By Chris Willis, NFL Films
|Verne Lewellen, Packers halfback, 1924-1932|
Today PFJ looks back at one of the most impressive Two-Way Era players in NFL history- former Green Bay Packers halfback Verne Lewellen.
The six-foot-one, 182-pound Lewellen played 9 seasons with the Packers (102 games total) from 1924 to 1932. He played his entire career under Hall of Fame coach Curly Lambeau who used Lewellen to build his offense around. Lewellen also played 3 games with Red Grange’s New York Yankees at the end of the 1927 NFL season.
Looking at his career the overlooked Lewellen was one of the best all-around halfbacks to play during the NFL’s two-way era (1920-1945), leading the Packers to three straight NFL championships in 1929-1931.
One of the NFL’s best all-around halfbacks during the Two-Way Era, Lewellen was an excellent runner and receiver in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame box offense. He wasn’t asked to throw as often as his teammates Red Dunn and Lambeau himself, but could be effective when asked to pass. Playing in the secondary Lewellen was an equally excellent defensive player and tackler.
But what separated Lewellen from some of the other two-way halfbacks he was one of the best at his position performing the 2 most important aspects of the Two-Way Era: Punting (for field position) and Scoring!
|Verne Lewellen, Packers halfback, throwing|
Arguably the game’s best punter for the first three decades- maybe only surpassed by Sammy Baugh. When researching the newspaper accounts and game play-by-plays you can see that his punting skills truly affective the outcome of games. Accorded to the stats published in The Football Encyclopedia by David Neft, Richard Cohen, and Rick Korch, Lewellen averaged nearly 40-yards a punt from 1926-1931.
He often punted on 1st and 3rd down as much as he did on 4th down, and routinely kicked inside his opponents 45-yard line for field possession. Looking at his 1929 season one can see how Lewellen was a weapon punting on any down. According to play-by-plays from the Packers and the Green Bay Press-Gazette Lewellen punted 84 times in 1929. The breakdown was:
1st Down (24 times); 2nd Down (8 times); 3rd Down (27 times); and 4th Down (25 times)
|Verne Lewellen, punting|
Besides Punting, Lewellen also excelled in putting points on the scoreboard.
In an Era (1920-1932) where the average points scored per game was 10 points per game, Lewellen was one of the all-time best at pointing points on the scoreboard. [Note: Era where NFL had passing restrictions pre-1933, limited offenses, pass behind LOS 5 yds.; incomplete pass in endzone turned ball over].
In his nine seasons Lewellen scored 51 total touchdowns. During the Two-Way Era, from 1920-1945, NO OTHER BACK scored more total TDs than Lewellen. Out of the 23 Hall of Fame Backs who played during the Two-Way Era, Lewellen scored more TDs than all of them (see below list). If you count the 7 Two-Way Ends only Don Hutson scored more touchdowns.
Verne Lewellen: 51 Total TDs included 37 rushing.; 12 receiving.; 1 fumble recovery.; 1 INT return.
Touchdowns, Hall of Fame Backs, Who Played, 1920-1945
(Halfbacks, Quarterbacks, Fullbacks, played Two-Way Era, 23 players)
Verne Lewellen- 51 TDs (105 games)
Clarke Hinkle- 44 (113 games)
Dutch Clark- 42 (75 games)
George McAfee- 39 (75 games)
Ernie Nevers- 38 (54 games)
Ken Strong- 34 (131 games)
Red Grange- 32 (96 games)
Cliff Battles- 31 (60 games)
Paddy Driscoll- 31 (118 games)
Tony Canadeo – 31 (116 games)
Jimmy Conzelman- 26 (104 games)
Bronko Nagurski- 25 (97 games)
Tuffy Leemans- 20 (80 games)
Ace Parker – 20 (68 games)
Benny Friedman – 18 (81 games)
Fritz Pollard – 12 (49 games)
Joe Guyon – 10 (46 games)
Curly Lambeau – 12 (77 games)
Sammy Baugh – 9 (165 games)
Arnie Herber – 7 (129 games)
Jim Thorpe – 6 (52 games)
Sid Luckman – 6 (128 games)
[Note: Only Steve Van Buren had more TDs (77 TDs; 83 games) than Lewellen, but his rookie year was in 1944] [Marion Motley had 39 career TDs; 105 games]
· When he retired held NFL record for touchdowns scored with 51- broken by Don Hutson in 1941.
