Lombardi Trophy goes long way to ease the pain for Packers' Woodson
Packers defeat Steelers without injured Charles Woodson in the second half
Disproving Roger Goodell's theory that NFL fans want an 18-game season
Super Bowl XLV party anecdotes, Fine 15 and Ten Things I Think I Think
ARLINGTON, Texas -- This game didn't have the Velcro catch of Giants 17, Patriots 14, or the scintillating drive and Santonio Holmes-catch of Steelers 27, Cardinals 23, or the Tracy Porter pick-six-ness of Saints 31, Colts 17. This game had a little letdown at the end, because we thought we might see some all-time drama from Ben Roethlisberger, again, in the last two minutes, and we didn't. But that's OK -- we've been getting spoiled with great Super Bowls. And compared to the crummy ones we saw for most of a generation, a B-plus football game with some great storylines in the last game of the year is just fine.
Great storylines. There were plenty on a night when Aaron Rodgers tied former Packer Brett Favre for career Super Bowl victories. I found one at the locker of Charles Woodson, about two hours after the Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 in what might be the last NFL game we see for a long while.
Fellow Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden and I had stood there, marveling at a guy dressing himself, right down to the tying of his shoes, with a broken left collarbone. And I don't mean a collarbone with a little chip fracture. I mean, the thing was broken all the way through.
At one point, Woodson turned his back to us -- his left arm already through the sleeve of his black jacket, his eyes closing to help bear the pain -- and said, "Now I'm going to ask your for a favor. Help me with my jacket.''
Layden and I both reached to help him lift the jacket in position so he could push his uninjured arm through the sleeve. Woodson did it, and there he stood, dressed in all black, happy with himself. Because he still had the one good arm to hug the Vince Lombardi Trophy with, and he plans to do a lot more of that in the next couple of days.
It's been an eventful week, with all the weather weirdness here, with the league and the players taking baby steps on a very long trip to get a new labor deal, with a seven-man Hall of Fame class that has left quite a few of you apoplectic and us 44 selectors needing a very long nap, and with the two teams with the most NFL titles in the last 50 years facing off in the History Bowl. Fun weekend, compelling weekend.
There are postgame things I remember as a writer from many of these Super Bowls, like...
...Dan Marino, in a dank locker room in Palo Alto after a loss to the Niners capped his second year, talking bravely about how the Dolphins would be back in this game; they never were.
....Bill Parcells, a year later, the morning after the Giants won their first one, riding to the day-after press conference with NFL security man Charlie Jackson and asking, "Last year, was Ditka as excited as I am right now, Charlie? Was he?''
...Jimmy Johnson, after his Cowboys drilled the Bills, telling me that night, "While Marv Levy's in there reading Shakespeare to his guy, my guys are up in their rooms, belly-laughing at The Flintstones.''
....Steve Young puking red Gatorade on the shoes of his agent, Leigh Steinberg, after throwing six touchdowns against the Chargers.
...Sitting on a luggage cart in a stairwell with Brett Favre at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans for 45 minutes, dissecting the 35-21 rout of the Patriots.
...Hanging with Jerome Bettis in Detroit at a Super Bowl victory party, with Mike Tyson in front of me in a drink line.
...And, last year, at a postgame victory party, Sean Payton hugging the Vince Lombardi Trophy so hard I thought he'd dent it -- and not wanting to give it to anyone. "Vince and I are sleeping together tonight!'' he howled.
The memory of being at a locker with Woodson, who cherished his first championship of a 13-year career, will be with me for a long time. For two reasons: Because he was in such obvious pain, and because he didn't care about the pain.
When Woodson came out of the shower, the last Packer to do so, his body was severely tilted to the left as he walked very slowly from the large communal bathroom at Cowboys Stadium to his locker. He began dressing, and you felt sorry for him. Because tasks that normally took 20 seconds took five times that. He moved at the pace of an 86-year-old. I timed him putting on his black dress shirt: 97 seconds.
"I'm a champion,'' he said while dressing. "It's all I ever wanted. We're going to go see President Obama. I hope he's got good doctors, in case I want to get a second opinion.''
Woodson played eight years in Oakland. He survived the Tuck Rule loss to New England in the playoffs, and an embarrassing slaughter by the Bucs in the Super Bowl. His arrival in Green Bay for his ninth season in 2006 was almost as big a risk for GM Ted Thompson as was Thompson cutting ties with Favre in 2008, because of the big money Green Bay was paying for a cornerback who might have been in decline. Clearly Woodson wasn't. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award last season, and morphed into the kind of leader few teams in any sport have.
That leadership was invaluable in Sunday's game. With two minutes left in the first half, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw deep up the left sideline to wideout Mike Wallace, with Woodson in stride-for-stride pursuit. Woodson dove trying to make a play on the ball, and he landed on his chest and left shoulder, cracking the collarbone. Woodson could feel he was badly hurt, but he stayed in one more play before the pain got to him. He went in for X-rays, and there was no doubt about it. Busted.
