Monthly Archives: January 2015

The youngest QBs to win two rings

Not long ago I was marveling at Tom Brady’s historic staying power. Seems only fair to spend a little time gushing about Russell Wilson’s youthful accomplishments.

As I noted, Brady’s six Super Bowls with Patriots span 14 seasons, the longest such stretch for an NFL quarterback. But let’s not forget the Seahawks’ Wilson, who has a chance Sunday to become the second-youngest QB to win two titles, which would put him behind only . . . well, check out the chart:


Years Quarterback, Team Title No. 1 Age Title No. 2 Age
1940/41 Sid Luckman, Bears 24-017 25-023
2013/14 Russell Wilson, Seahawks 25-065 26-064 (?)
2001/03 Tom Brady, Patriots 24-184 26-182
1958/59 Johnny Unitas, Colts 25-235 26-234
2005/08 Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 23-340 26-336
1952/53 Bobby Layne, Lions 26-009 27-008
1992/93 Troy Aikman, Cowboys 26-071 27-070
1934/38 Ed Danowski, Giants 23-070 27-072
1974/75 Terry Bradshaw, Steelers 26-132 27-138
1981/84 Joe Montana, 49ers 25-227 28-223

Quite a club. Only Danowski isn’t in the Hall of Fame — or headed there, in my opinion — and his is an unusual case. After all, he wasn’t the Giants’ main passer for most of that year; he took over at tailback (on a single-wing team) after original starter, Harry Newman, got hurt late in the season. But Eddie helped win the title game, the famed Sneakers Game, over the previous unbeaten Bears, so you certainly can’t leave him off the list.

In fact, here he is, ol’ No. 22, making a nifty throw under pressure that nearly went for a touchdown in that game:

Danowski, by the way, is the youngest quarterback to win the NFL title — in modern (1932-) times, at least. Wilson (25-065) comes in sixth in that competition, behind Eddie (23-070), Sammy Baugh (23-270), Ben Roethlisberger (23-340), Luckman (24-017) and Brady (24-184).

One last thing: Six of the 10 quarterbacks in the above chart won at least one other championship (Luckman 4, Brady 3, Unitas 3, Aikman 3, Bradshaw 4, Montana 4). That bodes well for Wilson, too — provided, of course, he and his mates can beat the Patriots.


Stock market up, concussions down

On the day the NFL announced that concussions were down 25 percent from last season — and helmet-to-helmet or shoulder-to-helmet concussions down 50 percent from two years ago — I thought I’d share this headline from 1966 I just happened upon. It ran atop a column by Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times about Jim Taylor, the Packers’ Hall of Fame fullback.

Jim Taylor uses his head headline

Some of the highlights:

[Taylor] uses his head for a living. Which is to say he butts it into peoples’ affairs — like linebackers’. His head is like a crew-cut boulder and has been known to rearrange more internal organs than an ulcer clinic. . . .

Jim Taylor's head was a major part of his arsenal.

Jim Taylor’s head was a major part of his arsenal.

“The Goat,” they called him on the old New York Giants, where Sam Huff did more dental work on Jim Taylor than a lifetime of dentists. Once, in Yankee Stadium, when the fans swarmed onto the field, a player is supposed to have hissed at Taylor, “Quick, over here, there’s a door!” and a teammate, baffled, protested, “There’s no door over there!” and the first fellow, gazing in satisfaction after the churning, head-down Taylor, replied, “Well, there soon will be!”

(If you want to read the whole column, click here.)

At any rate, assuming the latest figures are correct, the NFL must be making progress in this area. By that I mean: fewer goats.


When SI’s Super Bowl prediction was only off by 52 points

Predicting the final score of the Super Bowl is an invitation to make a fool of yourself. Every year, though, media folk — and even more non-media folk — give it a shot, just for “fun.”

The greatest of all NFL title game predictions is the one John Steadman made in the Baltimore News-Post before the sudden-death classic between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants in 1958. Steadman thought long and hard about it, may even have availed himself of a palm reader, and somehow came up with 23-17 — right on the money.

(What’s overlooked about this story is that 23-17 was, at the time, a very unusual score. There had been only four 23-17 games in NFL history before the Sudden Death Game — the first, interestingly enough, being the Packers-Giants championship game in 1938.)

At the opposite end from Steadman’s is the pick Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule made a decade later when the Colts met the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. This, too turned out to be a historic game, because the Jets, 17-point underdogs, upset the Colts, 16-7, to give the AFL its first win over the established NFL. Anyway, Maule, SI’s pro football writer, miscalculated by just a shade. He had the Colts winning, 43-0.

But, hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a story that ran in the Oakland Tribune the week of the game:

MIAMI — Among Super Bowl writers, it’s Baltimore Colts, 49-6, with a lot of coward’s abstentions.

There are a record 367 credentialed working pressmen here covering the [Super Bowl], but a poll finds only 49 picking the Colts and a slim six writers going for the New York Jets. . . . Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated showed his NFL affection with a 43-0 Baltimore pick.

The results of the unscientific poll were no great surprise. The Colts had suffered only one loss all season, to the Browns, and had avenged it in the NFL title game with a blowout 34-0 victory at Cleveland. The Jets, meanwhile, had gone 11-3 in a supposedly inferior league and had barely gotten past the Raiders in the championship game.

