Running Back: 1980-86
Height: 5-11; Weight: 221
College: Missouri, 1977-79
At a time in NFL history when the role of halfbacks and fullbacks was evolving and both positions were often being referred to by the all-encompassing term running back even if there was a distinct difference in their duties on certain teams, Gerry Ellis found his niche with the Packers through his rare versatility.
Drafted in the seventh round by the Los Angeles Rams in 1980 and waived on the final cutdown of training camp, Ellis signed with the Packers as a free agent nine days later based on the recommendation of Bob Bratkowski, son of Packers backfield coach Zeke Bratkowski and an assistant coach at the University of Missouri, where Ellis had played his college ball.
Ellis signed two days after the season opener and took over as the starting fullback in the third game when halfback Steve Atkins was benched and Eddie Lee Ivery moved from fullback to halfback. "(Ellis) has some real instincts relative to running the football," coach Bart Starr explained when asked about the move.
A year later, Ellis enjoyed his best season statistically, producing a career-high 860 rushing yards and also a career-best 65 pass receptions. Following a subpar 1982 season and a slow start in 1983, Ellis was moved to halfback before the ninth game that year and finished with a flurry, more than doubling his rushing output over the first half of the season. Then, for three years through 1985, Ellis alternated between the two positions and shared playing time with Ivery and Jessie Clark. In his final season, Ellis played halfback.
"You can't appreciate the ability of Gerry Ellis," George Sefcik, Packers backfield coach from 1984-85, said after his first season on the staff. "Here's a guy who is totally unselfish. The big thing that makes us feel good is he plays two positions. Last year, he made the jump in a week (from halfback to fullback) and there was no mental falloff."
On one hand, Ellis lacked Ivery's breakaway speed and Clark's penchant for blocking. On the other hand, Ellis' contribution as an all-purpose back more than made up for it. He was one of those rare tweeners in pro football – whether it be a combination cornerback/safety, tackle/guard, halfback/fullback or whatever – who was viewed positively as a jack of all trades and not negatively as a master of none.
Ellis had five different backfield coaches in seven seasons with the Packers and all found something different to like about him. Because of Ellis' big thighs and low center of gravity, Bratkowski called him "a great second-effort runner" following his rookie season. When Pete Kettela took over as backfield coach in 1982, he said, "As (offensive coordinator) Bob Schnelker said after watching our films, he never saw a guy like that who never goes down with the first hit. (Ellis) had 1,500 yards total offense. He does nothing but make yards." John Brunner, who replaced Kettela in 1983, praised Ellis for being "a natural receiver." Sefcik described him as a "smooth, glide-type" runner. When John Hilton took over as backfield coach in 1986, he said Ellis had one of the best stiff-arms in the game to ward off tacklers, a valuable trait for a back who had a special knack for finding daylight on pitchouts.
In seven seasons, Ellis rushed for 3,826 yards on 836 carries, a 4.6 average, and caught 267 passes for 2,514 yards, a 9.4 average. In all, he played in 103 games and scored 35 touchdowns. His biggest negative was that he fumbled 33 times.
Ellis' most memorable play was probably his 56-yard pass reception on third-and-10 from the Packers' 36-yard line that set up Jan Stenerud's game-winning, 20-yard field goal in the final minute of the 48-47 victory over defending Super Bowl champion Washington in a nationally televised Monday night game in 1983. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Ellis caught a 32-yard pass from Dickey that also set up a touchdown and gave the Packers a 38-33 lead. Ellis finished the game with four receptions for 105 yards and rushed for 41 yards on three carries, a 13.7 average. In another unforgettable game at Lambeau Field, the 1985 Snow Bowl, Ellis rushed for 109 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown, on only nine attempts as the Packers blanked Tampa Bay, 21-0.
Ellis was waived by the Packers after he failed his physical at the start of training camp in 1987. He had ruptured his Achilles tendon in mid-June of that year while serving as a guest instructor at a football camp for underprivileged youth in the Detroit area.
Born Nov. 12, 1957. Give name Gerry Lynn Ellis.
(Note: The official play-by-play for the Sept. 21, 1980 game between the Packers and Los Angeles Rams erroneously listed Eddie Lee Ivery and Steve Atkins as Green Bay's starting backs. There is no disputing, however, that Ellis made his first pro start that day at fullback.)