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Packers on Mount Rushmore

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
June 10, 2013

 

You have to hand it to the good people at Pro Football Talk. And the NFL Network. And, of course, ESPN. For better or worse, they know how to conjure football discussions in the offseason.

The NFL Network has made football fans roll their eyes a few times since they started doing their "Top 100" series each offseason. (Even Packers fans balked at John Kuhn making the list last year.) But at least it's something to talk about while NFL teams are practicing in helmets and shorts behind closed doors.

ESPN has been doing things like this for years, and are working through a "Greatest Coaches In NFL History" feature right now. Lombardi will likely make an appearance soon.

And not to be outdone, Pro Football Talk is going around the league and naming which players (or key figures) would be on each team's proverbial Mount Rushmore. It just so happens that right now Packers fans can vote on the top four key figures that would make it if Green Bay had such a monument.

Although narrowing this down to four people may seem like an impossible feat in the case of the Packers with their long and rich history, it sparks thought and discussion. Mike Florio and Pro Football Talk will reveal their results later this week, and it could go several different directions. One could make a valid case for a large number of Packers to crack the top four.

Because the team has been around for over 80 years and has won no fewer than thirteen championships, it may be reasonable to take this exercise to the next level. There are enough good players and key figures from each era that Packers fans could come up with a Mount Rushmore from each major period in Packers history.

What else is there to talk about during a long offseason?

 

The Early Days

Football was a very different sport back when the players wore leather helmets, but the Packers fielded some legendary teams in those days. They won six championships over a fifteen year period, and served notice that a relatively tiny town like Green Bay could play with the big boys.

There are two absolute no-brainers from this era that would make it onto a Mount Rushmore: Curly Lambeau and Don Hutson.

Lambeau was instrumental in founding the team, was one of its original players, and coached the team for 29 years. He was innovative during the early years of a sport that was dwarfed by baseball at the time, and was on the cutting edge of several advances in the game that helped to lay the foundation for what the sport would eventually become. The Packers won no fewer than six championships under him. He is a legendary figure in Packers lore, and undoubtedly merits the first spot on a Mount Rushmore from that era.

Hutson was a man ahead of his time. He is credited with inventing pass patterns, and he wasn't just the greatest receiver of his era; a strong case could be made that he is the greatest Packers player in team history. He held almost every important league record for receiving at the time of his retirement, and now going on 70 years later he even still holds several of them today. He was the first player in team history to have his number retired.

After those two giants, it gets a little more murky. Six other players from that era are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The legends live on from some of those players. Johnny (Blood) McNally was one of the first colorful characters in the sport, having created an alias for himself while he was in college so he could slip through the cracks and earn money playing pro ball. In addition to making a name for himself by leaping from balconies and stopping trains (the details of which can be found here), he was a large part of four championship teams. In 2003, the Packers named a room within Lambeau Field in his honor.

Another great player from that era was Cal Hubbard. He was a stalwart as an offensive tackle, and also pitched in on the defensive line. In each of his first three years with the team, the Packers won a championship. Long after his retirement, the NFL selected him to be on the All-50 Year Team, as well as the All-Time Two-Way Team. (On a side note, Hubbard became a great Major League umpire after his retirement from football, is the only person to be in both the Baseball and Football Hall of Fames.)

Other players merit consideration as well. Mike Michalske was the first guard to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, and Arnie Herber was the first great passer in team history and formed a great duo with Don Hutson. But the two other players that may rise to the top and belong next to Lambeau and Hutson on this first Mount Rushmore are two players who have also received unique honors from the Packers organization for their contribution to the team.

Tony Canadeo is one of only five Packers players to have his number retired. An accomplished passer, punter, return man, and defensive player, he made his greatest impact as a runner. In 1949 he became the first player in Packers history to rush for more than 1,000 yards, and at that time he was only the third player in NFL history to do so. When he died in November 2003, the Packers honored his memory by wearing a sticker on their helmets for the rest of the season.

The final player to make it on to this era's foursome will be a man whose name is still mentioned often in Green Bay, even though it has been well over 70 years since he last played. When the Packers choose to practice outside of the Hutson Center, the team often uses Clarke Hinkle Field. The field was named in his honor, and with good reason. Hinkle is remembered as one of the toughest, most versatile players of that era. He led the team in rushing seven times and was also its fiercest linebacker, and he was honored by the NFL by being named to its All-Time Two-Way Team. When Hinkle went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the man who delivered the induction speech was his former rival who could not help but be impressed, legendary Bears running back Bronko Nagurski.

Early Days Mount Rushmore: Curly Lambeau, Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Clarke Hinkle

 

The Golden Years

The Packers went through a period of mediocrity (at best) for several years, until they hired an assistant coach from the New York Giants in 1959 to come in and run the team. That man, of course, was Vince Lombardi, and he helped usher in a period of dominance in Green Bay during which the Packers won five championships over a seven year period. The last two of those championships resulted in victories in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II, of course. Shortly after Lombardi's death in 1970, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle wasted no time in re-naming the Super Bowl trophy in the legendary coach's honor. To this day, every team strives to touch the Lombardi Trophy each year. Lombardi's likeness would undoubtedly be the first to be immortalized on a Mount Rushmore for that era.

