Murphy Takes 5

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What was the best Packers team of all-time?

Posted Dec 22, 2016

Were the 1962 Packers one of the NFL's greatest?

Bart Starr throws a pass in a game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 16, 1962. The Packers won the game 20-17.

Doug from Sacramento, CA

Saw your column on Paul Hornung being best ever at his position. Totally agree. Which got me to thinking, what in your opinion is the best Green Bay team of all-time? I submit the ’62 team. Eleven of 37 players in Canton. One loss.

I essentially agree. Not only were the 1962 Packers 13-1 and 16-7 victors over the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game, but they also outscored their opponents, 415-148. They beat the Bears, who finished 9-5, by scores of 49-0 and 38-7. Detroit, Western Conference runner-up, split with the Packers, but several players from those 1960s teams have said the ’62 Lions were their toughest opponent of all. It was also that year when the Packers beat Philadelphia, 49-0, in what’s still the closest thing I’ve ever seen in the NFL to a perfect performance. The Packers scored on seven straight drives, ranging from 89 to 65 yards. They outgained the Eagles 628 yards to 54. They had 37 first downs; the Eagles had 3. Statistically, the Packers finished fourth in the 14-team NFL in total yards and first in yards allowed so that also was the most balanced of Lombardi’s championship teams.

That said, this isn’t like answering the question, “Who was the greatest racehorse ever,” where there was Secretariat and all the others seemed to pale in comparison.

The 1961 Packers, for example, might have been even better for half a season and, then again, when it mattered most in the NFL championship. But over the last half of the regular season, Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler and Ray Nitschke were called up for National Guard duty and it was a continuing distraction. The three players usually received weekend passes to play in games, but they couldn’t practice, not until the week before the title game. Then when they did, the Packers crushed the Giants, 37-0.

Hornung was at his best from 1959 to 1961, and opposing defenses couldn’t stop the sweep or halfback option. Dowler was the only one of the three who didn’t miss a game in ’61 and that was important because the Packers didn’t really have a backup for him. Losing Nitschke, on the other hand, wasn’t as significant. Tom Bettis started ahead of Nitschke throughout 1959 and most of the 1960 season and then stepped back into the middle linebacker spot when Nitschke went into the service. In fact, here’s a trivia question: What Packers middle linebacker was carried off the field on the shoulders of celebrating fans after the Packers’ shutout of the Giants in the title game? The answer is Bettis.

Here again, while the ’61 and ’62 teams had outstanding defenses to go with what was virtually an unstoppable running game, I think the defense was even better in 1966 and probably ’67, too. In 1966, the Packers allowed 163 points, an average of 11.6 a game. The L.A. Rams finished second in scoring defense, allowing 212 points. That’s a huge difference between 1 and 2. 1966 also was Bart Starr’s best season.

Finally, I think one of Curly Lambeau’s teams and maybe both of the post-Lombardi champs also deserve mention.

Not only didn’t I see Lambeau’s 1929 championship team, I’m not sure I can even comprehend what it took to have a great team back then. I’ve read numerous game stories in various newspapers from that era and get the sense the punting game was the most important facet. Plus, players went both ways and played up to 60 minutes a game. But the ’29 team’s 12-0-1 record and 198 to 22 scoring advantage can’t be ignored. What’s more, three of the 11 starters are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a case could be made for three others. The NFL started play in 1920, not the day of the first Super Bowl or when ESPN went on the air, as some would have you believe, so I’d feel guilty if I didn’t at least include the ’29 team in the conversation, especially if we’re going to decide this on numbers.

Today, nothing is more important in the NFL than having an outstanding quarterback, and the Packers had two of the three or four best of the last quarter-century leading their 1996 and 2010 champions.

Bill from Bloomfield Hills, MI

I’ve read the ’62 Packers might have been Lombardi’s greatest. If you look at the record and the Ice Bowl, the 1967 Packers might have had a little luck on their side. Of course, the Packers lost to the Eagles in the 1960 championship. So they really had an eight-year run. Were five championships about what they should have achieved? Seems odd they didn’t win in 1963 and ’64.

