After 3 straight 9-7 seasons and twice losing to the Cowboys in the playoffs, the Packers would need to find further ammunition to take the next step forward. Sterling Sharpe was forced into retirement and linebacker Bryce Paup opted to move on to Buffalo where he became 1995’s NFL defensive player of the year.
GM Ron Wolf went to work and made a trade with the Miami Dolphins for talented 5 time Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson. However Jackson didn’t want to play in the cold or for a team he didn’t feel was going to win much and held out until week 7 of the regular season. Finally the Packers winning ways and the egging on of Jackson’s former teammate Reggie White was enough for Jackson to report to the team. His impact was minimal as Mark Chmura had stepped up his game and was on his way to a Pro Bowl season himself. Edgar Bennett also stepped up his game after several years of so-so play took over the top running back spot – clearing over 1000 yards on the ground, thanks in part to having defenses so focused on young gunslinger Brett Favre.
Favre tossed for over 4400 yards and 38 touchdowns on his way to be named the NFL MVP. His big arm allowed the Packers to score at least 24 points in 13 out of 16 regular season games that year and the Pack won their division outright. Sharpe was replaced almost flawlessly by Robert Brooks who caught 102 balls and helped ease the pain of losing a player who seemed headed for the Hall of Fame.
The regular season wasn’t all roses though as the Packers were once again sent down to Dallas for an early season game – and yet again the Pack fell short 34-24. 3 weeks later Favre threw 3 interceptions and lost a fumble on the way to losing to the Lions at the Silverdome. The following week was equally disastrous as Favre was injured and missed the final 20 minutes of a game inside the Metrodome – then with 8 minutes left to play Reggie White and Sean Jones collided while chasing the Viks quarterback and both left the field injured – White for the rest of the game. Favre’s backup Ty Detmer then also ended up with a hand injury and third stringer T.J. Rubley came in. The Packers were moving into scoring position with the game tied at 24 and little time left in regulation. Holmgren called a run and Rubley amazingly audibled out of the play and threw an interception! The Pack watched as the Vikes kicked a field goal as time expired. Rubley was cut right after the game and replaced by former Bear Jim McMahon.
The Packers recovered from the losses and went on to finish with an 11-5 mark. They spanked the Falcons in the wildcard round 37-20 which set them up to face NFL royalty in the San Francisco 49ers – the defending Super Bowl champions. The Niners had led the NFL in points scored and their defense was among the top in fewest points allowed. The task was mighty but Green Bay was ready. The Packers had a field goal blocked on their first drive but on the very next play Wayne Simmons forced fullback Adam Walker to fumble and Packer cornerback Craig Newsome scooped the ball up and ran in a touchdown to give the Packers an early lead. Favre then carved up the Niners the rest of the way in route to a 27-17 win to establish that the Packers were for real.
Looming on the horizon was yet another visit to Dallas, this time with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Favre started the biggest game of his life about as poorly as possible as he misfired on his first five passes and had his sixth pass intercepted by Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett. The Packers then rallied as Brett tossed 3 touchdowns and Green Bay had a 27-24 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Instead of showing poise under pressure, the Packers defense buckled and allowed Emmitt Smith run for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and Favre and receiver Mark Ingram had a miscommunication which led to another interception to end any hopes for a final rally as the Packers Super Bowl dreams died in Dallas for the third year in a row. Aiding in the gloom of the day was the sight of Packer coach Gil Haskell being injured on the sidelines by a collision that sent his head bouncing off the turf violently. The Cowboys also committed an obvious thuggish act when Packer defensive tackle John Jurkovich was viciously chop blocked which sent him out of the game for good. Jurko refused to be stretchered off and limped off under his own power while threatening the Cowboys players nearby.
Had Brett not succumb to early jitters and the defense not endured the late collapse, the odds of a Packer win would have grown greatly. Had the upset been achieved, I feel a win over the Steelers in the Super Bowl two weeks later would have been fairly plausible – the Pack even scored a last second win over Pittsburgh late in the regular season. This could have been the Packers moment but painfully it was not meant to be.
The Packers were now obviously painfully close to being at the pinnacle of the NFL and Ron Wolf made some key moves to help put the defense over the top. First he signed defensive tackle Santana Dotson whom could provide pressure to quarterbacks with much greater consistently than Jurkovich – he also made a whopper of a trade by sending backup defensive end Matt LaBounty to Seattle for the NFL’s (then) leader of career interceptions by an active player, Eugene Robinson. In addition, massive Gilbert Brown moved up to the starting rotation in order to beef up the run defense. These moves helped Green Bay lead the NFL in fewest points scored – including 11 out of 16 games that saw opponents score under 14 points in the game. The offense was also off the chain as 9 regular season games saw the Pack score over 30 points – this despite of a devastating mid-season injury plague that sent Robert Brooks to injured reserve and saw Mark Chmura and Antonio Freeman also miss several games each.
