TTZ: Don Beebe
Club Level: Craig Hentrich
Never imagining what might become of the semipro football team being formed that day, nobody documented who was there or how many were on hand. There had been no announcement of the meeting beforehand, and the Press-Gazette provided no details about it the day after.
Whether a full complement of players was on hand or if it was simply a small gathering of the team’s prime movers was never made clear. Nor was it spelled out if much of the preliminary work had been completed beforehand or if the meeting itself triggered a rapid-fire chain of events.
Whatever the case, the Press-Gazette in its Aug. 13 edition revealed that the Indian Packing Co. would sponsor the team and referred to it for the first time as the “Packers.” The paper said home games would be played at Hagemeister Park; listed 38 prospective candidates for the team, mostly former standouts at Green Bay East and West high schools; and noted full uniforms would be provided to up to 20 players.
“It will be the strongest aggregation of pigskin chasers that has ever been gathered together in this city,” the Press-Gazette proclaimed.
A second meeting was held at the Press-Gazette on Aug. 14, three days after the initial one, and nearly 25 players were in attendance. Curly Lambeau was elected captain of the team, and George Whitney Calhoun was named manager.
Lambeau was a former star at East High School and played on Coach Knute Rockne’s first team at the University of Notre Dame in 1918. Back home after dropping out of school in December, Lambeau was working for Indian Packing at the time. Calhoun, great-grandson of Daniel Whitney, founder of the city of Green Bay, was an editor at the Press-Gazette.
The story handed down for decades was that the impetus for the initial meeting was a chance encounter at a downtown street corner between Lambeau and Calhoun. In his 1985 book about the history of the Packers, longtime executive committee member and onetime Calhoun colleague, John Torinus, changed the setting to a conversation over a glass of beer.
Whether it’s all urban legend or if there’s a true story in there somewhere remains a mystery for the ages. But Lambeau and Calhoun have long been regarded as the Packers’ co-founders and there’s little or no evidence to dispute that.
The first season the Packers won 10 games and lost one against opponents representing mostly nearby towns in Northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The team conducted most of its practices that first year on a field next to the Indian Packing plant at the end of Morrow Street, but it played its eight home games at Hagemeister Park on an open field with no fence or bleachers. Calhoun “passed a hat,” as did others, to collect spare change and help cover expenses.
The Packers played an independent schedule against mostly neighboring towns the next year, as well, and again dominated the competition, finishing 9-1-1.
Better yet, their financial outlook improved considerably.
C.M. “Neil” Murphy, a local typewriter salesman, was named business manager in July and organized a committee to build a fence around the Hagemeister playing field so the Packers could charge admission.
Thanks to the support of Indian Packing, the local Association of Commerce, local contractor Ludolf Hansen and fans who provided volunteer labor, construction of the fence began in late August and was completed before the first game in late September.
By mid-October, two large sections of bleachers were erected so fans wouldn’t have to stand around the field to watch the Packers play.
JOINING THE NFL
On Aug. 27, 1921, the year-old American Professional Football Association awarded a franchise to the Acme Packers of Green Bay during a league meeting in Chicago. The Acme Packing Co., based in Chicago, had purchased Indian Packing eight months earlier. Less than a year later, the APFA would change its name to National Football League.
Green Bay was now in the big leagues – sort of.
Most of the APFA’s 21 members that second year were located in small hotbeds of football rather than big cities – places like Canton, Ohio, Hammond, Ind., and Rock Island, Ill.
Then again, compared to Green Bay maybe those were big cities.
Green Bay hasn’t just been the smallest city in the league for as long as anyone can remember – that has been true since Day One if you discount a minor technicality. The only smaller city in 1921 was Tonawanda, N.Y., but the Tonawanda Kardex were designated a traveling team and lasted only one game.
Green Bay’s population was 31,017 based on the 1920 U.S. Census. Not only was it the smallest city in the league, it was smaller than six other cities in Wisconsin, including Superior and Oshkosh, and none of them had teams.
Even through the lens of history, it’s almost incomprehensible that the Packers survived. They’re closing in on their 100th anniversary, but until they were nudging toward 50 they were perpetually on their deathbed.
Take their first season, for example.
The Packers pulled off a major coup when they signed lineman Howard “Cub” Buck, a veteran of the famous Canton Bulldogs. They won their inaugural league game against the Minneapolis Marines on Oct. 23, 1921. They were able to book games with the formidable Chicago Staleys (Bears) and Chicago Cardinals. And they finished with a winning record, 3-2-1.
But then everything unraveled.
On Dec. 4, 1921, in a non-league game against Racine billed as a battle for the state championship, the Packers used three Notre Dame players with college eligibility remaining under assumed names and got caught. Less than two months later, Green Bay was booted from the league – albeit, not for long.
Thanks to Lambeau’s persistence and the impression Green Bay had made on other club owners during its first season, the Packers were reinstated at the next meeting in June.
The Acme Packing Co. bowed out of the picture at that point, after just one season, and a small group headed by Lambeau and Calhoun took control of the franchise.
