Staying Ahead Throwing another mental block at the 49ers, the gritty Packers Scored two long TDs, shut down the Niners'passing game and continued their uncanny mastery of the hottest rivalry in the NFC

November 09, 1998

The Green Bay Packers have spent nearly three years pulling a
massive psych job on the San Francisco 49ers, and LeRoy Butler
believes a mind-meld is a terrible thing to waste. Late in the
third quarter of Sunday's showdown at Lambeau Field, the Niners
were on their way to securing mental liberation--not to mention
a clear path toward home field advantage all the way to the
Super Bowl--when Butler, the Packers' strong-willed strong
safety, gathered his defensive teammates on the sideline and got
inside their heads. Despite two missed extra points, a
gift-wrapped safety and a dropped touchdown pass by 49ers wide
receiver J.J. Stokes, San Francisco held a 22-19 lead and
appeared poised to pour it on. "Wake up!" Butler screamed. "Hey,
we own these guys. Let's go out there and dominate from here on
out."

Though lacking the larger forums enjoyed by quarterback-actor
Brett Favre (There's Something About Mary) and defensive
end-sociologist Reggie White (there's something about everyone
else), Butler is the most commanding voice in the Green Bay
locker room. His oratorical skills would be superfluous, of
course, were he not also one of the top big-game performers in
the NFL. Shortly after he had delivered his tongue-lashing and
the Packers had tied the score at 22, Butler sacked Niners
quarterback Steve Young. On the next play Butler, while nearly
prone on the Lambeau turf, killed the San Francisco possession
with a lunging tackle of running back Terry Kirby. Moments later
Favre delivered his second sideline scoring bomb of the game to
wideout Antonio Freeman, this one for 62 yards, and
psychological order had been restored: With Butler and friends
limiting the 49ers to five yards on 18 fourth-quarter plays,
Green Bay cruised to a 36-22 victory that left both teams with
6-2 records.

This isn't a rivalry, it's a relationship out of a Pat Benatar
song. The two teams have met five times since January 1996, and
the Packers have won every game, including victories in each of
the past three postseasons. "It's a mountain we've got to
climb," Young, who absorbed a career-high nine sacks, said after
Sunday's game. "They're challenging our ability to win a
championship, and we've got to overcome that."

The Pack knows what it's like to be somebody's punching bag.
From 1991 through '96, Green Bay went 0-8 against the Dallas
Cowboys, a streak that included three consecutive playoff
defeats. "We have the 49ers down just as Dallas had us down, and
we want to keep them there," Butler said. "Once you lose that
edge, they can be dangerous, so it's important to preserve it at
all costs. When Antonio scored that touchdown in the fourth
quarter, the Niners got it in their minds: 'Oh, no, here we go
again.' But that's the big difference between us and them--we
know how to perform in big games."

The last big game in which Green Bay asserted itself so
thoroughly was a 23-10 victory over San Francisco in January for
the NFC title. Two weeks later the Packers were stunned by the
Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII, and holes opened up all over
Cheesehead Nation.

First, coach Mike Holmgren worked out an escape clause in his
contract allowing him to seek employment elsewhere as a coach
and general manager following this season, meaning a man for
whom a street is named in Green Bay might be skipping town
before this winter's snow has melted. Then White, a future Hall
of Famer, gave a rambling speech to the Wisconsin state
legislature in which he lashed out against homosexuality and
offended members of virtually every ethnic group. The Pack lost
three defensive starters, cornerback Doug Evans, free safety
Eugene Robinson and defensive end Gabe Wilkins, to free agency.
Pro Bowl halfback Dorsey Levens broke his right leg in Green
Bay's second game, and last month the Packers suffered lopsided
defeats to two division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings and the
Detroit Lions. The Vikings, who snapped the Packers' 25-game
Lambeau winning streak, were 7-0 before losing 27-24 to the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, adding pressure to a tense
situation.

What better time for the first truly sexy game of the 1998
season, one pitting the NFC's two best quarterbacks? "The league
is searching for a big game, and this is probably the biggest one
of the season," Favre said last Friday. "Minnesota came out and
jumped all over us, and we feel like these guys have a better
team."

But despite its warts, Green Bay, pending the outcome of its
Nov. 22 rematch with the Vikings in Minnesota, appears to be the
team to beat in the NFC, if only because of its quarterback.
Could anyone but Favre throw interceptions on three consecutive
possessions and still outplay Young, who seemed tentative in the
face of the Packers' tremendous pressure?

San Francisco planned to attack Green Bay with its three-headed
monster: wideouts Jerry Rice, Stokes and Terrell Owens. But
Young's 12-yard touchdown pass to Rice with 2:47 left in the
first quarter--which made them the highest scoring
quarterback-receiver combination in NFL history (they've
produced 80 touchdowns, one more than the Miami Dolphins' Dan
Marino and long-retired Mark Clayton)--was the longest gain by a
49ers wide receiver in the game. By contrast, Favre's first pass
of the day, on the opening play from scrimmage and a mere nine
seconds into the game, was an 80-yard scoring strike to Freeman,
his favorite pass connection.

But another of Favre's connections, to Niners coach Steve
Mariucci, his mentor in Green Bay from 1992 to '95, is a source
of irritation to Mariucci's old boss, Holmgren. Before last
January's game between the two teams, Holmgren ordered Favre and
other Packers not to speak to Mariucci on the telephone. "It
didn't matter to me--we were going to talk either way--but I
understood Mike's perspective," Favre says. "With me and Mooch,
the coach-player relationship is really nonexistent. It's just a
close friendship."

