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Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: A Big Red Ambush

12 Dec

It’s week 15 on the NFL schedule, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to the mid-1960s for a match between 2 teams that play on this week’s schedule, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals were based in St. Louis back then, and the Browns were still toiling in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where this game was played. It was September 26, 1965, the second game of that season for both clubs. The Browns, of course, were coming off a championship they had captured the previous year in 1964, while the Redbirds had finished second behind the Browns in the Eastern Conference. St. Louis had a bit of a chip on it’s shoulder as it had finished 9-3-2 in ’64 to Cleveland’s 10-3-1, but had tied and beaten the Browns in their 2 head-to-head meetings. The Browns were quarterbacked by Frank Ryan, who had become a local hero by leading the team to the title the previous year, while the Cardinals’ signal caller was an interesting and underrated player of that era, Charley Johnson. Johnson was an intelligent man, a total opposite of the Neanderthal stereotype players had back then. He worked on his academic pursuits while simultaneously playing in the NFL, earning masters and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering.

As far as this game went, Johnson hit Willis Crenshaw for a 78 yard touchdown to open the scoring in the first quarter in what was an omen of things to come. Cleveland got a field goal from Lou “The Toe” Groza and a 13 yard Ryan to Gary Collins TD pass to take a 10-7 lead, but the rest of the second quarter belonged to Johnson and the Cardinal offense. In what was a career performance, Johnson led his club to four touchdowns before halftime, including 3 scoring passes. He hit Sonny Randle twice for touchdowns and hooked up with Bobby Joe Conrad for another, with Bill Triplett rushing for the other TD. The onslaught left the Cardinals with a 35-10 lead at the half. Cleveland managed another Groza three-pointer to start the second half, but Johnson was red hot on this day and continued the massacre. By the time the third quarter was over, he hit Randle again and Billy Gambrell for touchdowns to run his passing TD total to 6, one short of the NFL record for a single game. With the game well in hand, Johnson didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter.

In what was typical of the style of play of the time, Johnson’s 6 touchdown throws came from a total of only 11 completions on the day, in 19 attempts. Randle caught 7 of those for 198 yards and his 3 touchdowns. The Cardinal defense was no slouch in this game either. Jim Brown got his 100 yards, 110 to be exact, but the Big Red defense intercepted Ryan and his replacement, Jim Ninowski, 6 times. The 49-13 rout wasn’t indicative of how either team’s fortunes would go in the remainder of the 1965 season. Although they got revenge on this day, the Cards would win 4 of their first 5 games, then collapse to finish 5-9, second from the bottom in the conference. Cleveland rebounded to win the East again and advance to another championship game, losing on a muddy field to the Green Bay Packers.

 

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Charley Johnson calls the signals for the Cardinals

 

NFL 100 – Walter Payton

10 Dec

Our subject for today’s NFL 100 feature was known as “Sweetness”. He is the late, great Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton. He came out of Jackson State as a high first round draft pick and was an immediate success, being named to the Pro Bowl in his second season in 1976, and then winning Pro Bowl MVP. He followed that up by winning the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1977. In a memorable game that year he rushed for 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, despite having a 101 degree fever and the flu, breaking O.J. Simpson’s previous mark of 273 yards. Payton’s individual rushing success didn’t translate into wins for the Bears until they hired the fiery Mike Ditka as head coach in 1982. Payton continued to thrive under Ditka, and the Bears began to win consistently. “Sweetness” broke the career rushing record of 12,312 yards by Jim Brown in 1984. Emmitt Smith eventually took over the top career rushing yards spot, but Payton is firmly entrenched at #2. The Bears reached the top of the mountain in 1985 when they won the Super Bowl in convincing fashion, 46-10, over the New England Patriots. Ditka has said that one of his biggest regrets was that he didn’t allow Payton to score a touchdown in that game. (William “The Refrigerator” Perry DID score a TD).

