Category Archives: 1930s

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?


Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

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 lily-white years (1934-45)

After the 1933 season, black players disappeared from the NFL for 12 years — until the Second World War was over. The league’s founding fathers were never very anxious to talk about this shameful episode. When the subject was broached with the Bears’ George Halas in the early ’60s, he replied: “Probably it was due to the fact that no great [black] players were in the colleges then. That could be the reason. But I’ve never given this a thought until you mentioned it. At no time has it ever been brought up. Isn’t that strange?”

In Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book ever written about the pro game, another pioneer, Dr. Harry March, gave two rationales for the ban: (1) “There are so many Southern boys in the league that much feeling is sure to result”; and (2) “Management is frequently embarrassed by the refusal of dining cars and restaurants to serve the colored players and of hotels to give them the desired accommodations which the white players receive.”

(For good measure: March threw this in: “The Indians object more to playing against Negroes than do the Southern men for some reason.”)

At any rate, the issue was seldom raised in the early decades. Major-league baseball didn’t have any blacks then, either, so the NFL hardly felt like it owed anyone an explanation — never mind an apology. That’s why a couple of stories that ran in the Brooklyn Eagle in November 1935 are so remarkable. They discussed, in depth, what was never discussed: Why blacks had been excluded from the league.

“The way of the black man,” Harold Parrott wrote, “is beset with flying tackles and blocks of a more than flesh-and-blood sort in football, be it the college brand or among the paid platoons.

It may be news, for instance, that colored men, no matter if they be as brilliant as some of the dozen Negroes who have starred since the pro league’s beginning in [1920], have now been barred by unwritten law — for their own good.

Bears Hall of Famer Red Grange (77) tries to catch the Cardinals' Joe Lillard (19).

The Bears’ Red Grange (77) tries to catch the Cardinals’ Joe Lillard (19).

Parrott then turned to Brooklyn Dodgers coach Paul Schissler, who had coached black star Joe Lillard when the two were with the Chicago Cardinals. “I feel sorry for Lillard,” Schissler said. “He was a fine fellow, not as rugged as most in the pro game, but very clever. But he was a marked man, and I don’t mean that just the Southern boys took it out on him, either; after a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works, and I’d have to take him out. Somebody started it, it seemed, and everybody would join in.

“But that wasn’t the worst. It got so my Cardinals were a marked team because we had Lillard with us, and how the rest of the league took it out on us! We had to let him go, for our own sake and for his, too! Playing in the line wouldn’t have been so bad, but how Lillard took punishment at halfback!”

Schissler was no bigot. In fact, he was one of the era’s more enlightened coaches. Several years later, when he was running the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast League, he had another black legend, tailback Kenny Washington, on his team. (It was Washington — along with end Woody Strode — who re-integrated the NFL in 1946 with the Los Angeles Rams.)

Parratt’s follow-up to this story is every bit as fascinating. Lillard and Fritz Pollard, yet another black great, were playing at the time for the Harlem Brown Bombers, a barnstorming black team, and “confronted the writer,” Parratt wrote, when they found out about Schissler’s comments. The idea that blacks were being kept out of the NFL for self-preservation’s sake was ludicrous, they told him.

Pollard: “I played for 20 years, with white teams and against ’em, and I was never hurt so bad I had to quit a game. I took Jim Thorpe’s $1,000 dare that I’d never go near Canton, Ohio, in 1920. Not only did the Akron team and myself go there, but we beat ’em 10 to 0. I coached the Gilberton, Pa., team in 1923, on which were [white stars] Walter French, Lou Little, Heinie Miller and Lud Wray, and I played with ’em. I weighed 160 or so, and they never made me or the other colored boys — Paul Robeson, Inky Williams, Duke Slater and the rest — who followed in the pro league quit, either. So they needn’t say that’s the reason they’re keeping us out of the league. Joe, here, is as good as any back in that league right now, and he always took it when he played there.”

