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Snubs have continued for Vince Lombardi's Black players

Is the bogus Forrest Gregg quote the reason?

Pro Football Hall of Famers Dave Robinson, Herb Adderley and Willie Wood
Pro Football Hall of Famers Dave Robinson, Herb Adderley and Willie Wood

This being Black History Month, it seems timely to raise the question: How much has the Pro Football Hall of Fame's bogus quote about Forrest Gregg hurt the African American players from the Vince Lombardi era in voting for all-time NFL teams?

In 2019, when a committee of coaches, media members and other league personnel voted on the 100 greatest players for the NFL's Centennial Team, Gregg was the only Packer chosen from the greatest dynasty in league history. To this day, the 1965-67 Packers are the only team ever to win three consecutive league titles under a playoff format, while Lombardi's five championships in a decade also remain unmatched.

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1994, when the NFL's 75th anniversary team was chosen, Gregg and Ray Nitschke were the only Lombardi Packers to make that 49-man team.

The contention here isn't that Gregg didn't deserve serious consideration for those teams. After all, he was named to eight Pro Bowls, more than any other Lombardi-era player. Rather, the point is that there were other Packers from those teams no less deserving and whether a fabricated quote hurt their chances.

The question is: How much were voters influenced by a quote that appeared in the Hall of Fame's 1977 release when Gregg was enshrined in Canton? The release stated that in his book, "Run to Daylight," Lombardi said: "Forrest Gregg is the finest player I've ever coached."
Lombardi wrote nothing of the kind in "Run to Daylight."

In fact, there's no credible evidence that he ever uttered words of praise about Gregg that even came close to that. Gregg himself could never answer where the quote originated, only that his wife had informed him about it. And George Flynn, editor of the two-volume book, "Vince Lombardi on Football," where those words appeared in a caption but not in Lombardi's text, was later involved in at least two lawsuits over copyright issues that raise questions about the integrity of his work.

Gregg also received more hype than he deserved for his matchup with Deacon Jones in the Packers' 28-7 upset over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1967 Western Conference playoff. Jones called it "his worst day in football," and thereafter continued to toss bouquets Gregg's way, which in itself was no small endorsement considering Jones' stature as one of the game's greatest pass rushers.

But Gregg also has benefited from arms of the NFL focusing almost entirely on that angle of the story. As Lombardi often did, he game-planned to run at the Rams' strength, Jones and sidekick Merlin Olsen, but his strategy also called for tight end Marv Fleming to double-team Jones, including pass plays, because he believed the Rams' cornerbacks were no match for his split receivers, Boyd Dowler and Carroll Dale. Thus, players from that 1967 Packers team spread the credit for shutting down Jones among Lombardi's scheme, Gregg and Fleming, probably in that order.

There also were players from Lombardi's teams who claimed that Gregg wasn't even their highest-graded lineman or even offensive tackle. "Bob (Skoronski) had the best grades of anybody on the team," guard Jerry Kramer told me in a 2012 interview. "The grading day after day, year after year, Bob was the most consistent player on our team, and he had the grades. That's not my opinion. Those were the grades."

Which brings us back to the question: Did voters for those all-time NFL teams naively buy into a spurious quote that appeared in a long-ago Hall of Fame release and conclude that it was clear-cut Gregg was Lombardi's best player and, thus, the merits of others weren't given careful and deserving deliberation?

If so, those hurt most were the African American defensive players who were the strength of Lombardi's three-peat champs.

Paul Hornung, the halfback whom Lombardi actually called "the greatest player I ever coached," and Bart Starr, the first quarterback to win five NFL titles and the MVP of the first two Super Bowls, might have been victims, too.

But even a rudimentary study of Packers history would have revealed to voters that it was the team's defense – one that finished first in fewest points allowed by wide margins in 1966 and '67 and first in yards allowed in 1967 – that received the most acclaim from opposing coaches and players for the Packers' success during that period. And the most celebrated players on those defenses in terms of postseason honors were African Americans.

In fact, five of the six Black starters on the Packers' defense started for the Western Conference in the Pro Bowl played following the 1967 season. And those players were selected to the Pro Bowl by the conference's eight head coaches, not some convoluted process like today. Four were future Hall of Famers: cornerback Herb Adderley, safety Willie Wood, defensive end Willie Davis and linebacker Dave Robinson. The fifth was cornerback Bob Jeter.

