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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

30 Jan

Part 4 of our annual Bills’ season review is always my favorite. It’s where I get to play pretend general manager, and give my thoughts on how the team can improve going into the following season. I’ll take into account that Brandon Beane can’t afford any high-priced free agents and will have to work some salary cap magic again, but try to best fill the team’s needs using both free agency and the draft. The positions listed are where I think they need help.

Let’s get on with this yearly exercise:

 

Running Back

 

James Cook is established as the Bills’ top back, and they would be wise to re-sign Ty Johnson to back him up, but there is still a need for another runner, preferably a bigger, hard-running short yardage back. The running back market has been undervalued recently, but even so, the prize runner in this year’s class is Derrick Henry. He is not in Buffalo’s price range, and there aren’t any bigger backs in the free agent bargain bin, so the draft, probably in the later rounds, is where the team will have to find the type they want. Braelon Allen of Wisconsin is a mid-round prospect who fits the bill. at 6’2 and 235 lbs. he has the size, and his draft profile describes him as a “violent” runner. He played safety in high school so he isn’t afraid of contact for sure. Another power back slated to be drafted late day 2 or early day 3 is Ohio State’s Miyan Williams. He’s tough to bring down, but his draft profile also claims he has “subtle shiftiness”.

 

Wide Receiver

 

This is the biggest offensive area of need for GM Beane to address this offseason. He brought in a couple of bargain FAs last year in Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty, but they’ll need to upgrade from them going into next season. There are some big name free agents hitting the market – Tee Higgins, Mike Evans, Tyler Boyd – I don’t see any of them signing here. A couple of lower cost possibilities are Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Darnell Mooney, but in my opinion they would be better off trying to re-sign one of their own, Gabe Davis. He has been inconsistent but at least he’s a known commodity that Josh Allen has familiarity and has had success with. The Bills pick 28th in the first round of the college draft and most observers see them using that pick, and probably another on day 2, on adding to the receiver corps. Two intriguing names fall into that range on various “mock drafts”. Brian Thomas Jr. from LSU is a big wideout at 6’4 and 205 lbs. who is a mismatch for smaller cornerbacks. He has tremendous speed, a great catch radius and is a big play threat on long throws. The other name is Oregon’s Troy Franklin. He has good size at 6’2 and may be the fastest player in this draft. He excels on double moves and is definitely a deep threat, who also possesses great hands. Looking at day 2 of the draft, where the Bills have pick 60 and a compensatory pick that figures to be 99 or 100, there are some other receivers who project to be solid pros. Texas’ Xavier Worthy is a natural playmaker who also has elite speed, and a knack for setting up defenders, and can play both outside and in the slot. Johnny Wilson from Florida State is an interesting player. He is massive for a wideout at 6’7 and 240 lbs., which is basically tight end size. Of course that gives him a wide wingspan and great catch radius who high-points the ball exceptionally well. His long strides make him a deep threat also, with running back yards after the catch ability. There are other names to watch in this range, including Jalen McMillan of Washington, Louisville’s Jamari Thrash, Malachi Corley of Western Kentucky, Michigan’s Roman Wilson and Luke McCaffrey from Rice, who has great NFL bloodlines.

 

Defensive Tackle

 

With Ed Oliver being the only interior defensive lineman signed for 2024, Buffalo will have to add players at that spot. Again, one of their own – DaQuan Jones – should be a top priority to get re-signed. After big-ticket players like Chris Jones and Christian Wilkins, the free agent pickings are slim. With glaring needs at other positions it’s unlikely the Bills would use a high draft choice on the D-line, but if a prospect like Texas nose tackle T’Vondre Sweat fell to them in the second round, they would have to consider it. At 6’4 and 346 lbs. he is a massive space eater who would immediately upgrade the run defense. They will more than likely target later round players like Tyler Davis of Clemson, Jordan Jefferson from LSU and North Carolina’s Myles Murphy.