Plagued by limited resources and terrible weather, the new owners barely made it through their first season.
A game against Columbus in early November was played in a driving rain and resulted in a loss of $1,500 when the total rainfall for the day fell three one-hundredths of an inch short of the amount needed for the Packers to collect on its rain insurance. On Thanksgiving, a 12-hour rainfall ruined what was supposed to be Booster Day contributing to a sparse crowd for a non-league game against Duluth and another financial disaster.
Club officials nearly cancelled the game, but were persuaded not to by Andrew Turnbull, one of the owners of the Press-Gazette.
Nearly 25 years later in a three-part series, Calhoun wrote that Nov. 30, 1922, “marked a turning point in the history of the Packers.” He said Turnbull promised that if club officials went ahead and played their game that day, he would get Green Bay’s business community to rally behind the team once the season ended.
True to his word, Turnbull led the effort to create the non-profit Green Bay Football Corporation before the start of the next season. The Packers were now a community-owned team. Their investors were their fans.
THE IRON MAN ERA
With an improved financial outlook, Lambeau was in position to expand his recruiting efforts and bolster his roster. Over the course of the 1921 and ’22 seasons, the Packers underwent a transformation where they replaced most of their local talent with players who were from big-time colleges or seasoned pros or both.
As a result, they were highly competitive on the field from the beginning and, in turn, able to establish a firm foothold within the league. In 1927, when the NFL decided to cut its number of teams almost in half and eliminate many of its smaller cities, Green Bay survived.
Then before the 1929 season, it hit the jackpot.
The Packers signed three players off other NFL teams — halfback Johnny Blood, and linemen Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske — who would lead them to three straight NFL championships and later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
To this day, the 1929-’31 and 1965-’67 Packers are the only teams to have won three straight NFL titles. The ’29-’31 Packers did it when the championship was determined by league standings. The ’65-’67 Packers did it under the league playoff system, which was implemented in 1933.
THE HUTSON PERIOD
While the Packers were in the process of winning the 1931 championship, they also were blindsided by what could have been a catastrophic event. In their second game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a local fan, Willard J. Bent, injured his back when a section of bleachers at City Stadium collapsed, and he fell nearly 10 feet to the ground.
Bent sued the Packers and was awarded roughly $5,000 following a trial in February 1933. With the country in a deep depression, the Packers’ insurance company went into bankruptcy before the claim could be adjusted, and the Green Bay Football Corp. went into receivership while it appealed the case in court.
Somehow the Packers survived the proceedings long enough to be saved, once again, by two seminal events.
The first was the creation of a new corporation, Green Bay Packers, Inc., in January 1935 following a second stock sale.
The other was the signing of Don Hutson less than a month later. Hutson actually signed two contracts, one with the Packers and the other with the Dodgers, but was awarded to the Packers by league President Joe Carr. Carr settled the dispute based on the times postmarked on the packages containing the contracts mailed by the two clubs.
In his second game as a pro, Hutson caught an 83-yard touchdown pass from Arnie Herber that gave the Packers a 7-0 victory over the Chicago Bears. When he retired 11 years later, Hutson owned 18 major NFL records and had revolutionized what was then the position of offensive end.
With money in the bank and Hutson shredding defenses like no other player in the game, the Packers would win three more NFL titles under Lambeau: in 1936, ’39 and ’44.
But when Hutson retired following the 1945 season, hard times followed. The Packers became perennial losers for the first time, and they encountered one financial crisis after another.
The war between the NFL and the newly formed All-America Football Conference left them financially strapped and unable to sign their No. 1 draft picks in 1946 and ’47.
By Thanksgiving Day 1949, the Packers had to play an intra-squad game to raise enough money to finish the season. They drew 15,000 fans to City Stadium despite cold, blustery weather and raised more than $50,000, enough to pay the freight for their final three road games.
Meanwhile, the Packers also were losing money on their training quarters at Rockwood Lodge, located along the bay about 15 miles northeast of Green Bay, and Lambeau was immersed in a power struggle with several members of the board of directors.
Fortuitously for the Packers, Rockwood was destroyed by fire Jan. 24, 1950. The other problems came to a head when Lambeau resigned a week later, ending his 31-year association with the franchise, to become head coach of the Chicago Cardinals.
Within a week after Lambeau’s departure, the Packers hired Gene Ronzani, a former player and assistant coach with the Bears, to succeed him. Then before the end of April, the Packers launched a third stock drive.
The stock sale would raise nearly $125,000 and put the franchise back on firmer footing. On the field, the losing prevailed and with two games remaining in the 1953 season, Ronzani was forced to resign.
BLACKBOURN TAKES OVER
The Packers hired Verne Lewellen, a local attorney and one of the stars of their 1929-’31 championship teams, as general manager and plucked Lisle Blackbourn from Marquette University to become their head coach as part of a reshuffling of the organization in the winter of 1954.
The Packers compiled a disappointing 17-31 record during Blackbourn’s four years as coach, but they also secured their future during that period by building a new, football-only stadium and drafting what would be the nucleus of future championship teams.
