When the first truly big game of the 1997 season ended on Sunday, Green Bay Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler made a beeline for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer and wrapped him in a bear hug. The two foes exchanged pleasantries as Butler held his grip. Dilfer and the plucky Bucs had brought out the fire in the Packers for the first time since Green Bay's Super Bowl triumph over the New England Patriots last January. In the wake of the Packers' 21-16 victory over their surprise rivals for NFC Central Division supremacy, as 60,100 fans at Lambeau Field bellowed their approval, Butler could be forgiven for not wanting to let go.
In a game that made as much of a statement in Green Bay's locker room as it did around the league, the '97 Packers finally displayed the intensity and superb execution that helped them become champions last season. By jumping out to a 21-3 half-time lead and then halting Tampa Bay's comeback attempt, Green Bay (4-2) quieted the self-doubt that had inspired widespread grumpiness in Titletown, including a pair of coaches' tirades explicit enough for late-night play on Cinemax.
Whether it was the salty admonitions of coach-Mike Holmgren and defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur that woke up the Pack or simply the specter of facing an undefeated division opponent that had displaced Green Bay as pro football's feel-good story is incidental. The Packers remain shaky, and they still trail the Bucs (5-1) in the standings, but at least they finally showed they care. "The way we fought was refreshing," Butler said after the game. "It felt like the Packers of old—the Packers of last year."
A cynic might ask, What took them so long? Holmgren certainly wondered as much in the days leading up to the game. Last Friday he challenged his players to stop being blasé, telling them, "It's time to turn the light on." While the Pack may have heeded his words on Sunday, Holmgren can't be overly comfortable. Recent NFL history is littered with would-be elite teams that waited for crucial moments to flip a switch, only to blow a fuse. (See: Cowboys, Dallas, 1996.) As Packers quarterback Brett Favre warned last Saturday, "Speeches mean nothing. It's all a lot of hot air. We realize that every week's not going to be like the Super Bowl. It's hard to get up for every game. When we get it rolling, we're pretty darn tough to beat. We need to get back to that caliber before it's too late."
Favre did his part on Sunday, completing 21 of 31 passes, including a pair of pinpoint touchdown tosses to receiver Antonio Freeman. But this game was won by the Green Bay defense, which had plenty to prove. Last year the Packers had the league's top-rated defense; going into Sunday's game, it was ranked 19th. With cornerback Craig Newsome lost for the season after knee surgery and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gilbert Brown expected to be sidelined until late October with a strained knee ligament, Shurmur's unit seemed vulnerable. This was a prime opportunity for the 65-year-old strategist to come up with a quirky defensive alignment to drive the Bucs batty. Instead, during a Saturday-night meeting of the Pack's defensive players at the team hotel, Shurmur, normally upbeat and affable, went haywire. "It's not about schemes," he hollered. "Forget all that crap. It's about beating the guy in front of you. It's about making plays."
Think defensive end Gabe Wilkins was paying attention? Does Mick Jagger have big lips? The 6'5", 295-pound Wilkins fulfilled every big lineman's fantasy when, with 8:19 remaining in the second quarter, he intercepted a Dilfer pass and rumbled 77 yards for the Packers' second touchdown, exactly one play after Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu had recovered a Favre fumble at the Green Bay 18. The Tampa Bay play, 84 Swing Screen Left, was designed to get the ball to fullback Mike Alstott, but Wilkins fought off an attempted cut block by left tackle Paul Gruber and stepped in front of the pass. The only Bucs player with a clear shot at Wilkins was Dilfer, who came in low at the Green Bay 35. Wilkins showed some serious "ups," hurdling Dilfer without breaking stride. Then, in Favre's words, he raced to the end zone "like O.J. running through the airport."
It was a blow to the Bucs, but the crusher came 44 seconds before halftime. On first-and-goal for the Packers from the six, Freeman put an outside-inside move on cornerback Donnie Abraham and cut across the back of the end zone. Favre delivered the ball at roughly the speed of the Concorde right through the outstretched hands of linebacker Hardy Nickerson, and Freeman gathered it into his chest. "It was one of his fastballs," Freeman said. "I could hear it as it got close."
It was amazing he could hear anything. On Friday evening he had sat on a sofa in his De Pere, Wis., town house battling Joe Rowe, a member of the Packers' practice squad, in a video football game while the Notorious B.I.G.'s Playa Hater blared at deafening levels on the CD player. After Freeman, playing as the San Francisco 49ers, got waxed by Rowe's Dallas Cowboys, he decreed that it was "time to get serious" and recruited the Packers for his rematch. Freeman's video likeness caught a pair of touchdowns, and the video Pack won B.I.G.
The real Packers, however, have not been such a sure bet. Noting that injuries and off-season departures had weakened the Pack, Butler, the All-Pro with a penchant for speaking freely (he made Holmgren's blood boil during the preseason by suggesting that Green Bay was good enough to go 19-0), didn't buy his team's status as eight-point favorites against the Bucs. "People keep expecting us to be the team we were last year," he said on Friday, "but we're not nearly as good now—not even close. I think we can get the same results, but we're just not that good. If you strip down all the hype and just look at the film and the talent, Tampa is the best team. If we beat them, to me it would be an upset."
After the Bucs arrived at their hotel in Oshkosh the next day, Butler's statements were relayed to Dilfer, who dropped his bacon cheeseburger and laughed. "I love LeRoy Butler," Dilfer said. "He might be my favorite player in all of football. He's such an amazing safety, but what I really love is the way he tells things the way they are, without fear of controversy. I think what he's saying is that we're executing better than they are right now. They're still the best football team in the world. They're wise enough to know you don't have to be great in September to be great in December. They know what it takes to reach that level, and they'll do everything in their power to get there."