In Green Bay, where the Packers (see cover) are gods and Vincent Lombardi is their prophet, the parishioners are getting a little edgy. A stranger in the King's X bar and restaurant one night recently had the temerity to ask: "What's wrong with the Packers?" Conversation stilled, the bartender stopped stirring a martini and a waitress dropped a tray of dirty dishes. Finally one of the patrons placed his beer gently on the bar, fixed the stranger with a baleful eye and said, "Is there something wrong with the Packers?"
"There is nothing wrong with the Packers, "the patron said sternly." Wait."
Last year the same question would have been greeted with laughter, but now the true believers, who in their secret hearts ask the same question, react with a fierce defensive loyalty when someone else does.
Because, obviously, there is something wrong with the Packers. After three straight world championships and two Super Bowls, they are now—with the season nearly half over—possessed of a sad 2-3-1 record and are facing the not entirely cheering prospect of meeting the Cowboys in Dallas next Monday in the season's biggest game to date.
The fault is not, as is generally believed, that Vince Lombardi is no longer coach. Nor is it, as others say, that the Packers have collectively gone over the hill in their Cadillacs. Some of them are old, but theirs is a singularly robust old age. They miss Lombardi to a degree, but not to the point of collapse.
Although they are in trouble, the Packers are not dead—far from it. Their parlous state results from a number of problems, none insoluble. The first, and most serious, was a concentration of injuries at one position—defensive tackle. Then, when the tackles regained their health and the defense its accustomed puissance, Bart Starr, their All-Pro quarterback, pulled a muscle in his right arm warming up before a game with the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago. Zeke Bratkowski, his usually capable replacement, had an off day, throwing three interceptions and fumbling once. Yet the Rams still needed a late and questionable pass-interference call to beat Green Bay 16-14.
"It makes you feel like looking up at the sky and saying, 'Hey, up there, what did we do?' " said Guard Jerry Kramer, who was playing with a broken thumb, after the game. "I mean, how long is this going to go on?"
It started early. Bob Brown, a massive defensive lineman who can fill in at either end or tackle, broke his arm before the All-Star Game; Henry Jordan, the balding All-Pro tackle, came down with back miseries; Jim Weatherwax, who is the third defensive tackle behind Jordan and Ron Kostelnik, tore a cartilage and had a knee operation; soon thereafter Kostelnik went to the sidelines with a badly wrenched knee. This left Green Bay facing strong running teams such as Detroit and Minnesota with rookie tackles. It damaged the cohesion of the Packer defense against passes, too.
"It ruined our continuity," said Willie Davis, sounding a bit like Allie Sherman of the Giants. ' "With new men in the defensive line, the pass rush was off a little. That meant the quarterback was getting maybe an extra half second to throw the ball. Our defensive backs, in the past, have been able to play with some recklessness because they knew they wouldn't have to cover their man more than three, maybe three and two-tenths seconds. If the ball wasn't thrown by then, somebody on the defensive line would have the quarterback.
"I wasn't getting in as fast as usual, either," Davis continued. He pointed to a jagged, fresh scar along the inside of his left thumb. "I got that in the exhibition game against Cleveland," he said. "Tackled Leroy Kelly and hit the ground with my left hand under his buttocks and all his weight on my thumb, then someone else jumped on the pile. I didn't feel any pain, but when I got up and looked down at my thumb the bone was sticking out right at the first joint. I went over to the sideline, but I felt kind of sheepish, you know. Here's me, a big pro football player, coming off and saying, 'Coach, I can't play because my thumb hurts.' "
Davis did not miss any playing time; his thumb was set, stitched up and provided with a brace and he was in the lineup when the season opened. "It hurt my pass rush because this is my pulling hand." Willie explained. "I mean, I hit the blocker, give him a move, then pull him with my left hand when I go. With the brace on my thumb, I couldn't get a good grip to pull and the thumb still got a shock. It throbbed between plays and hurt my concentration. Now I got a different kind of brace and it won't hurt. It should help."
