Bad memories

Posted Jan. 07, 2011 @ 9:36 a.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

Different things rile up fans from different cities. All one needs to do in Chicago is mention the term "fan interference" and a flock of Cubs fans is sure to gather with fists clenched, teeth grinding. In Boston, it's a last name: Buckner. In Cleveland, a play call: Red Right 88.

For the good-natured, hardworking fans of Green Bay, it's a down and distance: 4th-and-26. Even now, seven years after Philadelphia's miraculous — incomprehensible — conversion, any mention of it to someone clad in green and gold is sure to bring a look of pure disgust. Rage, even. Them's fighting words!

This week, ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert posted a photo of Freddie Mitchell's famous catch from the 2003 divisional-playoff game (played on Jan. 11, 2004) with a caption that read: We interrupt this Monday to offer an opportunity to let flow your creative juices. If the significance of this photograph escapes you, then please move along. If you know what it depicts, feel free to dig through your scar tissue and finally let out the pain.

Pretty light stuff. Just a photo and caption, but apropos considering Green Bay travels to Philadelphia this week for the two teams' first playoff meeting since Mitchell sent Packer Nation into a freefall. Seifert caught hell fast from Green Bay fans commenting on the post. Many attacked Seifert personally. Some were vicious. One simply wrote: Cruel. Why?

A week after Al Harris sucked the life out of Seahawks fans with his overtime interception return for a touchdown, Green Bay was on the road to face Andy Reid's 12-4 Eagles. The matchup had a little history — Vince Lombardi's only playoff defeat as coach of the Packers came against the Eagles in the 1960 NFL title game — and pitted one Mike Holmgren disciple (Reid) against another (Packers coach Mike Sherman).

For much of the game, Green Bay held the upper hand. It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Brett Favre was viewed as a quarterback you wanted in the clutch. He delivered in big games, and on a cold January afternoon against Philadelphia he delivered early with two first-quarter touchdown passes to Robert Ferguson to give Green Bay a 14-0 lead. Philadelphia tightened the gap in the second quarter on a touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb to RB Duce Staley, and later tied up the game on a 12-yard pass from McNabb to Todd Pinkston. With less than 11 minutes remaining, Ryan Longwell nailed a 21-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 17-14 edge.

Soon after, something went terribly wrong in the Packers' secondary.

With 2:21 to go, Philadelphia took command at its own 20-yard line. Prior to that, Sherman had been faced with a difficult decision — go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Eagles' 41-yard line or punt? The coach opted to play it safe. The Eagles made him pay. Staley gained 22 yards to start the drive. After that, two McNabb incompletions sandwiched a 16-yard sack. Now faced with 4th-and-26, with little more than a minute left, the Eagles had to dig deep into their playbook for a winner. "Just give it all you've got," McNabb told his teammates in the huddle.

The play "74 Double-Go" called for Mitchell to run a slant over the middle. Somehow the third-year receiver found open space; he was well beyond rookie MLB Nick Barnett, and somehow in front of FS Darren Sharper, who was responsible for protecting the first-down marker.

The ball went sailing and Mitchell jumped through a crowd of defenders for a catch that was made to look easier than it should have been. Hundreds of miles away in Green Bay, disgust set over the town.

Now at midfield, the Eagles eased their way into field-goal range to force overtime on PK David Akers' 37-yard field goal with five seconds remaining. In the extra period, after Philadelphia went three-and-out, Favre's bizarro universe began to take shape. On his first pass he launched a ball downfield that no player other than Eagles safety Brian Dawkins had a prayer of catching. Quietly, some Packers fans wondered if Favre had thrown in the towel.

David Akers, who had missed a 33-yard FG attempt in the first quarter, made a 31-yarder to send the Eagles on to the NFC championship game.

The loss had both immediate and long-lasting effects for the Packers' organization. Well-liked defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was shown the door soon after the loss — one play defining what had been a successful four-year stay in Green Bay. After the 2004 season, Sharper was gone. Sherman was asked to leave following a forgettable ’05 campaign. And four long years separated the Seattle overtime win from the team's next playoff victory (in January 2007).

These days, the 4th-and-26 game is a more painful memory for Packers fans than that 1960 title loss, when Chuck Bednarik squeezed Jim Taylor long enough for the game clock to expire.

As one person noted on Seifert's blog: A Philadelphia Memory … A Green Bay Nightmare. It is difficult to fathom a 4th-and-26 play actually working, but it did which created one of the most horrible pictures in recent memory for a Packer fan. It is hard to forget something so gut-wrenchingly awful. …

 

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).