The 1998 Green Bay Packers were the last edition for Mike Holmgren’s successful seven-year run in Lambeau Field. In 1992, the head coach inherited a franchise that had been desolate for the better part of twenty years. Holmgren found Brett Favre as his quarterback and promptly posted a winning season. A year later, the Pack was in the playoffs. By 1995, they reached the NFC Championship Game. In 1996, they brought the Lombardi Trophy back home. In 1997 they reached another Super Bowl. The ’98 team slipped a bit, but they were still a solid team and a fitting swan song for the head coach.
Favre was coming off three straight MVP seasons. The Gunslinger didn’t make it four in a row, but he was still awfully good. The 63 percent completion rate was the best in the league and the 7.6 yards-per-attempt ranked seventh. What separated this season from the previous three was that Favre’s mistakes ticked upward. The 31-23 TD/INT ratio wasn’t as bad as it would appear today. But that was still interceptions on 4.2 percent of his throws and that still ranked near the bottom of the league.
Antonio Freeman continued to be Favre’s favorite target and the big-play receiver made 1st-team All-NFL in 1998, going over 1,400 yards and averaging 17 yards a pop. Mark Chmura had a Pro Bowl year at tight end. Where the Packer offense had problems was in the supporting cast for the stars. No other receivers and none of the running backs had notable seasons—the latter undoubtedly held back by the lack of any Pro Bowl players on the offensive line.
Even so, with Favre going deep to Freeman and underneath to Chmura, the Packer offense ranked sixth in the NFL in points scored.
Reggie White was 37-years-old and this would be his final year with the Packers. It was a vintage season, 16 sacks and 1st-team All-NFL honors for the Hall of Fame defensive end. A rookie, Vonnie Holliday, was on the other end and he delivered eight sacks, preventing offensive lines from keying too much on Reggie.
LeRoy Butler was one of the NFL’s top strong safeties in the late 1990s and he was another 1st-team All-NFL player in 1998. All told, the Packer defense was much like the team itself—not as good as during the Super Bowl years, but still decent and ranked 11th in the NFL for points allowed.
Green Bay opened the season at home against Detroit. The Lions had been a consistent playoff contender through the 1990s, with the electric Barry Sanders at running back. Favre and Sanders had a number of great individual battles in a rivalry that would end after Sanders’ surprise retirement at the end of this season.
This Detroit team would prove to be a disappointment, but the game was wild. The Packers led 24-12 when they allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. Green Bay kick returner Roell Preston promptly ran one right back the other way. Then Favre hit Freeman on an 84-yard touchdown strike. The Pack won 38-19.
Tampa Bay had made the playoffs in 1997 and was starting a run of consistent contenders under Tony Dungy. The Bucs were in town next. Even though Green Bay gave up another special teams touchdown, Favre more than made it up for it. He went 22/37 for 237 yards, spreading the ball to eight different receivers and making no mistakes. The Packers won 23-15.
A road trip to lowly Cincinnati saw a less than inspired performance, but Favre went 23/35 for 274 yards, Green Bay won the turnover battle 3-zip and took home a 13-6 win. A week later they went to Carolina. The Panthers would have a woeful season, but they gave the Packers all they could handle.
The game was tied 20-20 at the half, with Favre making big plays both ways—he had thrown two touchdowns and a Pick-6 by intermission. For the game, he ended up with five TDs and three interceptions—enough to stay on the right side of the balance sheet in a 37-30 win.
Green Bay was rolling at 4-0. Minnesota was also 4-0. The Packers and Vikings were set to meet on Monday Night Football in the first week of October at Lambeau Field. It was a great time for the Packers to assert their control over this division.
Instead, a changing of the guard was announced. The Green Bay pass defense was shredded by Minnesota receiver Randy Moss. Favre threw three more interceptions and this time there was nothing positive to counterbalance the mistakes. Before a stunned crowd and stunned national audience, the Packers fell behind 37-10. Backup quarterback Doug Pederson (who went on to become a Super Bowl-winning coach in Philadelphia nearly twenty years later) got some rare playing time and threw a couple garbage-time touchdown passes. The final was 37-24, but it wasn’t even that close.
Green Bay had to live with that beatdown through their bye week. They returned to play on a Thursday night at Detroit. Favre threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Freeman to start the scoring and the Pack took a 10-0 lead. Favre would throw for 300 yards on this night. But he had another three-interception game. Sanders rushed for 155 yards. The lead dissipated and the Packers lost 27-20.
A home date with a bad Baltimore team was needed. The Favre-to-Freeman combo got clicking, nine times for 103 yards. Preston brought a punt 71 yards to the house and Green Bay won 28-10 to get back on track.
