Packers greats on Mount Rushmore would be Curly Lambeau, left, Brett Favre, Don Hutson and Vince Lombardi. / Jake Lovett illustration/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton looks for running room between Green Bay Packers Mark Murphy (37) and Mike Butler (77) on Nov. 15, 1981, at Lambeau Field. / File/Press-Gazette Media
Last summer, ProFootballTalk.com came up with an intriguing project: Choose a Mount Rushmore for every NFL team.
The pickings were slim for younger franchises such as Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina, Houston, Jacksonville and New Orleans. Even some longer-standing teams such as Washington and Philadelphia had surprisingly thin fields.
But the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, who meet Monday night for the 187th time (playoffs included), have storied histories that include 22 combined NFL championships and probably the best pools of Mount Rushmore candidates in the league.
Following are my picks for both teams. We’ll start with the Packers.
A no-brainer. Lambeau had plenty of faults — he was egotistical, vain and a habitual liar — but he also is the biggest reason the Packers’ franchise exists. He was one of the team’s founders and as de facto head of football operations supplied the drive to compete with the best teams in the country as the game grew from neighborhood and town teams in the late 1910s to a sport with national interest by the ’30s and ’40s.
Lambeau coached the Packers to six NFL championships, lost two other title games and in his first 27 years as coach had only one sub-.500 season. He also was an innovator and is credited with bringing the passing game from college football to the pros, and for being the first NFL coach to conduct daily practices and regular film sessions.
Another no-brainer. He might be the most renowned coach in the history of sports in the United States. Like Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, his name is a synonym for the best.
One of the transcendent players of the league’s first 25 years and the best player on three championship teams. He led the NFL in receiving in eight of his 11 seasons, held 18 NFL records when he retired and put up numbers that relative to his NFL contemporaries were in a class with Ruth and the NHL’s Wayne Gretzky.
When Hutson retired after the 1945 season, his NFL record 99 touchdown receptions and 488 catches overall were more than twice as many as the second man on each list, Johnny “Blood” McNally (37 touchdown catches) and Jim Benton (188 receptions), respectively. In 1942, Hutson’s 74 receptions led the league; No. 2 was the Chicago Cardinals’ Pop Ivy with 27.
Hutson’s Pro Football Hall of Fame biography also credits him as being the father of modern pass receiving because he created many of the basic routes that form the core of today’s route trees. The only caveat is four of his five highest reception totals came from 1942-45, when World War II diluted NFL talent. Still, his two highest averages per reception were in pre-war years (24.9 yards in 1939, and 23.3 yards as a rookie in 1935), as were two of his championships (1936 and ’39).
He was one of the most compelling players in NFL history because of his risk-taking mentality, on-field charisma, exceptional arm strength and durability. He also was the most important figure in the Packers’ transformation from the NFL’s Siberia in the 1970s and ’80s to one of the most successful franchises in the free-agency era.
In the Packers’ first 47 seasons in the NFL, they won 11 championships. In the 24 seasons from 1968 through 1991, they had no titles, only two playoff appearances and three winning seasons, and ranked No. 25 in winning percentage (.423), ahead of only three expansion teams from the ’60s and ’70s (New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay).
With Favre at quarterback from 1992 through his final season of 2007, the Packers had the league’s best record (.629 winning percentage), won one Super Bowl, lost in another, and qualified for the playoffs in 12 of 16 years.
Favre wasn’t the only reason for the turnaround — general manager Ron Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren and defensive end Reggie White also played leading roles. But if Wolf deserves credit for trading for Favre and putting together the roster, and Holmgren for developing Favre and coaching the team, Favre was the one who did it on the field year after year. He won three league MVPs, never missed a game once he became their starter, and holds NFL records for completions, passing yards, touchdown passes and wins for a starting quarterback.
The biggest name left off the list is Bart Starr. ProFootballTalk.com agreed on Lambeau, Lombardi and Hutson, but chose Starr instead of Favre. Its readers’ poll chose Starr and White over Lambeau and Hutson.
But they’re wrong. For all Starr has meant to the franchise, choosing Favre ahead of him is a relatively easy call.
Starr is a Packers legend for good reason and probably would be next if there were a fifth head on Mount Rushmore. He was the archetype of the field-general quarterback, cool under pressure and an excellent play caller when quarterbacks held that crucial role. He also won the most NFL championships, five, of any quarterback in NFL history.
But the 1960s Packers didn’t win because of Starr, and defenses didn’t game plan to stop him. The Packers of the ’60s, above all else, were Lombardi’s creation. Their championship teams of 1961, ’62 and ’65 won because they had outstanding running games — Paul Hornung was their best playmaker, though Jim Taylor excelled as well. The ’66 and ’67 teams won because of defense — the Packers ranked No. 1 in the league fewest points and yards allowed in ’66, and were first in yards and third in points in ’67.
