Bart Starr: R.I.P.

We lost our finest man last week when Bart Starr passed away at age 85. He was my first football hero when I was growing up and as true a role model as one could hope for. The desire to try to write something about Bart was a motivating factor in my writing my first football book, Packers by the Numbers, 15 years ago, and has led to a dozen more titles and this blog since then. Here is what I wrote about him in Green Bay Gold:

Despite winning a record five world championships at quarterback, Bart Starr is an afterthought today in discussions of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. His chief rival, Johnny Unitas, though, has maintained his reputation 40 years later. Indeed, Unitas was a great quarterback and leader, who had a stronger arm and ran a more pass-oriented offense than Starr. The two quarterbacked the two best teams in the NFL for the decade of the 1960s, and Starr should get his due as the equal of Unitas.

Starr, like Unitas, was an unheralded college prospect, and he was drafted out of Alabama in the 17th round, the 200th player chosen in the 1956 draft. While Starr showed ability as an accurate passer from the start, it took years for him to shed his tentativeness and become a leader. Even after Lombardi arrived in 1959, it took almost a year and a half until Bart fully claimed the starting quarterback position from journeyman Lamar McHan. When he led the Packers to the 1960 title game against the Eagles, Starr was coming off a season in which he threw just four touchdown passes and eight interceptions.

From that point on, Starr was the most accurate and most clutch quarterback in the league. As a playoff quarterback, he never had a bad game. In ten postseason starts, he completed 61% of his passes, averaged over eight yards per pass, threw 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions while recording a passer rating of 104.8, still the best in league history. By contrast, Unitas, in nine postseason games, threw for seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions and a 69.1 passer rating.

Starr’s career was noted for many things. He was both the most accurate and least interception-prone quarterback of his time. A crafty play caller, Starr was expert at reading defenses and calling audibles; his signature play was the deep pass on third or fourth down and short. If the defense bunched up to stop the expected run, Bart went deep and was very successful with this ploy.

The 6’1” 195-pound Starr did not have the strongest arm, but his yards per attempt number consistently hovered around eight; he threw the ball downfield. He took a lot of sacks, but that is due to two factors. First, he abhorred interceptions and did not throw into traffic. Second, Packer backs usually went downfield on pass patterns; they were not around for blitz pickups much of the time. Starr wasn’t a bad scrambler, though. He was an awkward, but effective runner who averaged over five yards per rushing attempt.

Unitas was chosen as the quarterback on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1960s shortly before Vince Lombardi succumbed to cancer. Vince responded, “Johnny Unitas has been a great, great, great quarterback, but Starr did the winning in the 1960s. And that is the object – to win. Starr is the smartest quarterback I ever saw. It was a miracle to me that they could pick Unitas.”

Thanks for a public life well lived, Bart, and God rest your soul.

1959tbstarr  1957tbstarr2

1971tbstarr  1976tbstarr

1965tbstarr m  1965tbstarr a

1965tbstarr h  qbtallbstarr

qb50bstarr  qb60bstarr

qb70bstarr ncbstarr

All custom cards aside from 1971, 1976, Titanic trio and National Chicle are colorized.

Eugene Robinson Turns 56

Eugene Robinson began his career in Seattle as an undrafted free agent out of Colgate in 1985 who was taken under wing by veteran stars Kenny Easley and Dave Brown. A year later, Gene was starting alongside them as the free safety in the Seahawks secondary. He remained the starter there for a decade, made two Pro Bowls and was voted the free safety on Seattle’s 35th anniversary All-Time team in 2011. In 1996, Robinson was a 33-year old ball hawk acquired by Ron Wolf for defensive end Matt LaBounty and proved to be a key for the Packers’ return to the Super Bowl after a 29-year absence.

As a Packer, the 6-foot 195-pound Robinson did not have the speed and range that he had as a young player, but could anticipate plays with remarkable guile. In 1996, he recorded six interceptions in the regular season and added two more in the opening playoff game against San Francisco. The following season, Robinson declined to just one regular season interception, but had key interceptions both in the NFC Championship against the 49ers and in the Super Bowl against Denver.

