Misjudged by Lombardi

Vince Lombardi was always on the lookout for speed, but he cut three of fastest rookies only to have them forge Hall of Fame careers elsewhere. By elsewhere, I mean Canada. George Dixon, Garney Henley and Bill Symons were each late round draft picks of the Packers who never played in the NFL, but who are members of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (CHoF).

George Dixon was a ninth round pick out of the University of Bridgeport in 1959. He had a 96-yard kickoff return against San Francisco in the preseason, and Vince said of the 6’1” 195-lb speedster, “He’s a big fast boy who can really help the Packers. We need a fast, breakaway runner.” Two weeks later, Lombardi cut Dixon to keep Timmy Brown. Dixon signed with the Montreal Alouettes immediately and, over a seven-year career, rushed for 5,615 yards, including 1,520 in 1962. That year, he was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. A year later, he rushed for 1,270 yards, including one run from scrimmage for a record 109 yards. He was elected to the CHoF in 1974.

In 1974, Garney Henley was still playing pro football, despite having been cut by the Packers in 1960. Henley was selected out of South Dakota State in the 15th round of the 1960 draft after having led the nation in scoring with 141 points in 1959. Lombardi tried the slight 5’11” 170-pounder at both defensive back and wing back and commented, “He is without question one of the fastest men I’ve ever seen in a football uniform.” Althjough he could not beat out fellow rookie Willie Wood in Green Bay, Henley played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 1960-75. Mostly he was at defensive back, where he picked off 60 passes. However, Garney played on offense, too, at the beginning of his career and shifted to wide receiver exclusively for his final four years. He was a nine-time All-CFL defensive back and was also an all-league wide receiver in 1972 when he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player while leading Hamilton to its fourth Grey Cup title during his 16-year career. He was elected to the CHoF in 1979.

Bill Symons was drafted out of Colorado in the sixth round of the 1965 draft, but injured his knee in the first exhibition game and spent the season in the taxi squad. Symons returned to training camp in 1966, when he was bounced back and forth from running back to defensive back, but ultimately was released and signed by British Columbia of the CFL. Still recovering from his knee injury, Bill was traded to Toronto in 1967, and a year later, ran for 1,107 yards while being named the league’s Most Outstanding Player. He played for Toronto through 1973 and accumulated 4,300 yards rushing. He was named to the CHoF in 1997.

1959tgdixon  1960tghenley  1965pbsymons

Custom cards are 1959 Topps Dixon, 1960 Topps Henley (colorized) and 1965 Philadelphia Symons.

The Kahler Clan


The Kahler brothers both hailed from Grand Island, Nebraska and played for the Cornhuskers from 1938-40, culminating in the 1941 Rose Bowl where they lost to Clark Shaughnessy’s T formation Stanford team, 21-13.

Younger brother Royal, a 6’2” 226 pound tackle, was drafted by Philadelphia in the fifth round of the 1941 draft. Because of the strange franchise trade between the Bert Bell/Art Rooney-owned Philadelphia entry and the Alex Thompson-owned Pittsburgh entry, King Kong Kahler ended up with the Bell/Rooney Steelers in 1941 and appeared in nine games.

Royal returned to Pittsburgh in 1942, but left training camp after a week in August because he did not like Coach Walt Kiesling and his harsh training methods. Curly Lambeau acquired his rights, and Royal joined brother Bob in Green Bay for 1942 before serving in the military. A one-time police officer, Kahler later worked as a senior safety engineer for ammunition plants.

Older brother Bob was a track star and a speedy 6’3” 200 pound halfback. At Nebraska, he lettered on the track team and set a national indoor 70-yard low hurdles record with a 7.8 second time. He signed with Lambeau after the Rose Bowl game, but was cut in 1941. From 1942-44, though, Bob appeared in 19 games for Green Bay as a reserve. In that time, he ran the ball nine times, caught two passes, returned one punt and played in the defensive backfield.

After a year in the Air Force, Bob spent 1946 as an assistant at his alma mater. In 1947 and 1948, he coached high school football and track, then coached at Wayne State in 1948, and Northern Illinois from 1949-54. After one 0-8-1 season as head coach at NIU, Kahler coached high school football in St. Petersburg, Florida from 1956-58, and then resigned to pursue his doctorate in education.

