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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Sad-Sack Bucs Break Through

08 Dec

The surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the New Orleans Saints on this week’s NFL schedule, trying to keep their playoff hopes alive. There was a time when the Tampa Bay franchise couldn’t dream of making the playoffs, and that’s the subject of this week’s Throwback Thursday feature. It happened on December 11, 1977 – a game played between these 2 teams, the Bucs and the Saints. It was historic because it was Tampa’s first victory in franchise history. A team’s first win ever is always a memorable moment, but this day was even more historic, because the hapless Bucs went nearly 2 full seasons before finally breaking into the win column. The NFL played a 14 game schedule at the time, and the Bucs went winless, 0-14, in their inaugural season in 1976. They followed that up with 12 straight losses in ’77, before meeting up with the equally inept Saints on this day.

Tampa’s first 2 years in the league were so laughable that if you check out the old NFL films “blooper” features from the mid-’70s, you’ll find that they’re loaded with Buccaneer lowlights. Their head coach, John McKay, had been a highly-respected college coach at Southern California before taking the Bucs’ job, and luckily, for his own sanity, he had a great sense of humor. Once he was asked in a post-game press conference to comment on his offense’s execution. He answered “I’m in favor of it.” Another time, summing up his team’s performance in a game: “We didn’t tackle well today, but we made up for it by not blocking.” After a 42-0 loss to the Steelers, McKay was asked what his thoughts were during the game. He responded: “I felt like leaving the stadium and hitch-hiking home.” His joking manner and the team’s play earned the Bucs the nickname “The Yucks”.

Although they were a butt of all kinds of jokes in their early days, the Buccaneers’ defense had always been a decent unit, fighting hard in most games even though they had little chance of ever winning. Against the Saints on this day, however, they took matters into their own hands. On a day when the offense, led by journeyman quarterback Gary Huff, played with its’ usual ineptness, the defense hammered the Saints all day, forcing 7 turnovers, including 6 interceptions, 2 of which were returned for touchdowns by Mike Washington and Richard Wood. Also, Greg Johnson recovered a fumble in the end zone for a TD. That meant 3 of the Bucs’ 4 touchdowns that day were provided by the defense in a 33-14 thrashing. Huff pitched in with a short scoring pass to Morris Owens, but he threw for only 96 yards total on the day. In fact, the 2 teams combined for only 488 total yards on the day. In today’s game, the top-flight quarterbacks have passing yardage totals for a single game like that regularly. There were also 18 penalties called on the day against both teams, totaling 157 yards, another sign that it was a game played between 2 sad sack franchises.

All jokes aside, this was a day for the Tampa Bay franchise to celebrate, especially the defense, which was a proud unit despite all the losing and finally was rewarded for it’s efforts.  Players like Washington, Wood, Johnson, LeeRoy and Dewey Selmon, Dave Lewis and Jeris White finally got a moment in the sun. Incidentally, the Bucs finished the ’77 season on a high note, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 17-7 in their finale to finish 2-12.

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Tampa Bay’s first head coach, John McKay

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Fergy’s Coming Out Party

01 Dec

The Oakland Raiders, one of 2016’s surprise teams, host the Buffalo Bills this Sunday in a game with massive playoff implications for both teams. For this week’s Throwback Thursday feature game, we’ll travel back to opening weekend of the 1974 season for a matchup between these two old AFL clubs. Played on September 16, 1974, it was the opening Monday Night Football game of that season, and featured the powerhouse Raider club of coach John Madden against the Bills and their record-breaking running back, O.J. Simpson, who had eclipsed the 2,000 yard rushing mark the previous season. “The Juice” was the featured player in the Bills’ offense, which was a classic ground and pound rushing attack that relied on the elusive running style of Simpson and the blocking and bruising running style of his backfield mate, fullback Jim Braxton. The other member of Buffalo’s backfield was a young second year quarterback, Joe Ferguson, who had been a rookie third round draft pick out of Arkansas in 1973 and was coach Lou Saban’s choice to become the team’s starter in his rookie campaign. Despite being an inexperienced first year player, Ferguson didn’t have to worry much about carrying his team on his shoulders in ’73, as his main job was to turn around and hand the ball off to Simpson, and occasionally Braxton. The plan entering the ’74 campaign was pretty much the same, and on this opening nationally televised Monday Night game, the Bills attacked the rough and tumble Raider defense with a steady diet of their running backs. Ferguson completed a short scoring pass to J.D. Hill for the only touchdown of the first half, with the Raiders countering with a George Blanda field goal.

