Sharpe

A year after James Lofton departed, the Packers drafted a worthy successor out of South Carolina with the seventh overall pick, Sterling Sharpe. Sharpe, born April 6, 1965, had a completely different style than Lofton, but was perhaps even more dominant. Jerry Rice was still in his prime in the early 1990s, but at that point Sharpe was a better receiver. He is by far better than any of the herd of wide outs who have been elected to Canton recently…Tim Brown, Andre Reed, Cris Carter. None of those men could dominate a game like Sharpe. When Sterling’s brother Shannon was inducted in Canton in 2011, he made this true statement, “I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame [who’s] the second best player in my family.” That’s not to detract from Shannon Sharpe as a great player, but Sterling was even better.

The only reason Sharpe is not in the Hall is the career-ending spinal injury that cut his career short at seven years. In those seven years, Sterling exceeded 1,000 yards five times, scored 65 touchdowns with a high of 18 in his final season and won the receivers’ Triple Crown in 1992 by leading the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdown receptions. He was the first player to catch over 100 balls in consecutive seasons and in his last three years averaged 105 catches for 1,285 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Sharpe was fast enough to get deep, but did not have the acceleration or leaping ability of Lofton. Instead, the 6-foot 210-pound Sharpe was tougher with better hands and moves. Sharpe lived over the middle of the field and was an excellent runner after the catch. He only got to play in two playoff games for Mike Holmgren’s resurgent Packers, but caught 11 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns in those games.

His most famous play came in his first playoff game against the Lions when he made a sight adjustment and slipped away from coverage to catch a 40-yard game-winning touchdown that Brett Favre threw all the way across the field with 55 seconds to play. One of the reasons that Favre was able to quickly develop in Holmgren’s offense was the presence of Sharpe consistently getting open and presenting a sure target to the young gunslinger.

Sharpe, of course, was a prickly guy in the locker room and got to the point where he refused to do interviews with the media. In a rare interview in 1991, Sterling told Bud Lea, “I just want to catch every pass. I don’t put any pressure on myself. I don’t have anything else that I feel like I have to prove. I came in my first year and proved I could play in the league. I proved I could get better my second year. I proved I could play hurt last year. My only thing now is to be consistent.” That he was till he was injured.

Sharpe also caused some resentment when he walked out on the team on the eve of the 1994 season opener in order to force a salary re-negotiation. He got what he wanted, but burned some bridges in doing so. When he was hurt and forced to retire at the end of that season, some Packers seemed to go out of their way to assert the team would go on without him and might even be better by spreading the ball around more. Indeed, Green Bay did win a Super Bowl two years later, but just think how much stronger the offense would have been if Sharpe were still there, if the more slightly-built Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman had to bear less of the receiving burden. Maybe the Pack wins two or three Super Bowls. Sharpe was a dominant force at wide receiver.

(adapted from Green Bay Gold)

1988tssharpe  1989tssharpe

Custom cards in Topps style.

Packers Top Rookie: 1932

Rookies1932chinkle

1932 offers most likely the easiest top rookie selection in team history. Coming off three consecutive championships, Curly Lambeau brought in only three rookies that year, and only one would still be with the team a year later. That one would turn out to be a Hall of Famer, elected in the Hall’s second year of operation, 1964.

The other two rookies were linemen who also played for the Bears. Notre Dame tackle Al Culver appeared in just one game for Green Bay and three for Chicago in his only year in the NFL. Indiana guard Joe Zeller played in all 14 Packer games in his rookie season and then moved on to Chicago to play for George Halas for the next six years.

The year’s find was Bucknell fullback Clarke Hinkle. On offense, Hinkle ran for 331 yards, scored three touchdowns, and kicked one extra point. He led the Packers in rushing and finished eighth in league in that category. On defense, he established himself as one of the hardest hitting linebackers in the league. By a wide margin, Clarke Hinkle was the Packers’ top rookie in 1932.

A Bomber with Small Mitts

While Benny Friedman was the first great passer in the NFL, Arnie Herber was the first great passer after the league began officially gathering statistics in 1932. In particular, Herber threw a great deep ball; his yards per completion average of 16.7 is the highest figure of any NFL passer who threw at least 1,000 passes. His statistics seem dreadful today – 40% completions and a passer rating of 49.5 – but his passer rating was 46% better than the league average in his time. Today is Arnie’s birthday, April 2, 1910.

