The year was 1999. At some point during a Sunday, I was flipping through the late games following a noon Packer game, and settled on watching the San Francisco 49ers. After all, it was they who had knocked the Packers out of the playoffs the previous January, leading to the tumultuous departure of Mike Holmgren and Co. to another team out on the West Coast. I settled in to ruefully root against the team in red.
I didn't have to do much to root against them, though. The 1999 version of the 49ers was a mere shell of that team that won on a controversial catch several months earlier. I noticed the stadium was barely half-full at kickoff, then slowly watched people file in through the first and second quarter. The commentators joked about how the fans were on "West Coast Time". I thought it was pretentious.
At halftime, the listless 49ers were losing. Not by a lot, but a touchdown or two...certainly enough for a solid team to attempt a comeback in the second half after a rousing locker-room speech. I mean, these were the San Francisco 49ers, right? Have a little faith. But the team was roundly booed as they exited the field by the same fans who had just decided they'd show up a few minutes earlier. The commentators talked about the high expectations in San Francisco. I thought it was arrogant.
And, when the halftime pep talk apparently fell on deaf ears, I watched Candlestick Park start clearing out at the end of the third quarter. The commentators tried to explain to me that they were likely off to a wine-tasting party. But I was astounded at the thought of leaving a game early, particularly when your team had just gone deeper into the playoffs last year than the one I was rooting for. The commentators explained that was the culture of a West Coast team. I was glad I didn't live on the West Coast and have to sit shoulder to shoulder with such rude and unappreciative fans.
Of course, the 49ers were venturing into new territory. New words were introduced to the NFL vernacular, such as "Salary Cap Hell" and "Dead Space". The same system that had launched Ron Wolf's ability to build a Super Bowl team in the league's smallest market had dropped its ugly other shoe right on top of the team that had played for the short-term, kicking the can down the road with signing bonuses and long-term contracts to its superstars.
The 49ers were on their way to a 4-12 season; and even worse, they were handcuffed in their ability to rebuild until the dead salary cap space slowly worked its way out of the equation. For a team that had dominated the NFL since the early 1980's, this appeared to be a source of severe consternation for fans that had gotten used to winning, for whom making the playoffs simply wasn't enough anymore. For these fans, anything less than a Lombardi Trophy was a disappointment.
And smugly, I patted myself on the back, proud of my Green Bay Packers and the fans, knowing even in the middle of the very short Ray Rhodes Era, we would never forget how bad it could be, and would always appreciate our team.
Fast-forward fourteen years from that fateful date in front of the television, however, and my holier-than-thou attitude might have been a bit premature. The Green Bay Packers are now the team that has enjoyed unprecedented success since the early 1990's, with two Super Bowl rings, more playoff appearances than I have fingers, and the minimal expectation of winning the division year in and year out.
No, Lambeau Time will never be West Coast Time. No matter the record, the entrance gates are always clogged an hour before game time. And the exit gates are always clogged after the game is over.
But we can't say the same of the arrogance and entitlement we've developed over the years, and I'm just as guilty as anyone else.
What other franchise would look at the Packers, who since 1991 have FIRED the head coach and/or defensive coordinator ANY TIME the team didn't finish with a winning record? The exception, of course, is 2006, Mike McCarthy's first season (8-8), but he did finish with a four-game win streak to quell any torches and pitchforks for the time being.
As Packer fans, we've grown to expect more and more, and many of us feel entitled to not only expect a win and deep playoff runs every season, we find it necessary to nitpick even those wins and deep playoff runs.
In 2011, the Packers went on a 15-1 run in the regular season, following up a surprise Super Bowl win. Yet, week in and week out, criticism was leveled at the team for not winning "good enough" on all fronts. Heck, a certain defensive coordinator was being called out to be fired mid-season. Fired. In the middle of a 15-1 campaign.
Just not good enough.
Yet, the Packers were good enough that many Packer fans decided they'd save their money for the NFC Championship game they were fated to host. So they thought they'd skip the Divisional Playoff game against the Giants, sending ticket prices well below face value. When the Packers were roundly defeated (if not embarrassed) at home by New York, the tide of criticism and firings filled the airwaves and blogospheres. How dare the Packers not follow through on another Super Bowl? Fire everyone!!!