Starr also was surrounded by exceptional talent and played with 10 Pro Football Hall of Famers. For all his intangibles, Starr had relatively limited athletic and arm talent, and NFL opponents such as former Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen knew it. After the Packers upset the Rams 28-7 in the Western Conference Championship in 1967, Allen lamented a blocked 24-yard field goal that would have put the Rams ahead 10-0 early in the second quarter. He in effect said that playing from two scores behind would have magnified Starr’s limitations.
“If we score at all down there, we win,” Allen said. “We’ve got the momentum, and Starr has to come to us.”
During the Favre era, on the other hand, the Packers won primarily because of him. Defensive game plans started with Favre. He was the team’s primary playmaker and turned players such as Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman into multimillionaires. Favre also played with only one Hall of Famer (White) yet had a 160-93 record as a starter (.632 winning percentage) under three coaches.
Several others also warrant at least mention as candidates for the Packers’ Mount Rushmore.
For instance, there’s a decent argument that a spot should go to someone such as George Calhoun or Andrew Turnbull as embodiment of an ownership structure that’s unique in major American sports and has allowed an NFL franchise to survive in this small city into the 21st century.
Calhoun, the former Press-Gazette sports editor, helped Lambeau found the team and served as its publicist and goodwill ambassador to major-city media for the franchise’s first 30 years. Turnbull, the former Press-Gazette publisher, helped keep the team afloat with loans to Lambeau in the early ’20s and was part of the “Hungry Five” who set up the team’s nonprofit corporate structure in 1923.
Either would represent the team’s community-owned structure that makes the Packers unique in the NFL. Of the 21 franchises in the league when the Packers joined in 1921, only three remain: the Packers, Bears and Cardinals. As teams from cities large and small came and went, the Packers remained because when they were in dire financial circumstances in 1923, 1935 and 1950, citizens in Green Bay and around the state bought stock to keep them solvent.
Several other candidates deserve at least a mention as well.
McNally, like Lambeau and Hutson, was in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s first class in 1963. He was the best playmaker on the Packers’ three straight championship teams from 1929-31. The only other team to win three straight titles was Lombardi’s Packers in the ’60s.
Cal Hubbard, a two-way lineman, and Clarke Hinkle, a fullback and linebacker, were premier players in the ’30s, but they were surpassed by McNally and Hutson, respectively.
Hornung, Ray Nitschke and Forrest Gregg were among the other stars in the ’60s. Packers scouts and assistant coaches from that era have said Hornung was the team’s most important player from ’60 through ’65. Lombardi in 1962 called Gregg the best player he ever coached, but Lombardi had a great appreciation for playmakers and likely was talking about Gregg’s skills relative to his position, not about his impact on a game.
Nitschke is one of only five Packers players to have his number retired, but he ranks behind at least Starr and Hornung from those ’60s teams.
Wolf, Holmgren and White would make any preliminary list for their roles in the ’90s. Chairman emeritus Bob Harlan also could for hiring Wolf and later Ted Thompson as general managers who started and then maintained the franchise’s renaissance in the ’90s.
And Aaron Rodgers will have a chance to challenge Favre’s spot, depending on how his career plays out. Rodgers, who turns 30 in December, has as many Super Bowl wins (one) and almost the same record as Favre after five-plus seasons as a starting quarterback — 58-27 in his first 85 starts, to Favre’s 57-28.
The Bears’ Mount Rushmore was tougher to pick and consists of George Halas, Walter Payton, Bronco Nagurski and Dick Butkus.
Halas, the team’s founder and longtime coach, is a no-brainer. Payton is the next-closest thing. Nagurski, a fullback and linebacker, was along with Hutson the NFL’s star of the ’30s and best player on Bears teams that won championships in 1932 and ’33 and went 13-0 before losing in the title game in ’34. Butkus was named the 10th-best player in NFL history in 2012 by a panel of 261 NFL scouts, coaches, historians and journalists, and personifies the Monsters of the Midway.
The hardest person to leave off was Mike Ditka, the Hall of Fame tight end who was a star on the Bears’ 1963 championship team and also coached their 1985 champs. Two rings and a name that’s been synonymous with the Bears for the last 50 years is hard to leave off, but Butkus was too good and tough a player.
Sid Luckman is a Hall of Fame quarterback who won three championships in the ’40s, and the Bears still are looking for a worthy successor. But his team excelled in the running game and had four Hall of Fame linemen. Gale Sayers was a comet who had five great seasons but loses out to Payton on longevity.
Also, Red Grange gave the fledgling NFL enormous credibility and publicity when he signed with the Bears in 1925, but his pro career fizzled because the team wrecked his knees on a brutal barnstorming tour after he’d finished his college career.
ProFootballTalk.com chose Halas, Payton, Butkus and Sayers. Its readers’ poll chose Halas, Payton, Butkus and Ditka.
— email@example.com and follow him @petedougherty.