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Ray Nitschke clear-cut choice as Packers best MLB

But why was he chosen for only one Pro Bowl?


This might shock fans considering Ray Nitschke is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his No. 66 is retired, but the Green Bay Packers have never had a middle or inside linebacker selected to more than one Pro Bowl, at least since unlimited free substitution was permanently adopted in 1950.

In fact, the Packers have had only six middle or inside linebackers selected to any of the 68 Pro Bowls since it was first played in January 1951, following the 1950 season.

The six were Clayton Tonnemaker in 1950, Deral Teteak in 1952, Nitschke in 1964, Jim Carter in 1973, A.J. Hawk in 2010 and Clay Matthews in 2015.

The Packers might have fared better at the position in their first 29 years in the NFL.

Following the 1938 through 1942 seasons, before there was a Pro Bowl, there was a Pro All-Star Game that matched the NFL champion against the NFL All-Stars. The entire Packers team played in the Jan. 14, 1940 game, after winning the 1939 league title. But Clarke Hinkle and Charley Brock played in two of the other four games.

Hinkle was a fullback and linebacker, and Brock a center and linebacker when players played both offense and defense. Both could be ranked among the top five middle or inside linebackers in Packers history, but they were previously selected at their offense positions and therefore not considered for this list.

In the 1960s, Hinkle's contemporaries likened him to Jim Taylor as a fullback and Nitschke as a linebacker. Although Brock was previously ranked as the No. 2 center in Packers history, he might have had a bigger impact on defense. He not only had an uncanny knack for stealing the ball out of the hands of ball-carriers, but he also intercepted 20 passes during his career, not counting the team-high eight credited to him his rookie year before the NFL tracked interceptions as an official statistic.

Among the Packers' six Pro Bowl middle/inside linebackers since 1950, Tonnemaker and Teteak were both rookies when they were selected.

Tonnemaker played only three years before retiring to go into business, but actually was selected for the Pro Bowl twice. He was chosen as a linebacker in 1950, but had to report to the Army three days after the Packers' final game and couldn't get permission to play in the Pro Bowl. In 1953, he was listed as a center when the selections were announced – linebackers weren't listed separately – and as a right linebacker in a 5-3-3 alignment in a projected lineup.

Matthews, as an active player, wasn't considered, either, although he would be ranked among outside linebackers, regardless.

Here's another piece of trivia.

Since the Associated Press started selecting both offensive and defensive units for its All-Pro team in 1951, Nitschke is the Packers' only middle or inside linebacker to be named first team. He was selected twice: in 1964 and 1966.

So why wasn't Nitschke named to more than one Pro Bowl and two AP All-Pro teams?

One, it wasn't until his fifth season that he established himself as the Packers' starting middle linebacker.

As a rookie in 1958, he started the opener in place of an injured Tom Bettis, but was benched after a bad game in Week 4. In 1959, Vince Lombardi's first as coach, Nitschke still couldn't beat out Bettis and didn't start a game in the middle.

A year later, 10 games into the 1960 season, Nitschke finally replaced Bettis, a former No. 1 draft pick, as the middle linebacker and started the final three games plus the NFL championship. Lombardi later explained the move by saying Nitschke "had learned his keys" and "had cut down on his mistakes."

But then in 1961 when Nitschke was called up for active duty with the Army reserve at the halfway point of the season, he found himself alternating with Bettis again. Nitschke was able to get weekend passes from his post at Fort Lewis, Wash., and played in all but two games, but he missed valuable practice time. Thus, Bettis sometimes got the starting nod and the two split time in the NFL Championship Game, a 37-0 victory over the New York Giants.

The voting process and the competition at middle linebacker were other obstacles for Nitschke.

In 1962, when Lombardi traded Bettis before the season and gave Nitschke the job, only four linebackers were selected for the Pro Bowl, including one middle linebacker. And that didn't change through 1966. Only once in those five years was more than one middle linebacker chosen among the four selected.

Prior to 1962, over the previous six years, future Hall of Fame middle linebackers Joe Schmidt of Detroit, Bill George of the Chicago Bears and Les Richter of the Los Angeles Rams all made the Pro Bowl's Western Conference team, leaving the coaches short on outside backers.

Schmidt was then chosen ahead of Nitschke in 1962 and '63, as was Minnesota's Rip Hawkins in '63. After Nitschke made it in 1964, Dick Butkus, another future Hall of Famer, entered the league a year later and was chosen over Nitschke six straight years or until Nitschke was benched by the Packers in 1971.

