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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL 100 – Slingin’ Sammy Baugh

19 Nov

Last week for one of our NFL 100 features we went back to the league’s roots in the 1920s to highlight Red Grange, an early gridiron star. This week, we’ll travel back again to the leather helmet era, but not quite as far, as we feature a player who began his pro career in 1937 and played into the early 1950s, Sammy Baugh. His contribution was instrumental in the development of the modern game, as he is widely recognized as the player who perfected the art of the forward pass. As the quarterback of the Washington Redskins from ’37 until 1952, he earned the nickname “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh as he set passing records and was consistently ranked among the top quarterbacks. Technically, he was lined up as a tailback or halfback in the Redskins’ offensive backfield formation for the first few seasons, but made his name with his passing prowess and later became the quarterback as the position evolved. He led the Redskins to championships in 1937 and 1942, and led the league in pass completion percentage 8 times, while also being named an All Pro 8 times. He was NFL Player of The Year in 1947 and ’48. In an era where players commonly played both ways, he was no slouch either. He was the team’s punter and also played defensive back. He led the league in punting 5 times and still holds the NFL record for yards per punt average (51.4), a mark he set in 1940. As a defensive back, he had 31 career interceptions and the led the league in that category in 1943 with 11.

 

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Slingin’ Sammy Baugh looks for an open receiver

Baugh was somewhat of an enigma in the era he played in that was mostly known for featuring the ground game almost entirely with his passing prowess. He pretty much ushered the NFL into the modern era with his successful use of the forward pass, but as stated above, he was a complete football player. Besides being a prolific passer, punter and defender, opponents praised his ability as a runner also. In 1943 he had a season that no other player in history could match as he led the NFL in passing, punting yardage and interceptions. In his rookie year of 1937 he led Washington to the NFL Championship game against the powerhouse Chicago Bears and threw for 335 yards and 4 touchdowns to guide his club to a 28-21 victory. The 335 yards passing in a playoff game was a record that stood until 2012 when Seattle’s Russell Wilson finally broke it. Another memorable day for Baugh came in 1947 when the team declared it “Sammy Baugh Day” in his honor, with the Washington, D.C. Touchdown Club presenting him a new station wagon. He promptly owned the day, lighting up the Chicago Cardinals for 355 yards passing and 6 touchdowns. Baugh retired after the 1952 season and was rightly included in the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class in 1963. He resurfaced as a coach, first for 4 years in college in the late 1950s and then as the first head coach of the New York Titans when the American Football League was born in 1960. He only lasted 2 seasons but was hired for the same job with the Houston Oilers in 1964, with limited success in both spots.

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Hall of Famer Slingin’ Sammy Baugh

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Jinx Is Ended

14 Nov

The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins clash on this week’s NFL schedule, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to opening day of the 1980 NFL season for a memorable game between these 2 AFC East rivals. It was September 7, 1980, and was the beginning of the third year of Buffalo’s rebuild under coach Chuck Knox. Knox had done the unthinkable – trading Bills’ legend O.J. Simpson away and replacing him with a rookie back named Joe Cribbs. He also stocked the Bills’ roster with former players he was familiar with from his days coaching the Los Angeles Rams, like Isiah Robertson, Ron Jessie and Bill Simpson. This game was the first to be played by both teams in the new decade of the 1980s, and Buffalo was more than happy to put the last decade behind them. In an incredible feat, coach Don Shula’s Dolphins had defeated the Bills 20 consecutive times, twice a year for the entire decade of the 1970s.

The teams battled through a defensive struggle in the first half, with the only scoring coming on a 40 yard Nick Mike-Mayer field goal as Buffalo took a 3-0 lead. Miami finally got untracked in the third quarter and went ahead 7-3 when Bob Griese finished a drive with a short touchdown pass to Tony Nathan. It looked like the Dolphins were going to continue their mastery over the Bills at that point, and Bills’ QB Joe Ferguson wasn’t helping matters as he threw 5 interceptions on the day. Buffalo’s defense, however, matched the Dolphins’ defensive intensity and kept the Fish off the scoreboard the rest of the way, intercepting Griese and backup Don Strock 4 times. Safety Jeff Nixon led the way, pilfering 3 passes and also recovering a fumble. Ferguson and the Bills finally found their way in the fourth quarter, putting together a pair of drives that accounted for the only points in that final stanza. Fergy found fullback Roosevelt Leaks for a 4 yard touchdown pass and Cribbs finished off a productive day that saw him rack up 131 yards from scrimmage by scoring from 2 yards out, securing a 17-7 win for the Bills that finally put an end to Miami’s 20 game, and 10 year, dominance over their AFC East rivals. The ending of the game wiped out a decade of frustration for Bills’ fans, and they reacted by storming the field and tearing down the goalposts, probably the only time in football history the goalposts came down on a team’s opening day. Knox was carried off the field by his players like a conquering hero. At the time it appeared that Buffalo’s fortunes would possibly be turning for the good. They won the AFC East and the Dolphins finished 8-8, a rare non-winning season for Shula. The Bills wound up losing to San Diego in the playoffs with Ferguson playing on an injured ankle, but for the Knox era, this one game may have been the crowning moment.

