With the opening game of the 2019 NFL season just days away, Mike Carlson sifts through the remarkable history of the Green Bay Packers, the 13-time NFL champions who have always punched above their weight.
Whenever brand-new fans ask me what team they ought to support, I invariably recommend the Green Bay Packers. Why? Because I love tradition, and they epitomise tradition. This is their 100th season; they started in 1919 playing semi-pro as the Green Bay Packers, entered the American Professional Football Association in 1921 as the Green Bay Packers, and are still the Green Bay Packers in the NFL today. They are owned by the town of Green Bay, the only team not to have a majority owner; the only team in North American pro sports run by its shareholders. The team cannot be sold; if they were I have no doubt the NFL would bless the owners moving it to somewhere like Las Vegas, where they could have been the Rat-Packers.
The Packers are a throwback to the days when pro football was to America what rugby league is to Britain: the harder version of the sport, played on Sundays in the industrial north. Green Bay is the smallest city (2010 census: 101,000) to boast a team in any of the four major sports. They play outdoors, in a stadium named not for some big corporation but for the man who founded the team, was its first coach and original star.
They play in winter on the frozen tundra, and I was lucky enough to watch games like the Ice Bowl that came to define the Packers. And they were the team that won the first two Super Bowls, the team whose coach gives his name to the trophy.
Each year, when I watch that trophy being handed to a team’s owner, my mind’s eye sees Vince Lombardi, and I think of Green Bay and that that’s football the way it ought to be. And here’s how it got to be that way…
THE FOUNDATION (1919-1926)
Earl Lambeau was called Curly because his hair really was curly; you can look up the pictures. He was a local star who’d played on Knute Rockne’s first team at Notre Dame, but dropped out of college and returned home. He wanted to keep playing while working for the Indian Packing Company, and one day was talking with the sports editor of the local paper, George Whitney Calhoun. The Whitneys had founded Green Bay, and George had the contacts. He got Indian Packing to sponsor a team, calling it the Packers. They went 10-1 against other local sides, and passed the hat after games. In 1920 they went 9-1-1 – but also built a fence around Hagemeister Park, so they could start charging admission.
In 1921, the APFA, in its second year, awarded a franchise to Green Bay via Acme Packing, a Chicago company that had bought Indian Packing, but that didn’t affect the team’s name. Apart from Tonawanda (a Buffalo suburb) Kardex, they were smallest city in a league that included the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Rock Island Independents and Dayton Triangles. There are only two links to the modern NFL: the Chicago (then called Racine, after the street where their ground lay) Cardinals, who moved to St. Louis and then Arizona, and George Halas’ Decatur Staleys, who moved to Chicago and, in 1922, became the Bears. There was a team called the New York Giants, but they were called the ‘Brickley Giants’ after their owner and folded following the season. Bookmaker Tim Mara would buy into the league and launch the Football Giants in 1925.
The Packers were competitive from the start, but had trouble surviving. Lambeau and Calhoun bought Acme out of the team, but they teetered on the edge of bankruptcy until late in the 1922 season when the owner of the Press Gazette promised community support to keep the team from folding. Andrew Turnbull created the non-profit Green Bay Football Corporation, and the sale of shares gave the team money to operate, and to seek players outside their own hometown area. The league had no round-robin or playoff structure; in 1925 the Pottsville (Pa) Maroons would beat the Cardinals but lose the title because they had the temerity to play a game against a team of ex-Notre Dame players in Philadelphia, without permission of a Frankfort Yellow Jackets team who owned the territorial rights.
FIRST ‘BLOOD’ (1927-1934)
When the NFL contracted to 12 teams in 1927, losing many of the smaller towns, Green Bay survived. The decision put more players on the market looking for full-time pro employment and, with the share issue, the Pack had money to spend. In 1929 they won the first of three consecutive championships. Green Bay went 34-5-2 in those three years, sparked by three stars signed from other NFL teams: linemen Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske along with star halfback Johnny ‘Blood’ McNally. They could have won a fourth title in 1932, when they went 10-3-1; however, the league didn’t count ties, so the 7-1-6 Bears played the 6-2-4 Portsmouth Spartans (soon to become the Detroit Lions) for the crown. By now, Lambeau was competing against the greater resources of Halas in Chicago, helped by the presence of local stars like passing tailback Arnie Herber. But the arrival of end Don Hutson in 1935 put the Pack back on top.
THE HUTSON ERA (1935-1945)
Hutson, who is usually credited with inventing pass patterns, revolutionised the passing game, becoming the league’s top offensive player. Lambeau used Rockne’s Notre Dame Box formation, which split an end out modestly, and stationed the wing back directly behind him, with the quarterback (blocking back) behind the tackle. First Herber and then Cecil Isbell threw the passes and Huston set 19 NFL records. With McNally back in 1936 they went 10-1-1 and beat Boston for the championship. They lost the title game in ‘38, got revenge against the Giants in ‘39, lost a western division playoff to the Bears in ‘41 and won their sixth title in 1944, with Hutson and local boy Tony Canadeo leading the way.
THE DARK AGES (1945-58)
After Hutson retired, Lambeau endured two mediocre seasons followed by two bad ones, and stepped down as coach after going 2-10 in 1949. For the next nine seasons, the Packers stayed mired in the bottom half of the western division, despite quarterback Tobin Rote establishing himself as a two-way threat running and passing (he would lead Detroit to the 1957 championship after being traded away).
