An unproven Ted Thompson, named the Packers’ eleventh general manager a year earlier, was hiring his first head coach. A day after the 2005-2006 season ended, he dismissed the incumbent Mike Sherman following a dismal 4-12 record. Thompson would take ten days to fill the position.
In his first year as general manager, Thompson did little to engender support from the fan base. Both starting guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle left in free agency for greener pastures, while Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper was released. The Packers had just begun completely overhauling their roster.
Their next head coach would have quite a quandary to untangle after taking the job. 37-year-old quarterback Brett Favre was mulling retirement in Mississippi. Aaron Rodgers had an uneven rookie season backing up Favre, throwing an interception in his only extended action against the Baltimore Ravens on a Monday night blowout. Teammates, though, raved about Rodgers, who ran the scout team during practice, but he was no guarantee.
Eleven years later, Packers fans understand the challenge of trying to decipher what Ted Thompson is going to do. There were few clues at the time from both local and national media. Speculation locally even grew that Thompson fired Sherman without having a short-list of candidates in mind.
Seven candidates were interviewed by Thompson in the ten days when Lambeau Field had a vacancy sign on its head coach’s office. Another four were connected to the job, but were never interviewed.
Mike McCarthy was named the team’s fourteenth head coach, and has held the position ever since.
Now ten years into Mike McCarthy’s tenure with the Packers, let’s look back with the perspective of hindsight on the interviews Thompson conducted and the candidates who were rumored to be connected to the job. Their coaching experience after interviewing with the Packers follows each name.
The defensive minds
Jim Bates, Packers defensive coordinator
- 2007: Denver Broncos defensive coordinator
- 2009: Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator
Jim Bates was the trendy pick. He had the pedigree – years of coordinating a perennial defensive power in Miami – and familiarity with Green Bay. Just one year prior, the Packers defense ranked near the bottom in almost every statistical category. In his lone year in Green Bay, Bates reversed the trend.
Reports by Scout.com during the head coaching vacancy labeled Bates as “bring[ing] a fiery attitude” and “a good relationship with Favre.” Linebacker Nick Barnett was a vocal advocate for Bates to secure the head coaching job in Green Bay. “I would love to see Jim Bates back again," Barnett said. "He's an excellent coach."
In a seven game stint as interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2004, Bates led a hapless Dolphins team to victory over the powerhouse Patriots on Monday Night Football. Miami did not retain Bates as head coach, instead luring Nick Saban away from LSU.
After missing out on his second permanent head coaching job in as many years in Green Bay, Bates took a year away from the game. He then surfaced as defensive coordinator for Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos. It was a bad fit from the start, as Denver’s personnel did not match the aggressive, blitzing defense Bates preferred. After one year, Bates was fired.
Tampa Bay was the last stop for Jim Bates. In late November, Bates was fired and replaced by Raheem Morris after the Buccaneers started the season 1-9. Their lone win in that time came at the hands of Mike McCarthy’s Packers.
Wade Phillips, Chargers defensive coordinator
- 2006: San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator
- 2007-2010: Dallas Cowboys head coach
- 2011-2013: Houston Texans defensive coordinator
- 2013: Houston Texans interim head coach
- 2015-present: Denver Broncos defensive coordinator
Ted Thompson’s playing career - ten years as a backup linebacker with the Houston Oilers - was under position coach Wade Phillips, the son of head coach and GM Bum Phillips. That familiarity made Phillips a popular choice for those trying to read Thompson’s mind.
The old-school Phillips was passed over for the Packers job and remained in San Diego for the upcoming 2006-2007 season. He then took the head coaching position with the Dallas Cowboys, where he oversaw Tony Romo’s best years and led Dallas to a 12-1 start in 2007. Phillips was fired after a drubbing at the hand of McCarthy’s Packers.
Since his tenure with the Cowboys, Phillips has coordinated two of the most prolific defenses in both Houston and Denver. In Houston, he helped J.J. Watt become the NFL’s premier defensive lineman. He then stepped onto Gary Kubiak’s staff in Denver, where in his first season he coordinated Denver’s Super Bowl-winning defense.
Ron Rivera, Bears defensive coordinator
- 2006: Chicago Bears defensive coordinator
- 2007: San Diego Chargers linebackers coach
- 2008-2010: San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator
- 2011-present: Carolina Panthers head coach
The NFC North, in its infancy in 2006, saw great players and coaches crossing rivalry lines in the 2000’s. Steve Mariucci, a former Packers assistant coach under Mike Holmgren, was hired as the Detroit Lions’ head coach. Brad Childress would hire Favre’s quarterback coach Darrell Bevell as the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator. And not too long after that, Favre himself ended up across the Mississippi wearing purple.