 

Safety

 

With both Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer starting to age out (Hyde is also a free agent) and Taylor Rapp hitting free agency, safety is another hot spot for Buffalo. Like running back, the safety position was undervalued in last year’s free agency period. If that happens again, Beane should look at 3 top players on the market. They are Antoine Winfield Jr., whose father played for the Bills, Jeremy Chinn of the Panthers and New England’s Kyle Dugger. All 3 figure to be coveted but if their asking price is within the Bills’ cap range they should be aggressive. In the draft, the Bills could easily use a high day 2 pick on a safety, maybe even their first rounder if the receiver group dries up. Players worth picking in the second round are USC’s Calen Bullock and Utah’s Cole Bishop. Bullock has good size and leaping ability, and is perfectly capable of covering speedy wide receivers. Like Bullock, Bishop has good size, is athletic and has the ball skills to create turnovers. He’s also a willing tackler in run support.

 

Cornerback

 

There aren’t any corners worth paying on the free agent market, so the Bills may look to add depth here in the later rounds of the draft. They’re not totally lacking in talent at CB but Tre White’s injury uncertainty and the fact that Dane Jackson is a free agent means some bodies will need to be added to the training camp roster. In the third day rounds, some possibilities include Cam Hart of Notre Dame, Auburn’s Nehemiah Pritchett, Elijah Jones of Boston College, and an interesting name, Louisville’s Storm Duck.

 

Special Teams

 

I lumped this all into a single category since I think the Bills should add competition at punter, placekicker and kickoff/punt returner. There’s always the possibility they bring back former draft choice Matt Araiza to compete for the punting job, now that he is clear of any criminal charges. Any other punter or kicker brought into camp will be an unknown undrafted guy so we won’t bother naming players. As for return specialists, Texas WR Worthy adds punt return ability to his resume, as does Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith. Penn State cornerback Daequan Hardy returned 17 punts for an almost 15 yard average, with 2 touchdowns.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

29 Jan

Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense. Coach Sean McDermott made a major change here in 2023. Former coordinator Leslie Frazier was eased out, and McDermott took over calling the defense on game days. The regular season results of that move were positive. The Bills maintained a high ranking, but at the same time finished second behind the Ravens in sacks and ranked high in turnovers produced, producing more “splash plays” that McDermott desired. However, in the playoff loss to the Chiefs, the unit was once again gashed, in many ways due to a rash of injuries, especially at linebacker.

Here is a position-by-position look at the defense and special teams:

 

Defensive Line

 

Defensive line play was spotty, but mostly adequate, in 2023. On the interior, Ed Oliver signed a new contract and showed that he deserved it with All Pro-caliber play all year. With almost no players signed beyond this season, this is another area that might require an infusion of youth through the draft. A priority should be put on trying to re-sign Oliver’s running mate, DaQuan Jones. He’s a valuable run stuffer whose presence is sorely missed when he’s not on the field. All of the other spare tackles – Tim Settle, Poona Ford, Linval Joseph, Jordan Phillips and practice squad player Eli Ankou – are replaceable. On the outside edges, the team has to live with Von Miller’s contract, so they can only hope he returns to some semblance of his former self in 2024. At his advanced age that might be a big ask. Greg Rousseau is a solid edge rusher who also is good against the run. The club would be wise to try to re-sign A.J. Epenesa, who flashed in a limited role at end. One of Beane’s free agent one year gems, Leonard Floyd, led the team in sacks and might price himself off the Bills’ roster next season. Like his running mate Phillips, Shaq Lawson has probably worn out his welcome, and would only be brought back as a depth piece at a minimum contract. The coaching staff seems to like the future possibilities of Kingsley Jonathan, so he could move into a more prominent role next season.

 

Linebackers

 

This group was a MASH unit at season’s end in 2023. They were heavily victimized by Pat Mahomes in their season-ending playoff loss. However, the pairing of Matt Milano and Terrel Bernard bodes well for the 2024 season. Milano is an All Pro and Bernard is trending in that direction after a stellar campaign this year. An unknown to start the year, he took on the “green dot” role of calling the defense and excelled at it. As for backups, having to step into major spots this year will help players like Tyrel Dodson, Baylon Spector and Dorian Williams next year. Old friend A.J. Klein will likely be sent back out on vacation in 2024, and Tyler Matakevich is strictly a special teams player. His role could easily be transitioned to another player like Spector or Williams if the team needs to free up a roster spot for another position.

 

Defensive Backs

 

Suddenly, the back end of the Bills’ defense is growing old. Starting cornerback Tre’Davious White will be entering his 8th season next year, and he has become injury-prone. The Bills would be smart not to count on him returning, at least not at the beginning of the year. The safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer has served the team well since 2017, but their partnership may be coming to an end as both are well into their 30s. Dane Jackson, like Levi Wallace before him, has been a serviceable corner for years. He is a free agent and like Wallace, may be allowed to walk. With Hyde and Poyer aging out, it would behoove Beane to try to bring Taylor Rapp back again. Even without White, the Bills have 2 adequate starting corners for 2024 in Christian Benford and trade deadline add Rasul Douglas, who is a ballhawk. In reserve there is still Kaiir Elam, who has struggled but still has plenty of potential to revive his career next season. The Bills have an All Pro at slot corner in Taron Johnson, an invaluable member of their defense. Cam Lewis has established himself as a versatile piece. He can play safety or nickel corner, and is a core special teamer. In my opinion the team may be underutilizing Siran Neal. A vet who can play both safety and CB and is a top gunner on special teams, he should see more time on defense, especially when injuries happen. With possible openings at safety next year, can Damar Hamlin make a push to get into the lineup?

 

Special Teams

 

The Bills’ special teams were not special in 2023. Deonte Harty’s punt return touchdown that changed the momentum of the division-clinching win over Miami was the highlight.

Lowlights:

  • Allowing a game winning punt return TD against the Jets on opening night
  • 12 men on the field vs. Denver
  • Blocked field goal in wild card game that resulted in the punter getting hurt
  • Missed field goal to end the divisional playoff game

Placekicker Tyler Bass had an alarmingly mediocre season in 2023. At the very least, the team has to bring in competition for him next season. No free pass to the roster as he’s had so far in his career. Punter Sam Martin was equally inconsistent, bad to start the year, then hit a very strong stretch late, only to fail in the playoff loss coming off a hamstring injury. Competition for him would be a smart move also. Long snapper Reid Ferguson is a keeper. I can’t recall any bad snaps for him in his career here. Buffalo could look to add some zip to their return game next year. Harty gave them one amazing and very important lift in the season ender, but overall the return game was below par. Maybe the return of Nyheim Hines will help, but a late round flyer on a speedy return guy might be an option.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

27 Jan

The offense is the focus of part 2 of our annual Bills’ season review.  The change of coordinators from Ken Dorsey to Joe Brady produced positive results for the most part, the biggest being an improvement in the run game. If Brady is retained as OC, it’ll be interesting to see what ideas he adds to the attack as he takes full control, rather than just tweaking the team’s existing playbook . Here’s a position-by-position look at the offense:

 

Quarterbacks

 

Josh Allen is the unquestioned leader of this team. His teammates all claim they would do anything for him and support him 100% even when he comes up short occasionally. He should spend the offseason continuing to find ways to cut down on costly turnovers, while still maintaining his swashbuckling style of play. Kyle Allen’s role as backup QB mainly consisted of taking kneel downs at the end of games and being Josh Allen’s buddy. Will practice squad quarterback Shane Buechele get a fair shot at taking that spot in 2024?

Running Backs

 

After Brady assumed the OC duties, it became apparent that James Cook is now the Bills’ bell cow running back. He is an elusive runner who also seems to have an even bigger upside if he can add some longer chunk plays to his arsenal and improve his pass catching ability. Damien Harris was signed to a one year deal but injuries derailed him and his contributions were minimal. Latavious Murray added some leadership to the squad, but I don’t see him back next year. The best of the backup backs was easily Ty Johnson, a waiver wire pickup who should figure in their plans for 2024, should he be re-signed. This is a spot where a young, hard running short yardage back, preferably found in the late rounds of the draft, would be a good addition. 2022 trade acquisition Nyheim Hines, who excelled as a kick returner, should be back in 2024 also. Fullback Reggie Gilliam is a solid special teams guy and blocker, so he is almost sure to be back.