During this injury filled period the punch less Packers were once again sent on a road trip to play the Cowboys yet again. The offense couldn’t find any rhythm and the Packers fell to the Cowboys 21-6. The Cowboys kicked a meaningless field goal late in the game to allow kicker Chris Boniol to tie an NFL record with 7 field goals in a single game – this incited the frustrated Packer team and a near riot broke out on the field- with Reggie White prominently challenging the Cowboys to come play up in Lambeau Field for a change. After the game Reggie told the media that he was being held throughout the game and had scratch marks on his face to prove it. The refs had told White to “quit whining” during the game when he tried to implore them to throw a flag on Larry Allen for his actions.
Brooks’ injury meant an impact player had to be found and the football gods shone down on Green Bay as troubled but talented receiver Andre Rison was booted off the Jaguars mid-season and the Packers were able to successfully claim him. Rison boosted the Packers morale and the team steamrolled into the playoffs – whipping the Niners 35-14 in the divisional round. Then the Panthers fell in the NFC championship 30-13. The Super Bowl saw the Packers offense at its explosive best with Rison scoring a 54 yard touchdown and Antonio Freeman scoring an 81 yard touchdown. New England was pesky though and manage to pull within 6 points of the Pack in the third quarter – only to be thwarted by the following kickoff as Desmond Howard scored a 99 yard touchdown return on his way to earning the Super Bowl MVP. Reggie White added 3 sacks to help secure the Lombardi Trophy for the Packers.
On top of the world now, the following off season saw other teams scoop up several Packer players: Desmond Howard headed to Oakland, Wayne Simmons signed with Kansas City and Rison also joined the Chiefs. Rison made it known how unhappy he was that the Packers chose not to retain him- even claiming to have gotten rid of his Super Bowl ring. Sean Jones and Keith Jackson were also lost via both deciding to retire from the NFL. The Packers best offseason move was drafting Darren Sharper with a second round pick. Darren would learn much from old studs Leroy Butler and Eugene Robinson and quickly become a premier safety in his own right. The Packers also made up for losing Simmons by signing another former team mate of Reggie’s in linebacker Seth Joyner. Sean Jones was replaced in the lineup by multi-year back up Gabe Wilkens.
The Packers took their confidence and Super Bowl swag into the 1997 season and coasted to another 13-3 season – despite losing Edgar Bennett and Craig Newsome for the season with injuries early on. Brett Favre earned a third straight NFL MVP award with nearly 4000 yards passing and 35 touchdown passes. Bennett was replaced by 4th year back Dorsey Levens who took advantage of Green Bay’s fantastic offensive line (Ross Verba, Aaron Taylor, Frank Winters, Adam Timmerman and Earl Dotson) and plowed ahead for over 1400 yards. The highlight of season was a 45-17 thumping of the Cowboys, who were finally forced to come to Lambeau Field for a game. The Packers offense sputtered a bit come playoff time – the Pack still beat the Buccaneers 21-7. The following week then saw the Packers go into San Francisco (who had the NFL’s top ranked defense) and grind out a 23-10 win. This set the Pack up for their second straight Super Bowl appearance as 13.5 point favorites over their opponents the Denver Broncos.
The Pack made it appear that they were going to live up to expectations as Freeman caught a touchdown on Green Bay’s very first possession. The Broncos set the tone for the game on their next drive however as Terrell Davis rushed for 42 yards and scored a touchdown. A Favre fumble and interception followed and the Pack found itself down 17-7. Terrell Davis missed the entire second quarter with a migraine and Green Bay failed to make up much ground and ended up down 17-14 at the half. Making matters worse, starting end Gabe Wilkens got injured and (being a free agent after the season) he refused to return to the field. The Packers were forced to go with Darius Holland as his replacement. Holland was a fringe talent and a natural defensive tackle as well – his lackluster play allowed Terrell Davis to continue to take over the game in the second half, rushing for 157 yards and 3 TDs by game’s end. The Pack had two late attempts to score but both fell short and the Broncos stunned the football world with a 31 -24 victory.
Credit to the Broncos, they out played the Pack here. Was Green Bay over confident? Had the coaching staff chosen a real defensive end to be active in case of injury would Davis’ impact have been lessened? All things considered, the Pack beat themselves with a combo of ego, errors and coaching mistakes. An opportunity to repeat (and if you wish to believe my 1995 scenario- three-peat) was squandered in one of the most gut wrenching games I can ever recall as a fan. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to re-watch this since it aired – the emotions are still sort of raw.
Much like Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson killed the Cowboys championship pedigree thanks to arguing over egotistic matters and ultimately divorcing themselves from their relationship as owner/coach, the Packers suffered the same fate in 1998 as rumors started to mount that Holmgren wanted a chance to control more aspects of the team – including being the general manager. Ron Wolf – a man of considerable ego himself – could have squelched this by letting Holmgren know that he was intending on quitting within two or three years and that may have been enough to keep Holmgren focused and willing to drive the Packers for many years to come. As it worked out though, the rumors of Holmgren’s wishes created a distraction for much of the 1998 season – culminating with Holmgren being caught on camera jaw jacking with a fan who told him something to the effect of “get your mind off Seattle and get this team straightened out”.
