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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

19 Jan

The fourth and final section of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review is our favorite part, where we put on the general manager’s hat and make suggestions as to what the team needs to do to improve going into next season. It’ll be a much easier offseason for Brandon Beane and the front office compared to last year, when they had major holes to fill all across the roster. Beane did yeoman’s work to fill those holes in both free agency and the draft, and the results of that work were positive as the team turned its’ record around from 6-10 to 10-6 while claiming a wild card playoff spot. Here is our list of needs for the Bills, with suggestions as to how to go about filling them:

 

Quarterback

 

This should come with an asterisk as it really just means backup* QB. Josh Allen is firmly entrenched as the starter, but it would behoove the Bills to kick the tires on some veteran backups to battle Matt Barkley in training camp for the clipboard carrier’s job. Most of the available “backup” types, like Washington’s Case Keenum and Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel of Chicago or Kansas City’s Matt Moore, are well into their 30s so the Bills would be looking at a short term deal. Maybe the team would consider bringing back an old friend to be third string QB and a special teams contributor, Joe Webb III of Houston.

 

Running Back

 

While Devin Singletary is poised to carry the load as the lead back next season, the situation behind him will likely change. Frank Gore faded as the season went on and he may not even decide to play another year. T.J. Yeldon was rarely used and has to be looking for a different situation where he can get on the field more. Senorise Perry is also a free agent. That leaves Christian Wade as the sole returnee so Buffalo has to add some depth in the backfield. Kenyan Drake, who exploded onto the scene after being traded from Miami to Arizona, figures to cash in on his play from the second half of 2019 with the Cardinals. He would be an ideal complementary back to Singletary but may cost a bit too much for the Bills’ liking. Philadelphia’s Jordan Howard and Jonathan Williams of the Colts are a couple of younger and cheaper options. If they stay true to their formula, they’ll add a back in the draft, probably in the mid-to-late rounds. Players in that category are A.J. Dillon of Boston College, Lamical Perine of Florida and Benny Lemay of Charlotte.

 

Wide Receiver

 

This is the position that Buffalo is in the most need of an upgrade on offense. The additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley improved the receiving corps immensely in 2019 but there is still a need for a big, fast, strong pass catcher who makes the contested catches. Bills’ fans have clamored for Cincinnati’s A.J. Green but he is 32 years old and injury prone. The only WR on the market who comes close to filling the above-mentioned needs for Buffalo is Amari Cooper of Dallas. I see the team using the draft to get their man, with a deep class of receivers available. This position has a great chance of being the top priority of the team in the first round with the talent available. Players likely available at the Bills’ slot at # 22 are Tee Higgins of Clemson and Laviska Shenault of Colorado, both dynamic playmakers. If Brandon Beane waits until the second round to grab a receiver, Justin Jefferson of national champion LSU and Michael Pittman Jr. of USC are candidates. Possible late round gems are Bryan Edwards of South Carolina and Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool.

 

Linebacker

 

With Lorenzo Alexander retiring and the linebacking depth thin as it is, this position will be high on Beane’s list for additions. I believe the best free agent available, and a good fit for Buffalo’s defense, is New England’s Kyle Van Noy. Signing him would be the double hit of improving an already strong defense and weakening a tough Patriot defense. Matthew Judon of Baltimore is another interesting prospect. He is only 28 and a top young star on the Ravens’ defense. In the draft, Buffalo could go after Kenneth Murray of Oklahoma or LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson in the first round, or wait until round 2 and target Zack Baun of Wisconsin, Troy Dye of Oregon or Malik Harrison of Ohio State. Late round prospects include Carter Coughlin of Minnesota and Patrick Queen of LSU.

 

Edge Rusher

 

The lines between outside linebackers and edge rushers have been blurred in the last couple of years. The Bills still employ a defense that uses linebackers and defensive ends, and any edge rusher added would have to line up at one of those spots. As for free agents, Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree would be a nice addition, and although he’s up in years at 32 Carolina’s Mario Addison could be considered. In the draft, Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa would have to be looked at if he falls to the Bills in the first round, as would Curtis Weaver of Boise State. Later round sleepers are Alton Robinson of Syracuse and Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith.