 

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“Sweetness” soars over the pile for a touchdown

Ditka has been quoted as saying that Payton was not only the greatest player he ever coached, but also the greatest human being. His abilities on the field were unmatched. Not only was he one of the greatest runners of all time but also excelled as a receiver and blocker. He threw for 8 career touchdowns on halfback option passes. He was an all around football player. His list of accolades is long: Super Bowl winner, nine-time Pro Bowler, NFL MVP and Man of The Year, member of the NFL’s All Decade Teams for both the 1970s and 1980s, and named to the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary teams. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Unfortunately, Payton became gravely ill, suffering from a rare liver disease, and died at the young age of 45 in 1999. He spent the last months of his life advocating for organ donation. His family has kept his memory alive through a charitable foundation that supports causes such as Christmas toy donations to underprivileged children , organ donation and fighting cancer. He is also remembered in the football world with 2 awards named for him. The NCAA gives the “Walter Payton Award” to the best offensive player in Division I-FCS and the NFL hands out the “Walter Payton Man of The Year Award”, honoring a player each year for his play and community service. That award is considered the most prestigious honor a player can receive among the players themselves.

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The Walter Payton Man of The Year Award

 

NFL 100 – Paul Brown

09 Dec

He is the architect of the modern game of pro football, a true innovator who introduced many things into the game that are commonplace today. Our NFL 100 honored man today is Paul Brown, founder and head coach of the Cleveland Browns franchise in the All America Conference in the 1940s. His Cleveland teams won the AAFC Championship in all 4 seasons of the league’s existence, and when that league folded and they merged with the NFL, they proceeded to upset the Los Angeles Rams to capture the established league’s title. Brown’s innovations were both plentiful and ahead of their time. He invented the draw play, introduced classroom training and film study, and was the first to hire a full staff of assistant coaches. Also, he invented the first face mask, the practice squad, was instrumental in breaking football’s color barrier and was the first to call plays from the sideline to his quarterback through the use of “messenger guards”. He was also a tremendous innovator when it came to a franchise being organized and professional. He developed pass patterns that were designed to take advantage of weaknesses in a defense, held strictly timed practice sessions that included on-field practice and classroom study. He is credited with being the first coach to create the “passer’s pocket”, where the offensive line was strategically positioned to give the quarterback more time to find open receivers. He put together an organized system within the administration for scouting college talent, emphasizing the need to find intelligent players who could absorb his play book.

 

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Paul Brown, classroom instructor

Brown’s organized ways would eventually lead to his undoing in Cleveland. He was not only organized but very strict and rigid in dealing with players. He was terse, would humiliate players in film sessions when they made mistakes, didn’t allow drinking or smoking and had a rule that prohibited players from having sex after Tuesday each week during the season. He was a miser when it came to negotiating contracts, and even refused to cede any authority to team owner Art Modell. By 1962 both Modell and the players had become disenchanted with Brown’s refusal to change with the times, and following the 1962 season Modell fired him and elevated Blanton Collier to the head coaching position. Collier wound up winning an NFL title in 1964, so Brown’s removal was vindicated. He missed being out of the game, however, so when the opportunity to build another team from scratch became available when the AFL decided to put an expansion franchise in Cincinnati, Brown became its’ founder. His stubborn ways still came out, though. He originally didn’t want to be involved in the Bengals’ franchise because they were to be part of the AFL, what he considered an inferior product. The merger with the 2 leagues meant that eventually the Cincinnati team would be in the newly structured NFL, so Brown came on board. It’s pretty much accepted that Brown chose almost exactly the same color orange as the Browns’ color for the Bengals as a tweak towards Modell. In the early years after the merger, when the two franchises became division rivals, it was hard to discern which team was which when they played each other. The innovations continued in Cincinnati. When star quarterback Greg Cook was injured, the Bengals turned to their backup, Virgil Carter, to lead the team. Carter’s arm strength was limited, so Brown and assistant coach Bill Walsh developed a short passing attack that would become the “West Coast” offense Walsh would use to great success years later with the San Francisco 49ers. Brown retired from coaching in 1975 but remained the Bengals’ team president, a role his son Mike took over, and still holds, upon Brown’s death in 1991. The legendary coach and innovator was honored with an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

