Dual-threat backs are all the rage right now in the National Football League. However, the Green Bay Packers possessed one of the greatest multi-dimensional threats in league history in Paul Hornung, as evidenced by his performance on a crisp fall day in Green Bay 59 years ago.
Dual threats. Multi-purpose backs. Matchup nightmares. Whatever the term, three-down running backs with adept hands are one of the en vogue trends in the NFL right now. Yet, one of the prototypes to today’s running backs suited up for the Green Bay Packers over 50 years ago.
Far more than just a typical running back, Paul Hornung was the definition of multi-dimensional. After winning the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame (and, to date, the only winner of the award to play for a team with a losing record), Hornung’s true skills weren’t put on display until the arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1959, when he became the team’s halfback alongside fullback Jim Taylor to form one of football’s most vaunted backfield tandems.
As typical in Lombardi’s offense, Taylor took the brunt of the running duties. However, Hornung’s role was arguably one that made the offense roll, as Lombardi himself noted he was “the key operative.” In addition to running, his arm – he did play quarterback at Notre Dame – made him a threat to pass on any given play. Additionally, his skill at placekicking resulted in him taking on the role as the team’s kicker even before Lombardi’s arrival.
His extensive skillset helped him win league MVP honors in 1960, as he scored a league-record 176 points (13 rush TDs, 2 receiving TDs, 41 PATs, 15 field goals) across 12 games. In fact, that single-season scoring record stood for 46 years before LaDainian Tomlinson scored 186 points in a 16-game season.
How could Hornung follow that up? How about single-handedly blowing out a postseason contender by scoring 33 points in a single game?
Following a surprising season-opening loss at home to the Detroit Lions, the 1961 Packers picked up comfortable wins over the San Francisco 49ers (30-10) and Chicago Bears (24-0) prior to a pivotal showdown at New City Stadium against Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry and the Baltimore Colts. While Green Bay was defending its Western Conference crown, Baltimore was looking to return to the top, having just won their second of back-to-back NFL titles two years prior.
This game would surely go down to the wire, right? Hardly.
Hornung started off his career day by finding paydirt just over two minutes into the game, as his 54-yard scoring run gave the Packers an early 7-0 edge. The Colts eventually knotted things up when Lenny Moore punched it in on a one-yard dive on the first play of the second quarter.
That’s when Hornung officially went off. The “Golden Boy” booted a 38-yard field goal to put Green Bay back ahead, then scored his second rushing touchdown of the day on a one-yard plunge to give the Packers a 17-7 lead at halftime. Out of the intermission, a Baltimore turnover resulted in a short field, which turned into an eight-yard touchdown catch by Hornung from Bart Starr. Later in the third, Hornung scored his fourth touchdown of the game on another one-yard run.
In three quarters, he found the endzone four times, converted on all four of his PAT attempts and kicked a field goal. All told, Hornung accounted for every single one of the Packers’ 31 points – and there were still 15 minutes left to play.
With the game pretty well decided, Hornung got fewer carries. Yet, the scoring continued with a 72-yard punt return score from Willie Wood and a three-yard scoring jaunt from Taylor. Of course, Hornung came on to boot the PAT in both instances, bringing his game total to 33 points in an eventual 45-7 win. All told, Hornung finished the day with 139 all-purpose yards (111 rushing, 28 receiving) on just 14 touches, while also converting on all seven of his kicks.
To put this into perspective, 16 times has a player scored 30 or more points in a single game since 1950. Hornung accounts for three of those instances with no other player doing it more than once. Additionally, his 33 points against Baltimore sits as one of four performances were an individual scored more than 30, joining Ernie Nevers (40 in 1929), Dub Jones (36 in 1951) and Gale Sayers (36 in 1965) in that group.
So, while dual-threat backs may seem like a new trend, much of the inspiration came decades prior with Hornung.