50 years ago, Starr shined in epic NFL title game

Gary D'Amato
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
View Comments
Bart Starr had one of the greatest playoff games ever by a quarterback against the Cowboys in the 1966 NFL championship game.

Even Green Bay Packers fans born decades after the 1967 NFL Championship Game can recite facts about the “Ice Bowl,” which has attained near-mythic status as the pinnacle victory of the 1960s Packers.

The game featured unthinkable cold, a back-and-forth struggle between Vince Lombardi’s proud but aging Packers and the upstart Dallas Cowboys and, of course, Bart Starr’s heroic game-winning plunge – the most famous play in franchise history then and now.

Grainy film footage of players slipping on the icy Lambeau Field turf and the Packers’ determined final drive, paired with the dulcet tones of NFL Films narrator John Facenda, helped turn the 21-17 victory into a romanticized symbol of Lombardi’s dynasty.

Three hundred sixty-four days earlier, however, those same two teams – in fact, better versions of those teams – engaged in an epic battle that was every bit as dramatic and at least as important as the Ice Bowl.

Sunday will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1966 NFL Championship Game, which was played Jan. 1, 1967, before a sellout crowd of 74,152 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and broadcast to a national television audience by CBS.

Though Green Bay won, 34-27, behind an all-time great performance by Starr, it’s safe to say most modern-day Packers fans know little, if anything, about the game.

“I tell people if you want to analyze all the great games in NFL history, you have to include that game in the Cotton Bowl,” said Bob Long, then a third-year wide receiver with the Packers. “(Linebacker) Dave Robinson and I get together all the time and we talk about that game.

“That was one game that I really think back upon. The fans might not talk about it much but the players still do, I can tell you that. We remember.”

The background

Dallas, an expansion team in 1960, never had a winning season until it went 10-3-1 in 1966 behind an explosive offense led by quarterback Don Meredith and powered by all-purpose back Dan Reeves, fullback Don Perkins and receiver Bob Hayes, a former Olympic sprinter and the fastest man in the NFL.

“Bob Hayes in the slot, he was the scariest guy in the world,” said Zeke Bratkowski, Starr’s trusty backup. “They had a lot of other good people, too.”

The Cowboys were young in 1966, with only  four players on the roster older than 30, and led the league in scoring at 31.8 points per game. An argument can be made that it was among the best offenses of the Dead Ball Era (pre-1978, when the league made rules changes to promote scoring).

The Packers went 12-2, losing only to San Francisco by one point and to Minnesota by three. With nine future Hall of Famers on a veteran-laden roster, Green Bay was aiming for its fourth NFL title in six years.

The ’66 season marked the end of the two-conference alignment used by the NFL since the initial championship game in 1933; realignment into divisions and the first playoff games would occur in 1967.

Don Meredith (17) was in the seventh season of his Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys when Dallas and Green Bay went toe-to-toe in the 1966 NFL championship game.

It also was the beginning of the Super Bowl era, with the winner of Packers-Cowboys earning the right to represent the old guard against the American Football League’s champion in the first AFL-NFL Championship Game.

The Cowboys by then boasted a huge fan base spread across the Deep South and were on their way to becoming “America’s Team.” The NFL Championship Game at the Cotton Bowl was, at the time, the biggest professional sports event ever held in the South. The Packers had played in Dallas only one time previously, in 1964.

“I was a young kid, and playing in the Cotton Bowl was a big deal for me,” said Long, a two-sport standout at Wichita State. “For old-timers, that was one of the great stadiums. It still is.”

Lombardi took the Packers to Tulsa, Okla., in the week leading up to the game in hopes his team would get some quality work done in better weather. An ice storm scuttled that plan.

“We practiced at (the University of) Tulsa and they had to hook up something to the back of a Cadillac to get the ice off the field,” Bratkowski said. “(Kicker) Don Chandler was from Tulsa and everybody got on him about the ‘good weather.’ Then we went to Dallas and practiced where they had the exposition. We practiced inside on concrete floors, with a low ceiling.”

It was not the ideal way to prepare for the Cowboys, who had won five of their last six regular-season games and were brimming with confidence.

“We were not intimidated by the Packers,” said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Renfro. “As a matter of fact, we felt very strongly that we were the better team.”

