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When it comes to winning championships, there is little comparison between the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers, founded in 1919, predate the Patriots by 40 years, and the Packers won six NFL titles during that time, including three-peating from 1929-1931. Then came the 60s, a decade in which the Packers won five more titles, including the first two Super Bowls. Add to it their victory over the Patriots and you get 12 NFL championships. The Patriots match the Packers with three Super Bowl rings, but three out of six (seven counting the 1963 AFL Title game) doesn’t compare to 12 out of 15. The Packers have won more, but they’ve had more time to do it. Let’s look at some of the other comparisons and contrasts between the Patriots and the Packers.
Both teams were transformed under the tutelage of a sublime head coach. Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick may be polar opposites in temperament, but otherwise they are much the same. Lombardi spent hour after hour in the film room, analyzing other teams and scheming up new plays and strategies to turn his opponents’ strengths into weaknesses. He put so much time into his game-planning that it put a major strain on his wife, leading to alcoholism.
The man in the hooded sweatshirt has approached football with the same mentality, and it’s had an equally damaging effect on his personal life. Lombardi once said, “Football is a game for mad men and I’m the biggest mad man of them all.” Belichick might be just as mad as Lombardi was, just less prone to cackling. When his career is done, Belichick will go into the Hall of Fame. When Comcast SportsNet updates its “Top Coaches in NFL History,” Belichick will be near the top. Analysts will debate endlessly (and perhaps needlessly) over who the better coach was, and nostalgia will probably keep Lombardi in the top slot. But no one will deny Belichick’s position as the second-best coach of all time. He drafts well, he finds castaways and turns them into Pro Bowlers, he raises his game every time he’s challenged, and he wins. The Patriots now are like the 60s Packers: a dynasty built on balancing talent with experience, with an unparalleled coach at its helm.
The stark contrast between the Packers’ and Patriots’ stadiums reveals a difference in team philosophies. Despite its renovated and beautiful exterior, the actual stadium at Lambeau Field is as old-fashioned as Fenway Park. The bleachers are concrete slabs, with spray-painted numerals to differentiate the seats. The grass, though aided by artificial fiber, is essentially real. There is little luxury at Lambeau, a stadium that has tried to remain unchanged from the franchise’s peak years in the 1960s. But just as the cramped conditions at Fenway help produce what players over and over again call a “playoff-like atmosphere,” so too does Lambeau Field. Fans there are loud, energetic, and active. They don’t sit down for three hours. They cheer. They yell. They cry. They boo. The town that owns the team comes out in full force every week, through rain, cold, wind, and snow (or some combination thereof). It is less a football stadium than it is a shrine to seasons and eras past.
Gillette Stadium, on the other hand, is a towering symbol of the business of football, a modern concept. Even in the nose-bleeds, every attendee gets his or her own folding seat, more comfortable than those at most movie theaters. The field is artificial, a substance called FieldTurf that looks fake but improves traction and survives harsh weather. The stadium is ringed by flashing lights and screens, making each game a multimedia experience. And then there’s Patriot Place, which contains an upscale hotel, several fancy restaurants (balanced against some fast food joints), a deluxe movie theater, a health center, a retail mall with stores ranging from Victoria’s Secret to GameStop, and a CBS television studio. Not to mention the Patriots Hall of Fame. It is possible to entertain oneself for multiple days at Patriots Place without ever seeing an actual game.
But as much as Patriots Place has brought an influx of tourism to Foxborough, creating new jobs and helping sustain the local economy, it has also come under fire by football purists. Seating is very expensive, as is food and beer. Parking lots are so far away that tailgating seems difficult and somehow false. And the top seats are so high up that it looks as if Lego people are playing the game. In their efforts to maximize the profitability of the franchise, is it possible that the Krafts have actually shut out a major portion of their fans? The live game is unavailable to those without means (as critics say has happened at Fenway Park), and those lower and middle class fans who love the Patriots just as much have become relegated to their own televisions and local bars. When the Patriots bring home the trophy, who fills the streets, missing work or school to cheer them on? Watching a game at Lambeau Field is exactly what it sounds like: sitting with a bunch of rowdy fans and rooting for your team. The glitz and glamor of Patriots Place has lessened the experience of the actual game, and only time will tell if that will hurt the team or the fans.
Both teams are owned by locals; the Packers are just owned by more of them. The Packers are the only publicly owned sports team in this country. This is probably a mixed blessing. On the one hand, owning a share in your team probably breeds an additional degree of loyalty. Not only do these players represent you geographically or “spiritually,” but they also represent you financially. You are more likely to support something you have such a stake in. But at the same time, public ownership has perhaps kept the Packers in the football dark ages. They’ll never move from tiny Green Bay, and they’ll likely never fully modernize Lambeau Field, opting to construct around the field instead of perhaps constructing a new field. It remains to be seen how long a community as small as Green Bay can support as mammoth a structure as an NFL team. And if the Packers ever do move, the sense of loss may be so profound that the fanbase never recovers.
The Kraft Group, meanwhile, is a testament to what local ownership can do for a franchise. Bob Kraft, born in Brookline, MA (go Warriors!), bought the team in 1994 for $175 million, and the investment has paid dividends for both the fans and the team. Kraft has shown incredible business acumen in his ownership, no more so than in his securing funds for the new Gillette Stadium. Undaunted by initial difficulties with the state of Massachusetts, Kraft raised the stakes and pursued moving the team entirely to Connecticut. When Massacusetts realized it could actually lose a sports team to another state, legislators gave Kraft everything he asked for. The end result was a shiny new stadium that, as much as purists might decry it, is a far cry better than Foxboro Stadium. Kraft loved the Patriots since childhood, and when given the opportunity to own his favorite team, transformed it from the butt of the league to the best franchise and a Super Bowl contender every year.
The Patriots and the Packers have different team philosophies, perhaps symbolized in their starting quarterbacks. Tom Brady is the highest-paid player in the NFL. He carries himself with class and flair, wearing fancy suits and luxury watches, sporting a haircut that remind us less of a cowboy and more of a movie star. He is married to a supermodel. He is every bit as stylish and luxuriant as the Patriots franchise is, but he evokes this without giving up an unquestionable desire to win and be perfect.
Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, strikes you as a working-man’s quarterback, rugged and humble. His 2009 salary ($8.6 million) ranks him 14th among starting quarterbacks. He dates a country singer. His playing style is more emotional than Brady’s, but more erratic. Rodgers’ quarterbacking is more human, more prone to the emotional peaks and valleys that define the sports fan and recall Lombardi’s psyche.
Brady is fluid, smooth, but also mechanical. He gets the play, he executes the play, he wins. Maybe not quite as fun to watch, but you can’t argue with success. When the two teams meet, opposing philosophies will go at it just as much as opposing teams will. The Packers recall a bygone era. The Patriots represent the current one. Come Sunday, we’ll see which one is better.