Wisconsin Badgers vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers: Three Big Prizes Await the Winner of Saturday’s Game

Jonathan Taylor vs. Minnesota II

When the 9-2 (6-2) Wisconsin Badgers take on the 10-1 (7-1) Minnesota Golden Gophers this Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium, three big awards will be at stake for the winner of the game.

For one, the winner will win the Big Ten West title and the right to play Ohio State in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on December 7.

Another honor that will go to the victorious team is the right to have possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Finally, the winner of the contest will have the series lead in a border battle that dates back to 1890 and is the longest, uninterrupted rivalry in FBS Division I college football.

The series is currently tied 60-60- 8.

The Badgers have only led in the overall series just once and that was when the Badgers beat the Gophers 31-0 at TCF Stadium in 2017.

Up until that point, Wisconsin had never led in the series. Not once in 127 years. Wisconsin can do that for just the second time with a victory on Saturday.

In terms of the Paul Bunyan Axe, that reward for winning has gone on since 1948. Wisconsin leads by a 43-25-3 margin over Minnesota over that time.

But because of Minnesota’s somewhat shocking 37-15 win over Wisconsin last year at Camp Randall Stadium, the Gophers now own the axe. But a win on Saturday afternoon will see the Badgers running across the football field to retrieve what was theirs for 14 straight years from 2004 through 2017.

Winning back the axe and taking the overall series lead are both great goals and will mean a lot. But the biggest prize will be in winning the Big Ten West.

The game will see two of the better coaches in the Big Ten going at each other for the fourth time and the third time in Big Ten play.

I’m talking about Paul Chryst of the Badgers and P.J. Fleck of the Golden Gophers.

The first time these two coaches met was in the 2017 Cotton Bowl, when the Badgers met the Western Michigan Broncos, who were coached by Fleck at the time. Western Michigan was 13-0 going into the game, while the Badgers were 10-3.

Wisconsin won the game 24-16.

Shortly after the game, Fleck accepted the head coaching position at Minnesota.

In 2017, the Gophers finished 5-7 under Fleck, and then 7-6 in 2018 which included a win against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. That bowl appearance was set up by the surprising win over the Badgers last year in Madison.

In 2019, the Gophers have turned heads in the FBS and the Big Ten with their performance thus far under Fleck. Overall as a head coach at Minnesota thus far, Fleck is 22-14 and 1-0 in bowl games.

Chryst has been the head coach at Wisconsin since 2015 and currently has an overall record of 51-14. That includes two Big Ten West titles, plus the Badgers are 4-0 in bowls under Chryst, which includes wins in the Cotton and Orange Bowls.

In addition to that, Chryst has twice been named Big Ten Coach of the Year (2016 and 2017).

Fleck is a favorite to win that award this year.

Wisconsin vs. Minnesota

All that being said about the coaches going into this game, it will be the players who will determine the outcome of this important contest.

The 10th-ranked (AP) Gophers are ranked 45th in total offense in the FBS and average just under 432 yards a game. Minnesota is ranked 42nd in rushing offense (184.5 yards per game) and 53rd in passing offense (247.1 yards per game).

Running back Rodney Smith leads the way in the running game, as he has rushed for 1,063 yards and has scored eight touchdowns. Mohamed Ibrahim (425 yards and six TDs) and Shannon Brooks (386 yards and two TDs) also get touches toting the rock.

When running the wildcat formation, the Gophers utilize Seth Green to handle the snaps. Green has rushed for 88 yards and five touchdowns.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan is sixth in the FBS in passing efficiency and is having a great season. Morgan has thrown 26 touchdown passes versus just five interceptions for 2,679 yards.

The two main weapons that Morgan utilizes are wide receiver’s Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Johnson (66-1,025-10), while Bateman (51-1,023-10) receptions almost mirror each other in production.

Minnesota will be facing another fine defense from Wisconsin put together by defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

The 12th-ranked (AP) Badgers are seventh in the FBS in total defense and have allowed just over 268 yards per game. Wisconsin is also eighth in scoring defense, as they give us just a tad over 14 points per game.

The defense is once again led by the talented linebacker corp that Leonhard always seems to put together. Chris Orr is tied for fifth in the FBS with 11 sacks, while Zack Baun is tied for 14th with 9.5 sacks.

Orr leads the Badgers in total tackles with 64 and is followed by fellow linebacker Jack Sanborn with 57. Baun is next with 53 tackles.

The Badgers are ninth in the FBS in rushing defense and their opponents average 98.5 yards per game. Wisconsin is also sixth in passing defense and have allowed an average of just under 170 yards per game.

The Badgers have 10 interceptions and two of those have been returned for touchdowns. Safety Eric Burrell leads the way with three picks, plus has 39 tackles. Sanborn also has two interceptions.

In terms of offense, Wisconsin is ranked 37th in total offense (just over 441 yards per game) in the FBS, which includes being ranked 14th in rushing offense (just over 250 yards per game) and ranked 101st in passing offense (just over 191 yards per game).

The offense is led by running back Jonathan Taylor, who is second in the FBS with 1,685 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.

Taylor has 5,856 yards rushing is his three-year career at Wisconsin so far and has 47 career rushing touchdowns. That is tops all time in NCAA history in terms of rushing yardage in just three years of play.

Taylor is second all time in terms of yards rushing in Big Ten history and Wisconsin history.

The only running back in front of him in both cases is Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy with the Badgers in 1999 and had 7,125 yards rushing in his career.

Jonathan Taylor vs. Minnesota

By the way, in two games versus the Gophers, Taylor has rushed for 269 yards and a touchdown.

When No. 23 needs a break from the action, Nakia Watson (321 yards rushing and two TDs) normally takes over on rushing downs, while Garrett Groshek (176 yards rushing and two TDs) comes in during passing situations.

The Badgers also utilize the jet sweep quite often and receivers like Kendric Pryor (136 yards rushing), Aron Cruickshank (122 yards rushing), Danny Davis III (86 yards rushing) and A.J. Taylor (34 yards rushing) have all been used in that role.

In addition, the Badgers have been using the wildcat at times recently when running the ball. Last week against Purdue, both Cruickshank and Groshek handled the snaps in that formation and Cruickshank scored on a 27-yard jaunt against the Boilers using the wildcat.

When throwing the football, quarterback Jack Coan has been very efficient for the most part. In fact, Coan is ranked 14th in the FBS in passing efficiency. Coan has thrown 15 touchdown passes versus just four picks for 2,029 yards.

Coan likes to throw to his backs, and both Taylor (20-164-4) and Groshek (24-191) have been very effective in that role.

When looking down the field, Coan’s favorite targets are wide receiver Quintez Cephus (40-606-5) and tight end Jake Ferguson (26-310-2).

Coan also utilizes (A.J.) Taylor (21-257-2), Pryor (18-252) and Davis III (25-195-1).

The Badgers will be facing a Minnesota squad which is ranked 10th in the FBS in total defense and gives up just a tad over 300 yards per game. The Gophers are tied for 27th in scoring defense, as they allow an average of 21 points per game.

Linebacker Carter Coughlin (4.5) and defensive lineman Sam Renner (4) lead the Gophers in sacks.

The key player for Minnesota on defense is defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., as he leads the team in tackles with 76, plus has seven interceptions. No. 11 also has three sacks.

In a big game like this, special teams play is very important. Cruickshank of the Badgers is 10th in the FBS in kick returns, as he averages 28.4 yards per return and has taken one to the house.

Jack Dunn of Wisconsin is 25th in the FBS in punt returns with a nine yard return average.

No one from Minnesota is in the top 50 in either one of those statistical categories.

Wisconsin is also 4th in kick return defense, while Minnesota is ranked 57th. The Gophers are ranked 2nd in punt return defense however, while the Badgers are ranked 67th.

In terms of blocked punts, the Badgers have one so far in 2019, while the Gophers have yet to block one.

Collin Larsh of Wisconsin is 10-of-15 in field goal attempts, while Zach Hintze of the Badgers nailed a 62-yard field goal last week against Purdue.

Michael Lantz of the Gophers is 6-of-9 in field goal attempts.

Anthony Lotti of the Badgers has 40.2 punting average, while Jacob Herbers of the Gophers has a 38.1 punting average.

Badgers celebrate with Paul Bunyans's Axe

The bottom line is that Saturday’s game should be one hell of a game between these two rivals.

As I mentioned earlier, three big items are on the line.

– The Big Ten West title

– Paul Bunyan’s Axe

– The overall series lead which dates back to 1890

One things is for sure. A member of the rodent family will be winning the Big Ten West.

Will it be a Badger or a Gopher?

Will Chryst be going back the the Big Ten title game for the third time with a chance to win his first Big Ten Title?

Or will Fleck be leading the Gophers to their first ever Big Ten title game?

We will find out Saturday in Minneapolis.

Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers: A Historical Perspective

Bart vs. 49ers

The Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers first started playing each other in 1950, when the two teams met at old City Stadium. The Packers beat the Niners 25-21 on that late November day, with 13,196 in attendance.

1950 was the year that Curly Lambeau left Green Bay to coach the Chicago Cardinals and Gene Ronzani was the new head coach of the Pack. It was also the first year that the 49ers started play in the NFL, after four years in All-American Football Conference.

