Following up on Curly Lambeau's Notre Dame Box

And the greatest Packer of Lambeau’s era


Jack from Mequon, WI

You've written often about Verne Lewellen and your belief that he's the most deserving of all Packers who have not been elected to the Pro Football HOF. Your outline of his accomplishments in your recent column was yet another eye-popping bit of evidence in his case. As a side note, my father – John J. Rooney – was born in Appleton in 1912. He and his buddies came of age as Packers fans just as Lewellen was hitting his stride. According to my dad, they used to "jump the freight train" in Appleton and ride it to Green Bay to see the games. My dad died in 1976. To his last days, he was steadfast in his opinion that Lewellen was the best player the Packers ever had. While the factor of being a starstruck teenaged fan can't be discounted, my father was rational in his opinion. (Also, my father believed Paul Hornung was the better player than Hutson who "was incredible" but "couldn't do all of the things that Hornung did.") My father felt the same way about Lewellen, who "could do it all." I've just seen that Cecil Isbell is on the preliminary list of senior HOF candidates this year. I'm happy to see that, for all of the reasons that you've previously articulated. But I continue to lament the absence of Lewellen.

Thanks for sharing the story. Your dad was not alone. Back in the 1930s and '40s, I found few references where teammates flat-out stated that they thought someone was the greatest of all-time or the greatest Packer. And the few that did, as I wrote in my four-volume book, "The Greatest Story in Sports," chose Hinkle over Hutson. As for Lewellen, his best years were in the 1920s, so I can't say that I've found any quotes specifically comparing him to Hutson or Hinkle. But among Packers players from the 1920s who stayed in Green Bay and were connected to or followed the team through the 1940s, there were certainly suggestions that some believed Lewellen was the greatest of them all.

Ryan from Fargo, ND

In David Neft's encyclopedia, he lists both Eddie Kotal and Verne Lewellen as having played tailback, with Kotal a tailback-halfback and Lewellen a tailback-blocking back. It looks like Neft used the tailback notation for different Packers players in successive seasons. I find the whole position name issue to be quite interesting in itself. I see quarterback and blocking back frequently used in place of each other, as well as right halfback or left halfback and wingback, or fullback and tailback. I wonder if that was the coach using that term when they were talking to sportswriters, or if it was the sportswriter applying the term arbitrarily.

All good questions. And the confusion is understandable. First, let me state that I have unqualified respect for David Neft as a football researcher. His encyclopedias and exhaustive work on early statistics were an invaluable contribution to pro football. In my opinion, he'd be a cinch choice on a Mount Rushmore of pro football historians.

Over the years, we've exchanged occasional emails, including one on this subject, and he has been a tremendous help to me at times.

That said, there have been misconceptions about Curly Lambeau's Notre Dame Box that go back years and, as a result, the positions listed for many of the Packers' backs from that era don't accurately reflect their role, including in "Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League," and the website Pro Football Reference, which I use frequently because of its overall quality and accuracy.

First, let me say that this is a subject that I've spent hundreds of hours researching and must admit there's still much that I don't know and probably never will, nor will anybody else, absent complete game films.

That's why I wrote the four-part series on Lambeau's offense that was recently posted on our website, while carefully trying to avoid writing anything that wasn't supported by multiple and primary sources. In other words, writings only from that time and quotes only from eyewitnesses. Examples included a Lambeau playbook, his explanations during the years when he was coaching, numerous interviews with his former players, and articles written by Knute Rockne, some of his former players and coaches who coached against him.

For me, this was bit-by-bit research, and so I fully understand why Neft and others have never found the time to do it. Moreover, like coaches today, Lambeau tinkered with his Box from year to year and also made drastic changes from time to time. Accordingly, what applied to his offense one season might not have the next.

"Lambeau is an ardent exponent of the Notre Dame system but he has changed it around so much to fit his own needs that the late Knute Rockne, were he to return, wouldn't even recognize the great system of football that he devised years ago," the 1940 Packers publicity booklet stated.

Yet the changes and actual perplexities of the offense often went unexplained.

