Thanksgiving

I give thanks today that the Packers are not playing on Thanksgiving. Overall, Green Bay has accumulated a sorry 14-20-2 record on Thanksgiving. The first run of 12 Turkey Day games from 1923-35 against a variety of opponents resulted in a middling 6-5-1 mark for the Packers. The second series from 1951-63 was an annual disappointing affair in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in which the Lions usually prevailed, producing a 3-9-1 record. Since then in 11 sporadic schedulings since 1970, Green Bay is 5-6 against Detroit, Dallas and Chicago.

Curly Lambeau, with 6-5-1, and Mike McCarthy, with 3-2, are the only Packer coaches with winning records on this holiday. Even Vince Lombardi could do no better than break even with a 2-2-1 mark. Gene Ronzani’s 0-3 and Lisle Blackbourn’s 1-3 are at the bottom of the list for Packer coaches.

Overall, the Packers are 8-12-1 against the Lions, 0-2 vs. the Cowboys, 0-1 vs. the Bears and 0-2 vs. the Cardinals. Against defunct teams, Green Bay was 2-2-1 vs. Frankford, 1-0 vs. Hammond, 1-0 vs. Providence, 1-0 vs. Brooklyn, 1-0 vs. the Kansas City Blues and 0-1 vs. Pottsville. Or to put it another way, Green Bay is 6-3-1 against teams that no longer exist, but 8-17-1 against teams that do. I will enjoy my turkey this year without the angst of watching Green Bay on the gridiron.

1923clambeau  2010mmccarthy

Lambeau custom card is colorized.

Ernie Smith

Born on November 26, 1909 in Spearfish, South Dakota, Ernie Smith was a large All-America tackle for Coach Howard Jones’ two-time national champion University of Southern California Trojans in 1931-32.  He and his linemates averaged 50-55 minutes a game and allowed only two touchdowns all season in ‘32. Were he playing today with a resume like that, he’d be a high first round draft choice who would sign an extended contract for millions of dollars a year with several million upfront as a signing bonus.

The 6’2″ 220-pound Smith graduated in 1933, but did not turn pro immediately. Instead, he spent the 1933 and ‘34 seasons coaching the USC freshman team and getting started in a career in insurance that would last over 50 years.  In 1934, he played minor league football near his home with the Southern California Maroons of the Pacific Coast Pro Football League (PCPFL). Finally, in 1935 he signed on with Curly Lambeau and played tackle in Green Bay for three years, twice receiving All-Pro consideration and helping the team win the 1936 title.  In addition, he handled extra point kicking and the occasional field goal attempt for the Packers.  He left the NFL in 1938 to again play close to home for the Hollywood Stars of the PCPFL, while keeping his business running. Smith returned for a final NFL season in 1939 as the Pack won another title with Smith hitting a field goal and an extra point in the title game against the Giants.

A month later, the Packers played in the early version of the Pro Bowl in which the 1939 champs were pitted against a team of NFL All-Stars in Los Angeles on January 14, 1940. Green Bay prevailed 16-7, and the Press-Gazette game story reported that Smith begged his teammates in the closing minutes, “Lemme kick another goal. This is my hometown and I gotta sell a lot of insurance next week.” That was Ernie’s second field goal of the game and gave him seven points to make him the game’s leading scorer.

Ernie reported for training camp in 1940 but returned to California in September to tend to his business. He indicated that he planned to return to the Packers, but Curly Lambeau was doubtful, “After two weeks away from the squad, he’d have a tough time getting back in the routine.” At that point, Smith was second in team history with 45 extra points, just one behind Red Dunn’s 46 according to the Press-Gazette. Ernie never played in the NFL again and joined the army in 1942. When he mustered out in 1946, he signed on as the Packers’ West Coast scout as a sidelight to his insurance business.

Smith also appeared in at least one movie, That’s My Boy, from 1932. He played, in a bit of typecasting, a football player.  It’s likely that Smith appeared in other movies as an extra since so many fellow USC alumni made a career in movies: actor Ward Bond who played on the 1930 Trojan team, film editor Cotton Warburton who was an All American quarterback from 1932-34, and production staffers Nate Barragar and Russ Saunders who played for the Trojans from 1927-29.  Barragar and Saunders also played for Green Bay, and Barragar was a fraternity brother of Smith’s. Perhaps even John Wayne who had played for the Trojans as Marion Morrison in 1925-26 might have put in a word for him.

