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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL 100 – Walter Payton

10 Dec

Our subject for today’s NFL 100 feature was known as “Sweetness”. He is the late, great Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton. He came out of Jackson State as a high first round draft pick and was an immediate success, being named to the Pro Bowl in his second season in 1976, and then winning Pro Bowl MVP. He followed that up by winning the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1977. In a memorable game that year he rushed for 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, despite having a 101 degree fever and the flu, breaking O.J. Simpson’s previous mark of 273 yards. Payton’s individual rushing success didn’t translate into wins for the Bears until they hired the fiery Mike Ditka as head coach in 1982. Payton continued to thrive under Ditka, and the Bears began to win consistently. “Sweetness” broke the career rushing record of 12,312 yards by Jim Brown in 1984. Emmitt Smith eventually took over the top career rushing yards spot, but Payton is firmly entrenched at #2. The Bears reached the top of the mountain in 1985 when they won the Super Bowl in convincing fashion, 46-10, over the New England Patriots. Ditka has said that one of his biggest regrets was that he didn’t allow Payton to score a touchdown in that game. (William “The Refrigerator” Perry DID score a TD).

 

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“Sweetness” soars over the pile for a touchdown

Ditka has been quoted as saying that Payton was not only the greatest player he ever coached, but also the greatest human being. His abilities on the field were unmatched. Not only was he one of the greatest runners of all time but also excelled as a receiver and blocker. He threw for 8 career touchdowns on halfback option passes. He was an all around football player. His list of accolades is long: Super Bowl winner, nine-time Pro Bowler, NFL MVP and Man of The Year, member of the NFL’s All Decade Teams for both the 1970s and 1980s, and named to the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary teams. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Unfortunately, Payton became gravely ill, suffering from a rare liver disease, and died at the young age of 45 in 1999. He spent the last months of his life advocating for organ donation. His family has kept his memory alive through a charitable foundation that supports causes such as Christmas toy donations to underprivileged children , organ donation and fighting cancer. He is also remembered in the football world with 2 awards named for him. The NCAA gives the “Walter Payton Award” to the best offensive player in Division I-FCS and the NFL hands out the “Walter Payton Man of The Year Award”, honoring a player each year for his play and community service. That award is considered the most prestigious honor a player can receive among the players themselves.

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The Walter Payton Man of The Year Award

 

NFL 100 – Paul Brown

09 Dec

He is the architect of the modern game of pro football, a true innovator who introduced many things into the game that are commonplace today. Our NFL 100 honored man today is Paul Brown, founder and head coach of the Cleveland Browns franchise in the All America Conference in the 1940s. His Cleveland teams won the AAFC Championship in all 4 seasons of the league’s existence, and when that league folded and they merged with the NFL, they proceeded to upset the Los Angeles Rams to capture the established league’s title. Brown’s innovations were both plentiful and ahead of their time. He invented the draw play, introduced classroom training and film study, and was the first to hire a full staff of assistant coaches. Also, he invented the first face mask, the practice squad, was instrumental in breaking football’s color barrier and was the first to call plays from the sideline to his quarterback through the use of “messenger guards”. He was also a tremendous innovator when it came to a franchise being organized and professional. He developed pass patterns that were designed to take advantage of weaknesses in a defense, held strictly timed practice sessions that included on-field practice and classroom study. He is credited with being the first coach to create the “passer’s pocket”, where the offensive line was strategically positioned to give the quarterback more time to find open receivers. He put together an organized system within the administration for scouting college talent, emphasizing the need to find intelligent players who could absorb his play book.

 

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Paul Brown, classroom instructor

