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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL 100 – Defensive Coaches

23 Oct

Our topic today for the NFL 100 post is a look at highly successful defensive coaches, or coordinators as they’ve come to be known today, who never quite succeeded when given their opportunity to become head coaches. Some of the greatest defensive minds went on to make it big as head men, including Tom Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, George Allen and arguably the greatest of all time, Bill Belichick. “The Hoodie” almost made the list of failures after his brief tenure in Cleveland ended disastrously, but he was put in a bad situation there with owner Art Modell announcing he was moving the team to Baltimore. Belichick landed on his feet in New England and to this day is a highly successful head coach. So what coaches who had Hall of Fame worthy careers as defensive assistants never quite made the leap to success as top men? The list is long. We’ll start with Joel Collier. He was a bespectacled, mild mannered assistant under Lou Saban with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in the 1960s and later guided the Denver Broncos “Orange Crush” defense to a Super Bowl. The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and ’65, mostly on the strength of their defense, the best in the AFL’s 10 year existence. He got a shot at the top job in Buffalo after Saban abruptly quit but failed miserably. When Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins were dominating the NFL in the early 1970s, one of the main components of their success was the play of their “No Name” defense, which suffocated opponents and got its’ nickname due to the fact that there were no star players on the unit. The man who coached that stifling defense was Bill Arnsparger. His success earned him the opportunity to be the head coach of the New York Giants, but in three years at the helm there, his teams posted a dismal 7-28 record and after being fired he returned to the Dolphins to work under Shula. He spent the next eight years there overseeing a defense that acquired another nickname, the “Killer B’s” due to many members of that unit having names that began with the letter B.

 

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Bill Arnsparger and The Killer B’s

When the Pittsburgh Steelers were dominating the NFL in the 1970s, winning 4 Super Bowls, the one constant that drove that team was it’s defense, aptly known as “The Steel Curtain”. Even though their head coach, Noll, came from a defensive background, it was widely accepted that the man who orchestrated that unit was defensive coordinator Bud Carson. He was the coordinator for the team’s defense for the first 2 of the championships, then moved on to become D-coordinator for the Rams, Colts, Chiefs and Jets, all while waiting patiently for a shot at a top job. His chance finally came when Modell hired him to coach the Browns in 1989. He did well his first year as the Browns advanced to the AFC Championship game, only to lose to the John Elway-led Denver Broncos. Modell didn’t show him any patience, however. Carson was fired midway through the next season after the Browns started out 2-7. Although his overall coaching mark for the year and a half he got was slightly under .500, it’s tough to say that Carson was a failure. Unlike Belichick in the 1990s, he never got the chance to prove himself in another job. We’ll treat our next subject on this topic as a tandem. It’s the father/son duo of Buddy and Rex Ryan. Buddy was the coordinator of one of the most prolific defenses in NFL history, the 1985 Chicago Bears. The success of his “46 defense” got him a job as head man in Philadelphia, where he lasted five seasons. Rex Ryan was coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens defense that was dominant for years and helped win the Super Bowl following the 2000 season. Rex eventually parlayed his performance into head coaching jobs with the Jets and Bills. Unfortunately, neither of the Ryans was ever able to raise his teams above the level of mediocrity when given the chance to run the whole show.

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Buddy Ryan was well loved by his Bears’ defensive unit

There is one coach who was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame mainly for his work as a long-time defensive coordinator – Dick LeBeau. Actually, he deserved Hall consideration for his playing career alone, as he played 14 seasons and was a top cornerback. His story is a little different than the men we previously featured. He was defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000 but was thrust into the job of interim head coach when Bruce Coslet resigned. He held the job until 2002 but a paltry 12-33 record got him axed. He returned to being a D-coordinator, for the Steelers, and went on to have tremendous success. He never got another shot at being a head coach, but he may have been content to “stay in his lane” as a successful assistant. One name that shouldn’t really be mentioned here is Wade Phillips. He has followed the same path as the others on the list, having “failed” as a head coach but having great success as a defensive coordinator, to this day in fact, as he is currently guiding the Los Angeles Rams’ defense. He has been the head man for 5 different teams in interim and permanent status, but in my mind never really was shown much patience by any of the owners he worked for. His overall record as a head coach is 83-69, a pretty healthy winning percentage. Dom Capers has been a highly successful defensive coach over the years, but hasn’t had success when given a chance to be the head coach. Part of the reason for that is that his only two opportunities came with expansion franchises. Others who have not taken advantage of head coaching opportunities but who excelled as defensive assistants are Romeo Crennel, a Belichick disciple, Rod Marinelli, Jim Schwartz and Gregg Williams. The art of hiring a top head coach is something NFL owners over the years have failed at many times, and in some ways the NFL over 100 years was bound to have more failure than success among its’ teams. The men mentioned in this article, for certain, should be remembered more for the innovation and success they have brought to the game rather than their failure, which is really more of a failure on their owners’ part than theirs.