San Francisco came to town for a marquee late Sunday afternoon game on November 1. The Packers had knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs three years running and mixed in regular season wins along the way. Green Bay owned this rivalry and that didn’t change today. Favre went over the top, 80 yards to Freeman for one touchdown and 30 yards to Robert Brooks for another. In a 22-22 tie game in the fourth quarter, Favre hit Freeman for a 62-yard strike and the Packers won 36-22.
A Monday Night visit to Pittsburgh was up. The Steelers were another consistent contender under Bill Cowher. Although this ’98 team would fade badly, that didn’t happen until after Thanksgiving. Tonight, the Packers were blasted off the line of scrimmage, losing rush yardage 142-39. Another Monday Night saw Green Bay dig a huge hole, 27-3, before racing for some late points to make a loss look respectable, this one 27-20.
The beatdown on the ground clearly got under someone’s skin, because the Packers came out the next week against the Giants with something to prove. In a late afternoon kick at the Meadowlands, the Pack muscled up for a 169-65 rush yard edge, keyed by a 100-yard game from Darick Holmes. The result was an easy 37-3 win.
Green Bay was 7-3, but Minnesota was riding high at 9-1. The coming trip to the old Metrodome was do-or-die if the Packers had any hopes of a fourth straight division title. Favre threw an early Pick-6 and dug his team a 10-0 hole. He also went 31/39 for 303 yards and got Green Bay back in the game. But the Pack lost a couple fumbles and they lost the game 28-14. It was plain the Packers would have to go the wild-card route.
A late afternoon home game with lowly Philadelphia produced another muscular display from the ground game. Holmes ran for 163 yards. Bill Schroeder stepped up at receiver, catching five balls for 128 yards. The Packers won 24-16.
With four weeks to go, Green Bay was essentially in a race with San Francisco for the 4-seed. The alignment of the NFL prior to 2002 had only three divisions (the NFC South did not exist and Tampa Bay was in Green Bay’s NFC Central with the current teams of the NFC North). That meant the 4-seed would go to the top wild-card. The Packers were 8-4. The 49ers were 9-3, but of course Green Bay had the tiebreaker .
But the Pack’s bid to host a wild-card game took a blow on a Monday Night in Tampa. The offensive line collapsed and Favre was sacked eight times. The defense gave up a couple long touchdown passes to Trent Dilfer. Green Bay lost 24-22 and was now two back of San Francisco. The Packers were all but locked into the 5-seed with three weeks to go.
A home date with an awful Chicago Bears team was far from dominant. But Dorsey Levens carried 15 times for 105 yards, the latest good sign for what appeared to be an emerging running game. Freeman caught eight balls for 103 yards and the Packers won 26-20. In the final home game of the year against Tennessee, Favre hit Freeman on touchdown passes from 57, 68 and 32. Green Bay won 30-22.
The season finale was at Chicago, with two Bears games in three weeks. In a game played without a lot of passion either way, Green Bay defensive back Keith McKenzie’s 28-yard Pick-6 was the difference in a 16-13 win. The Packers were going into the playoffs at 11-5. The 49ers took care of business later that afternoon, burying a bad Rams team to get to 12-4. The wild-card date was set.
Packers-49ers IV was in the late Sunday afternoon time slot, the conclusion to Wild-Card Weekend. It proved worthy of the marquee television spot. Green Bay’s running game continued its late season resurgence with Levens going over 100 yards. Garrison Hearst did the same for San Francisco. Favre went 20/35 for 292 yards. Trailing 23-20 with two minutes to play, Favre found Freeman on a 15-yard touchdown pass.
Green Bay was up four and closing in on another win over San Francisco. And the Packers appeared to seal it when the great Niner wide receiver Jerry Rice fumbled and Green Bay recovered. But officials ruled that Rice was down. It was an obviously blown call, one that replay would take about one second to overturn today. But there was no recourse to instant replay in 1998. The 49ers were Packer territory and still had a shot.
By rights, the Pack should still have closed the game out. There were eight seconds left and the ball was on the 25-yard line. But Young rifled a perfect strike to Terrell Owens for a touchdown. The season was over in a bitter 30-27 loss.
So was the Holmgren era. The head coach had made no secret of his ambition to one day be both general manager and coach and that opportunity did not exist at Green Bay, where the great Ron Wolf was firmly ensconced as GM. There was no doubt that someone would give Holmgren the total control he craved and that team would be the Seattle Seahawks.
It was a time of change. Green Bay took a step back and played mediocre football through 1999 and much of 2000. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Packers returned to the playoffs.