GREEN BAY – It’s a conflicting legacy the Green Bay Packers are building through quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ prime.
The Packers last season joined a group of seven NFL franchises to make eight straight playoff appearances in the Super Bowl era. Both they and the New England Patriots will be favored to join the Dallas Cowboys (1975-83) and Indianapolis Colts (2002-10) next season as the only NFL franchises to make nine straight playoffs trips.
In an age of NFL parity, the Packers’ consistency is impressive. But they also consistently have fallen short of their ultimate goal. The Packers stand with the Los Angeles Rams (1973-80) as the only teams to reach eight straight postseasons without advancing to multiple Super Bowls.
There's a reason the Rams of that era don’t register like Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys, Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers or Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Led by Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood, the 1970s Rams enjoyed one of the most successful stretches in regular-season league history. But they didn’t maximize their postseason opportunities enough to make their run memorable five decades later.
That’s where the Packers find themselves as Ted Thompson prepares for his 13th season as general manager. Nobody can deny the Packers are in the midst of one of the best extended runs in NFL history. But unless their perennial playoff trips lead to another Super Bowl appearance — at minimum — coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers risk being remembered for doing less with more than almost any team in history.
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“We need to win a championship,” McCarthy concluded at his season-ending review last month. “We need to win a championship for everybody.”
It doesn’t help that the Packers’ streak of eight straight playoffs coincides with the Patriots'. Since 2009, the Patriots have advanced to three Super Bowls. They won their second championship during the eight-year window — and a fifth overall under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady — with a historic comeback in Super Bowl LI.
The Patriots serve as a reminder of what could be for the Packers with a little more … something.
These Packers risk being remembered more like those Rams teams under Chuck Knox and later Knox’s defensive coordinator, Ray Malavasi. There is one, big difference: The Rams of the '70s had a revolving door at quarterback, with John Hadl, James Harris, Pat Haden and Vince Ferragamo assuming the role.
In other words, they had nobody like Rodgers.
More often, a team’s success is abbreviated. The Cowboys of the early 1990s were brilliant, winning three Super Bowls in four years. The Buffalo Bills’ four straight Super Bowl trips, though ultimately fruitless, were impressive. Don Shula won back-to-back titles with the Miami Dolphins. John Elway did the same with the Denver Broncos to close his career.
Anyone who diminishes the significance of eight straight playoffs demonstrates a poor sense of history. Even with their postseason failures, the Packers are in an exclusive class. For comparison’s sake, here’s a look at the other six teams to earn at least eight straight playoff berths.
New England Patriots, 2009-16
If the Patriots' dynasty of the previous decade — winning three titles in four years between 2001-04 — is the pinnacle of the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick era, their past eight years have been the most consistent. The last time they failed to make the playoffs was 2008, when Brady tore his ACL in the season opener and didn’t return until the next fall. Maybe most impressive, the Patriots have advanced to six straight conference championship games (they’re 3-3), the first time that has happened in NFL history. The Packers have advanced to three conference championship games during their streak.
Indianapolis Colts, 2002-10
In terms of postseason results, the Packers underachieved only marginally worse than the Colts of the previous decade. Despite two Super Bowl trips, the Colts' nine straight playoff appearances ended with only one championship, a win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Their second conference championship in the Manning era resulted in a Super Bowl XLIV loss to the New Orleans Saints. In all, the Colts’ three conference title game appearances match the Packers'.
San Francisco 49ers, 1983-90
A year after their first Super Bowl title, the 49ers missed the playoffs with a 3-6 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season. They then continued perhaps the finest prolonged stretch ever seen in the NFC, with eight straight playoff trips and five appearances in the conference championship game. Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, the 49ers won four Super Bowls in the 1980s, with three coming during their stretch of eight straight playoffs. The final two championships came in the sixth and seventh year of the playoff stretch.
Dallas Cowboys, 1975-83
Tom Landry’s Cowboys might have enjoyed the best stretch for any NFC team in the Super Bowl era. Bridging quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Danny White – and the 1970s and '80s – the Cowboys advanced to six conference championship games in eight years, winning the first three. The stretch resulted in only one Super Bowl championship, though Landry and Staubach also won a title in 1971. The Cowboys would be considered the team of the 1970s, if not for their counterpart in the AFC.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1972-79
No team did more with their eight-year window than Chuck Noll’s Steelers. After a four-point loss to the undefeated ’72 Dolphins in the AFC championship game, the Steelers won four Super Bowl titles in six years between 1974-79 — the only team ever to do that. Behind Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris and the Steel Curtain defense, they twice bested the Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles Rams, 1973-80
With better timing, the Rams of the 1970s might be remembered for one of the league’s all-time great runs. The Rams advanced to five NFC championship games in six years between 1974-79, but lost their first four. Two of their losses came against the Cowboys, with the other two against the Minnesota Vikings. They finally got over the hump in the 1979 season, but lost in Super Bowl XIV to another great team of the ‘70s — the Steelers.
Other than Rodgers' presence at quarterback, the most striking difference between the Packers and the 1970s Rams might be the teams that denied them more Super Bowl trips. With the Rams, it was either the Cowboys or the Vikings. With the Packers during this stretch, it has been first the New York Giants, then the 49ers, then the Seattle Seahawks and now the Atlanta Falcons that have kept them off the NFL's biggest stage. The Packers remain stuck in neutral as a perennial playoff team that can’t get back to the Super Bowl.
Rodgers is 33. The Packers' window remains open. This era in Green Bay could be remembered as one of the all-time great runs in the league’s modern history. Unless the Packers' historic stretch of playoff trips adds more trips to the Super Bowl, it won’t be.