The first year of the post-Mike Holmgren era didn’t go well in 1999 for Green Bay. After seven straight winning seasons and six consecutive playoff years, the Pack slipped to 8-8 and home for January in ’99. The organization didn’t wait around to see if new head coach Ray Rhodes could turn it around, firing him after one year. Mike Sherman was brought in. For most of the year, the 2000 Green Bay Packers continued to be mediocre. But a late surge nearly got them back to the playoffs and set the stage for another run of success.
Brett Favre endured the toughest year of his career in 1999 and the numbers in 2000 didn’t get a whole lot better. Favre’s 58 percent completion rate was 20th in the league. His yards-per-attempt, normally a source of strength was only 6.6 and in the bottom third of starting quarterbacks. Favre trimmed back on the mistakes with a 20-16 TD/INT ratio, but being intercepted on 2.8 percent of his passes still put him in the middle of the league.
It wasn’t what Green Bay needed from their future Hall of Fame quarterback. Both of Favre’s top receivers, Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder slipped under the 1,000-mark. Although with Schroeder I suppose we’re really splitting hairs—his 65 catches produced 999 yards. Freeman caught 62 balls for 912 yards.
The revelation for the Green Bay offense was Ahman Green. A young running back who came over from Seattle in free agency, Green burst onto the NFL scene with nearly 1,200 yards rushing and averaging 4.5 yards a pop. He was a versatile receiver whose 73 catches led the team. On a roster with a young offensive line—there were rookies at both tackle spots and at tight end—and a struggling quarterback, Green ensured the Packer attack still ranked 11th in the league in points scored.
Green Bay’s defense continued to look for an identity in their second year without the great Reggie White on the defensive line. Darren Sharper stepped up with a big year at free safety, intercepting nine passes and making 1st-team All-NFL. The Packer defense wasn’t great, ranking 14th in points allowed. But they were above average in a 30-team league and better than they’d been in 1999.
The season opened at home with a late afternoon game against the New York Jets, a team that would stay on the fringe of the AFC playoff picture all season before narrowly missing out. The Packers picked up where they had left off in ’99. Favre struggled to a terrible 14/34 for 152 yards showing. The running game was non-existent. Green Bay was penalized ten times. A late touchdown made the 20-16 loss respectable, but this wasn’t really competitive.
Nor was a visit to mediocre Buffalo the following week. Even though Favre went 25/35 for 269 yards and made no mistakes, those were mostly empty numbers, compiled after the Packers dug themselves a 17-0 hole. They lost 27-18.
A Week 3 home game with a good Philadelphia Eagles team now had to be played with real urgency. Favre struggled and was intercepted three times. But the Birds were sloppy and committed twelve penalties. No one could get in the end zone. Green Bay kicker Ryan Longwell booted two field goals, the last with three seconds in the clock and the Packers escaped 6-3.
The Packers paid a visit to Arizona and put together a complete game. Green set the tone with a 19-yard touchdown run and Green Bay would win rushing yardage 176-28. Favre hit Schroeder on a 55-yard touchdown pass to get a 14-0 lead. The Pack coasted home to a 29-3 win. They were .500 and a crisis had been temporarily averted.
At least until Chicago came to Lambeau the following week. The Bears weren’t any good, but you wouldn’t have known that in this game for the late Sunday afternoon TV audience. Chicago had Green Bay in a 24-3 hole by halftime. Favre dug in and tried to bring the Packers back, throwing three touchdown passes. Schroeder caught two of those TDs, part of eight catches for 108 yards. With two minutes left, Green Bay pulled to within 27-24, but that was where it ended.
A visit to Detroit, a team on the playoff fringe, followed a similar script. Favre threw three interceptions and helped dig his team a 24-3 hole. Favre also went 27/43 for 293 yards and pulled the Packers to within 31-24 by midway through the fourth quarter. But again, the comeback bid ended up short.
At 2-4, Green Bay needed to beat a bad San Francisco team at home the following week. Favre always played well against the 49ers and this late afternoon game was no exception. He went 20/27 for 266 yards and made no mistakes. Freeman caught six balls for 116 yards. It got more than a little hairy, tied 28-28 late in the game. But Favre led one more drive and Longwell won another game with a late field goal.