When Woodson found out the extent of his injury, he was inconsolable. The Super Bowl was one thing in football he hadn't won. He won the Heisman and a national championship in 1997 at Michigan, playoff games in Oakland and Green Bay, and the Defensive Player of the Year award last year. But no Super Bowl -- and though the Pack entered halftime with a 21-10 lead, weird things have happened to Woodson in his attempts to win the silver Holy Grail. Now he wouldn't be able to finish the game, and a couple of raw kids, Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee, would have to finish the job in the last 32 minutes, with Woodson and nickelback Sam Shields (shoulder) wounded.
"I haven't cried that much in I don't know how long,'' he said.
But he wanted to address his team at halftime. Coach Mike McCarthy let him.
"You know how bad I want this, guys ...'' Woodson said, and that was it. Bawling again.
The Packers, given their druthers, obviously wouldn't have wanted to give up 15 points in the second half. But under the circumstances -- no Woodson, safety Nick Collins suffering from dehydration, Shields able to make only a cameo appearance in the second half -- 15 was better than 27. And that allowed Woodson, his left arm in a sling, to walk into the locker room postgame, clutching the Lombardi Trophy. Hard.
"I feel like I've reached my rightful place in history,'' he said.
I asked him what he thought Al Davis might be saying tonight.
" 'I should have never let him get out of here,' '' said Woodson, channeling his inner Al.
A couple of equipment men helped him pack up, and slowly, Woodson was out the door. As he left, he yelled a joke to the one of the Packers' team medics. "Hey doc!'' he said. "If we had a game next week, would you shoot me up?''
But there's no game next week. In fact, there's only a parade in Green Bay this afternoon, and then a celebration in Lambeau Field on Tuesday. After Woodson left, director of corporate communications Aaron Popkey fiddled with his Blackberry, sending an appeal back to his contacts in Green Bay, asking for shovelers to show up at Lambeau on Monday so the place would be clear in time for the big community party in the stadium Tuesday.
When the stadium's clear, and when it gets packed with the faithful, celebrating their seventh NFL title in 50 years, they'll all be looking for the silver trophy with the name of the famous local coach on it. That won't be hard to spot. It'll be in the right arm of Charles Woodson, who deserves the moment.
Five observations from the 45th Super Bowl:
1. Aaron Rodgers outplays Ben Roethlisberger. There weren't a lot of big throws made in this game, but Rogers completed an impressive postseason with the victory. I counted four drops among his 24-of-39, 304-yard, three-touchdown, no-pick game, and what was most interesting, I thought, was how Rodgers continued to play so well without relying on the position he'd grown so reliant on in his first couple of starting seasons. Tight ends caught two balls for six yards for the Packers in the Super Bowl.
It's hard to overstate how well Rodgers played in this postseason -- he had a 110.7 rating in four games, none at home. He has officially made anyone but residents of southern Mississippi realize just how smart a decision the Packers made when they stuck to their guns and chose Rodgers over Favre as the starting quarterback in the summer of 2008.
2. Rashard Mendenhall lost this game more than anyone for Pittsburgh. With his second lost fumble in three games this postseason, Mendenhall showed he's a nice running back but not a great one. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Steelers looked like they were on the verge of taking the lead for the first time in the game. Down 21-17 with the ball at the Packer 33, Roethlisberger handed the ball to Mendenhall, who looked for a hole off right guard. He found one -- but then got the ball punched out and lost it. Green Bay recovered and scored the clinching touchdown eight plays later. "It just happened and should not have happened,'' he said. Of the loss, Mendenhall said, "We did it to ourselves.''
Mostly, Mendenhall did it to his team. That's about as big a turnover, at as crucial a time, as a player can have.
3. Roethlisberger got humbled, but he'll be back. "I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down -- the fans, my coaches, my teammates. It's not a good feeling,'' he said. Roethlisberger wasn't awful, but he threw an interception early that Collins returned for a touchdown, and that play haunted the Steelers all game.
He very nearly made up for it with a ridiculous off-balance throw into the right corner of the end zone to a leaping Hines Ward, but when Steeler fans waited for Roethlisberger to make another historic drive at the end of the game, down six with two minutes to go and 87 yards of field in front of him, he just couldn't do it. His numbers on the last drive: two of five, 20 yards, ball lost on downs. "They did a great job of taking away anything deep and anything outside,'' Roethlisberger said.
Still, with Woodson and Shields out of the game, the Packers were at a severe disadvantage, and Roethlisberger couldn't take advantage of it.
4. Clay Matthews erases the family curse. Well, curse might too strong a word. But family members had played 44 years in the NFL without winning a pro football championship (grandfather Clay Sr., four; father Clay Jr., 19; uncle Bruce 19; cousin Kevin, one; and this was Clay's second year in the NFL). Now they've won one, and the family was in the locker room afterward to celebrate. The kid's a heck of a football player, and as usual, he made huge plays to help his team.
5. Green Bay's won more titles than any team in the last 50 years. You can look it up: Since 1960, Green Bay's won seven, Pittsburgh six, Dallas five, San Francisco five. It was interesting hearing the respect for history this team has. Player after player talked about bringing the Lombardi Trophy back where it belonged. In a year when a play about Lombardi opens on Broadway, and HBO does one of its best documentaries with a Lombardi piece, and interest in the old man's hits an all-time peak, it's fitting that the Packers win a close one and rekindle everyone's love of the cheese nationwide.