The 1967 postseason – 22 days of glory spanning a chilly December and January – were perhaps Bart Starr’s career’s signature. He led a Green Bay Packers team that set an unmatched record with three consecutive NFL titles in the sport’s modern era.
It included what some still believe to be the greatest game in the history of football, the “Ice Bowl” – the 1967 NFL Championship Game.
It will forever be Bart Starr’s hallmark game, where his the best of his brilliant qualities reflected off the “frozen tundra” into football lore.
The ’67 regular season for Starr was one of his worst, as an incredible list of injuries led him to throw 17 interceptions, nine in his first two games. A defense that held opponents under 100 yards passing per game carried Green Bay in the season’s first half.
– Packers legend Bart Starr dead at 85 years old
– Gene Mueller’s blog: Bart Starr – A legend passes, another link to glory gone
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 1: A chase for perfection
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 2: Winning, not stats, defined Starr
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 3: Competitive fire and comebacks
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 4: 1967- Ice in his veins, fire in his heart
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 5: Post-Lombardi – his coaching failure and a moment of forgiveness
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 6: Kindness, presence, attitude, an impact of love
After getting healthy, he led the 9-4-1 Packers to a division title and the first postseason game in seven years where Green Bay was an underdog – a game on December 23 at Milwaukee County Stadium against the 11-2-1 Los Angeles Rams.
“Having lost to them, facing them in the playoff game was a great challenge to us,” Starr said. “I thought we had the exact pulse and exact primer to get into that game because of having been beaten by them.”
“We were really ready to play.”
Were they ever.
It was a textbook performance by the Packers on how to defeat a team’s strength. Starr called play after play that sent running backs romping behind Jerry Kramer and Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg, right through the heart of the Rams defense – Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen.
While second and third-string backs Chuck Mercein and Travis Williams surprised the Fearsome Foursome and rumbled for scores, Starr used the run to set up his own passing brilliance. He completed 74 percent of his passes for 222 yards and a touchdown to Carroll Dale that gave the Packers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. They eventually won, 28-7.
Eight days later, the Packers hosted the Dallas Cowboys in a rematch of the classic ’66 title game 364 days beforehand. Temperatures were expected to stay in the teens or the 20’s for a chilly, but not dangerously cold day.
The meteorologists were wrong. Very wrong.
“The alarm goes off, and the first thing I hear in a very sleepy state is, ‘It’s 13 below zero.’ I said, “It can’t be!’ ” uttered Mercein, a free agent Lombardi signed mid-season whom Starr trusted in some of the most critical moments of that day.
The cold proved to be the pretext for the ultimate climax for Vince Lombardi’s Packers, in a game that exposed the team’s, and Starr’s, greatest qualities.
As bright sunshine lifted the temperatures to -12 degrees, No. 15 dissected the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense,” one of the best units of the era. Two of this three first drives resulted in touchdown passes to Boyd Dowler: eight yards in the first quarter, 43 yards in the second quarter.
In just over 77 minutes of football against the Doomsday Defense that calendar year, Starr had thrown for 407 yards and six touchdowns without a turnover – the kind of productivity Aaron Rodgers would dream of.
Then, Doomsday reared its ugly head. For the next 38 minutes, they owned Starr and company.
In the following 10 Packers drives, Green Bay ran 31 plays, lost nine total yards and gained just two first downs.
Eight times, the Cowboys sacked Starr. They forced him into a second quarter fumble which became a scoop-and-score for the Cowboys’ George Andrie (who played college football at Marquette).
Dallas led 17-14 with 4:50 left in the game when the Packers got the ball on their 32 yard line. As cleats click-clacked on the grass-turned-marble terrain, and temperatures dropped even further in the sunset shadows of Lambeau Field, nightfall seemed to commence on the last days of the Green Bay Packers’ dynasty.
“As the offense moves onto the field, the defense came off. I remember Ray Nitschke imploring the offense, and the words he said were ‘Don’t let me down! Don’t let me down!’ ” Mercein told 620WTMJ in 2005.
“We had enough time. This was what we were trained to do. This was the culmination of all the hard work that we put in, all the preparation and all of Lombardi’s greatness as a coach.”
And Starr’s greatness as a quarterback.
Yet he had the struggles of a hard 1967 season on his mind. He also thought about the possibility that this would be their last shot at a championship, and their only shot at an unmatched third straight title – in the harshest winter conditions an NFL game has ever been contested in.
