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Part II: Curly Lambeau's Notre Dame Box, 1926-32

Verne Lewellen, Red Dunn led second greatest run in Packers history


The best five-year run in Packers history, based on regular-season records, occurred during the Vince Lombardi era. From 1962-66, the Packers went 54-13-3 for a .793 winning percentage. Next best and not far behind was a run from 1927-31 during Curly Lambeau's reign as coach, when the Packers compiled a 47-11-6 record for a .781 winning percentage based on the formula used today by the NFL.

During both five-year periods, the Packers also won three NFL championships. In Lombardi's time, they won in 1962, '65 and '66, not to mention in 1961 and '67, as well. Under Lambeau, the Packers won three straight from 1929-31, a feat accomplished by only two teams in the 103-year history of the NFL; the other being Lombardi's 1965-67 Packers.

During the Lombardi era, the three biggest offensive stars were the staples of the backfield and future Pro Football Hall of Famers: quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor.

The two constants during Lambeau's most successful five-year run were left halfback Verne Lewellen and quarterback Red Dunn, neither of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That said, Johnny Blood, a charter member of the Hall, joined the Packers in 1929 and, without question, had a big impact over the three championship seasons.

This part of a historical review of Lambeau's Notre Dame Box offense includes the years, 1926-32. The reason being that in 1926 with quarterback Charlie Mathys retiring and Lambeau, the player, having a lesser role, it led to Lambeau, the coach, implementing the first major redesign of his offense; and it ends with another redesign as the result of the NFL's sweeping rule changes before the 1933 season and another changing of the guard in the Packers' backfield.

The 1926-32 timeframe also covers the years when Lewellen dominated games like few players in NFL history as a triple-threat halfback, touchdown machine and, most importantly, as the game's preeminent punter, which arguably was the most important position in pro football at the time.

The graphic at the top – a copy of Packers stats guru Eric Goska's recreated play-by-play – offers a small sampling of why that was likely the case. It shows the first half play-by-play of the upstart Packers' 6-6 tie with the Chicago Bears on Sept. 26, 1926.

On the Packers' first seven possessions, Lewellen punted on first down each time and then on second down when they had the ball for the eighth time. In all, he punted nine times on first down in the first half and 14 times total. He finished the game with 18 punts and the Packers tied the powerhouse Bears, 6-6.

After a scoreless first half, the Packers took a 6-0 lead on their first possession of the second half, the result of a nine-play, 50-yard drive. On the first play, Lewellen ran for six yards. On the fifth play, he caught a 12-yard pass from Lambeau and on the seventh play, he caught a 23-yard pass from Lambeau. Add them up and Lewellen accounted for 41 of the 50 yards on the Packers' only scoring drive of the game.

He also caught passes from Lambeau of 23 and 28 yards in the second half on drives that ended at the Chicago 25- and 32-yard lines, following an incompletion and missed field goal by Lambeau. Meanwhile, the Bears had tied the game midway through the fourth quarter after recovering a Rex Enright fumble at the Packers' 35 and scoring three plays later.

That season, the Packers played the Bears three times and tied them twice. The Bears' only loss was to the Frankford Yellow Jackets on Dec. 4, and it cost them the league title. Frankford finished 14-1-2 and the Bears, 12-1-3.

The Packers finished 7-4 and in fifth place, a jump from ninth the year before and their second-best finish in their first six years in what had become the NFL. They would sign Dunn the next year and finish second, then slip to fourth in 1928 before capturing their three straight league titles and barely missing out on a fourth in 1932 because the NFL disregarded ties back then in determining winning percentage.

More on Lewellen later.

