Great Packers Seasons - 1942
The Dynamic Duo – Cecil Isbell & Don Hutson
Our new series of articles features exceptional single season individual performances in Green Bay Packers' history. These won’t always be seasons where the team itself has won a Championship or been great but where a player (or players) has delivered a season that should go down in the annals of history.
We start with 1942, where two Packers – Cecil Isbell and Don Hutson – had career years.
Strange beginnings - Hutson and Isbell star but the Packers falter
The Packers 1942 season started late in September with a visit from long-time foes, the Chicago Bears. The Bears led the Packers 23-19-14 in the series and entered the game as the two-time defending NFL Champions, having beaten the Packers in a play-off for the 1941 Western Division Championship… so the rivalry entering the season opener was as bitter as ever.
The game went back and forth for three quarters - Cecil Isbell hit Don Hutson for a 40 yard touchdown in the 2nd quarter to put the Packers ahead by a single point. The Bears went back in front, before Isbell and Hutson connected again on 25 yard score in the 3rd period, restoring the one-point lead. But the Packers couldn’t hold on and in the 4th quarter, the Bears pulled away to a 44-28 victory.
Despite Green Bay’s disappointing start to the season, Isbell and Hutson both started 1942 with excellent performances:
Isbell finished the game with 261 passing yards and the 2 touchdown throws to Hutson. It was Isbell’s 13th straight game with at least one touchdown pass. Cecil was also a significant contributor on defense, notching an interception of the Bears’ Sid Luckman.
Hutson caught 8 passes for 147 yards with 2 touchdowns. His receptions included a fantastic one-handed catch at the goal-line that set up a Packers score – this play survives on film and demonstrates what a fine receiver Hutson truly was. Don also kicked 4 out of 4 extra point attempts... as an aside, the kicking part of Hutson’s game is often overlooked and is of extra interest because he’d never kicked at all before coming to Green Bay.
The Packers bounce back
The 0-1 Packers bounced back from the previous week’s disappointment with a hard fought victory against the Bears’ crosstown rivals, the 2-0 Chicago Cardinals in a game played at Comiskey Park under floodlights.
With offense at a premium, the Packers were trailing 13-3 early in the 4th quarter when Isbell drove the team 58 yards down to the Cardinals 5 yard line before hitting Hutson for a 5 yard touchdown – Don added the extra point and the Packers were now just 3 behind. A few plays later, the Packers scored again on a Charley Brock fumble return and with Hutson’s extra point the Packers went ahead 17-13 – the final score in the game.
Game 3 of the 1942 season saw the Packers host the winless Detroit Lions at State Fair Park, Milwaukee. The game was tight early, with the Packers eking out a 10-7 lead in the 2nd quarter.The Cecil Isbell to Don Hutson combination came alive in that 2nd period, however, stretching Green Bay’s lead – Isbell hit Hutson with touchdown passes of 20 yards and 69 yards. On the 69-yarder, Hutson caught the ball at about his own 40, beat the closest defender and sped off down the left sideline to the end zone with the defender vainly trailing in his wake.
Don added the extra points to both of his touchdowns to put the Packers out in front 24-7. From that point on, the result was never in doubt and the Packers went on to win 38-7. As the game became more comfortable, both Isbell and Hutson saw much reduced playing time.
With the win, the Packers moved to 2-1 and remained a game behind the unbeaten Bears (3-0) in the race for the Western Division title. It was already looking like the Chicago-Green Bay rematch later in the season would be crucial.
Despite playing less than half the game, Hutson had his second 100 yard receiving day of the season, catching 5 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was also successful on all 3 of his extra point attempts.
Isbell passed sparingly but completed 7 of 9 attempts for 170 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions. The 69 yard touchdown pass from Isbell to Hutson was the longest completed pass in the NFL in the season up until this point.
It’s a Record Breaking Day
The Packers fourth game of the season turned out to be a sensational record breaking Sunday afternoon at City Stadium. It was an incredible game and, for the era in which it was played, it was almost unfathomable, as the Packers and Cleveland Rams went pass crazy. But for the Rams, trying to compete through the air with Cecil Isbell and Don Hutson at their prolific best was always going to be an impossible task and so it proved. On this day, the Packers would rack up 541 yards on offense – a team record that would last until 1962 – 330 of those yards coming through the air. Green Bay also notched up 27 first downs – a new NFL record.
