These opening days are long gone for Packers

Starr, Ronzani, Infante debuts were all disastrous

200910-history-2560
Green Bay Packer Coach Bart Starr wears a grim expression, Sunday, Sept. 22, 1975 in Milwaukee as he walks off field after losing his first regular season NFL game as coach to the Detroit Lions.

For almost 30 years, Packers fans have had really no reason not to look forward to a season opener and be optimistic about their team's chances of being in the Super Bowl hunt.

But that hasn't always been the case.

During their 24-year famine from 1968-91, when they appeared in a total of three playoff games and won one, they were 12-12 in season openers and lost seven by two touchdowns or more. In the last 28 seasons, they were 19-9 in openers and lost only three by two touchdowns or more.

From 1948, starting with Curly Lambeau's second-to-last season, through 1958, when the Packers went 11 consecutive years without a winning record, they were 3-8 in openers and lost half by 14 points or more.

Here's a "High Five" of the Packers' worst season openers.

1. Detroit Lions 30, Packers 16 (Sept. 21, 1975) – This was Bart Starr's first game as Packers coach and he couldn't have suffered a more embarrassing defeat. He admitted as much. "We made mistakes today that shouldn't be made by a high school team and in that respect it was a little bit humiliating," Starr said after the game. Steve Broussard, the Packers' rookie punter, had an NFL record three punts blocked and all three were turned into instant touchdowns. Cornerback Levi Johnson blocked the first and fell on the ball in the end zone. Johnson blocked another and linebacker Larry Ball returned it 34 yards for the Lions' second touchdown. Cornerback Ben Davis blocked the third punt, giving the Lions possession at the Packers' 6-yard line and setting up a three-play scoring drive. Starr had cut three punters during training camp, including Spike Jones twice, before signing Broussard four days before the opener. Given a free-agent tryout that summer by New Orleans, Broussard was waived three weeks earlier. But what was most puzzling about Starr's decision to go with an untested punter was that Broussard wasn't a punter in college and hadn't played football in four years. He punted only twice in two seasons at Southern Mississippi – its punter was future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Guy – and had played only flag football since 1971, his last season at the school.

2. Lions 40, Packers 0 (Sept. 20, 1970) – Phil Bengtson was in his third and final season as coach and if there were still any doubts about the demise of the post-Lombardi Packers, this game erased them. Backup Greg Landry delivered the most ignominious blow when he ran a quarterback sneak for 76 yards to set up the Lions' final touchdown. On third-and-2 from Detroit's 13-yard line, Landry slipped through a gaping hole over center and might have been untouched until he ran out of gas, stumbled and was wrestled down by rookie cornerback Al Matthews at the Packers' 11. Bill Triplett scored on the next play. "It wasn't even supposed to gain one yard," Landry said of his sneak. All he was hoping to do, he noted, was run time off the clock so it didn't appear that the Lions were running up the score. They had taken control, 23-0, before the Packers had even registered a first down. That was nine minutes into the third quarter. At halftime, the Packers had gained 27 yards on 25 offensive plays. They finished with five first downs and 114 total yards. Overall, Starr, who played all but the last eight minutes, was 7-of-17 for 35 yards and drew a torrent of boos from the Lambeau Field crowd when he threw an interception that was returned 40 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.

3. Houston Oilers 31, Packers 3 (Sept. 7, 1986) – Forrest Gregg was in his third season and had cleaned house in training camp after the Packers had gone 8-8 for the third straight full season. That didn't count strike-shortened 1982. So, in the end, it came as no surprise when the '86 Packers finished 4-12, their worst record since 1958. But Houston was no juggernaut either. It was coming off a 5-11 season and heading for another. Plus, Jerry Glanville was its coach and he couldn't have designed a more unimaginative game plan. On 28 first-down plays, the Oilers ran the ball 27 times. In all, they ran 54 times and gained 157 yards. Keep in mind, too, this was post-Earl Campbell. The Oilers' edge in time of possession was 39:11 to 20:49. Bedridden the night before with food poisoning and still feeling ill, Warren Moon threw only 21 passes, completing 14 for 218 yards, and still easily outdueled Randy Wright, who was 10 of 23 for 155 yards. Packers fans weren't any more into the game than the players. There were almost 3,000 no-shows despite an almost perfect Sunday afternoon for football, the 54,000-plus who showed up could hardly get enthused enough to cheer the players in pregame introductions and then they streamed for the exits in the fourth quarter, leaving Lambeau Field looking half-empty.

4. Lions 45, Packers 7 (Sept. 17, 1950) – It was Gene Ronzani's coaching debut and played at old City Stadium with the Packers dressed in new Kelly green jerseys and pants. But the bliss of a fresh start turned into a nightmare when starting quarterback Tobin Rote injured his shoulder late in the second quarter with the Lions ahead, 15-7. Tom O'Malley replaced him and proceeded to throw a still club, single-game record six interceptions. Overall, O'Malley was 4-of-14 for 31 yards after Rote, a rookie making his first start, completed only 3-of-10 passes for 55 yards and threw the first of the Packers' seven interceptions. The Packers had obtained O'Malley, a 25-year old rookie and World War II veteran, less than three weeks earlier in a trade with Cleveland and this turned out to be his first and last NFL game. "Green Bay was one of the worst experiences of my life," O'Malley told me in 1977. "I don't want to say anything detrimental about the ball club, but I came from the Browns, where I thought I had made the team, and got into Green Bay, which I thought was one of the most disorganized outfits I had ever seen. I asked for a playbook and the whole time I was there they never gave me one. I didn't start the game … I had been there about 10 days, didn't know the plays or anything about the system. I'll never forget it." Amazingly, the Lions fumbled 11 times, but never once lost possession.

5. Los Angeles Rams 34, Packers 7 (Sept. 4, 1988) – This was Lindy Infante's first game and the Packers committed seven turnovers and allowed seven sacks. Second-year cornerback Norm Jefferson fumbled a kickoff and punt in the first five minutes, lost both and the Rams turned the recovered punt into their first touchdown. Wright started at quarterback and played three quarters. His last pass was intercepted by cornerback – and now new Packers defensive backs coach – Jerry Gray and returned 47 yards for a touchdown, giving the Rams a 31-0 lead. "He threw the ball to me instead of the receiver," Gray said after the game. "It was the easiest six I ever had in the NFL." Wright's final line was 11 completions in 24 attempts with two interceptions and six sacks. Don Majkowski played the fourth quarter and was sacked and threw an interception, but also threw a 17-yard TD pass. Other than Majkowski's scoring drive, the Packers' other 12 possessions ended with six punts, three interceptions and three fumbles. There were more than 3,000 no-shows again for a Lambeau Field opener.

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