Packers Top Rookie: 2013

rookies2013elacy

16 first-year men played for the Packers in 2013, but only two proved to be impact players. Eight of the team’s 11 draft picks played for Green Bay that season and two others made the roster a year later. UCLA pass rusher Datone Jones was drafted with the top pick in round one, Alabama runner Eddie Lacy in round two, Colorado tackle David Bakhtiari and UCLA runner Johnathan Franklin in round four, Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde and Mississippi defensive end Josh Boyd in round five, Illinois State linebacker Nate Palmer in round six and South Florida linebacker Sam Barrington in round seven.

Having 11 draft picks offered a great chance to restock the team, but the opportunity was largely wasted. Datone Jones has been a major disappointment, and his college teammate, Franklin sadly had his career ended with a neck injury. Boyd, Palmer, and Barrington never developed into anything, and Micah Hyde showed promise as a returner and defensive back in his first two seasons, but has been stunted since.

Eight rookie free agents also made the team. Guard Lane Taylor and safety Chris Banjo each played four years in Green Bay, with Taylor gaining starter status in 2016. Linebacker Andy Mulumba lasted three years, but the other five – runner Michael Hill, tight end Jake Stonebreaker, linebacker Victor Aiyewa and receivers Myles White and Chris Harper – all were gone after just one season.

So the cream of the crop in 2013 were the draft picks Lacy and Bakhtiari. Both moved right into the starting lineup in 2013 and have stayed there ever since. Bakhtiari has been a reliable piece of a usually solid line. Lacy gained over 1,000 yards and was the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year; Eddie Lacy was the Packers’ top rookie in 2013.

Thanksgiving 1986

Thirty years ago today was Thanksgiving Day 1986, and the annual Detroit game that year featured the 5-7 Lions facing the 2-10 Packers. It was just the second time since 1963 that Green Bay had travelled to Detroit on the holiday and proved to be perhaps the sweetest moment of a long dismal season in Wisconsin. The Packers were quarterbacked by unimpressive third-year man Randy Wright and would finish 25th in the NFL in scoring in 1986, while the Lions employed 36-year old Joe Ferguson as their signal caller and would end up 22nd in points. On the other side of the ball, Detroit’s middle-of-the-pack defense was countered by Green Bay’s 27th ranked one. Not exactly a marquee matchup.

The Lions opened the scoring with a field goal and touchdown, but the Packers tied it up in the first quarter on a blocked punt recovered in the end zone by defensive back John Simmons and a field goal by Al Del Greco. In the second quarter, two Del Greco field goals were answered by one by Detroit three-pointer before Walter Stanley grabbed a 21-yard touchdown pass from Wright to put the Pack up by ten, but another Lions touchdown before half brought the score to 23-20 Green Bay at the intermission.

17 unanswered third quarter points gave the Lions a 37-23 advantage before Stanley closed the gap with a 36-yard touchdown grab of another Wright pass to make the score 37-30 Detroit going into the final quarter. The fourth field goal by Eddie Murray, set up by an interception of an errant Wright pass, then extended the Lions’ lead to 40-30 before Wright tossed his third touchdown pass of the day – 11 yards to Paul Ott Carruth to tighten the score to 40-37.

With less than a minute to go in the contest, the less-than-stalwart Packer defense forced the Lions to punt, and punt returner Stanley was given instructions to fair catch the punt to preserve time for the offense. Instead, Stanley fielded the ball at his own 17 and headed to the left before spinning back to the right sideline where he found clear sailing for an 83-yard game-winning punt return touchdown with just 41 seconds left in the game. It would be the only punt return touchdown of his career.

Stanley told reporters, “The thing is, I’m expecting to make big plays – not all the time – but if you want to be better than average, you’re going to have to make the big plays, and that’s what I try to do every chance I get. I wanted the touchdown because I felt that we needed it.”

Gruff Coach Forrest Gregg added, “All I know is the guy is a good athlete and has a lot of heart. I think they probably underestimated his ability a little bit. Nobody will be guilty of that again.”

