Category Archives: 1940s

Sammy Baugh’s game of games

You can argue into triple overtime how good the NFL’s early players were. But it’s hard not to be impressed with the day the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh had against the Lions on Nov. 14, 1943: four touchdown passes and — as a defensive back — four interceptions in a 42-20 Washington win.

Nobody else in league history has had a game quite like it. Indeed, the four picks are still a record (tied many times). And get this: two other Detroit passes were just out of his reach. That’s right, Baugh could have had six INTs.

You can see most of these plays in the living-color(!) game footage I came across on YouTube. A couple of his scoring throws are snipped out — probably so someone could assemble a compilation reel of TDs — but almost everything else is in there. Why don’t I walk you through it with a series of clips?

Remember: This was the era of two-way players, and during the war years Sammy logged even more minutes because rosters were so much thinner. In fact, he rarely came out of the game. He was so tremendously versatile that he did just about everything but kick (though he did serve as a holder).

Three of his interceptions — he had 11 that season to lead the NFL — came in the second quarter and the other early in the third. So he accomplished the feat in barely more than 15 minutes of clock time. Amazing. How it unfolded:

Interception No. 1: Baugh swoops in to pick off a duck.

Interception No. 2: How’s this for a sideline grab?

Interception No. 3: Not only did Sammy stop the Lions’ scoring threat at the 1-yard line, he picked himself up after getting knocked down and ran to the 10 to give the Washington offense more room to operate. (You could do that back then, even if you were “down by contact.”)

Interception No. 4: More opportunism. (He fumbled at the end of the return, but the Redskins recovered.)

Baugh might not have been the fastest player on the field, but at 6-foot-2 he had unusual wingspan for a safety, which made him hard to throw over. The guy was just An Athlete — one with terrific (and conveniently large) hands. If he could reach a ball, he usually caught it.

Now let’s look at how close he came to two other picks.

Near miss No. 1:

Near miss No. 2:

As you’ve no doubt gathered, games could be pretty wild back then, with turnovers galore. The Redskins and Lions both worked out of the single or double wing, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for imagination — and improvisation. How about a fake jump pass?

As for Baugh’s other duties, here he is returning a punt:

And here is blocking on a kickoff (he’s the No. 33 on the right side of the wedge):

And here he is holding for an extra point:

And here he is punting (which he did about as well as anybody in those days):

(That one looks like a quick kick because he’s only about 6 or 7 yards behind the center. Anyway, it was downed on the Detroit 8.)

Whoops, almost forgot about Sammy’s TD tosses. Here’s No. 3, a 10-yarder to Bob Masterson:

And here’s No. 4, a 4-yard flip to Joe Aguirre (who, by the way, was blind in one eye):

(Again, his first two scoring passes are missing.)

What a player. What a performance. Too bad he had to share the newspaper billing the next day with the Bears’ Sid Luckman, who threw for a record seven touchdowns in a 56-7 wipeout of the Giants:

Luckman Baugh Newspaper Head

Note: If you want to read more about Baugh’s remarkable 1943 season, check out the piece I wrote about it for Peter King’s site, MMQB.

(Sorry for the advertising on some of the clips. It was the only way I could pull this off.)

Players behaving badly

It’s a natural question to ask, given the antics of some NFL players in recent years — Prince Shembo’s drop-kicking of a dog, Ray Rice’s slugging of his Significant Other, etc.: Have players always been this out of control? What kinds of things did they get arrested for in the alleged Good Old Days?

Rest assured footballers have always been footballers, though their crimes of choice decades ago tended to be different from today — more typical than terrible. I’ve gathered a bunch of them so you’ll get a feel for the scope of their misbehavior. Remember: This is just a sampling. There’s plenty more where these came from.

● 1926: Jim Thorpe gets drunk in the midst of Prohibition.

This happened during Red Grange’s postseason barnstorming tour with the Bears. As you may have heard, ol’ Bright Path had a weakness for the bottle. His drinking buddy, according to the story below, was C.C. Wiederquist — a great football name. But I’m pretty sure it’s misspelled and that The Associated Press was referring to Chester Carl “Chet” Widerquist, who played six seasons in the NFL (and didn’t, near as I can tell, attend the University of Minnesota).Jim Thorpe intoxication 1-5-26

● 1938: Shipwreck Kelly breaks up a marriage.

Kelly, the toast (literally) of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a legendary Man About Town. Three years later he married heiress Brenda Frazier, who once graced the cover of Life magazine. What I wouldn’t give to follow Shipwreck around for a night and see where it took him. Nowadays, of course, he’d get killed by the social media. The whole world would take a selfie with him and post it on Facebook. But back then you could disappear in the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.Shipwreck Kelly 1-18-38 Eagle● 1946: Double disaster.

I’m not sure the you-know-what ever hit the fan in pro football like it did in December 1946. Before the NFL title game, a fix attempt was uncovered that involved two Giants, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes. Both were banned indefinitely from the league. Before the championship game in the rival All-America Conference, meanwhile, three Browns got a little rowdy and one of them, team captain Jim Daniell, lost his job because of it. How does this compare with, say, the Falcons’ Eugene Robinson getting charged with solicitation the night before the Super Bowl?'46 fix attempt and Danielle head side by side 12-16-46

FYI: Daniell and his two running mates were later acquitted. But then, so were the Black Sox.Daniell and 2 others acquitted 12-23-46● 1959: Another DUI charge for Bobby Layne.

