Monthly Archives: March 2015

Chris Borland and the future of the NFL

Dan Pompei wrote a piece for Bleacher Report not long ago that began like this:

There are not many footprints on the path Chris Borland has chosen to walk. His approach to the NFL, and life after it, represents a way of thinking that is very different from the thinking of most of his football forefathers.

Fifty years ago, or even 10 years ago, promising players considered the NFL a destination — not a rest stop on life’s highway. They did all they could to extend their shelf life. They didn’t consider shortening it, as Borland has, retiring after a standout rookie season with the 49ers.

But as time — and eras — have passed, so too have perspectives on the role football should play in a player’s life.

Actually, in the league’s first 40 years, many of Borland’s “football forefathers” thought like he did, considered the NFL a short-term gig. Unlike today, the game didn’t lend itself to a long, lucrative career. In the single-platoon era (1920-49), players often played the entire game, or close to it. The travel, too — on trains, buses and even in private cars — was more onerous. Some teams would be on the road for a month or more.

You also could make the case that competition for jobs was greater because there were fewer of them. In 1941, the last season before the war, there were 330 roster spots in the league and just 11 players who were 30 or older (oldest: 33). Last year there were 1,696 roster spots and 331 thirtysomethings (oldest: 42). Nobody ever talks about that when they talk about the early days: that it was harder to break into the league and harder to stay there — which, naturally, led to shorter careers.

Let me throw a few more numbers at you so you’ll get the complete picture. This is how many players in each decade played in all 10 seasons of that decade:

1920s: 3

1930s: 2

1940s: 5

1950s: 18

1960s: 74

1970s: 109

1980s: 92

1990s: 158

2000s: 163

2010s: TBD (but likely more than 163, Chris Borland or no Chris Borland)

From the ’20s through the ’50s, the prevailing philosophy seemed to be: play four or five years if you can, burn off any testosterone left over from college, sock away some dough (provided there’s some dough to sock away) and, in the offseasons — which were quite a bit longer then — try to prepare for your Next Life (in coaching, business, teaching, whatever).

George Halas’ Bears teams weren’t just successful on the field, they were successful off it. Several players, for instance, found the time during the season to go to medical and dental school. According to a 2011 story about John Siegal, an end in the ’30s and ’40s, his “typical day would spin the heads of today’s multimillionaire athletes. He attended Bears practice from 9 a.m. to noon, then headed to Northwestern University for dentistry classes from 1 p.m. until 5. One teammate, fullback Bill Osmanski, attended school with him; Halas had agreed to pay the pair’s tuition in addition to their salary.”

(Of course, clubs were more concerned for the players’ welfare in those days. As the Bears’ 1937 media guide noted: “A form of cod-liver oil is taken daily by the players when cold weather sets in.”)

Time and again, Halas would tell his team, “Football is a means to an end.” And in those leaner times, it was the soundest of advice. No player was so well paid that he could retire on his NFL earnings; he’d better have a Plan B (if not a Plan C).

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

But beyond that, there was more of an understanding that the human body wasn’t built for such punishment — not over the long haul, at least. Doak Walker, the Lions’ Hall of Fame back, quit in 1955 after just six seasons. Tom Harmon, the first pick in the ’41 draft, played a mere two years (after a lengthy stint in the military) before going into sportscasting. The “indestructible” Bronko Nagurski took the knocks for eight seasons, then decided professional wrestling was a safer — and better-paying — alternative (though he came out of retirement in ’43 when the Bears were shorthanded). None of this was unusual.

But as you can see in the decade-by-decade figures, things began to change in the ’60s. The money got better, the medicine improved, the jobs multiplied — and suddenly you had players staying in the game until they were literally wheeled out on a gurney.

It also could be argued that modern players are more dependent on the game than they used to be — because the job has become so time-consuming, in-season and out. Who today could squeeze in med school classes around all the practices, meetings, weight-room sessions, public-relations appearances and everything else on the football calendar? It’s increasingly hard to lay almost any kind of groundwork for Life After Football. (We won’t even get into the dubious college “education” some of these guys receive, “learning” that sometimes doesn’t equip you to do much more than retain your eligibility.)

In recent years, a time bomb has gone off — the Concussion Issue — and people have begun to wonder whether the game has gotten too hazardous to the players’ health, whether this is the beginning of the end for Pro Football As We Know It. First of all, the game has always been too hazardous to the players’ health. No league has left a longer trail of broken bodies than NFL. It’s more a question of: How much are the players — and the fans who cheer them — willing to put up with? Will the risk of CTE cause young athletes to turn to other sports, or will the fame and fortune of football be too much of a lure? And even if a kid does opt to play the game, will he, as he grows older, try to limit the damage, as Borland did (and as players in the early decades did, though their retirements weren’t always of their own volition).

