The Ice Bowl and beyond: Packers legend Bart Starr's six greatest games
GREEN BAY - There’s no disputing the pinnacle of Bart Starr’s career as the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback.
Starr’s legendary game-winning drive against the Dallas Cowboys in the famed Ice Bowl was the culmination of the greatest era of Packers football.
Starr engineered the drive in the final 4 minutes, 50 seconds that embodied the discipline and poise of the Vince Lombardi era, which produced five world championships in seven years. Starr finished that 68-yard drive with a cold-blooded, all-or-nothing one-yard sneak for a touchdown with no timeouts left for what likely was the final play with only 16 seconds left. His touchdown gave the Packers the 21-17 win.
It’s the most famous play of the most famous game in the history of the franchise.
“That’s the sign of a champion,” Cowboys tackle Ralph Neely told the Green Bay Press-Gazette after the game. “They needed a score, and Starr got it for them.”
But Starr, whose death at age 85 was announced Sunday, had other highlights in a 16-year career that ultimately landed him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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He wasn’t a quarterback whose physical talents scared opponents, and he didn’t wow anyone with big statistics. But as the extension of Lombardi on the field, Starr ran the Packers’ offense with the sure hand and superior play calling of a well-prepared professional. And he lent an understated resolve and toughness that permeated the team.
Here are the top five other highlights from Starr’s career with the Packers:
Nov. 22, 1959
Starr’s first real win as Packers quarterback. Though the Packers had won three other games Starr had started in 1957, he’d shared significant playing time with Babe Parilli, and Parilli in fact led the game-winning scores in two of the three.
This day, though, was a watershed. It was Lombardi’s first season, and after starting 3-0 the Packers had lost five straight games. Lamar McHan wasn’t getting it done at quarterback, so Lombardi turned to Starr the previous week, and the Packers lost a competitive game (28-24) to a Baltimore Colts team that would go on to win the NFL title.
So Lombardi stuck with Starr for a home game against Washington even though the quarterback had sustained an eye injury against the Colts.
Starr’s numbers in the Packers’ 21-0 win were unimpressive – he put up only a 72.1 rating, completed 11 of 19 passes for only 120 yards and two touchdowns, and threw two interceptions.
But he led touchdown drives of 95, 50 and 79 yards, and threw touchdown passes of 11 yards to Gary Knafelc and 10 yards to Max McGee. His sound performance helped turn around the Packers’ season and future prospects.
“That’s some record, isn’t it?” the self-effacing Starr told the Press-Gazette after the game. “Be around four years and one victory.”
Starr started and won the next three games to close the season, so with the four-game winning streak the Packers finished 7-5, their first season above .500 since 1947. The next year, they advanced to the NFL title game.
“Bart has been getting better all the time,” Lombardi said after Starr’s first win. “But I don’t think anybody on this ball club has arrived yet. This is a real young ball club.”
Jan. 1, 1967
Starr’s performance in the Packers’ 34-27 win at Dallas for the NFC championship of 1966 was maybe the finest of his finest season.
By ‘66, the Packers no longer had the dominant run game that had been their bedrock for most of Lombardi’s tenure and were transitioning to a team that was winning with defense. So to a greater degree than in Lombardi’s first three title seasons, the offense was in Starr’s hands.
At age 32, Starr was at the height of his powers and the NFL’s MVP in the ’66 regular season. In leading the Packers to a 12-2 record, he produced a career-best regular-season passer rating of 105.0. His 14-3 touchdown-to-interception differential was extraordinary for that era, and he averaged a league-leading 9.0 yards per pass attempt, which is an indication that he hit for more than his share of big plays.
The title game at Dallas is most remembered for linebacker Dave Robinson pressuring Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith into throwing an interception in the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 2 that sealed the game in the final seconds. But in what was expected to be a low-scoring game at the Cotton Bowl, Starr was at his field-general best while putting up 34 points and 367 yards in total offense.
Starr had only six 300-yard passing games in his career, regular season and playoffs combined, and this (304 yards) was one of them. He threw four touchdown passes, no interceptions and had a 143.5 rating that was the best of his postseason career.
And the offense really was his. He called the plays.