Somehow, Green Bay trailed at half-time 21-17, but after Isbell ran for a 10 yard score to put his team ahead in the 3rd period, the Packers never looked back and secured a 45-28 victory. The combined 73 points scored in the game was the most in NFL history.
In addition to his scoring run, Isbell threw for 277 yards, including 2 touchdowns to Hutson. In the process, Cecil stretched his NFL record of games with at least one touchdown pass to 16. But it was Don who stole the day.
Hutson had an incredible day – probably the finest in NFL history for a receiver up until this point – catching 13 passes for 209 yards, the latter a new NFL record, whilst the former was a new team record. Again, surviving film from the game shows Hutson hauling in another one-handed reception, demonstrating skills years ahead of his time.
Hutson’s touchdown receptions covered 26 yards (in the 1st quarter), a play on which he was double-covered, and 4 inches (in the 4th quarter) on a fade route to the left corner of the end zone. And yes, it really was officially 4 inches! This was, and remains, officially the shortest touchdown pass in NFL history and since the shortest that can be officially recorded now is a single yard, it is likely to remain the NFL record forever. And just for good measure, Hutson was successful on all 5 of his extra point attempts.
Hutson and Isbell Stats Update – Through 4 Games
Through four games, Hutson led the league in every receiving category with 28 catches for 524 yards and 7 touchdowns. To give these numbers some perspective, the second place man (Jim Benton of the Rams) had 13 catches for 251 yards. Hutson’s 524 yards receiving put him in with a shot of having the first 1,000 yard receiving season in NFL history. At this stage, Hutson also led the league in scoring with 56 points.
Isbell was ranked as the league’s leading passer overall and led the league with 59.8% completion percentage. He was tied for the league lead in touchdown passes with 8 and was second in the league with 703 yards passing.
Detroit play tough – But the Packers are tougher
In their fifth game, the Packers (3-1) travelled to Detroit and found the winless Lions (0-4) to be tougher than expected. Green Bay’s offense stuttered somewhat but the defense came up with 3 fumble recoveries and 3 interceptions – including 1 by Don Hutson – and a kick-off return for a touchdown by Andy Uram enabled the Packers to move to a 28-7 victory.
In addition to his interception on defense, Hutson caught 5 passes for 88 yards and was successful on both of his extra point attempts.
Although held in check for much of the game, Cecil Isbell extended his streak of games with a touchdown pass to 17 with a 1st quarter 4-yard scoring strike to Joe Carter.
The Packers moved to 4-1 with the win, remaining 1 game behind the unbeaten Bears (5-0) in the Western Division. Unexpectedly, the Bears were searching for a new head coach mid-season, as George Halas had re-enlisted for the Navy as World War II tightened its grip.
It’s Another Record Breaking Day
Following last week’s stuttering performance, the Packers bounced back in their sixth game of the season with an offensive juggernaut of a performance against the Cardinals – turning it loose offensively with 8 touchdowns including 6 passing, 423 yards through the air and a total of 539 yards. The Packers blasted their way to a 55-24 victory – in another game where records fell like confetti:
Combined 79 points – The combined 79 points by both teams set a new NFL record, breaking the 73 point record set by the Packers and Rams just two weeks ago.
Packers' 55 points – This set a new team record.
8 team touchdowns – This set a new team record which still stands (it has since been equalled)
6 team touchdown passes – A new team record which still stands (it has been equalled a couple of times)
432 team passing yards – A new team record which stood until the last game of the 2011 season.
It was perhaps the greatest game in the career of Cecil Isbell. Cecil only had 10 completions but 5 of them went for touchdowns and his passes amassed 333 yards. 4 of Isbell’s touchdown passes went for 40 or more yards, including one that went for 73 yards to Don Hutson. Let’s put some of Isbell’s numbers in this game into context:
5 touchdown passes – This was a new NFL record. It also stood as a Packers record until it was equalled by Don Horn in 1969 and was finally broken by Matt Flynn in the last game of the 2011 season.