The Bills entered halftime with a 7-3 lead, but shortly before the mid-game break, something happened that changed the course of this contest – O.J. suffered a sprained ankle and would not return in the second half, putting a ton of unexpected pressure on Ferguson’s shoulders to produce some offense with his arm in the second half. Getting an obvious lift from Simpson’s absence, the Raiders scored on a 15 yard Clarence Davis run and added another Blanda field goal to surge ahead 17-13 going into the final quarter. Ferguson came of age in that final stanza, however. He drove his club downfield and hit wideout Ahmad Rashad with an eight yard TD toss to regain the lead. Then Oakland’s Art Thoms picked up a Buffalo fumble and ran 29 yards to paydirt to give the Raiders a 20-14 lead. Fergy responded again, driving the Bills downfield, without the aid of Simpson’s running, and capping the drive with another scoring pass to Rashad, this time from 13 yards out, as the Bills captured a hard-fought 21-20 win. Ferguson would go on to prove his worth as a solid NFL signal caller, playing 12 seasons with Buffalo and 17 total years in the league.

 

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Buffalo Bills’ QB Joe Ferguson

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Saints Come Marching In

24 Nov

The New Orleans Saints face the Los Angeles Rams on this week’s NFL schedule, so this week for our Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to opening day of the 1967 season, when the Rams took on New Orleans in the Saints’ very first game in the history of their franchise. NFL owners weren’t very kind to expansion franchises in those days, allowing them to only stock their teams with aging veterans and castoffs through an expansion draft, although they were allotted extra picks in the college draft. Coached by Hall of Famer Tom Fears, New Orleans went for a big name in the expansion draft when they plucked star running back Paul Hornung from the powerhouse Green Bay Packers, but the move backfired as a spinal cord injury forced Hornung to retire before ever playing a game for the Saints. Their roster was dotted with past-their-prime players like Billy Kilmer, Jim Taylor, Ernie Wheelwright, Doug Atkins and Jackie Burkett.

Fans in the Crescent City found reason to be optimistic after the Saints finished 5-1 in the preseason, and when rookie John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff in the opener against the Rams 94 yards for a touchdown, there was outright jubilation. One fan supposedly jumped up and yelled “this is going to be the greatest football team in history!” when Gilliam reached the end zone. Reality set in eventually, however, and Ram quarterback Roman Gabriel ran 2 yards for a score and threw a TD pass to Les Josephson, while Dick Bass ran for another touchdown as the Rams prevailed 27-13. The Saints finished the ’67 season with a 3-11 record, finishing last in the Capitol Division but playing competitive football in nearly every game. Some bright spots came out of that inaugural season for the new franchise, as defensive back Dave Whitsell came up with 10 interceptions to lead the league and set a team record that still stands to this day, earning him a Pro Bowl berth. Also, a young rookie receiver named Danny Abramowicz emerged as a rising star, one who would continue his excellent play for seven years with the Saints, becoming one of only a few bright lights to shine during a dismal losing stretch that would last over 20 years.

