Monthly Archives: August 2014

Bobby Layne running the option in 1952

Just because you haven’t seen something before doesn’t mean it’s new. Take the option play in the NFL, for instance. The zone-read may be a recent development, but the quarterback either (a.) running the ball himself or (b.) pitching to a trailing back certainly isn’t. Why, Bobby Layne, the Lions Hall of Famer, was doing both — quite effectively — in the early ’50s. And without a facemask, no less.

Here’s some footage from the ’52 title game against the Browns. In this sequence, Layne runs back-to-back option plays — first to the left, then to the right — and keeps the ball for decent gains both times:

Now let’s look at another clip from earlier in the game. From the Cleveland 7, Layne takes the snap, starts right, then pitches underhanded to the trailing Doak Walker, who’s driven out of bounds at the 2. On the next play, Bobby scores on a sneak to give the Lions a 7-0 lead.

More of the same in the ’53 title game:

And two more plays, back to back:

When he retired after the ’62 season, Layne held the NFL career passing records for touchdowns (196), yards (26,768) and, yes, interceptions (243). What tends to be forgotten is that he was also a very good runner. In ’52 he was ninth in the league in rushing with 411 yards — in addition to finishing third in passing yards (1,999) and TD throws (19). And this is in a 12-game season, mind you. In a 16-game season, 411 projects to 564, a total topped last year only by Cam Newton (585) and Terrelle Pryor (576).

The option didn’t take hold in pro football in the ’50s, but it makes sense that some coach — in this case, the Lions’ Buddy Parker — might try it. Layne and many other quarterbacks, such as the Browns’ Otto Graham, had been single wing tailbacks in college and were able runners. Why not take advantage of it? As the T formation spread, though, QBs evolved into Golden Arms rather than pass-run threats. Only now, with the influx of Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, is that starting to change. Whether the change is permanent or just cyclical is another matter.

Tony Gonzalez’s exit

Well, it looks like Tony Gonzalez really is retired, so I guess it’s safe to run this post. I wanted to add his 2013 performance to my list of Best Final Seasons in NFL history, but there was always the chance the Patriots or some other tight end-needy contender would talk him into playing another year.

Gonzalez wanted badly last season to close out his career the way Ray Lewis, Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis had in recent years — by winning the Super Bowl. (In his case, his first.) Alas, the Falcons were one of the league’s biggest flops, going 4-12 after reaching the NFC title game the season before, and Tony’s typically sterling efforts (83 catches, 859 yards, 8 touchdowns and his 14th Pro Bowl) went for naught.

Still, at least he retired at or near the top of his game. The same can’t be said for Lewis, Strahan and Bettis, despite their fairytale endings. Ray missed 10 games in 2012 with a torn triceps and failed to make the Pro Bowl. Strahan ranked third on the Giants in ’07 with nine sacks (to Osi Umenyiora’s 13 and Justin Tuck’s 10). And Bettis rushed for a career-low 368 yards in ’05 (though his nine rushing touchdowns were tops on the team).

Other players have hung ’em up after having much better seasons — and a handful have even done it while winning a ring (or whatever bauble owners handed out in those days). The lineup of Fabulous Finishers:


● 2013 – Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons (age: 37): I’ve already hit you with his numbers. You’ll appreciate them even more when I tell you he had 80 receptions (or better) at ages 31, 32, 33, 35 and 36, too. No other tight end has been older than 30 when he caught that many balls.

● 2006 – Tiki Barber, RB, Giants (age: 31): Had 1,662 rushing yards, 2,127 yards from scrimmage and made the Pro Bowl with an 8-8 club that somehow stumbled into a playoff berth. Contemplated making a comeback several years later, after his TV career went south, but couldn’t find a taker.

● 1999 – Kevin Greene, LB, Panthers (37): Racked up the last 12 of his 160 sacks (No. 3 all time) for 8-8 Carolina.

● 1998 – John Elway*, QB, Broncos (38): Posted a passer rating of 93, earned a Pro Bowl berth, won the Super Bowl and was voted the game’s MVP (after throwing for 336 yards). Endings don’t get any sweeter than that.

● 1998 – Barry Sanders*, RB, Lions (30): Hard to believe the NFL lost two Hall ofFamers – who were still playing at a high level – to retirement in the same year. Sanders’ ’98 numbers (coming on the heels of his 2,053-yard rushing season): 343 carries, 1,491 yards, 4 touchdowns. Alas, Detroit went 5-11 in his Pro Bowl swan song.

● 1996 – Keith Jackson, TE, Packers (31): Caught a career-high 10 TD passes and played in the last of his five Pro Bowls as Green Bay won its first championship since the Lombardi years.

● 1983 – Ken Riley, CB, Bengals (36): Exited after a season in which had eight interceptions (second in the league), ran back two for scores (one a game-winner) and was elected to his first Pro Bowl. The Bengals weren’t nearly as good as he was, finishing 7-9.

● 1979 – Roger Staubach*, QB, Cowboys (37): Won his fourth NFL passing crown (rating: 92.3) and appeared in his sixth Pro Bowl for division champion Dallas.

● 1965 – Jim Brown*, RB, Browns (29): Before going off to make movies (e.g. “The Dirty Dozen”), Brown had a typically terrific season, leading the league in rushing (1,544), rushing touchdowns (17) and yards from scrimmage (1,872). His final game, though, with the title at stake, was less satisfying: a muddy 23-12 loss to the Packers.

● 1960 – Norm Van Brocklin*, QB, Eagles (34): The Dutchman was the NFL MVP, tossing 24 TD passes (and, on the side, averaging 43.1 yards a punt) in quarterbacking the franchise to its last championship. Retired to become coach of the expansion Vikings, making him the last player to call it quits and step directly into a head-coaching job.

● 1955 – Otto Graham*, QB, Browns (34): Led the league with a 94 passer rating and went to the Pro Bowl as Cleveland won its second straight title (and seventh in a decade, counting its time in the All-America Conference).

● 1955 – Pete Pihos*, E, Eagles (32): Was still a Pro Bowler – and catching more passes (62) for more yards (864) than anybody in the NFL – when he decided he’d had enough. Philly’s 4-7-1 record undoubtedly made it easier.

