Here’s a ranking of the Green Bay Packers’ most valuable offensive players on Vince Lombardi’s first two championship teams in 1961 and ’62. While I have vivid memories of those teams and have interviewed numerous players and assistant coaches from that period, the list is based largely on Lombardi’s own evaluations. It might come as a surprise to some, but Lombardi spoke freely and candidly about his players, particularly in his first few seasons in Green Bay.
1. Jim Taylor, FB – Taylor finished second in rushing to Cleveland’s Jim Brown in 1961, and then won the rushing title and league MVP honors in 1962. He also did the heavy lifting in the ’62 NFL Championship Game, a fierce defensive struggle in which he carried the ball on 31 of the Packers’ 69 offensive plays. Lombardi might not have considered Taylor to be as versatile or as good a blocker as Paul Hornung, but Taylor rushed for 2,781 yards in the 1961-62 seasons, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
2. Paul Hornung, HB – Lombardi said Hornung was his best clutch player and biggest playmaker. Hornung’s teammates also viewed him as their emotional leader. His value was never greater than it was in 1961 when he was named the league’s MVP by the Associated Press, as well as the MVP of the NFL Championship Game. Hornung isn’t No. 1 here only because he missed five games and played sparingly in several others in 1962 due largely to a knee injury. Still, true to form, Hornung made the biggest offensive play of the Packers’ 16-7 victory over the New York Giants in the NFL title game. On a day when Bart Starr completed only 9 of 21 passes for 85 yards, Hornung’s 21-yard option pass was the Packers’ longest of the game and set up their only touchdown.
3. Forrest Gregg, T – Lombardi considered him to be a consummate offensive lineman and was quoted as saying Gregg “was the best player he ever coached.” After Gregg moved to right guard in 1961 and played at an all-pro level there following a season-ending injury to Jerry Kramer, Lombardi said Gregg was as responsible as anyone for the Packers winning the title that year. Gregg never touched the ball, but who are we to argue with Lombardi?
4. Ron Kramer, TE – The tight end position was a relatively new one in 1961 when Kramer took over as the Packers’ starter. Not only did he and Mike Ditka immediately become standard-bearers at the position, but Kramer also was the one offensive player on Lombardi’s teams who would still be the archetype at his position today. Kramer stood 6-3, claimed he weighed more than 260 pounds – more than the Packers’ heaviest offensive linemen at the time – and was one of the three or four fastest players on the roster. At the University of Michigan, Kramer won nine letters. In basketball, he set the school’s all-time scoring record before turning down an offer from the Detroit Pistons to sign with the Packers. In track, he was a high jumper. If not for a stint in the military service, which basically cost him two years, he’d almost certainly be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While Kramer was at the top of his game for only four seasons, he was a bone-crushing blocker and a run-away beast with the ball in his hands during that span. Lombardi once said of Kramer that he “is so big and so strong and so vicious a blocker… it is almost like owning a permit to put 12 men on the field.” In the ’61 championship game, Kramer manhandled middle linebacker Sam Huff, the heart of the Giants’ vaunted defense.
5. Bart Starr, QB – Starr didn’t become the linchpin of the Packers’ offense until 1966. In 1961-62, they were still running the ball 62 percent of the time. Lombardi often spoke bluntly about Starr’s shortcomings. In 1961, Lombardi said Starr was much improved and now “a very adequate quarterback,” but no John Unitas or even a Bobby Layne. Lombardi said Unitas was “the greatest football player I’ve ever come in contact with.” Of Layne, Lombardi said, “If I had to have a quarterback to win one game, I’d take Layne.” But as the Packers rolled to their first two titles under Lombardi, he became more generous in his praise of Starr. Teammates and opponents also started singing Starr’s praises for his command of the Packers’ offense, if not for his physical talents.