Receivers

 

This is an area of glaring need going into the offseason for the Bills. Their top receiver, Stefon Diggs, saw his production drop off dramatically the second half of the season. “Big Play” Gabe Davis was very inconsistent, wavering from 100 yard games to no catch games. He is also a pending free agent, and it seems unlikely the Bills will re-sign him. One positive was the emergence of Khalil Shakir, who thrived when Joe Brady took over as offensive coordinator. Free agent additions Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty contributed very little outside of the AFC East-clinching win over Miami. Sherfield won’t be back and Harty will surely face stiff competition, most likely from the draft, next year. Out of desperation, Andy Isabella was elevated from the practice squad late in the year, but didn’t provide any help in the passing attack. An unknown is Justin Shorter, like Shakir a fifth round draft pick who spent the entire 2023 season on injured reserve. Wide receiver may be lacking, but the Bills are set at the tight end position. Dawson Knox is a reliable target who always seems to make his biggest plays in the playoffs, while rookie first round pick Dalton Kincaid is a superstar on the rise. Comparisons to the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce have already started for him. An unsung but valuable third tight end is Quinton Morris, a former undrafted player who has battled his way into a contributing role each year he’s been here.

 

Offensive Line

 

Once a question mark, the offensive line was a stable bright spot for Buffalo in 2023. Anchored by veteran Mitch Morse at center, the group stayed intact as a starting 5 all season. GM Beane added 2 new guards to reinforce the interior line – free agent signee Connor McGovern from Dallas and rookie second round draftee O’Cyrus Torrence, who looks like a second day steal. Left tackle Dion Dawkins had a Pro Bowl level season, and much-maligned right tackle Spencer Brown quietly locked in at his position and played well. Buffalo also has a bevy of capable backups who were hardly used in 2023. They are versatile Ryan Bates, who can play every position on the line, swing tackle Ryan Van Demark, Alec Anderson, another undrafted gem who is being groomed to man all spots like Bates, and David Edwards. Edwards will be a free agent and it’s up in the air whether he’ll return or not. He did play a valuable role this past season as the extra “eligible” lineman on running downs. That role was previously played by Tommy Doyle, who will be back after spending the year on IR.

 

 

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

26 Jan

The Buffalo Bills’ 2023 season once again ended in disappointment, as the team lost in the playoffs to Kansas City for the third time in four years. So it’s time for our annual four-part Bills’ season review, where we dissect what happened and peer into the future with suggestions as to how to improve the product and finally reach the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl title. As always, Part 1 of the review deals with the front office and coaching staff.

General manager Brandon Beane’s draft choices have sometimes been questioned, but he was somewhat vindicated this year. Rookies Dalton Kincaid and O’Cyrus Torrence were immediate starters and huge contributors, and a couple of past picks, Ed Oliver and Terrel Bernard, blossomed into Pro Bowl-caliber players. His annual plan of signing low-cost free agents produced Leonard Floyd, who led the team in sacks. Beane also added veteran cornerback Rasul Douglas at the trade deadline, and he was a major addition to a defense hampered by injuries.

As for the coaching staff, head coach Sean McDermott faced a mid-season controversy when some ill-advised comments he made about 9/11 years ago surfaced. He not only survived but the team rallied around him and fought back to reclaim the AFC East title. He also did an admirable job coordinating the defense, especially when the unit was depleted due to injuries. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was replaced mid-season also, but his replacement, Joe Brady, revived that side of the ball. Special teams coach Matt Smiley’s units were a liability much of the season, and he may be the next assistant shown the door.

I expect the Bills will promote Brady to the OC job permanently, removing his interim tag, and it would be wise to take a burden from McDermott by naming a full time defensive coordinator also.

 
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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Kelly’s Heroes

04 Jan

The final week of the 2023 NFL schedule takes place this week, and one marquee matchup features the Miami Dolphins taking on the Buffalo Bills. We’ll look back for this week’s Throwback Thursday post to a game played between these 2 AFC East rivals on September 10,1989 at what was then Joe Robbie Stadium. It was the opening day of the 1989 season and both teams had high expectations. Miami had dominated the Bills in the early part of the decade, winning 11 of 14 contests, but Buffalo rebounded when the Marv Levy/Jim Kelly era began with 4 straight wins.

Buffalo struck first with the only scoring in the opening quarter on a Scott Norwood field goal. Then the Dolphins took over the second quarter, scoring on a Troy Stradford 1 yard run and a Pete Stoyanovich field goal to lead 10-3 at the half. The Bills tied it up when fullback Larry Kinnebrew closed out a drive with a 2 yard TD plunge. Miami’s special teams then got into the fray, blocking a punt that Marc Logan picked up and took the remaining 2 yards into the end zone for a 17-10 advantage. Norwood cut it to 17-13 with another field goal to finish the third quarter scoring.