Herber was from Green Bay and sold programs at Packer games in his teens. Because of the Depression, he had to drop out of college after only one year and found work as a handyman around the Packer locker room.  Curly Lambeau gave the former local hero a tryout and added him to the roster in 1930.  Green Bay was a single-wing team, and Arnie played tailback without a helmet.   He was short, pudgy and not much of a runner, but could fling the ball deeper than any passer in that era.  Herber led the league three times in passing yards and touchdown passes in the 1930s. He had very small hands but compensated by not gripping the football at all. Instead, he simply rested it on his palm with his thumb across the laces.  Cradling the ball in this way allowed him to toss rainbow spirals accurately up to 70-80 yards through the air.  Teammate Clarke Hinkle said that Herber, “was more accurate at fifty yards then he was at ten,” and the Packers had the best passing game in the league. Green Bay won four titles during Arnie’s tenure, and it was a shock when he was released in 1941 because of a weight problem.

Herber was rejected for the military during World War II and resurfaced with the New York Giants in 1944. Older, heavier and slower, Arnie played against the Packers in the title game that year.  His passing consistently moved the Giants down the field, but his four interceptions cinched the game for Green Bay.  Herber was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966 just three years before his death at the early age of 59.

(Adapted from Quarterback Abstract)

1936aherber  1929caherber4flags

1938aherber  1940aherber

All custom cards are colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 1931

Rookies1931hbruder

1931 begins a great stretch of Packer rookie classes. In the nine years from 1931-39, 21 of the players who began their NFL careers in Green Bay later would be elected to the Packer Hall oF Fame. Each year, Curly Lambeau brought in a host of new talent that helped make the Packers a powerhouse four-time champion in the decade. By contrast, only six rookies from the 1940s have gained entry to the Packer Hall, and the depreciation in the team was obvious by the late 1940s.

Five of the nine 1931 rookies would have little impact on the team, all vanishing from the NFL after just one season. USC fullback Russ Saunders played in nine games and scored one touchdown, but is more famous as a model for the Tommy Trojan statue at his alma mater. He was an assistant director and production manager for 150 films at Warner Bros. from 1932-1964. Drake center Waldo Don Carlos appeared in 12 games and was the first Hispanic Packer. Hardin-Simmons halfback Wayne Davenport, South Dakota State tackle Roy Jenison and Northwestern end Frank Baker all lasted just two games, although Baker did catch a touchdown pass.

The other four Packer rookies had more success in Green Bay. Michigan State’s Roger Grove was primarily a blocking back and wingback for the Pack. He played in 14 games as a rookie and would score 7 touchdowns and 16 extra points during his five years in town. Marquette fullback Chester “Swede” Johnston appeared in just two games as a rookie, bounced around for a couple of years and then returned to Green Bay as a part-time player from 1934-38. Despite playing in just 26 games over his six-year Packer tenure, he is in the team’s Hall of Fame.

The remaining two rookies fully earned election to the Packer Hall of Fame. Wisconsin end Milt Gantenbein would take over at right end from Tom Nash over the next couple of years and would make a nice receiving complement to Lavie Dilweg and Don Hutson, winning some All-Pro notice from 1936-38, during his 10-year Packer career. Northwestern back Hank Bruder was an all-around performer who excelled at defense and blocking throughout his nine years in Green Bay. He played in 13 games and scored three touchdowns in his first season; Hank Bruder was the Packers’ top rookie in 1931.

1929fbaker  1929crsaunders

1929cwdcarlos2  1929crjennison2

1929cwdavenport2  1929ccsjohnston

1929cmgantenbein  1929chbruder

All custom cards colorized.

Replacing Curly

March 28 marks the birthday of a man given one of the toughest jobs in sports, replacing a legend. Gene Ronzani played and coached under one legend in Chicago, George Halas, and replaced another, Curly Lambeau, in Green Bay. Born in 1909 in Iron Mountain on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Ronzani went to college in Wisconsin at Marquette where he was the first athlete to win nine letters from 1930-1932. Ronzani played basketball and track, but starred on the gridiron as an All-American back. Halas signed Gene for the Bears in 1933 and he was a steady performer for Chicago over the next six years. In 1939, he retired from playing to become head coach of the Newark Bears, Chicago’s farm team. From 1939-1941, he led Newark to a 14-13-2 record. Newark shut down for the War, and Gene was recalled to Chicago as a player in 1944 and 1945. After the War, the Bears reconstituted their farm team in Akron in 1946, again with Ronzani in charge. Akron finished the year 8-3, and Gene moved back to Chicago as an assistant coach for the next three years.

When the Packers ousted Lambeau in 1950, they turned to their chief rival, the Bears for his replacement. Ronzani was a highly respected assistant in the league, and he hired a coaching staff of all former Bears. His biggest legacy in Green Bay, though, was the hiring of Chicago native Jack Vainisi as talent scout. Vainisi’s drafts ultimately would provide Vince Lombardi with a nearly ready made championship team when he was named head coach at the end of the decade. Ronzani was not so fortunate.