Five Birthdays

Monday, July 27, marks the birthday of five Packers: current center Corey Linsley, 1958 reserve halfback Jim Shanley, 1940s end Nolan Luhn, 1930s guard/kicker Paul “Tiny” Engebretsen and 1950s return man Billy Grimes.

Linsley’s “short arms” caused him to fall to the Packers in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, but when J.C. Tretter went down to injury, Corey stepped in and played at nearly a Pro Bowl level as a rookie.

Shanley was just 5’9” 170-lbs and made the 1958 Packers as a free agent. After one year returning punts, Shanley quit the pros for high school coaching prior to Vince Lombardi’s first training camp.

Luhn teamed with his former Tulsa teammate Clyde Goodnight to try to do the impossible…replace Don Hutson in the late 1940s. Luhn caught 100 passes for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns from 1945-49 — not bad considering the failing state of the Packers of the time, but he was not a star.

The 6’1” 240-lb Engebretsen spent eight years in Green Bay as a solid guard and tackle who doubled as a placekicker, particularly on extra points. Tiny led the NFL with 18 extra points in the 1939 championship season. He was elected to the Packer Hall of Fame in 1978.

Grimes is a contender for my All-Time 53-man roster as a punt returner, and I wrote this in Green Bay Gold:

Billy Grimes was an all-around big-play man. Drafted out of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in the second round of the 1949 draft by the Bears, the 6’1” 195-pound Grimes signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference instead. Billy led the Dons with 1,096 all-purpose yards as a rookie, and when the AAFC folded, was the Packers top pick in the disbursement draft in June 1950.

In 1950, Grimes nearly doubled his all-purpose total to 1,896 yards, including a league-leading 555 yards on punt returns. Billy scored twice on punt returns that year and averaged 19.1 yards per return. Altogether, he scored eight touchdowns that year, with six of them longer than 50 yards, including a 96-yard reception of a Tobin Rote pass. That was his greatest season, and he was All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl that year.

In 1951 and 1952, Grimes was much less effective, and he signed with Hamilton in the Canadian league in 1953. In retirement, he worked for more than 40 years in the Oklahoma oil fields.

1958tjshanley  1948lnluhn  1936pengebretsen


Custom cards: Shanley is in the 1958 Topps style; Luhn in 1948 Leaf and Grimes in 1952 Bowman, while Engebretsen uses the 1963 Fleer frame for a set I designed for the 1936 champions. All but Shanley are colorized images.

Lombardi’s Taxi Squad 1966

All five of the 1965 inactives returned to Green Bay for training camp in 1966, but only Allen Brown made the team. Larry Moore became the first Lombardi Packer to serve a second season on the team’s taxi squad and was joined by two undrafted free agents – quarterback Kent Nix and flanker Sonny Redders – as well as two future draft picks from 1965 – 13th rounder Roy Schmidt, a guard, and 18th round end Jeff White.

Nix is the best remembered of the 1966 taxi squad. Former Packers’ assistant coach Bill Austin would give Lombardi a fifth round pick for Kent in 1967, and Nix became the Steelers starting quarterback when Bill Nelsen got hurt that year. Kent spent three seasons in Pittsburgh, two in Chicago and one in Houston, mostly as a backup, and then hung on the taxi squads of Houston and New Orleans for a couple more years. Roy Schmidt was from Long Beach State and essentially took Eli Strand’s place as the extra lineman on the taxi squad for 1966. Schmidt would later have a five year NFL career with the Siants, Falcons, Redskins and Vikings.

Jeff White played with end Dave Parks and halfback Donny Anderson at Texas Tech and was a future pick in the 18th round of the 1965 draft, when Anderson was a future pick in the first round. White had been a junior college All America at Glendale, California. Sonny Redders starred at Wisconsin Stevens Point as an all-conference running back. Redders hailed from Madison and played local semipro ball after college before winning a tryout with Green Bay in 1966. The Packers converted him to flanker. Neither of these two receivers ever played in the NFL.

Larry Moore was signed as a free agent halfback out of Central Michigan in 1965. As the lightest man in camp at 177 pounds, he was trying out primarily as a kicker. He stayed on the taxi squad in both 1965 and 1966 as insurance should anything happen to place kicker Don Chandler. Moore was actually traded to Atlanta on August 16, 1966 for an undisclosed draft pick. He had a three week competition with Bob Jencks to be the Flacons first kicker. Jencks won, and Moore was cut on September 6. Lombardi then re-signed him to the taxi squad.

