The lowly Packers did some heavy investing in the free-agent market this spring in a desperate attempt to break out of their recent aura of gloom and doom
August 27, 1989

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.

Tom Braatz, the Packers' executive vice-president of football operations, who led the free-agent search, says he didn't get any of the UFA wide receivers, punters or kickers he had hoped for. He offered veteran quarterback Gary Hogeboom more money than Phoenix did, but Hogeboom headed southwest anyway. He tried to get defensive end Carl Hairston, but Hairston decided to remain, slightly unwanted, in Cleveland. In fact, Braatz got no quarterback, and for the moment the Packers will go with the unlegendary Majkowski, who bravely insists, "I'm the quarterback of the future." Nor did Braatz corral any pass-rushing defensive ends, a serious weakness in Green Bay. He got what he could. "Not Pro Bowlers," Braatz says, "just guys with good character who we can build on."

Infante says, "We weren't bashful about what we were offering. On numerous occasions we exceeded what was common sense. But it should make us better." What really would have made them better was the addition of quarterback Troy Aikman, whom the Packers would have gotten if they had not beaten the Cardinals in a meaningless final game in '88, thus losing the first pick in the draft to Dallas. Green Bay, which selected second, chose recalcitrant offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. As of Sunday, Mandarich and the Packers were $700,000 a year apart ($1.5 million asked versus $800,000 offered), but that could be cleared up any moment with a $4 phone call.

Oddly, Mandarich's absence is not a big topic of talk among the players. The feeling is that he will eventually be signed, not traded, because management believes that a trade would set a bad precedent. And no one thinks Mandarich will break the Green Bay bank. "He just has a different opinion of himself than we do," says Braatz.

Of course, no one is of the opinion that the free agents will turn the club around by themselves. Still, each one of them has made a mark on somebody's football team in the past. Most are offensive players because Green Bay ranked 24th among the 28 teams in offense last year. The centerpieces of the signing blitz are Ard, a savvy pass blocker and an eight-year starter with the Giants ($75,000 signing bonus, $300,000 salary this year); Bush, an 11-year veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks who has first-rate ability but knows the sun is setting on his knees ($75,000 bonus, $400,000 salary); and Ariey, a promising former Giant who, in two years, never played in a regular-season game because of injuries ($60,000 bonus, $150,000 salary). Ard and Bush are likely to start during the season, while Ariey's status probably depends on what happens with Mandarich. "You know the best thing about this?" says Ariey. "Green Bay needed us."

Haddix ($50,000 bonus, $375,000 salary) may also get a chance. A former No. 1 draft pick by the Eagles who got in Buddy Ryan's doghouse, Haddix is a big (6'2", 225 pounds), strong fullback who reads blitzes, runs inside and can block. He is a good bet to start ahead of Brent Fullwood. Fullwood has talent, but Packer patience is wearing thin because his play is inconsistent and he won't compete with minor injuries.

Still another Plan B signee, defensive back Van Jakes ($50,000 bonus, $250,000 salary), will probably also get playing time. A former starter with the New Orleans Saints, Jakes is a vicious competitor, though it's unlikely he'll start ahead of talented Packer veteran Dave Brown.

Already, Braatz's judgment has been shown to be faulty in several cases, most notably with former Giant punter Maury Buford, who cost the Packers a $25,000 bonus. The Pack kept Buford just six days. He is one of four UFAs already released—$87,500 in signing bonuses on the scrap heap.

Ultimately, three to five of the UFAs will probably start, depending on injuries. "I didn't know we were going to go so heavy on this." says Braatz. "I would hope our record gets better so we won't be dealing from this kind of weakness." Give the Packers credit for putting their money where their hopes are.

The club has given other indications of its resolve to improve. On June 5, Judge Robert J. Parins stepped down after seven years as president of the team; the Packers' record during his tenure was 43-61-2. Parins admits he was too slow in creating the position of vice-president of football operations—that didn't happen until 1987—and that it had hurt the team not to have a football man other than the head coach making decisions. The Packers' long slump has begun to hurt financially, too. Although Lambeau Field in Green Bay remains sold out for the season, average attendance for the three games the Packers usually play in Milwaukee has slipped in the last 10 years from about 53,000 to a projected 43,000 this season. Harlan has made it a high priority to get Milwaukee fans more involved with the team. The Packers also plan to spend $8,263,000 before the 1990 season, adding more private boxes and theater-style seating at Lambeau. New times, new ideas.

"We're doing this because we want to win now," says Infante, sitting in his office beneath a drawing of a would-be Green Bay Super Bowl ring. Still, he rejects the notion that this is a wholesale rebuilding of the team. Of course, it is. But that's O.K. Extreme situations require extreme solutions. As what's his name once said: "You don't do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWideout Carl Bland (left) missed this one but caught two others as Majkowski (right) led Green Bay to within a point of Indy, 24-23. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRABush (above), who has suspect knees, and Ard (67), a veteran of the Giants, are signees who hope to help the Packers to a 12th flag. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERFormer free-agent Todd Howard (53) forced a fumble, but, alas, the Colts recovered.