The most influential Green Bay Packers of all-time. That should be an easy list to come up with right?
Eh… Well, no. And to be transparent, we didn’t come up with a specifically rock solid or quantitative way to define “influential” for this ranking. Instead, we thought of the word “influential” in any way one could imagine it in terms of football players.
We asked ourselves, which players were particularly influential to this historic franchise, and to the league and the game of football as a whole? Which players helped shape football culture, and Packers culture? Which players helped revolutionize the game of football? Which players were big enough to transcend the game of football and became bigger than the sport?
Did this player simply influence all of the players around him? Did this player leave a legacy that shaped an entire decade of Packers football and beyond? Or even, did this player find a way to parlay his football career into America’s collective pop-culture consciousness?
These are the questions we asked ourselves.
The answers led us to the extremely rare players commemorated in this list. Packers history is ubiquitous with these uncommon men that wielded their broad influence in many ways.
To have influence, in our minds, is to effect and impact, to have power, to provide guidance, to be noteworthy and pivotal.
Obviously this franchise had coaches that were among the most influential in all of football, at any level. Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi are certainly near the top of that list. Their influence cannot be quantified, but we’re looking specifically at the men who brandished their influence first and foremost on the football field. Ron Wolf comes to mind as a GM, too, and Ted Thompson to a slightly lesser extent. But to keep this list concise, we focused strictly on players. Sorry suits (did Thompson ever wear a suit?).
In the 100 years of Packers football that Wisconsinites have been blessed with, a litany of revered names have taken that field. This franchise lacks nothing when it comes to history. Thus, it’s humbling to see the names that didn’t make this distinguished power ranking, which are listed below. But we’d like you to keep in mind that this very much is not a list of the best Packers of all-time, but instead the, unscientifically, most influential.
G Jerry Kramer (with his best-selling book), CB Herb Adderley (with his rare athletic ability), HB Paul Hornung (with his Hollywood persona and gambling controversies), HB Johnny Blood (with the folk-lore that surrounds him), WR James Lofton (with his ability to be a star in the Lean Years), FB Clarke Hinkle (with the legacy of “his” Fieldhouse and retiring with the all-time rushing record), DE Willie Davis (with his probable multiple 20-sack seasons), LB Clay Matthews (with his nationwide stardom), TE Paul Coffman (with his attempt to reshape a position), FB Jim Taylor (with his legacy of toughness and productivity), HB Tony Canadeo (with his legendary versatility and retired number), WR Jordy Nelson (with his charitable work in Wisconsin and career numbers), KR Desmond Howard (with his once in a generation 1996 season, and TB Curly Lambeau (with his ingenuity). As you can see, all are mentioned here for various reasons.
However, when analyzing the question about who was truly and utterly influential, 15 names simply stood above the rest in overall influence.
As a fun thought experiment, I’d recommend taking a second to think of what your “Top 5 Most Influential Packers” list would look like before seeing who landed atop ours.
Here’s our list of the most influential Packers of all-time:
15. Ray Nitschke, MLB:
Middle Linebacker Ray Nitschke was a man that was able to play a style of football native to the 1940s and 1950s directly into the Super Bowl Era. He didn’t just play with this brutal style, he excelled in his brutality. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee was the defensive captain of one of the greatest defenses in football history. He helped shape the middle linebacker archetype, along with chief counterpart, younger Chicago Bear Dick Butkus. This is because professional football was finally welcomed into everyone’s home and he (aka Wildman) was, perhaps, the most recognizable villain in the league.
His career highlights include ample barbaric hits, but he was much more of a playmaker than most realize. In 15 seasons, all spent in Green Bay, he caused an astonishing 51 turnovers, including 26 interceptions. He had hands to go with those instincts, folks. Nitschke influenced a generation of linebackers that played the game, and will forever influence the way Packers fans view their team — as a franchise of champions. Butkus was on his level of fame, but he never won a championship. Nitschke’s five rings will forever complement his legacy.
He was Starr’s equal on the defensive side of the ball; they’re the only players from the 60s dynasty to have their numbers retired. Fans still watch the Packers practice on Nitschke Field today. All future Packers will have to live up to his legacy, and influence, as they practice on his field.
