GREEN BAY — When legendary Lombardi-era guard Jerry Kramer finally entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018, his enshrinement gave the Green Bay Packers 25 inductees in the NFL’s gold-jacketed exclusive club.
Kramer, who was 82 at the time of his selection as a seniors committee nominee, had been a finalist 10 times before, but the significant number of Lombardi-era Packers already in the Hall was among the issues that worked against him.
Kramer became the 12th player from the Packers’ 1960s teams to be chosen for the Hall, joining former Packers teammates Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Paul Hornung, Henry Jordan, Willie Wood and Dave Robinson, who was elected as a seniors committee candidate in 2013. Kramer also became the fourth former Packer to enter Canton in a six-year span, joining Robinson, general manager Ron Wolf (2015) and quarterback Brett Favre (2016).
To think about a franchise having that many Pro Football Hall of Famers — and then realizing that the Packers’ storied 100-year history includes a plethora of other greats who weren’t quite Canton-worthy but became legends in Titletown — is mind-boggling.
In turn, narrowing that field — the Packers Hall of Fame, for the record, has 162 members following retired general manager Ted Thompson’s induction in May — into one player for each decade seems like a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, in honor of the Packers’ 100th anniversary on Aug. 11, Jason Wilde gave it a shot.
1919-1929 | Verne Lewellen
While Earl “Curly” Lambeau may have been the Packers’ best-known player in their infancy, Lewellen was perhaps their greatest. In fact, official team historian Cliff Christl maintains that Lewellen is the Packers’ most deserving player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is “one of a handful of players who deserves to be in the discussion about the greatest Packers player ever.”
Lewellen played nine seasons from 1924 to 1932 and was arguably the Packers’ MVP. Playing nearly his entire career in the NFL’s pre-stats era (1920-31), there are no official numbers to measure his greatness — although, according to Christl, no player in football scored more touchdowns during that era than Lewellen. Unofficially, he also is among the leaders in rushing, receiving and passing during that period, led the league in interceptions one season and was considered the greatest punter of that era as well.
When Lambeau chose his all-time Packers team after the 1948 season, his two halfbacks were Lewellen and Cecil Isbell — not Pro Football Hall of Famers Johnny Blood, Arnie Herber and Tony Canadeo. And when Blood entered the Hall in 1963, in the first year of its existence, Blood said, “Verne Lewellen should have been in there in front of me and (Cal) Hubbard.”
Having completed his law degree at Nebraska during his football career, he served as Brown County district attorney from 1928 through 1932, joined the Packers executive committee in 1950, served as general manager from 1954 through 1958, and was the team’s business manager from 1961 to 1967.
1929-1939 | Johnny Blood
An effective receiver, passer, punter, defender and runner, Blood was something else: Pro football’s first big-play maker.
“I never saw a fellow who could turn a ball game around as quickly as Johnny Blood,” former teammate and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Hutson once said.
Born John Victor McNally, he went by the alias Johnny Blood while playing sandlot football and kept the moniker while becoming one of the game’s most colorful players. Playing seven of his 14 NFL seasons with the Packers, he still holds the team record for touchdown receptions by a running back (10, set in 1931), and he led the Packers to three consecutive titles in 1929, ’30 and ’31.
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member in 1963, Blood was a member of the 1930s all-decade team. During his Packers career, Blood played in 76 regular-season games and started 31, including 16 at halfback and five at quarterback.
“The Packers had a lot of great players,” former Chicago Bears coach George Halas once said. “But until Hutson came along, Johnny Blood was the one guy who could beat you with one big play.”
1939-1949 | Don Hutson
In the NFL’s 100-year history, only a select few can be said to have revolutionized the game. Hutson is in that exclusive company.
During his 11 seasons with the Packers beginning in 1935, Hutson shattered every major NFL pass-catching record, retiring in 1945 with the most touchdown receptions in league history (99, or three times more than the next receiver) and 17 other receiving records. (The touchdown record stood for four decades.)
His 488 receptions at the time of his retirement were more than 200 more than the next pass-catcher, and he is credited with creating a host of pass patterns — from Z-outs to buttonhooks to hook-and-gos, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hutson led the league in catches eight times and in scoring five times, and he was a first-team All-Pro selection for eight consecutive seasons (1938-45) and a two-time MVP in an era when running the ball dominated the league. He also played defense and intercepted 30 career passes.
On the first play of his first game with the Packers, he caught an 83-yard touchdown against the Chicago Bears, the first of those 99 TDs.
“For the next 10 years, Hutson was doing that sort of thing to every club in the National Football League,” Halas later said. “I just concede him two touchdowns a game, and I hope we can score more.’’
In 1994, when the Packers named their new indoor practice facility after Hutson, then-GM Ron Wolf said at the dedication that being with Hutson was being in the presence of “pro football royalty.” And while Wolf eventually came around to believing that his quarterback, Brett Favre, deserved the title of the best Packers player ever, he always remained reverent when it came to Hutson.