● 1950 – Spec Sanders, S, New York Yanks (32): Picked off a league-best 13 passes in his one NFL season (after coming over from the All-America Conference). Only one player in history has had more: the Rams’ Night Train Lane (14 in ’52).

● 1945 – Don Hutson*, WR, Packers (32): Capped an incredible career with 47 receptions, tops in the league, for 834 yards and 9 TDs. (And the season, mind you, was just 10 games. His stats would project to 75-1,334-14 over a 16-game schedule.) Green Bay had won the championship the year before, but finished third in the West in ’45 with a 6-4 mark.

● 1937 – Cliff Battles*, RB, Redskins (27): Took his second NFL rushing crown with 874 yards, helping the Redskins, in their first season in Washington, win their first title. A contract dispute with owner George Preston Marshall caused him to retire and turn to college coaching.

* Hall of Famer

Another familiar name that should be on this list is Reggie White. The legendary defensive end initially retired after the 1998 season, when he had 16 sacks for the Packers and was the league’s defensive player of the year. But he reconsidered two seasons later and gave it one last go with a 7-9 Panthers team, adding 5 ½ (needless) sacks to his resumé. All it did was delay his entry into the Hall of Fame.


Matthew Stafford: No. 5 all time

While the Lions were unraveling again last season, Matthew Stafford broke into the Top 5 in a (deservedly) obscure category. He now has the fifth-highest passer rating in NFL history among quarterbacks with losing records as starters (minimum: 2,000 attempts).

In so doing, Stafford bumped a grateful Neil Lomax, who posted a 82.7 rating while going 47-52-2 in the regular season with the Cardinals from 1981 through ’88.

Note that all five quarterbacks listed below played (or are still playing) in the 2000s. No surprise there. With the rules increasingly tilted toward the offense, ratings keep going up and up. As a result, the league has never had losing QBs who’ve thrown the ball more proficiently. (How’s that for a distinction?)


Rating Quarterback Teams Years Record Playoffs Pro Bowls
87.8 Daunte Culpepper Vikings, 3 others 1999-2009 41-59, .410 2-2, .500 3
85.9 Carson Palmer Bengals, 2 others 2004-2013 64-73, .467 0-2, .000 2
86.0 Trent Green Chiefs, 3 others 1997-2008 56-57, .496 0-2, .000 2
84.4 Marc Bulger Rams 2002-2009 41-54, .432 1-2, .333 2
83.1 Matthew Stafford Lions 2009-2013 24-37, .393 0-1, .000 0

(Minimum: 2,000 attempts.)

Interesting, no? The first four played in multiple Pro Bowls, but only two won a playoff game. (Combined postseason record, Stafford included: 3-9.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Heck, Warren Moon got voted into the Hall of Fame despite being sub-.500 as a starter (105-108, playoffs included). The same goes for Sonny Jurgensen (69-73-7). And the Hall is better for it. It shouldn’t just be a collection of Guys Who Were Fortunate Enough To Play For Winning Teams. (I’ll always remember Moon, first and foremost, as the quarterback whose defense couldn’t hold a 35-3 second-half lead.)

Let’s hope Stafford chalks up a few more W’s down the road and doesn’t turn into another Jeff George (46-78, .371, 1-2, 80.4). That would be a shame for everybody but Jeff, who’s probably tired of being singled out like this and would love some company.


A word about the Statue of Liberty play

Just so we’re on the same page, there’s only one way to run a true Statue of Liberty play: the way the Redskins ran it in a 21-7 win over the Bears in 1943. Sammy Baugh took the shotgun snap, drew his passing arm back, and wingback Wilbur Moore circled behind him, grabbed the ball and ran 20 yards around left end for a touchdown.

I mention this because, over the years, the term “Statue of Liberty play” seems to have lost its meaning. The play Boise State, for example, ran to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl wasn’t a classic SOLP. It was a pump fake . . . followed by a behind-the-back handoff . . . with the quarterback’s non-throwing hand. Much different choreography. More like a fancy draw, really, because the runner was already in the backfield, not flanked to the right.

Hope I’ve made my point. If not, don’t worry, I’ll make it again. And hey, if you think I’m being a hardass about this, you should see Lady Liberty. She’s even more upset about it.

The most dangerous player who ever buckled a chinstrap

There’ll never be another player like Hardy Brown, the linebacker-anesthesiologist for the 49ers in the ’50s. Compared to Hardy, Jack “They Call Me Assassin” Tatum sold Girl Scout cookies.

If you need further proof of the man’s menace, read this fabulous piece by Bob O’Donnell (taken from our 1990 book, The Pro Football Chronicle). To get you started, here’s a visual: Brown — aiming high, as always — about to reduce Browns quarterback Otto Graham to cracker crumbs.

“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever. Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”

— former Giants lineman Tex Coulter

Bob’s preface:

I saw my first Hardy Brown hit while watching films of the 1951 Browns-49ers game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A San Francisco defensive back intercepted a pass by Otto Graham and was weaving his way upfield when a sudden movement at the bottom of the screen caught my eye. It was like the flash a fisherman might see in a stream before his line grows taut. I reversed the film and watched again.

As a Browns receiver turned to pursue the play, he was struck so violently in the face that his helmet popped up on his head and his back hit the ground before his feet. Standing over him was Hardy Brown. You could almost hear him chuckling.

There isn’t much left of Hardy Brown. He’s been institutionalized in northern California with dementia, the result of years of hard drinking. He also has emphysema, and the arthritis in his right shoulder is so bad he can’t lift his arm to scratch his head.

Let’s start with The Shoulder. That’s where the legend begins. Hardy Brown played linebacker in the NFL at 6 feet, 190 pounds, and hit harder than any player before or since. His right shoulder was his weapon. He usually aimed it at an opponent’s head, and the results often were concussions and facial fractures – noses, cheeks, jaws . . . you name it, Brown broke it.

