Monthly Archives: August 2015

A soccer-style kicker for the Giants in 1953!

It’s pretty well established who the first soccer-style kicker was in pro football: Pete Gogolak with the AFL’s Bills in 1964. You can look it up. In Week 1 that year against the Chiefs, he made all six of his boots – two field goals, four extra points – in a 34-17 Buffalo win.

After that, the deluge. Soccer-stylers started descending on the pro game from all directions . . . and all hemispheres. If you didn’t have one kicking for you by the end of the ’70s, you were swimming against a tsunami-sized tide.

Paul Douglass during his brief NFL trial.

Paul Douglass during his brief NFL trial.

I didn’t realize until just the other day, though, that another sidewinder — as they were called — had auditioned in the NFL 11 years earlier. His name was Paul Douglass, and he went to training camp with the Giants, who’d taken him in the 13th round of the 1951 draft. Is Douglass the first soccer-style kicker to don an NFL uniform, even if it was only in the preseason? As far as I know, yes. And trust me, I’ve done a lot of digging.

Douglass had been a standout at Illinois as a defensive back and occasional kickoff man. The latter skill, according to the school newspaper, was the byproduct of being of “being one of the better soccer players from the St. Louis area.” After graduating from college, he spent two years in the Air Force during the Korean War — growing to 6-foot-2, 188 pounds — before giving the pro game a shot.

In preparation for camp, Douglass, who didn’t play football in the service, worked hard to get his leg back in shape. Or as the Daily Illini put it:

Almost any late afternoon if you drive past Fairground Park down St. Louis way you’ll see a lone figure standing among a group of small boys.

Closer inspection will reveal it to be Paul Douglass, former University of Illinois star, who will join the New York Giants professional football team next month. The kids [are] just fans who serve as his retrievers when Paul is practicing kickoffs. . . .

The Giants signed Douglass . . . chiefly to help bolster their depleted defensive ranks, but Paul hopes to solidify his position with his kicking ability.

That was the thing about the NFL in 1953. With only 33 roster spots up for grabs, versatility was a necessity for most players. The more you could do, the better your chances of making the squad. Plenty of guys, after all, were still playing both ways — including Giants legend Frank Gifford. (Or as the team’s media guide called him, “Francis.”) Gifford scored five different ways that season (2 rushing touchdowns, 4 receiving TDs, 1 interception-return TD, 1 field goal, 2 extra points) and threw a touchdown pass.

Douglass struck an unusual deal with the Giants. “Besides his [regular pay],” the Daily Illini said, he “will get $10 for every kick that goes out of the end zone, $5 for every one that goes in the end zone, and he has to pay the Giants $5 for every kick that doesn’t go that far.” It might have been the first time a player promised a club a rebate if he didn’t reach a particular performance goal.

Both The New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle ran a United Press story about Douglass and his unconventional style. Besides being able to boom the ball, he had an assortment of trick kicks that were hard for a returner to catch. “I don’t kick the ball with my toe,” he was quoted as saying. “I slice the ball with the side of my shoe.”

His repertoire, the Giants’ media guide said, included “a slider, which breaks to one side; a knuckler, which shimmies in the air and then falls erratically; and a ‘squeegee,’” which sounds like a squib kick. He learned the last one “from an English soccer star,” the wire service reported. It was a low-liner of a boot that “will bounce in at least three different directions before it loses action on a muddy field.”

There’s no telling how many times Douglass kicked off in the 1953 preseason. Game stories simply weren’t that detailed. But we know he kicked off at least once — against the Baltimore Colts in a game played in his hometown of St. Louis. The Baltimore Sun described it thusly: “Douglass’ kickoff to start the game sailed over the Colts’ end zone.” That’s 70 yards in the air, folks — if not more.

But again, there was no way he was going to make the club just as a kicker. Kicking specialists were rare in those days, and kickoff specialists were unheard of. No, he had to be one Giants’ best defensive backs to survive the final cut. And truth be known, he did have his moments as a DB.

The interceptor was Douglass.

The interceptor was Douglass.

The biggest came in the fourth quarter against the Bears, when he picked off a George Blanda pass to set up the winning score in a 14-7 victory. The ball “rolled off Jim Dooley’s fingertips and into [Douglass’] arms,” the Chicago Tribune’s George Strickler wrote, “and the rookie from Illinois raced 46 yards up the field before he was overhauled by [Hall of Famer George] Connor.”