 

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Coach Chuck Knox, Buffalo’s conquering hero

 

NFL 100 – Al Davis

13 Nov

In celebrating 100 seasons of the National Football League, one name that cannot be left out is that of one of the game’s most influential, and controversial people, Al Davis. A native of Brockton, Massachusetts who was raised in Brooklyn, he started his career in coaching in the 1950s, working as an offensive line coach at various universities, and also worked as a scout for a year with the Baltimore Colts in 1954. The formation of the new American Football League in 1960 gave Davis his coaching opportunity in the pros, and it was there that he cemented his legacy as an icon of the game. He joined Sid Gillman’s staff as receivers coach in 1960 and parlayed the Chargers’ success into landing the Oakland Raiders head coaching job in 1963. He was an immediate success in Oakland, guiding the previously foundering club to a 10-4 record, good for second place in the AFL’s Western Division, behind the eventual AFL champion Chargers. The Chargers had won the West despite the fact that Davis’ Raiders had beaten them twice. Davis was named AFL Coach of The Year for turning Oakland’s fortunes around. He remained Raiders’ coach for 2 more seasons when, with the AFL now embroiled in a war for survival with the established NFL, he agreed to take the position of AFL commissioner in 1966 when Joe Foss resigned. Foss had quit because he felt the battle with the NFL was a losing one, and the AFL owners felt Davis was a fighter who would work hard to win against the older league.

 

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Davis (2nd from right) with the Chargers’ 1960 coaching staff

The owners wanted a fighter, and they got one in Davis. He implemented a plan where AFL teams would raid their NFL counterparts of their stars, preferably the quarterbacks, by signing those players to “future” contracts. The AFL signed Roman Gabriel of the Rams and John Brodie of the 49ers to those types of contracts, sending the NFL owners into a panic. Unbeknownst to Davis, a secret agreement was reached among a group he wasn’t included in, including NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Dallas executive Tex Schramm and Chiefs’ owner and AFL founder Lamar Hunt. The new agreement was basically a peace treaty merging the 2 leagues, voiding the “future” contracts and establishing a common draft of college players, while also including a plan to play a championship game between the 2 leagues, a game that would grow into the Super Bowl. Also, the 2 leagues would merge into a single entity, the National Football League, with teams divided into the National and American Conferences, in 1970 when the leagues’ separate television contracts were set to expire. Davis was furious with the agreement, feeling that he was undermined in his efforts to “win the war” with the NFL. To appease him, he was offered the position of AFL President since the merger also called for his position as AFL commissioner to be dissolved. He refused the job and eventually returned to the Raiders in an executive role as one of 3 “managing general partners”, with him getting a 10% ownership share of the club. He used a controversial move in 1972 to gain control of the franchise. One of the 3 partners, Wayne Valley, was in Munich for the Olympics, and while he was gone Davis drew up a revised agreement that gave him controlling interest in the team and the other partner signed it. Valley sued to overturn the new agreement but lost his case, since under California law it only took 2 of the 3 partners to validate it. Davis seemed to never get rid of the chip on his shoulder of losing out to Rozelle in the merger fight, and spent a lot of the next few decades fighting Rozelle and the NFL in court over various issues, including the right to move the Raiders to Los Angeles when he couldn’t get a new stadium built in Oakland. Things didn’t work out in L.A. either, and Davis relocated the franchise back to Oakland after 14 seasons, even though the team would be forced to play home games in the same old stadium they had left behind in 1982. The nomadic club will move again, this time to Las Vegas, beginning next season. The half century of fighting with the league in the courts aside, Davis was a genius when it came to the actual football side of things. He built the Raider franchise into one of professional sports’ most successful and popular teams, winning 3 Super Bowls along the way and establishing the “Silver and Black” team colors as well known in fans’ eyes. His mantras of “Commitment To Excellence” and “Just Win, Baby” are still widely associated with the team, even though they fell on hard times in the last few years of Davis’ life.