333 passing yards – This was a new NFL record. It also stood as a Packers record until beaten by Tobin Rote in 1951.
15.86 average yards per passing attempt – This was a new NFL record. This is a Packers record which still stands to this day.
73 yard completion – Represented the longest pass completion in the NFL in the 1942 season up until this point.
On the end of half of Isbell’s passes on this day, was the all-world performance by Don Hutson:
Don caught 5 passes for 207 yards and 3 touchdowns. The scoring plays covered 40, 73 and 65 yards and as noted above, the 73-yarder was the longest pass play in the NFL at this point in the 1942 season. On both the 73 and 65-yarders, Hutson used another of his great skills – his outstanding speed – to beat the defense deep and catch the throw in the open field in stride.
The 207 receiving yards gave Hutson his fourth 100 yard game of the season (in just 6 games) and was his second 200 yard game of the year. In the process Don became the first receiver in NFL history to have two 200-yard games in the same season and to this day, he remains the only Packer in history to achieve this feat. For good measure, Hutson also kicked 6 extra points – a new team record.
Despite the huge day, the Packers couldn’t close the gap on the Bears whose win on the same day kept them a single game ahead of Green Bay in the Western Division.
Stroll in Cleveland
In their seventh game of the season, the Packers travelled to Cleveland and Hutson, Isbell and the defense (which had a Packers record 7 interceptions) saw Green Bay move to 7-1 for the season as they beat the Cleveland Rams 30-12. With the win, the Packers still remained a game behind the Bears in the race for the Western Division.
Hutson went down with a sprained ankle but not before he turned in another impressive performance – catching touchdown passes from Isbell in each of the first two quarters and another from Tony Canadeo in the fourth period. Don fell just short of another 100 yard receiving day (94 yards) but kicked 3 extra points and also had 2 interceptions when playing on defense. In the process, Hutson surpassed three of his own single season NFL records:
Receiving yards – he now had 925 yards for the season
Receiving touchdowns – he now had 13 for the season
Points scored - he now had 103 points for the season
With his two touchdown passes to Hutson, Isbell broke his own NFL single-season record in that regard moving to 17 for the season. And like Don, Cecil also had 2 interceptions on defense, although bizarrely on one of them he conceded a safety when, after the interception, his momentum carried him into the end zone (a play that would have been a touchback under today’s rules).
By mid-week both Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell were doubtful for Sunday’s key match-up with the Bears. Hutson’s sprained ankle that he picked up the previous week had limited him to less than 10 plays in practice all week.
Unfortunately, like Hutson, Isbell was also suffering from a gimpy ankle which would likely hinder him for the remainder of the season. At the very best, Isbell’s ankle would need heavy strapping to enable him to play.
Rivals end Packers chances
In mid-November, the Packers travelled to Chicago to play the Bears, knowing that they had to win to realistically keep their hopes alive in the Western Division. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, both Hutson and Isbell were carrying injuries and whilst both played, they were both hampered and ultimately, the Packers were unable to overcome their two star players being slowed. Green Bay slumped to a 38-7 defeat.
Isbell’s ankle injury was made worse during the afternoon as the Bears defense beat up on him – not always within the rules, as Chicago notched up multiple personal foul penalties and a total of 118 penalty yards. Conversely, the Packers had zero penalties/penalty yards (marks which are of course still tied for an NFL record to this day). Isbell did throw for 156 yards and the Packers only touchdown of the game – a 7-yarder to Hutson.
Hutson’s ankle injury prevented him from running his renowned characteristic deep routes – his longest reception on this day covered just 20 yards. And yet for all his difficulties, Don still caught 10 passes for 117 yards and the Packers’ only touchdown. He also intercepted 2 passes, including one in the Packers' end zone that halted a Bears scoring opportunity and added the extra point to his own touchdown.
The loss put the Packers 2 games behind the Bears in the Western Division with just 3 games to go.
Hutson and Isbell Stats Update – Through 8 games
In the week 8 game against the Bears, Don Hutson hit a huge milestone – becoming the first player in NFL history to pass 1,000 yards receiving in a season. It’s a number that we still use to this day as a milestone number for a receiver, even though it’s reasonably common these days. Just remember that Hutson passed this mark in 8 games (half of a current season) playing under rules which didn’t favour the passing game.
