Prelude to Greatness: The 1989 Packers
By Walter Rhein
There was a time when Packer fans were starving for wins. These days losing two straight might cause a bit of anxiety, but believe me that’s nothing compared to the bottomless hunger and sense of desperation Packer fans used to endure. If a bean can seem like a feast to a starving man, imagine how fulfilling an NFL victory can be for a team accustomed to losing. Prior to 1989, the Packers hadn’t won more than eight of their contests in a season since 1972.
Losing seemed inevitable, and this mentality extended beyond the Packers to cast a pall over the entire state. There were even whispers as to whether the Packers belonged in the league. A miracle was required to turn things around, or at least a bit of Majik.
In 41 years of watching the Packers, I still have a tremendous fondness for the 1989 squad. They didn’t win the division or make the playoffs, but they won four games by one point in addition to beating the Lions by a field goal in overtime. The line between going 5-11 versus 10-6 was razor thin, but the history books record 10 wins even if Mike Ditka insists on putting an asterisk by the result (the fact that Ditka remains irritated to this day only adds to the sweetness of that season).
The roster was made up of a colorful group of individuals. Tony Mandarich was the first-round pick that year, and he reportedly spent most of training camp in tears with his hair falling out. His failure allowed other, less-heralded players to step up. Chuck Cecil was in his second year and showed some flashes of the pro-bowl player he would become. Cecil is the last NFL player who seemed to perpetually have a trickle of blood running down his face. Watching Cecil, you learned never to lament a reception until Chuck came in to lay the boom. Cecil could separate receivers from the ball with the best that ever took the field. His style of play is essentially outlawed now, but it sure was fun to watch. Against the Bears, Cecil hit Neal Anderson and then celebrated by having what looked like an epileptic seizure – he always seemed a bit unhinged.
Mark Murphy also stands out. Murphy had signed as an undrafted free agent in 1980 and played until 1991. He has a condition called Alopecia which results in your auto-immune system attacking your own hair follicles, so he had a signature look. The guy was a rock-solid safety and just the kind of no-nonsense player you want on your D. Note, this is a different Mark Murphy than the one who is currently the Packers CEO; it’s confusing because that Mark Murphy is about the same age and also played safety in the NFL (he does have a full head of hair though).
Tim Harris had a career year recording 19.5 sacks. He would celebrate tackling the quarterback with the “six gun,” which involved a pantomime of shooting the downed QB by flailing his fingers and backpedaling (probably something that would be frowned upon today). Ken Ruettgers, an under-appreciated lineman, was on that team, along with James Campen. It was John Anderson’s last year after a stellar career with the Packers. He is a member of the NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team.
Sterling Sharpe was in his second year, and he exploded for 90 receptions and 12 TDs in ‘89. As a rookie, the media had accused him of being overweight, so he refused to speak to reporters until after a playoff victory in 1993. As a result, Sharpe was labeled as “difficult” by the media, but he performed so well on the field the fans couldn’t be convinced we shouldn’t love him. Sharpe’s career was cut short due to injury, but in five of his seven seasons he put up hall-of-fame-caliber numbers.
But the heart and soul of the 1989 Packers was Don Majkowski. A 10th round draft pick in 1987, Majkowski split time with Randy Wright in ‘88 before becoming the starter the next year. Both he and rookie Jeff Query had blonde locks flowing out beneath their helmets. If I were the commissioner of the NFL, I’d make a rule stating every team needs at least one guy who looks like that.
The first game in 1989 was unremarkable. At halftime, the Packers were down 20-7 to Tampa Bay and you could almost feel the air go out of the entire Packer nation. “Here we go again,” seemed to be the collective thought. The Packers battled back after halftime, but lost 23-21 in what appeared to be the start of another three- or four-win season.
The first half of Game Two didn’t give us much to cheer about either as the Packers were down 24-7 to the Bobby Hebert-led New Orleans Saints. But something seemed to happen at halftime, as if a collective bulb went off and the team said, “Let’s just let ‘er rip!” They came out firing and scored 28 second-half points with Majkowski sealing a 35-34 win with a TD pass to Sharpe.
