RSS
 

Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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.

 

shulaandgaro

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.

 

don-shula-sportsman-of-the-year

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.

 

tarkentonNY (2)

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.

 

Cotton_Davidson

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.

jack_kemp

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.

franktripucka_broncos

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.

 

Chargers60 (2)

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.

chucknoll

Steeler legend Chuck Noll

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Like Kissing Your Sister

26 Sep

It’s week 4 of the NFL season and two NFC East rivals, the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, face each other in a battle of teams struggling to establish themselves. We’ll feature a game between these 2 franchises that goes back to October 16, 1960 for this week’s Throwback Thursday post. There’s no historical significance to the game and it didn’t even produce a solid result. It ended in a 24-24 tie, which in this 100th NFL season reminds us of why the league eventually added overtime to decide deadlocked games in 1974. “A tie is like kissing your sister!” That statement has been used regularly to describe how a game that ends in a draw makes you feel. It was first credited to Navy coach Eddie Erdelatz after his team played a scoreless tie against Duke in 1953. In the NFL, the record for most tie games in a single season is held by the 1932 Chicago Bears, who tied 6 times, including 3 in a row, en route to a 7-1-6 season. Lots of sister kissing there, but the Bears wound up winning the league championship that season also.

Anyway, back to the featured throwback game for the week. It was played at Yankee Stadium and the Giants were unbeaten headed into the Eastern Division clash. The Giants looked like they would cruise to the victory for the first three quarters as all of their offense was provided by players who would go on to become football broadcasters after their playing days were over. Frank Gifford, who anchored Monday Night Football for many years, scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. Kyle Rote, who later teamed with Curt Gowdy on AFL broadcasts and coined the term “you can’t stop (insert great player’s name) you can only hope to contain him”, grabbed a 6 yard TD pass from George Shaw. Pat Summerall, who went on to become one of pro football’s most loved play-by-play men teaming with Tom Brookshier and later John Madden, kicked a 48 yard field goal and added the extra points on the touchdowns as the Giants built a 24-10 lead going into the final quarter.

 

100gifford

Frank Gifford rushes vs. Redskins

The Redskins hung in there and rallied in the final stanza behind some guys who were not, like the Giants’ stars, household names. Their only first half score was a short TD run by fullback Don Bosseler, and in the fourth they got scores from Johnny Olszewski, affectionately known as “Johnny O” and who wore the number “0” on his jersey, on a short run, and a 21 yard pass from Ralph Guglielmi to Jim Podoley. Neither team had a memorable season that year. The Giants, who had appeared in the previous 2 NFL Championship games, fell to third in the Eastern Division while the Redskins, the last totally segregated NFL team at the time, won only one game.

 

NFL 100 – Giants of The 1960s

25 Sep

The title of this NFL 100 post is a little puzzling at first glance I suppose. Is it about men who played for the New York Giants? Or perhaps players who rose to greatness above all others in the 1960s? No, although one of them did play for the Giants for awhile, and they did all rise above their competition, but in a physical way. Today we’re featuring players who for the times were large physical specimens, intimidating figures when they lined up on the line of scrimmage on Sunday afternoons. Just like today, the star players – the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers – were celebrated in the 1960s, the era that I followed growing up that made me fall in love with the game. But there also was a lot of love and attention shown to the giant, mean snarling defensive players. When I say giant, I mean physically imposing size-wise. There were players like Dick Butkus, Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke who terrorized opposing QBs and runners from their linebacker positions, but I want to remember the guys who earned reputations as being fierce competitors and were held in high regard who were also massive human beings. I’ll start with Roger Brown, who was pro football’s first 300 pound player when he joined the Detroit Lions in 1960. A defensive tackle, he combined with Alex Karras on the interior of the Lions’ line to wreak havoc on opponents. In a Thanksgiving Day game in 1962 that became known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre”, he sacked Green Bay’s Bart Starr 7 times, including once for a safety, as the Lions handed the Packers their only loss of the season. He was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1967 where he joined their already famous “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, replacing Rosey Grier. Grier himself deserves mention here also. He was a ferocious competitor on the field for the Rams and before that with the New York Giants. His personality off the field belied his reputation on it. He was an actor, did needlepoint as a hobby and was an ordained Protestant minister. He was serving as Robert Kennedy’s bodyguard the night he was assassinated. Grier actually tackled and captured the assassin.