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Al Davis flipped off the NFL for most of his football ownership days

As much of a renegade and a thorn in the side of the NFL as Davis was, he was also a visionary in the game and charitable when it came to his Raider “family”. He hired the first African American head coach, Art Shell, the first female front office executive, Amy Trask, and was the second to hire a Latino coach, Tom Flores. He retained close ties with all of his former players, who all returned the love. He was always true to his mantra of “Once A Raider, Always A Raider”. It was common to see old Raiders of the past like George Blanda, Jim Otto or Willie Brown around the team facility or in Davis’ owner’s box on game day. Despite being a maverick who fought the NFL for 50 years or more, the Pro Football Hall of Fame still overlooked all the controversy and inducted Davis into Canton in 1992.

 

NFL 100 – Red Grange

12 Nov

Most of the early stars of pro football are long forgotten but in this year of celebration of the NFL’s 100th season it’s good to remember those players and the contributions they made to bring the sport forward into the public eye. There is no player who contributed more to that cause than Harold “Red” Grange. In the 1920s, baseball was the undisputed national pastime, since it was the era of the sport’s most famous player, Babe Ruth. College football was also popular but the pro game, in it’s infancy then, was regarded as a savage game and there were even prominent politicians who wanted to ban the sport. Grange was a highly popular All American player for the University of Illinois, to the point that when he was a 22 year old just out of college, people tried to convince him to run for Congress. He chose to sign with the Bears and play pro football, however. The Bears then went on a 19 game, 67 day barnstorming tour of games around the country, with “The Galloping Ghost”, Grange’s nickname, as it’s star attraction. And an attraction he turned out to be, as crowds of up to 70,000 showed up to see him play.

 

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Red Grange, pro football’s first gate attraction

 

New York Giants’ owner Tim Mara had previously been critical of Grange signing with the Bears, citing a rule that teams shouldn’t sign college players. However, he negotiated a game with the Bears to be held in New York and over 70,000 fans turned out for the match. The gate receipts from that game helped keep the Giants’ franchise from folding. The barnstorming tour was a brutal one, and when injuries began to mount on the players, most notably Grange, the promoters began the practice of having a week’s rest period between games. That practice, for the most part, became a standard for the NFL, and pro football in general, that still exists today. Critics who had denounced pro football from the start began comparing the barnstorming tours to a traveling circus rather than a professional sports league. That criticism was most likely a big factor in the league’s founders and executives pulling the pro teams together to form a more unified, organized association with uniform rules for all.

 

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Red Grange on the cover of Time magazine in 1925

Of course, Grange was only one of many early marquee players who lifted the game out of it’s “circus” reputation to a stature as a major sport, and it’s been argued that injuries caused a decline in his abilities and his name rather than exploits on the field kept him in the news. He did make plays to help the Bears win championships in 1932 and 1933, so I’m not sure that argument holds water. Grange, being a major name in the news, also was recruited to star in silent films and in 1931 starred in a 12 part serial The Galloping Ghost, playing himself. That exposure in movies was good publicity for both Grange and the NFL, as the league could brag that one of their own stars was also a very popular figure among non-football fans. Being as well known as he was, Grange became a motivational speaker after he was finished playing and had dabbled in coaching as the Bears’ backfield coach. He also was once offered the team’s head coaching job but turned it down, expressing that he wasn’t interested in being a head coach at either the college or pro level. He was successful as a broadcaster starting in the 1950s as he worked both college games for NBC and regional telecasts of Bears’ games for the Dumont Network and CBS. Grange was one of the earliest names known to pro football fans, and it was only right that he was included in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees in 1963. He passed away in 1991 and he hadn’t been involved in the NFL for over 50 years, but when the NFL began to honor those who had been the brightest stars in their long history in this celebratory season, The Galloping Ghost was one of the first to be mentioned.