But 43-0? The scores of the first two Super Bowls had been 35-10 (Packers over Chiefs) and 33-14 (Packers over Raiders). How on earth did Maule come up with 43-0?

Well, to be blunt about it, Tex was an NFL loyalist whose attachment to the league sometimes clouded his vision. A writer like that would have a hard time functioning today. He’d be crucified on sports talk shows, burned at the stake on Twitter and have his face ripped off on Facebook. But the world was a much different place in January 1969.

Before Maule went to work for SI, you see, he’d been a publicist for not one but two NFL teams. He was an assistant with the Rams from 1949 to ’51 . . .

1951 Rams co-Texes . . . and he was the head guy for the Dallas Texans in 1952 (after which they folded and the franchise moved to Baltimore).

Maule '52 TexansBy the way, did you notice the name above Maule’s in the Rams directory? None other than Tex Schramm, who helped turn the Cowboys into “America’s Team” in the ’60s and ’70s. Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times thought the Schramm-Maule duo was so hysterical that he’d go around telling people the Rams were the only club in the league with co-Texes.

(It was all so cozy back then. Consider: When Schramm left his sportswriting job at the Austin American in the late ’40s to work for the Rams, it was Maule who replaced him. A couple of years later, Schramm needed help in the PR department and, you guessed it, brought Maule out to L.A. Then Maule returned to Texas to take the job with the Texans, and who did Schramm fill the position with? University of San Francisco SID — and future NFL commissioner — Pete Rozelle.)

But returning to Maule . . . his love for the NFL knew few bounds. And loving the NFL meant looking down on the scrappy, rival league that had sprung up to challenge it in the ’60s. In the issue of SI that was published before the Super Bowl, Tex laid out his worldview:

In evaluations of the two teams, most experts, for unfathomable reasons, have conceded the Jets an edge at quarterback. Both [the Jets’ Joe] Namath and [the Colts’ Earl] Morrall were selected Most Valuable in their leagues, but Namath certainly can claim no clear-cut superiority over Morrall. . . .

As usual, the AFL players base part of their hopes for victory on the rather tenuous claim that since football is a game of emotion, they will outemotion the NFL. But Las Vegas bookmakers, a group not known for emotional display, figure the Colts to be 17 points better than the Jets, which is probably conservative. . . .

Because the AFL had to compete with the NFL for the best of the college seniors during the first five years of its existence a kind of natural selection worked against the new league’s acquisition of players with the self-confidence and desire to excel against the best. . . . The rest of the AFL players in those formative years came over from the NFL. They were mostly athletes who preferred to switch rather than fight for their positions in the NFL.

This situation, of course, no longer applies. With the common draft of the last two years, the AFL is getting its share of the truly competitive, gung-ho athletes and it will soon achieve parity with the NFL. But that parity has not yet been reached, and the Colts should demonstrate this with an authority that may shock Jets fans.

To summarize: In the pre-Super Bowl years, the AFL was essentially populated by gutless losers who either signed with the league out of college because they “lacked the self-confidence and desire to excel against the best” or fled the NFL because the competition was too tough. Maule couldn’t even look at the two quarterbacks — Namath, a future Hall of Famer with a cannon arm, and Morrall, a 34-year-old journeyman who was 30-32-2 as a starter going into that season — and admit, yeah, the Jets might have the advantage there.

And SI actually printed this propaganda. Amazing, huh?

SI SB3 coverYou already know how it turned out. Morrall did the “unfathomable,” throwing three interceptions and getting badly outplayed by Namath. Indeed, the Colts might have been shut out if aging, ailing Johnny Unitas hadn’t came off the bench to drive them to a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Maule’s post-game piece was more complimentary of Namath and the Jets, but you could picture him typing the words with clenched teeth. “Broadway Joe is the folk hero of the new generation,” he began. “He is long hair, a Fu Manchu mustache worth $10,000 to shave off, swinging nights in the live spots of the big city, the dream lover of the stewardi — all that spells insouciant youth in the Jet Age.”

Toward the end there was this: “So the era of John Unitas ended and the day of Broadway Joe and the mod quarterback began. John is crew cut and quiet and Joe has long hair and a big mouth, but haircuts and gab obviously have nothing to do with the efficiency of quarterbacks.”

It was as if, in Tex’s eyes, the final scoreboard read: Hippies 43, Establishment 0.

The Hall of Fame case for Terrell Davis

When Terrell Davis retired from the Broncos 12 years ago, I wrote a column saying that, abbreviated career or not, he absolutely belonged in the Hall of Fame. Nothing that’s happened since has changed my mind one iota. If anything, I’m even more convinced Davis is Canton quality, a rare running back who simply caught a bad break — much as Gale Sayers did three decades earlier.

Saturday we’ll find out if the selection committee agrees with me. Davis is a finalist for the first time, and he has the usual formidable competition. Here’s my case for him, then and now:

 “I have mixed feelings [about retirement]. It’s tough. My mind tells me one thing, my knees say something else. I know I still have a lot of football in me. But I know that my body is not going to allow me to perform at the level I want to play.”

— Terrell Davis, August 2002

In the late ’90s, Terrell Davis was as good a story as there was in the NFL. Here was an all-pro running back who played blocking back and nose tackle in high school.  Who was told “basically my whole college career [at Georgia] that I was no good,” he once said. Who was a sixth-round afterthought in the ’95 draft, taken between Dino Philyaw and Craig Whelihan.

