The Green Bay Packers’ Infamous “Lean Years” and the Era’s 40 Best Players

Despite the team's struggles, numerous players are worthy of remembrance

Green Bay Packers tight end Paul Coffman (Photographer unknown; we do not own this image)

The “Lean Years” were a long and interesting time to be a fan of the, then, 11-time World Champion Green Bay Packers.

To this day, the players from those years simply don’t get the respect they deserve.

Sure, success eluded the Packers for quite some time following the Lombardi Era, but those years were anything but boring. This era as a whole is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. A franchise’s history is both the good and the bad — glossing over the pain ultimately diminishes the joys of the eventual highs.

There are many Packers fans of a certain age that lived through some or all of these infamous years. There isn’t exactly a consensus as to which years constitute the Lean Years, but if you ask us, we see Bart Starr’s retiring as the beginning of these trying times.

Define them as 1972-1991 or refer to them as 1968-1995, it doesn’t really change the fact that few victories were spread over many years. Ultimately, the Lean Years era can easily be referred to as the ‘after Bart Starr and before Brett Favre’ era.

Just as the team’s “Wilderness” era of the 1950s can be described as ‘after Curly Lambeau and before Vince Lombardi.’

One by one the legends of the 1960s Packers retired and the team looked less and less like its formidable self.

It’s only when looking back that we know that 1972 was actually part of the Lean Years. In the early to mid-1970s the glow of the Lombardi years still kept the Titletown USA lit as a beacon of professional football dominance.

However by the end of the 1970s that glow dimmed and had reality set in. Winning wasn’t inevitable anymore. The 1960s were just that, the 1960s. Glorious and eternal, but not to be replicated. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the new epicenter of the football universe.

Things got so bad during the Lean Years that the Packers even drafted a future serial killer in wide receiver Randall Woodfield in 1974. He was cut before playing with the team, but it’s still shocking. And it just goes to show that when things are going bad, it can always get worse.

Also in 1974, the Packers traded five draft picks for six-time Pro Bowl quarterback John Hadl. It was a disaster as he was atrocious with the Packers. Perhaps it was the team around him, but that trade set the Packers back for years. And it should be mentioned that Hadl wasn’t the last quarterback to struggle mightily in Green Bay in this era.

It truly was an interesting time for the Green Bay Packers and their fans.

But the NFL in those years was quickly evolving. The Super Bowl was still a relatively new phenomenon and running backs were the undisputed kings of the league.

However in 1978 the league expanded to a 16 game season, which it would keep through the 2020 season (for better or worse, 17 game seasons are starting this fall). With this came new rule changes that made the passing game easier and this eventually led to the pass-happy league we enjoy today. The characters in the 1970s and 80s grew larger and the game was marketed more with each season.

That was the national backdrop of the Packers’ sustained struggles.

Although in some ways, the big changes to the league in late ’70s didn’t really affect Packers fans. By this point most fans were so down and were probably like, “we love you, we support you, but please just be competitive!”

It’s hard to fully care about every detail in the league when you absolutely know that a Super Bowl appearance isn’t an option. Plus, to many fans at the time, the new rule changes seemed to be called quite subjectively and the best players on the best teams seemed to get those calls. Is this actually how it was or a perceived slight? Does it really matter?

As you can see, the pain of the era wasn’t only felt out on the field, it was felt at home, too.

One of the hidden punishments of the Lean Years for all Packers fans was Monday Night Football halftime highlights. This might seem strange, but it’s true.

Monday Night Football started in 1970 just as the Lean years were approaching. There was no ESPN and no sports talk shows to speak of besides the sportscast during the evening news.

The MNF halftime highlights were the place to see the great plays from the NFL’s games that week. Most of the highlights showed game-winning plays and winning teams, well, winning. Howard Cosell would call the highlights and Packers fans would be left hoping to see the Packers and their players featured but it rarely happened… for much of the ’70s and ’80s.

It’s hard to imagine that in today’s world of curated media and hyper-fan-focused content, but it was a different world. The modern NFL fan, at no fault of their own, probably doesn’t grasp the true cultural weight of Monday Night Football in its first three decades of existence.

When The Pack returned to the playoffs in 1972 it was obviously a welcome sight for the fans — until the game started, that is. The Packers never had a chance and Washington ruled the day. No one, and we mean no one, would have believed it would be a decade before Green Bay visited the playoffs again.

The team recorded just one winning season in the rest of the decade. An 8-7-1 record in 1978 was as good as it got for the fans in those days.