 

NFL 100 – Vince Lombardi

22 Oct

In celebrating the first 100 years of the National Football League, there are men and women who stand above the rest for their contributions to making the game great. There are none who stand any taller than Vince Lombardi, who was overlooked for coaching opportunities in the NFL despite a successful run as the top offensive coach for the New York Giants in the 1950s. He worked as a high school coach and as a college assistant at Fordham and West Point before getting his NFL opportunity with the Giants, whose top defensive assistant at the time was Tom Landry. Those 2 legends, along with head coach Jim Lee Howell, turned the Giant franchise into winners as they reached a pair of title games and won the title in 1956. Howell readily acknowledged the talents of his two top assistants, jokingly saying that his main job was “to make sure the footballs had air in them.” Despite the success, Lombardi was passed over for head coaching jobs, both in college and the pros, and he feared that his Italian-American heritage was being used against him in his failure to land a head coaching position. Finally, in 1959, the Green Bay Packers hired him as their new head man. The team was coming off of a one-win season and was a laughingstock in the league. Lombardi immediately turned around the team’s fortunes. They finished 7-5 and Lombardi was named Coach of The Year. His success was only beginning, however. The Packers won the Western Division title in 1960 and lost a heartbreaker to the Philadelphia Eagles in the championship game. The Packers were stopped just short of the goal line on the game’s final play, costing them the win. In the locker room afterwards, the coach told his team “This will never happen again. You will never lose another championship game.” He was true to his word, as that loss was the only postseason defeat his Packer teams would suffer. They went on to win 5 titles in the next 7 years, including wins in the first 2 Super Bowls.

 

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Lombardi and his Packers celebrate NFL title

Lombardi stepped down as Packers’ head coach after the second Super Bowl win and stayed on as the team’s general manager for a year, but still had a yearning to coach, so he left the organization to become head coach of the Washington Redskins in 1969. He turned the Washington franchise around in his only season coaching there as they finished 7-5-2 for their first winning season in 14 years. Lombardi’s final numbers as a head coach were astonishing – no losing seasons, the 5 championships and an overall 105-35-6 record, including a 9-1 mark in postseason games. Unfortunately Lombardi’s tenure in Washington would only last that single season. After falling ill, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away shortly after at the age of 57. On his deathbed, he told a visiting priest that he did not fear dying but regretted that he had not accomplished more in his life. The football world couldn’t have disagreed more with that sentiment. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year after his sudden death and the trophy awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl each year was named in his honor.

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Vince Lombardi Trophy

Lombardi is a giant of the game for more reasons than just winning. He was a pioneer in improving race relations and treating black players as equals, and even embraced gay players. He always said he didn’t see his players as black or white, but only “Packer green”. One former black player, noting Lombardi’s disciplinary style, once jokingly said that the coach “treated us all equally….like dogs.” His reputation as a taskmaster wasn’t entirely true. He was a master at teaching the game, having been a teacher before getting into coaching. He instituted policies in Green Bay that insisted that the team only stay at hotels that treated his players equally, would make any establishment that was prejudiced against any of his players off-limits to his entire team and made crystal clear to his players that any of them who exhibited prejudice of any kind against another player would be thrown off the team. Some of Lombardi’s critics, as few as they are, have said that his accomplishments are tainted because his teams were loaded with future Hall of Famers. That argument doesn’t hold water when you consider that most of those players were already on the Packer roster before Lombardi arrived, and were underachieving on a losing team. Lombardi molded them into Hall of Famers. One other factor that made the coach an all-time great was his integrity. He was so admired for his upstanding character that in the 1960s Richard Nixon tried to recruit him to be his vice presidential running mate. Lombardi, being a staunch Kennedy Democrat, politely declined. His commitment to integrity is a lesson some modern day coaches could learn from.

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Vince Lombardi’s quote about integrity

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Sid Gillman vs. The Chargers

17 Oct

On this week’s NFL schedule of games, there is a contest to be played between the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans. For our weekly Throwback Thursday feature, we settled on a game played between these two franchises when the Chargers were still in San Diego and the Titans were located in Houston as the Oilers. It was September 15, the opening day of the 1974 season and coach Tommy Prothro’s Chargers were visiting Houston’s Astrodome for a game against the Oilers, who were coached at the time by Sid Gillman. Gillman, of course, led the San Diego franchise to huge success in their American Football League years in the 1960s, and this was his first chance to take on the team that had let him go after the 1970 season. Gillman would hardly recognize the Charger team that came into the Astrodome to play that day. His star players from the AFL days like John Hadl, Paul Lowe, Keith Lincoln, Lance Alworth, Dave Kocourek, Ernie Ladd and Ron Mix were all either retired or dispersed across the league finishing out their careers with other teams.

Whether there was any sense of revenge or not, Gillman’s Oilers would take care of their coach on this day, as they ground out a 21-14 win over San Diego. The Oilers featured a balanced attack instead of Gillman’s usual vertical passing game. Their young quarterback, Lynn Dickey, was efficient, spreading the ball around among 6 different receivers. Ronnie Coleman was the bulwark of the running game, gaining 123 yards on 21 carries, although George Amundson stole his thunder by scoring 2 short rushing touchdowns and catching an 8 yard throw from Dickey to account for all of Houston’s scoring. Cid Edwards had 100 yards rushing for San Diego and Glen Bonner scored on a short TD run, while the other Charger touchdown came on a pass from the team’s young signal caller, Dan Fouts, to one of the few Charger players Gillman might recognize from his days as the team’s coach, receiver Gary Garrison. The Oilers, who had finished 1-13 the previous year, improved to 7-7 on the season under Gillman, but the future Hall of Famer stepped down to give his hand-picked choice as his replacement, Bum Phillips, a chance to take over in 1975. Prothro’s Chargers staggered to a 5-9 record and the franchise never worked their way out of mediocrity under his leadership. They finally fired him in 1978 and brought on Don Coryell, who would bring the team back to a level of respectability.

 

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Oilers’ 1974 media guide prominently featured the bow-tie wearing Gillman

 

NFL 100 – 1960s Football Broadcasters

16 Oct

One of the most underrated things about pro football in the 1960s, which is the era I grew up with, is the quality of the television broadcasters who brought the games into our homes. Those memorable men are the subjects of this NFL 100 post. The National Football League broadcast their games regionally in the ’60s, and the team whose games were shown each week where I live were the Cleveland Browns. It was so great to hear the familiar voices of Ken Coleman and former Browns’ player Warren Lahr describing the action as my childhood idols, players like Frank Ryan, Jim Brown, Gary Collins, Leroy Kelly and Paul Warfield fought their way to victory each week. Coleman was also a long-time Boston Red Sox baseball announcer. Like many of the men we’ll feature here, he was equally good at being knowledgeable about multiple sports.  Jack Buck, whose son Joe is currently the lead play-by-play man for FOX, was another familiar early football broadcaster. He started doing American Football League games in the early 1960s on ABC, then became a regular on the CBS regional NFL games, first with the Chicago Bears and later for the Dallas Cowboys. He was part of the broadcast team for the famous “Ice Bowl” championship game between the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. Like Coleman, Buck was also a long-time baseball announcer, doing St. Louis Cardinal games for decades. A couple of other familiar football voices belonged to Frank Glieber and Lindsey Nelson. Glieber split time during the decade among the Cowboys and Browns (after Coleman left) while Nelson, one of the all-time great voices of gridiron play-by-play men, worked games involving the Cowboys and later the Chicago Bears. Nelson was one of the most versatile sportscasters of his time, having done San Francisco Giants and New York Mets baseball, numerous college football bowl games, NBA and college basketball, golf and tennis. The New York market was a breeding ground for outstanding sportscasters of the era, and some of the best worked NFL games for CBS during the 1960s. Most notable was Chris Schenkel, who worked the New York Giant games for most of the decade. Two former players who were color analysts for Schenkel, Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford, eventually grew into major roles as play-by-play announcers, a transition that former players rarely are successful at. Summerall would go on to become the lead CBS announcer when the network went to national games, a role he would continue when the game rights moved to FOX. Gifford spent a single season as an analyst for Monday Night Football along with Howard Cosell before sliding into the play-by-play seat, where he would remain well into the 1980s.

