Individuals and individual performances often define the sport of football, at least for many casual fans. The quarterback is typically the star player who calls the plays, distributes the football, and takes most of the blame or credit. Running backs receive admiration for the physical toll that they absorb. Wide receivers’ tremendous athletic abilities provide many of the best highlights as they try to win one-on-one matchups.
The offensive line, however, is often overlooked. But no other players function as a team, as a single unit, quite the way that the big uglies do. Fortunately for the Green Bay Packers, the offensive line has frequently been a strength. Two units stand out in particular as the finest examples of the unit being greater than the sum of its parts — one from this century and one from the franchise’s glory days.
The Lombardi Line
Football in the 1960s was vastly different from the game fans know and love today. The sport’s rules still limited the passing game’s effectiveness, so the running game was relatively more important. Scoring was much lower than it is today and line play was arguably more critical than any other facet of the game.
Vince Lombardi understood this, and the Packers’ offensive line was its greatest strength in the 1960s. The team participated in six NFL championship games from the 1960 through 1967 seasons, winning five of them, and the offensive line was a massive reason why. The early days of the decade saw the Packers field one of the best lines in NFL history, which featured every one of these five players in his athletic prime:
- LT: Bob Skoronski
- LG: Fuzzy Thurston
- C: Jim Ringo
- RG: Jerry Kramer
- RT: Forrest Gregg
With this unit in place, the Packers won the first two of their three titles in the decade, in 1961 and 1962, after falling just short in a 17-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL championship. Ringo, Kramer, and Gregg would go on to be Pro Football Hall of Famers, but each member of this line is revered in Titletown for different reasons.
Gregg was, by all accounts, a consummate professional, more than willing to go wherever the team needed him. He played right guard in the 1961 title game when Kramer was injured and again for a stretch a few years later, then moved to left guard for the ‘65 season when Thurston was hurt. But at right tackle, Gregg was an absolute star, earning six first-team All-Pro honors. He also got one for that ‘65 season at left guard, making him a rarity in earning that honor at multiple different positions. Gregg was the best offensive tackle in the NFL during his career and arguably the best over the league’s first 75 years.
One of the NFL’s finest guards in this span was Kramer, who occasionally pulled double duty as the Packers’ kicker. A five-time All-Pro, Kramer’s ability to pull and block on the move made him invaluable to the Packers’ game plan. A friendly, genuine personality, Kramer has been a favorite of Packers fans since his playing days, and the fan base lobbied for Kramer’s induction into the Hall of Fame for decades. Those efforts finally paid off in 2018, when the Hall inducted him as a senior enshrinee in his 10th appearance as a finalist. Notably, Kramer was the lead blocker for quarterback Bart Starr on his sneak to win the Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL title game.
Although Kramer had to wait decades for his gold jacket, Ringo, like Gregg, did not have to wait long for his Hall of Fame induction. He went into the Hall in 1981, four years after Gregg, following a career that saw him make 10 Pro Bowls and earn six All-Pro honors — including five straight from 1959 to 1963. Ringo was small for a lineman, even by the standards of his time, maxing out at 6’1 and 235 pounds during his playing days, but his quickness and intelligence were the primary driving factors for his success.
Thurston earns a special place in Wisconsinites’ hearts as the only member of this line to be a Wisconsin native. He earned a single first-team All-Pro honor for his 1961 season and joined Kramer in pulling on the Packers’ sweeps, but he is perhaps most fondly remembered for his personality and smile than even his excellent blocking. He would remain around Wisconsin for the rest of his adult life, owning Fuzzy’s Bar in Green Bay and being a staple at events featuring Packers alumni before his passing in 2014.
Finally, Skoronski is often overlooked because of his quiet demeanor and a lack of NFL honors. He made the Pro Bowl just once, in 1966, but was the team’s offensive captain from 1964 onward following Ringo’s departure. Although the left tackle position was viewed as a bit lower in importance to the right tackle spot in those days, Bart Starr was often quoted as saying that Skoronski was deserving of Hall of Fame honors, while he was deemed “underrated” by other teammates.
The Packers Sweep
Perhaps no one play is more synonymous with a single team than the Packers’ sweep, which vividly defines the teamwork that is essential to offensive line play. From the tackles executing their more straight-ahead blocks to the pulling guards leading the way and determining which hole to attack in the defense to the ball-carrier reading those blocks, every individual’s contribution was essential to the play’s success. This five-man group worked together better than just about any other in NFL history as Lombardi built the Packers’ entire offense around his line and around that single play.
Shortly after Ringo’s departure — Lombardi traded the center to the Eagles before the 1964 season — the Packers would eventually pull off the NFL’s last three-peat, winning the NFL title in 1965, ‘66, and ‘67 while winning the first two Super Bowls. The Packers would shuffle the line a bit during these years; Gregg was named All-Pro at left guard in 1965 when he filled in there for an injured Thurston, younger players like Ken Bowman and Bill Curry started at center, and Thurston gave way to future All-Pro Gale Gillingham for the ‘67 season. But it’s the Ringo line from early in the decade that set the tone in Green Bay for the years to come.
