Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL – How The Cleveland Browns Saved Pro Football

09 Feb

This article, from 2019, details my theory as to how the Cleveland Browns, inadvertently, saved pro football in the late 1960s. I’m reposting it as part of my Super Bowl week features, since it has to do with the 2 major Super Bowl upsets won by the AFL during this period.




The beginning of the growth of the National Football League into the popularity monster that it is today goes back to the 1960s and the birth of the AFL/NFL Championship game, orchestrated by the league’s commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle. A true visionary, he refereed the battle between the old guard NFL owners and the renegade AFL owners, and out of the battle came the merger of the 2 leagues. The agreement spelled out that beginning immediately the rival leagues would hold a common draft of college players, thus ending the bidding war for players that had been going on. Another of the stipulations was that also beginning immediately, the champions of the 2 leagues would play an ultimate title game to decide who was the “world champion”. The merger agreement was made in 1966, but the actual merger itself didn’t begin until 1970. At that time, there were 16 NFL teams and 10 AFL, so 3 of the old guard clubs had to be transferred into the new American Conference. The Pittsburgh Steelers, longtime NFL doormats who perhaps saw an opportunity for more success among the AFL clubs, volunteered to go. Two franchises that had joined the NFL from another league, the old All America Conference, were natural clubs to make the move  – the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns. Browns’ owner Art Modell balked at the idea, however, but eventually agreed when Rozelle promised him that his team could host the inaugural Monday Night Football game in that first merger season of 1970.

It wasn’t Modell’s agreement to shift that saved pro football though. It was the Browns team of the late ’60s that had a hand in moving the game forward, in a very weird way in fact. The Browns were a proud, winning franchise in the NFL since joining the league in 1950, and were regular participants in the playoffs most of the decade of the 1960s. In fact, they were in the NFL title game the last 2 seasons before the leagues joined together in 1970. That’s where their contribution to saving the NFL comes in to play. The NFL had always boasted that they were the superior league, and that the AFL was a “Mickey Mouse” league full of castoff players who couldn’t make it in the older league. When the Green Bay Packers dominated the best the AFL had to offer in the first 2 AFL/NFL Championship games, doubt began to creep in on whether the merger was a good idea. The NFL owners’ “Mickey Mouse” comments were appearing to be true, that is, until Joe Namath’s New York Jets and the Hank Stram-led Kansas City Chiefs won the next 2 title contests in what were considered to be massive upsets. Those games gave the AFL a bit of legitimacy, but were they really that great of upsets? Part of the reason the Colts team that Namath beat, and the Minnesota Vikings squad that the Chiefs dominated were considered powerhouses was because they had manhandled the proud Browns franchise in the NFL title games. The Colts shut the Browns out 37-0, and coach Don Shula’s defense was expected to totally crush what was considered to be an inferior Jets’ team in the Super Bowl. The next season, Bud Grant’s Vikings, with CFL reject Joe Kapp at quarterback, completely demolished the Browns in the title game. The final score was only 27-7 but the Vikings controlled play the entire game on a bitter cold day in Minnesota.

So even though the Colts and Vikings had very successful seasons on their way to those Super Bowls, it was their dominance of the Browns that established them as heavy favorites against their supposedly weaker AFL competition. Realistically, though, the Cleveland franchise was in the beginning stages of a gradual decline at that point. Jim Brown, considered the greatest player of all time, had long since retired. LeRoy Kelly had replaced him and was a very good back, a future Hall of Famer in fact, but he wasn’t Jim Brown. More importantly, the quarterback who had guided the Browns to the 1964 title, Frank Ryan, was also gone, forced to retire due to injuries. His replacement, Bill Nelsen, was a gamer who played through injuries and was enough of a leader to get his club into the playoffs, but he wasn’t an elite signal caller. The Browns’ offensive line was aging at the time also, and their defense was a mixture of aging players and  inexperienced rookies and young players. So, in a strange way, credit is due to the Browns for making the Colts and Vikings appear to be unbeatable behemoths, who would easily crush, as Vince Lombardi’s Packers had, their AFL opponents. What those Baltimore and Minnesota clubs didn’t realize was that the AFL was already in its’ ninth and tenth years of existence, and the Jets and Chiefs had been built into true championship contenders.



Browns’ QB Bill Nelsen (Getty Images)




NFL – Five Worst Super Bowl Halftime Shows

08 Feb

To balance our list of the 5 greatest Super Bowl halftime shows, we present what we consider the 5 worst of them. Of course this is subjective, some people might consider our worst as their favorites. In our mind, however, these were, in Charles Barkley’s words…just  turrible.



