Mike Vandermause column: 'What-ifs' don't concern Holmgren

Jan. 24, 2012

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Mike Holmgren doesn’t like to live in the past, so he deftly fielded a number of what-if questions during a teleconference Tuesday with Wisconsin media members to mark his upcoming induction into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.

What if, back in 1999, he would have known Ron Wolf was going to retire two years later? Would he have stayed in Green Bay to become head coach and general manager rather than chase his dream job in Seattle?

What if officials hadn’t blown the call on Jerry Rice’s fumble in a January 1999 playoff game that led to a bitter Packers’ defeat? Would the Packers have gone on to the Super Bowl?

What if quarterback Don Majkowski hadn’t gotten hurt in the third game of the 1992 season? Would the emergence of Brett Favre been delayed indefinitely?

Holmgren’s Packers legacy is secure, and he will be formally honored at the Hall of Fame induction banquet July 21, with Wolf serving as his presenter. Holmgren is tied with Curly Lambeau for the second-best coaching record in franchise history, behind legendary Vince Lombardi.

But some wish his stay in Green Bay would have lasted longer. After guiding the Packers to seven straight winning seasons, six consecutive playoff appearances, three NFC title games, two Super Bowls and one championship, Holmgren departed for an $8 million-per-year job with the Seattle Seahawks as coach in charge of all personnel decisions.

Two years later Wolf unexpectedly retired as Packers general manager, leaving some to wonder whether Holmgren would have stuck around.

“If I just had an inkling that (Wolf leaving) was going to happen, then perhaps that (me staying) would have happened,” said Holmgren. “You know, no one knew. I don’t think Ron knew at the time. The opportunity was presented to me to do both (in Seattle), so I made the decision.”

Holmgren, now the president of the Cleveland Browns, isn’t interested in wondering what might have been.

“If you start looking back too much on the ‘what ifs,’ then you’re really going to hurt where you are at that particular time,” he said. “Look, it was a special, special time for me and my family (in Green Bay) but I made my decision and the Packers made theirs and Ron made his and all that kind of stuff, and you just move forward. Clearly, the team is going great guns right now with my old buddy Ted Thompson. I think things work out the way they’re supposed to.”

Well, not always, at least in the case of Holmgren’s final game with the Packers. Steve Young hit Terrell Owens with a closing-seconds, game-winning touchdown pass that would have never happened if officials correctly called Rice’s fumble earlier on the drive.

Holmgren said that Packers team had momentum late in the year, similar to the current New York Giants. Like Wolf, Holmgren believes that team could have advanced to the Super Bowl. It took him a long time to get over that loss.

“(My wife) Kathy tells me this all the time,” said Holmgren. “There are certain games that she finally says, ‘You gotta let the thing go.’ Twenty years or whatever. And the hard part is you can’t let some of them go. That was a tough game.

“We would have had a good chance to get there (Super Bowl) again but it didn’t happen and Owens makes a great play and my old babysitter Steve Young made the great throw and that was that.”

Holmgren will go down as the coach that molded Favre into a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. But six months after the Packers traded a first-round draft pick to Atlanta for Favre, Holmgren chose Majkowski as his starting quarterback to open the 1992 season.

That lasted three games after Majkowski got hurt. Holmgren makes it sound as if it was only a matter of time before Favre became the starter.

“You don’t draft a quarterback in the first round necessarily to have him sit for too long,” Holmgren said.

Although Holmgren admits he was hard on quarterbacks, he said he got along well with Favre and the two had honest conversations. He remembers one in particular following the Packers’ third straight 9-7 season in 1994 when Holmgren wanted Favre to stop throwing so many interceptions.

Holmgren said he told Favre: “These type of gambling type plays, let’s cut back on them because we’re going to be better. He goes, ‘Mike, that’s just the way I play.’

“I said, ‘OK, but if you play that way, we’re a 9-7 team. That’s what we are. Now we want to be better than that and you want to be better than that.’ And so to his credit he listened and he did that.”

Favre proceeded to produce three consecutive NFL MVP seasons and led the Packers to a championship.

In the midst of that success, Favre came back to his head coach, and according to Holmgren, said: “You know what, I get it. I get it.”

That was music to Holmgren’s ears.

“For a teacher or a coach to have your star player eventually come up and say that to you, that’s about as good as it gets,” Holmgren said.

mvandermause@greenbay|pressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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