1978 Green Bay Packers: A Collapse Ruins A Comeback Season

The proud Packer franchise had fallen on hard times since the departure of the great Vince Lombardi following the 1967 season. A team that had dominated the 1960s had now gone ten years with just one playoff appearance and only two winning seasons. Bart Starr, the quarterback for the Lombardi Dynasty, had been brought back as head coach in 1975, but his first three seasons produced a combined record of 13-29. The 1978 Green Bay Packers were looking like a breakout team, with a fast start and a number of young players. But the Packers faded hard, and while they got a winning season, the playoff drought continued.

Running back Terdell Middleton would be the focal point of the offense, and the 23-year-old had a career year, rushing for over 1,100 yards and making the Pro Bowl. Fullback Barty Smith added 567 yards. The problem was that, with a young offensive line, both were held under four yards per attempt.

Another 23-year-old was taking over at quarterback. David Whitehurst started five games as a rookie in 1977, and he got the gig full-time in ’78. Whitehurst had the struggles that were typical for a young QB. His 51 percent completion rate ranked 20th among starting quarterbacks. His 6.4 yards-per-attempt were subpar. And while his 10-17 TD/INT ratio wasn’t as unacceptable as it would be today, being intercepted 5.2 percent of the time still put him in the lower half of starting quarterbacks.

What Whitehurst did have was a breakout rookie in wide receiver James Lofton. With 46 catches that averaged 17.8 yards, Lofton got his Hall of Fame career underway. He was augmented by a big-play threat in Aundra Thompson, whose 26 receptions were good for a dazzling 20.3 yards-per-catch. Smith and Middleton each caught over 30 balls out of the backfield.

All in all, though, the Packer offense still ranked just 22nd in a 28-team NFL for points scored. What made them a contender was a defense that ranked 8th in points allowed. They had big play guys up front and in the secondary. Defensive end Ezra Johnson’s 17 ½ sacks were second in the league. Corner Willie Buchanon intercepted nine passes in an All-Pro season. Two more rookies, Mike Hunt and John Anderson broke into the lineup at the linebacker spots.

Green Bay opened the season at mediocre Detroit. Whitehurst didn’t exactly get off to a blazing start—3/9 for 31 yards. But Middleton ran for 91 yards, the defense got eight sacks and the Packers won 13-7. They came home to face another pedestrian opponent in the New Orleans Saints. This time, the young quarterback got rolling. Whitehurst threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Lofton in the first quarter. They connected for a 47-yard TD strike, and again from 18 yards out. Whitehurst finished with four touchdown passes in all, Middleton ran for 114 yards, and the Packers won 28-7.

John Madden’s Oakland Raiders had been one of the NFL’s defining franchises throughout the decade, and while a late fade would end that run—and Madden’s coaching career—that was still a few months off. On this September afternoon in Lambeau Field, the Green Bay defense got crushed up front, allowing 348 rushing yards in a 28-3 rout.

A road trip against a decent San Diego Chargers team was a tough battle and the Packers held a 7-0 lead into the third quarter. They broke it open by blocking a punt for a touchdown. And, with a 17-3 lead, Buchanon sealed it in the fourth quarter with a 77-yard Pick-6. It was one of four interceptions on the day for the All-Pro corner and it keyed a 24-3 win.

The Packers used to play three home games a year in Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, a practice that continued through 1994. The first one came in the rematch with the Lions. Middleton racked up 148 yards on the ground. Whitehurst went 14/18 for 230 yards and Green Bay cruised home, 35-14.

Chicago was up next. Packer defensive back Steve Luke made the big play, a 63-yard Pick-6 in the third quarter that gave Green Bay a 17-0 lead. At 17-7, Whitehurst went up top to Lofton for a 58-yard TD strike. The Pack rewarded the Lambeau faithful with a 24-14 win.

The third straight home game was back in Milwaukee, facing Seattle. The Seahawks were in their third year of existence, and they were starting to get competitive. But not today. Green Bay return man Steve Odom returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a score. Before the first quarter was out, Whitehurst and Lofton connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass, Middleton ran for two more scores and the Packers led 28-0. Another easy afternoon ended with a 45-28 win.

Green Bay was riding high at 6-1. They were in control of the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay). This was a division the Minnesota Vikings controlled throughout the 1970s. But the Vikes were languishing at 3-4. When the Packers went to Minnesota and old Metropolitan Stadium on October 22, the opportunity was there to put the division to bed early.

The Pack won the rushing yardage battle, 129-60. Whitehurst played reasonably well, going 18/30 for 120 yards. The Viking defense answered by sacking Whitehurst five times. But above all, Minnesota still had Fran Tarkenton at quarterback. The Hall of Famer was a microcosm of his team—aging, but proud. He threw for 262 yards, three touchdowns and made no mistakes. Green Bay lost 21-7.

