Monthly Archives: April 2015

Are teams drafting better? (Part 2)

Following up on yesterday’s discussion of whether NFL teams have gotten any better at drafting in the last 50 years . . .

As tonight’s draft approaches, here are a few more things I came across in my research:

● The last time more Hall of Famers were drafted in the second round than the first: 1991.

Nobody in Round 1 that year wound up in Canton. In Round 2, though, the Cardinals got CB CB Aeneas Williams with the 59th pick.

(Note: As with yesterday’s post, I’m not talking about “rounds” as much as blocks of 32 picks — 1 through 32, 33 through 64 and 65 through 96. That way, drafts in the 2000s can be compared to drafts in the 1930s, even though there were fewer teams and shorter rounds in the early years.

Hall of Fame DE Charles Haley, the 94th pick in 1986.

The only Hall of Famer in the ’86 draft went 96th (Charles Haley).

● The last time more Hall of Famers were drafted in the third round than the first: 1986.

That was year the 49ers, at 96, lucked into DE Charles Haley. None of the first-rounders has gone on to the Hall.

● The last time the top three rounds each produced a HOFer: 1993 — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, 8th) and RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, 10th) in the Round 1, DE Michael Strahan (Giants, 40th) in Round 2 and OG Will Shields (Chiefs, 74th) in Round 3.

● The two times more Pro Bowlers were drafted in the second round than the first (since 1950, the season the first modern Pro Bowl was played): 1967 and ’74. I’ll give you details for ’67, since ’74 comes up again later.

Round 1 (9): DE Bubba Smith (Colts, 1st pick), QB Bob Griese* (Dolphins, 4th), LB George Webster (Oilers, 5th), RB Floyd Little* (Broncos, 6th), RB Mel Farr (Lions, 7th), WR Gene Washington (Vikings, 8th), DT Alan Page* (Vikings, 15th), OG Gene Upshaw* (Raiders, 17th), WR Bob Grim (Vikings, 28th).  (Asterisk denotes Hall of Famer.)

Round 2 (10): RB Willie Ellison (Rams, 33rd), CB Lem Barney* (Lions, 34th), DT Bob Rowe (Cardinals, 43rd), FS Rick Volk (Colts, 45th), LB Jim Lynch (Chiefs, 47th), LB Willie Lanier* (Chiefs, 50th), WR John Gilliam (Saints, 52nd), OT Mike Current (Broncos, 58th), George Goeddeke (Broncos, 59th), LB Paul Naumoff (Lions, 60th).

The last time more Pro Bowlers were drafted in the third round than the first: never.

In 1966 and  ’74 the totals were pretty close: six in Round 1, four in Round 3. The breakdown for the latter:

First round (6): DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Cowboys, 1st), DT John Dutton (Colts, 5th), LB Randy Gradishar (Broncos, 14th), OT Henry Lawrence (Raiders, 19th), WR Lynn Swann* (Steelers, 21st), WR Roger Carr (Colts, 24th).

Third round (4): WR Nat Moore (Dolphins, 78th), WR John Stallworth* (Steelers, 82nd), QB Mike Boryla (Bengals, 87th), LB Frank LeMaster (Eagles, 89th).

● Best first round for Hall of Famers: 1964 (7) — OT Bob Brown (Eagles, 2nd), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, 3rd), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, 6th), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, 11th), DB Mel Renfro (Cowboys, 17th), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, 18th), LB Dave Wilcox (49ers, 29th).

● Best second round for HOFers: 1981 (3) — LB Mike Singletary (Bears, 38th), DE Howie Long (Raiders, 48th), LB Rickey Jackson (Saints, 51st).

One of three third-round Hall of Famers in the '68 draft.

One of three Hall of Famers drafted in the third round in 1968.

● Best third round for HOFers: 1968 (3) — TE Charlie Sanders (Lions, 74th), DE Elvin Bethea (Houston Oilers, 77th), OT Art Shell (Raiders, 80th). Imagine: three Hall of Famers in the seven picks that deep in the draft.

● Best first round for Pro Bowlers: 1961 (19) — RB Tommy Mason (Vikings, 1st), QB Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd), DT Joe Rutgens (Redskins, 3rd), LB Marlin McKeever (Rams, 4th), TE Mike Ditka* (Bears, 5th), CB Jimmy Johnson* (49ers, 6th), RB Tom Matte (Colts, 7th), OT Ken Rice (Cardinals, 8th), WR Bernie Casey (49ers, 9th), QB Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th), CB Herb Adderley* (Packers, 12th), DT Bob Lilly* (Cowboys, 13th), LB Rip Hawkins (Vikings, 15th), C E.J. Holub (Cowboys, 16th), LB Myron Pottios (Steelers, 19th), RB Bill Brown (Bears, 20th), TE Fred Arbanas (Cardinals, 22nd), QB Fran Tarkenton* (Vikings, 29th), OT Stew Barber (Cowboys, 30th).

(Note: Some of these players signed with the AFL and played in AFL All-Star Games rather than Pro Bowls.)

● Best second round for Pro Bowlers: 2001 (12) — DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Cardinals, 34th), TE Alge Crumpler (Falcons, 35th), WR Chad Johnson(Bengals (36th), LB Kendrell Bell (Steelers, 39th), DT Kris Jenkins (Panthers, 34th), DE Aaron Schobel (Bills, 46th), OT Matt Light (Patriots, 48th), WR Chris Chambers (Dolphins, 52nd), RB Travis Henry (Bills, 58th), DT Shaun Rogers (Lions, 61st), DE Derrick Burgess (Eagles, 63rd), SS Adrian Wilson (Cardinals, 64th).

● Best third round for Pro Bowlers: 1951, ’61, ’77 and ’88 all had seven. The most recent:

1988 (7): QB-P Tom Tupa (Cardinals, 68th), P Greg Montgomery (Oilers, 72nd), TE Ferrell Edmunds (Dolphins, 73rd), CB James Hasty (Jets, 74th), QB Chris Chandler (Colts, 76th), LB Bill Romanowski (49ers, 80th), FS Chuck Cecil (Packers, 89th).

It’s rare that the talent in Round 2 turns out to be anywhere near as good as the talent in Round 1. (The same goes for Round 3 and Round 2.) As I said in the earlier post, scouting departments are fairly good at figuring out generally who the best players are. They just don’t always know specifically who they are.

But note, too, what this data doesn’t suggest: that teams have become more proficient over the decades at drafting. There’s just nothing here to support that. And it’s a bit of a surprise, given how much more time, money and manpower goes into the process these days — and how sophisticated it’s supposedly gotten.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

This is how the NFL Draft looked in the early '60s -- and teams were (arguably) no more mistake prone than today.

This is how the NFL Draft looked in the early ’60s — and teams (arguably) drafted just as well as today.

The Steelers’ early draft follies

For almost half a century — since 1969, when they nabbed Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene in the first round and near-Hall of Fame defensive end L.C. Greenwood in the 10th (!) — the Steelers have drafted about as well as any team in the NFL, especially in the linebacker department. But it wasn’t always thus. In their early years they were atrocious in this area, and in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Buddy Parker was coach, they traded away most of their top selections for veterans. (Here’s a link to their classic ’63 draft, the year they didn’t pick until late in the eighth round.)

