The History Between the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns

 

Jim Brown and Willie Davis 1965 NFL title gameWhen the 6-6 Green Bay Packers take on the 0-12 Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium, this will be only the 19th time the two teams have met in the regular season. That is somewhat hard to believe, knowing that the Packers have been in the NFL since 1921 and the Browns first joined the league in 1950.

Yes, both teams have been in different conferences in the NFL up until the NFL-AFL merger and beyond, but it is still a bit surprising that the teams only have met 18 times up to this point.

It’s also a bit shocking that the two teams have only met once in the postseason as well, especially knowing how good both teams were in the 1960s. As it was, the only time the two teams met was in the 1965 NFL title game at Lambeau Field. More on that game later.

By the time the Browns came into the NFL in 1950, after first dominating the All-American Football Conference from 1946 through 1949 (four league titles), the Packers had fallen on hard times.

1950 was the year when founder and head coach Curly Lambeau left the Packers to coach the Chicago Cardinals.

The Packers had won six NFL titles (1929, 1930, 1931, 1936, 1939 and 1944) under Lambeau, but the things changed for the Packers once Don Hutson retired after the 1945 season and the All-American Football Conference was born in 1946.

That meant the Packers and the rest of the NFL were competing monetarily for draft picks and veterans with the AAFC.

That hurt the Packers financially, as did the fact that Lambeau purchased the Rockwood Lodge north of Green Bay for $25,000 for the Packers to practice at from 1946 to 1949. That purchase did not sit well with the members of the executive committee.

Nor did the team’s play, as the Packers went 3-9 in 1948 and then 2-10 in 1949.

Then the Rockwood Lodge burned down on January 24, 1950, and Lambeau ended up resigning a week later to coach the Chicago Cardinals (later the St. Louis Cardinals, the Phoenix Cardinals and now the Arizona Cardinals).

The 1950s turned out to be the worst decade in the history of the Packers, as the team was just 39-79-2.

Meanwhile, the new kid on the NFL block, the Browns, dominated the NFL for the most part in that decade. The Browns played in seven NFL title games and won three of them (1950, 1954 and 1955).

The Packers and Browns only met three times during the 1950s, and as one might expect, Cleveland dominated, winning all three times by a combined score of  92-17.

But the Browns did help the Packers quite a bit in 1959. That was when their founder and head coach Paul Brown, along with assistance from George Halas of the Chicago Bears, heartily endorsed New York Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi to become the next head coach of the Packers.

The Packers were reeling then, as the team had sunk to a 1-10-1 record in 1958 under head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean. Thanks to the efforts of super scout Jack Vainisi of the Packers, Lombardi was indeed named the new head coach and general manager of the team in 1959.

Brown wasn’t done helping the Packers either. After Lombardi assumed his dual role in Green Bay, he and Brown made a number of trades.

The first three trades happened in 1959, when Lombardi first traded star wide receiver Billy Howton to the Browns for halfback Lew Carpenter and defensive end Bill Quinlan.

In his second trade, Lombardi parted with a fourth-round pick in the 1960 NFL draft for defensive tackle Henry Jordan.

In the third trade, Lombardi traded a fifth-round pick in the 1960 NFL draft for defensive back Bob Freeman.

In 1960, Lombardi and Brown made another deal. This time Lombardi parted with end A.D. Williams for defensive end Willie Davis.

Then in 1961, Lombardi traded a third-round pick in the 1962 NFL draft for quarterback John Roach, who served as Bart Starr’s backup for a couple of seasons until Zeke Bratkowski arrived on the scene.

Bottom line, it was quite a haul for Lombardi in those trades. He was able to get two future Hall of Famers in Jordan and Davis, plus acquired a four-year starter at defensive end in Quinlan. Carpenter was also a solid reserve and special teams player for five years with the Packers.

Jim Taylor vs. Browns in 1961

Lombardi and Brown only faced off against each other one time as head coaches, which was in 1961. The Packers dominated that game, by beating the Browns 49-17 at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

The 1961 season was the first that Lombardi and his Packers brought their first NFL championship to Titletown, with some assistance from President John F. Kennedy.

Lombardi and the Packers won another NFL title in 1962, while Brown was fired by owner Art Modell after that season.

New head coach Blanton Collier led the Browns to the 1964 NFL title, but did suffer a 28-21 loss to the Packers at Milwaukee County Stadium in the regular season.

Collier and his Browns made it to the 1965 NFL title game again, this time against Lombardi and his Packers at Lambeau Field. This would be the first appearance in a NFL title game for Green Bay since 1962.

The running game of the Packers had struggled almost the entire year in 1965, as the Packers finished 10th in the NFL in rushing. Still, the Packers could not be stopped toting the rock on this snowy and muddy day on the frozen tundra against the Browns.

Paul Hornung running the power sweep

Green Bay rushed for 204 yards behind Taylor and Hornung, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs, mowing down defenders so the Packers gained big chunks of yardage on the ground.

Meanwhile, the defense of the Packers held the great Jim Brown to just 50 yards rushing.

Hornung scored the last touchdown of the game on one of those power sweeps. Kramer pulled left and first blocked the middle linebacker and then a cornerback as the “Golden Boy” found the end zone.

The 1965 season was the first of three straight NFL championships for the Packers. No team in the modern history of the NFL has ever duplicated that feat.

In 1966, the Packer won their second straight NFL title and also Super Bowl I. On their way to those achievements, the Packers beat the Browns 21-20 in the second game of the season at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in a stirring comeback.

The Browns, eager to repay the Packers after the 1965 NFL title game defeat, jumped to a 14-0 lead. But the Packers bounced back and had the ball down 20-14 late in the the game.

In the closing seconds of the game, and on fourth down, Starr hit Taylor with a nine-yard touchdown pass, as No. 31 avoided two tacklers. The result? A 21-20 victory by the Packers.

The Packers won their third straight NFL title in 1967, plus won Super Bowl II. During the regular season, the Packers played the Browns again, this time at Milwaukee County Stadium.

The game has become very memorable in Green Bay lore, due to the performance of rookie kick returner Travis Williams. Williams returned two kickoffs for touchdowns that day in the first quarter. The first was 87 yards and the second one was 85 yards. If that wasn’t enough, the “Roadrunner” rushed for 43 yards in just four carries, as the Packers blew out the Browns 55-7.

Another rookie on the Packers, quarterback Don Horn, got his first meaningful playing time that season in the fourth quarter.

Horn related a story to me about that game, which shows the class and dignity of his head coach.

“It’s late in the fourth quarter and I drove the team 50 or 60 yards to the Cleveland seven-yard line,” Horn said. “There’s two minutes to go and we were up at the time 55-7. So I’m think we are going to score. All of a sudden Forrest Gregg comes back into the game, as by then all the backups were in the game. So that was sort of odd.

“So I’m thinking to myself that Forrest brought in a play for me to run and we are going to score. But instead, Forrest grabs me and pulls me aside and says, ‘The old man told me to tell you NOT to score.’ So I ran the clock out just like Coach Lombardi wanted.

“After the game ended, Vince was one of the first guys to see me. He grabbed me and he said, ‘Donald (as he pointed over to head coach Blanton Collier of the Browns), you see that gentleman over there? 55 is bad enough. I’m not going put 62 on him. That man is a gentleman. Do you understand, son?’ And I replied, yes sir. Lombardi then says, ‘Okay. Good.’

From 1968 through 1989, the Packers only made two playoff appearances (1972 and 1982 and had one divisional title (1972), while the Browns were regulars in the postseason, with 11 appearances (1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989), won eight divisional titles (1968, 1969, 1971, 1980, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1989) and played in four conference title games (1968, 1969, 1988 and 1989).

In that period, the Packers and Browns met five times. The Packers surprisingly beat the Browns in three of those games.

Since 1989, the Browns have only made two postseason appearances (1994 and 2002), plus have seen the original franchise move to Baltimore and become the Ravens after the 1995 season.

Since 1993, the Packers have become a regular in the NFL postseason, as the team has played in 39 playoff games since that year, winning 21 of those games. Green Bay has also won two Super Bowls, one after the 1996 season, and one after the 2010 season.

The Browns have yet to play in one Super Bowl.

The Packers met the Browns in Cleveland in 1995 after Modell announced that the team was moving to Baltimore. Green Bay won that contest 31-20.

Brett vs. the Browns in 1995

The Browns got a new team in Cleveland in 1999, but except for a few bright moments like the one and only postseason appearance in 2004, the team has been one of the NFL’s worst teams since then.

In my opinion, a lot of that has come from the terrible ownership which has controlled the Browns since their new inception. Both the Lerner family and now current owner Jimmy Haslam have sunk the organization to depths that the great fans in Cleveland certainly don’t deserve.

It’s been especially brutal under Haslam’s “leadership”, as the team has gone 20-72 since he became owner in 2012, which includes this season’s mark of 0-12.

It’s also important to note that Mike Holmgren played a large role with both teams over the years.

While Holmgren coached the Packers from 1992 thorough 1998 (75-37 record), the team went to the postseason six times, won three divisional titles, played in three NFC title games and won twice and played in two Super Bowls and won once (Super Bowl XXXI).

After coaching the Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, the Browns named Holmgren as their team president in 2009. Under his guidance, the Browns did not fare very well, as the team went 19-45.

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the Browns over the past quarter century, both before the team moved and after the new team arrived, is the play at the quarterback position, not to mention the game of musical chairs the Browns have played at quarterback.

From 1992 through 1995, the Browns had seven different starting quarterbacks in that period, led by Vinny Testaverde with 31 starts and Bernie Kosar with 14 starts.

Since 1999, the Browns have had 30 different starting quarterbacks.

Compare that with the Packers, who have seen Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers get the bulk of their starts over the past 25 years. Favre started 253 straight regular season games for the Packers from 1992 through 2007.

Rodgers has started in 141 games since then. In the games when Rodgers was injured (concussion or broken collarbone) or rested, the Packers have started only four other quarterbacks (Matt Flynn, Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Brett Hundley).

The Browns overall regular season record over that time is 94-206. The Packers overall regular season record over that time is 260-151-1.

The Packers and Browns have met four times in the 21st century, with the Packers winning three of those four games.

That puts the Packers in the lead in all-time series with an 11-7 advantage.

It still seems very strange that two teams with as rich a history as both the Packers and Browns have had throughout their time in the NFL, have only met 18 times in the regular season and just once in the postseason.

The 2017 Packers are trying to get back to the postseason for the ninth straight time, while the Browns would love to just sniff the postseason at this point.

Jerry Kramer Talks About Max McGee

Max McGee in Super Bowl I

Max McGee was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 1954 NFL draft out of Tulane. McGee was like many great players on the Packers of the ’60s who arrived before Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959.

That was all due to the excellent scouting work done by Jack Vainisi. Besides McGee, Vainisi also drafted players like Dave Hanner, Bill Forester, Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Hank Gremminger, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Ron Kramer, John Symank, Dan Currie, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer.

Everyone of those players had roles on some or all of the teams that won five NFL championships (including the first two Super Bowls) in seven years under Lombardi.

As you can tell, Vainisi was the talent scout for the Packers from 1950-1960. Sadly, Vainisi died of a heart attack in 1960 at the young age of 33, just prior the championship run of the Vince Lombardi-era Packers.

But McGee and many others were around for all five of the NFL championships. No. 85 had a nice career with the Packers, as he had 345 receptions for 6,346 yards and 51 touchdowns. Four times McGee led the Packers in receptions and once he led them in scoring.

McGee also had an 18.4-yard reception average, which is the second highest per-catch average in team history.

In 1961, McGee was named to play in the Pro Bowl.

McGee also punted for the Packers for a number of years. In his career, McGee punted 256 times for 10,647 yards and had a 41.6 average.

Max was certainly a star receiver for the Packers in the Lombardi era, but through 1965-67, McGee didn’t get a lot of playing time, as the team had acquired Carroll Dale, who was opposite Boyd Dowler at receiver.

When McGee did get playing time, he was clutch.  Case in point, the 1966 postseason. Before Super Bowl I, McGee caught a 28-yard TD pass from Starr that was the difference in the 34-27 1966 NFL Championship Game win in Dallas against the Cowboys.

But Super Bowl I was where he really made his legend.

McGee didn’t expect to play, so he snuck out after curfew the night before the game. McGee couldn’t convince his roommate Hornung to go with him that night, so McGee went out on his own. Max stayed out late that evening and didn’t return until shortly before the team breakfast the next morning.

Little did he know what was going to happen that day, as he got a one-hour cat nap after breakfast. Dowler injured his shoulder early in that epic contest and McGee had to go into the game. McGee was startled as he heard Lombardi yell, “McGee! McGee! Get your ass in there.”

Max got his behind in there all right. Besides catching the first touchdown pass in Super Bowl history, McGee put up amazing stats as he ended up with seven receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns, as the Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. That adds up to a 19.7 reception average for the game.

Max McGee in Super Bowl I (II)

Then in Super Bowl II, McGee only caught one pass, but it was for 35 yards, as the Packers beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14.

In his postseason career, McGee only caught 12 passes, but four of those receptions were for touchdowns and he ended up with a 19.4 yards-per-catch average.

I had an opportunity again recently to talk with Jerry Kramer and he shared some memorable stories about McGee.

“Max was really a good athlete,” Kramer said. “He could play tennis. He could play golf. He could play whatever the hell you wanted to play. And he wanted to bet you on it too!”

In 1967, Kramer’s roommate on the Packers was kicker Don Chandler, while McGee’s roommate was backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski.

The four of them would get together to play golf quite often, with Kramer and Chandler going up against McGee and Bratkowski.

Kramer recalls one of those occasions.

“Max loved to mess with people’s minds,” Kramer said. “He would love to see if you would tighten up in clutch situations. If he could make you choke, he got a real kick out of that.

“Anyway, one day he and Zeke are taking on Don and I. On the surface, it was an uneven match, because Max was a good player and Zeke was a very good player. So, we come down to the 18th hole and we were ahead by three shots.

“Max tries to get in our heads as he was teeing off, by saying, ‘Press, press, press, press, press.’ He proceeded to knock the ball out of bounds. I probably got the biggest kick of my life after Max did that after trying to put the pressure on us. But it backfired that day for Max, so Donny and I won $75 from he and Zeke.

“I enjoyed the hell out of that. We didn’t win very often and Max and Zeke won most of the time, but that victory was special.”

Kramer also remembers that McGee was always quick with the quip to relax people, whether in the locker room or out in society.

“One time we were playing the Cleveland Browns in the preseason,” Kramer said. “Coach Lombardi would sometimes get himself in a bit of a bind when he spoke to the team, as he didn’t quite know how to end the speech or close it off.

“So Coach is talking to us before the Cleveland game and says, ‘Lot of people here tonight. Big crowd. You might get a little nervous and might even get a little afraid. Are you afraid? Anybody here afraid?’ And without missing a beat, Max goes, ‘Hell yeah, Coach. I’m afraid. I’m afraid Cleveland won’t show up.’

“That loosened the world up for us and it got Coach off the hook.”

McGee also had the penchant for loosening up people in somber circumstances. That was the case when Kramer, McGee, Fuzzy Thurston and several other Packers went to the funeral of former teammate of Ron Kostelnik in 1993. Kostelnik was just 53 years-old.

“So I’m with Max at Ron’s funeral service,” Kramer said. “There were probably 12 or 15 of us there. It was obviously very melancholy, seeing that Ron had died so young. So we go over to Fuzzy’s to have a beer afterwards.

“It’s still a bit awkward to chat under the circumstances. Finally, Max looks at me and says, ‘Kramer, the way I got it figured, you’re next!’

“That quip really loosened things up and we all relaxed a little bit.”

Kramer also remembers what happened when McGee first went into Super Bowl I when Dowler had to leave the game with a shoulder injury.

“I remember that first series very well,” Kramer said. “Max couldn’t find his helmet when Boyd was injured. So Max is looking around for it and couldn’t find it. Finally someone hands him a hat, but it was much too big for him.

“After Max come in, Bart calls a square-out play that Max runs and the pass by Bart hits Max in the helmet, as it went right through his hands. Not a great way to start for Max.

“But Max soon found his helmet, had a big game and the rest they say is history.”

One of the reasons that McGee was such a big play receiver, was his ability to make double or even triple moves on a defender.

Max McGee in Super Bowl II

Kramer talked about that dynamic.

“Max loved to think on his feet,” Kramer said. “He would see the corner or safety do this or that and he would tell Bart or Zeke. For instance, Max would go inside and make a precise move three or four times to set the guy up and then later fake that same move and go outside.

“Max just loved doing that. He thrived on mental gymnastics.”

While he was still playing with the Packers, McGee and Thurston operated a chain of restaurants for a number of years. And then after his career with the Packers was over, McGee really thrived, as he was one of the co-founders of Mexican restaurant chain Chi-Chi’s.

In addition to that, McGee was also an announcer on the Packer radio network from 1979-1998. His words helped another generation of Packer fans learn about football.

Unfortunately, McGee passed away in 2007, as he accidentally fell off his roof while blowing off leaves and tragically died at age 75.

A number of McGee’s teammates have also passed on. Besides Ron Kostelnik, others who have passed on include Henry Jordan, Lionel Aldridge, Lee Roy Caffey, Elijah Pitts, Travis Williams, Ray Nitschke, Tommy Joe Crutcher, Bob Jeter, Gale Gillingham, Don Chandler and Fuzzy Thurston.

I envision a reunion between these men right now in the spiritual world. I’m sure it’s a festive atmosphere as well, talking about the championships and all the good times. On and off the field. But like he did in real life, I am sure that Max is cracking jokes and keeping everyone loose at that particular party.

The Green Bay Packers 1958 Draft Class: Jerry Kramer vs. Ken Gray

Jerry-Ken 2

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the greatest draft class the Green Bay Packers ever had in their history.

That would be the 1958 draft class. In the first round, the Packers selected Dan Currie. In the second round, the Packers selected Jim Taylor. In the third round, they selected Ray Nitschke, and in the fourth round Jerry Kramer.

All four of those players had excellent careers in the NFL, with two of them (Taylor and Nitschke) getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In my opinion, Kramer should most definitely be in Canton as well.

Currie was named All-Pro three times and was selected to one Pro Bowl.

Taylor was named All-Pro six times and went to the Pro Bowl five times, plus was named NFL MVP in 1962.

Nitschke was named All-Pro six times and for some reason only went to one Pro Bowl. No. 66 was also MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship game against the New York Giants, as he deflected one pass for an interception and recovered two fumbles.

Kramer was first-team All-Pro five times, was also named second-team All-Pro twice and was additionally named to three Pro Bowl teams. No. 64 was also on the All-Decade team of the 1960s. Finally, Kramer was named to the NFL’s 50th Anniversary team. Kramer is the only member of that first team not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In addition to that, in the 1962 NFL title game in which Nitschke was named MVP, Kramer kicked three fields goals and an extra point in windy (40 mph gusts) and chilly Yankee Stadium, as the Packers won 16-7.

That wasn’t the only time Kramer shined under the bright lights of a championship game, as No. 64 played a big role in the Packers winning the 1965 NFL title, as well as the 1967 NFL championship.

Bottom line, that was quite a talented quartet that Jack Vainisi scouted and brought to the Packers.

currie-taylor-nitschke-kramer

Vainisi always had an eye for talent, as he was the scout for the Packers from 1950 through 1960.

In those 10 years, Vainisi picked six players for the Packers who would eventually be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Vainisi died of a heart attack in 1960 at the young age of 33, just prior the championship run of the Vince Lombardi-era Packers.

But in 1958, there was another member of the draft class who never got the opportunity to shine in Green Bay. That player was guard Ken Gray, who the Packers selected in the sixth round.

In fact, Gray was the last player cut by head coach Scooter McLean in 1958 just before the season began.

Gray ended up signing with the Chicago Cardinals shortly after the Packers released him. Gray had a great career with the Cardinals (the team moved to St. Louis in 1960) for 12 years before finishing his NFL career in 1970 with the Houston Oilers.

While he was with the Cardinals, Gray was named to six Pro Bowl squads, plus was named first-team All-Pro four times.

I had another opportunity to talk with Kramer recently and he gave me the rundown about what transpired in training camp that summer as he and Gray basically battled for one job.

Gray got a head start on Kramer, as he was already in camp for the Packers, while Kramer was in Chicago for the annual college all-star game.

“I was on the college all-star team and Otto Graham was the head coach,” Kramer said. “John Sandusky, who was one of the coaches on the team, had recently played with the Packers as an offensive tackle.

“Sandusky told me that the Packers were loaded at the guard position. He told me that I wouldn’t make that Green Bay team, but I could definitely play somewhere in the NFL.

“So I had that type of mindset when I got up to Green Bay. I was basically just waiting to be traded and my mind was certainly not on the job. Finally, Scooter McLean says to me, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? I mean, one day you look great and you work your ass off and take care of business, the next day you are looking over the fence, giggling and laughing. What the hell is going on?’

“I told Scooter that I was waiting to be traded. And Scooter goes, ‘You’re what?’ And I told him what Sandusky had told me at the college all-star game. So Scooter says, ‘I didn’t draft you to trade you. You are starting Friday night!’

That game was the second-to-last preseason game for the Packers versus the Washington Redskins.

“I played against a kid who had good size, but wasn’t real quick,” Kramer said. “I handled him pretty well and had a good game. The following week the Packers traded two guards (Al Barry and Norm Amundsen) to the Giants.

“Then the last player they cut was Kenny Gray. I knew then that I had made the team and was really excited, so I called home. So I’m telling my wife, ‘I made the final cut! I made the team!’ But right then Hawg Hanner and Jim Ringo came walking by. They hear me celebrating, plus they weren’t happy that the two guys who had been traded were pals of theirs.

Jim Ringo

“So Hawg and Jim take me out for a beer. I’m drinking a beer in a small beer glass, smaller than a usual beer glass. Meanwhile, Hawg and Jim are chewing my ass pretty good, telling me how close they were to the two guys who were traded. I’m standing there at the bar, kind of taking it with my mouth shut and nodding okay, as I’m massaging the beer glass with my left hand.

“I’m squeezing the glass letting my anger and emotions go out that way. All of a sudden the beer glass shattered and the glass flew every which way. Once Hawg and Jim saw that, they figured the ass-chewing was over and it was time to move on from that subject.”

Later on, Kramer was in downtown Green Bay at a cigar/newspaper shop getting some magazines. As he walked out of the shop, he could see Gray across the street.

“So I’m waking to the curb and Kenny sees me and yells, ‘You son of a bitch. You had a no-cut contract didn’t you?’

“And I yell back, ‘What’s a no-cut contract?’

