Commentary

Green Bay Packers resist dynasty label

No such talk, even if core of championship team is intact as injured players return

Updated: September 9, 2011, 9:33 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

In the halcyon days of the early 2000s, no one dared mention the word. Maybe it was like talking to a pitcher during a no-hitter; nobody wanted to jinx it. The "D" word, in the inner confines of the New England Patriots' locker room, was taboo. Oh, players and coaches heard it plenty on the outside, from people whose lives didn't turn on the pull of a hamstring. But inside those walls, if someone uttered it, he obviously wasn't focused enough on the task at hand.

Yet in the late-night hours of Feb. 6, 2005, as the confetti fell after Super Bowl XXXIX, Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi finally began to accept it. His team had just won its third world championship in four years, so OK, maybe this was a dynasty. Frivolity ensued. And for a moment, Andruzzi, a 290-pound hulk of a man who helped make up the core of those teams, reflected on the enormousness of what the Patriots had done, becoming a modern-day dynasty in the free-agency world.

By the time the buses reached the team hotel, reality set in, and Andruzzi began to wonder if this celebration marked an end.

"I was a free agent," Andruzzi said. "So it was a little different. I was turning around and [wondering] if I was going to be there next year. But it's part of the NFL. You know how it works. The old saying for the NFL is 'Not For Long.'"

[+] EnlargeJoe Andruzzi
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesJoe Andruzzi after the Patriots' 2002 Super Bowl victory.

Nothing lasts forever, no one is irreplaceable, and dynasties, Andruzzi said, are extremely hard to build in today's NFL. Perhaps that is why the Green Bay Packers want nothing to do with the preseason chatter that they are poised to become the next NFL dynasty. A warning was issued by a Packers staffer, in advance, that general manager Ted Thompson would not want to talk about dynasties. He recoils at that word. It's not appropriate, Thompson said. Dynasties are built over time, after multiple championships in a row, perhaps six. He did not laugh when he said that.

Yes, his team is loaded and young -- the second-youngest in the NFL -- and his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is 27 and on top of his game. And here's the most intriguing part: The Packers won it all in 2010 despite losing 15 players to the injured-reserve list, many of whom are back. The core of the team remains intact.

But Thompson, a man who was vilified just a few years ago for the Brett Favre decision, knows how quickly things can change in the NFL. He says the Packers Way is to keep your head down, your mouth shut and your eyes wide open. He says the word "dynasty" means nothing to him.

"There's a reason why there are not a whole lot of repeats in this thing," he said. "It was an unbelievably difficult road we had to travel last year, and quite frankly, if a couple of other games that didn't have anything to do with us turned out a different way, we wouldn't have even been in the playoffs.

"It's easy this time of year to say this team is going to be whatever, 14-2, and blah, blah, blah. I think it's a bunch of hooey."

'You've got to keep that edge'

Opinions vary about what makes a true NFL dynasty. The Steelers teams of the 1970s won four titles in six years, but that was before salary caps and free agency took away team continuity. The Packers of the '60s (five titles), the San Francisco 49ers of the '80s (four), and the Dallas Cowboys of the '90s (three) also come to mind.

[+] EnlargeTed Thompson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPackers General Manager Ted Thompson will not tolerate talk of his franchise possibly being the NFL's next dynasty.

But former NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who took two different teams to the Super Bowl, said a dynasty doesn't have to be a franchise that cranks out championships; rather, one that is consistently in the playoffs. Vermeil, by the way, does not exactly live in Thompson's carefully worded world.

Vermeil said that with the Packers' coaching staff and most personnel intact, the franchise is poised, right now, to at least be part of the dynasty discussion.

"I think Green Bay is going to have to screw it up not to go back [to the Super Bowl]," Vermeil said, noting that Rodgers would need to stay healthy. "It's what they're capable of. That's all right if it's pressure. That's what you get paid to do."

But have the pundits forgotten how 2010 shook out?

If the Packers hadn't won their last two games of the 2010 season, if the New York Giants hadn't blown a 21-point lead in the final eight minutes of Week 15, then Rodgers would still be unproven, and Thompson, in at least a few homes north of Lake Winnebago, would still be a second-guessed villain.

Parity rules the NFL today. It's why New Orleans, the Packers' opponent in Thursday night's much-anticipated season opener, was able to win a Super Bowl in 2009, just four years removed from its 3-13 Katrina-ravaged season. It's why a young and relatively unknown coach was able to step in front of the room in March 2006, during the Packers' first team meeting under coach Mike McCarthy, and talk about something that sounded rather silly at the time. McCarthy told his team that it would win a world championship, and the biggest challenge players would face was handling success. The Packers were coming off a 4-12 season. But McCarthy saw, as he surveyed the faces, what they could become.

"I don't know how many people that registered with," Rodgers said. "But that's been a constant theme of his, and something that really rings true this season. I think his main point is that you've got to keep that edge."

The climb to the top, McCarthy said, is the easier part. It's about teaching, which is what coaches do. Maintaining is a whole different story. His research department spent the offseason poring over studies on handling success. McCarthy planned to share some of that information with his team sometime before Thursday night's kickoff.

But one thing he won't do is wax nostalgic about 2010. It is never mentioned, just like the injury list from last year wasn't. Move on, he'll say. Move faster.

