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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Shootout At The Vet

19 Sep

With the Philadelphia Eagles taking on the Detroit Lions on this week’s NFL schedule, Throwback Thursday will travel back to a wild card playoff game between these 2 teams played on December 30, 1995 at Philly’s Veteran’s Stadium. The game was a shootout for the ages, but not in the usual way. There wasn’t the usual back-and-forth excitement that comes along with high scoring affairs, and with the hometown Eagles winning by a 3 touchdown margin 58-37, you could classify this game as a blowout shootout. The 1995 season marked the end of quarterback Randall Cunningham’s tenure with the Eagles, and for this game he was relegated to the bench as Rodney Peete, a former Lion, took the reins. Detroit’s starting QB, Scott Mitchell, was benched during the game after an ineffective start, and was replaced by Don Majkowski, a veteran who had earned the nickname “The Majik Man” for his exploits early in his career with the Green Bay Packers. The Eagles had extra motivation going into the game as Detroit offensive tackle Lomas Brown had guaranteed that his club would win. And for the first two and a half quarters, Philly took no prisoners. Peete fired 3 touchdown passes, Rickey Watters scored a pair of touchdowns, Fred Barnett hauled in 8 passes for 109 yards and a TD and the Eagle defense intercepted Mitchell 4 times to open up a resounding 51-7 lead. The Lions stubbornly single-covered Barnett and Peete repeatedly made them pay.

 

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QB Rodney Peete barks out signals

At that point the Lions turned to the Majik Man, and he definitely gave them a spark. He led four touchdown drives, finishing 3 of them with TD passes. He re-discovered a sleeping weapon, wide receiver Herman Moore, with one of those scoring throws covering 68 yards to the big Lion wideout. Moore wound up with 7 catches for 133 yards in the game. Majkowski pulled his team to within 51-21. Unfortunately, Detroit could never get their most potent weapon, running back Barry Sanders, going at all in this game. The huge deficit and a swarming Eagle defense pretty much negated any rushing attack. The score also forced Majkowski into exclusively passing, and eventually the one-dimensional attack caught up with him. He added 2 more interceptions late in the game, including a 30 yard pick six by Eagle safety  William Thomas that sealed the win. The Lions didn’t pack it in, however. Majkowski engineered 2 more scoring drives after which the Lions had successful two point conversions to bring the final score to 58-37. It stood as the highest scoring playoff game in NFL history until 2009, when Arizona defeated Green Bay 51-45 in overtime.

 

NFL 100 – The Safety Blitz

18 Sep

Just as important as players, coaches, contributors and others are to the 100 years of NFL football, strategies developed over the years are key to the development of the modern game. The T-formation, forward pass, the 4-3 defensive alignment and the shotgun formation have all been a part of the game’s evolving history. Another tactic that came to be in the 1960s and is still used to this day is the safety blitz. “Blitzing” had been a term used to identify when a defense rushed more than the usual four defensive line players on a passing play. Mainly, the extra player sent was a linebacker and the tactic was called a “red dog”. That tactic was used in the late 1950s in the NFL. In 1960, a little known defensive assistant with the St. Louis Cardinals, Chuck Drulis,  devised the safety blitz, with one of the safeties being sent on the rush instead of, or along with, a linebacker. The design didn’t work very well at first, since the Cardinals didn’t have a defensive back athletic enough to make it successful. But in 1961 the Cardinals drafted a cornerback from Utah named Larry Wilson, who was a great athlete. Drulis convinced the head coach, Pop Ivy, to convert Wilson to safety and the safety blitz was born to become a standard part of NFL defenses. The Cardinals called their version of the new blitz the “Wildcat”, and that became Wilson’s nickname. (The “Wildcat” is nowadays widely known as an offensive formation.) Wilson went on to use the safety blitz, among his other skills, to turn his NFL career into a Hall of Fame one. He is regarded in many circles as the greatest Cardinal player of all time, or at least the greatest of their St. Louis era.

 

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Hall of Fame safety Larry “Wildcat” Wilson

Meanwhile, over in the fledgling American Football League, the offenses were entertaining fans with a wide open style of play, as Houston’s George Blanda, San Diego’s John Hadl and the Chiefs’ Len Dawson were filling the air with bombs and piling up the points. In Buffalo, the head coach was a former defensive player, Lou Saban, and the Bills went against the grain, building a top-notch defense. Saban’s top defensive assistant was a mild mannered, bespectacled and cerebral man named Joel Collier. He incorporated the Cardinals’ safety blitzing into the Bills’ defense and his safety, George Saimes, became known as the AFL’s master of the tactic. It didn’t hurt that he was one of the league’s ablest open field tacklers. Collier, by the way, went on to become a major innovator in the NFL. In later years in Denver he is widely accepted as the inventor of the 3-4 defensive alignment. In today’s game, the safety blitz is just another part of every team’s defensive strategy. Teams nowadays send players from everywhere. Linebackers still are the main blitzers, but the safety blitz and cornerback blitz are a standard part of the game, as dropping huge defensive linemen into pass coverage has also become commonplace. The athleticism of today’s players has evolved to the point where defensive coordinators can devise strategies that make quarterbacks and offensive coaches shudder.

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George Saimes(26) blitzes Joe Namath

 

NFL 100 – Alex Karras

17 Sep

Over the 100 years of the National Football League’s existence there have been many memorable characters who have graced the playing fields across the league, and also have had an impact on society after their playing days. Some have done heroic things on the battlefields of war, some have gone on to become Supreme Court justices or Congressional representatives or vice presidential candidates. Then there are those who simply used their post-football lives to entertain us. Alex Karras is one of those. His football career was a stellar one. He played 12 seasons for the Detroit Lions and was a six time All Pro and a member of the NFL’s All Decade team for the 1960s. He is one of those players who is inexplicably absent from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His credentials say he should be in the Hall, but it’s possible that a one year suspension he received in 1963 for “gambling and associating with known gamblers and hoodlums” may be what has kept him out. That argument loses weight, hwever, when you consider that Green Bay’s Paul Hornung, who was suspended along with Karras, is a Hall of Famer. Before his football career, Karras had been a pro wrestler, and during his suspension he returned to wrestling to make a living for the year.

 

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Alex Karras harasses Redskins’ Sonny Jurgensen

When he returned to the Lions in 1964, Karras was one of the team captains and when an official once asked him to call the pregame coin toss, he replied, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m not permitted to gamble.” During his playing days, he was not only a great player but a source of entertainment for his teammates with his outlandish storytelling. The NFL and the upstart American Football League had just agreed to a merger in 1966, and the Packers defeated Kansas City in the first Super Bowl, so the NFL was feeling pretty superior at the time. The Lions were scheduled to meet the AFL’s Denver Broncos in the 1967 preseason, and a cocky Karras proclaimed that if his team lost to the Broncos, one of the upstart league’s worst franchises, he would walk home from Denver. The Broncos surprisingly won the game, and Karras backtracked and flew home with the team. His oddball personality was on display again when the Lions were featured in the movie Paper Lion starring Alan Alda as writer George Plimpton, with Karras and other Lions playing themselves. He parlayed his zany personality into a successful acting career after his playing days ended in 1970. He made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and had numerous guest parts on television shows. He went on to enjoy a career in movies, with his most memorable role being the character Mongo in the Mel Brooks Western comedy Blazing Saddles where he knocked out a horse with one punch.

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Mongo knocks out a horse

He also appeared in Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria, Porky’s and the TV movie Babe where he played the husband of famous female athlete Babe Didrickson Zaharias. In 1974 he joined Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell as an analyst on Monday Night Football, and held that role for 3 seasons. He also starred with his wife, Susan Clark, in the television series Webster, playing the adoptive parents of Emmanuel Lewis’ character. In his later years, Karras was out of the spotlight, suffering from serious health issues including dementia, heart disease and cancer. He was one of 3,500 former NFL players who filed a lawsuit in 2012 against the NFL over physical damage caused by untreated concussions and repeated blows to the head. He died of kidney failure on October 10, 2012. Although he is one of many NFL players of bygone eras who sacrificed a lot to grow the game into what it is today, he is also one who will not soon be forgotten.

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Karras with the Monday Night Football crew

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Joe Cool Burns The Bengals

12 Sep

It’s week 2 of the 2019 NFL regular season, and one of the games on the slate for the weekend is a matchup of the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. For this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, we’ll go back to a game played between these 2 teams on January 22, 1989 at what was then Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium. It wasn’t just any other game, it was Super Bowl XXIII, and it was the second matchup of these teams in the big game in the decade. In an era when the Super Bowls were becoming one-sided affairs, this one bucked the trend. It took awhile for any drama to find it’s way into the game, however, as the teams spent the first two and a half quarters trading field goals, with the Bengals’ Jim Breech and the Niners’ Mike Cofer each kicking a pair of three pointers. However, after Cofer’s second one tied the game at 6-6, the logjam was broken in a hurry when Cinci’s Stanford Jennings returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. The fourth quarter, as usual, belonged to San Francisco QB Joe Montana. He tied the game by leading a drive that culminated in a 14 yard scoring pass to the game’s eventual MVP, Jerry Rice. Rice earned that honor by hauling in 11 of Montana’s passes for 215 yards and the TD.

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Jerry Rice torches the Bengals’ secondary

After Breech kicked another field goal to put the Bengals back in front 16-13, Montana led a game-winning drive that is legendary for how it began. There were only 3 minutes left in the game, a penalty pushed his team back to the 8 yard line to start the drive, and this is how his center, Randy Cross, described what happened next. As the 49er players stood in their huddle waiting for play to resume during a commercial, did their quarterback look nervous or did he ponder what plays would need to be called to drive down the field and at least tie the game? No, instead, “Joe Cool”, as he was known to his teammates, surveyed the crowd and said “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?” Sure enough, the Canadian comedian was in the crowd, but that reaction assured Cross and the rest of the offense that Montana was in control and surely was poised to do something special. Of course, he did. He didn’t just tie the game, he led another long drive featuring a lot of throws to Rice,  then ended it with a 10 yard touchdown pass to the team’s other wide receiver, John Taylor, with just 34 seconds left on the clock. It was Taylor’s only reception of the game, giving the Niners a 20-16 victory. It was San Francisco’s third Super Bowl title of the four Montana would win.

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John Candy

 

NFL 100 – Hardy Brown

11 Sep

When it comes time to list the greatest players in the 100 year history of the National Football League, Hardy Brown is hardly a name anyone would think of. But he is legendary among the players who helped build the game in the wild and wooly days of the 1950s, when player safety was an afterthought and an “anything goes” attitude was prevalent. The grainy footage of games played in that era contains Saturday night games played with a white football and tackles well out of bounds with players being driven into the benches of opposing teams and roughed up when they landed.

 

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White football used in NFL night games in the 1950s

Hardy’s style of play epitomized that era, and he had a reputation across the league, and even on his own team, for knocking players cold with a tackle that involved him hitting an opponent with a flick of his right shoulder. Five of his 10 years as an undersized linebacker were played with the San Francisco 49ers, and the team’s archrivals, the Los Angeles Rams, were regular recipients of his hard hits. They once offered any player on their team a $500 bounty if they could knock Brown out of the game. The Rams’ future Hall of Fame quarterback, Bob Waterfield, was once hit by a car, and afterwards he jokingly responded “I didn’t know Hardy Brown was in town”. His own coach threw him out of practice a number of times for injuring his teammates. His bone-jarring shoulder hits were so effective that he once had his shoulder pads checked before a game by the officials to see if there was a metal plate or some other object hidden under them. His former 49er teammate, Y.A. Tittle, credited him with at least 20 K.O.’s during his time in San Francisco.

Hardy Brown was one of the NFL’s toughest characters for certain, and that toughness was forged by a hard life preceding his pro football days. He witnessed the murder of his father at age 4 and then was put into an orphanage, where he learned to play football. Later he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, where he served in World War II. He spent his later years after football in a mental institution, and died in 1991, suffering from dementia and ironically, from severe arthritis in the same shoulder he had used to deliver his knockout blows as a player. On paper, his career appears to be that of a forgotten journeyman. He played on 7 different teams in his 10 year career and was one of only two players to play in the All America Conference, the NFL and the American Football League (he came out of retirement after a 3 year absence to play one season with the Denver Broncos in 1960). But he did make it to a single Pro Bowl in 1952 and when NFL Network listed the top 10 “Most Feared Tacklers of All Time” he was number 5 on the list.

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Hardy Brown about to unload on Browns’ QB Otto Graham

 

NFL 100 – Lamar Hunt

10 Sep

The National Football League as we know it today would not be the juggernaut that it is without the contributions of the men known as “The Foolish Club”, the owners who defied the established NFL and formed the upstart American Football League in 1960. And the AFL likely would never have gotten off the ground, or merged with the NFL in later years, without the stewardship of Lamar Hunt. The son of a wealthy Texas oil man, Hunt tried to convince the NFL to allow him to put a team in Dallas, and also attempted to buy the Chicago Cardinals with the intention of moving them to Dallas, but was rebuffed on both accounts. Determined to own his own pro football team, Hunt convinced a group of other millionaires, some of whom were also unsuccessful in buying NFL teams, to form a new pro football league. So, in 1959, the new eight team American Football League was born, to begin play in 1960. Hunt’s club would be located in Dallas and be known as the Texans. The new league had planned to put franchises in Minnesota and St. Louis also, but the established NFL torpedoed those efforts, and Hunt’s Texans’ team, by putting expansion teams in Dallas (to begin play in 1960 as the Cowboys) and Minnesota (to start in 1961 as the Vikings). Despite earlier refusing, the league allowed the Bidwell family to move the Cardinals from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960 to corner that market.

The new league persevered despite the setbacks. Unable to compete with the NFL’s Cowboys, Hunt relocated his franchise to Kansas City, where they were renamed the Chiefs, and the Minnesota franchise was replaced by Oakland. The AFL grew in popularity over the decade and with pro football gaining a major audience in America, they were able to land a television contract that put them on a near equal level with the older league, allowing the newer league’s teams to compete for top players. Hunt was the point man for the AFL in the secret merger talks between the leagues. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle mediated the talks between Hunt and the NFL’s representative, Cowboys’ executive Tex Schramm. Included in the merger of the leagues was an agreement to play an annual championship game that is what we now know as the biggest sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl. The “Super Bowl” name was coined by Hunt. He thought of it when he noticed his kids playing with a popular toy of the 1960s, the Super Ball. Hunt’s team, the Chiefs, defeated Buffalo in the AFL title game to earn the right to play in the first AFL-NFL championship.

 

superballThe Super Ball, by Wham-O, made of Zectron, which I’m sure is totally safe 

As an owner, Hunt was savvy enough to hire a future Hall of Fame coach, Hank Stram, to lead his team. Stram won an AFL title in 1962 while the franchise was still in Dallas,  and got the Chiefs into 2 of the first 4 Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl IV against Minnesota in the last true AFL/NFL matchup, as the 2 leagues merged formally to form the AFC and NFC Conferences the next year. Hunt was the first person associated with the AFL to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1972, and after his death in 2006 a bronze statue honoring him was erected at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. In another honor bestowed upon him, the winner of the AFC Championship game each year is awarded the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