Intriguing question. When Muhammad Ali died, Sports Illustrated ran a story attempting to define his greatness. Longtime boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas said, “There were two Alis in his career. The first guy won with pure skill; the second guy won with pure will.” When I read that this past June, I thought Atlas could just as well have been talking about Lombardi’s Packers.

They dominated not only in 1961 and ’62, but also over the last four games in 1959, Lombardi’s first season, and down the stretch again and even in the championship against the Eagles in 1960. Despite losing, the Packers outgained the Eagles, 401 yards to 296, and held a 22-13 edge in first downs.

1963 and ’64 were seasons of transition, although in ’63, the Packers’ winning percentage was the third best of the Lombardi era.

From 1965 to 1967, when the Packers won their three straight, much like Ali, they won as much with will as skill.

The majority of players on Lombardi’s ’61 and ’62 championship teams were about the same age. Therefore, as much as he tried to turn over the roster, his teams at the end still got old in certain areas.

The 1965 Packers had 10 different starters from 1962, but they also had 10 starters from ’62 who had since turned 30. As a result, the defense got faster and more athletic, but the offense didn’t have the firepower it had with a young Jim Taylor and a young Hornung.

Let’s not forget, either, how easily those three seasons could have turned out differently.

In 1965, the Packers went to Baltimore the second-to-last week of the season and had to win to avoid elimination. They beat the Colts, 42-27, when Hornung, who had played sparingly or not at all most of the second half of the season, returned and scored five touchdowns. Then two weeks later, the Packers beat the Colts in a playoff when a Don Chandler field goal looked to be wide right, but was ruled good, sending the game into overtime.

In 1966, Dallas had the ball at the Packers’ 2-yard line with 45 seconds to go and a chance to force another OT, this time in the NFL championship. In 1967, if Starr doesn’t score on his sneak in the Ice Bowl, the clock runs out.

Brian from Fond du Lac

The 1962 Packers seem to go largely unmentioned as the greatest defense of all-time and greatest team of all time. Why is that? How do you think the ’62 Packers stack against other great NFL teams?

In my opinion, the best measuring stick for comparing teams from different eras is how dominant they were. Few if any teams in the history of the NFL have been more dominant than the ’62 Packers. So I agree they should be in the conversation of greatest ever.

But pro football has changed so much over the years – much more so than baseball, I believe – that it’s hard to compare teams from different eras. As I mentioned, the 1929 Packers were essentially as dominant as the ’62 team in terms of numbers. But how do you compare a team from a season where more than half of the NFL’s 70 games were shutouts to one today? And, arguably, today’s game is as different from the one they played in 1962, or at least the way the Packers played, as that year’s style was from the one played in 1929. Look at Starr’s TD-Int. ratio in ’62. He threw 12 touchdown passes in 14 games, and nine interceptions. How many teams today could win a Super Bowl with their starting QB playing in every game and having those kind of numbers?

Actually, the Packers, as a team, threw 14 touchdown passes in ’62; and 12 in 13 games in ’29.

Since the Lombardi era, I’ve felt the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s were the best of the Super Bowl champs. I don’t know which Steeler or Cowboy team I’d pick, but generally speaking I thought those two teams were more physically dominant than any of Lombardi’s teams. Simply put, they were bigger, faster, stronger; and the Steelers didn’t play that different a game in the ’70s.

However, I don’t believe there has been a single Super Bowl champ that has executed better than Lombardi’s best. So what do you put more weight on? Talent or execution?

Les from Wauwatosa, WI

The 1963 season was a huge disappointment. The Packers lost a chance to win three NFL championships in a row. Hornung suspended; Starr hurt, yet they only lost by a half-game. Could you fill in the details?

Based on everything I’ve read and heard, Lombardi’s greatest obsession during his time in Green Bay was winning three straight NFL titles, something no coach or team had done since the first championship game was played in 1933. When the Packers didn’t do it the first time they had a chance, by all accounts, he was bitterly disappointed.

