2 Green Bay Packers
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A franchise at a crossroads: Is it in decline or on the way back?
By Kostya Kennedy
One evening last winter Packers coach Mike Sherman, his wife, Karen, and their four children were settling in for supper when Sherman casually cleared his throat. "You may want to check the newspapers tomorrow," he said. "They're going to name me general manager."
Sherman's son Matt, 12, reacted first. "Oh, no!" he exclaimed. "What about Mr. Wolf? He was the best."
In nine years as Packers general manager, Ron Wolf had established himself as a Green Bay legend by leading the Pack back into the NFL elite after a 25-year fallow period. Young Matt was not the only Wisconsin boy to cry Wolf at the January news that a man who had been enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame had retired and that Sherman, with zero years of front office experience, had become Green Bay's big cheese. "We were all shocked," says offensive coordinator Tom Rossley. "But then, it was a good shocked."
Sherman's rise to one of the NFL's most powerful and high-profile positions -- his Packers' business cards identify him as "Executive Vice President/General Manager/Head Coach" -- has been absurdly swift. Five years ago he was the offensive line coach at Texas A&M; two years ago he was a tight ends coach for the Seahawks; last year he made his head coaching debut when Wolf hired him to guide the Pack. "Tell the folks up in Green Bay they're in good hands," says Sherman's old boss, Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. "Mike's smart, and he learns fast."
If the absence of Wolf and Sherman's callowness weren't scary enough, the Packers are facing what veteran safety LeRoy Butler calls "a pivotal year to see which way we're going to go." After appearing in 14 playoff games (including two Super Bowls) in six seasons, Green Bay has missed the postseason two years running. The Packers are short on stars, and they limped through last season -- and much of this year's training camp -- weakened by injury. They'll need Sherman to do some roster massaging as the season wears on.
Sherman's green-and-gold security blanket is a 6'2", 225-pound rifle-armed quarterback who hasn't missed a start since 1992. "Brett Favre means we have a chance to win," Sherman says. "I see a man with an undiminished desire to be the best player in the league and an ability to match that desire."
Favre's want-to may be undiminished, but lately his game hasn't matched the standard he set in his prime. He turns 32 on Oct. 10, and to date his nine-year career as the Pack's starting quarterback has been divisible by three: From 1992 to '94 Favre went 26-19 as a starter with a quarterback rating of 83.0; from '95 to '97 he won three league MVP awards and the Super Bowl (following the '96 season), went 37-11 and had a rating of 96.1; in the last three seasons he has gone 28-20 with an 80.0 mark.
In training camp Sherman worked on developing both halves of his potentially superb halfback tandem of 24-year-old Ahman Green (excellent in short-yardage situations) and 31-year-old Dorsey Levens (a nifty receiver), who suffered a broken left hand in the first preseason game but could play in the opener. Sherman says he's comfortable playing either back in any situation, given how well Green's all-around skills developed after Levens went down with a knee injury halfway through last season.
Despite all their injuries, the Packers showed a lot of heart last season. In going 9-7 they beat more winning teams (six) than any other team in the league. They won three times with field goals late in the game, and they defeated the Vikings in overtime. After a ghastly 31-14 Monday-night loss to the Panthers dropped Green Bay to 5-7, the Pack won its last four games, nearly making the playoffs by edging Tampa Bay in the season finale. Says Butler, "Coach was a big reason we didn't quit last year. He was calm when we were down. He has more power this season, but he hasn't changed much. You still want to play your ass off for him."
On a sweltering mid-August day, Sherman presided over a morning of drills, ordering that they be done repeatedly until they were completed to his satisfaction. Afterward he retreated inside the Don Huston Center to brief the media and then drove over to Lambeau Field, site of the Packers' offices. He had been the only coach on the field dressed in khakis (the others wore shorts), so he was suitably dressed when he reached his desk. That afternoon Sherman made a trade to acquire Bills tight end Bobby Collins. "Every morning I wake up and say, 'Wow!' about the job I have," says Sherman. "Then I decide I'd better get up and get something done that day. People are counting on me."
Issue date: September 3, 2001