Better (44 years) late than never

The Professional Football Hall of Fame has righted a wrong which has existed for more than 40 years.

Jerry Kramer, the legendary right guard on the Green Bay Packer teams coached by Vince Lombardi, is finally earning his bronze bust in Canton.

WHAT TOOK THE HALL OF FAME SO LONG?

Kramer was one of the best guards who has ever played the game, past or present. He and Fuzzy Thurston led the Green Bay sweep, the single most feared offensive play of the 1960s. There are few playbook diagrams in football lore which are more recognizable than the sweep. When you say sweep in a football contest, Lombardi’s Packers should always come up first.

Anyone who grew up watching football in that era, who has caught up by watching NFL Films like I have, can picture Kramer (#64) and Thurston (#63) leading Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor around the flanks of some of the NFL’s best defensive units assembled, including Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters, the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, the Cowboys’ Doomsday, and some defenses without names but led by Hall of Famers, like those of the Colts (Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan), Lions (Joe Schmidt), Bears (Dick Butkus) and Giants (Sam Huff).

How powerful was the Green Bay sweep? Tom Landry, the genius who led the Cowboys for 29 seasons (1960-88), developed the Flex defense to combat it. In that alignment, the left end and the right tackle–in the Cowboys’ case, Bob Lilly–off the line of scrimmage in order to better ready the play instead of getting caught in the mess that is the line of scrimmage. Lilly ran the Flex to perfection and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1980. Lilly, in my opinion, is the greatest defensive tackle to ever play the game. He is the sine qua non for the position, now and until the end of time–or at least the end of my time on earh.

Kramer was drafted by Lombardi’s predecessor, Scooter McLean, in the fourth round of the 1958 draft out of Idaho. Kramer grew up in Sandpoint in the Idaho panhandle, and with the University of Idaho right there in Moscow, it made sense.

When Lombardi arrived from the Giants in 1959, he installed Kramer at right guard, where he stood between two men who have already earned their busts in Canton, center Jim Ringo and right tackle Forrest Gregg. The Packers went 7-5 in 1959, their first winning season since 1946, and in 1960, Green Bay won the Western Division at 8-4, spurred by Hornung’s then-NFL record 176 points–in 12 games–a record which stood until LaDanian Tomlinson broke it during a 16-game schedule in 2006.

The 1960 Packers lost a thrilling 17-13 decision to the Eagles in the NFL championship game in Philadelphia, with Jim Taylor tackled inside the Eagles’ 10 on the game’s final play by Chuck Bednarik, who played every snap of the game at center and linebacker. Bednarik was a no doubt first ballot Hall of Famer in 1968.

In 1961, the Packers won their first NFL championship since 1944, destroying the Giants of Huff and Y.A. Tittle 37-0 in the title game at what was then known as City Stadium (renamed Lambeau Field in 1965). As good as the 1961 Packers were, going 11-3, the 1962 Packers were even better.

How good was Lombardi’s fourth squad? So good to be considered one of the greatest teams ever to take the field in the NFL>

Green Bay outscored its opponents 415-148 in 1962. It destroyed the Eagles 49-0 in Philadelphia, holding ridiculous advantages in total yardage (628 to 54) and first downs (37 to 3). Jim Taylor won the NFL rushing championship and was named the Associated Press’ most valuable player. It marked the only time during the nine-year career of Jim Brown (1957-65) that he did not lead the league in rushing.

The Packers’ lone defeat was a 26-14 setback in Detroit on Thanksgiving, a loss which may have steeled Green Bay’s resolve for the stretch drive.

In the championship game, the Packers and Giants met again, this time in Yankee Stadium. The temperature at kickoff was 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-8 Celsius), and the winds were gusting as high as 45 miles per hour (70 kilometers per hour), dropping the wind chill to minus-18 (minus-28 Celsius). Some Packers insisted the conditions in the Bronx that day were more brutal than a certain game in Green Bay five years later, one which will come up later in this post.

The star of the NFL championship game? Jerry Kramer. Not only did Kramer and his line mates help Taylor gain 85 yards against the rugged Giants defense, but #64 kicked three field goals, which were the difference in the 16-7 Packer victory. Kramer was pressed into emergency duty at kicker after Hornung was unable to kick due to leg injuries.

Hornung was suspended for the 1963 season after it was discovered he and two Lions, Alex Karras and John Gordy, were betting on NFL games. The Packers went 11-2-1, but the two losses were to the Bears, who went on to defeat the Giants for the NFL championship.

Kramer was a first team All-Pro in 1963, the third time in four years he earned the honor. He only missed out in 1961 due to missing six games with an ankle injury which required surgery. Gregg moved over from right tackle to right guard and earned All-Pro honors in Kramer’s stead.

It got worse for the Packers, and specifically Kramer, in 1964. While Hornung returned to the fold, Green Bay slumped to 8-5-1, and Kramer missed all but two games with severe internal injuries which required a colostomy. The injuries were, in fact, life-threatening, and some believed Kramer had passed away due to erroneous radio reports which had him confused with an ex-Packer.

Kramer and the Pack were back in 1965, defeating the Colts in an epic overtime playoff to determine the Western Division champion. Green Bay defeated Cleveland 23-12 at a muddy Lambeau Field for the NFL championship, with the iconic play of the game coming when Kramer and Thurson escorted Hornung on the sweep to the game’s final touchdown. It turned out to be Jim Brown’s last football game; he retired in July 1966 to pursue a movie career in a contract dispute with Browns owner Art Modell.

(Brown knew Modell was a snake oil salesman from the start. Too bad most in Cleveland didn’t learn that until 1995 when Modell took the Browns to Baltimore.)

Kramer was a first team All-Pro again in 1966, helping Green Bay go 12-2 and win its fourth NFL championship, a stirring 34-27 win over the Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl. The Packers clinched the victory on the game’s final play, when future Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson pressured Don Meredith into throwing a wounded duck which was intercepted in the back of the end zone by Tom Brown.

The victory gave the Packers the privilege of playing in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, where they would meet the Kansas City Chiefs. The buildup to the game was so intense that Lombardi reportedly drove his team harder than he ever had prior to a game. The other NFL owners, led by Modell, Wellington Mara and Carroll Rosenbloom, kept wiring Lombardi messages how important it was that the established league dominate their upstart counterparts, even though the AFL-NFL merger had been hammered out by Tex Schramm, Lamar Hunt and Rozelle in June 1966.

The Packers’ second touchdown was on a sweep, with Taylor following Kramer and Thurston to paydirt. The Chiefs were within 14-10 at halftime, but the Packers dominated the final 30 minutes and went on to win 35-10.

The 1967 Packers struggled during the regular season, but their 9-4-1 record was enough to win the weak Central Division over the Lions, Bears and Vikings. In the Western Conference championship game, Green Bay yielded an early touchdown to the Rams, but rolled from there, winning 28-7 at Milwaukee against a team which it lost to two weeks earlier in Los Angeles.

The Cowboys destroyed the Browns to win the Eastern Conference, setting up a rematch for the NFL championship, this time in Green Bay.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, the Packers, Cowboys and more than 62,000 other residents of Green Bay awoke to a Wisconsin version of Siberia.

In a span of 18 hours, the mercury had plunged from 25 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-4 Celsius) to minus-16 Fahrenheit (minus-27 Celsius). The wind was howling out of the northwest at 25-30 miles per hour (40-48 kilometers per hour), creating a wind chill of minus-36 Fahrenheit (minus-38 Celsius).

Unlike baseball, football is played in all kinds of weather, so the game kicked off as scheduled at 1:05 p.m. Central. By then, the mercury had risen all the way to minus-13 (minus-27).

The Cowboys looked like they would be blown out of Green Bay in the first 17 minutes, falling behind 14-0. However, the Packers got sloppy, allowing Dallas to narrow the deficit to 14-10 by halftime.

Through the first 25 minutes of the second half, the 1967 Packers bore a striking resemblance to the teams which would represent Green Bay for the next 24 seasons: bumbling and ineffective. The Cowboys had only one big play in that time, but it went for a touchdown on a 50-yard halfback option pass from Dan Reeves to Lance Rentzel.

With just under five minutes left, Green Bay took over at its own 32-yard line following a punt.

What followed was one of the most memorable drives in NFL history.

The Packers found they could move the ball with short passes in front of the Dallas secondary, which was playing especially deep, fearing a big pass from Starr to clutch receiver Boyd Dowler, who caught a long touchdown pass in the second quarter. Starr took full advantage, using two running backs to devastating effect.

The running backs were not Hornung, who retired after being selected in the 1967 expansion draft by the Saints, and Taylor, a Louisiana native who was traded to the Saints that summer. Instead, it was Donny Anderson, the Packers’ first round draft choice in 1966, and Chuck Mercein, whom Lombardi claimed off the scrap heap after he was waived by Giants coach Allie Sherman.

A 19-yard pass from Starr to Mercein brought the ball into the red zone, and on the next play, Mercein almost scored when he took a trap to the Cowboy 1. The play, called 65 Give, saw left guard Gale Gillingham, who replaced Thurston in the starting lineup in 1967, pull right, and Lilly followed him instead of staying home. With left tackle Bob Skoronski sealing off Cowboy end George Andrie, who scored Dallas’ first touchdown when he returned a Starr fumble 9 yards, Mercein had daylight. Only a tackle by Cowboy cornerback Mike Johnson saved the touchdown.

Johnson’s tackle almost saved the championship for Dallas.

On first and second down, Starr handed off to Anderson, but he slipped on the icy field and never reached the goal line.

The field was rock solid frozen due to a miscalculation by Lombardi and stadium grounds crew. The night before the game, a tarpaulin was placed on the field, and a heating grid installed underneath Lambeau Field for $80,000 ($591,000 in 2017 dollars) would be able to melt any ice and keep the field soft.

Instead, the heating element instead created condensation on the tarp, which froze immediately when removed due to the bitter cold. The heating element was never designed to work in temperatures below 20 degrees (minus-7), and instead of keeping the field in playable condition, it made things worse.

Lambeau Field’s gridiron was now as hard and slick as a supermarket parking lot following an ice storm. Traction was next to nothing. The Cowboys, who didn’t think it would be that cold, did not have sneakers, and not surprisingly, they had a devil of a time staying upright all game. The Packers didn’t fare much better, but at least they had footwear for the occasion.

With 16 seconds to play, the Packers called their last timeout prior to third down. Green Bay could have opted to send in kicker Don Chandler for an 8-yard field goal (the goalposts were on the goal line from 1933 through 1973) and play overtime, or try to win the game right there, knowing that if the Cowboys held, the Packers would not have time to line up and run another play, or get the field goal team on the field, unless they wanted to play with 10 men and let Kramer kick the field goal.

Starr suggested to Lombardi that they run a wedge play, which normally would call for the ball to be handed off to the fullback, in this case, Mercein. However, Starr decided on the sideline with Lombardi to keep the ball himself, thinking he could get good enough footing at the south goal line of the stadium to follow Kramer and center Ken Bowman into the end zone.

Kramer felt he could wedge the Cowboys’ other defensive tackle, Jethro Pugh, whom had a higher center of gravity than Lilly, who had his way with Gillingham most of the day, save for the run by Mercein which got the ball to the 1.

Lombardi may have been portrayed as an autocrat, but in reality, he was very open to suggestions by his players and gave Starr the freedom to call audibles and make the blocking calls at the line for Kramer, Gregg and the rest.

The ex-Block of Granite from Fordham told Starr to “run the play and get the hell out of there”. Lombardi did not want to take his chances in overtime, remembering well what happened in the 1958 NFL championship game, when he was an assistant for the Giants and Johnny Unitas led the Colts to the winning touchdown on a run by Alan Ameche.

Starr brought in the play, 31 Wedge, to the huddle. Mercein thought he would get the ball, but when Bowman snapped it to Kramer, Bart began to move forward.

Indeed, Kramer found enough of an opening to push back Pugh, and Starr followed him and Bowman into the end zone.

Green Bay 21, Dallas 17. The Packers had another NFL championship, and two weeks later, they routed the Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II at Miami’s Orange Bowl to cement Lombardi’s fifth championship in seven seasons. Green Bay’s 1965, ’66 and ’67 teams are the last to win three consecutive NFL championships.

What nobody knew was one more lasting legacy was in the works.

Throughout the season, Kramer chronicled the season in a diary. Following Super Bowl II, he and sportswriter Dick Schaap turned the diary into a book, Instant Replay, which is one of the greatest tomes ever written by an athlete. The title Instant Replay was directly related to the replays of the final play of the Ice Bowl which Lombardi watched with CBS broadcaster Tom Brookshier in the Packers’ locker room following the game.

Kramer was a second team All-Pro in 1968, even though the Packers slumped to 6-7-1 under Phil Bengston. He retired after the 1968, joining a list of Lombardi-era Packers to hang it up. Gillingham would be the last of that group to call it a career, playing until 1976, by which time Starr was in his second season as Packers coach.

In 1974, Kramer first became eligible for the Hall of Fame. He was a finalist 11 times with the selection committee, but never got the requisite 80 percent approval to receive his gold jacket and bronze bust.

Lombardi was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, less than a year after his death due to colon cancer. Taylor was the first player from the great Packer teams to earn enshrinement in 1976. Since then, Starr, Hornung, Gregg, Ringo, Robinson, Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Willie Wood and Herb Adderley all earned induction, as did later Packer legends James Lofton, Reggie White and Brett Favre. I’m not saying Kramer should have come before all of them, but certainly it should have occurred long before 1988, his last year of eligibility on the main ballot.

Kramer must be rated one of the five best guards to ever play the game. If I had to select a 22-man all-time team, Kramer would be my starting right guard, with Patriots legend John Hannah at left guard. The rest of the line would be Anthony Munoz (Bengals, 1980-92) at left tackle, Gregg (Packers, 1957-69) at right tackle and Bednarik (Eagles, 1949-62) at center.

Hannah, who played for New England for 13 seasons (1973-85) but did not win a championship (the Pats made Super Bowl XX in Hannah’s final season and were crushed 46-10 by the Bears) and the Raiders’ Gene Upshaw are the only two I can think of who would be on Kramer’s plane. Hannah, in fact, would have my vote as the greatest Patriot of all time, even ahead of Thomas Edward Brady.

And no, Brady is not my starting quarterback. Not even on my roster. Give me Unitas, Montana, Peyton, Sammy Baugh, Bradshaw, Tarkenton, Jurgensen, Staubach and Graham. Heck, I’ll take Stabler, Dawson, Griese and Tittle before TB12.

Other guards in the Hall of Fame–Billy Shaw, Joe DeLamielleure, Randall McDaniel, Larry Little, Mike Munchak, Will Shields and Russ Grimm among them–were fine players, no doubt, and are worthy of their spots in Canton. But Kramer, Hannah and Upshaw were on another level, at least in my opinion.

Kramer is the oldest player being inducted this August, having turned 82 last month. Thankfully, he is alive to receive this honor, unlike Lombardi and Henry Jordan, who were honored posthumously.

Three of this year’s inductees are players I really didn’t like: Ray Lewis, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. But I knew they would be getting in eventually, so there’s no use to complain. Brian Dawkins and Brian Urlacher were a little surprising to me getting in on such a loaded ballot, but they are deserving.

Robert Brazile, a standout linebacker for Bum Phillips’ Oilers, joins Kramer as a seniors inductee. Phillips’ defense was one of the greatest of the 1970s, if not all time, as evidenced by three Hall of Famers: Brazile, end Elvin Bethea and nose tackle Curley Culp. The problem was, the Oilers were in the same division as the Steelers, whose Steel Curtain had Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount.

Bobby Beathard, the architect of the Redskins’ Super Bowl XVII and XXII championship teams, was inducted as a contributor. Fitting, since coach Joe Gibbs is already in the Hall, and standouts Grimm, Art Monk, John Riggins and Darrell Green were inducted previously. Dexter Manley might have made it if not for drug issues, and Dave Butz and Joe Jacoby should be in.

Many years ago, NFL Network did a show on the 10 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Kramer was #1, Stabler was #2. That needs to be updated, thankfully.

Super Bowl LII starts in just over six hours. I am soooooo excited….so excited I would rather get a root canal. Without anesthesia. This looks like a blowout, but the Patriots could pull it out late and piss everyone off like they did against the Seahawks and Falcons. Either way, if New England wins, the Brady and Belichick butt sniffers will once again be telling us how they are the greatest who ever lived and you’re stupid if you don’t believe that.

ENOUGH. Actually, it was enough the LAST TIME the Patriots played the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and that was in February 2005.

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on February 4, 2018, in National Football League and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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