Monthly Archives: December 2014

Jim Harbaugh, meet Potsy Clark

The NFL is a sausage grinder for players and coaches alike. Jim Harbaugh lasted a mere four years with the 49ers — tremendously successful years that included three conference title games and one Super Bowl — before returning to the college ranks to run the program at Michigan, his alma mater.

The toll the game takes on a man, physically and every other way, has never been greater. The level of commitment is all-consuming now, pretty much 24/7/365. Coaches cleaning out their desks tend to look like presidents leaving office: as if they’ve aged a decade in a single term.

But here’s the thing: Coaching has always been an incredible grind, even in simpler times. As Bruce Ogilvie, the sports psychologist, memorably said, “When you are discussing a successful coach, you are not necessarily drawing the profile of an entirely healthy person.”

Even in the ’40s, when there was no free agency, no scouting combine, no drug testing (and its accompanying surprises) — not to mention minicamps and OTAs — you had NFL coaches saying, “Who needs it?” and going back to college ball. One of the more notable examples is Adam Walsh, who guided the Rams to the 1945 championship and, two years later, was so sick of owner Dan Reeves’ intrusiveness that he decided to reclaim his old job at Bowdoin College in Maine. (Yes, the Division III Bowdoin Polar Bears.)

A few years earlier, Potsy Clark did much the same thing. Potsy — you can only call him Potsy — had a terrific run with the Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions from 1931 to ’36, winning one title Better Potsy AP storygame, losing another and compiling a 48-20-6 record. After the 1940 season, though, he opted for a coach/athletic director/PR position at the University of Grand Rapids (now Davenport University), figuring it offered more stability. The school was “just 5 years old,” The Associated Press reported, and had “an enrollment of about 300 students.”

(By the way, did you notice the young offensive line coach in the photo, to Potsy’s right? It’s Jerry Ford, the future U.S. president — and a fine center at Michigan.)

Lions owner Fred Mandel was caught off guard by the development. The season, after all, had ended just four days before. “Potsy and I had scheduled a conference on the renewal of his contract for tomorrow,” he told the AP. “I had not asked for his resignation nor had he suggested he would resign.”

Jimmy Wood wrote a column about it in The Brooklyn Eagle a couple of weeks later. Here are some of the highlights:

Seems that Potsy, after 20 years of the whirl in the big time, has decided to abandon the stadium with its cheering multitude and the high-pressure method necessary in jobs where victory is the only goal. Tutoring at Detroit, or coaching a pro team, these meant temporary power for him[;] but looking at his two daughters approaching college age, Potsy began to reflect more deeply and[,] for his set, he arrived at a profound conclusion. He decided to abandon worldly treasure for a post that did not depend on a won-and-lost record; he was happy to shove off for backwoods, for the University of Grand Rapids, for oblivion.

 

Potsy sleeps tonight in the shirt of a happy man, but we wonder how many other coaches throughout the land ponder and envy him. The whimsicalities of coaching could convert any coach into a sour-visaged Koheluth prating, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Behold one day the team loses and the castle falls. It may be that the star back broke his arm, it may be that one play didn’t click or the grass was slippery down at the goal line. It may be, indeed, that the other team was better. Presto, the big game is lost, and the alumni take up the cry for blood. . . .

 

Potsy Clark leaves the big time for the shadowy sticks, and his meager income there will see his girls through school and give him a second-hand car and perhaps a bungalow cottage near the railroad tracks. But how many big-time, middle-aged coaches in the nation examine their won-and-lost records again today and wish the roar of the crowd on their side didn’t weight heavily in the scales. They must think of Potsy Clark and his security in the mediocrity of Grand Rapids and ponder what a lucky guy he is.

From what I hear, Harbaugh’s income at Michigan is anything but “meager” — and should provide him with more than “a second-hand car” and “a bungalow cottage near the railroad tracks.” But you get the idea.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Potsy Clark and Gerald Ford

Rodgers, Romo and the shadow of Montana

As the NFL cranks up for the playoffs, it’s hard not to notice that Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo are playing quarterback about as well as it can be played. Romo’s 113.2 passer rating for the Cowboys this season is the sixth highest in history; Rodgers’ 112.2 for the Packers is ninth. They’ve had their way with almost every defense they’ve gone up against (even, in Tony’s case, the Seahawks).