Kramer did not have a no-cut contract and obviously McLean thought that Kramer had a better camp than Gray before making the decision about who was going to be cut.

In an article by Jennifer Fierro of The Picayune from December of 2015, Gray talks about being cut by the Packers.

“Green Bay said, later on in my career, the worst personnel mistake they made was cutting me, which made me feel really good,” Gray said. “(Ray) Scooter McLean was the head coach when I was drafted. ‘I hate to tell you this, (the coach told Gray one day), but I’m going to let you go. You’re a great prospect, and you’re going to play somewhere in this league.’ My heart went to my feet, but what could I say? They fired him at the end of the year.

“Those experiences make you a better person and better player,” he added. “You know what it is to be rejected. It makes you work hard. You’re not so cocky and sure of yourself.”

Based on the talent of both Kramer and Gray, McLean should have kept both players. They would have made quite a tandem at guard over the next decade. As it was, McLean was fired after 1-10-1 season.

Jerry and Fuzzy III

When Vince Lombardi took over in 1959, he saw that the Packers needed another guard, which is why the first trade he ever made was to acquire Fuzzy Thurston from the Baltimore Colts for Marv Matuzak.

Instead of the Kramer/Gray tandem, the Packers had a Kramer/Thurston tandem. So while Gray had a terrific career with the Cardinals, Kramer and Thurston became the best set of guards in the NFL for several years.

Thurston would tell anyone who would listen, “There are two good reasons the Packers are world champions. Jerry Kramer is one of them, and you’re looking at the other one.”

Thurston won his fair share of individual awards as well. No. 63 was named first-team All-Pro twice, plus was named second-team All-Pro three times.

In addition to that, Thurston played on six championship teams (one in Baltimore and five in Green Bay), while Kramer played on five Green Bay championship squads. Included in that were victories in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

Unfortunately for Gray, he never played in postseason game with the Cardinals in his career there.

That being said, Gray was with the Cardinals in 1964 when they played the Packers in what they called the Playoff Bowl for the second-place teams in each conference in the NFL. The game was played at the Orange Bowl in Miami, as the Cards beat the Packers 24-17.

The Packers also played in a Playoff Bowl in 1963, when the Packers beat the Browns 40-23 in Miami. But Lombardi never cared for those second-place games.

“Winning is not a sometime thing here,” Lombardi often told the team. “It’s an all-the-time thing; you don’t win once in a while. You don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. There’s no room for second place here. There’s a second-place bowl game, and it’s a hinky-dinky football game, held in a hinky-dinky town, played by hinky-dinky football players. That’s all second place is: hinky-dinky.”

That’s why Lombardi’s Packers won five NFL championships in seven years.

Meanwhile, Ken Gray could only wonder what might have been had he made the team as part of that 1958 draft class for the Packers.

Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer and the 1958 NFL Draft Class

currie-taylor-nitschke-kramer

It’s night and day when one compares the current form of the NFL draft with all the glitz and glamour to the NFL draft of 1958. Two completely different animals. The draft of today is now shown live on two cable networks, ESPN and NFL Network.

It all started when ESPN first started showing the draft live in 1980. The draft has become a monster now with various magazines, web sites and programming by entities like ESPN and NFL Network giving their takes on the college prospects and doing ever-changing mock drafts.

The NFL draft first became part of the league in 1936. There have been many variations to how the draft has been developed to the point of where has evolved today.

The last few years, we have seen the draft run on three consecutive days, with the first round on one night, the second and third rounds the next night and then the fourth through seventh rounds held on the third day.

This year, the 2017 NFL draft will take place in Philadelphia and will start on April 27 and last through April 29.

Speaking of the 2017 NFL draft, I did my initial mock draft for the Packers last week.

The NFL journey for Jerry Kramer started on December 2, 1957, when he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 1958 NFL draft.

The draft was much different then, as the NFL staggered the draft on two different dates, with the first part of the draft (Rounds 1-4) being in early December and the last part of the draft (rounds 5-30) being in late January.

Yes, you read that right. There were 30 rounds back then. But on December 2, 1957, Kramer became a Packer, as did three other very talented football players. In the first round, the Packers selected Dan Currie. In the second round, the Packers selected Jim Taylor. In the third round, they selected Ray Nitschke, and in the fourth round Kramer.

All four of those players had excellent careers in the NFL, with two of them (Taylor and Nitschke) getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In my opinion, Kramer should also be in Canton and until he is, there will be a credibility issue there.

Currie was All-Pro three times and was selected to one Pro Bowl. A knee injury really hurt the effectiveness of Currie later in his career, both with the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams.

Taylor was named All-Pro six times and to the Pro Bowl five times. Taylor led the team in rushing seven times and led the NFL in rushing in 1962. He probably would have led the league a few more times if not for the presence of the great Jim Brown in his era.

The bruising fullback also had five seasons of 1,000 yards or more, and he gained more than 100 yards in a game 26 times.

Nitschke was the face of the defense in the Vince Lombardi era. He also played in an era that had some excellent middle linebackers like Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Bill George and Joe Schmidt.

Nitschke was named All-Pro six times and was named to only one Pro Bowl squad for some ridiculous reason. Nitschke was also MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship game against the New York Giants, as he deflected one pass for an interception and recovered two fumbles.

Kramer was first-team All-Pro five times, was also named second-team All-Pro twice and was additionally named to three Pro Bowl teams. No. 64 was also on the All-Decade team of the 1960s. Finally, Kramer was named to the NFL’s 50th Anniversary team. Kramer is the only member of that first team not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kramer also kicked three fields goals in the windy (40 mph gusts) and chilly conditions at Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL Championship game. Those three field goals were the difference in the game, as the Packers beat the Giants 16-7.

