April 6, 2012

1993: Reggie White Agrees to Join Packers

The most significant name in the free agent field following the 1992 season, 31-year-old DE Reggie White concluded a 37-day tour of interested NFL suitors on April 6, 1993 by agreeing to a contract with the Green Bay Packers – the NFL’s smallest market and one that even White admitted he had not considered to be a good fit at the beginning of the process.

To be sure, many other teams had shown interest in White, most notably the Redskins, 49ers, Jets, and Browns. The Packers signed him for four years at $17 million, with $9 million guaranteed in the first year (half salary and half signing bonus).

 “A lot of people will say I went for the money and money does play a part of it,” said White. The ordained minister expressed an interest in using his wealth to invest in inner city programs.

The 6’5”, 290-pound White, aka The Minister of Defense, had come out of Tennessee and played his first two pro seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL. The Philadelphia Eagles selected him in the first round of the 1984 supplemental NFL draft, and thus gained his services in ’85 following the demise of the spring league. Joining the Eagles late, White made an immediate impression by recording 13 sacks in as many games.

White remained with Philadelphia for eight seasons and established himself as an elite player, formidable against both the run and the pass. He recorded 124 sacks in 121 regular season games with the Eagles, was selected to seven straight Pro Bowls through ’92 and was a consensus first-team All-Pro for six consecutive years. He nearly set a new single-season record for sacks during the strike-shortened 1987 season with 21, and again led the NFL with 18 in ’88.

Moreover, White was not only an immensely talented player but a natural leader on the team, and highly popular with the fans. During the coaching reign of the brash, defense-oriented Buddy Ryan from 1986 to ’90, the star end became the cornerstone of an aggressive defense that was one of the best in the NFL, culminating in a 1991 season in which the Eagles led the league not only in total defense, but were best against both the run and the pass.

By that point Ryan was gone, having clashed with team owner Norman Braman, and not helped by his failing to win any postseason games (they qualified three times). White became a vocal critic of the front office by his last year with the team, and the Eagles made no serious effort to retain him once he became a free agent.

Green Bay, meanwhile, had been in the doldrums for an extended period. Since Vince Lombardi stepped down as head coach following a third consecutive NFL title in 1967, the Packers had made it to the postseason just twice in 25 years, the last time in 1982. Prior to ’92, they had recorded only one winning season in the past six. However, that situation was beginning to change with the coming of a new head coach in 1992, Mike Holmgren. A new starting quarterback, Brett Favre, also began to show promise, and after getting off to a 3-6 start, the Packers won six of their last seven games to finish at 9-7, just missing the playoffs.

If the Eagles were beginning to look shaky, Green Bay seemed to be moving in the right direction, as White acknowledged. He liked what Holmgren was doing to build the team up, the manner in which defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes directed his unit, and the organization’s apparent commitment to winning and providing improved facilities. A bonus was that the Packers played on a grass field, a big improvement after the notoriously poor artificial surface at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium.
One area of weakness for the Packers in ‘92 had been the pass rush as the club ranked 21st in the NFL with 34 sacks. While LB Tony Bennett had a healthy 13.5 to lead the club, the best total among the linemen was four by DE Matt Brock. White offered a significant upgrade and another newcomer, NT Bill Maas, was also added as a free agent.

“I think we can now compete for the division title and that's what we're in this for,” said Green Bay GM Ron Wolf. “With Reggie now, we are going to be considered a serious contender.”

The team did continue to move forward in 1993, again going 9-7 but qualifying for the postseason as a wild card entry. White recorded 13 sacks, becoming the first Green Bay defensive lineman to make it to double digits in that category since DE Ezra Johnson in 1983 (15.5).

While there had been whispers when the Packers acquired White that he was on the downside of his career, and he seemed to wear down during the second half of the ’93 season, that talk ended as he continued to play at a high level during the remainder of his career in Green Bay, which lasted for six seasons. He accumulated 68.5 sacks with the Packers and was still an annual Pro Bowl selectee (he ended up being chosen 13 straight times). Moreover, he continued to be a team leader and helped to improve the overall play of the defense. The Packers reached the postseason in every year that the Minister of Defense was with the team, and in 1996 they won their first NFL Championship since the Lombardi era.

White retired from the Packers following a 1998 season in which he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press – a tribute to his continuing ability at age 37, even if he was no longer as consistently dominating. He came out of retirement to play one last season in 2000 with the Carolina Panthers and then left for good with 198 career NFL sacks, in addition to 23.5 in the USFL. White was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 – sadly, almost two years after his sudden death on Dec. 26, 2004 from respiratory failure.