End of an­other Pack­ers era 20 years ago

Packer Plus - - NEWS - Jim Owczarski Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel

In Jan­uary 1999, the Green Bay Pack­ers trav­eled west to take on the San Fran­cisco 49ers in an NFC wild-card game at 3Com Park — the fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son the two fran­chises met in the post­sea­son af­ter the 49ers’ Su­per Bowl ti­tle in the 1994 sea­son.

The com­bi­na­tion of head coach Mike Holm­gren and quar­ter­back Brett Favre proved to be a neme­sis for Steve Young and his 49ers, with the Pack­ers win­ning each of the first three meet­ings. The Pack­ers had ad­vanced to the Su­per Bowl af­ter the sec­ond and third vic­to­ries over the 49ers.

This time, the 49ers would win 3027 in the fi­nal mo­ments, but those 60 min­utes on Jan. 3, 1999 meant more than just a win or loss.

“That was the game that killed our dy­nasty,” for­mer Pack­ers de­fen­sive line­man Gil­bert Brown said.

That game 20 years ago not only sig­naled the end of an era in Green Bay on the field, it started a coach­ing search as well. It also was the last gasp for the great 49ers teams of the 1990s. Over a half dozen Hall of Famers were on the field, and some re­tired shortly there­after. And, rules by which the game is played were changed, rules that are still in ef­fect to­day.

“When I say it was a chang­ing of the guard, I didn’t mean just for Green Bay,” for­mer 49ers safety Mer­ton Hanks said. “It was for ev­ery­one.”

Pro­logue

The Pack­ers (11-5) went i nto the game plan­ning on tak­ing an­other step to be­com­ing the first Green Bay team to reach three straight Su­per Bowls de­spite fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the divi­sion to the Min­nesota Vik­ings (15-1). They also were supremely con­fi­dent in fac­ing the 49ers.

Brown: “We started to feel like that tro­phy be­longs to us, so go­ing down to this Frisco game, we was bank­ing on win­ning that game and go­ing to the Su­per Bowl.”

Pack­ers run­ning back Dorsey Lev- ens: “A whole lot of con­fi­dence. A lot of con­fi­dence. I wouldn’t say we were over­con­fi­dent, but I was plan­ning on play­ing in At­lanta the next week.”

The 49ers (12-4) had won five of their last six games but were in­jured on the de­fen­sive line. So they found some un­likely help on the street: Charles Ha­ley.

49ers head coach Steve Mar­i­ucci: “I go, ‘ Oh my God, what?’ He hadn’t played in a year or more. I didn’t re­mem­ber the last time he played. I had a meet­ing, I called my guys, I go all right, play­ers, ‘Dirty Dozen’ meet­ing. So we all go down to the team meet­ing room and I say all right, lis­ten. For this game, fel­las, we have a chance to sign Charles Ha­ley. And we’re go­ing to vote. And if you guys don’t have him on the team, we will not have him on the team. If you want him, if you all want him, we’ll do it. What the heck. We’re thin.

“It was unan­i­mous.”

49ers full­back Marc Ed­wards: “It was in­ter­est­ing the type of guys they brought in those two years I was there, all of it was ba­si­cally to — bring in the head coach, bring all these guys — to beat the Pack­ers.”

Brown: “They had to go find guys to beat us. They had the home -field ad­van­tage. Fly­ing in there, com­ing from our way to there, so it’s the time change. Ev­ery­thing was to their ad­van­tage. And you sit there and think about that the week of, they got this, they got that. But it all mat­ters about what you do when that ref­eree blows the whis­tle to start the game. And we felt con­fi­dent. We felt we were go­ing to win this game. We felt like we matched up ex­tremely well with their of­fense. And we was ready to fight.”

Be­yond the play­ing field, there was ten­sion. Both teams felt Holm­gren was go­ing to leave at the end of the Pack­ers’ play­off run and player con­tracts were com­ing up.

Pack­ers safety LeRoy But­ler: “We had a three -year, four-year win­dow and we wanted to stay to­gether and try to win as many Su­per Bowls as pos­si­ble. So it was def­i­nitely talked about.”