The Packers had been 21-1 in their previous 22 games, including a Super Bowl. But it still just wasn't good enough.
There's been some voices out there, as the Packers have suffered through an anguishing season fraught with injuries.
"You all should just be glad this isn't the 70s and 80's. Then you'd know real suffering."
And, even though I've lived through those Dark Days, I joined the masses in rolling my eyes and rationalizing the criticism.
"This team has earned high expectations from the fans. It's the price of success."
"You don't get better by tolerating mediocrity."
And, my favorite,
"In today's high-stakes money games, the Packers can't afford to have bad seasons."
And, in that moment, I looked back at the 49ers game in 1999, and realized that I, just as so many other Packer fans, have fallen prey to the arrogance than I once mocked as simpering self-indulgence.
And it is why you get this undercurrent of anger and frustration following games, win or lose. Having such a high sense of entitlement doesn't make for sitting down and enjoying a game purely for the hope of winning and not losing. It's why we're angry when the Packers don't win, and why, even when they win, we have to talk people down from "not winning good enough".
But these past few weeks have been a welcome shot of humility. Following a five-game losing streak mid-season, the Packers have rebounded with scrappy games that harken back to that 1989 season, when expectations were at their very lowest.
That year, Don Majkowski and Co. fought their way to a 10-6 record, and didn't even make the playoffs. But the games were razor-tight. The "Cardiac Pack" didn't win all of them, and if you measured them against the expectations of today, didn't win nearly enough of them. But that season still stands as perhaps the most enjoyable season I have ever watched as a Packer fan, because they exceeded anything I expected them to accomplish.
When was the last time you felt that way about the Packers?
If you weren't a fan before 1996, you missed out on perhaps the greatest journey a Packer fan could ever ride. The stadium atmosphere was pure electricity every week under Holmgren, as the team set out to prove itself against the "big boys" of the NFL. It was a slow process, measured no better than the annual humility checks against the Dallas Cowboys, who regularly defeated the Packers all the way through those formative years, including a regular-season crushing in 1996.
That feeling of doubt is what kept the games live-or-die, each and every down. When the Packers finally won the Super Bowl, it wasn't a surprise out of nowhere, or golf-clap acknowledgement of what we had always expected. It was truly a journey where you didn't know how it was going to end, or when it was going to end.
Matt Flynn will never be Aaron Rodgers, but he sure could be Don Majkowski. He's made just enough great plays to pull out narrow wins or ties, and just enough bonehead plays to pull out narrow losses. But in each and every one of his games, we're on the edge of our seats.
And we're on the edge of our seats because we truly don't know what to expect. The hard-fought, one-point wins have been surprises: cardiac-arresting performances that cut past the anger and frustration we've had for the past few seasons and simply targeting the simplest of emotions: pure, dizzying joy or heartbreaking disappointment.
Playing even with and losing to mediocre teams would normally instigate anger, and yet the past few weeks have been out-of-my-seat, scaring-the-neighbors-by-yelling, running-to-the-bathroom-or-kitchen-so-I-don't-miss-a-second emotional roller coasters.
And I've loved it. Because I love watching football again. It's more fun to watch when you don't expect to win and win by a lot every week. Even after last week's loss, I was devastated, not angry. It was a great game to watch, and could have gone either way.
As the Packers approach this game this afternoon against the Bears, a winner-take-all affair on their home turf, the announcements of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb returning has been perfect timing to churn Packer Nation into a emotional powderkeg. I don't know the last time I've been so excited for a game between two teams with near-.500 records.
But, again, that's what makes it exciting. I don't know if the Packers are going to win. There's reasons to be afraid, but there's reasons to be so, so hopeful. No matter what happens, the emotions should be as engaging as those days back in 1989 or the mid-1990's.
And these are the reasons we fell in love with this game to begin with. So, as you sit down to watch this game today, leave your expectations behind, put down your "Fire Capers" signs, and enjoy football as it is meant to be enjoyed.
Don't be afraid of the roller coaster. Get in the front seat.
C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV. He is the co-host of the weekly Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio and is the good cop running PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.