For example, the Packers had two outstanding fullbacks, Bo Molenda and Clarke Hinkle, from 1929-41. In Molenda's first two seasons, he unofficially threw seven passes. In his third and final season, he had the most attempts on the team with 46, yet started only four games. Hinkle, in turn, attempted a total of 46 passes in his second and third seasons and eight in his other eight seasons.

Lambeau valued fullbacks who could throw the ball; and they were often in line to take direct snaps from center, yet I found nothing that would explain those statistics.

That inability to uncover answers was partly why, when we last renovated the Packers Hall of Fame and replaced the old plaques with bronze-style footballs for each of the inductees, I simply listed "Back" as the position for those who played in the backfield for Lambeau in his Notre Dame Box. Other considerations included that most of them played multiple positions; plus, I was unable to determine where most of them lined up on defense, especially in the days of seven-man defensive fronts.

Listing them as backs seemed like the safest of all options, yet I regret one of my decisions because it reflects my ignorance at the time. Hinkle had been referred to as a "Fullback" on his old Packers Hall of Fame plaque and in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But I listed him as a "Back," just like the others, partly because he was often referred to as a linebacker in contemporary references to his defensive prowess and listing his position as "Back" seemed to cover that, too.

Only after his football was engraved did I learn that linebacker was not part of Lambeau's lexicon at the time and that he referred to Hinkle's position as "defensive fullback." My mistake. Hinkle was a two-way fullback and that's how his football should read.

On the other hand, I think "Total Football" took too many liberties and went into too much detail. If those Lambeau-era players weren't going to be listed as "Back," they should have been listed simply by the positions noted in the lineups.

For starters, I've found no evidence that tailback and wingback were terms that Lambeau used in reference to his offense. And the term tailback certainly didn't fit. As Cecil Isbell told me in 1978, "I played left halfback in the old Notre Dame Box."

Much like two of the greatest single-wing tailbacks in the history of the game, Isbell was a dual-threat runner-passer his first two-plus seasons, along the lines of Dutch Clark of the Detroit Lions; and then primarily a passer his last two seasons, similar to Washington's Sammy Baugh.

But Isbell wasn't the Packers' preferred play-caller. That was Joe Laws, who played right halfback. And when Isbell was playing left halfback in the same backfield with right halfback Arnie Herber, he wasn't necessarily stationed behind center. He'd line up like a wingback in a Single Wing, based on Lambeau's playbook.

Red Dunn, on the other hand, was listed as a blocking back and tailback in "Total Football." Neither position is accurate. Dunn lined up and functioned much like a T-formation quarterback, according to Lambeau. Dunn called the plays and took snaps just a short distance from the center. As for being listed as a blocking back, that was Dunn's one glaring weakness and certainly not his role.

For clarity, it should be pointed out how Rockne stressed that blocking was the most important skill he sought in his backs, other than leadership in the case of his quarterback. "It isn't the man with the ball who is responsible for most of the gain, it is the men who assist him," Rockne said, sometimes implying that anyone could run with the ball. Backs who could block were similarly valued by Lambeau. But it wasn't until 1934, his 14th NFL season, that Lambeau turned his quarterbacks basically into full-time blockers.

Thereafter, the term blocking back applied to Buckets Goldenberg, Hank Bruder, Herm Schneidman and Larry Craig, who are listed as such in "Total Football," even though they were listed as quarterbacks in the game-day lineups.

As for Lewellen, he's listed in "Total Football" as a HB-WB-TB-BB. Yes, he was a big-play threat in every aspect: as a passer, a runner and a receiver on top of being unarguably the game's greatest punter. He filled in at quarterback for an injured Dunn in 1929 in the biggest game of the Packers' first championship season and one of the biggest in franchise history. But if he was listed as a blocking back for his occasional stints at quarterback, he was anything but.

Pro Football Reference lists Lewellen as merely a "Back." That would be much more fitting, although I believe a more appropriate designation would be "HB-Punter" or maybe "HB-P-QB."

