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50 in 50: The Packers win Super Bowl XLV


JR Radcliffe   | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

With the sports world on hold, we present a countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. This is No. 2.

Everyone remembers the Nick Collins interception return. But what about Howard Green?

The play of Green's career came in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLV when the Packers' midseason acquisition broke through the line and hit Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just as he unloaded a pass. The hit forced the ball to hang up in the air, and Collins intercepted it and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown to give the Packers a 14-0 lead. Big No. 95, Green, was in on the celebration.

"I'm glad I didn't get the sack," Green said. "It would have taken points off the board. So, Nick caught it. He's faster that I thought he was. By the time I got up off the ground, he was already in the end zone."

Everyone remembers Charles Woodson's line when he learned President Barack Obama wouldn't be at the Super Bowl: “If the President doesn’t want to come out to see us at the Super Bowl, we will go see him,” referring to a White House visit for the Super Bowl champs. But do people remember Pat Lee?

When Woodson suffered a broken collarbone in the game, the Packers used Lee at right cornerback in base and Jarrett Bush (who had his own interception in the game) from the slot in nickel. Sam Shields sat out the third quarter, returned early in the fourth quarter (surrendering a touchdown) and then was back on the bench for the Steelers' last-ditch drive. 

Everyone remembers the Clay Matthews forced fumble to open the fourth quarter, but does anyone remember Ryan Pickett's role?

With the lead just 21-17, the Steelers had a second and 2 in Packers territory, and just before the snap Matthews told Pickett to slam inside right guard Ramon Foster. That freed up Matthews to fly up the edge, and both  collided with Mendenhall in the backfield. Desmond Bishop recovered for Green Bay's third takeaway of the game, and eight plays later, Aaron Rodgers found Greg Jennings for an 8-yard touchdown and 28-17 lead.

"Big, big play in the game," said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "The momentum was starting to swing their way."

The point was that the battered 2010 Green Bay Packers were finding a way to persevere even without some front-line players. In the regular season, 12 Packers starters missed a total of 86 games, making Green Bay one of the most injury-stricken Super Bowl champions when it defeated Pittsburgh on Feb. 6, 2011, in Dallas. 

"It's how our season has been since Day 1," Bishop said. "We don't blink. We know somehow, some way, somebody will make a play." 

The Packers had those playmakers, even when injuries knocked Woodson, Shields and Donald Driver from the game, even after injuries had already ended the season of Mark Tauscher, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Brad Jones and Morgan Burnett.

The Packers also had Rodgers.

The biggest star in Dallas

Rodgers, whose Super Bowl MVP performance validated the decision to part ways with Brett Favre three years earlier, passed for 304 yards and three touchdowns. He completed 24 of 39 passes, and five of the incompletions were drops by Packers receivers. It's arguable which throw was his greatest. 

Was it the 31-yard strike to Greg Jennings on a vertical route to convert a first down on 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter? Maybe it was the back-shoulder fade to James Jones for 21 yards two plays later, setting up a field goal by Mason Crosby that made it 31-25 with 2:10 to play. You could certainly make a case that his first touchdown, a 29-yard pass thrown where only Jordy Nelson could catch it in tight coverage, belongs in the conversation. Nelson was targeted 15 times with nine catches for 140 yards in a breakout performance.

Perhaps the best Rodgers pass, however, is his 21-yard touchdown pass to Jennings through coverage in the second quarter, a missile that narrowly escaped the outstretched arms of Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark and arrived to Jennings just ahead of a hit from future-Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu.

"It was just a beeline route," Jennings said. "They played Cover-2. I was able to slip (linebacker LaMarr) Woodley and Aaron threw a perfect pass." 

Rodgers' performance made him only the third quarterback to pass for 300-plus yards and three TDs without an interception in a Super Bowl. The first two, coincidentally enough, were Joe Montana and Steve Young, both playing for Rodgers' childhood rooting interest, the San Francisco 49ers (and the other recent example of a franchise consecutive Hall of Fame quarterbacks).

"Obviously, he's following a legend but he's putting down the foundation for his own legacy," said Jennings. "He's not Brett Favre. He's Aaron Rodgers."

A magic playoff run

Rodgers had already become a legend during the magical postseason run that led to the Super Bowl. Green Bay finished just 10-6 in the regular season and needed wins in its final two games to get into the playoffs. 