What's more, the only three Packers to start all three Pro Bowls from 1965-67 were Adderley, Wood and Davis. Robinson and Gregg started in two of the three.

Seven defensive ends were chosen for the Centennial team and one was the Packers' Reggie White. Three others were contemporaries of Davis – Jones, Gino Marchetti and Doug Atkins – and as good as Davis was, it would be hard to argue that he was more deserving than White, Jones and Marchetti, and maybe Atkins, as well.

But let's take a look at Wood's credentials compared to fellow safety Larry Wilson of the St. Louis Cardinals because their careers overlapped, and Wilson made both the 75th and 100th anniversary teams over Wood. Wilson played from 1960-72; Wood from 1960-71.

First, Wood was a starter on five NFL championship teams in 12 years, whereas Wilson played on only six winning teams and never on a conference or division winner or a playoff team in his 13 seasons. As for team defense, based on yards allowed, the Packers finished higher than the Cardinals eight times in the 12 seasons where both Wood and Wilson played. The Packers ranked in the top five eight times; the Cardinals half that.

If winning was a criterion, there was no comparison between the two.

As for all-pro recognition, there wasn't much difference. On the Newspaper Enterprise Association team, which was voted on by NFL players, Wood made first team four times and second time, five. Wilson was a five-time first-team choice and twice a second-team selection. On the Associated Press teams, selected by sportswriters, Wood made four first teams and two seconds; Wilson was chosen first-team five times but never made a second team.

Make of it what you want, but over their first six seasons, essentially the first half of their careers when both were under 30 and presumably in their prime, Wilson never made an NEA or AP first team, whereas Wood made a combined five.

In the end, both were also named to eight Pro Bowls. But here again, during the 10 pre-merger seasons of their careers, Wood played in what was perceived as the stronger conference, or at least the one that produced eight of the 10 NFL champions.

As for stats, Wilson had 52 interceptions; Wood, 48. But Wood also had two more in postseason play, including a 50-yard, momentum-swinging return in Super Bowl I. Wood recovered 16 fumbles; Wilson, 14. Wood's biggest edge was in punt returns. He led the league with a 13.3 average in 1964 and averaged better than 10 yards in two other seasons. Wilson had a minimal number of returns.

Wilson is credited with introducing the safety blitz to pro football and had 21 sacks, whereas Wood never blitzed. But here again, Wilson was credited with 13½ of his sacks in seasons where the Cardinals finished 9th and 8th in team defense in a 14-team league, and 10th in a 16-team league. In those same three seasons, the Packers finished first twice and second once in team defense.

All of which raises an obvious question for those who voted for Wilson over Wood: How effective were those safety blitzes when Wilson's teams ranked in the bottom half of the league on defense? They might have been groundbreaking but apparently they weren't game-changing. Nor did any other team rush to copy them.

While there was no way of quantitatively comparing the two safeties as tacklers, Wood was considered the best tackler on Lombardi's teams. In fact, Lombardi once said, "Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game." What's more, Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka once said nobody hit him any harder than Wood. "He put me down a couple times, almost for keeps," said Ditka.

Adderley wasn't one of the seven cornerbacks on the Centennial team, and there was no peer to compare him to other than Willie Brown, who played in the American Football League for the first seven years of his 16-year career.

But there are some benchmarks worth examining.

Adderley played in five Pro Bowls in the 1960s, while Brown played in five AFL All-Star Games.

Adderley was named first-team all-NFL on five AP teams and two NEA teams. Brown was named first-team AFL on three AP teams and three NEA teams. But what makes it tough to compare those honors was the general perception when Super Bowl I was played that cornerback was the AFL's weakest position and yet a year later the consensus seemed to be that the Raiders' combination of Brown and Kent McCloughan was the AFL's best, although the latter was the more decorated of the two at that point.

Post-merger, Brown played in four NFL Pro Bowls and was first team all-pro twice each by AP and NEA; whereas Adderley was shut out in his final three seasons after being traded to Dallas, perhaps partly because he started opposite another Hall of Fame cornerback, Mel Renfro.

