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The 1972 Green Bay Packers – Mystery Revealed

hunterThe 1972 Green Bay Packers have become an acrimonious enigma. I discovered this when I wrote the book The Green Bay Packers The Dan Devine Years 1971 to 74. I went into the project well indoctrinated into the cult of Dan Devine haters that has dominated all discussion of the early seventies Packers, but came out with a broader view, one that was at least partially sympathetic to Devine, which has brought me under fire and my book under attack.

I’m not an elite member of the professional football writer’s clique that dominates sports writing. In fact, I’m a former small town newspaper columnist and novelist, which invites dismissal by the heavy hitters who guard the Packer lore of the last half century as if it were the Holy Grail.

A part of this grand tradition is the entrenched notion that Dan Devine was an incompetent who couldn’t diagram a play on the chalkboard and mortgaged the Packers future for two decades with one bad trade before skipping town in 1974 to scurry back to the college ranks. I expected to find copious reams of source material to confirm this bedazzled view of the oft vilified College Hall Of Fame coach, but instead found a complex man cast into a nearly impossible situation.

The full story of what I found out about Dan Devine is a complex tale that can be found in the aforementioned book. But the subject of this posting is the center piece of the argument. How did Devine take a 4-8-2 team and turn it around to 10-4 and win a division title in one season? Everyone, including most of his ex-players, are obsessed with why the club collapsed back to 5-7-2 the following season, rather than why they were go great in 1972, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Basically, the 72 team’s resurgence is truly one of those football stories that nearly defies explanation, but being the Packer fanatic I am, here goes.

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The 1972 Green Bay Packers:

Don Doll came in as defensive backs coach. Doll had been an excellent player, who was equally brilliant at coaching his position. He was gifted with a rookie shut down cornerback named Willie Buchanon and a blossoming wide receiver turned corner named Ken Ellis, along with two solid safeties in Jim Hill and Al Matthews. These four, thanks to their own hard work and physical skills combined with Doll’s coaching, were equal to any NFL defensive backfield in 1972, which is saying a lot considering Don Shula’s Dolphins and George Allen’s Redskins.

The linebacking corps were equally excellent. Jim Carter had moved into the middle slot replacing veteran Ray Nitshcke the previous season and was coming into his own. He was flanked by future Hall Of Famer Dave Robinson and the always dependable Fred Carr, who never missed a game in his ten seasons on the outside, making them one of the best linebacking groups in the NFL.

The defensive line was the weakest line in the unit, but Lombardi veteran Bob Brown had his finest season at defensive tackle in 72, earning Pro Bowl honors. Helping him stuff the run was third year pro and former number two overall draft choice Mike McCoy at the other tackle position. The ends were not flamboyant, Clarence Williams and Alden Roche, but they got the job done. Contributions came from the bench as well. Journeyman Vernon Vanoy, who played only three years in the league, had an astonishing 3 sack game in an integral early season upset of the Cowboys.

Dave Hanner’s coaching was old school, but suited to the Dead Ball Era. The Packer D carried the team for much of the year. Another factor was the veteran leadership of ex-Lombardi men, not only of Robinson and Brown, but subs Nitshcke and Tommy Joe Crutcher. The upgrade in defense from 1971, when they finished thirteenth in yards given up to second in 72 is due to in large part to the addition of Buchanon by the draft and Hill by trade from the Chargers coupled with Ellis’s sudden rise to the top of the league at his position.

On offense, the line was robbed of its best player when Gale Gillingham was first shifted to the defensive unit in the season opener when injuries depleted the D and then for the season when he suffered a knee injury in week two. Despite this, the Packer running game was among the best in the league. Devine had acquired Malcolm Snider by trade to replace Gilly at the of the preseason when he was shifted to defense. There were no all pros on the O line, but they were solid players, led by Lombardi vet Ken Bowman at center.

The receivers were the weakest link on the team. Veteran Carroll Dale, though effective as a downfield blocker in the running game, had lost a step, robbing him of his fabled speed and limiting him to 16 catches on the season. The other side was manned by rookies and marginal players who combined for 27 catches. Rich McGeorge was just developing into a standout tight end. In 1971 he had caught for 463 yards with an astonishing 17.1 average per catch. In the season opener he caught two touchdown passes and looked to be developing into an elite tight end. In week two, he tore up a knee that limited his career and was lost for the season. He was replaced by Len Garret, known chiefly for his blocking and former New York Jet Pete Lammons. Pete was at the end of his career and a non-factor in the passing game.

The backfield was a mixed bag. John Brockington was the star. Coming off his NFC Rookie Of The Year season in 1971, he bulled for another one thousand yards in 72. In the off season, Devine had acquired MacArthur Lane from St. Louis in a straight up trade for Donny Anderson. Lane was a killer blocker and helped pick up the slack when Gilly went down, opening holes for Brockington. The pair of them combined for 1,848 yards, still third highest in Packer history for a single season more than forty years later. But Brock lost a yard and a half off his 71 average per run, which can be directly attributed to the loss of Gillingham.

With the retirement of Bart Starr in training camp, the quarterback job fell to Scott Hunter, who had held down the position for most of the 71 season as a rookie. Starr remained with the team, officially as the quarterbacks coach. He also called the plays, which in many ways, made him the de facto offensive coordinator, though Devine was heavily involved in preparing the game plan as well.

The addition of Chester Marcol gave the Packers their first dependable place kicker in five years. He led the NFL in field goals made and points scored in 1972. Ron Widby was up picked from the Cowboys in a trade to take over Donny Anderson’s punting duties. Devine also hired a special teams coach, considered a luxury in those days. This group was one of the best in the NFL. Their play was the difference in a tough win over Houston.