The Steelers’ Golden Moment came in 1974, when they drafted four players who are now in Canton: wide receiver Lynn Swann in the first round, middle linebacker Jack Lambert in the second, wideout John Stallworth in the fourth and center Mike Webster in the fifth. That marked the beginning of their historic four-championships-in-six-seasons run. But there were many, many lean years before it — as Jack Sell documented in this tale of woe, which ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the week of the ’53 draft.

Doc Blanchard, the Steelers' wasted 1946 No. 1.

Army’s Doc Blanchard, the Steelers’ wasted No. 1 pick in 1946.

By all means read the whole thing — to get a fuller sense of the Steelers’ draft follies in that era. The gist of it, though, is this:

Exactly nine of the [first] 17 first picks of Pittsburgh failed to see service in Gold and Black togs for various reasons. In addition to [Notre Dame back Bill] Shakespeare, who failed to turn pro [after being taken third overall in the inaugural ’36 draft], fullback Felix (Doc) Blanchard of Army, who chose a military career, and quarterback Bud Avinger, who elected to play in the Canadian League, never donned local togs.

Halfback Bill Daley and end Hub Bechtol were lured by the ill-fated All-America Conference. Quarterback Sid Luckman was really chosen by the Chicago Bears, who had given up end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first draft choice. And halfback Kay Eakin was traded to the New York Giants for Owen (Ox) Parry, a veteran with a bad leg who never reported here.

Halfbacks Johnny Podesto from Modesto and Paul Duhart came to training camp but couldn’t make the grade.

Lynn Chandnois, right halfback from Michigan State, will be the record-holder for length of service among the No. 1 selections when he reports next season for his fourth campaign.

Barely two decades later, the Steelers were hitting the lottery with Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster. In other words: Yes, long-suffering fans of (insert team name here), It Could Happen To You.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Steelers were so clueless in the early years of the draft, they might as well have drafted THIS William Shakespeare.

The Steelers were so clueless in the early years of the draft, they might as well have drafted THIS Bill Shakespeare.

Round 1 vs. Round 2 vs. Round 3

Fantasy Football has made America a nation of general managers. We love spouting opinions about the NFL Draft, despite having only a fraction of the information actual GMs have. (Then again, knowing less might be a good thing — if, as they say, overanalysis leads to paralysis.)

Anyway, I decided to crunch a bunch of numbers and see where it led, just to get a sense of how much of a crapshoot the draft really is. What I looked at were the first three rounds — or rather, three blocks of picks: 1 through 32, 33 through 64 and 65 through 96 (since rounds weren’t always as long as they are now). This, I figured, would enable me to compare across eras . . . and possibly to come to some conclusions about whether scouting departments have gotten any better at this Inexact Science.

What I zeroed in on were Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers, the guys who — hypothetically, at least — are the biggest difference makers for their teams. Granted, there are more Pro Bowl berths these days (and more alternates who end up playing) so the definition of a “Pro Bowler” has changed over the decades. But it’s still worth looking at this stuff — especially in the offseason, when you’ve got the time to do it.

Let me throw a few numbers at you to get us started:

● There’s a 4.8 percent chance a first-round pick will make it to Canton (122 Hall of Famers in 2,528 first-round — or First 32 — selections). The percentage drops to 1.2 percent for second-rounders (31 of 2,528) and 0.8 percent for third-rounders (21 of 2,528). So you’re four times less likely to find a Hall of Famer in Round 2 and about six times less likely to find one in Round 3.

● There’s a 35.7 percent chance a first-round pick will play (or be voted to) the Pro Bowl (743 Pro Bowlers in 2,080 first-round — or First 32 — selections since 1950, when the first modern Pro Bowl was held.) The percentage drops to 16.8 percent for second-rounders (350 of 2,080) and 11 percent for third-rounders (228 of 2,080). So you’re about two times less likely to find a Pro Bowler in Round 2 and about three times less likely to find one in Round 3.

What does this tell us — or confirm for us? Answer: That for all the mistakes in the first round, those picks are much more likely to yield a difference-maker (and possibly a Hall of Famer) than picks in the next two rounds. And for the same reason, second-round selections are much more valuable than third-rounders.

Blaine Gabbert went one pick ahead of J.J. Watt in 2011.

Blaine Gabbert went one pick ahead of J.J. Watt in 2011.

In other words, clubs — with their various rating systems — are doing a good job of identifying generally which players are going to be NFL stars. (“Everybody above this cutoff point on our scale is a potential Pro Bowler.”) But they continue to have problems identifying specifically which players are going to be stars. That’s why you have J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the ages, being drafted 11th in 2011, behind quarterback busts Jake Locker (eighth) and Blaine Gabbert (10th). It’s also why you had three consecutive running backs fly off the board in the first round in 2008 . . . in the exact opposite order from how they should have been selected. Based on their career rushing totals, the order should have been: Chris Johnson (8,628 yards), Rashard Mendenhall (4,236) and Felix Jones (2,912). Instead, Jones went 22nd, Mendenhall 23rd and Johnson 24th.

Here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown:

(Note: HOFers = Hall of Famers, PBers = Pro Bowlers.)

WHAT THE TOP 3 ROUNDS OF THE DRAFT HAVE YIELDED

Years Picks 1 through 32 Picks 33 through 64 Picks 65 through 96
1936-49 19 HOFers, PBers DNA 3 HOFers, PBers DNA 3 HOFers, PBers DNA
1950-59 20 HOFers, 118 PBers 7 HOFers, 57 PBers 5 HOFers, 35 PBers
1960-69 32 HOFers, 119 PBers 4 HOFers, 58 PBers 6 HOFers, 46 PBers
1970-79 18 HOFers, 101 PBers 7 HOFers, 42 PBers 3 HOFers, 38 PBers
1980-89 23 HOFers, 121 PBers 7 HOFers, 63 PBers 3 HOFers, 37 PBers
1990-99 10 HOFers, 107 PBers 3 HOFers, 53 PBers 1 HOFer, 42 PBers
2000-09 0 HOFers, 132 PBers 0 HOFers, 64 PBers 0 HOFers, 22 PBers
2010-14 0 HOFers, 45 PBers 0 HOFers, 13 PBers 0 HOFers, 8 PBers

Obviously, the jury is out on the last two groups. Many of the players, after all, are still active. As for the earlier decades, those Hall of Fame totals aren’t final, remember; they’ll undoubtedly grow over time, helped by Veterans Committee selections. Still, the data gives us a snapshot — something to go on. And one thing that jumps out at you is that teams aren’t necessarily drafting any better now than they were in the ’50s and ’60s, when the process wasn’t nearly as thorough.

The number of Hall of Famers, of course, may say more about the depth of the talent pool than the competence of the drafters. (All decades are not created equal.) It’s fascinating, though, that clubs in the ’60s drafted 32 Hall of Famers in the First 32 but found only 18 in the ’70s and 23 in the ’80s.

