Mark Lee might be the contemporary poster boy for Packers standouts who flew under the radar.
In 11 seasons with the team, he intercepted 31 passes, the third most by any cornerback in team history. And yet he never made an all-pro team or was selected to a Pro Bowl.
The two cornerbacks ahead of him on the all-time list, Herb Adderley and Charles Woodson, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lee had to wait 26 years after he retired as a player to be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
He was so unsung that it wasn’t until after his seventh season, that he intercepted nine passes, one short of Famer Ronnie Lott, and also one short of the Packers’ single-season record set by Irv Comp in 1943.
In the eyes of coach Forrest Gregg, who played with Adderley for 10 years, including nine in Green Bay, Lee’s performance that season was deserving of league-wide recognition, despite the Packers’ 4-12 record.
“He was steady as a rock all year long and he was the one guy – if you asked me who played well enough to win every week … defensively overall – Mark Lee might be the guy,” said Gregg.
“I really felt it would mean a Pro Bowl performance for him. Unfortunately, it did not work out. When a team doesn’t win, a lot of times that doesn’t happen.”
Drafted in the second round in 1980, Lee suffered a hamstring injury while being tested in the 40-yard dash on the opening day of training camp and backed up starting corners Estus Hood and Mike McCoy until the final game when he replaced an injured Hood as the starter at left corner.
Thereafter, the starting job was Lee’s for 10 years. He didn’t start the first two games in strike-shortened 1982 because of an ankle injury.
In 1985, he missed two games with a hamstring injury; then three years later, he missed one with a groin injury.
In 1989, Lee sat out four of the first six games and played only in sub packages in two others because of a knee injury that he sustained in the preseason opener. Otherwise, his durability was among his many attributes.
Admittedly, part of Lee’s lack of recognition was due to his own inconsistency as a playmaker and tackler. Fifteen of his 31 interceptions came in two seasons: 1981 and ’86.
In four others, he intercepted only one pass. On one hand, Dick Jauron, Packers defensive backfield coach from 1986-94, said before Lee’s final season in Green Bay: “Mark also has tremendous physical toughness.
He cannot only play against the pass, but he can go out there and really put the wood to people in the running game.” On the other hand, when Ken Riley, Cincinnati’s all-time interception leader with 65, took over as Packers defensive backfield coach in 1984, he said based on his film review, “Last year Mark was the poorest tackler on the team.
He ducked his head.” In contrast, a year later, Riley said he’d give Lee better than passing grades for his run support.
In truth, Lee had years where he anticipated and reacted to the ball better than others, dropped fewer potential interceptions and paid closer attention to his techniques as a tackler.
Like all players, he also had his strengths and weaknesses. Physically, his best assets were his speed – he was once credited with running a 4.44 40-yard dash – and his quick reactions.
As for his pass coverage, Lee was better suited to playing man-to-man than zone. Simply put, in man, he’d physically challenge receivers from the snap to the whistle.
“The finest bump-and-run corner in the league … he can cover any receiver in the league one-on-one,” Jauron also said before Lee’s final season in Green Bay.
Lee’s biggest interceptions came in a 1982 playoff loss to Dallas, when his 22-yard return for a touchdown cut the Cowboys’ lead to four points in the fourth quarter, but the Packers didn’t capitalize on the opportunity and lost 37-26.
Lee also returned punts and kickoffs his first two seasons, duties highlighted by the NFL’s longest punt return in 1981: a 94-yard touchdown against the New York Giants. It also was the second longest return in Packers history at that point, one yard short of the record.
Overall, Lee played in 157 of 165 possible games with the Packers before he was cut at the end of training camp in 1991.
A little more than eight months after defensive coordinator Hank Bullough had said that his 11-year veteran had another Pro Bowl caliber season despite a 6-10 finish.
Signed by San Francisco before the third game, Lee started four games for the 49ers before being waived on Nov. 30. He was claimed by New Orleans and started two more games for the Saints in his final NFL stop.