I remember exactly where I was the last time a Wisconsin professional sports franchise won a championship.
I was 16 years old, sitting in my living room with my older brother, watching the Green Bay Packers hold on to defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. As I recall that magical night, the highlights of that game are like snapshots in my subconscious.
There's Desmond Howard returning a kickoff return 99 yards for the game's turning point touchdown; Brett Favre stretching to reach the corner of the end zone on a rare quarterback sneak and then ripping off his helmet and dashing off the field in giddy celebration; Reggie White planting Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe to the Superdome turf three times to thwart any possibility of a New England rally.
And then following the game, who could forget White clutching the prized Vince Lombardi Trophy above his head as he jogged around the Superdome for a celebratory victory lap?
Super Bowl XXXI was the last championship the Packers won. It was the last title for any Wisconsin pro sports team. That was January of 1997.
The Packers returned to the Super Bowl in '98, only to suffer a stunning defeat to John Elway and the Denver Broncos. For Packers fans, losing the title was certainly frustrating, but Green Bay seemed so rock solid that many believed the team could return to its championship form the very next season.
However, the 1998 season saw the Packers make a quick exit from the playoffs. After that season, head coach Mike Holmgren jettisoned to Seattle to become Seahawks coach and general manager. What followed was a difficult transition period for the Packers and while Green Bay has fielded several competitive teams since '98, it hasn't returned to the Super Bowl.
Now that more than a decade has passed since the state's last title, it makes me wonder: which Wisconsin franchise is closest to winning a championship?
Green Bay Packers
Last championship: 1996 season
Probability of winning a title in the next five years: moderate to high
I rate the Packers slightly ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks as the next Wisconsin team to touch championship gold.
The 2010 season will prove to be a turning point in the Packers' development, but if the pieces fall into place, Green Bay could make a serious run to a title in the next two seasons.
The Packers have found their heir apparent to Favre in Aaron Rodgers. While Rodgers is still developing, he proved that he can lead a team to the playoffs. He's young, smart and tough as nails.
Rodgers has a solid supporting cast in receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Last season, he built a nice rapport with tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant can carry the load in the backfield.
The offensive line remains a mystery but the resigning of reliable veterans Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton should provide immediate help while the drafting of Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga could provide long-term stability.
The Packers' defense improved drastically last season under new coordinator Dom Capers, however, they need to find the right personnel to adequately run his 3-4 scheme. It seems like they're approaching that goal. Losing defensive end Aaron Kampman was hard to stomach but he looked like a fish out of water when he lined up in the 3-4.
Green Bay's special teams remains a glaring weakness. Will kicker Mason Crosby rebound from his '09 woes? Will the Packers ever find another Desmond Howard? Or at least a return man who knows how to hit a hole? As we've seen in the past, poor special teams can suddenly derail a team's shot at a title.
Last championship: 1970-71 season
Probability of winning a title in the next five years: moderate to high
I had to sandwich the Bucks in between the Packers and Brewers. I rate the Deers' chances of hoisting a banner slightly behind the Pack and marginally higher than the Brews.
Why is this so? Well, I believe it's harder for a team to reach the NBA Finals than it is to reach the Super Bowl. Last season, ESPN the Magazine published a compelling article arguing that the era of parody in the NFL has ended. While this may be true to an extent, there's still a team or two that makes a surprising run to a title every year. The Cardinals did it two seasons ago and the Jets did it last year.
The one-and-done format of the NFL playoffs is properly suited for a team on a hot streak.
In contrast, the NBA playoffs is a long, drawn-out grind that lasts two months. While the upstart Bucks could still eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in round one, the chances of them knocking off the Orlando Magic—the defending Eastern Conference champs—in round two isn't likely.
But the future certainly looks bright. The Bucks are filled with young, talented players who are hungry for championship gold. Milwaukee already has two key components that every team needs to reach the Finals: a point guard who can score and pass (Brandon Jennings) and a center who can hold his own in the post (Andrew Bogut).
Assuming Bogut comes back healthy and returns to form next season, the Bucks could make a deep run in the playoffs (past two rounds). Besides Jennings and Bogut, the Bucks are developing a nifty core of complementary players: John Salmons, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and even Luke Ridnour can spell Jennings. Veteran additions Jerry Stackhouse and the ageless Kurt Thomas won't be around forever, but they've provided some solid contributions.
While the future for oft-injured shooting guard Michael Redd remains cloudy, the Bucks look like a team that will continue to rise in the Eastern Conference. Having a driven, blue-collar coach in Scott Skiles is also an asset.
On a side note, I would like to see Jennings add some meat to his bones. At 6'1'' and 169 pounds, the rookie's frame is frighteningly similar to that of his idol, Allen Iverson.
Last championship: None
Probability of winning a title in the next five years: moderate
If I would have wrote this column a year ago, I would have listed the Brewers as the next Wisconsin team to win a title. My how things change quickly.
Coming off a successful 2008 campaign, the Brewers should have continued a steady pattern of growth. Instead, last season, they fell back to the depths of mediocrity.
There's no question the Crew can hit. They have arguably the most dangerous 3-4 lineup in the National League with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. The emergence of third baseman Casey McGehee (a Rookie of the Year candidate in '09) only bolsters the heart of Milwaukee's lineup.
The Brewers upgraded their speed and defense by adding Carlos Gomez and Alcides Escobar. Also, having second baseman Rickie Weeks back should provide offensive spark in the lead off spot.
However, if the Brewers continue to have sub-par pitching, they'll be a sub-par team. If the pitching doesn't improve, they'll continue to be a mediocre squad, that lives close to the .500 mark every year. While acquiring starter Randy Wolf was nice, signing Doug Davis, who went 9-14 with a 4.12 earned-run average with Arizona last year, was a head scratcher.
While some of the blame for Milwaukee's inept pitching should rest on the shoulders of general manager Doug Melvin, some of it falls onto the pitchers themselves. Starter Jeff Suppan seemed like a solid acquisition three years ago, but now he can't even throw for strikes. Two seasons ago, Manny Parra showed flashes of the promising prospect he was touted as, but endured a difficult season last year. Dave Bush has been plagued by inconsistency.
The Brewers also have a problem in the bullpen with closer Trevor Hoffman off to a rocky start to the season. And besides, Milwaukee can't rely on the 42-year-old Hoffman to be its closer for the next several years.
According to Sports Illustrated, the Brewers have the fifteenth highest payroll in the Majors. While they're still classified as a small market team, they're not as poor as they once were and with attendance at Miller Park rising during the last three seasons, they have some dough to spend. The question is: will they spend it wisely enough to build a championship franchise?
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