 

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John Gilliam returns opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Monsters of The Midway

17 Nov

On this week’s NFL schedule, there is a clash of 2 of the oldest franchises in the league, the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. Our Throwback Thursday feature harkens back to the 1963 NFL championship game played between these teams on December 29, 1963 at Wrigley Field, and was the fifth and final title game played at the venerable old ballpark. Wrigley was without lights in those days, and then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle asked Bears’ owner George Halas to move the game to Soldier Field, which was uninhabited since the Cardinals had moved to St. Louis in 1960. Halas refused, so Rozelle, fearing the game could go into multiple overtimes and into darkness, moved the starting time up from 1 PM to noon. This was the Bears’ first appearance in the title game since 1956, when they lost to these same Giants at Yankee Stadium. Halas’ club had ridden the efforts of a fierce defense nicknamed “The Monsters of The Midway” to an 11-1-2 record and the Western Division championship, breaking a 2 year run of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. The Giants, meanwhile, were an offensive powerhouse guided by aging quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who had a spectacular season throwing the ball, leading the league with a then-record 36 touchdown passes.

The game was a classic matchup of a stingy defense and a high-scoring offense, and as the old adage goes, offense sells tickets but defense wins championships. The Bears prevailed 14-10  as Tittle was subjected to some brutal punishment from the Chicago defense. Coached by future head coaching legend George Allen, the Bears’ defense dominated the NFL in the regular season, allowing just a shade over 10 points per game and finishing first in all statistical categories for the year, including in total interceptions with 36. Allen concocted a zone defense that combined a strong pass rush led by ends Doug Atkins and Ed O’Bradovich, a strong secondary that featured Rosey Taylor and Richie Petitbon, and a crew of linebackers who were both strong tacklers against the run and defended the short pass well in Bill George, Joe Fortunato and Larry Morris. Tittle had some success early as he led the Giants on an 83 yard scoring drive capped off by a 14 yard touchdown pass to flanker Frank Gifford, but was mauled by the Bears for most of the game.  He completed only 11 of 29 passes in the game and was intercepted 5 times. He also suffered a knee injury in the second quarter that affected his play the rest of the game.

Chicago’s quarterback was also an aging veteran, Bill Wade. He scored both of his team’s touchdowns on short QB sneaks, both set up by his defense. Allen, the defensive wizard, was awarded a game ball for his unit’s dominating performance, while the beating Tittle took effectively ended his career. He came back to play the next season but the Giants finished with a 2-10-2 record. In the second game of the year he was blind-sided by Pittsburgh’s John Baker and suffered crushed cartilage in his ribs, a cracked sternum and a concussion, but still played in every remaining game that year before retiring at the end of the season.

 

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Bear linebackers, from left, Larry Morris, Bill George and Joe Fortunato

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Cardiac Cards

10 Nov

There is an NFC West division matchup on this week’s NFL schedule pitting the San Francisco 49ers against the Arizona Cardinals, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll go back to a game played between these 2 franchises on Halloween in 1976. The Cardinals were based in St. Louis at the time, and played in the Eastern Division of the NFC while the Niners were an NFC West team. Played at Busch Stadium, the game featured a matchup of Cardinal coach Don Coryell’s wide-open offense, guided by veteran quarterback Jim Hart, against a San Francisco team led by former top draft pick Jim Plunkett, who had been a bust in New England and was trying to revive his career with the 49ers. Both teams entered the game with 6-2 records so it was an important game for their respective playoff chances. It was a close, exciting game, with the 49ers riding the hard running of Delvin Williams, who rushed for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Cardinals countered with a balanced attack as Jim Otis ran for 109 yards while Hart threw for 3 touchdowns, including a 77 yard bomb to Mel Gray that tied the game at 20-20 at the end of regulation, sending it into overtime. Hart then led his club on a drive culminating in a game-winning 21 yard field goal by Jim Bakken. The Cards won 23-20,  a typical win for coach Coryell’s team, who had made a habit of winning these types of nail-biters over the years, earning the nickname of the “Cardiac Cards”.

Ironically, neither team made the playoffs that year. San Francisco faded in the second half of the year and wound up at 8-6, finishing second in the NFC West. The Cardinals wound up with a better record at 10-4, but they were third in their division, the extremely competitive NFC East. Plunkett’s play eroded as the season went on, and he was dispatched by the Niners. It appeared as if his playing days were over as he failed with a second team. However, he found a home after that with the Oakland Raiders, a club known for taking chances on troubled players, and went on to great success, winning a pair of Super Bowls as the Raiders’ quarterback.

