To just look at the results of the 2003 Green Bay Packers might not tip you off that it was a special season and a wild ride. But if you lived through the adventures of those ’03 Packers you know that it was perhaps the year that best summed up the Brett Favre era. It wasn’t a breakout playoff year like 1993. It wasn’t a move into the NFL’s upper crust like 1995. It wasn’t the ultimate Super Bowl title run of 1996 or the near-repeat of 1997. But the 2003 Green Bay Packers captured everything that football fans loved about Brett Favre…and everything that could drive them a little crazy about his on-field play sometimes.
Favre’s statistical line tells a little bit of that story. He was often brilliant, with a 65 percent completion rate that ranked second in the NFL and his 7.1 yards-per-attempt that was 10th. That, along with 32 touchdown passes, got the future Hall of Famer another Pro Bowl trip. But then there were the 21 interceptions—getting picked off at a 4.5 percent clip ranked Favre 30th among NFL quarterbacks.
Ahman Green had become one of the game’s most versatile running backs and he rolled up nearly 1,900 yards on the ground. Even more impressive was that Green averaged better than five yards a pop in the process. He caught 50 passes and was another Pro Bowl player.
The receiving corps wasn’t particularly strong, but Donald Driver did catch 52 passes for over 600 yards. Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson were also contributors and could help Favre stretch the field. Bubba Franks only caught 30 passes, but his blocking skills helped him punch a Pro Bowl ticket.
Franks wasn’t the only one who could block. The offensive line, often a problem area during the Favre years, produced a pair of Pro Bowlers in center Mike Flanagan and guard Marco Rivera. The Packer offense ranked fourth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was keyed by the pass-rushing skills of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (KGB) who record ten sacks from the edge. Two beneficiaries of KGB’s pressure were secondary ballhawks Mike McKenzie at corner and free safety Darren Sharper who combined to intercept nine balls. The Green Bay defense didn’t have any Pro Bowl players in 2003, but they ranked a respectable 11th in the league for points allowed.
Green Bay hosted Minnesota to open the season. Homefield advantage usually defined this rivalry in the Favre years, but on this day the Gunslinger was awful. He threw four interceptions. The Packers were in a 27-3 hole by the third quarter before rallying to make the final score cosmetically close at 30-25.
Another division rival in Detroit came to Lambeau. The Packers had to win this one and they did. Green bolted 65 yards for a touchdown in the game’s opening minute, the start of a day he rolled up 160 yards rushing. Al Harris had a Pick-6 in the fourth quarter that put the finishing touches on a 31-6 rout.
Green Bay visited lowly Arizona for what should have been an easy win. And Favre played reasonably well, going 23/33 for 245 yards. But the Packers couldn’t get the running game going. Cardinal quarterback Jeff Blake was able to stretch the field. Green Bay was dumped 20-13.
A Monday Night visit to Chicago now had urgency attached. Of these first four opponents, only the Vikings were a contender. The Packers simply couldn’t start 1-3.
They didn’t. Green again set the tone with a long touchdown run early on, starting a 176-yard night. Green Bay was up 24-6 by halftime. When Chicago cut the lead to 24-16, Favre tossed a couple fourth quarter touchdown passes to widen the lead back out and the game ended at 38-23.
The Packers weren’t impressing anyone, but at 2-2 they were alive and hosting playoff-bound Seattle. Favre was efficient against his old mentor, Mike Holmgren, going 19/25 for 185 yards and no mistakes. Green rushed for 118 yards. Green Bay delivered their best performance of the still-young season in a 35-13 blowout win.
Kansas City was on their way to a 13-3 season thanks to an explosive passing game overseen by head coach Dick Vermeil. The Chiefs came to Lambeau. Favre was ready for the challenge and went 25/36 for 272 yards. Green went off for 139 yards. The Pack was coasting with a 31-14 lead after three quarters. Then KC came roaring back, tied the game 34-34 in the final two minutes. In overtime, the Packers lost the shootout, 40-34.
Another opponent against a good, playoff-bound offense came with a trip to St. Louis to face the Rams. Favre again played well, going 23/32 for 268 yards. But this time the running game disappeared. Green Bay was in an early 14-3 hole, had to chase the rest of the game and lost 34-24.
Green Bay went into the bye week at 3-4. On the far side of the bye was another big prime-time road game with a divisional rival, this one on the first Sunday Night in November up in Minneapolis.