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Paul Brown and protégé Bill Walsh

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Santonio Holmes’ Shining Moment

05 Dec

This week’s Throwback Thursday feature will harken back to one of the most exciting Super Bowl games ever played. With the Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, we’ll go back to February 1, 2009 when these two franchises met in the Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. The coaching matchup was between the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Cards’ Ken Whisenhunt, who had been Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator. Like many other championship games, this contest started out as a feeling out process between teams relatively unfamiliar with each other, and the only scoring in the opening quarter was a short Jeff Reed field goal for the Steelers, who then expanded their lead to 10-0 early in the next stanza on a 1 yard run by Gary Russell. Arizona QB Kurt Warner kept his team close by leading a drive that cut the lead to 10-7 when he hit Ben Patrick from a yard out for a score. Warner, who had been a Cinderella story years earlier when he led the St. Louis Rams to an improbable championship, was in the process of driving his club to a go-ahead score when a game-changing play happened on the last play of the half. Steeler linebacker James Harrison intercepted a Warner pass at the goal line and returned it 100 yards to paydirt to give his team a 17-7 lead and serious momentum.

Reed kicked another field goal for the only scoring of the third quarter and at 20-7 it appeared that the Steelers were well on their way to their sixth Super Bowl victory. It didn’t turn out to be easy, however, as a couple of future Hall of Famers teamed up to make it a game. Warner finished another drive with a one yard TD toss to Larry Fitzgerald. Then, after the Steelers were called for holding in the end zone, resulting in a safety to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 20-16, Warner and Fitzgerald went to work once more. The Cardinal signal caller found his favorite target on a pass over the middle, and Fitzgerald split the Steeler secondary and raced to a spectacular 64 yard touchdown to put his team ahead 23-20. With only a little over 2 minutes left to play, the Steelers found themselves behind for the first time in the game, needing a final drive to at least tie the contest and send it into overtime. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been basically a game manager in his team’s Super Bowl win in his rookie year, now had to be the main man to snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat. While Roethlisberger and his coaches plotted out a path to the end zone, another Steeler, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, was urging on his offensive teammates on the sideline and boldly stating that these were the moments when players truly proved their greatness. Roethlisberger did his job, marching the team downfield. Rather than go for the tie, Big Ben tossed a pass to the back corner of the end zone where Holmes extended his arms and did an amazing toe tap to stay in bounds, catching the winning touchdown throw of 6 yards to give Pittsburgh a 27-23 win. Holmes, who would struggle in his career with the Steelers and later the New York Jets and never match his feats achieved in this game, was named the game’s MVP. He had totaled 131 yards on 9 catches and scored the winning touchdown. It was another bittersweet loss for Warner, who had also lost as a Ram to New England on a late field goal years earlier. One of the highlights of this particular Super Bowl was the halftime show, put on by Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band. They performed “Working On A Dream” and “Glory Days”, which may have summed up the NFL career of one Santonio Holmes.

 

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Santonio Holmes (10) toe-taps the Steelers to a Super Bowl win

 

 

 

NFL 100 – Charley Trippi

03 Dec

His name isn’t well known among younger fans of pro football, but the subject of our NFL 100 post today is one of the greats of all time. Playing in an era when rosters were small and there wasn’t the specialization that there is today, Trippi was more than the usual “triple threat” type of player common at the time. He was a “quintuple threat” who could run, pass, catch, punt and play defense. Drafted by the old Chicago Cardinals in 1945 as a “future” pick, Trippi joined the team in 1947, spurning offers from the All America Conference’s New York Yankees and professional baseball to sign with the Cards. He was an immediate success, leading the Cardinals to the 1947 NFL championship. He played mostly as a running back but over his career also played quarterback, defensive back, punter and kick returner. Trippi had been a star in college at Georgia, but like many men at the time his football playing was interrupted by service in the military. Chicago had drafted him with the agreement that he would finish his college career before joining the pros. When he finally joined the team, he completed their “Dream Backfield” along with Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Marshall Goldberg, with Elmer Angsman joining at a later date. The Cardinals won the Western Division title in ’47 and defeated Philadelphia in the championship game with Trippi making the biggest contribution. Wearing basketball shoes on an icy field, he totaled 206 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns on a 44 yard run and a 75 yard punt return.

