Yes, I'm running with the herd and picking the Green Bay Packers to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXI, and probably for the same reason as everybody else. We're all tired of the same old faces, the same old Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, who have won it all the last four years and six of the last eight. Time for some new blood.
Sure, there are some questions about the Packers. Can quarterback Brett Favre, coming out of substance-abuse rehab, have anywhere near the season he did last year, when he threw a league-high 38 touchdown passes and was the NFL's MVP? Well, why not? Why can't he be even better?
An even bigger question involves the offensive line. Left tackle Ken Ruettgers is out for at least the first six games with an injured left knee, and first-round draft pick John Michels must do the job until Ruettgers returns, if he ever does. Left guard Aaron Taylor still isn't all the way back from knee surgery. If he can't make it, his replacement will be Mike Arthur, a sixth-year journeyman and converted center. Can this unit hang together?
Also, has defensive end Reggie White fully recovered from his torn hamstring of late last season, or at 34, will he finally hit the wall? Can the Packers, who under coach Mike Holmgren are 0-6 against the Cowboys, figure out a way to beat Dallas?
Despite all these possible negatives, there's one overriding factor on the plus side: Green Bay is on a mission. In the fourth quarter of last year's NFC Championship Game the Packers were driving for the touchdown that would have put them ahead of Dallas, but cornerback Larry Brown's interception turned out the lights. It was a nasty game. Bitterness lingers about the way Cowboys tackle Erik Williams came down on the back of defensive lineman John Jurkovic's leg, ending his career in Green Bay. The Packers don't like the Cowboys. Hey, join the crowd.
The 49ers? The Pack has their number. No one knows how to deploy a defense against the Niners better than Green Bay's coordinator, 64-year-old Fritz Shurmur, who faced them so many times when he was with the Rams. Just look at the job his guys did on San Francisco in Green Bay's 27-17 playoff win last year.
The Packers, who closed out the 1995 regular season by winning six of their last seven, have an unheralded and emerging star in outside linebacker Wayne Simmons (11 tackles and a sack against the 49ers in the playoff game) and one of the best secondaries in the league. In only his second season Craig Newsome is already developing into one of the game's best cornerbacks. Free safety Eugene Robinson, acquired in a trade from the Seattle Seahawks in the off-season, can make the unit only better. And that's a big plus in the pass-happy NFC Central.
Very quietly—it almost went unnoticed on the national level—Chicago Bears quarterback Erik Kramer had a breakout year in 1995. He set Bears passing records for touchdowns, completions, yards and attempts, and with this team you're going back to the dawn of NFL history. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was 29 to 10. He was sacked a league-low 15 times. He even led the NFL in drawing opponents offside, which is something you don't expect from someone with such an honest face. His quarterback rating was a showy 93.5. He put up the kinds of numbers that usually get you into the Pro Bowl.
So why wasn't Chicago in the playoffs last year? Well, its defense set records too. The wrong kind of records: passing yards allowed, passing attempts allowed, completions allowed.
Are things getting away from coach Dave Wannstedt, a Pittsburgh native who is awfully familiar with how the Steelers of the 1970s squashed all those fancy offenses, whose coaching background was in defense? That defense was addressed in the off-season. The draft brought Walt Harris, a nifty cornerback. The Bears had to trade up to get him, forfeiting their third-and sixth-round picks. A $13.2 million package that included a $5 million bonus brought flamboyant middle linebacker Bryan Cox over from the Miami Dolphins. Cox can stuff the run on base downs and rush the quarterback from the right wing in passing situations, thereby freeing 290-pound Alonzo Spellman to move inside to tackle, a more natural position for him.