The next figure would likely be the team's field general during those years, Bart Starr. Originally drafted in the 17th round of the draft, Starr's toughness, steady demeanor, and imcomparable work ethic complemented Lombardi's bombastic style perfectly. Remembered as one of the greatest clutch players in NFL history, Starr had a mind-boggling playoff record of 9-1 and until very recently had the highest passer rating (104.8) in postseason history despite playing in an era that was not quarterback-friendly compared to today. And although Starr's on-field accomplishments were enough to earn him the distinction of having his number retired, the way he has handled himself off the field for over 50 years now has earned him the status of Packers statesman.

When reflecting on what football was like during that era, one thinks of toughness. Lombardi preached mental and physical toughness, as well as supreme effort. And nobody personified those qualities more than Ray Nitschke. Nitschke earned many accolades, including having his number retired by the Packers, being named to both the NFL's 50th and 75th Anniversary All-Time Teams, and having the field that the team primarily uses for training camp named after him. But when describing Nitschke, perhaps a picture says it all:

 

The fourth and final spot on this era's Mount Rushmore merits some discussion. No fewer than eleven players that played for Lombardi have been named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That includes Paul Hornung, the "Golden Boy" who led the NFL in scoring three years in a row, Jim Taylor, the bruising fullback who mastered the nuances of the "Packers Sweep" on his way to many team records, Willie Davis, who played in an era when most defensive statistics weren't recorded although by most accounts was the league's best sack artist of the day, and Herb Adderley, who was named an All-Pro seven times while winning five championships with the Packers.

Although a compelling argument could be made for any of those players, and maybe even a few others not named here, our fourth and final spot on this period's Mount Rushmore goes to a man that Vince Lombardi himself described as the best player he ever coached: Forrest Gregg. A tactician at right tackle, Gregg spent countless hours studying film to help him hone his craft and is described by many as one of the best to have ever played his position. An "iron man" long before another noteworthy Packer came to town, by the time he retired Gregg had played a then-league record 188 consecutive games from 1956 until 1971. He was named an All-Pro eight times, four of which were consensus selections. Forrest Gregg was simply the best of his time at what he did.

Golden Years Mount Rushmore: Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Forrest Gregg

 

Return to Titletown

After Lombardi left, the dazzling success that had been the Packers for years dwindled mightily. Decades of futility followed, and by the mid-1980's the Packers had become the laughingstock of the NFL in many respects. When players on other teams faltered, coaches would threaten that they would be traded to Green Bay, as if it were the worst thing any player could imagine. In the minds of many, it was the NFL's version of Siberia. And as the sports landscape changed and the prospects of free agency loomed, many observers wondered whether the Packers would be able to remain viable as a franchise.

Enter Bob Harlan, who was named team president in 1989. It may be unusual for a person in Harlan's role (not a coach or even a general manager) to be considered for something like a team Mount Rushmore. Pro Football Talk doesn't even have him listed as one of the twelve choices in its poll. But Harlan's contribution to the team can not be overstated. He was the right man in the right place at the right time for the Packers. Harlan had a unique ability to relate with people on a personal level, which was so important for a small-town team like the Packers that is actually owned by its fans. More importantly, he also had keen business sense and the courage to follow his convictions. He changed the way the Packers ran their football operations. He cleaned house in the front office and brought in proven football personnel that were respected around the league. And unlike many of his predecessors, Harlan allowed those football people freedom and autonomy. Once the team started to turn things around on the field again, Harlan leveraged that success by issuing a stock sale, and had the vision to orchestrate the renovation of Lambeau Field so that it became a year-round cash cow for the Packers. The team now stands as a model franchise in the sporting world, and much of that can be attributed to the decisions of Bob Harlan.

If Harlan made the right business decisions for the Packers, the general manager that he hired made the right football decisions. Ron Wolf was brought in by Harlan to turn around a moribund franchise, and for several years Wolf had the Midas touch. He hired a first-time head coach in Mike Holmgren, which proved in time to be the perfect decision. Wolf methodically built the team through the draft, replenishing a roster that was sorely lacking in talent. Wolf also proved in time to have an ability to court and sign big-name free agents. Step by step, Wolf laid out the blueprint for doing the most difficult thing in any organization: changing its culture. And he also proved that he could pull of a trade when he needed to.

The personnel decision that defined Wolf's career was made less than three months into his tenure, when he orchestrated a trade that stunned the football world. He sent the Packers' first round draft pick to the Falcons for a player who had been selected in the second round a year earlier but had made a less-than-stellar impression upon arriving in the NFL. In the end, Brett Favre proved the doubters wrong and became the most prolific passer in NFL history. The numbers speak for themselves: Brett Favre is the only player ever to throw for over 70,000 yards, over 500 touchdowns, over 6,000 completions, and over 10,000 pass attempts. His toughness was legendary. He wore his heart on his sleeve. And for Packers fans, he was an everyman. Despite what happened late in his NFL career, his spot on this era's Mount Rushmore should be secure.

