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A look at Vince Lombardi's GM decisions and messy exit

Plus, more meaty questions about the 1960s Packers

Vince Lombardi, Phil Bengtson, and Dominic Olejniczak
Vince Lombardi, Phil Bengtson, and Dominic Olejniczak

I'm going to apologize upfront for once again teasing you about my book on the Packers' definitive history. What follows is a recent cloudburst of great questions from readers about the Lombardi era. I'm going to answer them as best I can without going into excessive detail. I've done that in the book, due out later this year. The chapter on Lombardi and the 1960s is by far the longest and covers all of the following: fascinating subjects indeed.

Doug from Sacramento, CA

How was it that Phil Bengtson got hired to replace Vince Lombardi as coach? Was there much of a search? I realize he was Vince's D-coordinator. I realize that back then, searches weren't as sophisticated as today. But there was a guy on the Chargers, then Colts staffs named Chuck Noll, who didn't go to Pittsburgh until 1969. Probably some others as well. Just curious.

There was no real search. On the evening of Feb. 1, 1968, Lombardi announced at a press conference that he was stepping down as coach of the Packers to concentrate on his duties as general manager. When he finished explaining his decision, he announced that Phil Bengtson would succeed him as head coach. This was less than three weeks after Super Bowl II, and Lombardi told reporters that night that Bengtson was his choice and nobody else had a say in the decision. Lombardi and the three previous Packers coaches who followed Curly Lambeau had all been selected by the executive committee. It was widely assumed at the time that Lombardi considered only Bengtson and didn't interview anyone else. However, almost 20 years ago now, Bruce Allen told me that the Packers had twice made overtures to his dad, George Allen, who was coaching the Rams at the time and feuding with his owner, Dan Reeves, including in 1968. That story was never reported, but it would not surprise me if Lombardi at least asked George Allen if he would be interested in the job at some point between the Packers-Rams Western Conference playoff in Milwaukee on Dec. 23, 1967, and the announcement about Bengtson. As for Noll, he was a 36-year-old defensive backfield coach on Don Shula's staff with the Baltimore Colts. He had been an assistant with the Chargers and Colts for eight years, and had worked under Sid Gillman with the Chargers. As you may know, Lombardi and Gillman both had ties to Army's Red Blaik. Plus, Noll played for Cleveland when Lombardi was an assistant with the Giants. No doubt, he knew of him. Still, I'd be surprised if Lombardi considered him for the job. Neither Bengtson nor Noll had been a head coach, but Bengtson had run a defense at least and had a reputation for being one of the best defensive coaches in the league.

Ross from Seattle, WA

I've read various stuff about Lombardi leaving and how messy and awkward the whole situation was. Can you explain further? Did he negotiate behind the Packers' back, leaving them little choice? Were the Packers awarded any compensation? Was it even discussed? He left the Packers with an aging group of players, after several bad drafts. The 1969 draft turned out pretty bad. Was that Lombardi's fault? The 1967 and 1968 drafts were nothing great either.

Were there any hints that Lombardi was unhappy or was everyone caught unprepared?

What could the Packers have done to keep him? They couldn't offer up ownership. They couldn't reinstall him as head coach.

I'll answer your questions one by one. 1) Messy. Yes, it was terribly messy and took the Packers the better part of a week before they agreed to let Lombardi out of his contract. 2) Did he negotiate behind the Packers' back? Again, yes. Lombardi more or less admitted that as general manager, he gave Washington permission to talk to him about the job without informing the executive committee. Were the Packers awarded compensation? No. Team president Dominic Olejniczak said there was no way to put a value on Lombardi's worth. It's pure speculation on my part, but my hunch is that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle might have pressured the Packers to take that stance. Was it Lombardi's fault that the Packers had bad drafts from 1967 to 1969? Lombardi was only days away from announcing his decision that he was leaving for Washington when the 1969 draft was held, but he technically was still GM of the Packers at the time. Yet he let Bengtson call the shots in the draft room much to the dismay of personnel director Pat Peppler. I don't think there's any question that Lombardi knew he was leaving the Packers and sat out what turned out to be maybe the worst draft in team history, starting with No. 1 pick Rich Moore. As for the 1967 and '68 drafts, those were the first two common drafts following the AFL-NFL merger. The NFL draft went from 15 teams to 25 and from 305 players to 445. Obviously, the Packers, as NFL champions picking at the bottom of each round, weren't going to be as successful in the draft as before the merger. In 1968, when they had the fifth pick from a trade, they selected Fred Carr, who might have been as talented as any Packers' No. 1 pick ever and had an outstanding career. In 1967 and '68, the Packers drafted two future starters for their offensive line, Bill Lueck and Dick Himes, and also landed Travis Williams, another special talent, in the fourth round. Could the Packers have done anything to keep Lombardi? I don't believe so. He wanted part ownership of a team and Green Bay couldn't offer that. He also wanted to get back into coaching. In fact, the morning of the Packers-Washington game in late November 1968, Lombardi met with Edward Bennett Williams, Washington's president, and there's reason to believe that's when the two struck at least a tentative agreement for Lombardi to return to coaching.