A far cry from the consistency the team has enjoyed these last three decades and the immeasurable success this franchise sustained in the 1960s.

As the 1980s unfolded it became clear to Packers fans that success, although never seeming far away, wasn’t going to come easily. The team didn’t see the postseason from 1973-1981 and just once from 1968-1981.

In 1982, the Packers finally won their first playoff games since the Lombardi Era. Of course it came during the ’82 strike-shortened season in which the Packers posted a 5-3-1 record. They defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 41-16 before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round. Losing to Dallas in the postseason would become a bit of a habit in the following decade, but lets not get ahead of ourselves.

The following year was one of the most exciting seasons in Packers history — no really, it was. The 1983 season was turbulent and the team was skilled, but incredibly inconsistent. Five of the Packers’ games went into overtime, still an NFL record.

In that season Green Bay, famously, defeated Washington 48-47 on Monday Night Football. That was the highest-scoring MNF game in NFL history for 35 years until the 2018 season.

That team was close, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. Not even head coach, and living Packers legend, Bart Starr could bring the team back to prominence. Still, he was the best coach of the era for the Packers.

However it was probably in the mid-1980s that the Lean Years got the hardest to swallow for Packers fans. Not only could the Packers not compete how the fans would have preferred, their ancient rival Chicago Bears began to dominate the league.

The ’85 Bears defense and running back Walter Payton were a lethal combination, especially for the Packers. Fans from Chicago still look back to those years as the best they’ve ever seen; they were the most fun team in the league in the mid-80s.

And this was following the 1970s when the Minnesota Vikings dominated the Packers and most of the NFL, too. The Purple People Eaters were a historic force, making it to four Super Bowls (but winning none of them).

The Packers’ two main rivals found great success during the Packers’ Lean Years, and directly helped the Packers’ years stay so lean. The NFC Central or as it was commonly known as the Black and Blue Division was brutal in those days and the Packers took their lumps from all three of their historic rivals (Chicago, Minnesota and even Detroit).

All three teams had fantastic running backs and the Packers, despite repeatedly drafting running backs for 15 years in hopes of finding a star, couldn’t keep pace. Sure, Green Bay had one dominant running back in the early 1970s (he’s mentioned below), but after him the cupboard was bare when compared to their division opponents.

The Black and Blue division featured Vikings running back Chuck Foreman in the ’70s. He was a versatile pass-catching running back who twice led the NFL in touchdowns. Then the Bears got Walter Payton, who may be the best running back in NFL history. He’s at least at the center of the conversation.

If that wasn’t enough, the Lions drafted Billy Sims in 1980 and all he did was lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns (13) as a rookie with 16 total touchdowns on the year. He had a short, but dynamic career.

That year, 1980, the Packers’ top two backs (both are listed on the countdown; No. 25 and No. 23) combined for just eight rushing touchdowns. The Black and Blue division was all about the running back in those days and the Packers just couldn’t keep pace. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite winning a couple division titles, couldn’t keep up either. The Bucs joined the NFC Central in 1977 and would remain in that division through the 2001 season.

James Lofton (National Football League / Green Bay Packers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1980s was, arguably, the roughest decade in Packers history for the fans.

However as that decade came to an end it seemed like the Packers were on the right track. They had a young Pro Bowl quarterback (he’s listed below), but still, success kept its distance from the franchise.

I’m sure as the calendar flipped to the new decade, the 1990s, many fans were questioning whether the small town Packers would ever be competitive again.

In 1992, the general manager Ron Wolf and the Packers made a trade that would set the tone for the next 30 years in Green Bay. A raw but incredibly talented quarterback, Brett Favre, took over the starting job after that other quarterback was injured. Favre, the franchise and the fans never looked back.

Following that lone postseason win in 1982, the team didn’t make it back to the postseason until 1993 with Brett Favre. From 1968-1992 the Packers won just one playoff game.

That still boggles the mind.

It’s 2021 and it’s been an amazing 29 years since Favre won his first game as a Packer. The Packers have won 23 postseason games and two Super Bowls in that time span, obviously Favre’s successor Aaron Rodgers has had a large hand in that success.

However the 29 years between Starr’s last Super Bowl appearance and Favre’s first super Bowl championship were, obviously, haunted by this franchise’s Lean Years. Those two decades from 1971-1991 were an appropriate payment for the incredible success the Packers enjoyed in the 1960s (when the NFL became the nation’s favorite sport) and again in the 1990s to the present day.

