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10 greatest players of the Curly Lambeau era

Verne Lewellen beats out Clarke Hinkle and Don Hutson

Former Packers back Verne Lewellen
Former Packers back Verne Lewellen

With Aaron Rodgers recently bringing up the subject, it has sparked a flurry of discussion about the greatest Packers players ever.

My answer to one recent podcast request on the subject was this:

There are only two candidates: Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Take your pick. Vince Lombardi said Paul Hornung was his greatest player (the Forrest Gregg quote was a Pro Football Hall of Fame fabrication) and who am I to think that I know more than Lombardi about his own players? But Hornung doesn't pass the longevity test in this case. Verne Lewellen dominated pro football from 1924-32 like few others in history – he was the star during the Lambeau Glory Years, including an almost Brady-like .730 winning percentage with three straight NFL titles – because of his unrivaled prowess as a punter, quadruple-threat back and touchdown maker when 7-0 scores won games. Don Hutson had the stats, but more big-name Packers who played with both were quoted as saying Clarke Hinkle was the better player.

Rather than focus on a Rodgers-Favre debate or try to do the impossible and compare players from the one-platoon, grind-it-out game of the Curly Lambeau era to today's fastbreak game in cleats, let's start by picking the 10 greatest Packers of Lambeau's time. The list includes only those Packers who spent the bulk of their careers in Green Bay from 1921-49.

1. Verne Lewellen, Back, 1924-32 – Yes, I know, he's not one of the Packers' 25 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but hopefully this extended capsule of his career will convince you that his exclusion is Canton's most egregious oversight of all.

When the charter class was announced in 1963, former teammate Johnny Blood, who was one of the first 11 players elected, said, "Verne Lewellen should have been in there in front of me and (Cal) Hubbard." Charlie Mathys, who was the Packers' first established starting quarterback from 1922-26 when he was Lewellen's teammate and, from then until 1980, a Green Bay resident and Packers board member who might not have missed a home game for more than 50 years, said in 1967: "Defensively, offensively – of the players we had in the old days – (Lewellen) was number one. And I'm not alone in saying that. Any of the old-timers I've talked to say the same thing. … He was way ahead of his time in ability. If he doesn't get in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame, it's a joke."

Lewellen's last season was the first season that the NFL started keeping official statistics and that doesn't help his cause. But here are other numbers to digest.

During Lewellen's nine seasons, the Packers compiled a 79-26-10 record, including 11-3 against the Bears and Giants, the league's other two powerhouses when the Packers won their unprecedented three straight NFL championships from 1929-31. In 1933, following Lewellen's retirement, the Packers had a losing record (5-7-1) for the first time in 12 NFL seasons and went 0-5 against the Bears and Giants. That was more than a coincidence.

If you go back and read newspaper game stories throughout Lewellen's career, he dominated games, arguably, like nobody else in the NFL at that time. Tom Brady, perhaps the most dominant player in league history, had a .754 winning percentage in his 333 starts. But the Packers' .730 winning percentage with Lewellen in a starring role was better than Joe Montana's .713 and Peyton Manning's .702 as starting quarterbacks; and better than Bart Starr's .618 and the Packers' .725 winning percentage during Don Hutson's years.

As an aside, human nature being what it is and with fans being fans, one senses from sportswriters' comments and occasional letters to the editor, the Hutson years were a letdown. Three championships in 10 seasons (1935-44) seems to have been less than acceptable following a steady climb from obscurity capped by three titles in three years during Lewellen's time.

The most credible all-pro team during Lewellen's career was the one chosen by the Green Bay Press-Gazette because it was the only one based on league-wide polling of coaches, team officials and sportswriters. Plus, there was no evidence that the selections ever showed favoritism to Packers.

Lewellen was selected to the second team in 1925 and to the first team four straight years from 1926-29. No other halfback was more decorated and among all backs only fullback Ernie Nevers earned more first-team nods during that span with five. In contrast, Blood, the Hall of Fame halfback, made one first team. Chris Willis, head of the research library at NFL Films and a prolific author of books on early NFL history, picked Lewellen as the NFL's retroactive MVP for both 1929 and '30 in a series of columns he wrote for the Pro Football Journal.

More than anything, what separated Lewellen from his peers was his punting during an era described this way by former NFL coach and commissioner Bert Bell in an article about the history of offensive football: "Kicking then was (the) main offensive threat." (And by kicking, Bell meant punting. In 1932, for example, Dutch Clark led the NFL with three field goals.)