On April 3, 1956, voters approved a referendum to fund construction of the stadium. It was dedicated on Sept. 29, 1957 and called new City Stadium until it was renamed Lambeau Field in 1965.
On Blackbourn’s watch, the Packers also drafted Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke, all future Pro Football Hall of Famers.
Despite his shortcomings as a coach, Blackbourn had a keen eye for talent – Vince Lombardi would hire him as a scout – and an able, young personnel director in Jack Vainisi, who had been hired by Ronzani and would play a large part in luring Lombardi to Green Bay.
McLEAN MOVES UP
After Blackbourn was fired following a 3-9 finish in 1957, likeable Ray “Scooter” McLean, backfield coach of the Packers since 1951, was hired as his replacement.
McLean lasted one season. He submitted his resignation under fire on Dec. 17, 1958, following a 1-10-1 finish, the worst in Packers history.
THE LOMBARDI ERA
The Packers’ search for McLean’s replacement lasted more than a month. Lambeau moved back to Green Bay and applied for the general manager post. Forest Evashevski, highly successful coach at the University of Iowa, was brought to Green Bay for an interview, but declined the job. Other candidates were considered, as well.
Finally, at 3 p.m. on Jan. 28, 1959, Packers President Dominic Olejniczak announced that Vince Lombardi had accepted a five-year deal to become the team’s coach and general manager. Six days later, Lombardi was officially introduced at a press conference at Green Bay’s Hotel Northland where he declared, “I want it understood that I’m in complete command.”
Although Lombardi had been backfield coach of the New York Giants for eight years, he was relatively unknown in what was a different time. Television was still in its infancy, pro football was viewed in some quarters as a second-rate sport and assistant coaches weren’t household names.
As a result, a popular question in Green Bay at the time was: “Who the hell is Vince Lombardi?”
It didn’t take long for people to find out.
In his first season, Lombardi went 7-5 and was named NFL Coach of the Year. In 1960, the Packers captured the Western Conference, only to lose to Philadelphia in the title game. That would be the last time Lombardi’s Packers lost an NFL Championship Game.
They won five world titles in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67, including Super Bowls I and II. Over nine years, they compiled a glittering 98-30-4 record (.766) and won nine of 10 postseason games.
The Packers would be recognized as the Team of the ‘60s and as one of the great dynasties in NFL history. Lombardi would be glorified as one of the game’s greatest coaches and be posthumously honored by having the Super Bowl trophy named after him.
Following the third consecutive title in 1967, Lombardi turned over the head-coaching duties to Phil Bengtson and one year later announced that he was leaving Green Bay to become coach/GM of the Washington Redskins. Bengtson coached the Packers from 1968-70, compiling a 20-21-1 record. He resigned in December 1970.
THE DEVINE DAYS
Dan Devine, one of the nation’s most successful college coaches, succeeded Bengtson as head coach and general manager in January 1971. After settling for a 4-8-2 record during his first year, Devine and the Packers appeared on the road to new heights when 1972 produced a 10-4 record and the team’s first Central Division title since 1967. But the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes dissolved in the second half of 1973 and they slipped to 5-7-2. They continued their recession in 1974, going 6-8, and Devine resigned.
THE STARR TREK
The most successful field general in pro football history, winning five world championships from 1961-67, Bart Starr accepted the challenge to lead the Packers out of the NFL wilderness, agreeing to a three-year contract as head coach and general manager, Dec. 24, 1974. Starr asked for “the prayers and patience of Packer fans everywhere…We will earn everything else.”
Although he had a 4-10 record in 1975, the baptismal season of a massive rebuilding project, Starr gave fans new hope by assembling a sound organization and restoring a positive attitude, underscored by three victories in the last five games of the ’75 season. He continued the resurgence in 1976, leading the Packers to a 5-9 record, highlighted by a three-game, mid-season winning streak. Major and key injuries slowed the comeback in 1977 but a strong finish produced a 4-10 mark. Hopes soared in 1978 when the Packers posted their first winning slate since 1972, an 8-7-1 record, only to be temporarily dampened in 1979 by a record rash of injuries which spawned a 5-11 mark. Another injury epidemic, one which saw 27 players on injured reserve during the course of the season, struck in 1980, forcing the Packers to settle for a 5-10-1 record.
Rebounding strongly in 1981, they rallied from a disappointing 2-6 start to mount one of the most dramatic comebacks in team history, closing with a 6-2 rush (an 8-8 mark), one win shy of the playoffs.
The Packers continued the upsurge in 1982, when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1972 by going 5-3-1 during the strike-interrupted season. They then embellished that performance by routing St. Louis 41-16 in the first round of the NFL’s Super Bowl Tournament, before bowing to Dallas (37-26) despite a record-setting, 466-yard offensive effort. Starr was relieved of his head-coaching duties Dec. 19, 1983, after the Packers finished the season 8-8 and missed the playoffs in the season’s final week.