Dan Marino then made his presence felt, completing an 8 yard touchdown toss to Andre Brown, upping Miami’s lead to 24-13. The remainder of the game was a bit of a coming out party for Kelly as the quarterback and unquestioned leader of the Bills. He led one drive that culminated with him finding Flip Johnson on a 26 yard TD pass, then after the Bills’ defense held, he led another to the Dolphins’ 2 yard line with time running out. There were 2 seconds left on the clock, time for one last play. Kelly took the snap from center, dropped back to pass, then surprised everyone by running into the end zone for the winning touchdown to secure a 27-24 win. It was a great start to the Bills’ season as his teammates mobbed him in the end zone celebrating the daring play. That swashbuckling style would be a trademark of Kelly’s Hall of Fame career.

 

Jim Kelly, Dan Marino had many epic battles

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Chiefs Get Complacent

28 Dec

In looking at the NFL’s schedule for this week, one matchup stands out. That is a meeting between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals. For our Throwback Thursday feature, we need only go back a couple of seasons, to the AFC Championship game for 2021, played at Arrowhead Stadium on January 30, 2022, between these 2 teams. The Chiefs were defending AFC champs, coming off a divisional round win in an epic game versus Buffalo, and were seeking their third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl. Cincinnati, behind their young quarterback Joe Burrow, was a bit of a surprise to reach this game. Kansas City, especially on offense, was on a roll having scored 42 points in each of their playoff victories, and entered the game favored to win.

It appeared it was going to be a mismatch as the much more seasoned Chiefs dominated most of the first half. Patrick Mahomes threw a 10 yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill to open the scoring, with the only other first quarter points coming on a Bengal field goal by Evan McPherson. The Chiefs then looked like they were on their way to a decisive win as Mahomes found his favorite target, tight end Travis Kelce, for a 5 yard touchdown, then tossed another, a 3 yarder to Mecole Hardman, to put his club up 21-3. K.C. drove down the field again and it looked like they were going to salt away this win early, but after failing to score on the first 3 downs, coach Andy Reid got a bit cocky and decided to go for the touchdown on fourth down instead of taking the sure points on a field goal. Cinci held, and it turned out to be a bit of a momentum shift. Burrow guided his team to a score before the half ended, hitting Samaje Perine with a 41 yard TD pass to cut the deficit to a more manageable 21-10.

Slowly but surely the Bengals clawed their way back into the game in the second half. Another field goal and a short 2 yard Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase touchdown pass cut the Chiefs’ lead to 21-19, and when Burrow connected with Trent Taylor for a successful 2 point conversion, the game was tied. The Arrowhead crowd watched in shock as the Bengals finally took the lead in the fourth quarter with another field goal, but breathed a sigh of relief as Mahomes and company, shut out for the entire second half, regrouped to get a tying three-pointer from Harrison Butker as time expired to force overtime. For the second week in a row the Chiefs won the OT coin toss and took the ball. After leading an amazing game-winning drive against the Bills, Mahomes would get another chance to shine. It wasn’t to be this week, however. Mahomes was intercepted by Vonn Bell on the third play from scrimmage, setting up McPherson for the winning field goal and an improbable 27-24 Cincinnati win. The young Bengals had calmly overcome an 18 point deficit, taking advantage of some complacency and perhaps outright cockiness, of the Chiefs.

 

McPherson celebrates the winning kick

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Ellison Sets The Record

21 Dec

The Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints face off on this week’s NFL schedule, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we will time travel back to a game played on December 5, 1971 between these franchises when an NFL record was set by an unlikely player. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was the site of the contest, with the Rams trying to keep pace for the division lead in the NFC West with the 49ers and Falcons, while the Saints were mired in the division basement. The unlikely player in question was Rams’ running back Willie Ellison, who had spent the first part of his career as a backup, but emerged as the Rams’ top back in ’71.

