As the Green Bay representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee for the past 13 years, there’s no question about which question is foremost on the minds of Packers fans when it comes to that subject.
Why isn’t Jerry Kramer in the Hall of Fame?
After all, in 1969, the Hall selectors voted for him as the greatest guard in the NFL’s first 50 years.
For background, Kramer’s fate now rests with the nine-member Seniors Committee, and I was never part of that process. The Seniors Committee nominates two players who have been retired for 25 years or more for the 46-member selection committee to vote on at its meeting the day before the Super Bowl.
Dave Robinson, the Packers’ most recent inductee, was a senior nominee in 2013 and received the necessary 80 percent of votes cast to get in.
Kramer was the senior nominee in 1997, five years before I joined the committee, and fell short of 80 percent. That marked the 10th time Kramer was a finalist. No other player has been a finalist that many times and been shut out of Canton.
Never having been in the room when Kramer’s candidacy was discussed, I can only speculate as to why he hasn’t made it, based on bits and pieces of conversation I’ve heard outside the room.
1. Robinson was the 11th Lombardi Era player to be inducted into the Hall. Henry Jordan, the player selected previous to him, was posthumously inducted as a senior candidate in 1995. Paul Hornung and Willie Wood, the eighth and ninth inductees among Lombardi’s players, also waited a long time. Hornung was in his 12th year as a finalist; Wood in his 10th.
When Kramer was last a finalist, unlike today, there were still a number of veteran writers on the committee that grew up with the American Football League, and word is they were adamantly opposed to another Lombardi Packer getting in. Fair or not, it’s a notion others hold as well.
Not long ago, a presumably unbiased voice in the NFL office made the crack that if another one of Lombardi’s player was selected, maybe the coach’s bust should be removed – the point being what head coach couldn’t win championships with nearly a dozen Hall of Famers on his roster?
My retort would be: Keep in mind, Lombardi’s teams won five world championships over a seven-year span. More recently, San Francisco also won five, but it took 14 years, twice the time that it took the 1960s Packers. What’s more, the Packers won those titles with a suffocating defense, one that ranked in the top three in the league in four of those five championship years, and a running game that was virtually unstoppable at times.
They dominated a decade like no other NFL franchise ever by having really good to great players at nearly every position, not because they road the coattails of a superstar, a Johnny Unitas, for example.
2. Another criticism of Kramer, from what I’ve heard, was that he struggled against Merlin Olsen and Alex Karras, two of the game’s premier defensive tackles at that time.
With Karras, there’s some truth to that. Karras probably caused Lombardi’s teams more fits than any defensive player with the possible exception of Dick Butkus. Why Karras isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is beyond my comprehension. Read “Run to Daylight” to get a sense of what Lombardi thought of him.
As for Olsen, maybe Kramer had some problems against him, too. But all I know is that if you go back and watch film clips of the 1967 playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams and their vaunted front four, the Packers won largely by running to the right behind Kramer and Forrest Gregg at Hall of Famers Olsen and Deacon Jones.
3. One longtime committee member who would have had a vote in 1997 told me several years ago that he didn’t think Kramer was any better than his running mate at guard, Fuzzy Thurston. In truth, Thurston might have been the better pass blocker. And as good as Kramer was pulling for the sweep and on short trap blocks, Thurston did that well, too. But Kramer was more physically gifted than Thurston and remained at the top of his game longer. Lombardi tried to replace Thurston as early as 1965 and did so two years later.
The bigger issue today, or so it seems, is that over the years a number of former Packers players and coaches have told people in the league and members of the media that Thurston’s successor, Gale Gillingham, was not only the best guard but maybe best offensive lineman in Packers history.
Moreover, Bart Starr publicly stated even before Robinson’s selection that he thought Bob Skoronski should be the next Lombardi Packer inducted into the Hall.
Skoronski split time at left tackle with Norm Masters early in Lombardi’s reign and never made an All-Pro team. But I’ve been told, yes, it’s possible that Skoronski might have received the best weekly grades among the offensive linemen over Lombardi’s nine seasons. Clearly, he was a player more respected in the locker room than outside it.
That’s the quandary the Hall’s selectors have faced. There’d be no way to justify selecting two or three more Packers offensive linemen from the same era. Yet, if they pick one, which one?
My personal opinion is that Gillingham and Kramer rank with Verne Lewellen and maybe Lavvie Dilweg of the 1929-’31 three-time champs as the most deserving of the Packers’ eligible candidates not in Canton.
In Kramer and Gillingham, the Packers had at guard more than 40 years ago what the Packers of the last 20-plus years have had at quarterback with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers: One great player following another. But because they were guards, not quarterbacks, and there’s a perception there are too many Lombardi players in the Hall, Kramer and Gillingham cancel out each other’s support, while Starr’s endorsement of Skoronski clouds the issue even more.
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