April 2, 2012

1976: Packers Obtain Lynn Dickey from Oilers

On April 2, 1976 a long-delayed trade between the Green Bay Packers and Houston Oilers was announced. The Packers sent QB John Hadl, CB Ken Ellis, and two draft choices (fourth round in ’76, third round in ’77) to Houston for QB Lynn Dickey.

Word of the impending deal had been leaked earlier in the week and it thus came as no surprise. It had been agreed to long before, but an embargo on trades due to litigation involving the allocation of players to the NFL’s two new expansion teams forced a delay. It was thus officially announced on the day that the embargo was lifted.

“After a great deal of consideration and thought, we thought the trade for Lynn Dickey would be in the best interests of the Green Bay Packers or we wouldn't have made it,” Bart Starr, all-time great quarterback and now general manager and head coach of the Packers, said when questioned about the cost to his team. “Any time you make an investment like this it's expensive, but I think if you break it down and analyze it, I think you can justify it.”

There was much critical comment, for the unproven Dickey (pictured above) had been unable to beat out Dan Pastorini in Houston and, considering the Packers had given up a great deal to get Hadl during the 1974 season (five draft choices), this seemed to compound the enormity of that action (that transaction had been swung by Starr’s predecessor as head coach/GM, Dan Devine).

The 6’4”, 210-pound Dickey threw just four passes in 1975. At Kansas State, he had broken most Big Eight passing and total yardage records. He was selected by the Oilers in the third round of the quarterback-rich 1971 draft while Pastorini was the team’s first-round draft choice. Dickey missed all of 1972 due to a broken hip suffered in the preseason and in four years of action had thrown a total of 294 passes, completing 155 of them for 1953 yards with 8 touchdowns and a big 28 interceptions (including 9 of his 57 attempts as a rookie). Dickey lacked mobility but had an outstanding arm and Starr could see his potential.

“I felt all along I could play, but I was told I would probably never get that opportunity,” said Dickey, glad to be away from Houston and with an opportunity to start.

Hadl had been an outstanding quarterback for the San Diego Chargers for 11 seasons, leading the AFL twice and NFL once in passing yards and gaining selection to four AFL All-Star Games and one Pro Bowl. He was dealt to the Rams in 1973, where he had an All-Pro year, but was traded to the Packers during the ’74 season and, at 36, appeared to be on the downside of his career. Dickey, on the other hand, was 26 and backup quarterbacks Don Milan and Carlos Brown were clearly not ready to move up.

The Packers were coming off a 4-10 record in Starr’s first year at the helm. The previously solid running game dropped off badly as star FB John Brockington slumped to just 434 yards on the ground. The team had been in the doldrums since the departure of Vince Lombardi as head coach in 1967, with a division title under Devine in 1972 the only highlight. Even in the division-winning year, quarterback was a problem area for the Packers, and Starr was hired in 1975 to bring the winning habit of the Lombardi era back to Green Bay and, as part of that, to bring improvement behind center. Hadl was hardly someone to rebuild around while Dickey could grow with the offense.

Houston, under Head Coach O.A. “Bum” Phillips, was on the rise and coming off a 10-4 record in 1975. Dan Pastorini was the unquestioned starter at quarterback and swapping Dickey for Hadl brought a savvy veteran who could provide both insurance if Pastorini went down as well as a mentor. Ken Ellis, a two-time Pro Bowl selectee, was 28. He had played out his option and was likely to sign elsewhere. The draft choices were used to take WR Steve Largent of Tulsa in 1976, who was traded in the preseason and went on to a Hall of Fame career with Seattle, and FB Tim Wilson out of Maryland in ’77, a capable player who mostly blocked for star RB Earl Campbell until 1982.

Pastorini slumped during an injury-plagued season, along with the rest of the Oilers, in 1976. The team fell to 5-9 after a promising 4-1 beginning. Hadl (pictured below) ended up starting four games, three of which were losses. He was successful on 60 of 113 pass attempts (53.1 %) for 634 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He lasted one more year with the Oilers before retiring, seeing less action in ‘77.

Ellis didn’t remain long in Houston, as he was traded to the injury-depleted Miami Dolphins during the season and was converted to safety (the Oilers picked up two 1977 draft choices as part of the transaction).

As for Lynn Dickey in Green Bay, he showed promise – although performed unevenly – until being knocked out by a shoulder injury ten games into the season. Overall, he completed just 47.3 % of his passes for 1465 yards with 7 TDs and 14 interceptions. The running game was still substandard and the receiving corps nothing special, with WR Ken Payne and TE Rich McGeorge the most reliable of the group. Like the Oilers, the Packers ended up at 5-9.

Dickey’s road proved to be a difficult one in Green Bay. He came back in 1977 but suffered a badly broken leg in Week 9 that was such a severe injury he missed all of ’78 as well. The Packers contended in his absence, going 8-7-1, and a competitor arose in David Whitehurst. When Dickey finally came back in 1979, he was backing up his former backup, but Whitehurst failed to progress, the Packers slipped back into their losing ways, and Dickey outplayed him when he started the final three games.

Dickey finally started a full slate of games in 1980 and set team records in pass attempts (478), completions (278), and yards (3529) although he also was intercepted 25 times while throwing for 15 TDs. WR James Lofton, who arrived in ’78, was an outstanding target (71 receptions, 1226 yards) and TE Paul Coffman emerged to catch 42 passes as well. But the team’s record was only 5-10-1. Another quarterback, Rich Campbell out of California, was taken in the first round of the ’81 draft.

In 1981 the Packers picked up another receiver, WR John Jefferson, spectacular with the Chargers but unhappy with his contract, and paired him with Lofton to allow for a wide-open aerial game (#83 Jefferson & #80 Lofton pictured at left). Dickey finally tossed more touchdown passes (17) than interceptions (15), including five in a game against the Saints. However, he was also sacked 40 times, including nine in one game against the Jets, and missed three contests with a back injury. Still, after starting out a miserable 2-6, Green Bay finished up at 6-2.

In the strike-interrupted ’82 season, the Packers made it to the postseason for the first time in ten years with a 5-3-1 record. Lacking a reliable running game, it came down to Dickey throwing the ball to Lofton, Jefferson, and Coffman while trying to avoid being sacked. He threw four TD passes against the Cardinals for Green Bay’s first postseason win since the 1967 season and for 332 yards in a loss to Dallas in the next round (along with three interceptions).

It set the stage for high expectations that were not met in an 8-8 campaign in 1983, although Dickey passed for 4458 yards (third-highest in NFL history at the time) and 32 touchdowns, offset by a league-leading 29 interceptions. The explosive offense couldn’t overcome the porous defense, however, and it marked the end of Bart Starr’s coaching tenure (he was replaced by another Lombardi-era Packer, Forrest Gregg). Dickey lasted for another two years and remained productive, but an injury that prematurely ended his 1985 season ultimately finished off his career.

Overall, Lynn Dickey played 13 seasons in the NFL, appearing in every game just three times (including the 9-game ’82 season). With the Packers, he passed for 21,369 yards and 133 touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, with 151 interceptions. While the team had only one winning season, deficiencies in the running game, offensive line, and defense played more of a role in Green Bay’s lack of success than Dickey, who when healthy was able to combine with a fine receiving corps in productive fashion. Moreover, despite a string of major injuries that threatened to derail his career at several points, he showed great tenacity and toughness along the way.