The question now becomes: Can they keep playing at this ridiculous level in the postseason? Or more to the point: Can they — or anybody else, for that matter — ever do what Joe Montana did 25 years ago?

When you talk about a quarterback “playing the position about as well as it can be played,” you have to start with Joe Montana in 1989. During the regular season, he compiled a 112.4 rating, which was the record at the time. Then he actually turned it up a notch in the playoffs and posted a rating of 146.4, which is still the record in the Super Bowl era (and only 11.9 points shy of a perfect score, 158.3).

Among Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, Montana’s 1989 playoff performance is the gold standard by a sizable margin, as you can see:

TOP POSTSEASON RATINGS BY SUPER BOWL-WINNING QBS

Year Quarterback, Team G Att Comp Pct Yds TD Int Rating
1989 Joe Montana, 49ers 3 83 65 78.3 800 11 0 146.4
1986 Phil Simms, Giants 3 58 38 65.5 494 8 0 131.8
1992 Troy Aikman, Cowboys 3 89 61 68.5 795 8 0 126.4
2012 Joe Flacco, Ravens 4 126 73 57.9 1,140 11 0 117.2
1994 Steve Young, 49ers 3 87 53 60.9 623 9 0 117.2
2009 Drew Brees, Saints 3 102 72 70.6 732 8 0 117.0
1988 Joe Montana, 49ers 3 90 56 62.2 823 8 1 117.0
1982 Joe Theismann, Redskins 4 85 58 68.2 716 8 3 110.7
2010 Aaron Rodgers, Packers 4 132 90 68.2 1,094 9 2 109.8
2004 Tom Brady, Patriots 3 81 55 67.9 587 5 0 109.4
1996 Brett Favre, Packers 3 71 44 62.0 617 5 1 107.5

In the regular season and postseason combined, Montana had a rating of 119.4. That’s the record by a healthy margin, too. Here’s how the other quarterbacks in the above chart compare to him:

REGULAR SEASON AND POSTSEASON COMBINED

Year Quarterback, Team G Att Comp Pct Yds TD Int Rating
1989 Joe Montana, 49ers 16 469 336 71.6 4,321 37 8 119.4
1994 Steve Young, 49ers 19 548 377 68.8 4,592 44 10 113.5
2009 Drew Brees, Saints 18 616 435 70.6 5,120 42 11 110.8
2010 Aaron Rodgers, Packers 19 607 402 66.2 5,016 37 13 103.1
1996 Brett Favre, Packers 19 614 369 60.1 4,516 44 14 97.2
1982 Joe Theismann, Redskins 13 337 219 65.0 2,749 21 12 96.2
1992 Troy Aikman, Cowboys 19 562 363 64.6 4,240 31 14 95.4
2004 Tom Brady, Patriots 19 555 343 61.8 4,279 33 14 95.0
2012 Joe Flacco, Ravens 20 657 390 59.4 4,957 33 10 93.4
1988 Joe Montana, 49ers 17 487 294 60.4 3,804 26 11 93.3
1986 Phil Simms, Giants 19 526 297 56.5 3,981 29 22 81.6

Montana’s victory lap, if you want to call it that, really began in the ’88 playoffs. That’s when he started a streak of eight postseason games in which he had a rating of 100 or higher (three in ’88, three in ’89 and two in ’90). Check out his numbers for the 19-game stretch beginning in the ’88 postseason and running through the end of ’89. (Note: He missed three games in ’89.)

MONTANA’S STATS FROM 1988 PLAYOFFS THROUGH 1989 PLAYOFFS

G (RS/PS) Att Comp Pct Yds TD INT Rating
19 (13/6) 559 392 70.1 5,144 45 9 119.0

His ratings in those six postseason games, by the way, were 100.5, 136, 115.2, 142.5, 125.3 and 146.7 — against the best competition the NFL had to offer. How’s that for quarterbacking? And let’s not forget, the rules weren’t nearly as QB-friendly then. The league-wide passer rating in ’88 (70.6) and ’89 (73.3) was much lower than it was this year (87.1).

Montana has set the bar very high, perhaps impossibly high. Anyway, that’s what Rodgers and Romo are up against as they try to “play the position about as well as it can be played.”

