sporting demons, and hopefully you can find some catharsis here as well.

Like many folks that occupy these internet spaces, I am a millennial. Born in the 1990s, I have no recollection of the Mike Holmgren years. I do not remember Andre Rison being uncovered. I do not remember Reggie White. I do not remember a younger and more jubilant Brett Favre. All of these plays and all of these “memories” exist to me in highlights. However, in the same vein, John Elway means basically nothing to me. Him helicoptering into the end zone is a mild unpleasantness rather than a crime against my sanity.

My first football memory, of course, is that of pain. Jerry Rice did fumble. But of course he did not, at least, in the official transcript of the game. Then Terrell Owens ended the Packers season. It’s a fitting introduction to a memory bank of Packers football.

The Packers would then spend the following years meandering through the mid-career rollercoaster of Brett Favre. A team always in the playoffs, but never good enough to be dangerous. A Ted Thompson hire, a Mike Sherman firing, and the hiring of... Mike McCarthy (good god the NFL has come so far in the past fifteen years) led to a Packers team that was for real. A very good offense found itself unable to do much of anything and Brett Favre threw away his last chance at a Super Bowl in Green and Gold, ending the tenure of a player that was closer to a religious figure than a football player in Wisconsin.

The Rodgers-era pain has been well-written about by this point. The 2009 Wild Card game where the league’s top defense cannot stop the Cardinals and Rodgers is face-masked on his fumble in OT. Of course the following year from elation with a Super Bowl victory. Me, a fool at the time, assumed this would be part of a Packers dynasty. They had a young quarterback entering his prime, a great group of surrounding weapons, and an elite defense. What could go wrong?

Next up was a 2011 divisional round game where Rodgers supporting cast let him down at every turn. The offense could not stop putting the ball on the ground and the defense allowed an end of half Hail Mary (sound familiar?). In 2012, the team was unable to account for the running threat of Colin Kaepernick and were waxed out of the playoffs due to mere coaching ineptitude. The 2013 team was much better than its record due to Rodgers injury, but again Kaepernick’s running knocked them out of the playoffs.

The 2014 NFC Championship Game was probably peak pain. A team that was much better than Seattle shot itself in the foot so many times. At that time, however, while it hurt, it was assumed by myself, again a fool, that Green Bay would be back and as good as ever again. The loss of Jordy Nelson led to a miserable 2015 season. The Packers ran the table to the NFC Championship Game in 2016 but there was no pain there. Expectations cannot be all that high when injuries forced Ladarius Gunter onto Julio Jones, as Aaron Rodgers’ hero-ball had powered them down the stretch.. The same could be said for last year’s NFC Championship Game. The team was thoroughly outmatched and we were searching for a way to win with a team that was not as good as its record.

This year’s game was different. Green Bay had to shoot itself in the foot repeatedly, with drops, fumbles, and Mike Pettine life choices to lose the game. This also feels very much like 2007. The Packers got an MVP season out of an aging Hall of Famer, but his departure seems not in the too distant future (though for the record, he will not be cut/traded this off-season, but perhaps next off-season). The Packers are entering a space of salary cap hell with very few options for improving their weak points, and spent the 2020 draft with little-to-no interest in improving the team’s short-term outlook.

That is why this one hurts so much. The Packers may only have one more shot in this era. It’s an era that we will remember for everything it wasn’t rather than everything it was. An organization that was too slow to act on multiple occasions. Too slow to move on from Dom Capers after he was pantsed by Kaepernick in 2012 and then again in 2013. Too slow to move on from Mike McCarthy after things had obviously become broken and far too reliant on Rodgers being a superhuman. Too slow to move on from Mike Pettine despite the same obvious problems and situational decision making issues coming to a head.

Green Bay was not always too slow, though. In fact, with players they were often ruthless. Sending Brett Favre away after 2007. Letting both of their All-Pro guards go in TJ Lang and Josh Sitton right before the injuries hit. The Packers have moved on from a plethora of guys seemingly a year early at the time, but most of those moves turned out to be just right. The real pain from this decade is that the ruthlessness the Packers had on the personnel side was not shared on the coaching side, and that some of the same old problems never seemed to be remedied.

That’s life in the NFL. Building a perfect roster, particularly after your quarterback gets expensive is near-impossible. How different are our discussions of this era if Brandon Bostick just blocks and Jordy Nelson catches it? How different does it feel if the Packers play two-high at the end of the half on Sunday and don’t keep putting the ball on the ground via fumbles and drops? These are the things that cause the pain. It’s not watching Brett Hundley play. It’s not the comatose season of 2018. It’s not 4-12 in 2005. That’s not pain. That’s an ending you’re resigned to. Hope causes real pain.

If you’re a fan of Wisconsin sports outside of the Packers, this team has only been part of your pain. The 2011 and 2018 NLCS losses for the Brewers were crushing for a team that so rarely gets that far. The Bucks self-sabotage in back-to-back playoff runs has left its fanbase so damaged it can almost not be bothered to hope anymore. The Badgers basketball team nearly won two national titles, but a last second shot and some porous officiating snatched it away from them. Even the Badgers football team was two Hail Marys away from a 2011 national title appearance behind a quarterback who would later be a source of Wisconsinites’ pain as an opponent.

Pain is a sporting emotion that we are all too familiar with. Success is both a blessing and a curse. Compared to the down times for each respective team, the past decade has provided a great deal of success. Unfortunately that success has brought a lot of pain.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Isn’t that a wonderful question. It’s something I’m not really qualified to answer. In a way, the pain brings us closer as a community. The gallows humor of Wisconsin sports fandom is hard to miss. It’s not the hopeless kind though, that of which you’d expect from a Knicks fan. Instead it is the most damning, where the light at the end of the tunnel is visible, but the door slams shut right as the tunnel is collapsing behind you.

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