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AFL founder Lamar Hunt

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Packers Are Derailed

05 Sep

The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, two of the NFL’s oldest franchises who will have the honor of kicking off the league’s 100th season this week, will appropriately also be the featured teams for our initial Throwback Thursday post for 2019. The game between these 2 rivals won’t go the full 100 years into the past, but rather to the opening week of the 1963 season, at Green Bay’s City Stadium, which would later be named in honor of Packer great Curly Lambeau. It was September 15 of that year, which nowadays would be considered a late date to start the season, but there were only 14 games on the schedule, with no byes, at the time. Green Bay was coming off back-to-back NFL championships but had received bad news in April. Their star halfback, Paul Hornung, was suspended by commissioner Pete Rozelle, along with Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras, for “betting on league games and associating with gamblers and known hoodlums”. Taking on the Bears’ “Monsters of The Midway” defense was a huge task in itself but the loss of Hornung put coach Vince Lombardi’s troops at a major disadvantage. Of course, the Packer defense was of championship quality also, and they battled tooth and nail all day to keep their team in the game.

Chicago’s defense swarmed the Pack all day. They held their opponents to 150 yards of total offense for the game, intercepting Bart Starr 4 times and forcing 5 turnovers in all, keying on the other Green Bay runner, fullback Jim Taylor, to limit the Packers to 77 yards on the ground. With Hornung out, guard Jerry Kramer took over the placekicking duties for Green Bay and supplied them with their only points, a 41 yard field goal, in a 10-3 defensive struggle defeat. There were little to no big plays in the game. In fact, the only touchdown came on a one yard plunge by Joe Marconi of the Bears in the third quarter. Chicago took the momentum from this hard fought win over the defending champions and rode it all the way to the NFL title that year, winning the title game using the same defensive strategy in defeating the New York Giants 14-10. Despite the loss of their premier player in Hornung, Lombardi’s squad still pulled together and gave the Bears a run for their money in the Western Conference race, finishing at 11-2-1 compared to the Bears at 11-1-2. The difference in the standings was the 2 wins Chicago managed over the Packers, the only time George “Papa Bear” Halas, Chicago’s owner and coach, ever got the better of his long time friend and rival.

 

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Coach Halas and the Bears celebrate the big win

 

NFL 100 – Jim Brown

04 Sep

He played only 9 seasons in the NFL, but what an impactful 9 seasons they were. I’m talking about our next NFL 100 subject, former Cleveland Browns’ back Jim Brown. After a record-breaking college career at Syracuse, where he starred in both football and lacrosse (and reportedly was better at lacrosse than football), Brown was drafted by the Browns for the 1957 season. He won NFL Rookie of The Year that season and proceeded to 1.) lead the league in rushing 8 of his 9 seasons 2.) be named first or second team All Pro in all 9 seasons 3.) become the only player in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game for his career and 4.) be named NFL Most Valuable Player 3 times. Brown’s combination of size, speed and toughness were almost unheard of in the era he played, and it could be argued that he is one of just a handful of former players from earlier days who could play with the much larger, more athletic players of today. In fact, in 1983, Sports Illustrated did a story on the possibility of Brown making a comeback at age 47 with the Los Angeles Raiders, with the legend claiming he could dominate the players of the day even at his advanced age.

 

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A Jim Brown comeback at 47? It didn’t actually happen but nobody doubted that it could’ve