And Mar­i­ucci, who coached un­der Holm­gren in Green Bay from 1992-’95, was feel­ing the heat.

Ed­wards: “They specif­i­cally brought him i n to beat Green Bay. ‘Mooch’ was prob­a­bly on — I wouldn’t say the hot seat, but it was warm.”

Mar­i­ucci, now an NFL Net­work an­a­lyst: “The ru­mor in San Fran­cisco was that (Holm­gren) would be in San Fran­cisco pos­si­bly. I had no idea if it was true or not. I didn’t know if it was an im­por­tant game for me to win or not. But it sure sounded like it if you lis­tened to the noise.”

An ugly af­fair

De­spite all the tal­ent on the field, the two teams traded drops, fum­bles, in­ter­cep­tions, field goals and touch­downs for the bet­ter part of the game. Ha­ley was a fac­tor, with a pres­sure of Favre re­sult­ing in an in­ter­cep­tion by the 49ers.

Favre (292 yards, 2 TDs, 2 in­ter­cep­tions, 79.7 rat­ing) and Young (182 yards, 3 TDs, 2 in­ter­cep­tions, 77.9 rat­ing) were held rel­a­tively in check while run­ning backs Levens (116 rush yards, six catches) and the 49ers’ Garrison Hearst (128 rush yards, three catches) be­came fo­cal points.

Levens: “It just kind of worked out that way. I know it was kind of chilly and I think it was kind of damp, but the run­ning game was ef­fec­tive and it was ef­fec­tive for San Fran­cisco as well.”

Ed­wards: “It was a very, very con­trolled, phys­i­cal game. Even with what the quar­ter­backs were do­ing.”

Two min­utes to At­lanta

The back-and-forth game seemed des­tined to go to the fi­nal mo­ments and with 1:56 left, Favre hit An­to­nio Free­man for a 15-yard touch­down to put the Pack­ers up, 27-23.

Ed­wards: “If Ter­rell Owens hadn’t dropped six passes in that game or how­ever many it was, we never would have been in that po­si­tion in the first place. He had a ter­ri­ble game.”

Mar­i­ucci: “(Favre’s) touch­down pass to An­to­nio Free­man was kind of a deke and it was kind of an au­di­ble. He told him, ‘If I ever get that play I want you to do this and then change it and we’ll hit you for a touch­down.’ And sure enough it came up, it pre­sented it­self and that’s what hap­pened.”

Ed­wards: “You’re think­ing ah, s---, it’s the same old same old here.”

Mar­i­ucci: “The prob­lem is, they scored too soon.”

Pack­ers line­backer Ge­orge Koonce: “The 49ers had to put to­gether one of the best drives of their sea­son to be able to win. We was bet­ting that they couldn’t. But we lost that bet.”

The fum­ble that wasn’t

It l ooked like Pack­ers line­backer Bernardo Har­ris won the game when he dis­lodged the ball from 49ers wide re­ceiver Jerry Rice on a 6-yard com­ple­tion with 30 sec­onds left near mid­field. But the of­fi­cials blew the play dead and ruled Rice down by con­tact. Re­play re­view was not avail­able at that time, and the 49ers had the ball back at the Pack- ers’ 41.

Brown: “I be­lieve Jerry Rice fum­bled that ball.”

Mar­i­ucci: “Some­times you get ‘em and some­times you don’t get a break. We got a break there.”

The Catch II

It was third- and-3 at the Pack­ers 25 with eight sec­onds to play. Pack­ers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Fritz Shur­mur rushed three and dropped eight with sim­ple in­struc­tions.

Koonce: “’Look guys, put your heels on the goal line. And do not back up. Keep ev­ery­thing in front of you.’”

But­ler: “Ba­si­cally every­body has as­sign­ments, if every­body do their as­sign­ment it’s a walk off. I think guys were still think­ing about the Jerry Rice fum­ble, it was go­ing through their head.”

The 49ers called a play Holm­gren and the Pack­ers knew well: “Three -Jet All-Go.”