The deferred pass rush wrecked the delicate timing of the Packer defense. "When Detroit beat us [23-17 in the third game of the season], Bill Munson hurt us by setting up quick, then throwing boom," Willie said. "He established a rhythm. In the past we used to break up the quarterback's rhythm. The backs and linebackers had faith in our rush, so they played the receivers close. The quarterback would set up, look, then have to look somewhere else. In that little second we'd either get to him or hurry him. But when we quit getting in so fast, the defensive backs began playing farther off the receivers. That meant the receivers were open quicker and we had even less time to get to the quarterback. It broke up the whole defense."
Willie massaged his sore thumb thoughtfully. "Before we played Los Angeles we talked to the secondary," he said. "We asked them to trust us again, and cover close. We got the defensive line together again. The injuries kept us from developing this cohesion, but I think we got it back now."
Against the Rams the Green Bay defense appeared as solid as ever, Kostelnik played part of the game on his sore knee, then went out for Bob Brown, who played with a thick pad over his broken arm. Later Kostelnik came back and Brown relieved Lionel Aldridge, who had sprained his ankle against Detroit and was still limping. The line performed well, and the Rams' Roman Gabriel, who has been better protected than any other quarterback in the league, was under strong pressure. Once Davis combined with Brown to throw him for a 13-yard loss, and he completed only seven of his 20 passes for a skimpy 97 yards. The Green Bay secondary covered close.
Despite the fact that the Rams' defensive line is one of the best in pro football, the Packer offensive line did a good job of protecting Bratkowski, proving once more that it is not overage in service, as some experts have contended.
At 35, Forrest Gregg, a perennial All-Pro at offensive tackle, is one of the oldest players on the team. His assignment was blocking David Jones, the most fearsome of the Ram foursome. Most teams block Jones with two and sometimes three men but for the most part Gregg took on Jones alone. Gregg was beaten a few times, but he handled himself briskly and well and Jones did not terrorize the Packer quarterback.
Gregg is a grizzled man who looks his 35 years and who plays his position with more finesse than any other player in the league. "I feel just about the same now as I did when I came up in 1956," he says. "Oh, I suppose I may have lost a step in speed, but I don't think I have lost any quickness."
He has been a Packer from before the Lombardi era and he has a deep respect for the former Packer coach. "Coach Lombardi was a more emotional man than Coach Bengtson," he said. "Both of them are perfectionists, but they go about it in a different way. Vince gave us pep talks and gave us the devil when we made mistakes. Coach Bengtson explains to you in detail what will happen if you do what he asks and what will happen if you don't. He leaves it up to us to get ourselves up for a game. By now we should be able to."
Phil Bengtson was the defensive coach under Lombardi for nine years before becoming the head man this season. He took over the most porous defense in the league in 1959, and during his tenure the Packers have never ranked worse than third on defense. He is a soft-spoken, friendly man with none of Lombardi's histrionic tendencies. On occasion he may lose his temper and chew out an errant player, but not often.
"He's just as tough as Lombardi," Ray Nitschke once said. "The difference is when Lombardi yells at you, you don't know if he means it or not. When Bengtson hollers, you know he means it." At the time Bengtson took over from the hard-driving Lombardi, many observers felt that the Packers would miss the whip and perhaps they do.
"Phil is a softer man than I am," Lombardi said recently, sitting behind the big desk in his office in Green Bay. "I don't say that critically. He is a fine coach, the best defensive coach I know, and I can't think of a better coach for the Packers. But it is not in him to be harsh and demanding and make the players hate him. You have to have someone on the staff who is a driver. If it isn't the head coach, then it has to be someone else. I think Phil should Jet one of the assistants do the job. Give him a free hand."
Lombardi does not take an active part in coaching the Packers anymore and it is unlikely that he ever will. He appears at practice for 20 or 30 minutes when he can, but he does no coaching.
"I stand on the sidelines and watch, just to let the boys know I still have my eye on them," he says. "I see them cutting their eyes at me and I know what they're thinking, but I don't say anything to them."
He also goes over game film with the coaches, but any suggestions he might have—and they are few—he gives to Bengtson privately. He has resigned himself to keeping his hands off the reins and he has contained himself with the iron self-discipline he has always preached.
Bengtson, who has been an assistant coach all of his football life until now, has taken secure control of the club. He has made few changes; the Green Bay practice lacks only the figure of Lombardi to be precisely the same as before. "That was the idea from the outset," he says. "This is a veteran team used to doing things a certain way."
