Ice Bowl Rematch: Sub-Zero Heroics in the Coldest Game Ever Played
This Sunday, in what will be the highest-rated game in the season so far, the Dallas Cowboys will play the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. It’s the first time Dallas has played at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field since New Year’s Eve 1967. (This was before the merger of the National and American Football Leagues; two weeks later, the Packers faced the AFL’s Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II.)
The Packers beat the Cowboys 21-17 in what is famously known as “The Ice Bowl,” a game decided on what may be the most famous single play in the game’s history.
On New Year’s Eve morning in 1967, a mass of arctic air swept over Green Bay and temperatures held steady at -13 degrees with 15 mph winds which dropped the wind chill factor to -38. Almost as if he knew that the game against the Cowboys would cap his legacy, Packers coach Vince Lombardi had personally overseen the installation of electric heating coils to keep the field soft enough for cleats to dig in. The New York Times compared the coils, which zig-zagged under the turf, to an electric blanket.
But that day, much to Lombardi’s fury, the coils malfunctioned, and the turf, said Green Bay’s All-Pro Jerry Kramer, was more like the surface of a hockey rink—except you can skate smoothly on a rink. “Our field was full of ruts and divots,” he said. “When you went down, it was like falling on a jagged concrete surface.”
(The heating system at Lambeau Field was replaced in 1997 with coils filled with antifreeze, and today they even have an artificial lighting system to keep the grass growing in the winter.)
And it got worse as the game went along. As the sun went down, shadows covered the field; the temperature dropped to -19 with the wind chill at 46 below. Some players were almost beaten by the cold. The Packers great linebacker, Ray Nietzsche, had six toes blistered by frostbite with his feet swelling inside his cleats. That from a man who played regularly in Green Bay; one can only imagine how the Dallas players were suffering.
As you might expect, the Ice Bowl was a defensive battle. The Packers outgained the Cowboys 271 yards to 200 but lost back 76 yards on eight sacks when Starr’s offensive line couldn’t get traction to block. And yet, Starr was 14 of 24 for 191 yards that day. The running backs found it so hard to hold onto the ball that they fumbled six times, three by each team.
Late in the fourth quarter, halfback Dan Reeves took a handoff from Cowboys QB Don Meredith, ran wide, then stopped and floated a 50-yard pass towards end Lance Rentzel. Somehow the ball made it through the swirling winds and into Rentzel’s hands to give Dallas a 17-14 lead. With 4:50 on the clock, the Packers started from their own 32, knowing that this would almost certainly be their last shot at scoring and thus winning an unprecedented third straight NFL title.
In the huddle, Starr told his offense, “Let’s get it done.” In what was to become famous in NFL lore as “The Drive,” Starr negotiated his offense over the treacherous field, which the media dubbed the “Frozen Tundra,” inside the Cowboys’ red zone and down to the one-yard line. With 16 seconds remaining, the Packers used their last time out.
Starr went to the sidelines to tell his coach that he thought it might be too risky to hand the ball off. He could carry the ball in himself behind the blocks of his right guard, Kramer, and his center, Ken Bowman. Lombardi’s response was short and classic. “Run it,” he said, “and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Both Starr and Lombardi knew that if the play failed there would be no time left to kick a tying field goal. Anyway, no one could stand the thought of overtime. The Packers lined up. Starr ran a quick count and lunged between Kramer and Bowman into the end zone—and into pro football immortality.
Watch the play for yourself.
The late Steve Sabol, who with his father Ed founded NFL Films, the visual archive of the game’s history, said, “Bart’s quarterback sneak established instant replay. Our cameras captured it from exactly the right angles, and the news channels ran it over and over. For the first time, fans could actually see linemen making a block that not only resulted in a touchdown but won the game.” He added that when fans visited the NFL Films headquarters in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, “That’s the first play they ask to see.”
