Packers’ 2003 Offensive Line: Best in Team History?

Marco Rivera (Twitter/@cravetheauto)

Could it be that an offensive line that didn’t win a championship, like the Green Bay Packers’ 2003 offensive line, is the best in team history? It is certainly one of the most underrated units in team history, but could it actually be the top offensive line in the wondrous history of the Packers?

Interestingly enough, offensive linemen may be the deepest position in team history, in terms of all-time dominant players (just check out the Packers’ Top 100 players). In the late 1920s and early 1930s the team was stacked with quality linemen, but Vince Lombardi’s offensive lines were as dominant as the league had ever seen.

In the 1990s, Mike Holmgren was blessed with a deep and talented offensive line, too. However it may be Mike Sherman that caught lighting in a bottle, coaching the franchise’s top offensive line unit — if only for a year.

We are not arguing that the offensive lineman of the early 2000s were, as a whole, the best offensive line in team history. But we are saying that for one year, the stars aligned and that group gave the greatest single-season effort in franchise history.

So yes, what we are proclaiming is that the Packers’ 2003 offensive line is the greatest (single-season) offensive line in team history.

How did we come to this conclusion? Well thanks for asking; we will explain below!

The offensive line of the 2003 Green Bay Packers is, likely, the most underrated unit in team history. For that one magical season, it could have competed with the star-studded offensive lines of the Lombardi Era. It was that good.

If not better.

The line was comprised of left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Mike Wahle, center Mike Flanagan, right guard Marco Rivera, and right tackle Mark Tauscher. All were in their prime, between the ages of 26 and 31, and their aggregate size was an impressive 6’5” and 313 pounds.

All five men started all sixteen games (eighteen including the playoffs).

In a year when stalwart quarterback Brett Favre played the majority of the season with a broken right thumb, the offensive line fortified and carried the team while admirably protecting their leader. The 2003 Packers relied on the running game, and their linemen, like never before in the in the Favre era.

That resolute team posted a franchise-record 2,558 rushing yards. The next four highest rushing totals in team history came in the 1960s, with Vince Lombardi’s lines leading the way. Back when names like Forrest Gregg, Jerry Kramer, Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston, and Jim Ringo blocked for a backfield that possessed an incredible three Pro Football Hall of Famers.

However the 2003 team set numerous franchise records, including a whopping 5.05 yards per rush average. As a team.

Five times during that season the Packers rushed for at least 200 yards–the most in team history–including three times in the month of November. Although the offensive line would flex it’s muscles in the playoffs, too, posting a final 200 yard rushing game in the divisional round.

Obviously, the offensive line paved the way for the team’s runnings backs all year, but specifically for Ahman Green. He shattered Jim Taylor’s franchise record for rushing yards in a season with 1,883 yards and posted the two highest single-game individual rushing totals in team history (218 and 192 yards). His 20 total touchdowns were the most in Packers’ history as well.

Green set another team record with his four-consecutive 100 yard rushing games in 2003 and posted the longest run in franchise history (98 yards) in the final regular season game of the year.

If you asked him, he’d deflect the praise to the big men up-front.

Of course this offensive line wasn’t just great at blocking for Green. It allowed only 19 sacks all season, which was the lowest total in Favre’s career up to that point. Impressively, Favre led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2003, with 32, for the fourth and final time in his career (despite his broken thumb).

The protection he received from his skilled offensive linemen all year cannot be overstated.

Even the great lines of the Packers’ past couldn’t deliver equally impressive results in the run and pass-protection game. This unit’s talent culminated for one undeniably awe-inspiring season.

Flanagan and Rivera were both named to the Pro Bowl in 2003, but Clifton and Tauscher spent their entire careers with the Packers (and later became Super Bowl XLV Champions in 2010). However all five spent the majority of their brilliant careers wearing green and gold.

Tauscher is the only one of the five to never be invited to the Pro Bowl, yet he is unquestionably remembered as the fan-favorite of the group. He was born in Wisconsin and played college ball for the Badgers, although his dependableness ultimately defined his character.

Lombardi’s offense had The Packers Sweep, led by the offensive linemen’s downfield blocks. It was feared, the opponent knew it was coming, but couldn’t stop it. Mike Sherman’s offensive had the screen pass, which was equally feared — if only for a year.

That play defined the season and even though opposing teams knew it was coming, like the sweep 40 years earlier, they couldn’t stop it. Green Bay’s linemen were athletic enough to make crucial blocks downfield, while smart enough let the plays develop in a precise manner.

Incredibly, members of the Packers’ backfield caught a combined 10 touchdowns that year, thanks largely to the linemen’s downfield blocking.

The team earned a division championship in 2003 and were led to that title by the offensive line. It’s not hard to argue that they were the team’s most valuable players all year.

This is despite the fact that Favre and Green both put together splendid seasons. In fact, their dual-preeminence in the passing and rushing game is a testament to the offensive line’s prowess. The five men combined to recover three fumbles in 2003 as well.

There is seemingly nothing they couldn’t do that year.

It is quite fitting that this offensive line was the group out there blocking for Favre on the memorable Monday Night Football game in Oakland after his father died, which occurred in the midst of a four-game winning streak to finish the regular season. That night they kept Favre from hitting the ground; without their blocking one of the most memorable nights in Packers’ history may not have even occurred.

Those highlights will live on forever and although most people cannot take their eyes off of Favre and the determined receivers, it’s more fascinating to watch how impeccably-well the offensive line played for their leader. The time and security they gave their quarterback on that night is just another element of their largely unsung, but unremitting, legacy.

This unit may not have been adequately celebrated in its day, but it’s time they get the recognition they truly deserve.

We may never see a year like that again.

 

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