David Whitehurst? Terdell Middleton? Ezra Johnson? Aundra Thompson? John Anderson? Derrel Gofourth? What is this, the lineup for Liverpool against Leeds? They can't be Green Bay Packers. Football players from Green Bay have names like Bart, Fuzzy, Paul, Max and Boyd. Names like Nitschke, Adderley, Kramer, Taylor and Gregg. Maybe these Davids and Terdells live in Green Bay, fine. They probably make toilet paper or sell thermal-knit underwear and insulated boots and hunter's insurance.
Wrong, of course. They play football. And they are playing it well enough in 1978—those mentioned above and a number of their equally mysterious friends—to be back where the people of America's dairyland expect the Green Bay Packers to be. The Packers are 7-2 these days and leading the NFC Central division by more than the 48-yard field goal Chester Marcol kicked last Sunday to enable Bart Starr's new and improved team to escape the humility of a loss to Tampa Bay. What would the odds have been a few weeks ago that through nine games of the regular season, Green Bay would have a better record than, say, the Dallas Cowboys or the Oakland Raiders?
Those odds no doubt would have been even longer than the odds that Marcol would boot that field goal in the last 41 seconds for the 9-7 victory over the Buccaneers—and even longer than the odds that David Whitehurst, the Packers' non-household name at quarterback, would move Green Bay into position for Marcol to kick it.
Picture this. The Bucs led 7-6, and it was Green Bay's ball with fourth and 10 on Tampa Bay's 47-yard line and 1:25 to play. Whitehurst promptly hit Wide Receiver Steve Odom at the Bucs' 29, Odom making a beautiful catch and dragging both his feet just inside the left sideline. It was either Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry, or Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers, and it was as timely as anything that's happened in Green Bay since Starr was hired as coach four years ago. Four plays later, Marcol kicked his winning field goal.
Green Bay had taken a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on Middleton's two-yard touchdown run, Terdell turning what looked to be a no-gainer into six points. The Packers missed the conversion attempt when holder Bobby Douglass dropped the snap, but for a long time it seemed that six points would be more than enough for Green Bay. Halfway through the third quarter the Packer defense had a no-hitter going, having held the Bucs to zero completions and zero first downs. But suddenly Tampa Bay Quarterback Doug Williams fired a 54-yard rocket to Morris Owens at the Packer one, and Ricky Bell ran across on the next play. Then Neil O'Donoghue, who is so well known he should be playing for the Packers, kicked Tampa Bay's extra point and it was 7-6. It surely looked as if this might be the end of the day's point-making because Green Bay hadn't been doing much of anything on offense itself.
But these Packers, who lead the second-place Vikings by two games in their division, are certainly full of surprises, as they have been proving all season. Who knows if they can keep it up, however. Their upcoming schedule does not resemble Saturday morning cartoons, what with Dallas, Denver, Minnesota and Los Angeles lying in wait. They are rooting for a 10-6 record, believing that is the magic playoff number.
If the Packers are indeed turned around, or if the Pack is almost back, it is because of all the new faces wearing the dark green and gold, players who have come primarily from the draft instead of via trades. They have a defense which has taken on one of the better nicknames—Gang-Green—and an offense that is built around that notable brokerage firm of Whitehurst & Middleton.
But it all really begins with Starr. He did not want to be a coach. He was very happy selling cars, holding motivational seminars, raising funds, working for charities, doing all of those things that dutiful Chamber of Commerce gentlemen do. He had been out of football for two years after spending one bewildering season as Dan Devine's quarterback tutor. When Devine left after the 1974 season, the Green Bay job sort of went to Starr by acclamation, as if there were no one else to consider. He took it because he was flattered, and the timing was right. He would never have followed Vince Lombardi directly.
Once Starr had the job, he quietly said to himself, "What do I do now?" Several answers came. Head coaches usually need offensive and defensive coordinators. Starr thought of defense first. "The first call I made was to Dave Hanner," he says. "You build from defense." The next thing Starr did was a mistake. He hired Paul Roach from Oakland as his offensive coordinator. Roach was a wonderful human being, but Starr discovered that he wanted to be the offensive coordinator himself. "I was sorry I had talked Paul into leaving a good job," Starr says. "After two years, I knew I had to make a change if I was going to run things my way."
In the beginning Starr talked to the usual people about how to be a head coach. He talked to Tom Landry, to Bud Grant, to Bear Bryant. They all said the usual things: you win with hard work and organization. They did not need to mention the most important ingredient of all—football players. And football players were among the things Bart Starr did not have. But when he finally got to use some draft choices ( Devine had mortgaged Green Bay's immediate future in the ill-fated John Hadl deal), he began to acquire them. His drafts of the past two years have been as successful as anyone's, especially if the gauge is the fact that his draft choices are playing.