- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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At the other end of the learning scale are the running backs, who make the smallest adjustment from college to professional football. "You can replace them in one draft at the last minute," Lombardi said. "So, when you feel your runners are beginning to grow old, you can draft for runners the year before you need them."
Offensive linemen need a year or two of seasoning; receivers, whether they are tight ends, flankers or spread ends, need two or three. Although Bob Long, in his second year, may start several games as a flanker, he is one of four players who will split time at the equivalent positions of flanker and spread end. Max McGee (10 years in the league), Boyd Dowler (seven) and Carroll Dale (six) are the others. So Long can be worked into the Packer offense gradually.
Defensive backs and linebackers take more breaking in than any other players, except quarterbacks. "You have to look ahead about three years," Lombardi says. The physical tasks of defensive backs and linebackers are more demanding, too. "In most positions we look for size first," Lombardi says. "We have had quite a few good athletes in camp who could do everything real well but who weren't big enough. You hate to cut them, but you have to. No matter how skillful they are, if they give away too much weight, they can't do the job. In defensive backs we look for quick feet. Not straightaway speed—quick feet."
The defensive backs—and the linebackers, to a degree—not only must have quick feet but also matching mental agility. Doug Hart is a case in point for defensive backs, and Lee Roy Caffey and Dave Robinson for linebackers. Hart was drafted by the Packers three years ago, when Lombardi was strongly fortified at corner back with Jesse Whitten-ton and Herb Adderley. Adderley was in his second year and obviously good for a long time to come, but Whitten-ton was in his seventh year. Although he was still among the best in the league at his difficult position, it was obvious to Lombardi that he must have someone standing by to take over when time wore away Whittenton's physical skills to the point where experience could not compensate. Hart showed promise; Lombardi carried him on the Packer taxi squad his first year, so that he could pick up know-how watching Whittenton, and brought him up to the varsity his second year, where he spelled Whittenton often enough to pick up valuable game experience. This year, when Whittenton retired, Hart was capable of moving in and assuming the responsibilities of corner back with no notable drop-off in the efficiency of the Packer pass defense.
Lombardi had a more difficult problem in replacing his two veteran linebackers, Bill Forester and Dan Currie; they grew old together. Forester was a little older than Currie, and he was replaced in one of the few crash substitutions Lombardi has been forced to make. Faced with the undeniable fact that Forester was nearing the end and that no one had been blooded to step in, Lombardi gave up a fine young running back named Earl Gros to acquire Caffey, a young linebacker from Philadelphia. He had draftee Robinson in reserve, but Robinson had not played much in his rookie season and Caffey had been a full-time linebacker. Forester retired and Caffey moved in. Robinson completed his education as a corner linebacker last year, sharing time with Currie. This year, with Robinson ready and Forester long gone, Caffey and Robinson took over as the corner linebackers for the Packers.
""It is a little strange playing between them," says Ray Nitschke, who has been in the league eight years and, as the middle linebacker, stabilizes the linebacking corps and the whole defense. "I was so used to Bill and Dan. But these are good men. I'll get used to them, too. They've got a lot of quick. When we shoot the corner linebackers now, they're in on the passer before he has time to look up."
When Nitschke is on the sideline Caffey takes his place—an indication of things to come. Oddly enough, the old Packers do not seem resentful of this calculated plan of retirement for obsolescent players. "Ah never thought about it," said Dave (Hawg) Hanner, who was a defensive tackle for Green Bay for 14 years before becoming a defensive coach this season. His replacement is Ron Kostelnik, who began learning his trade some five years ago from Hanner.
"Ah always figured Ah could play as long as Ah wanted to," Hanner went on, speaking around a lump of chewing tobacco the size of a tennis ball. "They ain't no place on this ball club for a man who won't help out the young ballplayers. This is a team. It ain't for the man playing for himself."
Although defensive tackle may be the least complicated of all defensive positions to play, it is more subtle than it appears to be and the help of a veteran like Hanner is invaluable to the younger players coming up. "When Ron come up, he was like all the rookies," Hanner said. "Big, strong boy, lots of desire, but he had bad habits. He would make contact with the blocker, then look up into the backfield to see where the ball was. Naturally, when he lifted his head, he stood up and the blocker got to him. He had to learn to look at the man in front of him until he beat him. When the man put his head on one side, Ron had to learn how to move that way to close the hole, then look for the ballcarrier. Same thing on rushing the passer. First thing a rookie got to do is play to stop the run, then rush the passer. And when he rushes the passer, he's got to concentrate on beating the man blocking him first, then look for the quarterback. You look for the quarterback and don't look at the blocker, he's gonna beat you ever time."
Kostelnik was so apt a student that Hanner is no longer a playing coach. And the rest of the Packer youth movement profited from the experienced players on the squad in the same way.