Rooting for Sisyphus: A hope-free guide to getting into the Packers this year
Some won’t see it like this; that’s fine. If you’re able to function normally as a Packers fan after the last two years, that’s a virtue. You’re a valuable part of the fanbase and your excitement and optimism is needed.
Couldn’t be me, though.
The second consecutive NFC Championship loss, combined with the looming deadline of the Rodgers era, has made for a particularly bitter offseason in the life of temperamental Packers fans, or perhaps specifically just me, who knows. That isn’t to say that the stakes aren’t high; they couldn’t really be higher. But morale is low, and so those high stakes mostly just seem like a whole lot of work.
The emotional labor of football season is normally a passion project. It’s kind of the input and the output of fanhood. Anyone paying attention to the Green Bay Packers in any capacity – rooting from home or with season tickets, reporting, playing, administering, officiating, broadcasting, securing, concession-vending, whatever – is trafficking in the emotional capital invested in the team. If no one cared, they wouldn’t spend money, and there’d be no product to consume, produce, protect, maintain, promote, or co-opt. You care, so you pay money to show you care, and in turn you care more, and then you reinvest. The entire economy of the game revolves around the hope for the team. Hope draws you in, makes you stick around, picks you up off the mat when you inevitably fall short. That hope, for these Packers, is in recession.
It’s fair to diagnose this as entitlement, the ingratitude of a lucky fan. Still, the emotional burnout is real. It’s a product of sustained proximity to the goal, and the persistent disappointment of freshly recurring rejection, year after year after year. In particular, the last two seasons have ended in a manner that has felt especially disheartening. First, 2019 brought a joyous surprise as the team outperformed its expectations and emerged as a contender for a Super Bowl title, the ultimate goal and supreme emotional cashout of football fandom. Those hopes were comprehensively stomped out by a San Francisco team that stood in favor of the proverbial process, a team years in the making that had slowly built itself into a formidable contender by building with philosophical integrity, a contradiction to the Packers’ pop-up construction. The loss was humbling, but explainable. You can’t expect to win a title in Year One of a new regime. Lesson learned. Then came Year Two. The Packers returned bolstered, more bone-dense. The offensive system more internalized, operating at fuller capacity; the defense with another year of development for the young players and system-acclimation for the veterans; no major personnel losses. The team reached the same record but looked much stronger. The hope that was new and alluring in Year One was converted into something more substantial and gratifying in Year Two. If Year One felt like playing with house money, Year Two was an investment paying off. The hope Packers fans carried into the 2020 playoffs was ironclad. Even with a crushing injury to left tackle David Bakhtiari, no team was playing more complete football. The offense was unassailable, the defense steadily improving, the whole operation seeming to peak at the right time.
I’ve said before: the loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game was like putting a replay of the 2014 NFC Championship debacle on shuffle. The hits came out of order, but similar in number and absurdity. The Bucs were a faster, more athletic team, but the Packers should have beaten them anyway. There were failures on every front, and even still the Packers were a play or two away. Off the ground-level, the implications of the loss were resounding in a philosophical, team-building respect. The Buccaneers assembled a roster in one offseason that beat a Packers defense assembled over a few years and an offense assembled over a decade. The swing-for-the-fences free agency approach topped the draft-and-develop (plus one major FA class) approach. It was a rebuke of the team philosophy and an infallible case that in seven years since their last best Super Bowl hopes the Packers were vulnerable now the exact way they were then — no progress had been made. Worse yet, was losing to a team in its own Year One. The second lesson is that the first lesson was wrong.
For a fan, the loss was a shock; a disruption of plans; a repudiation of hope; a multiple choice question with no correct option. From tunnel vision to just being trapped in a tunnel; the feeling of claustrophobia that comes with that. It was also a familiar feeling: there it was, the shot, and we let it get away. Most teams don’t get a shot more than once every couple decades. The Packers had squandered two in the last handful of years. No matter what the future held, the past would forever hold that opportunity in the growing annals of what could have been.
