Until last Sunday there had been a rumor sneaking around the National Football League that there might be something out of sorts with the Green Bay Packers. They still wore the same green jerseys, gold pants and gold helmets that they had worn while winning four NFL championships in the past six years, and they still had a defense that is one of the best ever assembled. But their offense had suffered critical failures this season while the Packers were getting tied by Detroit and beaten by Minnesota, and the question was: Had Green Bay lost that hammering, precision attack that had been so distinctive?
The New York Giants did not have to wait long for the answer. They were whipped by the Packers 48-21, and the message was quite simple. All the Packers had lost during the early, uncertain days of this season was the use of their quarterback, Bart Starr. For three weeks before the game with the Giants, Starr had been trying to get himself cured of a number of injuries. On the day before the Packers made one of their infrequent visits to Yankee Stadium, Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi announced to his team that Starr would start. The players could feel their confidence rise. It was as if Lombardi had assured them of invulnerability.
"Bart is our quarterback," said Packer Right Tackle Forrest Gregg, an all-NFL performer for seven years, after the game. "We're used to him. Zeke Bratkowski [Starr's substitute] has done a good job for us filling in, but Bart is our man. Our defense has been tremendous all year, but the offense hadn't been holding up its end until today. With Bart back, we got a lift. We knew anything we ran would go."
Starr is not all the way back. He has a bruised right hand, sore ribs and a shoulder injury that the Packers refuse to discuss. However, so that the Giants would not get the idea that they were dealing with a hospital case, Starr threw deep for Carroll Dale on Green Bay's first play. Had Starr been entirely healthy it would have been a touchdown. Instead the ball fell short of Dale, open by several yards. It was close enough to him, however, to teach the Giants to respect Starr's arm, aching or not, for the rest of the afternoon.
"A quarterback," said Giant Tackle Jim Colvin, who spent a month with Green Bay this season, "has got to be as tough as a guard. I've seen Johnny Unitas when he had to splint the fingers on his throwing hand, but he went out and played and didn't talk about it. Starr is that way."
If Starr showed courage, so did the Giants. After last year's slump, New York has rebuilt into a club that led the league in offense through five games. A good measure of how interesting the team has become is the number of people drawn to the rooftops beyond the outfield fence of Yankee Stadium. Sunday they were full again, the sunlight striking off the spectators' binoculars and telescopes as they peered down at the field. Even the suburban motels outside the TV blackout range reported a return of the football-watching parties that were common when Y. A. Tittle and the Giants were winning championships.
Quarterback Fran Tarkenton directs an offense that is liable to move quickly in any direction, including backward. The Packer defense had allowed five opponents an average of 30 yards per game passing, and very little more rushing, but the Giants went at it in the first quarter as if they did not believe the figures. With both Green Bay corner backs playing loose and eight yards deep, Tarkenton threw for Aaron Thomas and the ball bounced into the hands of Packer Safety Willie Wood. That was a switch. Luck of that sort had often gone against the Packers in their first five games. Green Bay moved down to the eight, where Starr had to run with the ball, and the New York tacklers gave him a thoroughly bruising test. Then Elijah Pitts scored on a sweep.
But the Giants came back, running the ball on Green Bay as few teams have been able to do. Tarkenton let Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy, New York's two big young backs who were hurt last year but this season have been running with speed and power, take turns smashing at the line. On a third-down play, Tarkenton scrambled and passed for 19 yards to his split end, Homer Jones, who is not much help when he does not have the ball but is very dangerous when he does. Moments later Frederickson went deep, luring away a couple of defensive backs. Jones delayed, ran a slant and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Giants then got a 14-7 lead on an 18-yard pass to Joe Morrison with 1:11 left in the half, and all the questions about Green Bay sounded loud and clear.
And that is when the Packers became a championship team again. In those 71 seconds Starr, watching the clock, used three running plays and one pass to drive Green Bay to the Giant 14. The clock showed seven seconds. Time for a field goal? Not yet. Starr passed to Boyd Dowler in the end zone. Incomplete. Still two seconds to go. Plenty of time. Out came Don Chandler for the field goal, and Green Bay went into intermission behind 14-10.
"The big thing for us was that last drive in the first half," said Lombardi. "We looked better than we have all year. We almost made the touchdown, and we knew if we missed the pass wouldn't take more than five seconds."