Cecil Isbell Becomes Packers’ First 300-Yard Passer in Amazing Fashion
The Green Bay Packers’ Cecil Isbell could not have been any hotter had he captured lightning in his throwing arm.
On the first of November 1942, the Green Bay Packers’ left halfback blistered the Chicago Cardinals 55-24 with a passing display that lit up City Stadium. Isbell became the first Packer to throw for 300 yards in a game, and perhaps more impressively, he produced in ways that have yet to be equaled, even in the pass-happy era of the 21st century.
Isbell needed but 10 completions to arrive at his 333 passing yards. He amassed this record haul despite not attempting a single throw in the first quarter.
Packers coach Curly Lambeau had long been a proponent of the forward pass. As a player/coach in the 1920s, Lambeau often moved his team using this mode of attack.
As a passer, Lambeau gave way to Red Dunn, who was succeeded by Arnie Herber. In 1938, Green Bay chose Isbell with the seventh pick in the college draft.
For three seasons, Herber and Isbell split time in the backfield. When Herber was released prior to the start of the 1941 season, Isbell became the team’s primary passer.
In that role, Isbell excelled. He led the NFL in attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes in 1941. A year later, he was at it again despite competition from the likes of Washington’s Sammy Baugh and the Bears’ Sid Luckman.
When Jimmy Conzelman’s Cardinals arrived in Green Bay, they were looking to atone for an earlier 17-13 setback to the Packers. In a night game at Comiskey Park in early October, Green Bay linebacker Charley Brock ripped the ball from fullback Bob Morrow and romped 20 yards for the deciding score.
For a quarter-and-a-half it appeared the Cardinals would have their revenge. Even Isbell was ineffective, as his first pass was intercepted by Steve Lach to open the second quarter and his next three tosses fell incomplete.
With his team down 17-7, Isbell turned to the incomparable Don Hutson. Three plays after completing his first pass (a 12-yarder to running back Andy Uram), Isbell connected with the Alabama Antelope on a 38-yard scoring play. The two hooked up from 73 yards out on Green Bay’s next drive and the Packers led 21-17 at halftime.
“We were working well against them for awhile, and it looked like we had the problem solved,” Conzelman said. “But that Hutson just stepped out and took two beautiful passes from Isbell and from then on we might as well have been in Chicago.”
Isbell did not let up in the second half. He unleashed three more touchdown passes with Uram (64 yards), Hutson (65) and Uram again (36) on the receiving end.
Having staked Green Bay to a 48-17 lead, Isbell was done. His yardage total bettered by 17 the previous NFL individual record of 316 yards passing and his five TDs tied the league best.
When the 1942 season wrapped, Isbell emerged as the first to throw for more than 2,000 yards (2,021) in a season. His accuracy (54.5 percent, second best in league history at the time) helped Green Bay to a second-place finish (8-2-1 record) behind the undefeated Bears (11-0).
But then, as decisively as he had dispatched the Cardinals, Isbell retired.
He accepted a job as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Purdue University, leaving Packers fans in the cold.
“Would someone please hogtie Mr. Isbell and get his John Hancock on the dotted line,” Stoney McGlynn of the Milwaukee Sentinel pleaded as the 1943 season approached. “Cec, very likely, would mean another title for Packerland.”
Green Bay did grab another championship in 1944. But in leaving the game after only five seasons, Isbell left all of football wondering what might have been.
Years later Isbell would say: “I hadn’t been up in Green Bay long when I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like Herber and (Milt) Gantenbein and (Hank) Bruder that they were all done with the Packers. I sat there and watched, and then I vowed it never would happen to me. I’d quit before they came around to tell me.”
Isbell, who departed on his own terms, died in June 1985 at the age of 69 after suffering from kidney and liver disease. He remains the only Packer to have thrown for 300 yards in a game despite being shut out (no yards) in the first quarter.
Packers who needed the fewest completions to reach 300 yards passing in a game
Completion - Player - Date - Yards
10 - Cecil Isbell - Nov. 1, 1942 – 333
13 - Bart Starr - Sept. 17, 1967 - 308
15 - Bart Starr - Oct. 17, 1965 - 301
15 – Brett Favre - Nov. 16, 1997 - 304
Packers who threw for fewer than 15 yards in the first quarter of a regular-season game yet finished with 300 or more yards passing
First Quarter - Total - Passer - Date
0 - 333 - Cecil Isbell - Nov. 1, 1942
7 - 313 - Aaron Rodgers - Oct. 5, 2008
7 - 301 - Aaron Rodgers - Nov. 21, 2010
8 - 314 - Aaron Rodgers - Nov. 2, 2008
14 - 301 - Bart Starr - Oct. 17, 1965
Eric Goska has written a Packers-centric “By the Numbers” column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette every season since 1994. Three editions of his book, Packer Legends in Facts, were published in the 1990s.