The team of destiny did it again. Yes, it did. Another one-point win. Another dance on the edge of the cliff. Another ray of hope for the hopeless. Final score: Green Bay Packers 17, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16. If you think the Pack's one-point win over the Chicago Bears on Nov. 5—or the one over the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 26 or the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 17—was something, wait till you hear about this one.
The Bucs are ahead by two with less than a minute left. Green Bay is facing fourth-and-16 on its own 34. Quarterback Don Majkowski, the Majik Man, has run out of majik. His pocket is breaking down around him. He has just misfired twice, after getting sacked. Now the rushers are in his face, his final heave is knocked down, and the game is over. "My head was down," said Majkowski later. "I was walking toward the sideline, and I heard the guys yelling, 'A flag! There's a flag!' Then I saw it."
A patch of yellow amid the green. A pretty yellow flag, courtesy of umpire Ed Piffick. An exotic call against the home-team Bucs: hands to the face. The hands belonged to backup nosetackle Shawn Lee, the face to left guard Rich Moran. "He was cranking my head back, he had my neck," said Moran. "But it was just blind luck that the umpire happened to look my way. I mean, he could have looked at the right tackle or the center."
Five yards and an automatic first down. New life. Five more plays and a first down on a Majkowski pass to the Tampa Bay 29. Clock running: five, four, three seconds. "Maj was yelling, 'Get up to the line, get set, don't move!' " said Moran. After a clock-killing incompletion, one second showed when Chris Jacke lined up for a 47-yard field goal attempt. Last year, the Packers went through five kickers. Now they just have Jacke, the rookie from the sixth round.
December 11, 1989
"The ball was on the right hash mark, the worst place," said Jacke afterward. "The wind was blowing right to left. I aimed for the right upright. The kick headed straight for it. I said, 'Oh my god, I'm gonna hit the pole.' Then it hooked in."
"Destiny," said Brian Noble, Green Bay's veteran inside linebacker. "It's our destiny this year."
So the team of destiny is now 8-5 and tied with Minnesota for the lead in the NFC Central. What has you scratching your head is that the Packers are doing it with basically the same players who went 4-12 last year and finished with the second-worst record in the NFL. They have won four games by a point. Ten of their 13 games have been decided by a total of 21 points. They have been behind in every game but one, and that was their four-point victory three weeks ago over the Super Bowl-champion San Francisco 49ers.
They were down 21-0 to the Saints and won. The Rams had them 38-7 at the half, and Green Bay wound up losing by three. The Packers beat Chicago on a replay reversal that gave them a touchdown with 32 seconds remaining. They held off the Vikings with two interceptions in the last four minutes by 36-year-old Dave Brown, the oldest cornerback in the league.
Why go on? No team has ever had a year like the Packers are having, and whether they wind up winning the division or bombing out of the playoffs—either is possible—this 1989 Green Bay team will earn a place in the history of this bedrock franchise along with Lombardi, Nitschke, Hornung, Curly Lambeau, Don Hutson, Clarke Hinkle and all those green-and-gold warriors of the past who never imagined that a whole season could be played at such a heart-stopping pace.
Who are these current Packers, anyway? How do you turn a bunch of 4-12 dogs into the most exciting team in the NFL? Allow us to introduce:
THE MAJIK MAN. He pulls the trigger. He brings them back from the brink. Majkowski is a third-year pro out of Virginia, where his exploits as an option quarterback were so lightly regarded that he wasn't drafted until the 10th round. He shared the job with Randy Wright in '87 and again last year. The fans loved Majkowski because he was an action guy—a terrific athlete who scrambled a lot and made things happen, good and bad—but the coaching staff wasn't so sure. "His arm never was right last year," says Joe Clark, the offensive assistant who arrived in Green Bay after Lindy Infante was named coach in February 1988. "We were worried about him."
In the last game of the season, Majik brought the Pack back with two touchdown passes to beat the Phoenix Cardinals 26-17 in Tempe. They were the two most significant passes of his career, because if Green Bay had lost, it would have tied the Dallas Cowboys for the worst record in the league and thus would have had the first pick in the draft. The Packers would have used it to grab UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman.
"Aikman was at that Cards game," says Tom Braatz, Green Bay's executive vice-president for football operations. "Afterward, I ran into him at a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. He was with a girl better looking than him. We talked. I said, 'Well, you're a Cowboy now.' "
Infante, who was coach Forrest Gregg's offensive coordinator in Cincinnati and had installed the cerebral passing system that got the Bengals into the '82 Super Bowl, wasn't sure that Majik was the man to run his show. Athletes didn't impress Infante. He was looking for brains. "In the off-season he told me something I never forgot," says Majkowski. "He said, I want you to be a manipulator, not a gunslinger.' So I became a student. I was in here every day, looking at film."