Then he magically rushed for 2,000 yards in a season and led the Denver Broncos, perennial Super Bowl patsies, to two championships. If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone, right?

But now, almost as suddenly as he appeared, Davis is gone — retired at 29 because of bad knees. Yes, there are limits to medical science, as Mr. Chunky Soup has reminded us. Even with the miracle of arthroscopy, not every torn ligament heals as good as new. Terrell spent the last three seasons trying to recapture his old form, but one injury just seemed to lead to another.

Terrell Davis in the open field in Super Bowl 32.

Terrell Davis in the open field in Super Bowl 32.

The other night he gave his final Mile High Salute in Denver, and already the debate has begun about whether he merits residency in Canton. The easy answer is: No, Davis simply didn’t play long enough. Four stellar seasons — followed by three crippled ones — do not a Hall of Fame career make. And it’s a persuasive argument. Football, after all, is a battle of attrition, and durability is held in the highest regard. A guy I know at the Hall says the first question old-timers ask one another at get-togethers is: “How long did you play?”

Redskins icon Larry Brown has been kept out of Canton for the same ostensible reason.  Terrific as he was at his peak, he lasted just eight years in the league, rushing for a modest — by today’s standards — 5,875 yards. Quite a few fine running backs, in fact, have had their careers cut short by injury or accumulated wear and tear: Gale SayersEarl Campbell, Chuck ForemanBilly SimsWilliam AndrewsJohn Brockington. It’s a depressingly long list, especially since only Sayers and Campbell have been elected to the Hall.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another position in any sport that has been so ravaged by injury. Running backs in recent times have become the stunt men of pro football. Put the ball in their belly — or sling them a swing pass — and watch them leap linebackers in a single bound. Or try to. Everybody in the pro game gets beat up, sure, but does anybody take more of a pounding than running backs?

I was just glancing at a list of the NFL’s leading rushers in 2000. Are you ready for this? Six of the top seven didn’t even break 1,000 yards last season [2001]. Edgerrin James blew out his knee. Robert Smith retired. Eddie George, slowed by a painful toe injury, slipped from 1,509 to 939. Mike Anderson wound up splitting time with Davis and Olandis Gary. Fred Taylor got hurt. And Jamal Lewis went down in training camp and missed the entire year.

What other position has that kind of volatility? What other position, for that matter, has had two Pro Bowl players in the past few years — Smith and Barry Sanders — call it quits while still in their primes? The prevailing philosophy among coaches seems to be: give running backs the ball until they drop. Davis carried 481 and 470 times in the Broncos’ two Super Bowl-winning years (postseason included), two of the three highest totals in NFL history. George had 485 touches (428 carries, 57 receptions) in ’99 when Tennessee went to the Super Bowl (again, counting the postseason). Heck, coal miners are treated better than that.

So maybe we need to start looking at running backs a little differently than we do other players. Maybe we need to put more emphasis on how well they played and less on how long they endured. Particularly when you have backs like Davis rushing for 2,008 yards — and then suffering a career-altering injury. Or Jamal Anderson rushing for 1,846 — and doing likewise. Or Garrison Hearst rushing for 1,570 — and missing the next two years. This sort of thing is happening all the time to running backs nowadays, and it would be a shame if Hall voters didn’t begin to take it into account.

That’s not to say Davis should be admitted in his first year of eligibility, just that he’s deserving of the honor somewhere down the line. The yardstick for me isn’t Sayers, a human highlight reel in his brief time in the league, it’s John Henry Johnson. Johnson, whose career ended around the same time as Gale’s, rushed for 6,803 yards and 48 touchdowns over 13 seasons. Davis rushed for 6,413 yards and 56 TDs in his first four years. And you’re going to put John Henry in the Hall but not Terrell?

Explain that one to me.

From The Washington Times, Aug. 22, 2002


On the brink of going back-to-back

The Seahawks are back in the Super Bowl looking to repeat. Which raises the question: How often has a team in that situation finished the job?

Answer: Of the 11 previous defending champs that returned to the Super Bowl, eight won the game — 72.7 percent. That’s pretty good odds for Seattle (even if it does have to beat the Patriots, the Team of the 2000s). The details:


Team First Super Bowl Second Super Bowl
1966-67 Packers Beat Chiefs, 35-10 Beat Raiders, 33-14
1972-73 Dolphins Beat Redskins, 14-7 Beat Vikings, 24-7
1974-75 Steelers Beat Vikings, 16-6 Beat Cowboys, 21-17
1977-78 Cowboys Beat Broncos, 27-10 Lost to Steelers, 35-31
1978-79 Steelers Beat Cowboys, 35-31 Beat Rams, 31-19
1982-83 Redskins Beat Dolphins, 27-17 Lost to Raiders, 38-9
1988-89 49ers Beat Bengals, 20-16 Beat Broncos, 55-10
1992-93 Cowboys Beat Bills, 52-17 Beat Bills, 30-13
1996-97 Packers Beat Patriots, 35-21 Lost to Broncos, 31-24
1997-98 Broncos Beat Packers, 31-24 Beat Falcons, 34-19
2003-04 Patriots Beat Panthers, 32-29 Beat Eagles, 24-21
2013-14 Seahawks Beat Broncos, 43-8 Vs. Patriots, SB 49

The last time a defending champ lost the Super Bowl, in other words, the winning score came on a conceded touchdown. (The Packers offered no resistance on Terrell Davis’ 1-yard TD run so they could get the ball back with 1:45 left.)

