How can, perhaps, the most dramatic team in franchise history go relatively forgotten? The great paradox that was the 1983 Green Bay Packers remains compelling.
The 1980s as a whole, and especially in the NFL, was a transformative time.
Something about that era is everlasting in the psyche of fans of professional football; maybe it was the abominable stature of the oversized pads, or perhaps it was the first era that truly passed the ball with recklessness and success.
It was an era when American Football was the undisputed king of sports in this country, yet it hadn’t been overly-commercialized or commodified yet. The hits were still stunningly brutal, highlighted by clearer television broadcasts than ever before. The collection of enormous facemasks, with thick bars down the middle, were the balance to the growing finesse of ever-expanding playbooks. There was a purity to the product, but still untamed.
Superstars were arising at an unparalleled clip: Walter Payton, Dan Marino, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Reggie White, Ronnie Lott, Eric Dickerson… the list goes on. The decade scratched every football itch.
Although in Green Bay, amidst the larger than life tenor of the era, the 1980s was a decade of false promises.
The 1970s were futile for the Packers, but still close enough to taste Lombardi’s dynastical years. That dribble of success still clung to the bottom of the glass and satiated loyal fans. By the 1980s, all success had dried. There was only the wait for something delicious to be poured. But the quench, seemingly so close, was withheld.
This was despite a cadre of talented players and a head coach more revered than most men in Wisconsin — Bart Starr. Never was this tease more palpable than in 1983, a vastly overlooked season in this franchise’s storied history.
The small town of Green Bay boasted a team that year, ’83, that would have had a convoluted legacy — if it only had one.
Yet the argument can be made that the legacy of that otherwise interchangeable squad was that it put together one of the most riveting collections of games of all-time.
Their 8-8 record masked what was an exhilarating year of close finishes and bewilderment.
They weren’t necessarily the most exciting team in Packers history but they may have had, pound for pound, the most exciting season in Packers history. Certainly they were the most enthralling team to not make the postseason.
Wide Receiver James Lofton was demonstrably the team’s best player, but he wasn’t the only notable athlete to don green and yellow that year. Lynn Dickey (QB), Paul Coffman (TE), John Anderson (LB), Gerry Ellis (FB), Johnnie Gray (S), Larry McCarren (C), Ezra Johnson (DE), John Jefferson (WR), Mike Douglass (LB), Tim Lewis (CB, rookie), Eddie Lee Ivery (RB) and Jan Stenerud (K) all made sincere impacts.
Gary Lewis (TE) also made an impact for this team, scoring two touchdowns, but more importantly blocking multiple kicks — and impacting others. Field goal attempts would go a long way in deciding the fate of the ’83 Packers.
Lofton would be the decade’s only Hall of Fame inductee for the Packers. In 1983, he led the league in yards per reception (22.4) en route to the Pro Bowl. Lynn Dickey had his best year as a pro and led the NFL in passing yards (4458) and touchdowns (32). He kicked off the season with a five touchdown pass game (a rarity for the era).
Dickey would be the first Packers quarterback since Tobin Rote (1956) to lead the NFL in passing touchdowns and the last until Favre and Rodgers accomplished the feat years later.
A common theme throughout the year was that this team was equal parts good and bad and Dickey epitomised that — he lead the NFL in interceptions (29) as well.
Paul Coffman also had his best year as a pro, catching 11 touchdowns from Dickey, which is still an elite total in Packers history at the tight end position. Coffman was a man before his time and, combined with Lofton and John Jefferson, the Packers were a dangerous passing attack.
The Packers traded for Jefferson in 1981 and he was a touchdown machine with the Chargers. He was one of the biggest newcomers to Green Bay in quite some time. The media finally started to believe in the Packers’ offense. Jefferson and Lofton were on the cover of the Packers’ 1982 yearbook and were poised for big things in 1983. They lived up to that hype and put up 15 receiving touchdowns behind them. Three of Lofton’s touchdowns went for 70+ yards.
John Anderson intercepted five passes and registered 4.5 sacks — arguably his best professional season. Even so, Anderson’s registered sacks were dwarfed by Ezra Johnson’s 14.5. A number that, by far, was Johnson’s greatest career total.
These statistics, it’s important to remember, were amassed through relative turbulence.
The first game of the year went into overtime and the Packers won 41-38 on a walk-off field goal. Although it was, unfortunately, an tenuous omen of things to come.
Green Bay alternated wins and losses for the first two months of the season. The next two months were equally as symmetrical, as they traded consecutive wins and consecutive losses — twice. In all, a staggering five games went to overtime along the way, still an NFL record.
In 1983, they were right on the edge of glory and failure, but fell directly into the obscurity of in-between. However the peaks outweighed the valleys.
Amazingly, the first eight touchdowns scored by the Packers in 1983 were passing touchdowns. Interestingly, seven of the first eight touchdowns the Packers allowed were on the ground.
Forces were at work with this team that were, at times, nearly equal and opposite.
In Week 4, the Packers lost to the New York Giants 27-3 on Monday Night Football. But they’d bounce back the following week as they set an NFL record with 49 points in the first half of a football game. They beat the hapless Buccaneers 55-13. In that game they scored sevens touchdowns in five different ways. They scored by passing, rushing, returning a punt, returning a fumble, and returning a punt for scores.
Two weeks later they’d win the highest scoring Monday Night Football game of all-time, avenging their previous MNF loss, to defeat Washington 48-47. Quarterback Joe Theisman would lead Washington to a 14-2 recored on the season en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Yet this whimsical Packers team defeated them.
