Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Relentless Pursuit For Perfection—The 1964 Green Bay Packers

By TJ Troup and Eri Goska
Many times it has taken me days; in fact, even weeks to watch film, collect my thoughts, and attempt to write about aspects of pro football history that interest me.....and hopefully fans across the country. My good friend the distinguished Packer historian Eric Goska refers to me as "Bear Dude", and when I leave this earth will be buried in navy blue & burnt orange.

So why write a story on a Packer team? Easy question to answer since this team is one of the most fascinating teams I have ever researched. Since I have publications, film, and most importantly Eric's superb insightful book on the Packers—this story has both of us as author's. There will be many quotes, yet Mr. Goska will be quoted quite often.

Where to begin? Again easy to answer with a quote from Oliver E. Kuechle of the Milwaukee Journal writing in Petersen's 9th Annual Football Magazine for the upcoming '64 season. "Sunday November 17th, 1963—that was the day. In Green Bay they won't soon forget it. It was the day in Chicago that the Packers played the Bears for the second time. It was the day that the Packers lost to the Bears for the second time. It was the day that the Packers stepped down from their throne, or, to put it correctly, were pushed down. The score was 26-7."

Twelve-year-old boys laying on their back on their bed on a November afternoon listening to Jack Brickhouse announce the game on the radio have a very skewed view of the world, and of their team. The crowd at Wrigley was unusually boisterous, and why not since Green Bay in '62 beat the Bears 87-7 in the two games played.

The victory on opening day set a pattern for Chicago all season; conservative offense, and a very well-coached defense by George Allen that was consistent, tough, ball-hawking----aw hell you name it, the Bears did it. Now in the rematch, the Bear defense again stonewalled Green Bay, yet most important the Bear offensive line kicked the hell of out the Packer defense.

The Bears were World Champions, but the Packers had an undeniable strong season losing just twice in fourteen games. A long winter for St. Vince, but one and all know they will be ready for '64.

Eric begins his chapter on the '64 Packers with "mediocre, a word not found in Vince Lombardi's vocabulary, summed up the Packers first half of 1964." Since Lombardi prides himself on his offense; let us begin there.

The publications and even the Packer media guide has attempted to list who started on offense for Green Bay in '64. It is just too bad that it is not accurate and in-depth.

Playing virtually every down at split end and flanker are Max McGee and Boyd Dowler. Crafty McGee still has a burst of speed and can run every route. Dowler leads the team in receptions, is a strong blocker, and is very sure-handed. Ron Kramer ranks near the top as a blocker at his tight end post, and he can still be a viable option in the passing game.

Paul Hornung has returned and though he is aging; he is motivated and has been a spark in the past for his team. Additionally, he is one of the few halfbacks in the league who really can and will block. Don't believe me? Ask Ernie Clark of the Lions on the Taylor 84-yard touchdown run. Paul does not throw the halfback option pass as much as in the past, but he has his moments running the ball when he is in the line-up. That statement takes us to Tom Moore and Elijah Pitts who get plenty of playing time at the running back position.

For years Green Bay lined up with the backs aligned away from the tight end in a traditional fullback/halfback set. Not so as the season progressed in '64. Green Bay backs are aligned much more in a "split" set, and usually wider behind the tackles. Thus, Jim Taylor is more of a running back than fullback in '64.
He is still as tough as can be, yet the years are beginning to catch up on the seven-year veteran. Taylor has some health issues, yet still gains over 1,000 on the ground, and is a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

Bart Starr will be a central figure in this saga, and as a man who relishes enhancing his stories with stats—have one for ya. When Starr returned from his hand injury in '63 through the first three games of 1965 (21 games) he completed 260 of 432 for 3,697 yards, with 25 touchdown tosses, and just 4 interceptions. Yes, you read that correctly; FOUR.

He was not a "dink and dunk" passer. His completions averaged 14.2 yards. Bart can and will run, is very savvy at reading defenses. The Lions in November tried a double A-gap blitz, and Starr calmly hit the receiver on the "hot read" over the middle. He mixes his plays well as there is no doubt about his preparation, and belief in himself at this point in his career. He was not chosen for the Pro Bowl in '64, but he had one helluva damn fine year.