“We fought so hard, had been so diligent all year. ’67 was a tough year for us. We had a lot of injuries. Our record was not as good as the year before…all that feeds into your mind as you go ‘OK, this is it. This is showtime right here. It’s now or never.’ ” Starr told Jerry Kramer on his CD “Inside the Locker Room.”
“These were the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi…it wasn’t over until it was over. You always felt that Bart Starr could march that team down the field,” then-620WTMJ Packers voice Ted Moore said in a 2005 interview.
The fire for victory in Bart Starr’s heart at that moment belied the icy confidence he portrayed. With Starr calling the plays, Lombardi couldn’t be the general putting the Packers to the proverbial whip. He had to trust Starr had to be the leader.
After nearly a decade of mentoring his lieutenant, the Patton-like Lombardi gave Starr that trust.
Starr shared that trust and confidence with 10 green-clad men who would make NFL history – not only with the triumph in itself, but the iconic way they did it.
It started with Starr’s quiet glances of strength in the huddle before the first play.
“I distinctly remember the look in the eyes of the guys as we gathered for that last drive,” said Jerry Kramer, who became most famous for a block he threw on the last play.
“There wasn’t really a lot of conversation. There wasn’t a lot of shouting ‘We’ve got to go!’ (Starr) just looked into (our) eyes, and everybody knew precisely where we were, what we had to do, and when we had to do it.”
The “when” was now, and Starr’s mind, communication ability and accuracy led him to perfection when his team needed it the most. So did his recall of the Cowboys’ defensive tendencies.
“Building up to that, we had also been making mental notes on the sidelines of things they had been doing against us, and so we came back and called the plays which we felt were primed for that time based on how they had adjusted and doing some things. That’s exactly how it worked out,” said Starr.
Those things they were doing: linebackers dropping back in pass coverage, giving openings for short throws to running backs and receivers.
“Bart, he had that cool confidence of preparation. He was ready to play, kept his head at all times, and executed. He took what (the Cowboys) gave us. That was basically the reason for the little short dump passes, because he didn’t have time to throw it downfield and get the quick touchdown. We got it in chunks,” said Dale, one of his wide receivers.
The first of five Starr completions in five attempts during the drive involved such a strategy. He used two fake handoffs and the patience to wait to see his intended receiver, running back Donny Anderson, open before delivering a seven-yard gain.
After Mercein ran for a first down, Starr stayed with the philosophy of short throws away from the linebackers on a first down completion to Dowler.
“Bart would read the middle linebacker and throw away from him. He would throw to Carroll or me, based on where the middle linebacker went,” said Dowler in 2005.
It worked for 13 yards and a first down.
The Packers running game failed the next play, with Anderson being thrown to the rock-hard turf for a nine-yard loss.
Yet Starr and his teammates never lost hope or confidence.
“You look at second and 18. In those conditions, in that situation, pretty tough, but there was no panic. This is four-down territory. We’re not going to punt the ball. We’re going to get the first down,” said Kramer.
They did, as Starr’s play-action fakes and trust in the sure-footed Anderson created two completions which produced the first down. The plays placed the football at the Dallas 30 yard line with time ticking toward the final minute.
Then, two of Starr’s best qualities came to the forefront on the most important non-scoring plays of the drive: trust in his teammates and his innate sense for the perfect time to call a play.
“One of the things we had was always conversation. You’d hear different guys coming back in the huddle,” said Packers offensive tackle and co-captain Bob Skoronski in 2005.
“Bart was able to store this up and call it when he (needed) it. He’d go to the guy if it was the situation and say, ‘Have you still got (the play)? Is it still there?’ (We’d say,) ‘Yes it is.’ We were always playing the odds with what we gave to him during the game with good-percentage plays.”
“The people that Bart listened to were smart people,” added Dowler.
“Bart would listen to them. Bart wasn’t going to do something unless you gave him a good reason. You didn’t say, ‘Throw me the ball, or throw me a square out.’ You had to tell him why. Then he’d listen to you, and he would do it. He had a real good feel of what we were capable of doing, and he had a real good feeling for what we would do against the defense. He was always prepared.”
With that kind of culture of trust in the huddle established, Mercein, who had played with Starr for less than two months, had the guts to suggest a play to the legendary signalcaller.
“I came back to the huddle and did something I never did. I never had the audacity to suggest a play to Bart Starr, but this time I did. I said to him, ‘Listen. If you need me, I’m open in the left flat,’ ” said Mercein.
“That right linebacker, he’s taking a deep drop, a straight drop. I knew that any kind of a flare, circle pattern, I could get outside of this guy.”
Starr’s feel for his team’s capability, and what the Cowboys would keep doing on defense, made him realize that Mercein was right.