At that point, the Packers wanted Robinson to take a back seat as a reserve, while second-year man Darren Sharper moved into the starting lineup. Instead, the 35-year-old Robinson signed with Atlanta and ended up in his third straight Super Bowl, although this one would not bring pleasant memories. On the evening he was given the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award for his character and leadership, he was arrested by an undercover policeman in a prostitution sting operation. Robinson played one more year in Atlanta and one in Carolina where he worked as a color man on local Panther broadcasts through 2018.

Had he stayed one more year in Green Bay, his intelligence and ball skills may have helped the Packers to better deal with Vikings rookie Randy Moss who caught 13 passes for 343 yards in two games that season versus Green Bay. Most likely, he also would have knocked down the game-winning touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the playoffs that Darren Sharper did not.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

1996erobinson  1997erobinson

Custom cards in Fleer and Topps styles.

A Word from Norb Hecker

nhecker article

I found this article on defensive halfbacks, now known as cornerbacks and safeties, in the game program for the Lions-Packers game on October 2, 1960, won by the Pack 28-9. Norb Hecker, Green Bay’s defensive backs coach at the time, describes what he looks for in a defensive back and diagrams basic zone and man coverages.

Hecker was the direct connection between two dissimilar Super Bowl coaches — Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh. Hecker won three NFL titles coaching the Packers’ secondary for Lombardi and two Super Bowls coaching the 49ers’ linebackers for Walsh. As a head coach, though, Hecker won fewer games than he won championship rings under those two great coaches.

A native of Berea, Ohio, Norb spent two years in the Army after graduating high school. After the War, he lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track at Baldwin-Wallace College in his hometown. Norb was a two-time Little All-American and was selected in the sixth round of the 1951 NFL draft by the Rams. Hecker played safety for Los Angeles from 1951-1953, picking off 11 passes. He spent 1954 with Toronto of the CFL and then the next three years with the Redskins, for whom he nabbed 17 interceptions. Norb also was involved in organizing the NFL Players’ Association before returning to the CFL in 1958 as a player/assistant coach for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

Hecker then joined Lombardi’s first Green Bay staff in 1959 and stayed through the 1965 season, as the Packers won titles in 1961, 1962 and 1965. Hecker went from first to worst in 1966 when the expansion Falcons named him as their first head coach in a bit of a surprise. Most observers were expecting Atlanta to hire Cowboys’ assistant Red Hickey. Norb told the press, “You cannot have a team in the NFL without discipline, And I will follow Lombardi in this.” He also noted, “Some of the players we get will be from championship clubs, some from chronic losers. The players from championship clubs will have to help instill this desire in the losers and the kids.” That hope didn’t materialize.

Hecker’s tenure was dominated by poor personnel decisions. He drafted Randy Johnson as his franchise quarterback in 1966 and that did not pan out. Worse still, he completely whiffed on the 1967 draft, with none of his 16 draft picks that year spending any appreciable time in the NFL. Three games into the 1968 season, Norb was fired and replaced by an old Ram teammate, Norm Van Brocklin. Hecker subsequently served as the defensive coach for the Giants from 1969-1971 before jumping to Stanford in 1972. Hecker coached for five years under Jack Christiansen in Palo Alto and then was retained on the staff when Bill Walsh took over in 1977. Two years later when Walsh moved to the 49ers, Hecker came with him. Norb coached in San Francisco from 1979-1986 and then worked in the front office until 1991. Four years later, he briefly came out of retirement to coach and manage the Amsterdam Admirals of the developmental World League. He died in 2004.

(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches.)

1966tnhecker

Custom card in 1966 Philadelphia style.

Packers by the Numbers Update: #78

Halfback Cliff Aberson was the first Packer to wear 78 in 1946, but then the number wasn’t worn again until 1955 when tackle Tom Dahms donned it. After Aberson, it has been worn by seven tackles, two guards, three defensive tackles and three defensive ends.

T: Tom Dahms (1955), Norm Masters (1957-64), Gary Hoffman (1984), Louis Cheek (1991), Ross Verba (1997-2000), Derek Sherrod (2011, 2013-14) and Jason Spriggs (2016-18).

G: Jim Hobbins (1987r) and Allen Barbre (2007-09).

DT: Bob Brown (1966-73), Carl Wafer (1974) and Terdell Sands (2003).

DE: Bill Cooke (1975), Ezra Johnson (1977-78) and Casey Merrill (1979-83).