 

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Charley Trippi racks up yardage

His playing career lasted 9 years. After playing left halfback for his first 4 seasons he moved to quarterback in 1951, then moved back to halfback and later to defensive back, basically doing whatever his team needed him to do. His final season was in 1955, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. In the preseason he was injured while being tackled and suffered a smashed nose, concussion and a protruding bone behind his eye that gave him double vision. He played only 5 games that season and it was the least productive year of his career. His overall play ranked among the best of his generation however, as he was twice named All Pro, twice played in the Pro Bowl, was named to the NFL’s All Decade team for the 1940s and won championships in both college and the NFL. The Cardinal franchise is one the league’s originals, and even being in existence for all 100 years, Trippi is arguably the greatest player in team history. He also served the franchise as an assistant coach from 1957 until 1965, when they were in St. Louis. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, and at 97 is the oldest living member of the Hall, and also the oldest living former number one overall draft choice.

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Trippi, 97, the oldest living Hall of Fame member

 

NFL 100 – Joe Greene

02 Dec

In the title for this NFL 100 feature we purposely omitted the nickname of the player, which is “Mean” Joe Greene. It’s a nickname that’s appropriate for his play on the field, but Greene was never fond of it. He felt that it didn’t reflect his true personality. He lamented after his playing days ended that he would be remembered as being mean, or dirty, rather than how he wished to be remembered-as a player who played 13 years and contributed to winning 4 championships, and who set a standard for other players to strive to reach. We can certainly agree with that assessment. Greene, whose given name isn’t even Joe, it’s Charles Edward Greene, picked up the nickname in college at North Texas State, where the team’s defense picked up the nickname “Mean Green” for it’s stingy play. When Chuck Noll took over as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach in 1969, his first draft choice, fourth overall in the first round, was Greene. It wasn’t a popular pick among Steeler fans, who wanted a flashy player to help turn around what was a losing team at the time. Instead they got a little known defensive player from a small school.

Greene changed a lot of minds in a hurry in his first year in the pros. Despite the Steelers continuing their losing ways with a 1-13 record, Greene was a standout, being named Defensive Rookie of The Year and also being chosen to play in the Pro Bowl. It took a couple more years, and some outstanding drafts, to build the Pittsburgh franchise into what Noll was hoping for, but Greene continued his stellar play, eventually being the cornerstone of what would become the “Steel Curtain” defensive unit that dominated the 1970s and led to four Super Bowl wins. Greene insisted that the team had 10 other players who were All Pro caliber on that defense and that he was just another piece of an outstanding unit, but the fact is that over his career, he was rewarded many times over for his individual play. After winning the Defensive Rookie of The Year award, he followed that up by winning Defensive Player of The Year twice, becoming the first player in history to win the award multiple times. He was an eight-time All Pro, a ten-time Pro Bowler, won the NFL Man of The Year Award in 1979, and was chosen for the NFL’s All Decade team for the 1970s, the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and most recently, the league’s 100th Anniversary team. Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

 

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Mean Joe Greene about to make life miserable for Roger Staubach

Perhaps to somewhat soften his image as “Mean Joe”, Greene made a commercial for Coca Cola during his playing days that saw him limping down the tunnel into the locker room as a small boy offers him his Coke. Greene snarls a little but then accepts the gift, drinking the whole bottle, then tosses his jersey to the boy. It was a poignant ad that is still remembered today, one of the classic sports commercials of all time. Greene’s contributions to the game continued after his playing days ended. He spent 16 years as an assistant coach with the Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals, and worked in player personnel for the Steelers until retiring from the franchise’s front office in 2013. He was married for 47 years before his wife passed away in 2015, and has 3 children and 7 grandchildren, who only know him as “Papa Joe”. Surely his days of being “Mean Joe” are a distant memory now, but Greene deserves to be remembered in NFL annals as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.

