On July 11, 1967, the Green Bay Press-Gazette ran a story in its sports section with this headline:
“Vince tabs Hyland potential starter, retires Paul’s ‘5.’”
Vince was Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and Paul was Paul Hornung, the former Packers halfback who surprisingly had been selected by the New Orleans Saints in the NFL expansion draft earlier that year.
Hornung’s number, though, never was retired, for reasons unknown. The Packers can and should rectify that, though they probably won’t, at least any time in the relatively near future. And the fact it isn’t retired is emblematic of a widespread under-appreciation for Hornung’s career, even if he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For instance, in researching this column I came across a blog post on Bleacher Report that picked Hornung as the least deserving player in the Hall of Fame. The article was by Scott Kacsmar, a football analytics expert and assistant editor at Football Outsiders.
Let me say right here, Kacsmar and Football Outsiders do great work. The NFL play-by-play data they’ve compiled and the analyses they provide are excellent. Really good stuff.
But the conclusion about Hornung illustrates the limits of football analytics based on the limited stats available from 50 years or more ago. It just doesn’t work in this case, because you have to know Lombardi’s Packers extremely well to understand Hornung’s importance.
Looking only at the numbers, Kacsmar is right. Most of Hornung’s stats aside from scoring won’t impress anybody. He doubled as a placekicker for much of his career, led the league in scoring three times and until 2006 had the NFL record for most points in a season with 176, which he accomplished in 1960, when the league had only a 12-game season. That really was an impressive record.
But Hornung’s career high for rushing in a season was only 681 yards, and he never ranked higher than No. 7 in the NFL in rushing in a season. His numbers aren’t even close to those of Jim Taylor, his Hall of Fame teammate who topped the 1,000-yard mark five straight years (1960-64). And Hornung never even reached 1,000 yards rushing and receiving combined in a season.
Yet, Hornung was the most important player on Lombardi’s teams that from 1960-65 won three championships and went to another title game. Not Bart Starr or Taylor or Willie Davis or Ray Nitschke any of the other Hall of Famers (11 total, including Hornung) from the Lombardi era. Hornung.
Don’t believe it? Well, let’s start with Ron Wolf, the Hall of Fame general manager whose first draft running the Packers was in 1992.
When Wolf joined the Packers, three of the scouts he inherited had worked for Lombardi in Green Bay: Red Cochran, who was Lombardi’s backfield coach (quarterbacks and running backs) from 1959-66; Dave Hanner, who played for Lombardi and was Hornung’s teammate from ’59-64, then was the Packers’ defensive line coach starting in ’65; and Ray Wietecha, who played for the New York Giants from 1953-62, was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Rams in ‘63 and ‘64, and then joined Lombardi’s staff in ’65.
Wolf spent hours with all three, and they talked extensively about the Lombardi teams. Wolf once asked them, if all the players from the Lombardi era were available in the draft, who would be their first pick?
All three said Hornung.
“For them to give that kind of praise to a player, that’s remarkable,” Wolf said last week. “Think about all those (Lombardi-era) players.”
To understand how important Hornung was to the Packers, you have to know that Lombardi’s offense in the late 1950s and early ‘60s was built around having a left halfback with an uncommonly versatile skill set as a runner, receiver, passer and blocker. It’s a position that doesn’t exist in today’s NFL, and basically hasn’t for decades.
Lombardi’s first great left halfback was Frank Gifford, when Lombardi was the Giants’ offensive coordinator from 1954-58. Gifford also is a Hall of Famer and twice under Lombardi had more than 1,000 total yards. As Lombardi prepared for his first season with the Packers, here’s what he had to say about Hornung in a story from the Press-Gazette on April 13. 1959:
“Hornung is the guy who can make us go. He’s a key player, and much of our success will depend on him.”
And later in the story: “We know he can run and pass, but much will depend on how quick he is. Quickness in decisions on when to pass or run, and where to run. Gifford wasn’t fast, you know, but he can decide when to get up field in a hurry.”
