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Original Issue


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 halftime
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 blase, 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."

Like all defending champions, the Packers are battling more than
complacency. There's also, as Butler noted, the injury factor,
beginning with the loss of running back Edgar Bennett during the
preseason to an Achilles tendon injury. Not only are Newsome and
Brown out, but offensive right tackle Earl Dotson also has a
bulging disk that made him miss Sunday's game and could keep him
out longer.

The Packers also must adjust to being every opponent's prime
target. But the most difficult problem to handle is the way
success inevitably changes people--and this goes for coaches as
well as players. Many Packers have said that Holmgren has
drained the fun from the team with everything from more frequent
sideline tantrums (on Sunday he vented at his offensive linemen
after the Bucs made consecutive sacks to end a fourth-quarter
Green Bay drive) to his recent decree that the locker-room
stereo be turned down before games because it hampered his
concentration. In reply Holmgren scoffs, "It's not the same as
last year because there's nothing like the first time. But it's
still fun."

Yet there is some question as to whether Holmgren, who already
has a street named after him near Lambeau, can stay happy in
Green Bay, where general manager Ron Wolf is in charge of
personnel decisions and is signed through 2002. Holmgren, whose
contract expires after the 1999 season, has said he is intrigued
by the possibility of being coach and personnel czar, like the
Miami Dolphins' Jimmy Johnson and the New York Jets' Bill

Might Holmgren be angling for a job elsewhere after this season,
such as the position that would open in Seattle if new owner
Paul Allen fired Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson? "I think we've
got enough other things to worry about without getting into
that," says Packers president Bob Harlan. "I understand where
Mike's coming from, and when the time comes, we'll sit and visit
about it."

Says Holmgren, "At some point I would like to [be a
coach-general manager], but that's down the road. I love it
here, and in terms of working with a G.M., I have the best
situation in the world. I'm not pushing behind the scenes.
There's no slip-and-slide on this."

The only person slipping and sliding on Sunday was Tampa Bay's
splendid rookie halfback, Warrick Dunn, whose 75 rushing yards
on eight carries in the second half helped the Bucs get back
into the game. (Dunn finished with 125 yards on 16 attempts.)
Many teams would have panicked after falling behind by 18 points
at Lambeau; the Buccaneers, who embody the steady personality of
their second-year coach, Tony Dungy, stuck to their game plan
and kept plugging away. An 18-yard scamper by Dunn launched
Tampa Bay's first touchdown drive midway through the third
quarter, after Nickerson blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt by
Ryan Longwell.

On the first play of the fourth quarter Dunn raced 44 yards
around left end, sparking a drive that ended with his own
two-yard touchdown run. That cut Green Bay's lead to five. (The
Bucs' two-point conversion attempt failed.) Tampa Bay's defense
then forced a punt, and the Buccaneers offense took over on its
own four-yard line with 4:59 remaining. Could Dilfer play John
Elway? Until recently the notion seemed laughable. But Dilfer
took the Bucs halfway home, to the Packers' 46, before the Green
Bay defense stiffened and got the ball back on downs.

"Trent was right there, and he's getting better," Butler said
after the game. "[His] team is going to beat a lot of people--a
lot of people. They're still the team to beat in the NFC, but
we're not far out of it."

A few minutes later, at the other end of the stadium, Dilfer
laughed again when he was told of Butler's praise and shook his
head. "We're still behind them," he said, "but we're closing the
gap, and we'll use this experience to make us better. I love
playing the Packers--it's hard hitting and clean, and after the
game everybody's hugging each other."

For now, at least, the Packers have the stronger grip.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Santana Dotson (71) grounded Dilfer as the Packers built a big halftime lead. [Santana Dotson sacking Trent Dilfer]

COLOR PHOTO: JOE PICCIOLO His Airness? A surprisingly springy Wilkins cleared Dilfer with ease on his 77-yard interception return. [Gabe Wilkins hurdling Trent Dilfer in game]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Pack pummeled Dunn on this play, but the resilient rookie would slither for 75 second-half yards. [Warrick Dunn and others in game]