Super Bowl XLV, pitting Packers vs. Steelers, is one for history books
Green Bay and Pittsburgh have combined for nine Super Bowl titles
Despite current venom from fans and others, Jay Cutler still Bears QB of future
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CHICAGO -- We'll get to the Super Bowl matchup that Doris Kearns Goodwin would love (it's historic, for those not familiar with Ms. Goodwin's work), and to the volcanic Jay Cutler situation, and to one of the greatest predictions in sports history (sort of) soon enough. But I begin this morning with two things -- the Super Bowl XLV Factoid That Will Interest Everyone, and something Packers GM Ted Thompson said, uncharacteristically, in the winning locker room 45 minutes after Green Bay 21, Chicago 14: "I think this game was good for America.''
He was speaking about the game just completed, but he may well have been speaking about the Pittsburgh-Green Bay matchup in 13 days. The Packers were born in 1921 and the Rooney family bought a franchise in Pittsburgh in 1933 (the Pirates then, and renamed the Steelers in 1940). In the 45-year history of Super Bowls, there's never been one with such history. Never has there been a title game with two teams more than 75 years old. And never has there been a matchup of teams with as many Super Bowl titles -- Pittsburgh six, Green Bay three.
Steelers-Packers. It's just cool.
And Jerry Jones, you built the big Arlington ballyard, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, for occasions just like this -- a Super Bowl dripping with history, and with fans who would walk a thousand miles to see the game. I can just hear those voices that spoke to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Kind of. You built it, Jerry, and they will come. Oh, they will most definitely come.
Now for a Paul Harveyish factoid:
In the summer of 1989, a small-college tight end from Baker (Kansas) University came home to Pittsburgh to begin a coaching career. He found his way onto the staff at the University of Pittsburgh as an unpaid grad assistant. To support himself, he worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the toll booth at Exit 5 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the Allegheny Valley exit), 25 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. His dad, a firefighter, police officer and bar owner near a dying steel mill, raised him to be tough, respectful, hard-working and -- a Steeler fan. Which he was, loving the Steelers as a teenager when they won their four Super Bowls in the '70s.
The toll-taker, Mike McCarthy, will try to break the hearts of everyone back home. He's the Green Bay coach.
And now you know the rest ... of the story.
The matchup is a reward to two organizations that built teams.
Early this morning, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians considered Green Bay-Pittsburgh, the matchup. He said from his home what a good chunk of the country's going to be thinking when people get their arms around this one. "Wow! Pittsburgh-Green Bay. Steeler Nation against the Cheeseheads! I know there're 100-some thousand seats in that stadium down there [in Texas], but there's not going to be near enough tickets for everyone who'll want to see this one.''
Part of the reason is history, part is big-time quarterbacks, part is that it's the Super Bowl. But I contend part is what each team has gone through to get here. The depth that Steeler director of football operations Kevin Colbert built may be rivaled this year by the depth built by only one man -- Green Bay GM Ted Thompson.
The Packers led all NFL teams this year with 15 players on injured reserve. "We've played four quarterbacks and seven tackles,'' countered Arians. "It's been unbelievable. And today, we lose a great-blocking center, Maurkice Pouncey, with an [ankle] injury early and play an inexperienced kid there, Doug Ligursky, and what happens? We have our biggest rushing day of the year. What sets this year apart, this team apart, is the next-man-standing thing we've got going on.''
Here in Chicago, Green Bay running back James Starks, a sixth-round rookie from a Mid-American Conference school (Buffalo) who rode the bench most of the year, scored a first-quarter touchdown and rushed for a game-high 74 yards. In Pittsburgh, Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown, a sixth-round rookie from a Mid-American Conference school (Central Michigan), caught the clutch pass of the game ... for the second week in a row.
Starks: draft pick number 193. Brown: 195.
With two minutes left and nursing a 24-19 lead, the Steelers had third-and-six at the Jet 40. No New York timeouts left. If Ben Roethlisberger converted the first down, the game was over. If not, the Jets would have one more chance at a miracle. "Antonio Brown was Ben's fourth option,'' said Arians. Hines Ward and Heath Miller, the vets, were 1 and 2, and Mike Wallace 3. Roethlisberger got flushed right. He rolled and rolled, and just before he was going to have to eat it, he threw it over the outstretched hands of the pursuers into Brown's gut. Gain of 14. Ball game.
"What's rewarding,'' Arians said, "is that Ben saw what I saw in training camp. I saw Emmanuel Sanders [a third-round pick] and Antonio playing well, and I told Ben, 'These kids are gonna help us in December.' I coached him, rode 'em really hard. I was unmerciful. But Ben saw it early, saw how good they could be. I said to Ben, 'You hug 'em, I'll cuss 'em,' and it's worked out. They've become good players for us.''
In Green Bay, you can say the same thing about Starks, who's gotten some tough love from McCarthy, and free-agent cornerback Sam Shields, who has been terrific as the season's gone on. Great story, this Shields.
An all-state receiver in high school in Sarasota, Fla., the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Shields went to Miami to play receiver, which he did for three years. Entering his senior season, the Hurricanes had a corner need and moved him to defense. "Never played corner in my life,'' Shields said after the Pack survived and advanced. "But it's what the team wanted, and I thought it might be better for my future.''
When the Pack scouted him after the season, regional scout Brian Gutekunst saw his raw speed and recommended him as a free agent. Sunday, in the biggest game of the year, he played about 70 percent of the snaps.
"Why? Because he's gotten better in a hurry every week,'' defensive coordinator Dom Capers told me afterward. "Plus, every practice he's been in since he's come here, he's made a play. When you make plays like that, you get noticed.''
Maybe the Bears should have noticed him more. Late in the first half, driving at the Green Bay 41, Jay Cutler threw a deep ball up the left side for Johnny Knox; Shields leaped high and snagged it, sending Green Bay into the half with a 14-0 lead. Late in the fourth quarter, down 21-14, Caleb Hanie had the Bears at the Green Bay 29. On fourth-and-five, Hanie threw into double coverage and Shields stole his second ball of the day.
"I'm speechless,'' Shields said meekly, grinning widely.
Shields reminded me of Brown the week before, when I saw him in the Steelers' locker room in Pittsburgh after the win over the Ravens. Giddy, almost. Just happy to be there. Now these college football afterthoughts nearly a year earlier are headed to the Super Bowl as important players. It's a crazy game.
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