What we talk about when we talk about Super Bowl II: Examining Green Bay?s second Super Bowl championship
This story appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
There’s always a feeling before a Super Bowl that the end is near. The season concludes on its biggest stage. Afterwards only one team will be left winners; the rest of the league, and their opponent up close, losers. After that, football doesn’t go away but it fades. That is the crescendo, the climax, the What We Worked All Season For now officially done and backdated. Football, whatever it currently is, dies at the Super Bowl. It starts growing again from the moment next year’s power rankings and Can They Repeat? questions go up somewhere mere minutes following the game, sure, but there is a stop after the Super Bowl. Football lives on, but the specific thing we were watching all those months, the ebbing, flowing season at hand and the teams we follow, don’t come back.
Even with that understanding, no one knew for certain how much was leaving the Green Bay Packers 47 years ago this month before Super Bowl II kicked off in Miami’s Orange Bowl. The second Super Bowl, when viewed in the pantheon of great Packers victories – Super Bowl I, Super Bowl XXXI, the Ice Bowl, the ‘66 NFL Championship – for some reason can feel like it’s on the backburner in comparison. It isn’t forgotten by any means; the fact that it was Green Bay’s third title in three years and fifth of the decade means Super Bowl II is always included by proxy in any conversation about the Glory Years. But it doesn’t feel directly talked about as often; as its own game, an individual piece of the pie making up Green Bay’s other numerous shining moments. It’s strange to feel that way about any championship, let alone a Super Bowl. There are reasons, though, that could help to explain why the Packers-Raiders title game lags behind in any discussion about the good old days. One of those could be that, starting with that game, it was, for a long stretch of time after, the end of them.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article before Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 looked back to the Packers’ last title, then 29 arduous years in the past. In it, Packers guard Jerry Kramer recalls one day of practice in the week before the game. Coach Vince Lombardi left an ominous clue hanging in the Florida air.
“He said something like this might be our last game together,” Kramer said. “He didn’t elaborate. We thought about it and weren’t exactly sure what we had heard. Then we started thinking about it and asked each other if we all heard the same thing.”
The mysterious words burrowed into his player’s heads, but it was like waiting for someone to share a secret you already knew. In every way Lombardi had burned himself to the end of the wick on the sidelines, in the film room, in general, in Green Bay. Whether it could have lasted a few seasons more is a question for a person who knows everything. What feels true now at least is that most had a feeling, or learned quickly, that this game was going to be the end of something more than the end a Super Bowl represents every year.
It’s why Kramer’s halftime words to his teammates have stood the test of time. The Packers were chugging along to a 16-7 halftime lead. They were waiting out the outcome.
(Never satisfied, Lombardi would say of his team’s performance after the game, “The way we played was typical of this team in the last year and a half. We took a 13-0 lead and went on vacation.”)
Kramer said, “I told the guys, ‘Let’s play the second half for the old man.’” It’s not in the words so much as what everyone knew in their guts they meant. There was a melancholy you can still read in the quotes from this game. An oncoming sadness. The Packers would win, because that’s what they did. Those teams were so conditioned to the Lombardi way, to wearing out opponents, making the right decisions, pulverizing bodies and will, to winning, that accounts of the contest paint Green Bay as a team in a perfectly-maintained cruise control. Almost a daze, dragging their feet towards class on the first day of school. It is probably insane to think of it this way, but the Super Bowl almost feels like an afterthought here; while the forefront of the team’s collective mind was fixated on the looming end of an era nobody wanted to move away from.
There was also, in the shorter term, the mental and physical recovery process following the Ice Bowl. Two weeks separated the NFL Championship decider on New Year’s Eve in Green Bay and Super Bowl II, and from an emotional standpoint it may not have been enough. The last-second win over the Cowboys in brutally frigid Lambeau Field is still the game most easily remembered from this season, largely believed to be one of the greatest games ever played in the NFL to boot. That’s an awful lot to compete with when you remember that the Super Bowl was still in the process of building its reputation and importance, especially on the entrenched NFL’s side, who, thanks to Lombardi’s Packers, had the first two title games to present as evidence of their league’s superiority to the comparatively upstart AFL. You go from the Cowboys – whom the Packers had faced just a season before for the NFL title – in a game guys kind of knew at the time because of the weather and stakes was going to be a big deal – to the Oakland Raiders in Miami. Green Bay poured everything it had into the Ice Bowl, then had to play once more against an uncommon opponent. It feels like the equivalent of a bowl game after a showdown with a hated rival in college football. Sometimes you’ve already spent your energy on what felt most important at the time.
Of course, to the Packers’ credit, the way they went through games on relative autopilot was on a whole different level than any other team’s autopilot. The Raiders, a very strong team with a ferocious defense all season long, were just not going to be in the same class as Lombardi’s last championship team. But, when you’re following up the Ice Bowl – basically a football game anyone who’s ever even heard of football has heard of – even something as huge as a Super Bowl is probably going to take a backseat. The Ice Bowl was down-to-the-wire, against the Cowboys, in Green Bay, in the worst cold ever played in, won on a legendary sneak play that’s been dissected and adored for decades, and remembered by those involved arguably better than any other game. People in the stands, players, everyone has and remembers their own personal Ice Bowl story. Maybe brains weren’t yet thawed out enough two weeks later to properly process the Oakland contest. Which, by comparison, could be thought of as a plodding trademark of a standard Lombardi Packers game. It was all they were known for, everything they were good at, everything bad they avoided. And part of that team persona meant taking the drama out of the contest, making the game surrender to an irresistible force, an avalanche, that at some point simply buries the thing in front of it for no other seeming reason than it is nature’s will to do so, so that’s what happens.
When it comes down to it, maybe Super Bowl II is properly remembered. Where it was on the timeline of Green Bay and professional football history, it was, in hindsight, a pretty melancholy time for the Packers. Nobody knew it, but it was about to start a long span of Packers football going the wrong direction, of coaches not being able to stick or succeed in Green Bay. Poor personnel decisions. Everyone chasing Lombardi’s impossible shadow. Everyone wondering if what they had just lived through would ever happen again; if it even could. Super Bowl II can’t match the iconic intensity of the Ice Bowl. It carries with it the fact that this was Vince Lombardi’s last game as coach of the Packers. It switches signs on the outside of the shop from Glory Years to Gory Years. It ends a ride no one wanted to stop. It was the end of many great things in Green Bay, and Super Bowl II can’t be viewed without all of that.
And along with all that, it is still a championship. It will never be forgotten, even if that means it’s largely spoken about indirectly when describing that overall period of time. It is the win that basically forced the creation of the Vince Lombardi Trophy following Lombardi’s untimely death two short years after he left the Packers. It is in some ways both an afterthought and a preface. It was the conclusion to a season that everyone expected after surviving the Ice Bowl. And, because of the elephant on the sidelines, the finale no one wanted to face.
But it was a fitting end to a season and an era in this way: the Packers did everything they were supposed to do. Then they were left to wonder, with the rest of Green Bay, what else could be done when the guy with the blueprint was gone. A way of life ended in Super Bowl II. It might’ve been the best way for Vince Lombardi to go out, on the shoulders of his players. But a result isn’t always the same as the end. Super Bowl II gave Green Bay and the Packers one of each.