I say “another” because the Hall of Fame quarterback had one two years earlier when he was with the Lions. He managed to escape conviction on both occasions, as I posted about a while back. It’s pretty comical. The first time, his lawyer argued that police had mistaken his Texas drawl for slurred speech, and in this second instance, his lawyer said Bobby’s “extreme hoarseness, which may have led the police to suspect intoxication, was the result of a severe case of laryngitis.” (Then again, maybe he just had a shot glass stuck in his throat.)Layne DUI 8-25-59● 1960: John Henry Johnson falls behind on his child-support payments.

Fortunately for Johnson, who’s also in Canton, the term Deadbeat Dad hadn’t been invented yet. Five kids. Can you imagine how that would play in 2015?JH Johnson alimony 3-10-60● 1972: Karl Sweetan tries to sell his Rams playbook to the Saints, one of his former teams.

Sweetan wasn’t much of a quarterback, but he gained eternal infamy for this pathetic move. Like most of his passes — 54.4 percent, to be exact — it was incomplete.Sweetan 7-8-72

So there you have it, a sampling of off-field trouble from pro football’s first 50-odd years. Moral: These guys have always acted up. In the 2000s, it isn’t necessarily the magnitude of their misconduct that’s bigger; sometimes it’s just the microscope they’re under.

Postscript: NFL players haven’t always been on the wrong side of the law. I leave you with this story about John Kreamcheck, a Bears defensive tackle in the ’50s, who became a detective:Kreamcheck arrests suspect 7-6-67Sources: Google newspapers, Brooklyn Eagle archives, Chicago Tribune archives, pro-football-reference.com.

The NFL’s artistic gift to the NHL

The NFL and NHL don’t have much overlap. There have been pro football players, for instance, who played major-league baseball, and even a few who played pro basketball, but I’m not aware of any who played pro hockey. (The closest anyone came was probably in the Ice Bowl between the Packers and Cowboys.)

There is one interesting intersection between the two leagues, though, and it’s worth bringing up now that the Stanley Cup Finals are upon us. Did you know the guy responsible for this cover art of Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau . . .Coulter Beliveau cover March 1957

. . . and this rendering of Habs Hall of Famer Henri Richard . . .Coulter cover art of Henri Richard Oct '58

. . . and this drawing of Canadiens legend Jacques Plante stretching out to make an acrobatic save . . .Coulter Cover of 1963 offical hockey annual

. . . and many other hockey-themed works was an an-pro tackle for the Giants in the ’40s and ’50s?

DeWitt “Tex” Coulter was his name. In fact, “TEX” was how he signed his creations (as you can see). You wouldn’t expect a 6-foot-4, 250-pound, down-in-the-dirt footballer to have much of an artistic bent, but Coulter was an unusual guy. For one thing, he came out of the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth, Texas, an orphanage that became famed for its football teams. One of his buddies there, Hardy Brown, went on to be a killer (not literally, but almost) linebacker for the 49ers. I’ve posted about Brown before. He had a way of delivering a blow with his shoulder — The Humper, he called it — that left a trail of broken noses, jaws and cheekbones.

Not that Coulter, with his size, couldn’t take care of himself. How good was he? Answer: Good enough for teams to fight over. After starring on the Glenn Davis-Doc Blanchard Army powerhouses in 1944 and ’45, he got booted out of school because of a “deficiency in mathematics,” according to The New York Times. Since the ’46 draft had already been held, the Giants were allowed to sign him for that season, even though his class hadn’t graduated. (The NFL figured it was better than having him wind up in the All-America Conference, the rival league that had just launched.)

Coulter 1952 cardBut here’s the thing: At the end of the year, Coulter had to go in the ’47 draft pool — the one he would have been in — and any club could select him. The Eagles wanted him badly, but the Cardinals, picking one spot ahead of them, took him seventh overall and then, as a courtesy, traded him back to New York for the Giants’ own No. 1 (10th). So it went in the chummy NFL of the 1940s.

When he left West Point, Coulter had no intention of playing pro ball. Indeed, he’d told the Giants — and any other team that contacted him — “that he would go to Georgia Tech to study commercial art,” the Times reported. But there was a bidding war going on between the two leagues, and the money, a reported $21,500 for one year, was too good to turn down, especially since he was getting married soon to his high school sweetheart. Besides, the Giants had promised “to help me go on with my education,” he said after signing, “and I plan to go to art school in New York.”

Coulter played four seasons with the Giants, established himself as one of the top tackles in pro football, and then, at 25, did a Totally Tex thing: He walked away from the game and took a job as a cartoonist and football analyst with the Dallas Times Herald. (Believe it or not, he’d always thought it would be cool to be a newspaperman.) This is from a 1984 Dallas Morning News story by Sam Blair:

[Coulter] was a familiar figure in Southwest Conference press boxes, frequently turning to his typewriter to write a story when his artwork was finished.

“I really enjoyed that,” he said. “If I had been older, I probably would still be doing it. But I didn’t have football out of my system. When the Giants came to Dallas in the summer of ’51 to play an exhibition game with the Detroit Lions, I decided I wanted to play again. I suited up and played most of the game in the Cotton Bowl.”

If there was any rust on him, it wasn’t visible. He made the Pro Bowl the next two years and, under different circumstances, might have been a candidate for Canton. There weren’t many positions – on either side of the ball – Tex couldn’t play. He even caught eight passes for the ’47 Giants as an occasional end. (I, personally, would have loved to see him as a Nagurski-esque fullback.)

“I played end, tackle and center on offense and end, tackle and linebacker on defense,” he once said. “They used me as insurance for guys getting hurt. It was easier to shift me around than to get other people for various positions.”

