If you live in Green Bay, Wis. the chances are you make toilet paper and cheer for the Packers, who have lived in the National Football League longer than anyone but George Halas. Recently Packer backers have suffered lean years; after Vince Lombardi brought the team five NFL championships in seven seasons, the club fell on dolorous times.
Lombardi won his last title in 1967; under his successor, Phil Bengtson, the Packers spent the next three seasons becalmed around .500. Bengtson, a pleasant and competent coach, was dispatched at that point, and Green Bay then elected to do something that was considered downright shocking: they hired a college coach, Dan Devine of Missouri, to take over the team. That same month, January 1971, Tommy Prothro of UCLA was given the Rams' job, and subsequently Houston and Denver also hired college coaches, but until then no NFL team had gone to a major college for a head coach in 16 years. It was revolutionary.
Shortly after the Packers took on Devine they also drafted a new Alabama quarterback, hoping perhaps that they might have some of the same kind of luck that Lombardi had with his, who was named Bart Starr. Devine's Alabamian is Scott Hunter, a chunky, cheerfully confident young man who spent a good deal of time in college studying Starr on television. To complete the circle, Hunter's quarterback adviser—and Devine's newest assistant coach—is Bart Starr.
Last year Starr was still trying to come back from an arm injury, and his tentative playing status left the team confused. Hunter, an undisciplined rookie, threw 17 interceptions in 163 attempts, and the team finished last in the Central Division, winning only four games. Yet last Sunday Green Bay came into its game with Atlanta in undisputed first place, with four wins in five games, the surprise team of the year.
Notwithstanding a tremendous one-two running punch of John Brockington and MacArthur Lane, an extraordinary rookie placekicker named Chester Marcol and a suddenly solid defensive secondary, the Alabama alliance has been the prime ingredient in the Packer resurgence. Dave Hampton, the Atlanta running back who played with Green Bay last year, said before the two teams met last week, "One big reason for the improvement is having Starr on the coaching staff. The offense is more disciplined. No one knows the Green Bay system as well as Bart. With him on the sidelines, it's a source of confidence. Scott has all the tools to be a great quarterback, but now he has an extra tool in Bart."
Unfortunately, Sunday's game in Milwaukee, played on a rainy, muddy afternoon, was not a true all-round test for either team. Atlanta won 10-9 because Green Bay could not make a single touchdown in the slop, scoring all its points on Marcol field goals. Hunter, under a heavy rush, completed six of 15 passes for 108 yards, which was respectable enough under the circumstances, but his Falcon counterpart, Bob Berry, went 14 for 25 and 143 yards—and was especially effective on third-down plays.
The real hero, though, was Hampton, who paddled for 93 yards in 30 carries. Just before the season opened, Hampton was traded by Devine to the Falcons ostensibly because he fumbled too much. This dismal afternoon he fumbled not once in the 30 times he ran the ball—and he was coming back from a dislocated elbow that had kept him out of Atlanta's last game.
Overall, the Packers outrushed the Falcons by five yards and could offer no real excuses for losing. Marcol's attempt at a fourth field goal with two minutes remaining was wide to the right from the 39, and just before the first half ended he missed a chance at another, shorter, kick when the Packers could not call time-out fast enough after a long Hunter to Carroll Dale pass completion.
Atlanta's victory, which dropped the Packers into a first-place tie with Detroit, kept the Falcons just half a game behind Los Angeles—a team they clobbered 31-3—in the NFL West. It seems as if both young teams will succeed, though. "Green Bay is a team very much like the Falcons," Atlanta's George Kunz explained before the game. "Just one difference: they have to overcome an old reputation and we have to build a new one."
The teams are similar in many ways, especially in the sweeping changes in player personnel made in the last couple of years. Devine has seven new starters on offense and defense—including Malcolm Snider, an excellent offensive guard who came in the trade for Hampton—and the Falcons have fewer new faces this season only because they added 12 rookies last year. Since most of the newcomers were from small schools, it became known as the Brand X draft and, in response, the Atlanta rookies began wearing a small x on their helmets.