The number of Pro Bowlers, though, is fairly consistent from decade to decade – until the 2000s, when all kinds of changes were made that basically opened the floodgates. With the game scheduled before the Super Bowl nowadays, more and more players get to call themselves “Pro Bowlers.”

It’s something to think about as we get ready for draft — which, now that the NFL has its own network, seems to get more self-congratulatory with each passing year. There’s nothing in this data to suggest the GM-geniuses of 2015 (and their support staffs) are any more clairvoyant than the GMs of 50 years ago. If someone wants to go further and look at other ways of evaluating Draft Day performance — such as the number of starters drafted in each round or the number of games those guys played — by all means have at it. Just wanted to get the ball rolling.

More on this subject tomorrow.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Woulda, coulda, shoulda (NFL Draft edition)

Some of the NFL Draft’s best moments don’t become Best Moments until much later, after it’s established how good/bad the players are and how well/poorly teams evaluated them. That’s what this post is about: those instances when two guys at the same position are picked back to back, and it turns out there’s a gigantic gap between them. Basically, the first guy has a forgettable career (if he has one at all), and the second goes on to the Hall of Fame (or close to it).

Here are a dozen examples I dug up, just for the sake of conversation. Call them . . .

THE ALL-TIME WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA TEAM

*Hall of Fame

(Note: Shaw signed with the Bills of the rival AFL.)

The Vikes drafted Buster Rhymes over Andre Reed in '85

The Vikes drafted this guy a spot ahead of Andre Reed.

Talk about screwing the pooch. After deciding to draft a particular player at a particular position, the teams on the left took The Wrong Guy — a mistake which became infinitely worse when the next club on the clock took The Right Guy. You can click on the names to look at their stats . . . and see how huge a gap there was in each case. It ain’t pretty. Cheshire, Jones and Pfeifer never played in the league, and Rogers, for one, was a drug-plagued disaster (36 catches and 4 touchdowns, compared to Reed’s 1,012 and 64 — and counting).

Would the first decade of the expansion Browns have been a little less miserable if they’d opted for McNabb over Couch? You’d think so. You’ve also gotta believe the ’70s (pre-Coryell) Chargers would have won a lot more games if they’d had Stallworth catching passes and Page chasing down quarterbacks — or am I underestimating how lousy the Bolts were in those days?

This kind of puts it all in perspective, though: Spurrier wound up quarterbacking the only 0-14 team in NFL history (the ’76 Bucs), and Griese wound up quarterbacking the only 17-0 team (the ’72 Dolphins).

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Before combines, computers and Kipers

They weigh them, time them, test them, give them chest X-rays, knee exams, electrocardiograms. They work them out and wear them out, do background checks that are more like body-cavity searches. Heck, for all we know, NFL teams delve into the DNA of draft prospects — on the off-chance one of them might be secretly related to Jim Thorpe.

Then they gather up all this information, feed it into a computer and . . . draft Tom Brady in the sixth round — or James Harrison not at all.

Does anyone else feel this NFL Draft business has gotten to be a bit much? Sure, you want to be thorough, especially with so much money at stake, but as we’ve seen time and again, overanalysis can lead to paralysis — or worse, to Tim Couch.

Or to put it another way, what’s so wonderful about the Wonderlic test? Couldn’t you learn just as much about a guy by playing a quick game of rock-paper-scissors with him?

In olden times, the league did just fine without this microscopic evaluation of talent. Back then – I’m talking before World War II — clubs scouted the old-fashioned way, working their contacts in the college game and counting on recommendations from former players. Oh, they might get to see a prospect in action once or twice, but beyond that . . . .

Poring over game films, such a big part of the process today, didn’t come into fashion into later. (In the late ’30s, most teams were just beginning to pore over their own game films.) No, a club was much more likely to learn about a player by perusing the sports section of the newspaper. Some clubs even enlisted sports writers to do the bird-dogging for them.

One of them, a columnist for The Ogden Standard-Examiner named Al Warden, informed his readers in 1940 that he was “one of the far western football scouts for the Lions.” In fact, he went on, he’d just received a letter from Detroit coach Potsy Clark that said: “Let us have a list of prospective players from your section of the country as soon as possible. We are on the lookout for new finds.”

In those days, the NFL Draft went something like this: Every year, the league compiled a master list of eligible players – with the help of submissions from each team. The 300-odd names were then put on three large blackboards in the hotel meeting room where the draft was held.

Sometimes, if a club felt it had stumbled across a hidden gem, it would “forget” to put him on the master list. The Giants did this in 1939 with Walt Nielsen, a back from the hinterlands of Arizona — then surprised everybody by drafting him in the first round.

Wellington Mara, the 20-something son of owner Tim Mara, served as New York’s player personnel director during the leather helmet era. It’s astounding where the kid found players — and without, I’ll just point out, having any idea what their vertical jump was. Take the Giants’ 1938 championship team, for instance. Among the alma maters listed on the roster were Central Oklahoma, West Virginia Wesleyan, Emporia State (Kansas), Trinity University (Texas), Santa Clara, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, Simpson College (Iowa) and Oklahoma City.

Of course, the Giants took scouting more seriously than many other teams. At the other end of the spectrum were the Steelers of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Their player personnel man “was a full-time mortician named Ray Byrne,” NFL Hall of Famer Jim Finks once recalled. “So, on the side, he subscribed to all the college football magazines and put himself on the mailing lists of all the different colleges . . . [and] collected their press releases. That was the information the Steelers had when they went into the draft every year.”

By the time the American Football League came along in 1960, though, moonlighting morticians had been replaced by full-time scouts who crisscrossed the country in search of the next Bronko Nagurski. Eddie Kotal, Jack Lavelle, Pappy Lewis, Peahead Walker, Fido Murphy — nobody remembers them now, but they helped turn the NFL Draft into the extravaganza it is today.

The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.

The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.

Kotal liked to joke about his “14-month year” cataloguing prospects for the Los Angeles Rams, right down to the little-known defensive end from Arnold College in Milford, Conn. (the great Andy Robustelli, L.A.’s 19th-round pick in 1951). Let’s face it, you have to be a little nutty to spend all that time on the road — just you and your binoculars — and Eddie certainly qualified. As a back with the Packers in the ’20s, he was one of the handful of players in the league who played without a helmet.

For a while, the Rams had an edge on other teams because they budgeted more for scouting, but that soon changed. So much so that Kotal griped in 1957:

“Even five years ago I could stumble across a sleeper at some small college that no other club knew about. But nowadays, everybody’s scouting system is so exhaustive, there’s no such thing as one.

“I don’t care if the kid is a third-string halfback at Tiddle-de-Wink Tech. By the time I get there to see him, he’ll tell me:

“‘You’re from the Rams, huh? I just got a letter the other day from the Lions and the Bears, too.’”

And so it began, the inexorable march toward five-hour first rounds, the self-celebratory NFL combine . . . and Mel Kiper. The draft, once confined to smoke-filled rooms, has become the Super Bowl of the offseason, and scouting has been elevated to the status of a science — an inexact science perhaps, but a science nonetheless.

