How do you compare Ahman Green to Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo?
I never saw Canadeo play, but I’ve read enough about him and watched enough grainy black-and-white film from the 1950s to know Green and Canadeo played at different speeds. In fact, the difference in their 40-yard dash times – had Canadeo ever been clocked – probably would spell the difference today between a leading NFL rusher and maybe a training camp discard.
Moreover, one could argue that Dorsey Levens, Eddie Lee Ivery and MacArthur Lane were faster not only than Canadeo, but also Paul Hornung and would be better suited for today’s game where speed matters more than ever.
But, then, what about all-around athletic ability?
Were running backs Green, Levens, Ivery and Lane as athletic as the Packers’ greatest halfbacks of yesteryear: Hornung, Canadeo, Johnny Blood and Verne Lewellen?
Could Green or any of the other post-1970s backs have played quarterback and also basketball at Notre Dame like Hornung? Could they have stepped in and called signals for Brett Favre or Lynn Dickey or Scott Hunter the way Lewellen did for injured quarterback Red Dunn when the Packers won their biggest game of the year en route to capturing the 1929 NFL championship?
Green was, but were Levens, Ivery and Lane any better than combo-backs Edgar Bennett and Gerry Ellis? And were any of them faster and better runners than Elijah Pitts, a sprinter at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., who played third-string behind Hornung for much of his career?
What’s more, until Ezekiel Elliott came along this year, weren’t NFL teams looking more for all-around backs who could run, block and catch instead of the I-formation workhorses of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s who carried 20, 25 times a game?
The objective here isn’t to pick five backs to fill out a 53-man roster for a game tomorrow. It’s to rank the five greatest halfbacks/running backs in the history of the Packers based on their contributions in their eras. In other words, if the Pro Football Hall of Fame was starting over, who would be the Packers’ five best candidates for induction at the halfback/running back position?
1. Paul Hornung (1957-62, 1964-66) – Vince Lombardi once said Hornung was maybe “the best all-around back ever to play football.” Lombardi built his offense around the power sweep. “It is our bread-and-butter, top-priority play,” he said, “the one we have to make go and the one our opponents know they must stop.” For the power sweep to work, Lombardi also said it was essential to be able to throw the halfback option pass from what otherwise appeared to be the identical play. That’s why Lombardi said the “option play is the greatest in football,” and called the left halfback “the key operative in his offense.” While fullback Jim Taylor was the principal ball-carrier during the Lombardi era, the left halfback always carried the ball on the power sweep and always ran the option. Hornung also was the Packers’ go-to-back usually on another of Lombardi’s favorite plays, the short trap, in goal-line situations. On plays inside the 20-yard line, Lombardi called Hornung “one of the greatest ever.” Hornung and the split end also were the primary receivers on what might have been Lombardi’s favorite pass play, one he named the “Bart Starr Special.” Let’s not forget, either, that as much as Hornung contributed as a runner, passer and receiver, Lombardi thought his greatest strength was his blocking. Hornung’s intangibles were another asset. “One of those great money ballplayers,” Lombardi said of him. Hornung was the MVP of the 1961 NFL Championship Game and apparently was going to be named MVP of the 1965 title game, as well, until voters huddled and decided to give it to Taylor because Hornung already had won the award once. Taylor wasn’t a bad choice, either, but he probably should have been MVP of the 1962 championship. Hornung was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
2. Verne Lewellen (1924-32) – No, he’s not in Canton and three others on this list are, but that’s a travesty. If you go back and read the game stories and the opinions of others when the Packers won three straight NFL championships from 1929-31, Lewellen was often singled out for being the most important cog in their attack and the biggest difference in the biggest games. Lewellen played the key left halfback position in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box offense, where he excelled as a runner, passer, receiver and, perhaps most importantly, as a punter. When Johnny Blood was asked in 1963 about being selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member, he said, “Verne Lewellen should have been in there in front of me and (Cal) Hubbard.” As quarterback of the Packers from 1922-26, Charles Mathys was a teammate of a young Lewellen. In 1967 when Lewellen still hadn’t been inducted into the Hall, Mathys said, “If he doesn’t get in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame, it’s a joke.” When Lewellen retired, he had scored more touchdowns than anyone in league history and ranked second in scoring. In 1962, Arthur Daley, who had covered the NFL almost from its inception, wrote in his New York Times column that Lewellen was still “the finest punter these eyes ever saw.” That’s quite a compliment for someone who would often punt from a backfield position on first, second and third down when the game was all about field position. When the Packers beat the Giants, 20-6, in 1929, in one of the biggest victories in their history, Lewellen played 60 minutes; caught a 15-yard pass to set up the first touchdown; threw a 30-yard pass and caught another 15-yarder to set up the second touchdown; and allowed the Packers to dominate field position with his punting, often on first down.
3. Johnny Blood (1929-33, 1935-36) – Blood might have been pro football’s first big playmaker. In 1931, he caught 10 touchdown passes, a club record for backs that still stands 85 years later. Blood played before the NFL kept official statistics, but unofficially through 1934, he had more receiving yards and more interceptions than any other NFL player. The great Don Hutson, a teammate for two years, once said, ““I never saw a fellow who could turn a ball game around as quickly as Johnny Blood.” Blood was one of the first 11 players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
4. Tony Canadeo (1941-44, 1946-52) – Canadeo was only the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He did it in 1949, averaging 5.1 yards per carry on a 2-10 team. Canadeo was a tough, slashing runner who could bust tackles with the best. Earlier in his career, before it was interrupted by a stint in the Army during World War II, he was also a dual threat as a runner and passer, a dangerous kickoff and punt returner, and a ball-hawking safety. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
5. Ahman Green (2000-06, 2009) – Green is the Packers’ all-time leading rusher with 8,322 yards and also holds the club’s single-season record with 1,883 yards. It’s safe to say, among all of the Packers’ featured runners in their nearly 100-year history, he was the fastest and most likely to go the distance on a routine running play.