“Before him, it was always Don Hutson,” Wolf said. “In the era he played in, he was the dominant player in the game — not just as a receiver, but as a kicker and with his ability to play defense.”
1949-1959 | Tony Canadeo
Known as the “Gray Ghost of Gonzaga,” Canadeo played during a challenging era in Packers history, when the team struggled — the Packers did not have a winning record during his final five seasons with the team — and Lambeau changed offenses from the Notre Dame Box to the Wing-T.
Nonetheless, at age 30 in 1949, he became the third runner in NFL history to crack 1,000 yards in a season, while playing on a 2-10 team. Canadeo was a scrappy, punishing runner and the third in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
For his career, Canadeo rushed for 4,197 yards, the Packers’ franchise record at the time of his retirement, and accounted for 8,667 total yards (rushing, passing, receiving and returning). His No. 3 was the second number retired by the Packers after Don Hutson’s, and he went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974 as a senior nominee. One of Lombardi’s closest friends and confidants, Canadeo was a member of the Packers’ executive committee from 1958 through 1993.
“He was probably one of the best all-around players in Packer history,” longtime Packers public relations director Lee Remmel said when Canadeo died at age 84 in 2003. “He could do just about anything. He was a good runner, a good blocker, a good returner and a good receiver. He was one of the toughest players the Packers have ever had, an extremely hard-nosed player.”
1959-1969 | Bart Starr
One of the greatest football careers in history nearly never happened. Long before Tom Brady was winning six Super Bowls and overcoming the odds as the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Bart Starr followed a similarly unlikely career arc.
After suffering a back injury during a hazing incident before his junior season at Alabama, Bart Starr barely played during his junior year, and when J.B. Whitworth replaced Red Drew as the Crimson Tide’s head coach, Starr became an afterthought and rode the bench as a senior.
Nevertheless, on the recommendation of Alabama basketball coach Johnny Dee, then-Packers personnel director Jack Vainisi chose Starr in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft, with the 200th overall pick. He served as a backup to Tobin Rote as a rookie and was in and out of the starting lineup thereafter until Lombardi’s arrival in Green Bay in 1959.
From there, of course, Starr set a standard of excellence few quarterbacks can even dream of. He led the Lombardi-era Packers to five championships, including victories in the first two Super Bowls — earning Super Bowl MVP honors in each game. His teams were 9-1 in postseason play, and his playoff passer rating of 104.1 remains the best in NFL history. And despite a disappointing tenure as head coach from 1975 through 1983, he remained a beloved figure until his death at age 85 last May.
“Because of my respect for it,” Starr replied when asked at the Packers’ annual Fan Fest in 2006 why he remained so close to the organization years after his playing and coaching careers had ended. “It has been extremely well managed for a number of years, and I have the utmost respect for (everyone) within the organization. Additionally, I think, the respect I have for the wonderful fans all over this part of the country. We lived here for 31 years and we got to know so many of those wonderful people. So we love coming here. This will always be our adoptive home after living here for so many years. So to be able to come back and share some time, is a ball.”
1969-1979 | John Brockington
During those dark days of the 1970s when the Packers struggled in the long shadow cast by the Lombardi era, running back Brockington stood above the rest.
Arriving as the ninth overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, Brockington became the first running back in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards in his first three seasons. Together with MacArthur Lane, the Packers had one of the league’s best backfield tandems during the early 1970s.
In all, Brockington played seven years in Green Bay, rushing for 5,024 yards on 1,293 carries. The bulk of those yards came those first three years (1,105 in 1971, 1,027 in 1972 and 1,144 in 1973), but he also had 883 yards in 1974, and all four of those years were during the NFL’s 14-game schedule era.
Then-coach Bart Starr released him early in the 1977 season — shortly after he eclipsed 5,000 yards — and Brockington finished his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“When I got to the Packers, I said, ‘I’m going to be the rookie of the year.’ And then I did it. Then I was All-Pro first team and went to my first Pro Bowl,” Brockington said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview in 2017. “But the thing that’s most heady for me was the fact that I was the first running back in the history of the league to get 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. That was huge for me, because I knew who had come before me — Jim Brown, Jimmy Taylor, Gayle Sayers, all these guys.
“That was really heady stuff.”
1979-1989 | James Lofton
Paul Coffman knew immediately that his fellow rookie was different. That James Lofton went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career was no surprise to him.
“From day one, James was something special,” said Coffman, who came in with Lofton in 1978 and played eight seasons with him. “I think everybody knew that.”
A first-round pick (sixth overall) out of Stanford, where he majored in engineering and also ran track, Lofton’s impact on the Packers was immediate. He caught 46 passes for 818 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie, earning the first of his eight Pro Bowl selections. But as fast and athletic as he was, it was his football IQ that was even more remarkable.
