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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

05 Jan

Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense and special teams. Defense was supposed to be departed coach Rex Ryan’s area of expertise but instead was the main reason for their failure to reach their goal of making the playoffs. Consider these games: 1) at home against the Jets, they allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick, who otherwise had a horrible season, to have one of the best performances of his career, as the Jets cruised to a 37-31 win. 2) at Miami, after the offense built a 17-6 lead, the unit totally melted down, allowing Jay Ajayi to run for over 200 yards as the Dolphins rallied to win. 3) at Seattle, they couldn’t even slow down Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in the first half, forcing the offense to try to play catchup in the second half. 4) at Oakland, the offense took control of the game and built a 24-9 lead, only to watch the defense again inexplicably fall apart and allow the Raiders to score 29 unanswered points and rally to win. 5) at home against Miami, after supposedly preparing to stop Ajayi all week in practice, they again give up over 200 rushing yards to the Dolphin back, including the run in overtime that set up the winning field goal when only 10 Bill defenders were on the field. Here is a position-by-position look at the Bills’ defenders and special teamers:

Defensive Line

It’s supposed to be an area of strength on the team. Inside at tackle, there’s Kyle Williams, a team leader who is getting up in age, and Marcell Dareus, who signed a huge contract and then totally let his team down, first getting suspended and then coming back out of shape and suffering minor injuries that kept him out of the lineup. He is a prime example of the type of player that the franchise has to deal with – inconsistent and unreliable. The new head coach has to somehow fix this problem – either develop the players into men who can be counted on, or cut ties with them and move on, regardless of where they were drafted or how big their paychecks are. Rookie Adolphus Washington got benched for the team’s final game for supposedly not practicing hard enough, but for most of the year was as reliable of a player on the defensive line as the team had. The rest of the D-line roster is pretty much veterans who will have to work hard to impress a new coaching staff to keep their jobs – Corbin Bryant, Jerel Worthy and Rex Ryan favorite Leger Douzable. DeAndre Coleman was another of Whaley’s in-season signings who never had much impact.

Linebackers

There are 11 players available on the Bills’ roster who are listed as linebackers, but some of them may be better players on the defensive line, since there isn’t much depth there. Where these players play and whether or not they even make the team will depend on the opinion of a defensive coaching staff which will probably, and should, undergo wholesale changes. Jerry Hughes has played both DE and LB with the Bills, and is most effective as a pass rusher, although his play fell off markedly this season, another example of Bills’ players who got new contracts, then regressed. Shaq Lawson missed half the season due to injury, then showed a few flashes of decent play, but not much consistency. He certainly didn’t make the impact you’d expect from a first round draft pick. Two of Whaley’s free agent signings, Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander, had good years but the Bills’ penchant for not stopping the run and giving up big plays leaves them open for scrutiny also. The same could be said for Preston Brown. Rookie Reggie Ragland was a player who the team had high expectations for, but an injury ended his inaugural season before it started. He could be a wild card in a much-needed attitude adjustment for the defense. Ramon Humber and Lerentee McCray were special teams players who were also brought in during the season. They are marginal talents who will likely struggle to make the roster next year. Veteran Brandon Spikes is almost surely gone.

Defensive Backs

The fall-off in play of Buffalo’s cornerbacks was one of the big disappointments of the 2016 season. Stephon Gilmore was wildly inconsistent, and the Bills would be smart to not hand him a big money contract, or even waste salary cap dollars putting the franchise tag on him. Ronald Darby had a solid rookie season in 2015, but the sophomore jinx hit him badly this year. Nickell Robey-Coleman regressed also, and was consistently burned by bigger receivers while playing the slot corner position. Rookie Kevon Seymour had his ups and downs, but in my opinion showed as much promise as both Gilmore and Darby and would be a good option to start if Gilmore departs. Out of the in-season players that Whaley brought in, Marcus Roberson looked like he could be a guy who should be given an opportunity next year also. Corey White struggled at corner, then made the switch to safety due to injuries there. He had his hills and valleys there also, but the fact that he appears to be a team player says he deserves a look as a depth player again next year. Aaron Williams suffered another neck injury and may have to retire, and he heads a long list of safeties who played, and got hurt, as the season unfolded. Here’s the rest of the list: Colt Anderson, James Ihedigbo, Robert Blanton and Philip Thomas. Corey Graham is the other safety, and he is getting up in age. Jonathan Meeks is strictly a special teamer, and not all that impressive of one. The Bills’ final roster included defensive backs Sergio Brown and Shamiel Gary. Who?