And what did the future hold? On one hand, who cares? On the other hand, it held crisis. An offseason that started with tense radio silence exploded into a tailspin fury of rumors and doom. Without Aaron Rodgers, the hope of the past decade, accumulating since the 2011 Super Bowl triumph, would simply become emotional rot. Certain pliable fans braced for the fresh prospects of the Jordan Love era, while those of us with our head willfully in the sand flashed a thumbs up in the spirit of pouring it on. Ultimately the crisis dissipated, and for some it was an awakening: to appreciation of the opportunity that remained in front of them. Some of us still fixated on the zoomed out picture: nothing we do works nor likely will work. It was either a new era and returning to the bottom of the hill, or one more chance with the old era and returning to the bottom of the hill. Maybe it’s a different hill, but all I can think about is the boulder we have to push. Again.
You could argue that there are things that make this year different, but, given that all years are different, that’s actually just another way in which it’s the same. The picture seems to be more clear surrounding Rodgers: This will be his last season barring some last-minute impellent to the contrary. Such a force would have to be a circumstantial novelty and not contingent on the fulfillment of any knowable precondition. Still, the pathos of “The Last Dance” is one audible drumbeat to which many fans will march. Others will focus intently on the daily turning of the gears — ignoring the past and future context that renders this campaign immutably subdued — and carry on that way. Others, me, will wait for this season to be imbued with meaning, beyond merely the meaning ordained to all things present tense.
Then there’s the faintly glimmering prospect of a Super Bowl win. With Super Bowl XLV still relatively fresh in my memory, I recall the unburdening of so many sorrows in the wake of that game. All those past failures were instantly converted to exposition, and all was at peace. It’s hard to imagine any regrets after the vindicating reset of a Super Bowl win. The problem with this all, of course, is that the road to a Super Bowl win is a long retreading of our past failures. Do I have enough care left in my body to spend four months traveling the same path where I found myself wrenched of all hope the past two seasons? With what attitude should I walk the path now? The optimism of Year One and the determination of Year Two were both wrong; is walking Year Three with a feeling of hopelessness really going to get me anywhere, other than to a place I don’t deserve? How does Sisyphus adjust his mentality over the lifespan of the boulder?
I think naming and claiming this hopelessness helps. The goal, I think, may be equanimity. And the form of investment this year may look different, or may become similar over the course of the season. New games, new plays, new scenarios, new hopes — it’s all possible. It’s just not where I am right now. And I can’t make it not. I need to be moved. I await the season in hopes it will do that. I aspire to optimism while acknowledging that a Week One win against the New Orleans Saints will not change me.
As fans, we don’t have to be Sisyphus. It’s our charge to watch Sisyphus and root for him, which is arguably more painstaking. Sisyphus regards the boulder with zeal, focusing on the incremental progress with the goal only in back of his mind. We, however see the mountain in profile view. We understand the sheer amount of incremental labors necessary to achieve the goal. Perhaps the key is not to dwell on the moment of truth, in which the boulder does or does not reach a proverbial resting point at the top of the hill. If we understand the bottom of the hill — and not the top — to be the boulder’s true home, then we can stop fearing the moment it returns there, and watch the iterative climb in anticipation. Instead of focusing on the boulder, maybe focus on the pushing. It is the pushing, after all, that makes the Sisyphus legend enticing. Once the pushing starts, we begin to think of the boulder as the immediate opponent, right in front of our hero, and not the singular object of import, ever remote from its goal.
How many more victories will there be? How many artful touchdowns will be crafted? How many surprising moments will happen? How many frustrations? How many losses? How many injuries? The picture may be bleak as you stare at the hill, and the boulder at the bottom, moved at first by one inch, and then another. But at a certain point you won’t be able to deny the impressiveness of Sisyphus, the tensing of the muscles against the weight of the boulder, the sweat and strain and progress. Just keep looking, and eventually you’ll find yourself anticipating the next push, the next step, the next roll, as the boulder gets going again. Maybe this time, the top will come before we remember where it leads.