Lillard: “The pro league and the way they are supposed to hand out the bumps is a joke. Why, I never got hurt among the pros like I did when I was in college. It’s a business in the [National Football] league, and they let you be. But I can remember when I was playin’ for Doc Spears at the University of Oregon in 1931 – the year we beat Washington . . . with a sophomore team — why, fellows on the other team used to be told to gang [up on] me even when I wasn’t in a play, to try to get me off the field.”

According to Parratt, Art Rooney’s Pittsburgh club “offered $15,000” for Lillard “and was turned down.” After the ’33 season, Joe “was mysteriously released. Every club he contacted told him politely its ‘roster was full.’

“How strange in a league where Pollard, the all-America[n] Robeson, . . . Inky Williams, Sol Butler, John Shelburne of Dartmouth and Duke Slater of Iowa had helped build early foundations! All colored greats!”

That said, the Racial Animosity Thing was overblown, Pollard insisted. He’d “played with and against Alabamans and Georgians,” Parratt wrote, “and some of them are his greatest friends. He played on the borderline of Texas itself once.” As for Thorpe’s $1,000 challenge, it was just a publicity stunt, Fritz said. Jim was “one of the best friends I ever had.

“It’s the odd ideas of a few men who bring about this condition,” Pollard went on. He singled out Halas as one of those men. In 1925, Fritz’s next-to-last NFL season, he played for the Providence Steam Roller against the Bears — or rather, he tried to. “I got $3,000 for that game,” he told Parratt, “but because Halas brought pressure to bear, I was not allowed into the game until the last two minutes. Fifty-eight minutes on the bench for $3,000.”

(Papa Bear was probably worried that Pollard might show up Red Grange, who joined Chicago late in the season after finishing his college career at Illinois.)

Again, you just didn’t see stories like this in the 1930s . . . or the 1940s . . . or even the 1950s. Harold Parratt, wherever you are, we salute you. Had more mainstream sportswriters followed your lead, the NFL’s racial history might read much differently.

Sid Luckman’s family skeletons

Often, the best stories are the most buried ones, lost beneath the avalanche of years. The tale I’m about to tell certainly falls into that category. It begins with a murder in a Brooklyn garage 80 years ago tomorrow, a crime so common in that place and time that it didn’t even warrant its own headline in the Brooklyn Eagle. It was merely rolled into a roundup of five New York City killings that had taken place that weekend in March 1935.

“Meanwhile,” the Eagle reported, “police sought solutions to the three Brooklyn killings and the other Manhattan murder.

Detectives of the Stagg Street station were questioning a number of persons in their investigation of the murder of Samuel Druckman [correct spelling: Drukman], 35, of 2408 Beverly Road, whose body was found last night stuffed in the rear luggage compartment of a car in a garage at 225 Moore St. He had been beaten on the head and strangled with his own necktie. Near his body was found the butt of a billiard cue.

Three men were being held for questioning. They are Meyer Luckman, 59, of 2501 Cortelyou Road, said by police to be the owner of the garage, and a brother-in-law of Druckman; Harry Luckman, 36, of 1170 Lincoln Place, a nephew of Meyer, and Fred J. Hull of 760 Brady Ave., the Bronx. Hull has served time for robbery, police said. All three men had blood on their clothes, police said.

Barely a month earlier, Meyer’s son, Sidney, had graduated in mid-year from Erasmus Hall High. Along with his diploma he was awarded the school’s highest athletic honor, the John R. McGlue Trophy. This, too, is from the Eagle:

Not only for his performances in the world of sports has Luckman been named as the recipient of this honor. He also qualified to have his name inscribed on the coveted prize because of his stalwart and dependable character, his true interpretation of sportsmanship and, in addition, his ability to maintain a high average in his studies.

Erasmus’ principal, Dr. John F. McNeill, told the paper the McGlue Trophy was “not essentially an athletic prize. It is given to the boy whose conduct and character most closely emulate John R. McGlue, one of Erasmus’ finest graduates. Sidney Luckman well deserves the honor.”