Then there’s the matter of whether the NFL will continue to be as popular if it takes such a toll on its participants — or whether it will remain as profitable if concussion settlements spiral out of control. You even have folks like Malcolm Gladwell suggesting football will become “a ghettoized sport, not a mainstream American sport” — that it will draw most of its players from the lower economic classes, those who have fewer “options” and “for whom the risks are acceptable. . . . It’s going to become the Army.” (Except, perhaps, in such places as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where it’s engrained in the culture.)

Here’s the thing, though: David Robinson made over $116 million in his 14 seasons in the NBA – and that doesn’t include endorsements. Yet his son, Corey, is a wide receiver at Notre Dame and may well be headed for an NFL career. In this instance, in other words, you have an extremely wealthy family — and a very intelligent dad, from my experience — who have spawned, of all things, a football player.

I could make the same point about Denzel Washington’s son, J.D., who was a running back at Morehouse College and spent a year on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad. I ask you: How many NFL players come from more well-to-do backgrounds than Corey Robinson or J.D. Washington?

As long as a sport offers the chance for glory — never mind an eye-popping paycheck — it will attract players across the economic spectrum, I’m convinced. These players might, in the years to come, spend more time weighing the risk vs. the reward, and that’s a healthy thing. But the idea that vast numbers of them will simply stop playing, like Borland, is a bit farfetched. What it figures to come down to, ultimately, is the fans — and whether they, knowing the game’s consequences (loss of motor and cognitive function, etc.), stop watching. That’s when the league will really be in trouble.

But that, too, seems a bit of a stretch. This, after all, is America, the world’s biggest reality show. Pro football can almost be thought of as a spinoff of Fear Factor. Or is it the other way around?

Source: pro-football-reference.com, basketball-reference.com

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Aaron Baddeley, meet John Brodie

They went bonkers in Golf Land Thursday over Aaron Baddeley’s miracle shot in the Valero Texas Open. It came at the par-4 17th hole, which was playing 336 yards and slightly downwind. The play by play:

1. Baddeley goes for the green and pulls his tee shot into the woods.

2. Baddeley takes an unplayable tie, trudges back to the tee and tries again.

3. Baddeley lets ’er rip a second time and holes out for a birdie.

“I hit it and started walking,” he said, “and then heard the crowd going nuts.”

This reminds me of a shot John Brodie, the erstwhile 49ers quarterback, once pulled off in a PGA Tour event. Brodie dabbled on the Tour during the offseason — he later won on the Champions Tour — and on this day in 1959 he was playing in the second round of the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.

At the 110-yard seventh hole, he plunked his tee ball into the Pacific (which isn’t that hard to do, especially if the wind kicks up). Here’s a visual:

The 110-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach.

The 110-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach.

So Brodie got another ball out of his bag, teed it up, and this one proved much more obedient. It went right in the cup – for a par 3. Or as The Associated Press put it:

John Brodie, San Francisco 49er[s] quarterback, aced the 110-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach but had to settle for a par 3. He had knocked his first tee shot over the green and into the ocean.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Rejected rule changes

It’s at the spring meetings that the NFL attends to its rule book — and reminds fans that “We’ll decide what is and isn’t a catch.” What’s far more interesting, though — to me, anyway — are some of the rules that have been rejected over the decades, especially in the formative years. Let me run down a handful of them, just for fun. You’ll be amazed at some of the proposals.

● 1938 — Some in the league were concerned about the increasing proficiency of punters. Their ability, “from inside midfield,” to knock the ball out of bounds inside the 10 was too often putting the opponent “strictly on the defensive with no chance to open up offensively,” The New York Times reported. “. . . The coaches . . . do not consider this a matter of skill and feel it restricts the offensive aspects of the game until a score is made [by the defense] or the half ends.”

The proposed solution: declare such a punt a touchback, “just as if it had gone over the goal line,” which would enable the offense to start from the 20 instead of being pinned deep in its own territory.

Every attempt was being made in those days to unshackle offenses. The previous season, after all, fewer than 26 points had been scored in the average game. But this particular rule change never got off the drawing board.

● 1941 — The NFL still had limited substitution in the early ’40s, and it was up to the umpire to make sure teams didn’t sneak more players into the game than they were allowed. The rules committee actually considered the “installation of an honor system among coaches in regard to the number of substitutions so as to lighten the duties of the umpire,” The Associated Press said.