THE GREGG ERA
On Dec. 24, 1983, Forrest Gregg, a former Starr teammate and one of the premier offensive tackles in football history, became the Packers’ ninth head coach. Gregg had led Cincinnati into Super Bowl XVI following the 1981 season. Gregg, whose 19-6 Cincinnati record over the 1981-82 seasons was the best in pro football, received a five-year contract.
In taking over, he declared: “I took this job to field a winning team. That will happen.”
Gregg’s prediction began to bear fruit in the second half of the 1984 season when the Packers rebounded from an injury-ridden 1-7 start to win seven of their last eight.
Because of injuries and other complications, however, 1985 followed the ’84 script, the Packers getting off to a 3-6 start before mounting a strong finish to again close at 8-8, winning five of their last seven.
Gregg, convinced the time had come to rebuild a team that was 8-8 three straight years, and was “starting to get old,” made sweeping personnel changes in 1986. The young Packers, their task complicated by injuries to key performers, got off to an 0-6 start, then began to mature in midseason and finished 4-12.
Following the 1987 season, when the club finished third in the NFC Central (5-9-1), Gregg resigned (Jan. 15, 1988) to become head coach at his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.
INFANTE SIGNS ON
Nineteen days later (Feb. 3), Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Lindy Infante, recognized throughout the NFL as a brilliant innovator, signed a five-year contract. Plagued by turnovers and kicking problems, Infante’s first team, in 1988, was 4-12, but left fans with hopes for the future by winning its last two games.
Building on that positive note, Infante in 1989 led the Packers to a 10-6 record — their best in 17 years — and within one game of the playoffs, spicing that turnabout with a league-record four one-point victories.
In 1990, subsequent high hopes for the team’s first postseason berth in a non-strike year since 1972 evaporated when the Packers — with a contending, 6-5 record after 11 games — ended the year with five straight losses.
The Packers continued to decline in 1991 (4-12). New Executive Vice President/General Manager Ron Wolf dismissed Infante on Dec. 22. Green Bay had hired Wolf on Nov. 27, and gave him full football-operations authority.
THE HOLMGREN ERA
Wolf named Mike Holmgren, offensive architect of San Francisco’s four-time Super Bowl champions, to succeed Infante, Jan. 11, 1992. Holmgren, sought by five other clubs, got a five-year contract.
In his first season, 1992, the former USC field general directed the Packers to a 9-7 record and within sight of the playoffs. He became only the third Packers head coach with a winning record in his first season, punctuated by a six-game winning streak, the team’s longest since 1965.
Holmgren took his team to the playoffs in 1993 – despite losing four starters to injury. Forging a second straight 9-7 record – against a considerably more demanding schedule – Green Bay got its first playoff berth in 10 years. In the first round, the Packers came from behind in the last minute to eliminate Detroit, 28-24. They then fell at Dallas, 27-17, in the divisional round.
In 1994, the Packers registered a third consecutive 9-7 mark and second straight playoff trip – the first time that had happened since the Titletown days of the ’60s. Riding a three-game winning streak into the postseason, they parlayed a record defensive performance and a turnover-free offensive effort into a 16-12 victory over Detroit – their first home playoff game since the 1982 season – holding the incomparable Barry Sanders to minus-1 yard in 13 attempts. The Packers advanced without the services of All-Pro receiver Sterling Sharpe, whose neck injury, diagnosed after the regular-season finale, ended his brilliant Green Bay career. For the second straight year, the Packers’ run ended in Dallas, 35-9.
Closing ranks with great results following Sharpe’s loss, the 1995 Packers put together one of the hallmark seasons in their history. Winning six of their last seven games, they captured their first NFC Central Division crown since 1972, then made their best postseason showing in more than 28 years, forging all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
En route, they closed the regular season 11-5 – their best mark since the 1966 NFL championship club (12-2) – and followed by dispatching the Falcons, 37-20, in a first-round playoff at Lambeau Field. Building on that win, the Packers mounted one of the premier performances in their postseason history, formally dethroning the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers in their own stadium, 3Com Park, 27-17. Again, however, dreams of a Super Bowl floundered in Dallas, 38-27, in the NFC title game, after the Packers led 27-24 at the end of three quarters.
Putting nearly three decades of disappointment emphatically behind, the Packers rewarded their long-patient faithful in 1996. Shunting aside eight of their first nine foes, they swept to a 13-3 record and their second straight division championship. Then, they captured their first NFL title since 1967, dispatching New England, 35-21, in Super Bowl XXXI at the Louisiana Superdome.
Displaying impressive consistency on both sides of the ball, they documented their superiority, outscoring three opponents 100-48 in a postseason sweep. Appropriately, the first two wins were before their Lambeau loyalists – a 35-14 divisional triumph over the 49ers and a 30-13 win over the upstart Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game.
In winning a 12th NFL championship, extending their own league record, the Packers joined an elite group of teams with three or more Super Bowls (Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Washington).