The head coach of the 49ers then was Buck Shaw. When the two teams played for the very first time, neither team was very good, as both teams finished 3-9 that season.

Throughout the years leading into the encounter on Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium when the 8-2 Packers face the 9-1 49ers, Green Bay leads the regular season series by a 32-27-1 margin.

The two teams have also met seven times in the postseason in some very memorable games. The Packers lead that series four games to three.

Back to the 1950s now. The Niners pretty much dominated the Packers that decade, at least until Vince Lombardi arrived in 1959. San Francisco won 13-of-16 games between 1950 through 1958.

The 49ers were one of the better teams in the NFL in the 1950s, while the Packers were among the worst. In fact, the Packers were just 39-79-2 in the 1950s, which is the worst decade that the team has ever had in it’s history.

But things started to change with the arrival of Lombardi in 1959. The Packers beat the 49ers twice in 1959 and during the Lombardi tenure through 1967, Green Bay was 13-3-1 versus San Francisco.

It was during that time when the Packers won five NFL titles in seven years, which included the first two Super Bowls.

One of the more memorable games during that period occurred in 1960 at Kezar Stadium on a rainy and muddy day, as the Packers won 13-0. All the points scored in that game were put on the board by Paul Hornung, as he scored on a 28-yard touchdown run, kicked an extra point, plus kicked two field goals.

The Green Bay ground game was almost unstoppable behind the pulling guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, as Hornung rushed for 86 yards, while fullback Jimmy Taylor gashed the 49ers for 161 more yards.

Fuzzy and Jerry in the Mud Bowl at Kexar in 1960

Kramer listed two San Francisco defensive tackles among the top five he ever faced in his NFL career. They were Leo Nomellini and Charlie Krueger.

In 1968, the year in which Lombardi was just general manager only and Phil Bengtson was the head coach, the Packers suffered their most painful defeat of the season against the 49ers at Kezar Stadium and the loss basically ended any postseason aspirations for the team.

The Packers had a 20-7 lead going into the fourth quarter of that game, but because of injuries to both Bart Starr and Zeke Bratkowski, the Packers were forced to turn to rookie quarterback Billy Stevens, who had to be the next man up, as Don Horn was still going through his military duties with the Army then at that point of that season.

The 49ers, behind quarterback John Brodie, roared back to score 20 unanswered points and beat the Packers 27-20, as Stevens did not even complete a pass against the 49er defense, nor the gusty winds of Kezar.

After that game and over the next decade, the series between the two teams was pretty much a push more or less, with the 49ers holding a four to three edge through the 1977 season.

However, a monumental decision that affected both franchises occurred during the 1979 NFL draft. Starr was now the head coach of the Packers, while Bill Walsh was the new head coach for the Niners.

Before the draft, both Bratkowski, who was then the quarterbacks/offensive backs coach under Starr and scout Red Cochran strongly advocated the the Packers select quarterback Joe Montana of Notre Dame in the draft if they had the opportunity.

That opportunity came in the third round of that draft, when the Packers had the 15th pick of that round and the 71st overall pick of the draft. Again, both Bratkowski and Cochran pushed for the Packers to take Montana with the pick then, but Starr (who was also GM) decided to take nose tackle Charles Johnson of Maryland with the pick.

The 49ers, who had the last pick in the third round, quickly snatched up Montana and the rest they say, is history.

In the 1980s, the Packers were 19 games under .500 and had just one postseason appearance, while it was 180 degrees different for the 49ers once they selected Montana, as they won four Super Bowls in that same decade.

The 49ers continued to be Super Bowl contenders into the 1990s, as Steve Young took the reins over from Montana starting in the 1992 season.

The man who had coached both Montana and Young as a quarterbacks coach and as an offensive coordinator in San Francisco, Mike Holmgren became the new head coach of the Packers when he was hired by general manager Ron Wolf.

Wolf made two other key acquisitions for the Packers in that period. First, Wolf traded a first round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for quarterback Brett Favre. Plus, Wolf also added defensive end Reggie White in free agency prior to the 1993 season.

That led to a great rivalry with Niners that decade, especially in the postseason. In the regular season, the teams only played four times in the decade, with the Packers winning three of those games.

That would be an apropos number, as Green Bay and San Francisco also met four times in the postseason in the 1990s, with the Packers once again winning three of those games.

In the 1995 postseason, in the NFC Divisional playoff round, the Packers upset the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers 27-17 at Candlestick Park, as Favre was phenomenal.

No. 4 threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns, plus had a 132.9 passer rating in the game.

That led to another postseason game after the 1996 season, but this time the Packers had the home field advantage at muddy Lambeau Field. Favre was solid once again with a 107.4 passer rating in the game, but it was the type of day for a good ground game and the Packers rushed for 139 yards in the game.