“It was early in the game,” former Eagles running back Toy Ledbetter recalls of his 1953 run-in with Brown, “and I was carrying on a sweep to the right. I knew about Brown because I’d been at Oklahoma State when he was at Tulsa. I usually kept my eye on him, but this time I cut inside a block and never saw him. He caught me with the shoulder and the next thing I knew I was on the ground looking for my head.”

The hit broke Ledbetter’s cheek. Dr. Tom Dow, Eagles team physician, said it was the worst facial fracture he’d seen. In Brown’s 10 pro seasons, spent in four different leagues, he laid low dozens in the same brutal fashion. Backs, ends, linemen, it didn’t matter. Brown was an indiscriminate maimer.

And what a mystery. No one could figure out how he hit with the force he did. In 1951, Bears coach George Halas had officials check Brown’s shoulder pads before a game. They found nothing. Nor could anyone figure Brown’s fury. He lived for the big hits. Relished them. They were his one marketable skill. Away from the game, he was reserved but friendly. On the field, he was a killer.

“I came out of the huddle at the beginning of the game and figured I’d say hello,” says ex-Giants lineman Tex Coulter, who grew up with Brown in a Fort Worth, Texas, orphanage. “I came up to the line and looked across at his linebacker spot, and his eyes looked like they belonged to some cave animal. They were fiery, unfocused. You don’t know if he could see anything or everything. I kept my mouth shut.”

Y.A. Tittle claims in his book, I Pass, that Brown knocked out 21 opponents as a 49er in ’51 – including, in the preseason, the Washington Redskins’ entire starting backfield. That might be an exaggeration; who kept an accurate count of such things? But Brown inspired exaggeration. Ex-players speak of him the way fight people speak of Sonny Liston.

“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever,” Coulter says. “Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”

Coulter knows Brown as well as anyone. They are about the same age and arrived at the Masonic Home orphanage at about the same time in 1929. Coulter is working on a book about their lives. To understand Hardy Brown, he says, you have to understand his past. That isn’t easy.

Hardy Brown’s father was murdered. Shot dead in a neighbor’s home in rural Kirkland, Texas, Nov. 7, 1928. Two men pumped four bullets into him. Hardy was in the room when it happened. He was four. Four months later, Brown was present again when a family friend murdered one of his father’s killers at point-blank range.

After the second incident, Brown’s mother sent her four youngest children to the Masonic Home in Fort Worth. Hardy was five. He claimed it was 12 years before he heard from his mother again, and then only to get her permission to enlist in the Marines.

The Masonic Home orphanage sits on over 200 acres of land southeast of downtown Fort Worth. It has its own dairy farm and school, with grades one through 12. In the ’30s, there was a matron for every 12 to 15 children. Discipline was rigid. Those who didn’t do their chores or got caught slipping off to Sycamore Creek after hours could expect to be cuffed.

Football was the great escape. It was rough, wild and (almost) without rules. Unless you were a sissy boy, you played. That was the last thing Hardy Brown was.

“Football gave us self-worth,” Coulter says. “We were orphans, but you couldn’t call us orphans. When the newspapers came out and wrote stories, they’d refer to us as ragtag kids, and that made us angry. That was pity from above, and we hated it. Football was a way to alleviate that.”

The Shoulder was born at the Masonic Home. It was the brainchild of Hardy’s older brother Jeff. Jeff reasoned correctly that human beings, like fence posts, were easier to knock down if you hit them high. So when an opponent approached, he’d crouch slightly and then spring into the player’s chin with his shoulder. In no time, everyone at the home was using “the humper,” as it came to be called.

“The city boys were frightened as hell of us,” Coulter says. “I don’t blame ’em, the way Hardy Brown was and I was, too, to some extent. The goddamn guys would be bleeding all over the place. You know, in high school ball, you just aren’t used to that. We speared, we leg-whipped, we used the humper, and I’m almost positive the man who invented the crackback block was our coach, Rusty Russell. We did all them things and didn’t think anything of it. We thought we were good, clean, rough boys.

Brown got out of the Masonic Home in 1941, enrolled at SMU and then went into the Marines, where he became the problem of the Japanese. He saw action in the Pacific as a paratrooper and, according to his sister Cathlyn, was on his way to Iwo Jima when a call came from West Point, of all places. It seems Army had pulled Coulter out of the enlisted ranks to play on its football team, and Coulter had put the coaches on to his Masonic Home teammate.

But Brown washed out of the Academy’s prep school after failing the math requirement (though a night of drunken revelry at a nearby girl’s school didn’t help). None too disappointed, he landed at Tulsa University in the fall of 1945. For the next three years, he terrorized the Missouri Valley Conference as a blocking back and linebacker.

New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks was Brown’s roommate at Tulsa and says he may have been at his destructive peak during those years.

“We’d put Brown at fullback if we wanted him to block one defensive end and put him at halfback if we wanted him to block the other,” Finks says. “There were many games when he literally knocked out both defensive ends. I think it was a game against Baylor that he put out the two ends on consecutive plays.

“He broke my nose and gave me four stitches at a goddamned practice!”

Brown got poor Toy Ledbetter in college, too. It came on a kickoff return, and Finks says it’s the hardest hit he’s ever seen. “Ledbetter lay there quivering,” he says. “Snot came out of his nose. He was bloody. He was down five minutes before they finally carried him off.”

Off the field, Brown occasionally got wild when he was drinking. He and his future wife, Betty, woke up Finks one night and shot up the dorm room with a .22 rifle. But for the most part, Finks says, Brown was “intelligent, warm and shy,” nothing like his on-field persona.

It took Brown a while to find permanent employment in pro ball. He broke in with the All-America Conference’s Brooklyn Dodgers in ’48 and went to the Chicago Rockets the next year. When the AAC folded, he wound up with the Washington Redskins, who waived him eight games into the ’50 season. Small, slow linebackers weren’t in demand.

But the word on Brown was getting around. He’d begun to leave a trail of bodies. Harry Buffington, head of the National scouting combine, was a guard for Brooklyn in ’48 and says one AAC team assigned a player to shadow Brown on the field and act as a “protector” for the other players. Tittle was with the Colts in ’50 and says running back Rip Collins told him before a game with Washington that he didn’t want to run pass routes in Brown’s area.