Ellison started what would turn out to be his record-breaking day by scampering 80 yards for the game’s first touchdown. L.A. expanded their lead to 14-0 when quarterback Roman Gabriel threw a 37 yard scoring pass to Jack Snow. The Saints’ QB, Edd Hargett, cut the lead in half with a 25 yard TD toss to Danny Abramowicz, but any good feeling the Saints got from that evaporated quickly when the Roadrunner, Travis Williams, a former Lombardi Packer and one of the NFL’s most feared return men of the era, ran back the ensuing kickoff 105 yards to the end zone. The Rams continued the onslaught in the second quarter. Larry Smith, who had been the team’s lead back before being upstaged by Ellison, contributed a 5 yard touchdown run, and Gabriel connected with ex-Dallas Cowboy Lance Rentzel for an 8 yard score, upping the lead to 35-7 at the half.

The Saints came out determined in the third quarter and cut the deficit to 35-21 on a pair of 1 yard jaunts from Bob Gresham and Hargett. Los Angeles retaliated to open the fourth quarter with a 39 yard touchdown connection from Gabriel and Rentzel. Gresham scored again from a yard out and the Rams added a late field goal to finish off an important  45-28 victory that kept their division title hopes alive.

Ellison was the story of the day, however. He finished the game with 247 yards rushing on 26 carries, breaking the NFL record of 237 previously held by Jim Brown, and also the overall mark of 243 that had been set in the AFL by the man some considered to be the Jim Brown of the AFL, Cookie Gilchrist. The ’71 season turned out to be the high point of Ellison’s career. He made his first and only Pro Bowl, and after one more year in L.A. finished up his playing days for 2 more seasons in Kansas City. The Rams fell short of the division title also, eventually finishing second behind San Francisco.

 

Willie Ellison on his record-breaking day

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Original 12th Man?

14 Dec

This week’s Throwback Thursday post features a game played between 2 old American Football League rivals who meet on the schedule for week 15, the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. It was played on November 3, 1961 in the fledgling league’s second year of existence, when they were still mocked by the established NFL as a “Mickey Mouse” league. This game probably helped that reputation along, based on an incident that took place. The New England team was still known as the Boston Patriots at the time, and the Chiefs were still the Dallas Texans, 2 years removed from their eventual relocation to Kansas City.

The contest was played at the Patriots’ home field at the time, Nickerson Field. For some reason it was a common practice for teams to switch quarterbacks within games back then, and that strategy worked out for Boston in this contest. In the opening quarter Butch Songin found Jim Colclough from 14 yards out for a touchdown, then Babe Parilli came into the game and threw a 7 yarder for a score to Gino Cappelletti and the Patriots were off and running with a 14-0 lead. The Texans found an answer before the first stanza ended as their signal caller, Cotton Davidson, tossed a 42 yard touchdown pass to Chris Burford, who finished the game with 7 receptions for 137 yards, to cut the lead to 14-7. The only scoring in the second quarter also came from the Texans, as early AFL star Abner Haynes scored from 3 yards out to tie the game.

Boston got a bit of luck to regain the lead in the third quarter. They drove down into Dallas territory but fumbled the ball at the goal line. Parilli smartly picked up the loose ball and carried it the last yard into the end zone to put his club ahead 21-14. Davidson answered with a 40 yard bomb to Bo Dickinson for the tying score, but the draw didn’t last long as Ron Burton returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown to put the Pats back ahead 28-21. The third quarter now ended, and there was to be no more points for either team in the final quarter. Davidson did drive his team to the Boston goal line in an attempt to gain a tie, but that’s when the infamous play documented in the video below took place. On the game’s last play, a fan, who would become known as “Trench Coat Man, entered the playing field and unbeknownst to the officials, helped break up a pass into the end zone. So I guess in retrospect the AFL introduced more than just the innovations of a wide open passing game, player names on the back of jerseys and the 2 point conversion. They also were the first to have the “12th Man”, in this case literally helping the team win.

 

 

The “12th man” makes a play for the Patriots’ defense

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Raiders Win The “Big One”

07 Dec

This week’s NFL schedule includes a matchup of the Las Vegas Raiders and Minnesota Vikings, 2 of pro football’s winningest regular season franchises of the 1960s and ’70s. Unfortunately, neither could finish the job, and gained the reputation of not being able to “win the big one”. To this day, the Vikings still haven’t achieved the feat, while the Raiders exorcised the demon in the game we’ll feature for this week’s Throwback Thursday. It was Super Bowl XI, played on January 9, 1977, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. It was the second Super Bowl appearance for the Raiders, who lost to Green Bay in the second such title game, and the fourth (and to this day still the last) attempt at winning the “big one” for Minnesota.

