Waving their baseball caps, the Green Bay Packer faithful leaned over the first base dugout at Milwaukee County Stadium Sunday evening and bellowed, "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" Jogging off the field, helmet raised high, was defensive end Reggie White, the 6'5", 290-pound straw that had stirred the drink in a 26-17 win over the NFC Central-leading Detroit Lions. "Basically, Reggie stopped us at the line," said Lion quarterback Rodney Peete. "Anytime he's in the game, he's causing problems."
It had been just another day at the ballpark for White: six tackles and a sack. He and his supporting cast surrendered only 57 yards in the second half, a mere 12 of those to Detroit's ground-swallowing back, Barry Sanders. For the Lions the game was a lost opportunity to distance themselves from the Pack; Detroit, now 7-3, had its advantage over Green Bay pared to one game. For the Packers the victory provided another taste of what life is like when one man holds sway over the line of scrimmage, and he happens to be on your side of the ball. "With Reggie here, other teams kind of forget about the little guys," says John Jurkovic, Green Bay's 6'2", 285-pound nosetackle. "Which is fine with me."
With 4:02 left to play and Green Bay leading 19-17, Jurkovic, taking advantage of a triple-team against White, blasted through the Lion line at the Detroit 25 and drilled Peete as he was releasing a deep pass intended for Herman Moore. The resultant floater was picked off by strong safety LeRoy Butler, who returned it 22 yards to the Lion 14. The play set up Green Bay's clinching touchdown, a two-yard run by Edgar Bennett.
In addition to answering the call on the field, Butler had been performing similar duty on the sideline, manning the phone as defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes called down from the press box after almost every series. "Ray's so into the game, he always wants to know what our mentality is on the field, what's going on," Butler explained later. "Every pass that's completed, he wants to know why. Why? As soon as we made that big play, Ray called down there again." And what did Rhodes want this time? "He told me, 'That's what I expect,' " Butler said.
Big plays were what Green Bay fans were expecting when the 31-year-old White arrived during the off-season as a free agent from Philadelphia. Long acclaimed as the Minister of Defense, White quickly added comparable posts at Treasury (with his four-year, $17 million contract) and Interior (Rhodes frequently lines White up at tackle). But White didn't rack up many sacks early in the season as the Pack labored to a 1-3 start, and skeptics wondered whether Green Bay had opened the vault for a player too many years past his prime. Even so, after a 36-14 loss at Dallas on Oct. 3, Packer defensive line coach Greg Blache summoned White to his office to tell him that his play was solid, that there was nothing to worry about. "That helped me out a lot," White says. "Sometimes superstars need a pat on the back too."
Since then Green Bay has won five of six games, and White has been on a tear. His 10½ sacks rank second in the NFC, and the Packers as a team are on a pace to collect 50 sacks (after amassing all of 34 last year). "We're making more big hits and more big tackles for losses, and Reggie has the most to do with that," says linebacker Johnny Holland.
"Reggie has changed everything—the way we play, the other team's offensive scheme," said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren two days before the Detroit game. "And that's just one player. Some teams may have two or three guys with that kind of impact." Holmgren paused. "Can you imagine?"
In Detroit, meanwhile, the Lions were trying to imagine a three-game lead with six to play. The team's record and its four-game winning streak were viewed by many around the league as a commentary not on the Lions' strength but on the flimsiness of their schedule—Detroit's opponents had a combined 29-54 record going into Sunday's games. But by any standard Detroit was on a road to renewal. Last season, reeling from the loss of guards Mike Utley, who was paralyzed after an injury to his spinal cord during a game in November 1991, and Eric Andolsek, who died after being hit by a car in June '92, the Lions staggered to a 5-11 finish only a year after having gone to the NFC Championship Game.
"Maybe we didn't handle death and paralysis as well as we could have handled it," linebacker Chris Spielman says. "I don't know how well you can do that, but we weren't mentally focused. Unfortunately, in this profession your adjustment, your sorrow time, has to be accelerated."
The Silverdome lockers of Utley and Andolsek remained empty in '92, like raw wounds—and like the gaping holes that the players' absences left in the offensive line. The holes were filled in the off-season by the acquisition of free-agent guards Bill Fralic and Dave Richards and tackle Dave Lutz. These powerful run blockers helped Detroit take another stride in its gradual transition from the run-and-shoot to a more varied offense. In the past three seasons the Lions have gone from no tight ends to as many as three, from the Silver Stretch to more of a Blue Bludgeon. "Last year, we got out-manned a lot," Sanders said before the Packer game. "This year, we're basically in control of the line."