Backfield Starts


(Years listed include only the 1926-32 time period, not a player's entire career)

Quarterbacks – Red Dunn, 1927-31, 40 starts; Pid Purdy, 1926-27, 12 starts; Paul Fitzgibbon, 1930-32, 9 starts; Roger Grove, 1931-32, 8 starts; Harry O'Boyle, 1928, '32, 6 starts; Charlie Mathys, 1926, 3 starts; Verne Lewellen, 1926-32, 3 starts; Curly Lambeau, 1926-29, 2 starts; Jack Evans, 1929, 2 starts; Red Smith, 1927, '29, 2 starts; Johnny Blood, 1929-32, 2 starts; Arnie Herber, 1930–32, 2 starts.

Left Halfback – Verne Lewellen, 1926-32, 46 starts; Johnny Blood, 1929-32, 11 starts; Hank Bruder, 1931-32, 10 starts; Eddie Kotal, 1926-29, 6 starts; Arnie Herber, 1930-32, 5 starts; Wuert Englemann, 1930-32, 3 starts; Faye "Mule" Wilson, 1930-31, 3 starts; Jack McAuliffe, 1926, 1 start; Tom Hearden, 1927-28, 1 start; Larry Marks, 1928, 1 start; Herdis McCrary, 1929-32, 1 start; Dave Zuidmulder, 1929-31, 1 start; Orrin Pape, 1930, 1 start; Clarke Hinkle, 1932, 1 start.

Right Halfback (77) – Eddie Kotal, 1926-29, 21 starts; Wuert Englemann, 1930-32, 20 starts; Johnny Blood, 1929-32, 9 starts; Herdis McCrary, 1929-32, 7 starts; Curly Lambeau, 1926-29, 6 starts; Verne Lewellen, 1926-32, 6 starts; Arnie Herber, 1930-32, 5 starts; Roy Baker, 1928-29, 4 starts; Jack McAuliffe, 1926, 3 starts; Jack Harris, 1926, 3 starts; Faye "Mule" Wilson, 1930-31, 2 starts; Myrt Basing, 1926-27, 1 start; Mal Bross, 1927, 1 start; Tom Hearden, 1927-28, 1 start; Don Hill, 1929, 1 start; Bill Davenport, 1931, 1 start.

Fullback – Bo Molenda, 1928-32, 25 starts; Herdis McCrary, 1929-32, 16 starts; Carl Lidberg, 1926, '29-30, 15 starts; Rex Enright, 1926-27, 10 starts; Harry O'Boyle, 1928, '32, 8 starts; Clarke Hinkle, 1932, 8 starts; Curly Lambeau, 1926-29, 4 starts; Myrt Basing, 1926-27, 1 start; Gil Skeate, 1927, 1 start; Roy Baker, 1928-29, 1 start; Russ Saunders, 1931, 1 start; Hank Bruder, 1931-32, 1 start.

Total Starts: Lewellen, 1926-32, 55; Dunn, 1927-31, 40; Kotal, 1926-29, 27; Molenda, 1928-32, 25; McCrary, 1929-32, 24; Englemann, 1930-32, 23; Blood, 1929-32, 22.

(No. of starts based on lineups from the Green Bay Press-Gazette. At the time, there was no official source for lineups or statistics.)

First, the biggest change that Lambeau made to his offense in 1926 was the role of the quarterback. It was precipitated by Mathys' career-ending injury, and the signing of 5-foot-6, 145-pound Pid Purdy, who had played football at Beloit College the year before. Purdy joined the Packers after playing in 11 games for baseball's Chicago White Sox late that summer and took Mathys' job.

Again, largely based on Goska's extensive research and unofficial statistics, Purdy attempted 58 passes that gained 366 yards over the last 10 games, totals that exceeded Mathys' attempts and yards over three-plus seasons. Then again, Purdy's most notable talent was his drop-kicking. In 1926, he converted 14 of the Packers' 19 extra points and two field goals.

A year later, Dunn, who stood 5-11 and weighed 177 pounds, was purchased from the Chicago Cardinals and took over as the quarterback, although Purdy started four of the 10 games as part of a quartet that Lambeau called his "pony backfield." It also included Eddie Kotal (5-8, 170) and former Notre Dame captain Tom Hearden (5-9, 178).