 

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

17 Jan

In part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review we’ll do a position-by-position scan of the special teams and the unit that was most responsible for the team’s run to the playoffs in 2019, the defense. Here’s our critique, starting with the defense:

 

Defensive Line

 

Buffalo’s defensive line didn’t have a particular star player in 2019 but collectively did a good job in pressuring opposing passers and an adequate job stopping the run in most games. They overcame the retirement of Kyle Williams without missing a beat. In the interior, Jordan Phillips was a revelation, leading the team in sacks. Rookie Ed Oliver started out slowly but was a force in the middle as the season wore on and will be a cornerstone of the entire defensive unit moving forward. Star Lotulelei, who has been somewhat of a disappointment since signing a big free agent contract a couple of years ago, made his presence known more than ever this season and was one of a few Bills’ defenders that seemed to profit from coordinator Leslie Frazier’s more aggressive approach in 2019. Cory Luiget and Vincent Taylor are big bodied tackles who were brought in during the season and both showed some ability as space-eaters when they got a chance to play. Those 2 additions to the D-tackle rotation were made necessary when promising second year man Harrison Phillips was lost for the year early on. His return will be a big factor in 2020 and also may play into whether the Bills go all in to resign Jordan Phillips, who is now a restricted free agent and likely wants a big payday. The Bills’ rotational group at end is an interesting mix. Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy are veterans who consistently apply pressure on the pass rush but are inconsistent in racking up sacks. Hughes is a player who is always around the quarterback but doesn’t finish. If his tackling improved he could easily compile double digit sacks every year. Murphy’s performance ranges from dominant to invisible. Shaq Lawson, a former high draft pick, never really lived up to the hype until this season, when he was a good run defender and consistent pass rusher, despite a low sack count. Rookie late round pick Darryl Johnson showed a lot of potential to grow into a decent defensive end in his first year, and was a major special teams player also. Mike Love, a sleeper prospect who wound up on IR all year, will also be back in the mix in next year’s training camp. The team will employ a new defensive line coach, Eric Washington,  in 2020 and there is a lot of improvement to be had from the players he’ll coach.

 

Linebackers

 

The Bills had three solid starting linebackers in 2019 in Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, who is headed to his first Pro Bowl, and veteran Lorenzo Alexander. Alexander is retiring so there is a hole to fill in the lineup there for next year. They won’t enter the season expecting the holdover backups, Corey Thompson and Julian Stanford, to man that important position. Both are core special teamers and capable reserves but linebacker is a spot they’ll need to upgrade, and add depth to, in free agency and/or the draft. Two players who were on injured reserve, Vosean Joseph and Maurice Alexander, will be back to battle for the job. Joseph is more likely of the two to have a shot at winning the starting spot, as Alexander is the same type of player, a special teamer, as Thompson and Stanford. Tyrel Dodson, an undrafted rookie last season, could make some noise too. He showed enough in the way of intelligence and physical play in training camp last year to be kept around.

 

Defensive Backs

 

For the second straight season the secondary was the brightest unit on not only the defense but the entire Bills’ squad. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are as solid of a safety tandem as there is in the NFL, despite not getting much media attention. Tre’Davious White progressed into what many thought he would be when he was drafted, a first team All Pro cornerback. Across from him, Levi Wallace won the starting job and had his ups and downs but overall his play was acceptable. In the times he struggled this past season, Kevin Johnson took over and played well also. Johnson is a free agent now and the Bills should look to lock him up for another year. Taron Johnson, although prone to injury at times, has become a reliable slot corner. Usually practice squad members are afterthoughts when a team goes into the next season, but University at Buffalo product Cam Lewis has a legitimate chance of making the team next season. He showed enough in the preseason to be kept around despite the long odds of being an undrafted free agent from an unheralded program like UB’s. One of the most valuable members of the secondary, and even of the whole team, is the versatile Siran Neal. He has cemented his place on the club as it’s best special teams gunner, and also as a fill-in at both safety and the slot corner spot. Rookie safety Jaquan Johnson made some waves on special teams and has the look of a player who could have a future as a starter once Hyde or Poyer start to decline. A couple of veterans who have the Carolina pedigree that Beane and McDermott like, Dean Marlowe and Kurt Coleman, are strictly depth and special teams players.

 

Special Teams

 

The special teams for Buffalo were horrendous in 2018 and that led to the club bringing in a new coordinator, Heath Farwell, to lead the bomb squads. Unfortunately, the STs weren’t really special in 2019 either. Pro Bowl kick returner Andre Roberts was signed to add some spark to that part of the game, and although he was reliable and did a decent job, he wasn’t really that special and never provided the big play to help win a game or provide great field position for the offense. In other words, he could be counted on to not make costly mistakes but not to create the excitement of big returns. Perhaps they look to find a dynamic returner in the college draft, or maybe Christian Wade puts his rugby skills to work to provide some exciting returns. Kick coverage was mostly alright, although they did allow a 100+ yard return for a score to Miami. Long snapper Reid Ferguson was perfect all season. Punter Corey Bojorquez was inconsistent. He had a crucial punt blocked against New England that cost the Bills the game, and had more than a few shanks, but seemed to clean that up by season’s end. Still, some competition for his spot next season seems in order. The same could be said for placekicker Stephen Hauschka. He had a very inconsistent year but settled down to regain his “Hausch Money” nickname by season’s end. Of all the players whose main job was special teams, two were standouts in my book – Neal and Jaquan Johnson. Farwell’s job for next season should be to figure out how to get his units to help win games. Block a punt or a field goal maybe, or get some big plays in the return game that turn the tide of a game?