The Packers thus entered 1997 with an opportunity to win back-to-back Super Bowls for a second time – and came breathtakingly close to achieving their objective. Sweeping to a second consecutive 13-3 mark, tying a club record with 13 wins, they primed for the playoffs by ending the season with five straight wins. After a third consecutive division title, they launched their bid at Lambeau Field in workmanlike fashion, turning back Tampa Bay in the divisional playoff, 21-7. The win padded their all-time home-field postseason record to 12-0, extending the longest such winning streak in pro football history.
In a see-saw affair, Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego found the Packers trailing Denver at halftime, 17-14. Hopes of a repeat were high, however, when quarterback Brett Favre engineered an 85-yard drive, knotting the contest, 24-24, early in the fourth quarter. But the Broncos later scored with only 1:45 remaining and a last-minute Packers drive fell short when Favre’s pass for tight end Mark Chmura fell incomplete inside the Denver 20, with only 28 seconds left, sealing the Broncos’ 31-24 win.
A third straight Super Bowl trip, a realistic goal at the outset, eluded the Packers in 1998, their 80th season. Historic accomplishment, however, did not, as they advanced to the playoffs for the sixth year in a row, a team record, while posting a seventh consecutive winning season. Green Bay overcame multiple injuries, including the loss of Pro Bowl running back Dorsey Levens (out nine games) and center Frank Winters (stretch run and postseason), each with a broken leg. They set another team record by stretching their Lambeau Field winning streak to 25 games – the second longest in NFL history – before falling to the Minnesota Vikings Oct. 5. They finished 11-5, equaling another team standard by posting a double-digit victory total for the fourth consecutive year (11-5 in 1995, 13-3 in both 1996 and 1997). The only other time Green Bay had strung together four seasons of 10-plus wins was 67 years earlier – Lambeau’s triple NFL champions of 1929-32 (12-0-1 in 1929, 10-3-1 in 1930, 12-2 in 1931 and 10-3-1 in 1932).
In the wake of these considerable achievements, the Packers’ season came to a dramatic and painful end in an NFC Wild Card game at San Francisco, when a 27-23 lead abruptly dissolved into a 30-27 49ers victory. Steve Young’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens sealed the game with just three seconds left.
Only five days later, Holmgren resigned to become head coach and director of football operations for the Seattle Seahawks.
Moving swiftly, Wolf tabbed Ray Rhodes, former Eagles head coach and Green Bay defensive coordinator, as the Packers’ 12th head coach, Jan. 11, 1999. The Packers launched 1999 under Rhodes in breathtaking fashion, winning three of the first four games in the last minute. Fate, however, suddenly stopped smiling as Green Bay (8-8) missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992, ending seven straight winning seasons. Saying the Packers lacked the needed toughness and fire, Wolf relieved Rhodes soon after the season finale.
THE SHERMAN TENURE
After searching more than two weeks, Wolf surprised many NFL observers by naming Mike Sherman as the Packers’ 13th head coach, Jan. 18, 2000. Sherman in 2000 surmounted multiple injuries, including Favre’s prolonged bout with elbow tendinitis, and finished 9-7, inches from the playoffs.
One month after a stirring finish – a four-game winning streak – Wolf retired as the team’s executive vice president and general manager, Feb. 1, 2001, and President Bob Harlan quickly named Sherman to replace Wolf. Sherman became the first head coach with the GM title since Starr in 1980.
Wolf’s impressive nine-year tenure included 101 total victories (including eight in the playoffs) and the NFL’s best regular-season record (83-45) since the 1993 advent of free agency.
Now with full authority over football, Sherman answered in 2001 by returning the Packers to the playoffs, improving his winning percentage to .656 (21-11), best ever over a Packers coach’s first two years. Behind Favre and explosive Ahman Green (1,981 yards from scrimmage), the Packers went 12-4, but couldn’t grasp the division title, despite sweeping the division champion Bears. The Packers knocked off the Niners in a Wild Card playoff, but couldn’t get past eventual NFC champion St. Louis.
In 2002, Green Bay overcame an injury-plagued season to tie for the league’s best record at 12-4. Despite injured starters missing 63 combined games, the Packers clinched their division, the inaugural NFC North title, on Dec. 1. Favre finished two votes shy of a fourth MVP, and defensively, behind Pro Bowler Darren Sharper, the team ranked third in the NFL against the pass and led the league with 45 takeaways, six more than any other team. But Michael Vick and the Falcons became the first team ever to beat the Packers at home in the playoffs.
A return to the NFC Championship slipped painfully through the Packers’ fingers in 2003. Donovan McNabb led the Eagles to a come-from-behind, 20-17 overtime win to end an emotional Packers run in the Divisional playoffs.
The loss snapped a memorable five-game winning streak. The stretch included changes to three of the most-revered records in Packers history (Gregg’s 33-year-old consecutive-games streak, broken by Favre; Jim Taylor’s 41-year-old season rushing record, Green; and Don Hutson’s 58-year-old career scoring mark, Ryan Longwell). Green Bay captured an improbable division title in the last two minutes of the season, when Arizona upset Minnesota and the Lambeau Field crowd broke the news to the Packers.