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Grange and Lindsey Nelson in the broadcast booth

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Battle of New York

07 Nov

The National Football League’s two New York franchises will do battle this weekend on the league’s schedule, and we’ll highlight the first ever meeting between the 2 teams for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature. It was an innocuous game played at Shea Stadium on November 1st, 1970. There was nothing extraordinary about the game, except for one large detail – it was the first ever game played between the two New York franchises in history. 1970 was the first year of the merger of the NFL and AFL, and the climate between the 2 leagues, which now were together as one, wasn’t exactly a climate of togetherness. The old guard NFL still felt that they were superior, but evidence pointed to the contrary. The AFL had won the 2 previous Super Bowls by upsetting heavily favored NFL teams. The Jets, behind a brash guarantee from Joe Namath, had stunned the football world by upsetting the Baltimore Colts following the 1968 season, and to prove that game was no fluke the Kansas City Chiefs, who had been soundly defeated in the first Super Bowl by Green Bay, followed up with a surprisingly easy win over the Minnesota Vikings in ’69. So this was much more than just any old regular season game. Pride was on the line for the NFL and AFL people, who still harbored some bitterness toward each other. The Jets, only 2 years removed from their shocking title, were at a big disadvantage on this day. Their star quarterback and undisputed leader, Namath, was sidelined for the season with a broken wrist and the signal calling duties went to journeyman backup Al Woodall. The Giants, on the other hand, had future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton at the helm.

The Jets, who had won only one game going into this matchup, were still a proud club. They battled through a scoreless first quarter and broke the ice in the second stanza when Woodall hit running back George Nock for an 8 yard touchdown to give his club a 7-0 lead. Pete Gogolak added a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 at halftime but the Giants took control in the third quarter. The Jets added a Jim Turner field goal to up their lead to 10-3 but the G-men would do all the scoring from that point on. The Big Blue defense entered the fray when they tackled a former teammate, fullback Chuck Mercein, for a safety to cut the lead to 10-5. Then Tarkenton took over, finding Bob Tucker and Clifton McNeil on short scoring throws to open a 19-10 lead. Gogolak put the finishing touches on with another field goal, the only scoring in the fourth quarter, and the Giants won by a final count of 22-10 to restore a small slice of old guard pride to the NFL and claim Big Apple bragging rights for the time being over the team that had embarrassed the league just a couple of seasons earlier.

 

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Giants’ Fran Tarkenton surveys the Jet defense

 

NFL 100 – Broadway Joe Namath

06 Nov

When he entered pro football as a much ballyhooed rookie from the University of Alabama, he was simply Joe Willie Namath from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. But when he signed what was then an outrageous 3 year/$400,000 contract with the New York Jets of the American Football League, the subject of this NFL 100 post turned the pro football world on it’s ear. The AFL, attempting to compete with the older, established NFL, manipulated the draft to ensure Namath would wind up in the country’s largest television market. He was the perfect person to give the league some star power. Television was becoming the engine that drove pro football into massive popularity during this time, the mid-1960s, and Namath became the toast of the town in the Big Apple. His career got off to a rocky start in his rookie season of 1965, as he split time at QB with Mike Taliaferro and the team lost it’s first 6 games. Namath took over as the full time starter after that and turned the team’s fortunes around, as they won 5 of their last 8. Namath’s play earned him the AFL’s Rookie of The Year Award.

 

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Publicity photo of Jets’ rookie QB Joe Namath

When Namath appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine in ’65, teammate Sherman Plunkett was the first to anoint him “Broadway Joe”, a moniker that has stuck with him to this day. He parlayed his playing success into a massive amount of advertising opportunities, hawking everything from pantyhose to shaving cream to Ovaltine drink mix, and began to appear as a guest on television shows and in starring roles in movies as his career went on. Broadcaster Howard Cosell used to call him “Joe Willie” and also touted him as a new breed of sports superstar, showing a personality rather than being an unknown robot hidden beneath a helmet. He set himself apart from all other players, with his cocky persona, his signature white spikes and an appearance on the sideline wearing a fur coat. Namath’s playing career reached it’s zenith when he led the Jets to a 27-23 win in the AFL Championship game over the defending champion Oakland Raiders in 1968. That win propelled the Jets into Super Bowl III against the mightiest of the mighty NFL clubs, Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts. The Colts were made heavy favorites, while the Jets were ridiculed as an inferior team from the “Mickey Mouse” AFL. Namath, growing tired of the jokes and ridicule, announced at a banquet prior to the contest that “we’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.” When he delivered on that guarantee with a 16-7 Jet upset, his popularity grew even more. He was considered the savior of the AFL, and many of the league’s players, subjected to the same scorn as the Jets, said that the upset was a win for the upstart league. After the big Super Bowl win, Namath purchased a night club, the Bachelor’s III, which got him into trouble with commissioner Pete Rozelle when it was revealed that the club was regularly visited by organized crime figures. Namath threatened to retire rather than give up the club but eventually gave in and sold it.

