Waving their baseball caps, the Green Bay Packer faithful leaned over the first base dugout at Milwaukee County Stadium Sunday evening and bellowed, "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" Jogging off the field, helmet raised high, was defensive end Reggie White, the 6'5", 290-pound straw that had stirred the drink in a 26-17 win over the NFC Central-leading Detroit Lions. "Basically, Reggie stopped us at the line," said Lion quarterback Rodney Peete. "Anytime he's in the game, he's causing problems."
It had been just another day at the ballpark for White: six tackles and a sack. He and his supporting cast surrendered only 57 yards in the second half, a mere 12 of those to Detroit's ground-swallowing back, Barry Sanders. For the Lions the game was a lost opportunity to distance themselves from the Pack; Detroit, now 7-3, had its advantage over Green Bay pared to one game. For the Packers the victory provided another taste of what life is like when one man holds sway over the line of scrimmage, and he happens to be on your side of the ball. "With Reggie here, other teams kind of forget about the little guys," says John Jurkovic, Green Bay's 6'2", 285-pound nosetackle. "Which is fine with me."
With 4:02 left to play and Green Bay leading 19-17, Jurkovic, taking advantage of a triple-team against White, blasted through the Lion line at the Detroit 25 and drilled Peete as he was releasing a deep pass intended for Herman Moore. The resultant floater was picked off by strong safety LeRoy Butler, who returned it 22 yards to the Lion 14. The play set up Green Bay's clinching touchdown, a two-yard run by Edgar Bennett.
In addition to answering the call on the field, Butler had been performing similar duty on the sideline, manning the phone as defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes called down from the press box after almost every series. "Ray's so into the game, he always wants to know what our mentality is on the field, what's going on," Butler explained later. "Every pass that's completed, he wants to know why. Why? As soon as we made that big play, Ray called down there again." And what did Rhodes want this time? "He told me, 'That's what I expect,' " Butler said.
Big plays were what Green Bay fans were expecting when the 31-year-old White arrived during the off-season as a free agent from Philadelphia. Long acclaimed as the Minister of Defense, White quickly added comparable posts at Treasury (with his four-year, $17 million contract) and Interior (Rhodes frequently lines White up at tackle). But White didn't rack up many sacks early in the season as the Pack labored to a 1-3 start, and skeptics wondered whether Green Bay had opened the vault for a player too many years past his prime. Even so, after a 36-14 loss at Dallas on Oct. 3, Packer defensive line coach Greg Blache summoned White to his office to tell him that his play was solid, that there was nothing to worry about. "That helped me out a lot," White says. "Sometimes superstars need a pat on the back too."
Since then Green Bay has won five of six games, and White has been on a tear. His 10½ sacks rank second in the NFC, and the Packers as a team are on a pace to collect 50 sacks (after amassing all of 34 last year). "We're making more big hits and more big tackles for losses, and Reggie has the most to do with that," says linebacker Johnny Holland.
"Reggie has changed everything—the way we play, the other team's offensive scheme," said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren two days before the Detroit game. "And that's just one player. Some teams may have two or three guys with that kind of impact." Holmgren paused. "Can you imagine?"
In Detroit, meanwhile, the Lions were trying to imagine a three-game lead with six to play. The team's record and its four-game winning streak were viewed by many around the league as a commentary not on the Lions' strength but on the flimsiness of their schedule—Detroit's opponents had a combined 29-54 record going into Sunday's games. But by any standard Detroit was on a road to renewal. Last season, reeling from the loss of guards Mike Utley, who was paralyzed after an injury to his spinal cord during a game in November 1991, and Eric Andolsek, who died after being hit by a car in June '92, the Lions staggered to a 5-11 finish only a year after having gone to the NFC Championship Game.
"Maybe we didn't handle death and paralysis as well as we could have handled it," linebacker Chris Spielman says. "I don't know how well you can do that, but we weren't mentally focused. Unfortunately, in this profession your adjustment, your sorrow time, has to be accelerated."
The Silverdome lockers of Utley and Andolsek remained empty in '92, like raw wounds—and like the gaping holes that the players' absences left in the offensive line. The holes were filled in the off-season by the acquisition of free-agent guards Bill Fralic and Dave Richards and tackle Dave Lutz. These powerful run blockers helped Detroit take another stride in its gradual transition from the run-and-shoot to a more varied offense. In the past three seasons the Lions have gone from no tight ends to as many as three, from the Silver Stretch to more of a Blue Bludgeon. "Last year, we got out-manned a lot," Sanders said before the Packer game. "This year, we're basically in control of the line."
