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Wolf’s calls ended Packers famine

May 30, 2012 - Jim Anderson
In the 1996 season, the Green Bay Packers had an eight-game relationship with controversial receiver Andre Rison.

No one disputed Rison’s talent. But he had been dumped by three teams in three years, carrying a reputation for being more trouble than he was worth.

The Packers were desperate. They’d already lost top wideout Robert Brooks. And with Antonio Freeman out with a broken forearm, they’d managed just one win in three games, slipping to 8-3.

After going scoreless through three quarters in a loss to the Cowboys, general manager Ron Wolf approached team president Bob Harlan about signing Rison. Harlan said it was Wolf’s call.

With Rison in the lineup (and Freeman soon returning in a cast), Green Bay reeled off eight straight wins. The streak culminated in their first NFL championship in nearly 30 years.

It was the high point of Wolf’s nine-year tenure as GM. The Super Bowl XXXI victory came five years after he was hired to revive a franchise that had reached the playoffs only twice since the Lombardi era.

Through his eight-game stretch, Rison caught 20 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns, including a 54-yarder for a 7-0 Packers lead in the Super Bowl.

Rison came to mind as Wolf and Harlan spoke at the Sport & Society in America conference organized by St. Norbert College.

In the Legends Club Room at Lambeau Field, sports writer Cliff Christl led the retired executives through a discussion titled: “Resurrecting a Downtrodden Team: The Green Bay Packers From Post-Lombardi Famine to Model NFL Franchise.”

Before Wolf’s arrival, the Packers were becoming as well-known for off-field scandals as carriers of the Titletown torch, Christl noted.

Wolf surmised that 75 percent of his players didn’t know who Vince Lombardi was. He made sure they did.

Building an NFL winner, however, takes more than discipline and a storied tradition. It’s guesswork and instinct, too.

When Wolf traded for Brett Favre, Christl asked, what did he see in the hard-partying third-stringer that others had failed to grasp?

“Whenever he took the field,” Wolf said, “I had a feeling the field tipped in his team’s favor.”

Coach Mike Holmgren (and Iron Mountain’s Steve Mariucci) honed Favre’s MVP talent and rest fell in place, including the free-agent signing of Reggie White. By Wolf taking a chance on Favre, millions of Packers fans got their chance to enjoy a “tilt” in the field for many years to come. (Save the occasional off year, the Packers haven't faded since.)

At its core, from Wolf and Harlan’s perspective, the “resurrection” of the Packers came down to this: secure good talent; keep that talent motivated; limit the distractions.

Easier said than done, of course.

With Favre overcoming alcohol and painkiller dangers in his fifth Green Bay season, the Packers were on the cusp of a return to glory. But as injuries mounted, Wolf brought in a mercurial star with the nickname “Bad Moon.” Not exactly one from the Lombardi playbook.

Rison had been put on waivers by Jacksonville, where coach Tom Coughlin had grown weary of his mouth — and his penchant for running the wrong patterns.

In Green Bay, accounts from the ’96 season suggest that Rison’s experience was all sweetness and light. (An 8-0 title run helps, no doubt.) During a playoff victory over San Francisco, "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival blared over the Lambeau public address system.

Rison was released by the Packers in March 1997. Wolf, at the time, said there was a logjam at the receiver position. “The feeling here is that Andre is a starter,” he explained, “and with the situation we presently are in, he wouldn't be a starter. So we feel it is in the best interests of both parties to terminate the association at this time. ... Speaking for myself and everyone in the Packers organization, we wish nothing but the best for Andre Rison.”

As a fan, I’ve always wondered about Rison’s time in Green Bay. Why did it work out so well? Was Wolf a hands-on GM who sat Rison down for one-on-ones, helping him stay on point? At the Sport & Society conference, I got a chance to find out.

No, Wolf told me, it wasn’t like that.

So he trusted his staff to handle it?

Wolf nodded, noting that Rison helped win a Super Bowl. Then he revealed something else. The Packers weren’t satisfied with Rison’s approach to the game and were unhappy with his influence on an up-and-coming teammate. By Wolf’s recollection (whether it was Rison or other factors) that same young player wound up “ruined” as an NFL-level performer.

Rison, now 45, is returning to Michigan State this fall to finish his communication arts degree. The five-time Pro Bowler, one of the top players in Spartans history, plans to become a student-assistant coach at MSU. He has coached at Flint Northwestern the past two seasons.

Rison told the Flint Journal he’s looking forward to coaching with Mark Dantonio “because he cares about the right things, the fundamentals of the game.”

Sounds like something you’d hear at a model NFL franchise.



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