There was a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the 2006 Green Bay Packers. After 13 years of success with Brett Favre at quarterback, both the team and the signal-caller had fallen on hard times in 2005. A new head coach in Mike McCarthy was brought in. How much longer Favre would play was a constant source of speculation, often fueled by the quarterback himself. When Aaron Rodgers, now entering his second season, would get an opportunity added to the brewing controversy.
The first three quarters of the 2006 season didn’t do much to dispel any of that. But a strong finish nearly pushed the Packers into the playoffs and got momentum back in their direction.
Now 37-years-old, Favre’s numbers had been poor in 2005 and weren’t much better this year. He ranked near the bottom among starting quarterbacks in completion percentage (56%) and yards-per-attempt (6.3). He only threw 18 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions. But his interception rate, which had ballooned to nearly 5 percent in ’05 dropped to 2.9 percent this year and put him in the middle of the league.
Ahman Green, the mainstay of the backfield, cleared the 1,000-yard threshold in rushing, averaged a respectable four a pop and caught 46 balls out of the backfield. The receiving corps was led by Pro Bowler Donald Driver, who had a big season with 92 catches for nearly 1,300 yards. And Favre got a new target in rookie Greg Jennings, whose 45 receptions produced 14 yards a catch.
The offensive line wasn’t a strength, but it rarely was in the Favre era (or in the subsequent Rodgers era for that matter). At least this year there was some hope, as McCarthy broke in two rookies at guard, Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz.
A third rookie broke into the starting lineup on the defensive side of the ball, linebacker A.J. Hawk. The Packers also made a big veteran addition, signing defensive back Charles Woodson in free agency. The future Hall of Famer had eight interceptions in 2006.
But the front line was the key to Green Bay’s defense. Aaron Kampman came into his own as a Pro Bowl defensive end, with 15 ½ sacks. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia (KGB) added six sacks on the other end. Cullen Jenkins and Corey Williams combined for 13 sacks coming up the middle.
Given all this, it’s surprising that the Packer defense only ranked 25th in the NFL in points allowed. The offense, even with its relative weakness compared to the rest of the Favre era, was still marginally better, at 22nd in points scored.
The season opened at home against Chicago in a late afternoon kickoff. The Bears had won the NFC North in 2005 and would be Super Bowl-bound this season. Individually, Green Bay’s key players got some numbers against a good Chicago defense. Green rushed for 110 yards. Driver caught seven balls for 96 yards. But with Favre only 15/29 for 170 yards and two interceptions, there were no numbers on the scoreboard. The Pack was whitewashed 26-0. It was the first time in the Favre era they had been shut out.
Favre heated up the following week when New Orleans came to town. He went 31/55 for 340 yards and three touchdowns. An early 22-yard scoring throw to Jennings got the Packers out to a 13-0 lead. But the Saints, in their first year with Drew Brees, were headed for the 2-seed in the NFC playoffs and they had more. Green Bay lost 34-27.
A road trip to lowly Detroit saw the first win of the McCarthy era. Favre went up top to Jennings for a 75-yard touchdown strike. For the rest of the game, Favre spread the ball around, went 25/36 for 340 yards, three TDs and no mistakes. Green Bay won 31-24.
The Packers went on the road to eventual NFC East champ Philadelphia for a Monday Night appearance. It was ugly. Favre was erratic, the defense allowed big plays in the passing game and the result was a decisive 31-9 loss.
Looking for a running game, McCarthy gave Noah Herron some carries the following week against the St. Louis Rams in Lambeau. Herron rewarded the coach with 106 yards. Jennings made some big plays, 105 yards on five catches. But the Packers lost a couple fumbles and lost the football game 23-20.
They were headed into the bye week at 1-4, the third straight year that had started with four losses in five games. Last year completely got away, but 2004 had seen Favre rally the Packers to a division title. There weren’t a lot of signs of hope this year, although from historical perspective, we know that Green Bay’s schedule had been frontloaded with the top three seeds in the NFC bracket. Philadelphia and New Orleans were having turnaround seasons that was not yet fully apparent in this early moment.
The Pack went to Miami and fell behind a subpar Dolphins team coached by Nick Saban, 10-6 in the first half. Green got rolling and rushed for 118 yards. Driver caught ten balls for 93 yards and keyed the passing game. Woodson came up with a third-quarter Pick-6 and Green Bay went on to win 34-24.