Though Jim Ringo had given Green Bay over a decade of superb play at center he is traded to Philadelphia to fill a need in the Packer defense with Bill Forester retiring. Bob Skoronski will move from left tackle to center. Big Bob does an adequate job in run blocking, but is not near as skilled pass blocking in picking up the blitz. Skoronski starts seven games a center, then is moved back to left tackle where he starts the remainder of the year.

Starting at center for the second half of the year is unheralded rookie Ken Bowman. Though he receives no "ink" he is clearly far superior to Skoronski. Quick, unyielding and combative, he has a very bright future ahead. He is the Packers rookie of the year.

Fuzzy Thurston has been an all-pro at left guard, and he starts the first eight games at left guard before injury (he returns to start in the season finale at Los Angeles). He still is a fine pass blocker, but he is on the downside of his career. He is replaced at left guard by Dan Grimm. There are high expectations for the big quick youngster. Dan pulls well, is adequate at the trap block, but is not near the pass protector that Thurston is.

Jerry Kramer begins the campaign at right guard, but during the loss to the Colts in week two takes himself out of the line-up. This tough minded man has been playing for years with wood splinters in his abdomen, and his body tells him it is time for surgery to save his life. Can Jerry Kramer be replaced?
The starting right tackle is All-Pro Forrest Gregg. When Kramer goes down Grimm becomes the starter, and though he gives an effort, he just is not capable of filling in for Jerry. Lombardi understands offensive line play like no one else, and he has an answer. Hall of Fame coaches always have an answer. Gregg moves to right guard the last seven games of the year. He may not be as smooth as Kramer, but the tough Texan drive blocks, pulls, traps, and pass protects. Forrest Gregg is no doubt the offensive MVP of the Green Bay Packers. Repeatedly on film you see him making key blocks down field on screens, and sweeps. He just does not miss quick athletic defensive backs who are trying to avoid him.

Norm Masters had lost his job at left offensive tackle to Skoronski in '62, but now in the twilight of his career he gets to start again at right offensive tackle. His experience helps him, but he is a far cry from what he once was. Green Bay allowed 369 yards in sacks in '64, after giving up just 178 in '63! Vincent T. knows that there must be adaptations made during '65 as this is his province. His classic line of "look at me, look at me" while he is on the blocking sled with his boys tells all. Yes, Eric the Packer offensive line was mediocre in '64.

Quoting Bob Oates in Street & Smith's '64 Annual "the offensive line is no longer a clear choice as best in the NFL." Eric Goska in his must-have book states "it owned the best defense—and best pass defense--in the circuit."

So who played where for the Pack on defense in '64? Bill Forester earned All-Pro honors more than once at right linebacker, yet in his last year in '63 everyone could see he was just not an all-pro. Lee Roy Caffey arrives from Philadelphia to attempt to replace Bill. Caffey has size, athleticism, and runs well. He is an adequate tackler, and though not near the pass defender Forester was, he is not a weak link in coverage. Caffey does show he can blitz and is effective in Bengston's red dog schemes.

Ray Nitschke is coming off an arm injury from late in '63, and is ready, willing, and very able at middle linebacker. Watching him in the Pro Bowl at the close of the '64 season was eye opening. The man can run, takes excellent pursuit angles, and is a savage tackler. Ray is now at the mountain top of middle linebackers. Though that will be short-lived (a story for another day), he will continue to wreak havoc against offenses the remainder of the decade.

Sports Illustrated was not the be all end all publication in the mid-'60s, but being the cover boy was still an honor. Only three times did a Packer grace the cover from '61 through '62. Starr in September of '61, Taylor in September of '62, and Dan Currie in December of '61. Currie was an outstanding left linebacker in 1961 and '62, but his leg injuries have limited his ability to cover ground. Though he is the starter for all of '64, he has a very poor year, and is sometimes painful to watch him on film. He is just a guy. Waiting in the wings is young athletic Dave Robinson.

Big Dave gets some playing time, but his lack of experience kept him on the bench. The subtle nuances of outside linebacker play are just not the same as stand-up defensive end at Penn State. His time will come, but not in 1964.

Almost every year there is at least one rookie receiver who garners headlines and has a world of talent who explodes on the scene in the NFL. Paul Warfield of the Browns is that receiver in '64. Watching him destroy Jesse Whittenton on a post pattern in November for a long touchdown convinces Lombardi and Bengston that it is time for a change.

