Studying Packers History At NFL Films
Willie Davis’ big afternoon of a half century ago would likely have received more ink if play-by-plays of that era were as complete as those today.
Print out a copy of any game book after an NFL contest this season and a cornucopia of statistics await. You’ll see which players made tackles, who the long snappers were on punts and kicks, and what defenders, if any, forced fumbles.
Much of that detail was not put to paper in October 1963 when Davis helped break the Colts. The written record of what transpired on the field was more rudimentary then. Tackles were sometimes listed, but rarely on special teams plays. Occasionally the holder on field goals and extra point attempts was identified, but who snapped the ball has been lost to history.
The question, then, is how does one get as complete a play-by-play as possible for those Sundays of yesteryear?
A trip to NFL Films can help. Located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, NFL Films boasts enough film to fill a 3,200 square foot, fireproof, climate-controlled room.
But one doesn’t watch film at this repository of history anymore. Instead, one pops in a tape and is instantly transported back in time. Once there, a keen eye and repeated viewings, often in slow motion, can help shed new light on old games.
A Big Afternoon for Willie
With six games played in the 1963 season, the Packers (5-1) were tied with the Bears (5-1) atop the Western Conference standings. Sitting in third place were the Colts (3-3) under first-year head coach Don Shula.
In Week 7, Green Bay traveled to Baltimore for the final stop of a three-game road trip. The main storyline surrounding the Packers centered on how they would respond with quarterback John Roach starting in place of Bart Starr, who had broken his passing hand in a 30-7 win over the Cardinals the previous week.
Green Bay didn’t let down, squeezing past Baltimore 34-20. Elijah Pitts and Jim Taylor each scored a touchdown as the Packers posted 14 unanswered points in the closing minutes.
Afterward, Green Bay and Milwaukee newspapers focused much of their attention on Roach. They gave him a favorable review and noted that he would have had a higher completion percentage (he was nine of 20) had his receivers not dropped four passes in the first half.
Davis received far less attention. Art Daley of the Press-Gazette noted that “Davis and (Henry) Jordan collaborated to recover a fumble as (Johnny) Unitas tried a fourth down pass.” Daley later stated that “Davis shook the ball out of Unitas’ hand and then made the recovery in a one-man display.”
Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel also praised Davis. Lea wrote: “Willie Davis, who was in Unitas’ hair all day, went to work on his man again.”
Film study of the game reveals Davis was worthy of more accolades. The cat-quick defender was responsible for all three of the Packers’ sacks.
He, and not Dave Hanner as listed in the play-by-play, dumped Unitas for a five-yard loss in the second quarter. Later in the period, he forced the legendary quarterback to fumble on a six-yard sack and Davis, as noted by Daley, recovered the loose ball himself. Then, in the fourth quarter, No. 87 jarred the ball free on an eight-yard sack that Jordan recovered to set up the game’s final score.
For the record, that’s three sacks, two forced fumbles and one recovery. Davis also figured in on at least three other tackles, none of which were recorded in the play-by-play.
Today, such a performance would be worthy of a sidebar article replete with quotes from the defensive end and others. Fifty years ago, the play-by-play out of Baltimore made note only of Davis’ fumble recovery.
As such, any reporter wishing to expound on Davis’s afternoon as it unfolded had to fend for himself in gathering the details of this superb performance from a player destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Upon Further Review
Instant replay, so often used to help make the right call in today’s world, wasn’t on anyone’s radar in 1966. Had the system existed then, it’s possible the Packers’ Boyd Dowler would have been deprived of one of his catches against the Lions in the first meeting between the two teams that year.
Dowler caught two passes for 16 yards in Green Bay’s 23-14 triumph over Detroit on October 2. His first reception, a 10-yarder in the third quarter, helped set up a 43-yard field goal attempt that Don Chandler failed to convert. His second catch likely should have been waved off.
Dowler hauled in a short pass on first down from quarterback Bart Starr midway through the fourth quarter. Repeated viewings of the play show Dowler getting only his left foot in bounds. His right foot lands on the white, chalked sideline.
That play is not the only one scored incorrectly. Two plays later, Starr gets sacked by Alex Karras alone, not by Karras and Ernie Clark as stated in the play-by-play. Furthermore, a 2-yard run by Amos Marsh a few minutes later should have been recorded as a 2-yard shovel pass from quarterback Milt Plum to the Detroit fullback.
Rough and Tumble
Football is a violent game. Anyone in need of a reminder might view the fourth quarter of the Packers-Redskins game from 1958.
Helmets are twice ripped from the heads of players in the final 10 minutes. Green Bay strikes first. Washington returns the favor later in the period.
His team down 34-0, quarterback Babe Parilli marshals the Packers to touchdowns on consecutive drives to open the fourth quarter. With Green Bay closing in for a possible third TD, Joe Scudero steps in front of a pass intended for Steve Meilinger.
In attempting to tackle Scudero, Packers fullback Jim Taylor goes for the defender’s head and gets helmet instead. The defensive back, his load lightened, races 11 yards before Parilli tackles him.
Paul Hornung is treated in a similar manner on Green Bay’s final possession. While going out for a pass, halfback and helmet are separated courtesy of Chuck Drazenovich. With the helmetless Hornung no longer an option, Parilli finds Meilinger for a 15-yard gain as the Packers go on to score one more TD before falling 37-21.
The Power of Film
Nothing brings to life a game from the past like film. From what defenses were run to what offensive formations were favored, celluloid can provide answers.
Here are a few closing nuggets.
- Bob Forte wore No. 26 (and not his more familiar No. 8) against the Lions on October 27, 1946.
- Ray Nitschke started at middle linebacker against the Redskins on October 19, 1958 and he wore No. 33.
- Hank Bullough had a return of 17 yards on the fumble he recovered in 1958, not the zero yards recorded by the scorekeeper. It probably didn’t help Bullough that his recovery came on the final play in Green Bay’s 16-point loss to the Redskins.
Eric Goska spent two-and-a-half days watching tape at NFL Films this past June.