Monday, March 10, 2014

Lombardi and Landry in Pillars of the NFL by Patrick McCaskey

Author Patrick McCaskey
In Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL, the football lives of the 10 coaches in NFL history are explored.  There are many interesting side stories that we gathered along the way to publication. Many related to Vince Lombardi.

In 1954, the New York Giants had a new head coach, Jim Lee Howell, who had replaced Steve Owen.  Owen was an institution with the Giants, a long-time player, and a 23-year coach.  Owen was beloved by the Mara family, the team owners. 

Howell hired two excellent assistants to help improve and modernize the Giants: Vince Lombardi to manage the offense and Tom Landry to manage the defense.  Lombardi was boisterous and excitable.  Landry was calm and quiet.  Lombardi spent 5 years with the Giants.  The new coaching staff did turn things around.  The Giants won the NFL Championship in 1956 and in 1958 lost the championship in overtime to the Baltimore Colts. 
Lombardi had an opportunity to pick up many great ideas about running an excellent NFL defense from Landry, who was a master at it.  The Giants were interested in having Lombardi as a head coach, but there was no precise exit plan for Howell.  Lombardi moved on when an offer came from Green Bay.  Lombardi and the Mara family however burned no bridges between them, so the family would come courting in the future, but the timing was just never quite right.  

Lombardi and Landry would face each other over the years on opposing sidelines.  One key matchup was the memorable NFL Championship game in 1967. When the Packers played the  Dallas Cowboys for the NFL Championship on the last day of the year in 1967, they had a secret weapon—Mother Nature.  Few NFL games have been so well celebrated and memorialized.  The Packers had seen plenty of cold weather before this game, but the so-called “Ice Bowl” was the start of much of the lore and legend surrounding Lambeau Field.  From this game forward, Green Bay fans would not just tolerate the cold at Lambeau, they would relish their “frozen tundra.”

There were six scoring plays in this game played in front of 50,861 fans on a day when the mercury dipped to -13°.  The Packers’ leading receiver in 1967 was Boyd Dowler, who at 6-foot-5 and 224 pounds, displayed remarkable skills.  Starr targeted Dowler on an 8-yard touchdown pass for the Packers’ first score—the 16th play in an 82-yard drive.  He followed up with a 46-yard touchdown strike to leading-man Dowler again in the second quarter.   

Starr was harassed all game by the Dallas defense.  The Cowboys struck back when George Andrie gobbled up a Starr fumble and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown.  The Packers flirted with disaster when Willie Wood dropped a punt on the Green Bay 17-yard line just before half.  After Danny Villanueva kicked a 21-yard field goal, the Packers clung to a 14–10 lead at the half.

After a scoreless third quarter, Green Bay was rocked when the Cowboys’ Lance Rentzel snatched a 50-yard touchdown pass from halfback Dan Reeves. The Cowboys were leading, 17–14, on the Packers’ frigid home field in the fourth quarter.  With only 4:50 on the clock, Lombardi’s offense looked 68 yards downfield to the goal and began a 12-play drive for the win.  They would need almost every second.   

A determined Starr completed a pass out in the flat to Donny Anderson for a 6-yard gain.  Chuck Mercein found enough running room outside for a first down.  Starr tossed one down the middle to Dowler over the 50-yard line and Cornell Green who was struggling with his footing was able to grab and throw Dowler down hard on the tackle to the frozen ground.  It was nip and tuck all the way.  Anderson received a handoff from Starr, but was tackled in the backfield.  It was second down and 19 yards to go for a first on a field that was quickly becoming an ice skating rink.  Starr looked around and tossed Anderson an outlet pass that the halfback turned into another 12-yard gain.  Starr followed with another short pass to Anderson who gained the first down.  Chuck Mercein was targeted next and after the catch he ran the ball down to the Dallas 11-yard line. 

 Landry would call the Mercein strike the most important play of the game because it would give the Packers a chance to score.  Landry also said that at about that time during the game, the field had frozen over.  Mercein had the hot hand and took a handoff from Starr and ran it up the middle to the 2-yard line.  Anderson rushed to within inches of the goal and a first down.  The tough, determined Cowboys’ defense stuffed two Donny Anderson drives.  Starr went to the sideline and told Lombardi since the backs were slipping, he would take the ball himself on a wedge play, which normally goes to the fullback.  Lombardi famously responded, “Then do it and let’s get the hell out of here.”  As Starr jogged back on the field, the tension in the stands was almost unbearable.

Starr stood behind center with 13 seconds remaining at the 1-yard line with no time outs.  He raised his hands to quiet the crowd and the ball was snapped on a quick count.  Jerry Kramer jumped out at Jethro Pugh, hitting him low, followed by Packer center Ken Bowman hitting Pugh high.  Cleats scratched on ice and Pugh was driven backwards.  Starr shadowed Kramer and plunged into the end zone for the score.  Mercein, who thought Starr was going to hand off to him, trailed the play and raised his arms in the air so the officials knew he was not pushing Starr into the end zone—an infraction that might have caused the Packers the game.  Millions watching thought Mercein was signaling a score! The fans realized that Starr had scored and in the midst of an arctic field of dreams came the deafening roar of the crowd.  Chandler kicked the extra point. 

Dallas received the kickoff, but the game ended after Meredith threw two long bombs that failed to connect.  The final score was Packers 21–Cowboys 17. The Packers won their third NFL Championship in a row.  The frigid but appreciative crowd was one with the team in both suffering from the cold and jubilation from the win.  When players and fans alike recall the game decades later, they point to limbs and patches of skin that have never quite recovered from that day. 

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press