With the NFC Championship against the Bears coming up, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on where this team’s been in the recent past and reflect on how far we’ve come as a team, so this is my detailed history of the Ted Thompson era in Green Bay. Enjoy. -Jess
When Part 1 ended (which you can read here), the Packers had lost the NFC Championship game to the Giants in heartbreaking fashion. And now, after ending that game with a bad INT, Brett Favre sat at a podium and announced his retirement from football. Part 2 starts during the tail end of that offseason...
The offseason came and was winding down. Aaron Rodgers was prepared to finally have his chance, but Favre changed his mind. In July, after being told that Aaron Rodgers was the Packers’ QB right now and Favre would have to compete in camp for his starting job, Favre asked for his unconditional release from the Green Bay Packers. All of a sudden, an amicable split became a bitter divorce. GM Ted Thompson on one side and Favre on the other. It became a question of who would blink first. Would Favre relent and come to camp? Or would Thompson grant his request for a release? Knowing Favre would go to rival Minnesota if he was granted his release, Thompson decided to trade Favre after the two sides so obviously weren’t going to be able to work through this. On August 6, 2008, Brett Favre was traded to the New York Jets.
Brett Favre, at one time probably the most beloved person in Wisconsin, wasn’t a Green Bay Packer anymore. And damn did it feel weird.
That year, under the quarterbacking of Aaron Rodgers, the Packers would fall way back. They would lose 6 games by less than a touchdown and end up going 6-10. Favre, on the other hand, would come out of the gates blazing for the Jets. They would start 8-3 and they looked like Super Bowl contenders. Then Favre would suffer a shoulder injury (that he would play through) and the Jets stumbled to a 9-7 finish, missing the Playoffs.
Rodgers, despite his team’s lack of wins, would prove most doubters wrong. He had an incredibly solid season, throwing for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions. To be honest, there wasn’t much more he could’ve done. Rodgers, Favre, it didn’t matter because the defense in 2008 made an annoying habit of giving up ridiculously late scores.
6-10 was bad. But because of Rodgers there was reason for optimism. Reason to think that despite a record that bad this team had a future. I’m just not so sure any of us thought that future would come to fruition so soon.
Thompson’s drafting of Rodgers, and the subsequent trade of Favre just a few years later, will probably go down as the defining moment in Thompson’s Green Bay career. And with good reason. But the 2009 draft might actually be his shining moment. With all the pieces in place on offense, the Green Bay coaches and front office knew they had to start building up their defense. From the coaching end McCarthy took care of what he could by hiring 3-4 mastermind Dom Capers. Capers, the former head coach for Houston and Carolina, brought with him a complete philosophy shift in Green Bay, which had been a 4-3 defense for many, many years. The question became, did Capers have the players to make this work. That’s where Thompson came in.
Clay Matthews III never had anything handed to him in life, despite his football lineage. A walk-on at the University of Southern California, Matthews had to earn his way onto the team, earn his way into playing time, and earn a starting job, all of which he did. And all that work paid off for him. Coming into the NFL, he was a fairly highly regarded draft prospect. Generally regarded as a late first, early second round pick, Matthews was going to be counted on wherever he went. That April, in a nearly unprecedented move, Thompson traded up in a draft and snagged Matthews with the 26th pick in the first round. Matthews would turn out to be probably the second best draft pick in the Thompson era, instantly coming in and becoming an impact player with his tenacious, never give up style. He would record double digit sacks in each of his first two seasons and by his second year, he was already a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Matthews wasn’t Thompson’s only first rounder, though. Any good 3-4 needs a good nose tackle to anchor the defense, and when BJ Raji was on the board at pick 9 for Green Bay, Thompson pulled the trigger. Raji, a mountain of a NT out of Boston College, has also proved to be a big difference maker on the defense. He has the ability to rush the quarterback up the middle as well as the ability to be a fierce run stopper. Many would say he was snubbed out of his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2010, but it’s only a matter of time until Raji goes to Hawaii.
As good as the 2005 draft was for Thompson that netted him his franchise QB in Rodgers and a perennial Pro Bowler at safety in Nick Collins, the ’09 draft was every bit as good because it gave Capers 2 young potential superstars to build his defense around.
Not everything was good during that offseason, though.
I remember it to this day. Sitting in my chair watching ESPNEWS and seeing casually on the bottom of the screen “Brett Favre requests release from New York Jets”. They weren’t discussing it. It wasn’t that big a story for some reason. But I knew what it meant. My reaction when I saw that? “Uh oh.”.
