Lynn Dickey Turns 68

Lynn Dickey was a 6’3” 215-pound pocket passer with a rocket arm, but too many injuries wrecked his early years and diminished his later ones.  After being drafted in the third round by the Oilers in 1971, he dislocated and broke his hip in 1972 when he was ground into the Astrodome turf. Dickey returned in 1973 to back up Dan Pastorini, the Oilers first round choice in 1971, for three years.  In 1976, Packers coach Bart Starr obtained Dickey in a trade for the failed John Hadl and cornerback Ken Ellis.  Given the starting job, Dickey could work no magic without scoring weapons available.  The team averaged only 15.2 points a game in 1976, and Lynn went down with a shoulder separation in week ten.  The next year was even worse on both the offensive and injury fronts.  The Packers averaged a mere 9.2 points a game in the last season before the NFL rules were changed in the offense’s favor, and Dickey’s left leg was snapped on the last play of the ninth game of the year.  He would not return till late in the 1979 season, missing all of 1978. By the start of the 1980 season, Dickey had missed 30 of 60 games due to injury in his four years in Green Bay and 53 games altogether in his NFL career. Over that nine-year span, he had thrown 25 touchdowns and 60 interceptions.

Despite the injuries and pain, Dickey’s career finally launched in the 1980s because he had weapons at last: James Lofton as a deep threat, Paul Coffman at tight end, and Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis as runners and receivers out of the backfield.  John Jefferson would arrive in 1981. From 1980-85, Lynn would fling 116 touchdowns and 119 interceptions.  He would throw for more than 3,000 yards in three seasons and set a team record of 4,458 passing yards in 1983 when he also led the league with 32 touchdown passes and an average of 9.21 yards per throw. The offense set a team record that year by scoring 429 points. In fact, the Packers averaged 23.4 points a game from 1981 through 1985; unfortunately, they would also give up 22.4 points a game so mediocrity was their fate.

The quiet, low-keyed Dickey deserved better. He recalled years later to Sports Illustrated, “Did I like throwing picks? No, I absolutely hated it. But if I didn’t take gambles and try squeezing the ball in there, we’d have to punt. And when we punted, we didn’t get the ball back for seven or eight minutes.” Offensive coach Bob Schnelker once described his quarterback in glowing terms, “Lynn is a fine leader, a tough competitor and a very accurate passer. He’s a very smart football player.” Historian Lee Remmel added that Dickey “may have been the greatest long passer in our history.”

(adapted from Green Bay Gold)

1976tldickey  1977tldickey

1980tldickey  1981tldickey

1985tldickey

Custom cards in Topps style.

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Packers by the Numbers Update#6

When I wrote Packers by the Numbers, 6 had only been worn by three men, each for one year: George Vergara in 1925, Dick Flaherty in 1926 and Mal Bross in 1927. After a 78-year break, the number was reclaimed in 2005 by punter Ryan Flinn, but his 29.3 yard net punting average halted his NFL career after just two games. Three years later another punter, Derrick Frost, donned it for the first 12 games of the 2008 season. Frost, a five-year veteran, was cut after the 12th game of the year for inconsistency and never punted again in the NFL.

Most recently, the number was worn by backup quarterback Graham Harrell, Harrell, A record-setting passer at Texas Tech, signed with the Packers as a free agent in 2010 after one season with Saskatchewan in the CFL. He spent two seasons on the Packers’ practice squad before winning the job as Aaron Rodgers’ backup in 2012. In his first regular season appearance on September 12 against the Saints. In the third quarter, Rodgers led the Packers to the New Orleans one-yard line when he was poked in the eye and had to leave the game temporarily. Harrell took the next snap, tripped over center Jeff Saturday and fumbled while attempting to handoff to runner Cedric Benson. The Saints recovered the fumble and drove down the field to take the lead, Fortunately, Rodgers returned and led the Pack to the victory.

Harrell would complete two of four passes in the four games in which he appeared in 2012, the only year of his NFL career. Since he was activated for a couple of games in both 2010 and 2011, he had the longest Packer career wearing 6. He is now coaching in college.

1925sgvergara  1926dflaherty

1927mbross  1976rbugharrell

1920s custom cards are colorized.