Fido Murphy, long dead, would snort at that. To Fido, who shared his bush-beating brilliance over the years with the Bears and Steelers, modern scouts were just “a bunch of office boys with fancy titles! A lot of fakers and phonies! You ask them what do they think of such-and-such a player, and they tell you, ‘Wait till I see the films.’ I don’t need no lousy films.”

Speaking of films, Fido was married to an Actual Hollywood Actress, Iris Adrian. Iris was no star, but she appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows opposite the likes of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. The reason their relationship lasted, she’d tell people, was that he wasn’t an actor — unlike her first two husbands. “If an actor gets a pimple on his butt,” she’d say, “he thinks he’s ruined for life. . . . [It’s] like dating another dame.”

Iris’ glamorous career, meanwhile, enabled Fido, a walking lounge act, to crack jokes like this: “The best field-goal kicker I’ve ever seen is a mule called Gus who kicks a field goal in the last minute of a Walt Disney film starring my wife. . . . Gus plays for a team called the Atoms, and he wears a red blanket.”

Fido had total faith in his ability to distinguish the player from the poser. As he put it, “It isn’t that I’m smarter than everyone else in football. It’s just that I know more. . . . Sam Cohen, the Bridgeport [Conn.] columnist, wanted to call me a genius, but I wouldn’t let him.” Indeed, when Sports Illustrated ran a story about him in 1963, he suggested it be titled “Football’s Greatest Scout” (which it was).

Note: I’d hoped to link to that marvelous piece by Myron Cope, but for some reason it’s no longer available in SI’s archives. It can, however, be found in Cope’s collection, Broken Cigars. A used copy shouldn’t be too hard to find if you’re so inclined. Here’s a brief excerpt to whet your appetite:

Without having to be prodded, Fido takes credit for the fact that Mike Ditka, the magnificent Chicago offensive end, signed with the Bears rather than with the wealthy Houston Oilers [of the rival AFL]. As Fido tells it, Ditka was flying home to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, from the Hula Bowl game in Hawaii and stopped in San Francisco to change planes. “I had him bumped off his plane,” says Fido. “Then I got him a first-class window seat on another flight, and he thought I was a big man. The flight had a 90-minute layover in Chicago, and I had [George] Halas wait for him at the airport with a contract.”

Fido would gladly pit his old-school eyeballs against any team’s computer, any scouting department’s rating system, any cockamamie intelligence test. It was he, after all, who said of the first pick in the 1963 draft, Heisman-winning quarterback Terry Baker, “For carrying around a trophy, he’s got a great arm. For throwing a football, no.”

Sure enough, Baker never tossed a touchdown pass in the NFL and ended his brief and uneventful career as a running back. Wonder what Fido would make of Jameis Winston.

A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the The Washington Times, April 24, 2009.

Terry Baker: a better arm “for carrying around a trophy [than] throwing a football."

Terry Baker: a better arm “for carrying around a trophy [than] throwing a football.”

How astrophysics applies to field goals

It isn’t often an astrophysicist is given the floor at Pro Football Daly, but I thought you might be interested in something Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the May issue of Esquire.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, honorary Vulcan.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, honorary Vulcan.

Why? Because in an interview with Scott Raab, Tyson goes off on a fascinating tangent about, of all things, field goal kicking. Their chat begins with Raab marveling at the famed Science Explainer’s gift for “spreading knowledge,” despite America’s anti-intellectual bent. That leads to this exchange:

Tyson: I don’t think of what I do as spreading knowledge. The phrase “You’re lecturing me” is never a compliment. So I realized that’s not what I should be doing if I have any interest in compelling people to become scientifically literate.

Raab: What’s your secret?

Tyson: I’ve found that no one complains about pop culture being a source of someone lecturing to them. If someone’s telling you about Kim Kardashian, you’re not going to accuse them of lecturing to you. If I can explore an intersection between pop culture and science literacy, then it generally will not come across as a lecture. You’re surfing a wave already created by pop-culture force. During the Super Bowl, one of my tweets was, “A 50-yard field goal, in the University of Phoenix Stadium, deflects about one-third inch to the right due to the earth’s rotation.” Now, we’ve all seen field goals that just hit the post and bounce out, so the rotation of the earth prevented a [field] goal! Everyone is interested in the Super Bowl and long field goals, and I judged that there would be deep curiosity in the fact that the rotation of the earth could affect the outcome of a game.

Raab: A third of an inch? That seems like a dramatic effect, actually.

Tyson: There are other stadiums where it would be half an inch. It depends on the angle of the stadium relative to the longitude.

It would make a great trivia question at a Super Bowl party, wouldn’t it?

Who has blocked the most field goals in NFL history?

Answer: The rotation of the earth.

Fortunately for the Seahawks' Steven Hauschka, this 27-yard field goal try in Super Bowl 49 wasn't affected much by the earth's rotation.

This 27-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka in the Super Bowl wasn’t affected much by the earth’s rotation.

Drafting the QB of your dreams

Once again the NFL Draft World is abuzz about two quarterbacks. Who’s better, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? More importantly, who’s going to have the better career? The Bucs, for one, are convinced the fate of the franchise hinges on it. (Until the next time they have the first pick, that is.)

Jameis Winston: Great . . . or something else?

Jameis Winston: A future NFL great . . . or something else?

But there’s another question that’s worth asking here: Does it really matter as much as everybody seems to think it does? By that I mean: If there’s a Hall of Fame quarterback in this draft, what are the odds Tampa Bay — or any other team in the market for a QB — knows for sure who the Future Legend is? You’d be surprised at the league’s sorry track record in this area.

By my count, there have been 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have been available in the draft. This doesn’t include Steve Young, who originally cast his lot with USFL (and came to the NFL via a supplemental draft), or George Blanda (who made the Hall as much for his kicking as his throwing). Our QBs date all the way back to 1937, the second of the league’s 79 drafts, when the Redskins took Sammy Baugh sixth overall.

Want to guess how many of these Quarterbacks For The Ages were the first QB selected in their draft? Answer: four. One out of every six. Heck, Warren Moon didn’t even get drafted in 1978 — and there were 12 rounds that year. And again, we’re talking about Canton-quality players, not Pro Bowlers (whatever that means anymore) or long-term starters. Seems like those types — Hall types — should be more obvious.

When I started researching this the other day, I never imagined the number — four out of 24 — would be so low. It’s not like the inexact science of evaluating talent is getting any more exact, either. In my mind, there are seven active or recently active quarterbacks who are likely headed to the Hall: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Only one of them was the first QB picked in his draft (Manning, who went first overall). One in seven. That’s worse than one in six.

Consider: In 1944 there were two Hall of Fame quarterbacks up for grabs — Otto Graham and Bob Waterfield. Neither was the first QB selected. (That distinction went to Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli.) It was the same story in ’57, the draft that gave us Len Dawson and Sonny Jurgensen. The first passer off the board? John Brodie.

In ’83, meanwhile, John Elway was the No. 1 pick (and went on to Canton), but two other Hall-bound quarterbacks in that draft, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, were the third and sixth QBs chosen.

