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NFL – Throwback Thursday: AFL Western Division Rivalry Is Born

26 Dec

This is the seventeenth and final week of the NFL’s regular season, but for the final Throwback Thursday feature of the year we’ll go back to a game from the opening week, of the opening season, of the American Football League. The Los Angeles Chargers play the Kansas City Chiefs on this week’s schedule, and those two franchises also met on the first week of scheduled AFL games in 1960. This particular matchup was played on September 10th of that inaugural season, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Chiefs’ franchise was located in Dallas and known as the Texans. They would relocate to Kansas City in 1963 and be rechristened as the Chiefs, while in a bit of irony, the Chargers would play only that first season in L.A. before moving to San Diego, where they would stay until shuffling back to LaLa Land a couple of years ago. The two teams were led by future Hall of Fame coaches, Hank Stram of the Texans and the Chargers’ Sid Gillman. The players in this contest weren’t exactly the ones anyone would identify with these clubs as the AFL progressed through the 1960s. When the Texans opened the scoring with a 12 yard touchdown pass to Chris Burford, it wasn’t thrown by the QB most linked to Stram, Len Dawson. It was Cotton Davidson, who would have moderate success in later years with the Raiders but who isn’t a household name with Chiefs’ fans. Jack Spikes scored on a short run to give the Texans a 13-0 lead before the Chargers scored on a 46 yard pass from Jack Kemp to Ralph Anderson. Kemp would go on to lead Buffalo to a pair of AFL titles in the mid-1960s but isn’t generally associated with the Chargers, and Anderson isn’t exactly Lance Alworth when it comes to memorable Charger receivers. Davidson hit a forgotten superstar of the early AFL years, Abner Haynes, with a 17 yard TD pass to widen the Texans’ lead to 20-7. Kemp then took over the fourth quarter, scoring on a 7 yard run and hitting Howie Ferguson, another forgotten player, with the winning touchdown pass from 4 yards out to give the Chargers a hard-fought 21-20 win.

Haynes was the leading Dallas receiver on the day, grabbing 7 passes out of the backfield for 62 yards while Spikes led his team’s ground attack with 62 yards on 9 carries. Kemp threw for 275 yards and the 2 scores, and his leading receivers were the forgettable Anderson, with 103 receiving yards on 5 catches, and Royce Womble, with 7 grabs for 92 yards. The Texans would extract revenge later in the season, defeating the Chargers 17-0 in Dallas. The Chargers won the Western Division but lost to the Houston Oilers in the AFL’s inaugural title game. Haynes would go on to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award for the season. Stram and Gillman would continue to develop excellent teams throughout the ten year existence of the AFL, and the rivalry between the franchises has continued to this day.

 

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Program from Chargers/Texans inaugural AFL game

 

NFL 100 – Hank Stram

25 Dec

“Keep matriculating that ball down the field, boys!” That NFL Films video, of Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Hank Stram on the sidelines of Super Bowl IV, is a treasure for football fans who love the game’s history. No history of the NFL can be written without including Stram, the subject of our NFL 100 post today. He began his coaching career as an assistant football coach and head baseball coach at Purdue in the 1940s, and it was during his eight year stint there that he first met the future quarterback his pro football coaching success would be tied to – Len Dawson. He coached at three other schools, Southern Methodist University, Notre Dame and Miami, as an assistant during the 1950s and it was at the one-year stop at S.M.U. that he would meet a fringe Mustang player who would eventually alter his life – future American Football League founder and Kansas City Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt.

 

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Hank Stram in a Purdue yearbook photo

When Hunt founded the AFL in 1959, he placed his own franchise in Dallas and named them the Texans. Although he’d never been a head coach, Stram was hired for that job with the Texans. Stram wasn’t his first choice. He had tried to hire Bud Wilkinson and Tom Landry but was turned down by both. Of course Landry, a successful New York Giants’ assistant coach at the time, took the job as coach of the expansion NFL team in Dallas, the Cowboys, instead. Stram turned out to be a good hire, however. The Texans were immediately successful and won the AFL championship in 1962 by knocking off the Houston Oilers in overtime. The Oilers had won the league’s title in it’s first 2 seasons. Despite the success on the field, the Texans could not compete at the box office with the NFL’s Cowboys, and Hunt moved the franchise to Kansas City for the 1963 season and renamed them the Chiefs. Their success continued there, as Stram and Dawson led them to 2 more AFL titles, including a 31-7 win over Buffalo in 1966 that would earn them the right to play Green Bay in the first Super Bowl, known as the AFL/NFL Championship Game at the time. They lost that contest but won the AFL crown again in 1969 and upset the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, recording the newer league’s second straight title win, establishing once and for all that the AFL had reached parity with the older NFL. Stram’s Chiefs fell on hard times as the 1970s progressed, and he was fired in 1974. He returned to the NFL to coach the New Orleans Saints in 1976 but had no luck turning around the moribund franchise. His shining moment with the Saints came in 1976 as the team recorded their first win of the Stram coaching era there, beating his old team, the Chiefs, 27-17. He was highly successful as a color analyst on radio and CBS television broadcasts when he was through coaching, working in that capacity into the 1990s.

