Countdown to Canton: Isbell's arm, bust deserve a place in the Hall of Fame

Ron Borges

(The Pro Football Hall of Fame last week announced its 38 finalists for the Centennial Class of 2020. As a prelude to the Hall's choice of 15 inductees, we preview some of the candidates)

Cecil Isbell has been given one last chance to go deep by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Committee. One has to wonder why he needed it.

Isbell is one of 20 “super senior’’ finalists for a special “Centennial class’’ of inductees created as part of the NFL’s 100th anniversary celebration. Of those 20, 10 will be given what is likely a last chance to be enshrined in Canton.

One wonders why Isbell ever needed one.

Don Hutson is considered one of the two or three greatest pass receivers in NFL history, and few with any understanding of pro football history would argue the point. He was a man far ahead of his time. But somebody had to throw him all those passes, didn’t they?

That, as much as anything, is the mystery of Cecil Isbell.

For five years, in the period between 1938 and 1942, Isbell would throw half the passes, for half the yardage and half the touchdowns Hutson would produce during his 11-year career. More significantly, Hutson’s two highest reception totals, two of his three highest yardage totals and three of his four highest touchdown totals all came when Isbell was pulling the trigger by throwing him that watermelon that passed for a football.

Not surprisingly, the result of all Isbell’s production was that he was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1930s despite playing in only its final two years (as well as the first three of the next). He would set NFL records for yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage and then break those records while leading the Packers into two league championship games, winning one in 1939.

And then he disappeared. Why, you might wonder, does one leave pro football at arguably the peak of your skills?

For those five years, Cecil Isbell was one of the very best quarterbacks in football, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who twice led the NFL in completions and passing yardage, was twice second in completion percentage and finished third, second and then first in quarterback rating before he walked away from the game before it could walk away from him.

In those days, the Packers ran the Notre Dame Box, an offense where he actually played tailback while also handling the passing game. In his rookie season (1938), Isbell led the Packers in both rushing and passing despite splitting time with future Hall-of-Famer Arnie Herber, an older player Isbell soon rendered expendable.

Isbell again led the team in rushing in his second season but was so effective a passer that he began throwing more and rushing less while his production, and that of Don Hutson, soared. In his final two seasons, Isbell twice set the NFL record for passing yards and became the first 2,000-yard passer in league history (2,021 yards in 1942). He also set the league-record for touchdown passes with 24, a standard that stood as the Packers’ team record for 41 years until Lynn Dickey broke it in 1983 with 32.

But he needed five more games to do it. Isbell also threw one or more touchdown passes in each of his final 23 games, a consecutive touchdown streak that stood until Johnny Unitas broke it 15 years later.

Impressive as those numbers are, none are the most revealing of his dominance at the position. Isbell’s final two seasons were his best and arguably two of the best in the history of the position when judged against his peers. Those numbers, it seems to me, should have made him a Hall of Famer long ago.

In 1941, the average NFL quarterback accounted for 6.122 points per game. Isbell accounted for 12 (121 points in 10 games), which put his production 98.99 percent above the norm.

The following season, his last, was even more remarkable. That’s the year he threw those then-record 24 touchdown passes. That season he was 117 percent above the league norm in points by a quarterback and 62 percent better than the great Sammy Baugh, who passed for 497 fewer yards and eight fewer touchdowns than Isbell that season.

All that production led future Hall-of-Fame coach Curly Lambeau (yes, the Lambeau Field Lambeau) to once remark, “Isbell was the best. Isbell was a master at any range. He could throw soft passes, bullet passes or long passes.’’

Had Isbell continued to play there seems to be little question that he would have been in the conversation with Baugh, Herber and Sid Luckman concerning who the best passer of the 1940s was. But Isbell was not only a smart quarterback; he was also a smart businessman. While others hung around until they were asked to leave, Cecil Isbell took his leave at the age of 27.

When he shocked the Packers by announcing his retirement following his fifth season to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, Purdue (for more money than he was making at the Packers), Isbell explained it clearly.

“I think I’ve had enough,’’ Isbell said midway through his final season. “Five years of pro football is enough for anyone. If the opportunity comes, I’ll quit the game.’’

He wasn’t kidding. Purdue called and within a year he became the Boilermakers’ head coach. He left there in 1947 to take over the Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), where he helped develop another future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Y.A. Title.

At the time of his shocking retirement, Isbell said, “I hadn’t been up in Green Bay long when I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like Herber and (Milt) Ganterbein 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 that is just what he did because pro football was a far different business in 1942 than it is today. Careers were far shorter ... and so was the money.

Cecil Isbell left pro football at the height of his career with a shoulder that had to be held together by a chain under his pads because it kept popping out of the socket, a condition he had since college. Despite being held together, literally, with bailing wire, he passed like no one before him and few of his peers.

When Ken Stabler was finally inducted several years ago (and also long overdue), Cecil Isbell became the only all-decade quarterback not enshrined in Canton. If you can figure out why that shouldn’t change with this Centennial Class, let me know.

Here's our original "State Your Case" on Isbell:

Comments (3)
No. 1-2
brian wolf
brian wolf

Persuasive argument Ron.

Yet, this why we can't put to much emphasis on All Decade selections. Two years for the 30s team is ridiculous.

Though he mostly passed his entire five year career, he only put up crazy numbers his final two years. Hutson could make anyone look good, but Isbell was, a great player for the Pack. I just don't believe it was enough for the HOF.

Meanwhile, Tommy Thompson of the Eagles played in the 40s as well. Was one of the first stars of the T Formation, though playing basically with one eye. Like Isbell, he played with an all world, HOF player in Steve Van Buren. He led the Eagles to three straight championship games, winning the last two back to back, something that hadn't been done since Luckman and the Bears. Since then, only Van Brocklin, and the combo of Wentz and Foles have won it all for the Eagles. He deserves to be remembered as well.


Good — and persuasive — case made for Cecil Isbell, Ron.

I’m actually not entirely averse to the idea of Isbell being in the HoF. He does have respectable honors (2/4/30s), though his career is awfully short (5 years) and it’s puzzling that he made the 30s All-Decade team when his best years by far came in 1941 and 1942. In the context of the 20 finalists, I can’t push him ahead of at least 15 of the other nominees. If we can elect all of Dilweg, Slater, Lewellen, Emerson, Wistert, and Speedie, that’s a different story, and he becomes (along with Riley Matheson) one of the best players left from the 20s-30s-40s period. Just too darned many snubs sitting out there, sorry to say, which why this special 10/3/2 makeup centennial HoF class was such a great idea. Hopefully Isbell will get his due eventually.

And yes, glad Brian brought up Tommy Thompson. I think he merits at least a long look, though I’m not sure how grave an injustice his omission from the HoF is, to be honest. Have to look further on that one.

State Your Case