In game story after game story in newspapers across league cities, Lewellen's punting was repeatedly singled out by coaches, players and sportswriters for being the deciding factor in Packers victories. Lewellen could boom punts of 50 yards or more on a long field and nobody was better at coffin-corner punts from inside an opponents' 50 – he'd even punt inside an opponent's 40 – when the objective was to boot the ball out of bounds, which is why his unofficial 39.5 career average is misleading.

Lewellen was unofficially credited with 136 punts in 1928. In the 83 years that the NFL has included punting among its official stats, no punter on a winning team has had more than 111 attempts.

But Lewellen was no specialist; his punting was the Packers' primary weapon. He often played 60 minutes a game because of his value as a punter, and many of his punts were quick kicks from his halfback position to flip field position. In 1929, when the Packers won their first title, 64 of Lewellen's 85 punts came on first, second or third down. In 1962, after covering pro football for nearly 40 years, Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote: "No one who ever saw Lewellen kick could ever forget him. He was the finest punter these eyes ever saw."

When Lewellen retired, he also held the NFL record for touchdowns with 51, 10 more than Blood, who was second at the time. That was when a single touchdown often decided games. In 17 games during his career, Lewellen scored the Packers' only touchdown and they went 11-4-2 in those games.

Lewellen's primary position in Lambeau's Notre Dame Box offense was left halfback, but he also played right halfback and filled in at quarterback in a pinch.

In 1929, when the Packers beat the Giants, 20-6, in the biggest game of their first championship season and arguably the signature game in their history prior to the Ice Bowl, Lewellen filled in at quarterback for an injured Red Dunn and, based on unofficial stats, accounted for 84 yards passing, rushing and receiving in addition to his 354 yards on seven punts, a 50.6 average. The entire New York press seemed to be in agreement with the New York Daily News' explanation for the 10-0 Packers' domination of what were now the 8-1-1 Giants – that Lewellen had "distinctly outshone (Benny) Friedman," the only quarterback of the 1920s inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In addition to his punting, Lewellen was a true triple-threat back who was considered one of the most effective off-tackle runners in the game, yet he also made an inordinate number of big plays as a runner, passer and receiver, again, based on newspaper play-by-plays. When he retired after the NFL's 13th season, based on pro football historian David Neft's unofficial statistics for the league's pre-stats era, Lewellen ranked second in all-time scoring, second in rushing, fifth in receiving and 11th in passing, despite never being the Packers' featured passer. Former teammates also lauded his defensive play.

Perhaps Guy Chamberlin, Pro Football Hall of Fame end and winner of four NFL titles as a coach in the 1920s, summarized Lewellen's career better than anyone when he said, "I don't recall many spectacular incidents involving Lewellen – probably because he was always spectacular." That, too, is Brady-like. Ask yourself how many of Brady's passes do you vividly remember compared to his consistently high level of play and impact on games?

2. Clarke Hinkle, Fullback, 1932-41 – Hinkle held the NFL's career rushing record for eight years after he retired. However, he was described as "the perfect fullback" in the Packers' 1940 press guide for other reasons, as well. He was their primary punter for most of his career and a capable passer in his early years, essential qualities for a fullback in Lambeau's Box because they were positioned to take direct snaps from center. Hinkle also doubled as a defensive fullback, Lambeau's term at the time for what today are linebackers.

Hinkle's intangibles also were off the charts. "Meaner than a rattlesnake," former teammate Bob Adkins once said. Even players on the Bears have admitted that Hinkle was more explosive than Bronko Nagurski, despite being 30 pounds lighter. "(Hinkle) was the hardest runner I ever tried to tackle," Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker and center Clyde "Bulldog" Turner told me in 1996 "When you hit him, it would just pop every joint all the way down to your toes."

Before television, when players' only chance to see opponents was when they faced them, the opinions of teammates were arguably more credible. "Clarke Hinkle was the greatest all-around ballplayer I've ever seen," Lewellen, who played one year with Hinkle and then stayed in Green Bay, later becoming general manager of the Packers, said in 1948. Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Mike Michalske, and 1930s All-Decade guard Buckets Goldenberg played with both Hinkle and Don Hutson. In 1977, Michalske said, "As far as Hinkle, I believe he was the best player the Packers ever had." Goldenberg said in 1965, "Clarke Hinkle was the greatest all-around football player of all time."