14. John Hadl, QB:
This sounds absolutely crazy right? But hear us out. The Packers’ Lean Years were certainly (albeit unknown to the fans) underway by the time they traded for quarterback John Hadl in 1974, but the trade almost certainly contributed to it continuing for the next 18 grueling years. It is without doubt the worst trade in Packers history and one of the worst in NFL history. No one can truly say how far back it set the franchise. Just one year removed from being named First-Team All Pro, the six-time Pro Bowler had led the AFL in passing yards three times in his career. Some saw Hadl as the savior of a Packers team that hadn’t won a playoff game in seven years. He wasn’t. The experiment just didn’t work.
As a starter for the Packers the team went 7-15. Hadl threw just nine touchdowns and a whopping 29 interceptions. Even for the era, those numbers are frightening. But that isn’t the worst part — the team traded five coveted draft picks to acquire him from the Rams. Yes, five draft picks. This was despite the fact that the Packers’ defense was so atrocious, they had won just five games the year before. The offense may have actually gotten a little better with Hadl, despite his statistics, but the team was much worse.
After trading for Hadl, the Packers wouldn’t make the playoffs for eight seasons and won just one playoff game in the next 20 years. Of course, not all of the Lean Years and perpetual failure can be attributed to this trade, but it certainly didn’t help. It would take years for the Packers to replenish their squad with talented players after that trade. This move influenced the Packers’ franchise more than almost anyone. Remember, influence isn’t always positive.
13. LeRoy Butler, S:
The accidental inventor of the Lambeau Leap was the four-time First Team All-Pro safety LeRoy Butler. But his influence on the game of football went far beyond that unending, joyous Packers tradition. Butler was the first defensive back in NFL history to record 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career. First. He changed the way the safety position was played, both as a ballhawk in the secondary and a physical force at the line of scrimmage. That legacy lives on in today’s game, league-wide. To this day, blockers must account for blitzing safeties — partially thanks to Butler. It’s no coincidence that men like Brian Dawkins and Troy Polamalu put together Hall of Fame careers after Butler’s rise to prominence.
He was a leader of the Packers’ defense for a over a decade, especially in 1996 when the unit was ranked number one in the league. He was every bit as dominant as Reggie White for the Packers of the mid-1990s. To further drive the point home of his mastery at getting to the quarterback, he recorded a sack in Super Bowl XXXI. Butler’s legacy is undoubtedly helped by the fact that he only suited up for the Green and Gold. In our minds, there’s no question he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Butler wasn’t afraid to help reshape a position and take on more responsibilities than most in professional football. Plus, his consistency despite these demands was incredible; it seemed like every year he could be counted on to amass Pro Bowl-level statistics.
Green Bay has been looking for a defensive back like Butler ever since he retired. They nearly had that in Nick Collins (who also wore No. 36) until he injured his neck and had to hang up his cleats for good. Hopefully they have a player on the roster today that can carry on Leroy Butler’s legacy.
12. Donny Anderson, RB/P:
Drafted as a replacement for aging Paul Hornung, running back Anderson never quite lived up to that lofty expectation. But he did have success at running back, including a rushing touchdown in Super Bowl II. He scored 31 touchdowns with the Packers and 56 in his career, but it was his punting strategy that showcased his influence. Anderson introduced the concept of “hang time” when punting. Instead of punting for optimal distance, he focused more on height of the punt to allow his coverage men to get downfield to not allow return yards with phenomenal success (He was a Pro Bowler in 1968). Very few men in football history have changed the way the game is played, but he’s one of them.
When Anderson employed this strategy, opposing teams couldn’t come up with a way to defend it. Anderson almost single-handedly took away punt returners’ effectiveness when they played the Green Bay Packers. He made a difference at two very different positions into the 1970s — a rare feat in the NFL at that time, despite it being common decades earlier. Anderson used his mind and his athletic ability to make his mark on the game of football. His punting style is still replicated and used today. Talk about influence.
His is a name that should not fade into obscurity as the decades unfold, at least in Green Bay.
