Aaron Rodgers is not the first great Green Bay Packers’ quarterback to grow so disenchanted with management that he wanted to leave. Cecil Isbell beat him to that distinction 80 years ago.
The difference between them is that Rodgers makes threats, while Isbell made a promise and then acted on it.
That promise was one made to himself early in his five-year career as one of the greatest passers in Packers' history. The promise was that he would quit the team before management could fire him. And so he did, leaving at the height of what should have been a Hall-of-Fame career following a 1942 season just as dominating for his time as Rodgers’ MVP performance was in 2020.
Drafted in the first round in 1938 out of Purdue after he was named MVP of the College All-Star Game, Isbell arrived in Green Bay and was immediately installed at left halfback in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box offense. He shared time with All-Pro Arnie Herber that season, leading the team in both passing and rushing and was named second team All-Pro for the first of four times, as well as to the Pro Bowl.
Isbell continued to platoon with Herber in 1939, leading the team in rushing and throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass in a win over the New York Giants in the NFL championship game. Again named to both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team, Isbell had done enough to replace Herber as the team’s full-time tailback the following year.
Most players would be elated at their elevation, and Isbell was. But he took more away from what happened to Herber than personal opportunity. He saw what the future held for him as well, which is to say eventually the same, sad fate.
Isbell would go on to set passing records like none yet seen, combining with future Hall-of-Fame receiver Don Hutson to form the most prolific passing tandem of their time. Isbell set league records for passing yardage (1,479 yards) and touchdown passes (15) in 1941 only to shatter them the following season when he became the first passer to throw for over 2,000 yards with 2,021.
He also set the record for touchdown passes with 24, a number that would stand until Johnny Unitas broke it 1957. The latter remained the Packers’ team best for 41 years, not falling until Lynn Dickey threw for 32 touchdown in 1983.
At the time, Chicago Bears’ head coach George Halas, said, “Arnie Herber is just a passer, but this Isbell is a passer, kicker, runner and line bucker (blocker). Green Bay’s attack is three times more potent now than it has been in recent years, and the answer is Isbell.”
Certainly Hutson’s greatest years came when Isbell was throwing him the ball ,and Isbell’s passing records stood the test of time. Those 24 touchdown passes in 1942 remained in the top five in Packers' history until 1995, 53 years after they were thrown. Yet it was at the very height of his powers that Isbell took on Packers' management in a similar fashion to the way Rodgers did this season.
The difference is that the then 27-year-old Isbell was making no idle threat, nor did he try to force a trade to get himself out of Green Bay as it appears Rodgers wants. He simply up and quit to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, Purdue, saying on the way out that he had ample reason for leaving.
“I hadn’t been up in Green Bay long," he said,"when I saw Lambeau (who was a Bill Belichick type all powerful coach and general manager of the Packers, as well as co-owner and founder of the team back in 1919) go around the locker room and tell players like Herber and (Milt) Gantenbein and (Hank) Bruder that they were all done with the Packers. I sat there and watched, and then I vowed it never would happen to me. I’d quit before they came around to tell me.”
And so he did, having warned the team halfway through his 1942 first-team All-Pro season what might be coming when he told an interviewer, “I think I’ve had enough. Five years of pro football is enough for anyone. If the opportunity comes, I’ll quit the game.”
Cecil Isbell did just that, probably costing himself a rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To this day, he is the only all-decade quarterback not enshrined in Canton, but he certainly belongs in the integrity Hall of Fame. He made a promise to himself, and he kept it. He did not make veiled statements trying to shroud his thinking in mystery or leaving it open for interpretation.
He was unhappy with Packers' management, and he said so. He promised he would get them before they could get him, and he did so.
So if Aaron Rodgers is looking for a role model in his quest to leave Green Bay he need only walk through the Packers' Hall of Fame across the street from Lambeau Field and ask “What ever happened to Cecil Isbell?”
The answer will show him the proper way to handle yourself if you don’t like how things are going. You move on, like Cecil Isbell.