The biggest upset of the NFL's 13th weekend actually happened
last Saturday night when Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren
distributed his script for the first 15 plays of the following
day's home game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Offensive players in the meeting room at the team hotel examined
the sheet. They broke down the plays. Then they looked around
the room at one another, pointing to the paper. Eight runs,
seven passes? Holmgren has always been a pass guy, the whispers
seemed to say. Could this be right?
"My eyes lit up," running back Dorsey Levens recalled on the eve
of his best day as a pro. "I couldn't believe it."
"I'd never done it that way before," said Holmgren, meaning that
he had always scheduled more passes than runs in his first 15
plays. "But I felt it was something we had to do. Dallas had
always beaten us by running it down our throats and killing us
in time of possession. Now I wanted us to dominate. I wanted us
to control the clock."
December 1, 1997
So Holmgren told his team that night, "I want to see how tough
we are. Show me. We've been asking for this game for a long
time. Go knock their butts off."
Still thawing out after Green Bay's 45-17 rout of the Cowboys in
a -4[degree] windchill, Holmgren reveled in the inexplicable.
Under their sixth-year coach the Packers had lost all seven of
their meetings with Dallas, and the numbers had not been pretty:
averages of 58 yards rushing and less than 27 minutes of
possession time. Yet on Sunday against the league's
second-ranked defense, Green Bay ran for 220 yards while
averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Levens finished with a
franchise-record 190 yards on 33 carries. The Packers held the
ball for 37:19, including a staggering 22:19 in the second half,
during which they had scoring drives of 69, 73, 61 and 88 yards.
They converted 13 of 17 third-down attempts, including all nine
after halftime. "I've exorcised a demon," Holmgren said
afterward of finally beating the Cowboys. As had his team.
Green Bay was coming off an embarrassing loss to the Colts in
Indianapolis, but you hardly would have known it on Sunday. The
defending Super Bowl champions and their faithful fans were
sky-high over having the hated Cowboys at Lambeau Field for the
first time in eight years, and the whole town was giddy over the
wild success of a stock plan designed to raise $80 million for
capital improvements to Lambeau and, ultimately, to finance its
replacement. By week's end the organization had commitments for
235,000 of the 400,000 virtually untradable shares.
"This team and this stock sale have taken people back to simpler
times," says Packers president Bob Harlan. "An investment banker
called me from Texas this week to hear the details of the stock
offering. After I told him, he said, 'I'm flabbergasted. I
didn't think a story like this existed in America anymore.'"
Pardon the Cowboys if they didn't rush out to the parking lot,
where prospectuses for the stock were being snapped up on Sunday
morning. They didn't know what all the hoopla was about. After
all, in their seven wins over the Holmgren-coached Packers,
Dallas had prevailed by an average of 15 points. As one Cowboys
veteran said last week, "All we heard after those games was [the
Packers] whining and flapping their gums with excuses. [Strong
safety] LeRoy Butler especially. Listen to him and you'd think
it was a bad break that made them lose every game. That's why
this is great, playing there. Our attitude is: This is what you
guys wanted. Here we are. Let's do it."
So they did. About one month shy of the 30th anniversary of the
Ice Bowl, when these two teams met in the NFL Championship Game
in temperatures that dipped to -13[degrees], Dallas players and
coaches received an eerily similar wake-up call to the one Bob
Lilly and Don Meredith got on Dec. 31, 1967. "Good morning," the
receptionist at the Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton told these
Cowboys, one by one. "This is your wake-up call. It's sunny and
22 degrees. Have a nice day."
They would not. From the time they stepped off their buses at
the stadium, this was as humbling a Sunday as many Cowboys had
ever experienced. The 45 points were the most Dallas had given
up since a 50-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1985, and the
28-point margin of defeat was its widest since a 38-6 loss to
the Detroit Lions in the 1991 playoffs. "Last time I took a
beating like this?" said wideout Michael Irvin. "It was from my
Considering that the Minnesota Vikings and the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers both lost, the day couldn't have gone much better for
Green Bay. The three teams had begun Sunday tied for the NFC
Central lead, and with Green Bay playing its next two games at
Minnesota and Tampa Bay, the Packers couldn't have picked a
better time to get on a roll. This is the day they showed an
offense that can be as multidimensional as any the NFL has seen
in recent years.