Mar­i­ucci: “We went four ver­ti­cals and put Jerry Rice over on the left and I think every­body in the world that was watch­ing prob­a­bly felt like we gotta throw it to Jerry Rice to save the day.”

Young, to the San Jose Mer­cury News in 2013: “You’ve got to move peo­ple around, and they ’re not go­ing to move around be­cause there’s nowhere to go. So to get some kind of move­ment from LeRoy and get move­ment from Dar­ren (Sharper) that shouldn’t be there, is the tough­est job.”

And upon tak­ing the snap, Young slipped, cre­at­ing that move­ment he so des­per­ately needed.

Koonce: “That was a dis­trac­tion for us on the de­fen­sive side of the ball. And

we blinked. That’s all he needed.”

But­ler: “As a de­fen­sive back you saw Steve Young kind of fell, he stum­bled, I think when that hap­pened guys may have re­laxed. We were play­ing a tra­di­tional Cover 4 cov­er­age. Ter­rell Owens was go­ing down the mid­dle. Sharper was the deep­est safety. His only job was any­body come down the mid­dle, in­ter­cept it or break it up. He just can’t catch it. It’s the per­fect de­fense for any­body go­ing down the mid­dle be­cause you’ve got four guys in each quar­ter of the field.”

Mar­i­ucci: “Maybe it was a bless­ing that he stum­bled a lit­tle bit. Maybe it de­layed him just a (tick) where if he had thrown it sooner maybe T.O. would’ve got tack­led on the 2. I don’t know. It was just a per­fect up-and-down throw, which means he had to get it up over the lineback­ers and down soon enough to beat the safeties. Per­fect. It was per­fect. But it had to be the end zone.”

Hanks: “I’m yelling, ‘ T.O. is open! Hit him now!’ And open in the NFL is he has a de­fender within a yard of him. That’s open. I’m like, ‘He’s open! Throw the freakin’ ball!’ And that’s when I see him slip. I’m like, ‘Oh my good­ness.’ That’s what had me in a lit­tle bit of a panic.”

Young zipped the ball to Owens, fit­ting the ball be­tween four Pack­ers in the mid­dle of the field.

But­ler: “When he threw it, I said game’s over. No way you can fit a ball in there be­cause you got guys al­ready back there on the goal line wait­ing. But Sharper was in the end zone. He was too deep.”

Hanks: “I thought it was ironic that the very play that ended up de­feat­ing the Pack­ers was a play that Mike Holm­gren ran in San Fran­cisco (as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor be­fore go­ing to Green Bay) quite a bit. That four-ver­ti­cal con­cept and then you kind of build route trees off that.”

Owens held on de­spite a big hit, stun­ning ev­ery­one.

But­ler: “You have to give them credit be­cause that was their last shot. But as a de­fender it’s like you’re drink­ing bleach. I’m sick to my stom­ach.”

Levens: “When he caught it, and the crowd started cheer­ing it’s like, they can’t be cheer­ing be­cause he caught the ball. It’s like, that can’t be what hap­pened. He got up and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, he re­ally caught the ball.’ All the plans, the At­lanta plans, just flush ‘em down the toi­let.”

Koonce: “We had a cou­ple guys that didn’t obey his or­ders or his in­struc­tions. Yeah. And Ter­rell caught the ball in front of us. If you would’ve obeyed his in­struc­tions and kept ev­ery­thing in front of you, if he catches the ball he’s not in the end zone. But you had guys to back up and when he caught the ball he was in the end zone. It’s one of those things that hap­pened. But that was very, very un­for­tu­nate.”

Levens: “A lot of peo­ple were mad at Dar­ren Sharper be­cause I guess that was his as­sign­ment, but you don’t lose or win a game on one play. You just don’t. That’s not how the NFL works.”

Brown: “In­stead of go­ing for the knock­out hit, go for the ball. If you look at the play, and I won’t say no­body ’s name, but if he had went for the ball and in­stead of the knock­out hit, try­ing to knock the ball out, we’d have got it. But let’s go back. They shouldn’t have got that close. There’s fault all over the field.”

