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Only Jordan Love should be recognized for playoff run as first-year starter

Cecil Isbell, Irv Comp comparisons don’t equate

QB Jordan Love
QB Jordan Love

Dan from St. Paul, MN

As impressive as Jordan Love has been, I wonder if we need to put an asterisk next to the claim that he's the first Packers quarterback to make the playoffs in his first full season as a starter. It seems one could make a case for Cecil Isbell earning that distinction in 1941. After platooning with Arnie Herber for a few years, the accounts I've read show that Isbell was the primary passer in every game that season. Even though he was officially listed as a tailback (and the playoff game in this instance was unscheduled), does Isbell deserve to be "the first" in this case?

My quick answer is no and certainly not Isbell in 1941. But there are numerous variables that require an explanation.

First, it's somewhat coincidental that you asked. Zak Gilbert, a former member of the Packers' PR staff who now works in the NFL office, asked me late in the season if Love had a chance to become the first Packers quarterback since Irv Comp in 1944 to lead the team to the postseason in his first full year as a starter.

Zak asked that question before the game in Minnesota. He was preparing a release on how Love had a chance to accomplish something that neither Brett Favre nor Aaron Rodgers had done. I'll give both Zak and you credit for asking. Both questions show a certain depth of knowledge about Packers history, and the fact that they require this longwinded answer here is confirmation of that. Also, as a footnote, thanks to Zak, the NFL has gotten better about checking with us and getting our history right for a change, which is much appreciated.

Anyway, what I told Zak was that I didn't believe any of Curly Lambeau's backs would have played a comparable role to Love other than Red Dunn, who led the Packers to their first three NFL championships from 1929-31, although there were no postseason games at the time.

Dunn was actually listed as a quarterback and, according to Lambeau and others, operated much like future T-formation quarterbacks. He was the Packers' primary passer, called signals and preferred to take direct snaps from center. But 1929 was Dunn's sixth NFL season.

The starting quarterbacks on Lambeau's other five postseason teams were: Hank Bruder in nine of 12 games when they won the 1936 NFL championship; Herm Schneidman in nine of 11 games when they lost the 1938 title game to the New York Giants; Larry Craig in eight of 11 games in the 1939 title season; Larry Buhler in seven of 11 games in 1941 when they lost a playoff to the Chicago Bears; and Craig in eight of 10 games when they won the title in 1944.

By 1936, Lambeau's quarterbacks had basically become nothing more than a third guard lining up in the backfield. Consequently, not one of the above four threw a single pass in any of those five seasons. Obviously, you can't compare them to Love, although Schneidman, Craig in 1939 and Buhler all probably qualified as first-year starters.

You specifically referenced Isbell and referred to him as a tailback, so let's start there. Again, as I've written numerous times, I've yet to find where Lambeau ever referred to any of his backs as a tailback in his playbook, his writings about his offense or in a quote. So, there was no tailback to compare to Love, either.

Here's an example of what I previously referenced: When the Pro Football Hall of Fame initially listed Isbell as a quarterback when he was announced as a senior finalist last year, it got it wrong. As I pointed out to the people in Canton, Isbell played the same position as Verne Lewellen, whom they have listed as a halfback. On the surface, it appeared to me as though the Hall was trying to create the impression that Isbell played a more prominent role in Lambeau's offense than Lewellen, which wasn't at all true.

I understand some of this involves semantics.

But that's why it's necessary to research the roles of each of Lambeau's backs, along with their listed positions. For example, Sammy Baugh played almost half of his 16-year career as a tailback in a single-wing offense before Washington switched to the T-formation.

But unlike Lambeau's backs, Baugh as a tailback operated more like a shotgun quarterback, at least after his rookie season. And that's why comparing him to today's quarterbacks makes sense. In 1937, his first season, Baugh rushed 86 times for 240 yards, while attempting 171 passes. Thereafter, in his other single-wing seasons, he never carried the ball more than 27 times – that was in 1941 for 14 yards – or rushed for more than 60 yards – that was in 1942 on 20 carries. Basically, he was never a dangerous threat as a runner.

But that wasn't the case with Lambeau's hybrid or versatile backs like Isbell and Comp.

Yes, Isbell and Comp played mostly left halfback, which was Baugh's position in the single wing. But Lambeau's Notre Dame Box, although at times it might have resembled the single wing, was a different system.

For the most part, in Lambeau's offense, on a shift left, the left halfback was no longer in position to take the snap, even when he didn't shift into a wingback-like position. And on a shift right, the left halfback might have taken most of the snaps but not all. There were plays in Lambeau's playbook, for example, where the fullback took the snap from center and handed off to the left halfback.

Plus, in his first two seasons, at least, Isbell played a much different role than Baugh. As a rookie, Isbell led the NFL with a 5.2 rushing average and finished fourth in rushing yards, whereas he was fifth in passing yards. In his second season, Isbell ran 132 times and attempted only 103 passes.