The Packers defensive line opens wide in Super Bowl 32 to let Denver's Terrell Davis score.

The Packers defensive line opens wide in Super Bowl 32 to let Denver’s Terrell Davis score in the final two minutes.

In the days before diplomacy

Before players became so well behaved — in terms of their public pronouncements, I mean — Super Bowl Week was a lot more entertaining. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across a story that ran after the 1968 AFL title game between the Jets and Raiders.

Joe Namath’s team rallied to win the game, 27-23 – then went off to slay the NFL champion Colts, the biggest upset in pro football history. The visiting Raiders, who thought they were the better club (and may well have been), could only go home and stew for seven months.

In the walk-up to the Super Bowl, Jets cornerback Johnny Sample was doing what he did best: mouthing off. Sample was one of the early trash talkers — not quite as quotable, perhaps, as Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, but heck, Fred was practically Oscar Wilde.

One day Johnny was holding forth about the cornerback position — and about the notebook he kept that had detailed information on every man he covered. The Raiders’ Fred Biletnikoff, a future Hall of Famer, was just “an average receiver,” he’d decided. “You can’t compare him to the great receivers.”

This was a strange statement coming from Sample. Biletnikoff, after all, had torn him up in the AFL title game, catching seven passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. (In fact, Raiders owner Al Davis told The Boston Globe’s Will McDonough, “Fred has eaten him up the last three times he has played against him, and every time he does, Sample says he’s had a cold.”)

An enterprising reporter for the Oakland Tribune called Biletnikoff to get his reaction to Sample’s remarks. Fred was in a Los Angeles hospital at the time recovering from a collarbone injury that Johnny, apparently, had something to do with.

“The way I feel about it,” he said, “[Sample] should write a new book. He was really trying to shake me up in the first quarter, slapping at me and trying to talk me out of my game.

“When I dropped one on the 1-yard line, he said, ‘That’s the way it’s going to be today.’ But after I started beating him he didn’t say much for the rest of the game. I figure the game went 25 percent his way, 75 percent my way.”

I’m saving the best for last. Sample was suggesting at the Super Bowl that he might retire after the game — and it did, indeed, turn out to be his last season. How did Biletnikoff feel about that?

“I hope he doesn’t,” Fred said. “I’d like to play 14 games a season against him. That way I’d know my family is secure for a long time.”

Anyway, that’s what happened one day before Super Bowl III. Anybody say anything interesting today?


The Jets' Johnny Sample (24) and the Colts' Tom Matte (41) go facemask-to-facemask in Super Bowl III.

The Jets’ Johnny Sample (24) and the Colts’ Tom Matte (41) go facemask-to-facemask in Super Bowl III.

Return of the tackle-eligible play

There’ll probably be some discussion this Super Bowl Week — that is, when people tire of Deflategate — about the tackle-eligible play. Bill Belichick’s Patriots ran it twice for touchdowns in Super Bowls 38 and 39, and they used it again in the AFC title game, when Tom Brady flipped a 16-yard TD pass to an uncovered Nate Solder. The sequence went like this:

First, the Patriots lined up in an unbalanced line — four men to the right of center, two to the left. This made the 6-8, 320-pound Solder (77) the left end, because Brandon LaFell (bottom of the photo) positioned himself a yard behind the line as a flanker.

Solder lined up

After the snap, Solder briefly blocked and then drifted into the flat, catching Brady’s throw at the Indianapolis 13. No Colt was near him.

Solder catch at 13

A few giant steps later, he launched himself across the goal line to increase New England’s lead to 24-7.

Solder scores

One of the things that’s interesting about this play is that the NFL actually outlawed it in 1951. According to The Associated Press, it had become “a nightmare to officials because various clubs tried illegal variations which loosed tackles, centers and guards for pass receptions.”

The year before, Eagles coach Greasy Neale went nuts after the Cardinals ran one such variation against his team. The pass, in this instance, went to “an ineligible guard for about 30 yards,” AP reported. “And while the Eagles argued with the officials, Cardinal[s] coach Curly Lambeau lifted the guard from the lineup and covered him with a blanket on the bench. The officials couldn’t even find the player on the field who the Eagles contended caught the pass. The gain stood.”

The season before that, the Bears, goofing around in their season finale, ran five tackle-eligible plays against the Cardinals in a 52-21 win. Afterward, Cards coach Buddy Parker said, “The tackle eligible is a cheating play. It should be ruled out of football. I’m not saying this because we lost, but it’s my firm conviction it violates the spirit of football. I’m not blaming the Bears for using it. Other teams do. But there is no defense for it, and it is a difficult play for the officials to call.”

At the January 1951 league meetings in Chicago, the owners decided to get rid of “the old bugaboo tackle-eligible play,” as AP called it. But in recent decades it has worked its way back into the playbook — as long as the tackle reports as an eligible receiver, as Solder did. This alerts the officials, who then alert the defense. It’s still a trick play, it’s just not as tricky — or maybe shady — as it used to be.