The game

Contrary to popular belief, the Packers did not have a good rushing game in 1966. Aging fullback Jim Taylor led the team with 705 yards but averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. Elijah Pitts averaged 3.4 and Paul Hornung, playing less and less because of a damaged shoulder, averaged 2.6.

Lombardi knew it would be difficult to run against the Cowboys’ gapping defense, led by Hall of Fame tackle Bob Lilly and coached by Tom Landry, one of the greatest defensive innovators in NFL history. So he shelved his signature play, the power sweep, and put the game in Starr’s hands.

"Coach Lombardi, his philosophy was to take what they give you," said receiver Carroll Dale. "If they came up eight in the box, he would throw on every down if he needed to."

Said Bratkowski, “We had probably the best game plan I’ve ever seen and we executed it extremely well. It was nothing extravagant, but the things we did, we did very well.”

On the first play from scrimmage, Pitts broke loose for a 32-yard run on a misdirection play the Cowboys had not seen on film. A few plays later, Pitts scored on a 17-yard pass from Starr. Then Renfro fumbled the ensuing kickoff and rookie fullback Jim Grabowski picked up the bouncing ball on the 18-yard line and ran in untouched. Just like that, it was 14-0.

“I just flubbed it,” Renfro said. “I returned kickoffs for three or four years and that’s the only one I fumbled.”

But the Cowboys weren’t finished. Far from it. Before the first quarter was over, they had stormed back to tie the score on Reeves’ 3-yard run and Perkins’ 23-yard burst.

The Packers broke the tie on the third play of the second quarter, when Starr connected with Dale for a 51-yard touchdown over the head of cornerback Cornell Green.

“Cornell Green was an outstanding defensive back,” Dale said. “He was hard to get behind. On that play, I ran a post pattern, made it look like I was going outside and then went down the middle. Bart had to guess and anticipate where I was going to be. Green recovered sufficiently and went for the ball and it glanced off his arm. It kind of hit me in the crook of my right arm and just stuck. I never broke stride.”

Dallas responded with a 68-yard drive to the Packers’ 4 but had to settle for a field goal by Danny Villanueva. In the third quarter, Cowboys defensive back Warren Livingston recovered a fumble by Pitts, and Villanueva kicked another field goal to cut the Packers’ lead to one point, 21-20.

But on Green Bay’s next drive, Starr completed a 40-yard pass to Dale and then threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Boyd Dowler to make it 28-20. Late in the final period, Starr completed a 16-yard pass to Taylor on third and 12, then threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Max McGee on third and 19. Lilly blocked Chandler’s extra point but the Packers led, 34-20.

“Then they put Frank Clarke in and went to the spread,” Robinson said. “He was a tight end and we didn’t adjust. Instead of bringing (cornerback Bob) Jeter over to cover him we tried to cover him with a strong safety. Frank Clarke ate him up. If we had made the adjustment we should have made, it wouldn’t have been close.”

Clarke, a native of Beloit, caught three passes for 102 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown bomb on third and 20 that made the score 34-27.

The Packers tried to run out the clock on their next possession, but linebacker Dave Edwards sacked Starr, Willie Townes broke up a screen pass and Taylor was stuffed for a loss. Chandler’s punt went only 17 yards and the Cowboys took over on the Packers’ 47 with 2 minutes 12 seconds left.

That set up one of the most dramatic finishes in NFL postseason history.

The final play

The Cowboys drove quickly to a first-and-goal at the 2, with the big plays a 21-yard pass from Meredith to Clarke and a pass interference penalty on Packers safety Tom Brown.

Reeves gained one yard on first down, then a false start moved Dallas back to the 6. Reeves, who had been scratched in the eye but stayed in the game, dropped a pass in the flat. On third down, Meredith found tight end Pettis Norman for a 4-yard gain, bringing the ball back to the 2.

On fourth down, Meredith rolled right and Robinson recognized the play from his film study, brushed aside Hayes and chased down the quarterback.

“He really broke his assignment,” Bratkowski said of Robinson. “You can win with smart people, people who prepare and have confidence.”

As Meredith was being tackled, out of desperation he flipped the ball sidearm into the end zone and into the arms of Brown.