Both teams also feature solid running attacks. Perhaps more attention has been accorded Brockington and Lane at Green Bay, but Hampton, the first certified outside threat Atlanta has ever had, and his cohort, Art Malone, who scored the Falcon touchdown on Sunday, are the only pair of runners from a single team in the league who have each rushed for more than 400 yards. Not only that, but Joe Profit, the team's preseason rushing leader, remains on the bench or, more accurately, in Coach Norm Van Brocklin's doghouse.
Devine got Lane from St. Louis in trade for Donny Anderson, and the new man has not only given the Packers a better running attack, he has also helped young Hunter's passing game. Both Lane and Brockington are good receivers and blockers, and Claude Humphrey, the Falcon All-League defensive end, says, "The Packer running attack might be even better now than it was few years ago when they had Hornung and Taylor. Lane and Brockington block for each other so well, and they're both halfback-type fullbacks. Brockington would rather run over you than around you. He doesn't care about juking you—he makes you tackle him."
"The Packers come off the wall at you," Van Brocklin said. "We've got to pack all the pads we can for this trip."
Both the Packers and Falcons could have come into their meeting unbeaten, but for three weird plays. Atlanta lost one game on a dubious interference call and another when Bill Bell unaccountably missed a 10-yard field goal. The only Green Bay loss was the result of a fumble recovery runback that, films showed, should not have been allowed. Having faced each other now for the unofficial kiddie championship of the NFL, however, each must next contest the intradivision rival that was supposed to be the team to beat. On Sunday Minnesota goes to Green Bay and San Francisco to Atlanta. If the young home teams win those games, the balance of power will have surely shifted in the Central and West.
However, whatever happens this week, both teams have bright days ahead—and with quarterbacks nobody else thought much of. Berry was cut by Minnesota and generally dismissed as being too short of height and not long enough in his throwing potential. With Van Brocklin as his tutor, though, he has become a much respected passer and leader. "It's tough to play for Van Brocklin," Berry says, "because, with the ability he has, he expects so much from you. But I do believe that the only one who can coach a quarterback in this league is someone who has been a quarterback in this league." Hunter, like Berry, then, is obviously getting the very best education.
"Hunter was the first man I drafted on my own," Devine said the other day. He is small, dark and handsome with a wary look in his eye and an extraordinary ability to extract the best from his assistant coaches. "We were drafting right after I had taken the job, and I moved his name over from the list of players to be drafted down the line and put it up when we came to the sixth draft choice. I did it against the advice of the scouting staff."
Devine did it for good reason. His Missouri Tigers had played Alabama in the Gator Bowl in 1969 and whomped them 35-10, but Devine had been impressed by Hunter. "He had all the qualities you look for in a quarterback," Devine explains. "He was losing, but he was cool. He set up quickly and well, and he threw well. So when he was still available on the sixth round, I took him." (Starr was a 17th-round choice himself.)
Hunter, of Vigor High School, Prichard, Ala., was one of the three high school All-America quarterbacks produced by Glen Yancey. "You can throw the ball or you can't," Hunter says, "Nobody can teach you to throw. That's something you got or you ain't got. But Yancey taught me to throw high, over my head. Then I went to Alabama, and the quarterback coach there was Steve Sloan. So I was lucky again. After he got out of Alabama, Steve played at Atlanta for two, maybe three years when Norb Hecker was the head coach, and Norb, he had been coaching under Lombardi at Green Bay. So while I was playing for Coach Bryant at Alabama I was learning the Green Bay offense and how they set up and everything from Coach Sloan. By the time I got to Green Bay I already had had a complete course in the Green Bay offense."
Because Starr was hurt last year, Hunter was rushed into action. "I didn't know what I was doing," he frankly admits, "but I learned. Working with Bart was like reading an encyclopedia. Every day I turned over a new leaf and learned something different. That's still true. I guess I'II be turning over leaves for the rest of my life and never get to the end of the book. I learned a whole lot from my high school coach and from Coach Bryant and Steve Sloan, but Bart, he refined everything."