1. The Weeknd (Super Bowl LV) – I have no idea who The Weeknd is nor do I listen to his music, but this show was downright weird. It began with a choir dressed in white with masks and glowing red eyes, and also had the star singing and dancing through a confusing labyrinth with dancers in red blazers wearing bandages on their faces and heads. I guess this was a nod to one of his albums, but I didn’t get it and neither did a lot of critics, as it was widely panned.



2. Up With People (Super Bowl X) – Up With People was a cringy singing and dancing ensemble from the 1960s that put on a show with happy, smiling people trying to convey an upbeat mood in a decade that saw political assassinations, the Civil Rights movement and Anti-Vietnam War protests. They actually were brought in by the NFL in numerous Super Bowls, but this was one where they were the headline and only act. It was January of 1976 and their show was a tribute to the country’s Bicentennial.



3. Katy Perry (Super Bowl XLIX) – ah, yes, the magical appearance of Katy and the character who stole the show, Left Shark. Ms. Perry performed her act flanked by a pair of dancing sharks, and Left Shark’s weird dance moves created a stir and launched memes on the internet. Missy Elliott and Lenny Kravitz also made appearances.




4. Jessica Simpson/Various (Super Bowl XXXVIII) – It was dubbed The Super Bowl Of Sleaze. I guess Jessica was the headliner of this show, but the top moment, of course, was Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, exposing a breast while she danced with Justin Timberlake. Nelly and P. Diddy also appeared, as did Kid Rock. His appearance would put this one on my worst list alone without any of the other controversy. A little known story of this game, which wasn’t on the broadcast or reported widely, was that just before the second half began, a guy ran onto the field disguised as a referee, stripped down and performed a lewd dance wearing just a thong before being tackled and arrested.



5. Anita Bryant (Super Bowl V) – apologies to the Southeast Missouri State marching band who also appeared in this one. The headliner was the homophobic Bryant, whose anti-gay stance was widely known. She hadn’t taken on that crusade at this point, but the former beauty queen’s performance was lackluster. Also putting this year’s show on the worst list – another of frequent early year appearances by Up With People.


NFL – Five Greatest Super Bowl Halftime Shows

07 Feb

The Super Bowl halftime shows over the 57 years of the game have changed drastically. From the old style marching bands of the first game to today’s Jay Z produced extravaganzas, some have been classics and some complete duds. Here are my 5 favorites, to be followed tomorrow by the 5 that I consider the worst.



1. U2 (Super Bowl XXXVI) – performing at the half of the first Super Bowl played after 9/11, the Irish rockers paid tribute to the victims of that attack. They opened the show with Beautiful Day, which was a hit single at the time but also seemed like a re-awakening to happier times. They played 2 other songs while the names of the 9/11 victims were projected around the stadium. This deserves the top spot on my list for the poignancy of the band’s tribute.



2. Rolling Stones (Super Bowl XL) – they were actually panned by critics, but I’ve always been a Stones’ fan so the old, stodgy critics can go back to watching Lawrence Welk reruns. Performing on a stage in the shape of their iconic tongue logo, they played the standard 3 songs and of course, 2 of them were censored by the NFL for lyrics the league deemed offensive.



3. Prince (Super Bowl XLI) – the eclectic guitar genius put on an amazing show, on a stage in the form of his “love” logo. He was accompanied by the Florida A & M marching band on a couple of songs, giving the performance a touch of a football atmosphere. The coup de gras was the final song, as he played his iconic hit Purple Rain in the pouring rain of Miami’s Dolphins Stadium.



4. Hip Hop Halftime (Super Bowl LVI) – I am the world’s least qualified expert on rap music, but this was an all-star extravaganza featuring old school hip hop artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar with a guest cameo appearance from an upside-down 50 Cent. The show was critically acclaimed as a nostalgic look back for Millennials and even won a Grammy.



5. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (Super Bowl XLII) – the late rock star and his band were chosen for the halftime show after the NFL was turned by their first choice, The Eagles. They delivered a memorable, rocking show featuring 4 of their hits as they kicked off their 2008 world tour in style. The performance earned them a Grammy nomination, but they didn’t win.



