July 27, 2021

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Playing the what-if game with Vince Lombardi’s…

6 min read
Playing the what-if game with Vince Lombardi’s...



Here’s another 1960s draft pick who might have been destined for greatness: linebacker Nelson Toburen, a 14th-round choice in 1961 whose career was tragically ended by a neck injury in his first pro start in his second season. I was once told by a locker-room witness that Toburen was so mentally and physically tough that he stood up to and then backed down Ray Nitschke in a locker room incident that Nitschke started.

Again, as a reminder, when judging drafts or just about any other history topic, it’s critical to consider the timeframe of the events. In the 1960s, almost all players had the option of signing with at least two teams and many of them saw no future in Green Bay or didn’t want to sit on the bench for three, four years because of an overloaded roster. At the end of his decorated career, Morris explained why he signed with the Patriots and not the Packers, who at the time had just lost an opportunity by a half-game to win an unprecedented third straight NFL Championship Game. “Jim Ringo was the center in Green Bay and I figured I’d never get to play,” said Morris.

I was wondering if there was a story about the Phil Bengtson years, 1968-70, and, in particular, the 1968 team. Except for problems kicking field goals, it might have had a shot at winning a fourth championship. To be sure, it was an aging team, but it seemed to have the firepower to do better than 6-7-1.

I cover the Bengtson years in detail in our upcoming definitive history book, but Bengtson also wrote a book published in 1969. The title was: “Packer Dynasty: The saga of the championship Green Bay teams” by Bengtson with Todd Hunt. I read the book years ago and there’s probably more in it about the Lombardi teams, but you might gain some insight.

But here’s something for you to maybe chew on in the meantime. How well do you think the following team might have done in 1968? Under Lombardi or under Bengtson.

Offense: LE – Boyd Dowler, age 31, and coming off his first Pro Bowl season; LT – Paul Costa, 27, and already a two-time AFL all-star at TE and only a year removed from becoming a starting tackle for the Bills; LG – Joe O’Donnell, 27, and a two-year starter for the Bills with one all-star selection; C – Jon Morris, 26, and entering what would be his fifth season as an AFL all-star; RG – Gale Gillingham, 24, and entering a season where NFL players would vote him second-team all-pro, which would be followed by four first-team selections; RT – Forrest Gregg, 35, and entering a season where he would be named a Pro Bowl starter for the sixth time in seven years; TE – Marv Fleming, 26; QB – Daryle Lamonica, 27, and the reigning AFL MVP; as well as entering his second season of a three-year run where he compiled a 36-4-1 record as a starting QB; HB – Donny Anderson, 25, and entering a season where he’d combine for more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving and earn a berth in the Pro Bowl; FB – Ernie Green, 30, and coming off a season where he finished ninth in the NFL in rushing with 710 yards and a 4.9 average, despite playing alongside Leroy Kelly, the league’s leading rusher; F – Carroll Dale, 30, and entering what would be his first Pro Bowl season where he averaged 19.5 yards per catch.

Defense: LE – Willie Davis, 34, and coming off his fourth straight season where he was a Pro Bowl starter; LT – Ron Kostelnik, 28; RT – Buck Buchanan, 29, and entering what would be his fifth straight year as an AFL all-star; RE – Lionel Aldridge, 27; LLB – Dave Robinson, 27, already a two-time Pro Bowl player who would be chosen all-pro for the second straight year by a vote of NFL players; MLB – Ray Nitschke, 32; RLB – Nelson Toburen, 30; LCB – Herb Adderley, 29, and coming off his third straight season as a Pro Bowl starter; RCB – Bob Jeter, 31, and entering a season where NFL players would vote him second-team all-pro; LS – Tom Brown, 28; RS – Willie Wood, 32, and entering what would be his fifth straight year as a Pro Bowl starter.

Yes, I realize O’Donnell suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Bills’ preseason. Green also injured his knee in the Browns’ preseason, played through it for eight games and then retired. Burrell broke his ankle in the Oilers’ season opener and didn’t play again. But this make-believe 1968 Packers team would have had the depth to overcome those injuries. It was the final season for both Jerry Kramer and Bob Skoronski, and both could still play. Kramer was just 32. He could have played right guard with Gillingham moving back to left guard to replace O’Donnell. Or Ken Bowman, 26, or Morris could have maybe moved to guard. Jim Grabowski, 24, recovered from his season-ending knee injury in Lombardi’s final season and had his best year, rushing for 518 yards. He could have stepped in for Green. Elijah Pitts and Travis Williams were available to spell Anderson. Lee Roy Caffey was only 27 and a four-year starter. He was available if Toburen’s career hadn’t panned out. And Rowser and Bass could have been waiting in the wings to replace Adderley and Jeter.

How good were the AFL players? Consider the words of Ron Wolf, who was in his sixth year as a scout with the Oakland Raiders. How about the four starters on offense? “Morris was really good. Costa was really good. O’Donnell was really good. Lamonica would have been No. 2 (among AFL quarterbacks behind Joe Namath).” How good would the left side of the line have been with Costa and O’Donnell? “Tough guy (O’Donnell). … He would have fit in perfectly for what they did here with Lombardi. (Costa), he’d be better than O’Donnell.” And Morris? “I’m sure he could have beaten out (Bowman), but Bowman was so tough. That would have been interesting competition.” St. Jean?He was a good player, but you’d call him a journeyman.”

I’ve been an ardent Packer fan since 1965. There was a locally prominent player from here who played part of one season with the Packers. His name was Charlie Leigh. Can you tell me anything about his acquisition and interactions with the team? I know he only had one carry for zero yards. He was a pretty good kick returner for the Miami Dolphins. There is a short piece on NFL Films about him. After his final season, he was employed by my high school, Albany High.

Leigh, a 5-foot-11, 206-pound halfback, played in 10 games for the Packers in 1974 and, as you pointed out, had one carry. But for someone who didn’t play college football, he played in the NFL for six years; won two Super Bowl rings, including one with the 1972 unbeaten Miami Dolphins; and made it to the playoffs four other times. In all, he played in 80 regular-season games, although he started only two. He played two years in Cleveland and the Browns won the division both years. Then after playing five games in 1970 for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League, Don Shula signed Leigh to a contract in Miami. There, he played on two Super Bowl champions, although he didn’t appear in Game VIII after separating his shoulder in the AFC championship. After the Dolphins’ opener in 1974, Leigh wound up playing for Dan Devine.

The Packers acquired Leigh on waivers on Sept. 25, 1974, and honored what was the option year of his contract. He played mostly on special teams and averaged 22.3 yards on nine kickoff returns. I was told that he agreed to a new contract with the Packers during the offseason, but I don’t believe he ever reported. “Charlie Leigh is a mystery to me,” Bart Starr confessed two weeks into his first camp as head coach.

Interestingly, it was Ernie Green’s knee injury in Cleveland in 1968 that helped create a roster spot for Leigh, who by then had played at least two years in the Continental Football League with the Orlando Panthers, Philadelphia Bulldogs and Norfolk Neptunes after his time at Albany High.

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