But the real difference maker in the game was the punt returning ability of Desmond Howard, who returned two punts for 117 yards, which included a 71-yard return for  a score, as the Packers won 35-14.

Desmond Howard vs. 49ers

The Packers would go on to win Super Bowl XXXI.

In the 1997 season, the top two seeds in the NFC were the 49ers and the Packers, with the No. 1 seed being San Francisco. That meant that the Niners would host the Packers for the NFC title game at Candlestick Park.

Favre continued his solid play against the 49ers and he threw for 222 yards and a score and had a 98.1 passer rating in the game. But the ground game became a big weapon in the game for the Packers just like the previous postseason game, and halfback Dorsey Levens would rush for 114 yards and a score, as the Packers won 23-10.

However, the Packers would end up losing 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos two weeks later.

The Packers and 49ers would play for the fourth consecutive time in the 1998 postseason, which turned out to be the last game Holmgren would coach for the Packers. Coaching the 49ers was Holmgren’s former quarterbacks coach with the Packers, Steve Mariucci.

Unlike the three previous postseason games against the 49ers, Favre did not have his “A” game, as he threw two interceptions to go with his two touchdown passes. No. 4 threw for 292 yards and had a 79.7 passer rating.

Still, that should have been enough to win, as Favre threw a late touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman to give the Packers a 27-23 lead with just 1:56 left on the clock.

In the ensuing drive, Jerry Rice fumbled the ball after a catch that by today’s replay rules would have been ruled a fumble, but back then the officials ruled that Rice was down before he fumbled.

That led to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Young to Terrell Owens with just seconds remaining in the game. Owens caught the ball in a crowd after have many other drops during the course of the game, as the 49ers won 30-27.

That game was also the last game White, the “Minister of Defense”, would ever play for the Packers.

After that game, the Packers went on to dominate the series between the two teams for over a decade.

Through 2010, the Packers won eight straight games against the Niners, including another postseason game at Lambeau Field in the 2001 postseason. Favre once again had a better than average day against San Francisco, as he threw for 269 yards and had two touchown passes versus one pick. No. 4’s passer rating for the game was 112.6, as the Packers won 25-15.

Mariucci was still the head coach of the 49ers at the time, while Mike Sherman was now the head coach of the Packers.

In his career, Favre was 8-1 against the 49ers in the regular season, while throwing 14 touchdown passes versus 10 picks for 2,246 yards.

Sherman was fired after the 2005 season and general manager Ted Thompson made the offensive coordinator of the 49ers, Mike McCarthy, his new head coach in 2006.

That set up an interesting situation for McCarthy in Green Bay. First, he had to get Favre back to the way he used to play under Holmgren, plus he had to develop Aaron Rodgers to become a starting quarterback after the Favre era ended.

What made the second part of that dynamic very interesting was that McCarthy (then offensive coordinator for the 49ers) had told Rodgers prior to the 2005 NFL draft that the 49ers were going to pick the former Cal Bear with the first pick of the draft.

That didn’t happen and Rodgers never forgot that he was shunned by the team he grew up rooting for in Chico, California. Thompson and the Packers then happily selected Rodgers with the 24th pick of the first round of that draft.

After Favre left after the 2007 season, Rodgers became the starting quarterback and faced the 49ers once in the 2009 regular season and once in the 2010 regular season. The Packers won both of those games played at Lambeau Field.

Like Favre, Rodgers has played well against the 49ers in the regular season, as he is 4-2 lifetime going into Sunday night’s game. In those six games, No. 12 has thrown 13 touchdown passes to just two picks for 1,927 yards. His passer rating sits at 105.1.

Aaron vs. the 49ers

However, in the postseason, Rodgers is 0-2 against the 49ers. That being said, Rodgers has played well enough to win for sure, but in both losses, the defense was the main cause for the defeat.

In those two games, when Green Bay was outscored by a combined 68-51 margin, Rodgers threw three touchdown passes versus one interception for 434 yards. No. 12’s passer rating was a cumulative 94.7.

But the Packers could not stop Colin Kaepernick in those two playoff games,  as he had a combined 444 yards (263 yards passing with two touchdown passes and 181 yards rushing with two scores) in the 45-31 win in the 2012 postseason game, while he also dominated the 2013 postseason game with 227 yards passing (one touchdown) and 98 yards rushing.

Since those postseason losses, the Packers and 49ers have faced each other  twice. Once in 2015 at Levi’s Stadium when the Packers won 17-3 and also last season, when Rodgers brought the Packers back in a thrilling 33-30 win at Lambeau Field.

Since 2017, the 49ers have had Kyle Shanahan as their head coach. The Niners won six out of their last seven games in 2017 to finish 6-10.

Part of the reason for the 49ers late success in the 2017 season was the acquisition of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots midway through the season.

In 2018, Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the year and the 49ers only won four games.

Things have definitely turned around for San Francisco in 2019, with the Niners now 9-1. Garoppolo is a big reason why, as he has thrown 18 touchdown passes versus 10 interceptions for 2,478 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 97.7.

Like the 49ers, the Packers did not play up to expectations in 2017 and 2018 and had a combined 13-18-1 record. That led to the dismissal of McCarthy. General manager Brian Gutekunst, who replaced Thompson in 2018, along with President and CEO Mark Murphy, hired Matt LaFleur to become the new head coach of the Packers in January of 2019.

The hiring of LaFleur looks to be an excellent one, as the Packers are currently 8-2 heading into Sunday night’s game and lead the NFC North.

Shanahan and LaFleur have worked together in three locations in the NFL, Houston, Washington and Atlanta, so they are very familiar with each other and they run basically the same offense.

In terms of Sunday night’s game, the 49ers have the big edge in team stats. The Niners are fifth in the NFL in total offense, while the Packers are 17th. San Francisco is second in the NFL in rushing, as they average 149 yards a game on the ground. Meanwhile, the Packers are 25th in the NFL in rushing defense.

The 49ers are also second in the NFL in total defense, while the Packers are ranked near the bottom of the league at No. 28.

Based on team stats, Sunday night’s game looks to be a blowout by the Niners over the Packers.

That being said, I believe Mr. Rodgers will have a great game in his old neighborhood (even against the second-ranked passing defense in the NFL), plus I also believe the running game with both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams will be effective as well.

The Packers have to protect Rodgers well, as the Niners are tied for first in the NFL with 39 sacks. Arik Armstead has eight of those sacks, while Nick Bosa has seven.

The Packers have 25 sacks, which is tied for 15th in the NFL. The Smith “brothers”, Preston and Za’Darius, have combined for 18.5 of those sacks.

I also see the Green Bay “bend but don’t break” defense making some big plays in this game.

This game could come down to kicking and the Packers appear to have the edge there. Mason Crosby is 13-of-14 in field goals this year, while Robbie Gould of the 49ers has missed the last couple of game due to a quad injury and may not play in Sunday night’s game. If not, rookie Chase McLaughlin would be the kicker. McLaughlin is 4-of-5 in field goals, but did have a huge miss in overtime against Seattle a couple weeks back.

Both the Niners and Packers have two of the better punters in the NFC, as Mitch Wishnowsky has a net average of 42.1 per punt, while J.K. Scott has a 41. 9 net average.

The game on Sunday night has “classic” written all over it, as two of the better franchises in NFL history meet. The Packers have won 13 NFL titles and four Super Bowls, while the 49ers have won five Super Bowls.

Bottom line, even though the team stats say the 49ers should win handily, I like the Packers to go out to Santa Clara and win a close game against the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Remembering Zeke Bratkowski: A Gracious, Kind and Cordial Gentleman

Zeke and Coach Lombardi in Baltimore

Next to the hundreds of conversations that I have had over the years with Jerry Kramer, the former Green Bay Packer who I talked to the most was Zeke Bratkowski.

Like Jerry, Zeke always had time for me. He was never short with me and was always very nice. Zeke was the epitome of being a gracious, kind and cordial gentleman. And also like Jerry, our conversations would run close to an hour.

We talked about a number of subjects and not just football either, seeing as we both called Florida home and the hurricane season can get interesting.

In terms of football, we talked about Bratkowski growing up in Illinois, being an All-American at Georgia, being drafted by the Chicago Bears and being coached by George Halas, being in the Air Force with Max McGee when his NFL career was interrupted for a couple of years, being traded to the Los Angeles Rams, being signed as a free agent by the Packers in 1963 and being the best backup quarterback in the NFL behind starter Bart Starr under the tutelage of head coach Vince Lombardi.

The relationship with Starr led to a life-long friendship. That over 50-year bond often saw the two of them and their wives getting together for the rest of their lives.

Zeke passed away yesterday at the age of 88, less than six months after his good buddy Bart passed on.

I can see Starr and Bratkowski on the spiritual practice field now with their former teammates like Henry Jordan, Ron Kostelnik, Dave “Hawg” Hanner, Lionel Aldridge, Ray Nitschke, Lee Roy Caffey, Dan Currie, Jesse Whittenton and Hank Gremminger facing them on defense.

On offense they are marching down the field with the likes of McGee, Ron Kramer, Jim Ringo, Fuzzy Thurston, Forrest Gregg, Gale Gillingham, Bob Skoronski, Elijah Pitts, Travis Williams and Jim Taylor.