Another amazing fact about Brown’s career, and a major difference between the game of the 1960s and today, is that he actually played fullback. That position is all but forgotten in today’s game, or at best considered a blocking back spot. There are 6 players considered to be true fullbacks in the Hall of Fame, the most recent being Larry Csonka, whose career ended in 1979. Brown was both charismatic and controversial as a player, but above all he was his own man. He was at odds with his coach, NFL legend Paul Brown, at times due to Paul Brown’s rigid coaching style, and reportedly was behind a player revolt that got the coach fired prior to the 1963 season. Determined to prove his team could win without that rigid coaching, Jim Brown led the Browns to the NFL championship in 1964, still the most recent title the Browns have won. There was a story that during his playing days Brown brought a brief case into the locker room and when reporters asked him what it was for, he replied “I’m a businessman.” He was ridiculed in the press for that remark, with football players mainly being considered Neanderthals at the time, but Brown wasn’t kidding around. He became involved, along with other black athletes at the time like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in the Civil Rights movement. He also became involved in movies. He was in a movie during his playing days called Rio Conchos, and in early 1966 was filming the movie The Dirty Dozen in London. Bad weather delayed the filming to the point that Brown would have to miss some of training camp, which angered owner Art Modell. When Modell threatened to fine his star fullback $1,500 a day for his absence, Brown abruptly announced his retirement from the game. He claimed the decision was easy, since he was making more money doing movies than playing in the NFL. He was in quite a few successful films, including Ice Station Zebra and 100 Rifles, where he actually had top billing over Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch.

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Jim Brown in The Dirty Dozen

Jim Brown is still my favorite football player of all time, a childhood hero of many who grew up in the 1960s. He is still regularly named the greatest player of all time by various surveys over 50 years after his playing days ended. There’s an argument to be made for the likes of Jerry Rice and Tom Brady but for overall impact to the sport, Jim Brown tops my list of greatest players in the NFL’s 100 year history.

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Another day at the office for Jim Brown

 

NFL 100 – George “Papa Bear” Halas

03 Sep

The National Football League is celebrating it’s 100th season in 2019, and Rayonsports.com, in addition to our annual weekly Throwback Thursday features each week, will publish articles, as many as 3 per week, highlighting topics and people that played important roles in developing the game that has grown into America’s Game, the true national pastime. This week, the opening week of the season, the NFL chose perhaps the 2 most iconic franchises, and long time rivals in the league, to open it’s historic season – the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Our initial “NFL 100” post will therefore feature the father of pro football, Bears’ founder, owner and coach George “Papa Bear” Halas. Halas’ daughter, Virginia McCaskey, is still the Bears’ principal owner to this day, and the Halas family name dates back to the origins of the pro football league.

 

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At Hays’ dealership, you could buy a 1920 Hupmobile, or a pro football franchise

The legendary story of the founding of the NFL will be told many times by many media outlets during this 100th season. It all started with a meeting of representatives of various barnstorming football clubs of the era, who played in different regional leagues with different rules, at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. The dealership was owned by Ralph Hays, who also owned the highly successful Canton Bulldogs football club. In a pair of meetings held at the dealership in August and September of 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed. It would later evolve into what is now the National Football League. One of the 11 teams that was part of the newly formed professional league was the Decatur Staleys, and their founder and owner was Halas. After a hip injury ended a brief pro baseball career (17 games as a New York Yankee outfielder), he joined the Staleys as a player/coach. He moved the club to Chicago in 1921 and after baseball’s Chicago Cubs agreed to let the gridiron team use Wrigley Field as its’ home stadium, Halas changed his team’s name to the Bears as a tribute. To say this man was a giant of the game is an understatement. He was Bears’ owner for 63 years, and their coach for 40 of those years, winning 8 championships. He won his last title in 1963, and was a member of the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class in 1963 also, even though the Hall generally has a 5 year waiting period for eligibility. Halas passed away in 1983, but gave the Chicago franchise one last gift in 1982 when he made a controversial hire to be the team’s next head coach – former Bear tight end Mike Ditka. Ditka turned out to be the right man for the job as he guided the 1985 “Super Bowl Shuffle” Bears to the Super Bowl championship, the team’s first title since Halas’ last in ’63.

Halas’ name is forever etched in NFL lore, as the National Conference champion each year is awarded the George Halas Trophy. Also, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton is located on George Halas Drive.