Brown’s organized ways would eventually lead to his undoing in Cleveland. He was not only organized but very strict and rigid in dealing with players. He was terse, would humiliate players in film sessions when they made mistakes, didn’t allow drinking or smoking and had a rule that prohibited players from having sex after Tuesday each week during the season. He was a miser when it came to negotiating contracts, and even refused to cede any authority to team owner Art Modell. By 1962 both Modell and the players had become disenchanted with Brown’s refusal to change with the times, and following the 1962 season Modell fired him and elevated Blanton Collier to the head coaching position. Collier wound up winning an NFL title in 1964, so Brown’s removal was vindicated. He missed being out of the game, however, so when the opportunity to build another team from scratch became available when the AFL decided to put an expansion franchise in Cincinnati, Brown became its’ founder. His stubborn ways still came out, though. He originally didn’t want to be involved in the Bengals’ franchise because they were to be part of the AFL, what he considered an inferior product. The merger with the 2 leagues meant that eventually the Cincinnati team would be in the newly structured NFL, so Brown came on board. It’s pretty much accepted that Brown chose almost exactly the same color orange as the Browns’ color for the Bengals as a tweak towards Modell. In the early years after the merger, when the two franchises became division rivals, it was hard to discern which team was which when they played each other. The innovations continued in Cincinnati. When star quarterback Greg Cook was injured, the Bengals turned to their backup, Virgil Carter, to lead the team. Carter’s arm strength was limited, so Brown and assistant coach Bill Walsh developed a short passing attack that would become the “West Coast” offense Walsh would use to great success years later with the San Francisco 49ers. Brown retired from coaching in 1975 but remained the Bengals’ team president, a role his son Mike took over, and still holds, upon Brown’s death in 1991. The legendary coach and innovator was honored with an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

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Paul Brown and protégé Bill Walsh

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Santonio Holmes’ Shining Moment

05 Dec

This week’s Throwback Thursday feature will harken back to one of the most exciting Super Bowl games ever played. With the Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, we’ll go back to February 1, 2009 when these two franchises met in the Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. The coaching matchup was between the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Cards’ Ken Whisenhunt, who had been Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator. Like many other championship games, this contest started out as a feeling out process between teams relatively unfamiliar with each other, and the only scoring in the opening quarter was a short Jeff Reed field goal for the Steelers, who then expanded their lead to 10-0 early in the next stanza on a 1 yard run by Gary Russell. Arizona QB Kurt Warner kept his team close by leading a drive that cut the lead to 10-7 when he hit Ben Patrick from a yard out for a score. Warner, who had been a Cinderella story years earlier when he led the St. Louis Rams to an improbable championship, was in the process of driving his club to a go-ahead score when a game-changing play happened on the last play of the half. Steeler linebacker James Harrison intercepted a Warner pass at the goal line and returned it 100 yards to paydirt to give his team a 17-7 lead and serious momentum.

Reed kicked another field goal for the only scoring of the third quarter and at 20-7 it appeared that the Steelers were well on their way to their sixth Super Bowl victory. It didn’t turn out to be easy, however, as a couple of future Hall of Famers teamed up to make it a game. Warner finished another drive with a one yard TD toss to Larry Fitzgerald. Then, after the Steelers were called for holding in the end zone, resulting in a safety to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 20-16, Warner and Fitzgerald went to work once more. The Cardinal signal caller found his favorite target on a pass over the middle, and Fitzgerald split the Steeler secondary and raced to a spectacular 64 yard touchdown to put his team ahead 23-20. With only a little over 2 minutes left to play, the Steelers found themselves behind for the first time in the game, needing a final drive to at least tie the contest and send it into overtime. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been basically a game manager in his team’s Super Bowl win in his rookie year, now had to be the main man to snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat. While Roethlisberger and his coaches plotted out a path to the end zone, another Steeler, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, was urging on his offensive teammates on the sideline and boldly stating that these were the moments when players truly proved their greatness. Roethlisberger did his job, marching the team downfield. Rather than go for the tie, Big Ben tossed a pass to the back corner of the end zone where Holmes extended his arms and did an amazing toe tap to stay in bounds, catching the winning touchdown throw of 6 yards to give Pittsburgh a 27-23 win. Holmes, who would struggle in his career with the Steelers and later the New York Jets and never match his feats achieved in this game, was named the game’s MVP. He had totaled 131 yards on 9 catches and scored the winning touchdown. It was another bittersweet loss for Warner, who had also lost as a Ram to New England on a late field goal years earlier. One of the highlights of this particular Super Bowl was the halftime show, put on by Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band. They performed “Working On A Dream” and “Glory Days”, which may have summed up the NFL career of one Santonio Holmes.

