Until last Sunday there had been a rumor sneaking around the National Football League that there might be something out of sorts with the Green Bay Packers. They still wore the same green jerseys, gold pants and gold helmets that they had worn while winning four NFL championships in the past six years, and they still had a defense that is one of the best ever assembled. But their offense had suffered critical failures this season while the Packers were getting tied by Detroit and beaten by Minnesota, and the question was: Had Green Bay lost that hammering, precision attack that had been so distinctive?
The New York Giants did not have to wait long for the answer. They were whipped by the Packers 48-21, and the message was quite simple. All the Packers had lost during the early, uncertain days of this season was the use of their quarterback, Bart Starr. For three weeks before the game with the Giants, Starr had been trying to get himself cured of a number of injuries. On the day before the Packers made one of their infrequent visits to Yankee Stadium, Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi announced to his team that Starr would start. The players could feel their confidence rise. It was as if Lombardi had assured them of invulnerability.
"Bart is our quarterback," said Packer Right Tackle Forrest Gregg, an all-NFL performer for seven years, after the game. "We're used to him. Zeke Bratkowski [Starr's substitute] has done a good job for us filling in, but Bart is our man. Our defense has been tremendous all year, but the offense hadn't been holding up its end until today. With Bart back, we got a lift. We knew anything we ran would go."
Starr is not all the way back. He has a bruised right hand, sore ribs and a shoulder injury that the Packers refuse to discuss. However, so that the Giants would not get the idea that they were dealing with a hospital case, Starr threw deep for Carroll Dale on Green Bay's first play. Had Starr been entirely healthy it would have been a touchdown. Instead the ball fell short of Dale, open by several yards. It was close enough to him, however, to teach the Giants to respect Starr's arm, aching or not, for the rest of the afternoon.
"A quarterback," said Giant Tackle Jim Colvin, who spent a month with Green Bay this season, "has got to be as tough as a guard. I've seen Johnny Unitas when he had to splint the fingers on his throwing hand, but he went out and played and didn't talk about it. Starr is that way."
If Starr showed courage, so did the Giants. After last year's slump, New York has rebuilt into a club that led the league in offense through five games. A good measure of how interesting the team has become is the number of people drawn to the rooftops beyond the outfield fence of Yankee Stadium. Sunday they were full again, the sunlight striking off the spectators' binoculars and telescopes as they peered down at the field. Even the suburban motels outside the TV blackout range reported a return of the football-watching parties that were common when Y. A. Tittle and the Giants were winning championships.
Quarterback Fran Tarkenton directs an offense that is liable to move quickly in any direction, including backward. The Packer defense had allowed five opponents an average of 30 yards per game passing, and very little more rushing, but the Giants went at it in the first quarter as if they did not believe the figures. With both Green Bay corner backs playing loose and eight yards deep, Tarkenton threw for Aaron Thomas and the ball bounced into the hands of Packer Safety Willie Wood. That was a switch. Luck of that sort had often gone against the Packers in their first five games. Green Bay moved down to the eight, where Starr had to run with the ball, and the New York tacklers gave him a thoroughly bruising test. Then Elijah Pitts scored on a sweep.
But the Giants came back, running the ball on Green Bay as few teams have been able to do. Tarkenton let Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy, New York's two big young backs who were hurt last year but this season have been running with speed and power, take turns smashing at the line. On a third-down play, Tarkenton scrambled and passed for 19 yards to his split end, Homer Jones, who is not much help when he does not have the ball but is very dangerous when he does. Moments later Frederickson went deep, luring away a couple of defensive backs. Jones delayed, ran a slant and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Giants then got a 14-7 lead on an 18-yard pass to Joe Morrison with 1:11 left in the half, and all the questions about Green Bay sounded loud and clear.
And that is when the Packers became a championship team again. In those 71 seconds Starr, watching the clock, used three running plays and one pass to drive Green Bay to the Giant 14. The clock showed seven seconds. Time for a field goal? Not yet. Starr passed to Boyd Dowler in the end zone. Incomplete. Still two seconds to go. Plenty of time. Out came Don Chandler for the field goal, and Green Bay went into intermission behind 14-10.
"The big thing for us was that last drive in the first half," said Lombardi. "We looked better than we have all year. We almost made the touchdown, and we knew if we missed the pass wouldn't take more than five seconds."
"I thought when we scored just before the half the momentum would be ours," said Giants Coach Allie Sherman. "Instead it was theirs."
In the third quarter the Packers, with the help of an interference penalty, rumbled off on a 63-yard drive, most of it on the famed Green Bay power sweep, with either Pitts or Jim Grabowski carrying the ball. It was a chalk drive, with the sweeps working just as Lombardi draws them on the board, 14 yards on one side, nine more, then another six on the other. Pitts scored on a sweep from the six. The second interception by Linebacker Dave Robinson set up a field goal. The Packers increased their lead to 27-14 early in the fourth quarter on Starr's passing and a one-yard run by Pitts, who later threw a pass off the sweep to get near enough for a two-yard touchdown run by Grabowski and a 34-14 lead.
Not convinced yet, the Giants rallied briefly with Tarkenton hitting Jones for a 30-yard touchdown. But Starr passed 38 yards to Grabowski for another score, and Bratkowski came in for the last drive, going 57 yards in eight running plays. Donnie Anderson's seven-yard sweep put Green Bay in front 48-21 and settled the issue of whether there is life in the Packers' offense. There is.
"Last year we struggled for five or six games before we became a good team," Lombardi said. "I hope it has happened again. Sometimes it takes a game like this. We had been kind of down. But today we ran hard, blocked hard and played hard. Starr was the big difference.
"He's still hurt. He had deep receivers open twice and just couldn't hit them, but we had to go with him."
Besides deciding to stick with Starr as long as he can walk, Lombardi renewed his reliance on his other veterans, only 14 of whom are left from the team that won the NFL championship in 1962, the last year Green Bay played in New York.
"I had been doing too much developing," explained Lombardi. "We had been playing 35 to 38 men, trying to develop and win at the same time. Today our veterans were fine. This was our best running game of the year, and when we can run, everything goes."
There had been speculation that the Packers grievously missed the pass-blocking and the little flare catches of their former fullback, Jim Taylor, as well as the spirit and diverse abilities of Paul Hornung. Against the Giants, Pitts and Grabowski made the loss of Taylor and Hornung seem less serious.
"The way Pitts and Grabowski ran and blocked, we could make anything work," Gregg said. "That Pitts is a terror."
Lombardi was happy that his offense reappeared in time to save his defense. "I'm a little disappointed, though, that we gave up 21 points," he said. "Tarkenton has a second sense. He always knows where the line of scrimmage is and where his receivers are. Playing against that scramble of his is like playing basketball."
The Packers blitzed seven times, which is about three more times than usual. "We thought we'd have a better chance of containing Tarkenton that way," Lombardi said. "The Giants have quite an offense." Someone asked what he thought of the Giant defense. "I said they have quite an offense, and that's enough of a comment," he said.
"Green Bay is the same team week after week, year after year," said Tarkenton. "They're hard to drive against. That team isn't in trouble." Not, at least, while the Packers still have a Starr.