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Favre played this one a little closer to the vest, steering clear of mistakes and going 18/28 for 194 yards. Green stepped up with a big game, 137 yards. Green Bay took over the fourth quarter. Tied 20-20, they ripped off ten straight points. The Vikes got a TD back, but the 30-27 final held. A huge road victory had kept the Packers in the mix in the NFC North.
Philadelphia was on their way to the top seed in the NFC bracket and they came to Lambeau Field for a Monday Night date. Green put on a show for the national audience, going off for 192 yards on the ground. He caught one TD pass and ran for another. In a tough defensive game, the Pack handed a 14-10 lead to their D late in the game. But the Eagles drove it down for the winning TD. Green Bay slipped back under .500 with the 17-14 loss.
A year earlier, Tampa Bay had won the Super Bowl, keyed in part by a big November win over Green Bay. This year the Bucs were struggling. The Packers returned to the scene of the crime for a late Sunday afternoon game.
Favre often struggled with the aggressive Tampa defense and today was no exception. He was often erratic, but this time the Green Bay quarterback steered clear of big mistakes. The Packers picked up three turnovers. Green ran for 109 yards and got some help on the ground from Najeh Davenport, who added 70 yards. Defense, the running game and no mistakes keyed a nice 20-13 win.
Green Bay hosted mediocre San Francisco and Favre got things rolling quickly with a 66-yard touchdown strike to Walker and a 16-yard scoring pass to Ferguson. It was 14-0 in a hurry. Green then took over, ran for 154 yards and helped the Packers manage the rest of the game to a 20-10 win. They were back on the plus side of .500 at 6-5.
Not for long. A Thanksgiving Day visit to Detroit was a disaster. The Lions were a bad team, but Favre threw three interceptions and the Pack turned it over five times. A 14-13 lead after three quarters turned into a 22-14 loss.
If nothing else, Green Bay had ten days to get ready for games with mediocre Chicago and a lousy San Diego Chargers team. It was a chance for the Packers to get their bearings back and stay in the hunt for an NFC North division that had no great team.
The home date with the Bears didn’t start well—Favre threw a Pick-6 and the Packers were staring at a 14-0 hole. But it ended well. Favre went 22/33 for 210 yards and got Green Bay out to a 19-14 lead. When Chicago was driving in the fourth quarter threatening to get the lead back, McKenzie picked off a pass on his own 10-yard line and went all the way to the house. That all but sealed a game that ended 34-21.
The visit to San Diego proved to be a battle. The Chargers might not be good, but with Marty Schottenheimer rebuilding behind LaDanian Tomlinson in the backfield, the Bolts weren’t far from being a contender. They took a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter. Favre answered the bell, hitting Ferguson on a 40-yard TD strike, tossing an 11-yard scoring pass to Green and then going back to Ferguson from 16 yards out. The fourth quarter flurry, keyed by Driver’s eight catches for 112 yards, led a 38-21 win.
Green Bay was 8-6 and tied for first in the NFC North with Minnesota. The problem was, the Vikings held the tiebreaker based on conference record. Dallas led the wild-card race at 9-5 and had control of the tiebreakers. The Packers were tied with the Seahawks at 8-6 for the final berth. Green Bay held this tiebreaker based on head-to-head, but there was one problem—any Dallas loss could create a three-way tie and the Packers would end up the odd team out.
So it was must-win on Monday Night in Oakland. And now is when the legend of the 2003 Green Bay Packers really kicks into high gear.
The day before the game the Favre family received awful news. Favre’s father Irv had died of a heart attack. He was only 58-years-old. There was talk that Favre would not play the following night. In the end, his family persuaded him it was what Irv would have wanted. He took the field, but with a heavy heart.
A sympathetic nation rallied to a quarterback they already loved for his down-home demeanor. And on Monday Night, Favre electrified the audience. He threw for 399 yards. There were four touchdown passes. There were no mistakes. A 41-7 win over what was a bad Raider team normally wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. This one, with virtually everything Favre threw up, seeming to land in the hands of his receivers, had a magical quality to it.
With most great quarterbacks, their defining moment is often a legendary drive (see John Elway in 1986 at Cleveland), a big Super Bowl win (Joe Montana, Tom Brady and a host of others), an epic playoff comeback (Peyton Manning in 2006 against New England). Ask people about Brett Favre’s greatest moment and the most common answer you get is the night he threw four touchdown passes a day after his father died. Brett Favre, more than other star athletes, was Everyman and perhaps this sums it up.