Special Teams

Special teams weren’t that special in 2016. One bright spot was the kick return work of Brandon Tate, a player who should be brought back next season for sure. New coaches usually mean a new punter and placekicker. Punter Colton Schmidt’s play fell off from 2015 and he needs to be challenged in training camp next year. Kicker Dan Carpenter kicked his way out of Buffalo this season. A poor campaign culminated in a dreadful showing in the home finale against Miami that was likely the final nail in his coffin.

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

04 Jan

Part 2 of our season review for the Buffalo Bills deals with the offense. Rex Ryan made a bold but decisive move when he fired Greg Roman as offensive coordinator after the Bills started 0-2, especially since Ryan’s sorry defensive unit was the problem in the second loss. Anthony Lynn was promoted from running backs coach to OC and the move paid off as the Bills’ offense became a competent unit, especially in the run game. There were at least 4 games this season in which the offense did it’s job, which was to score 20 or more points, not turn the ball over and allow a strong defensive unit to win the day – at Miami, at Seattle, at Oakland and at home against Miami. A decent showing by the defense in those games would have cut the Bills’ loss total in half, and had them solidly in playoff contention. Here is a positon-by-position look at where the Bills stand on offense entering the off-season.

Quarterbacks

As usual, it appears the quarterback position is in a state of flux. The “business decision” to bench Tyrod Taylor in the season finale makes it look like the team may be ready to part ways with him. I think that would be a bad decision. Taylor hasn’t been spectacular, but has given the Bills strong enough play at the quarterback position to warrant keeping him around. This is a spot where continuity would be a good thing, since Taylor has gradually grown into the leader of the offensive unit. Also, his play improved markedly when he had all of his top weapons available. There’s a lot of consternation about letting Taylor’s contract extension kick in, with the reasoning being that they’ll be stuck with an overpaid, underperforming player (see Ryan Fitzpatrick). However, if the numbers being reported are accurate, Taylor’s contract would put him at around the 15th highest paid QB in the NFL, which is about where he falls. As for backups, EJ Manuel is as good as gone from Buffalo. He was never a good fit here and needs to move on to a better opportunity for his own good. Cardale Jones could be a viable option if he develops as the team hopes he will. All the more reason to make sure the next coaching staff has competent teachers who will ensure the young players develop, not regress as they have under Ryan.

Running Backs

This is a solid unit, with LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee complementing each other with different styles of running. Rookie back Jonathan Williams showed some promise in limited playing time, and it was good sign that he was trusted to be on the field at times on obvious passing downs for blitz pickups. Honestly, I never saw any reason why an aging Reggie Bush was even on the roster. He contributed almost nothing and will likely not be around next season. At fullback, Jerome Felton rebounded nicely after being cut at the beginning of the year. He was re-signed and became a solid presence as a blocker and pass receiver for the offense.

 

Receivers

This unit was a revolving door for most of the season, and Taylor deserves a lot of credit for accomplishing what he did despite not having much familiarity with the receiving corps for much of the year. There’s no question that Sammy Watkins is the stud of this corps, the problem is keeping him healthy and in the lineup. He is extremely talented and also an up and coming leader in the locker room. I loved his call for a “culture change” on the team after Ryan was fired. With all the prima donna “me first” divas in the league at wide receiver, Watkins is a refreshing “team first” player. There were scattered contributions from just about everybody on this unit in 2016, including Watkins. In sifting through the others who played in games this year, or were at least on the roster, a few players had some positives but there was very little consistency. Marquise Goodwin, whose career has been plagued by injuries, made some big plays when called upon. Robert Woods was a solid slot receiver and a reliable blocker in the run game, but becomes a free agent. If the team wants to keep some continuity in their successful rushing attack, keeping Woods should be a priority. Justin Hunter, once a top prospect who has floated around the league in his first couple of seasons, signed with the Bills during the season and may have found a home. He developed some chemistry with Taylor when he arrived and is a big red zone target. Brandon Tate is another in-season signing who improved the team’s return game, while also seeing some time as a receiver with all the injuries. Dez Lewis worked his way from the practice squad to the active roster by season’s end, but he has shown little in his time with the club. There is a possible diamond in the rough waiting in the wings on the injured list in Kolby Listenbee, a speedy low round draft choice who never saw any action this year due to hernia surgery. A free agent signee who hasn’t lived up to his billing is tight end Charles Clay, but he finally started to click with Taylor toward season’s end. Another reason to keep Taylor and try to keep some semblance of continuity with the offense. Nick O’Leary earned plenty of playing time as a backup TE, while 2 other tight ends on the roster are development projects – Gerald Christian and former quarterback Logan Thomas. Chris Gragg was having a decent season before he was hurt and will be a roster option for the next coaching staff also.