Enter Doug Hart. Whittenton is another former First-team All-Pro who vanishes during '64. He does not cover well in man to man, is barely adequate in zone, and misses tackle after tackle (once a strength for him). Though Hart is a neophyte, he sure gives effort, and he does survive as he starts five games at right corner, and even fills in at left corner for Adderley in the early season loss to Minnesota when Herb is shaken up.

Hank Gremminger is a survivor who somehow lasted at left corner no matter who tried to take his job until Adderley takes over in 1962. Hank is moved to left safety(usually strong), and plays the position he was meant to play, and play it well for two years. Not so in '64. Blown coverage against the Colts, when Johnny Hightops victimizes him in a single back alignment and sends Lenny Moore rocketing past him on a 52-yard touchdown strike. Gremminger is out of position, misses tackles, and as the year wears on a former baseball player Tom Brown sees more and more playing time and plays well. Brown has speed and will hit and tackle.

Herb Adderley ranks as one of the handful of left corners who can do it all. Cover, tackle, force the sweep, and make the key interception.

Right safety Willie Wood is simply the best in the game. Though some might attempt to rank Larry Wilson of the Cardinals ahead of Willie—Wilson is just not as talented or consistent as Wood. Willie Wood just does not miss tackles, he is always around the ball. He makes key interceptions and has a game for the ages in December of '64 in Wrigley Field.

Though Whittenton and Gremminger are at the end of the line the Packers again finish second in the defensive passer rating with a mark of 63.9 (league average is 71.7). The Green & Gold allow the fewest touchdown passes in the league with just 11. A strong pass rush no doubt can mask secondary deficiencies, and the Packer front four is outstanding.

Lionel Aldridge improves upon his rookie performance in '63. His quickness and pursuit skills are excellent, and he ranks among the league leaders in opponent fumble recoveries. Hawg Hanner begins '64 as the starter at left defensive tackle, but by mid season he is on the bench. Replacing Hanner is Ron Kostelnik, and he is rock solid in stopping the run. He will push the pass pocket, but is not one of the better pass rushing d-tackles in the league, yet his buddy at d-tackle Henry Jordan is.

A consummate pro, who always makes big plays—Jordan stops the run, sheds blocks, and his quickness gets him into the quarterbacks face time and again. He also ranks among the league leaders in opponent fumble recoveries.

Each year Topps has a difficult decision to make for the better teams in the league since only so many players from each team get a card. Willie Davis had to wait until the Philadelphia Gum Company took over in '64 to get his card. Davis improved each year from 1960 through 1963. John Turney and myself believe there should be an award for the offensive lineman who faces the toughest foes for the year.  In 1964 the award should have been named for the fine young right offensive tackle of the 49ers; Walter Rock. Eight weeks during the year he faced Hall of Famers David "Deacon" Jones, Gino Marchetti, rookie Carl Eller, and Willie D.

1964 was the coming-out party for the Deacon, and rightfully so; any man who can garner over 20 sacks is a force. Jones has a couple monster games in '64 and virtually destroys Norm Masters in the Coliseum to end the season and his career. Willie Davis ranked among the league leaders in sacks, but much more important was his consistency. Sure wish I could state emphatically that Davis set a record that will never be broken—I cannot, BUT and hope that everyone who relishes defensive line play and rushing the passer reads this:  Willie Davis recorded at least one sack in TEN CONSECUTIVE GAMES! Might even be more if he had one of the two sacks against the Bears in Wrigley in December.

Willie was strong against the run, a master at shedding blocks, and pursuing on the correct angle. Always hustling, and now literally a master at rushing the passer. Davis is by far the defensive MVP of the Packers for 1964.

The Packers were excellent at returning punts & kick-offs, and their kick coverage while not as good as years past was still adequate. Jerry Norton was a consistent punter, which leaves us with the Packer dilemma for '64. Kramer is injured and Hornung has returned to kick, or at least attempt to put the ball through the uprights. Eric quotes Lombardi "we'll sink or swim with Hornung"—the Packers sunk.

The Golden Boy's image was tarnished in '64 as he missed 26 of 38 attempts. Some are blocked, and as such laying blame may not fall squarely on his goat shoulders. Hornung also missed extra points.