NFL – Five Greatest Super Bowl Quarterbacks

06 Feb

It’s officially Super Bowl week! Rayonsports hasn’t posted during the week leading up to the big game in years, since 2019 in fact, but we’re revisiting that tradition this year. “List” posts are always my favorite, and there’ll be a few of those, starting with today, as I compile my list of the five greatest Super Bowl quarterbacks of all time. It’s subject to debate, of course, but I believe I’m right. Some honorable mentions go to Joe Namath, who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the game’s history, Eli Manning, who won 2 titles and took down Tom Brady’s previously unbeaten Patriots in one of them, Jim Plunkett, once considered a bust but who revived his career with the Raiders and won a pair also, Roger Staubach, who appeared in 4 Super Bowl games and won 2, and Steve Young, who came out from under Joe Montana’s shadow with a record-breaking performance in his one title win. Here are my five:



1. Tom Brady – I really don’t like this guy, who recently announced he’s retiring (again), but there’s no denying he’s the greatest of all time, and even more so as the best Super Bowl QB of all time. Ten appearances in the title game, and 7 wins leave no doubt that his record of excellence will never be matched.



2. Joe Montana – Joe Cool deserves the next spot on the list as he won 4 Super Bowls in 4 tries with a spotless record. He was the game’s MVP 3 times and completed 68% of his passes for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, for a 127.8 average passer rating while doing it. He was also the catalyst in all his wins, while Brady needed field goals, an epic meltdown by Atlanta’s defense and Seattle’s boneheaded play calling at the goal line to win some of his, so there’s a valid argument that Montana could be in the top position.



3. Bart Starr – the leader of Vince Lombardi’s 1960s Green Bay Packer dynasty is always overlooked, but he rates highly on my list. He guided the Packers to wins in the first 2 Super Bowls and was MVP both times. He also carried the weight of the entire NFL on his shoulders in those years, especially the first one, as the older league needed to actually show they were dominant as they claimed. Starr delivered a pair of one-sided victories with surgeon-like efficiency.



4. Terry Bradshaw – he started his career questionably and was even benched a couple of times, and a lot of people say his Pittsburgh Steelers won their 4 Super Bowls because of their Steel Curtain defense, but the fact is they won at least the last 2 due to Bradshaw’s passing ability. He won the game’s MVP award in those 2, and threw for 9 TDs with an average 112.8 rating. He was intercepted 4 times, but 3 of those came in his final title game and he was still voted MVP.



5. John Elway – He deserves to be on the list for persistence alone. One of the greatest signal callers of the 1980s and ’90s, he picked up the reputation for not being able to win the “big one”. After 3 crushing, embarrassing defeats, he won his last 2 Super Bowls and retired after the second one, going out on top as few top athletes ever do.






NFL – Throwback Thursday: Evenly Matched Opponents

05 Jan

It’s the 18th and final week of the NFL’s regular season schedule for 2022, and we’ve pinpointed a matchup from the week’s slate of games to feature for the last TBT post of the year. The San Francisco 49ers meet the Arizona Cardinals, and our featured game between the 2 clubs was played on December 12, 2004. It was a battle of two teams that were very evenly matched, to say the least. They were both plowing through regrettable campaigns, with Arizona amassing 4 wins and San Francisco just a single victory going into this late-season contest. Earlier in the year, the 49ers got that lone win in overtime against these same Cardinals, 31-28. Larry Fitzgerald, a sure-fire future Hall of Famer, was in his rookie season with the Cardinals, while Emmitt Smith, who helped Dallas to 3 Super Bowl wins in the 1990s, was finishing up his long career the way a lot of aging former stars do, playing out the string with a losing club.

Sun Devil Stadium was the site of this contest, which San Francisco started out with a flash. Quarterback Ken Dorsey tossed a short 5 yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd to open the scoring , then threw 19 yards to Cedrick Wilson for another score. Maurice Hicks, who would rush for 139 yards on 34 attempts for the day, scored from a yard out, and the visitors from the Bay Area had themselves a 21-0 lead. Arizona finally cracked the score sheet with a Neil Rackers field goal but Dorsey and Wilson more than matched that when they hooked up on a 27 yard strike to up the lead to 28-3. It looked like a blowout was starting to take shape, until Cardinal QB Josh McCown began to put together a pair of scoring drives, engineered with timely passes to his favorite target Anquan Boldin. Both drives ended with short TD runs from Obafemi Ayanbadejo, who only amassed 13 rushing yards in the game but made them count.