There was only one problem: By then the All-America Conference — or part of it, at least — had merged with the NFL, and the absence of competition had caused salaries to drop. So, like a number of other well-known players in those days, Tex negotiated a better deal with a Canadian team, in his case the Montreal Alouettes. (Not only did he never set foot in the NFL again, he made the country his home for the next two decades. When he died in 2007, his two sons, Jeff and David, still lived in British Columbia.)

Tex portrait of Eddie ShoreIt was in Canada that Coulter really arrived as an artist. In addition to his hockey portraits and other puck-related stuff, he got a job with the Montreal Star that was much like the one he had with Dallas Times Herald. His work, meanwhile, graced magazine covers, calendars, you name it. Canadiens blogger Dennis Kane calls him “the Norman Rockwell of hockey artists.”

One last (funny) story: In 1966, 33 University of Montreal students broke into the visitors’ dressing room at the Forum and stole 44 Red Wings sweaters. They also made off with three of Coulter’s hockey paintings that were hanging in the lobby. (Which raises the question: Which were worth more on the black market, the 44 sweaters or the three paintings?)

It was all “part of the hijinks associated with the U of M’s annual winter carnival,” the Montreal Gazette reported. “. . . The students — including three females — . . . were arrested [the next night] when they appeared in the Forum following a Detroit-Canadiens game. A number of them jumped on the ice wearing the stolen Detroit sweaters, and this led to the 33 arrests.”

The newspaper didn’t mention the fate of Coulter’s artwork. Let’s hope it was returned intact. After all, we’re talking about “the Norman Rockwell of hockey artists” here — and one fabulous, if forgotten, NFL player.

Sources: pro-football-reference, Google newspapers.

From the Giants' 1952 media guide.

From the Giants’ 1952 media guide.

Johnny Siegal, 97

There’s macro NFL history — George Halas, television, expansion, The Big Stuff — and then there’s micro NFL history . . . as personified by guys like Johnny Siegal. Siegal, a two-way end from 1939 to ’43, was the oldest living former Chicago Bear when died earlier this week at 97. That made him older than the league, and how many ex-players fall into that category anymore?

Though he was part of three title teams, Siegal had, by any other measure, a modest pro career. He was mostly a backup behind George Wilson, who later coached the Lions to a championship, and in five seasons had 31 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns. His obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times was downright perfunctory.

But Siegal had another role with the Bears — involving Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman — that probably left a bigger mark on pro football. Why don’t I tell you about it?

In 1939, Johnny’s first season, Halas and his assistants were trying to reinvent the wheel. That is, they were developing the first modern offense: the T formation with man-in-motion. But they desperately needed a quarterback to run it, one who could really throw. With this in mind, Papa Bear traded end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first-round choice in the ’39 draft, and used the pick to select Luckman, the Columbia star.

But there was no guarantee in those days that a college player would move on to pro ball. It just wasn’t that glamorous a profession – or the greatest paying necessarily. Luckman’s first inclination was to go into the family trucking business, which had been suffering because of unusual circumstances: his father, who had mob ties, had been hauled off to prison for murder.

El Sid

El Sid

After the draft, Sid said, “I discussed the possibilities of professional football offers with [Columbia coach Lou] Little several times, and he advised me against it. I don’t know exactly what Mr. Little has in mind for me, but if he says it’s good that’s good enough for me. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the Giants or [Brooklyn] Dodgers had drafted me. I still would turn down any offer to play professional football.”

But Halas was a persistent man, and the following July, just before camp opened, he talked Luckman into signing for $5,000. The decision came as a surprise even to Sid’s family, who were kept out of the loop until the deal was finalized.

Hoping to ease Luckman’s transition, Halas made a little-noticed trade three weeks later. He sent guard Gust Zarnas to Brooklyn for its 17th-round pick in the  ’39 draft. The 17th-rounder was Siegal, who just so happened to be Sid’s favorite receiver at Columbia.

Halas knew the pressure his young quarterback would be under. Luckman would be joining a veteran team, one of the most successful franchises in sports, and – to complicate matters further – would have to make the difficult switch from single-wing tailback to T-formation QB. George just wanted to make Sid more comfortable, give him somebody familiar to throw to and, just as importantly, to talk to. Veterans in that era could be merciless on rookies, especially rookies who were making more money than they were.

How much Siegal helped Luckman survive the bumps and potholes can be debated, of course. What’s clear, though, is that — at the beginning, at least — Sid had few friends on the roster. Indeed, when he struggled at his new position, some vets went to Halas and told him he should trade the kid to his hometown Dodgers, who wanted him as a drawing card and could play him at tailback in coach Potsy Clark’s single wing.

Luckman was so overwhelmed those first few months that Halas lined him up at running back — just to get him on the field. Bears back Joe Maniaci told me that during camp, “I went over to Sid and told him, ‘Sid, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re going to hang around. It doesn’t look too good. There’s too many good runners and stuff.’ And he got mad at me, and we broke up as roommates.”

(Luckman and Maniaci, a Fordham grad, had been lifeguards together at Manhattan Beach. Joe had even gone to his wedding earlier that summer.)

Luckman (in my 1995 interview with him): “Dan Topping owned the Dodgers at that time — he eventually owned the New York Yankees — and he offered Halas $50,000 for me. But Halas absolutely refused to do it. The players [who tried to talk George into it] probably figured he could use that money to give them all a raise.

“At that point Halas had me at left halfback, because obviously I didn’t know anything about the T formation. But he brought in a coach named Carl Brumbaugh [one of the Bears’ early T quarterbacks], and every day after practice Carl and I would get together with one of the centers and work on the taking the snap and setting up on pass plays. It was very hard for me to get used to doing that. Over time, though, I won the respect of the players. They knew how hard I was working. They knew I was studying the plays every night. I’d take the playbook home and review everybody’s position.”

10-14-39 Luckman head in Eagle

At late as Week 6, there was still speculation Luckman might get shipped to the Dodgers. On Tuesday of that week came this report in the Brooklyn Eagle: “Topping hasn’t abandoned his quest of luring Sid Luckman away from the Chicago Bears. He intends to wait until Sunday for an answer from the Bears, believing that after the Giants-Bears clash on Sunday, George Halas, Chicago boss, may part with the Chicago star.”

As it turned out, that Giants-Bears clash at the Polo Grounds was Luckman’s coming-out party as a T-formation quarterback. When Chicago fell behind 16-0, Halas put him at QB — and the rest is history. Sid led the Bears to two touchdowns in the final seven minutes, tossing a 68-yard scoring pass to helmetless end Dick Plasman and setting up another TD with completions of 53 and 30 yards. This was no ordinary Giants team, either. It finished 9-1-1 and went to the title game.

Afterward, Halas said, “Not a chance in a million of us letting Sid go. He’s a great player, and he fits in very well with our scheme of things. Besides, he seems to like the city of Chicago very much.”

To which the Eagle added: “Whether Halas was just as intent on keeping Luckman before yesterday’s game with the Giant[s] is something to conjure with. Everyone in football circles knew that Dan Topping, Dodger[s] owner, wanted Sid and wanted him badly. They knew that Dan had the bait out for him and that Halas had taken a little nibble.”

Luckman again: “I was probably more emotional and stressful in that particular game than in any other game I’d ever been in. My adrenal glands were really working. Of course, it was my first opportunity to play quarterback, and my family was there. [Herbert] Hawkes, the dean of Columbia, was there. Lou Little, the [Columbia] players and the coaching staff were there. And Paul Sullivan, my high school coach, was there. The [P.A.] announcer who announced I was coming into the game was a fella named Lou Wilson, who had become sort of a real good friend of mine. He’d come over to the house [in Brooklyn] to visit, and we’d go out to dinner once in a while.

“Anyway, I went in, and one of the halfbacks [Bob MacLeod] told me he could get behind the defender. I would have taken anybody’s play, I was so . . . in another world, you know? So I called his play – the stop and go – and sent him in motion, and he faked out the Giants[s] defender. I was so nervous, though, that I threw the pass end-over-end, and the Giants fella was waiting to intercept it. But [MacLeod] came in from behind and took the ball [away from him]. It was probably the worst . . . pass in the history of sports.”

For Sid Luckman, that’s where it all began. That was his first shaky step on the road to Canton. Two Sundays later he flipped a touchdown pass in the Bears’ 30-27 win over the Packers — who would go on to win the championship — and the next season he quarterbacked Chicago to the title . . . in 73-0 fashion. It was the first of four rings for Luckman in a seven-year stretch.

And it might never have happened if Halas, not always the most patient guy, hadn’t turned down a pile of money for him — in the midst of the Depression, no less. Would Luckman have had the kind of career with the Dodgers that he did with the star-studded Bears? Not likely. He also wouldn’t have transitioned to the T formation, which was made for him, so soon, and he might not have lasted 12 seasons. Tailback, let’s not forget, was a much more physically demanding position than quarterback. You were expected to be a running threat (and occasionally to block).

No, Chicago was the better place for Luckman — the ideal place, really — and Siegal’s presence was a small part of that. Somehow, Johnny found time to go to Northwestern Dental School in his off hours (as did fullback Bill Osmanski). That was Halas for you. He liked players who could win with their minds as well as their muscles.

(When Siegal went into the military during World War II, Hugh Fullerton Jr. of The Associated Press ran this funny item in his column: “Lieut. [jg] Johnny Siegal, former Columbia and Bears end, has left the Bainbridge [Md.] Naval Training Station to take up his new duties as dentist at Annapolis. Maybe Johnny isn’t going to help Navy put in the ‘T,’ but he’ll sure put in the teeth.”)

During the ’42 season, when the Bears came to Brooklyn, Luckman and Siegal spent their Saturday afternoon watching their alma mater beat Colgate. The star of the game was Columbia’s latest tailback sensation, Paul Governali, who hit 17 of 25 passes and threw for three touchdowns.

“He was better than Luckman ever was,” Little told the attending scribes, “and I never thought that would be possible to see. Of course, you must remember that Sid worked wonders with Paul during the summer and showed him how to move and throw. He ‘made’ Governali. Now Paul shuffles and cocks his arm just as Sid does. In fact, I think they are identical passers, or as close as any performers can be.”

While the Baker Field crowd cheered one of Governali’s TD tosses, Siegal leaned over to Luckman. “See?” he said, as only a longtime teammate can. “I told you Governali is a better passer than you are, and now I am sure of it.”

Sources: Brooklyn Eagle archives, pro-football-reference.com.

Memorial Day

Seventy summers ago, NFL players began to filter back to the league after getting discharged from the military. The lucky ones, at least. Some, who’d lost a sizable chunk of their careers to

Jack Sanders

Jack Sanders

World War II, walked away from football with barely a backward glance. Others, like Chicago Cardinals back Mario “Motts” Tonelli — a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a captive of the Japanese for nearly four years — simply weren’t up to the rigors of the game anymore.

