GREEN BAY PACKERS
When Vincent Lombardi, having achieved all that any professional football coach could hope to achieve, decided to leave the field for the front office after the Super Bowl, he said, seriously, "The greatness of this team lies ahead of it."
Since the Green Bay Packers had just finished winning their third straight NFL championship and their second straight Super Bowl game, Lombardi might reasonably be accused of hyperbole. Actually, he was speaking the truth.
On Thursday afternoons early in the training season this year, Lombardi played golf; when he came out to practice to watch Phil Bengtson drive the club as hard as he himself did, he sat on a special bench in the sun and acquired a tan, biting his tongue. He did not interfere with Bengtson, who spent nine years as his assistant and who has not varied the Lombardi routine. Lombardi appropriated a green park bench for his own and asked equipment man Bob Noel, "Where's my bench?" whenever he appeared. Once, when he had taken off his shirt only to see a cloud hide the sun, he demanded, "Where's my sun?" No one doubts that it reappeared at once.
The team Bengtson inherited may be the best of the long series of exemplary Packer clubs. It is essentially the same as the 1967 version and, given only a normal run of injuries, it should be much better. Last season Bart Starr, playing with a swollen thumb and rib injuries in the early games, threw nine interceptions in the first two, or three times as many as he did in all of 1966. Healed, he settled down to his usual pace and threw only eight more in the next 12 games. In midseason the Pack lost its two starting running backs within five minutes when Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski were both injured against the Baltimore Colts. Travis Williams, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Cleveland, got a late start because of tonsilitis, but he is recovered now and with a year's experience should have a strong season. Herb Adderley played defensive halfback for most of last season with a separated bicep in his right arm. Minus such injuries, the Packers figure to improve on their 1967 performance. And there are other significant pluses.
At quarterback, Starr is in a class reserved for him and for John Unitas. They are the best in the business and seem likely to remain so through 1968. Behind Starr, Zeke Bratkowski is the most efficient No. 2 extant. He and Starr are close friends and spend much of their free time watching Packer movies together so that in football philosophy (and, oddly enough, in physique and personality) they are almost carbon copies. For one not familiar with the club, it would be difficult to differentiate between Starr and Brat.
In the third slot probably will be rookie Bill Stevens. "We'll carry three quarterbacks," Bengtson says. "In this day I can't conceive of getting along with fewer." Stevens is the young man sitting in the wings in the Lombardi system, a system in which there is a young man waiting quietly behind almost every veteran.
The young men have stepped up at the running-back spot, where Green Bay has what must be the strongest set of backs in all of pro football. Donny Anderson moved ahead strongly during 1967 and is running with more confidence and with the same long, loping stride which gives him such speed and maneuverability. Grabowski has lost none of his quickness since his injury. He and Anderson probably will be the Packer starters, backed up by Pitts, Williams and Chuck Mercein. Ben Wilson, acquired from the Rams, is recuperating from a March knee operation but might be healthy enough to add depth to the offensive backfield.
The receivers have not changed. Boyd Dowler, Carroll Dale and Marv Fleming started in 1967, should again in 1968, although there is more pressure on them than on the runners. Bob Long, a promising young receiver, was traded to the Atlanta Falcons since the Packers already had Dave Dunaway and Claudis James backing up Dale and Dowler. Fleming will have to contend with the bid of Fred Carr, Green Bay's No. 1 draft choice. Carr could force Fleming into playing up to a potential he has never reached, or replace him late in the season. Max McGee has retired and he will be missed, but, if Bengtson feels he needs another deep receiver, he can always call on Anderson and relieve the congestion at running back. Blanton Collier, the Cleveland coach, says, " Anderson is not a good receiver. He's a great one."
An indication of the importance Lombardi and Bengtson have placed on the offensive line over the years is evidenced in the fact that a majority of the blocking linemen on the Packer team were first draft choices. Second-year man Bob Hyland, who is pressing Center Ken Bowman, was a first in 1967; Gale Gillingham, Francis Peay (obtained from the Giants in an off-season trade for Linebacker Tommy Crutcher and Tackle Steve Wright) and rookie Bill Lueck have all been firsts at one time or another.