Career: 1956-71 (16 seasons)
Teams: Green Bay Packers
Regular-season record: 94-57-6 (.610)
Postseason record: 9-1 (.900)
Championship titles: 2 Super Bowls (1966,1967), 5 NFL titles (1961,1962, 1965, 1966, 1967)
Bottom line: Bart Starr, who died on May 26, is the premier big-game quarterback in pro football history. That this wasn’t immediately perceived by pro football analysts and historians in the tributes and obits is a failure to understand Starr’s greatness that goes back nearly six decades.
Starr was the losing quarterback in the Green Bay Packers' first NFL championship game under Vince Lombardi in 1960, 13-10 to the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the only postseason game he ever lost. From 1961 to 1967, he was the winning quarterback in five NFL title games and, after the 1966 and 1967 seasons, in the first two Super Bowls.
After that initial loss to the Eagles, his postseason record was 9-0. In those 10 postseason games, check out his quality statistics: 15 touchdown passes against just three interceptions and an eye-popping 8.23 yards per attempt. No quarterback in pro football history can approach these numbers.
After the 1966 season, the NFL champion met the AFL winner in the Super Bowl, and in 1970, the two leagues merged and the Super Bowl became the NFL championship game, so Starr played in just 10 postseason games. But as he told me once, "The games you had to play within your own division to get to the championship game were treated like playoff games. In most of our seasons, we had to play the [Baltimore] Colts, Bears, and Lions twice a year. Those were fierce rivalries and as hard fought as any postseason games."
Back when the season was just 14 games, nearly half the Packers’ schedule could be said to be playoff games. In the eight seasons from 1960 to 1967, the Packers' record against the Colts, Bears and Lions, with Starr at the helm, was 32-12-2. (Starr was injured and unavailable for the showdown with the Bears in 1963, giving Chicago the western division title.)
Starr was the greatest quarterback of an earlier and much tougher game when quarterbacks had to call their own plays without the aid of a brain trust on the sidelines. In one of the NFL’s most famous drives against the Dallas Cowboys in the famous 1967 Ice Bowl, with the ball on the 1-yard line of the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and less than a minute to play, Starr walked over to tell Vince Lombardi why he thought a quarterback wedge could work for a touchdown.
Lombardi’s faith in his field general was absolute. His decision on the signature play of his coaching career was, "Then run it, and let’s go home." Starr ran the ball in, and everyone went home.
If you ever find yourself in football heaven and have to choose up sides for one big game, pick Bart Starr as your quarterback. If you don’t, you’ll probably lose.