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
Back in the mid-2000’s the Green Bay Packers were a team on the brink. Never bad under Head Coach Mike Sherman, the Packers had made the Playoffs for 4 consecutive years, but were never able to take that next step and become major contenders for a Super Bowl. Still, though, Playoff football is fun and by the time the 2005 season came about, we’d gotten pretty used to being a part of that postseason tournament. There was reason for optimism in Green Bay. Franchise icon Brett Favre was still under center, Ahman Green was in his prime, and we had a terrific pair of wide receivers in veteran Donald Driver and young gun Javon Walker. We had an offense that could compete with anybody’s, and with Darren Sharper and Al Harris in the secondary, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila getting after the QB, and Nick Barnett becoming one of the brightest rising stars in the NFL at middle linebacker, things were shaping up pretty well in Titletown.
2004 ended as badly as a season could end in Packerland, a loss in the Wild Card round of the Playoffs to hated rival Minnesota. Worse yet, an 8-8 Minnesota team. Surely for the Packers, given their talented roster and the hope of a new year things could only go up, right?
After years of questionable decisions on draft day by Coach/General Manager Sherman culminated in 2004 (Sherman’s last draft as GM) with a debacle of a draft that netted the Packer such future stars as Ahmad Carroll, Joey Thomas, and BJ Sander, the Packers would finally bring in an outside GM and relieve Sherman of his duties, but keep him on as Head Coach. The new GM was Ted Thompson, a guy who had spent the 5 years previous as Vice President of Football Operations in Seattle. Thompson’s first draft during the offseason after the ’04 season would prove to be a good one, but it wouldn’t help the team immediately. For the first time since Rich Campbell in 1981, the Packers would take a quarterback in the first round, Aaron Rodgers out of the University of California. Rodgers was rescued by Thompson after one of the most infamous draft day slides in history. Projected to be a top 3 to 5 pick, Rodgers slid all the way down to the Packers at 24.
But the Packers were Brett Favre’s team. Everyone knew that. Brett was for all intents and purposes a religious deity in Wisconsin. He was infallible. He could do no wrong, and if he did the entire state would support him no matter what. To say he was beloved is an understatement. Favre rolled into 2005 riding a wave of momentum. 2004 was a great statistical year for him as he passed for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns to 17 INT’s. Aging or not, Favre was still getting it done. That’s what made 2005 so surprising…
2005 began just as badly as 2004 did. The Packers stumbled out to a 0-4 start, losing star receiver Javon Walker for the season to a knee injury. In 2004 the Packers managed to recover from a 1-4 start to make the Playoffs. That wouldn’t happen this year. A 52-3 win over New Orleans got the Packers into the winner’s circle for the first time that year in week 5. Going into the bye week after that kind of blowout win was cause for optimism. Hell, we’d just done it last year, why couldn’t we turn our season around again this year? Well, as it turns out, we couldn’t. Ahman Green, who some thought might actually be the best player the Packers had, tore up his knee in week 7 and the Packers stumbled out of the bye week, dropping 3 more games, and then following a win over Atlanta dropped 3 more games.
¾ of the way through the season and it was over. The Packers, after 12 games, sat there at 2-10 and obviously out of the Playoff hunt. It was stunning, and made all the more stunning because for the last 10 or so years the Packers had not once been a “bad” football team. Sure, there was the 8-8 Ray Rhodes year after Mike Holmgren left, but we were hardly bad that year. Just badly coached. But this year was different, we were truly bad and it felt weird.
The Packers would stumble towards a 2-2 finish, including a 48-3 loss at Baltimore which, I believe, is the worst loss in Monday Night Football history. In just one season we’d gone from promising to rock bottom. Blame was laid everywhere, from injuries to the coaches. Heck, even a once infallible figure started to feel some heat.
Statistically, Brett Favre’s 2005 was his worst season in green and gold. Favre would throw for 3,881 yards, 20 touchdowns, and a staggering 29 interceptions. Favre had always had a bit of recklessness to his style. Frankly, that’s part of what endeared him to Packer fans everywhere, but for the first time in his career the gun slinging had finally gotten the best of him. With a high draft pick spent just that last offseason on Aaron Rodgers, doubt started to creep into the minds of the fans for the first time ever when it came to their hero. During the home finale against Seattle, fans even gave Favre a standing ovation at the end of the game, as if to say “good bye” and as if they were expecting their icon to retire.