● 1944 — AP: “Earl Cavanaugh, veteran league head linesman, is sponsoring the proposal for awarding a point for a ‘field goal’ on a kickoff. Among other things, he says, this would discourage out-of-bounds kickoffs, which slow up the game.”

Let’s not forget, you kicked off from the 40 then, and the goal posts were on the goal line. With a little wind at your back, especially, you had a decent chance to score an extra point.

● 1945 — Steelers owner Bert Bell and Eagles coach Greasy Neale pushed for the adoption of sudden-death overtime to cut down on the number of tie games. The New York Times: “The rules committee said in rejecting the proposal . . . that the league hardly had enough players now for 60 minutes of competition.”

That’s right, the NFL considered regular-season overtime at least 29 years before it was voted in. The league was rightly concerned, though, about having “enough players” to get through games. Rosters were only 33 that season, and many guys didn’t get discharged from the military until the fall.

● 1953 — International News Service: “National Football League club owners . . . voted last night against a boost from six to seven points for a touchdown and elimination of the extra point.”

● 1955 — Redskins owner George Preston Marshall wanted to “abolish the use of any and all types of facemasks,” AP reported. He was convinced they caused more injuries than they prevented.

By the mid-‘50s, of course, almost all players were wearing a mask — and with good reason: They wanted their driver’s-license photo to look as good as possible. When the wire service took an informal poll of the Washington roster, it found that 32 of 33 players disagreed with their boss.

“If they took my facemask away,” tackle Don Boll said, “I’d quit football. I broke my nose seven times in college when I didn’t have a mask. The University of Nebraska spent $1,250 on me for plastic surgery.”

Defensive back Norb Hecker added: “With the Rams I lost six teeth, which were accidentally kicked out. I also fractured my left cheekbone. For a mask? Yes, sir.

● 1957 — Someone floated the idea of “allowing the punter [to stand] no more than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage,” according to AP. “The latter change was designed to eliminate too many fair catches by forcing quicker punts and keeping more men on the line to block.”

● 1958 — This was the year college football added the two-point conversion. “The rule,” Time magazine said, “was designed to cut down tie games, give leading teams a chance to exert extra pressure and trailing teams a better chance to catch up.” NFL owners turned thumbs down on the proposal initially (though the AFL embraced it when it started up in 1960).

Cardinals general manager Walter Wolfner looked at it this way: “The ball has to be moved an awful long distance for six points, so why only three yards for two points?”

The league eventually changed its mind, but it wasn’t until 1994 — 36 years later. Some things take time.

At any rate, this year’s rule discussions were pretty mundane compared to other meetings. Maybe the owners should have reconsidered “awarding a point for a ‘field goal’ on a kickoff.”

The NFL and the NCAA Tourney, Part 2

One more link — long forgotten — between pro football and March Madness:

In March 1947, when the NCAA Tournament was just nine years old, Holy Cross, a small Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass., won the championship by beating Oklahoma in the final, 58-47. The Crusaders were first Eastern team to take the title, prompting one New England coach to say they were “the greatest thing that has happened to New England basketball since its inception as a sport 50 years ago in Springfield.” He was probably right.

NBA legend Bob Cousy was a freshman guard on that HC team. But the guy I want to talk about is the Crusaders’ coach, Alvin “Doggie” Julian. Why? Because less than two months after winning the NCAA tourney, he joined the coaching staff of the NFL’s Boston Yanks — while still hanging on to his college job, of course. You could do stuff like that back then.

Here’s the headline that ran in the May 8, 1947, Boston GlobeJulian Takes Yanks Job Head

According to the story, Julian had been serving as a football assistant at Holy Cross under Ox DaGrosa, but a “clash of temperaments” caused him to look for other fall employment. When the Yanks’ Clipper Smith offered him the position of backfield coach, he jumped at it — with the understanding it wouldn’t interfere with his college basketball duties. The seasons overlapped a bit, though, and it’s possible Doggie missed the Yanks’ last two games (on the road against the Steelers and Redskins) to devote his full attention to his hoopsters, who returned their entire starting lineup and stood a good chance to repeat as champs.

Julian had actually played some pro football in the ’20s after graduating from Bucknell. He was an end for the Pottsville Maroons during their Coal League days in 1923 and ’24, before they “graduated” to the NFL. Anyway, when the Yanks’ 4-7-1 season was over, Doggie guided Holy Cross to a third-place finish in the NCAAs, then coached the Boston Celtics for two years before returning to the college ranks at Dartmouth.

It was a unique career, to say the least, one that put him in the basketball Hall alongside his favorite ball handler, Cousy.

