Cecil Isbell: A forgotten legend

Cecil Isbell, who would have turned 92 years old on July 11, hooked up with Don Hutson to form a duo that rewrote the NFL record books in 1941 and 1942.

Happy birthday to the forgotten end of the greatest pitch-and-catch duo in Green Bay Packers history.

Cecil Isbell was born on this date (July 11) in 1915. Isbell, who died in 1985, played collegiately at Purdue and was the seventh overall pick of the 1938 NFL draft.

His career was short — he played only five seasons — but he was called the best passer of the era by his coach, none other than the great Curly Lambeau, who as a player was the first to throw for 1,000 yards.

"Cecil Isbell was the best, with Sid Luckman a close second and Sammy Baugh a long third. Isbell was a master at any range. He could throw soft passes, bullet passes or long passes," Lambeau once said.

Overshadowed by Hall of Fame contemporaries Baugh and Luckman, Isbell gained record-setting fame by connecting with perhaps the most statistically dominating player in the history of the NFL, Don Hutson.

Isbell led the Packers in rushing and passing in 1938, but Green Bay fell to the New York Giants in the NFL championship game. In 1939, Isbell was the leading rusher, and the Packers got revenge by whipping the Giants 27-0 in the title game at blustery State Fair Park in Milwaukee.

The following season, the Packers finished 6-4-1, but Isbell burst into stardom in 1941. Isbell and Arnie Herber had split time at halfback — the passing position in that era — the previous three seasons, but Lambeau released Herber before the season.

Isbell went on to lead the league in every meaningful passing category, and broke Baugh's single-season passing records with 1,479 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Packers finished 10-1, but lost to Chicago in the playoffs as the Bears stormed to a second consecutive championship.

Isbell exited the NFL literally at the pinnacle of the sport. He shattered the previous year's records by throwing for 2,021 yards and 24 touchdowns in leading Green Bay to an 8-2-1 record. Isbell's yardage figure was 36 percent more than the previous league standard. To compare, that would mean a quarterback would have to throw for 6,948 yards to break Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 yards. Isbell's 24 TD passes stood as tops in Packers history until Lynn Dickey connected for 32 scores in 1983.

Not surprisingly, Hutson was his No. 1 target. Hutson caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns, all of which established NFL records. In fact, Hutson was the first receiver to post a 1,000-yard season, and his 17 TD catches stood until Mark Clayton hauled in 18 scoring strikes in 1984 — a 16-game season compared to the 11-game seasons of Hutson's era.

"Isbell-to-Hutson has become to football what Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance once was to baseball," Life Magazine wrote at the time.

Incredibly, during a Nov. 1 game against the Chicago Cardinals, Isbell went 10-for-21 passing for 333 yards and five touchdowns, including five catches for 207 yards and three scores to Hutson. It was the first 300-yard passing game in Packers history, and it remains a league record for fewest completions needed to reach 300 yards. Nobody in Packers history has surpassed his five touchdown passes, and it's a mark equaled by Brett Favre three times.

As suddenly as Isbell burst on the scene, he called it quits.

"I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like (future Pro Football Hall of Famer) Arnie Herber that they were done. I vowed it would never happen to me."

Isbell, who served in the military in 1943 before becoming a coach at his alma-mater in 1944, retired with an intact streak of 22 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, second only in team history to Favre's run of 36 games. His career record of 41-12-2 was stellar, and he might have led the Packers to another championship or two had he not had the misfortune of playing in the same era as the mighty Bears.

In 2004, NFL.com asked its experts to name the NFL's best pitch-and-catch combo.

"For nostalgia's sake, I'd like to say the 1942 Green Bay combination of Cecil Isbell to Don Hutson," Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys general manager, said. "Back then, they played 11 games, and in those games, Hutson caught 17 touchdown passes from Isbell for 1,211 yards. No one before then had ever had a 1,000-yard receiving year."

Isbell was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1972. Had he played catch with Hutson for another few years, he, too, would be in Canton.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.

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