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The always well-dressed Stram discusses strategy with his QB, Len Dawson

Stram was deservedly enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Like many who labored in the AFL, he was an innovator who helped change the game. His Chiefs’ were the first professional team to use Gatorade on the sidelines, he introduced the “choir huddle” where his players lined up in organized lines, rather than the traditional circle. His offensive strategies included using both the I formation and the double tight end set, both used widely in the NFL today. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the game was doing intense scouting of small black colleges, where he uncovered gems like Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, Wendell Hayes, Otis Taylor and Emmitt Thomas. The pioneers who guided the AFL through the 1960s into reaching parity with the NFL are all a huge part of helping grow the game into the monster it is today, and Hank Stram belongs at the top of that list of pioneers.

 

NFL 100 – Expanded Hall of Fame Class

24 Dec

Back in 2010, Rayonsports.com published a series of 9 posts pointing out the many players who we felt were gross omissions from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since then some of those players have been voted in, but there still remains some notable men who stand out as having Hall of Fame resumes but still aren’t in. For this NFL 100 post, we’ll revisit the list of players who we feel belong in the Hall, since for their 100th season celebration the league is expanding the number of candidates to be enshrined. The Hall of Fame has listed the semifinalists for the extra class and unfortunately many of the players I felt should have been included were not. The expanded class will have 20 new members, broken down as follows: 5 modern era players, 10 senior inductees, 3 contributors and 2 coaches. Let’s start with the modern era players. Former Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu is almost a lock to be inducted in his first year of eligibility. John Lynch, former Tampa Bay safety, is a strong candidate, as is Isaac Bruce, a top receiver on the Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf” teams in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Clay Matthews, ex-Cleveland Browns’ linebacker who had a brilliant career, is a dark horse candidate but I feel he is more than deserving. My fifth and final choice is a real long shot who really should get serious consideration – former Bills’ special teamer Steve Tasker. He is in his final year of regular eligibility and truly redefined the position of “special teams maven”.

 

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Steve Tasker (89) blocks a punt in the Super Bowl

Looking at the senior candidates, even though expanding the number of players to be enshrined should help some long-overlooked men finally get in, the semifinalists named left off some that should have been considered long ago. Jim Marshall, Roman Gabriel, Maxie Baughan, Jim Plunkett, Lee Roy Jordan and Walter Johnson are all Hall-worthy players who didn’t make the semifinal list of 20. The Hall’s list includes some early era players I’m not familiar with, so my 10 players are going to be mostly guys who were in the NFL post-1950s. I’ve got 4 wide receivers on my list who I feel belong. They were called “split ends” or “flankerbacks” when they played. Three of them played in what I consider to be the Golden Age of pro football, the 1960s through the 1980s. They are former Raider Cliff Branch, ex-Eagle Harold Carmichael and Drew Pearson of the Cowboys. The fourth is an old-timer, Mac Speedie, who was a star on the dominant Cleveland teams of the 1940s and ’50s, catching passes from Otto Graham. The next 3 of my choices played on the defensive side of the ball. Alex Karras, former Detroit defensive tackle, should have been inducted long ago, but was probably hurt by his suspension for gambling in 1963. Pittsburgh safety Donnie Shell is another deserving candidate. As Jerry Kramer of the Packers was held back until last year by the large number of his Green Bay teammates already enshrined, Shell has been the victim of the numbers game when it comes to the amount of 1970s Steelers already in the Hall. He is more than deserving to go in with this senior class however. The last defensive player, and seventh overall of my senior picks, is linebacker Randy Gradishar of the Broncos. A stalwart of Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense of the 1970s, he has been long overlooked. My eighth choice is the player on the semifinalist list who is most deserving, former 49er back Roger Craig. He was a great all-around back who played a major role in San Francisco’s dominant era of the 1980s and ’90s. For my last 2 choices, I had to do some heavy research, since I knew very little about the old-timers on the list. One pick is Cecil Isbell. He quarterbacked Curley Lambeau’s Green Bay  teams of the 1930s and was a prolific passer in a run oriented era, hooking up with Hall of Famer Don Hutson. My other choice is Duke Slater, a five-time All Pro tackle in the 1920s. He played mostly for the Chicago Cardinals and was the first African American lineman to play in the NFL.

 

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Drew Pearson (88) with a “Hail Mary” reception

Moving on to the coaches, one of my 2 choices stands out like a sore thumb. Tom Flores won 2 Super Bowls as head coach of the Raiders, yet is never mentioned in the same conversation as coaches like Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson. Johnson is on the semifinalist list but he isn’t one of my picks. My second choice is Don Coryell, who never won a championship but was an offensive innovator who belongs in the Hall. Coryell was a tough choice, as Buddy Parker also deserves consideration. He coached the last Detroit Lion teams who had any success, winning 2 championships in the 1950s for that franchise. His later years in Pittsburgh were not very successful so Coryell edges him out.

Of the contributors, my main pick is the late Steve Sabol of NFL Films. Along with his father Ed, who is already enshrined, they ushered the league into the media age with their masterful images of game action, using slow motion video, the music of Sam Spence and narration from the “Voice of God”, John Facenda, to bring true drama to the game. Frank “Bucko” Kilroy and George Young are my other choices. Kilroy was a long-time executive with 4 different franchises. He also was a good enough player to be named to the All Decade team for the 1940s. In all, his career in the NFL spanned the decades from 1943 until 2007. Young was a five-time Executive of The Year, and as Director of Player Personnel in Miami and GM of the New York Giants, was a part of 3 Super Bowl-winning organizations. Two men on the list who I didn’t consider are Art Modell and Art McNally. Modell earned the wrath of Cleveland fans when he moved the Browns to Baltimore and there is already protesting among fans that the NFL is trying to “back door” him into the Hall against the wishes of Cleveland, and other, fans. McNally was a long-time official who probably should be considered for enshrinement but my view is that officials should have their own place of “honor” outside of Canton, like maybe in the zoo with the other zebras.

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Steve and Ed Sabol of NFL Films

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Walking The Walk?

19 Dec

The Detroit Lions take on the Denver Broncos this week in the penultimate game for the NFL teams. For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, we’ll travel back to a strange time in pro football’s history, the 1967 preseason. This is the second time we’ve featured a game from that year that was just an exhibition contest, but was really much more. On October 28, 2015 we highlighted a game between the Chiefs and Bears from that same preseason. To set up the story we need to remind people who didn’t witness that period of what it was all about. It was 1967, the start of the first season following Green Bay’s demolition of Kansas City in the first AFL/NFL Championship game, which would later become the Super Bowl. It was also the first time, according to the terms of the merger of the 2 leagues, that teams from the rival leagues were allowed to play exhibition games against each other. In prior years the preseason would be a time when players came into training camp from the second jobs they held in order to survive and used the time to get back into football shape. This preseason was going to be drastically different. The NFL had long stated that their upstart rivals were “a Mickey Mouse operation” and a vastly inferior product made up of players who couldn’t cut it in the older, established league. The AFL clubs felt they had advanced to the point where they could compete with the older league, Green Bay’s championship dominance not withstanding. Packer coach Vince Lombardi had added fuel to the fire when he stated in an interview following that first Super Bowl that although he thought that Kansas City was a fine club, that there were numerous teams in the NFL that were better.

In this particular exhibition game, played on August 5, 1967, there was quite a bit of skepticism about the upstart AFL among Lions’ players. The Broncos, for one thing, were the absolute worst of all the teams in the new league, having never posted a winning record. Also, Denver had opened the ’67 preseason with an embarrassing 19-2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, an expansion team in the previous season. Detroit’s outspoken defensive lineman, Alex Karras, openly laughed at the prospect of facing the downtrodden Broncos, and before this game boasted that if his team lost to the Broncos he would walk home from Denver. The Broncos banded together and played an outstanding game. Their defense stymied the Lions’ attack, while their offense managed a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. A key play happened in the third quarter when Denver punter Bob Scarpitto faked a kick and ran for a first down, extending a drive that ended with aging fullback Cookie Gilchrist plunging into the end zone from a yard out to open up the lead to 10-0. The Lions came back to score in the fourth quarter on a Milt Plum touchdown pass but Denver added a field goal and hung on for a shocking 13-7 victory. Detroit coach Joe Schmidt handled the defeat with class, praising the Broncos’ effort and desire and adding that the new league was on par with the NFL. Although some Lion players expressed disbelief in the result, Karras didn’t have much to say after the loss. He just put his tail between his legs and quietly took the team flight back to Detroit. As for the AFL/NFL preseason competition that year, the older league wound up dominating, winning 13 of 16 contests. Two of the AFL’s 3 wins were recorded by the lowly Broncos.