Meanwhile, a local bond issue saw Green Bay City Stadium opened in 1957; it would be renamed Lambeau Field in 1965 and, much expanded, remains the team’s home. But the on-field product was bad, and the players didn’t seem to care. One Dick Afflis used to laugh about his time with Packers when, as wrestler Dick the Bruiser, he feuded with the Lions’ Alex Karras. Although no coaches were successful, one of them, Lisle Blackbourn, was a good judge of talent and, along with the team’s personnel manager Jack Vainisi (whose son Jerry would become GM of the Bears and director of operations of the original WLAF), provided the core of Vince Lombardi’s teams. After a 1-10-1 record in 1958, first-year head coach Scooter McLean resigned, and the Packers looked for a new coach.
THE LOMBARDI ERA (1959-69)
Having been turned down by Iowa University coach Forest Evashevski, the Packers hired the Giants’ offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, and the new man immediately announced he was in ‘total command’ (note the Giants teams under Jim Lee Howell also had Tom Landry running their defense). Lombardi began cleaning house and, in his first season, went 7-5. He upped that to 8-4 the next year, but lost the championship game to the Eagles. That would be the only postseason matchup in which Lombardi’s Packers didn’t emerge triumphant. His success was built upon a fairly basic offense, but precise execution. The famed ‘power sweep’ was simple in design, yet almost unstoppable when performed as it was drawn up.
The Packers won their first title since 1944 the next year, and again in 1962. In 1963 George Halas’ last-hurrah Bears won the western division with the benefit of a tie (11-1-2 versus 11-2-1) and, in 1964, the Colts were too strong for the Pack. But Lombardi had his men back the following season, and they won the next three NFL championships, matching the 1929-31 Packers in that unique feat. And, of course, they won the first two Super Bowls. After the second, Lombardi stepped down as coach with a 98-30-4 record and 9-1 mark in postseason. Defensive coordinator Phil Bengtson replaced him as coach but, following two middling seasons, Lombardi announced his departure to become GM and coach of Washington.
THE MIDDLE AGES (1970-1991)
Bengtson lasted two more years. Dan Devine, highly successful at the University of Missouri, replaced him for four disappointing seasons – but not before trading away a bevy of draft picks for veteran QB John Hadl at the end of his career. After that, the Pack turned to Lombardi era heroes Bart Starr (1975-83) and Forrest Gregg (1984-87), but neither could turn things around. Lindy Infante appeared on the right track when guiding Green Bay to 10-6 (they just missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker) in year two, only the fourth winning season since Lombardi stopped coaching. But they went 6-10 and 4-12 the next two terms and, after the ‘91 season, team president Bob Harlan (whose son Kevin is a renowned sports announcer) hired a long-time Raiders personnel man as his new GM by the name of Ron Wolf, and he immediately fired Infante.
THE YEARS OF THE WOLF (1992-2000)
Wolf’s first major act was to hire Mike Holmgren, offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers – who would become the third-most successful coach in team history. His second was to trade a first-round pick in the 1992 draft for Atlanta’s backup quarterback Brett Favre. The ‘92 Packers went 9-7. Then, in 1993, the first year of NFL free agency, Wolf persuaded the best player on the market, Reggie White, to come to Green Bay. White’s presence drew other quality players to Green Bay, whose perception around the league was as a place less then friendly to, say, urban culture. By ‘95 the Pack were in the NFC Championship; in 96 they won the Super Bowl over the Patriots; in 97, they lost to Denver in the Big Dance. A tough wildcard defeat to the Niners, 30-27 on Terrell Owens’ last-second TD, spoiled another Super Bowl run the following year. Mike Holmgren left to become GM and coach in Seattle, and defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes replaced him. But after an 8-8 season, Rhodes was replaced by Mike Sherman, who went 9-7, and Wolf stepped down as GM.
THE WEST COAST INTERRGNUM (2000-2005)
Ironically, as Holmgren had left for more control, Sherman now became both GM and coach. He had a series of good seasons culminating in playoff disappointment and, after 2004, was stripped of the GM title, replaced by Ted Thompson. Almost predictably, the Pack fell to 4-12 and Sherman was fired.
THE McCARTHY TRIALS (2006-present)
Like Homgren, Rhodes and Sherman, Mike McCarthy was another product of the West Coast coaching tree, and had served a year as QB coach in Green Bay. He is now the longest-serving head coach since Starr, second only to Curly Lambeau in wins, and third behind Lombardi and Lambeau in winning percentage. In McCarthy’s second year, Brett Favre led the team to a 13-3 season, but lost to the destiny-backed Giants in overtime of the NFC Championship Game. After the year, Favre retired, then applied for reinstatement, and was traded to the New York Jets.
But Thompson already had Aaron Rodgers as heir apparent. After missing the playoffs, Thompson shook up the defensive coaching. The Pack returned to the postseason and, the following year, as a six seed, won the Super Bowl, beating the Steelers 31-25. The next season they went 15-1, but lost their first playoff game, at home, to the Giants, again the victims of Big Blue’s march to a Super Bowl win over the New England. In the past six seasons, the Pack have won their division four times and made the playoffs as a wildcard in the fifth. But there is a growing perception that it is Rodgers’ ability to create that has fuelled McCarthy’s success and, after last season’s 7-9 finish, another playoff-free season (which seems a certainty) might spell the end of his era.
After all, Green Bay likes to call itself Titletown, USA. The little city in northern Wisconsin no longer dominates as they did in the early days, or under Lombardi. However, when they look at 13 championships (four of them Super Bowls), the Packers see a record no team, no matter how big their city, can match.
This article originally appeared in Issue XLIII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE