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.
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.