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Will anybody ever play quarterback better than Joe Montana did 25 years ago?

Will anybody ever play quarterback better than the 49ers’ Joe Montana did 25 years ago?

Quality starts for quarterbacks, 2014

At the start of the season, I suggested the NFL needed a new stat: quality starts for quarterbacks. The bar shouldn’t be set terribly high, I’ve decided, just as it isn’t in baseball for pitchers (at least six innings, three or fewer earned runs). My recommendation is: Any start in which a QB posts a passer rating above the NFL average for that season constitutes a quality start. The league average this year was 87.1 — an all-time record — so we’re looking at how many times a guy had a rating of 87.2 or above (minimum: 10 passes).

As it turns out, 16 of the 32 teams had a quarterback who racked up eight or more quality starts. In other words, half the clubs had a QB who played above average, rating-wise, in at least half the games. Here’s a chart that lays it all out. Take a look, and then we’ll discuss it.

MOST QUALITY STARTS (RATING OF 87.2 OR BETTER), 2014

QS QB, Team (Season Rating) High Low 100+
14 Aaron Rodgers, Packers (112.2) 154.5 vs. Panthers 34.3 vs. Bills 11
13 Tony Romo, Cowboys (113.2) 151.7 vs. Colts 53.7 vs Eagles (1)* 10
11 Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (103.3) 150.6 vs. Colts 64.4 vs. Browns (2) 10
11 Drew Brees, Saints (97.0) 140.0 vs. Steelers 69.7 vs. Panthers (2) 7
11 Andrew Luck, Colts (96.5) 140.4 vs. Jaguars 41.7 vs. Cowboys 7
11 Joe Flacco, Ravens (90.9) 146.0 vs. Bucs 41.7 vs. Texans 7
11 Tom Brady, Patriots (97.4) 148.4 vs. Bears 59.9 vs. Chiefs 6
10 Russell Wilson, Seahawks (95.0) 127.3 vs. Redskins 47.6 vs. Cowboys 7
10 Matt Ryan, Falcons (93.9) 155.9 vs. Bucs 48.6 vs. Bengals 7
10 Alex Smith, Chiefs (93.4) 144.4 vs. Patriots 45.2 vs. Titans 5
9 Peyton Manning, Broncos (101.5) 157.2 vs. 49ers 56.9 vs. Bills 9
9 Philip Rivers, Chargers (93.8) 131.4 vs. Bills 31.0 vs. Dolphins 6
9 Colin Kaepernick, 49ers (86.4) 125.5 vs. Cowboys 36.7 vs. Seahawks (1) 4
8 Eli Manning, Giants (92.1) 148.8 vs. Rams 36.6 vs. 49ers 8
8 Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins (92.8) 125.6 vs. Chargers 70.4 vs. Chiefs 6
8 Andy Dalton, Bengals (83.3) 143.9 vs. Saints 2.0 vs Browns (1) 4

*Figures in parentheses = first or second meeting.

Maybe the biggest surprise is that Peyton Manning, who led all quarterbacks in 2013 with 15 quality starts, dropped to nine this year (one more than Andy Dalton). Is it just a blip, or has the decline begun? He is, after all, almost 39. Philip Rivers, meanwhile, fell from 13 to nine in an up-and-down season, and the Lions’ Matt Stafford went from 10 to five – and as a result, doesn’t even appear in the chart. (No matter. The Lions improved from 7-9 to 11-5 and made the playoffs, thanks a defense that gave up 94 fewer points.)

At the top of the list are most of the usual suspects — Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. The only one who jumps out at you is Joe Flacco, who had 11 quality starts even though his overall rating of 90.9 isn’t that far above average. Good Joe had seven ratings of 100-plus; Not So Good Joe had two ratings in the 40s.

Football already has tons of stats, of course, but it seems like there’s a void here. If anybody has a better idea for evaluating quarterback performance, week in and week out — besides just wins and losses, I mean — I’d love to hear it.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Packers' Aaron Rodgers was No. 1 in the NFL this season in quality starts. But that's not what he means here.

The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers was No. 1 in the NFL this season in quality starts. But that’s not what he means here.

Buried in the year-end stats

Russell Wilson finished with 849 rushing yards this season, fifth most by a quarterback in modern pro football history (read: since 1950). Here are all the QBs who rushed for 600 or more. (Note: Joe Geri doesn’t really belong because he was single-wing tailback with the 1950 Steelers – and ran more than he threw.)

What’s been less noticed is that Wilson tied for 16th in the whole league in rushing. That’s the highest any quarterback has ranked since 1990. Indeed, only 10 times since ’50 has a QB cracked the Top 20. The list:

NFL QUARTERBACKS WHO FINISHED IN THE TOP 20 IN RUSHING (SINCE 1950)

Year Quarterback, Team Att Yds Avg TD Rank
2014 Russell Wilson, Seahawks 118 849 7.2 6 T16th
2012 Robert Griffin III, Redskins 120 815 6.8 7 20th
1990 Randall Cunningham, Eagles 118 942 8.0 5 9th
1972 Bobby Douglass, Bears 141 968 6.9 8 12th
1953 Bobby Layne, Lions* 87 343 3.9 0 20th
1952 Bobby Layne, Lions* 94 411 4.4 1 9th
1952 Charlie Trippi, Cardinals 72 350 4.9 4 16th
1951 Tobin Rote, Packers 76 523 6.9 3 8th
1951 Charlie Trippi, Cardinals 78 501 6.4 4 9th
1950 Johnny Lujack, Bears 87 397 6.3 11 19th

*won title

In the early ’50s, as you can see, the NFL went through a phase with quarterbacks that was lot like the current one. Layne, Trippi (a former halfback), Rote and Lujack were also major running threats. In fact, Layne won two championships playing that way.

Where is Michael Vick, you ask? Surprisingly, Vick never finished higher than 21st in rushing (in 2006, when he gained a career-high — and league record — 1,039 yards for the Falcons). It’s a reflection of The Decline of the Running Game that Wilson can rush for 849 and end up tied for 16th. Just think: He would have been the leading rusher (or tied for the lead) on 17 teams.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Seahawks' Russell Wilson tied for 16th in the NFL in rushing, the highest a  QB has ranked since this guy in 1990.

The Seahawks’ Russell Wilson tied for 16th in the NFL in rushing, the highest a QB has ranked since this guy in 1990.

The Fifth Down in the 1961 title game

The Packers host the Lions today with the division title — and possibly more — at stake. To kill time until the kickoff, why don’t we talk about something else that happened at Lambeau Field on this date . . . in 1961. With the wind chill a shivering 6 degrees, Green Bay won the first of its five NFL titles under Vince Lombardi, swallowing up the Giants, 37-0.

What’s totally forgotten about this game is that, thanks to a gaffe by the officiating crew in the third quarter, the Packers offense was given a fifth down. It didn’t have any effect on the outcome, thank goodness, but it’s still fun to revisit.

In fact, here’s the video of the game, courtesy of YouTube. If you jump ahead to the 1:10:08 mark (and let it run to 1:16:48), you can watch the whole nightmare unfold.

It happened right after the second-half kickoff. On first down from his 36, the Packers’ Paul Hornung gained a yard up the middle . . . and then the zebras collectively lost their minds. (That’s Lindsey Nelson, by the way, doing the play-by-play for NBC.)

As you saw, on second and 9 Packers quarterback Bart Starr scrambled 21 yards to the New York 42, where he fumbled and Giants safety Jimmy Patton recovered. At this point, referee George Rennix started doing some very strange things.

First he signaled that an illegal procedure penalty against the Packers had been declined (which presumably meant the play stood).

Then he picked up the ball and stepped off a five-yard penalty against Green Bay, moving the line of scrimmage to the 47.

Then he decided to confer with the other officials.

And then he concluded that the procedure penalty, which came before the snap, had wiped out the play and thus, the Packers retained possession.

But Rennix wasn’t through. In the confusion, the chains had been moved, and nobody remembered where the original line of scrimmage was. So when he marked off the five-yard penalty against Green Bay, he began from the 40, not the 37 — which made it just a two-yard penalty.

Worse, the chain gang, thinking the ball had changed hands, had flipped the down marker from 2 to 1 — and none of the officials caught it. Check out this screen shot of Rennix talking to head linesman John Highberger (48) — and notice the 1 on the marker to Highberger’s right.

Screen Shot of Down Marker with 1 instead of 2

Anyway, it was pretty embarrassing. And it would have been a lot more than that, of course, had the the Packers gone down the field and scored again. But they wound up punting, so no major damage was done. To recap, the five downs went like this:

1. First and 10 from the Green Bay 36 — Hornung, 1-yard run to the 37.

2. First and 15 from the Green Bay 35 (after Rennix’s Follies) — Hornung, 10-yard run to the 45.

3. Second and 5 from the Green Bay 45 — Jim Taylor, 1-yard run to the 46.

4. Third and 4 from the Green Bay 46 — Starr, incomplete pass to Bowd Dowler.

5. Fourth and 4 from the Green Bay 46 – Dowler punts.

“Not until after the game could the officials be reached for an explanation that answered only a part of the question,” The New York Times reported. “The officials said that a Green Bay lineman had been in motion illegally before the Packers had started their play. That voided everything that happened thereafter.

“Furthermore, they said that Starr already had hit the ground and the ball had been whistled dead when he fumbled, so in any case possession would not have been awarded to the Giants. [Note: This is totally at odds with the actions of Rennix, who signaled it was New York’s ball.]

“They never did say . . . why the down marker was reset at 1 instead of remaining at 2.”

Which left the NFL with this wonderful Times headline when it was all over:

NYT headline

Source: pro-football-reference.com

More Redskins fisticuffs

A practice-field fight between Redskins Bashaud Breeland and Andre Roberts a couple of weeks ago caused quite a stir in the nation’s capital. What else is there to talk about when a team is 3-10?

I made light of it in a blog, saying it paled in comparison to some of the more action-packed battles in the NFL’s combative history. I’ve since discovered — as if I needed any more Paul Lipscomb cardammunition — that the Breeland-Roberts bout isn’t even the most notable between two Redskins. The brawl between middle guard Jim Ricca and defensive tackle Paul Lipscomb after a game in 1952 was much better, according to accounts.

Breeland (5-11, 195) and Roberts (5-11, 192), after all, are mere cruiserweights. Ricca (6-4, 270) and Lipscomb (6-5, 246), a four-time Pro Bowler, were super heavyweights. When they walked, the ground shook. (Or at least, it did in those days, when players weren’t nearly as big as they are now.)

The two behemoths came to blows in the locker room after the Redskins had blown a 10-0 lead in the second half and lost 14-10 to the Giants at Griffith Stadium. “Blaming each other for missed assignments that led to Washington’s final-period collapse, . . . they tangled in a brief, but bloody brawl,” the International News Service reported.

“Ricca suffered a deep gash under the chin that required seven stitches to close. Eyewitnesses said he apparently fell against a trunk as the two beefy linemen wrestled to the floor.”

The Associated Press added this detail: “They were separated, before much damage was done, by several players, including 226-pound Chuck Drazenovich, who used to be the intercollegiate boxing champion.”

Redskins coach Curly Lambeau, who had seen a tiff or two between teammates in his day, told Ricca and Lipscomb to shake hands. He then sent them to neutral corners. (OK, I made the second part up.)

“I’d rather see the boys worked up than take the loss lying down,” Lambeau said — football philosophy at its finest.

Here’s what’s eerie. Both fights — Breeland-Roberts and Ricca-Lipscomb — took place after the Redskins had dropped their fifth in a row. In both instances, there were three weeks left in the season. In both instances, the Redskins lost their next game, then won the one after that to end their string of defeats at six.

The moral, I guess: Beware late-season five-game losing streaks. (And for goodness sakes, keep your gloves up.)

Source: pro-football-reference.com

INS version of fight 11-24-52

Oh-Oh-Odell Beckham

Here’s what’s really amazing about Odell Beckham, the Giants’ fantabulous rookie receiver: He became a phenomenon even though his team lost seven of his first eight NFL games. Now that’s hard to do — though it’s probably a little less hard if you happen to play in the media capital of the world.

With his one-handed grabs, big-play ability and week-in, week-out productivity, Beckham takes your breath away. His numbers don’t just speak for themselves, their shout: 79 catches for 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns in just 11 games. If he hadn’t missed the first month with a hamstring injury, we’d be talking about one of the greatest receiving seasons in history, not just one of the greatest by a first-year guy.