 

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Santonio Holmes (10) toe-taps the Steelers to a Super Bowl win

 

 

 

NFL 100 – Charley Trippi

03 Dec

His name isn’t well known among younger fans of pro football, but the subject of our NFL 100 post today is one of the greats of all time. Playing in an era when rosters were small and there wasn’t the specialization that there is today, Trippi was more than the usual “triple threat” type of player common at the time. He was a “quintuple threat” who could run, pass, catch, punt and play defense. Drafted by the old Chicago Cardinals in 1945 as a “future” pick, Trippi joined the team in 1947, spurning offers from the All America Conference’s New York Yankees and professional baseball to sign with the Cards. He was an immediate success, leading the Cardinals to the 1947 NFL championship. He played mostly as a running back but over his career also played quarterback, defensive back, punter and kick returner. Trippi had been a star in college at Georgia, but like many men at the time his football playing was interrupted by service in the military. Chicago had drafted him with the agreement that he would finish his college career before joining the pros. When he finally joined the team, he completed their “Dream Backfield” along with Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Marshall Goldberg, with Elmer Angsman joining at a later date. The Cardinals won the Western Division title in ’47 and defeated Philadelphia in the championship game with Trippi making the biggest contribution. Wearing basketball shoes on an icy field, he totaled 206 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns on a 44 yard run and a 75 yard punt return.

 

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Charley Trippi racks up yardage

His playing career lasted 9 years. After playing left halfback for his first 4 seasons he moved to quarterback in 1951, then moved back to halfback and later to defensive back, basically doing whatever his team needed him to do. His final season was in 1955, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. In the preseason he was injured while being tackled and suffered a smashed nose, concussion and a protruding bone behind his eye that gave him double vision. He played only 5 games that season and it was the least productive year of his career. His overall play ranked among the best of his generation however, as he was twice named All Pro, twice played in the Pro Bowl, was named to the NFL’s All Decade team for the 1940s and won championships in both college and the NFL. The Cardinal franchise is one the league’s originals, and even being in existence for all 100 years, Trippi is arguably the greatest player in team history. He also served the franchise as an assistant coach from 1957 until 1965, when they were in St. Louis. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, and at 97 is the oldest living member of the Hall, and also the oldest living former number one overall draft choice.

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Trippi, 97, the oldest living Hall of Fame member

 

NFL 100 – Joe Greene

02 Dec

In the title for this NFL 100 feature we purposely omitted the nickname of the player, which is “Mean” Joe Greene. It’s a nickname that’s appropriate for his play on the field, but Greene was never fond of it. He felt that it didn’t reflect his true personality. He lamented after his playing days ended that he would be remembered as being mean, or dirty, rather than how he wished to be remembered-as a player who played 13 years and contributed to winning 4 championships, and who set a standard for other players to strive to reach. We can certainly agree with that assessment. Greene, whose given name isn’t even Joe, it’s Charles Edward Greene, picked up the nickname in college at North Texas State, where the team’s defense picked up the nickname “Mean Green” for it’s stingy play. When Chuck Noll took over as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach in 1969, his first draft choice, fourth overall in the first round, was Greene. It wasn’t a popular pick among Steeler fans, who wanted a flashy player to help turn around what was a losing team at the time. Instead they got a little known defensive player from a small school.

Greene changed a lot of minds in a hurry in his first year in the pros. Despite the Steelers continuing their losing ways with a 1-13 record, Greene was a standout, being named Defensive Rookie of The Year and also being chosen to play in the Pro Bowl. It took a couple more years, and some outstanding drafts, to build the Pittsburgh franchise into what Noll was hoping for, but Greene continued his stellar play, eventually being the cornerstone of what would become the “Steel Curtain” defensive unit that dominated the 1970s and led to four Super Bowl wins. Greene insisted that the team had 10 other players who were All Pro caliber on that defense and that he was just another piece of an outstanding unit, but the fact is that over his career, he was rewarded many times over for his individual play. After winning the Defensive Rookie of The Year award, he followed that up by winning Defensive Player of The Year twice, becoming the first player in history to win the award multiple times. He was an eight-time All Pro, a ten-time Pro Bowler, won the NFL Man of The Year Award in 1979, and was chosen for the NFL’s All Decade team for the 1970s, the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and most recently, the league’s 100th Anniversary team. Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

