Once sweet, now sour

Packers fans haven't experienced a losing season since '91, but at 3-10, Green Bay is a much different place

December 18, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

GREEN BAY, WIS. -- This earnest little football hamlet that claims a dozen NFL championships and justifiably calls itself Titletown is all decked out for the holidays.

Just off Lombardi Avenue, in Lambeau Field Atrium - the communal gateway to the venerable stadium - five gaily decorated Christmas trees stand like festive offensive linemen under banner posters of Don Hutson and Bart Starr and Reggie White. Along a city thoroughfare named Holmgren Way, giant electric snowflakes line the street. And at Fuzzy's, a neighborhood watering hole owned by Lombardi-era guard Fuzzy Thurston, a rainbow of tiny lights twinkle by the thousands.

But the good cheer in Green Bay is a bit strained these days because, well, there's been little to cheer about in a place where the heart beats to the rhythm of a quarterback's cadence. For the first time in 14 years, the Packers, 3-10 heading into tomorrow night's game against the 4-9 Ravens, are looking at a losing season and the town faces a frigid December without Super Bowl hope.

"You can definitely feel it around here," said David Haupt as he finished breakfast at Skip's, a cozy diner near Lambeau where the late Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke has a stool memorialized.

"Tickets are certainly a little easier to get," said Haupt, 37, a Green Bay native and, by birthright, diehard fan. "And the day after they lose, you can sense it just by the way people treat you in the stores. It's been a little sour."

Eric Crummy, a bartender at Titletown Brewing Company, where out front a huge statue called The Receiver is in the perpetual act of hauling in a pass, described the day after most Packers games this season as "a hangover."

"We staff on Monday depending on how the team does on Sunday," said Crummy, 28. Lately, he said, extra help hasn't been needed. "It's like when you're in a fight," he said. "When you win, you want to be around people and talk about it. When you lose, you stay home."

It is impossible to overstate the Packers' pervasive influence in the town of a little more than 100,000 where every other person seems to wear green and gold. The bars and restaurants have names like Stadium View, Titletown, Coaches Corner and Glory Years. There's a Curly's (as in Lambeau) Pub, and quarterback Brett Favre has a popular steakhouse on a street named, naturally, Favre Pass.

Asked whether she were a Packers fan, Ronda Konschake said simply, "It's a law."

Konschake, 32, and some girlfriends were huddled over drinks at the Stadium View, one of the most popular sports bars in town, and when the talk shifted to the Packers, the popular themes of the season tumbled out - injuries to key players, such as wide receiver Javon Walker and running back Ahman Green; the fate of coach Mike Sherman, and an unfaltering faith in Favre and apprehension about the 36-year-old quarterback's future.

"We're all nervous about what it will be like when Brett Favre is gone," said Tiffany Heiser, 25. "And you have to feel bad for [backup quarterback] Aaron Rodgers if he has to follow Brett," added friend Beth Skaleski, 26.

Favre's career, the Packers' fortunes and the town's psyche have been braided for more than a decade. Since he began his unbroken streak as the starter in 1992, the Packers have finished no lower than 8-8 - that was just once - and have made the playoffs 10 times, including two Super Bowl appearances (winning one). In terms of longevity, if not by the measure of championships, the Favre era eclipses even the sainted Vince Lombardi's reign, which ran for nine winning seasons.

This year, in his 15th NFL campaign, Favre is having one of his toughest seasons. So far, he has thrown more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19) and the close games, the kind he used to win through sheer tenacity, are just eluding him; the Pack has lost five contests by a field goal or less.

But Favre has still completed better than 62 percent of his passes for 3,161 yards and the suggestion that the team should think of the future and play Rodgers, a 2005 first-round draft pick, is generally treated as blasphemy.

"Every once in a while you get some yahoo calling the radio shows saying that," said Haupt, the fan at the diner. "But then you get 10 more saying Brett is the team, he has the leadership of the team, and he can still throw the heck out of the ball. He just needs someone to calm him down, like he used to."

And that leads to whom some Packer fans do hold culpable for the team's fall: Sherman and a front office that let both starting guards get away in offseason free agency.

"Overall, the fans are fed up with the whole works as far as the administration is concerned," said Mike Tobin, 67, wearing a Packers jacket while sitting at the bar at Fuzzy's. "They lost a lot in free agency and didn't get themselves much help. People talk about the injuries [to Walker and Green], but everyone has injuries. The only good thing is that Favre didn't get hurt. Without him, they wouldn't have those three wins."

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