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Packers greats see hints of their dynasty in Rodgers, today's team

Fifty years ago this postseason, the Pack won the first of their five championships in seven years, an achievement unmatched in NFL history. Only the Chicago Bears of the 1940s and the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s have even won four championships over a similar time period.

Yet in talking with yesteryear's Packers, a group that established the gold standard for NFL excellence, they say the current Green Bay team, which begins defense of its Super Bowl championship Sunday against the New York Giants, has the potential to write its own history.

"This could be the best Packers team ever," said Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung, the MVP of both the 1961 regular season and the '61 NFL Championship Game. "Aaron Rodgers is sensational. They're going to be contenders as long as he's playing quarterback. He has a great group of receivers, the best the Packers have ever had."

Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis, one of the Packers' captains during the championship run, had the opportunity to sit next to Rodgers during a November seminar in Green Bay on the keys to building a winning franchise. Davis, 77, the owner of five radio stations, came away impressed with the man nearly a half-century younger.

"This guy is the real thing," Davis said. "His attitude, his desire, his feeling about doing things the right way, his balance in controlling his emotions are a lot like Bart [Starr],'' the quarterback who led Green Bay to its five championships in the '60s.

(Rodgers and Starr rank 1-2 in the NFL's all-time postseason passer ratings.)

Jerry Kramer, the All-Pro guard who chronicled the Packers' 1967 championship season in his groundbreaking book Instant Replay, applauds the approach of the entire team. "They don't seem to be affected with that arrogance that infects so many Super Bowl teams," Kramer said. "Against Minnesota [a 33-27 victory], Aaron had completions to nine different receivers yet he said, 'it was a good solid game but we need to be better.' Charles Woodson had two interceptions but said, 'We had some mistakes out there. We can be better.'

"I love the way they're talking. There's no arrogance, no cockiness. This will serve them well over time.''

No Super Bowl champion performed better during the next regular season than the 2011 Packers. In addition to being only the sixth defending champion to register a better regular-season record, their 15-1 mark represents the largest improvement in wins (five) by an NFL champ following a non-strike year. They may be on the threshold of becoming the NFL's team of the decade.

Still, one needs to tread very carefully when comparing these Packers to their distinguished forebears, a team with 10 Hall of Famers who jelled under the unparalleled leadership of coach Vince Lombardi. In addition to Hornung, Starr and Davis, the future Canton inductees included running back Jim Taylor, offensive lineman Forrest Gregg, center Jim Ringo, defensive tackle Henry Jordan, middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley and safety Willie Wood.

The Packers had fallen short in 1960, losing the NFL Championship Game 17-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles. Yet in the dejected visitors' locker room at Franklin Field, the genesis of a dynasty began to form.

"We didn't know if we were a championship-caliber team; it was all so new to us," Kramer said. "We finished the game on the Eagles' 9-yard line. There's a frustration, a feeling that something had been stolen from us and that we should have won the game.

"Lombardi told us in the locker room, 'This year we played in a championship game and next year we will win it.' At that point I bought into his philosophy. I also was motivated by the people in Green Bay. For the next five or six months it was 'what happened in Philadelphia?'''

Having reached the '60 title game with a so-so 8-4 record, the '61 Packers shifted gears. After losing the season opener to the Detroit Lions, they won 11 of the next 13 games, seven by 18 or more points. They then blasted the Giants 37-0 at Lambeau Field for their first NFL championship in 17 years. Green Bay's nickname, "Titletown," was born.

"We came together as team," Hornung said. "We were starting to hit our stride. Bart Starr, Jimmy Taylor and I all were developing at the same time. We started scoring a lot of points [27.9 per game, first in the NFL]. The defense was aggressive [second in points allowed].''

And the Packers weren't even at full strength. Kramer missed nearly half the '61 season with an ankle injury and Hornung missed two games because of Army duty, but still led the NFL in scoring with 146 points.

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Hornung's military schedule called for him to be on duty the second half of December, meaning he would miss the NFL title game on Dec. 31. To change Hornung's schedule, Lombardi called a high-ranking government official, a very high-ranking official: President John F. Kennedy. JFK persuaded Hornung's commanding officer to alter the duty schedule so that the Golden Boy could suit up against the Giants.

Hornung responded with one of his finest efforts, scoring an NFL championship record 19 points on a touchdown, four extra points and three field goals as the Packers secured the title with a 24-point second quarter. When the score reached 37-0 early in the fourth quarter, Lombardi emptied his bench.

"I told Lombardi to put the starters back in because I wanted to beat the Bears' [1940] record of 73 points against the Redskins," Hornung said. "Lombardi told me to take a seat."