Green Bay took their bye week and then headed to Miami, an eventual playoff team. The Packers came out firing. Dorsey Levens, the top running back prior to Green’s arrival, scored a couple TDs. Green ran for 94 yards on the afternoon. Green Bay led 17-0 in the second quarter. But Favre couldn’t stretch the field and the offense eventually bogged down. The Packer defense was shaky for the second straight week and the promising start turned into a 28-20 loss.
Minnesota was having a big year and was the class of the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay). But the Packers-Vikings rivalry of the Favre era was usually defined by homefield advantage. So it would be on the first Monday Night of November at Lambeau. Sharper picked off two passes and Green Bay had a 5-0 turnover advantage. Favre was erratic and the game went to overtime at 20-20. But the Gunslinger also made some big plays, the last of which was a 43-yard touchdown strike to Freeman that won it 26-20.
Tampa Bay was coached by Tony Dungy and in the mix with Minnesota for the division title. The aggressive Buccaneer defense gave Favre fits, especially when Green Bay traveled south for a late window game. Favre hung in and completed 14/25 for 117 yards, nudging the Packers out to a 15-14 lead. But Tampa eventually knocked the Iron Man out of the game, kicked a couple fourth quarter field goals and handed Green Bay a 20-15 loss.
A difficult schedule stretch continued with Indianapolis, the fourth straight opponent that would win ten games and make the playoffs in 2000. At 4-6, Green Bay desperately needed to win. Favre stepped it up and went 23/36 for 201 yards. Schroeder caught eight passes for 155 yards. In front of the home crowd, Green Bay raced out to a 19-0 lead. A young Peyton Manning, just starting to come into his own, led a furious comeback, but the Packers hung on and won 26-24.
They were still alive for the playoffs, but a Monday Night visit to a mediocre Carolina team was a disaster. The Packers fell behind 14-0. Favre was forced to throw 51 times trying to bring his team back and three of those balls were intercepted. Green Bay lost 31-14.
At 5-7, the Packers looked dead in the water. In the post-Holmgren era they were now 13-15. There wasn’t a ton of reason for optimism. That’s when Green Bay began turning things around.
They went to Chicago on Sunday Night and Favre was sharp. He went 19/31 for 225 yards and no mistakes. Schroeder had another good game, six catches for 119 yards and the result was an easy 28-6 win.
Any hope of a miracle run to the playoffs absolutely necessitated winning a home game against Detroit, who came to Lambeau Field at 8-5. Green carried 27 times for 118 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown run with two minutes to play that sealed the 26-13 win.
There was one wild-card berth realistically in play. The St. Louis Rams, the defending Super Bowl champs led the way for that spot with a 9-5 record. Detroit was 8-6 and Green Bay sitting on 7-7. But the Packers held the tiebreakers on both teams (division record with the Lions, conference record with the Rams). It was a faint hope, but it was still hope.
First, Green Bay had to go to Minnesota, who was on their way to the 2-seed in the NFC bracket. In the old Metrodome, where Favre often struggled, he rewrote the script, going 26/38 for 290 yards, three TDs and no mistakes. Freeman caught six balls for 97 yards. And Green had a huge afternoon, going for 161 yards. The Packers pulled out a 33-28 win.
Detroit held serve and Green Bay watched nervously on Monday Night when St. Louis went to Tampa Bay. A Rams win would knock out the Packers. But Dungy and the Bucs did the Pack a solid, winning a wild game 38-35.
So there was one week left. In the early afternoon window on Christmas Eve, Green Bay would now host Tampa, who still had hope of winning the division. At the same time, Detroit was at home against Chicago. St. Louis was visiting playoff-bound New Orleans. The Packers needed all three elements of the parlay to fall into place.
On a cold day in Lambeau, the game was about defense. Green Bay led 14-3 in the fourth quarter, but they were turning the ball over while Tampa Bay was not. The Bucs pulled even 14-14. They had a chance to win late when Favre torpedoed a Packer drive with an interception and then Tampa got a shot at a 40-yard field goal in the final seconds. But the kick missed. Green Bay won the overtime coin toss and marched down for a field goal that won it.
Meanwhile in Detroit, the Lions were…well, they were being the Lions, losing a heartbreaker to Chicago on a late field goal. Alas, the Rams went into New Orleans, got the win and took home the final playoff berth.
Two straight years out of the playoffs with a Hall of Fame quarterback is never going to meet any definition of acceptable. But the strong December stretch drive infused some real optimism back into Green Bay. They carried that over and for the next four seasons, Favre and the Packers were again a playoff regular.