As it turned out, that “uh oh” was warranted. Favre had overstayed his welcome in New York. Players were complaining about him, he wasn’t that effective on the field, there was just a sense that it couldn’t work there for another year. So in April the Jets traded up in the draft and took USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. All of New York went nuts. They had their franchise guy. Lost in the hysteria though was that Favre became superfluous. They didn’t need him anymore. And so they did as Favre asked, they released him. And then the unthinkable happened.
Brett Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings. Stated Goal: Stick it to Ted Thompson.
Shockwaves went through the Packers fan community. We tolerated the Jets. He wasn’t doing anything all that wrong by playing there, but now to sign with our direct rival? A rival who’s only missing piece was a QB? Yeah, fans are going to have an issue with that. We watched in horror as Brad Childress picked Favre up at the airport. We watched in horror as Favre’s Vikings continued to just win and win. We watched in horror as Favre hit a game winning, no time left, 40+ yard TD pass to Greg Lewis to beat the San Francisco 49ers. But still, it wasn’t all bad.
The Packers of 2009 turned out to be a pretty darn good football team in their own right. Rodgers, somehow, managed to improve on his first starting year and established himself as one of the best young QB’s in the league with a fantastic season. 30 TD’s to just 7 INT’s. Favre never did anything like that. Until he did…
The worst case scenario was happening for Packer fans. Minnesota was really, really good and Favre was the reason. He would put up almost a carbon copy of Rodgers’ numbers, except he’d throw for 33 TD’s instead of 30 like Rodgers did. Favre and his Vikings would end up winning the division. They’d end up the #2 seed in the NFC. But most of all, they’d beat the Packers twice. Handily.
The first Favre Bowl occurred in the Metrodome in Minnesota. It was a Monday Night Football game and the nation watched as Favre finally got his shot at beating the Packers. And Favre played brilliantly. In beating his old team 30-23, Favre went 24/31 for 271 yards with 3 TD’s and no INT’s. He led 30-14 at one point and the Viking defense held off a late rally by the Packers. That’s alright, Packer fans said. We’ll get him back. He can’t play that good again. We’ll win the one in Lambeau.
Favre Bowl II went worse than Favre Bowl I. Favre and his Vikings rolled into Lambeau and again the Packers couldn’t stop him. The final score was 38-26, but the score is probably closer than the game actually was. The completion percentage was worse, the yards were less, but Favre threw for 4 touchdowns and looked undaunted as he took his team to a season sweep of the Packers. At least for this year, he’d stuck it to Ted. Favre was having an ’07 like dream season. It was starting to seem like he was destined to end it by hoisting Lombardi and spitting in the eye of every Packers fan that worshipped him for years.
The second Vikings loss dropped Green Bay to 4-3 in 2009. There they were at a crossroads. Fold, or persevere. Luckily for Packer fans, they chose the latter. The Packers would rip off a 7-2 stretch to close out their year, including a good win in Lambeau over NFC contender Dallas, and they would finish 11-5. For the first time since Favre’s last year, the Packers were in the Playoffs, and Aaron Rodgers got them there.
Capers’ 3-4 showed flashes of brilliance in 2009. The aforementioned Dallas game comes to mind as a good example of what the defense could be. Unfortunately, when it came time for the Wild Card game at West division champ Arizona, the defense saved by far it’s worst game for last. Rodgers threw an early pick, but worked out the jitters, which was good because it would turn out that he’d be in a historic shootout that day. On the other side of the shootout, potential Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. In one of the most exciting, and the highest scoring, Playoff games in history Rodgers and Warner traded brilliant throw after brilliant throw until everyone was tied at 45 by the end of regulation. Rodgers day would end up at 422 yards with 4 TD’s and 1 INT. Warner, however, went nuclear. 29/33 for 379 yards and 5 TD’s. He ripped Capers’ defense to shreds. But alas, here we were, all even again. And for the second consecutive Playoff game, we were going to overtime. And for the second consecutive time the Packers won the toss.
Rodgers had it. The defining moment of his young career was right there for him. Greg Jennings, in overtime, streaking down the middle of the field, and he’s open. All Rodgers has to do is float the ball out there and it’s game over. All he had to do is complete that pass and he cements himself as an icon in Green Bay football history. That’s all he had to do. Rodgers reared back and let it rip. Jennings stretched out as much as he could. And then the pass went just a bit too long and hit the ground. Incomplete. On that same set of downs, the Cardinals would send a blitz and hit Rodgers hard. He would fumble, Arizona would recover and run it into the end zone. Game over. Season over. Only an offseason full of disappointment awaits.