 

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Ken Coleman interviews coach Paul Brown

 

Other former players who found success in the booth as analysts were Red Grange, who called Bear games from the 1950s until CBS scrapped the regional teams in 1968, and Tom Brookshier, who analyzed games for his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, throughout the decade before hooking up with Summerall as a permanent team in 1974. I mostly remember Jack Whitaker from later decades but he also was the Eagles’ CBS play-by-play man in the early ’60s. Don Criqui, another announcer who remained active well into the 1990s, got his start in the play-by-play seat with the expansion New Orleans Saints in 1967, and became a regular when the network scrapped the regional game pairings and assigned games by merit. Last but not least among the 1960s NFL on CBS broadcasters was Ray Scott. He was the Green Bay Packers’ regional broadcaster throughout the Vince Lombardi Green Bay dynasty years, so he became a well known voice across the country with the Packers being involved in so many postseason games. His philosophy of less is more was legendary – he didn’t talk for the sake of talking but just reported the action on the field with limited conversation and with his trademark smooth voice. “Starr….to Dowler…for the touchdown.” was a call one might hear during a Packer game. When CBS went to their merit system to assign broadcasters, Scott remained mostly doing Packer contests.

 

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Ray Scott, flanked by Jack Buck and Frank Gifford, preview the “Ice Bowl”

 

The American Football League had it’s own brand of broadcasters in the ’60s, and the main play-by-play man was Curt Gowdy, who teamed with former player Paul Christman, and later with former Giant Al DeRogatis, who was controversial and in a way, was Howard Cosell before Cosell himself, an analyst you either loved or hated. Jim Simpson and Charley Jones were also familiar AFL play-by-play voices, and some of the analysts they teamed up with were Kyle Rote, another former New York player who made the move to the broadcast booth, George Ratterman, Elmer Angsman, Andy Robustelli and Lee Grosscup. All in all, they did a great job of bringing professionalism and excitement to fans of the new league, and were a big reason that the AFL was able to succeed.

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Al DeRogatis (left) and Curt Gowdy

 

NFL 100 – Sid Gillman

15 Oct

We seem to be on a run of legendary coaches in our latest NFL 100 posts, and this week is no exception as we feature a coach who many consider to be the father of the modern passing game, Hall of Fame legend Sid Gillman. Gillman cut his teeth as a coach in college as an assistant at Denison, Ohio State and Army before landing  head coaching jobs at Miami of Ohio and the University of Cincinnati. An 81-19-2 record as a college head coach got him noticed by the pros and in 1955 he was hired to guide the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. The club was known for wide open offense and Gillman enhanced that reputation during his tenure there. They reached the league championship game in his first season but lost to the Cleveland Browns. It was a roller coaster ride for the coach for the remainder of his Ram career, although the offense was always capable. After finishing 2-10 in 1959, he was released but landed on his feet by being hired as the head coach of the new team in town, the American Football League’s Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers, with their new coach roaming the sidelines wearing his trademark bow tie, were an immediate success and the type of team the new league was looking for – featuring an exciting wide open offense that stretched the field with a vertical passing game. The Chargers, who moved to San Diego in 1961 after a single season in L.A., won the Western Division title 5 times in the AFL’s first 6 seasons and captured the league title in 1963 with a rousing 51-10 rout of the Boston Patriots. Al Davis, a football icon who began his pro football career as an assistant on Gillman’s early Charger teams, once said “Sid Gillman brought class to the AFL. Being part of Sid’s organization was like going to a laboratory for the highly developed science of professional football.” Another Hall of Fame coach, Chuck Noll, was also on Gillman’s Charger staff in the AFL’s early years. Gillman left the Chargers when the AFL and NFL officially merged into one league in 1970, but returned for a short stint with the Houston Oilers in 1973 and ’74. His Oiler teams didn’t qualify for the postseason but he lifted the franchise out of the doldrums they had been in before leaving.