Once the Packers got there as the No. 6 seed in the NFC, Rodgers lit it up. He joined Kurt Warner (2008) as the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns in a single postseason. In all, Rodgers totaled 1,094 passing yards in wins over Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

In Atlanta he completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three scores in a 48-21 evisceration of the top seed. Green Bay came to Dallas with so much swagger that coach Mike McCarthy conducted a fitting for his players' Super Bowl rings on Saturday, one day before the game. 

“That was something that when you’re laying out the whole schedule, do you do it when you get back from the game or so forth?" McCarthy said. "I just said, ‘let’s do it on Saturday night.’ I wanted it to be significant.

"The people of our organization who have been there for years know the true meaning of what the Lombardi Trophy means, not only to Green Bay but the NFL," McCarthy said. "No disrespect to the Steelers. We respect their football team. We respect the way they play. But we fully expected to win this game. It is our time." 

The game was over when Tramon Williams defended a fourth-down pass to Mike Wallace with 56 seconds left and Pittsburgh snapping at its own 33. Williams, whose interception deep in Packers territory ended the Packers' playoff opener with a 21-16 win over the Eagles, had made a star turn.

"I recognized the route combination, and I figured the curl was coming," Williams said. "I started outside on him and then moved inside. I wanted to be the one covering him." 

"Tramon, to me, played better than any corner in the NFL," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "He gave up one touchdown all year, he had all those interceptions. He's the best corner in the league. He puts up the numbers and he backs it up." 

Williams stepping up was especially huge with other members of the secondary sidelined, including Shields and Woodson, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year. 

"For us, we walk those halls every day in Lambeau, seeing all the greats," said Woodson, whose tearful halftime speech drew comparisons to Reggie White from assistant coach Edgar Bennett. "This means a great deal to us.

"Yeah, it's always hard not being to be able to be on the field. But we won. I'm a champion," he said. "Give credit to the younger guys. This game was just a microcosm of the way the whole season has been. All year long guys have gone down, key guys – starters – and other guys have come in and stepped up." 

As for Obama, he gave McCarthy a call and, of course, invited the Packers to Washington.

"The President told McCarthy that even a Bears fan can appreciate what the victory means to the people of Green Bay and Wisconsin and said he looks forward to hosting the team at the White House, just as Charles Woodson predicted," a White House release noted.

How the moment lives on

"You know, the next year the Super Bowl team has pretty much sucked," Bishop said. "But I just can't see us sucking."

As memorable as the 2010 team's run was, it was the 2011 team that was really supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, and the Packers didn't disappoint during a remarkable regular season in which they won the first 13 games. The run for perfection ended with a 19-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Packers capped the year at 15-1. 

Then came the New York Giants in the playoffs, a 37-20 upset at Lambeau Field that seemed to confirm fans' fears that the defense wasn't championship-caliber. It's one of the bigger disappointments in Green Bay history.

Green Bay made the playoffs each of the next five years for a total run of eight consecutive playoff appearances but then ran into some trouble, particularly when Rodgers battled injuries. McCarthy, the head coach for 13 seasons, was fired late in the 2018 campaign.

With Rodgers, Green Bay has been one of the NFL's best franchises, although many will lament that his dominance should have equated to more than one Super Bowl. But the championship performance, the most recent among major sports in Wisconsin, will always represent a monumental achievement in the Rodgers and McCarthy eras.

The MVPs

Rodgers went on to win the MVP award in 2011, putting him among the numerous Wisconsin athletes since 1970 to win an MVP award in one of the major pro sports and NCAA competition. Here are others.

1971-1972, 1974: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In just his second year in the league, the Bucks won the NBA title, and Abdul-Jabbar – then known as Lew Alcindor – was sensational with 31.7 points and 16.0 rebounds per game. He shot 57.7%, his best showing in a Bucks uniform. His 1972 season was even better (34.8 points, 16.6 rebounds), and he won a third MVP when the Bucks went back to the NBA Finals in 1974.

1981: Rollie Fingers. A players' strike necessitated a split-season format, and Fingers thrived in the smaller sample. He went 6-3 with a 1.04 ERA with a 0.872 WHIP. He also won the American League Cy Young.

1982, 1989: Robin Yount. He led the league with a .957 OPS and .578 slugging percentage in '82, plus he led the league with 46 doubles and 210 hits. Yount won a Gold Glove at shortstop and then won the award again as a center fielder seven years later.

