Gene's Blog: The end of "sports entitlement" and the onset of "The Gory Years"

Gene's Blog: Packers glory faded 50 years ago

 

As 2018 is about to turn nine full months old, this much is for sure: we don't know how it'll be remembered in the history books. There will be many sunrises between now and the dawn of 2019, day upon day during which a place can be determined.

The book has long since closed on 1968 and it's not a good read. We survived--literally--a horrible year a half century ago. Assassinations (plural). Street violence. War. Riots. Dissension so deep and horrid and bitter that it felt the country was literally coming apart, a thought this 11 year old in Sheboygan kept to himself until he heard his parents and other adults say it out loud. You don't have a basis upon which to render such verdicts when you have yet to hit puberty but a generation raised in the Depression and who fought World War II? Their opinion carried serious heft.

As all we seemed to believe in came under siege and challenge we rolled through the tumult of that year believing in one thing: the infallibility of the Green Bay Packers.  And why not?

Those of us under the drinking age (18) knew of nothing but championships and glory, a life where NFL titles were as certain as December snow. Sure, there were the odd misses in '63 and '64 but the Pack was competitive, even in Vince Lombardi's off-years. 1967 ended with Green Bay defeating Dallas in the Ice Bowl that New Year's Eve, and '68 started with the Packers handling the Oakland Raiders in the second-ever Super Bowl. As spring became summer and the team reported to St. Norbert for camp, fans saw nothing but familiar faces, grizzled veterans laden with championship jewelry, with a few empty fingers waiting for fresh bling. 

Fact is, we didn't realize just how "grizzled" they truly were, and how they'd miss Lombardi's verbal whip. The coach went upstairs that previous winter, shedding his sideline duties to become a full-time general manager. The legend handed the reigns over to his defensive coordinator Phil Bengtson, quiet in demeanor but with fire in his face--literally, because it seemed there was always a cigarette smoldering in his head. 

Hope still burned in the chest of every Titletown fan, even as we ignored the fact that Bengtson was inheriting an old team: packershistory.net reminds us the average starting age on offense was 29. The defense checked in at 29 1/2, yet as the year played out, they weren't Green Bay's Achilles heel. 

Green Bay went 4-2 in the preseason--yep, they played six of those suckers back then--with longtime Milwaukee sports scribe Oliver Kuechle among the first to catch a whiff of a foul odor, writing that there was "something mildly amiss" in the team's play as the regular season approached. Still, Green Bay looked to be the best of the sorry lot of NFL Central teams, with the Vikings, Bears and Lions all in various states of disrepair. The Packers were ALWAYS better than those guys, right? Why should '68 be any different?

All of the familiar faces were in the usual places that September Sunday when the defending champs throttled lowly Philadelphia 30-13 at Lambeau in front of the usual packed house, Lombardi watching from his press box perch. One missing piece would haunt the club through the campaign and for several years to come as the rot set in: kicker Don Chandler retired in the off-season,and four replacements would try/fail to fill his square-toed shoes including the legendary lineman Jerry Kramer who started the season in that slot. 

Bart Starr tossed two picks in a 26-13 loss to Minnesota in game two and three more in a 23-17 setback against Detroit as the Pack fell to an unheard of 1-2. Only the Bears stood between Green Bay and the cellar. They'd wax Atlanta the following week before going 1-3-1, leaving the Packers at 3-5-1 with five games to play.They'd end up 6-7-1 with eventual the eventual champion Colts (they were still in Baltimore then) applying the kill shot December 7, 1968 in front of a flag-waving sellout at Lambeau. When the reality set in that the game was lost and the era had ended, they rose as one to cheer long and loud for championships won, memories made, history secured.

The post-mortem revealed a team wracked by injury, Starr missing five starts including the final two. The running game sputtered with Donnie Anderson, Jim Grabowski and Elijah Pitts mustering a single 100+ yard performance between them. The only end-of-season solace came in the finale when Green Bay beat the Bears to snuff end Chicago's postseason hopes. 

The men of '68 blamed bad luck, as did publications of the day. Sports Illustrated's legendary Tex Maule wrote that the Baltimore loss "was a microcosm of the whole unfortunate year for Green Bay", featuring four fumbles lost plus an interception and a four-yard punt by Anderson. The post-game Packers, wrote Maule, saw '68 as an interruption, not an end. "All the bad luck Green Bay escaped during the nine years under Vince Lombardi descended upon the team in Phil Bengtson's first season as coach," he opined, blaming what he deemed "the avalanche of injuries, bad bounces, missed field goals, and untimely penalties" for the team's first losing season since Lombardi's first year in the Fox Valley in 1959. Maule was wise enough to foresee what would doom the club as the 60's became the 70's. "Starr, when healthy, is still one of the most capable quarterbacks in the game," he noted, "but at 35 he has reached the age when injuries linger, and it would be foolhardy to expect him to grow sturdier in the seasons to come...The Packers will have to develop a good young quarterback and do so quickly if Bengtson is to duplicate the accomplishments of Lombardi."

Didn't happen.

Starr and backup Zeke Bratkowski would log three more injury-filled seasons as mediocrity became the Green Bay norm. Bengtson would leave after going 6-8 in 1970. Dan Devine would take over, coaxing a playoff berth out of a 1972 squad still hurting for a decent QB. He would mortgage the team's feature in a quest to find one. His trade for John Hadl in '74 left the franchise hamstrung for good, young top-flight talent for years. Devine sent the Pack's 1st, 2nd and 3rd round choices in '75 PLUS its 1st and 2nd round picks in '76 for a QB well past prime. Even more galling was the fact that one of the least-popular coaches in franchise history wouldn't have to live with the mess he created in Green Bay. Devine bolted for Notre Dame at the end of the '74 slate, the Packers in near-mutiny before the season-finale in Atlanta. 

Starr would be left to pick up the pieces, his coaching stay a painful run that saw a nice man turn curt with the media and an adoring fan base grow short with a legend who wasn't yet ready to be an NFL head coach. The Gory Years were on, big time.

We just didn't know it 50 years ago this September. We were entitled fans before that became a sports term, a fan base drunk on victory, addicted to success, believing in the infallibility of a team that couldn't have given us more but of whom we expected that which we'd come to demand. 

Tides turned in the early 90's and now we find a generation that knows of winning Packers football beyond our wildest 1960's dreams. Sure, they missed the playoffs a few times, and a few more Super Bowl wins would've been nice but wow. When one HOF quarterback ended his run amid rancor, another was there to take his place. Coaches came and went, but a winning culture remained. 

1968 was an awful year, in the headlines and on the Green Bay sidelines. None of us foresaw what a cold year it would be and not even Green Bay Packers football could bring us out of that year's funk. It would take a while for the world to get a grip on what passed for normalcy. It took the Packers a whole lot longer, at least for a fan base that thought "normal" meant "championships."

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