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Broadway Joe on the sideline in his fur coat

Namath is largely regarded as one of the most influential figures in pro football history, and rightfully so. But there is a group of people who question his credentials to be a Hall of Famer, which he became in 1985. His overall career numbers do bear out that argument. In his 13 year career, his teams posted a losing record of 68-71-4. He threw for 173 touchdowns and 220 interceptions, hardly stellar numbers. His career didn’t end well, as he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1977, looking like a shell of his former self as his injury-ravaged knees couldn’t hold up. He may have ridden a single victory, the Super Bowl upset, to his HOF stature, but the fact remains that that single game changed the course of professional football forever. It validated the AFL as they became equal partners in a newly merged NFL a couple of years later. Incidentally, Namath’s star power is still strong today at age 76, even if the products he endorses have changed. He was recently seen in an ad for the Medicare Coverage Helpline.

 

NFL 100 – 1960s NFL Quarterbacks

05 Nov

In an earlier post celebrating the NFL’s 100th Anniversary, we featured the quarterbacks who helped grow the fledgling American Football League into an entity on par with the NFL that led to the merger of the two leagues. Most of those QBs, who kept the AFL afloat throughout the 1960s, were players who were shunned by NFL teams at some point. They flourished when given an opportunity and proved they belonged on the same field as the supposedly superior NFL signal callers. This week’s NFL 100 post will take a look back at the quarterbacks who starred in the established NFL in that same era of the ’60s. Surprisingly, the most successful field generals of that decade in the NFL traveled similar paths to stardom as the guys who toiled in the AFL. Green Bay’s Bart Starr for example, who won 5 championships in the ’60s and was MVP of the first 2 Super Bowls, began his NFL career as a little known 17th round draft choice of the Packers in 1956. He languished there as a backup until Vince Lombardi arrived as head coach in 1959. Under Lombardi’s tutelage Starr developed into the Hall of Famer he became. Known as perhaps the greatest passer of the decade and easily an equal of Starr was John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. He was a ninth round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 but didn’t make the team out of training camp. He worked in construction and played semi-pro ball in the steel city that year. In 1956 one of his semi-pro teammates was invited to try out for the Colts and Unitas joined him. They had no idea at the time, but the Colts had stumbled upon a player who would go on to lead them to 3 NFL titles, win 3 league MVP awards and be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There were a number of quarterbacks during the decade who fashioned successful careers with their teams but failed to deliver when it came to winning championships. Y.A. Tittle, who started in the 1950s guiding a high-powered offense in San Francisco and had even greater success after being traded to the New York Giants, is the best example. He was a Pro Bowler in 3 of his 4 seasons with the Giants and won NFL MVP in 1963. He also guided New York to the NFL championship game his first 3 seasons there, but lost in all 3 attempts to win the ultimate prize. Fran Tarkenton is another player who had an amazing career, but never reached the top of the mountain. He played for both the Giants and Minnesota Vikings in the ’60s and established himself as a future Hall of Famer, well into the 1970s in fact. Unfortunately, the Viking teams he played on were expansion outfits and his Giant tenure was when the iconic franchise was suffering through one of it’s worst periods.

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Unitas, Tarkenton with coach Shula at the Pro Bowl

 

Out west, a pair of gladiators led their teams for most of the decade and were competitive but never reached the ultimate goal. San Francisco’s John Brodie and Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams are both borderline Hall of Famers but as of today haven’t been given that honor, despite having Hall-worthy credentials. A couple of underrated QBs of the era are Don Meredith of Dallas and Charley Johnson of the old St. Louis Cardinals. Meredith took over the Cowboys’ reins  from Eddie LeBaron in 1962 and guided the franchise through most of the rest of the decade, reaching NFL title games in consecutive years in the mid-60s. Unfortunately, his Cowboy teams suffered the same fate as many other squads of the era, losing both times to Lombardi’s Packers. Johnson served 2 years of active duty in the Army while playing for the Cardinals but still remained their signal caller for almost the entire decade. There was a lot of musical chairs among the quarterbacks of the 1960s NFL also, as teams looked for the right winning combination. The Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns found the right answers when they turned to former Ram backups. Bill Wade for the Bears in ’63 and Frank Ryan for the ’64 Browns delivered titles for those franchises. Sonny Jurgensen and Norm Snead were traded for each other after the 1963 season. After quarterbacking the Eagles for 7 years Jurgensen went on to play 10 more for the Washington Redskins and although he never got his team close to the playoffs, he earned Hall of Fame recognition. Snead finished out the decade with the Eagles but never got them anywhere either, and wound up as a journeyman QB with 3 other teams into the mid-’70s. When the Browns turned to Ryan as their starter in the early 1960s, Detroit acquired Cleveland’s old starter, Milt Plum, to lead their team for most of the rest of the decade. He had some success there but the Lions always wound up playing second fiddle to the Packers in the Western Division. The Pittsburgh Steelers were a mess in the 1960s. They started the decade trying to squeeze some life out of Bobby Layne, who had led Detroit to NFL titles in the 1950s but was playing out the string in Pittsburgh. They followed up the Layne era with names like Rudy Bukich, Ed Brown, Ron Smith, Bill Nelsen, George Izo, Kent Nix and Dick Shiner. Nelsen would have relative success in the NFL but only after being traded from the Steelers to Cleveland, where he finished out the decade upon the retirement of Ryan. Overall, the 1960s delivered similar results to the AFL as far as quarterback play was concerned. A few Hall of Famers, a couple of borderline HOFers, some backups who got opportunities and made the most of them, and a lot of journeymen keeping their careers afloat with different franchises.