To further put his receiving yards mark into some perspective; Don had 1,032 yards at this stage of the season – the next closest player had 410 yards. Meaning that Hutson had nearly 2½ times the receiving yards of his closest challenger.
Through 8 weeks, Hutson had 57 receptions – just 1 behind the NFL season record which he jointly held with Don Looney. Still three games to go to catch the 2 passes he needed to break the record. Hutson’s 14 receiving touchdowns was a new NFL record.
Don had scored 110 points – which was also a new league record – and was tied for the league lead with 6 interceptions on defense.
Not to be outdone though, Cecil Isbell was having a record breaking season of his own. With 3 weeks to go, Cecil had thrown 18 touchdown passes – a new NFL record. He had now thrown touchdowns in 20 consecutive games – another NFL record. He had also passed for 1,496 yards – yet another NFL record.
Isbell was second in the league overall in passing and in completion percentage (54.2%) at this juncture.
Hutson and Isbell both struggled with their respective ankle injuries during the week and missed substantial practice time. For Hutson, it was the second consecutive week in which his practice time was severely restricted due to the ankle problem although this time he was also suffering from a heavy cold which likely would have reduced his availability in any case.
Packers Championship Hopes Finally Disappear with Disappointing Tie
Coming in with a heavy cold, an ankle injury and then suffering badly bruised ribs during the game, Don Hutson still ended up catching a record 14 passes against the New York Giants – but even Hutson’s effort wasn’t enough to get the Packers past the Giants, as the team’s battled to a 21-21 tie.
The result for the Packers, coupled with the Bears beating the Lions 42-0 on the same day, finally put paid to Green Bay’s faint remaining play-off hopes. This disappointment shouldn’t overshadow Hutson’s latest great performance however:
Don’s 14 receptions on the day tied an NFL record (since broken) and is still the Packers record to this day. In the process he extended his NFL record of catches in a single season to 71.
With his 134 receiving yards, Hutson notched up his sixth 100-yard receiving game of the season – extending his own NFL record in this regard.
He also caught 2 touchdown passes from Isbell (both in the second quarter), extending yet another NFL record (16 touchdown receptions in a single season).
Hutson kicked 3 extra points – setting yet another record for points scored in a single season.
Cecil Isbell threw for 216 of the Packers 436 total offensive yards and the 2 touchdowns to Hutson. In the process of course, Cecil extended his single-season NFL record marks for touchdown passes, passing yards and also his extended his consecutive game streak with at least one touchdown pass.
A Muddy Quagmire
With their Championship hopes now gone, the Packers travelled to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. Gameday brought severe rainstorms and a field covered in water and mud – the mud being so bad that it was reportedly almost impossible to tell the teams apart after the first few minutes of play. In the quagmire, neither team could generate much offense (and that’s an understatement) as the Packers had only 3 first downs passing all day, whilst the Eagles could only muster a single first down passing.
The Packers defense came up with 3 interceptions, including 1 each by Cecil Isbell and Don Hutson. The pair added to this by hooking up for the only score of the game, which came in the first quarter. On the touchdown play, Hutson caught Isbell’s pass at the 20, slipped the defender (literally) and went into the end zone untouched – the score holding up for the Packers to win 7-0. Hutson later left the game with bruised ribs, which would affect him in the season finale.
That season finale for the Packers turned out to be a hard fought 24-21 victory over the Steelers in Milwaukee. Hutson was still suffering with his rib injury and caught just a single pass for 7 yards, going without a touchdown reception for the first time in 6 games. Don still contributed 3 extra points (from 3 attempts) and a field goal which provided the ultimate margin of victory.
Despite Hutson not being 100%, Isbell still had a big passing game, notching up 243 yards through the air and lobbing touchdown passes to 3 different receivers (Brock, Jacunski and Riddick) – the final two coming in the 4th quarter with the pressure really on. In the process, Isbell extended his NFL record of games with at least one touchdown pass to 23.