It was the Colts who signed Brown after the Redskins waived him, and in his first game with them he broke Giants running back Joe Scott’s nose with The Shoulder. The hit infuriated the Giants, and they tried to take their revenge.

Teams went after Brown as a matter of routine. He was a menace and could influence a game if he put a star player out. In a notorious incident in 1954, Lions defensive tackle Gil Mains jumped feet first into Brown on a kickoff return and opened a 20-stitch cut on his thigh. Brown was sewn up and returned to the game.

“I remember Hardy came up to me before a kickoff once and said, ‘How about an onsides kick?’” says CBS broadcaster Pat Summerall, a teammate of Brown’s in ’56. “It was a close game with the Giants, and I told him I couldn’t do that on my own without hearing from the coaches. He said he thought it would be a good idea. . . . Anyway, I kicked off as far as I could kick it, and here comes the whole Giant team after Hardy. They never even looked at the ball.”

The Colts went belly up after the 1950 season, and Brown found a home in San Francisco. He was the 49ers’ starting left linebacker for five seasons. It’s difficult even to estimate how many players he KO’d with The Shoulder. One a game? That’s probably too many. But you just don’t know, because newspapers didn’t devote much space to defensive play.

Game stories on a 49ers-Cardinals exhibition in ’51, for instance, state that as many as six Chicago players were put out of the game, three with broken noses. The San Francisco Chronicle added the line: “Against the Cards, Hardy Brown . . . played as vicious a line backing game as the 49ers ever had.” How many of those broken noses were Hardy’s doing is anyone’s guess.

Brown may have been most dangerous on special teams, where it was easier to freelance and there was a field full of targets. Lions linebacker Carl Brettschneider said one of Brown’s favorite tactics on punts was to line up behind an official so the opposing center couldn’t see him, then catch him with The Shoulder as soon as he raised his head after the snap.

“He broke more jaws than any guy going,” Brettschneider said.

Brown loved to talk about those bone-rattling blows. He apparently didn’t lose any sleep over the injuries he caused, either. He also missed a lot of tackles because he aimed for the head.

“I don’t think he ever went out to hurt anyone,” Coulter says. “I think Hardy was shaped a certain way. One thing about a hard hitter is that you don’t realize what it feels like to be hit. When you’re doing the hitting, when you stick someone with that shoulder, it’s a beautiful feeling. By God, it gives you a sense of power that reaches right to the back of your head. I think Hardy enjoyed that feeling.”

Age and size caught up to Brown in ’56. The 49ers waived him in training camp. He played briefly with Hamilton in the CFL and then signed with the Cardinals. At the end of the ’56 season, the Cards released him.

In 1960, Toy Ledbetter had stopped by the locker room of the newly formed Denver Broncos to visit two former Eagles teammates when he heard a high-pitched cackle behind him. Ledbetter turned to see, of all people, his old nemesis Hardy Brown sitting in front of a locker.

“How’s the cheekbone, Toy Boy?” Brown said.

Ledbetter laughed and shook hands with Brown. “No hard feelings,” Ledbetter told him.

“You asshole.”

After being released by the Broncos, Brown fell on hard times. He and his wife, Betty, broke up for a while. He held a number of construction jobs in the Southwest. And he continued to drink heavily. In 1986 he had to be institutionalized.

Family members say Brown never lost his desire to play football. At some point after he retired, he became involved with a semipro team.

The story is some young punk was giving him lip one day, and Brown decked him. Put him in the hospital.

The Speech: Paul Brown’s opening remarks at training camp

Before each of his 17 seasons as coach of the Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown began training camp with The Speech — a brief review of the Browns Way and general Laying Down of the Law. I’ve come across two versions of it, one from 1956 (after the Browns had been to 10 straight league championship games) the other from ’59 (when the Giants had surpassed them in the Eastern Conference). It’s fascinating to note the differences between them.

The ’59 speech is already in print — in my first book, The Pro Football Chronicle. This being the preseason, I thought I’d post the ’56 speech for your perusal:

“It may seem funny, but I don’t want you fellows to act like a professional football team in the old sense of the word. You will dress and act like gentlemen at all times.”

— Paul Brown

I am glad to see you veterans back from last season. The last time we were together it was a happy occasion. You had just won the world’s championship, and you realized the hard work it took to win it.

To you new fellows, we mean for you to have a pleasant experience. You probably are worried, and it is only natural. You’re no different than the old timers.

We brought you here because we think you can make the team. But you will have to listen and digest everything that is said. When you’re too big to listen you’re done whether you’re a rookie or veteran.

We anticipate some major changes in playing personnel this season. For the first time in 10 years we will be without Otto Graham. But we have had major changes in the past in administration and playing personnel.

No matter what happens, the habit of winning and being the best has got to go on. With me it’s an obsession of living.

Last year, early in the season, things looked pretty bad. We had lost two of our first three games, but we won it going away. You have to have something special to do that. It is the sign of a thoroughbred.

I firmly believe we can win again this season. I’ve never entered a football season in which I didn’t think we couldn’t win. I think we have the makings here of another championship team, and we’re going to guard jealously the factors we have [going for us] in our organization.

First, I would like to eliminate those bad starts. The last few seasons we have started out by losing several of our early games. This can’t go on. One of these years it will catch up with us.

I think we’re considered about tops in our field, and I want you to act accordingly. It may seem funny, but I don’t want you fellows to act like a professional football team in the old sense of the word.

You will dress and act like gentlemen at all times. When you travel you will wear suits or sport coats and a tie. We will eat together and say grace before meals. There will be no foul language at any time, on or off the field. You must remember that youngsters look up to you fellows.

Your conduct around camp also should be watched. There will be no T-shirts allowed in the dining room, and we have no use for ill manners at the table. Keep your elbows off the table and your face out of the soup bowl. Make meals enjoyable and take your time.

You should be in your rooms by 10 p.m., and lights out will be at 10:30. We’ve never had trouble with card playing, and we don’t anticipate any. We don’t mind a game for pennies, but no big money.

We will have a bed check, and if you sneak out after the check and we find out about it, don’t bother to come back for your belongings — we’ll send them to you.