Week Three was more of the same as the Packers fell behind 38-7 against the Rams, but they scored 31 in the second half to narrowly lose 41-38. Although it was a loss, you could tell this team was gaining confidence and the momentum started to build. Back in the ‘80s, Packer fans always counted a close shoot-out as a kind of win.
The Packers beat Atlanta and Dallas to improve to 3-2 before losing to Minnesota and Miami. An overtime win against Detroit brought them to 4-4 and ready to host the Bears at Lambeau.
That November fifth contest against Chicago provided one of the greatest moments in the history of Packers football. The Bears of 1989 were not the same as the Bears we think of today. This was a team only a few years removed from the 1985 squad, and if you’re sick of hearing about the “Super Bowl Shuffle” Bears today, just think what it was like back closer to the source. The Packers scored first on a 24-yard TD pass to Clint Didier, but then did absolutely nothing as the Bears chipped away at the lead. Two field goals followed by a touchdown run gave the Jim Harbaugh-led Bears a 13-7 advantage.
With the clock running down, the Packers’ final drive was stalling inside the 20. On fourth down, Majkowski scrambled right and fired a bullet that Sterling Sharpe caught in the end zone. But the refs called Majkowski for an illegal forward pass as he was ruled to have been beyond the line of scrimmage. The play went to replay and I remember waiting for agonizing minutes as the refs debated before finally overturning the call. Ditka literally exploded into red mist, as fans watching at Lambeau or at home celebrated the first win against Chicago since 1984.
Basically, after that win, the season was already a success, but the Packers weren’t done. Two weeks later, the eventual Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers hosted the Packers and suffered their last loss of the 1989 season. In the fourth quarter, with the game tied, the Packers lined up for a goal-line run. The Packer running back took the carry and was stuffed at the line. We watched in dejection as the 49er ‘D’ celebrated only to have the RB stand up and reveal he didn’t have the ball. There was a “What the heck?” moment, and then, up in the corner of the frame, you could barely see Don Majkowski’s legs trotting into the end zone on a QB keeper. The cameraman, who had been fooled, swiveled the camera to catch Majkowski casually flip the ball over his shoulder as if beating the 49ers was no big deal.
The Packers would win four of their next five including a victory over Tampa Bay on a walk-off field goal that looked wide right until it angled in at the last second. With 10 wins, the Packers needed the Vikings to lose their final game of the season in order to make the playoffs. The Vikings took the field against the Bengals, and as Packer nation watched the contest, the feed occasionally would switch to show members of the Packers sitting around Majkowski’s house, also watching the game. Every time the feed would switch, Majkowski would hide his beer behind his lamp, presumably to spare impressionable young viewers at home from seeing an adult drink a beer. However, he always did it after the feed had already switched, thus rendering the gesture useless. As it became clearer and clearer the Vikings were on their way to victory, Majkowski became less diligent about hiding his beer.
The Packers didn’t make the playoffs, instead ending the season with a win against Dallas. It seemed like the Majkowski era had begun, but he held out for a paltry-by-today’s-standards million-dollar contract and missed the preseason team activities. The result was that the 1990 team seemed to have a bit of a hangover for the first few games. It wasn’t until Week 10 that the Packers recuperated some of their 1989 magic, methodically erasing a 13-point deficit against the Los Angeles Raiders to eventually win 29-16. A solid win over an elite team seemed to have the Packers back in the mix, but the next week against the Cardinals, Freddie Joe Nunn tackled Majkowski on his shoulder and tore his rotator cuff, effectively ending the Majkowski era in Green Bay.
The 1989 Magic didn’t last long, but the team felt different after that year. There have been several periods in Packer history where the NFL’s smallest market has felt pressure to resign and leave the league to the “big boys.” The ‘89 team proved the Packers could beat the Bears, erase big deficits, close out games, and compete in the modern NFL; and in the process they silenced some of the whispers.
Sterling Sharpe had also emerged as a star the Packers could build around. Ron Wolf, Brett Favre and Reggie White are rightly given credit for saving the Packers and turning things around after their arrival in 1991, but every season plays a role in Packer history. That trio certainly did the heavy lifting, but 1989 generated some momentum, and perhaps a tiny fragment of that squad’s contribution still endures.
Author Bio: Walter Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” and “Reckless Traveler.” Both are available at Amazon.com. Rhein can be reached at: WalterRhein@gmail.com
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