Mike Holmgren had been coach of the Green Bay Packers for all of two months when he and his wife, Kathy, realized the clout his new position carried. In mid-March they were attending the NFL meetings in Phoenix, where Kathy ran into a delegation of Wisconsin officials who were in town to entice more NFL teams to move their training sites to the Badger State. She asked one member of the group if he knew of a veterinarian in the state who could perform delicate ligament surgery on the Holmgren family dog, Tiger. The next day Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson sought out Mike at the meetings and introduced himself. "Listen," the governor said, "we're going to get your dog fixed up. I don't want you to worry about a thing." Sure enough, Tiger no longer walks with a limp.
Now it's up to Holmgren to return the favor. All he has to do is cure the once-mighty Packers, who have been limping along for a quarter century. The most loyal football fans the NFL has known are standing by, waiting for a miracle to happen. And they know it will—someday.
The home of the Pack is still dominated by Vince Lombardi. In the team's offices, which are located on Lombardi Avenue, his portrait looms in the lobby, where one of the two Super Bowl trophies he won is on display. Across the street in the team's Hall of Fame, his voice can be heard on tape in a special exhibit. Coaches who have come after him say they feel his presence when they walk out onto Lambeau Field. "There are ghosts of Christmases past in here," says Ron Wolf, who in November left his post as director of player personnel with the New York Jets to become Green Bay's executive vice-president and general manager. "I feel them. They're in here, everywhere you go."
Now if only some of His Vinceness would rub off on this new and excited and hope-filled regime. As the Packers began yet another rebuilding job in the NFL draft on Sunday, Wolf and Holmgren demonstrated an uncharacteristic assurance for men in their positions.
For the first time since Lombardi left Green Bay, after the 1967 season, the Packer executive committee has given one man, Wolf, a former top aide to L.A. Raider boss Al Davis, full authority to run the organization. Wolf, in turn, has handed all coaching authority to Holmgren, the bright former offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Working in tandem, Wolf, 53, and Holmgren, 43, have more power than any of the previous five Packer administrations, all of which were subject to the authority of the seven-member executive committee. With Green Bay having reached the playoffs only twice since Lombardi left—the Packers made early exits both times—maybe it was time to get back to the basics.
But on Sunday, Packer fans weren't interested in basics. They wanted some flair. The headline atop the Green Bay Press-Gazette shouted: GIVE US DESMOND HOWARD, PACKER FANS SAY. Five hundred Packer devotees streamed into Lambeau Field skyboxes for a draft party. Thirteen newspapers, 14 radio stations and seven TV stations from all over Wisconsin were covering the draft from Packer headquarters.
The draft room itself was crammed with 33 men—coaches, scouts, members of the board. Green Bay had the fifth pick, and when defensive tackle Steve Emtman, linebacker Quentin Coryatt and defensive end Scan Gilbert went 1-2-3, Wolf wanted to get his hands on Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley. Holmgren was leaning toward Michigan wide receiver Desmond Howard, the Heisman Trophy winner. In fact, the staff members were split about 50-50, but they all had agreed after weeks of discussion that they would be happy to get cither guy.
Wolf thought Green Bay would end up with Howard, because two people he trusted in the league had assured him that the Cincinnati Bengals, who were the next team to draft, would deal the No. 4 pick to either the Dallas Cowboys or the Atlanta Falcons, both of whom coveted Buckley. But that's not what happened. The Bengals made a trade all right, but with the Super Bowl-champion Washington Redskins, who leapfrogged the Packers from the No. 6 slot and selected Howard.
Washington general manager Charley Casserly later said he was convinced he had to make the Bengal deal when he learned that earlier in the week Wolf had told Howard's agent, Leigh Steinberg (page 70), that the Packers would pick Howard if he was available. "But I was convinced Buckley wouldn't be there," Wolf said later, "and in that case we would have taken Desmond Howard."
Wolf and Holmgren happily selected Buckley. "He's an offensive defensive player," Holmgren said. "I can't wait to coach him."
Buckley, in the manner of another former Florida State cornerback, Deion Sanders, struts around the field, points and taunts opponents. In short, he's a very un-Lombardi-like player. However, in three seasons with the Seminoles, Buckley had 21 interceptions and a few electrifying punt returns to go with his electric personality. Wolf got on the phone with Buckley, who was at home in Pascagoula, Miss. "You're a Green Bay Packer," Wolf said. "Congratulations."