Epi­logue

It took only days for the Pack­ers to be­gin to break apart af­ter the loss in San Fran­cisco.

Koonce: “That may have been one of the big­gest plays in Packer his­tory be­cause of the ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Not j ust with the play­ers, but the shift with the or­ga­ni­za­tion as well.”

On Jan. 6, Reg­gie White re­tired. Two days later, Holm­gren was in Seat­tle to take a po­si­tion that also gave him gen­eral man­ager power.

Levens: “I knew he was leav­ing. He said some­thing to me in prac­tice one day when I had got­ten hurt. He said, ‘How you gonna go and get hurt in our last year to­gether?’ I re­mem­ber I said, ‘Can I quote you on that?’ and he said you bet­ter not. So I was like wow, he’s out of here. So what­ever he had planned it was al­ready set up that he was go­ing to Seat­tle.”

The Pack­ers em­barked on their first head-coach­ing search since 1991 and hired for­mer Holm­gren as­sis­tant Ray Rhodes on Jan. 11. That same day, quar­ter­backs coach Andy Reid took the head-coach­ing job i n Philadel­phia. Rhodes lasted one year be­fore be­ing fired and though the Pack­ers re­turned to the play­offs un­der Mike Sherman in 2001, they did not reach an­other NFC ti­tle game un­til 2007 or an­other Su­per Bowl un­til 2010.

Levens: “At the time I didn’t think about it, be­cause in foot­ball it’s al­ways now, what’s now, what are we fo­cused on right now? At that mo­ment it’s about get­ting back to the play­offs with a new coach and do­ing what we’re used to do­ing. I was used to win­ning a lot of games. All of us were.

“I was spoiled. That was the norm.” Brown: “You could tell af­ter that game that some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen. You just felt it. You know it. C’mon man.”

The 49ers lost the next week in the play­offs to At­lanta. Young would play only three more games in his ca­reer af­ter that. It took an­other two years for the 49ers to get back to the play­offs, but they never ad­vanced past the di­vi­sional round. Mar­i­ucci was fired af­ter the 2002 sea­son and the 49ers would not make the post­sea­son again un­til 2011.

Mar­i­ucci: “We didn’t lose just Steve Young. We lost our mojo. Be­cause Steve Young brought that.”

Owens be­came a con­tro­ver­sial su­per­star from that mo­ment on, play­ing through 2010 with the 49ers and four other teams.

The league’s own­ers brought in­stant re­play back for the 1999 sea­son af­ter a seven-year hia­tus. They also al­lowed coaches to have two chal­lenges per game.

The game didn’t de­cide a cham­pi­onship of any kind, yet it lives on as a clas­sic for those who played, coached and watched.

Koonce: “I’ve had a chance to live in the com­mu­nity close to 27 years. That game is just as vivid in the mem­ory of the Packer na­tion (as) Su­per Bowl XXXI. They re­mem­ber that game in San Fran­cisco just like it was yes­ter­day.”

Brown: “Games like that are j ust straight clas­sics. I’m so glad that I was a part of be­ing in that clas­sic. And for each team to have their big-time play­ers and Hall of Famers and all that, at the end of the day, that lit­tle kid that was watch­ing that game will re­mem­ber that game the rest of his life. And I en­joyed it my­self.”

RICK WOOD / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

49ers re­ceiver Ter­rell Owens hangs on for the game-win­ning touch­down de­spite a hard hit from Pack­ers safety Dar­ren Sharper in the fi­nal sec­onds of an NFC wild-card game Jan. 3, 1999.

GETTY IM­AGES

49ers QB Steve Young talks to Pack­ers QB Brett Favre af­ter their NFC wild-card game. Young’s late pass to Ter­rell Owens for a touch­down won the game for San Fran­cisco.

PACKER PLUS FILES

Mike Holm­gren leaves the field af­ter the Pack­ers’ 30-27 loss to the 49ers in an NFC wild-card game Jan. 3, 1999, at 3Comm Park in San Fran­cisco. It was Holm­gren’s last game as coach of the Pack­ers.

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