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.
November 6, 1978
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.
From the 1977 draft Starr got his quarterback, Whitehurst; his runner, Middleton; one of his offensive guards, Gofourth; an offensive tackle, Greg Koch; and his two sensational defensive ends, Ezra Johnson and Mike Butler. And this season Starr picked up James Lofton, the speedy and dangerous wide receiver who scares defenses simply by lining up, and his two rookie linebackers, John Anderson and Mike Hunt.
Overall, Green Bay starts nine players from the past two drafts. Thus, Starr's draft record has received the highest compliment from the high priest of drafts, Gil Brandt of the Cowboys. "We would have taken all of them," says Brandt. This is almost like Rommel saying, "Nice tank maneuver, Bart."
In Whitehurst, Starr has a bit of himself at quarterback. Like Starr, a 17th-round pick from Alabama in 1956, Whitehurst came to the Packers in a low draft round—the eighth. He was thought to be a player of limited ability, but one with potential and a determination to work hard—like Starr.
Whitehurst had two things to overcome. One, he went to Furman. Two, at Furman he ran the Veer. But Whitehurst is a tireless worker and a harsh critic of himself. "Even when we win," he says, "I can't sleep all night for thinking about the mistakes I made."
Starr believes that one of his functions as coach is to help Whitehurst put his feelings in perspective. Before the Tampa Bay game, Starr remembered a critical moment involving himself and Lombardi, a moment which has not been lost on him in dealing with Whitehurst.
"Vince was a hollerer and I'm not," Starr said. "One day in practice in about our second year together, I threw a stupid interception. He read me out but good, and right there in front of everybody. I was really upset. I went to his office later and said that if he expected me to lead this team, he'd better not humiliate me like that in front of them. He never did it again."
Actually, what has helped Whitehurst as much as anything is having Middleton in the backfield with him. A 1977 third-round pick from Memphis State, Middleton carried the ball just 35 times and gained only 97 yards as a rookie. This year, though, he has rushed for 755 yards in the Packers' nine games, second best in the NFC. With Lee Roy Selmon hanging on to him, Middleton didn't get much of a chance to dazzle the Green Bay crowd Sunday, but he can get the tough short yardage as well as break a long one. Besides, almost any time a runner comes along with a first name unlike any you have ever heard of, he tends to become a hero. Doak, Gale, Franco, Orenthal and Terdell, O.K.?
In fact, if Whitehurst and Middleton and all of these other unsung Packers keep winning, they may even get to be known outside of Green Bay, Wis.