The past few months I've been watching some of the big events at Lambeau Field...Fan Fest, the Draft Party. And they always have dignitaries at these things..Packers past and present. And for some reason, I had to wonder: you never see Mike Sherman at any of these things. And it made me ask a rather stark question.
Will Mike Sherman ever be invited (or welcomed) back at Lambeau Field?
I remember last year that Sherman came back into Green Bay for a lecture at his daughter's college, and even then I wondered if someone would find their way into the auditorium just to catcall him about BJ Sander. There were so many people who ran him out of town on a rail, that you expect him to never be able to come back.
Yet, there's Mark Chmura at the Atrium, drawing laughs and requests for autographs during the draft.
Mike Sherman didn't sit in any hot tubs with teenage girls. He didn't assault a gal in the stairwell at the Top Shelf. He didn't take steroids, hold the team hostage, or hold out for a better salary the day before training camp.
He just came to work and did the best job he knew how to do. For many of us, that wasn't enough. And in the end, he left Green Bay chased by torches and pitchforks, his tenure to be ridiculed for years.
Now, before you jump all over me, I am the farthest thing from some Sherman Defender. I was probably one of his biggest critics for failing to make halftime adjustments, for believing too much in his gameplan and schemes, and for standing back and letting Brett Favre win or lose the game with risky plays.
There was no one decrying the 2004 draft louder than I, and no one insisting louder that he have the GM role removed from his job title.
That was then, an emotional time marked with fans who had grown used to deep playoff runs, for whom division titles, winning seasons, and just making the playoffs was not enough.
And Sherman took the fall for it. But you know what? There's a place in this world to respect a guy for just being a good guy. Mike Sherman, for all his faults, was a good guy.
Another good guy was Lindy Infante. When 1991 finished up, there were few people clamoring for his return. But even then, I appreciated that great 1989 season he brought us. And, I really respected that the day after he was fired, he showed up to do the last "Lindy Infante Show", bringing his wife as his special guest to say goodbye to the fans.
Class act. I'd love to see Lindy at Fan Fest, ask for his autograph, and thank him for the season of the Cardiac Pack.
I wonder when Sherman would be welcomed back in the same way. Let's dismiss his tenure as general manager. That horse been beaten to death, ad nauseum. How good of a coach was Mike Sherman...especially if he hadn't been foolishly burdened with the dual role of GM/HC by Bob Harlan?
In his first season, he turned around a country club atmosphere created by Ray Rhodes and finished with four straight wins to end up 9-7 (sounds eerily familiar to another Mike we know, doesn't it?).
He then followed that up in 2001 with the first of two 12-4 seasons and four division titles. Over those next four years he would compile a regular season record of 44-20.
Some people chose to diminish those results by stating that he had simply taken the reins of the 1998 team that Holmgren brought to the playoffs just two years earlier. But only a fraction of the active players actually remained on the roster after just two years, and many stalwarts of the Holmgren era (Reggie White, Gilbert Brown, George Koonce, Mark Chmura, Robert Brooks) were gone. Others, such as Gilbert Brown, LeRoy Butler, Frank Winters, and Dorsey Levens, were only shadows of their former selves.
Sherman built a new foundation that year with a new young running back named Ahman Green, started two rookie offensive tackles named Clifton and Taucher, and put together a mismash of defensive players that managed to rank in the middle of the NFL. By the next season, the defense was 5th in the NFL in points allowed.
We all can sit around the bar table and tell stories of what happened from 4th-and-26 on. But until that time, Sherman did a lot of things that even Mike Holmgren did not accomplish.
For one, he established perhaps the finest offensive line the Packers had seen since the days of Lombardi. Certainly, the five-some of Tauscher, Rivera, Flanagan, Wahle, and Clifton had all been drafted by Ron Wolf, but Sherman was able to put that talent together on the field and had them producing at a dominating level. There's a reason Sherman was an offensive line coach. He knew what he was doing with the talent he had.
He was able to establish a dominating ground game with Ahman Green. Even when Holmgren had Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, they really gained the majority of their yards in the second half of games, eating up minutes to protect a lead that was achieved primarily through the passing game. The running game under Sherman in those years was the only time in Brett Favre's lengthy career that the offense didn't seemingly rest completely on his arm. Green set a Packer record for most rushing yards in 2003.
And, he managed to assemble perhaps the most talented receiving corps that Favre had been able to work with up until that time. Again, Wolf brought in the talent, but Sherman finally got it together by 2004: the tandem of Javon Walker, Donald Driver, and Robert Ferguson was perhaps the best in the NFL.
Sherman developed some of the best players still on the Packer roster today: Aaron Kampman, Nick Barnett, Al Harris, Cullen Jenkins, and Donald Driver.
He was the first coach in Green Bay to surprise his players during training camp with a trip to a local bowling alley or paintball course instead of a second practice that day. He knew how important camaraderie was.
And, as stated before, he added four division titles to the rafters of Lambeau Field. Some will diminish that achievement by stating it was only because we were in the weakest division in the NFL. Yet, what does that say about a 6-10 team that competing in the same division as the only winless team in NFL history?
We all know that what came after these achievements, though. A series of one-and-done playoff visits culminating in a heartbreaking failure against Philadelphia in 2003. From that point on, it seemed like the GM portion of Sherman's dual role overshadowed anything else he did, and certainly, the decisions he made as GM were worthy of criticism.
The dual role gives absolute power to the man in that role, and there are precious few that can handle it successfully. Sherman seemed to listen less to his scouting department, starting to micromanage his assistants, and had favorites he protected on the roster and on his staff. He put more and more pressure on himself to do it all himself in face of mounting criticism. He seemed to border on paranoia at times, because the dual role brought all the blame back to one guy.
When Thompson finally fired Sherman in January of 2006, it seemed that much of Packer Nation celebrated spitefully. Sherman the GM certainly had deserved some of the criticism, but did Sherman the coach?
I don't bring this up in any way to make any comparisons, positive or negative, to today's GM and head coach, just for Sherman to be judged on his own merits.
No one is asking for a street to be named in Sherman's honor. No one is asking for him to be rubber-stamped into the Ring of Honor or the Hall of Fame. And no one is erecting a statue of him next to Curly and Vince outside the Atrium doors.
But for all his warts and flaws and perceived crimes against the Packers, doesn't he deserve to be welcomed back by Packer fans as one of the many honored greats of the past: a coach who did nothing less than string together four consecutive division titles, a feat only surpassed by Mike Holmgren? Isn't it time he can sit at a table for hours on end while green-and-gold-clad fans wait hours in line for his autograph, just to reminisce with him about the time he stood up to Warren Sapp or the "He did WHAT?!" Minnesota Viking game in 2001?
There are times that I wonder what Sherman's legacy would have been if he had declined that dual role offered to him by Bob Harlan. I'm guessing that, sometimes, Mike Sherman wonders about that, too.
Here's hoping that time heals all wounds.