Wright finished the game 18-26 for 286 yards and three touchdowns for a career-best 128 passer rating; it was the one bright spot in his dreadful tenure as Green Bay’s starting quarterback. It was also the finest hour for the 5’9” Stanley who scored half of his six career touchdowns on this day. He returned punts for the Packers for four years, but his return average declined each season. In 1989, he moved on to the Lions and led NFL in punt return average in his one season with Detroit. It was a great day of surprising performances by a couple of lesser light Packers.

1985twstanley  1986trwright

Custom cards in Topps style.

A Thanksgiving Story

In November 1949, the Packers were on the brink of financial ruin. Two days after losing to the Giants 30-10 to drop the team’s record to 2-6, 100 local businessmen met on November 15 to fashion a plan to “Save the Packers,” according to the Chicago Tribune:

The public spirited committee met with club officials at a breakfast in the Northland Hotel this morning and made plans for an intrasquad game Thanksgiving afternoon. Each of the 100 will contact 20 people or organizations. Tickets for the game will be priced at $1, $2 and $3, plus tax. In addition, contributions will be accepted.

Four days after a 30-7 loss to Pittsburgh, the intrasquad game was staged on Thanksgiving Day, November 24. 15,000 fans showed up for the contest despite it being a windy, snowy day. The Green Bay Press Gazette reported that:

More than a thousand prizes were given away, ranging from a second hand automobile to 2,000 feet of lumber, 100 pounds of butter, baskets of groceries and even a shave and a haircut. Fans with lucky numbers sat on the bench and helped the coach. The spirit of Thanksgiving was so rampant that even small boys threw back the balls kicked into the stands, something that has become almost unheard of in football in recent years.

The intrasquad game pitted the Blue-jersey team of veterans led by quarterback Jug Girard against the Gold-jersey team of newcomers led by quarterback Stan Heath. Girard had been the Packers first round pick in 1948, but would complete just 34% of his passes and throw five touchdowns to 12 interceptions before shifting to halfback in 1950. Heath was the Packers first round pick in 1949 and completed just 24.5% of his passes with one touchdown and 14 interceptions in his single NFL season before leaving for Canada.

Playing against Packer defenders proved a tonic to both signal callers, though, as the Blues beat the Golds 35-31, with Girard throwing five touchdown passes to Ted Fritsch, Bob Forte, Nolan Luhn, Larry Craig and Ralph Earhart. Gold touchdowns wee scored by Heath, Jack Kirby, Bill Kelley and Walt Schlinkman The assistant coaches also got into the act, with 36-year old assistant Bob Snyder kicking placements for the Golds and 36-year old assistant Don Hutson kicking an extra point for the Blues, while 33-year old assistant Charley Brock and 38-year old former player Joe Laws also lined up for the play. 44-year old assistant Tom Stidham did not suit up.

At halftime, Curly Lambeau threw passes to Herb Nichols, his 1919 teammate. Verne Lewellen threw to Lavvie Dilweg, and Arnie Herber bombed one to Hutson. Old favorite Johnny Blood addressed the crowd, as did Lambeau who asserted:

This is the town they think is going to surrender its franchise. It will never happen here. Over there sits Jimmy Cowles, the son of a bootblack. Young Jimmy is a laborer in a mill here. He gave $100. It is about time they quit worrying about Green Bay and directed their attention to some less fortunate franchises in the business. Green Bay will be around for a long time.

The Thanksgiving festivities raised $50,000, as the fans helped save the Green Bay Packers once again. Three days later, the team traveled to Chicago and put up a season-high 21 points against the Cardinals. Unfortunately, the Cardinals scored 41. The Packers then lost the final 2 games of 1949 by a combined 51-7 score, but they survived the storm and remained solvent.