"That's great," Buckley shot back. "I guess this means y'all want to go to the Super Bowl."
The first round, punctuated by surprise picks and much wheeling and dealing by teams looking to trade up, dragged on. The Packers had made their own draft deal two months earlier, when Wolf sent the 17th pick in the first round, an extra choice Green Bay had acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1991, to the Falcons for quarterback Brett Favre. When Favre entered the '91 draft out of Southern Miss. Wolf, who was with the Jets at the time, had wanted him, but the Falcons grabbed the 6'2", 220-pound Favre early in the second round. He has a strong arm, and Holmgren will groom him to he Green Bay's quarterback of the future. As Wolf told Holmgren before this year's draft, "We've already had a good draft. We've got Brett Favre."
When the Chicago Bears were about to make the 22nd selection, the Packers turned their attention to Tennessee wide receiver Carl Pickens, who, surprisingly, was still available. Pickens would be the perfect bookend to veteran wideout Sterling Sharpe, but Wolf and Holmgren knew Pickens wouldn't be around by the time they made their next pick, which would be the seventh choice of the second round and No. 35 overall. So they started calling around, offering second- and third-round picks in a bid to move up. The San Diego Chargers (picking 23rd), Cowboys (24th) and Indianapolis Colts (29th) all said no. After the Colts made the first pick of the second round, Wolf surrendered. "Forget it," he said. "Let the chips fall where they may."
When the Bengals, choosing third in the second round, selected Pickens, the Packers focused on Penn State inside linebacker Mark D'Onofrio, a solid run-stopper who had had an outstanding junior year but was bothered by a shoulder injury most of last season. A few days earlier, D'Onofrio's agent, Tony Agnone, had called the Packers to tell them that his client wanted to play for Green Bay. Agnone wondered if Wolf could do anything to ensure that the Pack would draft D'Onofrio. Although Wolf was interested in D'Onofrio, he said he couldn't guarantee anything. Now, though, with his pick coming up. Wolf decided D'Onofrio was the player he wanted.
When the Phoenix Cardinals, who had the pick preceding Green Bay's, started their allotted 10-minute drafting period, Wolf said. "Get D'Onofrio on the phone." It was an old trick: Keep the kid on the phone so nobody else can get to him. In the meantime, new draft winds blew in. The New England Patriots were working on a trade with Phoenix. Wolf asked D'Onofrio if anyone else had called him. Just a Penn State trainer, D'Onofrio said. New England had called the trainer to ask if D'Onofrio had recovered from shoulder surgery. Panic.
With half a minute remaining in the Cardinals' draft period, Wolf grabbed another phone and told the Packer representative at draft central (a hotel ballroom in New York City) to sprint to the podium with the card bearing D'Onofrio's name. If Phoenix exceeded its time limit, Green Bay could choose its player.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
In New York, the announcement was made: "Phoenix passes. Green Bay is up." Back in Green Bay you would have thought Bart Starr had just burrowed under Jerry Kramer in the Ice Bowl. Scouts high-fived coaches. Men in suits whooped. Wolf and Holmgren smiled huge smiles. "Green Bay selects Mark D'Onofrio, Penn State linebacker," it was announced.
Wolf got back on the phone. "Mark," he said, "you're a Packer. You can't imagine how thrilled we are."
You win some, you lose some. You get Buckley, you miss out on Howard. D'Onofrio falls into your lap, Pickens slips through your fingers. In the third round the Packers finally got their wideout, Robert Brooks of South Carolina, a player they had bunched in a cluster of receivers behind Howard and Pickens on their draft board.
Buckley missed his plane to Green Bay on Sunday night. What'd you expect, a perfect ending? He did, however, woof it up on a long-distance conference call with the media. "Here's what I think of the Packers," Buckley said. "I saw a lot of their games last year, and the• were close in so many of them. They just didn't have the guys to step up and make the big plays with the game on the line. You need that great player to make some great plays. I can do that. The only way to get back on top is to get a lot of great players."
The Packers are several great players shy of being a great team. As midnight closed in, Wolf pondered the future in the house that Lombardi built. "The good teams get about three legitimate starters out of the draft every year," he said. "That's what we have to do, every year."
Wolf left the building and entered the cold mist of a spring night in Green Bay. He could feel the presence of Lombardi. But that's all it is for now, a feeling.