Offensive Line

The Bills were one of the top rushing teams in the NFL again this year so the offensive line, although not loaded with star players, is at least competent. Eric Wood is solid at center, and guards Richie Incognito and John Miller did a good job blocking inside for the team. Left tackle Cordy Glenn got a big contract prior to the season, then spent a lot of the year battling nagging injuries. Jordan Mills was quietly efficient most of the year at right tackle. The injuries to Wood and Glenn revealed two players – Ryan Groy and Cyrus Kouandjio, as adequate replacements. Groy did a great job filling in for Wood, while Kouandjio, whose career has started slowly, could be an option to win Mills’ job next year. GM Doug Whaley seems to be a proponent of constant roster turnover during the season, with an eye for finding gems to help the team in future years. Center Patrick Lewis and tackle Michael Ola are two examples of this. Neither one did anything to help the team this year. A big question mark for next year is big tackle Seantrel Henderson, who has battled Crohn’s disease and drug suspensions for 2 years. He is a talented player when he’s available to play but he has been like a lot of players who have been with the Bills in recent seasons – not very reliable.

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

02 Jan

Seventeen straight years – that’s how long the Buffalo Bills’ NFL longest playoff drought has now been extended following a largely disappointing 2016 season that saw the end of Rex Ryan’s tenure as head coach. This section of our yearly review of the Bills’ season deals with management and coaching,  and the fact that Ryan and his brother Rob were both jettisoned tells the tale of another head coaching failure in Buffalo. Despite a constant coaching carousel not being a good thing, Ryan deserved to go. In his final game as coach, the team displayed the same negative attributes that marked his two year regime – undisciplined play, unforced penalties, poor time management, confusion on play calls and personnel, and just disorganization in general. If I’m Bills’ owners Terry and Kim Pegula, the play in overtime that sealed the win for Miami, Jay Ajai’s long run on which the Bills had only 10 men on the field, is evidence enough to relieve him of his duties. Add in the defensive meltdowns in Miami and Oakland that cost the team valuable wins and there is no way Ryan, a supposed defensive genius, should keep his job. He never managed to fix any of the problems that plagued the team from day one of his regime. The defensive players vowed they would play hard to try to save Ryan’s job, yet the lack of effort and poor tackling in some of the team’s heart-breaking losses this year was pathetic. Critics can say the lack of continuity is the reason for the Bills’ problems, but when continuity equals mediocrity it’s time to make changes.

General manager Doug Whaley has apparently survived to pick the new coach and run another draft, and in my mind he deserves to stay, but the players he has drafted and signed need to reverse the regression they showed under Ryan when a new coach takes over, in order for him to stick around after 2017. The Pegulas gave Ryan all of the resources he could ask for to turn this team into a winner, including a bloated 29 person coaching staff, and he couldn’t get the job done. It’s time for Whaley to find a competent head coach, not just a carnival barker, to lead this team. Any coach who claims he needs a five year rebuilding plan should be eliminated from consideration. All this team needs is a real leader who will demand accountability from his players and who has some semblance of organizational skills.

 
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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Tittle’s Record-Setting Day

29 Dec

The NFL enters their final week of play this weekend, and the schedule includes a match between 2 NFC East rivals who we already featured in a TBT post earlier this year – the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. In fact, this is the third time we’ve featured this matchup, having highlighted a 72-41 Redskin victory over the Giants in 1966, back in 2013. This game, like the one we featured earlier this season, took place in an era when the Giants were a dominant force in the league, while the ‘Skins were an also-ran. On this day, October 28, 1962, Giant quarterback Y.A. Tittle became only the fourth signal caller in pro football history to throw for 7 touchdowns in a single game, a feat that to this day has only been accomplished 7 times in history and still stands as an NFL record. Prior to this game, the only times a QB had done this happened in 1943, by Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears, in 1954 by Adrian Burke of the Philadelphia Eagles, and in 1961, in the old American Football League, by the Houston Oilers’ George Blanda.

 

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Giants – Redskins 1962 Game Program

The game was a see-saw battle in the first half as Tittle and Washington rookie Norm Snead took turns filling the air with scoring passes. Tittle, who would wind up being league MVP in ’62, took charge in the third and early fourth quarter, racking up 4 of his 7 TD throws to turn a tight 21-20 game into a 49-20 rout. Snead led a late charge to close the gap to 49-34 at the final gun. Tittle’s feat overshadowed a pretty good showing by the rookie Snead, who threw for 346 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a couple of long bombs to future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell. It was Tittle’s day in the sun, however, as he passed for a remarkable 505 yards and the 7 TDs on 27 of 39 passes, numbers that are common in today’s game but were extremely rare in the “three yards and a cloud of dust” era. The venerable old Giant quarterback connected all day with his 2 favorite targets, as Del Shofner caught 11 balls for 269 yards and a TD, and Frank Gifford hauled in 4 for 127 yards and a score. It was a sweet revenge game for New York tight end Joe Walton, who had played for Washington for 4 years before being traded to the Giants prior to the 1962 season. Walton caught 6 passes from Tittle for 63 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the record-tying seventh one.