In the end, Owen decided to cut Douglass and let Gifford and second-year man Randy Clay share the kicking. The season turned out to be a 3-9 disaster for the Giants, one that cost Stout Steve his job after 23 years of meritorious service.

And so Douglass’ contribution to pro football history has been lost, buried beneath the clouds of dust generated by the Giants offense that season. (They averaged a feeble 2.6 yards per rushing attempt, by far the fewest in the league.)

Unless, of course, the NFL had a soccer-styler even further back. Rest assured I’ll keep looking. As impactful as kickers are nowadays, we’ve gotta make sure we have this Famous First nailed down.

From the Giants' 1953 media guide.

From the Giants’ 1953 media guide.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Related content: Remembering Garo Yepremian.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of . . .

Everybody loves a good story. But you can’t love it so much — as a journalist, at least — that you don’t do your due diligence and verify, verify, verify.

One such story got some play on Twitter and elsewhere a few days ago. This was after Ikemefuna Enemkpali, the Jets’ rookie linebacker, cold-cocked starting quarterback Geno Smith and broke his jaw. NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, who’d dealt with a similar episode during his Cowboys days in the ’70s, tweeted the following: 

(Over 3,000 retweets, folks — for those of you scoring at home.)

Longley brandishes his clippings after the '74 Redskins game.

Longley brandishes his clippings after the ’74 Redskins game.

There’s only one problem: It ain’t true. For starters, nobody in 1976, not even the wily Brandt, was going to — presto chango — trade Longley for the second pick in the next draft. The kid had had a stellar small college career at Abilene Christian, sure, but he was still an unknown quantity who’d thrown just 44 passes in his two NFL seasons, completing less than half of them (19). He had, however, flashed in a 1974 Thanksgiving Day game against the Redskins, coming off the bench to throw two touchdown passes to rally the Cowboys to a memorable 24-23 win. That, and his Dallas pedigree, were what gave him some market value.

But hardly No. 2-overall-pick market value. The deal Brandt brokered actually went like this: Dallas sent Longley and its 1977 first-rounder (24th) to San Diego, and the Chargers forked over their first (14th) and second (41st) selections in the same draft. Got it? The Cowboys came away with a second-rounder and moved up 10 spots in Round 1.

The trade, then, wasn’t really Longley for Dorsett. It was Longley for a couple of the chips Brandt needed to pry the No. 2 pick away from the Seahawks. Dorsett ended up costing Dallas their young QB plus four prime selections: the first- and second-rounders acquired from San Diego and two other seconds — 30th (which came from Buffalo for defensive end Pat Toomay) and 54th (the Cowboys’ own choice) overall. That 30th choice, I’ll just remind you, would be a first-rounder today.

Peter King wrote about the Longley-Staubach scuffle in his Wednesday mailbag. And to his credit, he acknowledged:

“The details in the Cowboys story are a little fuzzy now. Brandt’s recollection differs from the memory of some Cowboy players in a Matt Mosley story for the Dallas Morning News a decade ago. Brandt recalls Longley and Staubach getting into a fight after a training-camp practice in California in 1976, Longley riding Staubach about it being time for him to retire (he was 34 in that training camp), and Staubach saying if he wanted to discuss it, they’d discuss it after practice on an adjacent field. They fought then, and later, in the team’s locker room in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Brandt recalls Longley trying to hit Staubach in the head with a folding chair — just like in the old days of professional wrestling. The players recalled the fight to Mosley, but not the chair. They say that Longley cheap-shotted Staubach when he wasn’t looking in the locker room.

This is not in dispute:

“After it happened,” Brandt said Tuesday night, “Tom Landry called. He wanted Longley traded  immediately.” Brandt, within a day, had Longley dealt to San Diego.

Not in dispute? It most certainly is in dispute — the “within a day” part, that is. Longley wasn’t traded for nearly three weeks (18 days to be exact). But “within a day” sounds so much more dramatic, doesn’t it?

On Aug. 25, 13 days after Longley jumped Staubach, The Associated Press reported:

Longley has been on the trade marts for almost a month, but Landry said, “We’ve had offers for him, but they weren’t good enough to consider. It’s possible he won’t play anywhere this year.”

