In 1998, when Mike Holmgren demanded a head coaching job that also included complete control over all personnel decisions, it was obvious that he was going to have to find that job at a franchise other than the Green Bay Packers. The team was on the heels of two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and GM Ron Wolf was regarded as one of the best of the business and was deservedly given much of the credit. It was clear that the Packers weren’t going to fire him to appease Holmgren’s misguided career aspirations – back-to-back Super Bowl appearances weren’t enough? Many thought that Holmgren would land in San Francisco, a franchise that was familiar with the coach’s work and was at the time somewhat unhappy with their coach, Steve Mariucci, a Holmgren disciple. Oddly enough, the two teams faced each other in the playoffs that year and the futures of both coaches may have been altered by a blown call in that game. During San Francisco’s final drive (with the Packers leading 27-23), Jerry Rice fumbled after a catch. The Packers recovered, but the referee watching the play called Rice “down by contact” and the 49ers kept possession. The drive ultimately resulted in a last second touchdown pass from Steve Young to a then up-and-coming Terrell Owens, which gave San Francisco the win, 30-27. Had that fumble call gone the other way, Mariucci would have likely been fired for losing a first round playoff game at home and Holmgren would have been the favorite to take his place. The win bought Mariucci some time in San Francisco and forced Holmgren to look for complete control elsewhere. He ultimately signed with Seattle, where he has had mixed success in seven seasons and has recently had to relinquish his GM duties. Oh, the irony!
After Holmgren’s departure, the Packers were left scrambling to fill the head coaching vacancy. Most of Holmgren’s disciples had already been poached by other teams – Mariucci by San Francisco in 1997, John Gruden by Oakland in 1998, Andy Reid by Philadelphia in 1999. Hindsight being 20/20, the Packers should have locked in one of these young talents by promising him the top job in Green Bay once Holmgren flew the coop. Instead, the team hired Ray Rhodes, who was coming off a 3-13 season as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Rhodes was the defensive coordinator for Green Bay in 1992-93 and had fashioned the second ranked defense before taking the head coaching job with the Eagles. Rhodes was never cut out to be the top guy and was quickly dismissed after an 8-8 season leading the Packers. The team then surprised many by hiring Mike Sherman, who had 21 years of coaching experience but zero as the head guy. His main selling point was that he coached under Holmgren for several years in Green Bay and apparently blew Wolf away in his interview. In his second year as the head coach, Wolf retired and Sherman was given GM duties as well, the dual role that Holmgren wanted so desperately. Over Sherman’s first five years with the team, he led the Packers to an average of 10.6 wins a season. Unfortunately, that winning way hasn’t translated to the playoffs where the team is 2-4 under his leadership, and a very disappointing 2-2 at home.
As a long time Packer fan, I get the sense that Sherman is a very hard worker and a reasonably good coach. His teams generally start the season off poorly (usually reeling from free agency losses and/or decimated by injuries) but seem to finish strong, only to flame out in an ugly playoff loss. He is definitely a better coach than he is a GM, where he has made several questionable investments – signing duds Joe Johnson and Cletidus Hunt to huge contracts, which created a financial situation that forced the Packers to let guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera go this past offseason. While he did trade up to land a talented Javon Walker in 2002, his overall draft history isn’t very impressive – he was involved in the selection of Jamal Reynolds in the first round of the 2001 draft (Wolf’s last draft), and in the 2004 draft, passed on Chris Gamble in favor of Ahmad Carroll and traded up to the third round to take punter B.J. Sander. Maybe his most costly GM mistake was the handling of the defensive coordinator position after the disastrous “4th and 26” defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2003 playoffs. He fired very capable Ed Donatell as a scapegoat, when it was actually his recent first round draft pick, rookie LB Nick Barnett, who was in the wrong position on the play. Sherman promoted Bob Slowik to defensive coordinator, which for some reason pissed off CB Mike McKenzie to no end, and ultimately forced the Packers to trade McKenzie to New Orleans. This move also resulted in the Packers having to spend the aforementioned first round pick on Carroll to replace McKenzie, when the pick would have put to much better use strengthening the defensive front seven, had McKenzie still been in the lineup.
As time goes on, I grow more and more frustrated with his offensive playcalling. With Holmgren, the opening drive was run with such ruthless efficiency and unpredictability that Green Bay was almost always starting the game with a seven-point lead. Under Sherman, I’m just hoping for a first down before we have to punt. He calls running plays on running downs and calls passing plays on passing downs, with very little deviation. In other words, he’s way too predictable. He has made a few poor replay decisions, mostly by hesitating too long and not challenging the play in time. As an example, the Packers were already down by a touchdown (of course) against the Falcons in the 2002 playoffs, when they turned the ball over on a muffed punt return, but the replay showed that the ball had actually hit a Falcon first and that it should be Green Bay ball. Sherman hesitated too long and Atlanta took possession and immediately scored another touchdown, putting the Packers in a 14-0 hole from which they would never recover. His instant replay ineptitude reared its ugly head again this past Sunday. In the third quarter with the Packers trailing Tampa Bay 17-13, Brett Favre threw a third down pass to rookie WR Terrance Murphy, which was ruled incomplete, but appeared on the replay to be a catch. Had it been challenged and overturned, it would not have given the Packers a first down, but it would have left them with a fourth and inches on the Tampa Bay 16-yard line. Sherman chose to attempt a field goal (after his special teams had already failed on an extra point try) and PK Ryan Longwell’s attempt was wide left. The Packers went on to lose the game 17-16, and are now winless in three games.
This would just be another story about whether a certain coach is right for a franchise in the midst of rebuilding – if not for the presence of Brett Favre. The window is certainly closing on his career, but he’s still performing at a high level and with the proper supporting cast, he could lead the Packers to another Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the personnel missteps of the past few years have left the defense a shell of what it once was, and it doesn’t appear that the turnaround can happen quickly enough to get Green Bay back to the promised land before Favre retires. With the parity in the NFL (and especially in the NFC), it is possible over the next two years for the new GM (Ted Thompson) and new defensive coordinator (Jim Bates) to put together a top 10 defense once again. If this happens, the Packers could be poised for another Super Bowl run. But one thing’s for sure – it isn’t in the cards this year.
The history behind Holmgren’s departure and Sherman’s ascension makes one wonder what would have happened had Holmgren stuck it out in Green Bay for two more seasons. Once Wolf retired, he would have been given the control he needed so badly and maybe he and Favre would now have another Super Bowl ring to show for their hard work. Instead, Holmgren is mired in mediocrity and has been stripped of his GM duties in Seattle and Favre is wasting away on a winless team, no doubt wondering if the Packers will be able to turn the defense around before he hangs ‘em up.