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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

31 Jan

The final section of the annual Buffalo Bills’ season review is a look at what the team needs to do to continue growing towards their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl. I always look back to the previous season’s review prior to completing the newest one, and I thought I would re-enter my final thoughts from last year. I don’t think much has changed since then.

 

“One thing is for certain. Beane cannot stand pat with his current roster with the Bills smack in the middle of a huge Super Bowl window with Josh Allen as his quarterback. He can’t fall in love with certain players who have been here but haven’t reached their full potential. He and coach Sean McDermott must add the pieces necessary to strengthen this contending club even more. That may also mean taking a hard look at the coaching staff, and whether or not there are better position coaches/teachers available to push the young talent to a higher level.”

 

Yes, I believe all of that is still true. Here are my suggestions on the areas that need improvement:

 

Backup Quarterback

 

OK, this year I made it specific in the header. The need is at backup quarterback, certainly not starter. Veteran Case Keenum filled the role in 2022, but I think Josh Allen is past the point where he needs all these older mentors. He already has the offensive coordinator, QB coach and practice squad QB (that could be Matt Barkley again or maybe Davis Webb). It’s now time to draft a mid-to-late round prospect to groom as a permanent backup going forward. At 6’6 and 226 lbs. Stanford’s Tanner McKee would match Allen’s physical stature but is strictly a pocket passer. Max Duggan of TCU has Allen’s leadership qualities. He led the Horned Frogs to the college football playoff this season.

 

Running Back

 

Devin Singletary is a free agent who the Bills may decide to move on from, and whether Nyheim Hines fits in their plans is debatable too since he didn’t contribute much beyond kick returns after being acquired in a trade. So there is a need for probably more than one back to compliment James Cook. In the 2-3 round range, UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet and Jahmyr Gibbs of Alabama could add some juice to the offense, while TCU’s Kendre Miller is a pounder with the short yardage skills the Bills’ stable of backs has lacked. There are plenty of veteran free agent RBs hitting the market, but most are overpriced or over the hill. Josh Jacobs of the Raiders would be an immediate upgrade at the position but GM Brandon Beane couldn’t afford him unless the running back market is severely suppressed. Stealing a hidden gem like Jeff Wilson from a division rival (Miami) could be an option, but needing cheap labor to fill the roster the best option is the draft.

 

Receivers

 

I still believe Gabe Davis is a quality receiver, and Khali Shakir will have a much bigger impact next season, but the consensus is that Josh Allen needs more weapons. On the free agent market, a couple of potential targets could be Parris Campbell of the Colts, who could thrive playing with a top quarterback, and Jakobi Meyers of New England. Signing him would be that double whammy of strengthening the WR corps and weakening a division rival. In the draft, the receiver class isn’t as strong as some years, but some early-to-mid rounders who could help are Jalin Hyatt of Tennessee, SMU’s Rashee Rice, Marvin Mims of Oklahoma and North Carolina’s Josh Downs. If USC’s Jordan Addison should somehow drop to the Bills at pick 27, they should sprint to the podium to draft him.

 

Offensive Line

 

This is the Bills’ biggest area of need, especially the interior line. Again, if they don’t have to break the bank, they should target Baltimore’s Ben Powers or Denver’s Dalton Risner to upgrade the guard position. In the draft, there are always players with potential in all rounds. Early on, Peter Skoronski of Northwestern would be a great pick but he is moving into the top 10 on a lot of draft boards. Dawand Jones of Ohio State is an intriguing player who could be available in the second round. Both those players are tackles. There are more realistic prospects at guard who could be around when the Bills pick in almost every round. Those include O’Cyrus Torrence of Florida, Andrew Voorhees of USC, Notre Dame’s Jarett Patterson, Jaxson Kirkland of Washington and Cody Mauch of North Dakota State.

 

Defensive Line

 

The Bills have already spent a lot of draft capital in recent years here, but they may need to do it again. I would expect the team to move on from Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson so there will be openings. They signed Von Miller last offseason so any additions would likely be draft picks. My favorite edge rusher is massive 6’7 Andre Carter of Army. At interior tackle, Baylor’s Siaka Ika is a space-eater who would compliment DaQuan Jones nicely. Other tackle possibilities are Gervon Dexter of Florida, Lukas Van Ness of Iowa and Cory Durden of NC State.