On the defensive side the Lions replaced coordinator Woody Widenhofer before the season with 58-year-old Hank Bullough, who had been out of football for a year after being released by the Packers. A workaholic with 34 years of coaching experience, Bullough has expanded Detroit's look from a two-gap front with a basic zone behind it to as many as three dozen fronts and a hundred-plus coverages. Entering Sunday's game, the Lion defense ranked fifth in the NFL; it has not finished in the upper half of the league in that department in 10 seasons. "Henry's a schemer," says Detroit coach Wayne Fontes. "Sometimes our guys go out there on Monday, and by Wednesday or Thursday they're going, 'What's that call? Rabbit? Hound Dog? Saint Bernard? No, that was last week.' And then Friday, it just all fits in."
Bullough figured to unleash a kennel's worth of red dogs at Packer quarterback Brett Favre. After earning a trip to the Pro Bowl last February in his first full season as a starter, the strong-armed Favre has struggled, trying to carry the load single-handedly against schemes designed to confuse him. "Last year it was real vanilla," Favre says. "I'd walk up to the line, I'd look, I'd drop back and I'd throw it. Other teams figured I was a rookie, and they let me make my own mistakes, but I didn't do that. Now they figure they'd better do something to screw me up."
To help ease Havre's burden, the Pack acquired running back Eric Dickerson from the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 12, but Dickerson flunked his physical because of a spinal injury. Still, the trade paid off: Holmgren had installed some I-formation plays for Dickerson that Darrell Thompson, a formidable straight-ahead runner, has been able to use to boost Green Bay's sputtering ground game. And even as Favre's efficiency rating has plummeted to 21st in the league, Holmgren has stood by him. "From a coaching standpoint there's the normal frustration," Holmgren says. "But I know what I have, and I have a good one."
On Sunday's opening drive Favre completed all four of his passes into a 27-mph wind, marched the Packers 80 yards into Detroit's end zone and looked more comfortable reading the Lions' blitzes than he had the extensive menu at an Italian restaurant in Milwaukee the night before. (Having grown up near Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Favre was familiar with shrimp, and he eventually settled on the scampi.) He did throw two first-half interceptions, but in all Favre had a solid day: 24 completions in 33 attempts for 259 yards. Thompson (18 rushes for 73 yards) and Bennett (15 for 66 and two touchdowns) helped balance the Pack attack, which piled up nearly twice the yardage that the Lions did, 404 yards to 205.
Set up by Derrick Moore's 68-yard kickoff return at the start of the third quarter, Detroit took a 17-13 lead on Peete's one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ty Hallock. But the Lions were unable to sustain an offensive flow. While Sanders gained 75 yards on 17 carries and joined Dickerson and Tony Dorsett as the only backs in league history to gain more than 1,000 yards in each of their first five seasons, he rushed only four times in the second half, which surprised the Packers. "If I was their offensive coordinator, I'd put it in [Sanders's] hands 30 or 35 times a game," Holland said. "Toward the end, I don't think they used him as effectively as they should have."
Green Bay seemed to spend most of the second half in the red zone, casting longing glances toward Detroit's goal line. In the third quarter, after Favre and Sterling Sharpe hooked up on a gorgeous 20-yard sideline pattern that brought them to the Lion two, the Pack was set back by two tackles for losses and a pair of penalties, one of which negated an apparent touchdown pass to Mark Clayton. Placekicker Chris Jacke wound up missing a 53-yard field goal try, snapping his streak of 17 straight three-pointers, but he still wound up with four field goals on the day, including a 52-yarder and another from 34 yards out that put Green Bay ahead 19-17 with 9:03 remaining.
But ultimately in the black-and-blue division, games are won by the team that inflicts more bruises, and White was the most contusing force on Sunday. As the season progresses, he figures to get more support. Butler is emerging as a team leader and a star; Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker Tony Bennett is just rounding into shape after ending a 103-day holdout on Oct. 27; and two other playmaking linebackers—Bryce Paup and Wayne Simmons—didn't even dress on Sunday because of injuries. Holmgren's first words to his team after the game were along these lines: I can't wait to see what happens when we finally click on all cylinders.
Or, as White put it the day before: "I try my best to encourage my teammates, but I can't do it if I'm not producing, which I really wasn't in the beginning. Playing well has allowed me to say, 'Hey, we have a lot of talent. Now it's time to produce.' " With that attitude, the Pack may indeed go deep.