1966plmoore  1966tknix3  1966prschmidt2

1966pjwhite2  1966psredders2

1966 Philadelphia Custom cards; all but White are colorized.

Lombardi’s Taxi Squad 1965

Continuing the series on the taxi squad in the Lombardi era…

Lombardi restocked the taxi squad in 1965 as the team headed to its third championship. Fourth round pick Syracuse quarterback Wally Mahle, fresh from handing off to Floyd Little and Jim Nance, was converted to a defensive back. Sixth round pick halfback Bill Symons tore up his knee and spent the year on the injured list and the taxi squad, while third rounder Allen Brown was assigned to the injured list, too. Undrafted free agents Eli Strand, a guard, and Larry Moore, a kicker/defensive back, were solely cab men.

Strand was featured in an article in the 1966 Packers Yearbook in which he described the life of the anonymous men on the taxi squad, “My duties were simple. I went to practice every day. I ran other team’s plays, as well as going through the drills they had. On all games I traveled with the team. I stood (or jumped) on the sidelines during the games.”Eli tried out for the Packers again in 1966, but was cut and spent 1966 with Pittsburgh and 1967 with New Orleans. Strand attributed the end of his NFL career to his attempts to organize the black players on the Saints. He was later a familiar voice on WFAN sports talk in New York as “Eli from Westchester” who often took a racial slant on issues.

Mahle and Symons also tried out for the team again in 1966, and they both were cut in August as well. Mahle’s career was over, but Symons went to Canada and had a successful eight-year career with the BC Lions and Toronto Argos that included being named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1968.

Allen Brown would play for the Packers in 1966 and 1967 (three career receptions), but continued to have injury problems. Larry Moore would return to Green Bay in 1966, but never played in the NFL.

1965pabrown2  1965pbsymons

1965pestrand2  1965plmoore2  1965pwmahle2

1965 Philadelphia-style custom cards; Brown, Strand and Moore are colorized.

Happy Birthday Max!

To celebrate the anniversary of Max McGee’s July 16th birthday, here’s an excerpt from my new book, Green Bay Gold:

Across from Billy Howton as the team’s second receiver for three seasons was Max McGee, a fifth round pick out of Tulane in 1954. Yet McGee is not only much better remembered by Packer fans decades later, but is also part of overall NFL lore and more likely to be recognized by the average NFL fan. McGee caught roughly 150 fewer passes than Howton for 11 fewer touchdowns over the course of their careers, but Max was a sly, clutch player on the game’s greatest team at the beginning of the television era and stayed close to the game as the Packers’ beloved dry-witted color analyst for another two decades, retiring from the airwaves soon after the Pack at long last returned to championship form.

Lombardi kept the 6’3” 205-pound McGee, but traded Howton for several reasons it appears. Howton was two years older, had a slighter frame and was less useful as a blocker in the run game; he also was more of a team leader who might clash with the revamping Lombardi envisioned.  Probably the biggest reason is that Howton would bring more in a trade, allowing the Packers to shore up two weaknesses in exchange. While the assistant coaches were unanimous in their post-1959 evaluations of McGee (detailed in Len Wagner’s Launching the Glory Years) as a talented end, but a poor character risk off the field, Lombardi seemed to admire his free-spirited players like Hornung and McGee. At least he admired the ones who bought in to Vince’s program, willingly accepted his discipline and helped the team win. McGee told the Chicago Tribune years later, “He wanted to win. If you made a big play for him, you could go a long way.”

Big plays were McGee’s specialty. He scored nine touchdowns as a rookie, when he lined up outside in a standing two-point stance similar to that utilized by Fred Biletnikoff a decade later. Max remained a deep threat throughout his career, averaging 18.4 yards a catch and leading the league with a 23.2 average in Lombardi’s first year of 1959. He never caught more than 51 balls largely because the team did not throw the ball much in Lombardi’s Run to Daylight offense. Packer fans remember his gutsy 35-yard fake punt from his own 11 in the 1960 title game. He also scored the only Packer touchdown that day.