 

St. Louis’ Jim Hart calls signals behind his dominating offensive line

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Play-In Playoff

03 Nov

The Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers meet on the NFL schedule this week, and for our Thursday Throwback we will highlight a “sort of” playoff game between these 2 teams, played the day after Christmas  in 1965, that wasn’t technically a playoff game. The Colts and Packers had finished tied for the Western Division title, and this game needed to be played to determine who would represent the West in the NFL Championship game the following week against the Eastern Division champion (and defending league champion) Cleveland Browns. The Colts were at a dramatic disadvantage going into the game as both of their quarterbacks, John Unitas and Gary Cuozzo, were injured, forcing coach Don Shula to play his starting halfback, Tom Matte, at quarterback. The Colts had ruled the Western Division the previous season and were vying for the chance to seek revenge for the being shut out by the underdog Browns in ’64, but the lack of a viable signal caller made them heavy underdogs in this game.

Armed with a wrist band that contained the team’s offensive plays, Matte proceeded to play a competitive game for the Colts, although he didn’t accomplish much through the air. The playing field was leveled somewhat for Baltimore when Packer QB Bart Starr was hurt early on, forcing coach Vince Lombardi to go with his backup, Zeke Bratkowski. With a backup and a converted running back running the team’s offenses, the game predictably became a defensive struggle between 2 of the NFL’s strongest units, and the Colts clung to a slim 10-7 lead until just after the two minute warning, when a play occurred that would alter NFL history. Green Bay placekicker Don Chandler booted a 22 yard field goal that appeared to sail wide right, but the official signaled it to be good. Chandler even lowered his head in disappointment at what he thought was a miss. At the time, the league had just one ref, positioned directly under the goalposts, to judge field goals.  The Packers went on to win the game in overtime as Chandler made good on another three point attempt, this time from 25 yards out. When replays seemed to clearly show that Chandler’s game-tying kick had indeed gone wide, the league decided to raise the length of the uprights to the height that they are in today’s game for the following season. It was just another example of a controversial play in NFL history leading to an improvement to avoid future miscues by officials. The Packers then went on to defeat Cleveland in the title game, beginning a stretch of 3 consecutive championship seasons for Lombardi’s club.

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Tom Matte, Baltimore’s “emergency QB” 

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The First Monday Night Football Game Ever Played

27 Oct

On this week’s NFL schedule, the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns square off, so for our Throwback Thursday feature I am going to re-post, from 2010, a story about a game played between these two franchises – the very first Monday Night Football game ever played. Here it is:

Monday Night Football  has become a weekly tradition in itself after humble beginnings in 1970. NFL football in 1970 was completely different than the game today, but there was so much “newness” going on at that time that the game was really starting to become the nation’s real national pastime. At the point where the NFL decided to try the Monday night experiment, the league had just merged with the American Football League and realigned itself into the National and American Conferences. Three NFL teams – Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Colts – were transferred into the AFC to balance out the 2 conferences. So even though the first MNF matchup between the Browns and New York Jets was technically a game between 2 AFC teams, it was far from that. The NFL had long claimed superiority over the AFL until the Jets and Kansas City Chiefs pulled off huge Super Bowl upsets and cemented the AFL’s place as an equally-talented league. The Browns-Jets matchup opened the MNF season in 1970 after the Chiefs had beaten the Vikings in SB IV, and Namath’s Jets were already over a year removed from their upset win over the Colts in SB III that changed pro football forever. The Browns were a proud NFL team that was getting its’ shot at quieting the brash, young upstart quarterback from the AFL, Joe Namath. The broadcast team for the game was not the famous trio that put MNF on the map – Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. Keith Jackson was the play-by-play man in the first season, but the following year moved to doing college telecasts for ABC and was replaced by Gifford. Cosell, of course, became the star of the MNF show over time and was hated by fans everywhere for his pompous attitude, but that was all part of the show. In fact, ABC’s Roone Arledge completely changed the way games were covered, introducing more sideline closeups of players and coaches and microphones to catch what was being said on the sidelines. There was more drama and showmanship brought into the broadcasts, and interviews of famous people by Cosell in the booth became commonplace. Ronald Reagan and John Lennon were just 2 of the people Cosell interviewed during the games. You were nobody if you hadn’t been interviewed by Cosell on MNF back then. Also, Cosell’s halftime highlight show became hugely popular.