Looking to more modern times, the Packers have had one of the better pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL for several years. But no recent Packers line better typifies the concepts of teamwork and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts than the five men who played up front for the 2003 squad.
The lineup from left to right consisted of Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Mark Tauscher. In total, these five players made just six Pro Bowls in their careers (one of which came after one player left Green Bay) and had zero first-team All-Pro honors. But in 2003, they bound together to be one of the very best in the NFL and arguably had the best season by an offensive line in team history — Lombardi era included.
Position coach Larry Beightol perhaps summed up this group best in comments he made to ESPN early on in the 2004 season: “It’s called a team game. We’re not talking about just one offensive lineman, we’re talking about an offensive line: having a solid player at every spot.”
The Packers allowed just 19 sacks in 2003, tying for the second-fewest in the league in total and the fifth-lowest rate of sacks per dropback. They needed to; Brett Favre broke the thumb on his throwing hand in late October, an injury he would deal with all season and one that would underscore the need to keep him clean in the pocket. The Packers also leaned on the line to drive the run game and with Ahman Green leading the way, the team racked up five yards per carry, the second-best mark in the NFL. Overall, the Packers totaled 2,558 rushing yards in 16 games, good for third in the league, while Green also finished second in the league and shattered the team’s single-season record with 1,883 rushing yards on his own.
Advanced metrics illustrate the line’s exceptional play as well. According to Football Outsiders, the Packers’ 2003 line finished second in Adjusted Line Yards, an overall measure of run blocking, and fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Kansas City Chiefs were the only other team whose line finished in the top eight in both categories that year.
A long time in the making
Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf assembled this line entirely through the draft over the second half of the preceding decade. Flanagan was the first member of the unit to land in Green Bay, as Wolf plucked him in the third round of the 1996 draft out of UCLA. Three rounds later, Wolf used a sixth-round pick on Rivera, a Penn State graduate. Then, in 1998, the Packers’ most recent supplemental draft pick snagged Wahle, who was suspended for his last year of college after a positive steroid test, as a second rounder.
None of these three players would start immediately, however. Wahle spent a year on the bench before taking over as the left guard in 1999. A short-lived stint at left tackle in 2000 didn’t stick, but he was back at guard for good in 2001. Rivera didn’t see the field as a rookie, but was a backup in ‘97 before winning a starting job in ‘98.
Flanagan’s road to a starting job was even longer, and was far more convoluted. He missed his first two seasons with injuries and Wolf tried to trade him to Carolina at the end of camp in 1998, but a failed physical scuttled the agreement. Still, Flanagan managed to play in his first two games that year and spent another two seasons as Frank Winters’ backup before an injury to the veteran opened up the job in 2001. Flanagan finally got his shot to start, starting every game at center and solidifying himself as a critical piece on the line. In 2002, Flanagan was called into emergency duty at left tackle for the second half of the year, but Winters’ retirement following that year gave him the full-time center job for 2003.
The tackle positions were a different story, as Wolf found a pair of 10-year starters in the 2000 draft — one early and one late — and both started as rookies. Chad Clifton was a second-round pick out of Tennessee and the team immediately tabbed him with expectations as the team’s future left tackle. Clifton delivered quickly, taking control of the job from Wahle by midseason. An excellent pass blocker, Clifton rarely missed a game in his career. Before his final season of 2011, he had played fewer than 12 games in a season only once: when Warren Sapp blindsided him on an interception return in 2002, forcing Flanagan to move out to tackle. And although he was one of the NFL’s most consistent and steady linemen, Clifton made just two Pro Bowls, with the honors coming in 2007 and 2010.
The right tackle ended up being a surprise; Wisconsin native and former Badger Mark Tauscher was a seventh-round pick in 2000 and was a bit of an afterthought. Once called the “Pillsbury Dough Boy” by Wolf, Tauscher didn’t necessarily look the part of an athletic tackle, but an injury to veteran Earl Dotson in week two gave Tauscher the job, one he would hold when available through the entire decade.
In 2003, the starting five were together for every one of the Packers’ 18 regular and postseason games. Two members of the group, Flanagan and Rivera, earned a trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl in February. For Rivera, it was his second of three straight Pro Bowl honors, and he was named second-team All-Pro as well. However, that was the only Associated Press All-Pro honor that any of these players would receive in their entire careers.
One of the few national accolades that these players received was, fittingly, a group photoshoot that the line did together. Of course, as is usually the case in football, they were overshadowed by Favre, as the unit posed with their quarterback for the cover of The Sporting News before Week 1. That seems appropriate for a group that was so much more than any one individual.
A few years ago, Rivera reflected on the 2003 season and he too focused on the chemistry and experience that the line had built up over the years.
“I think we had a good relationship with all five guys. We just meshed really well, plus we played a long time together,” Rivera said. “We’re all different, but we all kind of had the same goal.”
It wasn’t about the accolades or the stats for this group. And although the Packers bowed out of the playoffs in the Divisional Round, the 2003 season still sticks in fans’ — and players’ — minds as a particularly memorable year. By 2006, just three years later, all three interior linemen were in different cities, but Rivera looks back fondly on his time with four men he still calls friends.
“When you start adding days, practices and games, at the end of the year you’re like ‘wow, we did something special.’”