In the old days, teams lined up in all kinds of bizarre formations to create Surprise Eligible Receivers. Check out this alignment the Giants sprang on the Bears in 1934, one that made the center, Hall of Famer Mel Hein, eligible:

Giants center eligible play

Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune described it thusly:

The Giants shifted to a spread formation. Such a formation, with three eligible pass receivers [to] the right, always causes the defense to spread to meet a pass with secondary consideration for a run or plunge. The end men on the line of scrimmage and the backs are eligible to receive passes. Seven men must be on the offensive scrimmage line when the ball is passed by the center.

The Bears immediately dropped into a six-man defensive line and shifted three men to cover the Giants’ eligible receivers on the right side of the Giant[s] formation. Naturally, most of the fans watched these men, thinking a pass would be thrown to one of them. There was a Giant[s] end to the left of center Hein. Then, without warning, this end shifted one yard back from the line of scrimmage. This change made him a “back,” and to meet the rule specifying seven men on the line of scrimmage, a back shifted up to the line [indicated by the dotted line position].

As soon as one second had elapsed after this shift, another rule requirement, Hein passed the ball back between his legs to quarterback Harry Newman, directly behind him. Newman then handed the ball back to Hein, between Hein’s legs, and Hein ran with it, making 13 yards before he was downed by the Bears’ secondary.

When Newman handed the ball back to Hein it was a forward pass. Hein, the end man, was eligible to receive this pass and after receiving it to run.

George Musso, the Bears’ right tackle, had lined up approximately even with the Giants’ end, who later shifted into the backfield. Hein ran inside of Musso. The play was so unexpected that most of the Bears did not see the pass.

Maybe we’ll see a play like that in the Super Bowl. After all, the Patriots and Seahawks have shown plenty of creativity this season. Or maybe we’ll see a “Find the Ball!” play like the one the Bears ran against the Lions later in ’34. An artist’s rendering of it:

Bears trick play in 1934 vs. Lions

Now that would be fun.

Cheating: an NFL tradition for 95 years

One of the many questions I was dying to ask Lions great Glenn Presnell when I interviewed him decades ago was this: How was your 1936 Detroit team able to run the ball better than anybody else in pro football history?

This is no exaggeration. The Lions that year had three of the top six rushers in the league: Ace Gutowsky, Dutch Clark and Ernie Caddel. (Presnell, in his final season at 31, was more of a role player.) Working out of the single wing, without much of a passing threat, they rushed for 2,885 yards in 12 games. No club before or since has topped their average of 240.4 yards a game, not even the handful of clubs with two 1,000-yard rushers. (Next best: the O.J. Simpson-fueled 1973 Bills at 220.6.)

Lions team photoThis was no grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-glob-of-mud attack, either. The Lions averaged 4.9 yards per attempt, far above the league average of 3.5. So, I asked Presnell, “How did you do it? How did you set a record in 1936 that still stands today?” I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer, I suppose — being a Veteran Scribe and all — but I was.

The Lions cheated. That is, their lineman fired out a split second before the ball was snapped.

“When we practiced our signals — hut one, hut two, hut three — the linemen charged on ‘hut’ and the center snapped the ball on ‘two,’ “ he said. “We always hit the defense first. [Coach] Potsy [Clark] expected those guys to explode off their marks on ‘hut.’ And of course, the center would be hanging on to the ball a split-second longer, but not enough for you to be called offside. I always attributed our good blocking to that. In fact, I coached that myself.”

With only four officials monitoring things, you could get away with plenty in the 1930s. With seven sets of eyeballs now — and TV cameras also helping to root out illegal activity — there are fewer dark corners of the field. Still, on most plays, if not all, you could probably find some act that didn’t conform to the letter of the law . . . and didn’t get penalized. A motion man ever so slightly angling himself toward the line of scrimmage. A defensive back bumping his man more than 5 yards downfield. A receiver pushing off or setting a pick. A D-lineman inching into the neutral zone. A blocker grabbing a pass rusher’s jersey. A center subtly moving the ball forward before the snap.

There are so many players milling about, so much mayhem and general mob behavior, that enforcement can seem almost arbitrary — like speeding tickets on the interstate. What we’re talking about here is a Culture of Cheating, a whatever-you-can-get-away-with mentality that’s as much a part of the game as the huddle and the touchdown celebration.

That’s why it’s hard to get worked up over what The Hysterics have dubbed Deflategate: the discovery that some of the footballs the Patriots’ Tom Brady threw in the AFC title game weren’t inflated to specifications. Sorry, but given all the stuff that goes on in every game, a pound of air pressure — or whatever it was — doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Certainly not as big as, say, the ’36 Lions’ offensive line beating the snap on every single offensive play. (I forgot to mention: They won the ’35 title playing that way, too.)

Maybe I’ve just seen and heard too much. Maybe if I were younger — and more naïve — I’d feel differently. But to me, all this huffing and puffing about Deflategate is just a bunch of hot air, something to fill the void during Pro Bowl week. Or to put it another way: If you really think this air-pressure story is stop-the-presses material, then you and I can’t possibly be watching the same game.

Here’s a column I wrote about cheating in 2007, not long after the Patriots were caught taping the signals of opponents (for which they and coach Bill Belichick were fined and stripped of a first-round draft pick).

You’ll find some interesting names in it — famous names. You might even come away feeling differently about this latest “crisis,” the one involving footballs, air pressure and Big Bad Patriots.