Even if a quarterback has Hall of Fame ability, in other words, it may not be easily identifiable in his early 20s. So why, given this history, are teams always falling over one another to move up in the first round and draft a QB, often at inflated prices? A better strategy might be to stay put and take whichever one falls to you. Granted, it doesn’t look as good public-relations-wise; you’re not being “aggressive” and “proactive,” merely patient and calculating. But if you end up with a better QB than the one you might have gotten (and as an added bonus, didn’t trade a truckload of picks for him), who cares?

Here are the details on the 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Draft Era (1936 to present):

● 1937 — Sammy Baugh, Redskins (6th pick) and Ace Parker, Dodgers (13th). Two QBs/tailbacks (the single wing was still in vogue, remember) were taken ahead of Baugh : Ed Goddard (Dodgers, 2nd) and Ray Buivid (Bears, 3rd). Three QBs/TBs, including Sammy, were taken ahead of Parker. (FYI: Goddard lasted exactly four games with Brooklyn. When he didn’t play heroically enough to justify his high salary, coach Potsy Clark released him in the middle of the season. So it went in those days.)

● 1939 — Sid Luckman, Bears (2nd). The first QB/TB picked.

● 1944 — Otto Graham, Lions (4th) and Bob Waterfield, Rams (42nd). One QB/TB was selected before Graham: Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli (Boston Yanks, 1st). Otto wound up signing with the Browns of the rival All-America Conference. Three QBs/TBs, including Otto, were selected before Waterfield, TB Dick Evans (Bears, 9th) being the other.

● 1948 — Bobby Layne, Bears (3rd) and Y.A. Tittle, Lions (6th). One QB went before Layne: Harry Gilmer (Redskins, 1st). Two, including Bobby, went before Tittle. Just think: Detroit drafted two Hall of Fame passers in five years (Graham and Y.A., who opted for the AAC’s Baltimore Colts) and lost both to The Other League.

● 1949 — Norm Van Brocklin, Rams (37th). Six QBs/TBs came off the board before him: John Rauch (Lions 2nd), Stan Heath (Packers, 5th), Bobby Thomason (Rams, 7th), Frank Tripucka (Eagles, 9th), Bob DeMoss (New York Bulldogs, 13th) and Joe Geri (Steelers, 36th). That’s right, Van Brocklin, who won two NFL championships, wasn’t even the first QB drafted by his own team in ’49. (Geri, by the way, was a tailback. Pittsburgh was the last club to run the single wing, stubbornly sticking with it until the ’50s.)

● 1955 — Johnny Unitas, Steelers (102nd). Three QBs were taken ahead of him: George Shaw (Colts, 1st), Ralph Guglielmi (Redskins, 4th) and Dave Leggett (Cardinals, 74th).

Bart Starr: The 200th player picked in 1956.

Bart Starr: The 200th player picked in 1956.

● 1956 — Bart Starr, Packers (200th). Eight QBs were selected before him, a mostly motley crew featuring Earl Morrall (49ers, 2nd), John Roach (Cardinals, 31st) and Fred Wyant (Redskins, 36th).

● 1957 — Len Dawson, Steelers (5th) and Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles (43rd). One QB went before Dawson: John Brodie (49ers, third). Five went before Jurgensen, the others being Milt Plum (Browns, 17th), Ronnie Knox (Bears, 37th) and Bobby Cox (Rams, 38th). Knox chose the CFL over the NFL.

● 1961 — Fran Tarkenton, Vikings (29th). Two QBs came off the board before him: Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd) and Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th).

● 1964 — Roger Staubach, Cowboys (129th). Eight QBs were taken ahead of him, Pete Beathard (Lions, 5th), Bill Munson (Rams, 7th), George Mira (49ers, 15th) and Jack Concannon (Eagles, 16th), most notably. Of course, Staubach would have gone higher if he hadn’t had to serve a 4-year military commitment after graduating from the Naval Academy.

● 1965 — Joe Namath, Cardinals (12th). Namath was the top pick in the AFL draft but only the second QB selected by the NFL. Craig Morton (Cowboys, 5th) was the first.

● 1967 — Bob Griese, Dolphins (4th). One QB went before him: Heisman winner Steve Spurrier (49ers, 3rd).

● 1970 — Terry Bradshaw, Steelers (1st). Obviously, he was the first QB picked.

● 1973 — Dan Fouts, Chargers (64th). Five QBs came off the board before him: Bert Jones (Colts, 2nd), Gary Huff (Bears, 33rd), Ron Jaworski (Rams, 37th), Gary Keithley (Cardinals, 45th) and Joe Ferguson (57th).

Warren Moon: Not even Mr. Irrelevant-worthy.

Warren Moon: Not even Mr. Irrelevant-worthy.

● 1978 — Warren Moon was passed over on Draft Day despite quarterbacking Washington to the Rose Bowl (and winning game MVP honors). So he starred in Canada for six years before the Houston Oilers threw a big contract at him. Fourteen quarterbacks were taken in the ’78 draft, but only one in the first round: Doug Williams (Bucs, 17th).

● 1979 — Joe Montana, 49ers (82nd). Three QBs were selected before him: Jack Thompson (Bengals, 3rd), Phil Simms (Giants, 7th) and Steve Fuller (Chiefs, 23rd).

● 1983 — John Elway (Broncos, 1st), Jim Kelly (Bills, 14th) and Dan Marino (Dolphins, 27th). Elway was the first QB off the board, Kelly the third and Marino the sixth. The others who went in the first round: Todd Blackledge (Chiefs, 7th), Tony Eason (Patriots, 15th) and Ken O’Brien (Jets, 24th).

1989 — Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1st). The first QB picked. But . . . if the University of Miami’s Steve Walsh had been available in the regular draft, would Dallas’ Jimmy Johnson have chosen him over Aikman? Johnson liked him enough to grab him in the first round of the supplemental draft (and let the two young passers compete for the starting job).

Now for the seven quarterbacks who are locks – or semi-locks – for the Hall of Fame:

● 1991 — Brett Favre (Falcons, 33rd). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Dan McGwire (Seahawks, 15th) and Todd Marinovich (Raiders, 24th).

● 1994 — Kurt Warner (Packers, undrafted free agent). Nine QBs were selected that year — the regrettable Heath Shuler (Redskins, 3rd) for starters — but Warner, who played in obscurity at Northern Iowa, wasn’t among them. After stints in the Arena League and NFL Europe, he improbably led the Rams and Cardinals to a total of three Super Bowls.

● 1998 — Peyton Manning (Colts, 1st). Numero uno.

● 2000 — Tom Brady (Patriots, 199th). Six QBs went before him, a pedestrian group consisting of Chad Pennington (Jets, 18th), Giovanni Carmozzi (49ers, 68th), Chris Redman (Ravens, 75th), Tee Martin (Steelers, 163rd), Marc Bulger (Rams, 168th) and Spurgon Wynn (Browns 183rd).

● 2001 — Drew Brees (Chargers, 32nd). The second QB off the board, 31 picks after Michael Vick (Falcons, 1st).