 

Safety

 

The Bills plan to move Christian Benford to safety, and with Jordan Poyer likely departing, they will have to add some depth here. There really isn’t a player on the free agent market who would be an upgrade over Poyer, so the reinforcements would come from the draft. Georgia’s Chris Smith would be a great addition. Other possibilities include Rashad Torrence II of Florida, Jammie Robinson of Florida State and Louisville’s Kenderick Duncan Jr.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

30 Jan

Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense, a unit that puts up impressive statistics and rankings each season, then has epic failures in the playoffs. Coordinator Leslie Frazier’s troops have put up these shocking numbers in their last 3 postseason defeats – 107 points and 1,403 yards allowed. That averages out to 36 points and 468 yards per game. Not exactly numbers that reflect a championship contender. Here is a position-by-position look at the defense and special teams:

 

Defensive Line

 

The play of this unit can best be described as inconsistent. GM Brandon Beane signed a big ticket item in Von Miller, and he delivered until an injury ended his season. The Bills were never able to deliver a consistent pass rush after he was gone. Greg Rousseau had 8 sacks and was stout enough against the run, and A.J. Epenesa chipped in a quiet 6.5 quarterback traps. You could argue that their production was limited by the Bills’ use of a heavy D line rotation. The other edge rushers on the roster are Shaq Lawson and Boogie Basham. Both played hard when they got their opportunities and Basham is still growing as a prospect, but it’s possible that the team isn’t in a rush to bring Lawson back. The interior line was boosted by the free agent signings of DaQuan  Jones and Tim Settle, especially Jones. He was solid in taking on double teams and freeing up Ed Oliver to make more plays. His absence in the playoff loss had a negative effect on the defense as a whole. It’s debatable whether Oliver has lived up to his draft status, but like Basham he still has room to grow. Does the team have time to wait for that growth? His contract will be an issue soon. The last interior defender is veteran Jordan Phillips. He flashed some good play during the season but is only on a one year contract and lacked the one ability that coach Sean McDermott insists is most important – availability. He missed considerable time due to injury.

 

Linebackers

 

For a team that regularly plays a scheme that uses only 2 linebackers, the Bills were awfully heavy on the roster at the position. Matt Milano is a bonafide All Pro and Tremaine Edmunds had his best season and is the leader of the defense. His contract is up and it’s not a certainty that the Bills are willing to cough up big dollars to keep him. There has to be a reason why they spent 2 draft picks on the position last year in Terrel Bernard and Baylon Spector. Both of those rookies made the squad but only played on special teams most of the year, as did veterans Tyler Matakevich and Tyrel Dodson. A.J. Klein was brought back as added depth during the season but it’s doubtful if he is back. My expectation for 2023 is that the team beefs up the roster at other positions and doesn’t carry 7 backers so there will be subtractions, the question is who will they be?

 

Defensive Backs

 

There are 13 players in the mix as this season ends on the back end of the defense. Let’s sort through them, starting with the safeties. Micah Hyde missed most of the season due to injury but was practicing and ready to play at season’s end. He was sorely missed and will be a welcome re-addition next season. However, the Hyde/Jordan Poyer tandem days may be over. Poyer, who was a warrior playing through injuries all year, is about to test the free agent waters and is likely to get an offer Buffalo won’t be willing to match. The depth behind these 2 veterans is full of question marks. Siran Neal is almost strictly a special teamer now, Damar Hamlin’s future as a player is in serious doubt after his horrific incident, Jaquan Johnson got his opportunity to start and never took hold of it, leading to the team bringing back Dean Marlowe as a stop gap who wound up starting. Marlowe played admirably but he is just that, a stop gap. That leaves Jared Mayden, a late-season signee who is a complete unknown. Post-season press conferences revealed that the team is considering moving impressive rookie Christian Benford from cornerback to safety. That move could work out but it’s really just more uncertainty. Cornerback is in good hands going into 2023. Tre’Davious White is back and should be even better, rookie Kaiir Elam looks like a keeper even though the coaches held him back in his development. Taron Johnson is arguably the best slot corner in the NFL, and Dane Jackson is solid. His play may have been better than White’s this year. Cam Lewis also dependable, one of the guys on the roster who is a valuable special teamer but also can actually play the position they’re listed at on the roster. Of course, Benford and Neal can also fill in here in a pinch.

