When Vince Lombardi was head coach of the Green Bay Packers, the running game was extremely efficient. In fact, in the nine years Lombardi coached the Packers, Green Bay was in the top five in rushing the football in the NFL seven times.
In the approximately 50 years since Lombardi last coached the Packers, being in the top five in rushing in the NFL has rarely happened for Green Bay. In fact, it’s only happened twice.
Once in 1971, when Green Bay was fourth in rushing in the NFL, led by John Brockington and also in 2003, when the Packers were third in rushing in the league, led by Ahman Green.
Now there have been some good rushing teams in Green Bay during that time span and the Packers have been in the top 10 in rushing seven times (1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 2003, 2004 and 2013), but for the most part it’s been the passing game which has been the key staple for the Packers offensively.
Especially over the past quarter of a century when Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have been under center.
But it was different when Lombardi was head coach.
In 1958, the year before Lombardi came to Green Bay, the Packers were 10th in the NFL in running the football. The team finished 1-10-1 that season under coach Ray “Scooter” McLean.
A number of talented players were on that team, which won only won game in 1958—players like Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg, Jerry Kramer, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung.
The focus of the team offensively changed when Lombardi came to town. The Packers would live or die on offense with a play called the power sweep, which Lombardi had successfully used in New York with the Giants when he ran their offense.
In one of my many talks with Kramer, he mentioned up why he thought taking the Green Bay job was so attractive to Lombardi. It had to do with the power sweep and also a player named Paul Hornung.
“Hornung was the reason I believe Coach Lombardi came to Green Bay,” Kramer said. “Bart [Starr] was an unknown then. There were three or four guys trying to become the quarterback then, and we didn’t know who the hell the quarterback was going to be.
“But we did know who Mr. Hornung was. And Coach Lombardi said many times, ‘That the power sweep was the number one play in our offense. We will make it go. We must make it go. And Hornung is going to be my [Frank] Gifford.’
“Hornung was the key with all that. To me, it seemed like Hornung was probably more instrumental in what Coach Lombardi had envisioned for his offense than who his quarterback was. So I think Hornung was the number one reason why Coach Lombardi came to Green Bay.”
The running game did become the focal point of the offense under Lombardi. And the power sweep was the big reason why.
In 1959, the Packers improved to finish third in the NFL in rushing. From 1960 to 1964, the Packers were ranked either first (three times) or second (twice) in the league in that category.
In fact, the running game became so dominant for the Packers in those years that Hornung was the NFL MVP in 1961, and Taylor earned that same honor a year later.
Some of you may ask, what is exactly is the power sweep? It’s an offensive play in which the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, who will then attempt to run the ball to one side of the offensive line.
The primary ingredient which makes a power sweep unique is that the offensive line will have a number of players who might pull as blockers, as well as using the other running back as a lead blocker. The guards are the key, as they sometimes will get an opportunity to make second or third-level blocks against their defensive opponents so the back can gain more yardage.
The team leaned on Starr and the passing game more in 1965 and 1966 (Starr was the NFL MVP), as the running game was not as effective in those two seasons, but the Packers did finish second in the NFL in rushing in 1967.
And that says a lot. Both Hornung and Taylor were now gone from Green Bay. Both starting running backs, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, were lost for the season in the eighth game of the season.
The team still stayed strong in the running game that season behind players like Donny Anderson, Ben Wilson, Chuck Mercein and Travis Williams.
Kramer also talked about what needed to happen to make the power sweep successful:
“If Forrest [Gregg] hit that defensive end with a forearm, he would occupy him for the running back who was going to block him,” Kramer said. “Then Forrest would have a really good shot at getting the middle linebacker.
“Then if [Jim] Ringo could make that onside cutoff block on the tackle, then it was a stronger play. And Ringo was very good at the onside cutoff.
“So it was a much stronger play starting with those two blocks. Those were critical blocks. They had to be made properly or the play never got out of it’s tracks.”
Kramer then talked about what it was like blocking for a players such as Hornung or Pitts on that particular play as it broke outside:
“Hornung had such wonderful instincts,” Kramer said. “Elijah would sometimes run past me. It took Pitts around two years to learn to stay behind me so the play would be more successful.
“Hornung knew that the first time he ran it. He was just more instinctive. He wasn’t as fast as Elijah, but he knew exactly where everything was, and he could see the field very well.
“He could set you up, Bob. He knew the precise instance that the defender had to make a commitment, and then Paul would either step inside or outside and set the player up and go the other way. He was just sensational in doing that on a consistent basis.”
The power sweep became a very successful play for the Packers to run. And this comment from Kramer should tell you why:
“Bobby, in the first three years we ran that play, we averaged I believe 8.3 yards a carry.”
Which brings me to ask once again why Kramer is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The power sweep played a large part in the success of players like Ringo, Gregg, Taylor and Hornung. All of whom have busts in Canton now.
In essence, the power sweep was the signature play for the Packers under Lombardi.
The signature moment under Lombardi which cemented his legacy, was Starr’s quarterback sneak in the 1967 NFL title game at Lambeau Field, better known as the “Ice Bowl” game.