Then there was Steelers guard Jack Sanders. The war had taken a heavy toll on him, too. While serving with the Marines on Iwo Jima, he’d lost his left hand and wrist in an explosion. He’d also suffered shrapnel wounds and significant hearing loss, and one of his legs was broken in three places.

That should have been it for Sanders as a pro football player. But then he saw Pete Gray, baseball’s one-armed wonder, scurrying around Philadelphia’s Shibe Park for the St. Louis Browns, and told himself, “If he can do it, so can I.”

At the time, Sanders was being treated at the Naval Hospital in Philly, where a brace and pad were made for his arm. As a courtesy, the Steelers loaned him to the Eagles so he could try to keep playing while receiving therapy. (Actually, “try” might not be the best choice of words here. If at all possible, coach Greasy Neale was going to find a place for him on the roster. It was just the way things were in 1945.)

Starting left guard Jack Sanders.

Starting left guard Jack Sanders.

Sanders returned to the NFL in a preseason charity game against the defending champion Packers. The crowd topped 90,000 and included tens of thousands of servicemen, many of whom had been wounded or were amputees themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the scene thusly:

The thunderous crescendo rolled from one side of Municipal Stadium and back again as Lieutenant Jack Sanders of the Marine Corps ran onto the field to take his place in the Eagles’ starting lineup. . . . Every eye was focused on the courageous athlete, who lost part of his left arm at Iwo Jima. The sincere wishes of every man, woman and child in the huge stadium went with him as he stepped forward to make his comeback – a personal ambition for him as well as a shining example for other fighting men who have returned from the battlefronts wounded.

Sanders appeared in three games that season — his fourth in pro football — before retiring at 28 and turning to coaching. In an interview with the Corpus Christi Times in 1951, he said his arm guard, which was made of steel and cowhide and weighed five or six pounds, could double as a weapon if he felt so inclined. But he rarely did. Opponents, after all, were awfully deferential toward him.

“If I fell down on the ground,” he said, “those guys would dust me off and help me up.”Jack Sanders headJack Sanders AP story 8-18-45

The NFL’s not-so-benevolent despots

NFL commissioners have acted like dictators — sometimes of the Chaplin variety — pretty much from the beginning. Roger Goodell is merely following established precedent: The Despot’s Playbook. Nobody much remembers today, but the Packers had their franchise taken away after the 1921 season for using three college players in a game. As Chuck Johnson wrote in The Green Bay Packers:

Every team in the league was employing college or high school players under assumed names. Many of the top college stars of the day would play on Saturday under their own names, then play again with the pros on Sunday, using another name.

Joe Carr, first [commissioner] of the league, wanted the practice stopped, not only because he thought it reprehensible to have players using aliases, but because it was hardly endearing the fledgling professionals to the colleges, which Carr foresaw as the league’s source of talent in years to come. So Carr made an example of the Packers.

Who just happened to play in the NFL’s smallest city (and were in their first season in the league). Four years later, Red Grange would gallop hither and yon for the Bears before his college class had graduated — indeed, just five days after his last game for Illinois — but nobody tried to kick George Halas out of the league. And five years after that, Halas did the same thing with Notre Dame fullback Joe Savoldi . . . and lived to tell about it.

But the Packers were almost strangled in the cradle, thanks to the NFL’s questionable concept of justice. (Fortunately, Curly Lambeau applied for a new franchise the following summer — after the original owner bowed out — and Green Bay got a second chance to write its remarkable story.)

The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is that, occasionally, owners fight back now. Al Davis took the league to court — and won — when it sought to prevent him from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles (and back). Jerry Jones exchanged lawsuits with his lodge brothers after having the audacity to sign separate sponsorship deals for the Cowboys’ stadium.

And now we have the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and his quarterback, Tom Brady, ready to go to the mattresses over Deflategate — and the hole-ridden report used as the basis for the team’s whopping penalties. No, it ain’t 1921 anymore.

Frank Filchock

Frank Filchock

And that’s a good thing. In the old days, the commissioner would rule and his “subjects” would simply bow their heads and accept their fate. There wasn’t much recourse. When the Giants’ Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were banned indefinitely for failing to report a bribe offer before the 1946 title game, their collective goose was cooked. They were free to play in Canada, which they did, but they were persona non grata in the NFL until the commissioner said otherwise. For Hapes, that was essentially forever. Filchock, meanwhile, was out of the league for three years (and played, ever so briefly, in just one game when he returned with the 1950 Baltimore Colts).

“They needed a scapegoat in the whole business and I was it,” he said later. “They dealt me one off the bottom of the deck. They took the easy way out.

“Twice since my suspension I wrote to [Bert] Bell and asked him for the chance to talk this over. He answered me, all right, but just wrote that if I had any new evidence to put it into writing. . . . He’s just got me hanging. [The gambler behind the fix attempt] is out [of prison], isn’t he? What about me?”

Nobody had a bigger gripe than the Pottsville Maroons. In 1925 the Maroons were the best team in the NFL. They proved this by winning 10 of their 12 games, racking up seven shutouts and beating the next-best team, the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on the Cards’ turf. (And believe me, a 21-7 road win the ’20s was a Serious Skunking.) But you won’t see them on the list of league champions because they made the mistake of playing an exhibition game late in the season in Philadelphia, the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ territory.

The Yellow Jackets complained, Carr suspended the Pottsville franchise — denying it the championship — and, well, it’s one of the low points in league history, if you ask me. Joe, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has a lot of defenders, but I can’t see any reasonable rationale for such a harsh penalty.