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“Mean Joe” Greene’s Coca Cola commercial

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Packer Dynasty Begins

28 Nov

This week’s Throwback Thursday feature was easy to identify when a matchup of the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants appeared on the NFL schedule. We’ll travel back to New Year’s Eve of 1961 when these two clubs met for the league championship at Green Bay’s New City Stadium, which would be renamed Lambeau Field at a later date. The frigid 17 degree day made it a classic “Frozen Tundra” type of game that Green Bay would be known for. Flashing back a year to the 1960 title game, the Packers had lost a heartbreaker to the Philadelphia Eagles and in the postgame locker room Packer coach Vince Lombardi, who felt he had cost the team with some dubious decisions, stated to his players that “this will never happen to us again.” The Packers made sure this edict would come true as they soundly defeated the Giants 37-0. Both teams seemed to use the first quarter to shake off their nerves, as normally reliable receivers Kyle Rote of the Giants and Green Bay’s Max McGee both dropped long passes. The quarter ended scoreless but the Pack, behind future Hall of Fame backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, drove the ball inside the Giants’ red zone as time expired. Hornung began the second stanza by scoring on a six yard run to open the scoring. The Giants then came unraveled on their next 2 drives, which ended on Y.A. Tittle interceptions. Bart Starr made the New Yorkers pay for both turnovers, first finding flanker Boyd Dowler for a 13 yard touchdown and then hitting tight end Ron Kramer for a 14 yard score. The Giants then replaced Tittle at quarterback with aging veteran Charley Conerly, who drove the team downfield but couldn’t cash in any points. With their final possession of the half, the Packers used the running of Hornung and a long pass from Starr to Kramer to set up a short Hornung field goal to open up a commanding 24-0 lead.

The second half was an exercise in more futility for the Giants. A fumbled punt led to another Hornung field goal while Starr engineered another long drive that ended with another TD pass to Ron Kramer, stretching the Green Bay lead to 34-0. The Giants went back to Tittle at quarterback in the fourth quarter but his luck didn’t change. The Packers picked him off 2 more times, giving him 4 interceptions on the day. The only scoring of the final quarter was another Hornung field goal. His 19 points scored earned him the game’s Most Valuable Player award, and a shiny new 1962 Chevrolet Corvette. It was just another typical performance from the “Golden Boy”. He had totaled an amazing 176 points for the previous year in 1960, which was a 12 game season. That record stood until LaDainian Tomlinson broke it in a 16 game season in 2006. The convincing victory ushered in a dominant era of football that would see Lombardi’s club win a total of 5 championships in 7 years, earning Green Bay the moniker of “Titletown USA”.

 

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Packer defense smothers Tittle (14) in 1961 title game

 

NFL 100 – Teams of The Decades

27 Nov

It’s been a regular practice in the long history of the National Football League to crown the “Team of The Decade” for each ten year period of the league’s existence. With it’s celebration of the 100th season this year, there’s no better time to rate those teams than now, as the tenth decade of play closes out soon. We might as well start this feature by crowning the New England Patriots as the team of both the 2000s and the 2010s, the “Team of The New Millenium” if you will. They have dominated pro football for almost 20 years and have won 6 Super Bowls since 2000, 3 in each decade. With coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady showing no signs of slowing down, there’s no telling how much further into the millennium they will continue to own the NFL.