I also see both Bart and Zeke holding for Don Chandler while he attempts extra points and field goals.

And yes, the whole time Coach Lombardi will be shouting out his emphatic verbiage for the players as the practice takes place.

After practice, Max and Fuzzy will be cracking jokes in the locker room, as per usual.

Finally, I see both Bart and Zeke in the quarterback’s meeting room with Coach Lombardi as they study the next opponent for the Packers. That was always an enlightening and enjoyable time.

Yes, Zeke and I talked about his former teammates who passed on, especially his best friend Bart, as well as his Air Force and golfing buddy Max.

We also talked about the two icons he played under in the NFL, Coach Halas and Coach Lombardi.

When it came to the Packers of recent years, Zeke definitely followed the team. We talked about Aaron Rodgers, Brett Hundley, Mike McCarthy, Matt LaFleur, Ted Thompson, Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy.

Zeke and Bart

We also talked about the time he was an assistant coach under Starr in 1979 and the team came very close to drafting Joe Montana.

Zeke loved being a Packer, both as a player and a coach. He certainly appreciated the magnificent fan base known as Packer Nation.

When he backed up Starr, he led the Packers to a number of wins after No. 15 was injured. Nothing was more important than the victory he led the Packers to in the 1965 NFL Western Conference title game.

That was when No. 12 brought Green Bay back from a 10-0 deficit to the Baltimore Colts at Lambeau Field, as the Packers won 13-10 in overtime.

Bratkowski only started three games under Lombardi in Green Bay and was 2-1 in those three games.

But in 1966, the year Starr was named NFL MVP, Bratkowski came in to relieve an injured Starr to beat da Bears and Halas at Lambeau and also to beat the Colts in Baltimore to win the Western Conference title.

Zeke and the O-Line in Baltimore

Bratkowski was honored for his play with the Packers by being inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1989.

Yes, I’m going to miss talking to Zeke. I still will talk with Jerry and with Don Horn and Boyd Dowler, who I also have friendships with. The one thing I know from talking to guys like Zeke, Jerry, Don, Boyd and others like Willie Davis, Dave Robinson, Chuck Mercein, Donny Anderson, Jim Grabowski, Carroll Dale, Doug Hart and Bob Hyland, is that their demeanor certainly stemmed from their time with Coach Lombardi.

He taught them to be the best they could be on the field, as well as the best they could be off the field.

Coach Lombardi would be proud of every one of those gentlemen and what they all accomplished.

But most of all, he would be proud of how well they treat other people.

IMAG0611

Nobody is a better example in that regard than Zeke Bratkowski.

God bless you, Zeke. Rest in peace, my friend.

Green Bay Packers: Why Cecil Isbell Deserves Consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Cecil Isbell Football Card

When I was growing up in the 1960s in Milwaukee, the discussion at the dinner table at our home would almost always be about sports. My dad would give me history lessons on the teams in the state, the Milwaukee Braves, the Wisconsin Badgers and the Green Bay Packers.

Now we also talked about the current teams, as I was a big fan of players like Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn of the Braves, Pat Richter and Ron Vander Kelen of the Badgers, plus Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler, Willie Davis, Herb Adderley, Jerry Kramer and many others on the Packers.

The Packers received most of the attention at the kitchen table, as there were in the midst of dominating the 1960s like no other team in NFL history had ever done before.

Dad loved telling me about the Packers he grew up watching. He told me stories about Curly Lambeau and all the players who played under him like Lavvie Dilweg, Clark Hinkle, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Cal Hubbard, Verne Lewellen, Arnie Herber, Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell.

Just like I was spoiled watching the Packers win five NFL titles in seven years in the 1960s, which included the first two Super Bowls under head coach Vince Lombardi, my dad saw the Packers win six NFL championships under Lambeau by the time he was 18 years-old, while he was serving his country in the Pacific with the Navy in World War II.

When dad talked about the Lambeau Packers, he almost always told me some Don Hutson stories and the men who threw to No. 14, Herber and Isbell.

Hutson and Herber are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Isbell is not. In fact, Isbell is the only NFL All-Decade quarterback (1930s) not in Canton.

To me, the only reason is because his career was so short. Still, the NFL recognized how prolific Isbell was in throwing the football with him just playing two years in the 1930s, that he was named on that All-Decade team at quarterback along with Herber and Earl “Dutch” Clark of the Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions.

The reason why Herber and Isbell got so much attention at quarterback was because of the record-breaking productivity of Hutson at wide receiver. To illustrate that, Hutson led the league in receiving eight times.

Some of that production came when Herber was the quarterback, but a lot of it came from when Isbell played QB.

