Sunday, January 2, 2011

Before There Was a Super Bowl ...

On this day in 1966, an NFL season came to a conclusion for the last time in the pre–Super Bowl era.

In the next two years, the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys would square off for NFL championships that entitled the winner to advance to an AFL–NFL World Championship Game against the winner of the AFL title.

Within a few years, that game became known as the Super Bowl, the name by which it is still known today.

But, on Jan. 2, 1966, there was no Super Bowl yet. The NFL title was still the prize that waited at the end of the rainbow, and the Packers, having beaten the Colts in a conference playoff game the week before, and the Cleveland Browns met in Green Bay with the NFL title on the line.

It is ironic, I suppose, that the 2010 Packers will be playing on that same field later today. They will need a victory to assure themselves a spot in the playoffs, and they must defeat a long–time nemesis, the Chicago Bears.

They'll also have to overcome something else.

In spite of talk of global warming, I don't think winter weather in Green Bay, Wisc., has changed much in nearly half a century. If today's forecast is correct (sunny and windy with a high of 16°), the weather in Green Bay today is more likely to resemble the "Ice Bowl" that was played in December 1967 than the weather that greeted the Browns and Packers in January 1966.

On this day 45 years ago, it was actually a comparatively balmy 26° with a moderate breeze of about 12 mph (the wind is predicted to gust to around 20 this afternoon).

There had been a snowstorm before kickoff, but the field had been covered by a tarp so the field was clear when the game began.

Much like the Chiefs–Dolphins playoff game in 1971, of which I wrote last week, the Packers–Browns game that was played on this day in 1966 was a turning point in the history of the NFL.

Prior to that day, the Browns had been a dominant team. They were the defending NFL champions. They had won four NFL championships in the previous 15 years, and they had played for four others.

They were America's Team before the phrase was invented.

But the sun was setting on their dynasty. The great Jim Brown, who led the NFL in rushing that year and was named MVP by both AP and UPI, voluntarily retired after the game was played. (Brown is now in his 70s, but many of Cleveland's rushing records that he set during his playing days still stand.)

When the offense didn't get the job done, Gary Collins' 46.7–yards–per–punt average tended to pin foes deep on their own side of the field. The defense was getting old, but it still managed to get the job done most of the time, and, while the Browns have played for league championships since that afternoon in Green Bay, they have have never won one.

In hindsight, the Browns may have benefited from playing in a weak division, at least when compared to the one in which Green Bay played. The Browns had the best record in the NFL that year (11–3), but their closest competitors, Dallas and New York, finished four games behind them at 7–7.

For all intents and purposes, the Browns had wrapped up the division with about a month left in the season. They went 6–1 in the last half of the season, and it is safe to say they did not approach many of those games with anything approaching a sense of urgency.

(The fact that their only loss in the second half of the season came against the young and struggling Los Angeles Rams from the other division The Packers, meanwhile, were locked in a down–to–the–wire battle with the Colts and Bears, and, as I wrote last week, had to beat the Colts for a third time to qualify for a spot in the NFL championship game.

When they beat the Browns on this day in 1966, the Packers won the first of three consecutive NFL championships — an accomplishment that remains unique in NFL history. In the last 45 years, they have played in four Super Bowls. True, many of those years were mediocre for the Packers — after winning the first two Super Bowls, they spent the next 30 years trying to get back and, usually, falling far short of the mark — but the Browns have seldom been close enough to catch a whiff of the Super Bowl in all that time.

The outcome was far from certain when the teams went to the locker room at intermission.

The first half was tight. Green Bay led, 13–12, with the difference being a rare botched conversion by the ordinarily dependable Lou Groza, but the Packers' defense asserted itself in the second half, and the Packer offense, behind its famous power sweep, scored 10 unanswered points, winning the game, 23–12.

The weather may have played a role in the outcome. I've been told the second half brought snow, mud and fog — and, if either team had been particularly reliant on the passing game, that might have caused some serious problems.

But neither team was especially proficient at passing. It was still the era of the ground game

In fact, Cleveland, with Brown in the backfield, had the NFL's best rushing offense. The Packers weren't as potent as they had been earlier in Vince Lombardi's coaching tenure, but, with Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the backfield, they were still pretty good.

The real difference in the game probably was the Green Bay defense, ranked #1 in the NFL (Cleveland was ranked ninth of 14). The Packers allowed Brown to run for only 50 yards that day, while Taylor slogged it out for 96 yards (he never ran for more than eight yards on a single carry all afternoon) and Hornung gained 105.

Pro football would change in many ways in the years to come.

The running game gradually gave way to the passing game.

Equipment and rules were modified to eliminate some injuries and mitigate the effects of others.

Some say it is better. And maybe it is.

But sometimes I'm not so sure.

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