Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green (30) tries to fight through the tackle of Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker (97) during the NFC divisional playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Jan. 11, 2004. / File/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers have played two post-season games in Philadelphia, and both ended badly.
They will attempt to exorcise those playoff demons Sunday in their NFC wild-card matchup against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
Fifty years ago Vince Lombardi took his second Packers team to Franklin Field as the favorite in the 1960 NFL championship game but suffered a gut-wrenching 17-13 defeat.
Seven years ago the Packers under Mike Sherman looked like a team of destiny that was headed to the Super Bowl. All they needed in order to clinch a divisional playoff road win was to prevent the Eagles from converting a fourth-and-26 deep in their own territory in the final 2 minutes of regulation. But the Packers defense collapsed and the Eagles went on to win in overtime.
Two playoff games in Philadelphia led to two crushing defeats for the Packers, which resulted in two decidedly different paths for the Green Bay organization.
It’s too early to determine whether the result of Sunday’s Packers-Eagles game will carry any long-term impact, but the previous two playoff games in Philadelphia sure did.
Both losses were particularly bitter for the Packers because they could have won either game. In both contests the Packers squandered first-half scoring opportunities on failed fourth-down conversions. In both games the Packers blew fourth-quarter leads.
All playoff losses are painful because of their finality, but these two were especially galling. It took months for the Packers to get over their 1960 championship game loss. In the case of the fourth-and-26 debacle that occurred on Jan. 11, 2004, the memory is so ugly that some participants still wince at the thought of the game and are reluctant to discuss it.
But there is one big difference between the two defeats.
The Packers used that agonizing 1960 title game loss as a springboard to bigger and better things. Lombardi vowed to never lose again in that situation, and as it turned out, he didn’t. That was his only playoff defeat in nine years with the Packers, who went on to capture five championships in the next seven years.
The aftermath of the fourth-and-26 disaster wasn’t nearly as pleasant. Although the Packers captured the NFC North crown the next season, they never won another playoff game under Sherman. Days after the defeat Sherman fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, a year later Sherman was replaced as Packers general manager, and almost exactly two years after the fateful loss Sherman was jettisoned as head coach.
Even though the Packers’ title game loss to the Eagles occurred a half-century ago, guard Jerry Kramer said it’s hard to forget.
“That was the worst offseason of my life,” recalled Kramer during a telephone interview on Friday. “Every day, every place, everywhere you went, people (said), ‘What happened? What happened in that championship game?’ It got sickening. It got to the point where it was a burr. You couldn’t escape it. I think that propelled us into the (next) season for everybody because explaining your failures was always painful and certainly was in this instance. I think that really was a fire under our (expletive).”
The fire burned brightly for the next seven years as the Packers produced the greatest football dynasty in NFL history and Lombardi cemented his legacy as a legendary coach.
Sherman wasn’t as fortunate. He was a good man and good coach, but the fallout from fourth-and-26 eventually led to his dismissal. Sherman challenged that assertion during his farewell press conference after getting fired in January 2006. But logic suggests that if the Packers had won that game, their momentum could well have carried them to an NFC championship game win over Carolina the following week and Super Bowl berth. Bob Harlan, the team president at the time, then would have had a tougher time justifying the removal of Sherman as general manager the following year.
How would the course of team history have been altered had the Packers won the 1960 title game? The easy answer is the Packers’ dynasty would have been even more illustrious with six titles in eight years. However, Kramer wonders whether Lombardi’s desire to win three straight titles later in the decade might have waned.
Following NFL titles in 1965 and 1966, Lombardi pushed and prodded an aging Packers team in 1967 to one more crown. He used the theme of winning an unprecedented three straight championships as a big motivator. But the Packers would have already accomplished that feat in 1960, ‘61 and ‘62 had they won the title game in Philadelphia.
“There is some question about whether he would have had that burn for the ‘67 season,” said Kramer. “Three in a row was important to him. He had it on his mind when he arrived, separating himself from average. It’s very possible that he might have lost some of his drive (in 1967) when that illness (cancer) hit him.”
Meanwhile, only Donald Driver and Chad Clifton on the Packers’ current roster remain from the Packers’ fourth-and-26 game, while Nick Barnett and Mark Tauscher are on injured reserve. Driver wasn’t interested in rehashing the topic, and it’s hard to blame him.
“I think that’s the past,” said Driver.
“That was in ‘03 and this is 2011 now. You have to let the past be your past, but build off it.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator at the time of the fourth-and-26 Packers-Eagles clash.
“I remember the game,” he told reporters at a press conference earlier this week. “I would hope that we give you plenty to write about this week that you wouldn’t have to go back to 2003 or whenever that was.”
Winning Sunday in Philadelphia, for what would be the first time in Packers’ playoff history, is the best way to make that happen.