Smith died on April 28, 1985 at the age of 75 in Altadena, California of leukemia. He was survived by his wife, two sons, one daughter and eight grandchildren. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

(Adapted from Packers by the Numbers)

1935esmith3  1936esmith

1937yesmith2  1939esmithc

Custom cards all colorized.

1939 Champs Team Set, Pt 2 of 4

According to the Gridiron Uniform Database, the Packers wore these white jersey for three road games in 1938 (a 28-7 win over the Rams on October 30, a 28-7 win over the Lions on November 13 and a 15-3 loss to the Giants on November 20) and for the 1939 opener… a 14-10 victory over the Cards in Green Bay.

1939gcisbell  1939gcmulleneaux

1939gcschultz  1939gdhutson

1939gdweisgerber  1939gdzoll

1939gejankowski2  1939gesmith

1939gfbalazs

All custom cards are colorized.

Mercer & Son, Professional Booters

Former well-traveled kicker Mike Mercer turns 84 today, He spent parts of two seasons in Green Bay during an extended period of bad Packer placekicking. As Mercer once told the Press-Gazette, “You’re either a hero or a bum when you’re a kicker. You just hope the hero thing happens more than the bum.”

Mike hailed from Dubuque, Iowa, where his father was a coaching institution. Ken “Moco” Mercer was the athletic director at Dubuque for decades and coached the Spartans football team to a 95-64-7 record from 1939-61.

Pere Mercer had starred at Simpson College in Iowa in the 1920s and for the NFL’s Frankford Yellow Jackets from 1927-29, where he twice led the team in points. After leaving the pros, he coached at Simpson for two seasons, at Algona (IA) High for four and then at Beloit College for three before moving to Dubuque. Moco also coached the basketball, wrestling, track, cross-country and tennis teams at times before his retirement in 1968.

By that time, Mike was with the Packers, his fifth professional team. Mike played quarterback in high school and matriculated originally at Minnesota in 1954 before transferring to Florida in 1955. He transferred again in 1958 to Hardin-Simmons where he played two seasons as a defensive back under head coach Sammy Baugh until the coach suspended him for training violations. Mike finished his college career as an end for Arizona State College (Now Northern Arizona University) in 1960.

The expansion Vikings selected Mercer in the 15th round of the 1961 NFL draft. Mike was Minnesota’s first kicker and punter and led the team in scoring with 63 points, but when he missed his first five field goals in 1962, he was cut. At one point, Coach Norm Van Brocklin nailed him in the rear end with a thrown set of keys. He joined the Raiders in 1963 and kicked and punted for Oakland for three plus seasons. In 1966, Buffalo signed Mercer but then lent him to Kansas City for that season. Mike led the league in field goal percentage, and his second quarter three-pointer in Super Bowl I gave the Chiefs a brief 10-7 lead over the Packers.

Returning to Buffalo in 1967, Mercer led the Bill sin scoring that year, but was replaced by Bruce Alford four games into the 1968 season. Green Bay signed him for the last six games of the year, and his seven for 12 field goal performance improved upon the six of 17 record of Jerry Kramer, Chuck Mercein and Errol Mann to that point.

In 1969, though, Mike booted only five of 17 field goals in the first 10 games and was replaced by Booth Lusteg, the kicker Mercer replaced in Buffalo. Lusteg nailed just one of four attempts in his tenure, however. Mike then finished his football career with a final season in San Diego. Altogether, he made 288 of 295 extra points, 102 of 195 field goals for a total of 594 points. He also averaged 40.5 yards per punt.

fammmercer

1968tmmercer3  1968alttmmercer

1969tmmercer  1969xmmercer2

All custom cards except the fourth are colorized.

1939 Champs Team Set, Pt. 1 of 4

Goudey put out a baseball card set in 1934 that I decided to use as the basis for a team set for the 1939 Packer championship team. The Goudey set features a background baseball diamond with shadowed baseball players in the distance behind the named player in the foreground. The cards usually feature a banner across the bottom of the card with a head shot of Lou Gehrig and text reading “Lou Gehrig says,” referring to the text on the back of the card.

