CHFF Classic: The Ice Bowl revisited
We take our football facts much like we do our women: cold, blue and frigid. So it tingled our nether-regions at the bookstore the other day when we stumbled across a nifty read: "The Ice Bowl: The Cold Truth About Football's Most Unforgettable Game," by Ed Gruver (McBooks Press, 1998). It's a book that you – that's right, you, with the blue cheese crumbles smudging your fantasy football guide – should read, especially if you need a little pigskin pick-me-up here in the dog days of August that you just don't get out of preseason football.
To the average CHFF troll, there's nothing like spending the steamy days of August anticipating the exciting, icy, bone-chilling end to the season. And no game in history was icier, more bone-chilling or more exciting than the legendary Ice Bowl – Green Bay's 21-17 win over Dallas in the 1967 NFL championship game. And few reads sparkle with the icy, crystalline edge of the history-making moment like Gruver's "The Ice Bowl." The weather – the "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" – is the football cliché that lives on to this day.
But Gruver dives into the story behind the story, with insights into the players and personalities that sculpted this contribution to football lore.
The writing is at times beautiful and poetic. Gruver is a pretty damn good sportswriter. Bob Lilly wasn't merely a great defensive tackle. He was a "swift-moving, southwestern storm front that scattered NFL offenses and scuttled their best-laid blocking schemes." As the game reached its chilly, bitter end, "the players had become gray, ghost-like figures moving at a slow, painful pace." And both Cowboys coach Tom Landry and Packers coach Vince Lombardi were Giants assistants during one of the other great watershed events in NFL history, the overtime 1958 league championship game.
Writes Gruver: "The marriage of pro football and television was performed, quite suitably, in the cathedral-like surroundings of Yankee Stadium on Sunday, December 28, 1958." And though we know how it all ends, "The Ice Bowl" builds to an exciting climax, with a full 15 pages devoted to the game-winning play: Bart Starr's winner-take-all gamble to – without the knowledge of his teammates – take the ball into the end zone himself, behind the magnificent tag-team block of center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer. In conventional terms, it was a stupid call, writes Gruver.
- Starr rarely if ever carried the ball himself, not even on sneaks.
- The Packers had used their final timeout, so if he failed to get in, Green Bay would have watched helplessly as the clock ran out on the game and on history, with a record third straight championship just inches away.
- An incomplete pass at least would have given Green Bay another shot at the end zone.
- And, trailing only by three, the Packers could have played it safe and kicked a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime.
Instead of following conventional wisdom, the Packers grabbed history by the nuts and forced it to submit to their will. And it all played out on a memorable and magnificent backdrop: a lung-freezing polar-cap of a New Year's Eve Day in which, by the end of the game, wind chills dropped to 50 below as the sun set behind the stadium and cast long, foreboding shadows along the ice-skating rink of a playing field.
Emerging through it all were the aging, vulnerable Packers, sucking it up one last time, and, after getting stymied for the better part of three quarters, marching off an improbable 68-yard drive against history, the Doomsday Defense and Mother Nature.
There's a lot to learn from "The Ice Bowl." Here are six of the most interesting aspects of the book. You can read our take. But, better yet, go out and buy "The Ice Bowl."
1. Before they were America's Team, the Cowboys were America's snake-bitten losers
Remember how the Colts "couldn't win the big game" ... at least until last season's Super Bowl? Well, those were the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s and 1970s. Their loss to the Packers in the Ice Bowl was their second consecutive last-second defeat at the hands of the Packers in an NFL title game. The two losses had a devastating effect. Dallas was upset in the playoffs in each of the next two years. They finally reached Super Bowl V at the end of the 1970 season, only to play pathetically in a 16-13 last-second loss to Baltimore. That was five straight years in which the Cowboys lost excruciatingly in the postseason. It was only with the rise of Roger Staubach in the 1971 season that the Cowboys won Super Bowl VI and overcame their legacy as the team that "couldn't win the big game."
2. There's a fine line between dynasty and defeat
The game that launched Dallas's reputation as lovable losers, the 1966 NFL championship game, plays prominently in "The Ice Bowl." Played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Cowboys marched deep into Green Bay territory in the final moments of the game, only to watch as Don Meredith's potential game-tying pass was picked off in the end zone. The Packers held on for the razor-thin, 34-27 victory. The exciting finish to the 1966 game made the 1967 follow-up – with or without the weather – one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the decade. The Packers are forever remembered as the team of the 1960s and the only organization to win three straight NFL championship games. But the margin between "Team of the Decade" and just a run-of-the-mill great team was two plays – an interception in 1966 and a daring quarterback sneak in 1967. Parity existed even back in the 1960s, folks. The great teams, as they always have, just overcome it.
3. Landry was one of the game's great defensive masterminds
We didn't truly appreciate Landry's greatness as a defensive innovator until reading "The Ice Bowl." Sure, Dallas fielded the "Doomsday Defense" on his watch. But it seems most football fans remember Landry's Cowboys for their glitzy offensive game plans and galaxy of offensive stars, from Bullet Bob Hayes to the magnificent Staubach to the explosive Tony Dorsett.