11. Sterling Sharpe, WR:
Sharpe’s influence is convoluted, but important nonetheless. He’s the constant reminder within this franchise’s vast history that every single snap and every single game is sacred. He’s a reminder that the Hall of Fame can be taken away from a pristine talent on any given play. He didn’t win a championship, he isn’t in the Hall (yet?), and hasn’t remained overwhelmingly in the public eye. In fact, he’s intentionally stayed out of it. But the wide receiver’s influence remains vivid, if you look for it.
He, literally, statistically outperformed Jerry Rice for three years when both were in their prime from 1992-1994 (42 TDs to 38 TDs in same games played) and was poised to become an all-time great in NFL history. In fact, we think he actually was — on a per-game basis. I mean, if Gale Sayers or Terrell Davis can get into the Hall with so few games played, why can’t Sharpe? Hello Hall voters? Hello?
Every time a Packer gets seriously injured, it’s as if it’s a nod to Sharpe; a reminder of the worst possible outcome of this sport. His career was cut short just as it was hitting an historic level and Favre was only getting better — they were poised for many record-setting seasons. His brother, and Hall of Fame inductee, Shannon Sharpe gave him his first Super Bowl ring as a tribute to the man he considered the better football player. When we look through the Packers’ record books, his influence is abundantly evident. Even if many people don’t realize it. I mean, he won the freaking receiving triple crown. Damn. Probably no Packer again ever will.
(Here’s to hoping Davante Adams read that last line…)
10. Aaron Rodgers, QB:
What is most astonishing about Rodgers’ legacy is that he was able to withstand the storm of replacing Brett Favre as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, while Favre still wanted to be the man. Somehow, against all odds, Rodgers came out of that and carved his own impressive legacy in Green Bay. Not enough people truly appreciate that. He kept the tradition of winning alive and well in Green Bay, and has a Super Bowl XLV ring and MVP Award to show for it. Not to mention his “championship belt.” Twice he’s been named league MVP, which is one more than Bart Starr and one fewer than Favre. What’s undeniable is that his influence is well on its way to joining the other historic quarterbacks in Green Bay history.
Rodgers has a handful of great years left to try and raise his influence on this franchise and on football. But even if he retired today, he has become the model for the next generation of quarterbacks. His combination of arm strength, accuracy, mental acumen, pain tolerance, and athletic ability (including running with the ball) was previously unseen in football history. He’s the highest rated quarterback in NFL history and is one of the most recognizable faces in sports nationwide. He inherited the title of best quarterback in the league from Favre and Peyton Manning and ran with it (Tom Brady fans will disagree with a legitimate argument). But can he find a way to bring one more championship to Green Bay? Will he find a way to be more charitable in the Green Bay region with his record setting contract?
He’s a partial owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and has certainly adopted Wisconsin as his home. But like Favre before him, drama is following him a bit as his career rolls on. So it goes. The best part is that Rodgers’ level of influence can, and should, grow in the coming years. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with the time he has left in his career. Obviously he can climb this list; it would be dumb to bet against him.
9. Donald Driver, WR:
Driver’s influence is subtle, but immense. He’s the classic story of the far-fetched American Dream coming true. From a rough childhood that included homelessness, selling drugs, thievery, and being an unheralded recruit out of high school, Driver became the Packers’ all-time leading receiver. Not only that, he’s perhaps the most beloved fan-favorite player in Packers’ history. Never the biggest or fastest, the modern day folk hero spent his entire 14 year career in Green Bay after being drafted in the 7th Round of the 1999 NFL Draft. The odds of him even making the team were slim, but here we are.
He’s a role model and an example of character for all football fans to follow. Driver became a model of consistency; he’s the only player in Packers history to record six consecutive 1000 yard receiving seasons.
Since his retirement, he’s been known for his dedication to charity work and has written multiple successful children’s books. The three-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl XLV Champion even got the previously anonymous Packers receiver statue outside of Titletown Brewery repainted and dedicated in his honor. Driver’s workout regiment in his playing days was legendary and was even featured in a Sports Illustrated spread at one point. He’s a classic example of someone who worked insanely hard, remained humble, didn’t forget where he came from, and made the most of his opportunity. His influence will live on for anyone that comes across hard times and needs someone to aspire to.