I used the goal post background from the 1935 National Chicle Dutch Clark card and added a shadowed running back from the 1933 Red Grange Sport Kings card. I then added the Gehrig banner but substituted a Curly Lambeau image and the text “Curly says.”

Finally, I used images of each team member in their alternate white jerseys with green numerals that the Packers only wore for a handful of games in 1938 and ’39 to give the set a distinctive consistency.

1939clchinkle  1939gaherber

1939gamoore  1939gauram

1939gbgoldenberg  1939gblee

1939gbray  1939gbsvendsen

1939gcbrock

All custom cards are colorized.

Ron Wolf and the Green Bay Packers by Michael Bauman

Bauman was a longtime columnist for the Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel who covered the Packers and the Brewers during the time Ron Wolf ran the Packers. Here he tells the Green Bay GM’s story through extensive interviews with Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre, Ron’s family and friends, and those who worked for him in Green Bay, especially John Dorsey, John Schneider and Reggie McKenzie. So far, Hall of Fame GM’s tree includes six branches and likely will include his son Elliott at some point in the near future.

Bauman begins by fully exploring the three major moves that ensured the success of Wolf’s turnabout of a drifting franchise: trading for Brett Favre, hiring Mike Holmgren and signing Reggie White. From there, we get Ron’s background before coming to the Packers. One interesting point that Wolf makes is that as much as he learned from his extensive tenure with Al Davis, in Ron’s second stint with the Raiders, he noticed that Davis had changed. The success of the Raiders had taken a backseat to the glorification of Al as Davis’ focus. Wolf vowed not to let that happen to him.

Much attention is given to the building of the 1996 champions, largely through Wolf’s success with mid and late round draft picks such as Antonio Freeman, Doug Evans, Robert Brooks, Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, as well as his skill at making in-season acquisitions such as tackle Bruce Wilkerson and receiver Andre Rison in that title year.

One of the most enduring memories for Packer fans is Wolf’s honesty in player assessments. Bauman relates Wolf’s response during a radio interview in which he was asked what he would say to angry Packer fans about the disappointing performance of first round pick Terrell Buckley, “Well the fans of the Green Bay Packers are correct.” Wolf makes the point in this discussion that he got away from the basic Al Davis mantra of “height, weight, speed” that he followed with that selection of an undersized cornerback and paid the price.

The book also covers Wolf’s friendships with Bill Parcells and Tony LaRussa and his love for the history of the game. Ron made a point of celebrating the lost legacy of the Packers when he was GM, connecting the current team to the continuum of the franchise’s rich history.

While this book is a very quick and enjoyable read, I have two small quibbles with it. First, the author occasionally repeats the same quote in two different parts of the book. Second, I wish there were more of Wolf’s pertinent player evaluations and assessments. What did he see in Mark Tauscher or Donald Driver or William Henderson that caused him to draft them? Why did he decide Tony Bennett and Bryce Paup weren’t worth the cost? Wolf is such an interesting character, though, that it is probably inevitable that a reader is left wanting more. I recommend this book.

Stretch

On this date in 1927, Carlton “Stretch” Elliott was born in Laurel, Delaware. The 6’4” Elliott began his high school career as an eighth grader playing center and was team captain as a senior end in 1944. He first attended Temple University that fall before joining the army. After his discharge, Stretch enrolled at the University of Virginia where he earned four letters in football, two in baseball and one in basketball; he was named the Cavalier’s outstanding athlete of the year in his senior year.

Upon graduation, he played semipro baseball in the Central Shore League. When asked what sport he preferred, he told the Salisbury Daily Times, “Baseball is one of my favorites, but it doesn’t have the physical contact of football.” The Packers drafted Elliott in the 13th round of the 1950 draft found him in need of seasoning, so the team optioned him to the minor league Erie franchise that season.

Stretch returned to training camp in 1951 and made the team. As a rookie he was third on the team and eighth in the NFL in receptions with 35. However, he averaged just 9.1 yards per catch foreshadowing another large Packer end at the end of the century, Bubba Franks. It would still be the most successful season of Stretch’s career. In 1952 he dropped to 12 receptions and then caught 13 in 1953. In fact, the one touchdown Elliott scored in 1953 came on defense when he intercepted a lateral in the Rams backfield and hustled 17 yards to the end zone in the season finale loss to Los Angeles 33-17.

