The Green Bay Packers may wrap up the Western Division early this year—say next Sunday, when they play the Baltimore Colts in Milwaukee. For two quarters at Pittsburgh this week they seemed to be intent on finishing last, and they left the field at half time losing 7-9. Then, scorched by what must have been an uncommonly heated lecture from Coach Vincent Lombardi, the Packers came back in the second half for a 41-9 victory and underlined their rating as the best team in football.
Some 230 miles to the east, the Baltimore Colts certified a strong claim to be ranked second best. They squeezed Minnesota's Fran Tarkenton into a narrow pocket and denied him the right to scramble. A nonscrambling Tarkenton proved to be just another quarterback; a nonscrambling (as usual) Johnny Unitas flicked sure passes into the cracks in the Viking defense for a 35-16 victory.
As the first half indicated, the Packers were off form against Pittsburgh, despite the final score. This is one of the measures of a championship team; on an off day it wins 41-9; a lesser team loses. So the Packers, notably less sharp than the Packers normally are, did not stumble. But Green Bay probably was looking ahead a week to Baltimore, while the Colts, against Minnesota, could not afford that luxury.
"This is the worst game I've played this year," said Steve Wright, the young and very good Green Bay offensive tackle. "You better believe I'll be better next week."
He undoubtedly will be. The key to Green Bay excellence is improvement. If the players do not improve, they leave. "Hustle and smart is Green Bay," says Ken Bowman, a smart and hustling young center. "Coach won't put up with a loafer, and you don't get two chances to make a mistake. You are completely prepared when you take the field; if you don't know what you are supposed to do, you weren't paying attention. The one thing coach absolutely won't put up with is a mental error. He embarrasses you if you make a mental error. He chews you out in front of the team."
The young Packers shook their mental lethargy in the second half against Pittsburgh; they will have to be as bright as Lombardi demands for four quarters against Baltimore.
Lombardi, who was a school teacher and who took a law degree before becoming a coach, has only limited patience for bright pupils and none for the retarded. "If a boy has potential, we'll go with him," Lombardi says. "But if he does not show any development during his second year with the team my inclination is to discard him. Some ballplayers reach an early plateau; they come fast for one year and then they tail off, and during their second year with the team they hit a level they never exceed. If that happens we trade them—or cut them."
In the last three years, Lombardi has had a bumper crop of players who continued to escalate during their second season. A substantial number of the starters on the first two units of the Packers come from this group. As he proved Sunday, when he caught a total of four passes for 61 yards, Marv Fleming, a 6-foot-4 235-pounder from Utah, has replaced the redoubtable Ron Kramer to Lombardi's satisfaction. Fleming's progress has not been steady. He has fluctuated between very good and mediocre, but the very good phase has outweighed the mediocre, and he should be the starting tight end for the Packers for the rest of this season, at least.
According to Lombardi, it is much easier to break in early as an offensive player—other than quarterback—than as a defensive player. "An offensive player has everything laid out," Lombardi says. "The play is precise and he knows what he should do. A defensive player must react to any one of a wide variety of situations. And he must be very quick, physically and mentally." But under Lombardi's program of integrating young players some defenders have broken in with unusual speed. Of the nine starters with three or fewer years three are second-year defensive men: Doug Hart, Steve Wright and Tom Brown. One of the three youngsters on offense is in his second year.
Lombardi's tremendous rebuilding job on the not-too-antiquated Packers has been based on the varying time lags in the development of players at each position. "You draft a top quarterback whenever one is available," he says. "Quarterbacks take a long time, maybe four or five years, to mature. Dennis Claridge has all the physical equipment to be one of the best, but he will need two or three years to develop the play recognition and the intuition a quarterback has to have. Bart Starr has that right now; I think he's one of the best in the business. By the time he's ready to retire, Claridge should have learned all he needs to move in."
At the other end of the learning scale are the running backs, who make the smallest adjustment from college to professional football. "You can replace them in one draft at the last minute," Lombardi said. "So, when you feel your runners are beginning to grow old, you can draft for runners the year before you need them."
Offensive linemen need a year or two of seasoning; receivers, whether they are tight ends, flankers or spread ends, need two or three. Although Bob Long, in his second year, may start several games as a flanker, he is one of four players who will split time at the equivalent positions of flanker and spread end. Max McGee (10 years in the league), Boyd Dowler (seven) and Carroll Dale (six) are the others. So Long can be worked into the Packer offense gradually.