Beyond that, you referenced that he platooned with Herber prior to 1941. That's not the case, either. Herber and Isbell played together three years, 1938-41. In terms of total starts, Isbell started 11 games at left halfback and three at right halfback. Herber started one game at left halfback and 13 at right halfback. Thus, they each started 14 games and mostly at two different positions.

What's more, Isbell, not Herber, led the Packers in passing two of those three seasons, so he wasn't Herber's understudy, either.

As a rookie, for example, Isbell led the Packers with 91 passing attempts and 659 passing yards. Bobby Monnett was second with 57 attempts and 465 yards. And Herber was third with 55 attempts and 336 yards.

As previously noted, Isbell led the Packers in rushing as a rookie. He also caught five passes for 104 yards, a 20.8 average. In essence, he was the perfect fit for what Lambeau was looking for in a left halfback: a triple threat.

By 1938, Herber, then 28, was no longer the all-around athlete he was as a youngster and so what he did best was throw the deep ball to Don Hutson, fitting a role that Lambeau's right halfbacks had filled at times going back to when he was a player himself. Herber's rushing stats that year were: six attempts for minus-one yard, although he caught five passes for 84 yards, a 16.8 average.

Monnett was the team's short passer and also one of the fastest backs in the league. Besides ranking second to Isbell in passing yards, he was third on the Packers behind Isbell and fullback Clarke Hinkle in rushing attempts with 75 and fourth in rushing yards with 225.

Then there was Joe Laws, who had 12 starts from 1938-40, including 11 at right halfback. He was the team's primary signal-caller but was 0-for-5 passing in 1938. He was third in rushing with 60 attempts for 253 yards and led all halfbacks with six pass receptions. Andy Uram, also a rookie in 1938, started 11 games over those three seasons, including 10 at left halfback. In fact, in 1939, Uram started six games at left halfback, two more than Isbell, yet didn't attempt a single pass. Instead, Uram filled Monnett's role as a breakaway runner.

Clearly, one of Lambeau's greatest strengths as a coach was fitting his offense to the strengths of his players. And from what I've been available to gather, there were times when Isbell and Herber played together in the same backfield. But more often, Lambeau seemed to match them with other backs who best complemented their skills.

Isbell and Laws often played in tandem because Isbell benefited from Laws' signal-calling, blocking and knack for running short-side reverses. In turn, Monnett's speed and team-high 54.4 completion percentage – Isbell and Herber completed an almost identical 40 percent – was a good match with Herber, who could throw the long ball but was no threat as a runner.

Admittedly, certain numbers from that period can be somewhat misleading. As stat expert Eric Goska points out: Prior to 1947, there was no distinction between rushing yards and yards lost attempting to pass. The yards gained or lost by a player – whether tackled attempting to pass behind the line of scrimmage or halted downfield on a designed running play – went into his rushing total. But that's also why I consider rushing attempts to be almost as indicative of a back's role as yards rushing.

Still, I would contend that to refer to any of Lambeau's halfbacks, at least post-Dunn, as quarterbacks, tailbacks or wingbacks doesn't apply to the system or even their roles.

That's why I don't think Comp should be classified as a quarterback either. True, he led the NFL with 177 passing attempts and 1,159 yards in 1944, his second season. But he started nine of 10 regular-season games plus the NFL Championship Game at left halfback because he was always considered a better runner than passer. That year, he rushed 52 times for 134 yards, which weren't impressive numbers – perhaps partly because of yards lost attempting to pass being subtracted from his total – but his role hardly equated with Love's this past season.

Yet another consideration would be: How often, if at all, did Comp call signals? In 1944, Laws was 33 years old and in his second-to-last season, but he still finished fourth on the team in rushing and receiving. And I've found no evidence that he was no longer the team's preferred signal-caller, playing mostly right halfback.

True, Comp may have called plays when Laws wasn't on the field and Love doesn't call plays, either. But in Comp's day, it was customary for quarterbacks or tailbacks to call plays. That's another reason for labeling him what he was: a left halfback. After all, Comp played the same position as future Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo, who is listed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame section of the 2023 NFL Record & Fact Book as a halfback. Again, Comp's 52 rushing attempts in 1944 led all Packers halfbacks.

And that brings us to this question: When did Isbell and Comp become starters?

Isbell never started more than five games in any of his five seasons. In other words, he never started more than half the games. He started four as a rookie in 1938 and four in 1941, the year you referenced as his first as a primary passer.

The bottom line with Isbell was that he became the team's primary offensive weapon as a rookie in 1938, no matter how many starts he made, and that never changed over his five-year career.

The stats support that and so did the words of Bears coach George Halas.

"Arnie Herber is just a passer," Halas said before the ninth game of Isbell's rookie season. "Bob Monnett is essentially a runner and a short passer. But this Isbell is a passer, kicker, runner and a line bucker. You'll never be able to figure out what he's going to do. He is better than the average among the league's pass receivers and if he isn't watched every second, he is as likely to take a 50-yard pass as throw one. Green Bay's attack is three times more potent now than it has been in recent years and the answer is Isbell."