Howard Cosell

As for the first game itself, the Browns, with veteran Bill Nelsen at quarterback, future Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly having long since replaced Jim Brown as the featured back, and veteran split end Gary Collins running circles around a young, inexperienced Jet secondary, jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The Jets cut it to 14-7 at halftime, then Homer Jones made the biggest play of his career by returning the second half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown to widen the Browns’ lead to 21-7. Namath rallied the Jets back to within 24-21, but late in the game threw an interception that LB Billy Andrews returned for a touchdown that climaxed a 31-21 Cleveland victory. The Browns gave the NFL old guard a small measure of revenge for the 2 previous Super Bowls with the win, but the sport was on it’s way to evolving into the entertainment giant it is today. Pete Rozelle’s vision of growing the game, with the merger, Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl, has grown beyond even his wildest dreams.

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “Merry Freakin’ Christmas!”

20 Oct

Just a couple of weeks ago we featured a game for a Throwback Thursday post from the Philadelphia Eagles’ dismal 1968 season, the Thanksgiving Mud Bowl. On this week’s NFL schedule, the Eagles take on the Minnesota Vikings, and not to pick on that hapless ’68 Eagle team, but with these 2 franchises facing off we had to feature another Philadelphia game, from December of ’68, between these 2 teams that became infamous because Eagle fans, weary of watching their team lose all year, actually booed and assaulted Santa Claus. The game itself wasn’t very memorable. The Vikings, a far superior team that year, won 24-17. Viking quarterback Joe Kapp had a pretty good game, running for a touchdown and tossing TD passes to Bill Brown and Gene Washington.

Played on December 15th, and being the Eagles’ final home game of the season, a halftime Christmas pageant was planned, a yearly tradition at old Franklin Field for the home finale. There had been a snowstorm earlier in the morning, and the guy who was supposed to play Santa in the pageant decided not to show up, leaving the team’s staff in a predicament. Unlike the movie Miracle On 34th Street, the real Santa didn’t appear to save the day. Enter Frank Olivo, a former Atlantic City craps dealer and Eagle season ticket holder who always dressed up in a Santa suit each year for the last home game. Team officials spotted him in the crowd and asked him to step in for the missing regular Santa in the pageant. He reluctantly agreed, and at halftime, walked out onto the field along with the other members of the pageant, waving to the crowd as he was asked to do. The game itself was competitive at that point, tied at 7-7 at the half, so no one really knows what put the Philly faithful in such a foul mood, but the crowd began to boo the poor substitute Kris Kringle. Maybe it was because he was a little too skinny to be a believable Santa, maybe it was his tattered suit, maybe it was the fact that the Eagles were just plain lousy that year and the fans were fed up. But on top of the booing, some fans decided to start pelting Olivo with snowballs, and before long he was running for his own safety.

In an interview years later, Olivo said at one point as he was running for cover he spotted a fan in the first row and watched him grab some snow, pack it into a snowball and fire it at him. He ran up to the wall, pointed his finger at the offender and yelled, “You’re not getting anything for Christmas!” Olivo wound up becoming a legend in Philadelphia sports history, and if you want to get a glimpse of some of what he was facing in the Franklin Field stands that day, take a look at the picture of him below in his place in the stands. It almost looks like he was smack dab in the middle of the local Mafia section.