I wrote about this at length in The National Forgotten League and won’t re-plow a lot of old ground here. I’ll just point out that it’s one of the more remarkable stories I’ve come across in my decades of digging. Meyer Luckman — a mobster with ties to the infamous Louis Lepke, according to the newspapers — ended up spending the last eight years of his life in Sing Sing for the brutal murder of his wife’s brother (who, it was said, had stolen money from the family trucking business to cover gambling debts).

Meyer also sparked a corruption probe initiated by the New York governor when one of his henchmen bribed the grand jury and got the original charges dropped. It was a sorry chapter in Brooklyn’s history — and that’s saying something when you consider the borough’s reputation in those Murder Inc. days.

Anyway, from these ashes emerged one of pro football’s greatest quarterbacks. Sid Luckman easily could have been swallowed up by the scandal and the shame, but instead he went on to be an All-American tailback at Columbia and a Hall of Fame QB with the Chicago Bears. Had World War II not come along, he likely would won more titles than any NFL quarterback (though his four rings are still enough to tie for second with Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady).

Luckman signing photoAnd to think George Halas had to talk him into turning pro, which was hardly a given for draft picks in the late ’30s. Sid’s first inclination was to go into the family trucking business and try to repair the damage done by his father’s criminal activities (and the high-profile trial that had dragged them into public view). But football was too much a part of him — and Halas’ handsome offer undoubtedly didn’t hurt. Papa Bear called it “one of the most attractive contracts we have ever offered a freshman player.” (The New York Times later put his rookie salary at $5,500.)

Halas desperately needed a smart, accurate passer to run his revolutionary T-formation offense, someone who could keep pace with Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, the Redskins’ single-wing legend. He found him in Luckman, the mobster’s kid from Brooklyn, but it might very well never have happened. That’s the beauty of it.Luckman signing story

The bootlegger who bought an NFL team

NFL owners live in a fishbowl these days, just as their players and coaches do. When the Colts’ Jim Irsay runs into addiction problems or the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam has the FBI descend on his company, they’re major stories, endlessly discussed by fans and media alike.

Big Bill Dwyer

Big Bill Dwyer

It wasn’t always thus. In the early days, when the league and its owners were more below the radar, a team could be sold to somebody who’d spent 13 months in federal prison for bootlegging . . . and nobody would say a word.

William V. Dwyer was the somebody’s name. In 1930 he brought a dormant franchise that he turned into the Brooklyn Dodgers (who played their games at Ebbets Field, home of the baseball Dodgers). This is the same Big Bill Dwyer who’d been dubbed the “King of the Bootleggers” during Prohibition and presided over a huge illegal empire. How huge? Time magazine summed up his operation this way:

William V. Dwyer manufactured liquor in the U.S. He imported liquor from Canada, Cuba, Europe. He owned trucks, speedboats, 20 ships of foreign registry. He employed 800 men, a few women. He bribed Prohibition agents, put some of his own men into the Coast Guard service. In two-and-a-half years preceding January 1926, he had done a liquor business of some $50 million. Manhattan was the center of his activities.

From July 1927 to August 1928, Dwyer’s home was the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. By this time he was already involved in pro sports as the owner of the NHL’s New York Americans. When he was paroled, he added the Dodgers to his portfolio and also got more heavily involved in horse racing, building Tropical Park Race Track outside Miami.

“Big Bill was a promoter on a vast scale,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1949. . . .

He also owned limitless quantities of alcohol and if, during the turbulent ’20s, you imbibed whisky that didn’t burn a hole in your esophagus, chances are it was Dwyer’s. At any rate, he obtained control of the idle borough franchise and brought in John Depler, a former Illinois captain, as coach.

He also brought in a vast array of talent — Father Lumpkin, Stumpy Thomason, Ollie Samson, Jack McBride from the Giants, Tex Thomas, Indian Yablock, and later [Hall of Fame quarterback] Benny Friedman and Jack Grossman. . . .

[The Dodgers’] average attendance was 17,000, but they drew as many as 28,000 one day. But Big Bill began to feel the Depression in 1933 and sold out to Chris Cagle and Shipwreck Kelly [for a reported price of “more than $25,000”].

