Green Bay Packers' rich quarterback history keys franchise's success

Sep. 7, 2011
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be the team's best pure passer since Lynn Dickey.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be the team's best pure passer since Lynn Dickey. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette

If you’re looking for reasons why the Green Bay Packers have won more NFL championships than any other franchise and figure to be in the hunt for No. 14 this season, the place to start might be the quarterback position.

In 43 of their 90 seasons in the NFL, dating to 1921, the Packers have lined up with a Hall of Famer or sure-to-be Hall of Famer at either quarterback or as their principal passer in the days of the single-wing. That’s 47.2% of the time.

Only one other franchise tops that standard: Miami, which in its first 45 years of existence had either Bob Griese or Dan Marino at quarterback for 28 of them.

The Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts come extremely close at 46.6% with Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning having been starters in 27 of their 58 seasons, and the San Francisco 49ers aren’t far behind at 44% with Y.A. Tittle, Joe Montana and Steve Young having been starters in 27 of their 61 NFL seasons.

Perhaps it would be wise to make two points here.

Maybe the quarterback position hasn’t always been the most important in the game, but it has never been unimportant. And maybe those percentages are slightly skewed considering even Hall of Famers don’t play at a Hall of Fame level every year, but that’s true of all stats.

The bottom line is that the Packers’ ancestry of great passers has been a huge factor in their success.

They’ve had three Hall of Famers – Curly Lambeau, Arnie Herber and Bart Starr – and a fourth who’s a cinch to make it when he’s eligible, Brett Favre. They’re the ones who have accounted for those 43 seasons. But what’s even more impressive is that the Packers have had two others, Red Dunn and Cecil Isbell, who still warrant consideration from the Hall’s senior committee; and their current starter, Aaron Rodgers, is on pace to become a Hall of Famer.

Add those three to the mix and this would be the 56th season, one could argue, where the Packers’ leader on the field, at least bordered on being an all-time great.

Starr led the Packers to five of their record 13 NFL titles. Dunn led them to three, Herber to one and shared credit with Isbell for another, and Favre and Rodgers to one each.

Here’s a closer look:

• Lambeau, 1921-’26 – He’s best remembered for being the Packers’ co-founder and coach of six NFL titles, but he also was the team’s first star and the NFL’s first proponent of the passing game. The league didn’t start keeping statistics until 1932. Unofficially, Hall of Famer Benny Friedman and Lambeau were the only NFL passers who threw for more than 4,000 yards in the 1920s.

• Dunn, 1927-’31 – He led the Packers to three straight NFL titles from 1929-’31, and he also led the Chicago Cardinals to the 1925 championship. Dunn probably hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves because he was a quarterback in Lambeau’s Notre Dame box offense, and the quarterback was usually a blocking back in that scheme.

• But Lambeau used a different variation of the box when Dunn played to take advantage of his versatility. Dunn lined up close to the center and operated much like a T-quarterback, calling signals, passing and handing the ball to other backs. When he retired in 1931, he was second in league history to Friedman in passing yards and touchdown passes.

• Herber, 1932-’37, ’39 – Herber led the NFL in both passing yards and touchdowns three times over those seven seasons, including 1936 when the Packers won the NFL title. He and Isbell combined for more than 1,800 passing yards and 14 TD passes when the Packers won again in 1939.

• Isbell, 1938-’42 – If Isbell hadn’t retired after five seasons to become a college coach, he’d almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame. He and the legendary Sammy Baugh were contemporaries and in the five years they were in the league together, Isbell threw for more yards and more TDs and garnered more all-league honors. He led the NFL in passing in his final two seasons and was the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Don Hutson rated Isbell a better passer than Herber.

• Starr, 1957, ’59-’71 – He’s the all-time NFL leader among quarterbacks with his five league championships – one more than Dunn, Sid Luckman, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.

• Favre, 1992-’07 – He shattered two of the most prestigious NFL career passing records: yards (71,838) and touchdowns (508).

• Rodgers, 2008-’10 – After just three seasons as a starter, he holds the NFL records for highest passer rating (98.4) and highest post-season passer rating (112.6).

Consider, too, that the above list didn’t even include Irv Comp, who led the Packers to an NFL title in 1944, one of his four years as the team’s featured tailback before Lambeau finally converted to a form of the T in 1947; Tobin Rote, the Packers’ starter from 1950-’56 who later led Detroit to the 1957 NFL title and San Diego to the 1963 AFL title; and Lynn Dickey, who started for eight years in the 1970s and ‘80s and might have been the most picture perfect passer in club history, at least until Rodgers came along.

But those three, as good as they were, are mere afterthoughts in making the case that the storied Packers deserve yet another indisputable tribute: “The Cradle of Great Passers.”

Correspondent Cliff Christl is a former Packers beat writer and sports editor for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

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