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GREEN BAY, Wisc.
The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2011 season.
Even if Green Bay’s 42-34 victory over New Orleans didn’t unfold like many of us thought it would.
The edge that the New Orleans Saints were supposed to enjoy because quarterback Drew Brees organized offseason workouts and his Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rodgers didn’t during the NFL lockout? It never materialized — as Rodgers would sarcastically tell you.
The ruination of kickoffs from new NFL rules designed to promote player safety? That didn’t happen, either.
In fact, the Packers and Saints kicked off this season Thursday night in the same form that they ended the previous one. Green Bay’s offense remains as unrelenting as the one that shined in Super Bowl XLV while Brees and Co. couldn’t score enough points to overcome a leaky defense.
“The game was crazy,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said.
And the NFL loved every second of it.
This was the kind of high-scoring, down-to-the-wire shootout that further distanced the league from one of its ugliest chapters — the player lockout. It was a reminder of why fans were so willing to forgive team owners and players for their greed the second that the NFL began returning to business as usual after a 4-1/2-month work stoppage.
The Packers hadn’t scored as many points in a regular-season opener since the franchise’s inaugural game in 1919. There was no Lambeau Field at the time but there was a Curly Lambeau, the team co-founder whose squad debuted at a nearby high school with no crowd seating.
Green Bay won that game, 53-0, against the Menominee North End A.C. (athletic club). Players were paid by donations dropped into a hat passed from fan to fan.
How far have we come? On the morning of this Packers season opener 92 years later, the NFL announced a new Monday Night Football deal that will pay the league $1.8 billion a season.
More riches are to come with the league having finalized a 10-year labor contract with the NFL Players Association. But after an entire offseason filled with talk of finances instead of football, the focus is once again squarely on the game itself.
This has led to an unprecedented frenzy surrounding the start of this season. New Orleans and Green Bay added additional fuel with a wild affair not decided until the game's final play — Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram was stymied on a carry at the Packers goal line by linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Morgan Burnett on an untimed down after an A.J. Hawk pass interference penalty in the end zone as time expired.
“There are obviously things to improve upon,” said Matthews, bemoaning the performance of his team’s defense. “But that’s what you love about this game — it can come down to one play.”
As sound as Brees was in a 419-yard, three-touchdown effort, it was Rodgers who made play after play after play that helped the Packers never trail. Rodgers had three first-quarter touchdown passes in less time than it took for President Obama to deliver his pregame employment speech to the nation. Although the Saints did make some effective adjustments, the defense looked all-too-similar to the one shredded in last season’s 41-36 first-round playoff loss at Seattle.
To say the strong start was personally important for Rodgers is a B.J. Raji-sized understatement. Rodgers turned his displeasure at being criticized for not leading offseason workouts (a la Brees) into intense pregame preparation rivaling that which led to his Super Bowl XLV MVP performance.
Privately asked whether all the workout talk had become irritating, Rodgers deadpanned, “That would be accurate, yes.” Minutes later, Rodgers mockingly shared similar thoughts when asked about a 14-of-15, 188-yard start that would mark the best statistical quarter of his seven-year NFL career.
“I’ve just got to ask myself, ‘What would have happened if we had offseason workouts? Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?’ ” Rodgers asked.
The same kind of doubts about Green Bay’s offense also surrounded the viability of kickoff returns after so many preseason touchbacks. While eight of 14 resulted in kneel-downs Thursday night, Packers rookie Randall Cobb proved the big play isn’t extinct just yet. Cobb’s 108-yard return tied an NFL record for the longest on a kickoff in league history. It also immediately answered a Saints touchdown that had closed Green Bay’s lead to 28-20 midway through the third quarter.
“I was just trusting in God,” said Cobb, who had a 32-yard touchdown catch earlier in the game. “I’m not supposed to bring that out. Some things are logical and some are just the power of God telling me to bring that out.”
Divine intervention, though, wasn’t needed for the Packers and Saints to produce a heavenly opener.
“They did a good job on offense and didn’t make any mistakes,” Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson said. “Sometimes you need that to win. I give them credit. We fought but just came up short.
“It was a great game.”