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Cliff Christl column: Robinson set Packers on path to glory

Game-changing plays keyed Lombardi-era title runs

Feb. 2, 2013
 

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Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke (66) and defensive end Lionel Aldridge (82) tackle a Los Angeles Rams ball carrier at Lambeau Field on Sept. 25, 1966. Packers linebackers Lee Roy Caffey (60) and Dave Robinson (89) are at left. The Packers won 24-13. Press-Gazette archives

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Cliff Christl was one of the 46 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee who voted on the candidates Saturday following an eight-hour meeting.

NEW ORLEANS — Vince Lombardi often repeated that football games were decided by two or three key plays.

If that’s true — and who are we to disagree with him? — each team’s season figures to boil down to a handful of plays in two or three big games.

Carry that premise a step further and if not for Dave Robinson, the Green Bay Packers might not have made history by winning three straight NFL championships under Lombardi from 1965 to ’67. What’s more, Baltimore and San Francisco might be playing Sunday for something other than the Lombardi Trophy.

Robinson joined the Packers five years into Lombardi’s reign and that might help explain why he had to wait until Saturday, nearly 40 years into his retirement, to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he certainly had as much impact as any of the other five Hall of Famers on the great Packers’ defenses of that era.

The late Phil Bengtson, who ran Lombardi’s defense for nine years and then succeeded him as head coach, told me in 1986 that he would rate Robinson the Packers’ second best defender during that period behind only Ray Nitschke.

The late Dave Hanner, both a player and defensive coach during the Lombardi era, told me in 2004 that he thought Robinson was even better than Nitschke.

Here’s even higher praise: In terms of size and athletic ability, Robinson was Lawrence Taylor before there was a Lawrence Taylor. The one big difference between them was that Taylor was a nonpareil pass rusher, whereas Robinson played mostly laterally or backpedaling in coverage.

“Comparing him to Lawrence Taylor is a pretty accurate way of explaining how good Dave was,” Pro Football Hall of Famer and former NFL head coach Raymond Berry said in an interview two weeks ago. “Those two guys were as good as it gets.”

During his 10 seasons as a starter — eight in Green Bay and two in Washington — Robinson played on three NFL championship teams, three other playoff teams and defenses that ranked (in order starting in 1964) 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 3rd, 4th, 13th, 9th and 2nd.

The Packers seldom blitzed during the Lombardi years and Robinson, who played on the left side in all but his first full season as a starter, almost never did. His forte was taking on tight ends and playing the run.

Robinson’s role in pass coverage was particularly impressive given that Tom Brown, the Packers’ strong safety and the other defender most responsible for covering tight ends during Lombardi’s three-year title run, was regarded as a much better tackler than pass defender.

When Robinson was playing on the left side, Hall of Fame tight ends John Mackey and Mike Ditka did almost nothing against the Packers.

In eight games against them from 1965-’69, at the height of his career, Mackey caught 23 passes for 209 yards. That’s an average of 2.9 catches and 26 yards per game. In six games between 1965 and ‘72, Ditka caught a total of 9 passes for 86 yards, an average of 1.5 per game and 14 yards.

Those staggering numbers reflect on Robinson’s consistency. But it was his huge plays in the 1965, ’66 and ’67 seasons that had the most impact. In fact, Robinson might have made the single biggest play during each of those three championship journeys.

On Dec. 12, 1965, the Packers trailed the Baltimore Colts by a half-game with two to go in the regular-season. Lose and the Packers would have been eliminated from the postseason back when only the two conference champions qualified.

With less than a minute to play in the first half, the Colts had the ball at the Packers’ 2-yard line with a chance to take a 20-14 halftime lead. But Robinson leaped high in the air to intercept a second-down pass and returned it 87 yards to the Colts’ 10. The Packers scored a touchdown on the next play, turning the tide back in their favor and rolled to a 42-27 victory.

“It was a 14-point play and the turning point,” Lombardi said at the time.

The Packers wound up tying the Colts for the conference title and then beat them again in a playoff before scoring a convincing victory over Cleveland for the NFL championship.

A year later in the NFL title game, Dallas trailed the Packers, 34-27, with 45 seconds remaining and had the ball at the Packers’ 2-yard line with a chance to force overtime.

When quarterback Don Meredith rolled right, Robinson chased him down, swallowed him up and left him with one option: To toss the ball up for grabs. When it landed in Brown’s arms in the end zone, the game was over.

“We had never run that to the right out of a brown-left formation,” Dallas backfield coach Ermal Allen said back then. “So he (Robinson) hadn’t seen it on the films or been told to watch for it. He just reacted properly and probably cost us the game.”

Two weeks later, the Packers won Super Bowl I.

In 1967, the Packers were home underdogs in a playoff game for the only time in their history. The NFL had added a layer to their playoffs that year so the Los Angeles Rams, winners of the Coastal Division with an 11-1-2 record, met the Packers, winners of the Central Division with a 9-4-1 mark, for the Western Conference title.

The Rams took an early lead and were poised to expand it to 10-0 when Bruce Gossett lined up for a 24-yard field goal attempt following a Bart Starr interception. But Robinson burst through, blocked the kick and the Packers went on to win, 28-7.

“If we score at all down there, we win,” George Allen, coach of the Rams, said after the game. “We’ve got the momentum and Starr has got to come to us.”

The Packers won the Ice Bowl the next week and Super Bowl II two weeks later.

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