Kramer is most famous for his block in the 1967 NFL Championship game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.”

jerry-leading-bart-in-the-ice-bowl

With 13 seconds remaining in the game and the Packers trailing 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys, Kramer got great leverage with his block on DT Jethro Pugh, and QB Bart Starr happily followed his right guard into NFL immortality by scoring the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak.

So, how did Kramer find out he was drafted by the Packers in 1958? “I was in class at the University of Idaho when I was drafted,” Kramer said. “I came out of class and Wayne Walker, who was my classmate and who was also drafted by the Detroit Lions, told me I was drafted by Green Bay.”

In 1958, the GM of the Packers was Verne Lewellen. However, the man who was really responsible about scouting college prospects was Jack Vainisi. Vainisi was a talent scout for the Packers from 1950-1960.

In those 10 years, Vainisi picked six players for the Packers who would eventually be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Vainisi also played a prominent role in bringing Vince Lombardi to the Packers. It was Vainisi who called Lombardi to interview for the head coaching job in Green Bay.

Sadly, Vainisi died of a heart attack in 1960 at the young age of 33, just prior the championship run of the Lombardi-era Packers.

In 1958, there was no such thing as an NFL Scouting Combine. So who did NFL clubs get information on the various college prospects?

“You were sent a questionnaire by teams,” Kramer said. “How big are you? How fast are you? What are your military obligations and so forth. Then, you never really heard back from the teams.”

As Kramer was heading to play in the East-West Shrine game, he was contacted by a Canadian Football League official who told Kramer not to sign until they could talk. Kramer still signed with the Packers, although for a very meager amount by today’s standards.

letter-to-jerry-from-jack-vainisi

“I signed with the Packers for a $250 bonus,” Kramer said. “I spent that money with Walker the weekend of the East-West Shrine game in San Francisco. But actually the $250 turned out not to be a bonus. When I got to Green Bay I found out that the $250 was an advance on the $8,000 contract I had signed.”

The journey to Green Bay was pretty interesting. “I was playing in the College All-Star game in Chicago,” Kramer said. “Up to that point I had never worked out with the Packers or had ever heard from them. Almost zero communications. The Packers sent somebody down from Green Bay to drive us back there from Chicago. There was Taylor, Currie, Nitschke, Dick Christy, Neil Habig and myself from the draft class who got a ride back to Green Bay.”

Once in Green Bay, Kramer almost played himself off the squad. “When we got to Green Bay, the head coach was Scooter McLean,” Kramer said. “I had a very dim view of making the team. John Sandusky, who was my line coach at the College All-Star game, told me I probably wouldn’t make the Packers. John had played the prior year with Green Bay.

“John told me that the Packers had five guards on the roster. He told me I could play in the NFL, but probably not with the Packers. And so I went to training camp and basically played like I was waiting to get traded. Looking over the fence at practice and having a good time.

“Finally Scooter called me to his office one day and asked, ‘What in the hell is the matter with you? One day you look great and then the next day you are looking over the fence and checking the scenery. What the hell is going on?’

“I told Scooter that I was waiting to be traded. Scooter said ‘What?’ I told him what the coach at the All-Star game had told me. Scooter told me that I wasn’t drafted to get traded and that I was going to start the next preseason game against the Washington Redskins. About 10 days later the Packers traded a couple of guards to the New York Giants.

“It finally came down to the final cut between Ken Gray (another rookie) and myself. And the Packers kept me, although Ken later played with the Cardinals and became a Pro Bowl player.”

The 1958 draft class to me is the best draft class ever drafted by the Packers. In fact, NFL Network had the 1958 class of the Packers rated as the fourth-best draft class of all-time.

Yes, the 1958 draft class of the Packers was very, very good. Just imagine how highly rated this class would be when Kramer finally receives the recognition he so richly deserves—an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The draft today is much different than the draft of 1958. That being said, I’m sure Ted Thompson would be absolutely thrilled to draft players of the caliber of the 1958 draft class of the Packers this upcoming April. Thompson actually has had a pretty good track record drafting players overall.

But the draft class of 1958 was the best ever selected by the Packers. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

The Legacy of Vince Lombardi in the NFL

Lombardi celebrates 1966 NFL title

Vince Lombardi got his first taste of the NFL, when he became an offensive assistant under Jim Lee Howell of the New York Giants in 1954. Before then, Lombardi built his coaching resume by coaching at St. Cecilia in New Jersey for eight years (five as head coach), two years at Fordham University (his alma mater) and five years at Army under legendary head coach Red Blaik.

Lombardi was basically the offensive coordinator for the Giants under Howell, as he built the offense of the G-Men around running back Frank Gifford. In the five years Lombardi was running the offense for the Giants, the team became very successful. In 1956, the Giants won the NFL title and Gifford was the NFL MVP. In Lombardi’s last year in New York, the Giants played the Baltimore Colts in the NFL title game, but lost 23-17 in sudden-death overtime.

By then, Lombardi’s coaching talent was well known throughout the NFL and he was endorsed by both Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and George Halas of the Chicago Bears for the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. A meeting between Lombardi and the Packers was arranged by Jack Vainisi, who was in charge of scouting in Green Bay, and before long, Lombardi was hired as both head coach and general manager of the Packers starting in 1959.

The Packers had finished 1-10-1 the year before Lombardi arrived in Green Bay. Plus, the 1950s as a whole had been an abysmal decade for the Packers, as the team was just 32-74-2 before Lombardi came to town in 1959.

As bad as the results were on the field, Vainisi had accumulated a lot of talent for the Packers in the NFL draft in the years prior to Lombardi’s arrival. Vainisi had drafted players like Bill Howton, Bobby Dillon, Dave Hanner, Bill Forrester, Jim Ringo, Max McGee, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Hank Gremminger, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Ron Kramer, John Symank, Dan Currie, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer.

All told, Vainisi drafted six players (Ringo, Gregg, Starr, Hornung, Taylor and Nitschke) who would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while two other players, Jerry Kramer and Dillon, certainly belong in Canton as well.

When Lombardi looked at the film of the offense of the Packers from 1958, one player in particular caught his eye. It was Hornung.

When I talked to Jerry Kramer about the arrival of Lombardi in Green Bay, he made a point of talking about why Lombardi was so enamored with Hornung.

“When you talk about Paul, you have to remember how critical he was in the decision that coach Lombardi made to come to Green Bay,” Kramer said. “If you think back, Bart Starr was methane. He was colorless, odorless, tasteless and virtually invisible. We didn’t know who Bart was then.

“Bart was competing with a few other guys like Babe Parilli, Joe Francis and Lamar McHan. Bart was back and forth the first couple of years after Lombardi became the coach.

“But I do remember Lombardi saying, ‘That Hornung was going to be his Gifford.’ And remember how critical the sweep was to the Lombardi offense.

Paul Hornung vs. the Colts

“As coach said quite often, ‘This is a play we will make go. This is a play we must make go. We will run it again and again and again.’

“So Hornung may have been the key to getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay.”

The power sweep was indeed the signature play for the Packers under Lombardi. The early success for the Packers running that play supports Kramer’s supposition. For one thing, the power sweep averaged 8.3 yards-per-carry the first three years the Packers utilized the play.

The Packers became a force in the running game during that time, as the team averaged 178 yards a game on the ground from 1959-1961. Taylor gained 2,860 yards during that time, but Hornung was the star of the offense for many reasons those first three seasons under Lombardi.

During that same time, Hornung gained 1,949 yards rushing, plus scored a whopping 28 touchdowns on the ground. No. 5 was also the kicker for the Packers and Hornung led the NFL in scoring for three consecutive years from 1959 through 1961.

Like Gifford did in 1956, Hornung won the NFL MVP in 1961, as the Packers won their first NFL title under Lombardi, as the Packers beat the Giants 37-0 in the first NFL championship game ever played in Green Bay. Hornung scored 19 points in that game just by himself.

Winning became a habit in Green Bay under Lombardi’s leadership. In Lombardi’s first year with the Packers in 1959, the team finished 7-5, which was the first winning record for the team since 1947.

The Packers went on to an 8-4 record and the Western Conference title in 1960, but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL title game 17-13. The game ended with Taylor being tackled on the Eagles’ 10-yard line by Chuck Bednarik as time ran out. That would be the only loss that Lombardi and his Packers would ever have in the postseason.

In the regular season during his tenure in Green Bay as head coach, the Packers were 89-24-4, plus won six Western Conference titles. But it was in the postseason that Lombardi and his team really shined. After that loss to the Eagles, the Packers went on to win nine straight playoff games, which included five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.

That included winning three straight NFL titles from 1965-67. No team in the modern era of the NFL has ever duplicated that.

Is there any doubt as to why the Super Bowl trophy is named after Lombardi?

After spending a year as just the general manager of the Packers in 1968, Lombardi left Green Bay to become the head coach of the Washington Redskins in 1969. The team went 7-5-2 that year, which was the first winning record for the Redskins in 14 years.

Lombardi tragically died of colon cancer in 1970, at the young age of 57. A year later, Lombardi was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There is no doubt that Lombardi was the best of the best in terms of being a football coach, but he was more than that. He was also a leader of men, both on and off the football field.

Just ask Kramer.

“Coach Lombardi had a tremendous impact on my life,” Kramer said. “The fundamentals that he taught us were fundamentals for life. They were about football, but also about business or anything else you wanted to achieve.

“You would use the Lombardi principles. He believed in paying the price. He believed in hard work and making sacrifices for the betterment of the team. His principles were preparation, commitment, consistency, discipline, character, pride, tenacity and perseverance.

“Those things are still helping me today.”

Vince and Jerry IV

Kramer also talked about Lombardi’s doctrine about life in general.

“Coach Lombardi use to share a philosophy about life with us,” Kramer said. “He said, ‘After the game is over, the stadium lights are out, the parking lot is empty, the fans have all gone home, the press has done their job and released their information, you are finally back in the quiet of your own room looking at the championship ring on the dresser. The only thing left after that was to have a standard of excellence in your life. Make sure that the world is a better place because you were in it.’

“The coach taught us to leave a positive impact on society,” Kramer said. “The world would be a much better place if we did that. That’s what I have tried to do all these years.”

Kramer then talked about Lombardi’s background which helped him achieve great success in the NFL.

“Coach Lombardi read ancient Greek and Latin, plus taught chemistry and algebra,” Kramer said. “He was a very bright man. In a lot of ways, he was more like a teacher, as opposed to a coach. He believed that he was a teacher, first and foremost. For him, teaching and coaching were one in the same.”

Yes, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was a great coach and a great teacher. But he had an additional attribute. He was also a great man. A man who molded great football players to be sure, but more importantly than that, he molded great people.

Jerry Kramer and so many other men who played under Lombardi are a testament to that.

Green Bay Packers: Remembering Scout Jack Vainisi

Vince and Jack

Vince Lombardi with Jack Vainisi

We are exactly one week away from the 2016 NFL draft. General manager Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the preparation for this year’s draft.

Per his usual routine when he speaks with the media, Thompson kept things very general about how he and his scouting staff prepare for the draft.

“We try to draft the best player available,” Thompson said. “We think it’s important to stay focused and try to take the best player. I think that from a personal standpoint. Situation about needs isn’t normally a temporary one. As long as you’re taking really good players and best players you can identify, then you’re in some respects you’re able to stay a little bit in front of the curve. There can be some of both. You can be in a position where this solves problem A on our roster, but he’s also the best player available. If you get lucky where you can address both – if it comes to one or the other, I prefer to take the best player.”

Thompson also talked about when his scouts get together to discuss the upcoming draft. Counting Eliot Wolf, who is now Director of Football Operations, there are 16 people in the scouting department.

“It’s good. It’s not always comfortable because there are disagreements where people, rightfully so, think differently. They’re paid to do so. They’re encouraged by everybody, myself included, to make sure their voices are heard. … You still want to have the passion and energy to stand on the table and say, ‘This is what we need to do, and this is the reason we need to do it,’ Thompson said.

Back in 1950s, only one voice was heard in the scouting department of the Packers. That’s because one man pretty much did all the scouting. That man’s name was Jack Vainisi.

Vainisi was the talent scout for the Packers from 1950-1960. In those 10 years, Vainisi picked six players for the Packers who would eventually be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Vainisi died of a heart attack in 1960 at the young age of 33, just prior the championship run of the Vince Lombardi-era Packers.

Vainisi did a terrific job overall in his scouting, but he had two draft classes which were certainly among the best in the history of the Packers, if not the NFL.

In 1956, Vainisi and the Packers selected two future Hall of Famers. Those players were right tackle Forrest Gregg (2nd round) and quarterback Bart Starr (17th round).

Starr won five NFL championships as a quarterback, more than any other quarterback in NFL history. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady have all won four championships, but Starr is still all alone with five titles. In addition, Starr quarterbacked the Packers to wins in the first two Super Bowls, winning MVP in each game.

Starr was also the league MVP in 1966, plus led the NFL in passing three times. Starr is probably best remembered for his thrilling quarterback sneak with 13 seconds remaining in the legendary Ice Bowl.

Bart Starr QB Sneak in Ice Bowl

Starr was named All-Pro four times and was also named to the Pro Bowl four times. Starr was 9-1 as a playoff QB. Starr also had his number retired (No. 15) by the Packers.

In his book Run To Daylight, Lombardi said, “Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached!” Gregg played 14 seasons for the Packers.

Gregg was named All-Pro nine times and was named to the Pro Bowl nine times as well.

Also in this draft, Vainisi was able to select two very solid starters in left tackle Bob Skoronski and defensive back Hank Gremminger, both of whom started for the Packers for 10 years or more.

As good as the 1956 draft class was, the 1958 class that Vainisi selected was even better.

In the first round, the Packers selected linebacker Dan Currie. In the second round, the Packers selected fullback Jim Taylor. In the third round, the Packers selected linebacker Ray Nitschke. In the fourth round, the Packers selected right guard Jerry Kramer.

All four of those players had excellent careers in the NFL, with two of them (Taylor and Nitschke) getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are many, including myself, who believe Kramer should also be in Canton based on his outstanding NFL resume.

Taylor is the second all-time rushing leader for the Packers with 8,207 yards. Taylor also scored 91 touchdowns in his career, including 19 in 1962, the year Taylor was named MVP in the NFL.

Taylor was named All-Pro six times and was also named to the Pro Bowl five times. No. 31 led the team in rushing seven times, and also led the NFL in rushing in 1962. He probably would have led the league a few more times if not for the presence of the great Jim Brown in his era.

Taylor had five seasons of 1,000 yards or more, plus gained over 100 yards in a game 26 times.

Nitschke was the face of the defense in the Lombardi era, which was then coordinated by Phil Bengtson. No. 66 also played in an era that had some excellent middle linebackers like Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Bill George and Joe Schmidt.

Nitschke was named All-Pro six times and was named to only one Pro Bowl squad for some ridiculous reason. Nitschke was also MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants, as he deflected one pass for an interception and also recovered two fumbles.

No. 66 also had his number retired by the Packers.

Currie was All-Pro three times and was selected to one Pro Bowl. Currie was later traded to the Los Angeles Rams for wide receiver Carroll Dale in 1965.

Kramer was first-team All-Pro five times and was named to three Pro Bowl teams. He was also named to the NFL’s 50th Anniversary first-team. Kramer is the ONLY member of that squad not in Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kramer also kicked three fields goals in the windy and chilly conditions at Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL Championship game. Those three field goals were the difference in the game, as the Packers beat the Giants, 16-7. No. 64 received a game ball for his efforts on that blustery day.

Jerry's game ball from 1962 NFL title game

Kramer is most famous for his classic block in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.” With 13 seconds remaining in the game and the Packers trailing 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys, Kramer got great leverage with his block on defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, and Starr happily followed his right guard into NFL immortality by scoring the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak.

Kramer related to me how he found out he was drafted by the Packers and Vainisi in 1958.

“I was in class at the University of Idaho when I was drafted,” Kramer said. “I came out of class and Wayne Walker, who was my classmate and who was also drafted by the Detroit Lions, told me I was drafted by Green Bay.”

Kramer had received a letter from Vainisi prior to the draft to let him know that the Packers were interested in his services.

Letter to Jerry from Jack Vainisi

Besides selecting  Gregg, Starr, Taylor and Nitschke who all ended up in Canton, Vainisi also selected center Jim Ringo in 1953 and halfback Paul Hornung in 1957, both of whom would join their teammates at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Vainisi also had a very nice draft in 1952, when he was able to select wide receiver Bill Howton, defensive back Bobby Dillon and defensive lineman Dave Hanner among others.

It was the great draft work by Vainisi in the 1950s, which set the foundation for all the championships which were won by the Packers in the 1960s under Lombardi.

Plus, it was Vainisi himself who played a big role in getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay in 1959. Vainisi called Lombardi, who was then an assistant coach with the Giants, to interview for the head coaching job in Green Bay.

That hiring of Lombardi led to five NFL championships in seven years, along with victories in the first two Super Bowls. The Packers also became the one and only team to win three consecutive titles (1965, 1966 and 1967) in the NFL, since the league went to a playoff system in 1933.

Unfortunately, Vainisi wasn’t around to witness the glorious legacy that Lombardi and many of the players he drafted would leave behind in Green Bay.