In Green Bay, where the Packers (see cover) are gods and Vincent Lombardi is their prophet, the parishioners are getting a little edgy. A stranger in the King's X bar and restaurant one night recently had the temerity to ask: "What's wrong with the Packers?" Conversation stilled, the bartender stopped stirring a martini and a waitress dropped a tray of dirty dishes. Finally one of the patrons placed his beer gently on the bar, fixed the stranger with a baleful eye and said, "Is there something wrong with the Packers?"
"There is nothing wrong with the Packers, "the patron said sternly." Wait."
Last year the same question would have been greeted with laughter, but now the true believers, who in their secret hearts ask the same question, react with a fierce defensive loyalty when someone else does.
Because, obviously, there is something wrong with the Packers. After three straight world championships and two Super Bowls, they are now—with the season nearly half over—possessed of a sad 2-3-1 record and are facing the not entirely cheering prospect of meeting the Cowboys in Dallas next Monday in the season's biggest game to date.
The fault is not, as is generally believed, that Vince Lombardi is no longer coach. Nor is it, as others say, that the Packers have collectively gone over the hill in their Cadillacs. Some of them are old, but theirs is a singularly robust old age. They miss Lombardi to a degree, but not to the point of collapse.
Although they are in trouble, the Packers are not dead—far from it. Their parlous state results from a number of problems, none insoluble. The first, and most serious, was a concentration of injuries at one position—defensive tackle. Then, when the tackles regained their health and the defense its accustomed puissance, Bart Starr, their All-Pro quarterback, pulled a muscle in his right arm warming up before a game with the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago. Zeke Bratkowski, his usually capable replacement, had an off day, throwing three interceptions and fumbling once. Yet the Rams still needed a late and questionable pass-interference call to beat Green Bay 16-14.
"It makes you feel like looking up at the sky and saying, 'Hey, up there, what did we do?' " said Guard Jerry Kramer, who was playing with a broken thumb, after the game. "I mean, how long is this going to go on?"
It started early. Bob Brown, a massive defensive lineman who can fill in at either end or tackle, broke his arm before the All-Star Game; Henry Jordan, the balding All-Pro tackle, came down with back miseries; Jim Weatherwax, who is the third defensive tackle behind Jordan and Ron Kostelnik, tore a cartilage and had a knee operation; soon thereafter Kostelnik went to the sidelines with a badly wrenched knee. This left Green Bay facing strong running teams such as Detroit and Minnesota with rookie tackles. It damaged the cohesion of the Packer defense against passes, too.
"It ruined our continuity," said Willie Davis, sounding a bit like Allie Sherman of the Giants. ' "With new men in the defensive line, the pass rush was off a little. That meant the quarterback was getting maybe an extra half second to throw the ball. Our defensive backs, in the past, have been able to play with some recklessness because they knew they wouldn't have to cover their man more than three, maybe three and two-tenths seconds. If the ball wasn't thrown by then, somebody on the defensive line would have the quarterback.