Three years ago, in a story about the best of the Packers' Iron Man players, I ranked Hutson ahead of Hinkle. But following countless hours of more research on the first 30 years of the NFL, I've decided it would be foolish of me to think that I know more about two players I never saw than those who played with them. The above quotes reflected the consensus of what I've found in my continuing research and that's why Hinkle is ahead of Hutson on this list. It's also why I moved Lewellen from No. 3 up to No. 1.

3. Don Hutson, End, 1935-45 – Twice the league MVP. Nine-time Official NFL or AP All-Pro. Held 19 NFL records when he retired. A one-of-a-kind player in his era. "No one but Superman could perform the feats Don Hutson has performed in catching passes," Clark Shaughnessy, a legendary strategist as a pro and college coach, once said.

But there also are some myths to bust here first.

It has been written that Hutson ran a Jesse Owens-like 9.5 100-yard dash, and he himself claimed he could consistently run 9.7. Yet he never even won the event in a dual meet at Alabama. It has been widely acclaimed that he was the game's first wide receiver and there may be some truth to that because did he flank out wide on occasion starting by at least 1940. Yet numerous teammates and opponents alike claim he lined up much like a tight end of today on the vast majority of plays. It was written and perpetuated by Hutson that he received two paychecks so Lambeau could conceal his high salary from other players. Yet the Packers' audited federal tax statement in 1939, when they won their fifth NFL title and Hutson was a fifth-year veteran, included a complete list of player salaries, and second-year man Cecil Isbell and Hinkle were both paid more.

There also were endless debates during Hutson's career about his role and impact on games.

One was whether he was as much a liability as an asset when he doubled as a 183-pound defensive end over his first four seasons.

In Spalding's 1940 Official NFL Guide, Ray Flaherty, Washington's future Hall of Fame coach and an end during his eight-year NFL playing career, wrote: "Ends must be more versatile than any other men on the football field. They have the duties of both backs and linemen." Among the requirements that Flaherty said made a good end were punt coverage, the ability to block a defensive tackle – often the biggest player on the opposing team – on running plays, being stout enough at the point of attack on defense to hold up against off-tackle runs while also being able to make open-field tackles on reverses, and being a good receiver. By almost all accounts, Hutson excelled in only one of those areas. Thus, almost every other end in the league had a big weight advantage over him and, in turn, they were much more limited as receivers. For example, Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Cal Hubbard at more than 250 pounds made four of his 10 starts at end in his first season with the Packers and made one there as late as his last season, Hutson's rookie year.

The other hot topic was over Hutson's value as a gamebreaker.

Steve Owen, future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach of the Giants, said in 1943 that Hutson was as talented at his position as Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman were as passers, but not nearly as impactful. "You can build an offense around a great passer, but it isn't so easy to build an offense around a fine receiver," said Owen. Two years later, when legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice asked Philadelphia's future Hall of Fame coach Greasy Neale if he'd take a great passer or a great receiver first, he answered that he'd take Luckman over Baugh and Hutson combined.

When I asked Bulldog Turner about Hutson, he said he gave him nightmares because he had to help cover him at 235 pounds. "Man! I'd worry about it all year," said Turner. But then when I followed up and asked who had a bigger impact on the final score, Hutson or the Bears' great breakaway halfback George McAfee, Turner's answer was instant and seemingly logical: McAfee because he'd get the ball more often. Hutson's career averages per game were: 4.2 catches, 68.9 yards and 0.9 TDs. As for defense, Hutson intercepted 30 passes after he was moved from end to the backfield for his final seven seasons, but Michalske once said that Hutson's idea of a tackle was to let someone else make it.

It is universally accepted that Hutson was football's greatest receiver in the one-platoon era without even a close second. And thanks to Lambeau, who was a visionary as a young coach, especially when it came to the passing game, the Packers exploited Hutson's talents for 11 winning seasons. But Hutson also was a specialist at a time when players were mostly judged by their all-around play on both sides of the ball for up to 60 minutes a game.

4. Mike Michalske, Guard, 1929-35, '37 – When the Packers won their first NFL title in 1929, Michalske's first season with them, they allowed 22 points in 13 games. Over the full course of their three-peat, they registered 17 shutouts in 41 games. One can only speculate, but it would seem that in those early days of seven-man defensive fronts and snot-bubble football, the best linemen might have been as valuable as most backs.

While Michalske played guard on both sides of the ball, he made his name primarily with his defense. As a down lineman, for example, he'd tail a pulling guard with such speed that it wasn't unusual for him to catch the ball-carrier from behind before he reached the line of scrimmage. When the Packers played a six-man line, they'd put Michalske behind the line, much like today's inside linebackers, and have him key on the two halfbacks.