Much like quarterback Harry Stuhldreher in Knute Rockne's "Four Horsemen" backfield, Dunn filled Lambeau's need for a consummate field general. And as it turned out, Dunn was the only quarterback in the 26 NFL seasons when Lambeau used the Notre Dame Box to have exclusively called signals and also served as the Packers' primary passer.

Plus, Dunn was the first and only quarterback in NFL history until Bart Starr in the 1960s to lead his teams to four league titles. In 1925, Dunn was the quarterback for the league champion Chicago Cardinals. "The greatest field general I ever saw," Steve Owen, Hall of Fame coach of the New York Giants, said more than a decade after Dunn had retired when he was asked about the best-ever quarterbacks in NFL history.

With the Packers, Dunn lined up back and to the right of the center but closer to him than Lambeau's other quarterbacks. Dunn also preferred to take a direct snap, rather than having the ball snapped deep to another back, so he could hand the ball off or drop back to pass, according to teammate Mike Michalske.

Lambeau claimed throughout his years in Green Bay that Dunn operated much like a T-formation quarterback. In fact, when he switched to a wing-T with the Giants in 1948, Owen credited Lambeau with being the inventor of it. "(Dunn) was a great passer," said Owen. "Curly installed his new wing-T offense to capitalize on Dunn's wonderful passing."

Based on David Neft's numbers for the pre-stats era of the NFL – the years 1920-31 – that were published in "The Football Encyclopedia," Dunn was the second-most prolific passer in the league during his five seasons with the Packers, behind only Hall of Famer Benny Friedman. Dunn also kicked extra points and returned punts for most of his five seasons in Green Bay.

Goska credited Dunn with 297 pass attempts and 2,390 yards, second on the Packers to Lambeau's 3,129 in the pre-stats era. Goska also had Dunn throwing what was then a team-record 31 touchdown passes.

While Dunn did most of the passing during his time in Green Bay, he didn't do all of it. Lewellen, who played primarily left halfback, attempted 212 passes during just those five seasons. Blood, who split time between left and right halfback, threw 54 from 1929-31. And in 1931, Dunn's final season, fullback Bo Molenda attempted 46 passes to Dunn's 31.

But nobody had a greater bearing on the Packers' success, going back to his rookie season in 1924 when he emerged as a budding star through his final season in 1932, than Lewellen. The Packers' winning percentage over those nine seasons was .730.

By comparison, in 2019, there were four skill position players from the Iron Man era named to the NFL's 100-man Centennial Team: end Don Hutson, and backs Dutch Clark, Steve Van Buren and Sammy Baugh. The Packers compiled a .725 winning percentage during Hutson's 11 seasons. Portsmouth and Detroit combined for a .677 winning percentage during Clark's eight seasons; Philadelphia, a .654 percentage during Van Buren's eight seasons; and Washington, a .573 mark during Baugh's 16 years.

None matched what the Packers accomplished with Lewellen as their centerpiece.

Standing 6-1 and weighing 180 pounds, Lewellen had his greatest impact as a punter. During the six seasons when he handled almost all of the Packers' punting, he averaged 103 punts, according to statistics compiled by Neft. In the 84 seasons since punting has been recorded as an official statistic by the NFL, only 21 punters have had more than 103 attempts in a season and only three played for winning teams. Lewellen never played on a losing team.

In part, because of his punting, Lewellen also was one of the last of the Packers' 60-minute players, even as substituting became more prevalent in the late 1920s. From 1925-30, Lewellen played 60 minutes in 25 games, at a time when they could be completed in two hours.

Lewellen's season high for attempts was 136 in 1928, again based on Neft's stats. The NFL record dating to 1939 is 114.

The reason punter – none of whom were specialists – was arguably the most important position in the game was because field position meant everything. During Lewellen's nine seasons, the Packers averaged 13.2 points per game and allowed a mere 5.5.

