Lombardi: Tough calls ahead

Thompson has big decisions to make with Sherman, player personnel

Will this be the final season for Brett Favre? Will Mike Sherman be fired? Will the 2005 season be a hiccup or the start of a slide for the most successful NFL Franchise over the last 14 years? Will Green Bay once again become the Siberia of pro football? All these questions will be answered in the next few paragraphs.

Brett Favre
I do not think that Brett Favre will hang it up and I hope he does not. It would be a shame for him to go out like this. I believe he is too much of a competitor to walk away after a losing season.

Much has been made of his comment that he does not want to learn a new system or go to another team. People think that means he will retire if the Packers hire a new coach. I would not put much stock in that. If there is a new coach next year, the new coach and who he is will determine whether Favre will come back. If Favre meets him, likes him and wants to come back, he comes back. If Brett is on the fence, the coach could push him into retirement or convince him to come back depending on whom he is and what he believes. If Brett is adamant about retiring, I doubt any coach will have much if any effect on his decision. The media and the fans have exaggerated that comment to mean he wants Mike Sherman back. I have no idea as to what Favre believes or whether he will retire, I am not sure if anyone does, including Favre.

In my opinion, the deciding factor will be how he feels about the effort the team and Ted Thompson will make to improve the team and improve it quickly. If he meets with Thompson and feels that he will make every effort to improve it, he will probably return. If the team is only going to build this team through the draft, then there is a chance that 2006 will be Aaron Rodgers' year. I do not think that Brett will require the team to mortgage its future or go out and sign every big name free agent, but they need to be more active than last year and insure that they get some players they can count on. The draft is too risky and may not pay off until long after Favre is gone.

There is a chance that next year may not be any better than this year, but there is a chance that it will be. Just by avoiding all of these injuries would improve things. Favre can still compete at the highest level. In spite of the interceptions and poor decisions at times, he is still a good player and the best the team has. They need him. Aaron Rodgers may be the future, but he will benefit from sitting for at least one more year.

Mike Sherman
I believe that Mike Sherman will not be back next year and that is too bad. Coach Sherman is a good man, a hard-working man. He is organized and diligent. He has had great success here as the head coach. He is not completely responsible for the outcome of this season. The injuries and mistakes are also contributing factors to the poor record. How can the coaching staff be held responsible for Chad Clifton committing two false start penalties on one game? I do not mean to single out Clifton, but there are two many dumb mistakes being made by this team and there are too many questionable decisions, many by the coaching staff and many by the players. At the end of the day, it is the coach's fault and he will bear the brunt of these mistakes. With the exception of the Ravens game, they have played with effort. The talent and execution was not there in most games, but the team did not quit. He deserves credit for that.

He did draft and shape this team and any shortcomings are in some measure his responsibility. He would have drafted a player in this year's first round that could have contributed this season and maybe he would have signed some different free agents, but who knows. While he deserves much criticism for his spotty record in the draft, he is not completely responsible for it. Bob Harlan and Ron Wolf should have never given him the job. Despite his many good qualities and attributes, he is not a player personnel guy. He is a coach. He had no resume or record to deserve the GM job. I have argued in this space in the past that the GM and the Head Coach cannot be the same man. The jobs are too different.

It is sad that a man like Sherman might lose his job over a less than perfect season, much of it out of his hands. But the NFL is about winning and it looks like the Packers would benefit from a fresh start. The impact a decision to fire Sherman will have on his family, the families of his assistants and support staff will be enormous. Let us remember that when we call for his head. It is not an easy decision to let a man go. A new coach will come in with mostly new assistants and potentially new support folks and a whole new scouting staff. We are talking about the lives of hundreds of people. Sure some will get paid off, but a fifth grader who has to leave their school in mid term to follow their dad to a new job knows nothing about such things. Trust me, I know. Along those lines, most of us would fail at our profession if judged as harshly as Sherman. I have noticed that the guy who usually is most vociferous about firing the head coach is likely the least successful guy in the room.

I am not saying that we should feel sorry for Mike Sherman or his assistants. They know the rules when they get in and their job is more public then the average working stiff. Being judged by fans and the media is part of the job. But they are people and have families that are affected by all this.

Despite the poor record and mistakes Sherman may avoid the executioner still. He may be given the chance to make major changes on his staff, mostly on offense and special teams. If he does that, they may let him hang around. If he hires a hotshot offensive coordinator and makes a change on special teams, he may be given another chance.

There are two other factors that might impact this decision and they are money and competition. Sherman would be due more than six million dollars if he is let go and that is a lot of money. Factor in contracts held by assistant coaches and the expenses of hiring a new staff and it adds up. I do not think that fact alone will keep him here, but it could contribute to retaining him if the feeling is not strong for dismissal. The second factor is rooted in basic economics; the law of supply and demand. With potentially up to 10 coaching vacancies this off-season, there might be stiff competition for any attractive candidates and perhaps Green Bay is not as desirous a place as some other openings. Any hot prospects might look elsewhere. They might look for a job where they can get more control. With Thompson in charge here, that authority may not be available here. Favre's future, the injuries and the lack of talent at some positions may cause a coaching candidate to decline any Packer overtures in favor of another team. The Packers could get a new coach, but they might not be able to find someone who they think is any better then what they have.

Thompson does not have an easy decision in front of him. I do not envy him. This decision alone will determine his future. If he screws it up by retaining Sherman and the team continues to struggle, or he cuts him loose and goofs up on the new coach, he will probably be out the door himself. Unlike Lions President Matt Millen, I do not think Thompson will get two chances.

The Future
The Packers have not finished below 8-8 since 1992. That is 14 years. Those years included 10 playoff appearances, one Super Bowl Championship and another Super Bowl appearance. Some teams may have won more Super Bowls, but no other team has been as good as long during this era. All teams have a fall. They stumble, they trip up, some stay down for good and some bounce back. Look at the Eagles. Will the 2005 season be the start of a long period of bad football or will the Packers mimic the Steelers and follow a short bad stretch with a rebirth? No one knows of course, but we should feel grateful for the last 14 years and hope for more.

The team can only control so much of what makes it good. It can draft the right players and it can hire the right coaches. One thing that the Packers do not completely control is free agency. When Reggie White signed back in 1993, he opened the door for free agency in Green Bay and the winning ways kept it open. Players will keep coming to Green Bay as long as there is a chance to win. Once that disappears, it may become difficult to recruit big name players to this little town. History and tradition will only go so far. More money may make the difference, but that will ultimately work against the team. Managing the cap will be difficult if the Packers need to overpay to get free agents to come to town to play on a losing team.

Dark days may return to this northern outpost if the team finishes on the bottom for a few years. Other teams may once again threaten to ship players to Green Bay if they do not shape up. No one wants to go back to those days.

John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at johnlombardi22@yahoo.com.

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