Besides Davis and Noll, many coaches either learned from Gillman or copied his offensive philosophies, including Bill Walsh, Bum Phillips, Don Coryell and Dick Vermeil. Coryell was head coach at San Diego State during Gillman’s Charger era and used to bring his team to Charger practices to observe. Vermeil actually hired Gillman as a consultant when he was coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1980. Another tribute to Gillman’s genius is the players he developed. His reputation as a quarterback guru played out when 2 of his Ram QBs of the 1950s, Billy Wade and Frank Ryan, won NFL championships, Wade with the 1963 Chicago Bears and Ryan with the 1964 Cleveland Browns. His resume also includes coaching all kinds of Hall of Famers, players like Norm Van Brocklin, Tom Fears, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Les Richter, Ollie Matson, Lance Alworth and Ron Mix, as well as some Hall-worthy players in Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, Keith Lincoln, Paul Lowe, John Hadl, Tank Younger, Andy Robustelli, Lamar Lundy and Jon Arnett. Gillman may have been a product of pro football of the 1950s and ’60s, but his legacy lives on in the way the modern game is played today.

 

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Coach Gillman, Lance Alworth (19), John Hadl (21)

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Perfection Achieved

10 Oct

On this week’s NFL schedule, there’s a game to be played between 2 historic franchises who are struggling mightily this season – the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins. For this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, we’ll harken back to a time when both teams were winning, and one in fact, achieved what was thought to be impossible, perfection. The game we’re featuring is Super Bowl VII, played on January 14, 1973 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Dolphins, under coach Don Shula, entered the game undefeated and their opponent was coach George Allen’s “Over The Hill Gang”, a collection of grisly veterans molded into a competitive team by Allen ,who despised playing rookies and young players because of their penchant for making mistakes. Coming into the big game without a loss in either the regular season or playoffs was an amazing achievement for Miami, especially since they had lost their starting quarterback, future Hall of Famer Bob Griese, for a large portion of the year. The man who came to the rescue and kept the team’s record unblemished was old veteran Earl Morrall, who along with Shula had been subjected to ridicule just a few seasons prior when their Baltimore Colts’ juggernaut was shocked by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.

Shula revived his reputation by building an instant winner in Miami and for the Super Bowl, even got his starting QB back as Griese, who had seen limited playing time in the AFC Championship against Pittsburgh 2 weeks earlier, was deemed ready to play full time. Griese was hardly needed in this game, as he threw only 11 passes all day, completing 8 of them, with the biggest being a 28 yard touchdown throw to Howard Twilley to open the scoring in the first quarter.  The rest of the game was dominated by the Dolphins’ “No Name” defense and the hard running of fullback Larry Csonka, who racked up 112 yards on 15 carries. Miami’s defense harassed Redskin quarterback Bill Kilmer, the ageless wonder who resurrected his career in Washington, all day, sacking him twice and picking off 3 of his passes. Two of the interceptions were by Dolphin safety Jake Scott, who would be named the game’s Most Valuable Player. The Redskins never seemed to pick up any momentum on offense and when Csonka’s backfield mate, Jim Kiick, scored on a one yard touchdown plunge in the second quarter to boost Miami’s lead to 14-0, the game appeared to be already out of reach. Then, in the fourth quarter, Washington gained some unexpected momentum on a play that is one of the most memorable in Super Bowl history. On a botched field goal attempt, Miami kicker Garo Yepremian picked up the ball and attempted to throw a pass. It wobbled straight up out of his hand for a fumble and ‘Skins cornerback Mike Bass snatched it up and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead in half. Shula was incensed but he didn’t need to worry. Washington stopped the Dolphins on the ensuing possession but when they got the ball back for one last try to tie the game, the “No Names” rose to the occasion and snuffed out Kilmer and the Redskins’ offense in a quick three and out to seal the victory and immortality as the only team in NFL history to achieve an undefeated season.

 

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Years later, Shula and Yepremian joke about “The Pass”

 