It was a much different game than today's football with much different rules. Thus, in 1929, when the Packers won their first NFL title, Lewellen punted 85 times and 64 of them were on first, second and third down. Lewellen punted 25 times on first down; 21 times on fourth down.

Here again, that was straight out of Knute Rockne's playbook at Notre Dame.

In an article written for the Athletic Journal in 1921 titled "Field Tactics," Rockne explained how he divided the field into "transverse divisions or zones and longitudinal belts" and stuck to his basic philosophy in each zone during a game. The "Danger Zone" was between the goal line and 20-yard line, and it automatically called for a punt on first down. Next was the "Transitional Running Zone," between a team's own 20 and 40-yard lines, and it called for a punt on second or third down. It wasn't until his teams reached the 40, where Rockne considered it safe to open up his offense.

Lambeau embraced the strategy and tried to capitalize on Lewellen's talents in every way he could.

Not only was Lewellen capable of booming punts that could flip field position in an instant – in 1929, according to Goska, he was credited with 13 punts of 60 yards or more – he also was a master at placing coffin-corner kicks. To this end, 17 of Lewellen's punts in 1929, or 20 percent, were kicked inside enemy territory. Nine were booted from inside the opponents' 40-yard line. In fact, in the second game against the Chicago Cardinals that year, Lewellen punted with the ball on the Cardinals' 19-yard line.

First, field goal attempts were no sure thing. The league leader that year had three. Second, there were no hashmarks. Following any punt that rolled out of bounds, the ball was placed just feet from the sideline, severely limiting the offense's options.

Fifteen of Lewellen's punts were marked inside the 10-yard line and 10 of those left the offense starting between its goal line and 5-yard line. That's why Lambeau's game plans were basically built around Lewellen's punting and seizing the rare opportunities to score a touchdown.

"I still haven't seen anyone who can punt the ball like Lewellen," Blood told his biographer Ralph Hickok in the 1970s. "He kicked it deep and very high, so there was just never any chance for a return. They talk about the kicking game now, but it was even more important in some of those low-scoring games we had… If you could out-kick the other team by five or 10 yards, you could practically march for a touchdown just by exchanging punts. And he was accurate, just great at the coffin-corner kick."

This much we know about Lewellen's positioning on his punts. The Green Bay Press-Gazette explained that in the Packers' normal Box formation during the Dunn years, Lewellen and Molenda, the fullback, were the deep backs, where they could take a handoff from Dunn or a direct snap. Presumably, Lewellen could also punt from that spot. What couldn't be determined was whether at least some of his first- and second-down punts were executed like quick kicks.

An educated guess would be that the Packers, at least at times, shifted into Michigan coaching legend Fielding Yost's punt formation offense, where Lewellen would have been even deeper in the backfield. In 1930, when the pros were still playing by college football rules, Yost wrote in a widely circulated newspaper article, "The punt formation is universal. No matter what its primary formation for offense may be, every team uses the punt formation at times, for kicking, passing or running."

What's more, if a team had a back with multiple skills, Yost said "it was the hardest play against which to defend … because your defense must be widely distributed to take care of whatever may happen."

Lewellen was the perfect fit.

When he wasn't pinning opponents deep in their own territory with his punts, he was often the one making the big plays that allowed the Packers to win the low-scoring games of that era.

Based on Goska's statistics, when Lewellen retired after the 1932 season, he held the Packers' all-time scoring record with 307 points, almost double what anyone else had scored; all-time rushing record with 2,196 yards, almost 900 more than any other Packer; and all-time receiving record with 77 receptions for 1,125 yards, a 14.6 average. Lewellen also ranked third in all-time passing with 1,809 yards – Dunn was tops with 2,390 – including a 16.9 average per completion; and was third in interceptions with 19.