 

rosey-grier-crafts

Rosey Grier shows off a needlepoint self-portrait

Speaking of the Fearsome Foursome, the next player I’d like to feature is another member of that group, David “Deacon” Jones. He was a player who opposing quarterbacks genuinely feared. He gained the nickname “Secretary of Defense” and regularly spoke of wanting to kill quarterbacks. He coined the term “sack” in an interview at the time, saying “You take the quarterback and all the offensive linemen and you put them in a burlap sack and you take a baseball bat and beat that sack. That’s what you’re doing, you sack the quarterback.” He was also credited with inventing the head slap, a maneuver he used to push aside offensive linemen which is now illegal.

 

deaconjones

Deacon Jones terrorizes Johnny Unitas

The next player we want to recognize is a tragic figure who played most of his career in the wild and wooly days of the 1950s, but who I remember from the early ’60s. He is Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who was a towering 6’9″ 290 pound defensive lineman that helped anchor the line for back-to-back Baltimore Colts’ championship teams in 1958 and ’59. He was so massive that he would overwhelm much smaller offensive linemen of the day and break up plays in the backfield before they could get started. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1961 and enjoyed the same success there. He was named MVP of the 1962 Pro Bowl, but unfortunately it would turn out to be his final game as he died of a heroin overdose in May of 1963.

bigdaddy

“Big Daddy” Lipscomb towers over his opponents

Like many players of his era, Lipscomb had to work during the off-season at another job to supplement his football income. In his case, the other job was pro wrestling. A couple of other giants of that era did the same thing. One is Ernie Ladd, a 6’9″ 315 pound specimen known as “Big Cat”. Boston Patriots’ center Jon Morris, who had the unenviable task of trying to block Ladd in the 1963 AFL Championship game, described being consumed by the “Big Cat” : “I couldn’t see the linebackers, I couldn’t see the goalposts. It was like being locked in a dark closet.” The Chargers won that game, by the way, 51-10. To his credit, Ladd was one of the players instrumental in protesting racism at the 1965 AFL All Star game in New Orleans. The players staged a walkout and forced the game to be moved to Houston. Ladd’s wrestling career was both long and lucrative. He started doing it in the off-season in 1961, and over the years became a fan favorite and then transitioned into a villain, riling up the crowds with colorful insults aimed at his opponents. Ladd was successful enough at wrestling that he is actually in the WWE Hall of Fame.

100ernieladd

Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, on the sideline and in the ring

One of the wrestlers that Ladd insulted during his “villain” days was another of our featured giants, Wahoo McDaniel, a Native American who Ladd called the “Drunken Indian”. McDaniel doesn’t belong on this list for his size, he was “only” 5’11” and 250 pounds, but he parlayed his mostly mediocre playing ability into becoming a fan favorite nonetheless. He played in the upstart AFL, where they were always looking for ways to keep the fans engaged. As a gimmick, when he made a tackle the PA announcer would say “tackle made by…guess who?” and the crowd would respond “WAHOO!!” The AFL even gave him permission to wear WAHOO as his name on the back of his jersey. He wrestled for many years and one of his famous matches was with Rick Flair that became known as the “table leg” fight. The two grapplers broke a table at ringside and Flair picked up one of the legs and hit Wahoo over the head, not realizing there was a nail sticking out of it. McDaniel was seriously injured but eventually recovered and continued wrestling long after his football days were over.

wahoomcdaniel

Wahoo McDaniel, the “Drunken Indian”

 

The last two of the 1960s giants we feature are certainly not the least. They are Doug Atkins and Ben Davidson. Similar in stature, with Atkins at 6’8″ and 260 pounds and Davidson at 6’8″ and 275 pounds, they were both meaner than badgers when it came to their play on the field. Atkins was a member of the Chicago Bears’ “Monsters of The Midway” defense for 12 years, including championship teams in 1954 and 1963, and may have been the most imposing monster on that unit. One story about Atkins that highlights the difference between the 1960s era and today’s game: in the Pro Bowl once, Atkins burst through the line and put such a hard hit on Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan that it essentially ended Ryan’s career. In the PRO BOWL! His explanation for the hit? He felt Ryan had embarrassed him and his team in a game years prior to then. Davidson also had a reputation for rough play that sometimes crossed the line. He once speared Chiefs’ QB Len Dawson while he laid on the sideline after running for a first down. Chiefs’ receiver Otis Taylor, a much smaller player, attacked Big Ben for the move, and a bench-clearing brawl ensued. Their reputations didn’t hurt either of them, as both are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their stellar play between the lines.

