A thin, sour rain was falling on the Packer practice field at Green Bay, Wis., thrumming on the helmets and dripping from the noses of the former world champions. Bob Jeter, the clever cornerback, was taking his ease in a golf cart labeled "Bengtson's Bomb" and watching a series of running plays. Bart Starr, with all the patience of a tutorial Job, lobbed pitchouts to rookie Back Dave Hampton. Somehow, Hampton couldn't find the handle. After he had dropped three in a row, Jeter spoke up. "Now, Dave," he chided, "just you catch that ball befo' you start runnin' wif' it." From the defensive side of the scrimmage line, wise old (32) Ray Nitschke chimed in. "Make sure you've got it before you cut out, Davey." There was a professorial tone to Nitschke's voice that seemed at odds with his fanged and ferocious mouth and his jutting jaw. On the next pitchout Hampton caught first and ran afterward, throwing great clots of turf from his cleats as he cut and sprinted into the rainy daylight. A lesson learned, maybe.
On Sunday, when the Pack beat the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 14-7 in Milwaukee, Dave Hampton opened the second half with an 87-yard touchdown runback of a kickoff. It was the most spectacular play of the game—Hampton fielding a line drive on the dead run, exploding through a clutch of pursuers, getting hit by a tackier and spinning off into the clear, so overjoyed with it all that he threw the ball down two yards before he crossed the goal line. They gave him the TD anyway. A few seconds later Hampton dropped a pitchout and the enemy recovered the ball. A lesson unlearned, maybe. But Davey is growing, and so is the team. In a way, that plus and minus quality summarizes the hard road back for the Green Bay Packers.
The Pack isn't back yet, despite all the bumper stickers in the state of Wisconsin. But the victory over the 49ers was far more significant than it seemed. Dick Nolan's talented but uncoordinated team played better than it had in six preseason losses and a humiliating defeat by Atlanta in the season opener. In a way it was a classic Packer victory—snatched from the jaws of doom in the last seconds. In the past the inspiration for that kind of salvation came from the big man on the sidelines, St. Vincent de Brooklyn. He wasn't there this time—he hasn't been for two years—but when Cornerback Herb Adderley intercepted a John Brodie pass with 17 seconds left, his shadow seemed to fall across County Stadium.
As far as most football fans are concerned, the Packers were Vince Lombardi. Not anymore—or at least not necessarily. Green Bay now has a 2-0 mark and is leading the rough-and-tumble Central Division. The key to any understanding of the Packer resurgence lies in the dark alleys of motivation. Though Lombardi demanded, and usually got, first-rate execution from his players, there was an almost mystical quality to his leadership, an Augustinian faith—on the part of both the coach and his players—in Lombardi's ability to lift his teams above mere excellence into some higher realm. "Last year we were always waiting for the word from on high," says one Packer veteran. "It never came, although believe you me we got plenty of the old chewing. Even Phil Bengtson was catching it." Last year, as well, the Pack was probably trying too hard to prove its independence. Add to that uprightness the fact that Bengtson is hardly an inspirational coach and the 1968 Green Bay record of 6-7-1 is easily understandable. But Bengtson, like a new shoe, takes a bit of wearing before he becomes comfortable. He now fits.
Nonetheless, he still seems out of place in Lombardi's old office—a motel-modern monstrosity replete with a primitive painting of the Packers playing in the snow. But behind his tortured eyes and his quiet utterances, the 56-year-old Minnesotan (an All-America tackle under Bernie Bierman in 1934) mounts a high-class intellect. "Phil is the von Clausewitz of football defense." says one intimate. "He may come across gray and soft, but when you work with him for awhile you discover that he is as hard and neatly lined as a Prussian battle plan."
Yet Bengtson's aridity is not boring. He was always a friend to the players, if not a demigod, and he is said to have suffered as much under Lombardi's lash as anyone. Almost to a man, the players respect Bengtson for his integrity. They know that he could have refused the head-coaching post—the most difficult role-filling job since Truman succeeded Roosevelt. Indeed, Lombardi checked twice with Bengtson to make sure he wanted to risk it. After telling him once that the job was his, Vince came back a second time and asked, with great, gruff concern, "Are you sure you want the job, Phil?" Bengtson didn't hesitate. He didn't even check it out with his wife. "Maybe I was 54," he says, "but I wanted to be head coach."
It wasn't until this year—after Lombardi moved to Washington—that Bengtson could really convince his players that he understood the power game. As head coach and general manager no one could second-guess him or tug at the reins. The result has been a full-fledged taskmaster who in many ways out-Vincents Lombardi. Bengtson's "aerobic" running program sent the Packers onto the jogging road in April. Now they run hard and hot three days a week: on Tuesdays, six 440-yard sprints with a minute rest in between; on Wednesdays, seven 110s; on Thursdays seven 55s. Many of the players complain that the workouts are too tough, but Packer receivers like Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler can now run deep patterns, trot back to the huddle and run them all over again.
Bengtson is even more effective as a hard-nosed dealer in football bodies. Lombardi put a premium on experience and was suspicious of rookies. One of Bengtson's first moves this year was to trade veteran Defensive Tackle Ron Kostelnik to Baltimore and replace him with rookie Rich Moore of Villanova. At 6'6" and 270 pounds, Moore gives the Packers something they haven't had for years: a strong inside rush and penetration to complement Defensive End Willie Davis' play. "My style is to hit and slide and flow into the gaps," says Willie. "They're so conscious of Richie's giant strength that they worry about his penetration. That takes the pressure off of me." Another Bengtson move was to ship off Safety Tom Brown to Washington and replace him with Doug Hart, who has been around for six years. Hart responded by intercepting two passes in the Pack's first 1969 victory, a 17-0 rout of the Chicago Bears.
