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Bench Bart Starr

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 22, 2010

[The article below was written in February 1959, but I never got around to posting it until today.]

Dear Dominic Olejniczak, President of the Green Bay Packers,

I'm writing to you to offer advice on how to turn around your once proud franchise. I believe it begins with a switch at quarterback. Please indulge me for a few minutes, as I explain my reasons to you.

Bart Starr was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 9th, 1934. After a terrific high school career, Starr naturally chose to attend the University of Alabama in 1952. As a freshman, he was the backup QB on a Tide team that went 10-2 and beat Syracuse 61-6 in the Orange Bowl. As the starter in 1953, Starr completed about half of his passes and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt. That season Alabama managed to win the SEC despite 7-7 ties with Mississippi State and LSU, and a scoreless tie against Tennessee. The Tide ended the season 6-3-3, culminating with a 28-6 loss to Rice in the Cotton Bowl. Things only got worse from there for Starr. His junior year he suffered a back injury, and was limited to just 41 passes; Alabama went 4-5-2 without him, enough to ensure that a new head coach would be taking over in 1955. In Starr's senior year, Alabama went an unthinkable 0-10, culminating with a 26-0 loss in the Iron Bowl against Auburn; that was the fourth time the Tide were shut out that season. Alabama averaged 4.8 points per game in '55, and never came within 14 points of any opponent. Starr was benched for most of the year, along with nearly all of the other seniors, by new head coach Jennings B. "Ears" Whitworth. For what it's worth, Alabama canned Whitworth after just three seasons, although new head coach Paul Bryant (previously at Texas A&M) didn't do much better last year, either.

With a mediocre college career, it's no surprise that Starr fell to the 200th pick in the 1956 NFL draft. The prior year, the Packers quarterback was Tobin Rote, who had a nondescript performance for the pass-heavy Packers; no team threw more in the mid-'50s than Green Bay. But drafting Starr appeared to provide the motivation Rote needed. He ranked as the #1 QB in the NFL in 1956 in my quarterback ranking system. As a result, Starr's rookie season consisted of just 44 pass attempts.

Despite a great season -- Rote's 18 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing scores tied Sid Luckman's 1943 record for the most combined touchdowns by a QB in NFL history -- the Packers went just 4-8 in 1956. In the off-season, Green Bay traded Rote to the Lions in exchange for three offensive linemen and Don McIlhenny. None of the four players did much for the Packers. As for Rote, in 1957 he threw 4 touchdowns and 280 yards in the 1957 NFL Championship game, making the trade an instant success for the Lions. [Editor's note: since this was originally written, Rote won a championship with the AFL's San Diego Chargers, making him just the second QB (joining Norm Van Brocklin) to win championships for two different teams (Earl Morrall has since joined the club, as well).]

With Rote off winning the league championship in Detroit, how did Starr fare in his second season? Starr posted pretty good numbers for a 23-year-old first-time starter, but his Packers went just 3-8 in Starr's starts. Even worse, in two of Starr's wins as a starter, it was backup Babe Parilli who was the hero, throwing the game-winning touchdowns against Chicago and Baltimore. [Ed: Adjusted for era, if we put Starr's statistics into the 2008 season, he would have completed 189 of 287 passes (66%) for 1,866 yards (6.5 Y/A), with 8 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions.] He had roughly league average numbers, impressive for a first-year starter but disappointing to the fanbase because he led his team to just one victory and the QB they traded to make room for him just won the NFL title.

It would seem that 1958 would be Starr's make or break season. He came to Alabama and largely underwhelmed, with an injury plagued junior year followed by a benching during a mind-bogglingly winless season for the Tide. He was a low draft pick, and barely played as a rookie. While expectations shouldn't have been very high, Starr played reasonably well individually, even if the team struggled, in '57. With two years of learning and one year of experience under his belt, Starr would have no excuses for his third year. In the '58 draft, the Packers selected Jim Taylor, the powerful running back out of LSU, to improve the offense. They drafted a guard that looked good in training camp last season, Jerry Kramer out of Idaho. And they replaced head coach Lisle Blackbourn with Ray McLean, a former star with the Bears as a player in the '40s. If Starr was ever going to become something, 1958 was the year. Fans don't give four years to first round picks, let alone 17th round picks. So how did Starr do?

Absolutely horribly. His body language was terrible, and he showed no signs of being a leader of men. If you like numbers, he was 78 for 157 (49.7%), threw 3 TDs against 12 INTs and averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt. In fact, his yards per attempt average has gone down every year he's been in the league. [Ed: Adjusted for era, Starr went 125 for 209 (60%) for 1,130 yards (5.4 Y/A) with just 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.] Lest you forget, Starr went 0-3-1 in the Packers first four games, before being replaced by Babe Parilli. In game five, Parilli threw for 199 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs in a 38-point victory over the Eagles. After a 56-0 bludgeoning by the Colts the next week, the Packers went back to Starr, who promptly lost to the Bears. Starr would finish the season 0-6-1 and as the worst QB in the league in my QB rating system. Of the 15 QBs to throw over 100 passes that season, Starr finished 15th in yards per attempt. The 14th best QB threw nearly a full yard more per attempt than Starr. Among those same QBs, Starr finished dead last in TD/INT ratio; had Starr thrown twice as many TDs as he did, he would have only finished 14th in that metric. As a result, Starr finished far below everyone else in adjusted yards per attempt; the difference between Starr's AY/A metric and the 14th best QB was bigger than the difference between the 9th and 14th best QBs.

Starr underachieved in college and tanked a once great program. He was then a very low draft pick in the NFL. His rookie year, he sat and watched as his team's starting QB tied an NFL record for touchdowns. In his second year he was alright, posting decent numbers for a QB, and good numbers for a young QB, but he won just one game for his team. And in his third year, he was unquestionably the worst quarterback in the NFL, while his team went 0-6-1. We've got an underachieving player without much talent who is clearly regressing. Enough's enough: it's time to bench Bart Starr.

Mr. Olejniczak, I believe you are already moving your team in the right direction. In the 1959 draft,, which started in December of 1958, your Packers selected a QB with the first pick. I think Iowa QB Randy Duncan will revive the franchise. I also like your hire last week of the ex-Giants offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi. But I am concerned because there are rumors swirling around that Duncan may go to Canada, as that's where the money is. Please don't let that happen, and please make sure Mr. Lombardi benches Mr. Starr.