The Green Bay Packers, arguably the most storied franchise in the National Football League, were organized on Aug. 11, 1919, in the dingy second-floor editorial rooms of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette building, located on Cherry Street in downtown Green Bay.
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 attended 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 mostly urban legend or if there’s a true story in there somewhere will remain a mystery for the ages. Too much time has passed. 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 again played an independent schedule against mostly neighboring towns the next year 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 would no longer have to stand along the sidelines to follow the action.
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 the 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 was the smallest city in the league when it joined in 1921 if you discount a minor technicality – Tonawanda, N.Y., was smaller but its team lasted one game and played on the road – and has been ever since, except for a brief period in the late 1920s.
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.
No doubt to those who lived through it and also 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 league 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 scandal nearly doomed all that they had accomplished. 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 organized as the Green Bay Football Club and headed by Lambeau and Calhoun took control of the franchise.
Plagued by limited resources and terrible weather, the new owners barely survived 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 their 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 canceled the game, but were persuaded to play 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 nonprofit 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 from big-time colleges or other pro teams.
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 franchises 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 1965-67 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 approximately $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 more than $100,000 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, a 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 a sports world much different than today. Television was still in its infancy, pro football was largely viewed as a second-rate sport and few, if any, assistant coaches were 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 regression in 1974, going 6-8, and Devine resigned.
THE STARR TREK
Winner of a recorded five NFL championships as a starting quarterback, Bart Starr was the overwhelming choice of Packers fans to succeed Devine and the executive committee complied by awarding him 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.”
Starr had only one season of experience as a coach – he was Devine’s quarterbacks coach in 1972 – and things didn’t turn out as he and Packers fans had hoped. He was handcuffed by a disastrous trade for aging quarterback John Hadl, which was agreed to by Devine just before the trade deadline of his final season. Having given up five prime draft picks in the Hadl deal, the Packers finished 4-10, 5-9 and 4-10 again in Starr’s first three seasons. They raised hope with an 8-7-1 finish in 1978, but then couldn’t get over the hump.
Over five more seasons, the Packers enjoyed only one winning record, a 5-3-1 finish in the strike-shortened 1982 season. The Packers made the playoffs that year and beat the St. Louis Cardinals in a home playoff game, but when the Packers went 8-8 in 1983, Starr was fired the day following a disappointing 23-21 loss at Soldier Field to the rival Chicago Bears.
THE GREGG ERA
The Packers replaced Starr with another beloved player from the Lombardi 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 and his 19-6 record over the 1981-82 seasons was the best in pro football.
He started out with back-to-back 8-8 seasons as he tried to mold the roster in his own tough-guy image, but he went 4-12 and 5-9-1 in his final two years and resigned (Jan. 15, 1988) to become head coach at his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.
INFANTE SIGNS ON
On Feb. 3, 1988, after interviewing a host of candidates and having his preferred choice, Michigan State coach George Perles, accept the job and then back out, executive vice president of football operations Tom Braatz hired Lindy Infante as Gregg’s successor. Infante, who had been the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator, was considered a shrewd play-caller, but except for a 10-6 finish in 1989, his teams largely struggled on offense and he was fired after four seasons.
By then, Braatz also had been fired and replaced by Ron Wolf, who was given the title of general manager and complete control over the Packers’ football operation. Wolf was hired Nov. 27, 1991. Braatz had been hired prior to Gregg’s final season as coach in a power-sharing arrangement and fired one week before Wolf was hired.
The front-office overhaul was executed by Bob Harlan, who had been named president of the Packers prior to the 1989 season after serving the team for 18 years in several administrative roles. Harlan had joined the Packers when Devine was coach and general manager and had witnessed each coaching hire in the years since finish with a worse record than his predecessor.
In the 24 seasons since Lombardi had stepped down as coach, the Packers had finished with a winning record five times and qualified for the playoffs only twice. Harlan was determined to put an end to the drought.
Wolf began the process Dec. 22, 1991, by firing Infante.