On offense, where Bengtson admits he is a bit of an amateur, the new coach has shown a similar respect for youth that thus far is paying off. Second-year Guard Bill Lueck, a big but baby-faced hitter from Arizona, is a weight lifter with a circus strongman physique—unusual for a Packer—but he delights his teammates with his quickness and strength. Gale Gillingham, the other guard, weighs 265 and is also superquick, as is Tackle Francis Peay, a castoff New York Giant who replaced the retired Bob Skoronski. Thanks to Bengtson's aerobics, Forrest Gregg, at the other tackle, is in splendid condition. In fact, he's almost a young man again.
But Bengtson's independence is most apparent in the Donny Anderson dilemma. The $600,000 running back has always looked like a fine flanker, a fact that Lombardi himself noted out loud many a time. But Vince couldn't very well afford to admit that he had paid that much money for a punter and wide receiver. Bengtson, however, recognized that the Pack is graced with an abundance of running backs. Travis Williams is out of his '68 doldrums, Jim Grabowski is reliable up the middle and invaluable as a blocker, and there's Elijah Pitts, Hampton and rookie Perry Williams in reserve. The result has been that Bengtson has predicated his game plans on sets of fresh running backs.
Against the 49ers Anderson punted beautifully and ran pass patterns from the wide slot, but never handled the ball. He complained after the Bear game that he wanted to run for "someone," but it's doubtful that any other team could pick up Donny's contract. And, after all, it wasn't Phil Bengtson who shelled out for him.
The Packers are rich with talent, but so are many teams—not the least the 49ers—yet San Francisco has never "put it all together." Bengtson makes no pretense of being a Lombardi. He is relying on self-motivation, maturity and veterans teaching rookies. "We've always had that kind of boy—that kind of man," says Bengtson, typically correcting himself as he speaks.
There are any number of "natural leaders" on the team, yet the Pack actually is led by committee. On defense Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Ray Nitschke are the leaders. All of them are aware that they are nearing the end of the line, and they want to go out on top. "I wouldn't have been back this year if I wasn't certain in my own mind that the Packers have a quota of great moments left," says Davis. Adds Wood: "I'd thought about it last season, letting it go and getting out, but I couldn't do it on the blue note. Character is very important in this game, and quitting isn't good for the character. Take a look at Forrest Gregg. There's a natural leader, the sort of man that I'd like to be—the sort of man most of us would like to be. And he came back." Touchingly enough, when Wood's high praise was relayed to Gregg, the unretired tackle was openly moved. "I'm proud," he said. "That means a lot coming from him."
The Packer leadership is not a matter of exhortation. Packers don't shout, chant, sing or carry on. Max McGee, the retired end and unretiring playboy, summed up the mood when he said, "After you've turned 30 you don't want anyone patting you on the butt and telling you to go out there and kill."
Instead, the veterans lead by example. In the 49er game example No. 1 came from Grabowski on the Pack's second (and winning) touchdown. During the 53-yard drive T. Williams carried the ball on seven straight plays, reeling off gains of three to six yards. But with a third down on the San Francisco two-yard line, Starr flipped a little swing pass to "Grabbo." Hit hard from behind by Skip Vanderbundt, Grabowski turned, drove and by an effort of will saw to it that he fell into the end zone.
Example No. 2 was Offensive Tackle Henry Jordan, who last year could scarcely stand up straight because of a bad back. During the off season Jordan went to a doctor who diagnosed his problem as rheumatoid arthritis and straightened out two kinks in Henry's spine. Against the 49ers Jordan played his traditional tough game. Example No. 3 was Boyd Dowler, starting at tight end in place of Marv Fleming, who has a bruised pectoral muscle. Dowler, big and strong for a wide receiver, took a Starr pass along the sideline, broke two tackles and tightroped for 18 yards.
Examples 4 through 10 came from the charge of Defensive Ends Lionel Aldridge and Willie Davis, who only sacked Brodie twice but disrupted his timing, forcing him to overthrow his receivers. And the ultimate example, which recapitulates the Packers of yore as well as anticipates those of the future, came from Herb Adderley. He had been outstripped time and again in footraces by Gene Washington and Clifton McNeil, but when the big play came he made it. "We'd been conscious of their outside moves all week," said Adderley. "That's what we'd practiced against. McNeil came at me, gave a shake toward the flag, then went inside and ran a simple fly. He did that twice, once incomplete and once for their only touchdown. I was talking to myself. Nothing I could do." On the last 49er play of the game, McNeil was again the target and Adderley was laying back as Brodie lobbed the pass. In a Hash Adderley atoned for his sins. That's the Packer way.
However, the Pack can come all the way back only if each player can kick the team's historical tendency to court disaster. The newfound explosiveness of T. Williams and Hampton, coupled with the old passing game, should preclude disaster. But Starr, despite going 15 for 25 against the 49ers, was often woefully inaccurate. He seemed hesitant, unwilling to wing the ball, or else he was releasing too early. "We had the chance to squash them," lamented Aldridge, "but instead we kept them alive." Maybe the Packer errors were only signs of growing pains, or maybe the transition is incomplete. As Phil Bengtson put it: "We played to keep from losing, and that's a tough way to win."