· Led Packers in Scoring for 5 straight years, 1926-1930 (307 total points).
· At the beginning of the 2021 NFL season, Lewellen still ranks number 11th all-time in Packers Touchdowns Scored, although he hasn’t scored a TD in 88 years.
2.) Jim Taylor- 91
3.) Jordy Nelson- 69
4.) Ahman Green- 68
5.) Sterling Sharpe- 66
6.) Paul Hornung- 62
7.) Donald Driver- 62
8.) Devante Adams- 62
9.) Antonio Freeman- 57
10.) Greg Jennings- 53
11.) Verne Lewellen- 51 (*tied Max McGee)
Also, he still ranks fourth all-time in Packers history in rushing TDs:
2.) Ahman Green - 54
3.) Paul Hornung (HOF) - 50
4.) Verne Lewellen - 37; Aaron Jones - 37
5.) Clarke Hinkle (HOF) - 35
Another special part of Lewellen’s impact was helping Green Bay win games. Because he scored touchdowns and help win the field possession battle, Lewellen guided the Packers to 3 straight NFL Championships, 1929-1931. During those three seasons, the Packers went an incredible 34-5-2. Over his nine seasons, the Packers went a combined 79-26-10, winning .75% of his games. He never had a losing season. Just as impressive were the games where he scored a touchdown.
Games Scoring a Touchdown:
His 51 Total TDs came in 43 different games (26 of those TDs were go-ahead TDs). The Packers went 36-5-2 in those games. During the 3-year championship run (1929-31) the Packers were almost unbeatable when Lewellen scored, going 19-1!
Lewellen was a leader among a team of great players. Hall of Famers Johnny "Blood" McNally (WB), Cal Hubbard (T), Curly Lambeau (QB), Mike Michalske (G), and All-Pro end Lavvie Dilweg all looked up to Lewellen in helping the Packers win those three straight championships.
To be expected Lewellen was one of the most decorated halfbacks in the two-way era, earning First-team All-Pro honors from several media outlets during his time.
(3) Chicago Tribune: 1927, 1928, 1929
(1) Collyers: 1929
(1) Leroy Andrews (coach NFL’s Cleveland Bulldogs): 1927
Milwaukee Sentinel: 1930
Lewellen also had a signature moment in his career that showed off his special skills. Late in 1929, on November 24th, the undefeated Packers (9-0) played the unbeaten New York Giants (8-0-1) for first place in the NFL. Although there wasn’t an NFL Championship Game at this time, essentially the winner of this game was going to be the champs. 25,000 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to watch.
Lewellen went beyond the call of duty. Due to an injury starting quarterback Red Dunn missed the game, so Lambeau moved Lewellen to quarterback, Johnny Blood played halfback with Hurdis McCrary, while Bo Molenda at fullback. The Packers didn’t miss a beat with Lewellen guiding the team.
Punting was the key of the game as Lewellen kept the ball away from Giants Hall of Fame quarterback Benny Friedman who Lewellen outplayed in a match-up of the NFL’s two best players. Friedman threw for an NFL record 20 TDs in 1929, including one in this game, but was out-shined by Lewellen throughout this contest. Watching the game film of this game Lewellen was very impressive with his directional punting, considering the Polo Grounds field was very muddy. Lewellen’s punting stats were:
· 7 Punts, 354 yards (average of 50.6 yards per punt)
· 70, 63, 43, 65, 41, 40, 27
In the first quarter Lewellen threw a 4-yard TD pass to Herdis McCrary for the game’s first score (7-0). Later in the 4th quarter, with the Packers leading 7-6, Lewellen helped Green Bay on a scoring march of 80 yards on 15 plays. He accounted for 59 of the 80 yards (14 rushing, 15 receiving, 30 passing) that led to a touchdown and a 14-6 lead. The Packers would add another TD to close out the victory in the most important game of the 1929 NFL season.
