Herb Adderley, a member of all five of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams and one of the greatest cornerbacks in the history of the NFL, died Friday. Adderley was 81 and had been recently hospitalized.
Adderley played for the Packers from 1961-69 and then finished his career with the Dallas Cowboys from 1970-72, where he won a sixth NFL title. In fact, Adderley played in four of the first six Super Bowls and won three rings.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980, a year before he was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
“The greatest cornerback to ever play the game,” was how former teammate Bart Starr once described him.
When the Packers won three consecutive NFL championships from 1965-67, becoming the first and still only team ever to do so under a playoff format, defense was their trademark. They ranked first, first and third in points allowed; and third, third and first in yards allowed.
Adderley took over as the starting left cornerback in 1962 and in his eight years as a starter, the Packers finished first in pass defense seven times and second once. They also never ranked lower than fourth in total yards allowed. The three most decorated players on those defenses were Adderley, Willie Wood and Willie Davis. Each was selected to five Pro Bowls, when the teams were selected by the conference’s head coaches. Adderley also was a five-time Associated Press All-Pro.
“I played against all of them,” Johnny Morris, a flanker for the Chicago Bears from 1958-67 and the NFL’s leading receiver in 1964 with 93 catches, said of the great cornerbacks of the late 1950s and ’60s. “Jimmy Johnson was a great defensive back. So was Night Train Lane. I could do things against them. Herb was in a class by himself. I don’t have to think about it – he was the best.”
Tommy McDonald, a Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver with five different teams from 1957-68, concurred.
“Herb Adderley simply wouldn’t let me get to the outside,” McDonald once said. “He’d just beat me up, force me to turn underneath routes all the time… Other guys tried the same tactic, but he was the only one tough enough and fast enough to get it done.”
When the Packers drafted Adderley in the first round in 1961, Lombardi had visions of him being another Lenny Moore, a hybrid flanker-halfback for the Baltimore Colts. Thus, Adderley spent most of his rookie season backing up flanker Boyd Dowler. Everything changed when starting left cornerback Hank Gremminger was injured at the end of the first half of the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.
Adderley made his debut on defense, intercepted a pass and returned it nine yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the Packers’ 17-9 victory over the second-place Lions. Gremminger returned to the lineup the next week, but moved to safety in 1962 and Adderley took over at corner.
“I had been so stubborn trying to make (Adderley) something he didn’t want to be,” Lombardi wrote in his book, “Run to Daylight.”
“He didn’t want to be a flanker. He wanted to be a defensive back.”
At 6-foot and 205 pounds, Adderley was one of the most physical and surest tacklers at his position, not only when he played but also in the 100-plus-year history of the NFL. He also was one of the fastest and big plays were his calling card.
He intercepted 39 passes, more than any cornerback in Packers history, and scored a then NFL-record seven TDs on interceptions, including a then NFL-record-tying three in 1965. He also intercepted four passes in nine postseason games with the Packers.
Among Adderley’s biggest plays were a game-clinching 60-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl II, a last-minute interception against Detroit in 1962 to set up the winning field goal in maybe the biggest regular-season victory of the Lombardi era, and a blocked field goal on a 10-yard attempt in the final two minutes to save a victory over Minnesota in 1963.
Adderley also didn’t allow a touchdown pass in 14 regular-season games in 1965.
“He was more athletic than anybody we had. A lot of killer instinct in him,” Wood, a former teammate and a fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer, once said.
Adderley had another facet to his game, as well. He led the Packers in kickoff returns four times, ran two back for touchdowns and averaged 25.7 yards on 120 career returns.
The Packers’ 17-13 victory over the Colts in 1962 was a good example of the impact Adderley could have on a game. He scored on a 103-yard kickoff return, intercepted a Johnny Unitas pass to set up a field goal and saved the game by deflecting a fourth-down Unitas pass in the final minute with the Colts at the Packers’ 2-yard line.
Following the 1969 season, Adderley had a falling out with coach Phil Bengtson and demanded to be traded. He was shipped to the Cowboys, where he played three more seasons. In 12 NFL seasons, Adderley’s teams won 127 games, lost 46 and tied 5, a remarkable .713 winning percentage.