Landry also added, “I never write off conciliation.”

It wasn’t until Aug. 30, when teams were beginning to set their final rosters, that the Chargers, still not sold on future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, decided they needed Longley as quarterback insurance. (In their defense, Fouts was 5-20-1 as a starter at the time and had a career passer rating of 56.)

A year later, with the legendary Dorsett rushing for over 1,000 yards as a rookie, Dallas won its second Super Bowl. By then Longley was out of the league, never to return. Brandt’s version of events make for quite a tale, but it’s only that — a Texas-sized whopper honed, no doubt, in press boxes and hospitality suites over the decades. Clint Longley slugged Roger Staubach when he had his head turned, and 24 hours later I traded the SOB for Tony Dorsett. How much more brilliant can a personnel man get?

Unfortunately for Brandt, we have the Internet now, and it’s harder to get away with these fish stories — except on websites that are either too understaffed, too overworked or too trusting to double-check basic facts.

Sigh.

(Sorry, I’m just not a print-the-legend guy. When the legend becomes fact, I begin to worry about the fate of civilization.)

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

How good was The Giffer?

The eulogies have poured forth since Frank Gifford died earlier this week at 84. And deservedly so. He was a New York icon, The Giffer was, a football/sportscasting double threat the likes of which has rarely been seen. Still, I’m not sure enough has been made of how good a back Gifford was. His celebrity as a TV personality tends to share the billing with his football exploits — so much so that you’d think he made the Hall of Fame as much for his talking as for his playing.

Let’s see if I can rectify that.

Gifford with QB Charlie Conerly after winning '56 title.

Gifford with QB Charlie Conerly after winning the ’56 title.

One of the problems for almost any player in Gifford’s era — that is, the NFL’s first 50 years — is that his statistics can seem shrunken. It was just a different time, a different game. The seasons were shorter, the yards were harder to come by (because defense hadn’t been legislated out of existence yet) and the players often went both ways, which kept them from rolling up the ridiculous offensive numbers you see today. All you can do in such a situation is measure a man against his contemporaries . . . and against those, of course, who came before him. By that yardstick, The Giffer was pretty fabulous.

By the way, did you know he holds the record for receiving yards by a running back in an NFL championship game? (Neither did I until I researched this post.) In 1956 he had 131 in the Giants’ 47-7 blowout of the Bears.

FYI: The most receiving yards by a back in the Super Bowl is 101 by the 49ers’ Roger Craig. Heck, a 131-yard receiving day in the NFL title game is unusual enough for a receiver. Since 1970 only a dozen wideouts have reached that total.

That’s the thing about Gifford. He might have played in the era of black-and-white televisions, but he was very much a Back of the Future, one who would have fit in perfectly with the West Coast offense. Indeed, he was as dangerous catching the ball as he was running with it. In his first eight seasons, 1952 to ’59, he racked up 3,347 yards rushing and 3,208 receiving. The NFL had never had a back – of Hall of Fame caliber, at least – who was so perfectly balanced.

That was Gifford’s prime as a running back. (In 1960, you may have heard, he got blindsided by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik and knocked out of the game for more than a year. When he returned, he transitioned to wide receiver — and even went to the Pro Bowl in ’63.) Anyway, at the end of the ’59 season, The Giffer compared quite favorably to pro football’s all-time backs. At that point, only five of them had gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in their NFL careers. As the following chart shows, Frank ranked second on the list, behind only Joe Perry:

MOST YARDS FROM SCRIMMAGE BY A RB (THROUGH 1959)

Years Player, Team Rushing Receiving YFS TD
1950-59 Joe Perry*, 49ers 7,151 1,271 8,422 56
1952-59 Frank Gifford, Giants 3,347 3,208 6,555 51
1952-59 Hugh McElhenny, 49ers 3,941 2,552 6,493 49
1952-59 Ollie Matson, Cards/Rams 4,194 2,280 6,474 46
1944-51 Steve Van Buren, Eagles 5,860    523 6,383 72

*Also gained 1,570 yards in the rival All-America Conference in 1948 and ’49, which would bring his total to 9,992.

That’s right. At that stage, Gifford had a slight edge over McElhenny and Matson in terms of production (touchdowns included). And Hugh and Ollie came into the league the same year Frank did, so they’re all on equal footing. (Quite a year for running backs, that ’52 draft.)

Problem was, there was no such thing as “yards from scrimmage” in 1959. The NFL didn’t keep track of them yet. To the league’s statisticians, rushing yards were all that mattered. So some of Gifford’s Total Value was probably lost on the fans. (The fans outside of New York, I mean.)

Consider: Through ’59, only six NFL backs had had a 500/500 season – 500 yards rushing, 500 receiving. Gifford was the only one who did it more than once. In fact, he did it three times.

500 YARDS RUSHING AND 500 RECEIVING BY A RB (THROUGH 1959)

Year Running back, Team Rush Rec
1943  Harry Clark, Bears 556 535
1949  Gene Roberts, Giants 634 711
1954  Ollie Matson, Cardinals 506 611
1956  Frank Gifford, Giants 819 603
1957  Frank Gifford, Giants 528 588
1958  Tom Tracy, Steelers 714 535
1958  Lenny Moore, Colts 598 938
1959  Frank Gifford, Giants 540 768

That last figure — 768 — is also worth discussing. After all, 768 yards in a 12-game season is the equivalent of 1,012 in 16 games. Just three running backs, let’s not forget, have had a 1,000-yard receiving season — Craig (1,016) and the Chargers’ Lionel James (1,027) in 1985 and the Rams’ Marshall Faulk (1,048) in ’99. So, again, at his best, Gifford did things modern backs have rarely done, even with all the rule changes favoring offense.

Before becoming the Giants’ starting left halfback, The Giffer made the Pro Bowl as a defensive back — while also getting playing time on offense. After a 14-10 loss to the Steelers in 1953, The New York Times said he “played a whale of a game” and logged “some 50 minutes of two-way action.” (The Brooklyn Eagle seconded the motion, calling it “a brilliant performance as an iron man on offense and defense.”) He scored the Giants’ only touchdown that day on a 6-yard reception and, for good measure, booted the extra point. (Yeah, he could kick a little, too.)

Earlier that season, the Eagle summed up his efforts against the Redskins this way:

[One of] the only bright spots in the New York picture yesterday [was] Frank Gifford, crack defensive back. Gifford almost single-handed[ly] averted a shutout. He leaped high to intercept a [Jack] Scarbath flip to prevent a touchdown, and his runback to midfield paved the way for the Giants’ first score — a safety — after the ’Skins had taken a 10-0 lead.

Then, in the second period, the former Southern California ace took a lateral from Tom Landry [on an interception return] and sped down the sideline for the lone New York touchdown. Tom had snared a heave by Eddie LeBaron.

Gifford, who had been used exclusively on defense, was tossed into the game to pass in the closing moments as a last-minute desperation measure by coach Steve Owen.

That brings us to the Last But Not Least part of this post: Gifford’s arm. He threw the ball about as well as any running back in the modern era — as his 14 touchdown passes, a record for his position, attest. On five occasions he staked the Giants to a 7-0 lead with a TD toss, and in another game he threw for two scores. (What were the Chicago Cardinals thinking?) Here’s a great factoid: The last touchdown of Owen’s Hall of Fame coaching career came on a 10-yard flip from Gifford to Ray Pelfrey.

And here’s another: Frank threw as many TD passes in 63 attempts as Ryan Leaf did in 655 – and one less than Matt Leinart did in 641.

About all that’s missing from Gifford’s resumé is some kick-return heroics. But there’s a reason for that: The Giants had Hall of Famer Em Tunnell to run back punts (though Frank did average 25.8 yards on 23 kickoff returns). Besides, no sense in spreading the guy too thin, right? He was already doing everything but sweeping out the stadium.

Running back, receiver, defensive back, passer, kicker — there haven’t been many modern players as multitalented as Frank Gifford. Just wanted to drive home that point a bit more forcefully as we look back on his career and pay our final respects.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Related content:

Chuck Bednarik’s famed hit on Gifford in 1960.

Gifford’s appearance on the What’s My Line? game show during his 1956 MVP season.

The Giffer cuts upfield against the Baltimore Colts in 1955.

The Giffer cuts upfield against the Baltimore Colts in 1955.