● 2004 — Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 11th). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Eli Manning (Chargers, 1st) and Philip Rivers (Giants, 4th). Manning and Rivers, who were swapped on Draft Day when Eli balked at signing with San Diego, have had good-to-very good careers, but Big Ben is the only one in the bunch who has been to three Super Bowls (winning two).

● 2005 — Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 24th). The second QB selected, several long hours (in Green Room Time) after Alex Smith (49ers, 1st) led off the draft.

You also could break it down like this:

● 4 were the first QB taken: Luckman, Bradshaw, Elway, Aikman

● 5 were the second QB taken: Graham, Layne, Dawson, Namath, Griese

● 4 were the third QB taken: Baugh, Tittle, Tarkenton, Kelly

● 4 were the fourth QB taken: Parker, Waterfield, Unitas, Montana

● 4 were the sixth QB taken: Van Brocklin, Jurgensen, Fouts, Marino

● 2 were the ninth QB taken: Starr, Staubach

● 1 wasn’t taken at all: Moon (and Warner would make it two)

Maybe you’ll draw other conclusions after digesting all this. At the very least, it makes moving up to draft a quarterback seem a lot less “bold” and a lot more second-guessable. After all, many times, the great QB is the guy who goes 42nd, 37th, 102nd, 200th, 43rd, 129th, 64th, 82nd, 33rd or 199th – or is being overlooked entirely.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The draft and the Canton Factor

It’s great to have the first pick in the NFL draft — as the Bucs have on five occasions, including this year. But it’s almost as great to have the sixth pick, believe it or not. And you’d be amazed at how much mileage teams have gotten out of the 34th pick.

Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.

Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.

Let me explain myself. I’m talking about the number of Hall of Famers each pick has yielded — its Canton Factor, if you will. That’s what everybody is trying to do at the top of the draft, right? Hit a home run. Find a player for the ages. And there’s no pick like the first pick for that. An even dozen players taken No. 1 are in the Hall, 12 in 79 drafts (with more, such as Peyton Manning, to come).

This, of course, is hardly surprising. Drafting may be an inexact science, but general managers and scouts aren’t complete dullards. Give them first crack at the available college talent, and they can usually find a guy who can walk and chew gum, sometimes all the way to Canton.

What is surprising is some of the other stuff my research turned up. For instance, the second-best pick for Hall of Famers is the sixth (11). The 34th pick (4), meanwhile, has produced more HOFers than the seventh (1!) and ninth (3)* picks and as many as the 10th. Here are the selections with the highest Canton Factor:

PICKS THAT HAVE YIELDED THE MOST HALL OF FAMERS

● 1st (12) — QB Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989), DE Bruce Smith (Bills, ’85), QB John Elway (Broncos, ’83), RB Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers, ’78), DE Lee Roy Selmon (Bucs, ’76), QB Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, ’70), RB O.J. Simpson (Bills, ’69), OT Ron Yary (Vikings, ’68), RB Paul Hornung (Packers, ’57), C-LB Chuck Bednarik (Eagles, ’49), RB Charley Trippi (Cardinals, ’45), RB Bill Dudley (Steelers, ’42).

● 6th (11) — OT Walter Jones (Seahawks, ’97), WR Tim Brown (Raiders, ’88), WR James Lofton (Packers, ’78), RB John Riggins (Jets, ’71), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, ’64), CB Jimmy Johnson (49ers, ’61), RB Jim Brown (Browns, ’57), QB Y.A. Tittle (Lions, ’48), C-LB Alex Wojciechowicz (Lions, ’38), QB Sammy Baugh (Redskins, ’37), T Joe Stydahar (Bears, ’36).

● 2nd (10) — RB Marshall Faulk (Colts, ’94), RB Eric Dickerson (Rams, ’83), LB Lawrence Taylor (Giants, ’81), RB Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, ’77), DT Randy White (Cowboys, ’75), OG Tom Mack (Rams, ’66), OT Bob Brown (Eagles, ’64), LB Les Richter (Dallas Texans, ’52), RB George McAfee (Eagles, ’40), QB Sid Luckman (Bears, ’39).

● 3rd (10) — DT Cortez Kennedy (Seahawks, ’90), RB Barry Sanders (Lions, ’89), OT Anthony Munoz (Bengals, ’80), LB Dick Butkus (Bears, ’65), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, ’64), DT Merlin Olsen (Rams, ’62), RB Ollie Matson (Cardinals, ’52), RB Doak Walker (N.Y. Bulldogs, ’49), QB Bobby Layne (Bears, ’48), DE Claude Humphrey (Falcons, ’68).

● 4th (9) — OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens, ’96), LB Derrick Thomas (Chiefs, ’89), DE Chris Doleman (Vikings, ’85), DE Dan Hampton (Bears, ’79), RB Walter Payton (Bears, ’75), OG John Hannah (Patriots ’73), DT Joe Greene (Steelers, ’69), RB Gale Sayers (Bears, ’65), QB Otto Graham (Lions, ’44).

● 5th (8) — LB Junior Seau (Chargers, ’90), CB Deion Sanders (Falcons, ’89), CB Mike Haynes (Patriots, ’76), TE Mike Ditka (Bears, ’61), QB Len Dawson (Steelers, ’57), T George Connor (Giants, ’46), WR Elroy Hirsch (Rams, ’45), RB Steve Van Buren (Eagles, ’44).

● 8th (6) — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, ’93), OG Mike Munchak (Oilers, ’82), DB Ronnie Lott (49ers, ’81), RB Larry Csonka (Dolphins, ’68), WR Lance Alworth (49ers, ’62), OL Jim Parker (Colts, ’57).

● 11th (5) — WR Michael Irvin (Cowboys, ’88), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, ’64), DE Doug Atkins (Browns, ’53), RB Frank Gifford (Giants, ’52), DT Leo Nomellini (49ers, ’50).

● 18th (5) — WR Art Monk (Redskins, ’80), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, ’64), RB John Henry Johnson (Steelers, ’53), T Bruiser Kinard (Brooklyn Dodgers, ’38), RB Tuffy Leemans (Giants, ’36).

● 10th (4) — DB Rod Woodson (Steelers, ’87), RB Marcus Allen (Raiders, ’82), OT Ron Mix (Colts, ’60), RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, ’93).

Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.

Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.

● 34th (4) — LB Jack Ham (Steelers, ’71), CB Lem Barney (Lions, ’67), DB Yale Lary (Lions, ’52), OT Mike McCormack (New York Yanks, ’51).

*The only Hall of Famer drafted seventh is C Bulldog Turner (Bears, ’40). The only HOFers who went ninth are OG Bruce Matthews (Oilers, ’83), RB Lenny Moore (Colts, ’56) and RB Hugh McElhenny (49ers, ’52).

Some other discoveries:

● The 24th and 25th picks haven’t given us any Canton-quality players — yet. In the case of the 24th, that figures to change whenever Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 2005) come up for consideration, but nobody taken at 25 seems very Hall-worthy . . . or is even likely to get endorsed by the Veterans Committee. In fact, 25 has been a virtual black hole. The best selections at that spot: NT Ted Washington (49ers, ’91) and WRs Stanley Morgan (Patriots, ’76) and Boyd Dowler (Packers, ’59).