The ’63 Packers lost two games to the Bears, 10-3 in the opener, and 26-7 at Wrigley Field. Starr missed four games with a broken hand, including the rematch with the Bears. John Roach, a former starter with the Chicago Cardinals, took his place and the Packers didn’t miss a beat in the first three games, then clearly missed Starr in the second Bears game. Still, there was more talk back then about how much the Packers missed Hornung, who was suspended for the season. Tom Moore, the fifth pick of the 1960 draft and Hornung’s replacement, was a big, talented halfback. MacArthur Lane, Eddie Lee Ivery, Dorsey Levens, Ahman Green and Eddie Lacy were the only Packers halfbacks in the last 35 years who might have been more talented than Moore. But Moore was no Hornung.

I’ll repeat a quote I used two months ago. When the ’63 season was over, Norm Van Brocklin, coach of the Minnesota Vikings, said Hornung “is the difference between first and second place.”

Jim from Valdosta, GA

Did Lombardi ever talk about trading Nitschke for the rights to draft Tommy Nobis?

On one hand, I’ve never heard or read anything about a Nobis-for-Nitschke deal. On the other hand, it certainly would have fit Lombardi’s MO.

Nobis, a middle linebacker out of Texas, was the No. 1 pick in the 1966 NFL Draft by Atlanta, a first-year expansion franchise. Nobis was viewed as the second coming of Dick Butkus and played like it until he suffered a bad knee injury early in his fourth season. Nitschke, on the other hand, would turn 29 a month after the 1966 draft. Plus, the weekend of that draft, a story broke about Nitschke playing out his option. He even said at one point he expected to be traded.

Lombardi believed it was critical to stay young and keep his veterans on edge by constantly turning over his roster. From that standpoint, Nitschke-for-Nobis made sense.

Also, many of you might remember how irate Lombardi was when the story broke a year later about Taylor playing out his option and how he basically said good riddance when Taylor signed with the New Orleans Saints and the Packers received a No. 1 pick in return. “The Packers have been in this business for 47 years – is that right? – and they’ll be in it for another 47 years, so we always will have to replace the Jim Taylors,” was Lombardi’s parting shot.

There’s only one reason I can think of why Lombardi might have been reluctant to make the trade and it would have been cost. In the end, Nobis and the Packers’ No. 1 picks, Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski, signed packages that offseason totaling nearly $2 million, an astronomical sum at the time.

Finally, you mentioned you “saw a little piece” about this, but don’t remember where. FYI: There were trade rumors after the draft of a Nobis-for-Jim Ninowski swap. Ninowski was Cleveland’s backup quarterback. If you think you might have heard something somewhere, rather than having read it, Ninowski and Nitschke sound more than a little bit alike.

Rob from Greenbank, WA

I go way back to when Hornung would throw the halfback option pass. The play seems to have been virtually abandoned for decades. Can you tell me when it was last used with some frequency and success with the Packers?

You’re right, I don’t think it’s a play in NFL playbooks today. We recently witnessed a running back throwing a touchdown pass when Tennessee’s DeMarco Murray did it against the Packers a little more than a month ago. It wasn’t Lombardi’s halfback option. It was a one-back set with three receivers bunched tight to the right and only a tackle pulled. But there were some similarities. Murray ran to the right and the strong side of the formation before pulling up to pass.

Lombardi’s option pass was designed to look exactly like his power sweep. Both guards pulled and Hornung ran right from a split-back formation.

Anyway, the last backs I remember running something similar to the option and having occasional success were Walter Payton and Marcus Allen, and I think Allen was maybe better at it than Payton.

While Lombardi was still coaching and in the seasons immediately after, Moore, Elijah Pitts and also Donny Anderson, I believe, threw off the halfback option play. Since then there were several Packers backs that I remember throwing passes. The list includes MacArthur Lane, Willard Harrell, Gerry Ellis, Paul Ott Carruth and Tony Fisher. But I can’t tell you what the play designs were.


 
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