Scott from St. Charles, IL

I was born a decade too late to have witnessed the Lombardi era. I have heard more times than I can count that the Packers' running game carried the offense in the early 1960s, but that Bart Starr's passing carried the offense from 1965 on. Statistics don't seem to support that. With the slight exception of Starr's MVP season in 1966, the team's yards gained passing was remarkably consistent from 1961 onward. What declined from 1965 onward was the efficiency of the running game and along with that, the number of points scored. So maybe the passing game carried a greater share of the burden, but it seems to me it was defense that sustained the winning after 1965. Also, while I recognize Hornung's and Taylor's age caught up with them after 1964, how could an offense with a line of that caliber struggle to run the football, regardless of who was carrying it?

No question, if you go back and read what opposing coaches and players said about the Packers over their three-peat years (1965-67), the defense was what separated those teams from the rest of the league. Offensively, Starr also got a lot of credit for his play-calling, especially during his MVP season and again during the postseason in 1967. In 1965, the Packers went through an offensive slump where they scored 13, 10, 7, 6, 38 and 10 points over six games where they went 3-3 and Lombardi twice benched Starr during games. What saved the season was Paul Hornung's return to form late in the year when the Packers were on the brink of being eliminated from the race. In 1966, Starr clearly had his best year and was widely praised for his command of the Packers' offense, especially after he had back-to-back outstanding games against Dallas and Kansas City in the playoffs. In 1967, Starr dealt with several injuries and didn't play particularly well during the regular season. In fact, the Packers' press release for the Ice Bowl, which no doubt reflected Lombardi's thoughts, stated: "Bart Starr has had a frustrating season, plagued by various injuries from the beginning." The release also noted that Starr seemed to have returned to form in the playoff win over the Rams the week before. Then Starr engineered the winning drive in the Ice Bowl and was at his best again in Super Bowl II. In my book, I devote a lot of words to the role of the power sweep in the offense, both in Hornung's and Taylor's heyday, and also afterward; Lombardi's seemingly hot-and-cold relationship with Starr; and other facets of the offense.

The total yardage stats tell you the Packers ranked third, third and first in defense; and 12th, eighth and ninth in offense from 1965-67. But that's only part of the story. Without a doubt, the Packers' running game was never the same after Hornung and Taylor started to slide. But power football was still Lombardi's trademark. Some of you might remember that in the eighth game of the 1967 season, the Packers lost both of their starting running backs, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, to what were essentially season-ending injuries. The next week, the Packers faced a good Cleveland team, one that would win its division that year with a 9-5 record, and crushed it, 55-7. The game is best remembered for Travis Williams' two kickoff returns for touchdowns. But what I found fascinating was this: That week, Donny Anderson made his first pro start at halfback, Ben Wilson made his first start for the Packers at fullback, Williams received his first real look at halfback and Chuck Mercein after being picked up off the scrapheap made his first appearance for the Packers as Wilson's backup. Those four backs rushed 43 times for 223 yards, a 5.2 average; and Anderson also caught five passes for 103 yards. With Lombardi, opposing coaches still had to respect the run even if he didn't have two future Hall of Famers in the backfield.

As for the offensive line, it was still a strength in those years, but keep in mind that Lombardi, who was always looking to replace aging veterans, started tinkering with that unit in 1964 and didn't stop for the next four years, although he sometimes ended up realizing that some of his shuffling was a mistake. He moved Bob Skoronski to center then changed his mind, but also continued to experiment with Ken Bowman, Bill Curry and Bob Hyland there. He benched Fuzzy Thurston, moved Forrest Gregg to guard and also wrote off Jerry Kramer at one point, but then realized Dan Grimm and Steve Wright weren't the answers as replacements. That whole story is interesting, as well.