Adding to the hallmark of Sherman’s tenure, the Packers overcame a 1-4 start in 2004, the club’s roughest since 1991, to finish 10-6 and win a third straight division title. The 9-2 stretch run featured four wins on last-second field goals by Longwell, including a 34-31 division-clinching win in Minnesota on Christmas Eve.
However, just two weeks later the same Vikings avenged the loss with a 31-17 win in a Wild Card playoff at Lambeau Field.
On Jan. 14, 2005, Harlan restructured the team’s football operations, naming Ted Thompson general manager, with full authority over football decisions. Harlan said he based the decision on his belief in a preferred structure – separate individuals for the GM and head-coach positions.
Only 37 minutes into the 2005 regular season, the Packers lost leading receiver Javon Walker (knee). In the ensuing weeks, the team also lost starting halfback Green (quadricep) and several other key offensive performers, contributing to a 4-12 mark.
Following the season on Jan. 2, saying it was time for a new face to lead the team, Thompson dismissed Sherman.
Thompson underwent a grueling nine-day search to tab Mike McCarthy the franchise’s 14th head coach (Jan. 12, 2006).
McCarthy guided the Packers to a resilient four-game winning streak to close his first season as head coach with an 8-8 record, keeping the team in contention for the playoffs until the final weekend of 2006, when mere percentage points dubbed the Giants the NFC’s last postseason qualifier.
McCarthy was disappointed the Packers just missed the playoffs, particularly because the team was as healthy as it had been all season and was playing its best football the last month. But the NFL’s youngest club carried that momentum into 2007, winning its first four games and ultimately tying the franchise record for regular-season victories with a 13-3 mark. McCarthy also tied Sherman’s team mark for the most wins by a head coach in his first two seasons (21).
With Joe Philbin taking over as offensive coordinator, Ryan Grant emerging at midseason as a feature back, and Favre enjoying a brilliant final season in Green Bay, the offense finished second in the league, its highest ranking since 1983.
In the third-coldest game in NFL championship history, with a temperature of minus-1 and wind chill of minus-23 at kickoff, Green Bay fell at home, 23-20, in overtime to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
In 2008, the torch was passed to Aaron Rodgers from Favre, who retired in March with virtually every significant NFL passing record, un-retired in July and was traded to the New York Jets during the first week of training camp. Rodgers became just the second quarterback in league history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in his first season as a starter, and the offense produced a 4,000-yard passer, 1,200-yard rusher (Grant) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Greg Jennings, Donald Driver) for the first time in team history.
On defense, the team set a franchise record with seven touchdowns, including six on interception returns, leading to Pro Bowl berths for three-fourths of the starting secondary in Nick Collins, Charles Woodson and Al Harris. But that wasn’t enough to overcome injuries and other shortcomings on that side of the ball, and with the team losing seven games by four points or less, the final 6-10 mark was just the franchise’s second losing season dating back to 1992.
That led to a series of changes on the coaching staff, most of them on defense, as McCarthy hired Dom Capers as his new defensive coordinator to institute a switch to a 3-4 scheme. The players responded faster than most predicted in 2009, climbing all the way to No. 2 in the league in yards allowed and No. 1 against the run for the first time in team history, setting a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed per game (83.3).
That defensive prowess was highlighted by Woodson winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, rookie Clay Matthews leading the team in sacks, and Collins joining both as Pro Bowl honorees. Combined with another dynamic season on offense – as the quartet of Rodgers, Grant, Jennings and Driver repeated their feat of the prior year and a new franchise record for points (461) was established – the Packers won seven of their final eight regular-season games to finish 11-5 and earn an NFC Wild Card playoff berth.
Rodgers earned his first Pro Bowl nod and made a memorable postseason debut, throwing for a Green Bay postseason-record 423 yards and record-tying four TDs as he rallied the Packers from a 21-point second-half deficit. Emerging tight end Jermichael Finley also set a team playoff mark with 159 yards receiving and tied a team postseason record with nine receptions.
Ultimately the Packers came up short, however, dropping a 51-45 overtime heartbreaker in Arizona, the highest-scoring postseason game in NFL history. But the disappointment fueled a determination and the late-season surge sparked a genuine optimism heading into 2010.
That optimism led to high expectations, and the Packers became a popular preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Boasting both a deep and maturing roster, and relative scheme continuity on both sides of the ball, prognosticators felt confident Green Bay was primed for a deep playoff run.
The team got out to a 3-1 start in the season’s first quarter, but injuries to key players mounted, and that perceived roster strength would be put to the test. Grant, a back-to-back 1,200-yard rusher, was lost for the season in Week 1. Finley, the team’s leading receiver entering Week 5, was also placed on injured reserve, as was linebacker Nick Barnett, the second all-time leading tackler in franchise history. By season’s end, the Packers would allocate 15 players to the season-ending injured list. In what was a true testament both to Thompson’s assembly of the roster and the coaching staff’s tireless commitment to getting players ready to contribute, the Packers never blinked.
