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Current Packers carrying on what was built two decades ago

DALLAS -- Ron Wolf arrived in Green Bay in late 1991 to pump life into a dying franchise, and convinced 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren to join him later that winter.

It's easy to forget now how daunting the task was then.

The Packers compiled a grand total of four winning seasons in the 24 years following Vince Lombardi's departure, and the legacy of his teams had faded like the grainy film that served as evidence of those glory days left behind. And as the losses mounted, the connection to that era widened.

First order of business, in Wolf's mind, was restoring the importance of being a Packer.

Nearly two decades later, the only thing faded any more is the memory of the dead era of the 1970s and '80s in Green Bay. What Wolf and Holmgren established in the early 1990s, and rode to a championship and two Super Bowl berths, still lives in Wisconsin, extended now by their descendents Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy.

"The first step for us, back then, was to take advantage of the history of the Packers," Wolf said recently. "To go work there, if you look in the history books of the NFL, it's The Citadel of the league. It's the only franchise to be in the same place for all those years, the oldest in one city, and because of that, there's enormous history, a championship history with the (Curly) Lambeau and Lombardi eras.

"It's this little town of 100,000 people. So to have this occur, it's remarkable. And to have the opportunity to work for that franchise, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Everyone who's been there will tell you -- there's never been a better place in the league to work than there, to be part of that tradition."

What Wolf's leaving out is that, really, it hadn't always been that way, and that he and Holmgren were largely responsible for making it again what it had once been.

But the appreciation of "being a Packer" isn't the only thing that's endured, as Green Bay has gone 19 years, dating to the beginning of the Holmgren/Wolf era, with just two losing seasons. The way the Packers operate is now rooted deep enough that, over the years, it hasn't changed much.

McCarthy coached the quarterbacks in Green Bay in 1999, the year after Holmgren left, and was reared in the NFL by Paul Hackett, who, like Holmgren, is a Bill Walsh disciple. Thompson, on the other hand, arrived with Wolf in 1992, worked his way up the Packers' pro scouting department ranks, and in 1997 became Wolf's director of player personnel, before leaving to be Holmgren's VP of football operations in Seattle in 2000.

That's continuity.

As other franchises have flipped back and forth to create an image, and have undergone periodic "culture changes," who the Packers are really isn't much different than it was in 1996.

"I was often the third receiver, the slot receiver, so I can pick out what they're doing, when the slot's off the line, when he's on the line, you can see the indicators and nuances haven't changed," said Antonio Freeman, one of Brett Favre's star targets in the Super Bowl years. "I watch, and I know what's coming before it comes. It's a great system. I can see why they're still using it. Why change it?"

And then, beyond the traditions and the systems, there are the relationships that Wolf and Holmgren worked so hard to foster that now have a new generation to ingratiate.

One of the first things Wolf and Holmgren did was introduce an honorary captains program, and bring legends like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Herb Adderley, Jim Taylor and Willie Davis to address the players.

"It's knowing the magnitude of what you're playing for," said LeRoy Butler, four times an All-Pro safety in his 12 years as a Packer.

Now, that lore has a new layer to it, and guys like Butler and Freeman can address the team. In some cases, those players, because they were taught the importance of the legacy, have taken it a step further, developing a kinship with those who take their spots.

"To me, that spirit is in Nick Collins -- he's wearing my number, he's made the Pro Bowl three times," said Butler, who just completed an autobiography on his own journey and is still involved in the area, hosting a Milwaukee sports radio show. "I live my career through him. It's an agreement we made. Every play he makes, I feel it."

There is still one obvious break in the chain, and Butler addressed it, saying: "Deep down inside, I think Brett's thrilled by Aaron Rodgers' success. Is it personal with Ted? Yeah, maybe. But with quarterbacks, it's like a club they have, they root for each. And I'd bet inside that Brett would be really, really excited if Aaron Rodgers wins this game and is named Super Bowl MVP."

But overall, guys like Butler and Freeman can look at successors like Collins and, say, Greg Jennings, and smile, knowing what they built had some staying power. And those coaches and executives have seen their trees grow branches all over the NFL, a long list that includes Jon Gruden, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Scot McCloughan and John Schneider.

"It's one of those things that you don't realize until you sit down and turn on the TV," said Wolf. "Then, you think, 'My goodness.' Even take a guy like Greg Blache, who was defensive coordinator with the Redskins two years ago, and now you see where they are defensively. He doesn't get a lot of smoke blown up his rear end, but that's the depth of the people that were involved. It's staggering.

"I feel very, very proud of what we accomplished. And I'm happy for the people involved, because I know their work ethic, the time they put in, and that it was important for them to be a part of it."

And so it is that two people that were a part of it, in Thompson and McCarthy, are now leading this production. Now, they are one win from accomplishing what their predecessors did 14 years ago, bringing that tradition full circle.

After winning Super Bowl XXXI, Holmgren remarked to his team that as much as winning a Super Bowl meant to others, it meant just a little bit more to the Green Bay Packers. Thanks to the continuity of the program he and Wolf put in, there's now a new generation of players who have the chance to feel the same way.

"It's called the Lombardi Trophy," said Freeman. "That's our greatest coach's name, our stadium's street name, that trophy belongs to us. We felt like we were bringing that trophy home."

Every team's goal, to win that trophy, is the same. But only the Packers can describe the feeling of winning it in that particular way.

And thanks to Wolf and Holmgren, and a steady stream of decision-makers keeping their message in mind, it's hard to imagine that will ever be forgotten again.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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