The Green Bay Packers are one of the most successful teams in the NFL, with 13 world championships and four Super Bowl wins. Authors Wayne Larrivee and Rob Reischel through interviews with current and past players, provide fans with a one-of-a-kind, insider's look into the great moments, the lowlights, and everything in between. Readers will hear from players, coaches, and personnel as they discuss their moments of greatness as well as their defeats, making for a keepsake no fan will want to miss.
About the Author
Wayne Larrivee is the radio play-by-play voice of the Green Bay Packers over the Packers Radio Network. He lives in Grafton, Wisconsin. Rob Reischel has covered the Green Bay Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's “Packer Plus” since 2001. He lives in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
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If These Walls Could Talk: Green Bay Packers
Stories from the Green Bay Packers Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Wayne Larrivee, Rob Reischel
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Wayne Larrivee and Rob Reischel
All rights reserved.
How Did We Get Here?
How did we get here?
Why was there consternation in Packer Nation over Green Bay's 2015 season? It was a year in which the Packers went 10–6 in the regular season and won a road playoff game, before losing an overtime thriller in Arizona in the NFC Divisional playoffs.
There was a time when this type of season was reason for celebration in Packers Nation — 1989 certainly comes to mind.
Following an overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game in January 2015, expectations were high for the 2015 Packers. It was a "Super Bowl or bust" mentality, and no one shied away from that goal.
Green Bay began the year 6–0, then struggled down the stretch, losing six of its final 10 games. The Packers also had their four-year run of NFC North Division championships snapped when Minnesota won at Lambeau Field in the regular season finale.
To listen to the passionate fan base, it almost seemed as if these Packers had a losing season. But the 2015 Packers — or, as coach Mike McCarthy called them, the 95th Green Bay Packers — won 10 games, made the postseason, and won a playoff game! How bad is that?
However, we in Packerland now live in a world where expectations are not only unprecedented in the history of this franchise, but at one time would have been unimaginable. Believe me, this is a good thing, because for many people my age who lived through a quarter century of Green Bay Packers football after Vince Lombardi, a mere nonlosing season was cause for celebration.
Prior to 1992, this beloved franchise had periods of championship success, but nothing quite like the sustained success it has enjoyed since the revival of Titletown.
In their first eleven years in the NFL, the Curly Lambeau Packers never posted a losing record. They also never finished higher than third in the league.
Starting in 1929 and continuing through 1944, the Packers won six NFL Championships, becoming the first legitimate dynasty in NFL history.
But from 1945 through 1958 the Packers managed just three winning seasons, two 6–6 campaigns, and nine losing years. After a 2–10 record in 1949, the Packers parted ways with Lambeau — their founder and only coach — but their fortunes failed to improve.
Over the next nine years, the best the Packers could manage under coaches Gene Ronzani, Lisle Blackbourn, and Ray "Scooter" McLean were two 6–6 seasons. Are you starting to see a pattern here? The Packers would have periods of success, and then long stretches of futility. Perhaps it was the market in which they played, but that's an issue for later.
Following a 1–10–1 season in 1958, the Packers hired Lombardi, who had been an assistant coach with the New York Giants. Lombardi took command of this franchise, ruling with an iron fist. First, he reduced the influence of the Executive Committee on the football operations; then, he took the franchise to new heights.
In Lombardi's initial meeting with quarterbacks and other offensive players, he made his expectations known.
"He told us, 'I am not remotely interested in being just good,'" quarterback Bart Starr explained. "We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well that we won't catch it, because nobody is perfect. But in the process, we'll catch excellence."
Those words resonated in Starr's mind.
"I almost jumped out of my chair, I was so excited," Starr said.
When the meeting ended, Starr raced out of the room to use a phone — the rotary variety — to call his wife, Cherry.
"I told her, 'Honey, we're going to begin to win,'" Starr said. "I couldn't wait to get going."
It just so happened that color television was coming to life at that time, and the Packers became a national team. Between 1961 and 1967, Green Bay won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer, and many others became household names at that time. They captured the nation's attention, and developed a whole new generation of young fans.
I know I was one of them, growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts. The Packers became "America's Team" before the Dallas Cowboys took that moniker in the 1970s. The 1967 NFL Championship game known as the Ice Bowl became legendary, and Lambeau Field became a historic football Mecca.
Prior to the Ice Bowl, the Packers won their first championship under Lombardi by blowing out the New York Giants 37–0 in the 1961 title game.
In 1965, Don Chandler's questionable game-tying field goal in the fog tied the Western Conference playoff game against the Baltimore Colts and the Packers went on to win 13–10 in overtime at Lambeau. The following week, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor ran over the defending champion Cleveland Browns 23–12, while the Ray Nitschke–led defense held Jim Brown to 50 rushing yards in what was the future Hall of Fame running back's last game.
It can be argued that game made Nitschke a Hall of Fame Player because he was such a dominant force on a snowy and slick Lambeau Field. By the end of the 1960s, some of the NFL's greatest moments had taken place on that 100-yard field laid out between Ridge Avenue and Oneida Street in tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, of all places.