Davis says each of the following four championships represented a different challenge and a new level of achievement for the Packers.

1962: Perhaps the greatest of all Packers team, Green Bay went 13-1 and outscored its opposition 415-148, an average of 19 points a game. Only the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 have registered a greater point differential since 1950. The Pack then defeated the Giants 16-7 for the NFL title in a bitterly cold and windy Yankee Stadium. Kramer, taking over the place-kicking duties from Hornung, kicked three field goals and an extra point.

During the regular season Green Bay celebrated its first trip back to Philadelphia since the '60 title game in style, blasting the Eagles, 49-0.

1965: After two second-place finishes, the Packers rebounded. Hornung scored a career-best five touchdowns in a key late-season victory over the Baltimore Colts. Two weeks later, with Starr sidelined with a rib injury, Green Bay rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat the Colts again, 13-10 in overtime for the Western Conference championship. The Pack then topped Cleveland 23-12 at muddy Lambeau Field for the NFL crown. Hornung rushed for 110 yards and scored the clinching touchdown in the final game of Cleveland running back Jim Brown's Hall of Fame career.

1966: The 12-2 Packers missed a perfect season by four points before holding off the up-and-coming Dallas Cowboys 34-27 in the NFL title game. Green Bay then crunched the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in the first Super Bowl.

The '66 season also represented the full maturation of Starr, who won the NFL MVP award and led the league in passing. His yards-per-attempt was a spectacular 9.0 and his passer rating was a near-record 105.0. Not until Dan Marino's record-breaking 1984 season would an NFL quarterback register a higher rating.

"In those later [championship] years we really needed Bart," Kramer said. "He was ready and he was prepared. Bart had had the time to grow up and hone his game. He really took care of the ball [only three postseason interceptions in 213 attempts].''

Davis added, "Starr was absolutely sensational in operating the game plan. We could beat a team running or passing."

Starr tossed four TD passes in the win over Dallas and two more in the Super Bowl to Max McGee, who faced a tougher challenge overcoming a late night on the town in Los Angeles than the Chiefs secondary.

1967: Lombardi had always talked of becoming the first NFL team to win three straight championships in the playoff era (starting in 1933). His final Packers team delivered, although it was a struggle. Hornung had retired, and injuries and age were starting to take their toll as Green Bay finished 9-4-1, its worst record of the five title teams. The Pack regrouped, routing the Los Angeles Rams 28-7 in the first round of the playoffs.

One week later in the NFL Championship Game, however, Green Bay trailed Dallas by three points with 4 1/2 minutes to play and 68 yards of frozen Lambeau Field turf to cover in minus-13 degree weather. It was called the Ice Bowl.

After barely moving the ball for most of the second half, the Packers drove downfield. With 13 seconds left, Starr followed the blocks of Kramer and center Ken Bowman into the end zone for a 21-17 win.

"That drive was pure Lombardi," Kramer said. "Coach Lombardi's basic philosophy of hard work, discipline, character, all those things that he stood for were personified in that final drive."

Green Bay defeated the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II in Miami behind another MVP performance from Starr (202 yards passing). Those '67 Packers remain Kramer's favorite.

"Our '62 team had the [best] record but the '67 team had the grit and character, the pride and the experience, all the things to get the job done," Kramer said. "The Cowboys were a helluva team. So were the Rams. Both probably had better personnel at that point. But we won with [intangibles], those things you can't measure."

Lombardi retired from coaching the Packers after Super Bowl II, but his legacy was secure. As the events of the 1960s transformed the United States from a peaceful, prosperous and positive nation to a land riven by war, racial tensions, assassinations and urban violence, the Green Bay Packers were one of the decade's few constants.

"Coach Lombardi was very basic but I think he understood strategy extremely well," Kramer said. "He liked to defeat a team at its strongest point. Then they would be concerned and it would destroy their confidence.

"We played for his approval. His approval meant more than anything else outside the locker room."

How do the '60s Packers stack up with other NFL powerhouses over their seven best consecutive regular seasons?

The Colts won only one championship and played in the weak AFC South. The 49ers, too, were helped by a lack of consistent competition in the NFC West as only the Rams provided much of a fight. During the Packers' title run, the Bears, Colts, Lions and later the Rams were all championship-caliber teams in the NFL's Western Conference. Indianapolis' playoff record during their best seven-season stretch was 9-6 and San Francisco's was 10-4. Green Bay's postseason mark was 9-0.

This statistic best highlights the competitive consistency of the Lombardi Packers. Over seven seasons and 98 games only four times was Green Bay not in position to win.

No matter the metrics, the Packers stand equal with or above the other NFL dynasties. It's a defining inheritance for today's Packers as they try to win the franchise's 14th world championship.