As for stats, Adderley seemed to have a significant edge when it came to big plays, despite playing four fewer years. Brown intercepted 54 passes and returned two for touchdowns. Adderley intercepted 48 and returned seven for touchdowns. He also averaged 25.7 yards on 120 career kickoff returns and scored two additional touchdowns. In postseason play, Brown intercepted seven and returned three for TDs; Adderley picked off five and scored one TD on a 60-yard game clincher in Super Bowl II.

While it's strictly a subjective comparison and Brown was one of the earliest practitioners of bump-and-run coverage, Adderley was widely viewed as the most physical corner in the NFL once All-Centennial corner Night Train Lane retired after the 1965 season.

Hall of Fame receiver Tommy McDonald was one of many who vouched for that. "Herb Adderley simply wouldn't let me get to the outside," McDonald once said. "He'd just beat me up, force me to turn underneath routes all the time. … Other guys tried the same tactic, but he was the only one tough enough and fast enough to get it done."

Rings? Adderley played on six NFL championship teams, including three Super Bowl winners. Brown played on one Super Bowl winner in his last year as a starter.

Then there's Robinson. He didn't play on Lombardi's first two championship teams, but there might never have been a linebacker better at disrupting the timing of opponents' pass plays at the snap and then dropping and blanketing tight ends in coverage. Basically, Robinson's assignment against the pass was to delay the tight end at the line – back when tight ends almost always lined up on the right side across from him – and then help with coverage to protect strong safety Tom Brown, a good tackler but a liability in man-to-man coverage.

Want some astonishing numbers to contemplate?

From 1965-69, after Robinson had taken over as the Packers' starting left linebacker, John Mackey averaged 2.9 receptions and a mere 26 yards in eight games against them. Ditka averaged 1.5 receptions and 14 yards in six games from 1965-72 when he went head-to-head against Robinson. Considering Robinson completely dominated two of the five All-Centennial tight ends over a combined 14 games, one would hope that those numbers would have been discussed at length in the selection meeting and at least compared to the resumes of AFL contemporary Bobby Bell and 1970s standout Jack Ham.

Against the run, Robinson's job was similar: Hold the point of attack against the opponent's strong-side running game to allow Davis more freedom to rush the passer. Robinson performed that duty well enough that when the Packers won their three straight titles, they faced a future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back nine times and only Gale Sayers in 1967 ran for more than 100 yards against them. In seven postseason games during that span, only Don Perkins of Dallas in 1966 rushed for more than 100 yards.

Robinson also arguably made the three biggest defensive plays in each of Lombardi's last three championship seasons: Intercepting a pass and returning it 87 yards for a 14-point swing in a win-or-be-eliminated game against the Baltimore Colts late in the 1965 season; his horse-collar of Dallas quarterback Don Meredith, forcing an interception and saving victory in the closing seconds of the 1966 NFL championship; and a blocked field goal in the 1967 playoff that Rams coach George Allen called the game's turning point.

Close to a decade ago when I wrote a column for the first time making the point that the Black players on the Packers' 1960's defenses weren't given proper credit when they played despite being the key to Lombardi winning his three straight titles, Davis reached out and thanked me for finally giving credit where credit was due.

But one has to wonder if the Centennial committee, less than 10 years later, didn't close its eyes once again to their plight because people in high places under the NFL's large umbrella were hoodwinked by a quote nobody ever bothered to confirm while it was falsely publicized for years.

If so, hopefully, during Black History Month, there will at least be some soul-searching done as the NFL promotes the progress it has made in more recent times in the area of diversity and recognize that there are perhaps Black players being victimized again in the hall's voting because of the biases they faced when they played more than 50 years ago.

As a former member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, I'm fully aware of how subjective the entire process is, whether it be during the annual selection meeting or occasionally when picking all-time teams. There are only so many slam-dunk candidates. Thus, the contention here isn't that a handful of Lombardi Packers deserved to be included among the NFL's top 100, only that Wood, Adderley and Robinson, at the least, deserved as fair a hearing as Gregg and that the vetting process be based in thorough and accurate knowledge of a team's history.

After all, it's clear based on comments from members of the selection committee that they had limited insight and even drew erroneous conclusions about players on Curly Lambeau's all-white teams of the NFL's first 30 years and their roles in his Notre Dame Box offense. As a result, there are white Packers who have not only benefited from a general unawareness of the team's history and yet others who have been victimized by it, and that's just as wrong.