In fact, for five years, between 1938 and 1942, Isbell would throw half the passes, for half the yardage and half the touchdowns Hutson would have during his 11-year career.

And to put a spotlight on it, Hutson’s two highest reception totals, two of his three highest yardage totals and three of his four highest touchdown totals all came when No. 17 was throwing him the football.

One of my dad’s biggest thrills was being at the 1939 NFL title game at State Fair Park in West Allis (suburb of Milwaukee) with his own dad, when the Packers hosted the New York Giants.

Both Herber and Isbell played quarterback for the Packers in that game and each threw a touchdown pass. Isbell had a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the game. Isbell also rushed for 27 yards.

Cecil Isbell in the 1939 NFL title game at State Fair Park

Cecil Isbell carries the ball for the Packers in the 1939 NFL title game.

My dad and grandpa, along with 32,277 other fans, saw the Packers defeat the G-Men 27-0.

Remember that Isbell made the NFL All-Decade team of the 1930s, even though he was a rookie in 1938 and only played two years in that decade. Why was that? For one thing, he helped lead the Packers into two straight NFL title games at the beginning of his career. Also, it was his record-breaking production at quarterback, as he was throwing the ball more effectively than anyone who had ever played the position.

Plus he seemed to get better each year he played. Over the five years he played in the NFL, Isbell threw 61 touchdown passes versus 52 interceptions for 5,945 yards. That added up to a passer rating of 72.6.

By today’s standards, that doesn’t look like much, but in the 1930s and ’40s in the NFL, that was outstanding.

As an example, let’s compare the numbers of Isbell to those of Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins in his first five years in the NFL. Baugh’s rookie year was in 1937, so this lines up very well in comparison to Isbell.

Baugh threw 41 touchdown passes in his first five years in the NFL (compared to Isbell’s 61), while he also threw 63 picks (compared to Isbell’s 52). That put Slingin’ Sammy’s passer rating at 57.7 his first five years in the league.

In Isbell’s last two years with the Packers, he threw 39 of his career 61 touchdown passes. 27 of those touchdown tosses went to Hutson.

The 24 touchdown passes that Isbell threw in 1942 was a Green Bay record that stood for 41 years with the Packers until Lynn Dickey threw 32 TD passes in 1983.

As Ron Borges noted in his piece on Isbell in the Talk of Fame Network, Isbell played out of this world the last two years of his NFL career.

In 1941, the average NFL quarterback accounted for 6.122 points per game. Isbell accounted for 12 (121 points in 10 games), which put his production 98.99 percent above the norm.

The following season, his last, was even more remarkable. That’s the year he threw a then-record 24 touchdown passes. That season he was 117 percent above the league norm in points accounted for by a quarterback and 62 percent better than the great Sammy Baugh, who passed for 497 fewer yards and eight fewer touchdowns than Isbell that season.

Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell

Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell

After the 1942 season, Isbell retired at the age of 27 to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, Purdue. Isbell made more money at Purdue as a coach than he did in Green Bay as a player with the Packers.

Why was that? Isbell explained it best.

“I hadn’t been up in Green Bay long when I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like Herber and (Milt) Ganterbein and (Hank) Bruder that they were all done with the Packers,” Isbell said. “I sat there and watched, and then I vowed it never would happen to me. I’d quit before they came around to tell me.’’

Bottom line, Isbell was as good or better than any quarterback who played in his era. As good or better than Herber, Baugh or Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears.

The Packers certainly recognized that when Isbell was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1972.

When Ken Stabler was finally and rightfully inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, that meant that Isbell is the only NFL All-Decade quarterback not in Canton.

That needs to change at some point.

Green Bay Packers: Why Verne Lewellen Deserves Consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Verne Lewellen

Shortly after Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers finally received his rightful due, which was his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a reader asked Packers Team Historian Cliff Christl on packers.com who was the best deserving player from the Packers not in Canton.

Christl did not name Lavvie Dilweg, Bobby Dillon, Boyd Dowler, Ron Kramer or Gale Gillingham. Instead, he named Verne Lewellen. In fact, Christl took it one step further and said that Lewellen deserved to be in the discussion of being the best player on the Packers ever.

Lewellen played his college ball at Nebraska, where he led the Cornhuskers to a 14-7 win over Knute Rockne and Notre Dame in 1923.

In 1924, Lewellen joined the Packers and played with Green Bay through 1932, except for three games in 1927, when the Packers lent him to the New York Yankees for three games at the end of that season.

This is part of what Christl said about why he thought so highly about Lewellen.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1963, 31 years after Lewellen retired, and even by then the game had changed to such a degree I don’t believe most of those involved in the selection process comprehended Lewellen’s value to the Packers. To be honest, as much time as I’ve spent researching his career, I still find it difficult to fully grasp what the game was like when he played. For example, I recently saw a pre-snap picture from an early 1920s game where the ball was placed so close to the sideline, there wasn’t enough room to the right of it for three offensive players to squeeze onto the field of play.