Packers Season Wrap-up
The Packers finished the season 8-2-1, second in the western division behind the unbeaten Bears (the Bears lost the Championship Game tWashington 14-6). The two losses to the Chicago team cost Green Bay a shot at the 1942 Championship.
With Isbell and Hutson at their best, it should be of no surprise that the Packers offense produced some gaudy numbers. These included:
An average of 344.55 offensive yards per game – a team record which stood until 1961
Led the league in passing yards per game – 218.82 – highest in team history until 1983. For some perspective, the league average in this category in 1942 was 123.7 yards per game
A league leading 28 touchdowns passing – the league average in 1942 was 10.8
Led the league in total first downs
Having just 13 fumbles – a new team record
The Packers defense also played their part coming up with a league lead-tying 33 interceptions (tied with the Bears. As a team, the Packers had only 38 penalties – still a team record.)
Don Hutson’s 1942 season was the greatest by a pass receiver in NFL history up until this point – and would remain so for a number of years to come. Eventually his marks would be surpassed as the number of games increased and the rules changed to open up the passing game, but nothing can diminish the exceptional year that Hutson had. He will always be the league’s first ever 1,000 yard receiver.
Each of the following were new NFL single-season records:
74 receptions – the second place receiver in 1942 had 27 receptions.
1,211 receiving yards – the second place receiver in 1942 had 571 yards.
17 receiving touchdowns – the second place receiver had 8 touchdowns. The mark of 17 touchdowns stood until 1984 when beaten by Mark Clayton of the Dolphins. The previous mark was 11 by Johnny Blood in 1931.
Six 100 yard receiving games
Two 200 yard receiving games – this remains a Packers record
138 points scored – a record that stood until 1960, when it was broken by the Packers’ own Paul Hornung.
33 extra points scored
It would be 50 years before another Packer player led the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in the same season (Sterling Sharpe in 1992).
Hutson also starred on defense in 1942, intercepting 7 passes; leading the Packers in this category and finishing second in the entire NFL.
Hutson was named All-NFL for the fifth straight year and not surprisingly, he was named as the league’s MVP for 1942, picking up the Joe F. Carr Trophy for the second straight year.
By the end of 1942, Hutson had 336 career receptions for 5.515 yards and 72 touchdowns – all NFL records. His 74 total touchdowns was also a record. His 524 career points was also a record. He would play for 3 more seasons, winning a third NFL title in 1944. He retired as the career record holder in every NFL receiving category.
Don Hutson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and named to the NFL’s All-Time 100 Year team in 2020.
In the wake of Don Hutson’s incredible year, it would be easy to overlook the season that Cecil Isbell had… but that shouldn’t happen. Isbell’s 1942 season was the finest by a passer in NFL history up until that point. Like Hutson’s marks, history perhaps doesn’t adequately reflect Isbell’s year – the first 2,000 yard passer the league had ever seen and the first to pass for 20+ touchdowns in a single season.
In the process, Isbell set new NFL records in 5 areas:
2,021 Passing Yards - This stood as a Packers' record until broken by Tobin Rote in 1954.
24 Passing Touchdowns – This stood as a Packers' record until broken by Lynn Dickey in 1983.
146 Passes Completed
23 consecutive games with at least 1 touchdown pass
Throwing a touchdown pass in every game of a season – Equalling his own mark from 1941
Isbell also had a passer rating of 87.0 – a mark that would stand as a Packers record until broken by Bart Starr in 1962.
Isbell won the league passing title for the second straight year – the first player in NFL history to do so. Unsurprisingly, he was named to the All-NFL team for the second straight year.
For good measure, he ranked in the top 10 in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball with 5 interceptions.
After 1942, Cecil Isbell opted to retire from pro football and went back to his alma mater Purdue and commenced a coaching career. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1972.
His pro career was short (just 5 years), but during that time he threw more touchdown passes than players who would end up in the Hall of Fame such as Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman.
The Packers didn’t win the title in 1942 but it truly was an incredible year for Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell. It was their last year playing together, but they put forth a season for the forward pass that transcended the era in which it occurred and in the process, the pair showed that the Packers continued to be the pioneers of the passing game.
Find Peter on twitter here: @The_IT_Hedgehog