The kid had brains, to be sure, but he had something else—hunger. "Ever since I was six years old, the only thing I wanted to be was an NFL quarterback," he says. "Every place I've ever been, I was like a big secret. I always had confidence in myself, but no one else did. Maybe if I'd been a warm-weather quarterback or played in a passing system, it would have been easier."
He played high school ball in Depew in the upper New York State snowbelt. As a senior he broke his hand in two places, and the colleges said, See ya. "Syracuse suggested that I spend a year at Fork Union [Va.] Military Academy, so I went there and my father paid for it," says Majkowski. "Then Syracuse forgot about me. I wound up at Virginia. I was a good option quarterback, and you know where option QBs get drafted—in the 10th round."
The Packers signed him for a salary of $65,000, with $10,000 up front. From that humble beginning has emerged the Majik Man, who will make about $400,000 this year. Infante says Majkowski's success has come from his dedication to learning the system, which calls for a complex set of reads and adjustments on the go, not only for Majik but also for all five receivers. Center Blair Bush says the key to Majik's ability to bring the team from behind is his "almost maniacal competitiveness in football, darts, anything he can beat you at. He never feels we're out of a game, and it's rubbed off on everyone."
THE TALENT. What talent? The Packers haven't put anyone in the Pro Bowl for the past three seasons. Not that they didn't have deserving players. In Green Bay everyone knew that outside linebacker Tim Harris was one of the best in the business, but around the league he was regarded as a supernudnick, a chatterbox who said anything that came into his head and fired an imaginary six-gun after sacks. Last year Harris had 13½ sacks, fifth-best in the league, and this season he has 16½, including two on Sunday, which makes him No. 1.
"Talking is just my way of psyching myself," says Harris, a formidable force at 6'5½", 260 pounds, though he's officially listed at 235. "Some guys get upset. Tim Irwin, the Vikings' tackle, dumped water on me one time. Some guys laugh. When we played the 49ers, I was yelling to their bench, and Eric Wright, their cornerback, yelled at me, 'Hey, Tim, how many sacks you got?' I said, 'Twelve and a half,' and he said, 'No, I mean today.' I said, 'One, and I'm gonna get it right now.' Then I got a sack on the next play and fired my six-gun at him."
Brent Fullwood and Sterling Sharpe were Green Bay's No. 1 draft choices in '87 and '88, respectively. Fullwood was hot and cold in his first two seasons. Sharpe had 55 catches last year but few big ones. He scored only once. Fullwood, who has gained 736 yards this year, has turned into the team's heavy-duty runner and shown all the toughness he displayed in his glory years at Auburn, where he averaged seven yards a carry.
Sharpe is having a Pro Bowl year. On Sunday he hauled in eight passes for 169 yards, including two for touchdowns, to raise his season total to 77 catches and break Hutson's single-season Packer record for receptions by three. His fifth grab, the one that tied the record, was a typical Sharpe reception. He broke three tackles to turn a short catch into a 14-yarder. He has become the Pack's monster downfield, a guy capable of turning something small into something big, Jerry Rice-style.
THE COACH. After Green Bay's dismal performance last year, Infante said, "I see definite improvement." Everyone thought he was nuts.
"He had a plan, and he had patience," says Bob Harlan, the Packers' president. "Above all, he was a gentleman. He never said, 'We've got to clean house, we can't win with what we've got here.' He had faith in his system, and he felt that when it finally caught on, we'd be winners—with the same guys."
That's the amazing thing. Aside from Bush, a Plan B pickup, and Jacke, the starters were all around last year. "I believe in the character of people," says Infante, "and in this group I saw just deep-down good people. Knock on wood—since I've been here, I don't think I've drafted a bad person. I knew it would take a year to learn our offense. Our defense was already solid. I felt there was enough talent on both sides of the ball to win—if I was patient."
THE MYSTIQUE. "In the old days," says Noble, "that call Sunday against the Tampa Bay defense would have gone against us. The call against us in the Bears game that was reversed—and gave us the win—would have stood, and we would have lost. We found ways to lose. Now we find ways to win.
"We're destiny's team, and I think people around the country are enjoying our success. I think somewhere deep down every fan has got a little Packer in him. It's like the Rocky scenario. People have seen a team punched down and dragged through the mud so long. Now they're rejoicing in its rebirth."