As for Comp, he was listed as a starter for only two games as a rookie in 1943, but he shared playing time with Canadeo at left halfback. That season, Canadeo attempted 129 passes; Comp, 92. Canadeo passed for 875 yards; Comp, 662. Canadeo led the team in rushing attempts and yards with 94 for 489, a 5.2 average; whereas Comp was second in attempts with 77 but for only 182 yards.

The following year, Canadeo entered the service and played in only three games. Thus, Comp clearly became the primary passer in that championship season with 177 attempts compared to right halfback Lou Brock, who was second with 21.

But both years, Comp's biggest contribution came as a defensive back. He intercepted 10 passes as a rookie, still the Packers' single-season record, and then six more in 1944.

There are also other variables that blur the issue. One is that in 1943, during World War II, the NFL temporarily adopted free substitution. In addition, it wasn't unusual for Lambeau from the late 1930s into the 1940s, if not before, to start players on his second team rather than his preferred starters, just as Knute Rockne, his mentor, often started his "scrubs," when he was coaching at Notre Dame.

Technically, Comp might have started only two games as a rookie but his interception total combined with his offensive numbers in a season of unlimited substitution suggests that it was entirely possible he might have gotten more playing time than any other back. Again, that would be much different than Love basically sitting the bench for three years.

In the end, the NFL and Elias Sports Bureau decided to change the wording of their release to Love being the first Packers QB to lead them into the postseason as a first-year starter since at least 1950. And I think that was clearly the best way to word it.

Bill from Bloomfield Hills, MI

Just wanted to comment regarding our QB succession with two HOFers now in the rear window. An early-season game highlighted this and referred in sports to the Yankees with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as one of the few examples that might compare. I would cite instead, the Red Sox with Ted Williams, Yaz and then Jim Rice all in left field and all now in the HOF. All started and finished with the Red Sox and albeit we have no idea with Love yet, would be the only clear succession situation I have run across in major pro sports.

I thought the Favre-Rodgers comparison to DiMaggio-Mantle was a good one and would be hard to top. There was a season of overlap there and not counting DiMaggio's three years of military service, it ran from 1936-68, a span of 33 seasons. I think it's premature to speculate about a run of three Hall of Famers, but Williams to Yastrzemski to Rice covered 51 seasons, 1939-89, not counting Williams' time in the service and with some overlap from Yastrzemski to Rice.

In pro football, I don't know if there's a comparison to Favre-Rodgers. That covered 31 seasons. Joe Montana established himself as San Francisco's starting quarterback in 1981 and Steve Young's last productive season was 1998. That's only 18 seasons. The Los Angeles Rams had a run of 13 years from 1945-57 with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, but they also shared the job for three of those seasons.

I haven't researched this, but next to Packers' primary passers/quarterbacks, the other position in pro football that I identify with one team is middle linebackers and the Chicago Bears. Hall of Famer Bill George followed by all-time great Dick Butkus covered the years 1952-73, then came two more Hall of Famers, Mike Singletary from 1981-92 and Brian Urlacher from 2000-12. But there were seven seasons in between Singletary and Urlacher.

In basketball, I think of Lakers centers: George Mikan (1949-56), Wilt Chamberlain (1969-73), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1976-89) and Shaquille O'Neal (1996-2004), but there were gaps up to 13 years between them. And in my youth, it seemed like the Boston Celtics went from one Hall of Famer to another at almost every position, including sixth man. It was Bob Cousy to K.C. Jones, Bill Sharman to Sam Jones, Bill Russell to Dave Cowens, Tom Heinsohn to Satch Sanders with Bailey Howell also in the mix, and even Frank Ramsey to John Havlicek off the bench.

Can anybody else offer two or three names other than Bill's baseball examples that had a longer consecutive run in pro sports than Favre-Rodgers?

Jon from New York, NY

You wrote on Dec. 21, 2023, that Vince Lombardi won five NFL titles in seven years and no other coach won that many in a decade. That's true if we're talking only about the NFL. However, Paul Brown, combined All-America Football Conference and NFL, won five consecutive titles and seven in 10 years coaching the Cleveland Browns. It seems Brown's accomplishments should at least be recognized. I'm a diehard Packer fan of 60 years. 
Jon, I agree to a point. Paul Brown was a great coach and those Cleveland AAFC championship teams were legit. That said, the NFL didn't merge with the AAFC. It absorbed three of its surviving seven franchises and did not recognize the league's statistics or records. There were eight AAFC teams when Brown won his first three titles. But I think a better comparison to Brown's AAFC championships would be Lombardi's last five Western Conference titles in seven- and eight-team alignments.

Also, you can't pick and choose here. If you're going to credit Brown with five consecutive league titles, then you also have to credit Cleveland with being the only team to win five straight championships – four in the AAFC and the 1950 NFL crown – and forget that Green Bay is the only franchise to win three straight over 104 NFL seasons and did it twice from 1929-31 and 1965-67.