His biggest splash came in Super Bowl I, two years after the aging end had moved to the bench as a reserve. When starter Boyd Dowler was lost to injury in the first series of downs that day, McGee, hungover from a night on the town, replaced him and caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. He scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history on a one-handed catch of a pass that was behind him and joked after the game, “You’d expect a $100,000 quarterback to throw it better to a $25,000 end.”

Above all, Max was shrewd player who remained effective even after he lost his speed. Boyd Dowler explained for The Glory of Titletown, “You know Max is always being characterized as a free spirit and all that kind of stuff, but Max was very disciplined about what he was doing, very disciplined about his football. He wasn’t loose about it at all. He was also very, very smart.” Although McGee was known to drop the occasional easy pass, his attention was focused rigidly with the game on the line; then, he would catch anything close to him. T. J. Troup praised McGee’s “long striding speed and excellent hands,” at one point and at another averred he was “very effective in deep crossing routes.” Max’s ratio of one touchdown catch for every 6.9 pass receptions is second only to Hutson in this elite crowd. He was also a fine punter.

Here’s a selection of custom Max McGee cards (the 1955 Bowman, 1957 Topps and 1962 Fleer are colorized)…

1955bmmcgee2   1957mmcgee3

1958tmmcgee2     1962fmmcgee  1964pmmcgee3

1964plookalikes  1965pmmcgee   1966pmmcgee2

Who Are the Greatest Packers of All?


My new book, to be released tomorrow on paper and as an ebook through Amazon, provides an answer to the question above, based on over 50 years of watching, reading and researching. (Yes, I’m old)

In Green Bay Gold, I construct the 53-man roster of the greatest Packers at each position over the past 65 years.

Since football is such a team game, the 53-man roster concept works better than, say, the top 50 or 100 players to get to the very best Packers of all. Each position gets its own spotlight, and those players are compared to others who played the same position, rather than trying to compare the relative worth of a quarterback to a defensive end for example. While I include a kicker, punter, and two return men, the more arcane specialties in today’s game, such as long snappers, punt team gunners and kick team wedge busters, are not considered. This is a team for starters. Players primarily are compared against their contemporaries and in the context of what is needed to make the strongest overall team.

The book is framed the same way that each year’s Packer team is whittled from waves of cuts in minicamp, training camp and the preseason to determine the final 53-man roster for opening day. Using the framework of the real process allows me the chance to discuss why each player either deserves a spot on this ultimate roster or why he falls short.

From the 1,261 players who have worn the Green and Gold since 1950, 215 (plus Hutson from the early days) are given consideration in the book’s pages. While almost all are worthy of fond memories from Green Bay fans for their efforts on the gridiron, more than 75% of them must be cut from this historical fantasy camp. Read about those difficult choices in the book and let me know what you think.

Hornung’s Placekicking Replacement

After Paul Hornung’s poor kicking cost the Packers a chance at the 1964 title, Vince Lombardi swapped a fifth round draft pick to the Giants to acquire veteran kicker/punter Don Chandler to shore up the kicking game. Don did that in 1965 by hitting 17-26 field goals (65.4%) in the regular season. He then added a controversial one to tie the Western Conference playoff against Baltimore and force overtime. His overtime three-pointer put the Packers in the 1965 title game against the Browns, and Don went 3-3 in that game to help Green Bay beat Cleveland 23-12.

In an ironic twist, however, the magic left Don’s foot the next year, and he is the unnamed kicker in the last post about Paul Hornung’s 1964 season, one of six kickers on winning teams during the 1960s who converted less than 43% of their field goals. In 1965, Chandler hit just 12 of 28 field goals (42%). Under 30 yards, he converted 8 of 11, but beyond 29 yards, he made just 4 of 17.

The Packers still finished 12-2, but their two losses were by a total of four points. Had Chandler converted one of his missed field goals in each of those two losses, the Packers would have finished 13-0-1. In the NFL title game, Chandler missed his only field goal attempt and had an extra point blocked, enabling the Cowboys to stay in the game to the last minute. In the first Super Bowl, Chandler had no field goal attempts and made all five extra points.