Favre, a two-time MVP, is on pace to throw an NFL-high 36
touchdown passes. Levens is on track for a 1,500-yard season.
After the game, as he thumbed through the statistics package,
Levens tried to get a handle on his afternoon's work, which
included one rushing touchdown and one scoring reception. He
shook his head when someone mentioned that neither Jim Taylor
nor Paul Hornung had ever had a day like this. Taylor's team
rushing record, 186 yards, had stood since 1961. "I mean, who'd
have ever thought this?" Levens said. "Not me. Never. I'm living
In the fall of 1990 Levens was playing hurt and was well down
the depth chart at Notre Dame, behind players such as Jerome
Bettis, Ricky Watters, Reggie Brooks and Rodney Culver. "I had
to get out," Levens says. "I loved Atlanta and thought I'd want
to live there after college. So I transferred to Georgia Tech. I
figured I'd have some fun and play football, but concentrate on
school and get my degree, then get a job in the business world."
After Levens ran for 823 yards in his senior year, however, the
Packers took a fifth-round flier on the 6'1", 230-pound bruiser
who also had some moves. He was a bit player until the playoffs
last season, when in three games he rushed 39 times for 195
yards and caught a team-high 10 passes. In July he won the
starting job by default when Edgar Bennett went down in the
exhibition opener with an injury to his left Achilles tendon.
Now averaging 4.8 yards, Levens is running like a franchise
back. Not bad for the guy draft guru Mel Kiper called the most
overrated player in the 1994 draft.
The signature play against Dallas came early in Levens's 91-yard
fourth quarter. Green Bay led 24-17 and had a third-and-four at
its 45. Favre came to the line, looked left, cupped his hands
and screamed. He looked right and did the same. Audible? The
Cowboys, thinking Favre had called a running play in the huddle,
dropped into coverage mode. This was a sweet moment for Favre,
who doesn't get nearly enough credit for his skill at calling a
game. Afterward he was as proud of this play as any of his four
touchdown throws. "Dummy audible," he said. "We made 'em think
we were changing to a pass. We froze 'em." Tackle Earl Dotson
walled off two strongside rushers, and Levens streaked around
right end for 13 yards. Five plays later Favre threw a 23-yard
touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman, and the rout was on.
On Green Bay's next series Levens played sport-utility vehicle.
By this time he was telling Favre in the huddle, "Feed me." On a
second-and-11 from the Green Bay 46, Levens ran behind rookie
left tackle Ross Verba and burst into the secondary, carrying
two linebackers with him. The defenders fell off about 20 yards
downfield, and he was finally dragged down after a 30-yard gain.
Levens ran for 15 yards on the next snap, and four plays later
he got the record on a five-yard touchdown run that made the
score 38-17. "That's no monkey we got off our back," Levens said
of beating Dallas. "That's a gorilla, an elephant and every
other large zoo animal you can think of."
"Quite a day at the office," Favre said with a sigh. "How about
us running on third-and-five, third-and-six? Incredible."
Incredible, too, was hardly anyone's noticing Favre's four
touchdown passes and how precisely each was thrown: a seven-yard
toss on a half rollout to Levens, a four-yard bullet to tight
end Mark Chmura, a two-yard rainbow to Chmura and an off-balance
cross-body lob to Freeman.
Yet the hero on this day was Levens, and as the Packers ran at
will against the Cowboys' defense in the fourth quarter, the
crowd chanted, "Dor-SEE! Dor-SEE! Dor-SEE!" When all was said
and done, the Packers had run 53% of the time, just the way
Holmgren mapped things out. It was a strange day indeed. And a
scary message for the rest of the NFL.