Football 101: No. 50, Bart Starr
We continue with our Wednesday roundups of the next players in the Football 101—my personal countdown of the greatest players in pro football history. Thanks for reading, and for those who aren’t subscribers, I hope you’ll consider joining!
The thing that gets you about Bart Starr is the way people talk about him. The statistics of quarterbacks in the 1960s will never look impressive to us — not after Marino and Fouts and Montana and Young and Manning and Brees and Mahomes — but when I mention that statistical gap to Starr’s Green Bay Packers teammate and friend Bill Curry, he uncharacteristically blanches.
“How’s five world championships in seven seasons?” he asks with just a little edge in his voice. “How’s that for a statistic?”
They are protective of Bart Starr — his teammates, his contemporaries, his fans — and I think this is because they worry that his brilliance, his mastery, his uniqueness will all get lost in the statistical whirlwind. Starr never threw for even 2,500 yards in a season. He never came close to 20 touchdown passes in a season. He famously played for a coach whose entire essence was built around a running play called the Packer Sweep.
“What we’re trying to get is a seal here and a seal here, and we’re trying to run the play in the alley,” Vince Lombardi famously said as he put chalk to chalkboard, and one of the pivotal elements of his breakdown is that there’s no place in it for the quarterback. Bart Starr did none of the running and none of the sealing.
And as such, it’s easy to write off Bart Starr, easy to drop him into the “game manager” category and write off his successes as a product of the work of other, more talented football players.
But nobody, not even Tom Brady, won the way Bart Starr won in the 1960s. He became a full-time starter in 1961 after years of trying to prove himself. The Packers won the championship in ’61 and again in ’62 and again in ’65 and again in ’66 and again in ’67. He played in 10 postseason games, and the Packers won nine of them. Over that time, he was the league’s most accurate passer, the one least likely to throw an interception, the one most likely to make the big play when it was absolutely needed and, perhaps most of all, the one and only guy who could push back against Vince Lombardi’s outsized rage.
“I told him, ‘I can take all of the chewing out you can give out,’” Starr would say. “I said, ‘I know your personality. That doesn’t bother me.’”
But, Starr added, he could not be the leader — could not take this team where it could go — if they saw Lombardi belittling and denigrating him. He offered a deal: If Lombardi felt the need to chew him out, that was fine, but it had to be in the office, behind closed doors, where no one else would know.
“You know,” Starr said, “that same office where you apologize to me when you know you are wrong.”
Lombardi was not much for listening. But he listened. And he nodded.
And Vince Lombardi never again criticized Bart Starr in public.