(Cagle and Kelly were still active players — the last, in fact, to own an NFL team.)

After that, it only got worse for Dwyer. His financial difficulties forced the NHL to take over his Americans franchise in 1936, and three years later the U.S. government won a $3.7 million judgment against him for unpaid taxes. When he died in 1946, though, he was still living in an exclusive neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, so the tax suit couldn’t have totally cleaned him out.

Nowadays, of course, Dwyer wouldn’t survive the NFL’s vetting process. But in 1930, when the league was desperate for owners with deep pockets — deep enough to bankroll a team in a big market — Big Bill’s bootlegging past could be winked at.

Besides, public opinion toward such activities was a little different in those years. As actor George Raft, who walked in Dwyer’s world for a time, reminisced in his autobiography:

I knew that Owney Madden, Larry Fay, Big Bill Dwyer, Waxey Gordon and others were powerful in New York. They all wore expensive clothes, drove custom-built cars and lived in kingly suits.

To me, a Hell’s Kitchen kid with no education and no special talent, the Prohibition gangsters were no criminals. They were big men, the only heroes available in my crowded, violent little sidewalk world. When they patted me on the back and said, “Georgie, you’re an O.K. guy,” it was like an orphan getting the nod from John D. Rockefeller.


Punters throwing postseason TD passes

Sorry to be bringing this to your attention so late. Things get a little backed up sometimes at Pro Football Daly. Still, I hope you’ll be amused.

In the NFC title game, you may recall, Seahawks punter Jon Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Garry Gilliam — on a fake-field-goal play, no less — to kick-start Seattle’s comeback from a 16-0 deficit. Many news outlets reported, as did, that the TD toss “was the first by a punter in NFL postseason history.”

Oh, please. In all of NFL postseason history? All 83 years of it? You might want to do a little more research on that.

Here’s a punter throwing for the game-winning score in the 1937 title game, won by the Redskins over the Bears, 28-21. It’s Sammy Baugh, who doubled as a punter-quarterback in those multitasking days (as did many others). Baugh booted five of Washington’s seven punts that afternoon — with limited substitution, it was often a shared responsibility — and also had three touchdown passes (measuring 55, 78 and 35 yards).

And here’s another punter throwing the last of his five TD passes — then a postseason record — in the Bears’ 41-21 mauling of the Redskins in the ’43 championship game. I’m talking about Sid Luckman, who also punted three times that day.

And here’s another punter throwing a touchdown pass in the 1960 title game. That would be the Eagles’ Norm Van Brocklin, a Hall of Famer like Baugh and Luckman (and the league’s MVP that season). Van Brocklin was second in passer rating (86.5) and fifth in punting average (43.1) in ’60 to lead Philadelphia to its last NFL championship.

I could go on — YouTube has some great footage of the Packers’ Arnie Herber and the Rams’ Bob Waterfield doing the same thing — but I just wanted to make a point. Yes, Ryan might be the first punting specialist to toss a TD pass in the postseason, but he’s far from the first punter.

Danny White, for goodness sakes, did it in eight different games for the Cowboys in the ’70s and ’80s. In the 1980 playoffs against the Rams, he threw for three scores and averaged 44.5 yards a punt. That’s better than Ryan’s 42.4-yard average. In the ’42 title game, Baugh had a touchdown pass and averaged 52.5 yards a punt, including a 61-yarder on a quick kick. In the ’50 championship game, Waterfield had a TD pass and averaged 50.8 yards a punt. These guys weren’t punters by default or something. They could really boot the ball.

By my count, eight NFL players threw a touchdown pass in a postseason game — and also punted — before Ryan became the “first” to do it. Moreover, these eight accomplished the feat a total of 27 times. (I’m excluding John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, who also pulled it off — in Elway’s case, on four occasions — but can’t be considered punters. Brady, by the way, did it on a night he fired six TD passes.)