 

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Lions vs. Broncos action from 1967 preseason

 

NFL 100 – The College Draft

18 Dec

How does the National Football League maintain it’s position as the most popular sport in the country? One of the main reasons is the parity developed through the use of the yearly draft of college talent. This NFL 100 feature will explore the evolution of this process over the years. The first draft wasn’t held until 1936, and prior to that it was chaos when it came to player procurement. Players would hold out and sign with the highest bidder, and there was even a case where Steelers’ owner Art Rooney, with his team having no chance to play in the postseason, gave the New York Giants permission to use 2 of his players. The Boston Redskins protested the move and the league commissioner at the time, Joe Carr, disallowed it. After that incident, the waiver claim rule that exists today was put into place. Eventually, Philadelphia Eagles’ owner, and future commissioner Bert Bell proposed the idea of the annual draft to make acquiring talent more fair to each team. His idea was unanimously accepted by the owners and the first draft took place in 1936. The first player ever selected, Jay Berwanger, never played in the NFL. At the time college football was considered a superior game to the pros, and many players saw it as a step down to turn pro. The Eagles had drafted Berwanger and traded his rights to the Chicago Bears when they couldn’t sign him. Bears’ owner George Halas was also unsuccessful in signing him, and Berwanger took a job with a rubber company. Only 24 of the 81 players drafted in that first year of selecting chose to play in the NFL.

 

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Hall of Famer Joe Stydahar, Bears’ first pick in the ’36 draft

Giants’ owner Wellington Mara could be considered the father of modern day scouting, as he subscribed to magazines and out-of-town newspapers to collect information on players across the country. In a sad anecdote to the selecton process, the best player of 1939 was unequivocally Kenny Washington, but when word spread that he was African-American, no team selected him in the 1940 draft. The first actual scout was Eddie Kotal, who was hired in 1946 by the Los Angeles Rams. Coincidentally, the Rams signed Washington, and his UCLA teammate Woody Strode, in ’46. Scouting became the norm for all teams if they wanted to stay competitive, but the draft itself didn’t garner much attention. In 1960, with the inception of the AFL bringing competition, the NFL put a lot more emphasis on the process, since the teams would have to bid against clubs from the new league for players. When the leagues agreed to a merger in 1966 part of the agreement, and a very important part, was the creation of a “common draft” in which the competing leagues would draft as one unit, ending the bidding wars for talent. Commissioner Pete Rozelle would oversee the selections using a blackboard, and in 1970, when the merger was completed and the teams officially merged into one NFL, he graduated to a white board.

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Pete Rozelle presides over the 1970 NFL draft

In 1980, the brand new cable network, ESPN, was looking for content to fill their air time, and the network’s president, Chet Simmons, approached Rozelle with the idea of televising the selection process. Although the commissioner thought it would be boring television viewing, he agreed. The draft didn’t do very well on TV until 1988, when it was moved from the middle of the week to the weekend. Suddenly, a new cottage industry of “draftniks” emerged, people like Joel Buchbaum and Mel Kiper, who provided advanced scouting information on the college prospects for the television viewers and through publications. The selection process has grown into a must-see monster of a production today, spread out over three days with the opening round on Thursday night. That opening round is treated as if it were a Hollywood award show, with a red carpet pre-draft show and drama created over every selection. Combined with free agency, the combine and it’s own NFL Network, the draft is just another example of how popular the NFL has become in this modern age, becoming the true national pastime not only during it’s actual season but it’s entire offseason as well.