Shall we take a look at some of the games during this up and down season? Here we go. Over the course of thirteen years (1946 through 1958) Green Bay would begin their season at home twelve times but won just three. Lombardi has a record of 2-3 on opening day, including a loss to the Bears in '63. Packer fans must have relished with zeal a chance for revenge opening day against Chicago. Green Bay wins easily, and film study shows they looked strong in doing so.

Lombardi's record against the Colts is 6-4 entering week two, but while the Packers rally to close the gap to 21-20 late in the 3rd quarter; the 4th quarter interceptions aid Baltimore and scrambles the western conference standings after two weeks. Bart Starr completes all six of his passes in the 4th quarter; four to the Packers, and two to the Colts. One of the two interceptions looks like an early form of cover 2 with Jerry Logan leaving the hash and darting in front of McGee to tip the ball to himself. Monday night football in September?

Of course, yet keep in mind it is 1964, but here we are in Detroit, and it is not Thanksgiving? Green Bay pulls out a narrow win, and now faces a team they have never lost to in Minnesota. The Vikings under Norm Van Brocklin always play a hard nosed game against Green Bay, but historically make a number of mistakes. Not today as the key play late in the 4th quarter is Fran Tarkenton on a 4th down and 22 to go play pitching far down field to right tight end Gordie Smith for 44 yards.

Cox kicks the field goal with just 18 seconds to play for the win. Green Bay can ill afford a loss to the 49ers, and additionally, Vince is 9-1 all-time against San Francisco. Bengston still has not forgotten being passed over for the head coaching job in '59 and the Packer defense plays excellent football in the 24-14 victory in Milwaukee.

Off to Baltimore and a chance to get back in the conference race. Green Bay is ahead 14-7 late in the first half, and after a Colt punt takes over on their own twenty. The Packers eat up clock, run off 13 plays, but do not score? Green Bay has a first and ten play at the Colt thirty- one but a holding penalty changes the situation to 1st and 33!, due to spot of the foul. Three straight Starr passes go nowhere, but the Pack is ahead at the half.

A Willie Davis sack on Johnny Hightops forces a Colt field goal to narrow the gap,  and now on 2nd and ten from their own 25 Starr completes to Kramer who laterals to McGee and the 73-yard play has the Packers on the scoring doorstep. To no avail as a Marchetti sack, and a missed 17-yard field goal by Hornung give Baltimore hope. The Colts drive 80 as Moore scores again.

Hornung is not the only kicker who struggles, as Michaels misses twice late in the 3rd quarter, but Hornung misses again early in the 4th. The Packers have played championship football for five years now, and champions make plays as Elijah Pitts scores on a spine-tingling 65-yard punt return. Go Pack Go!

Green Bay stops the Colts as Davis again sacks Unitas, and the Packers can put this one away, but yet again Hornung's field goal is not only blocked but Jerry Logan dashes upfield on the return to the Packer thirty-four. Moore scores again, and the last Packer play is Bart being sacked again. Green Bay is 3-3 but has the Rams coming to town.

Though improved, Los Angeles falls behind 17-0. Lombardi's first home loss in '59 was to a Ram team that would finish 2-10. No way Green Bay stumbles at home with a 17 point lead right? Right? Josephson trundles 53 yards off left tackle through the Green Bay defense, so now 17-7. Starr is sacked, Norton punts, and on 2nd and eight from their own forty-five the Catawba Claw Bucky Pope streaks into the end zone at the end of a 55-yard scoring play from Gabriel.

Middle of the 3rd quarter and the Packers have driven forty-seven yards as Hornung lines up to kick a 36-yard field goal and increase the lead. The other Pro Bowl right safety in the Western Conference Eddie Meador knifes in and partially blocks Paul's kick. Swift Bobby Smith takes the ball on the six, and weaves his way through the scattered Packers to score.

Bart cannot bring Green Bay back, and one of the keys is the fact he is sacked three more times. Los Angeles kicks two field goals—yes the ball can be kicked between the uprights. Rams 27 Packers 17. Lombardi has been here before.

Mid-season 1955 Vince with help from his offensive line coach adjusted the blocking scheme in New York, and the Giants closed strong to finish third. The next year New York played for the championship. After a 3-0 start in 1959 the Packers lost five straight, yet Lombardi never flinched, he just kept his young team together as Green Bay closed with four straight wins.

