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

C Larry McCarren and QB Lynn Dickey – sjimmymac / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 z) Image Cropped

The Packers’ Top 15 “Lean Years” Players:

15. Carroll Dale, WR, 1965-72:

Dale is an interesting case for this list because he has such great success with Lombardi’s Packers. But just because he won three World Championships with that squad doesn’t mean he also wasn’t one of the better Lean Years Packers, too. Of course, no one knew that those years were actually part of a lean period — only when looking at it from today’s perspective do we know that.

In 70 games in what could be argued as the Lean Years, Dale put up 183 receptions and 21 touchdowns. Even as he aged he remained one of the league’s top deep threats in the NFL (he averaged 18.7 yards per reception from 1968-1972 while in his thirties). There’s no debate he was a star, he just deserved better quarterbacks throwing to him more consistently in his final few seasons.

14. Larry McCarren, C, 1973-84:

“The Rock” was just that for the Packers for much of the Lean Years. He remains one of the more beloved figures from the era. Of course, that is probably aided by his continued work with the Packers as well as that infamously crooked finger. Like many of the notable guys that played in the trenches for the Packers in those days, he was extremely dependable and played through injuries.

McCarren took that dependability to the next level by starting 162 straight games. He was named to the Pro Bowl in back-to-back seasons in 1982-83 as well. The Chicagoland born center made name for himself in Wisconsin and is still relevant to Packers fans today.

13. Ezra Johnson, DE, 1977-87:

He was a dominant pass rusher than made games fun to watch. We may never know how many sacks Johnson amassed in his career, as that stat wasn’t recorded in his first five seasons. Officially he posted 41.5 sacks in his final 76 games with the Packers. In 1983 he put up a whopping 14.5 sacks. On a team with few stars, he was one of them.

Johnson was the first pass rusher in Packers history to officially hit the 40 sack mark. Of course, other Packers had surpassed that number before unofficially. He certainly lived up to his first round draft selection in the 1977 NFL Draft. Johnson overcame multiple injuries and questions of inconsistency early in his career.

12. Johnnie Gray, S, 1975-83:

A tough player with a real knack for getting the ball. He was on the 1975 NFL All-Rookie team and then continued to live up to the hype. He got his hands on the ball for turnovers 44 times in his career (22 interceptions and 22 fumble recoveries).

He spent his entire, healthy, NFL career with the Packers. This franchise has boasted an incredible number of notable, difference-making safeties (Dillon, Wood, Butler, Collins) and Gray would be right there jockeying for a top-five place in franchise history at the position. Gray did return punts from time to time, too.

11. Chester Marcol, K, 1972-80:

If you think this is too high of a ranking for “The Polish Prince” then you don’t know the full story. The Packers’ best special teams player of the Lean Years deserves his spot. He was twice named First Team All-Pro in both seasons he led the NFL in field goals made. For a time, he was the Packers’ main scoring threat.

On opening day in 1980 against the Bears, sporting an afro and glasses, Marcol caught a field goal of his that was blocked. He ran it around the left end 25 yards for a touchdown for one of the most epic wins in Packers history. He later admitted that he did some cocaine at halftime and was high when he made that play. Today, after overcoming his addictions, he helps others suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.

Full marks to him.

It should be mentioned that he used to tour around Wisconsin with a few other Packers and played ‘donkey basketball’ to raise money for local schools. This guy was every bit as fun as you’d imagine.

10. Willie Buchanon, CB, 1972-78:

In the 1970s, Buchanon was one of the Packers’ stars on defense. He averaged 0.26 interceptions per game as a Packer and in 1978 hit his career high of nine picks. For his efforts he was rewarded with a First Team All-Pro nomination. In the first season the NFL moved to a 16 game season, Buchanon finished second in the league in interceptions.

Buchanon was paired with the next man on this list and those two guys formed one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL in the early ’70s. In those days Packers fans didn’t have too many players to take pride in, but their cornerbacks certainly were worthy of that honor.

9. Ken Ellis, CB-PR, 1970-75:

It’s no secret that Ellis was one of the best athletes of the Packers’ Lean Years. But he was far from just a talented player, he was also consistent. Year after year he grew his reputation as one of the league’s top cornerbacks. In five straight seasons he intercepted at least three passes.