I’ll end with a couple of archival treasures — a photo of Doggie with his winning HC team (he’s the fellow in the suit on the right) . . .Julian and the winning Crusaders

. . . and a screen shot of his bio in the Yanks’ 1947 media guide.Doggie Julian media guide page

Chuck Bednarik in his own words

Stuff the Eagles legend (May 1, 1925-March 21, 2015) said:

● “Backing up the line, that’s where a fellow can get plenty of action. There’s always something to do — make a tackle, intercept a pass. Sure, it’s nice to carry the ball, but there’s no thrill like backing up the line.” (1948)

● “I have played 14 years, and I’m counting the games that are left this season. Four, three, two, one, and then I’m hanging up my shoes. I’ve had it. I know I’ve said this for several years, but I’ve never been more sincere in my life. I told my wife the other day, I’ve played one year too long as it is. The pay has been good, though. There are two ways I never wanted to go out. One was with an injury. The other was with a poor team. I hate to quit on such a poor season.” (1962)

● “Joe Namath is a hell of a ballplayer. But as a human being he’s a hell of a creep. If he thinks he can break rules . . . then who does he think he is? . . . I don’t think long hair and athletics mix. Take Joe Pepitone, who used to play for the Yankees. Boy, would I like to be the catcher on a close play at the plate with him coming down the third-base line.” (1970)

● “The NFL had 12 teams when I played. Brother, you separated the men from the boys. You either had it or you were gone. Today, with 40-man squads and 26 teams, it’s too thin. Take quarterbacks, for example. Each team has two quarterbacks. That’s 52 quarterbacks. I want anybody to pick me out 10 outstanding quarterbacks now and six really good ones. They’re not there. There just aren’t that many good ones.” (1971)

The Hit. Note ball to right.

The Hit: Bednarik lays out the Giants’ Frank Gifford. Note ball to right.

● “Every now and then people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who put it to Frank Gifford.’ [Sportscaster] Howard Cosell keeps saying I blind-sided Gifford, but that isn’t true at all. He was running a down-and-in and, coming from my left linebacker position, I caught him head-on but cleanly. It was like a Mack truck hitting a Volkswagen. Frank had caught a pass, and when I tackled him the ball flew out of his hands and we recovered. I was so ecstatic over that that I jumped up and down in the air with my fist clenched. I didn’t know Frank was unconscious. Later, when his wife came to see him in the hospital, he said to her, ‘Honey, it was a clean tackle.’ We’re very good friends. He has even had me as a guest in his home. No sir, I was not a dirty player. Nobody ever accused me of that.” (1977)

● “Steve Van Buren of the Philadelphia Eagles was the best running back of his time, 1944-51. You can’t match yesterday’s apples with today’s oranges. But you can enjoy both.” (1984)

● “[The NFL champion 1960 Eagles] were the kind of team that you wondered how you kept winning. There were no superstars. I hate that, anyway — ‘superstars.’ To me, nobody is super except God.” (1986)

● “No question I could still go both ways [in today’s game], but I wouldn’t. I’d specialize, and I would last longer. I would be worth millions. It would be Lawrence Taylor’s salary plus 10 percent. And you know they try to compare me with linebackers like Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier and Sam Huff. There’s no comparison. They were mostly interior linebackers. I was a roving linebacker — protecting the middle and the sweeps. Plus, I centered the ball, I punted, I sometimes kicked off. My game called for so much more versatility.” (1992)

● “The positions I played [as a two-way player], every play, I was making contact [with an opponent], not like that . . . Deion Sanders. He couldn’t tackle my wife. He’s back there dancing out there instead of hitting.” (2005)

● “I’ll be 80 on May 1, and I know if they offered me $5 million, I could come back and snap the ball on punts and kicks. I know I could. I’d play one year and then retire.” (2005)

QB Norm Van Brocklin (11), Coach Buck Shaw and Bednarik (60) after winning the '60 title.

Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin (11), Coach Buck Shaw and Bednarik (60) after winning the ’60 title.

NFLers in the NCAA Tournament

More than a few NFLers have played college basketball — especially in the two- and three-sport eras – but only a handful have made much of a mark in the NCAA Tournament. Here are the five most notable ones (and a handful of others who also took part in March Madness):

● Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers, 2003-present — As a junior, Gates led 10th-seeded Kent State to the Elite Eight, averaging 18.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in the tournament. He was the game’s

Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

Antonio Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

high scorer with 22 when Golden Flashes knocked off third-seed Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. Alas, he was a tweener by NBA standards, a muscular 6-4, so he opted for a pro football career. San Diego signed him as an undrafted free agent and, 788 catches and 99 touchdowns later, he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame.

● Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs/Falcons, 1997-2013 — Gonzalez joined California’s 1996-97 basketball squad late because the football team played in a bowl game. By the time the tournament rolled around, though, he was starting at power forward — and making a major impact. In Cal’s first-round game, he scored the Bears’ final 5 points (and 13 in all) to help the Bears edge Princeton. In Round 2, he had a team-high 23 in a victory over Villanova. His future was clearly in the NFL, though, and the following month the Chiefs drafted him 13th overall. He went on to break virtually all the records for tight ends and figures to be voted into the Hall as soon as he’s eligible.

● Sam Clancy, DE, Seahawks/Browns/Colts, 1983, ’85-93 — Clancy was an even bigger bruiser than the first two guys, measuring 6-7 and bulking up to 288 in the NFL. He was the star of Pittsburgh’s 1981 NCAA tourney team, posting a double-double (22/13) in the opener against Idaho and racking up 16 points and 6 rebounds in the Panthers’ second-round loss to North Carolina  (the eventual runner-up). The NBA’s Phoenix Suns selected him in the third round, but after a year in the Continental Basketball Association he turned to football and spent the next decade as a pass-rushing specialist. In 1991, his best season, he had 7.5 sacks for Indianapolis.

● Ron Widby, P, Cowboys/Packers, 1968-73 — Widby was a fabulous all-around athlete at Tennessee, good enough to lead the nation in punting (1966), win SEC Player of the Year honors in basketball (1967) and earn letters in baseball and golf. In his one NCAA tournament (’67), he totaled 43 points and 13 rebounds in the Vols’ two games. Following a brief stint in the American Basketball Association with the New Orleans Buccaneers, he punted for Dallas and Green Bay for six seasons. He was voted first team all-pro by the AP in 1969, when he led the NFC with a 43.3-yard average, and went to the Pro Bowl in ’71, the year the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl.

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

● Terry Baker, QB-RB, Rams, 1963-65 — Baker had an incredible final year (1962-63) at Oregon State. In the fall he guided the Ducks to a bowl berth, won the Heisman Trophy and was the first player taken in the NFL draft. And in the winter he started at guard for an OSU basketball team that reached the Final Four. In five tourney games, he averaged 10.4 points, with highs of 21 against San Francisco and 15 in the Elite Eight against Arizona State. As it turned out, it was the peak of his career. His arm — he was a southpaw — wasn’t strong enough for the NFL, and the Rams eventually moved him to running back. By 1967, after a season in Canada, he was out of football.

● Sixth man: Cornell Green, CB/SS, Cowboys, 1962-74 — Like Gates and Clancy, Green didn’t play college football. But Dallas was intrigued enough by his size (6-3, 208) and agility to offer him a contract — and understandably so. His senior season at Utah State, the Aggies made it to the Sweet 16, and he scored 27, 26 and 20 points in their three tournament games. That got him drafted in the fifth round by the NBA’s Chicago Zephyrs, but he decided to give pro football a shot instead. He wound up going to five Pro Bowls (three as a cornerback, two as a strong safety) and appearing in four NFL title games. He also gets bonus points for being the brother of Pumpsie Green, one of the great nicknames in baseball history and the first black player for the Red Sox.

Other bench players:

● Jack Dugger, T, Lions/Bears, 1947-49 — Dugger was a 6-3, 230-pound lineman who had a nondescript pro career. But near as I can tell, he’s the only NFL player to play in two Final Fours — with Ohio State in 1944 and ’45. Of course, the Final Four was different then. The semifinals were held in separate locations, the sites of the East and West regionals, after which the winners convened for the championship game (at Madison Square Garden in those years). In the ’44 semis, Dugger scored 8 points in a loss to Dartmouth, and in the ’45 semis he scored 4 in a loss to NYU (featuring the great Dolph Schayes).

 Red Hickey, E, Steelers/Rams, 1941, ’45-48 — In the 1941 NCAA tournament, Hickey’s Arkansas Razorbacks made it to the Final Four, where they were defeated by Washington State (with Red contributing 3 points). But his real talents lay elsewhere. As an NFL receiver, he tied for fourth in the league once in touchdown catches (7 in ’48), and as the coach of the 49ers in the early ’60s, he gave us the Shotgun offense, remnants of which can still be seen today. His son Mike was the Jets’ player personnel director in the ’80s.

● K.C. Jones, DB, Rams (training camp), 1955 — Ah, what might have been. The Rams drafted Jones out of curiosity in the last round in ’55 — the year he and Bill Russell helped San Francisco win the first of back-to-back NCAA titles. During his brief time in camp, he pretty much invented the bump-and-run style of pass defense, frustrating receivers with what can only be described as a full-court press. (And while his teammates constantly complained about his hand-checking, there was nothing in the rules preventing it.) Jones had the size (6-1, 200), athleticism, toughness and smarts to be another Night Train Lane, but basketball was his true calling, and he went on to glory with the Boston Celtics as — what else? — a defensive stopper.