 

 

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

16 Jan

Part 2 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review will take a look at the offense. Here’s a position-by-position critique of the players on that side of the ball:

 

Quarterbacks

 

If there’s one word that describes the difference at the quarterback position for the Bills in 2019 compared to 2018 it’s this – stability. After a tumultuous 2018 season that saw the likes of Nate Peterman, Matt Barkley and Derek Anderson take turns guiding the offense, this past season saw second year prospect Josh Allen take the reins as the undisputed starter, and team leader, at the position. Allen showed tremendous progress as the season wore on in terms of cutting down turnovers and leading fourth quarter comebacks, and that progress was a major factor in the team racking up 10 wins on the year. He still made his share of mistakes and regressed into his “hero ball” personna at times, but if he continues to improve on the same arc he is on now the Bills truly have their franchise QB going into the future. Barkley did enough in 2018 to grab the backup spot, but it remains to be seen if the team looks to upgrade that important roster spot next season. There will be some interesting veterans looking for jobs this offseason. Does practice squad member Davis Webb have a chance to unseat Barkley? That should play out in next year’s training camp.

 

Running Backs

 

One of the big surprises of the 2019 campaign was the jettisoning of LeSean McCoy, the Bills’ workhorse back of previous seasons. That left the ball-carrying load in the hands of future Hall of Famer Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary. Gore carried the load early on and when Singletary was hurt, but as the season wore on the rookie took over as the lead back and Gore’s carries were diminished. There’s no doubt going into 2020 that Singletary is the main ball carrier and it’s not even likely the aging Gore will return for another season. T.J. Yeldon was a free agent signee who rarely was active on game days. I don’t see him returning to the Bills next year as he will want to find a team where he can have more opportunity to play. Senorise Perry is on the roster strictly for special teams and will have to fight hard to retain his spot next season. Christian Wade, the novelty rugby player who was on the practice squad in 2019, will get another crack at making the team. He showed flashes of promise in the preseason and it will be interesting to see how much further along he is in his development when he takes the field in camp. There is definitely room for another back, preferably one who would complement Singletary, to be brought into the fold for next season. Fullback Pat DiMarco is another player who is a regular on special teams and is used on offense almost strictly as a blocking back. Could the Bills save that roster spot by utilizing an extra lineman or a big defensive player in that blocking back role next year?

 

Receivers

 

The free agent additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley were an immense improvement over the Bills’ 2018 receiving corps. Brown provided a 1,000+ yard season while Beasley posted career high numbers as a slot security blanket for Allen. The rest of the receiver group provided mixed results. Isaiah McKenzie was usually the #3 wideout and he had his moments but wasn’t a consistent threat. He made most of his noise on jet sweep running plays. Duke Williams rarely saw the field and when he did he made some important plays as a big target for Allen, but again, wasn’t consistent enough as he also had some drops. Robert Foster regressed from 2018 and it appears he will be in for a fight to make the final roster next season, especially if the Bills add more receiving help as expected. Andre Roberts was almost exclusively used as a kick returner. He was extremely reliable but did nothing spectacular. The Bills will have 5 tight ends battling for jobs in 2020. Rookie Dawson Knox appears to have locked down the starting spot, and another first year player, Tommy Sweeney, was noticeable as a weapon in the rare chances he got to see action. Veteran Lee Smith is a locker room force and a good mentor for the young tight ends, but with his penchant for taking penalties he should struggle to stick with the club next year. Free agent addition Tyler Kroft lost much of the season to injury, but he’s signed on for additional years so he will probably be among the tight ends who are kept. Jason Croom became a forgotten man as he spent the season on injured reserve, but he’ll also be around to compete for a job.

 

Offensive Linemen

 