Or this, from a story by noted NFL journalist Tex Maule in Sports Illustrated from Oct. 19, 1959, after the Packers had gotten off to a surprising 3-1 start:
“Lombardi, who was sold by Frank Gifford on big, strong halfbacks who can throw adequately, saw another Gifford in Hornung. He moved the handsome blond youngster from fullback to halfback, and Hornung responded beautifully. Lombardi still needs a good fullback, but in Hornung at halfback he has a tremendous running and passing threat which has jelled the Packer offense.”
Lombardi’s core play was the devastating power sweep, in which the left halfback ran to the right. (The weak-side sweep, with the fullback carrying to the left, was another important but different play).
But a key play off the power sweep was the option run-pass. Hornung’s passing numbers look meaningless — from ’59 through ’64 he averaged only nine passes a season — but his five touchdown passes and average of 17.1 yards per completion over that time give a better sense of its importance. It hit for some big plays, and just the threat of Hornung throwing enhanced the run game, because defenses had to honor it or risk giving up a game-changing completion.
In Lombardi’s two-volume book, “Vince Lombardi on Football,” which was published in 1973, Lombardi wrote of Hornung: “Paul may have been the best all-around back ever to play football.”
What Hornung’s career lacks are big numbers and longevity. His first two NFL seasons (1957 and ’58) were wasted on poorly coached and floundering Packers team. He excelled with Lombardi’s arrival, including winning the NFL MVP in ’61, and helped the coach win his first two titles (’61 and ’62).
In ’63 Hornung was suspended by the NFL after admitting to gambling on NFL games. He had only an OK season in ’64 (107 points) for a Packers team that went a disappointing 8-5-1.
Then in ’65, the year he turned 30, he had a final hurrah. Playing through knee, rib and shoulder injuries he closed the season in a big way: In a key late-season win over Baltimore he scored five touchdowns (three rushing, two receiving), and in the NFL championship game against Cleveland he rushed for 105 yards and a 5.8-yard average. On the same muddy Lambeau Field — the game was known as the “Mud Bowl” — Jim Brown rushed for 50 yards on 12 carries.
Hornung’s last year would be 1966, when he played in only nine games because of a nerve injury in his shoulder. Lombardi exposed Hornung to the expansion draft assuming the New Orleans Saints wouldn’t take a 30-year-old, broken-down halfback, but they did. Hornung retired because of a neck injury before ever suiting up for the Saints.
As for why Lombardi never followed through with retiring Hornung’s number, the answer is lost to history. Cliff Christl, who now is the Packers’ official historian, cited Lombardi’s subsequent departure from the Packers and death in 1970 as possible reasons in a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2010. Lombardi resigned as coach six months after that July news conference in 1967, left the team to coach Washington a year later, and died in September 1970. He apparently never was asked about the subject.
Hornung this week said he and Lombardi never discussed it.
“I didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t either,” Hornung said. “I think he felt it was better for him to just leave it alone.”
Hornung, 80, lives in Louisville, where he grew up. He still makes 20 to 30 appearances a year in Wisconsin to sign autographs, including at a bar near Lambeau Field before most Packers home games.
The Packers already have six numbers retired: Don Hutson (14), Tony Canadeo (3), Bart Starr (15), Ray Nitschke (66), Reggie White (92) and Brett Favre (4).
A team spokesman said that Mark Murphy, the team’s president and CEO, is reluctant to revisit retiring a player’s number decades after his career finished — the numbers already retired were done so within a few years of the player’s retirement.
The franchise has 24 Hall of Fame inductees, including Favre, who officially goes in this summer. It can’t go around retiring numbers willy-nilly, because it would run out of enough numbers to field a team.
But it’s worth noting that the No. 5 has been retired unofficially since Wolf took over the team. Wolf never gave it out, and neither did his successors, Mike Sherman and now Ted Thompson.
The Packers ought to take the next step and make it official.
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.