He makes no effort to stimulate the players' emotions. "They are champions," he says. "I think that takes a different type of motivation. It has to come from the player himself. I think adversity causes them more trepidation than it does an ordinary player. They don't have to be told to get up for a big game."
The injuries they suffered early this season cost the Packers their old stock in trade—ball control. Instead, the other team exercised control, maintaining its drive through the weak spots in the Packer line. "A month ago Detroit picked up extra yards veering toward the end Aldridge plays when he is well," Bengtson said. "They kept the ball for all but one play in the last nine minutes and 40 seconds of the first game we played. With the defense healthy, I think we can stop that."
If Starr comes back strong the Packers could be as deadly as ever. At 34, though, Starr may be more vulnerable physically than in the past and slower to recover. In the last couple of years he has been nagged by injuries of one kind or another. Bratkowski was 37 last Sunday and is no sturdier than Starr.
Certainly there is no feeling of despair on the team; the reaction is more one of bewilderment than of dismay. Elijah Pitts, the veteran halfback who missed half of the 1967 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, says, "It seems unreal. I mean, us blowing games like this. I know we're as good as we ever were when we're all together."
Lombardi, while avoiding pep talks, did talk to the team briefly before the season, but his subject had more to do with manner than morale. Some players had come to camp in Nehru jackets, long hair and sideburns, and Lombardi took them to task. "We have spent 10 years building your image as a professional on the same level as a doctor or a lawyer," he said. "I can't tell you to cut your hair or trim your sideburns or wear conventional clothes. But you don't look like Packers in that getup."
Most of the players complied. Willie Davis, however, retained his sideburns until just before the Los Angeles game.
"Coach Lombardi told me that if I grew sideburns, it would take the strength from the scalp on top of my head and I would get a bald spot," Willie said, laughing. "But that's not why I cut off the sideburns. I want everything to be as near as possible the way it was when we were winning."
Davis and the rest of the Packer veterans have a slow fuse. It is understandable in a team that has had as much success as this one over as long a period; without the goad of a Lombardi, it is difficult for them to arouse themselves for a regular-season game.
"We have played so many big games in the last few years," Gregg said before the Detroit game Sunday. "We get up for the big ones. But if we don't start winning soon, all of the games will be big." They shook off their apathy against the Rams, albeit in a losing cause. This was a traditional Packer game, replete with thundering blocks and tackles. There was no trace of complacency. They came within a couple of minutes and that doubtful penalty call of beating a club which had won 12 straight league games going into this one. When it was over, they were angry but not disheartened.
"We can't kid ourselves anymore." Davis said afterward. "We've got to win the next game. Some games challenge your existence more than others. The Ram game was like that. So is our next game with Detroit and the Dallas game after that."
Despite Davis' declaration, the Packers did not win the Sunday game with the Lions—but they didn't lose it, either. They gave up two quick touchdowns in the first quarter, both on passes to Earl McCullouch, Detroit's brilliant rookie end, then settled down to three quarters of typical tough Green Bay football. Bratkowski threw sparingly but well. After the Lions fumbled a punt in the third period, Bratkowski hit Carroll Dale for a 14-yard touchdown. Then in the fourth quarter the Packers drove to the Detroit three, where Bratkowski was hit hard and temporarily stunned. Bart Starr came in to replace him.
The Lions, knowing Starr's arm was still hurt, closed in to shut off the run. and Starr, ignoring the pain, passed to a wide-open Boyd Dowler for the touchdown. The Green Bay defense, playing with its old agility and fire, forced another Detroit fumble and the Packers drove once more. However, young Claudis James fumbled deep in Detroit territory to kill that drive with only a minute left.
The Lions prudently settled for the tie, running out the clock while the fans booed. The Packers were not happy with the tie, but they should have been. Even though Kramer injured a knee early in the game and was replaced by rookie Bill Lueck, the Packers demonstrated that accustomed efficiency. When Lueck was unable to contain Alex Karras, the violent Detroit tackle, the flexible Packers moved Gregg from tackle to guard and solved that problem.
For most of this game, especially in the second half, the Packers looked like the old Packers. That may be bad news for the rest of the league.