But let’s discuss that for a moment – the best seasons, that is, by rookie receivers. Earlier this week in the New York Post, Brian Lewis wrote:

No rookie receiver has ever had the kind of a start to an NFL career that Odell Beckham Jr., has, no first-year wideout has dominated defenses and back pages and highlight shows like this since Randy Moss.

I agree with the second half of that statement, but I take issue with the absolute certainty of the first half. After all, this is the league’s 95th season. Almost everything has happened before, including a rookie receiver exploding the way Beckham has

Before I go any further, check out this chart. It’ll give you an idea of where Odell’s performance falls — with a game, of course, still to play.

MOST RECEIVING YARDS PER GAME BY A ROOKIE IN NFL/AFL HISTORY

Year Receiver, Team G Yards Avg TD
1960 Bill Groman, Oilers (AFL) 14 1,473 105.2 12
1952 Billy Howton, Packers 12 1,231 102.6 13
2014 Odell Beckham, Giants 11 1,120 101.8 11
1954 Harlon Hill, Bears 12 1,124 93.7 12
2003 Anquan Boldin, Cardinals 16 1,377 86.1 8
1998 Randy Moss, Vikings 16 1,313 82.1 17
1965 Bob Hayes, Cowboys 13 1,003 77.2 12
1961 Mike Ditka (TE), Bears 14 1,056 76.9 12
1982 Charlie Brown, Redskins 9* 690 76.7 8
1958 Jimmy Orr, Steelers 12 910 75.8 7
1996 Terry Glenn, Patriots 15 1,132 75.5 6

*9-game strike season

(I tacked on the touchdowns at the end in case you were curious.)

One of the things I love about this chart is that just about every decade is represented. There are three receivers from the ’50s, three from the ’60s, two from the ’90s and one each from the ’80s, ’00s and ’10s. Only the ’70s, when defense had the upper hand, are missing.

Another thing I love about this chart is that it’s fair. It looks at per-game average rather than gross yardage, which would skew things toward receivers who had the benefit of longer seasons. Beckham will play in “only” 12 games this year, which is how many Billy Howton, Harlon Hill and Jimmy Orr played in in the ’50s. So you can put his stats next to theirs and decide for yourself who was better. (I’m excluding Bill Groman from this discussion because the AFL in 1960 wasn’t close to being on the NFL’s level.)

Howton had six 100-yard games that season and Hill seven. Let’s compare them to Beckham’s six (so far):

        Howton 1952                          Hill 1954                         Beckham 2014

Opponent Rec-Yds-TD Opponent Rec-Yds-TD Opponent Rec-Yds-TD
Redskins 3-128-1 Lions 4-140-1 Colts 8-156-0
Rams 5-156-1 Colts 3-144-1 Seahawks 7-108-0
Lions 7-151-1 49ers 4-116-1 Cowboys 10-146-2
Lions 7-123-2 49ers 7-224-4 Titans 11-130-1
Rams 6-200-0 Browns 3-117-1 Redskins 12-143-3
49ers 8-162-2 Rams 6-109-1 Rams 8-148-2
Totals 36-920-8 Cardinals 6-117-1 Totals 56-831-8
Totals 33-967-10

You can debate until you’re blue in the face the differences between eras and what all this means. But as you can see, what Beckham is doing as a rookie isn’t exactly unprecedented. Howton cardOther receivers have “had the kind of a start to an NFL career that Odell Beckham Jr., has.” They just played so long ago that hardly anybody remembers.

Howton and Hill, too, were phenomenons. Billy, for instance, had six touchdown catches of 50 yards or longer (90, 89, 78, 69, 54, 50) plus a non-scoring grab of 76. Harlon had TDs of 76, 66, 65 and 64. They were downfield threats, just like Beckham is. The NFL just didn’t get the attention then that it does now. (Never mind an NFL Channel; there was barely an NBC.)

When Howton retired after the 1963 season, he was the all-time leader in receptions (503) and receiving yards (8,459) and ranked third receiving touchdowns (61). He simply had the misfortune of playing in Green Bay when it truly was pro football’s Siberia. (Read: Before Vince Lombardi arrived and thawed things out.)

