An entire generation of NFL fans have grown up with the Green Bay Packers as a benchmark of success, with great quarterbacks from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers leading the way. But it wasn’t that way in the world of the late 1980s. The 1989 Green Bay Packers were the heirs to a recent franchise history that had seen two playoff appearances since the Lombardi era ended following the 1967 season. That’s why this Packer team—even though they ultimately came up short of the playoffs, captured the heart of its loyal fan base with a run that was quite magical.
The “magic” in this case derived from the nickname of the quarterback. Don Majkowski—or “Majik” as he was casually referred to—had a breakout season at age 25. Majik threw 27 touchdown passes and made the Pro Bowl. His primary target was Sterling Sharpe, a 1st-team All-NFL receiver who caught ninety balls for over 1,400 yards.
A creative offense utilized by second-year head coach Lindy Infante, the offensive coordinator for the successful Cleveland Browns teams of 1986-87, got the running backs involved in the passing game. Keith Woodside caught 59 passes and Herman Fontenot grabbed 40 more.
The Packers did not have good offensive line talent, a problem they hoped to redress by using the second overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft on Michigan State tackle Tony Mandarich. That didn’t exactly work out—but more on that later.
With Infante orchestrating and Majik the lead musician, the Green Bay offense ranked eighth in the NFL in points scored. It was enough to overcome a defense that ranked 18th in what was then a 28-team league. Outside linebacker Tim Harris was 1st-team All-Pro with 19 1\/2 sacks, but he was a lonely warrior on a lineup lacking in quality depth.
SAME OLD PACK
Nothing happened in Week 1 to suggest a special season. Green Bay hosted Tampa Bay, a “battle” between two generally weak teams and the Packers managed to lose it. Majik threw three interceptions, the Bucs scored three second-quarter touchdowns and Green Bay fell 23-21.
Mediocre New Orleans came to Lambeau Field next and jumped out to a 21-0 second quarter lead. Then the first inklings of some magic began to appear. Majkowski completed 25/32 passes for 354 yards, three touchdowns and flipped a three-yard scoring pass to Sharpe that stole a 35-34 win. Majik almost did it again the following week on the road against a good Los Angeles Rams team. After digging a 38-7 hole, the quarterback threw for 335 yards, with Sharpe getting 164 of them. Green Bay closed fast, but lost 41-38.
More comeback action was on display at home against lowly Atlanta—trailing 21-6 after three quarters, Majik delivered a 23-21 win. The Dallas Cowboys came to town next. This was an awful team, coming off a 3-13 season that ended the career of Tom Landry and ushered in the Jimmy Johnson era. Dallas would only win one game in 1989 and it wasn’t coming here—trailing 13-10 in the second quarter, Majik hit Sharpe with a 79-yard touchdown pass, then went 38 yards to Fontenot in the third and sealed the 31-13 win with a four-yard toss to Perry Kemp in the final period.
Following this game, the Cowboys dealt Herschel Walker to Green Bay’s divisional rival Minnesota and got a boatload of draft picks. This trade turned Dallas into an early 1990s dynasty and has become the signature deal for any team that moves a veteran star for draft picks. In the short-term all it did for the Packers was get Walker to the Vikings in time for Green Bay’s trip to the Metrodome in Week 6. Herschel ran for 148 yards, keying a big Minnesota edge on the ground and the Packers’ 26-14 loss wasn’t even as competitive as it appears.
Green Bay traveled to Miami and fell behind 20-6 in the fourth quarter. The Majik-to-Sharpe combination stepped up again, with a pair of touchdowns that tied it. But the Dolphins got a field goal late to survive 23-20.
The Packers were definitely more exciting than in recent years and had certainly established you couldn’t count them out. But they were also 3-4 against an early schedule heavy on winnable home games. There was no reason to think anything special was in the works.
GETTING ON THEIR FEET
Through 1994, Green Bay played three home games a year at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium (home to the Brewers through the balance of the 20th century) and they hosted Detroit. The Packers won 23-20, although it took overtime after blowing a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter. And the rush defense was again a problem, with rookie Barry Sanders—taken one pick behind Mandarich—going for 184 yards.
On the surface, another home win over a bad team didn’t seem noteworthy, except for the fact that to be 4-4 at the midway point was cause for celebration in Packer Land back in those days (I grew up there, I know whereof I speak). But this was the start of something special.
The Chicago Bears came to Lambeau. The standard in the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) in the 1980s, the Bears had gotten off to a fast start, before starting to struggle of late. A win here would put them back on track and Green Bay trailed 13-7 late in the game.
Majik faced a fourth down on the Chicago 14-yard line. He rolled to his right and found Sharpe in the end zone. Touchdown—except an official ruled the front of his foot had gone over the line of scrimmage. It was the early days of instant replay and the play was reviewed. After a lengthy process, the call was overturned. Touchdown, and the Packers won 14-13. This is a call that lives in infamy in Chicago, which refuses to recognize the game as a Packer win their media guide to this day. But the NFL standings recognizes it as a win and on a less important note, I think it was the right call.