After the iconic Lombardi left, history repeated itself in Green Bay. From 1968 through 1991, the Packers had just four winning seasons and two postseason appearances in 24 years.
The Packers won just one playoff game during that period. And by the dawn of unfettered NFL free agency in 1993, there was a strong belief a team in a small northern market like Green Bay would never win again. The masses all wondered, What free agent would go to the league's northernmost outpost out of his own "free agent" will?CHAPTER 2
In 1989, I was still working in Chicago at WGN as the Bears' play-by play announcer. I had a conversation with Bryan Harlan, the team's associate public relations director.
The Packers were looking for a president and CEO. And Bob Harlan — Bryan's dad — was the prime candidate.
Bryan told me that if the club did not name his dad — who had worked in several roles with the team since 1971 — to the lead post, he would probably leave the organization.
Years later, Bob told me, "I wasn't going to leave the organization if I didn't get the job. Part of the holdup was the fact no one outside of Green Bay had ever held that position."
Well, the Packers' Executive board got it right. Bob Harlan was named president and CEO and the first building block in the Titletown revival story was in place.
"We had to change the way we were doing things because it wasn't working," Harlan said. "In 24 years we had seen just two postseasons, only four winning seasons, and one playoff victory."
Two years into his tenure, Harlan's first significant move was to fire general manager Tom Braatz and hire Ron Wolf, a longtime scout with Oakland and the New York Jets, as Green Bay's general manager. Harlan gave Wolf full authority over the football operations with no interference.
Harlan separated the organization into two components: business and football. It was up to the business side to provide the financial resources for the football side to win.
With the second building block in place, Wolf fired head coach Lindy Infante after the 1991 season and hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren as head coach. Holmgren was a noted "quarterback whisperer," and Wolf undoubtedly had that in mind when he traded a first-round draft pick to Atlanta for someone named Brett Favre, a 1991 second-round selection by the Falcons.
Wolf first fell in love with Favre while working as the New York Jets' personnel director. Wolf was preparing for the 1991 draft, and both he and Jets general manager Dick Steinberg agreed that Favre was the No. 1 player in that year's draft.
The Jets didn't have a first-round draft choice that year. When Favre fell out of the first round, though, the Jets tried trading up ahead of Atlanta — which was known to covet Favre.
Steinberg thought he had a deal worked out with Phoenix, one slot ahead of Atlanta. But the Cardinals pulled out at the last moment, and the Falcons took Favre with the 33rd overall pick.
That move was a blow to the Jets, who selected quarterback Browning Nagle — an all-time bust — one pick later. Then–Jets coach Bruce Coslet lobbied hard for Nagle, and Steinberg eventually made Nagle his pick.
In the end, that was a huge break for Wolf and the Packers.
"From my standpoint, in the long run, it worked out perfectly for me," Wolf said. "If Brett wasn't in Atlanta, he would have been in New York and I wouldn't have been able to get him.
"I think certainly in his era he'd be in the top five [players]. When you think of somebody now, you think of the great tradition ... that great tradition of the Green Bay Packers. So for Brett Favre to be now said to be the greatest player ever to play for the Green Bay Packers, that's rare air, rarefied air."
Now there were four building blocks in place — Harlan, Wolf, Holmgren, and Favre. But arguably the biggest piece of the puzzle was yet to come.
A new era of the NFL had begun. In 1993, for the first time in league history, unfettered free agency was beginning. This was considered a death knell for the small-market franchises, especially those "up north" like Green Bay and Buffalo.
But it was little Green Bay that landed the biggest free agent perhaps of all time when future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White left Philadelphia for Green Bay. The Packers outbid the San Francisco 49ers, among other major market powers, for White's services.
A deeply religious man — an ordained minister, the "Minister of Defense" — Reggie used to joke that he came to Green Bay because "God told [him] to come here." In reality, he came to the Packers because he believed Brett Favre was a Super Bowl–caliber quarterback, and what White wanted more than anything was a quarterback and a team that could win a championship. That judgment — and $17 million over four years — made the difference.
"That's what changed the football fortunes of this franchise. It was huge," Harlan said of signing White. "Everyone thought the last place he would sign was Green Bay, and it was monumental because not only did he sign, but he recruited for Green Bay and got guys [such as] Sean Jones to come here. He sent a message to the rest of the NFL that Green Bay was a great place to play."
White's signing put the final building block in place for the Titletown revival. But even bigger than that, his signing sent a message to the rest of the NFL that free agents — yes, even African American free agents — could go to Green Bay and thrive. That is a message that resonates to this day.
The Packers' Fab Five — Harlan, Wolf, Holmgren, Favre, and White — were the principals in reviving a historic but moribund franchise. In my opinion, the turnaround wouldn't have happened if even one of this quintet wound up elsewhere.
To me, the most important block was Harlan. Without him, the rest of puzzle pieces don't fall neatly into place.
This group made the Packers relevant for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. And since 1992, the Packers have had almost 25 years of sustained success with three Super Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl wins, and 17 playoff appearances — including seven straight trips to the postseason.
I know this sounds crazy to Packers fans under the age of 25, but had those five men not come together, who knows what would have become of the Packers in today's NFL.