 

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George Halas, NFL legend

 

NFL – How The Cleveland Browns Saved Pro Football

01 Feb

The beginning of the growth of the National Football League into the popularity monster that it is today goes back to the 1960s and the birth of the AFL/NFL Championship game, orchestrated by the league’s commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle. A true visionary, he refereed the battle between the old guard NFL owners and the renegade AFL owners, and out of the battle came the merger of the 2 leagues. The agreement spelled out that beginning immediately the rival leagues would hold a common draft of college players, thus ending the bidding war for players that had been going on. Another of the stipulations was that also beginning immediately, the champions of the 2 leagues would play an ultimate title game to decide who was the “world champion”. The merger agreement was made in 1966, but the actual merger itself didn’t begin until 1970. At that time, there were 16 NFL teams and 10 AFL, so 3 of the old guard clubs had to be transferred into the new American Conference. The Pittsburgh Steelers, longtime NFL doormats who perhaps saw an opportunity for more success among the AFL clubs, volunteered to go. Two franchises that had joined the NFL from another league, the old All America Conference, were natural clubs to make the move  – the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns. Browns’ owner Art Modell balked at the idea, however, but eventually agreed when Rozelle promised him that his team could host the inaugural Monday Night Football game in that first merger season of 1970.

It wasn’t Modell’s agreement to shift that saved pro football though. It was the Browns team of the late ’60s that had a hand in moving the game forward, in a very weird way in fact. The Browns were a proud, winning franchise in the NFL since joining the league in 1950, and were regular participants in the playoffs most of the decade of the 1960s. In fact, they were in the NFL title game the last 2 seasons before the leagues joined together in 1970. That’s where their contribution to saving the NFL comes in to play. The NFL had always boasted that they were the superior league, and that the AFL was a “Mickey Mouse” league full of castoff players who couldn’t make it in the older league. When the Green Bay Packers dominated the best the AFL had to offer in the first 2 AFL/NFL Championship games, doubt began to creep in on whether the merger was a good idea. The NFL owners’ “Mickey Mouse” comments were appearing to be true, that is, until Joe Namath’s New York Jets and the Hank Stram-led Kansas City Chiefs won the next 2 title contests in what were considered to be massive upsets. Those games gave the AFL a bit of legitimacy, but were they really that great of upsets? Part of the reason the Colts team that Namath beat, and the Minnesota Vikings squad that the Chiefs dominated were considered powerhouses was because they had manhandled the proud Browns franchise in the NFL title games. The Colts shut the Browns out 37-0, and coach Don Shula’s defense was expected to totally crush what was considered to be an inferior Jets’ team in the Super Bowl. The next season, Bud Grant’s Vikings, with CFL reject Joe Kapp at quarterback, completely demolished the Browns in the title game. The final score was only 27-7 but the Vikings controlled play the entire game on a bitter cold day in Minnesota.

So even though the Colts and Vikings had very successful seasons on their way to those Super Bowls, it was their dominance of the Browns that established them as heavy favorites against their supposedly weaker AFL competition. Realistically, though, the Cleveland franchise was in the beginning stages of a gradual decline at that point. Jim Brown, considered the greatest player of all time, had long since retired. LeRoy Kelly had replaced him and was a very good back, a future Hall of Famer in fact, but he wasn’t Jim Brown. More importantly, the quarterback who had guided the Browns to the 1964 title, Frank Ryan, was also gone, forced to retire due to injuries. His replacement, Bill Nelsen, was a gamer who played through injuries and was enough of a leader to get his club into the playoffs, but he wasn’t an elite signal caller. The Browns’ offensive line was aging at the time also, and their defense was a mixture of aging players and  inexperienced rookies and young players. So, in a strange way, credit is due to the Browns for making the Colts and Vikings appear to be unbeatable behemoths, who would easily crush, as Vince Lombardi’s Packers had, their AFL opponents. What those Baltimore and Minnesota clubs didn’t realize was that the AFL was already in its’ ninth and tenth years of existence, and the Jets and Chiefs had been built into true championship contenders.

 

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Browns’ QB Bill Nelsen (Getty Images)