Rodgers led the offense by throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and posting a quarterback rating of 101.2. Jennings picked up the slack in the absence of Finley, finishing with 1,265 yards and earning his first selection to the Pro Bowl. Defensively, the Packers again thrived under Capers’ detailed instruction, ranking No. 2 in the NFL in scoring defense at 15.0 points per game. Matthews proved that his rookie campaign was no fluke and became a dominant pass rusher off the edge. Voted a Pro Bowl starter and consensus first-team All-Pro, he finished with 13.5 sacks and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year by various publications. In the secondary, Woodson followed up his stellar 2009 run with another solid season, setting career highs in tackles and forced fumbles and becoming the team’s emotional leader throughout. His counterpart at corner, Tramon Williams, emerged as a standout cover man and led the team with six interceptions, earning his first bid to the Pro Bowl, where he was joined by Collins, who was chosen for the third consecutive year.
Despite the constant fluidity of the gameday lineup, the Packers hung tough in all 16 games. Their six losses came by a combined 20 points, and they became the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to never trail a game by more than seven points over an entire season. They finished the regular season with a 10-6 record following consecutive home wins in the final two weeks, and secured the sixth and final seed in the NFC’s playoff bracket.
Taking to the road for the NFC playoffs, the Packers started by bottling up the explosive Eagles’ offensive attack and winning the opening-round Wild Card game at Philadelphia by a score of 21-16. The task wouldn’t get any easier the following week as they traveled to Atlanta to take on the No. 1-seeded Falcons. After an initial back and forth, Green Bay exploded with a 28-point second quarter and never looked back. On the strength of a near-flawless display of quarterbacking by Rodgers, and two crucial interceptions by Williams, the Packers hammered the Falcons 48-21, the second-largest margin of victory in team postseason history.
For the NFC Championship, the Packers faced their division rival, the Chicago Bears, for a chance to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1997 season. Despite the rich, 182-game history of the rivalry, the game marked just the second-ever meeting between the two teams in the postseason. On a 20-degree afternoon at Soldier Field, the Packers got out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. The opportunistic defense forced three Chicago turnovers, highlighted by an improbable 18-yard interception return for a touchdown by Raji that put Green Bay ahead 21-7 late in the fourth quarter. Rookie cornerback Sam Shields sealed the 21-14 win on the Bears’ final drive, making his second interception of the game to send the franchise to its fifth Super Bowl.
The Steelers fought their way back, but a forced fumble by Matthews at the start of the fourth quarter led to another Rodgers touchdown pass. Forcing a turnover on downs on Pittsburgh’s final drive, the Packers won the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl, 31-25.
In the months that followed the season, both Thompson and McCarthy were rewarded with multi-year contract extensions that will keep them in Green Bay for the foreseeable future.
With an unquestioned franchise quarterback, a nucleus of young veterans, and a roster even further bolstered by the return of injured players and a 10-man draft class, all eyes were set on the quest for another world title in 2011.
Due to a league-wide work stoppage that began in early March, the Packers – like the rest of the other clubs – were deprived of an offseason program that would have fostered continued development and the integration of newly selected rookie players. The ongoing labor negotiations meant that the players first convened as a team at the start of training camp in late July. With an abbreviated training camp schedule and a bull’s-eye affixed firmly to their backs as the reigning champions, the Packers would have to rely on their stable roster and established schemes to help pick up where the team had left off at its peak in early February.
And that they did. Beginning with the NFL’s season-opening Thursday night spectacle against the high-powered New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field, the Packers stormed through the regular season, reeling off a team-record 13 consecutive wins en route to a franchise-best 15-1 record. The team became just the sixth in NFL history to reach the 15-win plateau, and when combining the start of 2011 with the six wins that closed out 2010, the 19-game winning streak was the longest in team history and second longest in league annals.
The franchise laid claim to its first NFC North division title since 2007 and secured the conference’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Throughout the season, the recipe for success was written by Rodgers and a prolific offense that scored 560 points, the second-highest total in league history.
Rodgers finished the season having completed 343 of 502 attempts for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns with only six interceptions, earning the league’s Most Valuable Player award and consensus first-team All-Pro honors from almost every major publication. His 122.5 cumulative passer rating set a new NFL record and he also eclipsed the previous franchise single-season marks for yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per attempt and 300-yard games.
The Packers continued to display their knack for taking the football away on defense, leading the NFL with 31 interceptions, the most by a Green Bay team since 1962. Woodson tied for the NFL lead with seven INTs, and Matthews set a new career high with three of his own. The defense’s 38 takeaways tied for the league lead and helped contribute to an aggregate plus-24 team differential in the turnover department, a mark that also tied for No. 2 in franchise history.
Joining Rodgers, Woodson and Matthews in the Pro Bowl were Jennings, FB John Kuhn, Raji and C Scott Wells, giving the Packers seven representatives, the most voted in for the franchise since 1967.