In 1950, Friedman, the most prolific passer of the pre-stats era, said Michalske was the best guard he ever faced "bar none." He added, "Mike was never mouse-trapped, never out of position … and a deadly tackler."

5. Cal Hubbard, Tackle, 1929-33, '35 – While Hubbard made the NFL's 75th and 100th anniversary teams and Michalske didn't, the latter made either the Press-Gazette's or the NFL's Official All-Pro team – essentially the paper's team evolved into the official team in the early 1930s – in six of his eight seasons with the Packers. Hubbard was a first-team choice only three times. It's another example of how myth over time often overtakes reality.

Red Grange, football's first highly publicized superstar, said in 1932: "The greatest tackle I've ever seen – or been pulverized by – is Cal Hubbard…" On the other hand, Lambeau picked four all-time Packers teams between 1945 and '50, and left Hubbard off two of them. In 1943, when league coaches voted for an all-time NFL team, Lambeau was the only one not to pick Hubbard as one of his tackles.

Stoney McGlynn, captain at Lawrence College under another all-time great Packers and Canton Bulldogs tackle Cub Buck and a teammate there of legendary scout Eddie Kotal and future Packers coach Lisle Blackbourn, covered the Packers for the Milwaukee Sentinel in the 1930s and '40s and clearly established a close relationship with Lambeau. Here was McGlynn's explanation for Lambeau's snubs of Hubbard: "Curly always thought Big Cal, except on occasions when the chips were down in a big game, could have played much better."

Reggie White picked his spots, too, 60 years later, but, again, the consensus among the Packers who played in the 1930s, seemed to be that "Iron Mike" was the better linemen, if for no other reason than his consistently high-effort play. McGlynn once wrote, "There is only one Michalske, just as there is only one Hutson."

6. Johnny Blood, Back, 1929-33, '35-36 – Blood's best years were the three he played with Dunn because Lambeau's Box in those years resembled a Wing-T offense with Blood playing mostly as a wingback and even splitting wide at times like a flanker before Hutson even turned pro.

In 1931, for example, Blood caught 10 touchdown passes, a Packers record for backs that stands today. Even Hutson once said, "I never saw a fellow who could turn a ball game around as quickly as Johnny Blood."

Once Dunn retired, Blood, presumably because of his rare athletic skills, played quarterback, both halfback positions, and even some fullback. Again, Lambeau placed a premium on versatile backs and nobody other than Lewellen was more versatile than Blood. He was an exceptional receiver, dangerous broken-field runner, held the unofficial NFL record for most interceptions when he retired and was more than a capable passer and punter.

7. Cecil Isbell, Back, 1938-42 – The next three picks here were the Packers' featured passers from 1927-42, when they won five of their NFL titles. And, in truth, drawing numbers might have been the fairest way to pick between Isbell and Herber, and maybe Dunn, as well.

In 2008, the late Bob Carroll, one of the foremost historians on early pro football, told me that he didn't believe Isbell belonged in the Hall of Fame because he had only two outstanding years, and they were war years, when he had Hutson to throw to against inferior defenses. Actually, Isbell played in only one war year – Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941, the final weekend of the regular-season – but there was some truth to that statement. In 1942, Hutson caught 16 more passes and for 365 more yards than he had in any previous season.

But Carroll was mostly wrong, for what continues to be a familiar reason: misperceptions about Lambeau's Box. As a rookie, Isbell shared passing duties with Herber and Bobby Monnett, who was once called the fastest back in the league by Washington coach Lone Star Dietz and also specialized in throwing short passes. In fact, end Bernie Scherer, Hutson's backup, said Monnett threw the most catchable ball of the three.

Monnett and Isbell shared the left halfback position because they were combination runners-passers. Thus, Isbell's impact was better measured by his 1,104 total yards that ranked second in the NFL, and his league-high 5.2 average per carry.

That was what prompted Bears coach George Halas to declare eight games into Isbell's first season that he was a better player than Herber, who had the led the league in passing in three of the previous six seasons. "Arnie Herber is just a passer," said Halas. "… But this Isbell is a passer, kicker, runner and a line bucker… Green Bay's attack is three times more potent now than it has been in recent years and the answer is Isbell." At that point, Herber was sharing the right halfback position with Joe Laws. By then, Herber was strictly a passer whereas Laws was strictly a runner-receiver but also the signal-caller – not Isbell nor Herber – when he was on the field.