But Landry made his chops as a defensive genius – most prominently before the Cowboys as the defensive coordinator for the Giants of the 1950s, opposite the team's offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi. Writes Gruver: "Landry had designed the 'umbrella' defense to stop the aerial artistry of Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns in 1950, and created the coordinated 4-3 to slow down Jim Brown in 1958. His response to Lombardi's cut-back features was to take away the gaps in the (defensive) line."
He attempted to plug these gaps through the flex defense – featuring two defensive linemen situated back off the line of scrimmage – that the Cowboys utilized right through their glory days of the 1970s. Gruver also credits Landry with creating the all-out blitz, and writes that he ushered in the era of the modern 4-3 and the dominant, roving middle linebacker that reinvented football in the 1960s and still defines the prominent defensive formation today. Oh, and he was also a fantastic player, a DB who had 32 interceptions in an 80-game career ... one shortened by his WWII career as a B-17 bomber co-pilot. That military service always plays well in our book.
4. The Ice Bowl chill was sudden and unexpected
As inexact as weather forecasting might be today, it was much worse 40 years ago. In fact, the New Year's Eve Day weather that's come to define the Ice Bowl was unexpected ... and unprecedented. When the Cowboys and the broadcast crews arrived in Green Bay on Friday before the game, they were greeted by relatively balmy seasonal temperatures in the 20s.
The mercury dropped sharply Saturday night, so that players, fans and broadcasters were shocked to awake Sunday morning and find that it was 13 below zero, with a 15-mile-per-hour wind. Cowboys players scraped ice off the inside of their hotel windows to get a look out at the arctic scenery, and the NFL even considered postponing the game.
Basically, nobody was prepared for the weather that day.
5. Bill Walsh did not invent play-scripting
With all due respect to the recently deceased and legendary Bill Walsh, Gruver claims that Vince Lombardi invented the practice of scripting plays as the offensive coordinator with the Giants in the 1950s. "Scripting the game's first offensive series became a Giant trademark," writes Gruver, "and it usually resulted in a big play."
Gruver spends much of the book describing why Lombardi was and is one of the great offensive innovators in history, much like Landry was on the other side of the ball. The coaching matchup created another layer of legend to the Ice Bowl that's been lost a bit to history: It pitted two of the greatest football innovators of their time.
6. Bart Starr is a god
Starr has long been a Cold, Hard Football Facts favorite. We worship him from afar, only because he's not anear.
The more you read about him, the more you study his statistical success, and his success as a leader, the more you realize that Green Bay would have been Just Another Team without Starr at the helm. "The Ice Bowl" does nothing but reconfirm for us his greatness. The Ice Bowl was the finest hour in Green Bay history. And, no coincidence, it was Starr's finest hour as well – this Winston Churchill of the gridiron, willing his side to victory against all odds. Starr was badly injured during the 1967 season, leading to his worst statistical season (9 TDs, 17 INTs) after his MVP performance of 1966.
It got no better for him in the Ice Bowl, when he was beaten senseless by the Dallas defense: he was sacked eight times that day, knocked to the ice-hard surface on several other occasions, and had two passes batted away. He fumbled on one sack, which was picked up by Dallas and returned for a game-changing TD. The Packers mustered just 12 yards of offense in the third quarter.
Yet with the game on the line, his hands frozen, and history and Mother Nature staring down their sights at him, Starr was magnificent, as he always was in crunch time (there's a reason Starr remains to this day, 40 years after his last playoff performance, the highest rated postseason passer in NFL history).
Unable to move the ball for much of the afternoon, Starr walked into the huddle with 4:54 remaining and 68 yards between the Packers and victory. He simply looked at this teammates and, according to Gruver, "said firmly, 'let's get it done.'" As Starr looked at the determined faces of his teammates, he knew they were going to win. "It was," Starr said, "the greatest feeling in the world."
Starr promptly completed 5 of 5 passes on the final drive for 59 of the needed 68 yards. And, with 16 seconds remaining and no timeouts, he literally took the game into his own hands. In the huddle, Starr called for a handoff to running back Chuck Mercein, who was supposed to run in behind the double-team block of Bowman and Kramer.
But Starr did not share his true intent: he was going to run the ball in himself. He did not tell his teammates. Like the greats in any sport, Starr wanted the ball in his own hands when it counted most. And, like the greatest of the greats, he calmly delivered.
Bill Curry played center for both the Packers and the Colts in the 1960s, and therefore snapped the ball to both Starr and Johnny Unitas, the quarterback widely regarded as the best of his era.
Says Curry, according to Gruver: "While legendary quarterback John Unitas carried himself in a charismatic way, he lacked Starr's presence of leadership. Starr, Curry said, "was the master of the huddle." And the master of one of the great moments in NFL history.
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