Lombardi made Donny Anderson the team’s punter in 1967, and, relieved of double duty, Don returned to form as a placekicker, making 19-29 field goals (65.5%). In his final NFL game, Chandler was the high scorer in Super Bowl II, making all four of his field goal attempts and all three extra points for 15 points scored. The team would miss him badly in 1968 when Packer kickers converted just 13 of 29 field goals (44.8%) and 1969 when they made just six of 22 (27.3), worse even than Paul Hornung’s 1964.


Paul Hornung’s 1964 Disaster


When Mason Crosby hit on just 63.6% of his field goal attempts (21 of 33) in 2012, it was surprising that he didn’t lose his job as the Packers’ placekicker. 48 years before, though, Packer fans would have rejoiced at such numbers, and the team may have ridden such a performance to the NFL championship game.

In 1964, of course, Paul Hornung returned from a one-year suspension for gambling. In his first six seasons, Hornung made 53% of his field goal attempts (54 of 102). Compared to the league’s 49.9%, Paul was six-percent above average as a kicker. After the layoff, Hornung converted just 12 of 38 field goal attempts in 1964. He was 3 of 7 from under 20 yards, five of nine from 20-29 yards, 1 of 10 from 30-39 and 3 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond.

Hornung’s kicking that year is the worst performance in the 1960s by a kicker on a winning team (minimum 20 attempts). These are the six closest kicking failures on winning teams in that decade:

1961 Bears (8-6)              Roger LeClerc 10/24 41.7%

1961 Giants (10-3-1)        Pat Summerall 14/34 41.7%

1962 Lions (11-3)             Wayne Walker 9/22 40.9%

1965 Bears (9-5)               Roger LeClerc 11/26 42.3%

1966 Browns (9-5)            Lou Groza 9/23 39.1%

1966 ?? Team (12-2)        Mystery Man 12/28 42.9%

But Lombardi had no other options in 1964. Backup kicker Jerry Kramer who had made 9 of 11 field goals in 1962 and 16 of 34 in 1963 missed virtually the entire season due to abdominal surgery. Kickoff man Willie Wood tried his only NFL field goal in a week five win over the 49ers, but missed from 32 yards.

Let’s take a look at the games that cost Green Bay a shot at another title. The season had a promising start when the Packers knocked off the Bears 23-12 on opening day, with Hornung going 3 of 5 in field goals, including a career best 52-yard shot. That 52 yarder, though was on an uncontested attempt following a Packer fair catch on a punt at midfield right before the half.

In week two, Green Bay lost to Baltimore at home 21-20, despite outgaining the Colts 308-261. The difference was a missed extra point by Hornung. To be fair, the Packers were driving in the closing minutes, but Bart Starr was picked off by linebacker Don Shinnick at the Colt 25 to end their last drive. That should have been a tie.

In week four, another Hornung missed extra point contributed to a 24-23 loss to the Vikings. This game also should have ended as a tie.

In the week six rematch with Baltimore, Green Bay outgained the Colts 401 to 258 but lost 24-21, largely due to Hornung’s 0-5 field goal record. He missed from 17, 33, 46, 47 and one unknown distance. His final attempt came with the Packers leading 21-17 with two minutes to go. Paul’s 47-yard attempt was blocked by Billy Ray Smith and returned to the Green Bay 34 by Jerry Logan. Johnny Unitas then led the Colts to the winning touchdown, but had Hornung hit on two of his shorter field goals, Green Bay would have won 27-24 and ended up 1-0-1 rather than 0-2 against their chief rivals.

In week seven against the Rams, Green Bay blew a 17-0 lead. Hornung missed from 21 and had a 36 yarder blocked and returned for a 94-yard touchdown, but this game stays as a loss. Likewise, a week ten 24-14 loss to San Francisco remains a loss, despite featuring Hornung misses from 17, 38, 43 and a blocked kick from 35 in an 0-4 performance. A perfect conversion rate is too much to expect.

Finally, in week 14, the Packers were tied by the lowly Rams 24-24, and Hornung missed three of four field goals. One more gives the team another win.

Adding up the converted losses and ties gives the Packers a 10-2-2 record and drops the Colts to 10-3-1. Hornung’s awful kicking cost the team a chance to face off for the title against the Browns in Cleveland.

And who was that mystery man in the table above? Check my next post in a couple of days for the follow up to this story.

1963tkicking  5ringwwood

(Custom Cards feature 1961 Topps, 1963 Topps and Diamond Kings Style cards)