Going back to the league’s origins in the 1920s, the NFL actually didn’t stage a championship game at the end of each season, instead just considering whichever team was best in the regular season as the champ. By that standard, the Canton Bulldogs would have to be considered the team of the 1920s. They had the best record, and were therefore crowned champions, in 1922 and 1923. In 1924 the team was purchased by Sam Deutsch, who owned the NFL’s Cleveland Indians franchise. He took the Canton players and their name and they became the Cleveland Bulldogs, and had the best record for a third straight year to claim another title. In 1929, the NFL’s best team was the Green Bay Packers. They would go on to become the “Team of The Decade” for the 1930s, winning 4 more championships in that decade under Curley Lambeau. The Chicago Bears and New York Giants made a case for consideration with a pair of titles each, but the Packers were clearly the dominant franchise. The Bears, under league co-founder George “Papa Bear” Halas, overtook Green Bay in the next decade, winning 4 championships in the 1940s. It was in this dominant decade that the Bears earned their “Monsters of The Midway” nickname.

 

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Halas, 1940s Bears, including a Bear mascot, celebrate a title

The 1950s are the most difficult decade to pick a dominant team from. The Cleveland Browns are generally considered to be the “Team of The Decade” for that era, as they appeared in 7 consecutive title games after being absorbed into the NFL from the All America Football Conference in 1950. Paul Brown’s teams won 3 of those games, behind the quarterback play of the great Otto Graham. However, the Detroit Lions could stake a legitimate claim to the title also. With swashbuckling quarterback Bobby Layne leading the way, they won 3 championships in the decade too, and all 3 wins were over the Browns. The Baltimore Colts, with emerging star John Unitas,  ended the decade with back-to-back championship game wins in 1958 and ’59, with the ’59 sudden death overtime win over the New York Giants being considered “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. There’s no argument over who was the “Team of The Decade” for the 1960s. It was the era of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. He transformed the moribund Packer franchise into winners in the late ’50s and they qualified for the title game in 1960, only to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles. He told his team in the locker room afterwards that “this will never happen to us again” and was true to his word. The Packers, with legendary players like Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson, Forrest Gregg and Ray Nitschke, won 5 championships over the next 7 years, including wins in the first 2 Super Bowls. Lombardi was such a powerful, dominant figure of the era that when he passed away of cancer in 1970, the Super Bowl trophy was named in his honor.

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1960s Packers, from left-Hornung, Taylor, Starr, coach Lombardi (Sports Illustrated photo)

Entering the 1970s, it looked like Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins would dominate the decade as they appeared in 3 straight Super Bowls, winning 2 of them including a perfect 17-0 season in 1972. However, Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers stole their thunder the rest of the decade, claiming a total of 4 championships in a 6 year span. Those teams won with their “Steel Curtain” defense, some hard running from Franco Harris and a passing attack engineered by Terry Bradshaw and a pair of Hall of Fame receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. In the 1980s, the Washington Redskins and the Raiders, playing in Oakland and then relocating to Los Angeles, won a pair of Super Bowls each, but neither could match the mastery of the San Francisco 49ers, easily the “Team of The Decade”. Behind the genius of coach Bill Walsh and the confident play of quarterback Joe Montana, the Niners won 4 titles, the last one with George Siefert as coach. Walsh’s “West Coast” offense was the force that drove those teams, with Montana spreading the ball around to Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and others, but their defense was also strong, led by players like Ronnie Lott, Keena Turner and Fred Dean.

1980s49ers

The late Bill Walsh, architect of the “Team of The Decade” for the 1980s

Finally, the 1990s brought back into prominence a team that had been a force for over 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s, the Dallas Cowboys. After the man who built the franchise into a powerhouse, Tom Landry, was fired, Jimmy Johnson took the reins and guided the Cowboys to a pair of championships in the ’90s. Johnson left the club but when Barry Switzer led them to a third Super Bowl win in 1995, they became the dominant team of the era and earned the crown as the “Team of The Decade” for the 1990s. The Buffalo Bills accomplished a feat still unmatched when they qualified for four consecutive Super Bowls, but losing all 4 removed them from the conversation as the best of the decade, especially since 2 of the title game losses were to the Cowboys.