New coach Lisle Blackbourn made Elliott a starter at defensive end in 1954, but the following training camp traded Stretch to the Rams for tackle Tom Dahms. Although Elliott did not make the Rams roster, he did have an impact on teammate Ron Waller, a rookie running back from Stretch’s high school in Laurel, Delaware. Elliott introduced Waller to his future wife, Post Cereal heiress Marjorie Durant. The socialite was a champion swimmer and an aspiring actress who appeared in three movies in the 1950s.

Stretch moved on from football to become a very successful insurance salesman in El Paso, Texas, and also a very prominent booster of UTEP sports. Interviewed about the Super Bowl-bound Packers in 1997 by the El Paso Times, he recalled, “Playing in that town was a great experience. It was about 55,000 then; it’s about 100,000 now. It’s great now and it was great then, It was a special place to play.”

Elliott passed away on vacation on July 18, 2005. He was 77 and was survived by his wife of 49 years, their five children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

1951bcelliott2  1951tpcelliott

1952bcelliott3  1952bscelliott

1953bcelliott  1954bcelliott2

Custom cards are all colorized.

Hats Off to Mike McCarthy

Today is Pittsburgh-native Mike McCarthy’s 56th birthday. He achieved his ultimate professional goal in the 2010 season at the expense of his boyhood team, the Steelers, when his Packers beat them 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. McCarthy had not been the first choice of Packer fans when he was hired in 2006, but the underrated coach delivered Titletown’s 13th NFL championship.

McCarthy got his start as the tight end for Baker University in Kansas and captained the team in 1985 and 1986. Upon graduation, he worked as a graduate assistant at nearby Fort Hays State from 1987-1988. Former Bill Walsh assistant Paul Hackett hired Mike in 1989 as the quarterbacks coach at the University of Pittsburgh and trained him in the West Coast Offense. During his four-year stint with the Panthers, two other future NFL coaches, Jon Gruden and Marvin Lewis, also joined the Pitt staff. McCarthy made the leap to the pros in 1993 by joining Marty Schottenheimer’s staff in Kansas City as offensive quality control coach. Two years later, Mike was promoted to quarterbacks coach and served the Chiefs in that capacity from 1995-1998. When Schottenheimer resigned in 1999, McCarthy took the quarterbacks coach job with the Packers under Ray Rhodes. However, Rhodes only lasted one year in Green Bay, so Mike was on the move again in 2000, joining the Saints as offensive coordinator. In the off-season, McCarthy persuaded New Orleans to obtain the Packers’ third string quarterback Aaron Brooks, and the raw Brooks started most of the Saints’ games while Mike was in charge of the offense. Although McCarthy was NFC Assistant Coach of the Year in 2000 largely for his work with Brooks, the team and the offense began to slip by 2005 and Mike was let go. He moved on to San Francisco as new head coach Mike Nolan’s first offensive coordinator and worked with first round draft choice Alex Smith, who the 49ers selected over Aaron Rodgers, the other top-ranked college quarterback that year.

One year later, McCarthy was hired as head coach of the Packers, where Rodgers had landed. Packer fans were skeptical of a man whose main claims to fame were working with terminally inconsistent Aaron Brooks and draft bust Alex Smith, but Ted Thompson saw a winner, “There are a lot of good Xs and Os guys. To be a head coach, I think you have to be a good people person, know how to push the right buttons. I was hiring the man, not the coach.” Green Bay had slipped to 4-12 under previous coach Mike Sherman, but McCarthy led the team back to 8-8 in 2006 by closing the season with four straight wins. Behind a rejuvenated Brett Favre, the Packers swept to a 13-3 record in 2007 that led all the way to the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field. However, Favre’ last pass as a Packer was intercepted in overtime, enabling the Giants to kick a game-winning field goal and reach the Super Bowl. Favre subsequently retired. Then he unretired and wanted his job back. McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson told Favre he could come back as Aaron Rodgers’ backup, but Favre wanted to start. After a month of Favre agonists, Thompson traded Brett to the Jets and the Aaron Rodgers era began.