If you’re a drinker you may as well leave now. The smoking should be stopped for your own good, but if you must have one don’t do it around here or in public. Again, you will be looked up to by youngsters, and nothing is worse for a youngster than to see his football hero smoking.

Building a football team is like building a house: the weaker the foundation, the poorer the house. With a strong foundation, there is no limit as to . . . how high you can go.

On the field, we want the right to improve not only the rookies but the veterans. You have to be an eager learner. You can’t win this thing without paying the price. It just can’t be done. Sometimes it will get rough, but don’t ask any quarter and don’t give any.

From time to time you will be interviewed by members of the press here at Hiram [College]. Treat them as you would me and answer their questions. We’ve always had good relations with the press, and the writers at the camp won’t ask you any embarrassing questions. They have been here for several years, all of them, and if you start talking out of turn I am sure they will clean it up. They aren’t interested in making a fool of any of you players.

When we are on the road there will be no radio or television appearances. We like to sneak into a city, win the football game and get out. Once in a while when we go into a city, I might talk us down [to the media]. That isn’t for your consumption. It would be better if you couldn’t read.

Remember, we’ve been in 10 straight championship games, and we’re not going to blow it now. When it comes time to pick the squad, everything and everybody is impersonal, and it won’t make any difference whether you’re from Ohio State, Great Lakes or Massillon [places Brown had previously coached]. The team comes first!

Postscript: Without their Hall of Fame quarterback, the Browns finished 5-7 that season, the only time under Brown they didn’t post a winning record. But the next year, after drafting Jim Brown in the first round, they were back in the title game again. For their coach, “the habit of winning and being the best” was still “an obsession of living.”

Orson Welles and the NFL

One night in the ’30s, Shipwreck Kelly, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner/running back/party animal, was at the El Morocco with a group of friends. In walked a big fellow with a beard — at a time when such adornments were confined mostly to sheepherders.

“Do you know who that guy is?” the nightclub’s owner asked Shipwreck.

Shipwreck didn’t have a clue.

“It’s Orson Welles, the actor.”

The owner brought The Actor over to the The Football Player’s table for introductions, Shipwreck recalled in Richard Whittingham’s oral history of the NFL’s early years, What a Game They Played.

I tried to be a smart aleck, like I did a lot of times in those days. I said, “Gee, Mr. Welles, it’s nice meeting someone like you.” He didn’t know who I was or that I played football or anything about me. But he was very pleasant. Then I said something like, “Why do you cultivate something on your face that grows wild on your ass?”

“Mr. Kelly,” he said, “you are fresh in New York, and if I were you I wouldn’t tell my friends how much you know about my ass.”

It was one of the rare occasions Shipwreck was out-wiseguyed.

Fast forward to 1979.  Jets legend Joe Namath — who, like Kelly, enjoyed the nightlife — is serving as the victim for one of Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts. Who should take the podium to add to the merriment but Welles, still sporting a beard but now built like a nose tackle.

What followed was the five cleverest minutes in NFL Films history (which is saying a lot). Watch:

The man who gave the Redskins their name

With the Redskins name controversy at full boil again, it might be a good time to revisit a piece I once wrote about their founder (and namer) George Preston Marshall. The last owner of a U.S. sports franchise to integrate, Marshall has been so demonized over the decades that he’s become a one-dimensional figure, virtually lacking in definition. Hopefully this will give you a better feel for him.

Oh, to be in the Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel after a Redskins home game, when George and [wife] Corinne would make their grand entrance. “Marshall would time [it] to be sure that Barnee Breeskin and his orchestra would be on the grandstand playing,” Harry Wismer, the Redskins’ radio and TV voice in those days, recalled in The Public Calls It Sport. “Then he and Corinne would enter the room, and Breeskin would stop the music, tap twice with his baton and lead the orchestra in ‘Hail to the Redskins!’ [which, incidentally, Barnee and Corinne joined forces to write].”

It’s September 1945, the last week of the NFL preseason, and George Preston Marshall is doing what he does best — working the Senate dining room on Capitol Hill. Trailing along in his wake is Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram, who has taken the train down to Washington to write a column on “the aristocratic laundry man who owns the Redskins.”

Marshall stops at the table of Sen. Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin. “And of course you are coming to see us play the Green Bay Packers Sunday,” the Redskins’ boss says. “Certainly there is some little thing you can do for your constituents.”

“Why, yes, I had been sort of planning on it, George,” LaFollette, replies. “Send a couple of passes over to my office.”

Marshall (frostily): “The price is $2.20 per.”

After making the rounds, Marshall ends up at a corner table full of senators, where the talk is of sports in general and the Redskins in particular. Only Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who comes over to exchange pleasantries, “had no comment to make on any sport,” Williams notes.

“He’s worrying about the Four Freedoms,” Marshall explains to the writer, “and I’m worrying about my four starting backs Sunday. That’s the only difference between us. Otherwise, we are both great American leaders.”

*  *  *

He was a big guy — 6-foot-2.

He slicked his hair back with Savage’s Bear Grease.

He didn’t own a driver’s license, never flew in a plane, loved trains.

He might have known more about trains, in fact, than he knew about football. As Lee Hutson wrote in “The Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore”:

He knew the railroad’s routes, its depots and its schedules. He knew the small towns and the flat lands and the mountains. He could look out at acres of wheat fields from the window of his Pullman car and tell you how the farmers were going to do that year. In even the smallest town he could put you on to the best place to eat, and he knew when the Rocky Mountain trout was at its most delicious. He knew when and where he could get off the train and pick up ripe casaba melons, which he loved, and he believed that the dining cars on America’s trains served the best corned beef hash and poached eggs in the country.

Impulsive? George Preston Marshall ran off two coaches in training camp (Curly Lambeau, Dick Todd) and got rid of another (Dud DeGroot) after the Redskins lost the championship game by a point in 1945. (His defense: “To make a mistake and pick the wrong man is one thing, but to keep him is compounding stupidity. I take pride in only one fact: I have never fired a genius, proof of which is that no guy who ever left me has gone on to conquer the world.”)