Anyway, just wanted to clarify that. Congratulations, Jon Ryan. You made a nice throw, one that helped put your club in the Super Bowl. But don’t let anybody tell you an NFL punter had never done that before. Once upon a time, punters could walk and chew gum.


Seahawks punter Jon Ryan heaves a TD pass in the NFC title game vs. the Packers.

Seahawks punter Jon Ryan lobs a TD pass in the NFC title game vs. the Packers.

Intra-division coaching moves

There are no non-compete clauses in NFL coaching contracts. If a coach gets fired and wants to take a job with another team in the same division — or even if he doesn’t get fired (see: Bill Parcells) — he’s free to do so. And so we have the Jets getting rid of Rex Ryan, and Ryan moving on to Buffalo, where he’ll have the chance to torment his old employer twice a year.

This is a rare happening in pro football, especially since there wasn’t any Cooling-Off Period — no season or two as a defensive coordinator, no tour of duty as a TV talking head — before Ryan got another head-coaching gig. He’s jumping right back in the saddle . . . in the AFC East. Don’t you just love it?

According to my research, there have been only six coaching moves like Ryan’s in NFL history — four in the modern era (since 1960), two in the early days. And get this: The four most recent ones all have been in the AFC East. (Or should we start calling it The Division of Eternal Intrigue?) This isn’t, moreover, the first time the Bills have been involved in such a switch, and it isn’t the Jets’ maiden voyage, either. The details:

● Rex Ryan, Jets to Bills, 2015.

Record with Jets (2009-14): 50-52 overall, 4-2 playoffs. High point(s): Lost AFC title games in 2009 (30-17 to Colts) and ’10 (24-19 to Steelers).

Comment: Ryan was 7-5 vs. Buffalo in his six seasons with the Jets, so for that reason alone it’s a good hire, right? Plus, he gets to continue his blood feud with the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, and that’s always entertaining.

● Bill Parcells, Patriots to Jets, 1997.

Record with Patriots (1993-96): 34-34 overall, 2-2 playoffs. High point: Lost Super Bowl 31 to Packers, 35-21.

Record with Jets (1997-99): 30-20 overall, 1-1 playoffs, 4-2 vs. Patriots. High point: Lost 1998 AFC title game to Broncos, 23-10.

Comment: This was one of the messier exits, with jilted New England owner Bob Kraft demanding compensation and getting it (including a No. 1 pick). Even Parcells has come to regret his decision. The Patriots, after all, were young and ready to win big. But Kraft wasn’t the man who’d hired him (previous owner James Orthwein was), so it was easier to bail out at the end of his four-year deal.

The Colts let this guy leave. Oops.

Three years earlier, the Colts let this guy leave. Oops.

● Don Shula, Colts to Dolphins, 1970.

Record with Colts (1963-69): 73-26-4 overall, 2-3 playoffs. High points(s): Lost 1964 title game to Browns, 27-0. Lost Super Bowl III to Jets, 16-7 (after beating Cleveland, 34-0, for NFL championship).

Record with Dolphins (1970-95): 274-147-2 overall, 17-14 playoffs, 36-17 vs. Colts. High point(s): Went to five more Super Bowls and won two, the first of which capped a perfect season (17-0) — still the only one in the NFL’s 95 years. Blanked Baltimore 21-0 in the 1971 AFC title game.

Comment: This might have been the last shot fired in the NFL-AFL war. The two leagues merged in 1970, with the Colts, Steelers and Browns joining the AFC to balance the conferences (that is, give each of them 13 clubs). Baltimore was reassigned from the NFL Coastal Division to the AFC East. But before the season began, Dolphins owner Joe Robbie lured Shula to Miami by giving him a piece of the franchise and the coach-general manager title.

The Colts were none too pleased, even though Shula had asked permission to speak to Robbie. Their general manager, Don Klosterman, accused the Dolphins of “tampering” and said, “I think this was handled in a subversive manner. . . . In pro football, you are supposed to follow protocol whenever you would like to hire an individual from another team. . . . This isn’t the way for members of the football fraternity to carry on.”