I wrote about the whole sorry episode back in 2003 for The Washington Times. Give it a look, if you’re interested, and see what you think. Maybe it’ll help answer the question: Where does Goodell get his chutzpah?

Here it is:

The NFL title that wasn’t

The Pottsville Maroons were in the news recently. That alone is news. The Maroons, northeastern Pennsylvania’s contribution to NFL history, haven’t belonged to the league since 1928, since the days of dropkicks and leather helmets. They’re less a team than a trivia question, a $1 million answer. Name the first coach of the Pottsville Maroons. Name the last. Name anybody who ever had anything to do with the Pottsville Maroons.

The Maroons did have one brief, shining moment, though. In 1925, they won the NFL championship. At least, they thought they did. But then they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, home territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and got bounced from the league before they could collect their trophy. The title ended up going to the Chicago Cardinals, who Pottsville had beaten by two touchdowns just a week before at Comiskey Park — and who had considerable baggage of their own (as we shall see).

It’s easily the most controversial ending to any NFL season, and Pottsvillians have stewed about it ever since. In 1963 they got the league to reconsider the matter, but the owners decided to let sleeping Maroons lie. At last week’s NFL meetings in Philadelphia, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pleaded Pottsville’s case and convinced the league to take another look at it. The town isn’t asking that the Maroons be declared champions this time, only that they be allowed to split the title with the Cardinals.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the former lawyer, seems to share the sentiment in Pottsville that the punishment exceeded the crime. “People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that’s positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team,” he said. Would that the league had been so judicious 78 years ago.

In 1925, alas, the NFL operated much differently. Its presidency — the commissionership didn’t come until later — wasn’t even a full-time position, and scheduling was left up to the teams themselves. The Duluth Kelleys played three games that year; Frankford played 20. Some clubs, such as the Dayton Triangles, never had a home game; others, the ones that could draw a decent crowd, rarely had a road game. Everybody was scrambling to make a buck, from the Chicago Bears on down.

Late that season, the Bears caused a sensation by signing Red Grange, the celebrated “Galloping Ghost,” after his last game for the University of Illinois. They proceeded to parade him around the country, filling stadiums in Philly and New York (where a record 65,000 watched). Never before had pro football gotten so much attention.

Around the same time, Pottsville contracted to play an exhibition against a team of Notre Dame all-stars featuring the Four Horsemen. This, too, figured to be great for the pro game. Problem was, the Maroons’ field, Minersville Park, seated only about 9,000. If they were going to cash in, they needed a bigger place. So they moved the game to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home of the baseball A’s.

Joe Carr

Joe Carr

This didn’t sit well with the Frankford club. The Yellow Jackets protested to NFL president Joe Carr, and Carr agreed that the Pottsville game violated their territorial rights. He advised the Maroons not to play the Four Horsemen in Philly — and that there would be dire consequences if they did.

But Pottsville was a tough mining town that tended to play by its own rules. (Six of the infamous Molly Maguires, a group that wreaked vengeance against abusive mine owners, were hanged there in 1877.) There was a state law back then that prohibited sporting events on Sundays; Pottsville, typically, ignored it. As a local historian once put it, “Who was going to tell anthracite miners that they can’t have football on their one day off?”

On game days, the Maroons dressed in the fire station, then ran the two blocks to the stadium. Their field, opponents complained, was covered with more coal slag than grass. “After a rain,” Dr. Harry March wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, “the minerals from the soil were so toxic that little wounds became infected and were dangerous.”

So, no, Pottsville wasn’t going to be dictated to by any part-time NFL president. And really, how much harm did their game figure to do to Frankford, especially if it was a one-shot deal? It’s not like the Maroons were thinking of moving to Philly. They were merely following George Halas’ lead in his handling of the Grange tour. The Bears had switched their game against Providence to Boston (which didn’t have an NFL team) and the one against the Yellow Jackets from Frankford Stadium to Shibe Park — all for the purpose of selling more tickets.

Indeed, in later years, the league would allow the Redskins to shift the championship game from Boston to New York in 1936 and the Cardinals to play the Lions in Milwaukee in ’45. Why? Because the Redskins couldn’t get anybody to come to their games in Beantown, and the Cards couldn’t find an available stadium in Chicago. So for the good of the league, exceptions were made.

Why Carr didn’t see the Pottsville-Four Horsemen game as an exception remains unclear. He was still recovering from an appendectomy when the controversy arose; maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the way the NFL worked in those days. Pottsville was in its first season in the league — the first of just four, as it turned out. It was probably viewed as a junior member, if not an intern.

Four Horseman game headlineConsider: Only one Pottsville player, end Charlie Berry, made the 11-man all-pro team that year, even though the Maroons were the best club in the league. (The Bears, who finished with seventh-best record, placed three on the squad, and the Cardinals and Giants two each.) Also, more than a few people think Pottsville back Tony Latone belongs in the Hall of Fame. After the Four Horsemen game, Ed Pollack of the Philadelphia Public Ledger gushed, “[Latone] hit the line like a locomotive plowing into an automobile at a grade crossing — and with the same result.” But Latone, of course, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, were charter members of the NFL — and are still with us today. That might explain why Carr didn’t revoke their franchise when they ran afoul of league rules late in the season. The stunt the Cardinals pulled, after all, was infinitely more scandalous than what the Maroons did. In their next-to-last game, they annihilated (59-0) an undermanned Milwaukee Badgers club that was supplemented by four players from a Chicago high school. (The kids, one of them just 16 years old, had been recruited by the Cards’ Art Folz, an alumnus of the school.)

