November 3, 2016

1968: Sayers Runs for 205 Yards & Bears Defeat Packers on Free Kick

The Green Bay Packers had won three straight NFL Championships but were struggling at 3-3-1 as they hosted their biggest rivals, the Chicago Bears, on November 3, 1968. Vince Lombardi had stepped down as head coach in favor of long-time defensive assistant Phil Bengtson, and age and injuries were catching up to the once-great club. To be sure, QB Bart Starr was still formidable at age 34, if also more prone to injury, and flanker Carroll Dale a dependable receiver. The defense remained tough and contained familiar names like MLB Ray Nitschke, CB Herb Adderley, and FS Willie Wood. But there were holes inadequately filled and the lack of a dependable placekicker to succeed the retired Don Chandler was one of them.

The Bears had a new head coach as well in Jim Dooley, with George Halas having finally retired from sideline duty (he remained the owner). They had gotten off to a poor start but were winners of their last two games and had a 3-4 record coming into Green Bay. Young and mobile QB Virgil Carter was performing well since taking over the starting role initially vacated by the injured Jack Concannon, but the key to the offense was outstanding HB Gale Sayers (pictured above).

There were 50,861 fans in attendance at Lambeau Field. In the first quarter, the Packers had the first shot as Bart Starr threw to HB Donny Anderson, who gained 26 yards before being tripped up by SS Richie Petitbon. But they came up empty when, four plays later, Errol Mann missed a 44-yard field goal attempt. Green Bay missed another opportunity midway through the second quarter as Mann again failed on a field goal attempt, this time from 29 yards.

The Bears were not getting near scoring territory until, late in the second quarter, Gale Sayers broke away as he ran wide to the right and then cut against the grain for a 63-yard carry to the Green Bay 17. That set up a 10-yard Mac Percival field goal for the first points of the game and gave the Bears a 3-0 lead at halftime.

Sayers returned the second half kickoff 46 yards to give Chicago favorable starting field position at the Green Bay 44. Eleven plays later, Virgil Carter bootlegged the last two yards for a touchdown, taking advantage of the defense keying on Sayers. Percival added the extra point and the visitors were ahead by 10-0.

Down by ten points, the Packers put together an 81-yard drive in seven plays, culminating in Starr throwing long to Carroll Dale, who beat FS Roosevelt Taylor for a 50-yard TD. Chuck Mercein, normally a fullback but relieving the injured and ineffective Errol Mann, added the point after and the score was narrowed to 10-7. The Packers got a break when Chicago next had to punt and Jon Kilgore’s shanked 17-yard kick gave them the ball at their 41. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Mercein tied the score with a 19-yard field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, WR Dick Gordon muffed the ball and had to scramble into the end zone to recover it. But while two officials initially signaled a safety, the play was ruled a touchback and the Bears started out at the 20. The Packers regained possession when CB Bob Jeter intercepted a Carter pass at midfield, but on the series that followed Anderson fumbled when hit by LB Dick Butkus and LB Jim Purnell recovered at the Chicago 42.

The Bears had the next opportunity when a 21-yard Sayers run moved them into scoring territory, but LB Lee Roy Caffey blocked Percival’s field goal attempt from 29 yards. Green Bay received a further break when, on the next possession by the Bears, Sayers fumbled at the Chicago 39 and Herb Adderley recovered and returned it to the 14. Anderson ran the ball three times and Mercein tried for a field goal from the 22, but it missed wide.

There was an exchange of punts before a Donny Anderson kick into the wind from deep in his own territory traveled only 28 yards. WR Cecil Turner of the Bears called a free catch at the Green Bay 43 and, with 26 seconds left on the clock, Chicago chose to attempt a rare free kick from the point of the catch. Percival came through with a 43-yard field goal and the Bears won by a final score of 13-10.

Chicago had the edge in total yards (328 to 242) and first downs (18 to 12). While completing only five passes, the Bears gained 291 yards on the ground. However, they also turned the ball over three times, to one by Green Bay, and were flagged for 10 penalties as opposed to two called on the Packers. Green Bay was also hurt by a combined three missed field goals in four attempts by Errol Mann and Chuck Mercein.

Gale Sayers had a big performance, rushing for 205 yards on 24 carries, with 118 on 10 attempts in the first half alone, although he also fumbled three times. Virgil Carter completed 5 of 14 passes for 51 yards and gave up two interceptions, but ran the ball 11 times for 56 yards and a touchdown. HB Brian Piccolo, who gained a modest seven yards on five rushing attempts, was Chicago’s leading pass receiver with a mere two catches for 19 yards.

For the Packers, Bart Starr was successful on 10 of 18 throws for 154 yards and a TD with no interceptions. HB Elijah Pitts ran for 43 yards on 10 attempts in addition to catching four passes for 33 yards. Carroll Dale gained a team-leading 74 yards on three pass receptions that included a touchdown.

“He’s fantastic,” said Green Bay’s Coach Bengtson of Gale Sayers. “I’ve seen him have good days, but this has to be the best.”

Sayers extended his NFL rushing total to 824 yards with his career-high performance against the Packers, but disaster struck the following week against the 49ers when he went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Bears faltered but remained in the Central Division race until suffering a one-point loss to Green Bay in the season finale that left them in second place with a 7-7 record. That was still better than the Packers, who suffered their first losing season in ten years, ending up at 6-7-1.