That’s nothing, though, compared to asking his second wife, silent-screen star Corinne Griffith, to marry him on their first date. They bumped into each other in front of the Gotham Hotel in New York one afternoon, and George — never one to pass up an opportunity — had invited her to lunch. While they were eating dessert, he popped the question.

Griffith didn’t give him an answer right away. And after being courted by Marshall for a month, she still wasn’t sure. “George spends half his life in night clubs,” she complained to a friend. “We’ve been to 29 different night clubs for 29 different nights now. . . . If there’s one thing I don’t care about, it’s spending half my life in night clubs.”

But George eventually got his way. He usually did. If he couldn’t bully you into something, he’d sweet-talk you. And if that didn’t work, he’d simply wear you down. Think of him as an amalgam of George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones (with a dash of Jay Gatsby mixed in).

Cleveland coach Paul Brown, another man used to getting his way, considered Marshall an “obnoxious” presence at league meetings. What Brown especially objected to was George’s “habit of sleeping most of the day [because he was carrying on in nightclubs until the wee hours] and showing up at the meetings late in the afternoon. . . . By that time all of us were pretty tired and ready to adjourn, but he was rested and mentally sharp. That was when he tried to work some of his little deals.”

One year, Marshall didn’t like the schedule the owners had spent three days working on and, in a fit of pique, erased it from the blackboard. Normally this wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but no one had bothered to write the thing down. “It took us another three days to do it again,” the Steelers’ Art Rooney lamented.

Sportswriters like Joe Williams, however, thanked the heavens for Marshall because he filled up their notebooks (or, if those weren’t handy, their cocktail napkins). “Erratic, explosive and altogether charming” was Williams’ apt description of him. Translation: George made great copy. He was always saying or doing something interesting or outrageous.

Marshall on equipping players with helmet radios: “Frankly, it’s a potentially dangerous thing. Coaches will run out of alibis if they take the responsibility for all their offensive and defensive decisions.”

Marshall on our national pastime: “Baseball? Who cares? It’s dying out. Football is the game. Imagine, some of those major league owners go through 154 games and a whole summer of agony just to lose money. We play 18 games, and the gravy spills over on our neckties.”

Marshall on the rival All-America Conference (one of whose investors was the actor Don Ameche): “I’ve even got a slogan I will give to the All-Ameches:

If you want football that’s peachy

Go to Don Ameche.

They don’t make ’em like George Preston Marshall anymore.

*  *  *

The earliest Marshall sighting — in my haphazard research, at least — is in 1934. That was the year the Brooklyn Eagle reported the day after a game: “That nervous, well-dressed gent who held one of the poles on the sideline was George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston club.”

An NFL owner working on the chain gang (to save money, no doubt). Welcome to pro football in the ’30s.

Marshall was 36 then and in his third year running the Redskins. The team had yet to enjoy a winning season, never mind turn a profit, and George was looking like he should have stuck to his laundry business in Washington.

His father, T. Hill Marshall, had come into the business by way of a bad debt, and George had built the Palace Laundry into an empire with 57 outlets. But watching clothes spin round and round was never going to be enough for George. Having done some acting and theatrical producing, he was drawn to the arena. His first sports venture, a professional basketball team known as the Washington Palace Five (after the laundry), was a dismal failure; he bailed out after one season. He was more patient with pro football, though, convinced it could attract the kind of crowds the college game was getting.

“We have got to develop the spectacle end of football,” he said. “The color and show of football have more appeal for women and children than for men. The future of the sport is with them. We must try to educate the vast high school public. . . . They are not a college crowd, but a vast public looking for an allegiance.”

Things finally began to come together for the Redskins in 1936, when Marshall hired New York Giants player-assistant coach Ray Flaherty. Flaherty would lead the club to four title games and two championships in the next seven seasons, as golden an age as the franchise has had. The next year George moved the Redskins to Washington and added legendary passer Sammy Baugh to a team that already had three other future Hall of Famers (not counting Flaherty): running back Cliff Battles, tackle Turk Edwards and end Wayne Millner. A dynasty was born.

Corinne Griffith, who was now his wife, always claimed that she planted the Washington seed in Marshall’s mind. “You see,” her argument went,

there are so many displaced citizens in Washington from places like Muleshoe, Texas; Ekalaka, Mont.; and even Beverly Hills, Calif. I know. As a matter of fact, the D.C. after Washington means: Displaced Citizen.

Most of these D.C.’s are alone in Washington with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon other than sit in parks and feed the squirrels and pigeons. . . . I have a definite feeling that Washington’s D.C.’s would welcome a little more action on Sunday afternoon.

Whoever came up with the brainstorm, it was one of the all-timers. The Senators, the only other professional team in town, were in decline, and Washington was oh-so-ripe for pro football. A decade after their arrival, the Redskins were selling enough season tickets to fill Griffith Stadium (capacity 31,444), and the sellouts continue today.

Marshall, meanwhile, turned home games into, as he put it, a “spectacle.” For the Redskins’ nighttime debut in Washington, for instance, he didn’t just introduce the starting lineups. Not George. No, he had a spotlight follow each player out to the center of the field while the band played his college song. (After which a government official — this time Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corp. — threw out the first ball.)

Corinne, for her part, helped stage elaborate halftime shows. “The show before Nov. 7 [1944], election Tuesday, was to be a political show with a candidate promising everything,” she wrote in My Life With the Redskins. “We had decided he was going to march on the field following individual banners that read: FREE BEER! FREE GASOLINE! FREE AUTOMOBILES! FREE-WHEELING! NO TAXES! NO JAILS! NO LOVE — NO NOTHING!”

It’s hard to appreciate today what a glamorous life they led — the current group of NFL owners being, by and large, such low-key types. And it wasn’t just George and Corinne, either. Brooklyn owner Dan Topping was married to Sonja Henie, the famous figure skater. Eagles owner Bert Bell was married to Frances Upton, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl. Green Bay boss Curly Lambeau was married to an ex-Miss California. Lex Thompson, Bell’s successor in Philadelphia, ran with the Hollywood crowd (as did Rams owner Dan Reeves). It was almost like they were having a contest to see who could get photographed with the most beautiful woman.