Folz was banned from the NFL for life, and the Milwaukee owner was ordered to sell his team. Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien, however, got off with a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine, even though he admitted in a statement, “Just before [the game started], I learned that there were high school amateurs on the Milwaukee team. Now I know the mistake I made was in not canceling the game right then. But there were several hundred people out there to see the game. Things were moving fast. I didn’t sit down and think it out carefully.”

That win — plus another over the Hammond Pros, who hadn’t played a league game in more than a month — left the Cardinals with an 11-2-1 mark to Pottsville’s 10-2. A more suspect 11-2-1 team the NFL has never seen. No fewer than eight of the Cards’ games were against clubs that finished with one or no wins. Their opponents had a combined record of 46-70-13. Oh, and did I mention they had only one road game — against the cross-town Bears?

Granted, the Maroons enjoyed some scheduling advantages, too. Six of their wins were over teams that had played the day before (and presumably had been softened up). Their opponents, though, had a combined record of 71-66-9 — and they did crush the Cardinals 21-7 in Chicago.

O’Brien, to his credit, refused the championship when the league tried to award it to him, but it was a moot point. Pottsville had been banished — it was reinstated the following year — and the Cardinals had the best record of the remaining teams. Amazingly, the Cards’ victory over Milwaukee, the club with the four high schoolers, remains on the books, even though Carr said it would be stricken. Without that win, their record would be the same as the Maroons’, 10-2 (ties didn’t count).

Was Carr within his rights to kick Pottsville out of the NFL (temporarily)? Absolutely. But was his action just? That’s a question the league must wrestle with. And it doesn’t make it any easier that Carr is a beloved figure in pro football history, renowned for his fairness and leadership. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” March wrote in Pro Football. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”

In this case, however, the case of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, ol’ Joe might have blown one.

From The Washington Times, May 29, 2003

Sources: The Pro Football Chronicle, pro-football-reference.com.1925 Maroons

“The greatest O-line in NFL history”?

Because he’s too young to know better, La’el Collins got a little carried away at his first Dallas Cowboys press conference. He was ostensibly there to breathe a 305-pound sigh of relief after signing a 3-year, $1.65 million contract to join Jerry Jones’ ranch hands. After all, he’d projected as a first-round draft pick, but teams had passed on him because of concerns he might be a suspect in the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

Now that was behind him, and Collins was anxious to line up alongside tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, all Pro Bowlers. “This is going to be the greatest offensive line in NFL history,” the people-moving guard said. “Mark my words.”

Consider them marked, La’el — marked and mocked.

Hey, I’m all for rookie enthusiasm, but it’s a little early to be calling this Cowboys line the “greatest” anything, even the greatest in franchise history. Rick Gosselin did a nice job of pointing that out in a column last week. Gosselin also listed his Top 4 Offensive Lines of all time, and I can’t argue with any of his selections. “The 1962 Green Bay Packers, 1972 Miami Dolphins, 1973 Oakland Raiders and 1983 Washington Redskins all await [Collins and Co.’s] challenge,” he wrote.

I’d make it a fivesome, though, and add arguably the greatest O-line of all: the 1940 Bears.

Yeah, yeah, I know: 1940 is a long time ago. But four players from that line are in the Hall of Fame — left tackle Joe Stydahar, guards Danny Fortmann and George Musso and center Bulldog Turner. And the fifth, right tackle Lee Artoe, might be in Canton, too, if he hadn’t jumped to the rival All-America Conference after the war. Several teammates I talked to said Artoe was better than Stydahar (who, besides his playing feats, won a title as the coach of the ’51 Rams).

The '40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears are most remembered for their revolutionary T formation — the first modern offense — and, of course, for their 73-0 obliteration of the Redskins in the championship game. They also led the NFL in rushing yards that season (165.3 per game) and, when the T got rolling, averaged 50.3 points in their last three games, a ridiculous total for that era.

Granted, we’re talking about the single platoon days. (Translation: These guys aren’t in Canton just for their blocking. They played defense, too.) But they were, by any measure, a fabulous O-line — and a short-lived one, as it turned out. A year later Musso moved into a backup role, and the season after that the military summoned Stydahar and Artoe. Indeed, if the war hadn’t come along, the ’40s Bears likely would have won six or seven titles instead of “just” four — and would be thought of as the dynasty of all NFL dynasties.

Artoe and Turner, by the way, were rookies in 1940. (The others had been playing at least four years.) Lee once told me a funny story about that first season — specifically, about the apartment he rented with fellow rookie Ken Kavanaugh, a terrific receiver (and, after retiring, a longtime Giants assistant). It went like this:

“Ken and I had played in the College All-Star Game [in late August against the Packers, the previous year’s NFL champs]. Afterward we took the midnight train to Pittsburgh, where the Bears had a preseason game the next day. When we got back from that trip, the team just dropped us at Wrigley Field and turned us loose. Well, Ken and I didn’t know where the hell we were. So we walked a couple of blocks down the street, and there was this sign that said, ‘Chateau Hotel.’ It was a hotel of about 100 rooms. We went in, and they charged us $20 a month to live there — $10 each.

Chateau Hotel“We didn’t spend much time at the hotel. Halas kept you pretty busy. You woke up, had practice, had a little lunch, and in the afternoon you might get some time off or have some more practice. Then at night, starting at 7 o’clock, there’d be a chalk talk in the [Wrigley] field house. You’d watch movies of the previous game and stuff like that. After that, you’d go to bed.

