Is “4th and 26" the worst play in Packers history?
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The Packers enter the 2010 season much like The Strokes entered the music world in 2001: There simply isn’t a trendier pick to go the distance these days. While it’s flattering to have pundits swoon over our team’s leather-jacketed cool, I fear that we’ll end up looking back at this time and wondering if these guys were really as good as we thought they were. Last week I picked the Packers to lose Sunday’s game against the Eagles—which might seem unduly pessimistic to anyone who’s not related to unproven Philadelphia quarterback Kevin Kolb. But maybe I think Packers Nation could stand to be a little less optimistic at this point in the season.
After all, I can’t be the only one who remembers that Philadelphia is the site of the single greatest Packers-related abomination of my lifetime. If something so improbable could happen once, it sure as hell can happen again.
I’m, of course, referring to the play this column is named after: The Eagles’ conversion on 4th and 26 in the closing minutes of the Green Bay-Philadelphia game in the 2003 playoffs. Donovan McNabb hit Freddie Mitchell (FredEx!) in the middle of the most pathetic Cover 2 defense ever committed by so-called professionals, setting the stage for a game-tying David Akers field goal and eventual Eagles win (after the obligatory post-season crunch time pick by Brett Favre) in overtime.
The 4th and 26 is the worst Packers play of at least the last 25 years. (I can’t speak for before then. Any old-timers out there wanna speak up?) Not only was it a devastating turn of events in an important game Green Bay should have won, it was an act of breathtaking incompetence made possible only by the players and coaches acting in perfect synchronicity (shit-chronicity?) to derail themselves in the most heartbreaking way possible. I can think of only five other plays that deserve to be in the “worst-ever” discussion, but 4th and 26 bests them all.
Oct. 21, 1985: William Perry of the Chicago Bears scores the fattest touchdown of all-time against the Packers on Monday Night Football.
The gory details: The Bears have been a bad franchise for so long—aside from the 2006 Super Bowl season, which was fluky and self-contained enough to be the exception that proves the rule—that it stopped being fun to be their rivals around the time that Shane Matthews and Cade McNown were battling for the starting quarterback position. Surely the Bears felt the same about Green Bay in the mid-’80s, when the Packers took their turn playing the doormats in this endlessly dysfunctional relationship.
But at least the Packers never showed outright contempt for their inferiors the way Chicago coach Mike Ditka did when he sent out defensive lineman and No. 1 draft choice William Perry to aid in not one but two touchdowns—the first as a blocker for a 2-yard Walter Payton score, and then on his own for a 1-yard belly flop.
Why it’s not as bad as 4th and 26: The Packers were eight years away from playing in a game of consequence at this point—so, yeah, it’s never fun to be run over by a fat man on national TV, but it was just another drop in a sea of ’80s irrelevancy.
January 25, 1998: A wide-open Antonio Freeman drops a pass on third down in the final minute of Super Bowl XXXII.
The gory details: The play everyone remembers from Super Bowl XXXII is John Elway scrambling for a first down and getting spun like a 37-year-old, horse-toothed helicopter. But this was hardly the most consequential play of the game—it happened with three minutes left in the third quarter when the score was tied 17-17. Less memorable but far more painful was a play in the final minute of the game, when the Packers were driving to tie up the 31-24 score and Brett Favre fired a bullet to an open Antonio Freeman on third down—which he promptly dropped. The next play was broken up by the Broncos, and the rest is history.
Why it’s not as bad as 4th and 26: Even if Freeman had caught Favre’s pass, a touchdown—which would’ve only tied the game, no less—wasn’t guaranteed. Still, grrr.
January 3, 1999: Terrell Owens brings the Mike Holmgren era to a close.
The gory details: After dropping four passes and one fumble earlier in the game, Owens caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young with three seconds remaining in the final game ever coached by the greatest Packers coach not named Vince L.
Why it’s not as bad as 4th and 26: Even coming off of two consecutive Super Bowl appearances, the Packers were on a downward trajectory. The real team to beat that year was the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, who choked in the NFC Championship against the fluky Falcons. Mmm, that schadenfreude still tastes delicious!
January 4, 2003: Michael Vick run roughshod over the Packers in their first home playoff loss ever.
The gory details: Among the many things to hate about Mike Sherman—his abysmal record as a general manager, his exceedingly awkward tenure as a phone company pitchman—perhaps the worst thing that happened on his watch was squandering the veneer of post-season invincibility that once existed at Lambeau Field. The Falcons blew out the Packers 27-7 in the 2002 playoffs, and the game was even more lopsided than the score reflects. Quarterback Michael Vick stuck the spike in our hearts late in the second quarter when he eluded Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila on 3rd and 3, reversed field, and scrambled 11 yards, underlining the Packers’ sudden futility in case it wasn’t already shudderingly obvious.
Why it’s not as bad as 4th and 26: The Packers could have won this game, but clearly weren’t meant to win it.
January 20, 2008: Brett Favre throws his final pass as a Packer—an interception in overtime that leads to a game-winning field goal for the Giants in the NFC Championship game.
The gory details: With the game tied 20-20 and the Packers only needing a field goal to advance to their fifth Super Bowl, the struggling Favre—who once played at his best in cold weather—threw a terrible pass that was picked off by Corey Webster. The Giants won the game soon after.
Why it’s not as bad as 4th and 26: I’m not sure that it is. Given when the play happened and how it clearly led to the Packers missing out on the Super Bowl—as well as Favre’s eventual acrimonious departure from the team—perhaps this deserves “worst Packers play of my lifetime” honor. The only thing that gives me pause is that Favre throwing a pick in a big game isn’t really all that unexpected.