When Isbell retired at age 27 after five seasons, he had better numbers almost across the board than the great Sammy Baugh, who had played one more season than him. Three years later, Lambeau called Isbell the game's greatest all-time passer. "Isbell was a master at any range: short, medium or long ones," said Lambeau. "He could throw soft passes, bullet ones or feathery lobs. He's the best with Sid Luckman of the Bears a close second and Sammy Baugh a long third." In a radio interview in 1949, Hutson also ranked Isbell ahead of Herber as a passer.
8. Arnie Herber, Back, 1930-40 – Herber played twice as many seasons with the Packers as Isbell and was the best long-ball passer of his time. Herber also was a natural athlete who contributed as a punter – he and Hinkle shared punting duties after Lewellen retired – and occasionally as a runner early in his career.

In 1930, Herber was a 20-year-old rookie when he started four games at quarterback and left halfback. He was cut after three games his second year, then led the NFL in passing in 1932, '34 and '36. "Between 40 and 60 yards, Herber is the greatest passer who ever played football," Lambeau said in 1940. While Herber didn't pan out as Dunn's successor at quarterback, he fared better as Lambeau's passing right halfback and held the NFL record for passing yards after playing his last game for the Packers in 1940.

9. Red Dunn, Back, 1927-31 – From everything I've read, it sounds like Dunn was Bart Starr before Bart Starr. Dunn was the Packers' much respected team leader on the field over five seasons and the first quarterback to win four NFL championships, having led the Chicago Cardinals to one before joining the Packers.

Dunn was the only quarterback in Lambeau's Box who operated much like a T-formation quarterback. He called the signals, lined up close to the center, although still a short snap away, and was the team's primary passer over his five seasons.

"The greatest field general I ever saw," Giants coach Steve Owen said in 1943 when discussing the game's greatest quarterbacks. Based on unofficial statistics, Dunn passed for more than 4,000 yards in the pre-stats era, ranking only behind Friedman. Yet Blood once said, "Benny Friedman was considered the best pro passer then, because he had the big college reputation, but every time we played the Giants, Red outplayed Benny as far as I'm concerned."

10. Larry Craig, End/Blocking Back, 1939-49 & Lavvie Dilweg, End, 1927-34 – It's hard to separate the two, so we'll call this one a tie.

Craig was never named to a major all-pro team. But his teammates called him "Superman" and two future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks said he was the best or close to the best defensive end they ever faced.

On offense, Craig played quarterback in Lambeau's Box when the quarterback was strictly a blocker. Thus, over the eight seasons when he was considered a quarterback in the eyes of all-pro voters, Craig never threw a pass, carried the ball only 10 times and caught a mere 14 passes.

Yet Baugh said some 20 years after he retired: "We could never handle (Craig) consistently. We tried to keep our best blocker on him, but he still rushed me harder than anyone I ever played against." In 1950, Baugh also named Craig to his 11-position, all-time team. Baugh said Luckman would be his quarterback in a T-formation and Craig, the blocking quarterback in a single wing style offense. Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield listed Craig, Ed Sprinkle and Len Ford as the three best defensive ends he had faced during his career. Depending on the offense, Lambeau also named Dunn and Craig as his quarterbacks on two of his all-time teams.

Dilweg was the most decorated end of the pre-stats era, making the Press-Gazette all-pro team six straight years from 1927-32. He excelled as a runner and blocker on offense; and was a disruptive force against both the run and pass on defense. However, much like Lewellen, Dilweg is a player who should be evaluated through the lens of history, not today's standards. There were coaches back then who believed covering punts was an end's most important duty and that it also was Dilweg's greatest strength.

Two other candidates who also deserved serious consideration for this list were Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo, but he played in almost a third of his games in the 1950s and Lambeau never mentioned him on his all-time teams; and Charley Brock, 1940s All-Decade center who would still hold the Packers' all-time record for interceptions by a linebacker with 28, if he was credited with the eight he got as a rookie in 1939 before that was an official stat – and not counting the two he picked off in the NFL title game that year. Brock also had an uncanny knack for swiping the ball from a runner's grasp and recovered what's still a team-record five opponents' fumbles in back-to-back seasons.

In 1945, after winning his sixth NFL title, Lambeau said that amid all the attention given to Hutson that Craig and Brock were his two "vastly underrated players, at least in the public eye." As for Brock, Lambeau said, "Charley … is the best center in professional football. In making this statement, I include Bulldog Turner of the Bears."