No such closeness exists between Mariucci and Holmgren, who has
made no public effort to champion his protege's career. It's a
touchy subject, especially in the wake of the mother of all
Holmgren rumors: that exiled San Francisco owner Eddie
DeBartolo, who recently settled his legal troubles in Louisiana
and is expected to regain control of the Niners following the
season, wants to make a run at Holmgren as coach and general
manager. That almost certainly won't happen, because DeBartolo
has told Mariucci that he wants to discuss a contract extension.
But Holmgren is likely to command big bucks elsewhere, and
Sunday's victory did nothing to hurt his reputation. One person
close to Holmgren called the matchup with the 49ers "a bigger
game for him than any he's ever coached. If he wins, he becomes
the front-runner for a lot of jobs. If he loses, maybe he
doesn't seem so smart."

"It's definitely personal when he plays these guys," Packers
defensive tackle Santana Dotson said after the victory. "At the
start of the week he told us, 'Don't take anything I do this
week personally'--then he went ballistic a few times." How keyed
up was Holmgren? During the previous week's 28-10 victory over
the Baltimore Ravens at Lambeau, Holmgren angrily yanked left
tackle Ross Verba for a play after Verba was called for his
third penalty. "The cameras caught that, but what people didn't
see is that he jacked me in the head," says Verba, who is 6'4",
302 pounds but has the ego of a much larger man. "Grown men or
not, that's not right." (Holmgren later publicly apologized to
Verba for berating him, acknowledging that two of the penalties
were questionable.)

Verba and his teammates aren't rattled by the rumors, about which
Holmgren has steadfastly refused to comment. "Everyone sort of
feels like, Hey, the group we have here is about to be broken up,
so we might as well enjoy the end of our run," says wideout
Derrick Mayes. "That doesn't mean we won't be good next year; it
just means things will be different. We have so much talent here,
and maybe we haven't always played to our potential. But we know
that when we turn it on, we're tough to stop, and other teams
know that too."

So, while the Niners were done in by their weaknesses--pass
protection (left tackle Jamie Brown was particularly vulnerable
to outside rushes), pass defense (cornerback Marquez Pope had
trouble staying with Freeman, and free safety Merton Hanks's
penchant for gambling killed San Francisco on each of Freeman's
touchdowns) and shoddy special teams play--the Packers overcame
most of theirs. Running back Travis Jervey (17 carries for a
career-high 95 yards) had by far his best game since he replaced
Levens, and Freeman (seven catches for 193 yards) solidified his
stature as a burgeoning star. "I want to get to that next level,
and a big part of it is stepping it up when stakes are high,"
said Freeman, who before the season opted not to sign an
extension with Green Bay and thus will be a free agent in 1999.
"I want to be a big-game assassin."

He got help from fellow wideout Robert Brooks, a former All-Pro
who has been slowed all season by back pain. In an effort to
restore his health, Brooks recently began ingesting daily doses
of wheat grass mix, a liquid he figures must be of extreme
nutritional value because it's so distasteful. "I had two shots
of it this morning," Brooks said after the game. "I killed the
taste with some carrot juice." The 49ers had trouble stomaching
Brooks's leaping 30-yard touchdown catch, during which he stayed
inbounds by gracefully angling his second foot onto the end zone
pylon. That gave Green Bay a 16-0 advantage with 9:44 left in
the first quarter and continued an alarming trend for San
Francisco: In their previous four meetings the Niners had fallen
behind the Packers 21-0, 6-0, 21-0 and 10-0.

Though the 49ers fought their way back and took the lead this
time, the Pack's defense shut them down when it counted most. In
sharp contrast to its embarrassing fade-out at the end of Super
Bowl XXXII, the Green Bay defensive line got stronger in the
late stages of Sunday's game. Rookie defensive end Vonnie
Holliday has emerged as a force, but the biggest burst of energy
has come from the 36-year-old White, who retired briefly in
April before deciding to fight through his back pain and play
another year. He had three sacks to increase his season's total
to 11--he is the league's career leader with 187 1/2--and put
him on pace to eclipse his single-season high of 21 in 1987. Is
it wheat grass? Divine intervention? "He went to a witch
doctor," Dotson joked, "but he won't admit it."

If White is the heart of the Packers' defense, Butler is its
soul. Playing on a left ankle so badly sprained he had trouble
walking two days before the game, he nevertheless was all over
the place. He blitzed from the right side to sack Young on the
Niners' first play from scrimmage and never let up. "We've got a
lot of nice, quiet guys in here, but I think I make up for it,"
Butler said, as he limped out of the locker room. "Sometimes you
need a little attitude. It's good for everybody to know you have
confidence, and this was the type of game that helps us regain
our status. We were in a daze for a while, and it's my job to
snap us out of it."

The 49ers, until further notice, remain under the Packers'
spell.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER TIP-TOP TOE CONTROL Brooks, who had three catches, nailed the pylon with his right foot for the score that gave Green Bay an early 16-0 lead. [Robert Brooks catching football for touchdown with Darnell walker in pursuit] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER THE BUTLER DID IT With exhortations on the sideline and critical sacks early and late, the bold Butler rallied the Green Bay defense. [LeRoy Butler sacking Steve Young] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER SWIPED Pat Terrell made the Pack's only interception, but the secondary helped hold the 49ers to 186 yards passing. [Pat Terrell intercepting football, as LeRoy Butler lunges for it]

"They're challenging our ability to win a championship," said
Young, "and we've got to overcome that."

"Sometimes you need a little attitude," said Butler. "We were in
a daze for a while, and it's my job to snap us out of it."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)