Clarification: Yes, Vikings legend Joe Kapp played hoops at California in the late ’50s — the Bears’ glory years under Pete Newell. But no, he never got into a Final Four game. While he did appear in three tournament games in 1957 and ’58, going scoreless, he wasn’t on the team in ’59, when Cal won the NCAA title. Why? “I couldn’t play basketball [that season] because of the Rose Bowl,” he once said. (The Bears lost in Pasadena to second-ranked Iowa, 38-12.)

Sources: Encyclopedia of College Basketball by Mike Douchant, The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament by Jim Savage, pro-football-reference.com, sports-reference.com.

In the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Tony Gonzalez led Cal with 23 points in a win over Villanova.

In the second round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Tony Gonzalez led Cal with 23 points in a win over Villanova.

The New Yorker’s careless fumble

Most fans – I would hope – are aware of James Harris’ contribution to pro football history. In 1969, as a rookie with the Bills, he became the first black quarterback to begin the season as the starter. He went on to have a decent career, too, winning 18 of 22 regular-season starts with the 1974-75 Rams and going to the Pro Bowl the first of those years. On arguably his best day, he threw for 436 yards.

James Harris during his Rams days.

James Harris during his Rams days.

When Harris retired recently as a senior personnel advisor for the Lions, The New Yorker decided to call attention to it — and to remind everybody of Shack’s (as he was called) sociological significance. Great. Wonderful. Bravo. What isn’t so great is that the author — unaware, apparently, of what was going on at Michigan State in those days — unfairly impugned an honorable, color-blind coach, Duffy Daugherty.

Here’s what Samuel G. Freedman wrote in the magazine’s Sporting Life column:

Amid the oppression of the segregated South, Harris thrived on the football field. He was an all-state quarterback on a state-championship football team in high school. In order to continue to play quarterback in college, Harris turned down a scholarship offer from Michigan State, which wanted to turn him into a tight end. At the time, there was a persistent color barrier throughout college and professional football: no matter how successful they were, black quarterbacks were forced to change position — to receiver, to running back, to defensive back — and cede their responsibilities to the white players who were believed to be smarter and better leaders. So Harris went to Grambling State University, a historically black school, to play quarterback under the legendary head coach Eddie Robinson.

My problem with this is the way Freedman lumps in Michigan State with the many programs at that time that either excluded blacks or wouldn’t in a million years have let one of them play quarterback. Daugherty was guilty of neither offense.

On the contrary, he already had a black quarterback on the roster, Jimmy Raye, who was the backup in 1965 and the starter next two years. It was in 1966, you may recall, that Michigan State played its famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame — the “Game of the Century,” it was dubbed — and ranked second in the final polls.

That Spartans team wasn’t unusual just because it had a black QB, by the way. It also might have had the most diverse roster in major-college football. Defensive end Bubba Smith, linebacker George Webster, running back Clinton Jones, wide receiver Gene Washington, Raye — all the biggest stars were black. According to a story last fall in the Detroit Free Press, the squad “had 20 [blacks] — including 11 starters.” This was unheard of in the mid-’60s.

Daugherty on Time coverMichigan State also had a Samoan running back (Bob Apisa) and a barefooted Hawaiian kicker (Dick Kenney). Daugherty was an equal-opportunity coach in every way. (He was even one of the first, in 1960, to have a soccer-style kicker. One week he was so dissatisfied with the length of his team’s kickoffs that he recruited a Dutch kid off the soccer team and gave him the job.)

At any rate, to suggest there was some kind of “color barrier” at Michigan State is beyond ludicrous. What Texas Western, with its all-black starting five, was to the integration of college basketball in 1966, the Spartans, in my mind, were to the integration of college football: a great leap forward.

It just so happens that Raye, a longtime NFL assistant coach, has collaborated with Tom Shanahan on a book about those remarkable Spartans teams: Raye of Light. His motivation, he told the Free Press, was to “to pay homage to Duffy Daugherty, who had enough courage to be willing to coach and accept, to extend a branch to recruit black athletes in the South, to give them an opportunity to get an education and play Big Ten football. He was color-blind.”

The book’s forward is written by Tony Dungy, who followed Raye’s path as a Big Ten quarterback, pro defensive back and NFL coach. Because of Jimmy’s exploits, Dungy dreamed of playing for Michigan State. But Daugherty retired, and Tony wound up at Minnesota under Duffy’s former assistant, Cal Stoll.

