PACKERS' LAST-MINUTE VICTORY OVER DALLAS COWBOYS IN 'ICE BOWL' VIA STARR SNEAK REIGNS AS GREATEST GAME IN TEAM HISTORY
The 13-below weather, one attending sportswriter sardonically observed, "was better suited for the defense of Stalingrad..."
The facetious reference was to the Arctic conditions that prevailed in and around Green Bay's Lambeau Field on the afternoon of Dec. 31, 1967 - the occasion of what will be forever known as the "Ice Bowl."
It was, in point of fact, the "backdrop" for the '67 National Football League Championship Game, matching the Packers against the Dallas Cowboys in the coldest (air temperature) game in the history of professional football.
Also a game with a historically dramatic conclusion, one which saw quarterback Bart Starr orchestrate a classic, 68-yard drive and personally sneak the final yard for the winning touchdown to trigger Green Bay's 21-17, come-from-behind victory with only 13 seconds remaining.
It remains, without question, the most singular encounter between the Packers and Cowboys in a 19-game series - a distinction underscored by the fact that IT twice has been voted the greatest game in Packers history.
The stakes involved on that frigid afternoon, when the wind chill registered an exceedingly brisk 46 degrees below zero, only add luster to the Packers' memorable achievement. Then in the latter stages of constructing the greatest dynasty in pro football annals, they were striving to become the first team ever to win three straight titles since the NFL adopted a divisional alignment and playoff system in 1933.
With winter dusk lowering over the rim of Lambeau Field, more than 50,000 benumbed citizens were casting anxious glances at the scoreboard clock as the game entered its late stages, fearful of what it might reveal.
And they were not alone. Down below, on the glacial tundra of the stadium floor, Jerry Kramer was unhappily pondering the imminence of disaster as the afternoon waned and the prospect of immortality, gleaming less than an hour earlier, dimmed for the Packers with each fleeting second.
"Well, maybe this is the year we don't make it, that it all ends," he mused to himself on the sideline as the Cowboys, tautly husbanding a 17-14 lead, forged a first down near midfield with little more than five minutes remaining in the sub-zero struggle for the NFL championship.
The Packers' chances of making history, admittedly, were not overly bright at that juncture. There was, for one critical item, the matter of momentum, a sometimes elusive commodity. The defending champions, beset by the Cowboys' suddenly impregnable Doomsday Defense, had not scored since late in the second quarter when Starr had lofted a 43-yard scoring strike to Boyd Dowler.
That had been the second collaboration of the afternoon between this pair of perennials, following an 8-yard pitch to the elongated split end in the Dallas end zone in the opening period, climaxing a 16-play, 82-yard drive.
Fumbles by Starr - blind-sided by the Texans' Willie Townes - and punt receiver Willie Wood, inevitable on a day when feeling left fingers early, had led to the Cowboys' first 10 points, triggering their comeback from 14-0 second quarter deficit that had swiftly altered the game's complexion.
The Packers' hopes for immortality were further jeopardized when Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Dan Reeves on the first play of the fourth quarter, lifting the Cowboys into a 17-14 lead.
Thus, even for Vince Lombardi's title-tested warriors, the odds were slightly less than favorable at that point. But the Packers, survivors of a last-minute surge by these Cowboys in the somewhat balmier Cotton Bowl a year earlier, en route to Green Bay's 10th NFL championship, had not yet given a thought to surrender.
"I know every guy made up his mind," Kramer later confided, "that if we were going down, we were going down trying."
Now the reigning world champions were 68 yards from gridiron immortality - with 4:50 to play - and the offense rumbled into combat with tight-lipped dedication.
"In the course of a game, you don't get a lot of time to reflect on how the game has gone, you're so engrossed in what you're trying to accomplish," Starr later explained in a clinical analysis of that historic 21-17 triumph. "But we couldn't help but reflect on the mere fact that our offensive team had given them a chance to get back into the ball game.
"You take away my fumble, which gave them their first touchdown, and Willie Wood's fumble, which gave them their field goal, and our defense had stymied them all day. Except for that one play in the fourth quarter - the touchdown pass from Dan Reeves to Lance Rentzel.
"But we shouldn't have been behind at that point and I'm sure this had to be looming over us as we came back on the field with five minutes left. This feeling, plus the fact that this was going to be our last chance to fulfill a three-year dream.
"On the sidelines, we had been discussing what to do," the consummate field general explained, "and we decided not to try to get it back in big pieces, but just try to keep moving the ball."
Subsequently residing over that project with poise and surgical skill as the clock became an instant enemy, Starr followed the "plan" to perfection, moving the Green and Gold to the Cowboys' 30-yard line in six plays.
Next came the key play of the drive, a swing pass to running back Chuck Mercein in the left flat, one which saw Mercein rumble 19 yards down the sideline before going out of bounds at the Dallas 11 to conserve time.
Mercein also was a principal in the following play, described by Starr as "very critical...because it puts us in position to score." The heady Yale alumnus, making another clutch contribution, swept the Cowboys' right flank for 8 yards to the 3.
"The reason we called this particular play," Starr noted, "was because earlier in the game, Chuck told us he couldn't make a block on Lilly (Bob) because he pursued on such a flat plane. If he's chasing the guard, we reasoned, he can't defend against the play, too... He did just what we expected, so Mercein went through the area that Lilly left - we didn't even block Lilly on the play. The big responsibility on this one is Bob Skoronski's block. He must make a great block on the defensive end, which he did.
"On the next play, it was (Donny) Anderson on a simple dive play and he gets us a first down on the 1-yard line. There were less than 40 seconds left so we called time out.
"Then we ran Anderson on a sort of slant up the middle but Donny slides on the slippery turf and he's lucky to get back to the line of scrimmage. Now there are only 20 seconds left and again we call time out."
"That, I might add, is when we began to be aware of the poor footing our backs had back there. We ran Anderson again, this time on a drive play, and he really slipped and we almost fumbled the ball.
"We then called another timeout - our last. We had to, we were losing time because everyone was in a big ball after those mass pileups near the goal line.
"This is when we went to the sidelines to talk with Coach Lombardi," Starr said. "All we discussed was which of two plays we could score with from that distance. We were thinking of running Anderson on a dive - we thought for one yard he could get in for us. But, because of a wedge play we had run earlier in the game back in midfield, we decided on a wedge play.
"As I was calling the play, the thought flashed through my mind that regardless of how good the block is, if Mercein should slip, he wouldn't be able to get to the hole in time. I also thought of the time we scored on the same kind of icy field against the 49ers in Milwaukee a year earlier with a sneak."
And then came the fateful decision, termed by some pro football pundits one of the greatest gambles in sports history.
"So I called the wedge play," Starr explained, "but I didn't tell anybody that I wasn't going to give the ball to Mercein.
"I felt I could just hug the block in there. Because of an upright stance, I felt I would have better footing - just one step and go in right on top. And I sneaked it in there."
Thus carrying the Packers to a third straight title and pro football immortality.
It remained for Lombardi, with a gift for succinct and classic expression, to sum up the climactic and decisive drive.
"It took all of our poise," he said, "all of our experience..."
Continuing an association with the team that is more than 55 years old, Lee Remmel was named the first official Team Historian of the Green Bay Packers in February 2004. The former *Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter and Packers public relations director, Remmel will write regular columns for Packers.com as part of his new assignment.
In addition to those articles, Remmel will answer fan questions in a monthly Q&A column. To submit a question to Remmel, click here. *