Ezra Johnson is the only member of the team’s Hall of Fame to wear the number, although he did so for just his first two seasons. The two underrated players who wore the number the longest, eight years, both played tackle, on either side of the ball. Offensive tackle Norm Masters was a steady performer for the Lombardi Packers, while defensive tackle Bob Brown began his career under Lombardi before becoming a bruising Pro Bowl performer who belongs in the team’s Hall.

The number was not worn from 1947-54, 1988-90, 1992-96 and 2004-06.

1946caberson  1955ttdahms

1957tnmasters3 1967pbbrown3

1975tbcooke3  1979tcmerrill

1991tplanbts  1999rverba

Custom cards of Aberson, Dahms, Masters and Cooke are colorized.

Van Valkenburg and Jacobs

May 19 marks the birthday of two Packer running backs from Utah. BYU’s Pete Van Valkenburg appeared in just five games for the 1974 Packers, returning one kickoff for 22 yards. He also played for the Bills and the Bears in a brief two-year NFL career. He turns 69.

The late Allen Jacobs was a 10th round future pick in the 1964 NFL draft. As a senior at Utah, he was invited to attend the November 22nd Packer game against Cleveland in Milwaukee that the Pack won 28-21. He signed with Green Bay in 1965 and won a championship ring that season as a backup fullback. Packers’ personnel man Pat Peppler said of Jacobs that “he has decent speed but he’s very quick. He’s a burly kid in a uniform and runs a lot like Taylor–the same style. He’s not as strong as Jim but not many are.”

A decade later in One More July, Bill Curry recalled Jacobs as a Packer:

Well, Allen Jacobs, bless his heart, had great football ability but not much football sense. He ended up being traded from Green Bay to the New York Giants. He was a fullback and very strong…built like Jimmy Taylor. Just a real powerful kid, but he kept running into his own people and smashing them around. He studied his plays all night long, but then he’d get flustered. When Lombardi screamed at him, he’d get very uptight, and he’d contract and shrink, and what he’d learned was just squeezed out of his head. He’d get the general idea, but then on a reverse play he’d run over the quarterback who was handing him the ball, just crush him, and then he’d run down his interference and step on Jerry Kramer or Fuzzy Thurston, his own offensive teammates, and knock them down and bowl them over, but then because he had such a lot of talent, he’d run over a couple of linebackers and a safety. He’d come back to the huddle shaking his head and even Lombardi couldn’t jump on him. It tickled Lombardi. He’d shake his head and remark that Jacobs would be considered his best offensive asset if he didn’t destroy so many of his offensive platoon as he went along.

After being traded to New York in 1966 for a seventh round pick, Jacobs did not have much luck. That season he was third on the 1-12-1 Giants in rushing yards with 273 (Chuck Mercein was tops with a paltry 327). The following season, a bad ankle limited him to six games, although he was featured on a football card that year. However, his 1968 season was cancelled due to a knee injury. His career ended in a nutcracker drill in the Giants 1969 training camp, when he fractured his elbow and wrist and dislocated his arm. Jacobs is a member of the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and had a successful career as a realtor. He died in 2014, survived by his wife of 50 years, three children and five grandchildren.

1974tpvalkenberg  1965pajacobs

Custom cards in Topps and Philadelphis styles.

Packers by the Numbers Update: #77

Double sevens was first worn in Green Bay by center Les Gatewood in 1946. The next player to wear it spanned the end of the Lambeau era and the beginning of the modern one, linebacker Bob Summerhays. 77 has been worn by nine tackles, five defensive tackles, three defensive ends, two guards and one linebacker in post-Lambeau history.

T: John Sandusky (1956), Ollie Spencer (1957-58), Bill Hayhoe (1969-73), Charlie Getty (1983), Greg Feasel (1986), Tony Mandarich (1989-91), John Michels (1996-97), Barrett Brooks (2002) and Jerry Wisne (2002).

DT: Dave Hanner (1952-54), Ron Kostelnik (1961-68), Bill Neill (1984), Sylvester McGrew (1987r) and Bill Maas (1993).

DE: Mike Butler (1977-82, 1985), Keith Millard (1992) and Cullen Jenkins (2004-10).

G: Tom Robison (1987) and Adam Pankey (2017-18).

LB: Bob Summerhays (1949-51).