Oakland coach John Madden had always had his team at or near the top of the regular season standings in the AFC, but were forced to play second fiddle to the dominating Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steeler teams in the first half of the decade of the ’70s. They finally slayed the Steeler dragon in the 1976 AFC championship game, and would now get their chance to climb to the top of the NFL mountain. The Vikings, always known for having exceptional special teams, got the game’s first break when Matt Blair blocked a punt to give the Raiders the ball deep in Oakland territory, but a fumble at the 1 yard line ruined that break. After a scorelees first quarter, the Raiders took command. They used a relentless rushing attack, led by Clarence Davis, to pound away at the aging Viking defense to secure the next four scores of the contest – a pair of Errol Mann field goals sandwiching a 1 yard Ken Stabler to Dave Casper touchdown pass and a 1 yard Pete Banaszak run, giving Oakland a 19-0 lead. Minnesota’s offense, stifled for most of the first 3 quarters, finally put together a drive that culminated with an 8 yard Fran Tarkenton to Sammy White scoring pass to cut the lead to 19-7. White, one of Tarkenton’s top receivers, had been held without a catch in the first half, and was almost killed when he caught a pass over the middle by the Raiders’ Jack Tatum, known as “The Assassin” and a guy who always played on the edge.

 

Clarence Davis, the real MVP of Super Bowl XI?

 

Banaszak scored again on a 2 yard run and when Willie Brown picked off a desperation Tarkenton pass and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown, the final nail was driven into the Vikings’ coffin for the day. Minnesota scored a late garbage time touchdown to make the final score 32-14, but Oakland and coach Madden claimed their first title in dominating fashion. Davis was the star rusher in the win, accumulating 137 yards on 16 carries, but the game’s MVP award went to Fred Biletnikoff, who had key receptions on scoring drives among his 4 grabs for 79 yards.  After a couple more seasons Madden would retire as a coach and go into broadcasting and video games, but his replacement, former Raider QB Tom Flores, would pick up the reins and win 2 more “big games” for the Raiders in the early 1980s.

 

“Old man Willie, he’s gonna go all the way!”

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: King Of The Hill

30 Nov

This week 2 old NFL franchises meet in a battle of top teams in the National Conference this season – the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. Our Throwback Thursday feature game, played between these clubs, took place on November 20, 1966 at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. Both teams were non-contenders at the time, with Eagles entering the game with a 5-5 record while the Niners were barely above water at 4-3-2. They managed to put on a pretty good show this particular week, however. The home team jumped out to a 10-0 lead on a Tommy Davis field goal paired with an 11 yard touchdown pass from John Brodie to running back Ken Willard. Earl Gros, the Eagles’ fullback, cut into the lead with a 1 yard touchdown plunge, but the 49ers countered with another 10 point surge before halftime as Willard scored again, this time from a yard out, and Davis added another three pointer.

The Eagles came out storming in the second half behind their crew cut quarterback, King Hill. He fired a 15 yard scoring strike to tight end Pete Retzlaff, only to be matched by Brodie, who threw 30 yards to John David Crow for a score, putting San Francisco ahead 27-14. Hill kept his club close with another TD strike to Retzlaff of 10 yards. Gary Lewis then scored on a 2 yard run to end the third quarter, with the Niners now ahead by a commanding 34-21. Philly owned the final quarter, cutting the lead to 34-28 with some help from their defense – a Jim Nettles interception returned for a touchdown. Hill then sealed the deal for a 35-34 comeback win for the Eagles when he connected with an aging future Hall of Famer, Ollie Matson, on a short 4 yard TD pass. It was a sweet moment for Matson, who was winding down the final season of a brilliant 14 year career. It was also a bright spot in the ’66 season for Hill, as he was making 1 of only 2 starts he got that year in place of Norm Snead. Philadelphia finished that season strong, winning out the last 3 games after this to wind up 9-5 for the year, tied for second place with Cleveland in the Eastern Division.

 

1966 Eagles’ offense, with King Hill under center