● Second-round picks might be good values salary-cap-wise, but they don’t produce nearly as many Hall of Famers as first-round picks. The breakdown:

HOFers drafted from 1 through 32: 121

HOFers drafted from 33 through 64: 32

● That said, the 48th pick yielded a Hall of Famer two years in a row in the 1980s: C Dwight Stephenson (Dolphins, ’80) and DE Howie Long (Raiders, ’81). The second round of that ’81 draft, by the way, had three players who wound up in Canton: LB Mike Singletary (38th, Bears), Long and LB Rickey Jackson (51st, Saints). By that measure, it’s the best second round ever.

● I love this: The third pick in the ’48 draft was QB Bobby Layne (by the Bears). The third pick in ’49 was RB Doak Walker (by the New York Bulldogs, though he ended up with the Lions). Both are in Canton, but even better, they were high school teammates at Highland Park in Dallas. (Another high selection who played at Highland Park: Lions QB Matt Stafford, who went No. 1 in 2009.)

FYI: The Jets are sitting with the sixth pick (good karma), the Bears with the seventh (bad karma, though they did get Turner there), the Panthers with the 25th (really bad karma) and the Bucs with the 34th (really good karma, especially since it’s a second-rounder).

Yup, Tampa Bay has the first selection and the 34th. Pretty sweet.

Now we just have to wait for Roger Goodell to say, “Gentlemen, start your draft boards.”

The Native American chief who played for the early Redskins

While sports fans continue to debate, with no little fervor, whether the Redskins should change their name, I thought I’d post this piece about the Native American chief who played for them in the early years — and holds an interesting place in football history. There’s a tendency to lump the Redskins’ refusal to integrate until the ’60s with the whole Name Thing and say, “It’s all of a piece. From the very beginning, this has been a racist organization.” But it’s not that neat and tidy, as you shall see.

 ●   ●   ●

In the NFL’s early decades, there were two main sources of Native American football talent: Carlisle (in the Pennsylvania town of the same name) and Haskell (in Lawrence, Kan.). They weren’t really colleges, though they played many of their games against college teams. They were more like vocational high schools, the U.S. government’s attempt to assimilate the young tribal population into the American mainstream.

Along with farmers, carpenters and mechanics, the schools turned out some really good football players. Carlisle is more famous, thanks to the exploits of Jim Thorpe, one of the country’s greatest athletes, and Joe Guyon, both of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But according to the database at pro-football-reference.com, Haskell sent as many players to the NFL as Carlisle did (19 each, with some attending both schools).

One of the Haskell alums was Larry Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound rock of a center. (Sportswriters often called him “Chief Johnson” because he was a leader of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.) Johnson was the last player from either school to play in the NFL; in fact, he was the last player by a mile. The next to last, Haskell teammate Orien Crow, suited up for the final time in 1934. Larry’s farewell came a decade later, when he returned to the league after a four-year absence — along with a number of other retirees (e.g. the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski) — because of the manpower shortage during World War II.

The club that brought him back for five games at the age of 35? The Redskins.

Not that this surprised anybody. Johnson, after all, had begun his pro career with them in 1933, when they were still in Boston. That was the year the team changed its name from the Braves to the Redskins. It also happened to be the year Larry’s coach at Haskell, Lone Star Dietz, left the school to take the Redskins job. Dietz brought four players with him (the others being Crow, end David Ward and wingback Rabbit Weller).

A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.

A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.

The Redskins weren’t any better than average those first few seasons. It wasn’t until Ray Flaherty became the coach (1936) and Sammy Baugh the quarterback (’37) that they began going to title games. But owner George Preston Marshall had a flair for promotion — and was always coming up with some kind of stunt to draw attention to his team. When Johnson was a rookie, Marshall had the players put on war paint for a game against the Bears so they’d look like “ferocious Indians,” end Steve Hokuf once recalled. There was only one problem. On the train afterward, “we found out that 10 of our players weren’t able to remove their war paint and had to leave it on until the next morning. That was the last time the Redskins used war paint.”

There was much fascination in that era about Native Americans. Thorpe’s feats as a football star, decathlete and major-league baseball player were part of it, of course. But another part was the culture he sprang from. To whites, it was just so was darn mysterious.

In 1922, the season Thorpe organized the NFL’s Oorang Indians — an all-Native American team sponsored by a Marion, Ohio, dog kennel — newspapers ran a story about the death, at 130, of a Chippewa named Wrinkle Meat. It contained this passage:

Several years ago, when he was struck by a railroad engine, he was taken to a hospital but refused a bed, seeking instead a “comfortable place” on the floor. He rolled into a blanket and remained on the floor for three weeks until he recovered. . . . For 109 years of his life he had been married, having had eight wives.

Indian customs, closely followed, he considered the big factor in extending his life so long. His oldest acquaintances never recall having seen him sit in a chair or lie in a bed. He was just as much opposed to many other customs of whites, for he contended they were contrary to the laws of nature.

This is the world Larry Johnson grew up in. Native American athletes simply weren’t like other athletes, newspapers were always reminding their readers. In September 1922 the Chicago Tribune reported: “The [Oorang] Indians begin training today, and besides their daily football practice will take long runs nightly behind packs of hounds.”

How long, you ask? Well, another source tells us, “It means nothing to the Indians to make a jaunt on foot into Marion [from their clubhouse at the kennel], a distance of 28 miles. The warriors eat but twice a day. Practice begins at noon and continues until evening, and it’s then that the redskins have their second meal.”

(Note: These “packs of hounds” aren’t to be confused with the Indians’ mascot – a pet coyote that belonged lineman Nick Lassa, otherwise known as Long Time Sleep.)

Pop Warner, the coach who put Carlisle on the map, was convinced Native American players were easily discouraged. That’s why, it’s said, he tried to score first in every game (not that this isn’t advisable under any circumstances).

“As long as an Indian is winning,” he told Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manager, “he is the greatest player on earth. When he begins to lose, he is among the worst. It is this trait which let the whites win all of the territory of the Western Continent.”

Thorpe, Warner found, was “sulky and hard to handle, and that may ruin him.” Whether Jim was any sulkier or harder to handle than other superstars is an open question, but this was sometimes how Native American players were portrayed — and perceived.

(Decades later, there was a quarterback for the Packers, a Creek nicknamed “Indian Jack” Jacobs, who routinely ignored plays sent in from the sideline. Jacobs was such a freelancer, the tale goes, that he wound up in the CFL, where he twice led Winnipeg to the Grey Cup game. But he doesn’t appear to have gotten any better at following instructions. One day his Canadian coach got so frustrated that he put in two QBs, one to call the desired play and the other — Jacobs — to execute it.)

But let’s get back to Larry Johnson, the last product of The Two Big Native American Schools to play in the NFL. From all accounts, the guy was a physical specimen. One sportswriter wrote that Johnson had “the physique of a heavyweight boxing champion. [But] . . . his early ambitions in fistic work were halted at Haskell when he was flattened by another Indian.”