Everyman was still no guarantee for the playoffs. The previous Saturday, Minnesota had blown out Kansas City, depriving the Packers of help in a game where it seemed possible. Seattle and Dallas had both won. Everything was up in the air going into the final week.
Green Bay was slated to play in the late Sunday afternoon window at home against Denver. The Broncos were playoff-bound, but had nothing to play for.
The problem is that neither did Dallas. The Cowboys dropped their finale in the early afternoon. Combine that with Seattle’s win in San Francisco on Saturday, and Green Bay was frozen out of the wild-card. The only hope was to catch Minnesota. The Vikings were out in Arizona for a finale that would play parallel to the Packers-Broncos game.
Green Bay took care of their business. Green had the best day of the best season in his career. He poured it on for 218 yards, including a 98-yard touchdown jaunt that all but sealed the game early in the fourth quarter. It ended 31-3.
Everyone at Lambeau was watching the score in Arizona. It didn’t look good. The Vikings led 17-6. Phil Simms, calling the game for CBS, noted that Green Bay had gone 10-6 and that such was usually a playoff season. The obituaries were being written.
Then the Cardinals got a touchdown. And got the ball back. Watching the Packer game became a surreal experience. Players from the sidelines were looking up at the fans, who were tuned into what was going on in the desert. Arizona got to the Minnesota 28-yard line, but there was only time for one more play.
What happened next remains stunning by any measure. Josh McCown stepped back for Arizona and found Nathan Poole for a touchdown. The crowd at Lambeau erupted as though they were there, even though their own game was still going on right before them. Arizona had pulled the upset. Green Bay was going to the playoffs. The thought that maybe Irv had guided McCown’s pass was a part of the storyline.
Green Bay was now hosting a first-round playoff game. Seattle came in for the second time this season. This one wasn’t as easy as the first. Both teams had two good first drives bog down with field goals. Favre found Franks for a 23-yard TD pass to make it 13-6 at the half.
The offenses picked up the pace in the second half. Favre went 26/38 for 319 yards. Counterpart Matt Hasselbeck was 25/45 for 305 yards. The back and forth battle went to overtime tied 27-all, neither quarterback having thrown a pick.
Maybe that’s why Hasselbeck was confident enough to tell the official “We’re gonna score” as Seattle won the coin toss under overtime rules that were then strict sudden death. Hasselbeck was almost right.
Seattle drove near midfield. Hasselbeck looked to his left. His pass was intercepted by Al Harris, who raced the other way for a Pick-6. In yet another stunning turn of events, the Packers had another victory.
Green Bay went to Philadelphia the following Sunday, a late afternoon kick that would conclude the divisional round weekend. The Packers played like the magic was still there. Favre went to Ferguson for touchdowns from 40 and 17 yards. Green Bay led 14-0.
Philadelphia rallied with two TDs of their own to tie it, but Green was owning the Eagles on the ground. His 25 carries produced 156 yards. A field goal early in the fourth quarter put the Packers up 17-14. They had the ball late in the game, facing 4th-and-inches near the Philadelphia 40. A first down would seal the game. Head coach Mike Sherman opted to punt.
It was understandable decision, given the Eagles only needed a field goal and the Packer defense was playing well. I see why Sherman didn’t want to risk giving the Eagles a short field, even though I felt at the time it was a mistake to punt. Then the punt went into the end zone, Green Bay had only gained about twenty yards in exchange for giving up a chance to clinch the game behind a ground game that was clicking. But when the defense forced Philly into an impossible 4th-and-26, it didn’t appear to matter.
The stunning turns of events were now going to turn around and bite the Packers. Philadelphia converted the first down and quite easily, as the Green Bay secondary led Freddie Mitchell waltz over the middle of the field wide open. The Eagles tied the game with a field goal.
Green Bay still got the coin toss in overtime. That’s when Favre threw what can only be described as the worst and most misguided pass of his career. In his own territory and under pressure, Favre scrambled and then basically hurled the ball blindly back across the field. To no one’s surprise, the blind backside desperation throw was intercepted. Philadelphia kicked a field goal and the season was over.
Live by the sword and die by the sword was Brett Favre’s mantra throughout his entire magnificent career. Never were both sides of that more obvious than in the highs and lows of 2003, with a heavy dose of heartwarming human interest on top of it all.