Green Bay Packers: Phil Bengtson, the Forgotten Man

Phil Bengtson

Everyone who knows the history of the NFL and the history of the Green Bay Packers, know that under head coach Vince Lombardi, the Packers won five NFL titles in seven years, including three in a row from 1965 through 1967, plus were victorious in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

There were many reasons for that achievement, notably the presence of Lombardi himself, who now has the Super Bowl trophy named after him and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.  The players were very talented as well, as 13 Lombardi era Packers were also inducted into the Hall of Fame, most recently Jerry Kramer.

There are a few more players that probably should be inducted into the Hall as well.  Boyd Dowler, Ron Kramer, Gale Gillingham, Fuzzy Thurston and Don Chandler come to mind.

But there is a coach that rarely gets mentioned, probably because he was the one that took over for Lombardi in 1968 as head coach.

That man is Phil Bengtson.  Most people recall that Bengtson had a 20-21-1 record in his three years as head coach.  Bengtson was also general manager in 1969 and1970 after Lombardi left.

There were reasons for Bengtson‘s head coaching record, but let us take a look first at his record as the de facto defensive coordinator from 1959 through 1967, although he never held that title.

When we look at the Packers in the Vince era, Lombardi ran the offense and Bengtson ran the defense.  Of the 13 Lombardi era Packers that made it to the Hall of Fame, seven were on the defense.  They were middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, defensive end Willie Davis, safety Willie Wood, defensive tackle Henry Jordan, outside linebacker Dave Robinson and safety Emlen Tunnell, who spent most of his career in New York as a Giant, but was with the Pack from 1959 through 1961.

There is no question that the Packers had the best defense in the NFL during that era.  The Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns all had outstanding defenses as well in that period, but no defense was more consistently good than the Packers.

Bengtson was able to plug in players and make them very effective when other players moved on.  Early in the Lombardi era, Bengtson had folks like defensive tackle Dave “Hawg” Hanner, defensive end Bill Quinlan, outside linebacker Dan Currie, outside linebacker Bill Forrester, cornerback Hank Gremminger, cornerback Jesse Whittenton, safety Johnny Symak and Tunnell as starters for periods of time.

Phil with Vince and others

All were very productive.  But over time those players were replaced by players such as defensive tackle Ron Kostelnik, defensive end Lionel Aldridge, outside linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, safety Tom Brown, defensive back Doug Hart, cornerback Bob Jeter, as well as Adderley and Robinson.  The excellence continued.

In the Bengtson era on defense under Lombardi, the Packers were always in the top 10 ranking, including being in the top 5 seven times and were ranked No. 1 twice.  That is quite a résumé, especially when you add the five NFL titles and the two Super Bowl wins.

But a lot of fans think of Bengtson as a head coach only, after Lombardi resigned as head coach in 1968, and stuck around one year as general manager before heading to Washington to become head coach and general manager there for the Redskins in 1969.

If one looks at the 1968 season, Bengtson was hamstrung by a team that was aging, some key injuries, some bad luck and a very poor kicking game as the team had a 6-7-1 record.

In 1968, the Packers had a lot of starters that were over the age of 30.  Quarterback Bart Starr had the second best passer rating of his career at 104.3 in 1968, but he was only able to start nine games because of injuries, most notably a shoulder injury.

The team lost several very close games in 1968, including five by a touchdown or less. Most of those losses came from a very inconsistent and ineffective kicking game.  Chandler retired after the 1967 season and his successors, Mike Mercer (7-of-12), Chuck Mercein (2-of-5), Erroll Mann (0-of-3) and Kramer (4-of-9) were a combined 13-of-29 in terms of successful field goals.  The Packers also missed three extra points that year.

The Minnesota Vikings won the NFL Central in 1968 with an 8-6 record.  The Packers had a chance to repeat again, as Bengtson had his defense ranked No. 3, but the other shortcomings doomed the team to their record.  Bengtson deserved better.

In 1969, the Packers finished 8-6, as Bengtson once again had his defense ranked high at No. 4.  But the Vikings ran away with the NFL Central title on their way to Super Bowl IV vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, the team the Packers beat 35-10 in Super Bowl I.  The Chiefs fared better this time beating the Vikings 23-7.

Starr once again only started nine games because of injury issues in 1969.  The main problem for the Packers once again was their paltry kicking game as the Packers were 6-of-22 in field goal attempts.  Bottom line, just like 1968, with a better kicking game, who knows how the Packers would have finished in 1969.

Backup quarterback Don Horn flashed that season, as he was 4-1 as a starter and ended the season in magnificent fashion, as he threw five touchdowns passes against the St. Louis Cardinals in the last game of the season at Lambeau Field, plus threw for 410 yards.

The wheels sort of fell off in 1970 though, as aging process of the roster was in full bloom and new players were being plugged in.  Starr was a shadow of his former self with a passer rating of 63.9.  Once again the kicking game was mediocre at best, as the Packers were only 15-of-28 in field goals.

Even the vaunted Packer defense failed Bengtson, as the Packers finished 16th in total defense, in the first year of the NFL/AFL merger.  Bengtson resigned in December of 1970 and was replaced by Dan Devine in 1971.

Phil and Vince

Bengtson received his proper due in 1985, as he was named to the Packer Hall of Fame.  Still, Bengtson deserves more recognition for all that he did for those great Packer teams of the 1960’s.

But the very large shadow of Lombardi somewhat concealed Bengtson‘s very successful tenure as the defensive guru of the Packers.  But Lombardi himself knew how important Bengtson was to the Packers.

That is why he named his loyal lieutenant Bengtson as his successor.

If the Pro Football Hall of Fame ever adds a wing where they honor assistant coaches or coordinators, Bengtson would definitely have the track record to get into Canton.

Bottom line, Bengtson is forgotten by some when people reminisce about the legendary success of the Packers of the 1960’s.  But he shouldn’t be.

2 thoughts on “Green Bay Packers: Phil Bengtson, the Forgotten Man

  1. Pingback: The Primary Reason Jerry Kramer Retired 50 Years Ago | Bob Fox

  2. Pingback: Only One Player from the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers on the NFL 100 All-Time Team? Really??? | Bob Fox

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