The 95 combined points scored on Monday Night Football was a record that stood for 35 years despite the game getting more offensive by the year. One MNF win, one MNF loss on the year — everything balanced. The “Redskins” missed a would-be game-winning kick and Lambeau Field erupted in a game that featured five lead changes. Washington’s kicker, reigning league MVP Mark Moseley (believe it or not), laid on the ground, defeated, as Packers leapt in celebration around him.
But this wouldn’t be the last consequential game decided by a field goal attempt.
This, also, wouldn’t be the last time this reckless squad would score 40 points in a game this season. In Week 13, they’d put up 41 against the Atlanta Falcons. Unfortunately, the Falcons utilized overtime to score 47.
Six times this team would score at least 30 points; five times this team would allow the opponent 30 points. Three times they put up 40 points and twice they allowed 40 points. Points were scored and points were allowed at an historic pace.
Despite the unprecedented scoring, eleven games were decided by one score or less, including the final six games of the season. Imagine that, a month and a half of consecutive one score games, when each game meant more than the last.
Throughout the year the Packers produced five game-winning drives and had three fourth quarter comebacks. Nine of their games saw the fourth quarter as the highest scoring quarter of the game (points for and against).
Not only did this team play in many high scoring games, it played in high scoring fourth quarters more often than not.
But no game was bigger than that Monday Night Football football game against Washington. Simply put, that game was a big deal for the Packers and their fans. They needed something, anything, to hang onto. It’s not a stretch to say that it was one of the biggest wins of the “Lean Years” in Green Bay. To this day, the highlights of the high-scoring back-and-forth contest ignite the imagination.
In fact, in September of 2019 the NFL named this game the 75th best ever played.
Beyond that game, Monday Night Football was a huge resource in those days. Remember, it was far before the days of the internet and a plethora games on national television every week. In the 1980s, everyone watched Monday Night Football; it had much more of a devout, serious following then.
For players like John Anderson, the Packers’ vastly underrated linebacker, it was a rare opportunity to show the entire country who you were. On that monumental night against Washington, Anderson responded with two quarterback sacks on national television.
Not to be outdone, Dickey posted a 132.1 rating on the night. The big players responded to the biggest moments for this ’83 squad, but they just didn’t have the consistency needed to be a great football team.
Fullback Gerry Ellis was a surprisingly impressive runner and in ’83 he had one of the best seasons of his career, with nearly 1300 yards from scrimmage amassed. In that most memorable game of the season he totaled 146 yards, while scoring a touchdown.
The 1983 team scored the most points in franchise history at the time and allowed the most points in franchise history. Their points-scored total has since been surpassed, but their points-allowed “record” still stands today. These Packers were ahead of their time; they played as if they were in 2020s with protective rules and more aggressive aerial play.
Despite this offensive success, this team boasted just three Pro Bowl invitees.
The 1983 squad is the only member of the top 10 scoring teams in Packers history that didn’t have Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers at the helm. Eight different players scored at least three touchdowns. That equals the total that the 2011 squad had — the highest scoring team in Packers history. In 2014, the Packers and their prolific offense produced “just” five different offensive players with at least three touchdowns.
Against the Bears and Vikings, the team’s two biggest rivals, this team (predictably) split both series. Corresponding jubilation and woe.
In an era of classic rock, this team gyrated to the jarring undercurrent of punk rock — no one knew what to expect next.
Dickey, although boasting a strong arm, had no mobility. This led him to take more hits than he could ultimately stand. In 1983, it almost seemed like he was the best quarterback in the NFL in the first half — and then came the second half.
At no fault of his own, it was as if Dickey was continually tired out by the games. He’d start strong and then fizzle when the game mattered the most. His 35 total touchdowns were not equally distributed.
It was as if he was two different quarterbacks in one in ’83; a whopping 24 of his touchdowns came in the first half of games. Only 11 of his touchdowns came in the second half. Incredibly, that’s nearly 70% of his touchdowns coming before halftime. Perhaps the team couldn’t handle the success, it’s truly a mystery.
Ultimately, Dickey’s season as a whole reflected this trend.
In the final month of the season Dickey threw three touchdowns and eight interceptions, when the games mattered the most.
Appropriately, this tempestuous season came down to the final game; win and they would be in the playoffs.
Their opponent? The Chicago Bears, of course.
Just as what should have been expected, the game was decided by two lead changes in the final four minutes of the game. The Packers took the lead from the Bears late, but ultimately Chicago kicked a game winning field goal with just .10 seconds left to play.
Against the “Redskins” Green Bay’s opponent’s potential game-winning kick went wide. But this season was all about the yin and the yang.
As the officials’ arms raised in unison the 1983 Packers fell, not to be heard from again. The Bears also finished the season 8-8, same as Green Bay. Instead of the Packers, the Los Angeles Rams celebrated their playoff berth.
The entire season came down that one final kick; the line between remembrance and not can be that thin. The season had ended, the “career years” of many Packers had met their end, without the chance to continue their unprecedented success into the postseason.
As that ball went through the uprights, Bart Starr’s tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers ended. So much riding on a single moment; so much lost in an instant. He was fired the following day.
Despite the fact that Starr was the largest living legend in the Packers universe, the fans collectively agreed that it was time for his tenure as head coach to come to an end.
It was a necessary conclusion to an anarchic sixteen games.
The season began with a walk-off field goal; the season ended with a walk-off field goal. That was the symmetrical curse the 1983 Packers adhered to. For every win, a loss. One game-winning kick for a win to start the year; one for a loss to end it. The record reflected that symmetry, which mirrored their ancient rival Chicago. How strange.
The 1983 Green Bay Packers were the most interesting team that few people remember. They were a puzzle of a team the league will likely never see again.
Enigma indeed, but we should not forget them.