- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

PHOENIX. — The ‘72 Dolphins are right to feel anxious. If the Patriots beat the Giants on Super Sunday and trump Miami’s 17-0 record with their own perfect 19-0, Larry Csonka and Co. may suffer the same forgotten fate as the ‘29 Packers.

So it is in these all-time-greatest contests. Modernity almost always wins out over history … in the minds of most fans, at least. Especially the younger ones, the ones who couldn’t tell Jim Ringo from Ringo Starr. As Junior Seau gleefully put it after the Pats took out the Chargers in the AFC title game, “Now we have a chance to be a part of Ever” — as in Forever and Best-Ever — and a fourth title in seven years would definitely earn them membership in the Colossal Clubs, uh, Club.

But where exactly would the ‘07 Patriots rank? Would they deserve to be at the top of the list or would they be rated a little lower — or a lot lower? It’s a discussion, of course, that Bill Belichick and his single-minded players are loathe to have until the clock shows zeroes Sunday night (and perhaps not even then). But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with it, as long as we acknowledge at the outset that this is strictly a hypothetical exercise.

Which brings us back to the ‘29 Packers — or rather, to the Packers teams of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. Now there was a dynasty. Green Bay won three straight crowns from 1929 to ‘31 and would have won a fourth the next year if winning percentage had been calculated the way it is today. Alas, the league disregarded ties in that era, and the Pack’s 10-3-1 record in ‘32 placed them third behind the 6-1-6 Bears and 6-1-4 Portsmouth Spartans, who squared off in the first NFL championship game.

After that season, the Packers sailed to Hawaii and played a couple of exhibitions against teams on the islands. (Pro football in those days was much more glamorous than you’d think.) On the trip over, a couple of players started arguing over a girl they’d met on the ship, a former Miss California, and coach Curly Lambeau had to intervene.

“If you’re going to behave that way,” Lambeau lectured them, “then neither of you can have her.”

What a card Curly was. After the Packers returned to the mainland, he dumped his first wife and married the beauty queen himself.

You could make the argument that the ‘29 Packers were the greatest team the NFL has ever seen. Not only did they go undefeated (12-0-1), they allowed only 22 points — and in their five home games gave up just two safeties. Lambeau had retired as a player by then, but his roster was stocked with Hall of Famers and near-Hall of Famers, mammoth lineman Cal Hubbard and hard-partying back Johnny Blood most prominently.

People nowadays look at a club like that and say, “How many of those guys could have played today?” But a better question might be: How many of today’s players could have played then — without facemasks and, often, with only few days’ rest between games?

I mean, LaDainian Tomlinson is a terrific runner, but could he hop in a boxcar and ride the rails to training camp because he was too broke to buy a ticket — as Blood legendarily did?

There’s only one problem with the ‘29 Packers: A week after the season ended, they traveled to Memphis and lost 20-6 to a non-NFL team that called itself — no snickering, please — “Clarence Saunders’ Tigers.” (He was the local merchant behind the franchise.) Granted, it was a meaningless game, a make-an-extra-buck game, but it still gives you pause.

But that’s the way it is with these Great Teams of Yesteryear. They all had flaws — it’s just that, over time, they’ve vanished in the mists. The Patriots’ skeletons, on the other hand — their occasionally dodgy defense (particularly in the red zone), their offensive imbalance for much of the season, the watered-down 32-team era they play in — are fresh in everyone’s minds.

The year the ‘70s Steelers won the first of their four rings, I’ll just point out, Terry Bradshaw completed 45.3 percent of his passes and had a 55.2 rating. And I’m still trying to understand what happened to Vince Lombardi’s Packers on Thanksgiving Day 1962.

That might have been Lombardi’s strongest club; at any rate, it was the one that flirted longest with perfection. Green Bay was 10-0 when it arrived in Detroit that day — and would go 4-0 afterward (counting the title game). But the Lions took the Pack completely apart, sacking Bart Starr 11 times for 110 yards and opening a 26-0 lead before settling for a 26-14 victory. When have the Patriots, since they became terrors, ever had an afternoon like that?

Also, let’s not forget that the ‘80s 49ers, for all their fabulousness, once got flattened 49-3 by the Giants in the playoffs. Or that the ‘50s Browns, awesome as they were, lost three championship games in a row (‘51-53). As for the ‘40s Bears, their 73-0 walloping of the Redskins in the ‘40 title game tends to blot out their 14-6 loss to Washington in the ‘42 final — when their “unstoppable” T formation didn’t score a point. (Chicago’s touchdown came on a fumble return.)

“We could have taken half the ‘41 team and won the whole thing,” Bears tackle Lee Artoe told me. “We could have played eight-man football and beaten teams. If the war hadn’t come along, we’d still be winning championships.”

Maybe so. But don’t let anybody tell you the Patriots don’t belong with the Best of the Best. Don’t let anybody say, “Well, the ‘60s Packers had 10 Hall of Fame players and the ‘70s Steelers had nine [and counting], so the Pats, who might end up with half that many, can’t possibly compare with them.”

If the Patriots can close out this perfect season, they’ll compare with any team in any decade. A 19-0 season — on top of an unmatched 21-game winning streak in 2003 and ‘04? This is a unique ballclub, friends. It’s not the Pats’ highs so much as their lack of lows that makes them so singular.

Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard brainiac, wrote: “Long streaks are, and must be, a matter of extraordinary luck imposed on great skill.” And years from now, should the Patriots finish perfect, there will be debates about whether Jabar Gaffney really did make that catch in the end zone — without which the Pats might have lost to the Ravens.

But Lombardi’s teams also had their fair share of good fortune. Many, for instance, believe Don Chandler missed the field goal that enabled the Packers to edge the Colts in the ‘65 Western Conference playoff. (Chandler’s less-than-exultant reaction certainly suggests that.)

There was also an incident that took place at practice one day in 1960. This was in Lombardi’s second season, before he had taken Green Bay to even one title game. The wind kicked up and knocked over a 25-foot photographer’s tower, and the 5,000-pound structure landed squarely on a little-known linebacker named Ray Nitschke.

According to newspaper reports, a bolt from the tower pierced Nitschke’s helmet and “stopped just short of his skull.” Most of the players had already taken off their equipment — it was only a light workout — but Nitschke had put his helmet back on when it started to rain.

“I didn’t want to get this wet,” he said, pointing to his thinning dome.

His teammates eased him out from under the tower, and Nitschke went on have a Hall of Fame career as the Pack’s No. 1 defensive policeman.

“I guess we had better offer a prayer that Ray’s still with us,” fellow linebacker Dan Currie said later in the dressing room.

It was, indeed, pretty miraculous. But then, great teams usually are.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide