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.
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.
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.