In 1969, when Tom Dowling set out to write a book about Vince Lombardi’s first year coaching the NFL’s Washington franchise, he nailed an interview with the team’s new coach. The interview took place in Lombardi’s office, and by this time, Lombardi knew his accomplishments in Green Bay—five NFL titles in a seven-year window, including three in a row, a feat not done before or since—had already cemented his place in NFL history. Plus, Washington owner Edward Bennett Williams had secured Lombardi financially for life, giving him a five percent ownership stake in Washington, not to mention complete control of all football operations.
So, perched from a position of accomplishment and security, Lombardi said things in 1969 he would not have said in 1959 when he was a rookie head coach with the Packers.
As Dowling sat across from Lombardi, the writer studied the man intently. “His teeth and eyes are his strongest features,” Dowling wrote. “From pictures I had expected him to be gap-toothed, but his teeth are set fairly close together; they are just so large and dice-shaped that you tend to see them as individual units rather than as set. Behind the glasses the eyes are unusually volatile and expressive. His changes of mood are dramatically sudden, and you can read them instantly in his eyes.
“[Lombardi] is not an easy man to talk to. He answered my questions directly, often at length, often with style, and always, I felt, with honesty. Yet, there is a quality of reserve and suspicion, greater than the guarded habits of a public man fearful of being misquoted in the press.”
Dowling’s description is interesting. But more prescient in Dowling’s book was Lombardi’s observation about the prevailing winds of the NFL, and how those currents remain true nearly a half century after he spoke: “You’ve got to make a choice between winning and losing,” Lombardi told Dowling. “It’s a funny thing in football that when a team has a weakness it always stays with them. There have been NFL teams that could have been champions except that they lacked good offensive guards. They trade away for them and they draft them, but year after year guards are always their weakness. And year after year they’re losers.”
Yikes! Was Lombardi peering ahead to Mike Zimmer’s 2018 Vikings and the continuing uncertainty about the Vikings offensive line? Maybe, Maybe not. More likely, by 1969 Lombardi knew that NFL franchises have inherent weaknesses that seemed to him to be organizationally genetic.
It’s still happening.
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In Minnesota, the Vikings under Zimmer are a defense-first operation. They’ve had success relying on their defense that suffocates offenses with intelligent play, gifted athletes and vicious hitting. But the offensive line was and is a question mark because athletes they’ve drafted in that position haven’t panned out, and injuries have hit those units hard.
In Green Bay, the Packers are an offense-first operation and they’ve had success moving the ball because their quarterback knows what he’s doing and still has the physical skills to do it. Remove Aaron Rodgers and you have a team that can’t compete in the NFC. Rodgers’ health aside, Green Bay’s continuing weakness is the defensive backfield. Since 2014, Green Bay has drafted seven defensive backs within the first two rounds of the NFL draft and going into this season, the recent history of the Packers has shown that their pass defense fails them when failure is not an option.
In Chicago, the Bears have had losing seasons since 2014 and the passing offense has been a major reason why. Fielding a bottom-third offense since 2014, the Bears hit a new low last year when the team’s passing offense became the worst in the league. They’ve drafted a quarterback first last year. They have spent high draft choices on receivers. But until things change, the way to beat the Bears is to stuff the run. They simply have not proven they can make yards through the air.
Detroit has not had a consistent running attack since Barry Sanders retired. They haven’t had a running back rush for 100 yards or more since Thanksgiving 2013. The team’s running attack finished 17th in yards in 2014, last in 2015, 30th in 2016 and last again in 2017. To beat the Lions, the key is always to pressure Matthew Stafford. They are not enough a threat on the ground to keep defenses honest.
Though Lombardi’s observations seem true today as they were 50 years ago, each season is a new opportunity for NFL teams to remake themselves and change their recent histories.
We can’t wait to watch.
Dowling’s book Coach—a Season with Lombardi was published by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. in 1970.