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, received a five-year contract. Next, Wolf traded for quarterback Brett Favre, who had played little in his rookie season with Atlanta. But Wolf had rated Favre much higher than most NFL scouts while he was still working for the New York Jets and confidently rolled the dice. Not only hadn’t the Packers won in 24 years, but their quarterback situation had been less than desirable for most of that time, as well.
Three games into the Wolf-Holmgren Era, Favre led the Packers to a stunning, last-minute victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field. The next week, he made his debut as a starter and the Packers were headed in the right direction for the first time in a quarter-century. In 1992, the Packers surprised the NFL with a 9-7 finish. Holmgren became only the third head coach in team history to register a winning record in his first season, and it was punctuated by a six-game winning streak, the team’s longest since 1965.
Holmgren guided the Packers into the playoffs in 1993, forging a second-straight 9-7 record. They also won their first playoff game in 11 years on a “Hail Mary” Favre-to-Sterling Sharpe pass in the final minute that eliminated Detroit, 28-24. They then fell at Dallas, 27-17, in the divisional round.
The Packers reached the playoffs again in 1994 and ’95, only to be eliminated on two more occasions by the Cowboys. But the Favre-led Packers were on the upswing. After finishing 9-7 for a third straight time in 1994, they improved to 11-5 and won their first NFC Central Division title since 1972. They also advanced one more round in the playoffs, losing to Dallas in the NFC Championship Game in ’95 after getting bounced in the divisional round the year before. Two highlights of those seasons were holding the incomparable Barry Sanders to minus-1 yard on 13 attempts in a 16-12 playoff victory at Lambeau Field following the ’94 season, and formally dethroning the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers in their own stadium, 3Com Park, 27-17, in an NFC Divisional Playoff.
Putting nearly three decades of disappointment emphatically behind them, 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, they smothered the 49ers on a soggy, rain-swept afternoon in San Francisco, 23-10.
In a seesaw affair, Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego found the Packers trailing Denver at halftime, 17-14. Hopes of a repeat were high, however, when 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. 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 on 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. As recently as the 1997-98 seasons, Sherman had served as the Packers’ tight ends/ assistant offensive line coach. Sherman finished 9-7, but out of the playoffs his first season. Soon thereafter, on Feb. 1, 2001, Wolf retired as the team’s executive vice president and general manager, and 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.
Sherman returned the Packers to the playoffs in 2001 and again in 2002, when they tied for the league’s best record at 12-4. But they lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2001 and the first round in 2002.
In 2003, the Packers appeared destined to reach the NFC Championship Game, if not the Super Bowl, when they won their final four regular-season games, including an inspiring 41-7 victory over Oakland engineered by a heavy-hearted Favre following the death of his father. The following week, 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.
But Donovan McNabb led the Philadelphia Eagles to a come-from-behind, 20-17 overtime win to end an emotional Packers run in the divisional playoffs.
Not to be forgotten, the 2003 season included changes to three of the most-revered records in Packers history (Gregg’s 33-year-old consecutive-games streak, broken by Favre; Taylor’s 41-year-old season rushing record, surpassed by Ahman Green; and Hutson’s 58-year-old career scoring mark, eclipsed by Ryan Longwell).
The Packers won a third straight NFC North title under Sherman in 2004, but lost to Minnesota in a Wild Card Playoff at Lambeau.
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.
The Packers crumbled to a 4-12 mark in 2005 and Thompson dismissed Sherman.
He made the announcement on Jan. 2, 2006, saying it was time for a new face to lead the team.
Thompson underwent an intensive 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 then-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.
Grant then posted franchise playoff records of 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 42-20 snow-filled NFC playoff triumph over Seattle at Lambeau, but the club’s quest for a fifth Super Bowl appearance came up agonizingly short.