Defensive backs and linebackers take more breaking in than any other players, except quarterbacks. "You have to look ahead about three years," Lombardi says. The physical tasks of defensive backs and linebackers are more demanding, too. "In most positions we look for size first," Lombardi says. "We have had quite a few good athletes in camp who could do everything real well but who weren't big enough. You hate to cut them, but you have to. No matter how skillful they are, if they give away too much weight, they can't do the job. In defensive backs we look for quick feet. Not straightaway speed—quick feet."
The defensive backs—and the linebackers, to a degree—not only must have quick feet but also matching mental agility. Doug Hart is a case in point for defensive backs, and Lee Roy Caffey and Dave Robinson for linebackers. Hart was drafted by the Packers three years ago, when Lombardi was strongly fortified at corner back with Jesse Whitten-ton and Herb Adderley. Adderley was in his second year and obviously good for a long time to come, but Whitten-ton was in his seventh year. Although he was still among the best in the league at his difficult position, it was obvious to Lombardi that he must have someone standing by to take over when time wore away Whittenton's physical skills to the point where experience could not compensate. Hart showed promise; Lombardi carried him on the Packer taxi squad his first year, so that he could pick up know-how watching Whittenton, and brought him up to the varsity his second year, where he spelled Whittenton often enough to pick up valuable game experience. This year, when Whittenton retired, Hart was capable of moving in and assuming the responsibilities of corner back with no notable drop-off in the efficiency of the Packer pass defense.
Lombardi had a more difficult problem in replacing his two veteran linebackers, Bill Forester and Dan Currie; they grew old together. Forester was a little older than Currie, and he was replaced in one of the few crash substitutions Lombardi has been forced to make. Faced with the undeniable fact that Forester was nearing the end and that no one had been blooded to step in, Lombardi gave up a fine young running back named Earl Gros to acquire Caffey, a young linebacker from Philadelphia. He had draftee Robinson in reserve, but Robinson had not played much in his rookie season and Caffey had been a full-time linebacker. Forester retired and Caffey moved in. Robinson completed his education as a corner linebacker last year, sharing time with Currie. This year, with Robinson ready and Forester long gone, Caffey and Robinson took over as the corner linebackers for the Packers.
""It is a little strange playing between them," says Ray Nitschke, who has been in the league eight years and, as the middle linebacker, stabilizes the linebacking corps and the whole defense. "I was so used to Bill and Dan. But these are good men. I'll get used to them, too. They've got a lot of quick. When we shoot the corner linebackers now, they're in on the passer before he has time to look up."
When Nitschke is on the sideline Caffey takes his place—an indication of things to come. Oddly enough, the old Packers do not seem resentful of this calculated plan of retirement for obsolescent players. "Ah never thought about it," said Dave (Hawg) Hanner, who was a defensive tackle for Green Bay for 14 years before becoming a defensive coach this season. His replacement is Ron Kostelnik, who began learning his trade some five years ago from Hanner.
"Ah always figured Ah could play as long as Ah wanted to," Hanner went on, speaking around a lump of chewing tobacco the size of a tennis ball. "They ain't no place on this ball club for a man who won't help out the young ballplayers. This is a team. It ain't for the man playing for himself."
Although defensive tackle may be the least complicated of all defensive positions to play, it is more subtle than it appears to be and the help of a veteran like Hanner is invaluable to the younger players coming up. "When Ron come up, he was like all the rookies," Hanner said. "Big, strong boy, lots of desire, but he had bad habits. He would make contact with the blocker, then look up into the backfield to see where the ball was. Naturally, when he lifted his head, he stood up and the blocker got to him. He had to learn to look at the man in front of him until he beat him. When the man put his head on one side, Ron had to learn how to move that way to close the hole, then look for the ballcarrier. Same thing on rushing the passer. First thing a rookie got to do is play to stop the run, then rush the passer. And when he rushes the passer, he's got to concentrate on beating the man blocking him first, then look for the quarterback. You look for the quarterback and don't look at the blocker, he's gonna beat you ever time."
Kostelnik was so apt a student that Hanner is no longer a playing coach. And the rest of the Packer youth movement profited from the experienced players on the squad in the same way.
