September 19, 2011
It was a rainy day in Green Bay on September 19, 1971 as the Packers hosted the New York Giants in the season-opening game for both teams. Green Bay was coming off a 6-8 year in ’70, the second of three losing records since winning a third straight championship in 1967, Vince Lombardi’s last year as head coach. Having gone 20-21-1 under Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine was hired away from the University of Missouri to take over the coaching reins. There was talent at running back with HB Donny Anderson and the first draft pick out of Ohio State, FB John Brockington, as well as guard Gale Gillingham, DT Mike McCoy, and LB Fred Carr. There were still some of the great players from the Lombardi era around, but they were getting up in years and included 34-year-old safety Willie Wood, 33-year-old WR Carroll Dale, 34-year-old MLB Ray Nitschke, and most significantly of all, QB Bart Starr, back for his 16th year at age 37 but unavailable for the opening game due to injury.
The Giants, coached by Alex Webster, had gone 9-5 in ’70, their best record since they last appeared in a NFL Championship game in 1963. But while they still had eleventh-year veteran QB Fran Tarkenton, the NFC’s third-ranked passer the previous year, HB Ron Johnson, who had gained 1514 yards from scrimmage (1027 rushing, 487 receiving), was injured. The defense had talent in DE Fred Dryer, CB Willie Williams, and FS Carl “Spider” Lockhart. But there were holes, and losses in all six preseason games did not inspire confidence.
There were 56,263 fans present at Lambeau Field. Zeke Bratkowski, another relic of the Lombardi era who had come out of retirement at age 39, started at quarterback for the Packers. Green Bay scored first in unusual but spectacular fashion when a field goal attempt by New York’s Pete Gogolak fell short and CB Ken Ellis returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, tying the then-NFL record. The score stood at 7-0 after a quarter of play.
The Giants came back on a drive highlighted by a 43-yard pass play from Tarkenton to TE Rich Kotite. A scrambling Tarkenton then threw a six-yard TD pass to Rich Houston (pictured above), who had only recently been converted from defensive back to wide receiver.
The next score was set up by a turnover when New York’s Tom Blanchard punted and the ball hit the heel of Packers safety Al Randolph, who had slipped and fallen on the wet turf. Safety Joe Green recovered for the Giants on what was technically a fumble and Tarkenton connected again with Houston for a 39-yard touchdown on the next play, giving New York the lead at 14-7.
Less than five minutes later, there were two touchdowns scored by the Giants within six seconds of play, both on fumble recoveries. First, with the Packers backed up to their own three yard line, HB Dave Hampton fumbled a handoff in his end zone that New York LB Ralph Heck recovered for a TD. The ensuing kickoff went between Hampton and RB Larry Krause. Hampton handled it but, instead of downing it in the end zone, made an attempt to run and was hit and fumbled, and Green made his second recovery, this time for another New York touchdown.
Hampton partially redeemed himself by returning the next kickoff 44 yards and coming close to breaking it all the way. The Packers then drove 52 yards with Bratkowski throwing to Hampton for a 19-yard touchdown with just a few seconds left in the half. The halftime score was 28-14 in favor of the visitors.
The Giants not only led in the score but in all major statistical departments as well after one half of play. As a result, and despite the scoring drive at the end of the first half, Green Bay’s Coach Devine switched from Bratkowski to rookie QB Scott Hunter in the second half.
The Packers narrowed the margin to 28-17 in the third quarter thanks to a 28-yard field goal by Lou Michaels. However, the Giants came back with an 81-yard pass play from Tarkenton to Houston for another TD. Hampton returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards for the Packers, and that led to a touchdown as Hunter threw to TE Rich McGeorge on a 21-yard play.