“Starr was mixing his passes beautifully,” wrote Art Daley in the Press-Gazette after the game, “often throwing on first down and thus keeping the Dallas offense uncertain.”
Starr was one of the NFL’s great play callers and hit one of the game’s key plays that displayed his acumen – a surprise first-down throw in an era when the NFL still was a running game. His pinpoint deep pass to Carroll Dale just over the hand of Pro Bowl cornerback Cornell Green went for a 51-yard touchdown that put the Packers ahead 21-14.
Starr later hit Max McGee for a 16-yard touchdown pass over the middle after an effective play-action fake and rush-avoiding slide to his right.
“No one ever played a better game at quarterback than Bart Starr did today,” Mark Duncan, the NFL’s supervisor of official and a former defensive coach in the league, told the Milwaukee Journal after the game. “If anyone ever did, you’d have to show me, and I wouldn’t believe it.”
Jan. 15, 1967
Two weeks after that win in Dallas, Starr was named MVP of Super Bowl I with a vintage performance that displayed his cool command and efficiency.
Starr led the Packers to a 35-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs with a 116.2 rating (16-for-23 passing for 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception). He converted 11 of 13 third downs, and had a 68-yard touchdown pass to Carroll Dale called back because of an illegal motion penalty.
The game was close in the first half (14-10 Packers), but after Willie Wood intercepted Len Dawson early in the third quarter, the Packers broke it open.
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The most famous story about Super Bowl I is McGee, who at age 34 came off the bench to replace injured Boyd Dowler and caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. McGee allegedly was carousing the night before and broke curfew because he didn’t expect to play.
But Starr won MVP.
“The Packers, under the cool, intelligent marshaling of Starr, moved the ball almost at will,” wrote Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated.
Jan. 14, 1968
Starr also was named MVP of Super Bowl II because of his poised performance against the Oakland Raiders’ blitz-heavy game plan.
The Raiders put their share of pressure on Starr – they sacked him four times, according to Pro Football Reference – but Starr also hit them on hot reads for key completions.
“I love it when they blitz,” Starr told the Press-Gazette after the game.
His 96.2 rating (13-for-24 passing, 202 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions) isn’t eye-catching, but it included a 62-yard touchdown pass to Dowler and a Starr play-calling hallmark: going deep on third-and-one, this time for a 35-yard gain to McGee that set up another touchdown.
“Starr has used this ploy successfully many, many times in the NFL,” Maule wrote, “but it seemed to come as a complete surprise to the young Raiders.”
Starr’s composed, surgical performance embodied the Packers’ play as well.
“The Packers, protecting their image of invincibility in the clutch game, made a runaway of the second Super Bowl,” wrote Bob Valli of the Oakland Tribune.
Nov. 15, 1970
Starr’s last hurrah.
At age 36 and with a chronic shoulder injury, Starr led one final comeback win over the Packers’ great rival, the Chicago Bears, at Lambeau Field.
Starr hadn’t played the week before and didn’t know until he’d finished warm-ups whether he’d be able to start against the Bears. With a little more than 2:44 to play, he’d been stopped short on a fourth-down scramble, and it looked like the Packers would lose 19-13.
But he got a second chance with 1:40 to play, the ball on his own 20 and no timeouts. He coolly completed 5 of 7 passes that moved the ball to Chicago’s 3 with seven seconds to play.
During a timeout, Starr and coach Phil Bengtson decided on a run-pass option on what could be the game’s last play. When Starr rolled out to his right, his primary receiver, tight end John Hilton, was taken out of the play on a hit by linebacker Doug Buffone. But the collision also took Buffone out of the play too, and he had outside contain. So Starr had an easy jaunt to the end zone with three seconds left in the game.
Dale Livingston’s extra point gave the Packers the 20-19 win.
“One in 3 million quarterbacks could have done that,” Buffone said of Starr’s game-winning drive.
Starr for the game completed 23 of 35 passes for 220 yards, an interception and a 71.1 rating.
“Starr’s been the best,” said Jim Dooley, the dejected Bears coach, after the game.
Starr started the final five games in ‘70, but the Packers went 1-4. He had two surgeries on his shoulder in the offseason, played in only four games in ’71 before the shoulder gave out again, and after attending a minicamp in the spring of ’72 decided in July to retire.