He flirted with NFL greatness, was extremely close, a threat to have even made it all the way to that echelon were his seasons not often undone by injuries. He is the Packers’ link between Bart Starr and Brett Favre on the team’s chain of excellent quarterbacks, remains the club’s record-holder for passing yards in a season, and will forever be admired for his grit and toughness.
But don’t ask Lynn Dickey about what could have been, about how things could have been different if his shin hadn’t been fractured in two places on a meaningless screen pass while trailing by 17 points on a game’s last play in 1977. That injury sidelined him for two years. Don’t ask him how good he could have been had he not separated his throwing shoulder in ’76 so severely it took a screw to mend it.
Even before he arrived in Green Bay, as a rookie with the Oilers, Dickey shattered his left hip while being sacked in a preseason game in ’72. It wasn’t until weeks later that he would rise out of a wheelchair to teach himself how to walk.
Dickey’s mind doesn’t calculate regret when it comes to his NFL history. He’s not carefree when it comes to the challenges he overcame as a player, he just has a different perspective. Dickey didn’t complain during his playing days and hasn’t since, and the reason for his approach has always been his late brother, Larry.
“He was 10 years older than I was, and he had polio; he was really crippled, had contracted the disease when he was five years old. His spine was a mess,” Dickey said. “When I was in high school, I had a buddy come over and said that sure is a bummer, having a brother with polio. I remember I had never really noticed; it had always been the way he was. He was just my brother.”
Larry Dickey wasn’t expected to live past 25, but passed away at 51.
“My dad told me before Larry had polio he could run like the wind. So I talked to my brother about it. I asked him, ‘Do you ever wonder why you have polio? Why did it have to be you?’ And Larry said, ‘Why not me? What makes me so special?’ So when I think about my career, and not staying healthy, and why it had to be me, I think about what he said. It’s frustrating when you are a player, but you can’t say, ‘Why me?’ What would make me so special where I would never be injured?”
Understand Dickey’s career is not a sad tale. He had fantastic moments. Of the 105 games he was healthy for in Green Bay, he started 101 and completed 1,592 of 2,831 passes for 21,369 yards, with 133 touchdowns. He ranks third in club history behind Favre and Starr in almost every major passing category, threw five touchdown passes in a game twice, his 4,458 yards in ’83 ranks first in team history and in ’81 torched New Orleans by going 19 of 21. That’s a club record for accuracy in a game.
Dickey also endured 268 sacks, tossed 155 interceptions and never had a 1,000-yard rusher behind him. Drafted by the Oilers in the third round in ’71, his career with the Packers spanned from ’76-’85 – he didn’t play a down in ’78 because of the broken leg – and it was before the advent of the West Coast offense. His completion percentage was never above 60 percent for a season. In ’83, he led the NFL in not only passing yards, but also with 32 touchdowns, yards-per-completion average (15.4) and with 29 interceptions. He was a bomber, and Dickey paid for it.
“We didn’t do much medium range passing,” he said. “It put a lot of stress on our offensive line with me dropping back 10 yards, or sometimes five. That was the way we played. The game hadn’t yet evolved into a rhythm passing game. It was fun for a quarterback and it was entertaining for fans, but it isn’t the best way to win.”
In the early ’80s, the Packers were typically in the playoff chase, and it’s no coincidence the era coincided with Dickey’s healthiest years. In ’81, he passed for nearly 2,600 yards and 17 touchdowns in 13 games and won four of his last five starts, but Green Bay finished 8-8. In ’82, the Packers went 5-3-1 in the strike-shortened season and went to the postseason for the lone time in Dickey’s career, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round, 41-16. He threw four touchdowns in the victory, though the Packers were eliminated by the Cowboys the next week.
Optimism was high entering the next season. The Packers had an explosive offense, with wide receivers James Lofton and John Jefferson and savvy tight end Paul Coffman. The season kicked off with one of the classic games in Packers’ history, a 41-38 overtime victory over the Oilers in which Dickey completed his first 18 passes. He would finish 27 of 31 for 333 yards and five touchdowns. After throwing a long TD to Lofton late in the fourth quarter, Dickey was sidelined after it was found that a back injection he had been given the week before had been leaking spinal fluid into the tissue where the needle had been inserted.
It was one of four times the Packers would score over 40 points that season, including a 48-47 win over Washington in which Dickey would throw for 387 yards, three TDs and post a passer rating of 132.1. But the contest following the flashy victory at Houston was more telling of what would be the Packers’ fortunes in ’83.
“We played Pittsburgh after beating the Oilers. Terry Bradshaw was hurt, so they started a guy at quarterback named Cliff Stoudt,” Dickey said. “The Steelers came out and ran 15-straight running plays and scored a touchdown. We would score, and then they would come out and do the same thing, just pound the ball down the field. That’s the way the game went. I’d come off the field, take my helmet off and sit on the bench, because I knew I was going to be there awhile.”
In the 25-21 defeat to the Steelers, Dickey threw for 290 yards with three TD passes to Lofton, including 71- and 73-yard strikes in drives that took mere seconds. Pittsburgh ran for 285 yards on 59 attempts. Even Stoudt ran for a touchdown.
In ’83, Green Bay scored 429 points, more than any team had in club history. The Packers also allowed 439 points, a record that still stands. With a playoff berth on the line, Green Bay fell to the Bears, 23-21, in the finale at Soldier Field, to finish 8-8. The Packers were defeated five times that season by six points or fewer.
“You can’t score 30 and give up 35, and we did a lot of that,” Dickey said. “We could put a lot of points on the board, but to win you have to be able to run the ball and you have to be able to stop the run, and we couldn’t do either. People will ask me if we needed a better offensive line back when I played and I say no, we had good running backs, we just didn’t concentrate on running the ball.
“We had good personnel on defense. We needed a defensive tackle, so in ’80 we picked Bruce Clark because he was the best in the draft. Instead he went to Canada to play. No one goes to Canada. It all snowballed. We couldn’t get enough positives. If you have the four-best offensive linemen and the four-best defensive linemen on the field in every game, you are going to win 10 games, no matter who the quarterback is. So it’s fun to win 48-47, but it would be a lot more fun to win 11 or 12 games.”
Green Bay would again go 8-8 in ’84, with Dickey throwing 25 TDs and for 3,195 yards, and six of his targets had more than 25 grabs. The Packers were 1-7 at midseason before catching fire, but it was too late.
In ’85, Dickey started 10 games but, at 36, injuries had taken their toll and he retired after passing for 2,206 yards. The Packers finished 8-8 for the third straight year and for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Green Bay had proven it had reached its potential at .500, and Dickey walked away with no regrets.
“You can screw yourself into the ground over it and drive yourself nuts over what could have been, but you are lucky to have been a part of it,” he said. “It was a thrill of a lifetime to have played. To get where you want to go in a season, you have to be lucky as a team. Everyone has to take advantage of every opportunity and everyone will prosper. It’s not always great talent that wins.”
It was great strength, however, that carried Dickey through his NFL career. Through a leg injury that had Los Angeles defensive ends Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer yelling emphatically to the Green Bay sidelines after the quarterback’s leg was fractured. Through an injury as a rookie that sheared off a piece of his hip bone, through countless surgeries and endless hours of rehabilitation. Even through defeats. He finished his career with a 45-63-3 record as a starter.
“I had some dumb luck but, again, you never say, ‘Why me?’” Dickey said. “I think you find out a person’s true colors. You find out who wants to endure, who wants to hang in there. I never wanted to feel like when I was 50 that I didn’t give everything I had. I wanted to look back and know I did everything I possibly could.”
It was a thrill for Dickey to watch a Packers’ QB wearing the familiar jersey No. 12, Aaron Rodgers, light it up in 2010. It was a discussion he once had with another Green Bay QB who wore the number, Zeke Bratkowski, from ’63-68 and ’71.
“It wasn’t really because of his number, I’m just happy for Aaron in general,” said Dickey. “I told Zeke once this new 12 is pretty good. I’ve said that if I was an NFL owner and I could pick anyone, I’d pick Aaron. He’s smart, accurate, has a strong arm and he’s mobile. I’d take him.”