Ron Kostelnik wore the number the longest and with the most distinction. He and the man he replaced as a starter, Hawg Hanner, are the two members of the team’s hall of fame to wear 77. Cullen Jenkins and Mike Butler are also worth noting. Conversely, first round bust John Michels and uber-bust Tony Mandarich do not bring back good memories. The number was not worn by any Packer from 1974-76, 1998-2001 and 2011-16.

1946lgatewood  1953bdhanner2

1967prkostelnik3  1973tbhayhoe2

1979tmbutler  1990ttmandarich

1992kmillard  1993bmaas

1996jmichels  2010cjenkins

First two custom cards are colorized.

1966 Topps Football

For its 1966 set of American Football League cards, Topps dusted off a design first used in 1955 by Bowman for baseball–the player image was framed by a console color TV. Yes, boys and girls, televisions used to be housed inside wooden consoles that were meant to fit into the living room like a coffee table, and the TV screen had rounded corners.

It was a nice card design, but Topps only had the AFL contract, so no Packers appeared in the set. Until now…

1966tvteam  1966tvvlombardi

1966tvabrown

1966tvbanderson

1966tvbbrown

1966tvbcurry3

1966tvbdhart

1966tvbdowler

1966tvbdrobinson

Custom cards of A. Brown, Anderson, Curry, Dowler and Robinson are colorized.

Dan Was Less Than Devine

On May 9, 2002, Dan Devine died at the age of 77. Devine was a fine college coach who earned a spot in the College Hall of Fame; in the pros, he had considerably less success. A native of Augusta, Wisconsin and a veteran of the Army Air Corps, Devine attended Minnesota-Duluth after the war and captained both the football and baseball teams. Following two years of coaching high school, Dan joined the staff of Biggie Munn at Michigan State in 1950. In 1955, Devine was named head coach at Arizona State and compiled a 27-3-1 record over the next three years. He left for Missouri in 1958 and created his own legacy by leading the Tigers to a 93-37-7 record including four Bowl wins in six appearances over the next 13 years.

In 1971, the Packers hired the well-regarded Devine to replace Phil Bengtson and bring the glory days back to Green Bay. However, Dan’s tenure got off to an inauspicious start when he was run over on the sidelines during his first league game and had his leg broken by former Packer Bob Hyland. Both Devine and the Pack limped through the 1971 season, but came out strong in 1972. Dan’s drafts were very thin, but he did pick John Brockington and Scott Hunter in 1971 and Willie Buchanan and Chester Marcol in 1972. Coupled with a trade for Macarthur Lane, Green Bay was fortified enough to win the division title that year. The twin battering rams of Brockington and Lane powered an offense that ran an astounding 23% more than the league average in a run-oriented league, while Marcol provided a reliable field goal kicker at last. In the playoffs, though, the Redskins’ George Allen countered with a five-man line, daring the Packers to pass. Offensive coach Bart Starr urged Devine to open up the offense, but Devine refused, and the team lost 16-3. Starr quit at the end of the year.

His main problem on the field was quarterback because neither Hunter nor Jerry Tagge panned out. Devine started making questionable trades to fill the gap: two second rounders for Miami third stringer Jim Del Gaizo; a fifth rounder for Jack Concannon; and third rounder for Dean Carlson; and finally two firsts, two seconds and a third for an aging John Hadl. Not only did none of the quarterbacks work out, the team’s future drafts were decimated. Dan became increasingly unpopular both in the locker room and in the stands. Some disgruntled players reportedly tried to organize a boycott of the 1974 season finale. To make matters worse, Devine complained about his mistreatment by the town to Time Magazine, even asserting that someone went so far as to kill his dog. Years later, Devine admitted that his dog, that was allowed to run free, was accidentally shot by a chicken farmer trying to scare the dog away from his chickens.

On the verge of being fired at the end of 1974 with an overall 25-27-4 record, Dan pulled an ace out of his sleeve and quit to accept the head coaching job at Notre Dame, following Ara Parseghian. In South Bend, Devine led the Irish to a 53-16-1 record and a national championship, but he was never especially well liked. Even today, he is more remembered for his mishandling of Joe Montana than anything else. After leaving Notre Dame in 1981, Dan spent four years as a fundraiser for Arizona State and then returned to Missouri as athletic director from 1985-1992.

(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches: A Biographical Dictionary.)

1971tddevine  1972tddevine

1973tddevine  1974tddevine

Custom cards in Topps style.