However Ellis’ impact didn’t end on the defensive side of the ball. He was a punt and kick returner who amassed 1441 return yards in a four year span from 1970-73. The two-time Pro Bowler and one-time First Team All-Pro selection was a fan-favorite in the early part of the Lean Years. Plus, he was skilled enough to play both left and right cornerback positions at an extremely high level throughout his tenure in Green bay.

8. Paul Coffman, TE, 1978-85:

Coffman is the only player on this list that is regarded as the best Packer of all-time at his position. Simply put, he was one of the best tight ends of this era. And this was the era of NFL history that saw the tight end position evolve into more of a consistent downfield threat. Coffman blocked, of course, but was known for his impact in the passing game.

His 39 career touchdowns remain the most in Packers history at the tight end position; that is the number that Robert Tonyan is chasing. In 1983, Coffman put up 814 receiving yards. That was an absolutely monster number for his era.  Six times he went an entire season averaging over 12 yards per catch. Again, he clearly wasn’t afraid to head downfield to catch deep passes from Dickey and he went to three straight, well-deserved, Pro Bowls from 1982-84.

7. John Brockington, FB, 1971-77:

Technically listed as a fullback, Brockington was the Packers’ premier running back of the 1970s. He was Earl Campbell before Earl Campbell dominated the NFL. He was a fearless, bruising runner and he paid the price for it. “Big John’s” career ended far too soon due to carrying the load for Green Bay. He averaged 278 touches per season in his first four seasons (in 14 game seasons). In 1974 the three-time Pro Bowler led the NFL with 309 touches.

Few ball carriers in franchise history have ever broken into the league and dominated the way Brockington did. He was named First Team All-Pro as a rookie and averaged 5.1 yards per rush and would go on to start his career with three straight Pro Bowls. Had he been able to stay healthy and had a stronger offensive line he’d likely be one of the most celebrated backs in Packers history.

One facet of his career that many people overlook is that he caught 138 passes in his seven seasons in Green Bay. For being a power back he had more skill than most realize. In Brockington’s first four seasons he averaged 88.3 total yards per game and he was the Packers’ offense in those seasons. All opposing defenses would key on him yet he was still incredibly productive.

6. Fred Carr, LB, 1968-77:

Carr was Vince Lombardi’s final first round draft pick with the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi considered Carr the best player in the 1968 draft. While in Green Bay, Carr earned his starting role in his third season and never looked back after learning from Ray Nitschke and Dave Robinson. He started every game for eight consecutive seasons before retiring following the 1977 season.

He was named to three Pro Bowl squads over a six-year period and produced 23 turnovers throughout his career. In 1975 he came up with five turnovers and was named Second Team All-Pro. In all, the best compliment that can be paid to Carr is that although he was athletic enough to play multiple positions, he became a complete linebacker for the Packers.

Unfortunately, his career ended due to a knee injury and we were all robbed of another three to five seasons of him patrolling Lambeau Field.

5. Lynn Dickey, QB, 1976-85:

Despite the fact that Dickey is on the outside looking in at the Packers’ greatness at the quarterback position, he could absolutely sling the ball. His 1983 season is a perfect microcosm of his time in Green Bay. He led the NFL in passing touchdowns and interceptions. Talk about chaos. He also led the league in passing yards, yards per attempt and game winning drives (4). Despite that, the Packers won just eight games that year (in Bart Starr’s final season as the team’s head coach).

If Dickey had two good legs he would have set records. He had that much talent, he just couldn’t finish games. Often times his first halves were absolutely dominant, but his second halves would end poorly. But to start over 100 games at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers? That’s quite the accomplishment.

When it comes to modern Packers quarterbacks, he is firmly in the top four. For a franchise this rich in quarterback success, that is an honor.

4. John Anderson, LB, 1978-89:

One of our favorite players of the era without a doubt is John Anderson. He was a tackling machine and played with much more skill than most realize. 40 times he created a turnover for the Green Bay Packers, by intercepting a pass or recovering a fumble. That incredible number is tied with Dave Robinson for second-most in Packers history for linebackers — trailing only Ray Nitschke with 51.

In seven consecutive seasons Anderson recorded multiple interceptions. At least three times he recorded 4+ sacks.

He was Mr. Reliable for the Packers’ defense in the 1980s and his 19.5 sacks (he had more, but sacks weren’t tracked until 1982; officially the number is 19.5). As far as outside linebackers go, there is nothing he couldn’t do. The team around his was so bad that he didn’t receive much individual acclaim and was never selected to a Pro Bowl. However he did make the 1978 All-Rookie team and the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1980s All-Second Team.

