Is the Pack Back?
Packer coach Mike Holmgren was dealt a stunning blow in February when defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, one of the NFL's brightest young assistants, resigned and went back to work for the 49ers in San Francisco, where he had coached for 11 years before joining Holmgren in Green Bay in 1992. Holmgren had every reason to be concerned. In only two seasons Rhodes—with considerable help from All-World defensive end Reggie White—had hoisted the Packers from 23rd in the NFL in defense to a No. 2 ranking.
An ex-NFL defensive back in his early 40's, Rhodes related well to the Packer players, hanging out with them after practice, playing dominoes in the locker room. Who could ever fill his shoes?
Enter Fritz Shurmur, who is just about the antithesis of Rhodes—a 62-year-old man with 40 years of coaching experience who had never played in the NFL. If Holmgren worried about how his defense would respond to Shurmur, he shouldn't have. The Packer D is rolling right along. "He's a father figure," says strong safety LeRoy Butler. "He doesn't want us to give an inch to the opposing team, and he's never satisfied. You can win a lot of games with that attitude."
After Sunday's 38-30 victory over the Lions in Milwaukee, Green Bay is No. 3 in the NFL on defense. The transition to Shurmur has been seamless because he has adapted himself to the Packers, using the terminology introduced by Rhodes rather than forcing his own system on the Packers.
"Fritz coaches the best team defense I've ever been around," says Pro Bowl defensive end Sean Jones, who became a star playing for Buddy Ryan in Houston before coming to Green Bay in the off-season. "Buddy makes stars out of players by putting them in certain positions, but Fritz makes stars out of the entire defense. If you execute his system, you'll be O.K."
Says Shurmur, "Defense in this league is team—we and us. Starting with our leader, Reggie, nobody is reaching in, we're all trying to pour in. Everybody has put his ego in his back pocket."
Still, even though the 5-4 Packers may be executing as a team, superstars can't help but emerge. White, slimmed down by 10 pounds and pain-free because of off-season surgery to remove bone chips in his ankle, is having one of the best seasons of his 10-year career. And Jones has shone, too. He pulverized Lion quarterback Scott Mitchell in the second quarter, knocking him to the ground—and out of the game. Mitchell broke his right (non-throwing) hand.
Another emerging star is the underrated Bryce Paup, who's having a Pro Bowl season at outside linebacker. He returned a Mitchell pass 10 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter. It was Paup's third interception in two games. And the Packer defense held Barry Sanders, the NFL's leading rusher, who had been averaging 129 yards per game, to a mere 47 yards and no TDs.
With a comfortable 31-7 lead at half-time and backup quarterback Dave Krieg at the helm for the Lions, the Packers then relaxed a little too much, allowing Krieg to throw for 273 yards in the second half. That cost Green Bay the No. 1 ranking in team defense it had held after eight games.
"A win is a win," Paup said after the game. "It's nice to be Number 1 in defense, but that doesn't always get you into the playoffs. Winning does."
Bigger tests await, however. After a meeting with the New York Jets at Lambeau Field this week, the Packers face three straight tough road games—in Buffalo on Nov. 20, in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and in Detroit on Dec. 4.
"We've got a monster schedule on the road," says Butler. "But we don't have to worry about anybody. They have to worry about us, especially defensively."
Out with the New
The injury to Scott Mitchell's right hand has put his season on ice for a while, and that may prove to be a blessing for the Lions. Detroit went to great and almost laughable lengths over the past 10 weeks to make the $11 million free-agent quarterback look good—everything from installing the shotgun and simplifying the play-calling to testing his vision and fitting him with contacts. But according to some NFC Central coaches, what Mitchell really needs is better coaching to correct his horrendous mechanics. Instead of wasting all that time on Mitchell, they say, Lion coach Wayne Fontes should have just bitten the bullet, admitted that Mitchell needed more seasoning and given the starting job to backup Dave Krieg.
Coming off the bench for Mitchell late in the first quarter of Sunday's loss to Green Bay, the 36-year-old Krieg was obviously head and shoulders better than the man he replaced. Although Krieg hasn't been a full-time starter since the 1992 season in Kansas City, he displayed the kind of poise that only comes with experience as he directed the Lions to a 23-point second-half comeback that fell just short on the final drive. Krieg was such a confident field general that when the Lions called timeout with 54 seconds remaining, he never went to the sideline for any input. His 273 passing yards in the second half, even if they did come against a lackadaisical Packer defense, are still a Detroit team record for a single half.
"The difference between the two quarterbacks was night and day," said Lion left tackle Lomas Brown after the game. "Dave's experience is the difference. He was directing us like an offensive coach on the field. You should've heard us in the huddle: 'Yeah, we can do this...we can come back.' If we hadn't made crucial mistakes in the first half [Mitchell threw two interceptions], we could have won this game."
It's an indictment of the Lion coaching staff that most of the Detroit players had no idea that Krieg was capable of such heroics. "That's the amazing thing," Brown says. "Dave gets two to five snaps with the first string in practice during the week. The rest of the time he's showing the defense the look of the other quarterback. We really didn't know he could do something like this. He just hasn't been given the opportunity."