“There was nobody around Tom,” Robinson said. “Hayes was the nearest Cowboy but he’d run out of bounds and come back in, so he wasn’t eligible.”

Had Dallas scored, the game likely would have gone into overtime, and who knows what would have happened?

“Tom and I always say that we conspired to name the Super Bowl trophy,” Robinson said. “If we hadn’t won that game and Dallas went to the Super Bowl, they probably would have beaten Kansas City and it would have been the Tom Landry Trophy (instead of the Vince Lombardi Trophy).

“Doesn’t sound right, does it?”

Coach Vince Lombardi is carried off the field after his Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 in the NFL championship game Jan. 1, 1967 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Packers went on to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl.

Starr's finest hour

Starr is viewed by many today as a “game manager,” an extension of Lombardi on the field who handed off to Hall of Fame running backs, rarely made mistakes and was a poised leader.

Those things are true, but they do a disservice to him as a passer of the ball. Never was that more evident than in the 1966 NFL Championship Game. Against a great Landry-coached defense, he completed 19 of 28 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. His quarterback rating was 143.5.

In his recap of the game, Chuck Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal quoted Mark Duncan, supervisor of officials for the NFL, as saying, “No one ever played a better game at quarterback than Bart Starr did today. If anyone ever did, you’d have to show me, and I wouldn’t believe it.”

Starr went 10-1 in postseason games and remains the only quarterback to have won five NFL titles. He was MVP of the first two Super Bowl games.

“Bart Starr has five rings,” Long said. “That’s what they measure.”

Starr’s career postseason quarterback rating of 104.8 remains No. 1 all time, according to Pro Football Reference. For comparison’s sake, Aaron Rodgers is No. 5 at 98.2, Joe Montana is No. 6 at 95.6, Tom Brady is No. 15 at 88.0 and Brett Favre is No. 18 at 86.3.

“In his prime, I don’t think there was anybody better than Johnny Unitas,” Renfro said. “I think the best quarterback of all time is Joe Montana. But Bart was right up there.”

“I don’t think there’s any question about Bart being in the top 10 and maybe the top five,” Dale said. “Of course, the game has changed over the years. They’re throwing more now and so on, but as far as having a feel for the game, being a student of the game, knowing his receivers and being able to read defenses, Bart has to rank among the best.”

Starr didn’t have a big arm, but Long said the quarterback was precise and threw a “catchable” ball.

“I want to tell you, as a receiver, he threw an easy ball to catch,” Long said. “It was very accurate, very soft into your hands. No matter what you did, if you were open a small bit the ball was right there. In my opinion, Bart was the most accurate quarterback of all time.”

Starr’s career completion percentage of 57.4% is about 10 percentage points lower than what is considered exceptional today, but Bratkowski said that number was deceiving.

“It’s unfair to compare percentages because in those days the defensive backs would undress the receivers downfield,” he said. “A lot of times a guy wasn’t open because he was just being abused by the defensive back. Now, with the 5-yard (bump rule), it makes a big difference. That’s why percentages are up to 65%.

“Bart was a passer of the ball. There’s a lot of people who can throw things, but not a lot can pass it. He was so fundamentally sound. He threw on great rhythm; his foot rhythm was the same way on every pass. Our receivers knew that they better not break off their routes because Bart was going to go through his progression and throw it where they were supposed to be.”

Finally, Starr played in an era in which quarterbacks could be hit in the knees, smashed in the helmet and rag-dolled to the turf with no repercussions. Favre’s toughness is legendary, but he had nothing on Bryan Bartlett Starr, who has suffered significant physical setbacks in recent years.

Starr turns 83 on Jan. 9.

“He took a lot of sacks, unfortunately,” Dale said. “Bart would never avoid contact. Today’s philosophy is going out of bounds or sliding; it would have extended his career and maybe his life. He thought it was a show of cowardice or a lack of manhood to run out of bounds. We tried to tell him, ‘Look, you’re too important to the team. Don’t be hitting Dick Butkus head on.’

“He had the courage, no doubt about that.”

And on Jan. 1, 1967, he put on a show in the Cotton Bowl that isn't remembered by many but will never be forgotten by few.

View Comments