Unfortunately for Rodgers, that fumble became the defining moment for him. His critics would say he can’t win big games. He can’t win close games. That he’s a stat accumulator and nothing more. And for those reasons, he still couldn’t get out of Favre’s shadow.
Speaking of Favre, his Vikings had their own business to take care of in the 2009 Playoffs. After a bye, they thrashed the Cowboys in Minnesota. And now, again, Favre was in the NFC Championship. Packer fans worst nightmare was 1 game away from being realized, a Brett Favre led Viking team in the Super Bowl. All that stood in their way was the New Orleans Saints. In a tough, physical game where Favre took the beating of his career, the two teams fought to a 28-28 tie towards the end of regulation. But the Vikings were driving. They were in position to set up former Packer Ryan Longwell to kick them to the Super Bowl. With 30 seconds left in regulation, the Vikings were in long field goal range. It would’ve been a 56 yarder. Long, but not impossible. But why not try to get a bit closer for Longwell? Try to sure this thing up a bit. So the call came in for Favre. The Vikings were going to hit a quick pass and then Longwell would kick the game winner. Simple enough. So there was Favre, under center, 30 seconds away from what he so desperately craved one more shot at. He took the snap, he rolled to his right, nobody open. There was ample running room for Favre, but shots to his ankle by New Orleans players had hobbled him so he decided against trying to run. For a split second, Sidney Rice looked open. And that split second was long enough for Favre to try to rifle one to him. Favre threw back across his body towards Rice when out of nowhere New Orleans corner Tracy Porter jumped the route. Porter intercepted the ball, returned it for a bit, and we were going to overtime. New Orleans won the toss, kicked a field goal, and Favre never saw the ball again. Favre had thrown an interception on the final play of the Vikings season and as a result he’d sunk their chance for the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship. A dream season for Favre came crashing down in the same exact place he’d once hoisted the Lombardi Trophy that he now coveted so badly.
And Green Bay fans couldn’t have been happier. They’d seen this movie before, and the tragic ending had now become comedic. Cause for cheering and giddiness. The same guy who crushed their souls in the 2008 Playoffs by throwing the game ending pick against the Giants had now done the exact same thing for Minnesota. You know what they say about karma.
That summer, Favre would do his usual waffle dance. And the ending was the same as it had been for years, he was coming back. One last big shot at the Super Bowl. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
The 2010 Packers, however, came into the season with unprecedented hype. After destroying the competition during the preseason, the Packers seemed to be almost consensus Super Bowl favorites. Only some fluke of an injury spree could stop this team.
That injury spree happened. In a big way. By season’s end the Packers would be without ’09 starters Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Mark Tauscher, Brad Jones, Nick Barnett, and Al Harris. The injuries took their toll, and the Packers stumbled out of the gates to a 3-3 start with 2 OT losses to Washington and Miami. And then came Favre Bowl III.
Favre Bowl III just felt different. For one, the Vikings weren’t playing well. They were 2-3, but Favre was turning the ball over again, which he didn’t do the year before. But Minnesota didn’t fold. At halftime they led 17-14 in Lambeau. But after half, the Packers defense finally forced some Favre errors. First came an interception thrown to AJ Hawk deep in Vikings territory, which Green Bay would convert into a touchdown. Then, on the ensuing possession, Favre dropped back, looked right, came back left, and threw the ball right to Packers backup linebacker Desmond Bishop. Bishop made the INT and ran it back for a score. Momentum had officially turned. Green Bay had taken a 28-17 lead. Minnesota would, however, get a TD to make it interesting at 28-24. And by the end of the game, more than a few nails were chewed. Favre had the ball and he had a chance to win it. And he was moving it. With 40 seconds left, Favre wound up and chucked a heave to the back of the end zone. In the back of the end zone, Percy Harvin leapt up and caught it. Touchdown. Favre had pulled one last rabbit out of his hat. And against his old team in Lambeau. Then NBC, who was broadcasting the game, showed a replay. Harvin made a clean catch, but one of his feet came down out of bounds. After review, it was overturned. Favre would take 2 more desperation shots, but complete none of them. The Packers had held him off and mercifully, they’d gotten the Favre monkey off their backs. Packers 28, Vikings 24.
