The 1999 Green Bay Packers represented a key turning point in the Brett Favre era of franchise history. Mike Holmgren departed as head coach following 1998, after having come up with Favre onto the national stage over the previous seven seasons. The new man in charge was Ray Rhodes, who had previously taken the Philadelphia Eagles to a couple of playoff appearances. But the ’99 season didn’t work out. The Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and Rhodes was one-and-done in Lambeau.
Favre’s first year without his original coaching mentor was a struggle. He played with injuries, including a broken thumb and the numbers were mediocre. A 57 percent completion rate was 20th among NFL quarterbacks. The 6.9 yards-per-attempt was in the middle of the league. And the TD-INT ratio was underwater at 22/23.
Antonio Freeman continued to be one of Favre’s favorite targets, as he’d been throughout the decade. Freeman caught 74 balls and cleared the 1,000-yard threshold. The normal second target was tight end Mark Chmura. But Chmura was lost for the season after two games and wide receiver Bill Schroeder stepped into the void. Schroeder caught 74 passes of his own and also went over 1,000 yards.
Dorsey Levens had a 1,000-yard season rushing, although he averaged less than four yards a carry. Levens, a versatile player, also caught 71 passes. All told, the Packers offense ranked 10th in the NFL in points scored.
Defense was Rhodes’ specialty, but the Green Bay D struggled to 20th in the league in points allowed. The great Reggie White had retired, leaving a big void in both leadership and production. LeRoy Butler was still at strong safety, but was starting to decline. Rookie corner Mike McKenzie picked off seven passes. But no one stood out.
In fact, a lack of standouts neatly summarizes the Green Bay problem. Not a single player made the Pro Bowl. Even in the best years of the Holmgren run, the Packers were always top-heavy reliant on their stars. Without that, the lack of depth was on display.
Green Bay opened the season at home against a mediocre Oakland Raiders team. The Packers were outrushed 153-91. Favre was intercepted three times and the Packers trailed 24-14. Favre also went 28/47 for 333 yards. Freeman caught seven balls for 111 yards. Favre threw two late TD passes, the last one with eleven seconds left and Green Bay pulled out a 28-24 win.
A road trip to Detroit had a different vibe than in recent years, with legendary Lion running back Barry Sanders having just retired. Levens was the best back on the field and carried 29 times for 153 yards. But Favre didn’t have a good day and the defense allowed a couple long touchdown passes early in the game. A 23-15 loss dropped the Pack to 1-1.
The Minnesota Vikings, the defending divisional champ came to Lambeau Field for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. Favre went 24/39 for 304 yards. It looked like it might not be enough when the Vikings took a 20-16 lead late in the game. But Favre led one last furious drive and then hit Corey Bradford on a 23-yard touchdown pass with twelve seconds left for a thrilling win.
Green Bay was going into the bye week at 2-1, but they were a matter of seconds from being 0-3. This was a team that had clearly had some problems to fix.
Tampa Bay was a divisional rival prior to the realignment of 2002. The Buccaneers joined the four current teams of the NFC North in what was then the NFC Central. The Bucs were coached by Tony Dungy and a contender. They came to Lambeau Field for a Sunday Night battle.
Green Bay was beaten in the trenches—outrushed 173-93 and they allowed five sacks. Favre stepped back and opened up to his wide receivers. Freeman and Schroeder each caught seven passes and each went over 150 yards on the night. Favre went 22/40 for 390 yards. More late-game magic was in store for the Lambeau crowd. A 21-yard Favre-to-Freeman TD strike with a minute left pulled out a 26-23 win.
The Packers went on to Denver. It was the first time the teams had played since the Super Bowl following the 1997 season. The Broncos won that one and then repeated as champs in 1998. But John Elway retired after ’98 and this year’s Denver team wasn’t very good. But you wouldn’t have known that from this game. Green Bay was pounded on the ground, losing rush yardage 151-21. Favre threw three interceptions. A game that was tied 10-10 in the third quarter turned into a 31-10 blowout loss.
Another road game out west came at mediocre San Diego and this one went much better for the Pack. The Chargers had two former Chicago Bears quarterbacks, Erik Kramer and Jim Harbaugh. Green Bay had gotten familiar with both and today they picked each QB off three times. The six interceptions keyed an easy 31-3 win.
It was time for the Monday Night game everyone had circled from the start of the season. The Seattle Seahawks were coming to town. Holmgren was coming back. It was the teacher facing his old student.