As for Kotal, he's listed in Total Football as a HB-TB-BB-E. I think "HB" would suffice for him, too. He made 21 of his 27 starts at right halfback and offered versatility – 287 runs, 53 receptions and 71 pass attempts, according to Eric Goska's unofficial stats – but Kotal played almost his entire career with Dunn, who took most of the snaps as the quarterback, and Lewellen, who likely took the snap on most of his punts.

Admittedly, I'm not sure what Kotal's role was, other than he seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even blocking may have been one of his main duties, despite his 5-foot-8, 170-pound frame.

It's my impression – and it's only an impression – that Kotal might have operated more like a wingback in a Single Wing. Keep in mind that Pop Warner, whose innovations included the Single Wing and later the Double Wing, disdained the passing game. "It's a bastard off-spring of real football," Warner claimed.

Accordingly, he created the wingback position(s) for blocking purposes: to spread defenses, to overload bodies on the strong-side defensive tackle and to get better angles. In fact, Northwestern coach Dick Hanley in a dissertation on offensive systems of the time said Warner's use of a wingback "virtually made (his Single Wing) an eight-man line," and that his "Double Wing" formation, "provides virtually a nine-man line."

That's why Rockne incorporated elements of Warner's Single Wing in his final seasons. What's more, Lambeau claimed his offense when Dunn was quarterback was much like a Wing-T. Kotal, meanwhile, played with Dunn for the last three of his five seasons.

I've found references to the Packers having a blocking halfback in that period, and I wonder if Kotal wasn't considered one of them.

At the same time, the stats suggest Lambeau incorporated more passing plays to the halfback to the side of the shift – the right halfback on a shift right – especially after acquiring Johnny Blood in 1929. Yet based on Kotal's reception total and printed references to his talents, he, too, was blessed with good receiving skills. Then again, Herber played right halfback for much of his last eight seasons and caught a total of 11 passes.

Total Football lists Herber as a tailback, defensive back, quarterback and blocking back. The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him and lists him as strictly a quarterback, although he made only two of his 49 starts there.

Figure that out.

What troubles me about the Pro Football Hall of Fame's treatment of such matters involving the Packers is this: It listed Isbell as a tailback in its announcement last year about the 31 senior semifinalists. Lewellen apparently didn't make the cut, but I believe he was considered as a halfback. Obviously, the tailback designation suggests Isbell played a more prominent role in the offense. Yet Isbell and Lewellen mostly played the same position, left halfback in a Notre Dame Box. And of the two, it was Lewellen who could fill in at quarterback in emergencies and run the offense.

For something that important, one would hope that those involved in the Hall of Fame selections would get it right and be equally fair to both players.

Bill from Hilton Head, SC

Ralph Hickok wrote about how in the T-formation the center snap was still a direct snap to the quarterback (Red Dunn) and not a true under-center like in the Clark Shaughnessy T-formation at Stanford in the 1940s. He also writes about the V, Z and Square formations. Do you have diagrams of those three?

FYI: Hickok grew up in Green Bay and wrote the definitive biography on Johnny Blood. His dad, Don, also was news editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette and a mentor to the late Lee Remmel.

Anyway, yes, as I wrote in my series, Dunn lined up a short snap from center, not only in the pre-shift T formation but in the Box formation, as well. He took a direct and shorter snap than today's quarterbacks in shotgun but his hands weren't under center.

As for the Square, V and Z formations, yes, I have seen diagrams.

The Square formation was basically the normal Box formation with the quarterback and a halfback lined up parallel several feet behind the line and several feet apart with the other halfback and fullback behind them in another parallel line. From what I've read that was the formation Rockne ran from almost exclusively over his first 10 seasons.

It was a well-suited alignment for his signature off-tackle play and end runs. Plus, the quarterback called signals and could step sideways and take the snap rather than a deep back. For example, among the "Four Horsemen," Harry Stuhldreher, the quarterback, was a lead blocker but also did most of the passing, while rarely running with the ball.

The V-formation was a punt formation and often called that. The two up-backs were on opposite sides of the center with the deepest back in line to take a direct snap, and the other deep back in front of him and to the side. Legendary Michigan Coach Fielding Yost ran his base offense from punt formation, but as he wrote in 1930: "The punt formation is universal."