In addition to off the field distractions, the Packers dealt with losing vets Eugene Robinson and Don Beebe – both of whom were allowed to leave as the team started a push to get younger. Darren Sharper replaced Robinson (who returned to the Super Bowl with the Falcons that year and famously was arrested prior to the game for attempting to hire a hooker) and Beebe’s role went to Bill Schroeder, Corey Bradford and Derrick Mayes – with Freeman and Brooks remaining the starting duo. Reggie White also briefly retired – leading to the Packers drafting Vonnie Holiday and Jonathan Brown in an attempt to replace the greatest defensive end in football history. White changed his mind and returned for one final year with the Pack.
The off season also saw Dorsey Levens hold out for much of pre-season and once he got on the field, he lasted less than two games before injuring his leg. He missed much of the season and forced Derrick Holmes, Raymont Harris and Travis Jervey to all attempt to replace his production. The running game mess helped stifle the Packers offense – along with Robert Brooks showing long term effects of his 1996 knee injury and playing far from his previous standards. All this and the emergence of rookie Randy Moss (who almost single handedly destroyed the Packers defense in helping the Vikings beat the Packers twice along the way to claiming the divisional crown.) led to the Packers stumbling to an 11-5 record and forced them to take a road trip to San Francisco for a wild card playoff game.
The Packers endured four turnovers and yet held the lead with under 30 seconds to play when Jerry Rice fumbled a catch and the Packers recovered to seal the win…except the refs blew the call and did not rule the move a fumble. With eight seconds left in the game Steve Young hit Terrell Owens for a 25 yard touchdown as safeties Darren Sharper and Pat Terrell failed to properly cover the middle of the field. Mike Holmgren’s team was sent home for the first time ever without a playoff win to their credit.
This would be the toughest season to justify that the Pack would have been Super Bowl champions but take away that blown call and Green Bay is moving on to face the Vikings for a third time – hardly a gimme win considering the Viks whooped them twice already. Had the Pack pulled off the upset in the Metrodome, they would have faced the red hot Falcons with bruising Jamal Anderson and vet QB Chris Chandler over achieving – probably a far more likely win than the Vikings game but another real tough match up. The award at the end for beating those teams would have been a Super Bowl rematch and one could hope that the Packers would have been still fuming over blowing last year’s game and taken care of business this year. Rice’s non called fumble cost the Packers a chance to redeem themselves over both the Viks and Broncos and that ref’s mistake should serve as a reminder that on any given Sunday the better team may not win – a fact that may have proved prevalent should the Packers have been afforded the chance to move on in the play offs.
Post –mortem: Holmgren left the Packers as a franchise with restored dignity and with a Hall of Fame quarterback having been groomed under his watchful eye. Coach Mike’s replacement was Ray Rhodes, who had already proven a failure while coaching the Eagles as their head man. Favre regressed under Rhodes and tossed more interceptions than touchdowns. Levens never returned to form after his injury. Robert Brooks’ injury ended his career – minus a short stint in Denver in the year 2000. Chmura was injured very early in 1999 and was forced to retire. Reggie White was replaced by Vaughn Booker – a journeyman player at best. Adam Timmerman left for the Rams and won another Super Bowl. Brian Williams (in his fourth year of starting at outside linebacker) was hurt much of the year and replaced by fringe talent Jude Waddy. Wolf drafted three defensive backs in a desperate attempt to find an answer to Randy Moss’ dominance. Two of them were busts but Holmgren traded for second round pick Fred Vinson a year later and sent Green Bay running back Ahman Green in exchange. Green went on to become the Packers all-time leading rusher. Donald Driver was also drafted in 1999 and would rise to prominence in a few years to become one of the all-time Packer greats.
With all the above mentioned turmoil, Ray Rhodes led the team to an 8-8 record and was fired right after the season. His replacement Mike Sherman took the Packers back to the playoffs 2 years later and was the unlikely choice to replace Ron Wolf as General Manager when Wolf finally chose to retire. Sherman the coach made up for a lot of the mistakes in personnel that Sherman the GM made and he led the Pack to the brink of Super Bowl glory several times himself. (That’s another story…)
Mike Holmgren meanwhile took total control of the Seahawks and guided them to largely mediocre to poor-ish records. However, his 2005 Seahawk squad saw Matt Hassellback and Shaun Alexander lead the Seahawks to a 13-3 record and a narrow Super Bowl loss that saw some bad calls go against Seattle which helped them fall to the Steelers. Eventually Holmgren was removed as General Manager and he would retire from coaching a few years after. A brief comeback running the Cleveland Browns front office netted little on field success. Holmgren was actively willing to coach this upcoming 2013 season but received little interest.