Hidden in green bay—204 MILES north of Chicago and light years south of the NFL's elite teams—there is something interesting, and possibly something wonderful, going on. Prudence tells Green Bay fans that nothing should be read into the Packers' 1-1 preseason record. But hope tells them that maybe something can be read into their team's early efforts and that just maybe the Pack is in the early stages of a return to glory. America's team for the '90s? Well, easy now.
Still, the team seemed so positively un-Packer-like in last Saturday afternoon's game against the Colts—which is to say that the players knew their assignments and tried hard, two things they haven't often done in recent years—that it's difficult to curb the rampant optimism in Title Town. Yes, Green Bay lost the game in the last minute 24-23, but that's incidental. After all, Lindy Infante, the Packers' second-year coach, experimented with four quarterbacks, and the Colts played without nine starters. Obviously, the result meant zip.
What counted was the new Packer spirit. It's there primarily because during the off-season, Green Bay went out and signed 20 veteran free agents. At least 10 of them are expected to fight their way onto the final roster. Would it surprise you to hear that there is fierce competition at the Pack's summer camp?
Everyone has turned it up a notch. Although the starters for the season are far from set, five of the unrestricted free agents (UFAs) started in Saturday's game: guard Billy Ard, 30; center Blair Bush, 32; tight end John Spagnola, 32 (who separated his left shoulder and will be lost indefinitely); offensive tackle Mike Ariey, 25; and rugged fullback Michael Haddix, 27. They all looked good at times. Says Bush, "We're getting there—fast."
The Pack took a 23-17 lead with 1:34 left when wide receiver Jeff Query, a fifth-round pick from Millikin University, made a diving catch of a Don Majkowski pass, scrambled to his feet, and weaved 49 yards for a touchdown. It was an impressive comeback for the Packers, who had fallen behind 17-6 shortly before halftime. Time was—last year comes to mind—that Green Bay would have looked at an 11-point mountain and folded. Alas, thanks largely to old-Packer-style foul-ups—mainly penalties this day—and a 31-yard pass from Jack Trudeau to rookie wide receiver Andre Rison with 53 seconds left, the Colts scored on a three-yard run by George Wonsley to win the game.
Undaunted, Infante pointed out that his team had played 53 minutes of good football; he was right. And the stabilizing influence of Ard and Bush up front, plus Haddix's strong-minded running, had set off the Packer sirens. "It's too early to buy Super Bowl tickets," said Infante, "and it's too early to say you're gonna stay home in January."
There is no mistaking the new direction of the Packers, a team that has not been very forward-looking for the last 21 years because the view backward has been so much nicer. The late Vince Lombardi retains his vise grip on the heart and soul and memories of the town and team, but, candidly, he needs to be forgotten—from this point on in this story he will not be mentioned. All eyes in Green Bay seem at last to be fixed on the future.
In making a dramatic, sweeping, chancy move by signing all those veteran players, the theretofore conservative Packers have shaken off their recent past. The signees had been left unprotected by their clubs in the experimental Plan B scheme under which a team could protect only 37 of its players from last season's roster; the remaining players were free to sign with any team in the 60 days before April 1. Only the Chiefs came close to matching the number of free agents the Packers signed. The only other category in which Green Bay led the league last season was fumbles (44).
The Packers have been scarcely a blip on the TV screen since they won the Super Bowl in '67 and '68. They have had a decade of unfortunate No. 1 draft choices—surely you remember tackle Bruce Clark in '80. who went to Canada rather than join the Pack, and quarterback Rich Campbell in '81, who lasted four seasons. They have also had suspect coaching, most notably 13 generally unimpressive years by two former Packer stars, Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg. In the last three seasons, two of them under Gregg, Green Bay was a woeful 13-33-1.
Of the Packers' headlong plunge into the free-agent market, new club president Bob Harlan says, "The idea was, we had to get some talent here in a hurry. We had to change drastically." Indeed, the Packers, who finished with a 4-12 record last year, were so bereft of talent that the only starters they weren't looking to replace were fourth-year linebacker Tim Harris and second-year wide receiver Sterling Sharpe. So with a rare flourish, they found 75 free agents they liked and offered them all signing bonuses (as high as $75,000) and contracts, if they stuck. In what resembled a shopping frenzy, Green Bay spent approximately $800,000 in signing bonuses alone.