GREEN BAY—In some ways, sports writing and sports reporting have never been better than they are today.
But over my 35-plus years in the newspaper business, one of my biggest complaints was too many sportswriters neglected to provide accurate and detailed historical perspective in stories that cried out for it. And things have only gotten worse with today’s around-the-clock sports coverage.
The examples are countless, but in our little niche of the sports world, a recent one would be the reaction to the Packers’ playoff meltdown in Seattle, which, in turn, resurrected recollections of Mike Sherman’s decision 11 years ago to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-less-than-a-yard in the closing minutes of a divisional playoff loss in Philadelphia.
Let’s go back to Dec. 26, 1960, Vince Lombardi’s first championship game as head coach of the Packers. The scene was Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
On the game’s first offensive play, Norm Van Brocklin’s swing pass was intercepted by defensive end Bill Quinlan, giving the Packers the ball at the Eagles 14-yard line. Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor gained eight yards on three running plays, setting up fourth-and-2 at the Eagles 5.
Lombardi went for it and Taylor was stopped short of a first down.
As a result, when the Packers recovered another fumble deep in Eagles territory three plays later and settled for a Hornung field goal, they had only a 3-0 lead to show for two turnovers in less than six minutes.
The Packers would continue to dominate play – they would run 77 plays to the Eagles’ 48 – but trailed 10-6 midway through the third quarter when they took possession at their 36-yard line following a punt.
Hope soared when Hornung burst up the middle for 14 yards and Taylor ripped through the middle again on the next play for 16 more. The Eagles’ suspect run defense looked vulnerable. Three more running plays netted nine yards and left the Packers facing fourth-and-1 at the Eagles’ 25.
Lombardi gambled again. Taylor slammed into the middle of the line again. Again, he was stopped short.
The game would end with middle linebacker Chuck Bednarik pinning Taylor to the ground as the final seconds ticked away. Taylor had just picked up a first down at the Eagles’ 22, but the Packers were out of timeouts and needed a touchdown to win.
Lombardi blamed himself for the 17-13 loss, regretting his two fourth-down gambles.
Power football was the hallmark of the Lombardi Packers. They had finished second in the NFL in rushing yards in 1960. They had averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Taylor and Hornung combined for 1,772 rushing yards.
They would outrush the Eagles in this championship, 223 yards to 99.
Three of their five offensive linemen – Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer – were named first-team all-pro that year by the Associated Press. Ringo and Gregg would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
On the other side of the line was an Eagles defense that had ranked 12th in yards allowed rushing in what was then a 13-team NFL.
Although short field goals at that time weren’t the sure points they are today, two chip shots against the Eagles might have produced a 20-17 victory.
Lombardi apparently thought so.
According to David Maraniss’ book, When Pride Still Mattered, Lombardi told broadcaster Ray Scott that night, “I learned my lesson today. When you get down there, come out with something.” And Lombardi would coach accordingly the rest of his career.
Each of the next two years the Packers would rank No. 1 in the league in rushing and win back-to-back NFL titles. They would finish second in rushing in 1967 and win their fifth and final title under Lombardi, despite losing starting backs, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, to injuries midway through the season.
But no matter how strong his running game was over the seven seasons in which his teams won those five titles, Lombardi would face six more fourth-and-1 situations from the opponents’ 40-yard line or closer in the postseason and settle for field goals four times, according to Eric Goska, author and keeper of historical Packers stats.
One of the advantages of being a pundit is you rarely run the risk of being wrong. What’s more, spin it right by ignoring contradictory historical perspective and you can make yourself look even smarter.
When pundits revisit Sherman’s decision to punt from the Eagles’ 41-yard line with a 17-14 lead, how often do they also remind you Sherman had gambled and lost on a fourth-and-goal from inches away just before halftime?
The Packers’ ballyhooed offensive line couldn’t budge Philadelphia’s defense and Ahman Green, who had rushed for 1,883 yards and averaged 5.3 per carry that season, was stuffed short of the goal line on the team’s signature power play.
Fourth-and-short is never a sure thing. Arguably, the greatest of all football coaches knew that better than anyone.
Lombardi produced maybe the greatest power-running teams in the history of the NFL, but lost a chance to twice win three straight NFL championships under the league’s playoff format because his offense couldn’t dislodge an out-manned defense for two measly yards.
For more Cliff Christl history, click here.