The 1982 Green Bay Packers were a breakthrough team in the franchise’s long history. They had only made the playoffs once since the great Vince Lombardi left after the 1967 season. The playoff trip—1972—was a decade in the rearview mirror. And what was supposed to be a triumphant return for Bart Starr—once Lombardi’s quarterback and now his head coach—was going awry. Starr had been coaching for seven years and yet to taste the playoffs. In 1982, the Packers got there.
An offense geared around big-play passing was the key. Lynn Dickey, the 33-year-old quarterback, had a middling completion percentage and was interception-prone, but his 8.2 yards-per-attempt were the third-best in the NFL. Wide receiver James Lofton was a Pro Bowler and averaged 19.9 yards per catch. John Jefferson was terrific in his own right on the other side, and tight end Paul Coffman was another Pro Bowler.
The Packers didn’t have a great running game, with Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis being mostly average, but the passing game was good enough to make Green Bay the fifth-best offense in the league. The defense didn’t have any Pro Bowl talent, although defensive end Ezra Johnson played well with 5 ½ sacks in a strike-shortened nine-game season. The unit as a whole was still good enough to rank 11th in points allowed.
Green Bay had chased a playoff berth to the final game of the 1981 season before being destroyed by the New York Jets in the season finale. The Packers had high hopes coming into the season and it looked like they might be dashed quickly when they fell behind the Los Angeles Rams 23-0 at the half.
Dickey rallied the troops in old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers played three home games a year through 1994. He went 17/27 for 237 yards. Jefferson caught six balls for 116 yards and Ivery ran for 109 yards. In a stunning turnabout, Green Bay won 35-23.
The comeback routine continued, albeit not quite as extreme in a Monday Night visit to the New York Giants, who had made the playoffs in 1981. The Packers trailed 19-7, but turned the game around by running the football. Lest you think it was the traditional smashmouth, the big play was Lofton taking a reverse 83 yards for a touchdown. Ivery was able to kick in 94 yards in the more conventional manner and 20 unanswered points led the Packers to a 27-19 win.
Finally rolling at 2-0, it was like a bad dream for Packer fans to have the strike hit and as it stretched on the season appeared at risk. The players and owners didn’t come to terms until November and play resumed on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving.
Seven more games would be played. To adjust for the short season, the playoffs were expanded to eight teams per conference and divisional distinctions were abolished. The conference standings would apply and it would be straight 1 thru 8 seeding.
Green Bay hosted Minnesota in the first game back and even though Dickey was sacked six times, he also completed 15/22 for 244 yards and no interceptions. The Packers won 26-7. Dickey again played well in a return to the scene of last year’s crime—Shea Stadium, the home of the Jets. He was 19/30 for 225 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. But…there was no running game and New York was able to eke out a 15-13 win in a game neither team could score in the fourth quarter.
The Packers quickly bounced back at home against a mediocre Buffalo team. They forced five turnovers and were ahead 30-7 in the fourth quarter before some garbage time points by the Bills made the score cosmetically respectable at 33-21.
With four wins under their belt, Green Bay was in good shape for the playoffs. By season’s end, one 4-5 team in each conference would end up qualifying. But that needed one more to make sure. Detroit came to Lambeau Field and it turned into a disaster. Dickey threw four interceptions and had to be pulled for David Whitehurst. The backup was sacked five times. The special teams gave up a kickoff return to start the second half. The Packers lost 30-10.
A trip to the winless Baltimore Colts would surely be the antidote. Green Bay ran the ball persistently, if not effectively, with 40 carries for 138 yards. Dickey was erratic, 16/34, but he did produce 213 yards and there wasn’t a flurry of interceptions. The Packers led 20-6 in the fourth quarter.
Then something more embarrassing than the Lions’ loss went down. The putrid Colts rallied to tie the game and no one could win it in overtime. It was the only game all year Baltimore hadn’t lost. At 4-2-1, Green Bay still needed one more win to be sure.
On the day after Christmas in Atlanta, against a respectable Falcons team that would end up in the playoffs themselves, the Packers gave a belated gift to their loyal fan base. Ivery and Ellis shared the load in a running game that rang up 164 yards. Green Bay led 14-7, when Dickey opened up with the home run ball. He hit Lofton twice for touchdowns, once from 80 yards and another from 57. Green Bay won 38-7. They were in.
A road game at Detroit, where the Lions were fighting to make the playoffs ended in a loss. Dickey was picked off four times and the final was 27-24. But the Packers’ 5-3-1 record was still good for the 3-seed and a home game in the first round of the expanded postseason.
It was a strange opening playoff weekend, with doubleheader action going in two time slots on both Saturday and Sunday. The regionalized TV coverage gave the NFL postseason a March Madness feel. The Packers were a 4 ½ point favorite over the St. Louis Cardinals in the early afternoon spot on Saturday.
St. Louis got the first scoring drive, but Green Bay held them at the 1-yard line and forced the chip shot field goal. Dickey came back with a 60-yard TD strike to Jefferson to put the Packers on top by the end of the first quarter.
The game stayed that way until the final six minutes of the second quarter, when all hell broke loose and in a way Green Bay fans were more than happy with. Dickey threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Lofton. St. Louis fumbled on their next possession and the Packers scored again on a short run from Ivery. Free safety Mark Murphy, the current team president, came up with an interception. Green Bay again got in the end zone, this time Dickey throwing a 4-yard touchdown pass to Ivery.
Even though the Cards were able to get on the board by the end of the quarter with a touchdown, they missed the extra point and Green Bay was rolling at 28-9. The defense took over, getting five sacks with great pressure from both edges. Johnson had 1 ½ sacks, while Mike Butler on the opposite end had two more. Dickey played a superb game, 17/23 for 260 yard, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Jefferson caught six passes for 148 yards. The final was 41-16.
The Packers road-tripped to 2-seed Dallas for the NFC Divisional Playoffs where the run finally came to an end. Green Bay played competitively as a seven-point underdog and was within 30-26 in the fourth quarter, thanks to another long Lofton TD run off the reverse and a big Pick-6 by defensive back Mark Lee. But the good and the bad of Dickey all came to the fore. He was 19/36 for 332 yards and helped keep his team in the game. He also threw three interceptions, the last of which killed the Packers’ best chance to win. The final was 37-26.
It was still a good, albeit shortened season for the 1982 Green Bay Packers. The disappointment came in the following year when they were unable to build on the success and again missed a playoff berth with a loss in the final game of the season. That was the end of Starr’s coaching tenure and the Packers did not get back to the postseason until 1993, when Brett Favre was in town.