 

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Sonny Jurgensen (9) in his early Eagle days

 

NFL 100 – Pete Rozelle

30 Oct

One of the most important figures in the 100 year history of the NFL being celebrated this year is former commissioner Pete Rozelle. He wasn’t considered very important when he first took over the job in 1959 following the death of then-commissioner Bert Bell. He was a young general manager of the Los Angeles Rams at the time and wasn’t a popular choice for the commissioner’s post. It took 23 ballots by the owners to get him confirmed for the job. He took over at age 33 and wasn’t shy about making changes to the game during his tenure. The NFL at the time was a 12 team league playing their games in half-filled stadiums and television wasn’t much of a part of the league’s plan, as only a few teams had local or regional TV contracts. He took over the same year a rival circuit, the new American Football League, was being formed with a plan to start play in 1960. Rozelle took immediate action to counter the new league. The NFL added an expansion franchise in Dallas and a year later in Minnesota, and allowed the foundering Chicago Cardinals franchise to move to St. Louis, effectively cutting off the AFL’s path to 3 different cities they were considering. The AFL’s Dallas franchise, owned by league founder Lamar Hunt, was forced to move to Kansas City after 3 seasons and an AFL team slated to be placed in Minnesota had to be quickly relocated to Oakland before it even started play. Rozelle recognized the power of the media to promote the game early on and negotiated a deal with the CBS network to carry NFL games regionally. He also championed the cause of shared revenue with the owners, which they agreed to. The shared revenue model still exists today and is a major reason the league is as competitive as it is. The owners awarded Rozelle with a five year contract to remain in his job in 1962. He faced a couple of his most important decisions the next seasons. Prior to the 1963 season, Rozelle suspended Green Bay’s Paul Hornung and Detroit’s Alex Karras for gambling, a powerful move on his part. In November of that year, however, he made a decision that he later said was his biggest regret during his tenure as commissioner. He allowed NFL games to be played on the weekend of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a decision that was widely criticized. The rival AFL had cancelled their games and drew praise for that decision. Also, the AFL had negotiated a television contract of its’ own with NBC and began competing for players with the established league, landing a big fish when the New York Jets signed Joe Namath. When the New York Giants signed Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak, it started an all-out war between the leagues to “raid” each other’s rosters for star players. Established NFL stars like John Brodie, Mike Ditka and Roman Gabriel signed “future” contracts with AFL teams. Rozelle, realizing the battle between rival league owners was hurting the game, worked behind the scenes with Cowboys’ executive Tex Schramm and Chiefs’ owner Hunt among others to negotiate a merger of the two leagues. The negotiations were successful and in 1966 the merger was announced. Due to television commitments, the two leagues remained separate until 1970 but a common draft was instituted and an annual AFL/NFL Championship game was set up to be played after each season. During this time the AFL added expansion franchises in Miami and Cincinnati.

