Like all defending champions, the Packers are battling more than complacency. There's also, as Butler noted, the injury factor, beginning with the loss of running back Edgar Bennett during the preseason to an Achilles tendon injury. Not only are Newsome and Brown out, but offensive right tackle Earl Dotson also has a bulging disk that made him miss Sunday's game and could keep him out longer.
The Packers also must adjust to being every opponent's prime target. But the most difficult problem to handle is the way success inevitably changes people—and this goes for coaches as well as players. Many Packers have said that Holmgren has drained the fun from the team with everything from more frequent sideline tantrums (on Sunday he vented at his offensive linemen after the Bucs made consecutive sacks to end a fourth-quarter Green Bay drive) to his recent decree that the locker-room stereo be turned down before games because it hampered his concentration. In reply Holmgren scoffs, "It's not the same as last year because there's nothing like the first time. But it's still fun."
Yet there is some question as to whether Holmgren, who already has a street named after him near Lambeau, can stay happy in Green Bay, where general manager Ron Wolf is in charge of personnel decisions and is signed through 2002. Holmgren, whose contract expires after the 1999 season, has said he is intrigued by the possibility of being coach and personnel czar, like the Miami Dolphins' Jimmy Johnson and the New York Jets' Bill Parcells.
Might Holmgren be angling for a job elsewhere after this season, such as the position that would open in Seattle if new owner Paul Allen fired Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson? "I think we've got enough other things to worry about without getting into that," says Packers president Bob Harlan. "I understand where Mike's coming from, and when the time comes, we'll sit and visit about it."
Says Holmgren, "At some point I would like to [be a coach-general manager], but that's down the road. I love it here, and in terms of working with a G.M., I have the best situation in the world. I'm not pushing behind the scenes. There's no slip-and-slide on this."
The only person slipping and sliding on Sunday was Tampa Bay's splendid rookie halfback, Warrick Dunn, whose 75 rushing yards on eight carries in the second half helped the Bucs get back into the game. (Dunn finished with 125 yards on 16 attempts.) Many teams would have panicked after falling behind by 18 points at Lambeau; the Buccaneers, who embody the steady personality of their second-year coach, Tony Dungy, stuck to their game plan and kept plugging away. An 18-yard scamper by Dunn launched Tampa Bay's first touchdown drive midway through the third quarter, after Nickerson blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Longwell.
On the first play of the fourth quarter Dunn raced 44 yards around left end, sparking a drive that ended with his own two-yard touchdown run. That cut Green Bay's lead to five. (The Bucs' two-point conversion attempt failed.) Tampa Bay's defense then forced a punt, and the Buccaneers offense took over on its own four-yard line with 4:59 remaining. Could Dilfer play John Elway? Until recently the notion seemed laughable. But Dilfer took the Bucs halfway home, to the Packers' 46, before the Green Bay defense stiffened and got the ball back on downs.
"Trent was right there, and he's getting better," Butler said after the game. "[His] team is going to beat a lot of people—a lot of people. They're still the team to beat in the NFC, but we're not far out of it."
A few minutes later, at the other end of the stadium, Dilfer laughed again when he was told of Butler's praise and shook his head. "We're still behind them," he said, "but we're closing the gap, and we'll use this experience to make us better. I love playing the Packers—it's hard hitting and clean, and after the game everybody's hugging each other."
For now, at least, the Packers have the stronger grip.