About 30 seconds after Mercein spoke up, Starr threw a rock-hard football his way, in the left flat. Mercein leaped to catch it, kept his footing on the ice and rumbled 19 yards to bring the Packers 11 yards away from football immortality.
Starr wouldn’t throw another pass all day, but two sets of decisions he made created an outcome that would define a football era.
With the clock now under a minute, he drew back in his memory from a series of film sessions that week.
The Packers discovered a tendency in Cowboys all-world defensive tackle Bob Lilly, one of the quickest defensive linemen in the game at the time, and possibly ever.
They found on game film that whenever he noticed a Packers guard pulling during a play, he would move in the same direction, reading the guard as a key for an outside run.
Starr, described in the original NFL Films recounting of the Ice Bowl as “a master of deception,” then called a play, 54 Give, which would turn Lilly’s quickness into an advantage for the Packers.
“What we developed before the game was a play where we pull the guard, but we’re not going to block (Bob) Lilly. We’re going to let him chase that guard. He chased him at an angle that was just very difficult for a guard to cut off. We just give the ball to the back,” said Starr.
Starr’s theory was that Lilly, reading the guard, would move away from an open hole at the scrimmage line, leaving it wide open for a running back to run through. However, he had to have a conversation with Skoronski about a key block – the kind of huddle conversation the Packers captain mentioned.
Starr described a critical, hard-to-make block he needed Skoronski to make on the Cowboys defensive end. That player could theoretically stop the running back in his tracks – if Lilly didn’t stay home to do the same.
“The defensive end is back, and head up, almost so he can cover for Lilly inside…very difficult (for Skoronski to block in the icy conditions). That’s why I asked Bob before we called the play, ‘Can you cut off Andrie?’ When Bob said, ‘Yes I can,’ no hesitation. We called the play.”
Starr’s hunch paid off. It was the perfect time to call the play, the only time the Packers could get away with it.
Without hesitation, Lilly ran to his left to follow his “key,” the pulling guard. Skoronski took care of Andrie.
Mercein skated through a huge hole to advance the ball to the three yard line.
Starr’s preparation, ability to read a defense, to trust his teammates and playcalling intuition had his team nine feet from paydirt.
One play later, Anderson made it three feet from paydirt – a first down on a frozen-solid one yard line with 30 seconds left.
The Packers had a much bigger problem traversing the last yard than they did the first 67 of the drive. On first down, Anderson failed to break the wall of Doomsday, and the Packers had to call their second time out.
“This has got to be sheer tension,” said Ted Moore on the 620WTMJ broadcast of the game.
For Mercein, the next handoff to Anderson could have produced a coronary.
“My heart almost stopped, because out of the corner of my eye I saw that Donny (Anderson) had slipped on takeoff. Bart had to hand him the ball at the height of a coffee table off the ground. We almost had a turnover.”
Credit Starr’s sure handoff in a difficult situation for saving the game, but with third down and their final time out called, the Packers had the most pressure-packed decisions of the Lombardi dynasty to make in the next two minutes.
Do you go for a field goal and the safety of an opportunity in overtime?
Do you go for a pass play into the end zone which, if incomplete, allows for a 4th down opportunity?
Or do you roll the dice and run the ball?
“As Bart came over to the sideline to talk to Vince Lombardi, we didn’t know whether they were going to have a field goal attempt or try to go in and win the football game,” said Moore, watching the climax to the Green Bay reign of professional football unfold through a few inches of unfrozen window space in the press box.
The next two minutes provided the greatest evidence of Starr’s courage, intelligence, creativity, trust and cool…along with a record-setting championship.
The first move was Lombardi’s. Run the ball. Darn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead. Trust in Starr and his offensive teammates.
The play call was Starr’s to make, and he chose 31 wedge, one based off trust in his team’s execution and an idea which spawned in a Thursday film session, based on a 6’6″ hunch by Kramer.
His day-long assignment was to block 6′ 6″ defensive tackle Jethro Pugh.
“I had suggested that Jethro Pugh was a lot higher (in his three-point stance) than Bob Lilly, and if we needed a wedge play (for the fullback to run behind a double-team block), we could wedge Pugh,” said Kramer.
“Coach Lombardi goes, ‘WHAT?!’ I jumped, of course. I said, ‘Um, um, um, um, I think we can wedge Pugh if we have to wedge somebody.’ (Lombardi yelled,) ‘Run that back!’ So he ran the projector back about three times. (He said,) ‘That’s right. Put in the wedge on Pugh.’ You don’t think on Thursday that they’re going to call your play with 16 seconds to go, behind, the whole thing!”
Starr believed in the play, in Kramer and in the rest of his teammates, but his cool head in the ultimate pressure situation processed more key information which convinced Lombardi to trust in his quarterback.
“I ran to the sidelines and I said, ‘Coach, there’s nothing wrong with the play. The (running) backs are having a difficult time starting. The ground is so hard down there. They can’t get to the line of scrimmage. They can’t get their footing for one more wedge play. I’m upright. I can shuffle my feet and lunge in,’ ” said Starr.
“Typical of (Lombardi) in this brutal time, he said, ‘Run it, and let’s get the hell out of here.’ ”
“When Bart turned and went out on the field, he was the holder for Don Chandler. Chandler stayed put on the sideline and we knew, we’ve got to do it now,” said Moore.
On the sidelines, cornerback Bob Jeter had no knowledge of the play Starr would run. He only knew that whatever the QB came up with would work.
“I didn’t have any doubt. I knew in some way, he was going to get us in there for that score,” said Jeter in 2005.
“When 15 was in there, you never know what he’s going to do.”
Reportedly, the other 10 members of the Packers offense didn’t know either.
Stories conflict as to whether Starr told his teammates whether he would keep the ball or not.
According to Kramer’s words to the Milwaukee Sentinel after the game, “(Starr) said ‘We are going to run a 31 wedge with the same blocking as always, except that I won’t hand off to either the halfback or the fullback.”
According to Mercein, “The next call’s going to be my call. It’s going to be the wedge, because we put it in for that particular team. I expected to hear ‘Brown right, 31 wedge,’ and sure enough, when Bart came back in the huddle, ‘Brown right, 31 wedge on two.’ I thought to myself, man alive, I’m going to get this touchdown.”
If Mercein’s story is true, only the man wearing No. 15 would know the complete plan for the next 15 seconds, with 16 seconds on the clock.
All of Starr’s knowledge, skill, confidence, trust and leadership then made its mark, in a few simple shuffles of his feet – thanks to a double-team block that began with Kramer’s furious forward charge.
“Bart called the play. I knew what I had to do,” said Kramer, who focused on a simple fundamental block at the most fundamentally important time.
“It’s a foregone conclusion what is going to happen. If I’m underneath Jethro and I’ve got my head up, my back straight, I am gonna move Jethro.”
“Here are the Packers, 3rd down, inches to go to paydirt. 17-14 the Cowboys out in front. Packers trying for the go-ahead score. Starr begins the count, takes the snap…” – Moore’s call on 620WTMJ
NFL Films video from above the south end zone stands shows Kramer moving exactly one frame before center Ken Bowman snapped the ball. He committed a false start by exactly .03 seconds, easily imperceptable to the human eye.
“Jethro did exactly what he had been doing the weeks previous. He came up, and at that point, the rest of it is history.”
After Bowman snapped the ball, he took advantage of Kramer’s incredible jump into Pugh’s chest, and sent Pugh’s upper body forward deep into the south end zone.
Starr simultaneously took the ball and simply stepped forward, cradling the ball with his arms and stomach to make sure a fumble couldn’t happen.
“I got some good footing,” said a temporarily flabbergasted Mercein. “I took off. I got a good takeoff, and lo and behind, Bart was not turning around to hand me the ball, and he had not told me that it was a keeper.”
Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley sprinted up the goal line and tried to puncture the ball from Starr’s right arm and stomach. Starr held strong in the sub-zero conditions, carried the football like the greatest treasure in his football life, and dove about three yards into the end zone to history.
“…he’s got the quarterback sneak and he’s in for the touchdown and the Packers are out in front, 20-17! There’s 13 seconds showing on the clock and the Green Bay Packers are going to be world champions, NFL champions for the third straight year!” – Moore’s call
In the initial seconds after Starr held Don Chandler’s extra point, NFL Films shows that perhaps he finally let go of the ultimate control and discipline that was so much the hallmark of his career. Apparently, he shed tears as he walked back to the sidelines to embrace his ultimate mentor and the 39 brothers he called his teammates.
His tears of struggle and joy were never counted by the statisticians.
The stat guys counted his 14 completions in 24 attempts, his 191 passing yards and the three touchdowns he produced with his arm and legs.
They couldn’t count his discipline, his preparation, his creative mind, his command in the huddle, his trust in his teammates, his fire for victory.
“This was the toughest and biggest game I’ve ever played in,” said Starr to the Milwaukee Sentinel.
It was not just Bart Starr’s last big game at Lambeau Field.
It was his finest.