Packers fans booed Favre as he left, one last “screw you” from the fans who used to adore him. And that will likely be the last image of Favre the Player in Lambeau, hobbling down the tunnel cascaded by boos. For as much as he wanted to stick it to Ted, it was the Packers who would get the last laugh. A few weeks later, Rodgers and the Packers would go to the Metrodome and paste a clearly disinterested Favre-led Vikings team 31-3. Revenge complete. That week, the Vikings would fire Brad Childress. Later in the year Favre’s consecutive starts streak would come to an end at 297 and he would become embroiled in a sex scandal involving Favre, former Jets employee Jenn Sterger, and a cell phone. The Vikings would finish their season a chaotic 6-10 and Favre would file retirement papers with the NFL a few weeks after the regular season ended.
Injuries would continue to rear their head in 2010 for the Packers. In week 14 at Detroit, with the Packers needing to win as often as possible to get into the Playoffs, Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion. He would miss the next game at New England. Say what you will about Favre, but he never missed a game, so this was a huge deal. The Packers would lose that Detroit game 7-3, and then lose the next game in New England 30-24. Backup Matt Flynn played really well, but in the end some sideline and referee confusion cost Flynn a chance to get a last play off and try to win the game.
Despite the injuries, though, Green Bay would finish 10-6 and make the Playoffs for the second consecutive year under Rodgers direction. They kicked off things against the suddenly resurgent Michael Vick and his Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round. The Packers controlled the game for awhile, but couldn’t pull away. The Eagles managed to keep things close and in the end they had the ball with under 2 minutes to go and down just 5, 21-16. Vick completed a long pass to DeSean Jackson and it looked like Philly was primed to score. After a completion to Riley Cooper, Vick decided to take a shot with about 40 seconds to go. He called “Four Verticals”, which is basically the “everyone go deep” play. Vick took the snap, dropped back, and lofted a spiral down the left sideline towards the end zone. For a second, everyone in Green Bay held their breath. Would Michael Vick, the first guy to beat the Packers in Lambeau, pull out a miracle? As the ball drifted closer to it’s intended receiver, again Riley Cooper, it became more and more apparent that Vick hadn’t put quite enough on the throw. Covering Cooper on the play, Tramon Williams leapt up and intercepted the ball in the end zone. Rodgers came out and took a victory knee, game over. Finally, the much maligned Rodgers had won a big game. Finally he’d won a Playoff game. And the Packers were on their way to the Divisional round for the first time since 2008.
Awaiting the Packers in the Divisionals was the Atlanta Falcons, the NFC’s #1 seed. Also awaiting, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan and his 20-2 home record. Coming off the Philly win, the Packers were feeling confident, but the Falcons were well rested and had already beaten Green Bay once this year in the regular season. As it turned out, round 2 wasn’t close.
Aaron Rodgers missed his defining moment in the 2009 Playoffs. He wasn’t about to do it again. But this time, instead of a play, his defining moment was a whole game. Playing in the dome, which Rodgers says he likes “because [he] can wear [his] favorite shoes” Rodgers lit up the Atlanta defense. 31/36, 366 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT’s. Statistically it was the best performance in team Playoff history, and it was reason 1 that the Packers went into Atlanta and dismantled the Falcons to the tune of 48-21. Aided by 2 Tramon Williams interceptions (one of them going for a touchdown as time expired in the first half) the Packers steamrolled the best team in the NFC and sent a statement. 6 seed or not, they were for real.
And so here we are. Our Packers in the NFC Championship Game again. But this one feels different than the last one. This one feels like the beginning of something, not the end. On Sunday the Packers and Bears will renew the NFL’s oldest rivalry for the 182nd time, but this is the first Playoff game between the two bitter rivals since a 1941 contest just a week after Pearl Harbor (which the Bears won). It’s easy now to look ahead and think about what might be, but to truly appreciate this season’s journey, I felt a look back was important. Because this isn’t just about this year. This has been building for awhile now. And what we’re seeing on the field is Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy’s vision from a few years ago finally coming to fruition. It’s easy to take this all for granted, but when you look at everything that’s went into this journey back to relevance, from the hiring of Thompson and the bottoming out at 4-12, to the Favre debacle, to where we are now I think you really begin to gain that much more of an appreciation for this team and for this run.
Anything could happen on Sunday, the sky is the limit for this Packers team, and given where we were not so long ago, I couldn’t be prouder.
Continue to Part 3: http://www.packerforum.com/f37/6-years-after-4-12-part-3-all-way-back-28914.html
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