As it turned out, that wouldn’t be the last time that scene occurred.
Heads would end up rolling in Green Bay. The most prominent of them was Mike Sherman’s, as he would be fired shortly after the disappointing season mercifully came to an end. Replacing Sherman became a bit of a process. Future NFL head coaches Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints) and Brad Childress (Minnesota Vikings, since fired) would interview for the job. And they had all the credentials. Payton coming off helping to run a pretty darn good Dallas Cowboys offense, and Childress had done the same in Philadelphia. Either of them would’ve been solid hires. But the Packers went riskier.
Hiring the man who ran the offense for a 4-12 team doesn’t exactly end up sitting well with fans, but that’s exactly what Mike McCarthy had done prior to getting the head job in Green Bay. He wasn’t without merit as for 5 years he ran a high-octane offense in New Orleans, but it still wasn’t the sexiest hire. Regardless, this man, weirdly the third Packers coach out of the last 4 to be named “Mike”, was tasked with rebuilding a proud team.
Rebuilding needed to be done during that offseason, and Ted Thompson knew it. He managed to get his hands on 12 draft picks that year and he began his efforts to rebuild his team through the draft. It’s not a policy that’s popular among fans, but Thompson didn’t care. Out of this draft, Thompson would end up acquiring a very solid player for the future in linebacker AJ Hawk. Hawk has been viewed by a lot of fans as a disappointment given his draft position (#5 overall), and that might be true as he’s never really been a “game changer”, but he’s been a solid player for the Packers defense since the day he got here. In round 2, though, Thompson would strike gold…
Javon Walker was great as a Packer. There’s no denying it. He was tremendously gifted athletically and made plays up and down the football field. After the ’04 season, Walker felt he deserved a raise. A very public contract dispute ensued with even Brett Favre getting involved at one point. Walker would end up reporting to the Packers, but an ACL tear in the first game of the year ended his season. During the following offseason, instead of paying Walker, Thompson dealt him for a second round draft pick to Denver. Walker would flame out in Denver very quickly, never really being the same player after his ’05 knee injury. With the pick acquired from Denver, Thompson would replace Walker with Western Michigan receiver Greg Jennings. He wasn’t the biggest name left on the board (that would be Chad Jackson out of Florida, who was regarded as a first round talent at the receiver position), but Thompson had hit a home run with that pick. Jennings would eventually ascend to the top of the WR depth chart in a matter of a couple of years and prove to be every bit the playmaker that Walker was.
While Thompson did prefer to build through the draft, he did take a rare venture into the free agent market during this offseason. Thompson would sign perennial Pro Bowler but chronically injured cornerback Charles Woodson from the Raiders. Woodson, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Michigan, would pair with Al Harris and prove to be one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL for years to come. All of a sudden, the Packers had a formidable secondary.
With Hawk, Jennings, and Woodson, you could start to see the pieces coming into place for this football team, but they did have some growing and developing to do.
The 2006 season started the same way the previous 2 had, with a 1-4 record. Was McCarthy the man for the job? Should Favre have just stayed retired after he flirted with it during the offseason? Turmoil surrounded this Packers team as fans felt they were once again in for a disappointing season.
But then, somehow, the Packers rallied. They wouldn’t make the Playoffs, but they would go 7-4 down the stretch to get back to .500 at 8-8. It was the first sign of encouragement for fans in awhile. It earned McCarthy a second year. And most of all, for the first time in awhile, the Packers had some momentum going into a season.
But first they had to get through the offseason.