Lewellen's 51 touchdowns were an NFL record that wasn't broken until 1941 by Don Hutson.

Beyond that, Lewellen was the Packers' most decorated back during that period. From 1923-35, the Press-Gazette published an all-pro team based on the votes of NFL coaches, club and game officials, and sportswriters in other league cities.

Lewellen was named second team in 1925 and first team four straight years from 1926-29, or more than any other halfback in the league in the pre-stats era, including Red Grange. The only other Packers back to make a first team prior to Clarke Hinkle in 1932 was Blood in 1931.

As for the role of the fullback in Lambeau's offense, Molenda, who was 5-10, 210, finally brought some stability to the position, when the Packers acquired him from the New York Yankees late in the 1928 season.

Carl Lidberg, a rookie from Minnesota, had started there in 1926; Enright, a second-year player from Notre Dame, started in 1927; and Harry O'Boyle, a rookie from Notre Dame, started in 1928 until Molenda arrived with three games remaining. That marked eight straight years where the Packers had started a different fullback.

"Ever since the Packers have been playing 'big-time' football, they have needed a line-plunging fullback, who could get a 'couple' (yards) when they were needed," the Press-Gazette had once noted during the long search.

Described by the paper as a "bone-crushing fullback" with good speed, Molenda proved to be the answer until he was released two games into the 1932 season, reportedly because he wouldn't stop calling a promising Arnie Herber, "Dummy." Molenda led the Packers in rushing in 1930 and '31 when they won back-to-back NFL titles and also finished with the most passing attempts in '31.

At right halfback, the smallish Kotal and 6-3, 191-pound Wuert Englemann combined for 41 starts from 1926-32.

Kotal, one of the last Packers to play without a helmet and a product of what was then Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., fit Lambeau's want for versatile backs. During the 1926-32 timeframe, he was the Packers' fourth leading receiver with 53 catches, fourth leading rusher with 809 yards and also attempted 71 passes.

Engelmann, a product of what is now South Dakota State, never attempted a pass and caught only 17 in his four-year career, but he was nicknamed the "Dakota Jackrabbit" and provided speed at the right halfback position. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry as the usual starter from 1930-32. "His specialty is end runs and when he once gets loose, he usually gets some place because he runs with the stride of a deer," his bio in the Packers' 1931 publicity booklet read.

While splitting his time mostly between right and left halfback, Blood was most dangerous in the passing game, when he lined up much like a wingback or slotback in the single-wing or T-formation. When Blood first joined the Packers that meant lining up in the backfield between the end and tackle. Later, as the rules and defenses changed, the right halfback on a shift to the right would move outside the end.

But wherever he lined up, Blood was a rare big-play threat in a league of line smashers. "The Packers had a lot of great players, but until Hutson came along, Johnny Blood was the one guy who could beat you with one big play," former Chicago Bears coach George Halas said years after Blood had retired.

From 1926-32, Blood was second in receiving to end Lavvie Dilweg with 68 catches for 1,252 yards, an 18.4 average, including 20 touchdowns. Blood scored 10 of them on pass receptions in 1931, which is still the Packers' record for a back. From scrimmage, he rushed for 772 yards over his first four seasons with the Packers, averaging 2.7 per carry.

Another back, who saw extensive action, was Herdis McCrary, a 6-foot, 205-pound product of Georgia, with good speed, who played mostly fullback and right halfback. He was the Packers' third leading rusher during this period with 904 yards.

By the 1932 season, the Packers also had two new stars in the making: Herber and Hinkle. Herber, a 20-year-old Green Bay native, started the first two games at quarterback in 1930 but wasn't the answer as Dunn's heir apparent. In 1931, he was cut after appearing in three games. But Herber returned in 1932, found his niche as the Packers' primary passer from the halfback positions and led the NFL in passing in the first season of official statistics.

(Editor's Note: Two more parts on Lambeau's Notre Dame Box will be posted at following training camp.)