Yesterday, we looked at the three of the best dynasties in NFL history, and one of the very best teams on each of those dynasties that somehow fell short of winning it all. For the ’07 Patriots and ’87 49ers, shocking playoff losses as double-digit favorites were the the result of ferocious pass rush engineered by the Giants and Vikings, respectively. For the ’87 49ers and ’53 Browns, these losses were followed by back-to-back championships, signs of the talent-laden rosters these teams possessed. And for the ’53 and ’07 Patriots, all-time great seasons by all-time great quarterbacks ended with bitter disappointment.
Today? A look at yet another dynastic team that had all the talent in the world, sandwiched between its inexperienced championship teams of yesteryear and its aging veteran championship rosters of tomorrow.
Yesterday, we talked Brady/Belichick, Montana/Walsh, and Graham/Brown. Today we focus on one of the only other coach and quarterback combinations that can compare to those three. The Packers won their first title in the Vince Lombardi / Bart Starr era in 1961. The 1962 Packers may have been the greatest team in NFL history. In 1963, the Packers again led the NFL in the Simple Rating System, and ranked in the top 2 in points and points allowed. The problem for Green Bay? The Chicago Bears had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history: the Bears led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, turnovers forced, net yards per attempt allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and yards per carry allowed. Green Bay finished 11-2-1, with both losses coming to Chicago (including one game that Bart Starr missed). And, of course, in 1965, 1966, and 1967, the Packers three-peated as NFL champions. By ’68, Lombardi was gone, and the Packers Hall of Famers were largely retired or past their prime.
So what rings did the Packers miss? There are only three years from which to choose: ’60, ’63, and ’64. In 1960, Green Bay made it to the title game, but that team was the baby Packers. There were 13 all-time great players to play for the ’60s Packers, and 12 of those made it to the Hall of Fame. Here is how old each player was in ’60, ’63, and ’64.
|Player||Age 1960||Age 1963||Age 1964|
In ’60, Robinson and Adderley were still in college, Nitschke was still two years away from receiving any All-Pro recognition, and Wood was a rookie and a backup (behind Tunnell). And in 1963, the Packers had two swings at the Bears and struck out. In two games against that great defense, Green Bay committed 12 turnovers and scored 10 points. The Packers had a great team that year, but ran up against a better team. That’s not like the ’53 Browns, ’87 49ers, or ’07 Patriots. No, if there was a season that filled Lombardi with regret about a missing ring, it was 1964. Because that year, the Packers only have themselves to blame.
1964 should have been prime Lombardi Packers, more-so than the first Lombardi championship team in ’61 or the aging one in ’67. None of the Packers stars were over the hill by ’64. RT Forrest Gregg was 31-years-old but a 1st-team All-Pro (by the AP, NYDN, UPI, and NEA) that year. At quarterback, Bart Starr was 30 years old and led the NFL in passer rating for the first time in his career, while also setting a new record for lowest interception rate in a season (he went the final 11 games without throwing an interception). LDE Willie Davis was 30, but like Gregg, the AP, NYDN, UPI, and NEA all named him a 1st-team All-Pro.
As for the rest of the Green Bay stars, Robinson, Adderley, Nitschke, Wood, Kramer, Jordan, Taylor, and Hornung were all in their 20s. And while the Packers may have been minus an All-Pro center in Ringo, they were up Hornung (returning from a year-long gambling-related suspension) and LB Lee Roy Caffey (acquired from Philadelphia for Ringo). Kramer was lost for the season after two games due to an abdominal injury, but this was a Packers team with more than enough talent to win another NFL title. Boyd Dowler, Max McGee, and Ron Kramer all returned as Starr’s top weapons. So what happened?
Green Bay finished 8-5-1, which sure doesn’t sound like a “missing ring” season. But the Packers arguably fielded the top defense in the league, leading the league in yards allowed by a comical 41 yards per game. Green Bay ranked 2nd in points allowed, 3rd in ANY/A allowed, 3rd in rushing yards allowed, tied for 2nd in turnovers, and 1st in yards per play allowed. Baltimore was the only other defense to rank in the top 3 in points, yards, turnovers, and ANY/A, but the Packers had a stronger rush defense.
The Packers also had a top-3 offense that year. They didn’t have Jim Brown, but they did have their own Hall of Fame Jim. Behind Taylor, Green Bay led the NFL in rushing yards and ranked 2nd (to the Bronws) in yards per carry. And they didn’t have Johnny Unitas (who would win MVP), but they did have their their own Hall of Fame quarterback. The Packers ranked 2nd in passer rating and ANY/A behind the Colts on both counts. Green Bay, Cleveland, and Baltimore all finished in the top three in turnovers and turnovers. The Packers offense was a high-octane, run-heavy group centered around a conservative passing game, just like it usually was.
But three years before the Lombardi Packers first won a title, and three years before the Lombardi Packers last won a Super Bowl, Green Bay lost a ring due to the single worst season in placekicking history. And that’s not an exaggeration: Paul Hornung missed 26 field goals in 1964, the most in any season. He connected on fewer than one in three attempts. Adjusting for era, he missed 8.6 more field goals than expected; no other kicker has ever missed 7.0 more field goals than expected. Hornung went 3/21 on kicks between 30 and 49 yards. It was the worst place-kicking season of all time, and Hornung’s kicks were directly responsible for all six Packers non-wins.
- In week 2 against the eventual division champion Colts, Hornung missed an extra point in a game the Packers lost 21-20.
- In week 4 against the Vikings, Hornung missed an extra point in a game the Packers lost 24-23.
- In week 6 against the Colts, Hornung missed all five of his field goal attempts in a 24-21 Packers loss. Those misses were from “46, 43, 17, 32 and 47 yards. At the time, the goal posts were on the goal line. The Packers out-gained the Colts, 401 yards to 258, and held the lead late in the game. But Hornung’s final miss from the 47 was returned 36 yards and the Colts scored four plays later with just over a minute left to play.”
- In week 7 against the Rams, Hornung missed from 21 and 36 yards out; the latter was returned 94 yards by Bobby Smith for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Green Bay lost by 10 points, 27-17, in a game where Hornung’s misses cost the team 13 points.
- Following a pair of blowout wins, the Packers lost another game by 10 points in week 10, this time against the 49ers. Green Bay’s defense dominated, limiting San Francisco to just 212 yards and causing four turnovers. But Hornung missed four field goals, and the 49ers had a punt return touchdown to steal a 24-14 win.
- Finally, in the last game of the season, the Packers tied the Rams 24-24 in a game that saw Hornung go 1 for 4, including a missed 13-yarder.
Had the Packers swept the Colts, instead of being swept by the Colts, the Packers would have won the Western Division even with Hornung’s bad performances in the other games. Even concede the loss to the Vikings and 49ers and the first loss to the Rams: a tie on opening day with Baltimore, combined with the win against the Colts in week 6 and wins against the Rams would have put Green Bay at 10-3-1 and the Colts at 10-3-1, which would have set up a play-in game. The ’64 Packers had much of the same roster that would win titles in ’65, ’66, and ’67, except (with the exception of Kramer) the roster was younger and better. The Packers, had they won the Western Division, would have faced the Browns in the championship game, a team Green Bay defeated earlier in the year. Had the ’64 Packers known how to kick, there’s a good chance they would have won the NFL championship.