Randy Moss had made a living tearing up Packer secondaries when he was in Minnesota. For years he was that purple blur we’d all have nightmares about. Then he went to Oakland and disappeared. Almost literally. Moss was a shell of himself on a poor team like the Raiders. Effort was questioned and the Raiders finally decided to move the once great receiver. There would be two suitors during the offseason, the New England Patriots and the Packers. Packers fans knew what the guy could do, and when talks surfaced that he may be coming to play in Lambeau the fanbase erupted with reaction. Some thought he was the missing piece and could potentially make the Packers great, some thought he was a distraction with diminished skills and questionable effort. Either way, one very important person most definitely wanted him: Brett Favre. Favre to Moss had long been a pipe dream for Packer fans, and as it turned out the quarterback must’ve spent some time thinking about it too. He lobbied Thompson and management hard to make the move to bring the embattled Moss to Green Bay. Favre’s efforts proved fruitless, though, as the Patriots would acquire Moss on draft day for a 4th round draft pick. Unbeknown to fans and the media, Favre’s “do anything to get him” and Thompson’s “build through the draft” philosophy had become a bigger issue than each side had let on. But more on that later.
Moss would go on to break the NFL record for touchdown receptions in a season in his first year in New England. He’d be one of the main reasons that Patriots team would be the first since the ’72 Dolphins to complete an undefeated regular season. And had the Packers been bad or average, this might have bothered fans. As it turned out, they were a bit distracted by one last great roller coaster ride from old number 4…
Not many people saw what happened in 2007 coming. Only the most optimistic of fans could have. With no help from the running game until the arrival of Thompson acquisition Ryan Grant (who was a little known late round draft pick for the New York Giants out of Notre Dame), Favre would will his team to a scintillating 10-1 start. Suddenly the Packers were back where they belonged: contenders in the NFC once again.
Another team would start 10-1 as well, the Dallas Cowboys. Both team’s hot starts culminated on a Thursday night when the two teams met, potential home field advantage on the line. Favre would come out erratic, throwing 2 bad interceptions and the Packers would trail 27-10 when Favre would leave with an injury. Suddenly it was Aaron Rodgers’ turn. Finally, the sort of forgotten draft pick who’d spent 2 years just watching would get his chance to shine. And boy did he. Rodgers would come off the bench and lead the Packers to a touchdown, cutting the Dallas lead to 27-17 at halftime. Eventually, the Packers would pull within a field goal during the 4th quarter, but a late FG by Cowboys kicker Nick Folk would end up burying the Packers in this one. After a valiant, gutty effort by Rodgers, the Packers would drop to 10-2. They’d lose once more and end up 13-3 on the year, the #2 seed in the NFC Playoffs.
After a few years’ absence, Lambeau Field was finally ready to host a Playoff game again. The Seattle Seahawks came to town in the divisional round. After 2 early Ryan Grant fumbles put the Packers down 14-0 at snowy Lambeau, they rebounded and won in a blowout, 42-20. For the first time since 1999, the Packers were going back to the NFC Championship.
The New York Giants were a 10-6 Wild Card team. They weren’t supposed to be able to go into Dallas and knock off the might #1 seeded Cowboys, but that’s exactly what they did. And riding that wave of momentum, the Giants came to Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship with bad intentions. In what would end up being an all-time classic, the Giants would shockingly end the Packers’ magical year. After controlling the first half, the Packers had a lackluster second half. Giants’ receiver Plaxico Burress would take over the ballgame, literally doing whatever he wanted because Al Harris was simply not good enough on that day to stop him. Still, the Giants missed a game winning field goal at the end of regulation, and when the Packers won the toss to start overtime fans felt like this was destiny. On that first overtime possession, Brett Favre would drop back, lock in on WR Donald Driver, and attempt to throw an out route to Driver. It was caught, except that it was caught by Giants CB Corey Webster. Webster would return the interception into field goal range, where Lawrence Tynes would atone for the miss at the end of regulation. Millions of Wisconsinites hearts plummeted. The dream season was over. The Giants celebrated an NFC Title, in Lambeau Field. They would go on to shock the world once again by ending New England’s perfect season in the Super Bowl.
As fate would have it, that throw, that bad interception, would be the last image of Brett Favre in a Packers uniform. On March 6, 2008, Favre would sit at a podium, tears in his eyes, and retire from football. I sincerely doubt he was the only person in the state who had tears in his eyes that day. Favre would say that day “I know I can still play, I’m just not sure I want to.”. Packer fans would throw their support behind their legend. Arrangements were made to retire his number on opening night. And that was that. The career of a legend, over.
Continue to Part 2: Heroes vs. Villains...
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