Green Bay had a letdown the following week in Detroit. The 31-22 loss came with turnovers, including a Pick-6, negating a huge edge in total yardage. The Packers were 5-5 and still not a lot of reason to be thinking playoffs in an era when only five teams per conference made it. But they were now indisputably one of the most fun teams in the league.
MAKING A MOVE
San Francisco was the gold standard of the NFL—the previous January they won their third Super Bowl of the decade and were en route to a 14-2 season and another title in this season. So when Green Bay went west as a (+10.5) underdog and pulled off a 21-17 upset it raised more than a few eyebrows. It wasn’t a vintage Majik performance—he went 18/30 for 153 yards and was outplayed by Joe Montana. But the Packers shut down the 49er ground game, recovered three fumbles and let San Francisco self-destruct with ten penalties. Green Bay had the signature win they needed to make up for some of the disappointing losses they’d suffered earlier.
The Packers got another win they needed even more, edging the Vikings in Lambeau. Sharpe had a monster afternoon, catching ten passes for 157 yards. Veteran corner Dave Brown picked off two passes. Clinging to a 20-16 lead in the fourth quarter, the Green Bay defense came up with a red zone stop and the Vikings settled for a field goal. The game ended at 20-19 and the race was on in the NFC Central.
Green Bay pulled off some more late-game magic in Tampa Bay. Trailing 16-14, they got a 47-yard field goal from Chris Jacke to win it. The Majik-to-Shape combo was clicking, as the two hooked up eight times for 169 yards. That night in prime-time, the Vikings beat the Bears. Chicago was in full-scale meltdown and with three games left, Minnesota and Green Bay were tied at 8-5.
THE LAST PUSH
One thing Green Bay did not have was the tiebreaker—losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit left them a game back of Minnesota in the critical category of divisional record, so it was the Packers who needed help. Instead, they responded by losing badly at home, 21-3 to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs were a non-playoff team in 1989, though coming on strong under first-year coach Marty Schottenheimer. When Minnesota blew out Atlanta, Green Bay’s margin for error was gone.
They responded by going to Chicago and winning in a fashion that left Bears fans with no room for doubt. Woodside rumbled 68 yards for a touchdown that started the scoring. The defense forced five turnovers and Green Bay won 40-28. At the same time, Minnesota was playing on a sheet of ice in Cleveland. The game went overtime and a Browns team fighting for its own playoff life, pulled it out. The Packers were still breathing.
It was the weekend of Christmas as the final NFL regular season games were played. Green Bay still had wild-card possibilities. They were 9-6, with Philadelphia and Los Angeles at 10-5. In a three-way tie at 10-6 (where the Packers loss to the Rams wouldn’t hurt), Green Bay could join Philadelphia as the wild-card. But they needed both teams to lose and both were playing losing teams.
All three of these games went down in the early afternoon on Christmas Eve. Green Bay went to Dallas (the schedule format prior to 2002 called for last-place teams in five-team divisions to play twice). The game was tied 10-10 in the third quarter as the Packers couldn’t run the ball. But Troy Aikman threw four interceptions, Majik went 21/32 for 232 yards with no mistakes and Green Bay methodically churned out a 20-10 win.
Now it was time to wait and hope. The Eagles, a two-touchdown favorite over the Cardinals, held serve easily, so there was little drama on the wild-card front. It would come down to the following night when Minnesota played Cincinnati on the final edition of Monday Night Football.
The last prime-time game of the year isn’t flexed, the way it is today, but this is certainly the game ABC would have chosen in any case. The Vikings and Bengals were both playing win-or-go-home games. The fan bases of the Packers and Steelers were gathered around for some Christmas Night drama.
Alas, it wasn’t to be for the Packers. The Bengals fell behind 19-0 and though they rallied to within 22-21, a Viking touchdown on fourth-and-goal late in the game sealed the 29-21 win. The playoff bid was over.
THE HARD CRASH
One year later, the NFL expanded its playoffs by one team per conference, meaning Green Bay was a year too early as the 6-seed. From a historical standpoint, that was more consequential than one might have thought at the time.
The Majik Man proved to be a flash in the pan and never again had a good year as an NFL quarterback. Tony Mandarich became one of the biggest busts in the history of the NFL draft. The Packers endured two disappointing seasons that ended Infante’s promising tenure as a head coach.
Majikowski stayed as starting quarterback until Week 3 of the 1992 season, with Packer fans hoping he could reclaim the magic of 1989. Finally, an injury knocked him out in that third game of 1992 and Brett Favre came off the bench. And finally, Green Bay Packer history changed decisively for the better.