When George Allen was coaching the Redskins in the ’70s, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win — trade the same draft pick twice, have his defense jam the opposing quarterback’s signals (also a no-no), grease his offensive linemen’s jerseys so they’d be harder to grab. (Or was that Al Davis?) The Cowboys’ Tom Landry was always accusing him of some kind of subterfuge or other. It’s doubtful George ever felt a twinge of regret.

Whenever the Cleveland Browns visited Wrigley Field in the old days, Paul Brown would give his team pre-game instructions in virtual pantomime. The legendary coach was utterly convinced that George Halas was bugging the visitors’ locker room. If an outsider had walked in on this scene, Cleveland Hall of Famer Mike McCormack said years later, he would have thought Brown “was coaching the State School for the Deaf.”

Not that PB was any angel. One of his favorite methods of gathering enemy intelligence was to send an underling to an opponent’s practice field posing as a newspaper reporter. No telling what useful scraps of information he might be able to pick up — particularly if the media were allowed to watch workouts. Maybe a club was working on a new formation. Maybe a star player was hurt more seriously than the coach was letting on.

There’s also the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Cleveland scout being put through a course in climbing telephone poles — after which, equipped with spiked shoes, binoculars and a notebook, he headed off on a series of surveillance missions. The Browns won an awful lot of games back then, so presumably their spy did his job well.

Such espionage has been going on in football since Alonzo Stagg was in knickers. It’s the gridiron version of the Cold War. As Kathleen Turner told William Hurt in Body Heat, “Knowledge is power.” (Actually, the entire line was: “My mother told me knowledge is power” — leaving open the possibility her mother was a Halas.)

George Allen usually did play it "his way."

George Allen usually did play it “his way.”

So there’s a dog-bites-man quality to the breathless news that the Patriots got caught videotaping the signals of the Jets’ defensive coaches Sunday. Indeed, it’s the brazenness of the act more than the act itself that astounds. Especially because, according to reports, it wasn’t the first time the Pats had done it.

It’s also, let’s face it, an incredibly tacky thing to do — kind of like a billionaire cheating on his taxes. A team that’s won three championships in this decade — and may win a couple more before it’s done — pulling a stunt like this? To think New England had an image as a classy organization.

Still, as crimes and misdemeanors go, I don’t consider “illegal videotaping” as reprehensible as, say, circumventing the salary cap, which several clubs (but not the Patriots) have been penalized for. Inasmuch as the Pats’ camera was confiscated in the first quarter, their skullduggery certainly didn’t have anything to do with their whomping of the Jets. But it might have been a factor, I suppose, in their next whomping of the Jets.

Two things should be pointed out here. First, the Jets hijacked the Patriots’ top defensive assistant last year, Eric Mangini, who no doubt brought a lot of inside knowledge about New England’s operation. This isn’t against the rules, but it’s hardly the norm for a club to fill its head coaching vacancy by raiding the staff of its division archrival.

Then there’s Bill Belichick’s background — or rather, his military mentality. Belichick grew up in Annapolis, and his father Steve was a longtime scout for the Naval Academy. So much of Bill’s secretive, often quirky behavior, I’m convinced, can be traced to that. Probably the only reason he had somebody videotaping the Jets’ coaches was because he figured an observation balloon wouldn’t have had a good enough angle.

Belichick is one of those by-all-means-necessary types — like George Allen and Genghis Khan. He’ll try to beat you any way he can, rules or no rules. It’s one of the reasons his players appreciate him; he never pulls a punch. (And if he wants to rub it in a little by summoning 99-year-old Vinny Testaverde from the bench to throw a touchdown pass for the 20th consecutive season, he’ll do that, too.)

Getting back to Allen . . . . When he was coaching the Redskins in the ’70s, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win — trade the same draft pick twice, have his defense jam the opposing quarterback’s signals (also a no-no), grease his offensive linemen’s jerseys so they’d be harder to grab. (Or was that Al Davis?) The Cowboys’ Tom Landry was always accusing him of some kind of subterfuge or other.

It’s doubtful George ever felt a twinge of regret. He just wasn’t wired that way. And it’s doubtful Belichick will lose much sleep over whatever sentence Roger Goodell metes out. Besides, it’s easy to rationalize such behavior in the kill-or-be-killed culture of the NFL. Allen might have had some Richard Nixon in him, but don’t forget, he would remind sportswriters, “The Cowboys had a dog run into our huddle one day in the Cotton Bowl when we were driving for the winning points.”

From The Washington Times, Sept. 13, 2007

Before a road game at Wrigley Field, Browns coach George Halas would deliver his pregame talk "in pantomine," fearful the locker room was bugged.

At Wrigley Field, Browns coach Paul Brown would pantomime his pregame talk, fearful the room was bugged.

The Patriots’ first quarterback

The Patriots’ current quarterback, Tom Brady, is one of the most recognized athletes on the planet. He’s screen-star handsome, married to a supermodel and makes so much money that he recently gave his team some of it back. (Well, sort of.)

The Patriots’ first quarterback, Ed “Butch” Songin, wasn’t nearly as famous or well-off. In fact, when he wasn’t calling signals for the 1960 Pats, he was coaching the football team at Marian High in Framingham. Here’s the headline that ran in The Boston Globe:

9-12-60 Boston Globe

NFL players having high school coaching jobs on the side wasn’t unheard of in the early years. It was a way to supplement their generally modest salaries and prepare for their next career. By 1960, though, when the AFL came along, the money had gotten better, and it was pretty rare to see a pro footballer pacing a high school sideline — rare enough for Hank Hollingsworth of the Long Beach Press-Telegram to mention it in his column when the Chargers were in Boston.