A second straight win followed at home against the shaky Arizona Cardinals. Green’s 106 yards keyed a massive 203-86 edge in rush yardage. And Vernand Morency had his fifteen minutes of fame, catching eleven passes for 101 yards in what would be the only 100-yard game of his career. The Packers cruised to a 31-14 win.
At 3-4 and games against losing teams in Buffalo and Minnesota coming up, Green Bay was in position to make something of this season. But they had to handle the road in both games.
In Buffalo they did not. Favre threw an early Pick-6 and the Packers lost the turnover battle 4-zip. Even though Green ran for 122 yards and it was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter, it was the Bills who pulled away to a 24-10 win.
Facing a must-win game in the old Metrodome, Favre stepped up with a vintage big-play performance. He went 24/42 and those twenty-four completions produced 347 yards. Driver caught six balls for 191 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown strike. The defense came up with four sacks and the Packers kept themselves alive with a 23-17 victory.
But Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were up next. Even with the game in Lambeau, this got really ugly. Favre only went 5/15 for 73 yards, before being pulled in what ended up as a 35-0 rout. Rodgers got some playing time, but could only manage 4/12 for 32 yards. The gap between the Packers and the league’s best teams was still obviously quite substantial.
And there was no time to lick wounds, with two more playoff teams up next. Green Bay went to Seattle. In a sloppy game, both the Packers and Seahawks turned it over four times. But Green Bay added in ten penalties and were crushed in rushing, 235-51. They took a 34-24 defeat.
Even worse was a home game against the Jets. In a 31-0 hole at halftime, Green Bay was booed off the field. This might be par for the course in a lot of places, but the generally kind and gentle Midwestern folks that come to Lambeau Field are known for their loyalty. But even they had snapped. This game ended 38-10. The Packers were 4-8 and this was becoming something pretty close to 2005 all over again.
But the schedule softened up and Green Bay dug deep. They went to mediocre San Francisco. Favre typically played well against the 49ers, even against their best teams through the 1990s. In this spot, facing Alex Smith, the rookie San Francisco chose over Rodgers, Favre went 22/34 for 293 yards and no mistakes. Green Bay stopped the bleeding with a 30-19 win.
Favre was shaky against Detroit, throwing three interceptions. But Morency added a couple touchdown runs, Green ran for 79 yards, the defense got big stops and the Packers ground out a 17-9 home win.
The NFC wild-card race was shrouded in mediocrity, so Green Bay’s 6-8 record actually had them very much in the mix for the final playoff spot. They trailed the Giants and Falcons by a game, with the Rams and Panthers also sitting on 6-8.
Minnesota came to Lambeau for a Thursday Night date a few days prior to Christmas. This could have turned into a big lump of coal for Packer fans, with Favre spotty, throwing a Pick-6 and no running game to be found. But the defense delivered the Christmas gift. That Pick-6 was the only points the Packers allowed and they squeaked out a 9-7 win.
Meanwhile, both the Giants and Falcons lost on Sunday, while the Rams and Panthers won. It was a crackup of five teams at 7-8 and one playoff spot available.
New York held the tiebreaker, but Green Bay was second in line. Given that the Packers were only three weeks removed from being booed off their homefield, this was pretty good. They were slated to play on Sunday Night in Chicago to end the regular season. New York was scheduled in prime-time for Saturday night in Washington.
When the Giants beat the Redskins 34-28, the playoff bid was over. There was no chance to play spoiler with the Bears, as Chicago had the top seed for the playoffs wrapped up. But with everyone wondering if this prime-time date in Soldier Field was going to be Favre’s swan song, it was still must-see television.
I recall being in Orlando that New Year’s Eve, watching the game at a bar in Disney World, in advance of going out to watch Wisconsin play in the following day’s Capital One Bowl. Favre went 21/42 for 285 yards. Russell Martin had a fifteen minutes of fame moment, gaining 118 yards and then never being heard from again. Nick Collins picked off two passes and brought one back to the house. Patrick Dendy added a Pick-6 of his own. Playing the Chicago backups, Green Bay cruised to a 26-7 win.
Everyone was watching Favre in the postgame interview to see if he would give any hints as to his future. Surrounded by his offensive line, the quarterback had tears in his eyes and was reserved. It seemed to be something close to a goodbye.
But it wasn’t. Favre came back in 2007 and had one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career, leading the Packers to an NFC Championship Game. He retired and unretired a couple more times and took Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game in 2009. The late surge of 2006 had set the stage for the final act of the Gunslinger’s great career.