In the postseason, Green Bay fell victim to uncharacteristic, costly turnovers in its only contest, and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the Divisional round, 37-20. Having not experienced playoff disappointment during 2010’s memorable run, the loss to the Giants left a foul taste in the team’s collective mouth, along with several assurances that there would be a renewed determination and focus on the ultimate prize in 2012.
The Packers entered the 2012 campaign with strong motivation and a recalibrated focus that centered upon getting the team to peak at the right time: the end of the regular season and playoffs.
With that in mind, the club overcame its share of adversity in the season’s early going, recovering from a 2-3 start to win 9 of 10 games in Weeks 6-16 and putting itself in prime position for the postseason. With a win at Chicago in Week 15, the Packers secured their second consecutive NFC North title, marking the franchise’s first back-to-back divison conquest since 2002-04.
During the regular season, it was once again a Rodgers-led offense that forged the team’s identity. The unit ranked No. 5 in the league in scoring despite being plagued by injuries throughout the season. Five different players started at running back in addition to five different combinations on the offensive line and primary targets Jennings and Jordy Nelson missing 12 full games combined and parts of others with various ailments.
Defensively, the Packers made significant strides after a challenging 2011, climbing all the way to No. 11 overall in pass defense on the strength of an 81-yard-per-game improvement over the previous season.
Matthews was on his way to his finest statistical season when he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 9 that shelved him for more than a month. He still managed to finish fifth in the NFL with 13 sacks and became the first player in franchise history to be named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons in the league.
The defense was also aided during the season by the emergence of rookie cornerback Casey Hayward. A second-round draft pick, Hayward led the team and all NFL rookies with six interceptions. He became the first Packers CB to ever be named (since 1974) to the Pro Football Weekly/PFWA All-Rookie team and finished third in the voting for The Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Finishing the season with an 11-5 record, the Packers laid claim to the No. 3 seed in the NFC and a Wild Card matchup with the division-rival Minnesota Vikings. The game marked the two teams’ third meeting over a six-week stretch, and this time, the defense managed to keep league MVP Adrian Peterson in check while Rodgers and the offense mounted a 24-3 margin en route to a 24-10 victory.
In the following week’s divisional-round contest at San Francisco, the 49ers’ offense proved too much for Green Bay to handle, and despite only trailing 24-21 at halftime, a second-half surge saw the Packers ultimately fall 45-31.
The typically quiet Green Bay offseason was highlighted by long-term contract extensions for both Matthews and Rodgers that promise to keep the two franchise cornerstones in Green Bay for the foreseeable future. Their presence, combined with an ascending young core of veterans and the addition of an 11-man draft class, looks to once again have the Packers among the NFL’s elite in 2013.
The Packers welcomed the 2013 campaign with fresh optimism and the excitement of an upgraded facility, as the organization put the finishing touches on the first phase of another Lambeau Field construction project that was highlighted by the addition of 6,700 new seats in the south end zone of the stadium bowl.
While the development project was completed smoothly, the 2013 season would be anything but for the Packers as the club was beseiged by injuries to key players at a host of positions.
Bryan Bulaga, Randall Cobb, Finley, Hayward and Matthews all missed significant portions of the season. However, the most devastating blow came against the Bears in Week 9, when Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone that would sideline him for the ensuing seven games, a stretch that saw the team post a 2-4-1 record in November and December.
Despite the volume of adversity encountered throughout the season, there were a number of positives within a locker room of players who stuck together throughout.
First and foremost was the emergence of rookie RB Eddie Lacy, who powered the Packers to the No. 7-ranked rush offense in the league and led all NFL rookies with his franchise-record 284 carries, 1,178 yards (4.1 avg.) and 11 TDs. Lacy became the first Packers rookie on offense to earn a bid to the Pro Bowl since WR James Lofton in 1978, was named second-team All-Pro by The Associated Press, and most notably, became the first Packer since RB John Brockington in 1971 to be voted the recipient of the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Another bright spot was the play of backup QB Matt Flynn, who returned to the club in November and assumed starting duties in the wake of Rodgers’ injury. Flynn breathed life into the staggering team, keeping its playoff hopes alive by leading critical comeback victories in Weeks 14-15 that helped set the stage for a memorable finish.
Rodgers returned in Week 17 with the Packers holding a 7-7-1 record and needing a victory at the archrival Bears to advance to the postseason. With the season on the line in the waning moments of the finale, the veteran quarterback escaped pressure on a fourth-and-8 play and found Cobb wide open downfield for a game-winning 48-yard TD, clinching the Packers’ third consecutive NFC North division title in dramatic fashion.
The division championship made Green Bay the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and earned the franchise a home playoff game in the Wild Card round for the second year in a row.
The game matched the Packers against San Francisco, and the two teams slugged it out amid frigid single-digit temperatures that were accompanied by negative windchills. With the game tied at 20-20 late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers managed a 14-play drive that burned the remaining 5:06 off the clock and kicked a game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired, eliminating Green Bay for the second consecutive season.
With an offseason to rest and nine new additions through the draft, the Packers are ready to hit the ground running in 2014.