A Shared Birthday

October 15 is shared by two consecutive Packer middle linebackers born in North Carolina, three years apart. George Koonce and Bernardo Harris. Koonce took a circuitous path to the Packers. Undrafted out of East Carolina in 1991, he signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons, but was cut during training camp. He hooked on with the Ohio Glory of the new NFL development league the World League in the spring of 1992 and was scouted by new Packers’ scout Ted Thompson, who recommended his signing. The 6’1” 245-pound Koonce joined the Packers with another Falcons’ washout named Favre in 1992, but with much less ballyhoo. Nonetheless, he became a starter in his rookie year and remained one for the rest of his career.

Koonce bounced all over the linebacking corps. He began as an outside linebacker in 1992 and switched to inside in 1993. When the team switched to the 4-3 in 1994, George spent two years at weakside linebacker before moving to the middle for the championship season of 1996. Unfortunately, Koonce tore up his knee in the playoffs that year and did not return till the stretch run in 1997 when Harris had taken over in the middle. By 1998, Koonce was starting at strongside linebacker and stayed there until he was cut as a salary cap casualty in 2000. He followed Mike Holmgren to Seattle that year, but was cut after one season.

Koonce had difficulty transitioning to life as an ex-player, but eventually earned his PhD at Marquette and turned his dissertation into a book called Is There Life after Football? in 2014. As a player, Koonce was versatile with good size, but still having the speed and range to drop into coverage. Ron Wolf told the Milwaukee Journal in 1993, “He’s not the big, physical guy like Brian [Noble], but the difference is this guy can get there laterally.” A very solid linebacker who would be welcome on any Packer team, but does not quite make the cut here where there are too many big play makers.

Bernardo Harris, an undrafted alumnus of North Carolina, came to Green Bay in 1995 after having been cut by the Chiefs a year earlier. He made an impact on special teams and earned a shot in the starting lineup in 1997. For five seasons, he was a sturdy, hard-hitting middle linebacker who accumulated 7.5 sacks from occasional blitzes. His most significant moment came in the 1998 playoffs against the 49ers when he stripped Jerry Rice of the ball in the closing minutes. The play should have clinched the Packer victory, but the officials ruled Rice down, and San Francisco pulled the game out in the closing seconds on a touchdown pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens. The next season, instant replay was reinstituted at least partially in response to that grievous miscall. Harris finished his career with the Ravens in 2002.

1996gkoonce  1996bharris

Custom cards in 1961 Fleer style.

Packers by the Numbers Update: #5

5 is another quasi-retired number like 1. Originated by Dick O’Donnell in 1925 and then worn by Pid Purdy, Roy Baker, Bob Monnett, Hank Bruder and Ray Riddick for short stints over the next 15 years. It then laid dormant until the arrival of Paul Hornung in 1957, and he made it his own. No one wore it for 20 years after the Hall of Famer retired. Then, it was revived during the Forrest Gregg coaching tenure: quarterback Vince Ferragamo wearing it for three games to close out his career in 1986, quarterback Don Majikowski to start his career in 1987, quarterback Willie Gillus as a replacement player also in 1987 and kicker Curtis Burrow for one game in 1988. Since then it has remained unused for the last 29 years. It should be retired for the unquestioned leader of the Lombardi era, and it should be done while he is still with us.

1925sdodonnell  1937ybmonnett

1957tphornung2  1966pphornung2

1986tvferragamo2  1987tdmajkowski2

1987xtwgillus2  1988trookiekickers

O’Donnell, Monnett, 1957 Hornung and Burrow custom cards are colorized.

Brett Lorenzo Favre

The most important player in Packer history turns 48 today, i.e., the player most responsible for the team’s revitalization in the 1990s. Brett Favre was a gunslinger, more akin to Johnny U. than to Starr and has been considered the main rival to Don Hutson as the Packers’ greatest player. He’s the only NFL player be named the league MVP three consecutive seasons (1995-97). In his long career, Favre started an astonishing 297 consecutive games at quarterback – 321 including the postseason. Favre also set NFL quarterback career marks for wins (186), yards (71,838), touchdowns (508) and interceptions (336), although Peyton Manning is gobbling up all of these except for the interception standard.

Favre’s prodigiousness as a player was Bunyanesque, but that takes in both positive and negative qualities. Acquired from Atlanta by Ron Wolf for a number one draft choice, the 6’2” 230-pound Favre had as strong an arm and was as tough a player as anyone in the game. Under Mike Holmgren’s tutoring, Favre gained a semblance of self-control on the field and led the Packers to the playoffs in his second season, as he would do ten more times in his 16 years at the helm of the team. In all 16 years, he exceeded 3,000 yards passing and five times threw for more than 4,000. Eight times he threw more than 30 touchdown passes and four times led the league; he also threw more than 20 interceptions five times in Green Bay and twice led the NFL in that negative category.