Atlanta's Tommy Nobis, the No. 1 choice in the 1965 draft, was chosen as a second middle linebacker for the Western Conference in four of those six seasons.

The Packers' top five:

1. Ray Nitschke (1958-72) – Nitschke was chosen one of four middle linebackers on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, along with Butkus, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier. Nevertheless, members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's selection committee have raised questions about Nitschke's worthiness considering his lack of Pro Bowl and all-pro recognition. That's ill-founded. Yes, several of Nitschke's coaches and teammates have admitted Butkus, of the rival Chicago Bears, was clearly better, but Butkus was voted the 10th best player in the history of the NFL in 2011 based on the voting of a so-called panel of "football experts" chosen by the league. No question, Butkus was special. But in his 1963 book, "Run to Daylight," Lombardi mentioned only Nitschke when writing about the biggest playmaker on his defense. In 1986, when I asked Phil Bengtson, Lombardi's defensive coach, to rank his five best defensive players in Green Bay, he listed Nitschke No. 1. That same year, I asked Taylor, one of the most rugged runners in the history of the game and a Pro Football Hall of Famer, to rate the hardest tacklers of his era and he put Nitschke third behind Butkus and Schmidt.

2. Brian Noble (1985-93) – Although cut in the mold of a classic run-stuffing 4-3 middle linebacker, Noble spent his career playing inside in a 3-4 scheme. It also was an era of transition in the NFL. Pro football was becoming more of a quarterback's game, but the likes of Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith still had to be stopped. Noble lasted only two seasons of the Wolf-Holmgren era, partly because of his limitations in coverage. But Bears coach Mike Ditka had this to say about Noble in 1988: "I think he plays the inside linebacker position as well as anybody. Yeah, there are probably guys who move a little better. But when you look at the overall picture of a football player, you have to look at how guys approach a game. Are their hearts in it? He lines up and plays like the old guys played. I doubt that Ray Nitschke played with any more enthusiasm than Brian Noble does." Ditka had a 112-68 record as Bears coach, won a Super Bowl and could compare Noble to his Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Mike Singletary. Together, Wolf and Holmgren were 75-37, won a Super Bowl and had a collection of inside and middle linebackers named George Koonce, Fred Strickland, Joe Kelly, Ron Cox and Bernardo Harris. 

3. Jim Carter (1970-75, 1977-78) – After starting at outside linebacker as a rookie, Carter replaced Nitschke in the middle in 1971 and was booed unmercifully by Packers fans. However, Dave Hanner, the defensive coordinator at the time, maintained until his death in 2008 that Carter was not just younger, but the better player by then. Three years before his death, Hanner said Nitschke had lost some aggressiveness, couldn't fend off cut-blocks and couldn't change direction like he had as a younger player. "Jim was a little bit limited, but he was a good player and he was tough," said Hanner, who played defensive tackle for the Packers for 13 years and served as a defensive coach for 18. "He was tougher (than Nitschke at that point) and could get through trash. He played hockey in college." Carter played fullback for the University of Minnesota, leading the Gophers in rushing as a sophomore and scoring 19 touchdowns his last two years. He also played one year of varsity hockey for one of the country's premier Division I programs. Thus, at 6-foot-3 and 230-plus pounds, Carter was more than just a run-stuffer. He had some athletic ability and range. In each of his first three seasons as the starting middle linebacker, the Packers had a top 10 defense based on fewest yards allowed. Carter started seven years in all, six of them in the middle of a 4-3 defense.

4. Nick Barnett (2003-10) – Started the first game of his rookie year at middle linebacker and held the job for seven seasons, mostly in a 4-3 defense. As NFL football became more of a pass-first game, Barnett was the Packers' first middle linebacker selected more for his speed and range than his bulk and ability to anchor inside against the run. Barnett's forte was that he had a knack for showing up where the football was. The 2007 season might have been his best. He was chosen to AP's second-team in all-pro voting at inside linebacker. Other than Nitschke, he's the only Packers' middle or inside linebacker to get even second-team recognition in the 66 years of the AP's defensive selections.

5. Johnny Holland (1987-93) – Played his entire career inside in a 3-4 defense. He also played at the same time as Noble and covered more ground. But there wasn't any difference in big plays. Holland had 9 interceptions to Noble's 3 and 15 fumble recoveries to Noble's 11, but Noble had 14 sacks compared to Holland's 3½. Holland was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2001, joining Nitschke and Teteak as the only middle or inside linebackers to be so honored. Here, Holland was a narrow choice over Bettis for the fifth spot.