Corinne liked to joke that she hung out with the “non-working class.” If she wasn’t dancing with the Prince of Wales, she was chatting up Greta Garbo or sleeping in Cardinal Richelieu’s bed at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s estate. (“Never eat meat and potatoes at the same time,” Garbo advised her. “It goes to your hips.”)

One time she went to a New Year’s Eve party at socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean’s, and the hostess was wearing the Hope Diamond. Another time she appeared on George Jessel’s TV show with Dean Martin, and Deano grabbed her big straw hat and put it on his head. And yes, that was Corinne who placed the wreath of roses around Needles’ neck after he won the Kentucky Derby in 1956.

Oh, to be in the Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel after a Redskins home game, when George and Corinne would make their grand entrance. “Marshall would time [it] to be sure that Barnee Breeskin and his orchestra would be on the grandstand playing,” Harry Wismer, the Redskins’ radio and TV voice in those days, recalled in The Public Calls It Sport. “Then he and Corinne would enter the room, and Breeskin would stop the music, tap twice with his baton and lead the orchestra in ‘Hail to the Redskins!’ [which, incidentally, Barnee and Corinne joined forces to write].”

Everything Marshall did, he did grandly. (Except pay his players, but that’s a whole ’nother story.) During World War II, he took out a $100,000 insurance policy on Baugh — five times Sammy’s salary — to cover him on his flights to and from his Texas ranch every week to play for the team. (Baugh had a deferment.) George even parked a plane in front of the Redskins’ practice field and identified it as the one his quarterback used. It wasn’t really, though. It was just a trainer plane, capable of going maybe 75 miles an hour.

When Sammy was asked about it, he just laughed and said, “I wouldn’t go near that thing on a bet, let alone fly in it. It’s just another of George’s promotions.”

Marshall is often referred to as a promotional genius, but it might be more accurate to say he knew a good idea when he saw one. He may have been the driving force behind the splitting of the NFL into two divisions, staging a championship game every year and making pro football a more offensive game, but he was only following baseball’s example. And besides, the two-division setup was being discussed at league meetings as early as 1924 — eight years before he became an owner. Granted, the Redskins were the first NFL team to have their own marching band, but the colleges beat him to that punch by a couple of decades. Even the Redskins’ flashy satin-pants look was borrowed (from NYU).

Marshall did get the league a lot of attention, however, with his gift of gab and general theatrics. He also helped usher pro football into the television age; there’s no denying that. His Redskins network, which stretched throughout the South, was the envy of the NFL. But it probably impeded the integration of the team, as we shall see. . . .

*  *  *

After they lost the ’45 title game to the Cleveland Rams on a fluke safety, Marshall’s Redskins never scaled the heights again. Indeed, they were downright dreadful most of the time. George sold his laundry business that year, and this enabled him to devote all his energies to his football team. It wasn’t exactly what the franchise needed. (Dan Snyder take note.)

Marshall had always been a very hands-on owner. In the early years in Boston, he used to sit on the bench and suggest plays. Flaherty put a stop to that, but then he went into the Navy during the war and George was unleashed again. “He would drive his limousine right out on the practice field and say, ‘Change this guy over here like that,’” ex-Redskin Jack Doolan once told me. “And [Dud] DeGroot would say, ‘Yeah, OK.’ That’s the kind of coach George wanted.”

He went through a bunch of Duds — nine in 18 years. And when he wasn’t making his coaches’ lives miserable, he was alienating many of his players with his pinchpenny ways. “He gypped me out of $400,” Roy Zimmerman says. “We played against the College All-Stars in ’43 [after winning the title the previous year], and you’re supposed to get a game-and-a-half salary for that game. But he traded me to Philadelphia before the season and never paid me. So I complained about it to the Eagles, and they wound up giving me the money.”

That’s something about Marshall that tends to be overlooked. He wasn’t just averse to signing black players, he had a plantation mentality toward white players, too. The whole league was like that. Players were considered very replaceable commodities back then (and until the ’80s had few rights). Check out this quote I came across from Brooklyn owner Shipwreck Kelly after a loss in the ’30s: “I’m going to get rid of six players before the next game. We’re going to get some new men and begin rebuilding for next year.” Not exactly a worker-friendly environment.

The NFL was also rife with racism. From 1920 to ’33 there were a handful of black players in the league, but in the next dozen years there were none. Dr. Harry March, one of pro football’s founding fathers, summed up the owners’ attitude toward integration in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book about the NFL ever published:

There are many sane arguments against playing colored men in games requiring physical contact. There are so many southern boys in the league that much feeling is sure to result. Then, too, the management is frequently embarrassed by the refusal of dining cars and restaurants to serve the colored players and of hotels to give them the desired accommodations which the white players receive.

To recap: The NFL didn’t have any black players from 1934 to ’45 because (a.) it didn’t want to get the southern boys riled up and; (b.) it was just so darn inconvenient.

Because he was the Last Holdout, Marshall has become, over the years, the face of pro football’s racial intolerance. He was hardly the only owner, though, who dragged his feet on the integration issue. The Detroit Lions, to cite just one team, did a curious flip-flop I the ’50s. In 1949 they had as many black players as any club in the league — three. The following year, only one of them remained. In five of the next six seasons, the Lions had zero blacks. That’s practically impossible, sociologically speaking.

The final showdown came in 1961, when the U.S. government threatened to deny the Redskins the use of D.C. (later RFK) Stadium unless Marshall opened the door to black players. He buckled to the pressure and had four of them on the roster in ’62, including wide receiver Bobby Mitchell and guard John Nisby, both of whom went to the Pro Bowl.

A year later Marshall suffered a stroke so debilitating he couldn’t attend his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. (His financial partners, lawyer Edward Bennett Williams among them, had to take over the team.) He died in 1969 at 72, just as Vince Lombardi was launching a Redskins revival.

And now his monument is being hauled away from RFK like a worn-out sofa — to be relocated in some less prominent place. (Shades of Joe Paterno decades later.)