8. Tony Mandarich, OL:
To completely miss on the second overall pick in any NFL Draft is a costly mistake. To miss in the 1989 NFL Draft was simply tragic. The three men selected after offensive lineman Mandarich in the draft were Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders. All went on to become generational talents and members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, four of the top five selections that year are in the Hall (Troy Aikman was selected first overall). Mandarich managed just three years in Green Bay and six in the NFL, including a four-year absence following his stint in Green Bay. Once touted as the “Best offensive line prospect ever”, Mandarich never even came close to being named to a Pro Bowl. From a lengthy holdout as a rookie, to a later admission of steroid use (duh), his career is known as the biggest bust in football history. Right there with JaMarcus Russell.
However the selection of Mandarich certainly hastened the end of Tom Braatz’s tenure as the man in charge of the Packers’ personnel decisions. This cleared the way for Ron Wolf to move in and become the new GM and the man in charge of shaping the football team. Wolf’s first major moves were firing the Packers’ head coach and hiring Mike Holmgren to coach the team, trading for a young quarterback in Brett Favre, and eventually signing once in a lifetime free agent Reggie White. These moves culminated in an unbelievable decade of success for the Packers, including winning Super Bowl XXXI and getting back there the following year.
Indirectly, Mandarich was one of the most influential Packers of all-time. The negative that was him being drafted, and failing, became an undeniable positive that the Packers are still feeling today. You can’t have this seismic change without a clear-cut breaking point. That missed draft pick, and the subsequent reactions toward it, was that breaking point. Fortunately, the Packers’ culture changed when Ron Wolf came to town and it’s stronger than ever today. Perhaps the Favre-Rodgers Eras don’t happen without this as a catalyst. Thanks Tony, seriously.
7. Dave Robinson, OLB:
Although Ray Nitschke was the feared leader of the Packers’ 1960s defense, Robinson was the more influential of the two linebackers. He was one of the first black linebackers to become a star in the NFL; he proved the racists obviously wrong and helped open the premier linebacker position to all men moving forward. The three-time NFL Champ and two-time Super Bowl Champ was instrumental in that historic three-peat. He caused 30 turnovers for the Packers in just ten seasons and was named First-Team All-Pro in 1967.
Not only did he excel as a linebacker, he excelled as a pass-defending linebacker. The position was forever changed because of his athletic abilities; linebackers were destined to become more than tacklers in the future partially because of Robinson’s influence.
But his ability to overcome decades of a color barrier at his position and show the entire country what was possible was perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Robinson playing that position at that time was (ridiculously) taboo, but he played without fear and proved his coach, Vince Lombardi, right in his assessment of Robinson’s abilities. To have such an impactful influence is something few could ever aspire to — and Robinson did it with class. He’s remained a visible member of the Packers family to this day.
6. Charles Woodson, CB:
When the Packers brought in Woodson in free agency, most people thought the team was crazy. They figured the talented but temperamental cornerback would never live up to the hype. He was a “cancer in the locker room” according to some experts. Instead, he proved the Packers wildly correct. He became the leader the Packers needed in their post-Favre era. He won an AP Defensive Player of the Year Award and was the best cornerback in Green Bay since Adderley. High marks there. Although Woodson’s influence really came in the locker room. A cancer? No, a leader that oozed confidence. He stood up when someone needed to stand up; he made a play when a play needed to be made.
Leading up to Super Bowl XLV, Woodson was the voice the team needed for that specific moment. Everyone remembers the “If the President doesn’t want to come see us at the Super Bowl, we’ll go see him” postgame speech he gave after the 2010 NFC Championship Game about President Obama. His years in Green Bay were, statistically, by far the best of his Hall of Fame career. But he influenced the whole team as he grew into the leader he was born to be.
Plus, he had the chance to mentor a young star in Clay Matthews as he became the team’s defensive leader once Woodson went back to Oakland to finish his career (we believe this to be true, despite their different positions). That was his legacy in Green Bay: being a versatile player and essentially a coach on the field while remaining a calming voice in the room. I mean, was he ever in the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing green and gold? The iconic image of him holding the Lombardi Trophy, with his arm in a sling, is timeless. However we love remembering him with the ball in his hands, dodging opponents, on his way to the end zone.
Only the most influential remain!