NFL 100 – Don Shula

10 Oct

One of last week’s NFL 100 posts featured one of pro football greatest but under the radar head coaches in Chuck Noll, architect of the great Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty of the 1970s. This week, we’ll feature the winningest head coach of all time in the NFL, the great Don Shula. Noll and Shula both played for Paul Brown in Cleveland, but prior to Noll’s rookie season, Shula was traded to the Baltimore Colts. He played there for 4 seasons and played a year in Washington before retiring. His playing days didn’t amount to much but in 1960 he would embark on a coaching career that would take him to the top of the mountain in the NFL. He signed on as the head defensive coach of the Detroit Lions (they didn’t designate them as “coordinators” at the time). After doing an impressive job there, he returned to the Colts as their head coach in 1963 and quickly made the team into a force in the league. They reached the title game in 1964 and 1968, losing to Cleveland in ’64 and then beating the Browns in ’68. They finished with an identical 10-3-1 record with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in 1965 and because of injuries were forced to use halfback Tom Matte at QB in a playoff game against the Packers to decide the Western Conference champion. The teams were tied 10-10 when Green Bay’s Don Chandler kicked a controversial field goal to win the contest 13-10. Replays appeared to show that the kick was actually no good, and it resulted in the NFL raising the goalposts to their current height. In the 1967 season, the Colts entered the regular season’s final week undefeated but a loss to the Rams, who also hadn’t lost a game, cost them the Coastal Division crown and a place in the playoffs despite finishing 11-1-2. Despite fielding competitive teams in all of his 7 seasons in Baltimore, it was a huge upset loss, to Joe Namath’s New York Jets in Super Bowl III, that ultimately got the coach the heave-ho there. He coached one more season after the loss but the Colts finished 8-5-1 and he was fired.

That turned out to be a major blessing for Shula. He moved on to take the reins of the Miami Dolphins, a foundering expansion franchise in the AFL, and built them into a powerhouse of the early 1970s that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1972 and ’73. The ’72 season was remarkable in that the Dolphins finished 17-0 to become the only team in NFL history to go undefeated, a mark still unmatched today. His teams won with a pounding running game and a stingy defense dubbed the “No Name” defense because it lacked any big stars. Although the Steelers and Noll stole a bit of their thunder when they won 4 Super Bowl titles the rest of the decade of the ’70s, Shula kept his team competitive through 2 more decades until he retired as pro football’s winningest coach in 1995. Overall his teams reached 6 Super Bowls and won a pair, and while accumulating his record 347 victories he coached different styles of play, going from a star QB in Baltimore, John Unitas, to the bruising run game, stingy defense of his ’70s teams to a wide open passing offense with Dan Marino. He is a coaching legend indeed in NFL football lore – the winningest coach in the league’s 100 year history that is being celebrated this season.

 

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Triumphant coach Shula carried off the field after Super Bowl VII

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Right Player, Wrong Uniform

03 Oct

It’s Throwback Thursday time again as week 5 of the NFL schedule approaches, and the game on this week’s slate that we’ll match up with is a battle between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. It’s the second week in a row we highlight a game involving the G-Men, and this one harkens back to September 21, 1969, when the Giants played at Yankee Stadium. It’s important because it’s a Viking contest involving one of the icons of that franchise, quarterback Fran Tarkenton. The thing is, on this day, Tarkenton was the quarterback for the Giants. After being the face of the franchise from the beginning, in 1961, until 1966, he had been traded to the Giants prior to the 1967 season. This game wasn’t the first time he got the chance to face his old club. The two teams met in Minnesota in ’67 and although Tarkenton did yeoman’s work by throwing for 3 touchdowns, the Vikings prevailed 27-24. This time the game looked like it might go the same way. The scrambling Tarkenton threw a 54 yard scoring pass to Homer Jones and led a drive to a field goal, but the Vikings’ QB, Gary Cuozzo, bested that by hooking up with his wide receivers, John Henderson and Gene Washington, on long touchdown passes as the Vikings pulled ahead in the fourth quarter 23-10. Washington had a big day with 7 receptions for 152 yards and the TD.

The determined Tarkenton was never one to give up, though, and on this day, he hunkered down and engineered a pair of scoring drives late in the game. Using his patented scrambling style, some tough running from Tucker Frederickson and pinpoint passing, he hit flanker Don Hermann twice for touchdowns, from 16 and 10 yards out, to pull out a 24-23 win for New York. It was a gratifying season-opening victory for Fran and his team, but wasn’t a harbinger of things to come for either team in the 1969 season. The Giants wound up 6-8 while Minnesota lost only one other game all season on their way to the NFL title, before being upset by the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. However, they were a strong team for sure. The 24 points they gave up to Tarkenton and the Giants on this day was the most they would surrender in a single game all season. Tarkenton, incidentally, would be traded back to the Vikings after spending 5 seasons in New York and lead them to the Super Bowl 3 times, losing all three.