You have to accept the yin if you want to enjoy the yang, right?

We’ve written in the past about how it’s sometimes the pain that binds a fan base together more so than the success — perhaps it’s vital to have a healthy dose of both. The Lean Years gave that necessary balance to Packers fans, even to newer fans that look back upon the franchise’s history.

To a kid born in the 1990s, the Packers struggling is a foreign concept. But we hope that diving into the Lean Years not only helps them to understand it has happened, but that it will happen again.

The most amazing part of the Lean Years is the fact that the Packers sold out every home game despite not coming close to winning a title for a quarter century.

That can never be taken from Packers fans.

That’s a fan base that loves their team no matter what. That’s what being a Packers fan is. And these tough years were a chance for everyone to prove their loyalty to this team, so in a way we should be thankful for those days. The Packers can never be accused of having fair-weather fans.

The last great controversy of the Lean Years was the Packers drafting offensive tackle Tony Mandarich second overall in the 1989 NFL Draft. Troy Aikman was drafted first and Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders were drafted third, fourth and fifth. All four of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. Tony, well… you know.

But that truly was the last notable failure of the era that Packers fans had to deal with.

Perhaps the Lean Years actually ended the moment when the Packers signed free agent Reggie White in the first ever year of modern free agency in 1993. He and the NFLPA sued for the right to change teams and the judge ruled in favor of White and the other named plaintiffs.

It’s crazy to think of all of the things that had to happen for White to get to Green Bay and even kind of scary to think of what would have happened had he not ended up in Titletown.

In a way, having him opposite Brett Favre legitimized the Packers and set everything else in motion. They were the light at the end of the long, dark decades-long tunnel.

Alright, that’s probably enough of the back story…

Let’s dive into the best players from the Packers’ longest-sustained dark period in franchise history. Even though these teams didn’t win many games, it doesn’t mean that the team didn’t have some impressive talent suiting up.

A quick honorable mention would be kicker Chris Jacke. He came to Green Bay as the Lean Years were coming to a close and his best seasons came while Favre was on the team. For this reason we wanted to mention him, but ultimately didn’t include him on this countdown.

The Packers’ Top 40 “Lean Years” Players:

The players most worthy of remembrance from an oft-ignored era of Packers football

40. Phil Epps, WR, 1982-88:

His legacy is being a good, consistent receiver on a very bad team. In ’85 and ’86 he put up 600+ receiving yards and four touchdowns.

39. Tom Flynn, S, 1984-86:

A hard-nosed safety who had an explosive start to his career. In 1984 he intercepted a remarkable nine passes and recovered three fumbles. However he spent just two and a half years in Green Bay and just five years in the NFL.

38. John Jefferson, WR, 1981-84:

Jefferson was simply a huge signing for the Packers in those days, but he just couldn’t match James Lofton or the sky-high expectations for him. He came to Green Bay following a First Team All-Pro season with the Chargers where he started his career with 36 touchdowns in his first 45 games. In Green Bay he, unfortunately, had just 11 touchdowns in 50 games.

37. Brent Fullwood, FB, 1987-90:

He was the Packers’ savior ball carrier… until he wasn’t. Three straight 5+ touchdown seasons brought hope to the team before his career fizzled out.

36. Terrell Middleton, RB, 1977-81:

He flashed his immense talent, but it just didn’t last. His Pro Bowl appearance in 1978 was well-deserved considering he put up 1400 total yards and 12 total touchdowns.

35. Alphonso Carreker, DE, 1984-88:

In Carreker’s first 58 games with the Packers he put up 18.5 sacks. The man they called “Chubbs” couldn’t sustain his success, but for a few seasons he was playmaker.

34. Jan Stenerud, K, 1980-83:

An aging Hall of Famer that played so well. In 1981 he led the NFL with a 91.7 field goal percentage. Stenerud brought a confidence and calmness to the special teams unit.

33. Ron Hallstrom, G, 1982-92:

Hallstrom showed up every week seemed to always play his position well over his 11 years in Green Bay. In our eyes, he very much lived up to his first round pick pedigree.

32. Steve Odom, WR-KR, 1974-79:

Odom was a wide receiver, but is remembered for his punt and kick returning proficiency. He scored 15 total touchdowns in Green Bay, but again, is remembered for the kicks he ran back. The Pro Bowler in 1975 put up 1034 kick return yards that year. He was a weapon.