Ben Wilson headshot courtesy of Packers

Reed from Kansas City, MO

I'm curious why Ray Nitschke's number is retired. It's not that I don't think he's deserving, but it seems like the Packers had a lot of really talented defenders in that era. Why Ray?

Good question. When I asked Phil Bengtson in 1986 who his best defensive player was in Green Bay, he told me Nitschke. That's certainly a credible endorsement. That said, when I asked Dave Hanner who was the best linebacker, he chose Dave Robinson over Nitschke. Hanner was involved with Lombardi's defense as long as Bengtson. If you went by Pro Bowl voting during the Lombardi years when opposing head coaches picked the team, Nitschke was selected to only one. Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Herb Adderley were each selected to five. If you went by the Newspaper Enterprise Association all-pro team, which was selected by a vote of the league's players back then, Wood and Davis were named to the first team four times in the years when Lombardi was coaching and Nitschke only once. Fellow linebackers Bill Forester and Robinson were named to more Pro Bowls than Nitschke; and another fellow linebacker, Dan Currie, made more NEA all-pro teams.

Jay from West Allis, WI

As a 60-plus-year-old I always enjoy every word of Packers history you dispense. One year as a young boy my favorite player was a running back by the name of Ben Wilson. I'm aware he had a short career, but any insight you could provide would be outstanding. The Packers hiring you ranks as one of their best decisions ever. Teams come and go, history is key. In sports and life. Keep up your great work. Thank you.

Your appreciation for history is much appreciated here. And thank Mark Murphy and director of public affairs Aaron Popkey for my hiring. But it has been players, coaches and others who have truly written the history. As for my part, I'm just trying to accurately sort it out so the proper people get the credit for this great story; yet I also remain mindful of Ron Wolf's famous quote: "You walk through a graveyard, and you see a lot of important people who never thought they could be replaced."

Although Wilson had spent the 1966 season on the Rams' taxi squad and had rushed for only 189 yards with a 3.2 average in 1965, Lombardi gave up a second-round draft choice for him after Taylor played out his option and signed with the expansion New Orleans Saints. The deals were announced simultaneously in early July 1967 and Lombardi seemed confident that Wilson would be an adequate replacement for Taylor. "We gave a high pick for him," Lombardi said at his pre-camp press conference. "I always have believed that if you need something, you pay for it – and we paid for him." Wilson played sparingly behind Grabowski for the first half of the season, but made the most of his one extended opportunity, rushing for 82 yards on 13 carries in the third game against Atlanta. Then in his first start against the Browns, he rushed for 100 yards on 16 attempts. In fact, Wilson was the Packers' second-leading rusher in 1967, behind Grabowski, with 453 yards and a 4.4 average. Entering the postseason, Wilson was bothered by a sprained ankle and bruised ribs, so Chuck Mercein started against the Rams and was the unsung hero of the Ice Bowl. But then Lombardi went back to Wilson in Super Bowl II and the USC product was the game's leading rusher with 65 yards on 17 carries. Interestingly, following Super Bowl II, Lombardi stayed in Miami Beach to contemplate his future and met poolside with several reporters the next day. At that session, Lombardi said Wilson and Mercein weren't the answer at fullback, but predicted a bright future for Grabowski. Eight months later, with Lombardi as GM and Bengtson as coach, Wilson was waived on the final cutdown.

Kelly from Lincoln, NE

How come no love for Carroll Dale in Packers history? I was just a kid, but I thought he was a gamebreaker and loved when Bart Starr hooked up with him. I know he was with the Rams for a few years, but his best seasons were with the Packers.

I don't think Dale has been shortchanged by history as much as he's had to share it with the other two starting outside receivers during the Lombardi era, Max McGee and Boyd Dowler. Dale was a big-play receiver with a 19.7 average per catch in Green Bay, the best of the three. But Dowler made the NFL's all-decade team in the 1960s and McGee had an 18.4 average, not far behind Dale. Plus, Lombardi was particularly fond of McGee, once calling him his best clutch player. Bottom line: All three were outstanding receivers and I'm guessing that if someone had taken a poll of 1960s Packers who played with all three, they would have all received votes for being the best.