From Wolf to Mike Sherman to Ted Thompson; from Holmgren to Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman, and Mike McCarthy; and from Favre to Aaron Rodgers, today's expectations are perhaps higher than any time in franchise history.
Playoff appearances and division titles aren't good enough anymore. It's "Super Bowl or bust" on an annual basis.
As Mike McCarthy said at his first press conference after being named Green Bay's head coach in January 2006, "We're gonna bring a world championship here to Green Bay. That's the goal, the expectation."
That expectation was met in 2010, when McCarthy's Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. And Green Bay has been in the Super Bowl picture ever since.
That's why 10–6 can feel like 6–10, and just two playoff games in a single season is a disappointment to the fan base. That's why you heard and felt so much consternation from Packers Nation about the 2015 season.
Blame that Fab Five. They revived this franchise to an incredibly high level of sustained success. They raised the bar, and that's how we got here.CHAPTER 3
The choice of Ray Rhodes as the Green Bay Packers' 12th head coach stunned much of the NFL. Twelve months later, following an 8–8 season, Packers general manager Ron Wolf made an even bolder move and fired Rhodes just one year into a four-year contract.
Therefore, Rhodes joined Ray "Scooter" McLean in 1958 as the only head coaches in Packer history to last just one season.
"Our players did not respond to this program," Wolf said the day he dismissed Rhodes. "It's not good enough with the team that we have. It's not acceptable."
The Packers had become one of the NFL's elite teams during Mike Holmgren's seven-year tenure (1992–98). They won 67 percent of their games during that time, won the 31st Super Bowl, and lost the 32nd Super Bowl.
When Holmgren left for Seattle after the 1998 season, Wolf made the surprising move of picking Rhodes.
Rhodes had been Green Bay's defensive coordinator for two years under Holmgren, and then was Philadelphia's head coach from 1995 to 1998. Rhodes went 29–34–1 with the Eagles, and was fired following a 3–13 season in '98.
"The seat is going to be hot," said Rhodes, who became the first African American coach in Packers history. "The shoes are going to be big to fill.
"The key is to keep the machine running, keep the machine going. Make sure if you need a new tire here, or a new tire there, you put it on. But don't mess with the engine. Don't mess with it."
But the Packers often performed like a broken-down jalopy under Rhodes. Part of that was due to a lack of discipline under Rhodes. Part of it was a roster than had started to decline.
I remember the expectations in 1999 were really high. The Packers had just lost a wild-card playoff game to San Francisco at the end of the 1998 season, and were still considered one of the best teams in football.
I remember watching Antonio Freeman my first summer in Green Bay. He had dominated the league at wide receiver for three straight seasons. He was the best receiver in the NFL, but he was holding out. Finally, halfway through camp, Ron Wolf signed him. Well, Freeman came in, and I was watching practice and not seeing the guy I saw dominate the league. And I said something to Larry McCarren about that.
Ray Rhodes said to me, "Do you see the free agents jumping line?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "They're all jumping line to get opposite Freeman because they can cover him." All the rookie free agents, all the defensive backs were trying to line up opposite Freeman. He was right. He couldn't run anymore. He went from the Pro Bowl in February to a guy where free agents just couldn't wait to cover him in practice by August. And he was never the same again. He was never that dominant. He was a good receiver, but that was about it. And the Packers were paying him to be the best receiver in the league.
So to me, that's where everything started. And it was all downhill from there. And I kept thinking during training camp that this did not look like a Super Bowl team. Now, I'm just a layman, but it sure didn't look like a team that could be special, and they never really were.
They had all of those veterans still around from those back-to-back Super Bowls, but the window in the NFL closes so fast. And they had a roster that was starting to age. Green Bay's draft classes also weren't producing like they did earlier in Ron Wolf's tenure.
Green Bay won three of its first four games that year, but needed dramatics from Brett Favre to do so each time. I'll never forget that first game against the Raiders, with the back-and-forth and, finally, the dramatic win at the end. Favre hit tight end Jeff Thomason with a one-yard touchdown with just 11 seconds left to give the Packers a 28–24 win. My oldest son Scott had just enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and he was there for that game. We were coming down the elevator from the press box after the game and Scott turned to me and said, "Well, Dad, this is what we came here for."
Excerpted from If These Walls Could Talk: Green Bay Packers by Wayne Larrivee, Rob Reischel. Copyright © 2016 Wayne Larrivee and Rob Reischel. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
Prologue Why Green Bay? xi
Chapter 1 How Did We Get Here? 1
Chapter 2 Titletown Turnaround 5
Chapter 3 Ray Rhodes 11
Chapter 4 Brett Favre 19
Chapter 5 Mike Sherman 43
Chapter 6 Before Fourth-and-26 55
Chapter 7 Ted Thompson and the Packers Way 67
Chapter 8 Mike McCarthy 77
Chapter 9 The Blessed Season 99
Chapter 10 Messy Divorce 109
Chapter 11 Aaron Rodgers 125
Chapter 12 2010: Super Season 149
Chapter 13 2014, 2015, and Beyond 201
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