I think the 1967 Green Bay Packer team was the best of the Packer clubs I have played on. I know halfway through the season when we had a so-so 5-2-1 record all you heard was "What's wrong with the Packers?" But I don't think any of the players felt that anything was wrong. Sure, we started off slow, but there were reasons for that.
Remember, we lost two great football players in Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Taylor went to New Orleans in a trade, Hornung in the expansion draft. You can't afford to give up ballplayers of that caliber. Both of them were leaders. All of us knew that Jim Grabowski and Donny Anderson had the potential to replace Taylor and Hornung, but we weren't sure they would come around in time to help during 1967. So we knew when we went into training camp that the defense would have to be stronger.
Training camp last year was like all Lombardi camps—well-disciplined and tough—and toward the end of our training season I was sure that this was the best team, overall, I had ever been with. Then, during one of our last exhibition games, Bart Starr got racked up. His ribs were battered and, worse than that, he jammed the thumb on his right hand so that he couldn't throw the ball well. He continued to play, because he can stand a lot of hurt, but he wasn't up to par and it showed in the opening game against Detroit. The Lions have always been tough for us, just like the Minnesota Vikings, and we were lucky to get out of the game with a 17-17 tie. We had four passes intercepted, and usually that many turnovers will cost you the game.
It was a long game for me and for the other defensive players. When the offense can't control the ball, you're on the field about twice as much as usual, and the only reason we held up was the conditioning we went through in training camp. It wasn't much better the next week, when we barely beat the Chicago Bears 13-10. Again, the defense had to hold up for us to win, and it had to hold up for longer than usual.
No one was down on Starr in the early games when he was playing with pain. We admired him. He helped the pride of the whole team. On defense, we geared ourselves to carry an extra load, because we knew we had to give more. All of us were aware from the start of the season that we could do something no other pro football team had ever done—be the first team in NFL history to win three championships in a row. We were determined to succeed.
After the first five games we had won three, tied one and lost one, which is not bad by some standards, but not by ours. Yet no one was really concerned. We knew that once Bart was healthy and Grabowski and Anderson began to peak we would be all right. We beat the Giants and the Cardinals in the next two games, and some of the talk about what is wrong with the Packers began to die down. Then we played the Baltimore Colts in Baltimore and lost the game in the last minute and a half.
Johnny Unitas is the toughest quarterback in football in the closing seconds of a game in which he is behind. You can read some quarterbacks, but not him. You know Frank Ryan likes a deep post pattern to Gary Collins or Paul Warfield, but you never know what John will do. He beat us with the clock running out, but, worse than that, we lost Grabowski and Pitts for the season in that game. Jim got a knee injury, and Elijah tore his Achilles' tendon. They had been carrying most of the running load, but we weren't really down after the Baltimore game. We felt that we had played better ball than the Colts, and we knew when Bart healed we had enough to win. Defensively, we held Johnny U. to zero points for 58 minutes, and that's quite an accomplishment.
I think the loss to Baltimore was a dash of ice water for us. We played Cleveland the next week, and all week during practice you could feel that we were coming around. The loss of Grabowski and Pitts put it on the defense, but we were really up. It didn't look like it at first.
We had planned to take away the long pass and the outside run against Cleveland. We played a little wider to stop the sweeps, and the line was aware of Ryan's favorite pass—the deep post—and when he liked to throw it. In the first quarter Ernie Green broke outside for a 59-yard run to score a touchdown, but after that they were finished. We got to Ryan fast enough so that he could not throw deep, and the corner linebackers and backs contained the wide stuff and Travis Williams put them in a hole early by running back two kickoff returns for touchdowns. We got a long lead in the first quarter, and that in itself made the defense twice as good.
When you get out in front far enough you can ignore the running game, and that's what we did to the Browns, who have two of the best runners in football in Green and Leroy Kelly. What happens when you have a big lead is that your line can tee off on the passer. Ryan, needing more time, had even less, and he had a hard afternoon. We won that game 55-7, and I think we were all pretty sure we were home free.