Had Anderson played in almost any other era he’d be remembered as one of the best defensive players in team history. We have the Waukesha born linebacker listed as the best defensive player of the Packers’ Lean Years.

3. Gale Gillingham, G, 1966-74, 76:

Gale Gillingham is one of the few Lombardi Era Packers on this list. Yes, he won two rings with the Packers, but then was the best player on the decade following Lombardi’s stint as Green Bay’s head coach. As the team descended from a dynasty to an underachieving group, Gillingham was one of the players that just stood out.

It’s a catch-22, but had Gillingham not won two rings with the Lombardi Packers, he may be even higher on this list. It is because he had notable success with the team before the Lean Years started that he isn’t ranked higher. The Madison-born Gillingham was a massive guard for his era at 6’3″ and 255 pounds and he even, oddly, played at defensive tackle for a short time.

He was a dominant guard and one of the most athletic to ever play that position in Green Bay. His play helped young running back John Brockington amass impressive rushing stats in the early 1970s. If there’s one player from his era that has a legitimate claim for the Hall of Fame (other than the next player on this countdown) it’s the Packers’ 1966 first round pick Gillingham.

Gillingham was named First Team All-Pro twice and named All-Pro by different publications in six separate seasons; that’s a Hall of Fame resume.

2. Sterling Sharpe, WR, 1988-94:

OK, so this is an interesting selection. Sterling Sharpe would probably be higher had he not spent a few of his most productive years with Brett Favre throwing to him. Sure, some would consider Favre’s early years as part of the Lean Years because they didn’t win a ring during those years, but we think Favre becoming the starter started to end those infamous years.

Because of this, Sharpe is second on this countdown. That said, we have him as the second best wide receiver in franchise history behind only the incomparable Don Hutson. Sharpe did lead the NFL in receptions and was First Team All-Pro before Favre came to the Packers. People need to remember that; his skill was generational.

Perhaps most crucial when looking at Sharpe’s legacy in Green Bay is that he was part of the culture change in Green Bay that has led to the last 30 years of sustained success. That must not be forgotten. Also, he should be in The Hall; enough is enough.

So yes, Sharpe was the better receiver, but the next man on the list was the better Lean Years Packer.

1. James Lofton, WR, 1978-86:

The best player of the Green Bay Packers’ Lean Years is James Lofton. There’s really just no debate here. He was the player that Packers fans took pride in for nearly a decade when those years got their hardest to bear. He gave the fans incredible highlight level plays when his teammates rarely did. If the Packers got a highlight on the Monday Night Football highlight package, it was probably due to Lofton.

Lofton’s raw numbers don’t tell the whole story of how dominant he was as a Green Bay Packer, but make no mistake the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee earned his bust in Canton. He’s the only Packer wide receiver to ever lead the NFL in yards per reception in two consecutive season. In fact, those two seasons were his absolute peak as a professional athlete. 2261 receiving yards on 120 receptions is absurd.

Although not completely with the Packers, he was the first player to score a touchdown in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. That’s notable. Sure, Lynn Dickey could chuck the ball, but for Lofton to put up that much success with Dickey throwing to him speaks to his athletic ability and consistency. Most of the other great receivers in Packers history had Hall of Fame quarterbacks throwing them the ball.

Loften is the one truly transcendent player on this list that definitively had his entire career within the brutal context of the Lean Years. For that reason he is above Sharpe, Gillingham and the rest on this countdown.

For that, we salute him.

He was the hero Packers fans needed in an era that certainly challenged, and perhaps eventually strengthened, their fandom. When others struggled, he rose above. He’ll forever be the only Packers Hall of Fame inductee that played entirely in the Lean Years (after Starr and before Favre).

Thanks for everything James.

We think it’s pretty clear that the Packers’ top positions of this era were wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback. What do you think? Who was your favorite player from the era? Drop a comment and let us know!

Thanks for going down this Green Bay Packers Lean Years rabbit hole with us!

The Packers will struggle for a prolonged time again in the future, but may it not be for this long. Although if it is, we hope we’ve proven that there will be enough fun players to make the era interesting either way.

#GoPackGo

About PackersHistory.com 43 Articles
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.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply