Packers' past still makes presence felt SUPER BOWL XXXI

NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- How many Green Bay Packers fans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to screw in the bulb and two to sit around and reminisce about what a good job the old bulb did.

That's an old Green Bay joke that illustrates the predicament the Packers are in as Super Bowl participants for the first time in 29 years.


Even if they easily beat the New England Patriots on Sunday, as expected, they can't win.

They'll still pale in comparison to the legendary Packers of the 1960s, who won five championships under coach Vince Lombardi.


Most Packers fans will forever rank those old teams ahead of any new ones.

"I don't think we'll ever measure up to those guys," defensive end Sean Jones said yesterday.

Is that frustrating?

"It gets old sometimes," said kicker Chris Jacke, who has spent all eight years of his career with the Packers. "I pick up the paper and see they're selling Lombardi mugs and T-shirts now. Why not [current Packers coach] Mike Holmgren mugs and T-shirts?"

The ghost of Lombardi and his teams was a monster that swallowed up the franchise for two decades after Lombardi's departure in 1968. Management tried to re-create the past by hiring Lombardi-era stars such as Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg to coach the team, but the result was 20 losing seasons and one playoff win in 25 years.

It didn't help that the Packer Hall of Fame was installed next door to the practice facility, and then a nearby street and middle school were named after Lombardi, providing the players with daily reminders of what they weren't.

Not that they needed daily reminders.

"You know before you come to Green Bay what is expected of you," said Jones, who joined the Packers as a free agent in 1994, after playing for the Raiders and Oilers. "Even when the Packers were losing for all those years, the players always understood that they were being held up to a taller yardstick than any other team."


Safety LeRoy Butler said, "Unless you have lived there, you can't understand how important the past is to those people."

When current general manager Ron Wolf was hired in 1992, he brought in Holmgren, a Californian with no prior link to the Packers. Holmgren had the right attitude.

"The Lombardi legacy never bothered me," he said. "I thought a lot about how I was going to handle it when I took the job. But you just come to the realization that no one will be able to match what he did."

Over the years, Holmgren mostly has laughed about trying to replace a legend. Asked after the Packers' victory in the NFC championship game if he now expected to have a street and a middle school named after him, he said, "Maybe a little alley, if we keep it up for 10 years."

Such humor would seem to indicate that the Packers have stopped chasing ghosts, yet there are signs that the new regime remains somewhat jealous of the franchise's unbeatable past. Wolf reportedly was upset with the heavy emphasis on Lombardi in a recent ESPN documentary about Green Bay. And the players do sound jealous sometimes.

"The only way we can get rid of all that talk [about the past] is to win," Jones said.


"Hopefully, we can start a new era of our own on Sunday," Jacke said.

Not that the players wish the tradition didn't exist. It makes for a passionate following and strong home-field advantage at Lambeau Field.

"Without that tradition, we're just another team," Jones said. "Even though you're expected to do well as a Packer, there are trade-offs that I'll take. People just don't care about the Oilers, for instance. Those [Oilers] players would give anything for what have."

The current players don't seem to resent the Lombardi-era players, many of whom either still live in Green Bay or return to Lambeau for the games.

"They deserve the acclaim they get," running back Edgar Bennett said. "They won all those championships and made Green Bay what it is."

Butler said, "They're cool. They come into the locker room. We see them around town. They wish us nothing but well. Ray Nitschke grabbed me by the shoulders with those huge hands before we played the Bears and said, 'Have a big game.' I went, like, 'Wow.' "


Nitschke, Starr, Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer, Willie Wood, Fuzzy Thurston and almost a dozen other former Packers were at Lambeau to see the Packers qualify for the Super Bowl two weeks ago.

"Never have I waited so long for something as I have for this," Thurston said. "Nobody in Green Bay will ever forget us. But now let's get something for the young fans to be proud of."

It won't compare to what the old fans have, not unless the Packers go on to win five titles in the next decade, an unlikely development in the age of parity.

"The Lombardi teams are always going to have their great place in history," Holmgren said. "We can't replace that. All we can do is play well enough so that people will say, 'Hey, that was a special Packer team, too.' "

Pub Date: 1/24/97