McCarthy had trained Rodgers well in the past two years. Despite the added pressure, Aaron kept the offense humming at a high level. However, the defense collapsed, resulting in a 6-10 record in 2008. Mike brought in Dom Capers to fix the defense in 2009, and the veteran defensive coordinator did just that. Green Bay went 11-5 but lost the division crown to the Vikings led by Brett Favre who twice beat Rodgers during the regular season. In the playoffs against the Cardinals, Green Bay came back from 21-points down in the third quarter to force overtime, but Rodgers was stripped of the ball in the first series, and his fumble was recovered for the game-winning score.

McCarthy used that defeat to motivate his team in 2010 through a flurry of injuries to key starters that dropped the team to 10-6 and the last wild card spot in the playoffs. Mike led the Packers on the road in the postseason to beat the Eagles, Falcons and Bears in successive weeks to reach the Super Bowl where they outlasted the Steelers. Throughout the entire tumultuous season, Green Bay never trailed in any game by more than a touchdown. In addition, they beat Favre’s Vikings twice to vanquish the past forever.

Under McCarthy, Green Bay has featured an aggressive passing attack that relies on three and four wideouts. Seven times, his airborne Packers finished in the NFL’s top five in scoring. Mike used his running attack as a counter to the explosive passing game, but nearly abandoned it against the Steelers in the Super Bowl because he felt he could pass at will against them. Bringing in Capers to coach the other side of the ball ensured an aggressive, ball-hawking defense that mirrored the offense and created a dangerous team that no one wanted to face as it rambled through the longest route possible to the championship. Despite the setbacks, McCarthy’s team displayed unswerving confidence that Mike exemplified when he had the players measured for their Super Bowl rings before the game.

That continued in 2011 when the Packers won their first 13 games and clinched the top seed in the postseason. Although the defense declined to an alarming degree, the hyper-efficient offense averaged 35 points per game and led the league in scoring behind NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. Unexpectedly, the team was upset by the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs, the only home team to lose in the first two rounds of the postseason in 2011.

McCarthy’s team followed that disappointment with playoff losses in the next four seasons, two times in the Conference Championship and two times in overtime. He seemed to rely more and more on whatever magic Rodgers could muster as the offensive scheme stagnated and the defense cratered. When the team declined to the point that not even Rodgers could lift them to a winning record in 2017 and ’18, he was canned before the end of the 2018 with a cumulative 125-77-2 regular season record and a 10-8 mark in the playoffs. There was speculation that Mike would end up as the Jets coach for 2019, but inexplicably that dysfunctional franchise chose blundering retread Adam Gase rather than a successful pro coach. McCarthy had grown stale in Green Bay and his firing was overdue, but, much like Andy Reid in Kansas City, it is easy to envision this coach having a second act in another city.

(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches.)

2010mmccarthy

Custom card in Topps style.

Self-Aggrandizement

pioneer coaches cover

Just a reminder that my latest book, Pioneer Coaches of the NFL: Shaping the Game in the Days of Leather Helmets and 60-Minute Men, might be worth your time if you like the things I write here. The book develops the thesis that pre-1950 pro football coaches, the Curly Lambeau Era for Packer fans, played a major role in not only helping the game but also the NFL to develop and evolve into the nation’s greatest spectator sport. Lambeau’s work with the early passing game was a major factor in that growth, as he won more titles than any other coach in that period. Pro football is a coach’s game and that trend had its origins in the nascent days of the NFL.

1929clambeau2  1930clambeau2

1931clambeau  1936clambeau

1939clambeauc  1944clambeauc

Custom cards of Curly Lambeau’s championship seasons are all colorized.

 

 

Packers by the Numbers Update: #95

The first two Packers to wear 95, defensive ends Tony DeGrate and Carl Sullivan, wore the number for just one and three games respectively, and Sullivan was merely a replacement player. After a two-year gap, 95 was finally taken by a player of significance in linebacker Bryce Paup in 1990. Paup wore the number for the longest stretch, five years, and is clearly the best of the 11 Packers to don it.

DE: Tony DeGrate (1985); Carl Sullivan (1987r) and Keith McKenzie (1996-99).

LB: Bryce Paup (1990-94) and Datone Jones (2013-16).

DT: Steve Warren (2000), Rod Walker (2001-03), Daniel Muir (2007), Howard Green (2010-11), Ricky Jean Francois (2017) and Tyler Lancaster (2018-19).

95 was not worn from 2004-06 and 2008-09.

1985trookient

1992bpaup3  1996kmckenzie

2000swarren  2010hgreen

First custom card is colorized.