 

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Pete Rozelle after the NFL/AFL merger was successful

By 1970, pro football was beginning to grow into the television monster it has become today. The annual championship game, which would become known as the “Super Bowl”, became the top sporting event in the country if not the world. Today the game has almost reached the status of becoming a national holiday. Before the leagues could effectively merge, Rozelle had to convince 3 NFL owners to move their franchises to the newly formed American Football Conference, since the NFL had 16 teams and the AFL only 10. Cleveland and Baltimore, two teams that had been merged from the old All American Conference in 1950, were chosen along with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rozelle also came up with the idea of a weekly prime time game, and with his vision Monday Night Football was born and another network, ABC, was added to the league’s revenue stream. The man who was regarded as professional sports’ most successful commissioner presided over its’ golden era, but wasn’t without his troubles over the years. Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis was a constant nemesis, beginning in the days of the merger when Davis, who was AFL commissioner at the time, had to give up his post to allow Rozelle to preside over the newly merged leagues. He battled in the courts with Rozelle over moving his franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again. (The Raiders are planning another move, to Las Vegas, next season.) When the Raiders won the Super Bowl following the 1980 season, Rozelle was put in the awkward position of having to award the Lombardi Trophy to Davis.

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Rozelle presents the Lombardi Trophy to Al Davis

Rozelle retired from the commissioner’s post in 1989, citing health issues. Davis would later say he regretted giving Pete so much grief during his time as commissioner, and felt that he may have contributed to Rozelle’s health issues. Rozelle left with the sport in great shape and left behind a legacy that is unmatched by anyone in the game’s 100 years when it comes to how much he helped grow the game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 while still serving as commissioner and in 1990 the league instituted the Pete Rozelle Award to be given to the MVP of the game he helped create, the Super Bowl. Rozelle passed away of brain cancer in 1996. Taking a look at the sport today compared to when he took over: a 12 team league now has 32 franchises, the Super Bowl is the world’s most popular sporting event, the league’s players are among the most recognizable sports heroes and the annual draft of college players has become a cottage industry in itself.

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Rozelle presides over the 1966 draft, on a blackboard

 

NFL 100 – Mike Ditka

29 Oct

For one of this week’s NFL 100 features, we’ll look at a character who left a long and lasting legacy in the league as a player, coach and studio analyst, Mike Ditka. When he joined the Chicago Bears as a rookie tight end in 1961, he proceeded to redefine the position from what was always a blocker, almost an extra lineman next to the tackle, to a legitimate receiving threat. In that rookie year, he caught 58 passes and scored 12 touchdowns, a Bears’ rookie record, and was named NFL Rookie of The Year. He played 5 total seasons with Chicago and was a Pro Bowler in all of them. His rugged style of play earned him the nickname “Iron Mike”, as he not only changed the tight end position with his receiving ability but also was known for his yardage gained after the catch, regularly trucking defensive backs and linebackers on his way to picking up extra yards. A contract dispute with owner George Halas got Ditka traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967. He played there for 2 years and then was traded to Dallas where he played his final 4 seasons. The highlight of his Cowboy days came in 1971 in Super Bowl VI when he scored a touchdown to help the team defeat the Miami Dolphins 24-3 to give legendary coach Tom Landry his first championship.

 

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Mike Ditka, All Pro Bears’ tight end

Ditka retired in 1972 and was immediately hired to join Landry’s coaching staff in Dallas. He spent 9 years there, learning from the best. The Cowboys made the playoffs in 8 of those seasons and won the Super Bowl again in 1977. While serving as an assistant on Landry’s staff, Ditka wrote a letter to Halas, who he had a strained relationship with, saying he would like to return to Chicago as the Bears’ head coach when he was ready. Halas took him up on that request in 1982 when he went out on a limb and hired his old tight end to lead the Bears. Ditka held a team meeting upon taking the job and promised the players that if they stuck with him he would have them “in the dance” within 3 years. By 1985 he delivered. His ’85 Bears club reached “the dance”, the Super Bowl, and demolished the New England Patriots 46-10 in the game. Although it was the only title Ditka would win in Chicago, that ’85 Bears team is considered one of the greatest of all time, especially the defense. They had swagger, led by coach Ditka, his flamboyant quarterback, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton and William “The Refrigerator” Perry and even put together a video, the “Super Bowl Shuffle”, before they had qualified to play in the game. They were a confident bunch.

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Tom Landry, Ditka’s coaching mentor

During the 1988 season Ditka suffered a heart attack and was expected to not be available for most of the season. However, he was back on the sideline as an advisor the next game and returned to his full time duties as head coach the following week. A couple of losing seasons in the early 1990s led to his firing in Chicago in 1992. He went on to coach the New Orleans Saints for 3 years, beginning in 1997, but that stint was largely forgettable and was “highlighted” by an ill-fated move in which Ditka traded his entire stock of draft picks to Washington for the rights to running back Rickey Williams, who never panned out in the Crescent City. Overall, it’s hard to think of the NFL’s 100 year history without mentioning Ditka. He and Tom Flores are the only 2 people who won championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach in league history, and Ditka was the first to achieve this. Today he is an icon in Chicago. He owns a chain of restaurants and regularly is on sports talk radio shows in the Windy City. He was a regular football studio analyst on ESPN for years before being dropped for voicing political opinions. Saturday Night Live had a running skit for years featuring Bill Swerski’s Superfans, a group of mythical Bears fans, including George Wendt, who worshipped “Coach Dikka”. Ditka, in 1988, was honored to be the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

