Look here, there’s a halfback! I tend to discount to a large extent what single-wing tailbacks did when looking at PG because the running totals (which usually dwarf the passing totals) heavily skew in their favor. But for Cecil Isbell and Arnie Herber, I make an exception.
The reason for this is very simple. Neither one was a “true” single-wing tailback. What I mean is this. In the single wing, the tailback is the catalyst in everything. He normally would receive the snap, he would do most of the running, and he would do most of the passing, which normally wasn’t much.
For example, Dutch Clark of Detroit led the NFL in PG in 1934 with over 71 points, far ahead of second-place Herber who had 48. Herber threw 115 passes to lead the league, Clark had 50. Clark also threw three interceptions and not a single touchdown. The fact that Clark was the prototype tailback (763 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns) while Herber was almost entirely a passer (33 rushing yards, 0 touchdowns) bears this out.
What it means is that I had to do a lot of research to find exactly who was a tailback in the single wing, double wing, triple wing, and so on. It’s fairly boring, actually. I enjoy the power running game as much as anyone does, but it’s sometimes hard to believe that anyone ever scored a touchdown in that game.
What makes Cecil Isbell noteworthy is one thing, and that is that he is one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to play in a game with a last name beginning with the letter “I”. Okay, seriously, what makes Isbell noteworthy is that he played just five seasons before retiring at the top of his game. The reason given was that he didn’t want to stick around too long.
Isbell and Herber did have a unique set of plays when they were teammates in the same backfield. Herber is in Canton for his passing ability (and Isbell could be), so Curly Lambeau exploited this. He would put both back there and the snap would go to one, who would run around and wait for the other to get open before throwing a pass to him. It worked better for Herber to Isbell since Herber was getting on in age when Isbell came in (not that he had been terribly mobile to begin with). But the defense couldn’t stack the line and shut this down, because when they would commit to that, the next pass would go to Don Hutson way downfield.
Isbell’s 1941 and 1942 seasons are among the greatest ever, although I discount the 1942 one slightly because of the thin talent level due to war. But in 1941, when the average passer was accounting for 6.122 points per game (and 67.34 per 11-game season), Isbell accounted for over 12 points per game and 121 points overall in 10 games. This put him an amazing 98.99% over average.
In 1942, Isbell was over 117% better than average and 62% better than second-place Sammy Baugh. Again, I discount this one slightly due to the war, but Isbell still had 24 touchdown passes and 2021 yards passing (497 yards and 8 touchdowns ahead of Baugh, who was second in both). When I say I discount this, I mean I don’t use it to say that Isbell had the greatest single season in history. It was a terrific one, but over 200 NFL players had enlisted by the time the 1942 season rolled around.
The only knock on Isbell is his extremely short career. While his contemporaries Luckman, Baugh, and Herber played far longer, Isbell had just those five seasons to go on. Considering the team’s success during that span (three titles) and his own dominance, it would have been amazing to see what he would have done with another 5-10 years.
What made his career all the more amazing is that Isbell had a shoulder that would not stay properly in joint, a problem that began in his college days at Purdue. Today, when a player dislocates a shoulder and continues playing, it’s not uncommon to see a band of surgical tubing snaked through the jersey and around the affected arm. No such thing was widely used, so Isbell had a chain over his arm his entire career (the whole time with both Purdue and Green Bay).
After retiring, Isbell took to coaching at his alma mater for three years before taking over the AAFC’s Baltimore Colts in 1947. You may have heard of a young quarterback that he worked with and developed, a guy named Y.A. Tittle.
The question of whether Isbell belongs in the Hall of Fame should be obvious. He is tied for 10 th all-time in the production points with Fran Tarkenton and Sid Luckman and is tied for 19 th all-time in overall points. I’ll point out again that he did this in a 54-game career that lasted just five seasons. His overall points/season is the second-highest in history (15.099; Isbell and one other player have scored higher than 12.0 per season).