I had another opportunity to talk with Zeke Bratkowski, who played backup quarterback behind Bart Starr when both played with the Green Bay Packers. Bratkowski was considered the best backup in the NFL at the time.
I talked about that dynamic in a couple of stories recently. Bratkowski brought the Packers back from a 10-0 deficit in the 1965 NFL Western Conference Championship Game after Starr was injured on the first play from scrimmage.
The Packers ended up winning 13-10 in overtime, as Bratkowski first led a game-tying drive late in the game and then the winning drive in overtime.
Bratkowski and Starr spent a lot of time together watching film and also in the quarterback meetings with head coach Vince Lombardi.
After their playing days were over, Bratkowski was an assistant coach under Starr in Green Bay for seven years.
When I read Starr’s autobiography called My Life in Football, something really caught my eye. In one of the chapters, Starr admitted he made a big error when he didn’t select quarterback Joe Montana of Notre Dame in the third round of the 1979 draft, when he was head coach and general manager of the Packers.
Starr said, “There is no question that I made a terrible mistake in passing on Joe Montana in 1979. He could play, and I knew it, and I blew it.”
When I talked to Bratkowski, I asked him if he had personally scouted Montana for Starr and if he endorsed the selection of the former Fighting Irish star to the Packers.
“Yes,” Bratkowski said. “They sent me out there because we had not looked at him at first because he eventually got drafted in the third round. Usually we were looking at the top quarterbacks in the first round.
“Bart told me to fly out there and work him out. We filmed him. Bart wanted me to check out his arm for throwing long passes. When you really check out deep pass plays like a go-route or a fly-route, the best catching area is about 43 yards downfield.
“We didn’t have anyone to catch passes from Joe except me. The film guy was doing his job and Joe was throwing the ball to me. Every pass was a perfect spiral, even on the deep throws. In my report, I said Joe was very accurate, that he has a great ball and he’s a great person.
“Joe didn’t know where he was going to end up. And there he was still available in the third round. Red Cochran, who was the area scout in that area, absolutely loved Joe. Back then, when we were thinking of taking a quarterback, the quarterbacks coach would come in the draft room and answer questions. Bart told me to go back and look at that film that we took of Joe.
“I watched the film and then came back and I still had the same feeling about Joe and told them that. I said that we had to give a lot of thought about taking him. When we took the nose tackle [Charles Johnson] instead, Red Cochran almost committed suicide.”
Just imagine if the Packers had indeed selected Montana. Yes, the Packers still had Lynn Dickey, but he was still rehabbing from a horrific broken leg which caused him to miss over two full seasons.
Both Montana and Dickey were very accurate, but Montana had the big edge in mobility. And as we know now, Montana turned out to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, as he led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl wins and was the game MVP in three of those games.
Would Montana have had the same success with the Packers? That’s very hard to say. The 49ers and the Packers had about the same type of team in 1979. Both were still in the rebuilding stage.
Montana had a excellent offensive mind to learn from in San Francisco with Bill Walsh, but he also would have learned a lot from both Starr and Bratkowski in Green Bay.
So who knows what would have happened. One thing is for sure. The selection of Montana would have certainly changed some of the history of the Packers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Starr might have been retained as head coach and could have attained the glory he had as a player with Montana leading his club.
Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre may never have been part of the organization of the Packers.
But all of this speculation became a moot point when Starr decided to select nose tackle Charles Johnson of Maryland instead of Montana of Notre Dame.
Johnson played in just 45 games with the Packers and his career in Green Bay was over after the 1983 season, just like it was with Starr, who fired after an 8-8 campaign that year.
Bottom line, this is a classic example of how the wrong decision in the NFL draft will have terrible implications for that particular franchise for the foreseeable future, as the Pack was 19 games under .500 in the 1980s and only had one playoff appearance.
On the other hand, things were 180 degrees different for the 49ers once they selected Montana, as they won four Super Bowls in that same decade.