I kid you not: The day Howton broke Don Hutson’s career receptions record (488), The Dallas Morning News mentioned it in the last paragraph of its game story. (Howton spent his last four seasons with the expansion Cowboys.) And the day the Colts’ Ray Berry broke Billy’s receptions mark, The Associated Press reported: “Berry caught five passes . . . to raise his career total [to] 506,” which was three more than “the career record held by Jim Howton.”

Harlon Hill cardJim Howton?

As for Hill, he could have wound up in Canton — why Howton isn’t there, I’ll never understand — if injuries hadn’t robbed him of his specialness. Consider: He scored 32 touchdowns in his first three seasons, a total of 36 games. Only four receivers have scored more in their first 36 games: Randy Moss (43), Jerry Rice (40), Rob Gronkowski (38) and John Jefferson (36). How’s that for company?

None of this is meant to knock Beckham down a few pegs. The kid has been an absolute revelation. It’s just meant to remind everybody that he’s not alone on that peg. As I said, the NFL has been around for a long time.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Barnstorming on Dec. 25

On Christmas Day 1932, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans played to a 6-6 tie before a sparse crowd of 2,000 in Cincinnati. I mention this because, well, they’d also met the Sunday before in the NFL title game — won by the Bears, 9-0.

You sometimes saw these championship rematches in the early days, before the league decided that maybe they weren’t such a good idea. After all, you want to be able to bill your title game as Globe AP story on 6-6 gamethe be-all and end-all of your season. It was devalued a bit if the clubs played again a week — or a month — later in Los Angeles, Dallas or Miami, even if it was just an “exhibition tilt,” as The Portsmouth Times called it.

Rest assured both sides took the tilt seriously. That was the other thing about these rematches: They gave players a chance for retribution. Thus, the action at Redland Field, home of the baseball Reds, was “replete with vicious tackling and effective blocking,” the Times reported.

The Spartans scored first on a pass from Glenn Presnell to Harry Ebding. (I think. There was some disagreement about who the receiver was). The Bears tied it on a run by Red Grange. The score ended up 6-6 because both teams missed the extra point; Portsmouth’s was blocked and the Bears’ was wide.

Unfortunately, with so many empty seats, the game didn’t make enough money to cover the clubs’ guarantees. Instead, “the Spartans and Bears were offered 75 percent of the gate receipts,” the Times said. “The players received about 25 percent of their regular salary [for] playing this game.”

Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark had driven the 100 miles to Cincinnati, a trip that was much more adventurous than he’d planned. His car broke down and, despite Potsy’s best efforts, a mechanic had to be summoned . . . on Christmas Eve.

After the game “he said goodbye to all the boys,” according to the Times, “and then hopped into his automobile and left for Indianapolis, where he had Christmas dinner with his family.” Hitching a ride were fullback Ace Gutowsky and his wife, “who enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Clark before leaving for Oklahoma City.”

As for the Bears, they caught a train to Nashville and played there the next day against the Boston Braves (the team that would become the Washington Redskins). It was the first pro football game ever played in the Music City, and the locals were in a festive mood. They spent most of the afternoon throwing firecrackers at one another.

The Bears weren’t the least bit distracted, though, Blinky Horn (yes, Blinky Horn) of the Tennessean wrote. “They long ago became accustomed to the rat-tat-tat of submachine guns in the Windy City.”

Fred Russell, the famed columnist for the Banner, poked his head in the Chicago locker room before the kickoff and was stunned to see players, quite a few of them, puffing away on cigars. “They can smoke any time up to an hour before the game,” he informed his readers. “But it’s taboo between halves.”

Fueled by nicotine, the Bears won easily, 25-0. But as in Cincinnati, the crowd was disappointing — only 2,000 to 3,000. Nashville was still very much a college town. (Indeed, the game was played at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Stadium). Some of the proceeds were supposed to go to the Community Chest to help the needy, but there was nothing left after the clubs took their cut.

That prompted this comment from Horn: “One of two things is certain — [either] pro football has no appeal to the citizenry of this township or the natives have poured out so much to assist charity that they have nothing left to give.

