After a two-year period of reverses and rehabilitation the Green Bay Packers are bigger, younger and probably stronger than ever. The Packers are ready to return to the top, both in the West and in the league. Vince Lombardi, the capable coach and general manager, has been busy rebuilding his club during the Green Bay version of the doldrums—two second-place finishes. When the Packers play Pittsburgh in the first league game of the 1965 season, only about half the squad will be holdovers from 1962. It is a tribute to Green Bay scouting and trading that this will be as good a team as it was in that notable year.
The only unit intact from 1962 is the starting backfield of Bart Starr at quarterback and Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung as the running backs, with Tom Moore and Elijah Pitts as alternates. This was then and is now one of the most consistent, dangerous backfields in football. Last year, with Paul Hornung trying to get his legs under him again after a year on the shelf, it tailed off a little. Hornung now appears to have regained all his old poise and power.
If Guard Jerry Kramer is fully recovered from operations that kept him out of action all but a few minutes of last season, the Green Bay offensive line should be as efficient as ever at protecting Starr and prying cracks for the big backs to run through. Fuzzy Thurston never looked better at the other guard, and veteran Tackles Bob Skoronski and Forrest Gregg have ranked high in the league for a long time. The loss of Ron Kramer at tight end is a serious one, but replacement Marv Fleming, who is as big as Kramer, younger and faster, should compensate for it.
Boyd Dowler and Max McGee are veteran flankers; this year Lombardi acquired another in Carroll Dale of the Rams. He will use Bob Long, a second-year man, to spell the regular receivers. Thus the Packer passing attack should never falter from either injury or exhaustion. All four receivers have speed and guile; Long is probably the fastest and McGee the wiliest.
Starr is one of the soundest quarterbacks in football, both as a passer and as a strategist, and the Packers have more than adequate quarterback relief in Zeke Bratkowski and second-year man Dennis Claridge, who can double as a running back.
So, on attack, the Packers look as lethal as they did in their championship days, with running power inside and out and an air attack that is effective both short and deep. This is a versatile unit: Skoronski can play tackle or center, Dowler is a flanker or a tight end, Gregg can play tackle or guard, and all four running backs are interchangeable.
On defense the Packers have made several changes, none of them harmful. Dave Robinson will replace veteran Dan Currie, who was traded to the Rams, as a corner linebacker. He lacks Currie's exceptional savvy, but his strength and speed should offset his mistakes. Ray Nitschke, the key to the Packer defense, is back at middle linebacker, a post at which he may be the best in either division. Lee Roy Caffey is starting his second year as the Packers' other corner linebacker and should improve on last year's performance. In Willie Davis, Green Bay has one of the two best defensive ends in the league; Lionel Aldridge, the other defensive end, is not far behind him. All-Pro Henry Jordan will miss running mate Dave Hanner at defensive tackle, but Ron Kostelnik played most of last year and developed tremendously.
The retirement of Jesse Whittenton broke up a Green Bay secondary that ranked high in both pass defense and the ability to come up to meet running plays, but Lombardi has experienced replacements in Doug Hart, a second-year man, Bob Jeter, shifted from offense, and Tom Brown, another second-year man. There is depth in the line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
The Packers' Paul Hornung missed on 27 field goals and two extra points last year. Don Chandler, bought from New York, could eliminate that fault, the only serious one Green Bay had. It should be the Packers all the way.