“It all comes down to this: In a football game, there are approximately 150 plays. We play a 14-game schedule, so there are, more or less, about 2,000 plays. If I am going to get out of my team, made up of men of varied talents and varied temperaments, the utmost effort by each man on each play, I must sell each one this truth: our studies show that the difference between the winning and the losing of a game hinges, on the average, on a minimum of two plays and a maximum of five; and of course, at any time, at any place on the field, it may hinge on one. Each man must go all out on every play because no one knows when that big play is coming up.”
-- Vince Lombardi as told to W.C. Heinz before the 1967 season
As dominant as Vince Lombardi’s Packers seemed to be at times when they won five NFL championships in a span of seven years in the 1960s, he believed each of those championships was determined by no more than a handful of plays.
In 1960, when the Packers outgained Philadelphia, 401 yards to 296 and had a 22-13 edge in first downs, but lost their only NFL title game under Lombardi, 17-13, basically three plays cost the Packers the game.
One was a 58-yard kickoff return by Ted Dean that set up the Eagles’ game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the others were two decisions by Lombardi to forego fourth-down field-goal attempts. The first was at the Eagles’ 5-yard line on the Packers’ first possession of the game and the second was at the Eagles’ 25 in the third quarter.
“I learned my lesson today…,” Lombardi told broadcaster Ray Scott that night, according to David Maraniss’ book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.” “I lost the game, not my players. That was my fault.”
In 1962, the Packers went 13-1 and outscored their opponents, 415 to 148, but had it not been for Herb Adderley’s interception and 40-yard return to set up a game-winning field goal in the final minute to beat Detroit in the fourth game, there’s no telling how that season might have played out.
The ’62 Lions might have been the best team the Lombardi Packers ever faced and when they embarrassed them on Thanksgiving Day, they would have led the Western Conference by a game with three games to go had they beaten the Packers in their first matchup.
However, it was when the Packers became the first and still the only team in NFL history to win three straight championships under a playoff format, from 1965 to 1967, that Lombardi’s theory was manifested in the results of just a few games.
One could even make a case that if not for three plays by outside linebacker Dave Robinson the Packers might not have won a single title during that stretch.
The first occurred on Dec. 12, 1965, in the second-to-last regular-season game. The Baltimore Colts were 9-2-1 and the Packers, 9-3, when the two teams met in a thick fog at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. At the time, only the conference champion qualified for postseason play, so if the Packers had lost they would have been mathematically eliminated.
They also had struggled offensively for much of the year, averaging a mere nine points over a four-game stretch in midseason. What’s more, just two weeks earlier the Packers had lost to the 1-9 Los Angeles Rams and scored only three points through three quarters when Lombardi benched Bart Starr for what’s believed to be the only time in eight seasons once Starr established himself as the starting quarterback in 1960.
Then, the Packers found themselves trailing the Colts, 14-13, with 14 seconds left in the first half and Baltimore in possession at the Packers’ 2-yard line. On second down, backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo, playing for an injured Johnny Unitas, tried to lob a pass over the head of Robinson to his fullback, Jerry Hill, in the right flat.
Robinson leaped high in the air to intercept the ball and returned it 87 yards to the Colts’ 10. The Packers scored a touchdown on the next play for a 20-14 halftime lead.
“It was a 14-point play and the turning point,” said Lombardi.
The following season, there were 45 seconds remaining in the NFL Championship Game at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl, when the Cowboys lined up on fourth-and-goal at the Packers’ 2-yard line with a chance to tie the score and force overtime.
Trailing 34-27, quarterback Don Meredith rolled right when Robinson decided to ad lib, cut behind a pulling guard, grabbed Meredith around the shoulders and forced a pop-fly throw intercepted by safety Tom Brown.
“We had never run that to the right out of a brown-left formation,” Dallas backfield coach Ermal Allen said after the game. “So he (Robinson) hadn’t seen it on the films or been told to watch for it. He just reacted properly and probably cost us the game.”
While Lombardi later praised Robinson for having “that other talent that all the great ones have, the knack of making the big play,” he didn’t cut him any slack when he graded the film.
“Ironically, on the most important play of the season, and although Robinson saved us on it, when we rated him on it, as we rate every player on every play, we had to mark him low,” Lombardi told legendary journalist W.C. Heinz. Robinson’s assignment was to charge from the outside.
Then again, Lombardi explained that his linebackers rarely fared well in film sessions. Over the course of the entire 1966 season and more than 850 plays, Lombardi said middle linebacker Ray Nitschke’s final grade was minus 20; right linebacker Lee Roy Caffey’s was minus 21; and Robinson’s a plus three. “A truly remarkable year” was how Lombardi described Robinson’s season.
In 1967, the year of the Ice Bowl, the Packers viewed the Los Angeles Rams as the biggest threat to their chances of winning three straight titles. Before the season, the NFL realigned into four divisions for the first time, and the Rams won the Coastal Division with an 11-1-2 record and a tiebreaker over Baltimore.
The Packers had won the Central Division with a 9-4-1 record, but they struggled throughout the season and were viewed as an aging team when they faced the Rams in the Western Conference Championship at Milwaukee County Stadium. Oddsmakers also favored the Rams, which meant Lombardi’s Packers were underdogs in a home postseason game for the only time ever.
With the Packers trailing 7-0 five plays into the second quarter, Starr threw an interception that was returned to the Packers’ 10-yard line. Four plays later, Bruce Gossett lined up for a 24-yard field goal that would have put the Rams up 10-0, but Robinson burst inside the outside blocker and blocked the kick.
“If we score at all down there, we win,” Rams coach George Allen said after the game. “We’ve got the momentum and Starr has got to come to us.”
Instead, the Packers’ defense shut down the Rams’ running game and Starr flawlessly executed a game plan based on a favorite Lombardi tactic: Attack the weakness of the other team’s strength. Against the Rams that meant running at the left side of their vaunted “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, future Pro Football Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen and, in turn, nullifying their pass rush.
Clearly there were other huge plays during the Packers’ three-year title run, most notably a game-tying Don Chandler field goal that many thought went wide of the right upright in a 1965 playoff victory over the Colts; Jim Boeke’s 5-yard penalty for jumping the snap at the Packers’ 1-yard line before Robinson’s heroics in the 1966 title game; and Starr’s play call from the Dallas 11-yard line and ensuing game-winning sneak in the Ice Bowl.
But that doesn’t puncture Lombardi’s point.
The Packers’ 2017 season might well be decided by one play, a play no coach or player can anticipate.