14 days after the Green Bay Packers won arguably the greatest game in pro football history, they had to turn around and play Super Bowl II against the Oakland Raiders in temperatures 73 degrees warmer than the Ice Bowl.
It was the final game of the Vince Lombardi era in Green Bay, though Bart Starr and his teammates didn’t know it.
What Starr knew was that after the greatest battle of their football lives, “we were tired. You have to work hard to overcome that. We were almost up to Friday (two days before Super Bowl II) before we were getting to where we thought we needed to be.”
– 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
On the field that Sunday afternoon in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium, they weren’t necessarily where they needed to be in terms of energy and passion. Though they mostly had control of the game, leading 16-7 at halftime, their effort was workmanlike – not Lombardi perfection.
Starr was having his typical solid day, with daring and playcalling brilliance leading to the Packers’ only touchdown. The NFL had seen Starr deliver play-action bomb touchdown passes on a regular basis for eight years. The Raiders hadn’t – until Starr Boyd Dowler victimized them for a 62-yard touchdown that put the Packers in command.
Command, though, was not enough of a tribute to the coach they sensed was leading them for the last time in Green Bay.
They did. Inspired by Kramer’s short oratory, Starr completed three first downs on a key third-quarter drive, including another play action bomb of 35 yards to Max McGee – his final catch as a Packer. The throws set up Donny Anderson to run in a touchdown that clinched a 33-14 victory and a ride for Lombardi on the shoulders of Kramer and Forrest Gregg to the dressing room.
Starr won the MVP award for that Super Bowl – his second such accolade in as many years.
In 379 days, Starr produced arguably the greatest such run of postseason brilliance for any quarterback in NFL history.
The stats: 79-122 (64.7% completion percentage), 1,169 yards, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, a passer rating of 116.5.
The hardware: Two Super Bowl championships, two Super Bowl MVP’s.
No quarterback in the Super Bowl era not named Tom Brady can match Starr’s combination of championships, personal accolades and statistical postseason brilliance.
Then, Vince Lombardi left – and so did the Packers’ championship legacy.
Phil Bengston, Lombardi’s defensive coordinator, took over the role. He could never fill Lombardi’s shoes.
Starr and his championship-era teammates were aging. Green Bay couldn’t replenish its roster fast enough to provide new weaponry for the old master.
He felt even more the wear and tear of playing quarterback in the rough-and-tumble 1960’s NFL, where rules didn’t protect the signalcaller as they do today. Due to injury, Starr would miss 20 of the Packers’ 56 games in his final four years as quarterback.
While he couldn’t recapture the glory of previous years, he did have one most special moment of glory – more as a man than as a football player.
It happened on a visit Vince Lombardi made to his home in 1970 – the last time Starr saw his former coach until he was hospitalized on his deathbed with cancer.
“He came over to visit Cherry and me as he was leaving town to go to Washington. He came into our den. We began chatting, and he was thanking us for the contributions we made. (Starr’s wife) Cherry was quickly inserting ‘No, we’re the ones to be thanking you for all of us.’ The more we spoke, the more he teared up. You could see he was very emotional,” Starr said in 2012.
“As we finished there in the den and walked in the front door to leave, he was literally crying.”
His last game, on Dec. 19, 1971, happened where Starr had his last great day of glory nearly four years beforehand. He had a subpar 13-22 outing for 126 yards in a loss to Super Bowl-bound Miami at the Orange Bowl Stadium.
Starr retired during training camp in 1972, but the Packers hired him on as quarterbacks coach for a year. That season, the Packers won the NFC Central championship with a 10-4 record. In 1973, he moved to doing TV color commentary of NFL games on CBS-TV, and the Packers’ record went south, leading to the firing of Dan Devine as head coach at the end of the 1974 season.
Starr and his former team then both decided to take a leap of faith, similar to the one Lombardi took in choosing Starr as starting quarterback in 1960.
However, the decision to hire him as head coach of the Green Bay Packers was one perhaps both sides regretted. Starr even admitted his own understanding of the lack of coaching experience he had.
“They’re taking a big gamble in hiring a someone as lacking in coaching experience as I am,” said Starr to the Milwaukee Journal.
He also said love and loyalty contributed to the move, perhaps the only major career move that backfired in Starr’s life. “Seeing this ball club slip has hurt.”
Starr’s player and draft pick cupboard was bare, due to horrific player personnel moves in the early-to-mid 1970’s. His teams suffered three consecutive losing seasons and sub-.500 records in five of his first seven years at the helm.
In 1982, the Packers finally put it together, with Starr helping mentor Lynn Dickey into one of the best quarterbacks in football. He was surrounded by a receiving corps that Starr would have dreamed of as a player, with James Lofton, John Jefferson and Paul Coffman all earning Pro Bowl nods while in Green Bay.
The Packers went 5-3-1 in a strike-shortened season and earned their first playoff win since Starr won Super Bowl II as a player.
The next year, the final bright light of Starr’s coaching tenure happened as the Packers battled Washington, the defending world champion, on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field.
On that day, the Packers offense approached the perfection of Starr’s playing days and beyond, putting up 48 points on the world champions. Though their defense was riddled, Green Bay held on for a scintillating 48-47 triumph that still goes down as one of the great games in the history of Monday Night Football, and perhaps Packers history.
Hope that “The Pack is Back” fell flat on its face in the latter stages of 1983. Fighting for their playoff lives, the Packers lost three of their final five games by a combined 11 points, including one loss in overtime and the final loss coming to the Chicago Bears in the season finale. That happened when Starr chose not to call time outs late in the game while the Bears, deep in field goal range and trailing by one, had a near-guaranteed field goal coming in the final minutes.
“This is the most discouraging defeat I’ve ever experienced,” Starr told the Milwaukee Sentinel that December 18th.
A greater discouragement came the next day, when, as author Keith Dunnavant recounted in “Bart Starr: America’s Quarterback and the rise of the National Football League, team president Judge Robert Parins walked into Starr’s office and, without explanation, thanks or well wishes, fired him.
Nine years of coaching could not produce the success that 16 years as a player did in Green Bay.
Starr cried, just as he cried tears which froze on the tundra of Lambeau Field after the Ice Bowl victory. This time, though, it was tears from failure.
294 days later, Starr returned to Lambeau Field for a reunion of the Super Bowl I Packers during a nationally-televised Packers-San Diego Chargers game. He would be among the dozens of men to be individually introduced to the crowd that day.
It would have made sense for Starr to be apprehensive about returning to a possible chorus of boos for his coaching failure.
Instead, as Dunnavant recollected, a chorus of cheers rained down upon him. Cheers for his record-setting legacy of championships. Cheers for his incredible sense of dignity and personal compassion. Moreover, cheers of forgiveness for a job he was not equipped to do, but for which he tried with the same discipline, passion and demand for victory he gave everything in his life – a personal demand that went unfulfilled.
Perhaps Starr’s tears dropped again on the grass at Lambeau Field, just like they did after the Ice Bowl touchdown, as the ovation came that late afternoon. Tears that said it was OK that he wasn’t the coach Packers fans hoped for, because he was loved for the man he was.