 

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Mean Joe Greene about to make life miserable for Roger Staubach

Perhaps to somewhat soften his image as “Mean Joe”, Greene made a commercial for Coca Cola during his playing days that saw him limping down the tunnel into the locker room as a small boy offers him his Coke. Greene snarls a little but then accepts the gift, drinking the whole bottle, then tosses his jersey to the boy. It was a poignant ad that is still remembered today, one of the classic sports commercials of all time. Greene’s contributions to the game continued after his playing days ended. He spent 16 years as an assistant coach with the Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals, and worked in player personnel for the Steelers until retiring from the franchise’s front office in 2013. He was married for 47 years before his wife passed away in 2015, and has 3 children and 7 grandchildren, who only know him as “Papa Joe”. Surely his days of being “Mean Joe” are a distant memory now, but Greene deserves to be remembered in NFL annals as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.

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“Mean Joe” Greene’s Coca Cola commercial

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Packer Dynasty Begins

28 Nov

This week’s Throwback Thursday feature was easy to identify when a matchup of the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants appeared on the NFL schedule. We’ll travel back to New Year’s Eve of 1961 when these two clubs met for the league championship at Green Bay’s New City Stadium, which would be renamed Lambeau Field at a later date. The frigid 17 degree day made it a classic “Frozen Tundra” type of game that Green Bay would be known for. Flashing back a year to the 1960 title game, the Packers had lost a heartbreaker to the Philadelphia Eagles and in the postgame locker room Packer coach Vince Lombardi, who felt he had cost the team with some dubious decisions, stated to his players that “this will never happen to us again.” The Packers made sure this edict would come true as they soundly defeated the Giants 37-0. Both teams seemed to use the first quarter to shake off their nerves, as normally reliable receivers Kyle Rote of the Giants and Green Bay’s Max McGee both dropped long passes. The quarter ended scoreless but the Pack, behind future Hall of Fame backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, drove the ball inside the Giants’ red zone as time expired. Hornung began the second stanza by scoring on a six yard run to open the scoring. The Giants then came unraveled on their next 2 drives, which ended on Y.A. Tittle interceptions. Bart Starr made the New Yorkers pay for both turnovers, first finding flanker Boyd Dowler for a 13 yard touchdown and then hitting tight end Ron Kramer for a 14 yard score. The Giants then replaced Tittle at quarterback with aging veteran Charley Conerly, who drove the team downfield but couldn’t cash in any points. With their final possession of the half, the Packers used the running of Hornung and a long pass from Starr to Kramer to set up a short Hornung field goal to open up a commanding 24-0 lead.

The second half was an exercise in more futility for the Giants. A fumbled punt led to another Hornung field goal while Starr engineered another long drive that ended with another TD pass to Ron Kramer, stretching the Green Bay lead to 34-0. The Giants went back to Tittle at quarterback in the fourth quarter but his luck didn’t change. The Packers picked him off 2 more times, giving him 4 interceptions on the day. The only scoring of the final quarter was another Hornung field goal. His 19 points scored earned him the game’s Most Valuable Player award, and a shiny new 1962 Chevrolet Corvette. It was just another typical performance from the “Golden Boy”. He had totaled an amazing 176 points for the previous year in 1960, which was a 12 game season. That record stood until LaDainian Tomlinson broke it in a 16 game season in 2006. The convincing victory ushered in a dominant era of football that would see Lombardi’s club win a total of 5 championships in 7 years, earning Green Bay the moniker of “Titletown USA”.

 

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Packer defense smothers Tittle (14) in 1961 title game

 

NFL 100 – Teams of The Decades

27 Nov

It’s been a regular practice in the long history of the National Football League to crown the “Team of The Decade” for each ten year period of the league’s existence. With it’s celebration of the 100th season this year, there’s no better time to rate those teams than now, as the tenth decade of play closes out soon. We might as well start this feature by crowning the New England Patriots as the team of both the 2000s and the 2010s, the “Team of The New Millenium” if you will. They have dominated pro football for almost 20 years and have won 6 Super Bowls since 2000, 3 in each decade. With coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady showing no signs of slowing down, there’s no telling how much further into the millennium they will continue to own the NFL.