The Packers would go on to win the 1929 NFL Championship- the franchise first-ever NFL title. The following day newspapers in New York wrote mostly about the play of Lewellen.
New York Daily News (C.A. Lovett) - “Lewellen distinctly outshone Friedman, both at passing and ball carrying…Lewellen annoyed Giants throughout game with his passing, end runs, punts and tackling.” (Source: New York Daily News, Nov. 25, 1929)
New York Evening World - “Verne Lewellen, was a potent factor in the Packers stunning triumph. Punts of 60 and 70 yards that spiraled from Lewellen’s shoe gave the visitors a decisive edge.” (Source: Appleton Post-Crescent, Nov. 27, 1929)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Harold Burr) - “Lewellen, kicked mighty spirals with a rain-soaked, heavy ball that boomed over Giants safety man’s head repeatedly. His passes were mostly perfection. If his foot wasn’t driving the Giants back, his arm was doing it.” (Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 25, 1929)
Looking back at the career of Verne Lewellen you can see why he is considered one of the best halfbacks of the two-way era. Even his peers could see his greatness:
Guy Chamberlin (Pro Football Hall of Fame player and coach, member of four NFL championship teams, to the Omaha World-Herald in 1965):
“I don’t recall many spectacular incidents involving Lewellen – probably because he was always spectacular.”
Johnny Blood (to the Press-Gazette’s Art Daley upon being informed he was voted into Canton as a charter member in 1963; Daley was Green Bay’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee from 1963 to 1998):
“Verne Lewellen should have been in there in front of me and (Cal) Hubbard…Lewellen should be in the Hall of Fame just on his punting ability. He'd be an All-Pro punter if he played today. But, remember, he did everything else, too, and he did it all well. He was an excellent runner, a good passer, a good receiver, and a hell of a defensive back."
Charlie Mathys (to Lee Remmel in 1967; Mathys was the Packers QB from 1922 to 1926 and a member of the Packers Executive Committee/Board of Directors from 1927 to 1980):
“Defensively, offensively – of the players we had in the old days, Lewellen was No. 1. And I’m not alone in saying that. Any of the old-timers I’ve talked to say the same thing. The reason he is so often mentioned as a punter is because his equal hasn’t shown up yet. From 60 yards, if he aimed to put it out of bounds on the 5-yard line, he’d generally make it. He had almost dead accuracy. He was way ahead of his time in ability.”
Charles Mathys (to Lee Remmel, 1966, on pre-Lombardi Packers players):
“I don’t think there are too many players of that time who could have made it today, the caliber is so far advanced, but Verne Lewellen could have made it any time from that day to this … There hasn’t been a punter in all these years who could kick like Lewellen could. But he not only was a great punter, he was a fine defensive player and a fine offensive player.”
Jug Earp (Played center for the Packers, 1922-32; Packers PR director, 1950-53; said at a 1967 banquet honoring two of the Packers’ all-time greats, Lewellen and Bart Starr, that Lewellen was the key to the 1929-31 champs):
“Many times, (Lewellen) pulled us out of a hole – not only with his kicking, but by slashing through the line. We could call on him practically any time … He turned out to be a sensational punter, which is one of the things Curly was looking for, because in those days you tried to kick the ball out of bounds … And he was a great football player, and should be in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. And I’m sure the day will come when he will be in there.”
Looking back at Verne Lewellen’s NFL career one can only scratch their heads and wonder why his name isn’t mentioned with some of the all-time greats of the two-way era. He was arguably the greatest halfback of the Packers during that time and one of the all-time greats on any team.