With the score now 35-24, the Packers got the ball and Hunter fumbled at his own 20. New York LB Jim Files recovered and Tarkenton (pictured at left) again made Green Bay pay for turning the ball over as he immediately fired a pass to FB Tucker Frederickson in the end zone. The Giants held a 42-24 lead after three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, the Packers drove 74 yards with Donny Anderson capping the drive with a 19-yard touchdown run in which he broke three tackles. With the Packers behind by 42-31 and just over seven minutes on the clock, SS Doug Hart intercepted a pass along the sideline in front of the Green Bay bench. New York OT Bob Hyland, an ex-Packer, pushed Hart out of bounds and slid into Coach Devine in the resulting pileup. Devine had to be carried off the field with an apparent leg injury and was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors found two major bones broken in his lower left leg. His leg was immediately reset, and upon coming out of the anesthetic, Devine asked, “They didn’t give up, did they?”
The Packers didn’t give up, and in fact the loss of the head coach seemed to fire the team up (Defensive line coach Dave Hanner took over field strategy for the remainder of the game).
Hart’s interception set up the last touchdown by the Packers, an 18-yard pass from Hunter to Carroll Dale that closed the gap to 42-38. With 2:38 left, Hart made another big play when he tackled the Giants’ Blanchard in the end zone after the punter fielded a bad snap that sailed over his head.
It was now a two-point game and Green Bay got the ball back following the safety. The Packers drove from their 46 to the New York 36 yard line, but in the last minute an interception by Files on a pass up the middle that was intended for Dale finally stopped the Packers for good. New York came away from the wildly-contested game with a 42-40 win.
The Packers outgained the Giants (348 yards to 323) and had more first downs (17 to 12). However, they undid themselves by fumbling six times, losing four of them, as well as turning the ball over on the interception on the final drive. New York, by contrast, turned the ball over just once, although it was a pickoff that set up a touchdown – and removed Green Bay’s head coach from the game.
Fran Tarkenton completed 13 of 21 passes for 236 yards with four touchdowns and the one interception. Rich Houston was the receiving star with 6 catches for 151 yards and three TDs. Tucker Frederickson was New York’s leading rusher with 42 yards on 10 carries.
For the Packers, Zeke Bratkowski was successful on 6 of 10 throws for 66 yards and a touchdown in his half of action; Scott Hunter completed 9 of 16 passes for 158 yards that included two TDs against the one interception. Donny Anderson ran for 99 yards on 16 attempts with one TD; John Brockington, in his first game, added 34 yards on 9 attempts and had 3 catches for 9 yards. WR John Spilis caught 3 passes for 70 yards, while the 12th-year veteran Carroll Dale also had 3 receptions, for 66 yards and a score.
“I was the first one to see Hart,” Bob Hyland said afterward about the play that resulted in Dan Devine sustaining a broken leg. “I pushed him (Hart) out of bounds and then slid right into Devine. I feel sick about it.”
Devine returned to the sidelines on crutches and wearing a cast (pictured at right). The Packers won their next two games, but only two more the rest of the year as they finished at the bottom of the NFC Central with a 4-8-2 record (adding fuel to the debate over pro teams hiring coaches directly from the college ranks). While the running game was strong, the lack of a quality quarterback (Bart Starr appeared in just four games in what was his final season) proved detrimental and the defense had too many holes.
John Brockington emerged to lead the NFC with 1105 rushing yards. Donny Anderson rushed for 757 yards and caught 26 passes for 306 more, but clashed with Devine and was traded to the Cardinals in the offseason. Carroll Dale led the club in pass receiving with 31 catches for 598 yards and four TDs. Scott Hunter was the starting quarterback most of the way and suffered plenty of growing pains as he gave up 17 interceptions, as opposed to just 7 touchdown passes.
As for the Giants, they ended up at the bottom of the NFC East with a 4-10 tally. The loss of Ron Johnson, who played in just two games, proved deadly to the offense (Bobby Duhon led the club in rushing with 344 yards) while the defense ranked at the bottom of the conference. Fran Tarkenton completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 2567 yards and 11 TDs, but also was intercepted 21 times. Rich Houston didn’t come close to duplicating his spectacular opening-game numbers and ended up with 24 catches for 426 yards (17.8 avg.), scoring one more TD to give him four for the year.