 

Special Teams

 

The Bills put a premium on the special teams, maybe too much so. Veterans like Taiwan Jones, Matakevich, Dodson, Kumerow, Neal and Tommy Sweeney have contributed little at their respective positions. Maybe it’s time for younger players like Bernard, Lewis and Spector to infiltrate those spots, freeing up roster spots for important weapons elsewhere. The specialists are all good, solid pros. Long snapper Reid Ferguson, kicker Tyler Bass and punter/holder Sam Martin are a good unit that work well together. It is possible the team brings in competition for Martin, who is 30+. Beane’s trade for Nyheim Hines upgraded the return game also.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

27 Jan

In part 2 of our annual Bills’ season review, we look at the offensive side of the ball. There were issues with consistency as the season progressed, some players had down years and once again, there was a failure to develop a sound ground game. Here’s a position-by-position look at the offense:

 

Quarterbacks

 

Josh Allen is a franchise quarterback, a true NFL superstar. He can’t, however, do it all on his own. He needs more help from the play callers and more support from the other 10 players around him, whether that means current players stepping up or new players added. Backup QB for this team is basically an extra coach and a clipboard carrier, so Case Keenum was the 2022 version of that. It may be time to start grooming a younger player for this role in 2023.

Running Backs

 

Devin Singletary is a hard working back who fights for extra yardage, but has never been much of a home run threat. His contract is up, and I don’t see the Bills paying him much unless he returns as a backup. James Cook shows a lot of potential but only was able to show flashes of that in 2022 with the Bills coaches’ maddening habit of over-nurturing their young prospects. Still, he is the lead dog as far as becoming the number 1 running back next season. Beane acquired Nyheim Hines at the trade deadline to add another offensive weapon, but he was mostly underutilized. His contributions in the return game made a difference. Taiwan Jones is on the roster for special teams only. He is up in age and his value in taking up a roster spot has diminished. Fullback Reggie Gilliam is valuable for his versatility. He can play fullback and fill in as a tight end, and is a regular on special teams also.

Receivers

 

Buffalo has one of the top # 1 targets in the NFL in Stefon Diggs, a fiery competitor who puts up consistent numbers each year. After him, the Bills need to figure it out. Gabe Davis had a bad year with dropped passes, but he’s a big game monster and has to be a major part of the offense going forward. A little off-season work to improve his consistency should help. The fact that John Brown and Cole Beasley were brought back to boost the passing game production was a sign that the club is in need of weapons. Bringing back Beasley wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Late season flashes from rookie Khalil Shakir put him in the conversation to be one of the top 4 next year. He’s one of many first year players who weren’t given ample opportunities to help when the team had struggles. Isaiah McKenzie may have seen his last days as a Bill. He also had drop issues and he no longer contributes on kick returns, so his is a prime spot for an upgrade in 2023. The team never got a good look at Jamison Crowder after he signed as a free agent due to injury, and Jake Kumerow, who has stuck around for his special teams value, is in the same boat. Dawson Knox has developed into a quality tight end. He made tremendous strides with his production late in the season. After him, he TE depth is slim. Quinton Morris is a good story as an undrafted player who fought hard to make it, but the team should look for better players at his position. Tommy Sweeney is another player who is on the roster but rarely active on game day. The receiving corps overall could use an infusion of new blood.