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Coach Ditka Halloween costumes were once popular in Chicago

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The AFL/NFL Championship Game

24 Oct

With the NFL season entering week 7, there is a game scheduled, between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, which makes for a perfect Throwback Thursday feature for the NFL’s celebration of its’ 100 year history. That game was played on January 15, 1967 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and it was a historic event as it was to become the first ever Super Bowl game. The game was retroactively called “Super Bowl I” but in reality at the time it was simply called the AFL/NFL Championship Game, and was considered an afterthought, especially by the members of the established NFL. The game wasn’t sold out, but NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made sure it received maximum coverage as the networks who aired each league’s games, NBC and CBS, were both allowed to broadcast it. One of Rozelle’s many attributes as commissioner was his ability to recognize how much media coverage had grown the game. The Packers were a powerhouse at the time, dominating their NFL competition, and were considered huge favorites in this game over the Chiefs, who had beaten the two-time AFL champion Buffalo Bills to reach this point. NFL people had ridiculed the new league as a “Mickey Mouse” operation made up of NFL rejects. Packer coach Vince Lombardi was extremely nervous about the game and how his team would approach it. He realized that although his club was superior, the Chiefs were well coached by Hank Stram and were made up of players who were also professional and would be highly motivated to prove they belonged on the same field with his team. Most of his players may have considered winning the NFL title as the pinnacle of their season and view this game as nothing more than an exhibition. Lombardi gave his team a short motivational speech prior to the game, telling them they “should be proud of their profession and that they could do a lot for the reputation of the league by playing their best” on this day.

 

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Coaches Stram and Lombardi meet before the game

The game itself was competitive in the first half. The Chiefs may have thought they caught an unexpected break when Packer flanker Boyd Dowler re-aggravated an injury he had suffered in the NFL title game and was forced out. However, his replacement, wily old veteran Max McGee, was ready for the moment, even though some of his teammates claimed he was hung over from partying the night before. He opened the scoring by making a spectacular one-handed grab of a Bart Starr pass and carrying it into the end zone for a 37 yard touchdown. K.C. quarterback Len Dawson engineered a scoring drive early in the second quarter, ending it with a 7 yard toss to his fullback, Curtis McClinton, to tie the game. Jim Taylor scored on a 14 yard run and the Chiefs’ Mike Mercer connected on a field goal and Green Bay went into the half leading 14-10. The halftime show for the game was nothing like the extravaganzas put on today on Super Bowl Sunday, but Rozelle did kick up the entertainment a notch from a regular season game by adding jazz trumpeter Al Hirt, 300 pigeons being released, 10,000 balloons and a couple of guys in jet packs wearing football uniforms flying around the stadium as the bands played.

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Flying jet pack football players at halftime

While the Chiefs had stood proud by keeping the game close for a half, the Packers asserted their dominance in the second half. Starr, who would be named the game’s Most Valuable Player, orchestrated a pair of third quarter scoring drives, the first ending on a 5 yard run by Elijah Pitts and the other on another TD toss to McGee, this time from 13 yards out, to extend the Packer lead to 28-10. McGee, who was used sparingly in the regular season, had a career day, totaling 138 yards and the 2 TDs on 7 catches. The Green Bay defense held Dawson and the Chiefs in check the rest of the day, and Pitts scored again from a yard out to seal the deal for his team at 35-10. One of the “highlights” of the second half came when Chiefs’ safety Fred “The Hammer” Williamson was knocked unconscious when his head collided with the knee of a Packer player. The flamboyant Williamson had boasted of planning to use his famed forearm “hammer” to knock multiple players out of the game, but he wound up on the receiving end of an errant blow instead. The NFL moguls and pundits got what they wanted out of the game as the Packers were dominant in the end. Lombardi even added to the fire, stating afterwards that even though the Chiefs were an excellent, well coached club, he thought there were several NFL teams who were better. It would take a couple of years for the AFL to be able to compete, but by Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath and his New York Jets delivered a “guarantee” and an upset win over the Colts, they gained their measure of pride.

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Super Bowl I MVP Bart Starr