The Green Bay Packers may wrap up the Western Division early this year—say next Sunday, when they play the Baltimore Colts in Milwaukee. For two quarters at Pittsburgh this week they seemed to be intent on finishing last, and they left the field at half time losing 7-9. Then, scorched by what must have been an uncommonly heated lecture from Coach Vincent Lombardi, the Packers came back in the second half for a 41-9 victory and underlined their rating as the best team in football.
Some 230 miles to the east, the Baltimore Colts certified a strong claim to be ranked second best. They squeezed Minnesota's Fran Tarkenton into a narrow pocket and denied him the right to scramble. A nonscrambling Tarkenton proved to be just another quarterback; a nonscrambling (as usual) Johnny Unitas flicked sure passes into the cracks in the Viking defense for a 35-16 victory.
As the first half indicated, the Packers were off form against Pittsburgh, despite the final score. This is one of the measures of a championship team; on an off day it wins 41-9; a lesser team loses. So the Packers, notably less sharp than the Packers normally are, did not stumble. But Green Bay probably was looking ahead a week to Baltimore, while the Colts, against Minnesota, could not afford that luxury.
"This is the worst game I've played this year," said Steve Wright, the young and very good Green Bay offensive tackle. "You better believe I'll be better next week."
He undoubtedly will be. The key to Green Bay excellence is improvement. If the players do not improve, they leave. "Hustle and smart is Green Bay," says Ken Bowman, a smart and hustling young center. "Coach won't put up with a loafer, and you don't get two chances to make a mistake. You are completely prepared when you take the field; if you don't know what you are supposed to do, you weren't paying attention. The one thing coach absolutely won't put up with is a mental error. He embarrasses you if you make a mental error. He chews you out in front of the team."
The young Packers shook their mental lethargy in the second half against Pittsburgh; they will have to be as bright as Lombardi demands for four quarters against Baltimore.
Lombardi, who was a school teacher and who took a law degree before becoming a coach, has only limited patience for bright pupils and none for the retarded. "If a boy has potential, we'll go with him," Lombardi says. "But if he does not show any development during his second year with the team my inclination is to discard him. Some ballplayers reach an early plateau; they come fast for one year and then they tail off, and during their second year with the team they hit a level they never exceed. If that happens we trade them—or cut them."
In the last three years, Lombardi has had a bumper crop of players who continued to escalate during their second season. A substantial number of the starters on the first two units of the Packers come from this group. As he proved Sunday, when he caught a total of four passes for 61 yards, Marv Fleming, a 6-foot-4 235-pounder from Utah, has replaced the redoubtable Ron Kramer to Lombardi's satisfaction. Fleming's progress has not been steady. He has fluctuated between very good and mediocre, but the very good phase has outweighed the mediocre, and he should be the starting tight end for the Packers for the rest of this season, at least.
According to Lombardi, it is much easier to break in early as an offensive player—other than quarterback—than as a defensive player. "An offensive player has everything laid out," Lombardi says. "The play is precise and he knows what he should do. A defensive player must react to any one of a wide variety of situations. And he must be very quick, physically and mentally." But under Lombardi's program of integrating young players some defenders have broken in with unusual speed. Of the nine starters with three or fewer years three are second-year defensive men: Doug Hart, Steve Wright and Tom Brown. One of the three youngsters on offense is in his second year.
Lombardi's tremendous rebuilding job on the not-too-antiquated Packers has been based on the varying time lags in the development of players at each position. "You draft a top quarterback whenever one is available," he says. "Quarterbacks take a long time, maybe four or five years, to mature. Dennis Claridge has all the physical equipment to be one of the best, but he will need two or three years to develop the play recognition and the intuition a quarterback has to have. Bart Starr has that right now; I think he's one of the best in the business. By the time he's ready to retire, Claridge should have learned all he needs to move in."