An 'unprecedented' era of excellence

Pete Dougherty
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Steve Mariucci was a diehard Green Bay Packers fan growing up in Iron Mountain on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

He has a prized photograph of Bart Starr signing an autograph for him at a training camp practice when Mariucci was 9.

He was Brett Favre’s quarterbacks coach from 1992-95 and remains close to him to this day.

And he has watched Aaron Rodgers closely for the last eight seasons as an analyst for NFL Network.

Mariucci knows what it’s like to coach a team with a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback — aside from Favre, he was the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach for Steve Young’s final two years as a starter. And he knows what it’s like to coach without a good quarterback as the Detroit Lions’ coach from 2003-05.

So Mariucci is in tune with the significance of Starr, Favre and Rodgers all being at Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night when the Packers honor Favre by unveiling his name and retired No. 4 on the stadium’s north façade. They are the three quarterbacks of the Packers' most recent golden eras — Starr of the glory years of the 1960s, and Favre and Rodgers of the franchise’s renaissance that has provided sustained winning since 1992.

“Some organizations never had one guy like that,” Mariucci said. “To think that the Packers organization has had three great, Hall of Fame — and when it’s all said and done, Aaron will be a Hall of Famer as well — it’s really unprecedented.

“I hope they’re all three together at halftime, if it’s just for a minute or two, because that moment, that photo op, you’ll never see that again.”

Alas, that photo op, at least at halftime, might not happen.

Rodgers will be in the middle of the game, and there’s no indication general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will make him available at halftime of a big game for a team that’s a Super Bowl contender. And while Starr will be at Lambeau at Favre’s request, it’s still unclear whether the 81-year-old is recovered enough from multiple strokes and a heart attack suffered in the fall of 2014 to be on the field for the halftime ceremony.

But all three will be in the stadium at the same time Thursday night, and more than anything, they will represent winning. Combined, as starters, they led the Packers to a 331-186-6 record (.640 winning percentage) and seven NFL titles.

“Here are three of the greatest players of all time at the position in little Green Bay, small Green Bay,” former Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. “It puts a smile on my face.”

The three quarterbacks without doubt are different in temperament, talents and playing style. They share important traits as well.

Starr had modest physical ability but was the consummate field general and an extension of coach Vince Lombardi on the field.

“The offense of that day was so different than the offense of a Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers or the young guys coming out of college today,” Holmgren said of Starr. “Some of those championship games he wound up not throwing the ball very much. He was a very solid, solid leader, and played pretty much mistake-free. And he was a very accurate passer.  Just what Coach Lombardi wanted to play that position.

“I think Brett would have bothered Coach Lombardi a little bit,” Holmgren said with a laugh. “Football was different then. Coach Lombardi was tough, his players were tough, they were disciplined, and Bart was the perfect guy to lead that football team.”

Favre, on the other hand, was the ultimate gunslinger. He had immense physical talent, most notably a howitzer throwing arm and unprecedented durability (an NFL record for a non-kicking specialist of 299 consecutive games played). He also had a high tolerance for risk and an on-field persona that uniquely combined ultra-competitiveness with an unrestrained love for the game.

“There have been a lot of tough (quarterbacks), don’t get me wrong,” Holmgren said. “(But) I think (Favre) is special that way. And he probably had more fun playing the position than a lot of guys. He was smiling, he was joking around, he was having fun. He was like at the school yard sometimes. Sometimes it would drive me a little crazy, but that’s why he played so long. That’s why you were never sure if he was going to retire.”

Rodgers, in contrast, has the demeanor and mindset of a surgeon. He also has as complete a set of quarterbacking abilities — excellent mobility, first-rate arm talent and a keen mind — as anyone who’s played the game.

“He’s such an accurate passer in awkward positions that it’s mind-boggling,” Mariucci said. “He’s done some things nobody in the league has ever done. He’s playing in a passing era, and he’s probably the best passer in this passing era. He’s fun to watch, very fun to watch.”

But for all their very real differences, Favre, Starr and Rodgers also share important characteristics. Of course it starts with competitiveness and winning, but it goes deeper than that.

“Really strong leadership,” Holmgren said. “The charismatic feeling you get when you think about any one of the three. They’re very, very disciplined — Brett even became disciplined in his own way. They were gifted physically. When I say that, I believe Bart was too because he was a very accurate passer. I don’t think he had the type of arm that Brett had or Aaron has, but accuracy means so much.”

Andy Reid, the former Packers quarterbacks coach who now is the Kansas City Chiefs head coach, thinks all great quarterbacks have something he calls fighter-pilot vision. He describes that as a combination of awareness, fast reactions and the calm under fire of a fighter pilot.

“Those (three) guys can probably see things the normal person can’t,” Reid said.

So with or without the halftime photo op of a lifetime, Thursday night will be historic for the Packers, generations of their fans and NFL cognoscenti alike.

The franchise picked up countless followers nationwide during Starr’s years in the '60s, when the NFL was blossoming on TV and the Packers had an all-time dynasty. Teenagers from around the country picked up the Packers as their favorite team, and many passed that down to their children.

Favre then made the franchise relevant again in the 1990s and 2000s. His freewheeling and charismatic play no doubt added legions of fans and might even have saved the franchise.

Who knows what would have happened if the team hadn’t finally won again after the 2½-decade drought from the Lombardi era to Favre’s arrival in 1992? Would the franchise have had a successful stock sale and won the vote for public funding for the Lambeau Field renovation in the late '90s and early 2000s if not for the drastic improvement of the team’s on-field fortunes early in the Favre era? Who knows?

And to follow him up with another elite quarterback in Rodgers is nearly unheard of. In the modern era of the NFL, only the 49ers have three Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Y.A. Tittle, Joe Montana and Steve Young). Five years after Rodgers finishes playing, the Packers will have three as well.

“I’ve been a Packer fan from Day One,” Mariucci said, “and Packer fans are spoiled. We’ve been spoiled, because of these great quarterbacks that we’ve had starting with Bart and continuing through the last three decades now. How long has it been since Brett? 1992. It’s amazing. It’s going to be three decades of quarterback excellence (with Favre and Rodgers). There are a lot of quarterbacks that have been solid, but we’re talking about the cream of the crop here, and it’s fun to be spoiled.”

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