The Packers were a very weak team in 1950, and Gene’s efforts to rebuild the talent base were only partially successful. When he was fired with two games to play in 1953, he told the Chicago Tribune, “If I was the cause of our failure, they now can prove it. I’m glad to be out of it.” He added, “All one has to do is compare us man for man with other teams to discover it is not a great club. Maybe next year or the year after, with a few additions, it will be.” Being more specific, he noted, “We have no powerful fullback, no real break away runners in the backfield and lack experience in some spots. Also the Packers are not a big team. It is, however, a much better team than the one I took over in 1950.” Ronzani used 32 rookie starters in four year, and his teams gave up 8.4 more points per game than they scored.

Hall of Fame halfback Tony Canadeo told Richard Whittingham for What a Game They Played, “Ronzani knew a helluva lot about football. He was trying desperately to rebuild the football team and that was a pretty tough job.” He tried to be innovative by installing a precursor to the Shotgun offense for running quarterback Tobin Rote. Ronzani also brought the first black players to Green Bay, with end Bob Mann being the very first in 1950, and changed the team colors from blue and gold to green and gold, a change that remains in place to this day. The team’s poor record in conjunction with coaching turnover and some player dissension led to his firing after a dismal Thanksgiving loss to Detroit in 1953 that involved a second half collapse. Gene spent 1954 as the Steelers’ backfield coach and then got out of coaching. Iron Mountain had a Gene Ronzani Day in 1969 to celebrate their favorite son; he died six years later.

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

1950bgronzani  1951bgronzani2

1952bgronzani  1953bgronzani

Bowman Custom cards all colorized.

Kicking the Tires

March 26 marks the birth date of quarterback Bobby Thomason, who had a brief fling with the Packers in 1951. Thomason was the most successful of the four quarterbacks picked in the first round of the 1949 NFL draft, but the other three were all underachievers — John Rauch by the Lions, Frank Tripucka by the Eagles and Stan Heath by the Packers.

Thomason was drafted (seventh overall) by Los Angeles, but was outshone by another Ram rookie quarterback that year, fourth round pick Norm Van Brocklin. Considering they already had starter Bob Waterfield, the Rams dealt Thomason to the Packers in 1951 for conditional picks in the first and second rounds of the 1952 draft, but with the proviso that Green Bay could return Thomason to Los Angeles before December 31 and would owe LA nothing.

Thomason shared the quarterbacking with Tobin Rote in Green Bay and played well. The two combined to throw for 26 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Thomason was much more efficient, completing a career high 56.6% of his passes to Rote 41% and throwing for 11 TDs and just nine picks compared to Rote’s 15-20 ratio. Packer Coach Gene Ronzani, however, decided that Thomason wasn’t worth that much and sent him back to LA at year’s end, completing the lend-lease without any obligation. Green Bay then drafted Babe Parilli with the fourth overall pick of the 1952 draft to share the job with Rote.

The Rams then traded Thomason and end Jack Zilly to Philadelphia for a number one pick and fullback Jack Myers. Thomason played for the Eagles for six inconsistent years before retiring. Three times he was named to the Pro Bowl but shared the starting job in Philadelphia with another streaky signal caller, Adrian Burk. Bobby recorded a high of 21 TD passes in 1953 and a high of 21 interceptions in 1956. He was named to the Pro Bowl in both seasons, despite tossing just four TDs in 1956. He retired after the 1957 season and fittingly was replaced as the starter by Norm Van Brocklin, who was obtained by the Eagles in the off-season.

1951bbthomason  1951btrote

Custom Rote is colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 1930

Rookies1930wengleman

On the heels of the franchise’s first championship, the 1930 Packers added six rookies to help defend their title. Nebraska guard Merle Zuver appeared in 10 games as a rookie and that completed his NFL career. Marquette end Ken Raddick appeared in four games in 1930 and just one the following year with Green Bay. Iowa halfback Oran Pape played for five teams from 1930-32, including two with Green Bay as a rookie. In 1936 as an Iowa State trooper, Pape was killed as he was apprehending a car thief. Both the Department of Public Safety Building in Des Moines and a bridge on U.S. Route 80 are named in his honor.

Three new players of significance joined the Packers in 1930. Regis tailback Arnie Herber did not make much of an impression as a rookie, but fashioned a Hall of Fame career later in the decade as the premier long-range bomber in the league. Purdue All-America tackle Red Sleight was a good-sized and steady performer whose career only lasted two seasons.

6’3” 190-pound Wuert Engelmann was a track star at South Dakota State and moved into the starting backfield for the defending champs. He scored three touchdowns during the season: on a 20 yard pass from Red Dunn against Frankford, on a 35-yard run versus Staten Island and on a 15-yard pass from Dunn in the season finale against Portsmouth. That third touchdown was the final score of the year for the team, enabling the Packers to tie the Spartans and clinch their second straight title; Wuert Engelmann was the Packers’ top rookie for 1930.

1929cmzuver  1929copape

1929ckradick  1929caherber

1929crsleight2  1929cwengelman

Custom cards all colorized.