“Butch Songin, the people’s choice here, is platooning his talents,” he wrote. “The former Boston College ace is quarterbacking the Patriots and also coaching the Marian High School team here.”

(The AFL was quite a show in those days. Later in his column, Hollingsworth noted: “There’s agitation here over commissioner [Joe] Foss. Boston wanted a player decision resolved by the commish last week, and when the Patriots checked Joe’s office a secretary informed them that good ole Joe was b’ar hunting in Alaska!”)

Songin was different from most guys in the young league. He was 36 years old. He’d spent the past several seasons playing semipro ball and, before that, had helped the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats win the 1953 Grey Cup. (His NFL chances — the Browns drafted him 247th overall in 1950 — had been hurt by a knee injury suffered in a college all-star game.)

Songin football cardSongin, a local legend who grew up in Walpole, was able to pull off the “double grid duty” because the Patriots played their home games on Friday nights. Marian, on the other hand, usually teed it up on Sundays. He’d work out with the Pats in the morning, then drive to Framingham and run practice after school.

“The only let-up, if that is the word, Songin will get is when the Patriots are on the road,” the Globe reported. “Then he will be spelled at Marian by John Ferri, former U. of Mass. back and Westwood coach. Also on deck will be Roger Smith, in his third year as line coach at Marian.”

As it turned out, Songin had a better year at Marian than he did with the Patriots. His high school team went 6-2 and shared the Catholic League title. The Pats, meanwhile, lost their final four games and wound up last in the Eastern Division at 5-9 — not that their quarterback was to blame. Butch actually had a fine season, posting the second-best passer rating in the league (70.9) and throwing for 22 touchdowns.

The high point for him came in mid-November. Check out his game-by-game:

● Nov. 11 — Completes 19 of 34 passes for 234 yards, with three TDs and no interceptions (rating: 106.7) in a 38-21 win over Sammy Baugh’s New York Titans.

● Nov. 13 — Marian beats Columbus, 22-8.

● Nov. 18 — Goes 25 for 35 for 220 yards, again with three TDs and no picks (rating (116.4), in a 42-14 victory over Hank Stram’s Dallas Texans.

● Nov. 20 – Marian defeats St. Columbkille, 16-6.

How’s that for a 10-day stretch?

After the season, it came out that Songin had suffered a pinched neck nerve in the fifth game and, to stay in the lineup, “took secret treatments for the ailment” the last two months. “I’ll get another treatment,” he told The Associated Press, “rest a few days and then back to work as a probation officer in Wrentham and hockey coach at Marian High.”

Oops, almost forgot: Songin coached high school hockey, too. Indeed, he was an All-American at BC and led the Eagles to the 1948 Frozen Four.

Remember that when Super Bowl 49 is over — and Tom Brady goes off to wherever Tom Brady goes off to. Butch Songin, their first quarterback, went off to coach hockey at Marian High. But only after he’d coached their football team first.

Duke Slater: Canton’s biggest oversight

The day before the Super Bowl, the tribal elders will gather in Phoenix for the Hall of Fame voting. The senior candidate this year is Mick Tingelhoff, a center for the Vikings for 17 seasons and a fixture on all-pro teams from 1964 to ’70. Tingelhoff is a fine choice; he’s just not, in my mind, the best choice.

For decades, the committee has been overlooking Duke Slater, a star tackle in the early years and one of the NFL’s first black players. Slater wasn’t just dominant, he was durable — at a time when careers tended to be much shorter than they are today. When he retired in 1931 after 10 seasons with the Chicago Cardinals and other clubs, only two players had played longer in the league: the Bears’ George Trafton and Packers’ Jug Earp.

One of these years, I keep telling myself, the selectors will come to their senses. But that’s probably wishful thinking. As time passes, Slater’s chances become more and more remote. It’s just how these things work, unfortunately. Out of sight, out of the mind.

Almost a decade ago, I laid out the case for Duke in The Washington Times. It was the year after another black pioneer, Fritz Pollard, had finally been voted in. Here’s my column — touched up here and there because, well, what writer can resist trying to improve on imperfection?

“Slater . . . is one of the best tackles who ever donned a suit. His phenomenal strength and quickness of charge make it almost impossible for his opponents to put him out of any play directed at his side of the line.”

— Wilfrid Smith (a former NFL player), writing in the Chicago Tribune, 1926

DETROIT — Ushering Fritz Pollard into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, albeit four decades late, was one of the highlights of the sporting year. But let’s not stop there. In fact, as the selection committee prepares to vote in Reggie White this morning, it would do well to consider why another of the NFL’s early black players, the Reggie White of his day, continues to get the cold shoulder. I’m talking about Fred “Duke” Slater, who wreaked havoc in pro football’s trenches for a decade before going on to a distinguished career as a lawyer and judge.

Slater was actually a finalist for Canton in ’70 and ’71 and was under consideration as early as December 1963, when the Hall’s second class was elected. An Associated Press story that month listed six “strong candidates” — Ken Strong, Steve Owen, Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner, Art Rooney and Slater. The first five were inducted within four years; only Duke has been denied.

There are a number of reasons for this, none of them particularly acceptable. One is that Slater spent his career with second-tier teams such as the Chicago Cardinals, Rock Island (Ill.) Independents and Milwaukee Badgers, two of which no longer exist. (The Cardinals, of course, are in Arizona now.) To the winners go the Hall of Fame busts. Another is that Duke died in 1966 at the age of 68 and didn’t have any children, so there’s no one to campaign for him, to keep his name alive. Then there’s the problem of playing a position — tackle in the single-platoon days — for which there are no statistics, only the occasional newspaper mention.

Duke Slater, helmetless, looks for somebody to block during his days at Iowa.

Helmetless Duke Slater looks for somebody to block during college days.

But the most obvious reason probably makes the most sense: Slater was a black man in a white man’s world, plenty good enough to play but lacking the “necessities” for canonization (to borrow Al Campanis’ infamous term). Indeed, the scant number of Hall of Famers from the ’20s, coupled with Pollard’s long-delayed election, make you wonder whether the NFL is trying to forget that benighted era — which was followed by an even more reprehensible period (1934-45) in which blacks were excluded entirely.

In Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book ever written about the pro game, founding father Harry March summed up the prevailing sentiment thusly: “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. . . . The Indians object more to playing against Negroes than do the Southern men for some reason.”

In two of his 10 seasons, 1927 and ’29, Slater was the only black player in the NFL. Another year, 1924, he sat out a game in Kansas City at the insistence of the home team. (His Rock Island club lost that day, killing its title chances.) So it’s no surprise that, in this climate, Duke didn’t make any all-NFL squads — though he was picked for the second eleven five times.

He also was selected to the Chicago Tribune’s unofficial all-pro team in 1926 by sportswriter Wilfrid Smith. Smith, a former NFL lineman, offered this testimonial:

“Slater . . . is one of the best tackles who ever donned a suit. His phenomenal strength and quickness of charge make it almost impossible for his opponents to put him out of any play directed at his side of the line.”

Duke could be just as daunting as a blocker. In his rookie year in 1922, he helped clear the way as Rock Island rushed for nine touchdowns against Evansville (which, despite what the league says, is the all-time record). And toward the end of his career in ’29, he did much of the heavy lifting when Cardinals great Ernie Nevers set a mark, still unbroken, with six TDs against the Bears. Slater’s efforts that day earned him the following praise from the Chicago Herald and Examiner: “Duke Slater, the veteran colored tackle, seemed the dominant figure in that forward wall which had the Bear front wobbly. It was Slater who opened the holes for Nevers when a touchdown was in the making.”

From first year to last, in other words, Duke Slater was a standout. Just as he’d been at Iowa, where he earned All-American honors in 1921. Slater spent his childhood in Chicago, playing football in a vacant lot on Racine Avenue that afterward became the site of the Cardinals’ field. But then his father, a minister, took a job in Clinton, Iowa, which is how Duke wound up playing for the Hawkeyes.

By the time he graduated he was 6-1, 215 pounds — a “colored colossus,” the papers liked to call him. He also was much desired by pro teams, even while still in college. An opponent once reminisced: “All them college guys picked up a few bucks on Sunday playing pro ball. I saw one guy five times under five different names before I got his real name — Duke Slater.”

As highly regarded as he was as a tackle, Slater might have been even more admired for his sense of fair play and get-along disposition. March praises him in his book for “refrain[ing] from ‘heeling’ a Giant player coming through the line, saving the ball carrier from injury. When commended for this sportsmanlike action, he smiled and said, ‘The little fellow was stopped — why should I hurt him?’”

Another time, a rookie — and fellow Iowa alum — had to go up against Slater in his first pro game. The kid feared it would be his last game if the famed tackle overran him, and Duke, naturally, knew this.

“Since his team was already winning,” Paul Minick later recalled, “he took pains to make me look good. When the game was over, people told me how I had played Slater even. But I knew it was just another example of Duke’s kindness of heart.”

Slater got his law degree and began practicing while still an active player. After retiring from the Cardinals he was named an assistant district attorney and grew so popular with the masses — being such a likable guy and so committed to civic causes — that when he ran for municipal court judge in 1948 he received nearly a million votes. At a dinner honoring Duke in 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley called him “the best there is in citizenship, and the best there is in judgeship.”

Slater lost his wife Etta, herself the daughter of a preacher, in 1962. Four years later, stomach cancer claimed Duke. It’s been more than three decades now since Hall of Fame voters gave him so much as a second thought. Hard to believe, especially considering this passage from the Bears’ media guide in 1946, the season Kenny Washington and Woody Strode re-integrated the NFL with the Rams:

It was back in 1920 when George Halas organized the Staleys [now the Bears] at Decatur, Ill. That was in the early days of professional football. It was the day of mighty men of the gridiron, too. Men like Jim Thorpe, Paddy Driscoll, Guy Chamberlin . . . Link Lyman and Duke Slater.

Yes, once upon a time, Duke Slater was one of the “mighty men of the gridiron.” But strangely, sadly, it hasn’t been enough to get him into the Hall. The evidence is overwhelming, but for the judge there has been no justice.

From The Washington Times, Feb. 4, 2006


Oct. 10, 1929 Waterloo Evening Courier

Oct. 10, 1929 Waterloo Evening Courier

Sept. 12, 1930 Southtown Economist

Sept. 12, 1930 Southtown Economist