Even in his rookie year, no one ever accused Hunter of being bashful. "He's still a boy with a lot of self-confidence," says Devine, smiling. "When he came to the club he started to give the place-kickers some advice. I don't curse much, but this time I said, 'Goddamn it, Hunter, I'll coach the team. You play quarterback.' "
Hunter did play, if not exceptionally well. He had all the flaws of a rookie. "I couldn't read defenses very well," he says now. "You know, you can look at all the movies there are of someone like Lem Barney, and he doesn't look the same as he does on the field. You have to see the defenses in action before you can recognize them and know what's going to happen."
When Barney, the Lions' gambling cornerback, intercepted a Hunter pass in the Monday night game two weeks ago it was the first interception off Hunter all year—and even that one was hardly his fault. His receiver, a rookie, Leland Glass, took a few stutter steps before angling to the sideline, and Barney correctly read the stutter and cut in front for the interception.
Probably the most cogent thing Hunter is learning—from both Devine and Starr—is discipline. While he had spent hours on Sunday afternoons watching Starr set up and throw on television, he seemed more like Joe Namath when he first came up to the Packers, and even now Hunter's mind has a tendency to wander. During practice a few days before the Lions' game, Hunter apparently was not listening when Starr told him to call a certain play the Packers intended to use the first time they got the ball. Casually, Hunter trotted out to the huddle and called something altogether different. Starr, a quiet man, flared up. "You've got to listen, Scott," he said angrily.
"I'm sorry, I will," Hunter replied.
"Scott's a bright man and he has a good mind," Starr says, "and I think he's finally learning some discipline."
"I think Bear went out of his pattern with Scott," Devine says, explaining Hunter's un-Alabama-like behavior. Devine is not a disciplinarian in the sense of a Bryant—or a Lombardi. His practices are rather low key; where Lombardi ranted at his players, Devine rarely raises his voice. "That placekicking incident was an exception." Devine concludes, "Scott is a fine quarterback and I love him."
"There were a lot of things I didn't understand last year," Hunter says. He is good looking, with a face right out of a commercial and with a strong, thick body, powerful arms and swelling legs. He looks as if he should be a Jim Taylor-type fullback. "I didn't really understand the defenses. I didn't know what was going on. I guess, late in the year, I began lo pick it up, but I didn't know why. I'd drop back to throw and go to a receiver, and later, looking at the movies, I'd see that it was a zone and I threw the right way, and then I'd figure out that I had read the zone, but I didn't know I was reading it when I threw the pass."
"I never really had to work with Scott on fundamentals," Starr says. "He had all that already when he came to us. I've seen rookie quarterbacks who practically had to start from scratch. Some of them didn't even know how to set up or how to release the ball. But Scott was polished technically."
Starr, with the advice and consent of Devine, still sends in almost all of the plays. Devine's is a basic offense, too, not unlike Lombardi's. Essentially it depends upon the simple ability of one man to beat one man. Says Hunter, "You go nose-to-nose. It's just 11 men against 11 men. Dallas tried to beat everybody by fooling them for years, but they didn't win until they just butted heads. Ain't never more than one man on one man. Even in a zone defense, still, inside the zone, it's just a matter of one-on-one."
Hunter and the rest of the Packers agree that Devine, in his way, prepares the team as meticulously as Lombardi ever did, but any Packer coach must suffer in comparison with the man who was considered peerless in his profession. At places like The Stakeout, a nightclub owned by Sheriff Norb Froelich of Brown County, the customers grumbled last year about Devine's ability as the Packers fell to the cellar. Sheriff Froelich, who also plays the piano and sings, has a songbook for his customers, but up until the Packers started winning again, the favorite selection was Those Here the Days. Just in the last few weeks, however, an oldie-but-goodie has been revived and has gone back to the top of The Stakeout Hit Parade: the Green Bay Packers' fight song.