But here’s what I’ve gathered from Lewellen’s paper trail.

He played nine seasons from 1924-32 and was arguably the Packers’ most valuable player during that period. When the Packers won three straight championships from 1929-31, if the Associated Press had voted for a league MVP at the time, I think Lewellen might have won it in both 1929 and ’30.

I know those are strong statements, but I base them on three things. One was what I’ve learned from reading countless newspapers during Lewellen’s era, particularly game coverage in the Green Bay, Milwaukee, New York and Chicago dailies, where he was often credited with being the difference in many of the Packers’ biggest victories. Two was what his contemporaries said about him. A third consideration was correspondence I found in the Ralph Wilson Research Center in Canton, suggesting Dick McCann, the hall’s first director, was scrambling to get more information on Green Bay’s players before the first vote. What’s more, Art Rooney and George Halas were the two consultants the hall leaned most heavily on in those early years. Halas knew Lewellen as well as anyone. But I have my doubts if Rooney ever saw Lewellen play. He became an NFL owner in 1933, the year after Lewellen retired. Previously, there was no NFL team in Pittsburgh and there was no television. So where would Rooney have watched him?

Something else that hurts Lewellen is that he played in the NFL’s pre-stats era, from 1920-31. Thus, there are no official statistics to confirm his impact other than that he scored more touchdowns than any other player in the league during that period. Unofficially, he also is among the leaders in rushing, receiving and passing, and once led the league in interceptions.

But Lewellen’s greatest contribution was as a punter when that probably was the most important role in the game. From everything I’ve read, he was in a class by himself when teams punted as much on first, second and third downs, as fourth down, because of the importance of field position. Keep in mind, in the days of limited substitution, punting was one of a back’s most important responsibilities.

Obviously, Christl has done an abundance of homework on researching the play of Lewellen when he was with the Packers.

That being said, as good as Lewellen was for the Packers in the 1920s, he was not named to the NFL All-Decade team, as was Dilweg. And based on what Christl has found out about the stellar play of Lewellen during the 1920s, I find that very puzzling.

The 6’1″, 180-pound Lewellen was considered a back (63 starts at halfback and four starts at quarterback) in his era and as Christl notes, was the finest punter in the league.

Lewellen was named First-Team All-Pro four times when he was with the Packers.

Verne Lewellen II

And even with statistics being hard to unearth during the era in which he played, Lewellen had scored 307 points when he retired, which was the most in the NFL at the time.

The 50 touchdowns that Lewellen scored wasn’t broken until Don Hutson passed that amount in 1941.

Plus, during the league’s first 15 seasons, from 1920 to 1934, Lewellen also unofficially ranked sixth in receiving yards and 12th in passing yards, although he was never the Packers’ featured passer.

As Christl notes, Lewellen was the best of the best in terms of punting, which was a huge part of the game when the NFL was basically a “three yards and a cloud of dust” league.

Over the course of Lewellen’s nine-year career, NFL teams averaged fewer than 10 points a game. Being able to punt effectively was very important component of the game.

According to unofficial and incomplete statistics listed in The Football Encyclopedia, published in 1994, Lewellen was definitely the NFL’s most outstanding punter of the pre-statistical era with 681 punts for a 39.5-yard average.

Christl isn’t the only person who believes Lewellen should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When he was named as part of the inaugural class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, along with Curly Lambeau, Cal Hubbard and Don Hutson, Johnny “Blood” McNally said this:

“Verne Lewellen should have been in there in front of me and (Cal) Hubbard.”

After more than 20 years after he stopped playing, Lewellen became general manager of the of the Packers from 1954 through 1958. After Vince Lombardi replaced him in that role in 1959, Lewellen became business manager and held the post until he retired in January 1967. Previously, Lewellen served on the Packers’ executive committee and board of directors from 1950 until he became GM.

Lewellen was put in the Packers Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1967.

When the 25-person “blue ribbon” committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame meets shortly after Thanksgiving to whittle away the over 200 senior candidates down to 20 about possibly being named to the Class of 2020 in Canton, you can be assured that Lewellen’s impact in the era he played in the NFL will be talked about and debated and perhaps he will be included in that group of 20.

That group of 20 seniors will be discussed by the 25-person “blue ribbon” committee after the New Year and will be taken down to 10. Those 10 seniors will automatically be inducted into the Hall of Fame without a vote from the 48-person selection committee on Super Bowl Saturday, which has been the practice in the past. But 2020 is a special year for the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as they will celebrate the league’s centennial year.