 

 

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Frank Olivo, AKA Santa Claus, in the stands in Philadelphia

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “No Punt Intended”

13 Oct

Non-conference matchups on the NFL schedule occur between franchises only every four years, so there aren’t anywhere near the amount of classic games to choose from for my weekly Throwback Thursday feature as there are for divisional rivals. However, every once in awhile one pops up that is memorable and stands out as the one I need to showcase for that week. This week, the AFC’s Buffalo Bills match up with the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers, which harkens back to a game played between these two teams on September 13, 1992, when both franchises were league powerhouses. They played a classic game that featured a ton of offense, and wound up being the first one ever played in NFL history in which neither team punted. Yes, San Francisco’s Klaus Wilmsmeyer and Buffalo’s Chris Mohr, their team’s respective punters, had the day off. The game is now known in NFL lore as “The No Punt Game”.

It was one of those games that gets described as a “shootout”, as the two clubs, led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young, combined to amass 1,086 yards of total offense. Each threw 3 touchdown passes, which is far short of the league record for most combined TDs, and even the final score of 34-31 in favor of the Bills wasn’t that high compared to some of the point totals racked up in today’s Madden video game style of play. Still, it was a fun game to watch with lots of thrills and big plays provided by Kelly and Young and by both their star teammates like Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Ricky Watters, and by lesser known players like John Taylor, Mike Sherrard, Odessa Turner and Pete Metzelaars. Despite all the offense, there wasn’t a 100 yard rusher in the game, but there were 4 100+ yard receivers, two for each team. One large oddity of the game: Future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, the greatest wideout of all time, had 3 catches for a paltry 26 yards for the 49ers.

Taylor caught 2 of Young’s 3 TD passes, while tight end Metzelaars caught a pair of Kelly’s. The offensive explosion was a little more rare to see than it is today, but despite all the back-and-forth action and the brilliant aerial display by both QBs, the winning touchdown came on a running play. It was an 11 yard scamper by the Bills’ Thomas, and was the only score in the fourth quarter.

 

 

San Francisco 49ers vs. Buffalo Bills at Candlestick Park Sunday, September 12, 1992. Bills beat 49ers 34-31. San Francisco 49ers tight end Jamie Williams (81) attempts to tackle Buffalo Bills defensive back Nate Odomes (37) after interception.

Buffalo’s Nate Odomes returns an interception in the No Punt Game

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Thanksgiving Mud Bowl

06 Oct

This week’s NFL schedule pairs the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles against each other, which takes this week’s Throwback Thursday feature back to Thanksgiving Day of 1968, to a dull, sloshing game between these 2 teams that became known as the “Thanksgiving Mud Bowl”. You rarely see games like this played nowadays with the advent of artificial playing fields and domed stadiums, but even as boring as it was, it was REAL football played in REAL conditions. In an era known for a style of play that was labeled “three yards and a cloud of dust”, this contest was more like “three yards and a cloud of slop”. There was very little offense displayed by either team, as the field conditions at Tiger Stadium were a quagmire due to 36 consecutive hours of rain in the Detroit area. Lions’ linebacker Wayne Walker described the muddy field as being “ankle deep”, while a Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter wrote that “Tiger Stadium’s turf made the average pig’s quarters appear to be wall-to-wall carpeted by comparison.”

 

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Eagle QB Norm Snead prepares to hand off in the 1968 Thanksgiving Day “Mud Bowl”

The Eagles wound up winning the contest 12-0 on 4 field goals by placekicker Sam Baker. Although there was very little action in the game, there was plenty of controversy afterwards, due to a situation eerily similar to the recent New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” episode. In the 1960s, the NFL had a rule that only the home team was to provide footballs for game action, with the officials not having any control over the use of the balls like they do in today’s game. But on each of their field goal attempts, the Eagles’ equipment manager snuck dry balls in to the holder, Joe Scarpati, giving Baker a decided edge over the Lions, who used the wet, muddy balls on their possessions. Karma caught up with the Philadelphia club, however. They had a terrible season, but the Thanksgiving win turned out to be just enough to cost them the top draft pick in the next NFL draft. Buffalo got the pick instead and the Bills were able to choose O.J. Simpson. The Eagles wound up picking the forgettable Leroy Keyes.

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More action from 1968’s “Thanksgiving Mud Bowl”