 

 

NFL 100 – Don Hutson

17 Dec

In today’s NFL, wide receivers are putting up unprecedented numbers for receptions and yardage with such a heavy emphasis on the passing game. Today’s NFL 100 subject is a player who thrived in the passing game in an era that was mostly the old fashioned “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of play. He is Don Hutson, Green Bay Packers’ split end in the Curley Lambeau dynasty days of the 1930s and 1940s. His numbers pale in comparison with the 100+ catch seasons that the best receivers are putting up today, but even with his more pedestrian statistics some of the numbers stand out. When he retired after the 1945 season, Hutson owned 23 different NFL records, 13 of which he still holds. His best season came in 1942 when he caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 17 receiving TDs still ranks tied for 5th on the all time single season list. He averaged 24.9 yards per reception in 1939, an amazing total for that era. His 99 career receiving touchdowns rank 11th on the all time list, but he and Steve Largent are the only players in the top 12 who didn’t play in the pass-happy 1990s/2000s. Coach Lambeau’s Packers relied heavily on their passing attack, with quarterback Arnie Herber and later Cecil Isbell hooking up with Hutson and Johnny “Blood” McNally, with Hutson being the main weapon. As with most players of his era, Hutson excelled on both sides of the ball. He played safety on defense, led the NFL in interceptions in 1940 and had 30 career picks. He also served as the team’s placekicker, and stayed on as an assistant coach for Green Bay for 5 seasons after retiring as a player.

 

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Don Hutson snares a pass for the Packers

Take a look at his 11 year career resume and it’s easy to see that he stacks up as one of the greatest players in NFL history, despite playing in a long forgotten era: Three-time NFL champion, eight-time All Pro, two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, nine-time season leader in receiving touchdowns, eight-time single season receptions leader, seven-time receiving yards leader, NFL All Decade Team for the 1930s, Packer Hall of Fame and jersey # 14 retired, NFL’s 75th Anniversary team, member of Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 1963, and recently named one of 24 wide receiver finalists for the NFL’s 100th season All Time team. He is almost certain to be chosen as one of the 10 players for that honor. For his contribution to the modern passing game alone, Hutson is without a doubt one of the game’s true pioneers.

 

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Don Hutson’s eye black game rivals today’s players

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: A Big Red Ambush

12 Dec

It’s week 15 on the NFL schedule, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to the mid-1960s for a match between 2 teams that play on this week’s schedule, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals were based in St. Louis back then, and the Browns were still toiling in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where this game was played. It was September 26, 1965, the second game of that season for both clubs. The Browns, of course, were coming off a championship they had captured the previous year in 1964, while the Redbirds had finished second behind the Browns in the Eastern Conference. St. Louis had a bit of a chip on it’s shoulder as it had finished 9-3-2 in ’64 to Cleveland’s 10-3-1, but had tied and beaten the Browns in their 2 head-to-head meetings. The Browns were quarterbacked by Frank Ryan, who had become a local hero by leading the team to the title the previous year, while the Cardinals’ signal caller was an interesting and underrated player of that era, Charley Johnson. Johnson was an intelligent man, a total opposite of the Neanderthal stereotype players had back then. He worked on his academic pursuits while simultaneously playing in the NFL, earning masters and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering.

As far as this game went, Johnson hit Willis Crenshaw for a 78 yard touchdown to open the scoring in the first quarter in what was an omen of things to come. Cleveland got a field goal from Lou “The Toe” Groza and a 13 yard Ryan to Gary Collins TD pass to take a 10-7 lead, but the rest of the second quarter belonged to Johnson and the Cardinal offense. In what was a career performance, Johnson led his club to four touchdowns before halftime, including 3 scoring passes. He hit Sonny Randle twice for touchdowns and hooked up with Bobby Joe Conrad for another, with Bill Triplett rushing for the other TD. The onslaught left the Cardinals with a 35-10 lead at the half. Cleveland managed another Groza three-pointer to start the second half, but Johnson was red hot on this day and continued the massacre. By the time the third quarter was over, he hit Randle again and Billy Gambrell for touchdowns to run his passing TD total to 6, one short of the NFL record for a single game. With the game well in hand, Johnson didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter.

In what was typical of the style of play of the time, Johnson’s 6 touchdown throws came from a total of only 11 completions on the day, in 19 attempts. Randle caught 7 of those for 198 yards and his 3 touchdowns. The Cardinal defense was no slouch in this game either. Jim Brown got his 100 yards, 110 to be exact, but the Big Red defense intercepted Ryan and his replacement, Jim Ninowski, 6 times. The 49-13 rout wasn’t indicative of how either team’s fortunes would go in the remainder of the 1965 season. Although they got revenge on this day, the Cards would win 4 of their first 5 games, then collapse to finish 5-9, second from the bottom in the conference. Cleveland rebounded to win the East again and advance to another championship game, losing on a muddy field to the Green Bay Packers.

 

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Charley Johnson calls the signals for the Cardinals

 

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.

 

holmestoetap

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