Brett was mobile and had a quick release for his rocket-powered passes. However, it was when things broke down that Favre really became Favre. That might mean the two-handed chest pass to Dorsey Levens while being brought down by Kevin Greene in the NFC championship against the Panthers. Or his stumbling escape from Seahawk Brandon Mebane and subsequent underhand pitch to Donald Lee in the snow game against Seattle in the 2007 postseason. As John Madden liked to say, “That’s just Brett Favre being Brett Favre.”

The goal of each Packer coach, though, was to keep the headstrong Favre under control. In this aim, Mike Sherman went heavy with the power run game, even using three tackles at times, to reduce the opportunities for Favre’s negative tendencies. At times, it seemed that Favre suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. There would be plays that from the stands I could see receivers wide open short, but Favre insisted on throwing into traffic deep. That worked out well in the famous Monday Night Game against Oakland after Brett’s father died, but against better teams, it led to interceptions.

The last five playoff runs all ended with Favre failures. Six interceptions against the Rams in 2002; an overall meltdown against the Falcons in 2003; the overtime pop fly interception to Brian Dawkins in 2004; four interceptions against the Vikings in 2005; and the overtime Corey Webster pick that would be his last pass as a Packer in 2007. Brett Favre had a Hall of Fame career, but he could have been the greatest ever to play the position and was not.

(adapted from Green Bay Gold)

1993bfavre  1994bfavre

1997bfavre  2000bfavre

Custom cards based on older card designs.

Ryan Pickett

Hefty nose tackle Ryan Pickett turns 38 today. He was a rare free agent signing of GM Ted Thompson in 2006, who also played defensive end in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense at times in his eight-year tenure in Green Bay. A one-time first round pick of the Rams in 2001, the 6’2” 310-pound Ohio State alumnus was a steady and durable performer as a Packer, adept at stopping the run and absorbing offensive linemen.

After five years with the Rams, Pickett signed with the Packers in Mike McCarthy’s first season as coach. In eight seasosn in Green Bay, he appeared in 119 of 128 games and started 113 of them. After being released in 2014 at age 35, he caught on with the Texans for one final season. All told, he played in 207 NFL games.

Pickett had just 3.5 sacks in his time in Green and Gold. He could be counted on to do his job as part of Capers’ scheme on the field, but he was never a spectacular player. His biggest moment of fame came in Super Bowl XLV when Clay Matthews can be heard on the highlight film directing him where to go to stack up Steeler runner Rashad Mendenhall so that Matthews could crush Mendenhall and cause a fumble that was recovered by the Packers. That key play enabled Green Bay to extend their lead in the fourth quarter on the way to the championship. He never made All-Pro or was named to a Pro Bowl, but he was a fine player for many years.

2010rpicket

Custom card in 1961 Fleer style.

Remembering Russ Letlow

Russ Letlow was born on this day in 1913 and died in 1987. He holds the distinction of being the Packers’ first-ever draft selection in 1936. The first draft was very different from today’s multi-day affair that is broadcast on TV each spring. Letlow had actually already signed a contract calling for $250 per game with the Chicago Cardinals as a free agent before the draft was conducted on February 8, 1936.  In July, the Cardinals notified Letlow that he was released. He signed with the Packers for that same $250 per game shortly thereafter and played on an NFL champion as a rookie.

At six-foot and 214 pounds, Letlow was a tackle at the University of San Francisco, and played against the Packers in a West Coast postseason All-Star Game in January so Curly Lambeau got to see him play in person. Letlow moved to left guard in the pros and was named first team All-Pro in 1938, as well as second team in 1937, 1939 and 1940. In 1941, he appeared in just four games due to injury, but was assigned by Lambeau to scout the Bears, and his report helped the Packers throttle Chicago’s vaunted T-formation for once 16-14 on November 2.

In 1943, Russ went into the Navy and made the All-Service football teams in 1943 and 1944, playing for Great Lakes and other service teams. Upon his release from the Navy, he returned to the Packers for his eighth and final season in 1946, despite receiving offers from teams in the rival All-America Football Conference.  Even if hadn’t been such a fine player, Russ Letlow would always be remembered for his place in Packers history, and he was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1972.

1936rletlowdraft  1936rletlow2

1937yrletlow2  1942rletlow

Custom cards are colorized.