“He was unable to come to our minicamps because he was competing in track at Stanford, so when he came in before training camp, our coaches were on vacation, so I met with him to acquaint him with our system,” Starr, Lofton’s coach from 1978 through 1983, told the State Journal in 2003. “Although I had a feel for his intelligence, I began very basic with the playbook. But it dawned on me after one session that I could have just given him the playbook and tested him the next day on it, because he absorbed it that fast.”
Before being traded to the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987, Lofton caught 530 passes for 9,656 yards (a whopping 18.2-yard average) and 49 touchdowns. The Packers made the playoffs only once during his time in Green Bay, but he punched his ticket to Canton with a renaissance with the Buffalo Bills in their Super Bowl-contending years.
“First, his intelligence about the game was incredible. Then, to have the talent and speed to be a threat on every play, he was as versatile as anybody I’ve ever been around,” said ex-Packers linebacker Mike Douglass, Lofton’s longtime friend and teammate. “We’d come back to training camp, and Bart would have these different drills and contests where you could win TVs or trips or restaurant certificates. It was like this mini-Olympics they put us through. And James always excelled. He was just tremendous.”
1989-1999 | Brett Favre
When Don Majkowski’s ankle painfully twisted beneath him that fateful September 1992 afternoon at Lambeau Field against the Cincinnati Bengals, the “Majik Man” unwittingly resolved a problem for head coach Mike Holmgren and Wolf.
“I’ll never forget it,” recalled Wolf, who had traded a first-round pick for Favre in February of that year. “It was in training camp. Mike Holmgren called me into his office one day and said, 'We’ve got a real serious problem at quarterback.’ I said, ‘Oh my god, what is it?’ He said, ‘We’re going to have to play Brett Favre, he’s better than the other guy.’
“Of course, we didn’t. Majkowski started, then he got hurt and Favre came in ... and you know the rest of the story.”
What a story it was. During his 16 years in Green Bay, Favre was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection and won three MVPs (1995, ’96, ’97) while leading the 1996 team to the Super Bowl XXXI title, the team’s first championship in 29 years. During a five-year stretch in the 1990s, he averaged 35 touchdowns against 16 interceptions while delivering back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. Even while enduring his up-and-down later years, the Packers still had just one losing season (2005, at 4-12) on Favre’s watch.
When he retired following brief stints with the New York Jets (2008) and Minnesota Vikings (2009-’10) after his acrimonious departure during the summer of 2008, Favre had thrown more touchdown passes than anyone in league history (508). Alas, he’d also thrown more interceptions (336).
“It was a perfect fit,” Favre said of Green Bay. “Mike Holmgren was the perfect head coach, ‘Mooch’ (Steve Mariucci) was the perfect quarterbacks coach for me. I mean, it just all fell into place. I think I related to the fans there more than I would have anywhere else. It could not have happened any better.”
2009-2019 | Aaron Rodgers
Unlike the other players on this list, Rodgers’ final chapters remain unwritten. He is coming off a disappointing 2018 season, in which he fractured his left leg — but played through it — in the first game of the year, when he rallied his team from a 20-0 deficit to victory on “Sunday Night Football.”
His final numbers in 2018 were a far cry from his 2011 and 2014 NFL MVP seasons. He finished the year with a 97.6 passer rating, the third-lowest of his 11 years as a starter, and while he threw for 4,442 yards and 25 touchdowns with only two interceptions, he completed only 62.3% of his passes, his second-worst season completion percentage as a starter. He also absorbed a whopping 49 sacks — the third-most of his tenure — and often seemed to hold on to the ball longer than he should have.
Set to turn 36 in December, Rodgers’ recent injuries — the leg injury last year and a broken right collarbone in 2017, which cost him nine games — obscure how well he was playing before those injuries. After his famous run-the-table pronouncement with six games left in the 2016 regular season, Rodgers completed 195 of 283 passes (68.9%) for 2,384 yards with 21 touchdowns and only one interception (117.9 rating) during an eight-game winning streak that landed the Packers a berth in the NFC title game.
He started 2017 strong, too, completing 66.7% of his passes for 1,367 yards with 13 TDs and three interceptions (104.1 rating) as the Packers were off to a 4-1 start before he broke his collarbone at Minnesota.
Now, with a new coach and a new offense for the first time since Mike McCarthy arrived in 2006, Rodgers will look to reaffirm his greatness with a bounce-back year.
“I’m always going to be determined and motivated from within,” Rodgers said. “Many years where there’s a new coach on a new team, everybody — from the fans to the organization to the players — kind of goes, ‘Well, we’re in year one.’ I don’t feel that with this.
“This is Titletown. We should expect us to bounce back. I expect to, our team expects to. I’m excited about the additions that we’ve made. ... There’s going to be no excuses this year. We don’t need a grace period. And we all expect to get something rolling and hopefully we can get that rolling and come together as a team and do something great.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.