Not only did Tittle and the Giants take control of this game in the third quarter, they took control of the Eastern Conference, as the loss was Washington’s first of the season after a 4-0-2 start, sending them on a tailspin to a 5-7-2 final record. The Giants used the win as a springboard to a 12-2 final record and a second straight NFL championship game appearance against the Green Bay Packers.

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Y.A. Tittle pressured by Redskins’ defense

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: A Baseball Game?

22 Dec

This week’s Throwback Thursday game features a look back to a playoff game from the 1970 season between two teams who are scheduled to play on this week’s NFL schedule, the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. This game may have been one of least exciting playoff games in league history, unless you’re a fan of great defense or inept offense, depending on your perspective. The Cowboys, at the time, possessed one of the NFL’s toughest defensive units, the “Doomsday Defense” as they were aptly named, and this game was a showcase for them. They totally throttled Detroit’s offense and harassed Lion quarterbacks Greg Landry and Bill Munson, coming up with 3 sacks, an interception and 3 total turnovers, while holding the Lion passing attack to a meager 80 yards.

The problem was that Dallas’ passing offense was worse, as their quarterback, Craig Morton, completed only 4 of 18 throws for 22 net yards. Luckily, the Cowboys had a top-notch running back in Duane Thomas, and coach Tom Landry fed him the ball. The talented but moody Thomas carried 30 times for 135 yards in a workman like performance in which his longest run of the day was 16 yards. The Cowboy defense wound up shutting out the Lions, but Dallas could only muster an early field goal. Late in the final quarter, defensive linemen Jethro Pugh and George Andrie combined to sack Landry in the end zone for a safety, boosting the final margin of victory for Landry’s club to 5-0. It was more likely of a score between the cities’ baseball clubs, the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, than a football score.

Dallas advanced through the NFC playoffs to the Super Bowl that year, where they lost a heartbreaker to the Baltimore Colts on a late field goal in a game that became known as the “Blunder Bowl” since both teams made so many mistakes. Landry ran out of patience with Morton’s inconsistency the following season and made a change at quarterback, launching the dynamic career of future Hall of Famer Roger Staubach.

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Dallas QB Craig Morton and coach Tom Landry discuss strategy (photo courtesy of Spokeo.com)

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday – An Overtime Classic

15 Dec

The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, who match up on this week’s NFL schedule, have played some memorable games over the years as AFC East rivals, but for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature game we’ll go back to September 21, 1986, when these 2 teams hooked up in a classic overtime shootout in which the Jets prevailed 51-45. The game saw two quarterbacks from the famous 1983 draft matched up against each other, Miami’s future Hall of Famer Dan Marino and the Jets’ Ken O’Brien, who didn’t have the Hall of Fame career that Marino and fellow ’83 draftees John Elway and Jim Kelly had but did have his moments in the sun over the years. This game was definitely one of those moments, as he matched Marino throw for throw in leading his Jets club to the OT win. The 2 teams combined for 1,066 yards of total offense in the game, mostly aerial yards as both had a pair of receivers go for over 100 yards receiving. Miami’s “Marks Brothers” duo of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton both had awesome days, with Duper catching 7 passes for 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Clayton snagging 8 for 174 yards and a score. Marino, in his usual style, ignored his running game and threw for 6 touchdowns on 30 of 50 passes for 448 yards. O’Brien threw less times for more yardage, connecting on 29 of 43 for 479 yards and 4 scores, all of which went to his star wideout, Wesley Walker, who had a career day with 6 catches for 194 yards and the 4 TDs. Fellow Jet receiver Al Toon also went for over 100 yards. The O’Brien to Walker vertical passing attack was something Miami’s defense never figured out all game long. The duo connected on scoring throws of 65, 50 and 21 yards in regulation, then hooked up on a 43 yarder in overtime to get the win.

The Jets also mixed in a semblance of a rushing attack, with Johnny Hector gaining 82 of his team’s 132 rushing yards while also scoring a pair of rushing touchdowns. The Jets went on to finish the season 10-6 to earn a wild card playoff berth. They defeated Kansas City in the wild card round but lost a double overtime heartbreaker to the Denver Broncos in the divisional round.

 

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Jets’ QB Ken O’Brien eludes Dolphin defenders

 

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

08 Dec

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

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

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

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

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Tampa Bay’s first head coach, John McKay

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Fergy’s Coming Out Party

01 Dec

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

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

 

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Buffalo Bills’ QB Joe Ferguson

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Saints Come Marching In

24 Nov

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

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

 

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John Gilliam returns opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Monsters of The Midway

17 Nov

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

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

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

 

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