 

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Fran Tarkenton with the Giants in 1969, the NFL’s 50th season

 

NFL 100 – AFL Quarterbacks

03 Oct

As I have already stated in earlier NFL 100 posts, the story of the league’s 100 year history is not complete without mention of the contributions of the American Football League, which began play in 1960 and merged with the NFL later that decade to form what is today’s vastly popular sport. The AFL teams that began play in ’60 are all celebrating their 60th year of existence this season. I’m writing this post to remember the quarterbacks who helped the fledgling league get off the ground and grow into an entity that would attract fans and survive against the stiff competition from the established NFL. The quarterbacks who I speak of all have one thing in common. They had opportunities to play in the NFL but couldn’t crack the rosters of any of the teams in the older league, which had only 12 teams at the time. Remembering that Bart Starr was a 17th round draft choice and John Unitas was cut by Pittsburgh before finding success, the NFL management teams, who were certainly a lot less sophisticated than today’s, were capable of making mistakes. So the AFL gave some of the signal callers who came up short of success in the NFL what they needed – opportunity. Of course, sportswriters who followed the NFL, with encouragement from NFL executives, ridiculed all the AFL guys as “NFL rejects”. Some of them turned out to be a lot more than that, and all of them gave the fans of their hometown clubs reason to cheer. Here are some of their stories:

George Blanda, the original QB of the Houston Oilers who led that team to the first 2 AFL championships, could hardly be called an “NFL reject”. He spent 10 years in the older league, mostly with the Chicago Bears. He was a backup quarterback most of those years but it was an injury, not poor play, that relegated him to that duty. He had been retired for a year when the AFL came calling and he grabbed the opportunity, quickly setting AFL passing records and becoming one of the league’s first star players. His career, which began in 1949, lasted until 1975 and although by then he was mostly just a placekicker, he still earned his way in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans, who would eventually become the Kansas City Chiefs, also turned to a guy who couldn’t cut it in the NFL, Cotton Davidson. He had a cup of coffee with the Baltimore Colts in the mid-1950s but had been out of football for 2 years when he joined the club. He only lasted 2 years in Dallas because the team’s coach, Hank Stram, decided to bring in a player he had a close relationship with while he was an assistant coach at Purdue, Len Dawson. Dawson and Stram went on to have great success. They won the AFL title in their first season together in 1962 and after moving to Kansas City upset the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Davidson didn’t fade away, however. He moved on to Oakland where he guided the Raiders through some tough early years into a successful transition to winning under Al Davis, from 1962 until 1968, sharing QB duties with a future Raider coach, Tom Flores.

 

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Al Davis, Cotton Davidson talk strategy with Tom Flores nearby

Sid Gillman, picked to coach the Los Angeles Chargers, came to the new league with the reputation of having built an offensive powerhouse with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL in the ’50s. He did the same with the Chargers, at first using another recycled NFL signal caller in Jack Kemp. Kemp guided the team, in L.A. and in 1961 in San Diego, to title game appearances. The team went to rookie John Hadl in 1962 and faltered to a losing season. Early in ’62 they tried to sneak Kemp through waivers and the Buffalo Bills claimed him for the $100 waiver price. Another ex-NFLer, Tobin Rote, was brought in and he led the Chargers to a win in the title game in ’63. Rote and Hadl split the QB duties the next year but Hadl eventually won the job and developed into one of the AFL’s top stars. Meanwhile in Buffalo, Bills’ coach Lou Saban was thrilled to get the veteran Kemp to lead his team, and lead he did, combining a top offensive attack with the AFL’s best defense to win back-to-back championships in the mid-1960s. Buffalo had struggled to stabilize the QB position in their early years. Their first draft pick ever, college star Richie Lucas, was supposed to be the cornerstone of the new team but turned out to be a bust. The team cycled through no-names like Johnny Green, Tommy O’Connell, Warren Rabb, M.C. Reynolds and Al Dorow before Kemp came on board and steadied the ship.

