It’s pretty well established who the first soccer-style kicker was in pro football: Pete Gogolak with the AFL’s Bills in 1964. You can look it up. In Week 1 that year against the Chiefs, he made all six of his boots – two field goals, four extra points – in a 34-17 Buffalo win.
After that, the deluge. Soccer-stylers started descending on the pro game from all directions . . . and all hemispheres. If you didn’t have one kicking for you by the end of the ’70s, you were swimming against a tsunami-sized tide.
Paul Douglass during his brief NFL trial.
I didn’t realize until just the other day, though, that another sidewinder — as they were called — had auditioned in the NFL 11 years earlier. His name was Paul Douglass, and he went to training camp with the Giants, who’d taken him in the 13th round of the 1951 draft. Is Douglass the first soccer-style kicker to don an NFL uniform, even if it was only in the preseason? As far as I know, yes. And trust me, I’ve done a lot of digging.
Douglass had been a standout at Illinois as a defensive back and occasional kickoff man. The latter skill, according to the school newspaper, was the byproduct of being of “being one of the better soccer players from the St. Louis area.” After graduating from college, he spent two years in the Air Force during the Korean War — growing to 6-foot-2, 188 pounds — before giving the pro game a shot.
In preparation for camp, Douglass, who didn’t play football in the service, worked hard to get his leg back in shape. Or as the Daily Illini put it:
Almost any late afternoon if you drive past Fairground Park down St. Louis way you’ll see a lone figure standing among a group of small boys.
Closer inspection will reveal it to be Paul Douglass, former University of Illinois star, who will join the New York Giants professional football team next month. The kids [are] just fans who serve as his retrievers when Paul is practicing kickoffs. . . .
The Giants signed Douglass . . . chiefly to help bolster their depleted defensive ranks, but Paul hopes to solidify his position with his kicking ability.
That was the thing about the NFL in 1953. With only 33 roster spots up for grabs, versatility was a necessity for most players. The more you could do, the better your chances of making the squad. Plenty of guys, after all, were still playing both ways — including Giants legend Frank Gifford. (Or as the team’s media guide called him, “Francis.”) Gifford scored five different ways that season (2 rushing touchdowns, 4 receiving TDs, 1 interception-return TD, 1 field goal, 2 extra points) and threw a touchdown pass.
Douglass struck an unusual deal with the Giants. “Besides his [regular pay],” the Daily Illini said, he “will get $10 for every kick that goes out of the end zone, $5 for every one that goes in the end zone, and he has to pay the Giants $5 for every kick that doesn’t go that far.” It might have been the first time a player promised a club a rebate if he didn’t reach a particular performance goal.
Both The New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle ran a United Press story about Douglass and his unconventional style. Besides being able to boom the ball, he had an assortment of trick kicks that were hard for a returner to catch. “I don’t kick the ball with my toe,” he was quoted as saying. “I slice the ball with the side of my shoe.”
His repertoire, the Giants’ media guide said, included “a slider, which breaks to one side; a knuckler, which shimmies in the air and then falls erratically; and a ‘squeegee,’” which sounds like a squib kick. He learned the last one “from an English soccer star,” the wire service reported. It was a low-liner of a boot that “will bounce in at least three different directions before it loses action on a muddy field.”
There’s no telling how many times Douglass kicked off in the 1953 preseason. Game stories simply weren’t that detailed. But we know he kicked off at least once — against the Baltimore Colts in a game played in his hometown of St. Louis. The Baltimore Sun described it thusly: “Douglass’ kickoff to start the game sailed over the Colts’ end zone.” That’s 70 yards in the air, folks — if not more.
But again, there was no way he was going to make the club just as a kicker. Kicking specialists were rare in those days, and kickoff specialists were unheard of. No, he had to be one Giants’ best defensive backs to survive the final cut. And truth be known, he did have his moments as a DB.
The interceptor was Douglass.
The biggest came in the fourth quarter against the Bears, when he picked off a George Blanda pass to set up the winning score in a 14-7 victory. The ball “rolled off Jim Dooley’s fingertips and into [Douglass’] arms,” the Chicago Tribune’s George Strickler wrote, “and the rookie from Illinois raced 46 yards up the field before he was overhauled by [Hall of Famer George] Connor.”