Even so, the Packers still led the Vikings by two games. Green Bay didn’t play particularly well at home against Tampa Bay the following week, but a late 48-yard field goal from Chester Marcol pulled out a 9-7 win. Green Bay’s record was a sparkling 7-2. They had control of the division. With the league having added a second wild-card berth for this season, the playoffs seemed a cinch. Did anyone dare think Super Bowl? If so, a rude awakening was in the immediate future.

The decline started with a road trip to Philadelphia, where the Eagles were also in the playoff hunt. The Packers got pounded in the trenches, getting outrushed 174-51. Whitehurst went 18/33 for 220 yards, but also threw three interceptions and the team lost two fumbles. The result was a 10-3 loss.

The schedule got even tougher when the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys came to Milwaukee for a late afternoon national TV game. The game was tied 7-7 after a quarter, but when you’re outrushed 313-66, it’s fair to say that some bad things will happen. In this case, the bad thing was a 42-14 blowout loss.

Green Bay went on the road to Denver, who had reached the Super Bowl in 1977 and would win the AFC West in 1978. This time, the rush yardage gap was 215-84, and the result was a 16-3 defeat.

The three-game losing skid had given away the Pack’s margin for error. At 7-5, they were now tied with the Vikings for the NFC Central lead. In the race for the two wild-card spots, the Washington Redskins led the way at 8-4, while Atlanta and Philadelphia were both 7-5. How the tiebreakers would shake out remained unclear with four games to play.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Green Bay and Minnesota met in Lambeau Field. The Packers did a lot of things right. Middleton ran for 110 yards. In a defensive battle, they led 7-3 in the fourth quarter and were driving. But they had to settle for a 19-yard field goal. That opened the door for Tarkenton. Held in check all day, the veteran produced a drive for a tying touchdown with ten seconds to play. In overtime, both kickers missed chances to win it. The game ended in a 10-10 tie.

For Green Bay, it felt more like a loss. It was their home game. They had the late lead. And most important, they would lose the tiebreaker in the division race thanks to the loss in the Twin Cities back in October. Moreover, even though the Redskins lost, the Falcons and Eagles both won. Thus, the Packers were now a half-game behind three teams in the wild-card race.

A road trip to Tampa Bay was must-win, and the fact Green Bay was  a slight underdog to a bad team showed how far they had fallen in public estimation over these past several weeks. The problems up front continued to persist, with 177-65 deficit in rush yardage. But Whitehurst was efficient, going 13/19 for 113 yards. The Packers won the turnover battle 3-1, got five sacks and won 17-7.

Minnesota held serve with a dramatic late win. The only good news was that it came at Philadelphia’s expense, and Atlanta and Washington also lost. Now, at 8-5-1, Green Bay was the top wild-card and a half-game ahead of three teams.

The following Saturday, the Vikings were unexpectedly crushed at Detroit. Green Bay took the field in Chicago knowing that first place was theirs for the taking. On a frigid day where the wind chill was (-16), the Packer collapse up front continued—they were outrushed 174-78. This time, Whitehurst was inefficient, just 7/20 for 96 yards. This time, the Pack lost the turnover battle 3-1. This time, there was no pressure on the opposing quarterback. And this time, there was a 14-0 loss.

It was the worst loss of the season, and it gave Atlanta room to win and clinch one of the wild-card spots. The positive was that Philadelphia lost to Dallas to fall to 8-7. Green Bay, at 8-6-1, still controlled their destiny for the final playoff spot. And they were still tied with Minnesota, with a crack at the division title.

The problem was that the season finale was going to be on the road against the Los Angeles Rams, who were merely playing to secure the #1 seed in the NFC bracket. When Philadelphia beat the New York Giants in the early afternoon, there was no slack—it was win or go home for the Packers.

Given the quality of the opponent, Green Bay hung in pretty well. They only trailed 7-0 at half and were within 21-14 after three quarters. But the problem of the stretch drive—an inability to run the ball or stop the run—continued to show up. The Packers lost rush yardage 178-75. Without support, Whitehurst threw three interceptions. Even though Minnesota was also out west and lost in Oakland, Green Bay would miss their opportunity in a 31-14 defeat.

The collapse was deeply disappointing, but Packer fans had a right to be optimistic. They had finished with a winning season and doing with young players seemed to indicate a real corner was being turned. But they immediately slipped back to irrelevancy the following two years. Management stayed patient with Starr and the team became competitive in the early 1980s. But it was only in the strike-shortened year of 1982 that the Packers would make the playoffs.

Starr was fired after an 8-8 near-miss in 1983. It took until 1993, when Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre, and Reggie White were in town, for Green Bay to again become a consistent playoff team.