Ron Rivera, the defensive coordinator of Lovie Smith’s staff in Chicago, was a curious choice on the surface for Thompson to interview. When Smith took the Bears job in 2004, he stated his main goal was defeating the Packers. Having his defensive coordinator move north and coach against Smith would have amplified the NFL’s greatest rivalry in ways we can only imagine.
Rivera had ties to the Packers, however. His time in Philadelphia under Andy Reid, another Holmgren assistant, exposed him to an organizational style similar to Green Bay. His defenses in Philadelphia and Chicago were punishing, a characteristic the Packers have never truly embraced since the days of Lombardi.
Most know Rivera now as “Riverboat Ron,” the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Entering his fifth season as coach, he’s faced constant pressure to win with top pick Cam Newton. While last season’s Super Bowl appearance alleviated that pressure, a slow start in 2016 has his seat warming up like black leather in a mall parking lot on a hot summer day.
Tim Lewis, Giants defensive coordinator
- 2006: New York Giants defensive coordinator
- 2007-2008: Carolina Panthers secondary coach
- 2009: Seattle Seahawks defensive backs coach
- 2010-2014: Atlanta Falcons secondary coach
- 2015: San Francisco 49ers defensive backs coach
There were few highlights in the 1980’s for the Packers. Cornerback Tim Lewis was one of them. Drafted in the first round in 1983, Lewis still holds the team record for longest interception return for a touchdown (99 yards). A severe neck injury against the Bears on Monday Night Football in 1986 ended his career, and Lewis went into coaching.
With the New York Giants under coach Tom Coughlin, Lewis saw the progression of first round pick Eli Manning. His experience, even as a member of the defensive staff, in grooming a franchise quarterback was an attractive option to the Packers with Rodgers on the bench.
Lewis also spent three years as the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team many consider a kindred spirit with the Packers organizationally.
Since his interview in Green Bay, Lewis was a part of Jim Mora’s staff in his lone year as head coach in Seattle and Jim Tomsula’s staff in his 2015 49ers campaign.
The offensive minds
Maurice Carthon, Browns offensive coordinator
- 2006: Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator
- 2007-2008: Arizona Cardinals running backs coach
- 2009-2012: Kansas City Chiefs assistant head coach
A former USFL and NFL star, Carthon spent 2005 as the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. That season, the Browns throttled the Packers in Lambeau Field with almost 400 yards of total offense from the trio of quarterback Trent Dilfer, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Steve Heiden.
Carthon’s coaching and play calling that Sunday must have left a positive impression on Thompson, who interviewed him for the Packers’ head coaching job the following offseason.
Known in NFL circles as a skilled motivator, Carthon played under Giants coach Bill Parcells. Parcells’ coaching tree includes Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, Jim Fassel and Bobby Petrino – an impressive list. Interviewing and hiring a “Parcells guy” was almost always a wise move.
The 2006-2007 season would not end well for Carthon, who resigned as offensive coordinator in October. He would join Todd Haley’s coaching staff in Kansas City as an assistant head coach in 2009 after a brief two year stint in Arizona as Edgerrin James’ position coach.
Sean Payton, Cowboys assistant head coach and passing game coordinator
- 2006-present: New Orleans Saints head coach
In 2006, Sean Payton was the cheerleader everyone wanted to ask to homecoming. With nearly every team searching for a head coach calling on Payton, the Cowboys’ passing game coordinator felt like Green Bay was bound to be his next home.
"I'd flown up to Green Bay and had a terrific interview with the Packers," Payton wrote in his book, Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life. "That's a great organization - a team I had followed since I was a kid. I felt optimistic about that possibility and was expecting to hear something soon.”
“Without a doubt, Green Bay is where I wanted to go. Knowing the tradition. Coming from the Midwest. Growing up around all that. And [my wife] Beth too - I knew she could see herself in Green Bay, despite those winters that never end."
After Ted Thompson texted (!) Payton to let him know the Packers had hired McCarthy, Payton wrote he was close to tears.
In retrospect, Sean Payton remains the closest thing to ‘the one that got away’ in this head coaching search. As the coach of the Saints since 2006, Payton is tied with McCarthy as the NFL’s third-longest tenured head coach.
Payton, an offensive mind on par with McCarthy, has not only navigated the Saints through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but also elevated Drew Brees from an above-average quarterback to sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate. Since his Super Bowl victory over the Colts, New Orleans has consistently handcuffed Payton with bulky free agent contracts and bad draft picks.
Connected to Green Bay, but did not interview
Russ Grimm, Steelers offensive line coach
- 2006: Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach
- 2007-2012: Arizona Cardinals offensive line coach
- 2016-present: Tennessee Titans offensive line coach
The legendary Washington Redskins offensive lineman and 2010 Hall of Famer Russ Grimm came within a whisker of the Packers, Bears and Steelers head coaching jobs in the mid-2000’s.
After five promising seasons as the position coach for Pittsburgh’s punishing offensive line, Grimm earned a reputation as one of the game’s premier coaches. The Steelers appearance in the Super Bowl that season seemed to preclude him from having an opportunity to interview for the Packers head coach opening.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher retired the following year, and owner Art Rooney II declared Grimm a candidate for head coach. A writer from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Grimm had won the job over Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, only to find Tomlin introduced as the Steelers’ head coach a mere day later.
Instead of coaching the Steelers, Grimm joined colleague Ken Whisenhunt's staff in Arizona. There, he led a Cardinals offensive line that helped Edgerrin James run wild and protected an aging Kurt Warner. After Whisenhunt and his staff was dismissed in 2012, Grimm took some time away before taking up the post of offensive line coach for the Tennessee Titans in 2016.
Steve Mariucci, NFL Network analyst
- 2006-present: NFL Network analyst
Ten years later, Brett Favre’s imminent retirement has become a forgotten subplot of the Packers search for a head coach in 2006. With hindsight, we know Favre waffled back and forth about hanging up the cleats for years. However, the thought of the 37-year-old Favre playing under his fourth head coach was hard to see at the time.
Enter former Holmgren assistant Steve Mariucci. A fan-favorite, Mariucci grew up a Packers fan in Iron Mountain, Michigan and to this day shares a close bond with the legendary gunslinger. Favre’s agent made it clear that Mariucci coaching in Green Bay would “greatly enhance” the chances of a return.
Instead, Ted Thompson declined to interview Mariucci. After two uneven stints as head coach with the 49ers and Lions, Mariucci has been an analyst for NFL Network since 2006. He has since been connected to openings with Michigan State in 2007, UCLA in 2008, the Washington Redskins in 2008, the USC Trojans in 2010, the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2012, and the San Diego Chargers in 2012.
Brad Childress, Eagles offensive coordinator
- 2006-2010: Minnesota Vikings head coach
- 2012: Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator
- 2013-2015: Kansas City Chiefs spread game analyst
- 2016-present: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator
Believe it or not, but reports state Brad Childress was one of Ted Thompson’s first calls. The offensive coordinator of the dynastic Philadelphia Eagles of the 2000’s under Holmgren assistant Andy Reid, Childress ran a familiar offensive scheme to Favre. He also had ties to Wisconsin as an offensive coach under the Badgers and Barry Alvarez in the 1990’s.
Early in the hiring process, Childress interviewed with Minnesota. On his way to make the quick flight from Minneapolis to Green Bay to meet with the Packers, his agent masterfully parlayed the Packers’ interest in Childress into a contract offer from the Vikings. Childress never interviewed with the Packers.
A few years later, Childress would have the opportunity to coach Favre with the Vikings. The pair, along with offensive coordinator and former Packers quarterback coach Darrell Bevell, led Minnesota to an NFC Championship Game appearance. The following year, friction between Childress and Favre came to light regarding how much freedom Favre had to change the play at the line of scrimmage. Childress was fired after a drubbing at the hand of the McCarthy-led Packers.
Kirk Ferentz, University of Iowa head coach
- 1999-present: University of Iowa head coach
In 1999, Kirk Ferentz replaced legendary Iowa head coach Hayden Fry. There, he inherited a squad that included future standout Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman. Ferentz’s sustained success with a program that geographically offers little to recruits compared to the glamour of Los Angeles or the nightlife of Miami has been remarkable.
After seven years with Iowa, Ferentz’s name was beginning to be floated out as a head coaching candidate in the NFL ranks. Whenever a college football coach is rumored to be headed to the NFL, a grain of salt is to be warranted. Often, this move is made to create leverage for boosters and the university to ante up to keep the coach.
With five NFL teams looking for a head coach, Ferentz was a trendy name. When asked about the speculation, Ferentz reiterated his commitment to Iowa. The university returned the favor, making him the highest paid Big Ten coach and third-highest paid coach in all of college football that June.