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 the 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, 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 third all-time leading tackler in franchise history. By season’s end, the Packers would place 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 (31 of 36 for 366 yards and three TDs), 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 nose tackle B.J. 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 Super Bowl pitted the Packers against the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. In what was billed as a matchup between two renowned 3-4 defenses, it was the Green Bay offense, led once again by the exceptionally precise Rodgers, that was the difference. The Packers stormed out to a 21-3 lead in the first half, with two touchdowns coming off the arm of Rodgers and one on an interception return by Collins. Under circumstances reflective of the entire season, the Packers were forced to overcome injuries, as veteran stalwarts Driver and Woodson were both ruled out of the game late in the first half.
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.
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 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 third-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 the team’s 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 division conquest since it captured three straight from 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 ever to 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 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 promised to keep the two franchise cornerstones in Green Bay for the foreseeable future.
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 during his absence.
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 284 carries, 1,178 yards (4.1 avg.) and 11 TDs, all team rookie records. 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 AP, 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 wind chills. 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 were ready to hit the ground running in 2014.
Green Bay suffered road losses in two of the first three games of the 2014 season to Seattle and Detroit. The Packers calmed a nervous fan base by winning each of the next four games. The winning streak was fueled by an offense that awoke from a sleepy start to the season to put up at least 38 points in three of the contests. Over the four games, Rodgers threw 13 TDs and zero INTs, setting the pace for a season that would result in him being named the NFL MVP by AP for the second time in his career.
After a loss in primetime at New Orleans, Green Bay returned to Lambeau after the bye week to register wins over Chicago and Philadelphia as it became the second team in NFL history (Los Angeles Rams, 1950) to score 53-plus points in back-to-back games.
The Packers went back on the road to take on division foe Minnesota and came away with a 24-21 victory that was powered by Lacy’s season-high 125 rushing yards and two TDs. Green Bay hosted New England the next week in a battle of two of the NFL’s best teams and quarterbacks. Rodgers and Tom Brady both recorded passer ratings over 100.0, and Green Bay edged the eventual Super Bowl champs, 26-21. In Week 14, the Packers used a 31-point first half to hold off a Falcons team that scored 30 points in the second half, to win, 43-37.
Green Bay’s five-game winning streak came to an end in Buffalo, as the Packers fell to the Bills, 21-13. Green Bay rebounded the next week in Tampa Bay with a 20-3 victory in which the defense sacked Josh McCown seven times and held the Bucs to 109 total net yards, the fewest given up by the Packers since 2006 (104 yards vs. Minnesota).
The Packers entered the final game of the regular season against the Lions with the NFC North title on the line. Green Bay built a 14-0 lead, but Rodgers re-injured the calf he hurt the previous week on his 4-yard TD pass to Cobb. Matthew Stafford connected with Calvin Johnson on two TDs to tie the game at 14. Rodgers, who returned to the game after a visit to the locker room to treat his calf, would find Cobb for another TD and sneak one in from a yard out to give Green Bay a 28-14 lead. The Packers would hold on for a 30-20 victory, capturing their franchise-record fourth straight division title.
Green Bay completed the regular season tied for No. 1 in the NFL with a 12-4 record, including an unblemished 8-0 at home. It was the second time the Packers finished the regular season undefeated at home under McCarthy, which tied him with Holmgren for the second-most undefeated regular seasons at home in franchise history (Curly Lambeau, seven). Rodgers threw 24 touchdowns with zero interceptions at Lambeau, joining Brady (2003) as the only QBs in NFL history to throw 200-plus passes at home in a single regular season with no interceptions. Rodgers’ 133.2 passer rating at home during the regular season was the highest in NFL history.
The Packers’ home success during the regular season continued into the divisional round when they hosted the Dallas Cowboys. Green Bay rallied from an eight-point deficit in the second half to take a 26-21 lead. With under five minutes to play, Dallas faced a fourth-and-2 at the Packers’ 32-yard line and QB Tony Romo launched a pass to leaping WR Dez Bryant that was initially ruled a completion at the Green Bay 1-yard line. After replay review, the call was overturned and the Packers converted two third downs to secure the victory. The season came to an end the following week in Seattle after the Seahawks rallied in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to beat the Packers, 28-22, in overtime.
Green Bay used the offseason to lock up free agents Cobb and T Bryan Bulaga, setting them up for another run in 2015.