Offensive Line

 

This group is an enigma. The Bills have struggled badly in developing a run game outside of Allen’s runs, and the beating the QB took in the playoff loss to the Bengals is a sign that they need changes up front. Center Mitch Morse is solid, but the rest of the line leaves a lot to be desired. Both starting tackles, Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown, looked good at times and struggled badly in other instances. Left guard Rodger Saffold showed signs of his age (34) as the season wore on, and I doubt if he is offered a contract to return. Ryan Bates was moved to right guard, and his play was decent, but he played much better on the left side in 2021. The depth behind the starters has one young player with some potential in Tommy Doyle, who spent much of the year on injured reserve. The rest of the backups are average journeymen – David Quessenberry, Bobby Hart, Greg Van Roten and Ike Boettger. There is a possible diamond in the rough on the practice squad in Alec Anderson, but again, an infusion of better talent is needed here.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

25 Jan

The Buffalo Bills’ 2022 season ended abruptly, and disappointingly, in the divisional round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year with a shocking beatdown administered by the Cincinnati Bengals. After being “crowned” as Super Bowl favorites before the season by just about all the pundits, anything short of a championship was going to be looked at as disappointing, but the manner in which they were manhandled on both sides of the ball while being eliminated took all the wind out of the sails of the organization. With that in mind, we begin our annual four-part review of the team’s season, starting with the front office and coaching staff. It certainly won’t be as glowing as past years’ reviews.

General Manager Brandon Beane has done an admirable job of building the Bills into an annual playoff team and legit title contender. Drafting Josh Allen and securing Stefon Diggs in a trade rank at the top of his list of accomplishments, but we are reaching the point where it’s fair to question some of his moves. Trading up in the draft to get guard Cody Ford, then hanging onto him too long before finally releasing him, can and should be questioned. Couple that with trading away Wyatt Teller, who has developed into a Pro Bowl interior lineman, doubles the criticism. As for the rest of his acquired talent, looking at it creates a bit of a conundrum. Players like Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver, Boogie Basham, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have ranged from competent starters to sometime contributors. But to use Beane’s own term, there always seems to be “meat still on the bone”. They don’t quite measure up to the spot they were drafted in. Beane has had tremendous success with mid-to-late picks-players like Matt Milano, Dawson Knox, Gabe Davis, Dane Jackson and Taron Johnson. The 2022 draft class gets an “incomplete” grade, since the Bills’ coaches have a habit of babying young players, claiming they’re not ready to contribute regularly. Hence, we only got to see glimpses of what players like Kaiir Elam, James Cook, Khalil Shakir and Christian Benford could do.

That leads us to the conundrum. If the young players “aren’t ready”, are the coaches doing their jobs? Beane has invested heavily in the defensive line, yet the Bills still can’t generate a consistent pass rush and have trouble stopping the run. So, are Beane’s draft picks bordering on being busts, or are the coaches not getting them ready to perform at a high level? Were Zack Moss and Devin Singletary overrated as third round draft picks, or are the coaches failing at developing a consistent ground game?
Sean McDermott is the head coach and deserves praise for leading the franchise out of the doldrums, but the playoff failures also fall at his feet.

Looking at the coordinators:

  1. Ken Dorsey was being praised at the beginning of the year as the Bills racked up yardage and points, but fell under criticism when the offense faltered later on. Josh Allen still stands by him, so he should, and will be, given the opportunity to right the offensive ship in 2023. It doesn’t necessarily fall directly on the coordinator, but how long will this team struggle to develop a consistent run game?
  2. Matt Smiley was a first time coordinator, like Dorsey. The team consistently fills the roster with strictly special teams contributors. Other than Nyheim Hines’ stunning double kickoff return touchdown game, did the special teams do anything else special? Are they capable of scheming up a blocked punt or field goal at a critical time when needed?
  3. Leslie Frazier’s defense has now been guilty of massive failures in the playoffs 4 years in a row. From blowing a 16-0 lead at Houston, getting blown out in the 2020 AFC championship in Kansas City, the 13 second fiasco in K.C. last year and the meltdown at home this year against the Bengals, it’s a troubling pattern. The team always has statistics that rank high in the regular season, but the defense is not feared by any opponent. They have trouble stopping the run, can’t generate a pass rush and don’t get enough game-changing turnovers. It’s hard to believe that the players Beane has added are as mediocre as the unit looks at times, so the coaching has to be questioned. The defensive coaching staff needs an influx of young talent that can innovate and put the players in better positions to make plays.
 
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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