“How did we arrive at the point where African-Americans would have an opportunity to coach teams in the Super Bowl?” Dungy writes. “I believe it all stems back to the Big Ten and the influence those players had on the rest of the country. This book documents the efforts of Duffy Daugherty and his staff in recruiting black players from South.”

If Daugherty wanted Harris, a sturdy 6-foot-4, to switch to tight end, there was nothing racist about it. It was just a miscalculation on the order of, oh, Joe Paterno wanting Jim Kelly and Jeff Hostetler to be linebackers. Duffy was way ahead of his time in the equal-opportunity department – and should be remembered as such. To group him with the segregationists is a crime.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, college-football-reference.com

Michigan State's Jimmy Raye takes off and runs against Notre Dame in 1966 -- the famed 10-10 tie.

Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye takes off and runs against Notre Dame in 1966 — the famed 10-10 tie.

1944 technology

The NFL is so high tech now that you can forget how primitive things used to be. So here’s a reminder: a screen shot of Bears assistant Luke Johnsos, phone pressed to his ear, giving instructions to the bench during a 1944 game against the Cleveland Rams at Wrigley Field.

Johnsos isn’t sitting in a coaches box, either. He’s perched in the front row of the upper deck. To his left is a Navy man, presumably on leave. Behind him is a fan consulting what appears to be a game program. (In 1944, when most of the league was away at war — and teams were suiting up anybody with four working limbs — you definitely couldn’t tell the players without a program.)

Johnsos was one of the first “press-box coaches,” as they were called (because they were sometimes seated among the newspaper guys). But the practice goes at least as far back as the 1934 title game between the Giants and Bears – the famed Sneakers Game. In its story the next day, The New York Times reported:

With Lou Little, Columbia’s coach, sitting up in the stands and phoning to the bench, Steve Owen directing down there and [Ken] Strong playing one of the greatest games any back has turned in, the Giants came back to win.

Assistant coach Luke Johnsos supplying the Bears sideline with intelligence in 1944.

Assistant coach Luke Johnsos supplying the Bears sideline with intelligence in 1944.

Sources: YouTube, pro-football-reference.com

Anybody want a 500-catch receiver?

It’s been an interesting offseason so far for name-brand NFL wide receivers. Seven of the Top 14 in career receptions — among active wideouts, that is —  have either been released (3), traded (1) or had their contracts run out without being re-signed (3). Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? (And an eighth, let’s not forget, Larry Fitzgerald, reworked his deal to save the Cardinals nearly $13 million on their 2015 cap.)

Reggie Wayne will have to make catches like this for another team now.

Reggie Wayne: 1 of 2 1,000-catch receivers sent packing this month.

The disposability of running backs has been a major topic of conversation the past few years, but any player in his 30s — as all of these receivers can attest — lives a fragile existence, too. If you’re still drawing a hefty salary at the age, you’d better be putting up the numbers to justify it. Otherwise your team might decide you’re in a Death Spiral and put you in the recycle bin. With a younger player, there’s more patience with ups and downs, but with a guy in his 30s it’s different. One off year, after all, could easily foreshadow a second . . . and a third.

Dwayne Bowe is the youngest of the aforementioned wideouts (31 in September), Reggie Wayne the oldest (37 in November, if there is another November for him). You could argue that the bell has tolled for some of them — Wayne and Santana Moss, say, and (maybe) the oft-concussed Wes Welker. But Bowe and Greg Jennings had three years remaining on their contracts, and Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson had two. So there’s a significant Bail-Out Factor here as well.

Nobody can tell me that some of them don’t have some good seasons left – in the right offense with the right quarterback. But it’s the way of the NFL world now. A well-paid wideout in his 30s has a less-than-stellar year and, regardless of the circumstances (instability at QB, injuries, etc.), isn’t brought back.

Marshall’s trade to the Jets was a virtual giveaway. (“Take his contract (and personality) — please!” ) All the Bears got in return was a fifth-round pick. They even had to throw in a seventh-rounder themselves. Here’s the rundown on the Not-So-Magnificent (Anymore) Seven:

THE COMINGS AND GOINGS OF SOME TOP-RANKED WIDEOUTS

Rank Wide Receiver, Last Team Catches Status
1 Reggie Wayne,Colts 1,070 Unsigned FA
2 Andre Johnson, Texans 1,012 Cut, signed with Colts
6 Wes Welker, Broncos    890 Unsigned FA
8 Brandon Marshall, Bears    773 Traded to Jets
10 Santana Moss, Redskins    732 Unsigned FA
13 Greg Jennings, Vikings    552 Cut
14 Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs    532 Cut

And here are their individual situations:

● Wayne (37 in November): 3-year, $17.5M deal expired.