“We’d come home at night, and the elevator was right close to the [hotel entrance]. So we’d just step in the elevator and go up to the second floor. This went on for about two or three months. [George] Halas never gave you a day off. You were so tired all the time, you couldn’t wait to hit the sack.

“We did go to functions occasionally, though, and at one of them we were talking to Wilfrid Smith [the Chicago Tribune sportswriter, who used to play in the NFL and still officiated games]. Wilfrid said, ‘Where are you living?’ and Ken and I said, ‘We’re over at the Chateau Hotel.’ And he started to laugh. “That’s one of the biggest whorehouses in Chicago!” he said. It was one of [Al] Capone’s old hotels. How were we to know? I mean, we lived there and everybody knew us, knew we played for the Bears, but we didn’t hang out in the lobby or anything. We did notice, though, that there were always a lot of girls around.”

Artoe, as I said, might have been the fifth member of the line to make the Hall if he’d stayed with the Bears. “He’d knock down anything that got in his way,” halfback Joe Maniaci said. ”He was rough. He was a 60-minute man. In my book, I’d say he was better than Stydahar. But he didn’t get the publicity Stydahar got. And when he went to the All-America Conference [and convinced several other Chicago players to go with him], everything he did was gone.”

It was an unusual collection of talent that Halas had assembled. Musso played without a helmet early in his career and got up to 300 pounds near the end, rare for those days. Fortmann went to medical school at the University of Chicago and later served as the Rams’ team doctor. Then there was Turner, “the smartest football player that ever lived,” according to Sid Luckman, the Bears’ legendary quarterback. “There was never a better all-around football player than Bulldog Turner.”

Another funny story:

“Bulldog snapped the ball back so hard that I [needed] major surgery on my wrist,” Luckman told me. “I used to give with the ball as best I could, but he put that ball in there like it was shot out of a cannon. Boom! The ball was gone, and he was gone.

“I pleaded with him. ‘Bulldog, please, I beg of you, don’t send that ball back so hard. I’ve had two operations. Could you slow it up a little bit?’ He tried to, but he couldn’t do it. It threw his timing off.

“So one time we’re at practice, and he was snapping that ball like he always did — boom, boom, boom! Finally, I knew what I had to do. I moved my hand away, and he snapped the ball right into his nuts. Oh, man! He was down on the ground for a while, but then he chased me for 25 minutes around that goddamn field. But from that time on, he didn’t snap the ball as hard.”

Now that was an offensive line, certainly as good — in its time — as any of Gosselin’s other nominees. Only the ’73 Raiders had as many Hall of Famers as the ’40 Bears (LT Art Shell, LG Gene Upshaw, C Jim Otto and RT Bob Brown). And let’s not forget, the ’62 Packers gave up 11 sacks against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s interesting that all these O-lines come from 1983 or earlier — interesting, but understandable. For most of NFL history, being a great line has meant, first and foremost, being able to run the ball, being able to impose your will on a defense. But with all the rule changes favoring passing, the running game has been devalued. It still has a place, mind you, it’s just different now. Clubs don’t pound away at defensive fronts anymore; they run, much of the time, out of more advantageous spread formations. The ability of a line to protect the quarterback has become as important as its ability to wedge block.

The ’40 Bears and the other famed lines ran the ball more than they threw it. A lot more. Not so with last year’s Cowboys (though they did have more rushes than passes). So if Collins’ bold prediction comes true, if the Dallas line does go on fame and fortune, it figures to be an updated version of A Line for the Ages, a new species. The thing is, teams have to worry about free agency now. Can Jones keep this group together long enough for it to reach those heights?

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Will the addition of guard La'el Collins take the Cowboys' O-line from very good to great?

Will the addition of guard La’el Collins take the Cowboys’ O-line from very good to great?

Before anonymous sources

NFL teams are so secretive now it’s a wonder they don’t use an Enigma machine to communicate with one another. We were reminded of this again in the run-up to the draft, when all sorts of trade scenarios were bandied about — many involving quarterback Marcus Mariota — and none came to pass. Only two of the first 32 picks changed hands, the fewest in the modern era.

Mike Mayock, the NFL Network’s main Draft Guy, is so spooked by Bill Belichick’s talent for disinformation that he was reluctant to guess Thursday night which player the Patriots would take at the bottom of the first round. (Host Rich Eisen shamed him into it, though, and Mayock, to his great surprise, correctly predicted Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown.)

I raise this subject because, in the old days, the NFL was much more of an open book. And really, how much more fun would the offseason be if coaches and general managers didn’t dodge most questions as if they infringed on national security? Anyway, I came across a Pittsburgh Press story from 1940 that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about. It ran just before the league meetings that year in April, and the candor of Steelers owner Art Rooney is stunning by today’s standards. Rooney names 10 players on six different clubs he’d be interested in trading for. Had he done that before this year’s league meetings, he might have been accused of tampering.

Here’s the (brief) story:Rooney talking trades 1940

The Steelers got only two of the 10 players Rooney mentioned — Giants tackle Ox Parry (for halfback Kay Eakin) and Rams halfback Merl Condit (for tailback Hugh McCullough). Condit was probably envisioned as a drawing card because he’d starred in college at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech.

Who doesn’t wish owners — and other decision makers — were as forthcoming nowadays as they were in the ’40s? Then we wouldn’t have as much Reporting By Rumor, as much Smoke Blowing passed off as reliable information. Better still, we wouldn’t have to watch a coach or GM’s nose grow almost every time he opens his mouth.

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