Another solution to the problem of bad off-the-field behavior in the NFL is to have more on-the-field leadership. We need more players who can serve as role models for their younger teammates, both in the terms of dedication to the game and dedication to being good citizens. In other words, both physical and moral leadership. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi: to do things right all the time, not just once in a while.
With the Green Bay Packers, I’ve seen two prime examples of that: Bart Starr and Reggie White. We all know what Bart Starr accomplished—5 League Championships—and what a great person and great leader he is. But defensive end Reggie White, although he is a Hall of Famer, perhaps never got the credit he deserved for the Packers’ success during the time he played in Green Bay.
Why did the Packers return to glory in the mid-1990’s? Most people would say it due to Ron Wolf’s skill at selecting players, Mike Holmgren’s coaching ability, and having a true winner like Brett Favre at quarterback. All this is true. But I think the key piece to the puzzle was when Reggie White joined the team in 1993. His leadership on defense served to encourage the other players to commit themselves to winning to a degree that had not been seen since the earlier glory years of the 1960’s—and he showed his teammates how to be better people as well. A lesson from his outstanding career is that ferocious play and high character are not mutually exclusive.
I remember a turning point when the Packers started to show signs of championship potential. It was a game in Lambeau Field early in Reggie’s first season with the team. They had stumbled out the gate and faced a critical early season game versus the John Elway-led Denver Broncos. The Packers responded well to the challenge and stormed out to a big lead. But as the game wore on, Elway, the master of comebacks, methodically led the Broncos back. It seemed as though the Packers were going to lose, which would have been a huge blow to a young team trying to find its footing and a path to the playoffs.
Late in the fourth quarter, Reggie more or less took the game over. He made sure the Broncos did not score the winning touchdown. And, for the first time in many years, the Packers did go on to the playoffs. But it was just the beginning of one of the most exciting times Packer fans have ever had, culminating with the championship season of 1996.
And the team has never been quite the same since he left, even though Brett Favre continues to be an outstanding player and leader, and Mike Sherman was certainly a fine head coach (and Mike McCarthy may become one). But in a number of important games, the Packers’ defense has had critical lapses, and sometimes does not play with the same focus and intensity that we saw in the 1990’s. Does anyone think the 4th and 26 debacle in the 2003 Playoff game in Philadelphia would have happened if Reggie White had been on the field?
I don’t think so.
So for the 2007 edition of the Green Bay Packers, the question is, who will be the next Reggie White?