● Johnson (34 when season starts): Had 2 years left on a 5-year, $67.8M deal ($15.6M cap number for 2015). Signed with the Colts for 3 years, $21M ($10M guaranteed).

● Welker (34 when season starts): 2-year, $12M deal expired.

● Marshall (31 when season starts): Traded to the Jets with 2 years left on a 3-year, $30M deal ($22.3M guaranteed). The Bears received a 2015 No. 5 pick for him but also sent the Jets a No. 7.

● Moss (36 when season starts): 1-year, $1.02M deal expired.

● Jennings (32 in September): Had 3 years left on a 5-year, $45M deal ($11M cap number for 2015). The Vikings replaced him with Mike Wallace in a trade similar to the Marshall swap.

● Bowe (31 in September): Had 3 years left on 5-year, $56M deal ($14M cap number for 2015).

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, spotrac.com

Andre Johnson is one of two 1,000-catch wideouts cast off by his longtime team this month.

Andre Johnson, meanwhile, will try to pick up in Indianapolis where Reggie Wayne left off.

Ndamukong Suh’s next 5 years

The Dolphins just handed Ndamukong Suh the key to their safe-deposit box: a 6-year, $114 million deal ($60 million guaranteed) that dwarfs his original 5-year, $60 million contract ($40 million guaranteed) with the Lions. (And let’s not forget: His rookie contract, under the old CBA, enabled him to earn a lot more than the second pick in the draft can now.)

In situations like this, the Albert Haynesworth Effect — a player getting buried in free-agent dollars and suddenly losing his enthusiasm for his job — is always a concern. There probably isn’t a team in the NFL that doesn’t have a horror story like that.

But an equally pertinent question is: What’s the likelihood Suh’s next five years will be as good as his first five? Because by paying Suh franchise-quarterback money, the Dolphins are saying, unequivocally: We think this player is still ascending. We think he’ll be worth more — substantially more — from 2015 to 2019 (and even 2020, if it comes to that) than he was from 2010 to 2014.

Here’s the thing, though: If you look at the top defensive tackles in recent years, you’ll see that’s rarely the case — in terms of sacks, at least. Granted, there are many ways to evaluate a player at Suh’s position, but certainly pass pressure is a big part of it. In today’s game, especially, a DT had darn well better get to the quarterback (if he wants to have much value of the free-agent market, that is).

Anyway, check out these well-known defensive tackles — and the sack totals they posted in their First 5 Years vs. their Second 5:

SACKS IN THEIR FIRST 5 YEARS VS. THEIR SECOND 5 YEARS (DT DIVISION)

Years Defensive tackle Teams(s) 1st 5 2nd 5 Diff.
1985-93 Keith Millard Vikings/3 others 51.0   7.0  -44.0
1990-99 John Randle Vikings 48.0 58.0 +10.0
1983-92 Bill Pickel Raiders/Jets 43.5 12.5  -31.0
1997-06 Trevor Price Broncos/Ravens 42.5 34.5    -8.0
1995-04 Warren Sapp Bucs/Raiders 42.0 37.5    -4.5
1996-05 La’Roi Glover Saints/2 others 42.0 29.5  -12.5
1988-97 Michael Dean Perry Browns/Broncos 41.5 19.5  -22.0
1992-03 Dana Stubblefield 49ers/Redskins 39.5 14.0  -25.5
1993-04 Bryant Young 49ers 37.0 29.5    -7.5
1992-01 Chester McGlockton Raiders/2 others 35.0 12.5  -22.5
2003-12 Kevin Williams Vikings 34.0 22.5  -11.5
1987-96 Henry Thomas Vikings/Lions 34.0 38.5   +4.5
1994-03 Dan Wilkinson 49ers/2 others 32.5 17.5  -15.0
1990-99 Cortez Kennedy Seahawks 32.0 25.0    -7.0

Suh has 36 sacks through his fifth season, so I limited the list to guys who were in that neighborhood at that point in their career. I also didn’t include erstwhile Eagle Andy Harmon (38.5 sacks) — because he didn’t last much more than 5 years. At any rate, we’ve got two gainers (Randle, Thomas) and 12 decliners (ranging from -4.5 to -44) — not the most encouraging odds for the Dolphins.

Of course, every player is different, particularly in the Internal Wiring Department. Maybe Suh will prove to be one of the exceptions. But chances are better Miami will be glad that “only” $60 million is guaranteed.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Dolphins are betting $114 million that  Ndamukong Suh will keep doing this to quarterbacks.

The Dolphins are betting $114 million that Ndamukong Suh will keep doing this to quarterbacks.