The play was famous for yet another reason: it points out maybe the most important single difference between football then and now, namely that in Starr’s day quarterbacks called their own plays. Each game was a duel of wits as well as muscle. No coach was ever more autocratic than Vince Lombardi. But when Starr came over to confer with his coach with seconds left, he was not met by a brain trust of coaches wearing headsets. He wasn’t second guessed by his own coach. Lombardi had absolute faith in his great quarterback: “Run it, and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Starr has told that story to football writers many times over the years, and a few years ago I had the privilege of hearing it in person. My wife, Jonelle, and I met Bart and his son, Bart, Jr., at their offices in Birmingham. We caught him just as he was sitting down to lunch, and he graciously shared his ham sandwich. He diagrammed the play for us on a piece of yellow legal paper. The resulting art work now hangs proudly on my office wall, and my wife says it was the best sandwich she ever had. (Note: when the part came where he quoted Lombardi, Bart said let’s get the heck out of here. He is ever the Southern gentleman.)
If you fell asleep on New Year’s Day, 1968, and woke up in time for this weekend’s game, you’d notice some startling changes in pro football. For instance, today’s NFL has 32 clubs compared to just 16 in 1967. There were actually 25 pro football teams, but nine played for the NFL’s competition, the upstart AFL.
The 1967 Packers and Cowboys could only dress 36 players for each game with several reserves available on the “taxi squad” to step in for injured players. This year, they will take the field with 46 players in uniform and seven on reserve. Over the years, rosters have expanded to accommodate specialists. In the 1960s, most players came from a high school and college background where they were expected to play on both offense and defense; in comparison, today’s players are specialists, most of whom have played their entire football life at a single position.
Today’s NFL is 68 percent African-American. Precise figures from the late 1960s are hard to come by, but the NFL was about 25 percent black with the competing AFL over 30 percent.
In the near half century since the Ice Bowl, the Packers offensive line averaged a mere 244 pounds (actually one of the lightest in the NFL at the time). Their defensive front weighed in at around 251 a man. The Cowboys were a little bigger: 254 pounds on offense and 255 on defense.
When they kickoff on Sunday, the O-lines will tip the scales at about 315 for GB and 318 for Dallas. The down-lineman on defense for the Pack will average 302 with the Dallas D-line at 290.
In contrast to 1967, defensive lines today are lighter than their offensive counterpart. When I interviewed Bart Starr a few years ago, he told me that’s because “In the ‘60s pro football was more of a running game. You wanted your guys to be quicker and more agile. As the passing game took over, strength became more important than mobility for blockers.” Conversely, as the game evolved over the years, the need to get to the quarterback became more essential, players rushing the passer became lighter than those protecting him.
For that matter, the quarterbacks have also beefed up. Aaron Rodgers, the Packers starting passer, is 25-30 pounds heavier than his 1967 counterpart, Starr, while the Cowboys’ Tony Romo weighs in at 15-20 more pounds than Don Meredith.
Forty-five to fifty years ago, pro football offenses were more evenly balanced between running and passing. Under today’s rules for pass blocking and covering receivers, running is of relatively minor importance. In 1967, the legendary Baltimore Colts Johnny Unitas led the league’s QBs in pass completion at 58.5 percent. This past season, Tony Romo led at 69.6 percent.
Back then, when you dropped back to throw, bad things were much more likely to happen as completing a pass was practically a 50-50 proposition. League completion percentage in 1967 was just 51 percent, compared to 62.6 percent in 2014, and the ratio of interceptions to TD passes was far higher. This season there were 807 TD passes and 450 interceptions; in 1967 there were more interceptions than TD passes, 366 interceptions for 324 passes.
Nowadays, football is far more pass oriented with teams using four and even five wide receivers on many plays. “Sometimes when I watch a game there are often more wide receivers on the field,” Bart Starr told me, “than we had on our whole team.”
This Sunday the Packers are 6 point favorites to beat the Cowboys, exactly as they were 48 years ago. Once again, it’s a match of two of the best quarterbacks in the league. Expect better playing conditions, more passing, more yards, and more points in the Ice Bowl 2. But don’t expect more drama.