This leaves us with the coaching. Forty years later, Many of the players give no credit whatsoever to Devine. In fact, Ken Ellis, in an interview with Packers historian Cliff Cristl, seemed to intimate that the team coached itself, a ludicrous scenario.

Dan Devine was a complex man with an ego to match that of Vince Lombardi. He had been literally abandoned as a child, given by his parents to an aunt and uncle to raise. As a result, he was devoted to own family, often eschewing perceived social obligation in the community to spend time with them, a trait that did not endear him to the community at large. In the locker room, he was known as a disciplinarian. The only man to play for Devine in college and Lombardi in the pros, guard Ed Blaine, compared the two, saying that both were harsh disciplinarians. Devine rankled the Lombardi vets in 71 by showing them film of his Missouri college squad as an instructional film. This episode took on mythological proportions, with players who were not present at the time, claiming that they too saw the Missouri film. Devine claimed credit for inventing the power sweep at Missouri, the mainstream of Lombardi’s Packers. In essence, he managed to piss off most of the Lombardi veterans before his first training camp was over.

Yet, Devine retained several Lombardi coaches on his staff, Hanner, Starr and Red Cochran. Hanner ran the defense and Starr, effectively the offense, or least co-ran the offense with Devine. In 1972, it appears that Devine, smartly, stepped back and did a Jim Lee Howell, delegating much of the running of the team to Hanner and Starr. But as Starr gathered accolades among the fans and press, Devine, whose ego was easily bruised, attempted to claw back the credit and control, resulting in a disastrous playoff loss at Washington in which he and Starr clashed over the play calling.

Starr’s conservative play calling and tutelage of Hunter, were key in guiding the young backfield, which relied on turnover free football. The game plan was basically to get close enough for Marcol to boot a field goal and let the defense seal the deal. The Packers had one of the league’s toughest schedules that included  Super Bowl Champ Dallas, whom they defeated in week three, NFC West winners San Francisco, a week eight win, the AFC Wild Card Browns, a victory in week one and defending NFC Central Champs Minnesota who they beat in week thirteen to win the division title. Despite this amazing season, this was not a team designed for a deep run into the playoffs. They had no outside receiving threat or tight end capable of catching the ball and a highly inexperienced quarterback. In the Dead Ball Era, they were able to exploit a narrow opening when a team could rise to a high level with a limited passing game. That window would begin to close shortly.

The playoff game versus Washington bears looking at. Scott Hunter has been muted in his criticism of Devine in any aspect, a tribute to Hunter’s class. But other Packers have taken up the banner that Devine lost the game in Washington because he didn’t challenge George Allens’ five man defensive front by passing on first down. Yes, Devine’s play calling in the game was uninspired at best, but honestly, who was Hunter going to throw to? Dale had slowed and couldn’t get open. Jon Staggers on the other side was so beat up he shouldn’t have been playing. Lammons was playing his last game and Len Garret was known as hands of stone.

That left the running backs. I doubt that throwing five yard dump passes to Brockington and Lane would have won the game. The Packers had relied on the running game to get them there, but to put it simply, it failed them in the playoff game. Brockington gained only 9 yards on 13 carries and on one critical play, was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage by the Redskins’ Pat Fischer who gave away nearly 50 pounds to Brockington. Posted on nose guard, Manny Sistrunk overpowered the aging and undersized Bowman at center and the rest of the line collapsed, as they acknowledged in interviews after the game.

The Packers were facing perhaps the best defensive unit in the NFL, one that held the unbeaten Dolphins to 14 points in the Super Bowl and scored the Redskins only points in that game. So let’s not condemn Devine as a villain for losing the playoff game. The Packers were out manned going in. When Devine did allow Hunter to open up the passing game late, he threw a pick and overthrew a critical third down conversion to an open receiver.

On the other side of the field, Billy Kilmer put up 16 points against a tough Packer defense that knocked him out of the game in the first quarter. Kilmer returned and guided a controlling Redskins offense. If the Pack had pushed it and gotten close, Kilmer not only league MVP Larry Brown at running back, who gained 101 yards on the day, but one of the best receiving corps in the league, future Hall Of Famer Charlie Taylor and Roy Jefferson at wide receiver and perennial Pro Bowl Jerry Smith at tight end. If Kilmer had been forced to put the ball up, he had the guns to make it happen.

Devine made a mistake in not challenging the Redskins defensive scheme, but he was playing it safe. His confidence in Hunter was limited. Though Scott would develop into a solid number two quarterback, coming off the bench in Atlanta five years later when Steve Bartkowski was injured, at this point he was still green. When he had been allowed to put the ball up at mid-season against the Vikings, he’d thrown four picks, two of which were ran back for scores. After a savage game in week nine against the Bears, in which he likely suffered a concussion and continued playing, his passing had dropped off dramatically to numbers so bad it defies description. Devine was playing to keep it close in the hope the defense would come up with a turnover and win the game. It was a mistake, but if Devine had opened up the passing game, the final score may very well have been 30 to 3 instead of 16 to 3 at the final gun.

I think it’s high time to stop lambasting Devine and give him the credit he deserves for the 1972 Central Division Champions. We need to separate the 72 team from the disasters that followed. The 73 and 74 Packers are another story entirely; one of the most bizarre and intriguing you’ll ever come across in the annals of professional football. If you want to find out more about them, read my book. It was high drama and epic failure.

So, sorry to lay it on you Packer fans, but Dan Devine was a great coach. His college record proves it as does the 1972 season. A combination of hubris on his part, a family health crisis and issues too numerous to address here, made his last two seasons in Green Bay an unmitigated disaster that has, unfortunately, come to reflect on the shining achievement of 1972.

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