McCarthy's life changed very little in the offseason. His wife, Jessica, did have a baby girl in the late-hours of July 28 -- Isabella Conroy. The next day, though, the team reported to training camp. The next month, McCarthy was pretty much holed up in his office, trying to figure out how to keep a green-and-gold flag on that peak.

"The Packer Way, you win a championship, and you're part of the history," he said. "And you don't make a big deal about it. You line up and try to get ready for the next one. They don't put pictures on the wall for second place."

Chicago Bears: A cautionary dynasty tale

Gary Fencik is reluctant to call any franchise a dynasty. He grew up in Chicago, played football at Yale, then watched, years later, as Michael Jordan's Bulls ruled the NBA and his city. In between, he was a defensive captain for some of the most beloved and successful Chicago Bears teams in the franchise's history. Dynasties are built over decades, Fencik said. Legacies can be established over the course of one season.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe 1985 Chicago Bears were so dominant many people expected the franchise to roll over multiple Super Bowl victories. It didn't happen.

That '85 team was as iconic off the field as it was successful on it. Fencik was a defensive leader on a team that immortalized Ditka, the Fridge and the "Super Bowl Shuffle." No one could stop them in the playoffs. They pummeled their three opponents by a combined score of 91-10 -- defeating the Patriots in the Super Bowl -- and were expected to pile up Super Bowl trophies. But they never became a dynasty.

"We had a lot of characters on that team," Fencik said. "This was before you had 24/7 coverage of sports, before ESPN was what it is today. People for really the first time took a look at players not just for what they were doing on the field but off the field."

The first sign of trouble in 1986 came when quarterback Jim McMahon showed up for training camp 25 pounds overweight, apparently the byproduct of too much celebrating. He was hampered by injuries for much of the season, then was knocked out for good after suffering a separated shoulder in Week 12.

The good thing about winning a Super Bowl, Fencik said, is the confidence it brings.

"When you're trying to win a Super Bowl, you're not sure if you're good enough," he said. "But once you win it, you have a certain confidence, a trust, and that relaxes you. You believe at some point someone will make the play."

The bad part is that you're a walking target, waiting to get every team's best shot for 16 weeks. The defense held strong in '86; the offense sputtered at times with and without McMahon. In the end, after a 14-2 season, the breaks didn't fall the Bears' way in the postseason. Walter Payton lost a fumble, and then the Bears muffed a punt return. They suffered a stunning 27-13 loss to the Washington Redskins in the divisional playoff.

Some things they couldn't control. Like the 1987 strike the next year that led to part of the season being played by replacements. Or defensive guru Buddy Ryan taking the Philadelphia head-coaching job before the '86 season.

"I don't think any player thinks about dynasties," Fencik said. "You think about having a good run. Because changes can happen so quickly. Realistically, a dynasty suggests you're going to win a championship every year. Well, nobody else has done that in the last 30 or 40 years.

"Everybody knows how difficult that is and how many variables are involved in achieving that goal. That's why most people want to steer away from the discussion. It's kind of a dangerous word to use. You're just setting yourself up for failure."

Finding the urgency to repeat as champions

Aaron Rodgers settles into a leather chair at the Packers' facility, and it is clear that he refrained from partying like it's 1985. He said he's in the best shape in his seven years in the NFL, and that the lockout had at least one advantage for the Packers.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay Packers
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThey may be the favorite to repeat as champions, but Aaron Rodgers worries about whether his team has the mental toughness to accomplish the goal.

Most of the team lives somewhere else besides Green Bay in the offseason. So from March to July, there were no adoring locals patting them on the back, reminding them of what they'd done. Rodgers liked that. It seemed like the Green Bay way.

Ask nearly anyone on the team, from McCarthy to Thompson to defensive veteran Charles Woodson, and they'll say that they have no fear. Nothing keeps them awake at night when they consider all that could go wrong in this season of so many expectations. Preparation means not having to worry.

But Rodgers might toss and turn a little.

"More than anything, I worry about our mental state," he said. "I hope we approach every week with that mindset we had in the last six weeks [of 2010]. Our preparation was different, the practice performance was different, and our game performance was different. We had an urgency about us.

"It's hard for guys to do that every week, but you have to find whatever that was and get that back. I just worry it's going to take some sort of bad loss or major issue coming up during the game that's going to have to click a light on. I hope we're self-motivated enough and strong enough mentally and just better professionals than that. But you've got to be realistic at the same time, too."

Rodgers has his favorite target back in Jermichael Finley, who was out last season with a knee injury. Finley, an electrifying tight end, sends positive tweets these days about the Packers' workouts. "Up early getting after it!" he tweeted over the weekend. "Early & Often."

The hard part for the Packers appears to be out of the way. They proved last year that they could adjust after massive injuries and somewhat hopeless scenarios. They won three postseason games on the road and calmly navigated through a pressure-packed December.

They kept nearly all the major pieces of the team -- defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins was the biggest offseason departure -- and that's rare in today's NFL. They know those same faces might not lead the Packers to the same success.

But in the team meeting room, next to the photos of 13 Packers championship squads, hangs an empty picture frame. It's reserved for this season's Super Bowl championship picture. Maybe it's presumptuous. Maybe it's what dynasties do.

"You go in there every day and you see it," nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Subconsciously, you're just like, 'We've got to win another one,' you know?"

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.