 

bendavidson

Ben Davidson rocks Joe Namath’s world

 

 

NFL100 – Bobby Mitchell

24 Sep

Bobby Mitchell is a Pro Football Hall of Famer whose story is one of enduring the sting of racism and changing the attitudes of an entire franchise with class and dignity. He was a football and track star at the University of Illinois and was undecided on whether to pursue a pro football career or a chance to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics, when, in 1958, Paul Brown drafted him to the Cleveland Browns and offered him $7,000 to join the team. Mitchell accepted, and went to Cleveland to pair up with the great Jim Brown in the Browns’ backfield. For 4 seasons, the 2 future Hall of Famers formed the NFL’s best rushing duo. Coach Brown and Jim Brown had somewhat of a mercurial relationship, with the coach wanting to run a tight ship and the big fullback not liking to be ordered around. The coach recognized that his star runner carried a bit of clout, and Mitchell has laughingly said that in his days in Cleveland, when Paul Brown needed to make a point with Jim Brown, he would yell at Mitchell to make the point rather than directly confront Brown. Mitchell’s life changed shortly after the 1962 NFL draft. The owner of the Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, was an avowed racist who refused to add any black players to his team. At the time, the Redskins’ fan base stretched far into the deep south as their games were regionally televised in many southern states, so besides being a racist himself, Marshall also did not want to upset the team’s “southern audience” by  having black players on his club. The justice department applied extreme pressure on him to integrate the Redskins, even threatening to revoke the team’s right to play in federally owned D.C. Stadium.

Marshall finally caved in to the pressure and reluctantly traded the rights to the top pick of the draft, running back Ernie Davis of Syracuse, to the Browns for Mitchell and the Browns’ top pick. Davis was found to be suffering from leukemia and died before ever playing a down in the NFL, while Mitchell and another African American player, guard John Nisby, joined the Redskins as their first black members. The Washington franchise would now become the last NFL team to integrate their roster, much to Marshall’s chagrin. Mitchell recalled an incident in training camp when the usual rookie hazing was going on. Veteran players would hoot and holler as they forced the newcomers to sing their college fight songs and such. Mitchell, who wasn’t a rookie by the way, was forced to stand up and sing. He remembers a finger jabbing him in his back and saying “sing, Bobby Mitchell, sing!” The finger belonged to the owner, Marshall, and the song was “Dixie”. Marshall actually used to have the Redskins’ band play that song instead of the national anthem at Redskin games at the time also. That was just one example of what Mitchell had to endure during his first season in Washington.

 

61toppsredskins

1961 Washington Redskins, the NFL’s last all-white team

Having to put up with all the racist indignities didn’t affect Mitchell’s play on the field. The team’s new coach, Bill McPeak, moved him from halfback to flanker and he responded by leading the league in receptions. He slowly earned his teammates’ respect and at season’s end, he was given a game ball, signed by all his Redskin teammates, congratulating him for his statistical success. The ball is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and is pictured below. It was more than just a congratulatory symbol from those teammates. It was a sign of acceptance from his fellow players, most of whom didn’t share the views of the owner. Mitchell quietly silenced the racism with another 6 years of excellence on the field, culminating in his being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1983. He spent 34 years in the Redskins’ front office after retiring as a player, but in what amounts to a separate story, was passed over a couple of times for the team’s general manager position.

IMG_5261

Bobby Mitchell ball display at the Hall of Fame in Canton

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Shootout At The Vet

19 Sep

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

 

PEETE

QB Rodney Peete barks out signals

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

 

NFL 100 – The Safety Blitz

18 Sep

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

 

larrywilson

Hall of Fame safety Larry “Wildcat” Wilson

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

Saimes safety blitz 1966

George Saimes(26) blitzes Joe Namath