Going back to the league’s origins in the 1920s, the NFL actually didn’t stage a championship game at the end of each season, instead just considering whichever team was best in the regular season as the champ. By that standard, the Canton Bulldogs would have to be considered the team of the 1920s. They had the best record, and were therefore crowned champions, in 1922 and 1923. In 1924 the team was purchased by Sam Deutsch, who owned the NFL’s Cleveland Indians franchise. He took the Canton players and their name and they became the Cleveland Bulldogs, and had the best record for a third straight year to claim another title. In 1929, the NFL’s best team was the Green Bay Packers. They would go on to become the “Team of The Decade” for the 1930s, winning 4 more championships in that decade under Curley Lambeau. The Chicago Bears and New York Giants made a case for consideration with a pair of titles each, but the Packers were clearly the dominant franchise. The Bears, under league co-founder George “Papa Bear” Halas, overtook Green Bay in the next decade, winning 4 championships in the 1940s. It was in this dominant decade that the Bears earned their “Monsters of The Midway” nickname.

 

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Halas, 1940s Bears, including a Bear mascot, celebrate a title

The 1950s are the most difficult decade to pick a dominant team from. The Cleveland Browns are generally considered to be the “Team of The Decade” for that era, as they appeared in 7 consecutive title games after being absorbed into the NFL from the All America Football Conference in 1950. Paul Brown’s teams won 3 of those games, behind the quarterback play of the great Otto Graham. However, the Detroit Lions could stake a legitimate claim to the title also. With swashbuckling quarterback Bobby Layne leading the way, they won 3 championships in the decade too, and all 3 wins were over the Browns. The Baltimore Colts, with emerging star John Unitas,  ended the decade with back-to-back championship game wins in 1958 and ’59, with the ’59 sudden death overtime win over the New York Giants being considered “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. There’s no argument over who was the “Team of The Decade” for the 1960s. It was the era of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. He transformed the moribund Packer franchise into winners in the late ’50s and they qualified for the title game in 1960, only to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles. He told his team in the locker room afterwards that “this will never happen to us again” and was true to his word. The Packers, with legendary players like Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson, Forrest Gregg and Ray Nitschke, won 5 championships over the next 7 years, including wins in the first 2 Super Bowls. Lombardi was such a powerful, dominant figure of the era that when he passed away of cancer in 1970, the Super Bowl trophy was named in his honor.

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1960s Packers, from left-Hornung, Taylor, Starr, coach Lombardi (Sports Illustrated photo)

Entering the 1970s, it looked like Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins would dominate the decade as they appeared in 3 straight Super Bowls, winning 2 of them including a perfect 17-0 season in 1972. However, Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers stole their thunder the rest of the decade, claiming a total of 4 championships in a 6 year span. Those teams won with their “Steel Curtain” defense, some hard running from Franco Harris and a passing attack engineered by Terry Bradshaw and a pair of Hall of Fame receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. In the 1980s, the Washington Redskins and the Raiders, playing in Oakland and then relocating to Los Angeles, won a pair of Super Bowls each, but neither could match the mastery of the San Francisco 49ers, easily the “Team of The Decade”. Behind the genius of coach Bill Walsh and the confident play of quarterback Joe Montana, the Niners won 4 titles, the last one with George Siefert as coach. Walsh’s “West Coast” offense was the force that drove those teams, with Montana spreading the ball around to Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and others, but their defense was also strong, led by players like Ronnie Lott, Keena Turner and Fred Dean.

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The late Bill Walsh, architect of the “Team of The Decade” for the 1980s

Finally, the 1990s brought back into prominence a team that had been a force for over 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s, the Dallas Cowboys. After the man who built the franchise into a powerhouse, Tom Landry, was fired, Jimmy Johnson took the reins and guided the Cowboys to a pair of championships in the ’90s. Johnson left the club but when Barry Switzer led them to a third Super Bowl win in 1995, they became the dominant team of the era and earned the crown as the “Team of The Decade” for the 1990s. The Buffalo Bills accomplished a feat still unmatched when they qualified for four consecutive Super Bowls, but losing all 4 removed them from the conversation as the best of the decade, especially since 2 of the title game losses were to the Cowboys.

