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Bitter or Better?

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
September 28, 2012

 

"Every test in our life makes us bitter or better. Every problem comes to make us or break us. The choice is ours, whether we become victim or victorious." --Author Unknown

Rarely does something happen in sports for which there are no parallels.

For every great feat or unusual circumstance, at least in modern times, there is usually some sort of precedent that happened previously to another team.

This time, it is a little different.

Teams have lost games because of bad calls before. Phil Luckett will always be remembered for mixing up heads and tails during an overtime coin toss, and the losing team never ended up touching the ball. Back before the NFL used instant replay, Vinny Testaverde and the Jets went for it on 4th and goal and were awarded a touchdown despite clearly being stopped short of the goal line.

While there may be some similarities between those events and what happened Monday night, the Packers were robbed of a victory in a new and different way than ever before. The replacement referees were in so far over their heads that the players and coaches had no respect for them. With the other aforementioned examples, at least the players had the world's best available officials on the field. For a referee to make it in the NFL it generally means that he has spent about 20 years moving up the ranks and refining his craft, and by that time he has proven that he is an expert in his field. It's one thing to be jobbed by the regular refs. To lose a game like the Packers did last week is a tough pill to swallow.

As Charles Woodson stated this week, the Packers should dictate the outcome of each game and all they should worry about is playing their brand of football. While that may be good advice from one of the NFL's elder statesmen, it may be easier said than done.

Every team in the NFL has world class talent. Sometimes, the only thing that separates winners from losers is a razor-sharp focus. The Packers' upcoming opponent can illustrate that point.

During the offseason, the Saints were besieged by drama and allegations about their role in the bounty scandal. Sean Payton was suspended for the year. Their second-in-command, Joe Vitt, was suspended for the first six games. Despite all the talent on their roster, they have been a mess the first three games of the season. On paper it appears that they may have the ability to be a Super Bowl contender, but due to all of the distractions and the inevitable lack of focus as a result, their season is off to a terrible start.

The Saints can offer another example from recent history as well. When Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans upside down and the future of the Saints francise was in doubt, the team finished 3-13. Upon returning to a restored Superdome the following season they went from worst to first, won the division, and advanced to the NFC Championship game. The Saints didn't win a Super Bowl that year, but were well on their way. Although there is no doubt that their team was dramatically improved by the additions Sean Payton and Drew Brees, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of their roster remained the same. The previous season had been destroyed by a lack of focus, and understandably so. Working out of a temporary practice facility, not having a home stadium, and dealing with all the daily turmoil in the community around them made it impossible to maintain the mental edge necessary to win at the highest level.

Both of those examples involved events off the field that impaired the team's focus, but the Packers don't even have to leave the Midwest to find an example of a highly unusual event on the field that ruined a team's chances, albeit in a different sport.

The stage had been set. Not having won a National League pennant for 58 years, the Chicago Cubs were five outs away from removing the "Lovable Losers" moniker that had haunted them for decades. They led 3-0 in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, and they led the series 3 games to 2. The champagne was chilling in the locker room.

Then the unthinkable happened. A fan in the first row of the stands got caught up in the moment (not unlike the replacement referees this week) and reached out to catch a foul ball, not allowing Cubs outfielder Moises Alou to make the catch next to the wall. In that moment, not only did Steve Bartman's life change forever, but the Cubs completely lost focus and ended up not only letting the other team win that game, but also the deciding Game 7. Instead of overcoming adversity and getting better from that experience, the Cubs (and especially their fans) became bitter.

The Packers face a similar crossroads this week. They can lose their composure as Moises Alou and the Cubs did. Not only did the Cubs end up losing that playoff series despite having a commanding lead, but that promising group of players didn't make the playoffs again and the Cubs eventually fired their manager three seasons later. Although it seems unlikely, it is not outside of the realm of possibility that the Packers could respond like the Cubs, especially if they continue to be plagued by bad calls or unfortunate events. If a victim mentality takes over, things could spiral downward quickly as it did for the Cubs. Or the Packers can use this painful experience as motivation to move forward and get better.

As this week unfolded, plenty of evidence of shock and even bitterness seeped out of the Packers locker room. They clearly felt like victims. The profanity-riddled tweets from T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton and others garnered the most attention, but the feeling was pervasive. Plenty of other players also vented their frustration, although most of them did so in a more family-friendly manner:

 

It is hard to blame the Packers for feeling that way, and even the fine-happy NFL laid off the players in light of the circumstances. What comes next, however, will be the true test of this team's character. Will this make them bitter or better?

Despite what Blake Baratz said last week, Aaron Rodgers has really stepped forward as a leader in the wake of Monday's debacle. In both his postgame press conference and his weekly radio show with ESPN Milwaukee, he took a strong stand for his team and against the NFL. He didn't shy away from the spotlight and approached a controversial topic head on. He didn't give politically correct answers to tough questions. If he hadn't already commanded the respect of his every one of his teammates...and the entire NFL for that matter...he certainly grabbed their attention this week. And once he had said his piece, he turned the page and sent another message.

“I think (this will have) a positive effect. It’s got to,” Rodgers said. “You hate to have to go through it, but hopefully we can build some character and we can learn something from this."

Mike McCarthy also understands that this moment could be a turning point for the team, for better or worse. He was unafraid to approach the topic as well.

“I love emotion,” McCarthy said. “Emotion is the engine that makes this thing go. I’m for any kind of emotion, as long as it’s channeled properly, if you want to talk about chips on your shoulder, whatever it is.

“The only emotion that I don’t care about is self-pity. We’re not the victim.”

And so begins the difficult process of putting last week's debacle behind them. The head coach, quarterback, and other key leaders are setting the right tone. And several of the other players are publicly following suit:

 

The players are all saying the right things, but only time will truly tell how they will respond to adversity. When the next bad call comes at an inopportune moment, will all the frustration of this past week bubble up and cause them to lose their focus? Or will they rise above their circumstances and respond like a champion? When bad things happen, will they become victims or victorious?

This Sunday against the Saints will give our first glimpse of an answer.

 

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Photo Credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel