Getting past the Glory Years

This is an interesting answer to a question posed to writer Vic Ketchman. Question in regular type, answer in bold type:

“I’d like to remind my fellow Packers fans that from the ninth game in 2009 until the 16th game of 2011, the Packers went 36-9.” I’d like to remind everyone that it’s Super Bowls the average fan remembers, not year-to-year records. Fans don’t care about how well we fought in a losing effort, how far we went in the playoffs or what rank our offense was that year, fans care about that final W. “Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-the-time thing.”

That sounds nice, but in what season was winning an all-the-time thing for Vince Lombardi’s teams? You want the truth? OK, here’s the truth. Those teams that won five NFL titles played in a league that was watered down by the emergence of the AFL. The NFL of the 1960s was a league full of cash-strapped franchises that had no chance of competing for a title. They were just trying to stay alive in the NFL-AFL wars that were skyrocketing salaries and making it impossible for cash-strapped teams such as the Steelers to even be competitive. In 1966, the Steelers selected a running back named Dick Leftridge in the first round. It was such a reach pick that it was a terrible embarrassment for the franchise. They picked him because he agreed to sign a contract far beneath what a first-round pick would earn. The Packers of the 1960s played in a 14-team NFL that included two expansion franchises (Dallas and Minnesota) and a third (Atlanta) on the way. Of the 15 teams in the league in 1966, more than half of them were not competitive and, frankly, weren’t even attempting to be competitive. They were just trying to outlast the AFL. With all due respect to those wonderful Packers teams of the 1960s, they would not have won nearly as many titles if they had played in today’s 32-team, ultra-competitive NFL. In this NFL, a Super Bowl title is a sometime thing; it’s a very special thing. In this NFL, the record the Packers have achieved since 2009 is extraordinary.

In 1959, Vince Lombardi’s first season as Packers general manager and coach, the NFL had 12 teams, each of which had rosters of 36 players. One year later, the American Football League and its eight teams entered the pro football world, the same year the Dallas Cowboys joined the NFL. I couldn’t find the AFL’s roster size rules, but assuming they were similar to the NFL’s the number of people who could call themselves pro football players expanded by three-fourths from 1959 to 1960. One year later, the NFL added Minnesota. Atlanta joined the NFL and Miami joined the AFL in 1966, New Orleans joined the NFL in 1967, and Cincinnati joined the AFL in 1968. Between the NFL and AFL and roster size growth, between 1959 and 1968, the number of football-team roster spots grew by nearly 2 1/2 times.

Between 1960 and 1969, the Packers played in six NFL championship games, winning all but in 1960. The New York Giants lost their three championship game appearances, 1961 through 1963. The Cowboys lost their two, 1966 and 1967. Cleveland won one (1964) and lost three (1965, 1968 and 1969). Philadelphia (1960), Chicago (1963), Baltimore (1968) and Minnesota (1969) won their only title game appearances of the ’60s. Los Angeles got in the playoffs three consecutive years, but not the NFL title game, in the late ’60s.

So from this we can conclude that the best NFL team of the ’60s was indeed the Packers, followed by the Browns. The Colts (they also tied for a division title in 1965, forcing a one-game playoff with the Packers that ended in overtime) dipped and then revitalized under Don Shula, the Cowboys, Rams and Vikings were on their way up, the Giants were on their way down, and the Eagles and Bears were one-year wonders. That leaves the rest — St. Louis, Detroit, Washington (the last NFL team to use black players), Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, and, not counting one season each, Philadelphia and Chicago — as almost being out of the running for the playoffs after their first game.

The other difference between then and now is the bigger role of the general manager. Recall that most of Lombardi’s Glory Years players — Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer and so on — were already there when he showed up in 1959, courtesy of the late Packers scout Jerry Vainisi, who did his job much better than the coaches he worked for did his jobs until Lombardi arrived. GM Lombardi was less successful — he drafted Herb Adderly, traded for Willie Davis, and signed Willie Wood as a free agent — than coach Lombardi. Numerous NFL observers will tell you that there is little difference in overall talent level between the best and worst NFL teams.

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