A star passer for the Green Bay Packers becomes disgruntled with management following a standout season. Sound familiar? Actually, we’re looking back nearly 80 years and how the great career of Cecil Isbell came to an unceremonious end.
The 100-plus year history of the Green Bay Packers is full of phenomenal passers. Even beyond the likes of Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers, names like Arnie Herber, Tobin Rote, Lynn Dickey, and Don Majkowski have made their marks on the franchise’s record books.
One name, though, is omitted far too often in the Packers’ tradition of passers: Cecil Isbell.
The seventh overall pick in the 1938 NFL Draft, Isbell had health concerns coming into the league. The Purdue alum had dislocated his left shoulder in his first game with the Boilermakers. Given the severity of the injury and minimal treatments available at the time, Isbell had to resort to wearing a six-inch chain attached to his non-throwing shoulder for the rest of his career.
Despite the extra hardware, Isbell excelled and capped his collegiate career by leading the College All-Stars to a 28-16 win over Washington in the Chicago College All-Star Game. Additionally, he earned the inaugural MVP award for his efforts.
Upon arriving in Green Bay, Isbell was installed as the Packers’ left halfback in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box offense. While the position required a good arm, Isbell also needed to be adept as a runner and blocker.
For Isbell, that was hardly an issue. He finished his rookie season fifth in the NFL in passing and fourth in rushing, while earning a spot in the short-lived Pro All-Star Game (a precursor to today’s Pro Bowl). His skills had even caught the eye of Chicago Bears head coach George Halas.
“Arnie Herber is just a passer,” Halas said. “But this Isbell is a passer, kicker, runner and a line bucker [a blocker in today’s terminology]. Green Bay’s attack is three times more potent now than it has been in recent years and the answer is Isbell.”
Isbell’s ascension continued in 1939 and 1940, as he led the Packers in rushing in ’39 and passing in ’40. Not only did the franchise win its fifth NFL title during that span, but Isbell was a key part of one of the league’s most potent offenses.
Once the ’40 campaign ended, the Packers parted ways with Herber and made Isbell the team’s primary passer. What resulted was an offense that was years ahead of the rest of the league.
Isbell led the NFL in passing in 1941, throwing for a then-league record 1,479 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to garnering All-Pro and Pro All-Star Game recognition. His throwing also sparked Don Hutson’s production, who earned the Joe F. Carr Trophy (the forerunner to today’s MVP award) after catching 58 passes for 738 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He would take it to another level in ’42, compiling 2,021 passing yards to become the first individual to eclipse the 2,000 passing yards mark in a single season. Isbell also surpassed the NFL record for single-season passing touchdowns with 24, topping Benny Friedman’s 20 in 1929.
For an idea of how far Isbell was ahead of the competition, Sammy Baugh – arguably the most heralded passer from the NFL’s Iron Man era alongside Sid Luckman – finished the season with 1,524 yards and 16 TDs, nearly 500 yards and eight TDs behind Isbell.
Yet again, Isbell collected All-Pro and all-star game laurels, while Hutson (74 receptions, 1,211 yards, 17 TDs) once again won the Joe F. Carr Trophy. Additionally, Isbell had thrown at least one touchdown in 23-straight games by the end of the ’42 season. It seemed Isbell would continue to change the way football was played.
That is until he stepped away from the game.
After five years, Isbell announced his retirement from pro football at age 27, noting he didn’t want to be a part of Lambeau’s tendency to release veterans before they became too expensive.
“I hadn’t been up in Green Bay long when I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like Herber and (Milt) Gantenbein and (Hank) Bruder that they were all done with the Packers,” Isbell said. “I sat there and watched, and then I vowed it never would happen to me. I’d quit before they came around to tell me.”
The signs, though, had presented themselves during the record-setting ’42 campaign.
“I think I’ve had enough,’’ Isbell said midway through the season. “Five years of pro football is enough for anyone. If the opportunity comes, I’ll quit the game.”
That opportunity did come from his alma mater, as Purdue named him their backfield coach prior to the 1943 season. Within a year, he was promoted to head coach. Three years later, he moved to the pro ranks to lead the All-American Football Conference’s Baltimore Colts.
“Isbell was a master at any range – short, medium or long,” Lambeau said in 1945. “He could throw soft passes, bullet ones or feathery lobs. He’s the best with Sid Luckman of the Bears a close second and Sammy Baugh a long third.”
While years passed and memories faded, Isbell still had a stranglehold on the Packers’ passing records. His 2,021 passing yards in ’42 stood as a team record for 12 more seasons until it was surpassed by Rote. Meanwhile, his 24 passing touchdowns was the franchise’s single-season standard for 41 years until Dickey tallied 32 scoring strikes in 1983. In fact, Isbell’s mark was still in the top five in team history as recently as 1995, when Favre broke Dickey’s mark on his way to the first of three-straight MVP awards.
One wonders what would have become of Isbell’s career had he played for even a few more seasons. A spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame would have been almost a certainty, but it’s possible Isbell could have made a greater impact on how offense was played in the NFL for years to come had his production continued as it had in ’41 and ’42.
Instead, we’re left with the memories of a player who stepped away at his best.