Here they come. The Green Bay Packers.
The team that forged the NFL we know today.
After beating the Eagles on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, the Packers road show continues in Atlanta this Saturday. Much more is at stake than during their exciting regular season confrontation.
This time, the winner moves on to the NFC championship game. This time, the game carries such import that it has drawn a prime time spot on Saturday night. This time, the entire nation will be looking in, captivated by the NFL playoffs, which culminate in the greatest of all sporting events, the Super Bowl.
And for all this, we can thank the Green Bay Packers.
Exactly 50 years ago, the Team of the ’60s arrived. The exciting, turbulent, mad-cap, swift-paced ’60s needed a sport in step with the times. Baseball could no longer keep pace; it was so, so ’50s. The ’60s became pro football’s time.
Most historians cite the 1958 championship game as the birth of the NFL’s overwhelming popularity. True enough. The Colts win over the Giants in pro football’s first sudden death game remains the standard by which all other games are measured.
But it was Lombardi’s Packers that delivered the NFL to its promised land.
The legendary Vince Lombardi, namesake of the Super Bowl’s trophy, remains revered to this day. He was recently the subject of yet another HBO special. He took his first NFL head coaching job in 1959, taking over the woeful Packers. Green Bay hadn’t had a winning team since 1947. In 1958, they won once.
Lombardi immediately installed a winning attitude, and the Packer Sweep: “What we want is a seal here, and a seal here, and we run this play in the alley!” His first team went 7-5. In 1960, his 8-4 Packers played in their first NFL championship game.
There they faced the Eagles, who had suffered through a poor decade of their own. Since winning titles in ’48 and ’49, they hadn’t won more than seven games in a season. In ’58, they went 2-9-1. In ’59, they went 7-5. Improbably, the ’60 Eagles went 10-2.
So the championship game brought two long-term underdogs together. Beyond that, it was a study in contrasts. Big city vs. little town. The Eagles represented the last hurrah of the league’s Old Guard. Coach Buck Shaw was coaching his final game. Concrete Charlie Bednarik, the league’s last 60-minute man, played center and linebacker.
And quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was playing in his final game. The future Falcons coach represented the prototype ’50s quarterback. He played with reckless abandon, willing to throw long at any time. Caution to the wind. And made sure the team gathered at the local tavern each week on its day off.
The Packers, by contrast, represented the modern pro football ideal. They were methodical, well drilled,
efficient. Button-down. Relentless. Thoughtfully conceived and given to hours of film study. Everyone knew the Packer Sweep was coming, yet no one could stop it. They ran it to perfection.
The game itself was played the day after Christmas, a Monday. Televised sports still hadn’t invaded the holiday. And it kicked off at midday, as Franklin Field in Philadelphia had no lights. How quaint.
Bill Qunilan intercepted Van Brocklin on the opening play, but the Packers couldn’t score. Lombardi went for it on fourth down rather than attempt a field goal, a mistake he repeated in the third quarter.
Van Brocklin completed a 35-yard touchdown pass to Tommy McDonald to help the Eagles to a 10-6 halftime lead. The Packers were dominating the game everywhere but on the scoreboard.
In the fourth quarter, Max McGee risked Lombardi’s wrath by running on a punt, but his 35-yard gain set up Green Bay’s go-ahead score. It didn’t last long. Ted Dean ran the kickoff back 57 years, and then swept in from five yards out to give the Eagles a 17-13 lead.
The Packers final drive reached the Eagles 22-yard line. With no time outs left, Bart Starr threw a swing pass to Jim Taylor, who rumbled to the eight before being tackled by Bobby Jackson, a rookie who had just entered the game. Bednarik arrived on the scene and sat on Taylor until the clock expired.
After the game, as quoted in David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered, Lombardi told his players, “Perhaps you didn’t realize that you could have won this game. But I think there’s no doubt in your minds now. And that’s why you will win it all next year. This will never happen again. You will never lose another championship.”
They never did. Lombardi’s Packers won each of their next five appearances in the NFL championship game, in ’61, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67. The last two were followed by wins in the first two Super Bowls.
Ten months after the 1960 championship game, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which gave NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle the ability to negotiate a single television contract for the entire league. In 1961, CBS paid $4.5 million in the deal that enabled the Packers to compete with teams from the big cities.
With Lombardi’s Packers as its showcase team, the NFL’s popularity soared. By 1965, for the first time, polls showed that pro football has passed baseball as America’s favorite sport.