Baltimore ended up getting a first-round pick as compensation (running back Don McCauley) and actually won the Super Bowl that season under new coach Don McCafferty. But, well, look at the results. Shula went on to a Hall of Fame career in Miami — and routinely beat the Colts in his 26 years there. Baltimore, meanwhile, soon changed owners (from Carroll Rosenbloom to Robert Irsay), then changed cities (hello, Indianapolis) and didn’t regain its mojo until Bill Polian and Peyton Manning arrived on the scene in the late ’90s.

(Of course, you have to remember: At the time, there were questions — legitimate ones — about whether Shula could win the big one. That’s about the Colts’ only defense for letting him get away.)

● Lou Saban, Patriots to Bills, 1962.

Record with Patriots (1960-61): 7-12 overall, no playoffs. High point(s): Nobody died.

Record with Bills (1962-65 — the first of his two terms in Buffalo): 38-18-3 overall, 2-1 postseason, 4-4-1 vs. Patriots. High points(s): AFL titles in 1964 and ’65.

Comment: The Patriots fired Saban five games into their second season. Then the Bills job opened up and Travelin’ Lou went to Buffalo. With the quarterback tandem of Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica and the league’s best defense, he won two championships before ambling off to the University of Maryland in 1966 (one of the more puzzling coaching moves of all time). He lost a division playoff to the Patriots in ’63, but evened the score the following year with a 24-14 win at Fenway Park that put Buffalo in the title game (and kept the Pats out).

Dutch Clark card● Dutch Clark, Lions to Cleveland Rams, 1939.

Record with Lions (1937-38): 14-8 overall, no playoffs. High point(s): Finished second in the West both seasons with 7-4 records.

Record with Rams (1939-42): 16-26-2 overall, no playoffs, 4-4 vs. Lions.

Comment: Clark was a player-coach with the Lions . . . and only a coach with the Rams. That’s one of biggest reasons he wasn’t more successful in Cleveland. He really could have used a Hall of Fame back like himself (not that Parker Hall was any slouch). Dutch tried to makes a comeback as a player in 1939, but his old team wanted compensation (which the Rams were unwilling to pay). As commissioner Carl Storck explained it: “He was transferred to Cleveland as a coach by mutual agreement of the Lions and the Cleveland organization, as well as Dutch Clark. The only way he can play Sunday is to buy his full release.”

● Lud Wray, Redskins to Eagles, 1933.

Record with Redskins (1932): 4-4-2 (good for fourth place in the days before playoffs).

Record with Eagles (1933-35): 9-21-1 overall, no playoffs, 1-2 vs. Redskins.

Comment: Wray has the distinction of being the first coach of both the Redskins (when they were known as the Boston Braves) and the Eagles. He left Boston after one season — things were much more free-flowing then — because he and Bert Bell, his former Penn teammate, bought the Philadelphia franchise (which had been dormant since the demise of the Frankfort Yellow Jackets in 1931). The Eagles were absolutely dreadful in the pre-war years, though, and Bell eventually took control of the team (and, for a spell, coached it).

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag of outcomes here. Shula made the Colts look bad — as Saban did the Patriots — but there was nothing catastrophic about the other intra-division moves. Which side of the fence Ryan ends up on is anyone’s guess.

Bill Parcells and Patriots owner Bob Kraft pretending to get along at Super Bowl 31.

Bill Parcells and Patriots owner Bob Kraft pretending to get along at Super Bowl 31.

A decade between championships

Hall of Fame quarterbacks tend to win titles in bunches. Terry Bradshaw won his four in six seasons. Troy Aikman won his three in four. John Elway and Bob Griese won their two back-to-back. It looked like it might be that way for Tom Brady, too. He won three championships in four years (2001, ’03-04) and then . . .