Emmitt Smith then reached down into the prime of his career to score on an 8 yard run, and when McCown ran in successfully on a 2 point try, the Cards found themselves down by only 28-25. Amazingly, they completed the comeback when Rackers hit a tying field goal with a minute left in regulation, sending the contest to overtime. The 49ers recovered in the extra period, the second time the 2 clubs had to go to overtime to settle a game that year. Todd Peterson’s 31 yard field goal won it by the same exact score as their first meeting, 31-28. The game was one of the few high points in the six year NFL career of Dorsey, a college legend at Miami of Florida who was a pro football journeyman. He has enjoyed a successful coaching career, and is currently the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills.


49er legend QB Ken Dorsey



NFL – Throwback Thursday: Mitchell Makes A Statement

29 Dec

Looking over this week’s slate of NFL games, the one we chose to use as the Throwback Thursday feature for our week 17 post was a game between the Cleveland Browns and Washington Commanders. We’ll go back 60 years, to September 23, 1962, for a game played between these franchises at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. It was the season’s second week, and the Browns had opened the year by taking down their main rivals, the defending Eastern Division champion New York Giants, on opening day. Washington, of course going by Redskins back then, had a disappointing tie with the lowly Dallas Cowboys to start their year off, and were looking to right the ship against a Paul Brown-led strong Cleveland outfit.

It was a game of significant importance to one player in particular – Redskin flanker Bobby Mitchell. He was a star player for 4 seasons with the Browns, as a halfback and running mate of superstar fullback Jim Brown. Prior to the ’62 season, however, the Browns traded him to Washington for the rights to rookie back Ernie Davis. It was a bad trade for Cleveland as Davis died of leukemia before playing a down in the NFL. For Mitchell, it wasn’t exactly a picnic either. The only reason he was acquired by Washington was because their racist owner, George Preston Marshall, was forced to integrate his team, against his wishes. Mitchell was mocked by the owner and ostracized by teammates. Coach Bill McPeak moved him from halfback to flanker, a move that many teams were making at the time. Mitchell had made a mark on opening day with a 92 yard kickoff return, and was determined to keep making major contributions to his new club, despite not being completely accepted. Add in the fact that this game was against the team that gave up on him, and Mitchell had plenty of motivation.

There wasn’t a lot of offense for the first 3 quarters of this contest. Washington opened the scoring with a defensive touchdown as Jim Steffen scooped up a fumbled and raced 39 yards to paydirt. Cleveland would get a 1 yard scoring run from Tommy Wilson and sprinkle in 3 Lou Groza field goals, with Bob Khayat adding a three-pointer for the ‘Skins. That would set up the play of the game late in the final quarter. Redskin quarterback Norm Snead hit Mitchell with what turned out to be a game-winning 50 yard touchdown bomb as Washington, and Mitchell, pulled off a 17-16 upset. Mitchell wound up with 3 catches for 94 yards and the TD to lead a Washington attack that was outgained 355-209 in total yards by the Browns on the day. The Redskins beat the Browns again in the second meeting of 1962, but Cleveland then dominated the series between them for the rest of the decade on into the early 1970s, winning 12 straight.

To his credit, Bobby Mitchell forged ahead the remainder of the ’62 campaign and let his play on the field push back against the racism he faced with his new team. By the end of the season, he took full ownership of his new flanker position and led the NFL in receptions with 72 and receiving yardage with 1,384 yards. His 11 touchdowns ranked third. He was named to his first of what would be 3 consecutive Pro Bowls. His new teammates took notice. He was awarded a football, signed by all those teammates, after his tremendous year as a sign of respect. That ball is now proudly displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.


Bobby Mitchell’s signed football at the Hall of Fame in Canton




NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Turned Tables

22 Dec

A pair of franchises that have a deep history of hard-fought battles face off on this week’s NFL schedule. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders, although both are mired in mediocrity in 2022, have been notorious for hating each other over the decades. In the 1970s, the Raiders, then in Oakland, had one of the top regular season winning percentages in the NFL. But the Steelers dominated the postseason in that decade with 4 Super Bowl wins, and in the early to mid-’70s won 5 of 7 matchups with coach John Madden’s club. In 1976, the tables began to turn in Oakland’s favor. They defeated Pittsburgh in the regular season and again in the playoffs on their way to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history that year. In the second half of the decade and into the early 1980s the Raiders continued to own their AFC rivals, to the tune of 4 more victories in a row to stretch their winning streak over the Steelers to 6.

It’s the final game of those 6 consecutive wins that we feature in this week’s TBT post. It was a divisional playoff game of the 1983 season, played on New Year’s Day of 1984. The Raiders had relocated to Los Angeles in 1982, so the game was played at one of the 20th century’s athletic cathedrals, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Raiders were favored in the game as the Steelers, although they managed to grab a playoff spot, were a shell of the team that had been so dominant in the previous decade. Terry Bradshaw was gone and the Steel City club was quarterbacked by a pair of journeymen in Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone, both of whom saw action in this contest. After a Gary Anderson field goal gave Pittsburgh an early lead, Lester Hayes pilfered a Stoudt pass and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown to put L.A. ahead 7-3. The Raiders used their rushing attack, with quarterback Jim Plunkett filtering in passes to Cliff Branch and Todd Christensen, to put together drives that ended in a 4 yard TD scamper by future Hall of Famer Marcus Allen and a Chris Bahr field goal, upping the lead to 17-3 at halftime.

The rest of the game’s scoring came in the third quarter. The Raiders’ ground game continued to churn out yardage, with Kenny King scoring on a 9 yard run and Allen finding daylight on his way to his second score of the game from 49 yards out. The rout was now on, but Stoudt broke the L.A. momentum with a 58 yard touchdown bomb to John Stallworth. Frank Hawkins’ 2 yard touchdown run matched that and the Raiders advanced to the AFC Championship game with a resounding 38-10 win. In all the Raiders racked up 413 yards of offense, including 188 hard-fought rushing yards. Allen had a banner day, totaling 121 yards on 13 carries and his 2 TDs. The win proved to be a springboard for Los Angeles, as they soundly defeated Seattle in the AFC title game, then shocked the heavily favored defending champion Washington Redskins 38-9 in the Super Bowl to secure their second NFL championship.


Marcus Allen shreds the Steeler defense


NFL – Throwback Thursday: A Bump In The Road

15 Dec

On this week’s NFL schedule there is a meeting of the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts, 2 teams that were members of the old guard NFL before the merger. For this week’s Throwback Thursday feature our sights are set on opening day of the 1964 season, which was a pretty successful one for the Colts and their young coach, Don Shula. The old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota was the setting for the game, the September 13th home opener for the Vikings. The team was still relatively young as a franchise, entering their fourth season under coach Norm Van Brocklin. The Colts, still located in Baltimore then, had high hopes for the new campaign. They had ended the 1963 season with 3 straight wins, including a 41-10 thrashing of the Vikings, and appeared ready to shed the mediocre reputation that had befallen the franchise since winning back-to-back NFL titles in the late 1950s.

That old pro football saying of “any given Sunday” is a real thing, and it played out on this day. Minnesota’s Tommy Mason raced 51 yards for a touchdown in a sign of things to come, as the Vikings’ rushing attack would have 2 backs go over 100 yards for the day and the team would amass over 300 on the ground. Lenny Moore got the Colts even with a 2 yard scoring run, followed by a short Fred Cox field goal and a 48 yard TD pass from Fran Tarkenton to his fullback, Bill Brown. That gave the Vikings a 17-7 halftime lead. The entire second half amounted to the teams trading scores. John Unitas cut the Viking lead to 17-14 with an 18 yard touchdown throw to Jimmy Orr, but the Vikings answered that with a 1 yard Brown plunge. Unitas kept his club close with a 70 yard bomb to Moore to close out the third quarter. Tarkenton, however, opened the final stanza with an answer to that, finishing a drive with a 6 yard touchdown toss to Paul Flatley to put Minnesota up 31-21. The teams traded field goals to close out the scoring and Minnesota had themselves an impressive 34-24 opening day victory.

Mason finished with 137 yards on 20 carries while Brown added 103 on 20 tries and also chipped in 84 yards on 3 receptions to fuel the Viking attack. It wasn’t the start Shula and the Colts expected, but they didn’t let it derail their aspirations. They would lose only 1 more time in that ’64 regular season, finishing 12-2 to claim the Western Division crown. Their string of wins included a sweep of Vince Lombardi’s Packers and shutout wins of 52-0 over the defending champion Bears and 34-0 over the Lions. Their only other regular season loss was in the season’s penultimate week, to Detroit, after they had already clinched the division. Despite the dominance, the Baltimore club lost the championship game to Cleveland in disappointing 27-0 shutout fashion.

Vikings’ Tommy Mason finds daylight (Neil Leifer-Getty Images)


NFL – Throwback Thursday: Boomer Blanks The Browns

08 Dec

When former Cleveland Browns’ founder/coach Paul Brown was awarded a pro franchise for Cincinnati in 1968, and then plunked into the AFC Central Division with those Browns as part of the 1970 merger, an automatic rivalry was destined to happen between the 2 Ohio cities. They renew that rivalry as AFC North opponents on this week’s NFL schedule, so we look back at a contest played between them on December 3, 1989 for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature. It was a week 13 contest and both clubs were fighting to stay alive in the AFC playoff race. In the cold environment of Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium, the defenses took command of the game early, and battled through a scoreless first quarter.

