In the beginning it was like old times. With metronomic perfection the Golden Toe swung thrice—once from 52 yards—and suddenly three field goals were on the board, the hated Bears were demolished in the season opener, and the Packers were off and running once again as if 1963 had never happened. Paul Hornung was back, and all was well in Green Bay. But not for long. In the very next game the Golden Toe developed a bad case of tarnish that no one has been able to eradicate since.
Until a few weeks ago field goals and extra points were as inevitable in Green Bay as frostbite. Somebody snapped the ball, somebody else held it—Bart Starr, one assumed, without really observing—and then Hornung rhythmically booted it into a swarm of happy kids and unhappy policemen in the bleachers behind the goal posts. The kick was nearly always good. In the Packers' three championship years from 1960 through 1962, Hornung kicked field goals successfully 61% of the time. He kicked them from everywhere except a raft on Green Bay's Fox River, and he added 96 consecutive extra points.
But now Hornung, after that brilliant opening game, has unintentionally brought suspense back to the seemingly automatic process of place-kicking. His average has dropped to 31%. And, at least partially because of his misses, the Packers, still unbeatable on paper, are struggling to finish second in the NFL's Western Division.
Last Sunday in Milwaukee's cold, windy County Stadium, Hornung kicked four extra points and tried—and missed—one field goal, as the Packers beat the Browns 28-21. But Green Bay was out of serious contention for a title long before last week. They lost five of the first 10 games, and the way they did it was worse still. In those games they drove inside opposing 35-yard lines 22 times and did not score. Hornung missed two extra points—to equal his career total. One of them cost the team a 21-20 game with the momentum-grabbing Baltimore Colts. The second, against Minnesota, was blocked. This gave the Packers a 24-23 loss. Then in a subsequent game Hornung missed five field goals, and the result was another narrow loss to the Colts, 24-21. And then a week ago, against the rookie-infested San Francisco 49ers, Hornung missed four more.
In the face of such evidence it is a tribute both to Hornung's talents as a player and to his unfailing popularity as a person that no one in Green Bay, in or out of Coach Vince Lombardi's grimly militant office ("he's been known to bite," jokes End Ron Kramer), dared to suggest that the Packers have blown it this year because of kicking. As the season's first snow began settling on the town last week, there seemed to be as many other reasons as there were shovels on the sidewalks.
"It's just one of those years," said a restaurant owner. "Never seen so much bad luck. A kick will be just a foot wide, or a lineman will stick his hand up and get a piece of the ball. Two years ago a kick would be a foot good and a lineman would stick up his hand but miss."
"Injuries," said a bartender. "You can't lose Jerry Kramer, the best offensive guard in football, and be the same team. Thurston [Fuzzy] hasn't been whole. Taylor's been banged up. Paul's got a pinched nerve he don't talk about."
Said an insurance broker, "It's partly injuries, but there's another thing. I heard some of the boys are buying tailor-made suits now. Use to be they all bought readymades. You notice that in a small town like this, maybe they're a little self-satisfied, a little fat. That'll cause those fumbles and penalties and things."
Vince Lombardi skillfully avoids burdening Hornung with the blame that may or may not be duly his.
"He's just been in a rut," said Lombardi. "Like a .300 hitter who gets in a slump, except we can't bench him. With Kramer out, he's our only kicker, and this could put some extra pressure on him, but I doubt it. Nobody likes to win more than Paul. I've said very little to him. Kicking is rhythm. And he's worked himself out of rhythm—maybe by trying too hard.