Until Sunday night, that is. Against the defending champion Seahawks, the Patriots’ living legend finally got his fourth ring — a decade after No. 3.  His 10-year gap between titles is the second-longest in NFL history for a quarterback. Indeed, only half a dozen QBs have had even a 5-year gap. The list looks like this:


Quarterback, Team Won in Next Title Gap
Johnny Unitas, Colts 1959     1970 11 Years
Tom Brady, Patriots 2004     2014 10 Years
Norm Van Brocklin, Rams/Eagles 1951     1960 9 Years
Roger Staubach, Cowboys 1971     1977 6 Years
Tobin Rote, Lions/Chargers 1957     1963 6 Years
Bob Waterfield, Rams 1945     1951 6 Years
Sammy Baugh, Redskins 1937     1942 5 Years

As you may have noticed, I slipped in a seventh quarterback — Rote, who won with the ’57 Lions and ’63 Chargers (when they were still in the AFL). Tobin even spent some time in Canada between those titles. Gotta love that. Also, Waterfield and Van Brocklin shared the quarterbacking for the ’51 Rams. But since they’re both in Canton, I thought they should be included.

Of course, we’re dealing with a pretty small pool here. It’s hard enough, after all, to win one championship, never mind two (or more). Unitas, by the way, lost two title games between 1959 and ’70 (1964 plus the ’68 Super Bowl as a backup), just as Brady did between 2004 and ’14 (2007’11). So they have that in common as well.


The one and only Johnny U, getting ready to throw a long one.

The one and only Johnny U, getting ready to throw a long one.

Six title games in 14 seasons

What does it mean, historically, to do what the Patriots have done in the 2000s: go to six Super Bowls in 14 seasons? How rare is a run like that?

In the free agency era (1993-), of course, no other team has come close to it. You’d have to go back to the ’70s and earlier to find clubs that had better stretches than New England’s. See for yourself:


Team Coach(es) Title Years Total (W-L)
1950-55 Browns Paul Brown 1950-51-52-53-5455 6 in 6 years (3-3)
1960-67 Packers Vince Lombardi 1960-6162656667 6 in 8 years (5-1)
1956-63 Giants Jim Lee Howell, Allie Sherman 1956-58-59-61-62-63 6 in 8 years (1-5)
1933-41 Giants Steve Owen 1933-34-35-38-39-41 6 in 9 years (2-4)
1936-45 Redskins Ray Flaherty, 2 others 1936-37-40-42-43-45 6 in 10 years (2-4)
1937-46 Bears George Halas, 2 others 1937-4041-42-4346 6 in 10 years (4-2)
1932-41 Bears Ralph Jones, George Halas 193233-34-37-4041 6 in 10 years (4-2)
1929-39 Packers Curly Lambeau 1929303136-38-39 6 in 11 years (5-1)
1966-77 Cowboys Tom Landry 1966-67-70-71-75-77 6 in 12 years (2-4)
2001-14 Patriots Bill Belichick 20010304-07-11-14 6 in 14 years (3-2)

(Note: Championship seasons are boldfaced. Also, the Packers’ 1929, ’30 and ’31 titles were based on their regular-season record. The first championship game wasn’t played until ’32.)

As you can see, the two Bears entries from the ’30s and ’40s overlap. If you combine them, Chicago went to nine title games in 15 years (1932-46). It’s the same with the two Giants entries from that period. Combine them, and the Giants played in eight championship games in 14 years.

As for the Cowboys, they didn’t go to the Super Bowl in 1966 and ’67, but they did reach the NFL championship game both seasons. That’s why I included them – because they the second-best team in pro football (with all due respect to the ’66 Chiefs and ’67 Raiders, champions of the AFL).*

At any rate, the Patriots’ accomplishment is quite a feat given the limitations of the salary cap and the comings and goings of players. Their closest competitors in recent decades are the 1986-98 Broncos (five Super Bowls in 13 years) and the 1981-94 49ers (five in 14 years).

*The 1967-78 Cowboys also went to six title games in 12 seasons.


Bears coach George Halas after winning the 1940 title over the Redskins by the slim margin of 73-0.

Bears coach George Halas after winning the 1940 title game over the Redskins by the slim margin of 73-0.

The youngest QBs to win two rings

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

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


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

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

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

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

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