The Bills completely rebuilt their offensive line in 2019 with left tackle Dion Dawkins being the only returnee from the previous year to keep his job. GM Brandon Beane’s biggest free agent splash was signing center Mitch Morse to a long term contract and after dealing with concussion issues in the preseason Morse settled in to anchor the line all season. In the few instances when Morse was sidelined with injuries, another free agent, Jon Feliciano, showed his versatility by filling in at center. Otherwise Feliciano nailed down the starting right guard spot and performed admirably there all year. At left guard was Quinton Spain, signed away from Tennessee. He started at that position all season and didn’t allow a single sack in pass protection while also blocking well for the run. Veteran Ty Nsekhe came in as a free agent also and alternated at right tackle with rookie second round draft pick Cody Ford. When Nsekhe went down late in the year with an ankle injury Ford took over the spot full time and although he had his share of rookie hiccups he played well enough to give the team hope that they’ve found a long term answer for that position too. One of the tasks facing Beane this offseason will be resigning Spain, who came to Buffalo on a one year “prove it” deal. The big guard bet on himself and it paid off as he earned a big payday, hopefully from the Bills. There weren’t many times when the depth players on the line were called on to fill in as the Bills stayed miraculously healthy all year, but when the need arose Beane’s acquisitions filled the bill well. Spencer Long, signed for his versatility, played both center and guard at times and there wasn’t a noticeable decline in play. A preseason trade addition, Ryan Bates, also was a versatile addition. He wasn’t called on often but spent time at both guard and tackle and as an extra lineman when called for. He could be an excellent candidate to become the aforementioned “fullback” if the team decides to move on from Pat DiMarco. Ike Boettger was on the 53 man roster but with the good health of the regular linemen he rarely was active on game day. Another of Beane’s O-line free agents, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle, was hurt in training camp and spent the season on injured reserve. He was also on a one year contract and his status will be another decision the front office has to make for 2020. Overall, the team has to be ecstatic over how the massive overhaul of the line worked out. The team is set up for the coming years with stability up front.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

15 Jan

Today we begin our extensive four-part review of the 2019 Buffalo Bills’ season with a look at the performance of the front office and coaching staff. General manager Brandon Beane went into the free agency period last year with a plan, and he executed it well. He added a pair of valuable options in the passing game for his young quarterback, Josh Allen, in John Brown and Cole Beasley. Tight end Tyler Kroft was a gamble since he had injury issues, and the gamble didn’t work as Kroft missed significant time with a foot injury and made very little impact when he did get on the field. Beane also completely remade the team’s offensive line. Center Mitch Morse was the star attraction of the free agents and he was a consistent performer all season after having concussion issues in training camp. Also added were starting guards Jon Feliciano and Quinton Spain, who both became instant starters and major upgrades over the 2018 guards. Tackles Ty Nsekhe and La’Adrian Waddle had mixed results due to injuries. Former first round draft pick Kevin Johnson was added to the secondary and provided important cornerback depth all year. The rest of the signees were a mixed bag of players who provided help here and there during the season, with kick return specialist Andre Roberts being the most notable. Beane had an outstanding college draft, plucking players who should be cornerstones of the franchise in the future. Early choices Ed Oliver, Cody Ford, Devin Singletary and Dawson Knox all became starters who flashed potential to develop into Pro Bowl players. Late rounders Jaquan Johnson and Darryl Johnson were major special team contributors and Darryl Johnson was a regular part of the defensive line rotation also.

As for the coaching, head man Sean McDermott continued to preach “trusting the process” and has built a great culture among his players in his 3 seasons. In last season’s review, I commented that McDermott’s “process” had to translate to wins in 2019, and it did just that as the team finished 10-6 and locked up a wild card spot. He still is winless against Bill Belichick’s New England club, with the three year record now at 0-6. Plenty of fans were clamoring for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to be fired after the offense was mediocre this season, but he really produced adequate results considering the young QB, the totally revamped O-line and the fact that a couple of his main weapons, Singletary and Knox, were rookies who delivered typical rookie-like inconsistent results. Leslie Frazier did a great job coordinating the defense. He was masterful at mixing up coverages and having a good knack for blitzing at the right times. It was very telling that Tennessee defensive players, after upsetting the Ravens in the playoffs, reported that they developed their game plan to stop Lamar Jackson “using the Buffalo model”. The Bills had a new special teams coordinator in 2019, Heath Farwell, and the special teams really didn’t do much that was special during the season. In fact, a blocked punt cost them a game against the Patriots and they also allowed a 100+ yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami. It’s a good sign moving forward that McDermott, at his postseason press conference, stressed that there was still much room for improvement heading into next season. Facing a much tougher schedule in 2020, standing pat won’t cut it for this club.

 
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NFL – Throwback Thursday: AFL Western Division Rivalry Is Born

26 Dec

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

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

 

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Program from Chargers/Texans inaugural AFL game

 

NFL 100 – Hank Stram

25 Dec

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

 

Hank_Stram

Hank Stram in a Purdue yearbook photo

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

hank_stram_len_dawson

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

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

 

NFL 100 – Expanded Hall of Fame Class

24 Dec

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

 

tasker

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

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

 

drewpearsonhailmary

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

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

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

SABOLs

Steve and Ed Sabol of NFL Films

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Walking The Walk?

19 Dec

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

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

 

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Lions vs. Broncos action from 1967 preseason

 

NFL 100 – The College Draft

18 Dec

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

 

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

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

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Pete Rozelle presides over the 1970 NFL draft

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

 

 

NFL 100 – Don Hutson

17 Dec

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

 

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Don Hutson snares a pass for the Packers

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

 

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