The next year Green Bay played for a championship. Green Bay is 3-4 at mid-season, and one of the aspects that I truly enjoy about Goska's book is the insight you cannot get anywhere else...."emotions boiled over in week 7 after the Packers blew a 17-0 lead against the Rams.

After the 27-17 loss, Lombardi closed the locker room to all but himself and his players. After seven minutes ge permitted his assistant coaches, trainers, and equipment men to enter. He didn't let the media in until another three minutes had passed." As a former chemistry teacher (and a damn fine one at that), it is possible Lombardi was discussing science with his players, yet most likely he discussed what needed to be done the rest of the year.

The rematch with Minnesota was an impressive Packer victory. Bart Starr for the first time in his career has a four-touchdown game, and as my boy Bill Walsh says he was decisive and accurate. The Packers built a 20-0 halftime lead at home against Detroit, and the Davis led pass rush records four 2nd quarter sacks.

Starr is knocked out of the game early in the 2nd quarter in Kezar and the last place 49ers upset Green Bay 24-14.

A 5-5 team is about to take on a Cleveland Browns team that will eventually win the title, but not today as Green Bay overcomes a 14-7 deficit as Jordan and Davis again pillage the pass pocket. Late in the 4th quarter down by a touchdown Ryan is intercepted by Wood to seal the deal. The victory in the Cotton Bowl over Dallas is filled with big plays as three times fumbles are returned for touchdowns.

The 7-5 Packers journey to Wrigley Field to take on a Bear team that has won three in a row in a losing season. Lombardi's Packers have won convincingly in Wrigley before (1960 and 1962), and for the first time in his five-year career, Willie Wood is awarded the game ball for his heroics. His punts returns have set up both touchdowns, and now late in the 3rd quarter Wood pilfers an errant Rudy Bukich pass. He returns 28 yards to the Chicago forty-six. Green Bay eats up clock, Hornung kicks a field goal and the Packers win 17-3.

Entering the last Sunday the standings in the west have three teams with a chance to visit Miami for the annual play-off bowl. Lombardi just cares about winning, not "hinky dink" games. Detroit is 6-5-2, Minnesota is 7-5-1, and Green Bay is 8-5.

The tie game in the Coliseum is a prime example of the '64 campaign for the Packers. The play-by-play lists play after play of sacks, and turnovers. When the Packers tied the game at 24-all with two minutes left the Rams have one last chance to drive down the field. The last offensive play by the Rams is Munson being sacked by Davis. A fitting end for a team that will accomplish the following over the next three years.

A championship trophy awarded to St. Vince and his boys every year. The pundits and prognosticators usually picked the Packers to win the division. More importantly than what the writers thought was what Lombardi did at the close of 1964 leading up to 1965.

New starters at key positions including Robinson, Jeter, and Brown on defense, and two outstanding trades that brought in Chandler to kick, and Carroll Dale to replace McGee.

Bob Oates in Street & Smith's states " despite the frayed edges in the offensive line, and defensive backfield, the Packers are still the best-balanced team in football. They are solid. They don't beat themselves. They hit you 60 minutes a game." Most fans and historians can tell you all about the '65 Packers and the wild race in the western conference, and an impressive title victory over the defending champion Browns, but how many can relate what happened in the locker room on October 25th, 1964? Thanks Eric.


  1. Reading this article is exactly why I feel Carroll Dale should be in the HOF. Yes, his numbers weren't overwhelming, but what would people expect, playing on a defensive team that ran the ball ?
    As soon as he joined the team, Starr and Dowler and McGhee were rejuvenated, and the Packers win their next SEVEN postseason games, including FIVE Championship Games...He averages over 19 yrs per catch, though Starrs and Bratkowskis arms fade, along with the 60s. Had Lombardi traded for Dale, when he went to the Redskins, to team up with Jurgenson, his numbers might have been better, but Dale stayed with an aging team, that needed more youth, fast. After helping the Vikings reach the SB in 73, Dale retired, I believe, seventh or eighth all-time in receiving yds. Not bad for a receiver that had inconsistent QBs in LA, and aging, sore armed ones,in GB. Dale was clutch in the postseason, helping Dowler as well, and those championships/Super Bowls should carry some weight for him.

  2. Terrific article, TJ! The '64 Packers remind me of the '72 Vikings; powerhouse teams who couldn't catch a break. They both rebounded in a big way.