Remember, Rockne's philosophy was to punt on first down from inside his own 20-yard line and on second or third down from inside his 40, and his V-formation was almost a copy of Yost's base offense.

Considering Lambeau's deep backs lined up only 5½ yards or so behind the line, presumably, he, too, punted from the V, although I can't cite a source as proof of it.

The Z formation was Pop Warner's Single Wing. Following the one-second rule change concerning his shift in 1927 and then a 5-4 finish in 1928, Rockne revamped his offense and copied many of Warner's Single Wing concepts. "The last time I scouted Rockne … I saw a glorified Warner system with a balanced line," wrote Hanley, who was still coaching at Northwestern.

A basic formation in Warner's Z, with an unbalanced line, was two up-backs to one side, including a wingback on a parallel line but with a wider split to the outside, and then two deep backs closer together: one behind the inside up-back and the other to the opposite side of the wingback. It was more a parallelogram – or a Z – than a box.

I also saw a diagram of a Z formation with a balanced line, which suggests it might have been Rockne's version of it, although it wasn't specifically described as such. In that diagram, the two up-backs were basically in the same spots, but with the deepest back directly behind the center and the other deep back a few feet in front and in line to take a diagonal snap.

There were similar formations in Lambeau's late 1930s playbook, where the fullback was lined up both a step in front and a step behind the deep halfback, and also in position to take a side snap.

But, again, coaches back then, just like coaches today, were constantly adjusting to new rules, their personnel, changing defenses, whatever. Rockne was a perfect example. When his offense was hampered by the "pause" rule, he installed his spinner plays, first with the half-spin in 1927, and then two years later with the double-spin.

Pigeon-holing these offenses and assuming because the game might have been more primitive back then, that these coaches used the same formations and ran the same plays year after year is absurd.

Chippewa Falls, Wis., native Gus Dorais, Rockne's teammate at Notre Dame and a proponent of the Notre Dame Box through his long coaching career, including five seasons with the Detroit Lions, made the point, as well as anyone.

"There are, in reality, as many systems or styles of attack as there are coaches," he said in 1937. Dorais then added, "(Elmer) Layden, Jimmy Phelan and I played at Notre Dame. We are so-called Notre Dame coaches; but, we differ on pass assignments, methods of teaching, and about everything else in the book. … Many of these differences are due to the fact that all coaches must adapt offensive tactics to their material. If material could be welded into a 'system,' then coaching could be made copybook effective."

Tom from Green Bay

While reading one of your articles, I kept thinking of how my father ran that Notre Dame Box when at old Central Catholic and Green Bay Premontre High School. What I recall Coach Ted Fritsch doing was recognizing his players' abilities and structuring the game plan around those strengths.

For those who might not know, Packers Hall of Fame fullback Ted Fritsch, who played eight years for Lambeau and one under Gene Ronzani, was a highly successful high school football coach in Green Bay. His record from 1952-66 at the two schools was 69-28-4.

Not surprisingly, your dad borrowed his philosophy from his mentor, Lambeau. It was Lambeau's bedrock belief as a coach that you adapt your system to your players' strengths.

Dunn was a leader, football smart and as good a passer as there was in the game in the 1920s and early '30s, with the possible exception of Benny Friedman. Lambeau took advantage of his talents by changing his offense from when he was the primary passer, assigned him the play-calling duties and lined him up close behind the center. He used Dunn much like a traditional quarterback today, taking a direct snap, orchestrating the offense and serving as the primary passer.

When Dunn retired, Lambeau plugged in Herber at the same position. The experiment basically lasted two games. Herber wasn't as football-smart as Dunn, wasn't as comfortable running the offense from close behind the line and was much better at throwing the deep ball. Lambeau's eventual solution: Move Herber to halfback, turn the signal-calling over to another back, line him up more like a shotgun quarterback today and let him do his thing: Bombs away.

Dunn won three consecutive NFL championships as Packers quarterback. Herber engineered two more throwing the ball from an entirely different position.


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