31. Chuck Cecil, S, 1988-92:

The NFL’s changing rules took away Cecil’s game. He was one of the last of a dying breed of aggressive, intimidating safeties. Three times the tackling machine made 3+ interceptions in a single-season, including his final season in Green Bay in which he was awarded a spot on the NFC’s Pro Bowl squad.

30. Don Majkowski, QB, 1987-92:

He was named Second Team All-Pro the year he led the NFL in passing yards (1989). But more importantly, “The Majik Man” is the NFL’s Wally Pipp.

29. Ed West, TE, 1984-94:

West was a great blocker that also caught passes. His role was similar to Marcedes “Big Dog” Lewis on the current Packers. He spent 11 years with the Packers and caught 26 touchdowns. He’ll never get the credit he’s due.

28. Robert Brown, DE, 1982-92:

It took Brown a few years to grow into a starting role with the packers, but he put together an incredibly consistent career. He was a bit of a fan-favorite despite never putting together an overly impressive season. Once he became a starter he didn’t miss a single start.

27. Tim Lewis, CB, 1983-86:

Unfortunately, Lewis kicked off the Packers’ career-ending neck injury curse. This curse would go on to end the careers of numerous Packers stars. And make no mistake, Lewis was a star in the making. He had 16 interceptions in his first three seasons and was becoming a leader on defense when his injury occurred. Oh what could have been.

26. Brian Noble, LB, 1985-93:

At the time Noble wasn’t the most appreciated player on the Packers, but when it comes down to it, he was one of the best inside linebackers of the last 40 years in Green Bay.

25. Eddie Lee Ivery, RB, 1979-86:

He was the star that Packers fans were waiting for, but it just never materialized. His second season in Green Bay was fantastic (1312 total yards), however he never returned to that level of production. Ivery formed a productive duo with the ball carrier ranked at No. 23 on this countdown.

24. Bryce Paup, LB, 1990-94:

A big-time rushing linebacker that went on to do even more great things once he left Green Bay. He’d probably be higher on this list if three years of his five year tenure in Green Bay didn’t overlap with Brett Favre on the team.

23. Gerry Ellis, FB, 1980-86:

Sneaky tough, sneaky fast and he paired his 35 career touchdowns with three 1000 total yard seasons. He is, perhaps, best remembered for his 146 yard performance in the Green Bay’s epic 48-47 win over Washington on Monday Night Football in 1983.

22. Mike McCoy, DT, 1970-76:

An incredible 13 times he got his hands on the ball, causing a turnover, in his seven years in Green Bay. For a defensive tackle, he played with definable skill. Unfortunately his teams didn’t do much.

21. Mark Murphy, S, 1980-91:

Murphy was paired with Chuck Cecil at safety and they formed, perhaps, the hardest hitting duo in the league. What Murphy lacked in speed he made up for in toughness. Five times he intercepted at least three interceptions in a single-season.

20. Ken Ruettgers, T, 1985-96:

Ruettgers was the team’s starting left tackle for a decade as the team grew out of the Lean Years and became a champion again in 1996. He had impressive hands, too, and recovered 11 fumbles in his career. The Packers thought enough of him to give him No. 75. Another Packer tackle wore that number… his name was Forrest Gregg.

19. Mark Lee, CB, 1980-90:

Just a solid football player; little more needs to be said. If someone asked the average Packers fan to name all of the defensive backs to record 30+ interceptions in franchise history our guess would be that Lee would be left off most lists. The man had nine in 1986 alone!

18. Mike Douglass, LB, 1978-85:

“Mad Dog” was an outside linebacker that did a little bit of everything for the Packers during his tenure with the team. He could play in coverage, he could rush the passer and he was incredibly reliable. He was almost always on the field and should get some applause for staying healthy all of those years.

17. Greg Koch, T, 1977-85:

If there is one word to define Greg Koch, it’s reliable. Once he became the starter in Green Bay he never missed more than one game in a single-season. He was instrumental in keeping his (virtually immobile) quarterback Lynn Dickey off of the ground.

16. Tim Harris, LB, 1986-90:

Harris had a short tenure in Green Bay, but wow was he effective. The description of “big time pass rusher” sells his talent short. At his short-lived peak, Harris might have been the best pass rushing linebacker in team history. With 19.5 sacks in a single-season he’s still the team’s all-time single-season leader in that category. He was, appropriately, named First Team All-Pro for his efforts.

Go to Page 2 to see the Top 15 Packers of of the era!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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