“There’s never been such a fullback in Dudley Stadium as [the Bears’] Bronko Nagurski. Nor such a passer as Johnny Doehring. Nor an end superior to Luke Johnsos. But all this sweetness was wasted in the desert air. For Nashville’s public is not pro football-minded. Or maybe they have too many headaches from Xmas ’nog and Xmas bills to take any acute interest in this visit of the champions.”

Sixty-eight years later the Titans would begin playing in Nashville — and things would change in a hurry. But in 1932 the NFL was still a rumor in large swaths of the country. That’s part of what the barnstorming was about: to plant the seed, even if it meant disrupting your Christmas holiday.

Merry Christmas 1931

On Dec. 24, 1931, Portsmouth Spartans fans opened the newspaper and found this Christmas card on page 10 from Roy “Pop” Lumpkin, a back for the Spartans and probably their most popular player. (Right below was an ad declaring “ALL TOYS 1/2 OFF — Excepting Electric Trains” at the Glockner Hardware Co.)

Father Lumpkin Christmas Greeting 12-24-31 Portsmouth Times

Players were much more a part of the community then. Indeed, they often lived with the fans, renting spare rooms and breaking bread with them many nights. Lumpkin, a brawny, fun-loving type who didn’t wear a helmet, was so beloved he’d receive votes for political offices he didn’t run for.

Alas, that time was passing in Portsmouth. It simply didn’t have a big enough population — about 40,000 — to support an NFL franchise for long, especially once the Depression hit. Elsewhere on page 10 of the Times was a story about a drive to sell shares in the Spartans to keep them from moving to a larger market.

Save the Spartans head 12-24-31

Save the Spartans story 12-24-31

The Spartans, it turned out, lasted two more seasons in Portsmouth. In 1932 they played in the first NFL championship game, losing 9-0 to the Bears on a 67-yard — from goal line to goal line — field at Chicago Stadium. (Winter weather forced the clubs to play indoors.)

Then a radio magnate, George Richards, bought the franchise and moved it to Detroit — and Lumpkin, as far as I know, never sent another Christmas card in the newspaper to his adoring fans.

Football in Cuba

The normalizing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba should be a boon to major-league baseball. That’s the sport that immediately comes to mind, of course, when thinking about That Island 90 Miles South of Florida — baseball, then track and field, then maybe boxing.

Believe it or not, though, Cuba also has a football history — a distant one, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. In fact, in 1944, when the NFL was suffering from an acute manpower shortage, the Redskins had a Cuban player in training camp. Here’s the story that ran in newspapers across the country:

Redskins sign Monoz 7-26-44

A later story corrected the spelling of Monoz’s name — it was Munoz, apparently — and claimed that, according to the Redskins, he was “the first Cuban-born athlete to play professional football in the United States.” There’s no record, after all, of Rivero ever playing for the Bears, though he was a star back at Columbia. That’s him in the photo below carrying the ball against Union College in 1930:

Rivero photo NYT 10-5-30

Wish I had a photo of Munoz to show you, but he disappeared from the Washington training camp without a trace. (He couldn’t have been too terrific. NFL clubs were so desperate in that war year — the Redskins included — that they suited up kids fresh out of high school.)

The University of Havana did indeed field a football team in those days, though, and continued to until the late ’50s. Havana also was the occasional site of a college bowl game, called at various times the Bacardi Bowl, the Cigar Bowl or the Rhumba Bowl. Some of these games pitted the University of Havana against a visiting American team. Check out the college scoreboard from Dec. 9, 1939:

Dec. 9, 1939 college scoreboard(Georgia Teachers College, by the way, is now Georgia Southern.)

A few years earlier, on New Year’s Day 1937, Auburn and Villanova battled to a 7-7 tie in the Bacardi Bowl, held at Tropical Stadium. This is from The New York Times:

NYT head on Bacardi Bowl story

Auburn-Villanova box Bacardi Bowl

Half-a-dozen players in this box score — at least — went on to play in the NFL. I’m talking about tackles Herb Roton, Jim Sivell and Bo Russell for Auburn and left tackle John Mellus, left guard Bill Rogers and center Stan Galazin for Villanova.

I wouldn’t count on the University of Havana restoring its football program any time soon, but it’s always a possibility down the road. Alberto Juantorena, I always thought, would have made a heckuva wideout.