SI Vault
Douglas S. Looney
August 28, 1989
The lowly Packers did some heavy investing in the free-agent market this spring in a desperate attempt to break out of their recent aura of gloom and doom
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August 28, 1989

Shake-up In Title Town

The lowly Packers did some heavy investing in the free-agent market this spring in a desperate attempt to break out of their recent aura of gloom and doom

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Tom Braatz, the Packers' executive vice-president of football operations, who led the free-agent search, says he didn't get any of the UFA wide receivers, punters or kickers he had hoped for. He offered veteran quarterback Gary Hogeboom more money than Phoenix did, but Hogeboom headed southwest anyway. He tried to get defensive end Carl Hairston, but Hairston decided to remain, slightly unwanted, in Cleveland. In fact, Braatz got no quarterback, and for the moment the Packers will go with the unlegendary Majkowski, who bravely insists, "I'm the quarterback of the future." Nor did Braatz corral any pass-rushing defensive ends, a serious weakness in Green Bay. He got what he could. "Not Pro Bowlers," Braatz says, "just guys with good character who we can build on."

Infante says, "We weren't bashful about what we were offering. On numerous occasions we exceeded what was common sense. But it should make us better." What really would have made them better was the addition of quarterback Troy Aikman, whom the Packers would have gotten if they had not beaten the Cardinals in a meaningless final game in '88, thus losing the first pick in the draft to Dallas. Green Bay, which selected second, chose recalcitrant offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. As of Sunday, Mandarich and the Packers were $700,000 a year apart ($1.5 million asked versus $800,000 offered), but that could be cleared up any moment with a $4 phone call.

Oddly, Mandarich's absence is not a big topic of talk among the players. The feeling is that he will eventually be signed, not traded, because management believes that a trade would set a bad precedent. And no one thinks Mandarich will break the Green Bay bank. "He just has a different opinion of himself than we do," says Braatz.

Of course, no one is of the opinion that the free agents will turn the club around by themselves. Still, each one of them has made a mark on somebody's football team in the past. Most are offensive players because Green Bay ranked 24th among the 28 teams in offense last year. The centerpieces of the signing blitz are Ard, a savvy pass blocker and an eight-year starter with the Giants ($75,000 signing bonus, $300,000 salary this year); Bush, an 11-year veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks who has first-rate ability but knows the sun is setting on his knees ($75,000 bonus, $400,000 salary); and Ariey, a promising former Giant who, in two years, never played in a regular-season game because of injuries ($60,000 bonus, $150,000 salary). Ard and Bush are likely to start during the season, while Ariey's status probably depends on what happens with Mandarich. "You know the best thing about this?" says Ariey. " Green Bay needed us."

Haddix ($50,000 bonus, $375,000 salary) may also get a chance. A former No. 1 draft pick by the Eagles who got in Buddy Ryan's doghouse, Haddix is a big (6'2", 225 pounds), strong fullback who reads blitzes, runs inside and can block. He is a good bet to start ahead of Brent Fullwood. Fullwood has talent, but Packer patience is wearing thin because his play is inconsistent and he won't compete with minor injuries.

Still another Plan B signee, defensive back Van Jakes ($50,000 bonus, $250,000 salary), will probably also get playing time. A former starter with the New Orleans Saints, Jakes is a vicious competitor, though it's unlikely he'll start ahead of talented Packer veteran Dave Brown.

Already, Braatz's judgment has been shown to be faulty in several cases, most notably with former Giant punter Maury Buford, who cost the Packers a $25,000 bonus. The Pack kept Buford just six days. He is one of four UFAs already released—$87,500 in signing bonuses on the scrap heap.

Ultimately, three to five of the UFAs will probably start, depending on injuries. "I didn't know we were going to go so heavy on this." says Braatz. "I would hope our record gets better so we won't be dealing from this kind of weakness." Give the Packers credit for putting their money where their hopes are.

The club has given other indications of its resolve to improve. On June 5, Judge Robert J. Parins stepped down after seven years as president of the team; the Packers' record during his tenure was 43-61-2. Parins admits he was too slow in creating the position of vice-president of football operations—that didn't happen until 1987—and that it had hurt the team not to have a football man other than the head coach making decisions. The Packers' long slump has begun to hurt financially, too. Although Lambeau Field in Green Bay remains sold out for the season, average attendance for the three games the Packers usually play in Milwaukee has slipped in the last 10 years from about 53,000 to a projected 43,000 this season. Harlan has made it a high priority to get Milwaukee fans more involved with the team. The Packers also plan to spend $8,263,000 before the 1990 season, adding more private boxes and theater-style seating at Lambeau. New times, new ideas.

"We're doing this because we want to win now," says Infante, sitting in his office beneath a drawing of a would-be Green Bay Super Bowl ring. Still, he rejects the notion that this is a wholesale rebuilding of the team. Of course, it is. But that's O.K. Extreme situations require extreme solutions. As what's his name once said: "You don't do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time."

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