And the teacher decidedly won this one. Even though Favre threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Bradford to tie the game 7-7, it got away from Green Bay. Favre ended 14/35 for 180 yards and was intercepted four times. Seattle coasted to a 27-7 win and Holmgren went on to win a division title in his first season.
The Packers had to get well and a visit from a subpar Bears team should have been the perfect antidote. Favre played pretty well, going 27/40 for 267 yards. Green Bay won the turnover battle 4-1. But they settled for field goals on a couple of good drives and were outrushed 160-85. Chicago pulled a 14-13 upset. The Packers were 4-4 and in trouble.
The trouble got worse in Dallas, a team that joined Green Bay on the playoff fringe. The Pack was again pummeled on the ground, this time to the tune of 149-50. Favre was forced to throw fifty times. It wasn’t a formula for success and ended with a 27-13 loss.
A home game with Detroit, another team on the very edge of the playoff picture, was now must-win. Green Bay trailed 17-12 at the half. This time, Favre stepped up with a 26/40 for 309 yards performance. Levens ran for 99 yards, the Packers took over the second half and won 26-17.
Green Bay and San Francisco had a great rivalry through the 1990s and had met four straight years in the playoffs. The 49ers were having an even tougher go of it in 1999 than the Packers were, so this Monday Night game at the end of November was missing some juice. Either way, Green Bay needed the win and Favre delivered it. He was sharp 24/35 for 260 yards and no mistakes. The defense played its best game of the year in a 20-3 win.
Green Bay was 6-5 and the good news was that mediocrity was the story of the NFL in 1999. The Packers still had a shot at the NFC Central, with the Buccaneers, Vikings and Lions all 7-4. There were three wild-card spots available. The Cowboys were 6-5, with the New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers all giving chase at 5-6. It was just about playing well in December in this packed race.
The Packers went to Chicago and took a measure of revenge. After spotting the Bears a 10-0 lead, they reeled off three quick touchdowns, including a fumble return by Keith McKenzie. The running game was put in the hands of De’Mon Parker, who went for 113 yards on 19 carries. The result was an easy 35-19 win.
In the meantime, Carolina had lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. That proved more important when the Panthers came to Lambeau and halted Packer momentum. In a back-and-forth game, neither team could run the ball. Favre and counterpart Steve Beuerlein each threw for over 300 yards. But this time, the Green Bay didn’t have the ball last. A Carolina touchdown run on the final play of the game handed the Packers a 33-31 loss.
Tampa Bay had seized control of the NFC Central and was 9-4. Detroit was 8-5. Green Bay and Minnesota were both fighting for their lives at 7-6. And they were set to meet on Monday Night in the old Metrodome.
In a good game, the difference was that Favre threw a couple picks while Minnesota stayed mistake-free and got some big plays in the passing game to Randy Moss. Green Bay lost a tough 24-20 decision.
The Packers were still in a four-way tie for the last playoff spot. The Cowboys, Giants and Panthers were also 7-7. But Green Bay was the one who had to visit surging Tampa Bay for a late afternoon start on the day after Christmas. Even though the Packers led 10-9 at the half, they only rushed for 12 yards and fell apart in the second half of a 29-10 loss.
There was still hope. In this year where no one seemed to want to play their way in, the Cowboys, Giants and Panthers all lost. So had the Lions, who were now 8-7 and holding on to the 5-seed. Green Bay didn’t control their destiny, but their path was pretty reasonable given how many missed opportunities there had been.
Green Bay played Arizona, who had been fading hard down the stretch. The game at Lambeau Field would kick off in the early window. If the Packers won, they simply needed to root for the Giants to win at Dallas in the late afternoon. If that parlay happened, Green Bay was in.
The Packers took care of their business easily. Favre went 21/34 for 311 yards. Levens piled up 146 yards on the ground and made his Fantasy owners happy with four touchdowns. Green Bay won 49-24.
But there was no help coming later in the day. Dallas was in complete control from the outset and their 26-18 win was not as close as it sounds. The Cowboys took the final playoff spot. In year where not one, but two 8-8 teams made the playoffs, the tiebreakers fell against the 8-8 Packers.
Green Bay wasted no time in cutting ties with Rhodes and bringing in Mike Sherman as the new head coach. But it would take until 2001 for Favre and the Packers to return to the playoffs.