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Jack Kemp fires a “jump pass” against the Oilers

The New York Titans, like Buffalo, struggled to find a quarterback at first. Their initial starter was Dorow, but they swapped him out with the Bills for Johnny Green, and over time, tried the likes of Dick Jameison, Butch Songin, Lee Grosscup, Dick Wood, Galen Hall and Pete Liske before landing the guy who would save the franchise, and possibly the entire league, Joe Namath, in 1965. In Boston, the Patriots began their inaugural season with Songin under center. Seeing a pattern here? Yes, the early AFL teams pretty much played musical QBs with guys like Dorow, Green and Songin trying to find a combination that worked. The Pats found their man early in 1961 when Vito “Babe” Parilli took the reins of their offense. He led the team through most of the AFL’s existence and made them a solid Eastern Division contender almost every year. The final team of the 8 AFL original franchises for us to cover was the Denver Broncos. They were the losingest club of all among the AFL’s teams in the 10 year existence of the league and were so cheap they wore old high school uniforms with ugly vertical striped socks in their first year, but that didn’t mean they had no exciting quarterbacks. For a lousy team, they had some of the AFL’s most thrilling players, like Gene Mingo, Lionel Taylor and their QB, Frank Tripucka. Tripucka kept the faltering Denver team afloat in their first 4 seasons, guiding a wild and wooly offensive attack. A reject of both the NFL and the Canadian Football League, he played well enough in those early years that his jersey number 18 is retired by the franchise. When the Broncos signed Peyton Manning in 2012, Tripucka granted the Broncos permission to “unretire” the number so Manning could wear it. Tripucka eventually gave way to the likes of Mickey Slaughter, Jacky Lee and John McCormick as Bronco QBs, while the team compiled the worst record of all in the AFL’s existence. Almost all of these gladiator signal callers are mere footnotes in pro football’s 100 year history, but they all carved out their small slice of that history, collectively lifting up the sport until it grew into the television spectacle it is today.

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Denver’s Frank Tripucka, sporting his vertical striped socks

 

NFL 100 – Chuck Noll

02 Oct

The subject of today’s NFL 100 feature is a man who almost singlehandedly turned around the fortunes of a struggling franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. That man was Chuck Noll, a no-nonsense, unassuming coach who disdained the spotlight. For that reason, he often gets overlooked in many discussions of greatest coaches of all time, but he certainly belongs there. Noll is considered a branch of the coaching “tree” of two of pro football’s most innovative minds – Paul Brown and Sid Gillman. He was an undersized offensive lineman while playing for Brown’s Cleveland Browns’ teams in the 1950s, and was used by Brown as a “messenger guard” to bring in plays from the coach to his quarterback, one of the legendary coach’s many innovations. Brown once said that Noll was a such a smart player that he could’ve just let him decide what play to send in rather than giving it to him. Brown’s “coaching tree” includes some all-time greats, namely Noll, Don Shula, Lou Saban, Weeb Ewbank and later in Cincinnati, Bill Walsh. Noll’s playing career lasted 7 years, all with the Browns, and included 2 championship seasons. He decided to retire at age 27 to hopefully begin a coaching career at his alma mater, the University of Dayton. To his surprise, Dayton didn’t offer him a job but the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League, Gillman, asked him to join his staff as an assistant. That staff included 3 future Pro Football Hall of Famers in Gillman, Noll and Al Davis.

 

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1960 Chargers’ coaching staff – Gillman kneeling, Joe Madro, Chuck Noll, Al Davis, Jack Faulkner

Noll worked on the Chargers’ staff for 6 seasons, a stint that included 5 championship game appearances, before moving on to Baltimore to become the Colts’ chief defensive coach (they didn’t designate them as “coordinators” back then), under Don Shula. His star began rising quickly at that point and within 3 years he got the head coaching job with the Steelers in 1969. The franchise was one of the worst in the NFL at the time, and would be moving over to the American Conference in 1970 when the merger of the two leagues became final. He didn’t find instant success there, either, as his first 3 seasons ended with losing records, including a one-win season in his first at the helm. The club showed gradual improvement and Noll and the front office used that time to load the team up with future stars. They added Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and in the 1974 draft they plucked 4 future Hall of Famers in Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. The franchise eventually turned the corner and became the dominant force of the league in the 1970s, winning an unprecedented 4 Super Bowls. Their “Steel Curtain” defense regularly shut down opponents and not only did they rule the decade, they never looked back to their losing ways in their early years. Noll coached from ’69 until he retired in 1991 but he set a standard for consistency and winning in the Steel City that still exists today. They’ve only had 2 more coaches since Noll – Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, each of whom has also won a Super Bowl. The shy, unassuming coach, who passed away in 2014, should be remembered as one of the greats of the game in its’ first 100 years.

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Steeler legend Chuck Noll