1995-97: Brett Favre. The first of three MVP awards for the Gunslinger was his biggest season in terms of yards passed (4,413), with 37 touchdowns and a manageable 13 interceptions. He followed it up by throwing 39 touchdowns and leading the Packers to a Super Bowl crown and then won again when Green Bay went 13-3 for a second straight year and went back to the Super Bowl.

1999: Ron Dayne. The running back who set the NCAA all-time rushing record netted the Heisman Trophy for the best player in college football. He rushed for 2,034 yards in 1999 and 20 touchdowns.

2011: Ryan Braun. He won his fourth of five straight Silver Slugger awards and posted a league-best .994 OPS in guiding the Brewers to their first divisional title since 1982. He belted 33 homers with 38 doubles and 111 RBI, with a .397 on-base percentage marking the best in his career.

2011, 2014: Aaron Rodgers. His  2011 season helped the Packers go 15-1 in the regular season despite a shaky defense. Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and he completed 68.3% of his passes. In 2014, he came back from an injury-abbreviated 2013 and led the Packers to a 12-4 record with 4,381 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and five picks.

2015: Frank Kaminsky. The Wisconsin Badgers basketball forward was named national Player of the Year in guiding the Badgers to the national-championship game. The breakout star of 2014 was even better in 2015, with 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game to lead the Badgers.

2018: Christian Yelich. The Brewers acquired Yelich from the Marlins for four prospects and immediately saw the new face emerge into a superstar. Yelich posted a remarkable 1.000 OPS (a number he topped handily in 2019), and he secured the first batting title in Brewers history with a .326, plus 36 homers and 110 RBI. He had 44 homers and a .329 average in 2019 but took second to Cody Bellinger in the MVP voting.

2019: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like Yelich, we may just be scratching the surface with Antetokounmpo. The Bucks revelation helped the franchise reach its first Eastern Conference finals since 2001 when he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Whether or not the NBA season resumes in 2020, it seems likely Giannis will earn MVP No. 2.

2019: Beata Nelson. Nelson won three NCAA titles and broke NCAA records in the 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke for Wisconsin, earning the NCAA Swimmer of the Year award. Her time to win the 200 individual medly was merely the second fastest time in NCAA history.

2019: Megan Gustafson, a Wisconsin native playing for Iowa, won the national player of the year honor in women's college basketball.

Hockey stars. Hockey players at Wisconsin have frequently been among the best in the nation. Winners of the Patty Kazmaier Award for best women's college hockey player include goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens (2017), forward Brianna Decker (2012), forward Meghan Duggan (2011), goalie Jessie Vetter (2009) and forward Sara Bauer (2006). Madison native Amanda Kessel won the award in 2013 while playing for Minnesota. Blake Geoffrion (2010) is the lone Wisconsin men's hockey player to win the Hobey Baker Award for best player in men's hockey. The award began in 1981; Mark Johnson would have been an ideal candidate during his time with the Badgers from 1977-79. He was named Player of the Year by The Hockey News as a junior.

Distance running standouts. UW athletes netting awards for Athlete of the Year include men's cross country runners Morgan McDonald (2018) and Simon Bairu (2005 and 2004) and women's runner Kathy Butler (1995). In indoor track and field, Wisconsin's Chris Solinsky was honored as Athlete of the Year (2007) in track, and Amy Wickus was honored in field (1995).

Rules of the 50 in 50 series

  • Moments are recorded over the 50-year window from 1970 to 2019 (sorry 2020, but you're disqualified)
  • These are moments and not achievements, although that largely goes hand-in-hand.
  • These are "greatest" 50 moments, so you won't see moments that are pivotal but ultimately heartbreaking (like the NFC Championship loss to Seattle, Kareem getting traded, etc.)
  • You also won't see (many) moments that came to be recognized for their greatness later, such as the day the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo or the day the Packers traded for Brett Favre.
  • Moments considered include teams based in Wisconsin and Wisconsin athletes competing in individual sports or as part of national teams (such as the Olympics), or moments on Wisconsin soil.
  • These are singular moments. You're supposed to remember where you were when they happened.
More of the 50 greatest Wisconsin sports moments of the past 50 years
No. 29:   UWGB stuns Cal
No. 18:   Game 163
No. 11:   Easter Sunday
'The Next Ten'

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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