 

NFL 100 – Joe Montana

25 Nov

He fell to the third round of the NFL draft in 1979 because he didn’t have a very strong arm and his measurables weren’t up to par with other available quarterbacks that year, but it was this player, Joe Montana, who built a resume that makes him a top candidate as the greatest signal caller of all time. “Joe Cool”, as he became known to his San Francisco 49er teammates, is the subject of our NFL 100 post today. During his college career at Notre Dame he showed flashes of his ability to perform well in high pressure situations. He didn’t become the starting quarterback until part way through his junior season, but prior to that had come off the bench to lead the Irish to comeback wins. His final collegiate game should have gotten noticed by NFL scouts, as he led Notre Dame to a win in the Cotton Bowl against Houston. Playing in frigid conditions, Montana developed hypothermia and left the game at halftime with his team trailing 20-12. He stayed in the locker room and the team medical staff gave him intravenous fluids, covered him in blankets and famously fed him chicken soup. When he returned to play, the Irish had fallen behind 34-12. Montana led a furious comeback and won the game 35-34, in what would be dubbed “The Chicken Soup Game”.

 

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Joe Montana at Notre Dame

Despite his heroics at Notre Dame, pro scouts were not impressed with Montana at draft time. He lasted until the end of the third round, with 3 other QBs being picked ahead of him, and with the 82nd choice of the draft, San Francisco’s Bill Walsh finally grabbed him. Walsh and Montana formed a union that would transform the 49er franchise. They became a model organization, winning 4 Super Bowls, (3 under Walsh, 1 under George Siefert) while Montana was the field general. He won multiple league MVP awards, was an eight-time Pro Bowler and became the first player to win the Super Bowl MVP Award 3 times. His heroics in the biggest games were the trademark of his career. Besides having a perfect 4-0 record in Super Bowls, he also threw for 11 touchdowns in those games and was never intercepted. He led the 49ers to some remarkable victories in some of the NFL’s most memorable games, including a late drive in the 1981 NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys when he hit Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone on a play that went down in NFL annals as “The Catch”, and a 92 yard drive in the final 36 seconds in Super Bowl XXIII to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals. Montana’s career heroics earned him a first ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, and even though Tom Brady has since surpassed him in Super Bowl wins, “Joe Cool” is still considered by many to be the most clutch NFL player of all time.

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Joe Montana in a familiar pose, signaling a touchdown

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Jets Upset The Champs

21 Nov

The New York Jets and Oakland Raiders clash this weekend on the NFL’s schedule, and we’ll travel back to a game played between these 2 former AFL rivals on December 29, 1968 for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature. The headline of this post, “Jets Upset The Champs”, was probably more fitting to be used a couple of weeks later after this game, when the Jets stunned the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl, but it actually also applies to this game. It was the AFL’s title game between the defending league champion Raiders and the upstart Jets. The Jets actually entered the game as slight favorites, which seemed odd since Oakland was the defending AFL champion and had defeated the Jets six weeks earlier in the regular season in the famous “Heidi” game. One possible reason might have been that the Raiders had finished tied with Kansas City for the Western Division title and had to play a playoff game with the Chiefs a week earlier to decide who played the Jets for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The game on this day was to be played in cold, windy weather at New York’s Shea Stadium. The quarterbacks, Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica and the Jets’ Joe Namath, struggled with the passing game all day. Both completed less than 50% of their passes. Namath opened the scoring by finding his favorite target, flanker Don Maynard, on a 14 yard pass to give the Jets an early 7-0 lead. Lamonica countered with a 29 yard TD strike to Fred Biletnikoff and the teams traded field goals, with a pair each coming from the Raiders’ George Blanda and New York’s Jim Turner, to forge a 13-13 tie in the third quarter. Namath then found his tight end, Pete Lammons, for a score while Blanda added another Oakland three-pointer, so New York had a 20-16 lead at that point. The Raiders intercepted Namath and took advantage of it by driving to a go-ahead touchdown run of 5 yards by Pete Banaszak. Namath rebounded by leading a 68 yard drive culminating in another short scoring pass to Maynard, and the Jet defense kept Oakland off the board the rest of the game, allowing New York to escape with a hard-earned 27-23 victory. Maynard was the star of the day, grabbing 6 passes for 118 yards and the 2 scores, but Namath’s other top receiver, George Sauer, would contribute 70 yards on 7 catches, and the Jets’ rushing attack, a two-headed monster of Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer, chipped in with 122 hard-earned yards on the ground. Biletnikoff stood out in the losing cause for Oakland, with 7 catches for 190 yards and a TD, while speedster Warren Wells notched another 83 yards on 3 grabs. The two teams gained a combined 843 yards of total offense on the day, a pretty amazing accomplishment in the blustery conditions.

