The Green Bay Packers, facing for the first time in three years the possibility that they would not finish as world champions, were a grim lot in Los Angeles last week before their game with the Rams. This was as out of character for the Packers as it would be for Cassius Clay; although not given to braggadocio, the Packers have been a notably lighthearted team during the years of their eminence.
"I can't figure what they will do in this game," a team official said worriedly as the Packers waited to board the bus to the Coliseum. "This is not the team I've known. I don't understand whether they are holding in a tremendous determination or whether they're beginning to run scared. I hope that's not it."
In the first half, as the Rams took a 14-10 lead, Green Bay appeared to be running scared. But in the second half the Packers played with all the precision and impact that has brought them two world championships in a row. They won 31-14 and seemed bent on refuting the experts who have predicted the end of the Green Bay dynasty.
The Packers concentrated on the softest spot in the Ram pass defense—right corner back, a position young Bobby Smith is trying to master after one season at safety. He learned a great deal on Saturday, a very warm afternoon in all respects, from aging End Max McGee, who caught seven passes for 105 yards and three touchdowns. Smith's apprenticeship cost the Rams much more than they could afford, although it is only fair to say that McGee was just as effective against Carver Shannon, Smith's replacement.
The Packer offensive line, which three weeks before had failed notably to make running room for its backs against the Chicago Bears, moved the Ram line easily throughout the second half. This Ram line, significantly, was bigger than the Bears'. What was the difference? "We got an eight-day rest after our Thanksgiving Day game with Detroit," Packer Center Jim Ringo said. "That helped us a lot. People keep asking what has happened to us and whether we've slipped. We haven't had a bad season. Anytime you play 13 games in this league and only lose two, you should be leading."
Fuzzy Thurston, the capable guard who helps animate the Packer offense, feels that the Packers were not emotionally ready for the Bears either time the two teams met this year. "It's a shame we had to play our two shoddiest games against the Bears," he said. "We lost both for the same reason. We got too serious. We were too high. We worked for 10 days getting ready for the Bears in the first game of the season. That's too long. Then we were ready for our second Bear game three days ahead. You should have seen us hitting. Man, we were popping as hard as you do in a game. We couldn't wait. We almost knocked each other down getting out on the field. And you know what happened to us [the Packers lost 27-6]. This is a team that doesn't do well when it gets too serious. We have to laugh it up a little, crack jokes, maybe have a beer or two together. We can't make it with the serious bit."
Thurston owns an establishment near Green Bay called The Left Guard. While the place specializes in heavy steaks, its proprietor prefers light humor, except where the Bears are concerned. There the fun-loving entrepreneur draws a line. "It is not over yet," he said last week. "We will win." For the Packers to win, Chicago must lose. That could very well happen next week when the Bears meet the rapidly healing Lions, who themselves might have been in contention at this point had they not suffered so many crippling injuries early in the year.
Some of the tension that has gripped the Packers over the long 1963 season spilled over in the third quarter against the Rams. The Packers had begun to play with the skill one expects from them. Herb Adderley, Green Bay's quick corner back, sliced in front of Ram End Jim Phillips for a beautiful interception. He returned it down the sideline until Phillips wrestled him out of bounds with a high tackle. A few words were exchanged, and Phillips kicked at Adderley. There was nothing furtive about Adderley's response—he simply hit Phillips on the point of the jaw with a gracefully delivered right hook. While Phillips lay immobile on his back, an official banished both men from the game.
"We've been having this personal difficulty for a long time," Adderley said later. "He hits me after the play is over and talks big, and he started it at the beginning of this game, too. So when I intercepted, he got me around the neck, and when I got up I told him he better learn how to tackle as well as how to run pass patterns. Then he kicked me on the leg, and I hit him on the chin. I knew as soon as I did it I should not have lost my head, and maybe most times I wouldn't. But we have had so much to bear."
The unfortunate Phillips, whose chin took the brunt of the accumulated Packer frustrations, dressed and left the Ram dressing room without waiting to offer his version of the incident.
For the teams and coaches in the league who feel that the 1963 Packers represent the beginning of a decline, a couple of experts on the Los Angeles team have discouraging news. "I have been playing against them for quite some time," said Roosevelt Grier, the big tackle who was traded to the Rams this year by the New York Giants for John LoVetere. "This team is no better or worse than any of the other Packer teams I played against. [Grier played against the Packers in the championship games of 1961 and 1962.] They are a great football team. They keep coming at you and coming at you until finally something gives. They are no different from what they have been."
Ram Head Coach Harland Svare agreed. "I think they are just as good as ever," he said. "They have the big thing you need to win. Poise. Nothing disturbs them. We had a real good first half Saturday, but it didn't bother them at all. They played their game. They have experience. They know what to do and when to do it and how to do it. Against them, inexperience is the thing that beat us."
All in all, the Packers are as tough at the end of the 1963 season as they were the year before. They could still beat the Bears for the Western title; in the unlikely event of a divisional playoff, Chicago would not manhandle Green Bay as it did the last time the two teams met. As Dave Hanner, the defensive tackle points out, Tom Moore, filling in for Paul Hornung, and Quarterback Bart Starr are both well again after missing part of the season because of injuries. They make a difference.
Coach Vince Lombardi has accomplished an extraordinary feat in developing the Packers. Green Bay is not a physically big team. Their lack of overpowering size makes it necessary for the Packer players to be at an emotional and physical peak each Sunday. One asset they do have, however, is their bench. It is deeper in talented performers than any other in pro football. This showed again last week when Ray Nitschke, the middle linebacker, watched from the sidelines with a broken arm. Young Dave Robinson played his first full game at corner linebacker, and Bill Forester moved over to fill Nitschke's position. Both were excellent.
The Packer dynasty may be in trouble, but it is not through.