Bengal running back James Brooks finally broke the standoff with a one yard touchdown run in the second quarter. After making some adjustments at halftime, Bengal signal caller Boomer Esaison lit up the scoreboard with touchdown throws of 38 yards to Tim McGee and 9 yards to Rodney Holman. The throw to McGee involved some trickery, as it was the result of a successful flea flicker. With the playing conditions deteriorating and the defenses still forcing things, that gave Cincinnati what amounted to an insurmountable 21-0 lead. That score held up as the final tally, and the Bengals kept their slim playoff hopes alive with the win.

That Ohio rivalry was, and still is, a heated one for both players and fans. In fact, the following week, the Bengals had a home game against Seattle, and things weren’t going real well for the home team. Between blowing a lead and some questionable officiating calls, the fans began to get restless and started to pelt the field with snow balls. Bengal coach Sam Wyche took it upon himself to try and calm the crowd down. He grabbed a microphone and proclaimed “If you see anyone throwing things on the field get them out of here. You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!” Ah, yes, a little more fuel to the fire that is the Battle of Ohio rivalry.


The late Sam Wyche, former Bengals’ head coach


NFL – Throwback Thursday: Defensive Day Off

01 Dec

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons clash on this week’s schedule, and for our Thursday Throwback we’ll feature a game played between these 2 teams in the Falcons’ inaugural season, on December 18, 1966. The Steelers were a suffering through a typical dismal season for them in the 1960s, while the Falcons, of course, were an expansion team still cutting their teeth. To properly gauge the moods of the 2 clubs going into this game, let’s look at where they were entering this final regular season game for both. Pittsburgh was 4-8-1 and closing out another losing year, while Atlanta was just beginning to build some momentum, having won 2 games in a row to raise their record to 3-10. They saw an opportunity to finish the year on the high of a 3 game winning streak.

The Steelers, however sorry of a team they were, reacted like a kid whose buddies bullied him, then some new kid moves in and tries to join in on the bullying. There was no way they were going to let that happen. As bad as the Steelers were in the 1960s, they at least always had a reputation for playing tough defense, even to the point of being dirty. That defense took a vacation day in this game, however,  as did the Atlanta defensive unit. It started out quietly enough as the only first quarter scoring was a pair of Mike Clark field goals for Piitsburgh. The Steelers then exploded in the second quarter. Quarterback Bill Nelsen hit Gary Ballman on a 12 yard touchdown pass and Amos Bullocks ran 13 yards for a score and suddenly the Steelers were up 20-0. Atlanta put together a drive to try and stay close, finishing it up with a 1 yard Junior Coffey touchdown run. Pittsburgh score again on a short run by Cannonball Butler, with Clark missing the extra point. Clark then redeemed himself with another short field goal and the Steelers had themselves a commanding 29-7 halftime lead.

There was another flurry of scoring in the third quarter. Falcon QB Randy Johnson connected on a 53 yard pass to running back Preston Ridlehuber for a TD to open the quarter, but the Steelers took over again from there. Buter scored again, winding up a drive with another touchdown. Then Nelsen took the longer, faster route by connecting with Roy Jefferson on a 68 yard touchdown bomb. When Clendon Thomas scooped up an Atlanta fumble and returned it 23 yards to the end zone, the Steel City club now found themselves ahead of the expansion bunch 50-14. Pittsburgh’s defense went back into vacation mode after that. Johnson and Ridlehuber connected again for a score, this time from 19 yards out, but the Steeler offense matched that when Willie Asbury scampered into the end zone from 2 yards out. Falcon coach Norb Hecker, who had been plucked from Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay staff to guide the new team, sent young Dennis Claridge in to mop up the game at quarterback. Claridge, who came from the Packers along with Hecker, lit up the scoreboard with a pair of touchdown throws, of 62 and 12 yards, to four year vet Taz Anderson, ringing up the final tally at 57-33 in favor of Pittsburgh.

It was a typical showing for a team wrapping up it’s inaugural season up against a perennial losing team trying to at least show it could bully somebody else instead of being bullied. Both Hecker and Steeler mentor Bill Austin would last until the 1968 season before being fired, while Claridge, despite showing promise in this game, never stayed in the league beyond the ’66 season.


Game program from Falcons/Steelers 1966 clash