Although Holmgren and Favre led the Packers offense to heights never seen before in Green Bay, the team never would have won a championship without a great defense. The cornerstone of that defense also played a key role in turning around the culture and image of the franchise. When Reggie White signed with the Packers as a free agent, choosing the Green Bay Packers over high-profile teams like the 49ers, Redskins, and even the Browns, the NFL took notice. Still at the peak of his career, White helped the defense become a dominant unit. His presence undoubtedly influenced the decisions of other players that would sign as free agents with the Packers, including his eventual teammate on the defensive line, Santana Dotson. White was a transcendent player, and even today is still regarded as one of the greatest defensive ends in league history. He is only one of five players to have his number retired, and the ripple effects of his influence on the Packers are ongoing.

Although the Packers ultimately only won one championship during this period of time, it was a great era for the franchise and it is easy to make a case that it merits a Mount Rushmore of its own. The way the team rebounded after 25 years of futility captivated the hearts and imaginations of a generation of fans who desperately wanted their team to recapture its former glory. While LeRoy Butler certainly warranted consideration, the most difficult person to leave out of the top four was Mike Holmgren. He played such a key role in carrying out Ron Wolf's vision of changing the culture of the franchise, as well as grooming Brett Favre into the best quarterback in the league when he was at the top of his game.

Return To Titletown Mount Rushmore: Bob Harlan, Ron Wolf, Brett Favre, Reggie White

 

Current Era: Titletown Reborn?

Fans of the Packers are currently enjoying a great period in Packers history. The team has already won one championship, and should continue to be a perennial contender for the foreseeable future. It may be too early to realistically consider a Mount Rushmore for the current era, but since this whole topic is a meaningless exercise intended for discussion purposes only, why not consider some of the contenders?

When Ted Thompson took over as general manager, the talent cupboard was pretty bare. Thompson has methodically built the team from the ground up, and has remained steadfast in his "draft and develop" philosophy. He has drafted remarkably well, and constantly recycles the roster so the Packers remain one of the younger teams in the league year after year. It seems that Thompson has found that delicate balance between fielding a winning team now and building a team for three years down the road. And he also managed to replace a legendary quarterback, which is something that took the Dolphins (Marino), Broncos (Elway), and if you go back further, even the Packers (Starr) years if not decades to do.

Despite Thompson's tongue-in-cheek claims to have sizzle, he hasn't made a lot of bold moves during his time in Green Bay. Perhaps his boldest move was going way off the radar and choosing a dark horse candidate to be his hand-picked head coach. Thompson chose Mike McCarthy over some of the hot up-and-coming assistant coaches at the time, including Brad Childress and Sean Payton. McCarthy came in with a plan, and his strengths and teaching ability seem to mesh with Thompson's team-building approach perfectly. McCarthy pushed several of the right buttons to gear his team up for a Super Bowl run, including the famous "nobody's underdog" reference and sizing the players for championship rings the night before the Big Game. He also seems to have a way with quarterbacks, and certainly played a role in the development of another Mount Rushmore candidate...

When the drama surrounding Brett Favre descended on Green Bay in the summer of 2008, did anybody predict that only five years later Aaron Rodgers would have the highest career passer rating in NFL history? Or that he would have both a regular season and Super Bowl MVP under his belt? Rodgers grew into a great quarterback quickly and has been absolutely brilliant, and fans and detractors widely agree that he is the best quarterback in the league and is still at the top of his game. He is among the most cerebral quarterbacks in recent memory, and as a result of that fact his athleticism is often overlooked. He sets the bar high for his teammates, and seems to have the ability to make others around him better. If his career remains on its current track, he should end up with Hall of Fame credentials.

There have been no Reggie Whites on this era's defense, but two players stand out: Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. Woodson has been named an All-Pro seven times, and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. He defined himself as a leader during the Super Bowl run. (Who can forget his famous locker room speech?) Matthews is also one of the best defensive players in the league, and plays with a relentless style that opposing offensive consistently have to game plan against. Matthews created a bit of Packers lore of his own when he responded to his position coach's request to seize the moment at a crucial point during the Super Bowl. The phrase "It is time" has taken on legendary status in Green Bay.

Should the Packers win any more championships, there may be more players added to this list of contenders. And we know that Charles Woodson won't be adding to his resume in Green Bay. Until that time comes, these key figures seem to stand above the rest.

Current Era Mount Rushmore: Ted Thompson, Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews

 

None of those foursomes were particularly easy to compile, and a couple were especially perplexing. Many readers will disagree with some of the choices. But one thing that may be difficult to argue is that the Packers have a very long list of great players and important figures that deserve to remembered for generations of football fans.

One thing is for sure: One Mount Rushmore in Green Bay would not be enough.

 

 

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Photo Credit: Getty Images