 

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Namath (12) throws over Ben Davidson (83 in white) to an awaiting George Sauer (83)

 

NFL 100 – Tom Landry

20 Nov

In this year’s celebration of the NFL’s 100th season we’ve highlighted many iconic figures from the league’s history, with many more still to come. Today we showcase the life of an extraordinary man who built, from scratch, the team that became known as “America’s Team”, the Dallas Cowboys. That man is Tom Landry, whose stoic look on the sideline of Cowboy games wearing his trademark fedora was well known from the team’s inception in 1960 until he was unceremoniously dumped by Jerry Jones in 1989. Jones had purchased the franchise and wanted to hire his old college teammate, Jimmy Johnson, as coach. His move turned out to be the right one, as the Cowboys had declined in the 1980s and Johnson wound up leading the team to a pair of Super Bowl wins. Nevertheless, Landry’s legacy was cemented despite the lack of respect he received from Jones. He had built the Cowboys into a model franchise, with an organization that exemplified class and put winning above all else. His team rose from an expansion club in 1960 to a playoff contender by 1966, when they ran off a streak of 7 division titles in an 8 year span. From ’66 until 1985 the Cowboys were a playoff team 18 times, and won 2 Super Bowls in 5 appearances. Landry’s story begins before his Dallas days. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War II in honor of his brother, who had been killed in a plane crash while serving. He became a bomber co-pilot and between November of 1944 and April of 1945 completed a combat tour of 30 missions, which included a crash landing in Belgium when his plane ran out of fuel.

 

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1st Lieutenant Tom Landry, US Army Air Corps

As a player, Landry was with the New York Yankees of the AAFC for a season, then joined the NFL’s New York Giants as a defensive back in 1950. He played until 1955, but also was a player/coach in 1954 and ’55, before becoming a full-time member of the Giants’ coaching staff in 1956, holding the position that today would be considered the defensive coordinator. The Giants’ top offensive coach at the time was Vince Lombardi. It was in the job of lead defensive coach with the Giants that Landry’s reputation as an innovator took root. He is credited with inventing the 4-3 defensive alignment that is prevalent in today’s game, with Hall of Famer Sam Huff playing the critical middle linebacker role. Landry’s Giant defensive units were one of the NFL’s best from ’56 to ’59 when he was coordinator, leading to his being hired as the first head coach in Dallas Cowboy history when they entered the league in 1960. Among his innovations in his 29 seasons in Dallas were the invention of the “Flex” defense, which involved players on the defensive line flexing to different positions depending on where they thought the play was headed. That defense was reliant on “gap control”, in which the players were assigned to cover a gap along the line of scrimmage. That philosophy is widespread in the modern game. Although his background was on the defensive side of the ball, Landry’s teams also were innovative on offense. He dusted off the “shotgun” formation which had been used in earlier years but became dormant as defenses began to learn how to counter it, and also implemented the use of multiple shifting and motion to confuse opponents. He was the first to employ a strength and conditioning coach, and to begin assigning assistant coaches to specific positions. The Cowboys were the first team to use a quality control coach, who specialized in studying upcoming opponents on film and did self-scouting of the Cowboys themselves. Of course, innovations only work if a team is winning, and the Cowboys did plenty of that during Landry’s tenure. He was a winning coach and a tremendous organizer, building the Cowboy brand into the widely-known “America’s Team”, a label they proudly embrace today. Landry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990, taking his rightful place among other gridiron giants of the 20th century.

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Tom Landry, always dapper on the Cowboys’ sideline