Trick plays have been a staple in the NFL for years and the Green Bay Packers have had their share of flea flickers, reverses and fake punts. But if the Packers have been associated with one particular trick play over the years, it would have to be the halfback option. This play was used extensively when Vince Lombardi was the head coach and has had a lot of success over the years.
Lombardi used the play when he was the offensive assistant coach with the New York Giants in the 1950s. He had Hall of Fame running back and future Monday Night Football broadcaster Frank Gifford on his roster and Gifford was good at executing the halfback option play.
When Lombardi came to Green Bay, he had the perfect weapon to execute the halfback option: Paul Hornung. “The Golden Boy” won the Heisman Trophy with Notre Dame while playing quarterback. Although he was converted to halfback in the NFL, Hornung could still throw the ball accurately enough to make the halfback option a dangerous weapon.
The other thing that helped make the halfback option so successful was that it looked like Lombardi’s favorite play, the power sweep. It was run from the same formation and started the same way except instead of running with the football, the halfback pulled back and threw the ball to a receiver who had gotten behind the unsuspecting defense.
In his 1963 book, “Run to Daylight,” Lombardi called the halfback option “the greatest play in football.”
In Lombardi’s first season with the Packers in 1959, he introduced it right away including two passes by Hornung in Lombardi’s head coaching debut, a 9-7 win over the Bears.
The best usage came in a Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams in Los Angeles. With the game tied 7-7 late in the first quarter, Hornung threw a 26-yard touchdown toss to Boyd Dowler to put the Packers up 14-7. Just before the half, he found Dowler again on a 30-yard scoring play that put the Packers ahead 28-7 at the break in a game they went on to win 38-20.
Hornung used the play effectively again in the 1962 NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants. In the second quarter of that contest, he threw a 21-yard option pass to Dowler that helped set up the only offensive touchdown of the game, a seven-yard run by Jim Taylor. The Packers won the game 16-7.
In his career, Hornung threw five touchdown passes using the option pass and had 23 completions during the regular season running that play.
Although Hornung was the most famous player to run the halfback option, he wasn’t the only one. His backup, Tom Moore, also ran the play successfully. Moore completed 10-of-16 option passes during his six seasons with the Packers and threw four touchdown passes including two during the Packers 13-1 campaign in 1962.
The Packers have also been the victim of the halfback option play. The most famous example came during the Ice Bowl when Dan Reeves of Dallas tossed a 50-yard scoring pass to Lance Rentzel on the first play of the fourth quarter to give Dallas a 17-14 lead. The Packers won the game 21-17 to capture their third straight NFL title en route to a win in Super Bowl II.
In the 1970s, Bart Starr became head coach of the Packers. He also made use of the halfback option play in part because the team’s pass offense struggled in the early years of his coaching tenure in Green Bay.
Running back Willard Harrell was a rookie in 1975 and he used the halfback option pass very successfully. He threw touchdown passes in three consecutive games for the Packers that season, completing all of them to wide receiver Steve Odom.
In Week 9, he found Odom on a 24-yard scoring play in a 13-10 loss to the Lions. One week later in Milwaukee, he connected with Odom on a 23-yard touchdown pass in a 40-14 win over the Giants. Then, in Week 11, Harrell found Odom from 14 yards out as the Pack downed the Bears in the snow 28-7.
Packers starting quarterback John Hadl finished the 1975 season with six touchdown passes in 353 attempts while Harrell threw three touchdowns in five throws. The entire team had only 11 touchdown passes all season.
In Week 4 of 1976, Harrell connected again with Odom on a 40-yard touchdown pass that clinched a 24-14 win over Detroit and gave Starr’s team their first win of the season.
Both Harrell and Odom were 5’8” but they both had speed and the halfback option play was the most dangerous in the Green Bay playbook during that time.
In 1983, Starr had one of the best offenses in the league but used the halfback option pass again this time with Gerry Ellis. Ellis completed two option passes in five attempts including an 11-yard touchdown toss to tight end Paul Coffman in Week 9 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In 1987, halfback Paul Ott Carruth completed a three-yard touchdown pass to fellow running back Jessie Clark in the fourth quarter of the Packers 20-10 loss to the New York Giants in Week 15.
The Packers all-time leading rusher, Ahman Green also used the option pass successfully. In 2004, he threw at 20-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver in the fourth quarter of Green Bay’s 38-10 win over the Lions.
Later that season, Tony Fisher threw an eight-yard scoring pass to tight end Bubba Franks in the third quarter of the Packers 41-20 win over the Cowboys.
The halfback option has long been a staple of the Packers playbook and it’s helped the team score important touchdowns over the years. From Vince Lombardi to the modern era, the Packers have used the halfback option to fool opposing defenses and create game-changing plays.
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