Dealing with misfortune in pursuit of an NFL championship isn't something new to the Green Bay Packers. They've experienced it and overcome it several times in the process of winning their league-record 13 titles.
In fact, in 1961, when the Packers won their first NFL championship under Vince Lombardi and their seventh overall, they experienced a similar setback to what they're dealing with today, following the loss of David Bakhtiari. The differences were that they lost Jerry Kramer earlier in the 1961 season; no one offensive line position, like left tackle today, was viewed as more important than the others; and Bakhtiari was actually the second starting offensive lineman the Packers lost this season. The other was guard Lane Taylor in the opener.
What was similar was that Kramer was a vital cog – Lombardi called him "the best guard in the league" at the time – in what was then the Packers' meal ticket, and his loss required a reshuffling of the line, not just subbing one guard for another. Kramer was most often the lead guard on Lombardi's signature play, the power sweep, and his best asset was blocking in space, just as Bakhtiari's greatest value has been as the protector of Aaron Rodgers' blindside on a team with the most proficient passer in the league.
Kramer suffered a separation of his left ankle on the opening kickoff of the second Minnesota game – the seventh in a 14-game season – and eventually underwent surgery to have a steel pin inserted to hold the bones together.
Second-year backup center Ken Iman filled in for Kramer against the Vikings, but had to be spelled at times and was too small at 225 pounds to man the position for the rest of the season. What's more, there was no third guard behind Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston on the Packers' 36-man roster. Less than two weeks before the opener, Lombardi traded second-year man Andy Cvercko, his third guard a year earlier, to Dallas for a draft choice.
But, much like this year's team, the 1961 Packers essentially had six starting offensive linemen, not just five. For two plus seasons, four-year veteran Bob Skoronski and five-year vet Norm Masters had shared the left tackle position.
Each started six games there in 1959, Lombardi's first season, based on which one received the highest grade the week before. In 1960, Skoronski started all but one game, but the two continued to share playing time. In 1961, Skoronski started the opener, but hurt his knee and Masters returned to the starting lineup, although they shared time again until Kramer's injury.
"I know that Bob Skoronski has jersey number 76 and Norm Masters wears 78, but when I can't catch the number I can't pick between them," Lombardi wrote in "Run to Daylight," his book on a week in the life of the 1962 Packers. "In my mind, as in our offense, they are interchangeable, because although Forrest Gregg is our regular right tackle, Skoronski and Masters are of such equal talent that in four seasons here I have never been able to rate one above the other."
Lombardi also offered insight as to why Skoronski started in 1960 when both were healthy, but also continued to share playing time by possession, quarter or whatever other arrangement Lombardi might have used. For the record, unlike Paul Brown in Cleveland, Lombardi didn't rotate offensive linemen every down as messengers carrying in plays. As he often did with his personnel, he simply played hunches.
"(Skoronski) is high-strung, and going into a game so much emotional pressure builds up inside of him that if I do not start him he undergoes some kind of psychological relapse and he does not play up to his talent," Lombardi added in "Run to Daylight." "Masters will play his game whenever you use him, and although he may suffer in the eyes of the public as a utility man he doesn't suffer in mine because on ability and desire it is a toss-up between them."
Thus, Lombardi still had five quality starters when Kramer got hurt, but his bigger concern was how to align them. At first, he simply moved Masters to right guard, but eventually changed his mind and put Gregg at right guard and Masters at right tackle.
In fact, the move became permanent when the Packers beat the New York Giants, 20-17, on Dec. 3 to clinch the Western Conference. Afterwards, several of the Giants' defenders said, with or without Kramer, no team in the league had a better offensive line than the Packers.
"The Green Bay line beat us," said middle linebacker and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Sam Huff. "This is the best offensive line we've played against in the six years I've been in the National Football League. It's tremendous … young, aggressive."
By then, Packers offensive line coach Bill Austin agreed the line was playing as well as it had been when Kramer was in the lineup. "Naturally, we miss Jerry's weight (250), but Forrest has speed, sweeps well, adjusts well," said Austin.
Along with losing Kramer that year, the Packers also had to deal with what could have been an even more devastating blow. Also, around midseason, three starters were called up for Army duty. Halfback Paul Hornung, flanker Boyd Dowler and linebacker Ray Nitschke were unavailable for practice for the remainder of the regular season, although they were given weekend passes and allowed to play in most of the games. Hornung and Nitschke missed two; Dowler didn't miss any.
Despite the setbacks, after losing to the Baltimore Colts the Sunday after Kramer was hurt, the Packers won five of their last six games to finish 11-3 and then crushed the Giants, 37-0, in the NFL Championship Game.
For a previous story that includes other examples of top substitutes in emergency situations,click here.