Still, Larry could take care of himself. In 1938, when he was with the Giants, he “got in a fistfight” with Pittsburgh tackle Armand Niccolai, according to The New York Times. “Unlike most gridiron battles,” the paper said, “this one produced some punching. Niccolai was knocked colder than the weather — which was pretty cold itself. So the Indian was chased from the game and the Giants penalized half the distance to the goal line [the punishment for slugging in those days], some 20 yards.”

The Giants won the title that year (which also makes Johnson the last product of the Two Big Native American schools to win the championship). He’d joined the team in 1936 after three seasons with the Redskins and a stint with the minor-league New York Yankees. Injuries had left New York thin at center, and coach Steve Owen signed him as a backup for Hall of Famer Mel Hein.

“If the experiment of bringing in an Indian turns out to be . . . successful,” Times columnist John Kieran wrote, “Owen may come up with a Chinaman or an Eskimo the next time danger threatens.”

Johnson wasn’t a great player by any means. Indeed, he was a second-stringer for most of his NFL career. But he did have one special skill: He was the best snapper for field goals and extra points Owen had ever seen. As the Hall of Fame coach put it in 1947 piece for Football Digest:

Our captain, Mel Hein, was an artist at it. But once we had a center even better than Mel for the placement try. I know some of you won’t believe this, but I vouch for it on my word of honor. When Chief Johnson, a big Indian from Haskell, was our reserve snapper-back, he had the pass for placements down to such an art that the ball always came back to the holder so that it was caught with the laces uppermost.

(Coming from Owen, who placed a huge importance on the kicking game, this was high praise. The Giants in those days spent most of the first hour of practice on special teams stuff, primarily field goals and PATs.)

Larry Johnson photoAfter winning the ’38 title, Johnson spent some time in his native Wisconsin — and was a big enough deal to have his visit noted by the Shawano County Journal. He was in town, the paper said, to attend “the tribal council of the Menominees held in Keshena on Monday” and planned to “vacation in and around this section until August 10, when he will report [to] Superior [Wis.] for practice with the Giants until the [College] All-Star Game on September 1. Johnson is an enrolled member of the tribe and came down from Powell, where his mother lives, to attend the council with his brother, Joe Walkechon, of Keshena.”

The Giants went back to the title game in ’39, facing Green Bay for the second straight year. As the club prepared to leave for Milwaukee — where the game was held because the city had a bigger stadium — Johnson was filled with “fear and trepidation,” the Times reported. It wasn’t the Packers he was worried about, though. What concerned him was that “‘Every Indian in Wisconsin will be after me to get him tickets,’ he declared with a wry grin.”

It might have been the last time he smiled for a while. The Giants got crushed, 27-0.

Other than that, details of Johnson’s life are sketchy. In January 1939 the Nevada State Journal said he was living in Fallon Nev., and had returned home briefly to see his wife and children “at the Indian sub-agency” before heading to Los Angeles to play in the Pro Bowl (a game that pitted the champion Giants against the league all-stars). “Mrs. Johnson is the teacher at the Fallon Indian day school near Stillwater.”

The following year found him in Ogden, Utah, working for the U.S. Postal Service. And in 1944, according to the State Journal, he was “in the market for a western Nevada high school [coaching] job — football, basketball or baseball. Two seasons ago he turned out a championship grid club [in] Ogden . . . and has since moved to Reno.”

But then the Redskins, desperate for players in the late stages of the war, came calling, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the last half of the ’44 season for them. The NFL wasn’t much to look at that year. The talent level was almost semipro quality, and a few recent high school graduates even got into games. Washington was in contention, though, until the final two weeks, when the Giants beat them back-to-back.

After that, Johnson fell off the grid — so completely that none of the football encyclopedias list a death date for him. (Good luck finding an obituary. Lord knows I’ve tried.) That’s pretty much the end of the story except for one last nugget: It seems Larry had a sense of humor.

We know this because of something Owen said years later, at the weekly Football Writers’ brunch in New York. The conversation had turned, as it often did, to officials — in this case, an official who’d thrown his hat to the ground to mark where a Steelers receiver had gone out of bounds . . . and hadn’t bothered to notice the player had dropped the pass.

“Don’t get me started on officials,” said Owen, whose Giants were on the wrong end of the call — initially, at least. “When the other official straightened him out, I hollered, ‘And don’t forget your hat!’”

That sparked a memory in Stout Steve’s mind. “Remember Larry (Chief) Johnson, our Indian center?” he said. “He used to take great delight in moving an official’s hat a couple of yards.”

Johnson's bio in the Giants' 1939 media guide.

Johnson’s bio in the Giants’ 1939 media guide.

The infamous Duane Thomas interview

We’ll never know what kind of NFL career Duane Thomas might have had because, while great at eluding tacklers, he couldn’t get out of his own way. For a brief period in the early ’70s, though, he was a premier running back, arguably the best in the league when suitably inspired.

He was definitely up for Super Bowl VI, when his Cowboys crunched the Dolphins, 24-3. He rushed for a game-high 95 yards, ran for the second Dallas touchdown, caught three passes — and did it against a dynasty-in-the-making that would win the next two NFL titles.

But Thomas wasn’t exactly a big talker. And after getting in a contract dispute that season — a strange episode that saw him traded to the Patriots, then returned to the Cowboys when he proved utterly uncooperative — he shut himself off from the media and didn’t communicate much with coaches and teammates, either.

Duane Thomas SI coverNaturally, this didn’t make him very popular. In his book, Duane Thomas and the Fall of America’s Team, Paul Zimmerman wrote that Thomas was “the writers’ overwhelming choice” for Super Bowl MVP — and the car that went with it — but Sport magazine, which handed out the award, opted for Dallas’ Roger Staubach, who’d thrown for a modest 119 yards (and two TDs). The reason was obvious: The publication was afraid of what Thomas might say or do when he was presented with the car in New York (that is, assuming he showed up).

Simply put, Thomas’ demeanor made people uncomfortable — even a hard-nosed former NFL defensive back like Tom Brookshier. After the game, Brookshier was doing interviews in the winners’ locker room for CBS when he got one of the surprises of his life: Thomas was suddenly standing behind him on the TV platform, accompanied by football legend Jim Brown, his friend and advisor.

What followed were three of the more memorable minutes in the history of sports television. You had Brookshier struggling to get any kind of conversation going — and coming across like a summer intern in the process — and you had Thomas, ever the Sphinx, keeping his answers painfully short. (Except for his immortal “Evidently” line. That was humorously short.) As for Brown, then a Hollywood star, he almost sounded like Duane’s Svengali at times.

See for yourself. Here’s a clip of the interview that I happily came across yesterday — and that might get taken down at any moment if the Copyright Infringement Police decides to make an issue of it (which is why I’m posting it now, completely out of the blue).

“I still have nightmares about that interview,” Brookshier once said. “I think of it and break into a cold sweat. I keep a blown-up photo of it next to my desk — so I’ll never forget.”

This past season, of course, we had another closed-mouthed running back at the Super Bowl: the Seahawks’ Marshawn “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” Lynch. I don’t know about you, but I thought Thomas was much more entertaining.

Sources: YouTube, pro-football-reference.com