1949ljgirard  1948lsheath

1949lassts2  1949lassts1

1949ltfritsch  1949ljkirby

1949llcraig2  1949lbkelly3

1948lbforte  1949lwschlinkman

1948lnluhn  1949lrearhart

Custom cards in Leaf style are all colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 2012

rookies2012chayward

2012 marked the first of five straight drafts (and counting) in which Ted Thompson has used first round pick on defense. In fact, Thompson used all six of his draft picks that year on defensive players. Despite the emphasis, the defense still lags, though.

Thompson took USC pass rusher Nick Perry in round one, Michigan State defensive end and Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward in round two, Iowa defensive tackle Mike Daniels and Maine safety Jerron McMillan in round four and North Carolina State linebacker Terrell Manning in round five. Worthy, McMillan and Manning were all gone within two years, while Perry has never shown more than flashes of his potential.

Supplementing the draftees were five free agent rookies: West Virginia tackle Don Barclay, Vanderbilt safety Sean Richardson, Virginia Tech receiver Jarrett Boykin, Penn State guard Greg Van Roten and Tulane linebacker Dezman Moses. Bench players Barclay and Richardson were the most successful, each spending four seasons with the Packers.

Ultimately, Mike Daniels has proven the best player of the 11-man class, but he developed slowly as a pro. Hayward broke in with a bang by picking off six passes in his first season before fading in subsequent seasons; Casey Hayward was the packers top rookie in 2012.

An Ominous Loss

By a quirk of scheduling when the 8-2 Green Bay Packers rolled into the Polo Grounds on November 20, 1938 for their season finale against the 6-2 Giants, New York still had three games to play. The two teams topped their respective conferences, though, and would meet again in the same ballpark three weeks later to decide the NFL championship. While the Packers would gain 20 first downs on the day to the Giants’ six, this defensive battle between evenly-matched rivals would be decided by big plays. Without receiver Don Hutson, Green Bay found itself at a disadvantage, even though the Giants would throw just four passes on the afternoon.

The hard-fought scoreless first half was highlighted by the Giants’ defense continually rising to the occasion. Four times in the first two periods Green Bay penetrated inside the New York 30 and came away with no points. For the game, Green Bay had seven drives reach deep into Giants territory: two ended in interceptions, two ended in missed field goals, two ended by turning the ball over on downs and one resulted in a field goal. The Giants got on the scoreboard on the opening play of the second half. Packer fullback Clarke Hinkle fumbled the kickoff at the four, recovered his bobble, but then was corralled in his own end zone by a wave of Giants tacklers led by Johnny Dell Isola for a safety. Green Bay answered with a field goal to make the score 3-2 in the third quarter and set up the first of the two big plays by the Giants.

From their 25, Tuffy Leemans took a direct snap while the Giants front wall collapsed the Packer line. Leemans raced around the right end, cut back inside Packers Cecil Isbell and Milt Gantenbein and broke a tackle by Buckets Goldenberg at the 33. After Tuffy got by Hank Bruder, he cut back outside at the 42 to avoid Joe Laws and ran untouched to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown and a 9-3 lead.

The second Giants’ big play occurred on the first play of the fourth quarter and clinched the victory. Packer passer Cecil Isbell dropped back from his own 40 and, under a heavy rush from John Mellus and Frank Cope, tossed a wobbly pass to the sideline well behind Hinkle the intended target. Center/linebacker Mel Hein leaped in, grabbed the ball at midfield and outraced Baby Ray for the 50-yard touchdown that iced the game for New York. Arthur Daley wrote floridly in the New York Times, “The Giant captain took the ball on the dead run and sped over the turf like a Jesse Owens. Fear of pursuit put wings on his feet. Mel never had run so swiftly in his life as he flashed for the touchdown.” Hein, who played 57 minutes of the game, earned himself a $10 bonus from Coach Steve Owen for the pick-six play of the game. The Giants earned an impressive victory over their chief rivals for the NFL title.

(Adapted from my book, The 50 Greatest Plays in New York Giants Football History.)