Starr scored behind arguably the greatest block in NFL history, as Kramer made a textbook block on defensive tackle Jethro Pugh of the Dallas Cowboys, as Starr tumbled into the end zone with the game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left in the game.
So in both the signature play and the signature moment of the Lombardi Packers, Kramer played a key role in their successful outcomes.
But Kramer still waits for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That fact totally baffles me. No. 64 was an AP first-team All-Pro five times and also named to three Pro Bowls. He was also on the NFL All-Decade for the 1960s.
Kramer would have received even more honors if not for injuries and illness.
Kramer missed half of the 1961 season when he broke his ankle in a game versus the Minnesota Vikings at Milwaukee County Stadium.
Kramer missed almost all of the 1964 season and was hampered in the early part of the 1965 season, as he went through nine operations to resolve an intestinal issue.
Jerry was also a member of the NFL’s 50th anniversary team in 1969 and the only guard named to that squad. Unbelievably, Kramer is the only member of that first team still not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Kramer also played very well in NFL title games. The Packers won five NFL championships in seven years under Lombardi, which included the first two Super Bowls. Kramer played a huge role in the victories in three of those championships.
The 1962 NFL championship game was played at blustery Yankee Stadium versus the Giants, which also had 40 mph winds gusting around the storied stadium that day. Green Bay won that hard-fought battle 16-7. The difference in the game was three field goals.
The three field goals were kicked by Kramer, who doubled as a right guard and a kicker on that very frigid day.
The 1965 NFL title game at Lambeau Field featured the Packer one-two punch of Taylor and Hornung versus the great Jimmy Brown of the Browns. Brown gained just 50 yards in his last ever game in the NFL, while Hornung ran for 105 yards and Taylor 96 in muddy conditions.
The power sweep of the Packers totally dominated the Browns’ defense, as Kramer and left guard Fuzzy Thurston kept knocking down linebackers and defensive backs leading the way for the Packer backs.
One play in particular stands out: Hornung’s last ever NFL championship touchdown. Kramer pulled on a left power sweep and first blocked the middle linebacker, then a defensive back, as the “Golden Boy” found the end zone.
I previously mentioned the “Ice Bowl” game. Let me set up the ending for you.
The Packers had to drive 68 yards with only 4:50 remaining under arctic conditions, trailing the Cowboys 17-14. The playing surface that day was truly a frozen tundra, as the game time temperature was 13 below zero.
In 31 plays prior to that final drive, the Packers had been held to minus-9 in yardage. It didn’t look too promising for the Packers at that point. But Green Bay somehow persevered on a 11-play drive which put the ball near the goal line of Dallas.
It came down to 13 seconds to go with no timeouts at the 1-yard line of the Cowboys. If the Packers run the ball and are stopped short, the game is over.
Starr called a 31 wedge play on the 12th play of the drive in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, Starr decided to keep the ball because of the slippery and icy conditions near the goal line. Starr followed Kramer’s classic block on Pugh, and he found an opening behind No. 64 to get into the end zone with the winning touchdown.
It was Kramer’s study habits watching film that made that play successful. That play was called earlier in the week when the team was studying the defensive tendencies of the Cowboys. Kramer actually suggested the play to Lombardi.
“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films,” Kramer said. “I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’
In a 1969 article in the Chicago Tribune, Lombardi said this about Kramer:
“Jerry Kramer is the best guard in the league,” Lombardi said. “Some say the best in the history of the game.”
Bottom line, Kramer should have been inducted into Canton decades ago. He was a finalist nine times between 1974 and 1988. The last time he was nominated by the Seniors Selection Committee was 1997.
That was 20 years ago. That time lapse is just as troubling as Kramer not being enshrined with so many of his teammates and peers in the 1970s and 1980s. And those Hall of Fame players know that Kramer belongs in Canton among the best of the best.
The biggest endorsement that Kramer ever received was from Merlin Olsen, who many feel was the best defensive tackle in NFL history. Kramer and Olsen had many a battle in the trenches over the years.
Olsen went to 14 Pro Bowls, which is the all-time NFL record shared by Bruce Matthews, the uncle of Clay Matthews of the Packers.
Olsen was named AP All-Pro nine times in his career as well and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
In his endorsement of Kramer to the Hall, Olsen says:
“There is no question in my mind that Jerry Kramer has Hall of Fame credentials. Respect is given grudgingly in the trenches of the NFL and Jerry has earned my respect as we battled eye to eye in the pits on so many long afternoons.
“Jerry Kramer belongs in the Hall of Fame and I hope you will put this process in motion by including his name on the ballot for this coming year.”
This August, the seniors committee needs to do the right thing and nominate Kramer as one of the two senior nominees.
Then on the Saturday before Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, Kramer can finally get what he rightfully deserves, which is induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the entire 48-member selection committee.
Then Kramer can get a knock on his hotel door by David Baker, who is the President/Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And these will be the words that Kramer will hear from Baker:
“Jerry, it is my great pleasure to tell you that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.”