Mitchell may be the quarterback of the future, but for now, the 4-5 Lions are probably better off with Krieg at the helm as they try to navigate their way to a playoff berth.
A Very Mild Curry
Tampa Bay's coaches are so disappointed by the play of defensive end Eric Curry that they sat him down on Sunday, starting Karl Wilson in his place in the Bucs' 20-6 loss to the Bears. It now looks as if Curry, the sixth pick overall in the 1993 draft, may be another in a long line of Buc first-round flops (see Broderick Thomas in '89, Keith McCants in '90 and Charles McRae in '91).
Curry got off to a promising start in his rookie year, getting five sacks in his first 10 games, but then he sprained his left ankle and missed the rest of the season. So far this year he hasn't exactly been the comeback kid. Curry has one sack and 11 tackles in the Bucs' nine games. He failed to make a single tackle in three games, including Sunday's, in which he shared time with Wilson, and had only one in three others.
Curry has made a shambles of defensive coordinator Floyd Peters's 4-2-5 scheme, which relies heavily on pressuring the quarterback. In addition to Curry's ineffectiveness, defensive tackle Santana Dotson, who was the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1992, has just one sack and 15 tackles. After Sunday's loss the Bucs had only eight sacks, which puts them 27th overall in the NFL in that category.
How disgusted are the Bucs with Curry? Well, for one thing, they're questioning his toughness. "When you're young, the world is your oyster; everything is happy, and you're playing good football," Peters says. "Then all of a sudden, pow, you get hurt. Now you think, This is no fun. Unfortunately, young man, you're an adult now, and they're paying you to play in the NFL. You've got to put on those boots and go shovel a certain amount of——."
Even some of Curry's teammates are questioning his heart. "As my friends and I used to say back home, 'We don't want to be like the Tin Man,' " says linebacker Hardy Nickerson. "That Wizard of Oz character had a heart, but he didn't know it. Curry won't know it until he decides to let it all hang out on the field and starts studying hard." Nickerson says that he has gotten so frustrated with the lack of a pass rush that he asked the Bucs' coaches if they would let him play on the defensive line.
"[Curry] has unlimited potential—great size [6'5", 270 pounds], phenomenal quickness—he could dominate like a Bruce Smith, and he doesn't realize it or he doesn't know if he wants it," says Nickerson. "I've talked to him, and he just gives me an 'O.K., yeah, yeah, yeah' kind of answer. It can be turned around. This is not at a point of no return. But either he gets productive, or he's going to get tired of having his coattail tugged."
Can the Bears Hold On?
If you are looking for one key statistic to get a handle on the Bears, try turnovers. According to Geep Chryst, an assistant coach and statistical guru for the Bears, from the time Dave Wannstedt took over as coach in 1993 through Sunday's 20-6 win over Tampa Bay, the Bears are 8-0 when they have fewer turnovers than their opponents, 2-3 when they have an equal number and 2-10 when they have more turnovers than their opponents.
Going into Sunday's game against the Bucs, the Bears were in a two-loss tailspin that featured an alarming rash of turnovers—four in their 21-16 setback in Detroit on Oct. 23, and five in their 33-6 drubbing by Green Bay on Oct. 31. In the six games before that deluge, Chicago had turned the ball over only five times and was 4-2.
In an effort to stop the avalanche, Wannstedt benched quarterback Erik Kramer for the Buc game in favor of backup Steve Walsh, who had committed only one turnover in his three previous starts. In practice the Bear coaching staff also made it a point to emphasize holding on to the football—instructing the defenders to tug at the ball every chance they got and continually shouting "High and tight!" to ballcarriers. The moves paid off, as the Bears turned the ball over only once on Sunday.
According to Chryst, one reason for the recent slew of fumbles and interceptions was the injuries to left tackle Andy Heck and. fullback Merril Hoge. "Going into the season, a number of us on the coaching staff joked that with eight new starters on offense, we had more new faces than most high school teams have," Christ says. "Losing Andy Heck and Merril Hoge has had as much impact on turnovers as the quarterback has. Football is a game of teamwork; it's important for all 11 people to come together. Turnovers are prevented when you work together as a unit."
Sam's Grand Slam
With a 2-7 record after Sunday's loss to the Bears, Buc coach Sam Wyche is well on his way to a fourth consecutive double-digit losing season, an unprecedented accomplishment for an NFL coach. (Seattle's Tom Flores, with a 3-6 record, is going for four straight, too, but that streak includes his 1987 season at the helm of the Raiders, after which he took a four-year hiatus from coaching.) Here are the other coaches with three straight seasons of 10 or more losses:
What Happened Next
Joe Bugel, Cardinals
Was told he had to win nine games in '93 to save his job. Cards went 7-9, and he was fired.
Dan Henning, Chargers
Fired after '91 season. Later fired as offensive coordinator of Lions. Now coaching at Boston College.
John McKay, Buccaneers
Went 10-6 in 1979 and took Bucs to the playoffs. Coached five more years, losing 10 in '80 and '84, and 14 in '83.
Ray Perkins, Buccaneers
Went on a six-game losing skid in '90, inspiring JERK THE PERK T-shirts. Was fired on Dec. 3, thus avoiding ignominious fourth straight double-digit disaster.