1938chinkle  1938dhutson

1938cisbell  1938mgantenbein

1938bgoldenberg  1938hbruder

1938jlaws  1938bray

All custom cards in Philadelphia 1966 style are colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 2011

rookies2011rcobb

After three years of increasingly successful rookie classes that led to a Super Bowl team, decline set in for 2011. Ted Thompson’s draft was almost entirely disappointing, beginning with top pick Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod, who appeared in just 20 games over four years as a Packer due partly to injuries and partly to talent level. When he did play, he was a virtual turnstile for defensive linemen.

The prize of the draft came in round two with Kentucky playmaker Randall Cobb. Green Bay then chose Hawaii runner Alex Green in round three, New Mexico State defensive back Davon House in round four, Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams in round five, Appalachian State linebacker D.J. Smith in round six and North Carolina tight end Ryan Taylor in round seven. In addition, 2010 fifth round pick Marshall Newhouse, a tackle from TCU, made the team in 2011.

Free agent rookies included safety M.D. Jennings, linebackers Jamari Lattimore and Vic So’oto, runner Brandon Saine and guard Ray Dominguez. Of the 13 first-year men, Dominguez appeared in just one game; Williams, Smith, Green, Saine and So’oto lasted two years; Jennings, Newhouse and Taylor three years; and House, Latttimore and Sherrod four years.

Newhouse did spend two years as a starter, and Jennings was a sometime starter as well, but was most famous for having the ball ripped from his hands by Golden Tate in the “Fail Mary” loss to Seattle in 2012

There were three rookie tight ends and two rookie runners in this class, but none of them proved useful. It’s fortunate that at least the Packers selected Cobb who showed his versatility right from the start, catching 25 passes and returning both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns; Randall Cobb was the Packers’ top rookie in 2011

The Bart Starr Connection to Snake

Snake, a new biography of Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler written by Mike Freeman, comes out today. I reviewed it for Library Journal, and it is fairly good read that aims to put the negatives of Stabler’s raucous life in the best possible light. Freeman makes the point that Alabama’s three greatest quarterbacks (Stabler, Joe Namath and Bart Starr) all had their problems off the field in Tuscaloosa, with Stabler and Namath running afoul of Coach Bear Bryant for “training violations” and Starr being physically beaten.

I don’t know how I missed the Starr beating story when it came out last spring, but on February 29, 2016, Alabama.com’s Joseph Goodman broke the story of a 62-year old cover-up of Bart Starr’s mysterious back injury from a “punting drill” that ruined his football tenure at Alabama (https://www.al.com/sports/index.ssf/2016/02/nfl_legend_bart_starr_was_vict.html). Starr’s wife Cherry revealed the true story of how Starr was beaten with a paddle as part of a hazing ritual that went way too far, so much so that Starr’s back bruised up to his rib cage and resembled a slab of raw meat. Starr was trying to join the A-Club for varsity letterman in the spring of his sophomore year after having led the Crimson Tide to the Cotton Bowl. He struggled in spring practice and at the beginning of the 1954 season before being hospitalized and missing games three through five, during which he spent one week in traction.

Starr came back to finish his junior year, but his coach, Red Drew, was fired after the team finished 4-5-2. Under new Coach Ears Whitworth in 1955, Starr still led the team in passing, but shared the quarterbacking job; the offense was ineffective, and the defense horrendous, leading to a 0-10 season. Bart’s prospects for continuing his football career looked bleak.

After being drafted by Green Bay with the 200th overall pick in 1956, Starr initially was slated for military service at Eglin Air Force Base, where he was to replace mustered out Zeke Bratkowski as the quarterback on the base’s football team, but his bad back won Starr an almost immediate discharge. He reported to the Packers training camp in 1956 and spent the next 16 years in a Packer uniform crafting a Hall of Fame career despite constant back pain. Finally, in the late 1980s, Starr’s back pain was alleviated when doctors found tiny crack in his vertebrae and repaired it. A tiny crack and an awful story both hidden for decades.

1961nubstarr  1951tzbrat

Custom cards are colorized.