If Lombardi's young group holds up, the Packers have a better than good chance for a long time to come. Of the 40 players on the team as the season opened, there is a clear separation of oldtimers and newcomers. Nineteen of the 40 have been in the league more than five years; their average age is a little more than 29, their average experience is eight years. The other 21 are the Packers of the youth movement and the near future; their average age is a trifle more than 23, and their average experience is a little less than two and a half years.
For every old Packer, there is a young one waiting impatiently on the sidelines; this, as Lombardi knows well, makes for not only an eager young team, but an eager old one as well. Lombardi is a demanding and difficult coach, but the players don't mind this. An example is an experience of Ken Bowman. As a rookie Bowman was beaten three times in a row by Willie Davis, the great Packer defensive end, in Packer scrimmages. The third time he was beaten Lombardi told him, "Get off the field."
"I knew that if I couldn't produce I wouldn't be just off the field but I'd be off the Packer football team," Bowman said. "I also knew that if I could produce Lombardi would find a place for me on the team. We played a game the next Sunday, and I did what I had to do because I knew I had to do it."
The Packers, old and young, will come to a crossroads Sunday when they meet another team with almost the same combination of wise age and eager youth. The Colts, under the canny guidance of Quarterback John Unitas, turned back the young enthusiasts from Minnesota 35-16 on the hottest September 19 in Baltimore since 1896, and they did it with aplomb and an impressive display of depth.
While the Green Bay youngsters were demonstrating how well they have learned their lessons, the Colt victory was fashioned principally by the older ballplayers, with only an occasional assist from the new Colts. Unitas picked at the flaws in the Viking defense carefully and accurately, and he threw to tested receivers like Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr. When the Colts needed to move on the ground, he handed the ball to Lenny Moore or Jerry Hill, both of whom have been around a long time.
"All we heard all week was contain," one of the Colt defensive players said. "Contain Tarkenton. So that's what we did. We let him have the middle and kept him from rolling out. If he has to throw from the pocket he misses."
The cogency of the Baltimore plan was immediately obvious. Throwing from the pocket, Tarkenton was inaccurate. Twice on one series of plays he had End Paul Flatley open behind a Baltimore defender, and twice he overthrew the receiver. In contrast, when Unitas sent Jimmy Orr downfield on a deep pattern and Orr beat a Viking corner back by a step, Unitas' long pass settled precisely in his arms for a gain that set up a Baltimore touchdown.
Baltimore was an impressive team in this victory; in Milwaukee against Green Bay the Colts will have to be as good or better. The Vikings, in the wilting heat at Baltimore, had no first-line replacements to spell their panting first teams either on offense or defense. The Packers will be able to dredge up quality football players from the deepest bench in football.
Despite their handy victory, the Colts showed some flaws that could be fatal against a team as accomplished as Green Bay. Flatley often beat the Colt secondary. Had Tarkenton been on target, the game could have gone to the Vikings. Starr is a cool and competent quarterback, and his receivers are at least as good as Tarkenton's. Like Unitas, he is a drop-back passer, and the Colt defense will have an entirely different chore in Milwaukee. Instead of trying to hold Starr inside the blocking cup they will have to try to force him out of it. They will find this difficult.
Although Unitas and the Colt offense proved again that they move the ball as well as any team, the brightest part of the victory was the sturdy Colt defense. With the retirement of Defensive End Gino Marchetti and Middle Linebacker Bill Pellington, the most serious problem facing the Colts had been to find replacements for them. But Dennis Gaubatz, a young middle linebacker obtained in a between-season trade with Detroit, gave the Baltimore defense more range than Pellington at his position, and Lou Michaels played superbly in Marchetti's place.
The Colts will score more than the Steelers did, and the first-rate Colt defense probably will hold Green Bay well under 41 points, but the Packers should win, if for no other reason than that Lombardi can scare them into winning.
Don Chandler, who went to Green Bay from the New York Giants this year to do the kicking for the team, said, "The first Packer meeting I went to, I sat and listened and my hands were wet with sweat. When the man got up and started to talk to us about what we had to do, we knew we had to do it. He laid it out and you got the feeling if you made one mistake you had had it. So you don't make one mistake. That's the mark of this ball club. You don't make mistakes. You play smart."