Marshall’s friends will tell you he was no racist, merely a stubborn businessman who was trying to protect his interests. He had extended the Redskins’ radio and TV network as far south as Florida, and had drafted quite a few southern players. If he integrated the club, the logic goes, he risked losing a big part of his fan base.

“He was no bigot,” a former employee says. “He was the nicest guy I ever met in my life. When I was in the service down in South Carolina during the war, he used to send me $20 every two weeks. That was a lot of money. I was only making $21 a month.”

We’ll give Corinne Griffith, his wife of 21 years, the last word on the subject. In her book, Antiques I Have Known, Corinne reminisces about the weekend she agreed to marry Marshall. They spent Saturday night in Mt. Airy, Md., at the home of one of George’s friends, and on the way back to Washington the next afternoon — “coasting down the Blue Ridge Mountains, . . . while still under the spell of Virginia moonlight and honeysuckle, southern accents and southern hospitality” — she said “yes.”

At National Airport, just before a plane took Corinne back to New York, the Redskins owner presented his future bride with a pre-wedding present. And what little bauble did he bestow on her?

“A Confederate flag — one that had been in his family since the Civil War.”

From The Washington Times, Sept. 6, 2001

Chasing Jerry Rice

Someday, somebody’s going to break Jerry Rice’s receiving records. We know this because records are made to be broken, right? At least, that’s what we keep hearing.

Rice’s career mark of 22,895 receiving yards looks particularly daunting — inasmuch as he has almost 7,000 more than the next guy, Terrell Owens (15,934). What do you suppose it would take to surpass that Ginormous Number? Well, here’s one way of looking at it:

Say a receiver was 21 when he came into the NFL. And say, at every age, he matched the top yardage total of all time for that age. How long would it be before he blew by Jerry? You’ll find the startling answer below.

(Keep in mind: In some instances, depending on the player’s birthdate, a “year” straddles two seasons. That is, he could be a certain age for the last part of one season and the first part of the next.)


Age Receiver Team, Year(s) Yards
21 Randy Moss Vikings, 1998 1,313
22 Josh Gordon Browns, 2013 1,646
23 David Boston Cardinals, 2001 1,598
24 Torry Holt Rams, 2000 1,635
25 Victor Cruz Giants, 2011-12 1,665
26 Calvin Johnson Lions, 2011-12 1,933
27 Calvin Johnson Lions, 2012-13 1,863
28 Jerry Rice 49ers, 1990-91 1,598
29 Michael Irvin Cowboys, 1995 1,603
30 Marvin Harrison Colts, 2002 1,722
31 Jerry Rice 49ers, 1993-94 1,714
32 Jerry Rice 49ers, 1994-95 1,533
33 Jerry Rice 49ers, 1995-96 1,749
34 Cris Carter Vikings, 1999-00 1,388
Total 22,960

That’s all. It would just take 14 seasons — producing, in each of them, at the highest level in history — to overtake Rice. By 65 yards. I can hardly wait to see someone try.

Something else learned from this exercise: There have been some phenomenal performances in recent years by receivers other than Calvin Johnson. As you can see, Josh Gordon is now the leader at 22. The same goes for Victor Cruz at 25. Four things you can’t see:

● Last season, Chargers rookie Keenan Allen had 1,046 receiving yards. That’s the second most all time for a 21-year-old behind Moss.

● The Cowboys’ Dez Bryant had 1,599 yards at 24 (which for him spanned parts of the 2012 and ’13 seasons). That’s No. 2 behind Holt.

● The Bears’ Brandon Marshall (1,508 in 2012) is second in the 28 group behind Rice, and the Texans’ Andre Johnson (1,598 in 2012) is second in the 31 group, also behind Rice.

● Finally, even if erstwhile Patriot Aaron Hernandez is convicted of murder and never plays pro football again, he’ll go down in the books — for now, anyway — as having the most receiving yards in NFL history at the age of 20 (388 in 2010). So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.


The first Mel Kiper

The Steelers had a personnel guy in the ’40s and ’50s who ran his family’s funeral parlor on the side. Or maybe he worked for the Steelers on the side. It’s hard to tell. His name was Ray Byrne, but he was known in the organization as Heels because he looked like Heels Beals, a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip.

As a kid, Byrne had gone to Forbes Field in 1924 to see Carnegie Tech battle Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen and come away with a severe case of footballitis. Or as a 1950 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, the game

caught his imagination and brought concentration on football records. He began buying up old Spalding guides. The hobby became a mania. He ran ads in newspapers and magazines for missing links in his series. Today his home is packed with what he believes to be the most complete collection of football records in the world. They start back in the Civil War era with an 1866 edition titled “Beadle’s Dime Novel [Book, actually] of Cricket and Football.”

In 1946 Steelers publicist Pat Livingston, who doubled as a scout, was putting together a list of college prospects and invited Byrne to his office to pick his brain. Coach Jock Sutherland overheard the conversation and was so impressed with Ray that he brought him along to the draft. Before long, the undertaker was drawing a paycheck from the club and doing a variety of jobs besides player personnel — such as keeping statistics and serving as The Turk at training camp.

But Byrne had an arrangement with the Steelers, the Post-Gazette said, that allowed him to “drop his football duties and become a mortician whenever necessary.” So there were plenty of days when he’d go back and forth between the team’s headquarters at 521 Grant St. and the Byrne Memorial Home at 701 North Negley Ave.

(Come to think of it, that would have been a great storyline for Six Feet Under. Heck, they might have been able to squeeze out a sixth season if they’d had Nate or David moonlight as an NFL scout.)

You can follow Ray’s climb up the Steelers’ ladder in their annual media guides. In 1947 he was listed as their historian. In ’48 he became a PR assistant. In ’52 his title was “public relations-player personnel,” and in ’53 and ’54 simply “player personnel” (after which he disappears from the administration page).

Those weren’t particularly good drafts for the Steelers. Indeed, the best player they picked — Hall of Fame fullback John Henry Johnson, their second-rounder in ’53 — signed with a Canadian team and never wore a Pittsburgh uniform. But give Byrne his due: He lived the dream. How many undertakers can say the same?

Click here to read the whole story. Wish there were a few quotes from Heels, but sportswriting could be like that in those days.