In the end, Owen decided to cut Douglass and let Gifford and second-year man Randy Clay share the kicking. The season turned out to be a 3-9 disaster for the Giants, one that cost Stout Steve his job after 23 years of meritorious service.
And so Douglass’ contribution to pro football history has been lost, buried beneath the clouds of dust generated by the Giants offense that season. (They averaged a feeble 2.6 yards per rushing attempt, by far the fewest in the league.)
Unless, of course, the NFL had a soccer-styler even further back. Rest assured I’ll keep looking. As impactful as kickers are nowadays, we’ve gotta make sure we have this Famous First nailed down.
The eulogies have poured forth since Frank Gifford died earlier this week at 84. And deservedly so. He was a New York icon, The Giffer was, a football/sportscasting double threat the likes of which has rarely been seen. Still, I’m not sure enough has been made of how good a backGifford was. His celebrity as a TV personality tends to share the billing with his football exploits — so much so that you’d think he made the Hall of Fame as much for his talking as for his playing.
Let’s see if I can rectify that.
Gifford with QB Charlie Conerly after winning the ’56 title.
One of the problems for almost any player in Gifford’s era — that is, the NFL’s first 50 years — is that his statistics can seem shrunken. It was just a different time, a different game. The seasons were shorter, the yards were harder to come by (because defense hadn’t been legislated out of existence yet) and the players often went both ways, which kept them from rolling up the ridiculous offensive numbers you see today. All you can do in such a situation is measure a man against his contemporaries . . . and against those, of course, who came before him. By that yardstick, The Giffer was pretty fabulous.
That’s the thing about Gifford. He might have played in the era of black-and-white televisions, but he was very much a Back of the Future, one who would have fit in perfectly with the West Coast offense. Indeed, he was as dangerous catching the ball as he was running with it. In his first eight seasons, 1952 to ’59, he racked up 3,347 yards rushing and 3,208 receiving. The NFL had never had a back – of Hall of Fame caliber, at least – who was so perfectly balanced.
That was Gifford’s prime as a running back. (In 1960, you may have heard, he got blindsided by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik and knocked out of the game for more than a year. When he returned, he transitioned to wide receiver — and even went to the Pro Bowl in ’63.) Anyway, at the end of the ’59 season, The Giffer compared quite favorably to pro football’s all-time backs. At that point, only five of them had gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in their NFL careers. As the following chart shows, Frank ranked second on the list, behind only Joe Perry:
MOST YARDS FROM SCRIMMAGE BY A RB (THROUGH 1959)
Joe Perry*, 49ers
Frank Gifford, Giants
Hugh McElhenny, 49ers
Ollie Matson, Cards/Rams
Steve Van Buren, Eagles
*Also gained 1,570 yards in the rival All-America Conference in 1948 and ’49, which would bring his total to 9,992.
That’s right. At that stage, Gifford had a slight edge over McElhenny and Matson in terms of production (touchdowns included). And Hugh and Ollie came into the league the same year Frank did, so they’re all on equal footing. (Quite a year for running backs, that ’52 draft.)
Problem was, there was no such thing as “yards from scrimmage” in 1959. The NFL didn’t keep track of them yet. To the league’s statisticians, rushing yards were all that mattered. So some of Gifford’s Total Value was probably lost on the fans. (The fans outside of New York, I mean.)
Consider: Through ’59, only six NFL backs had had a 500/500 season – 500 yards rushing, 500 receiving. Gifford was the only one who did it more than once. In fact, he did it three times.
500 YARDS RUSHING AND 500 RECEIVING BY A RB (THROUGH 1959)
Year Running back, Team
1943 Harry Clark, Bears
1949 Gene Roberts, Giants
1954 Ollie Matson, Cardinals
1956 Frank Gifford, Giants
1957Frank Gifford, Giants
1958 Tom Tracy, Steelers
1958 Lenny Moore, Colts
1959Frank Gifford, Giants
That last figure — 768 — is also worth discussing. After all, 768 yards in a 12-game season is the equivalent of 1,012 in 16 games. Just three running backs, let’s not forget, have had a 1,000-yard receiving season — Craig (1,016) and the Chargers’ Lionel James (1,027) in 1985 and the Rams’ Marshall Faulk (1,048) in ’99. So, again, at his best, Gifford did things modern backs have rarely done, even with all the rule changes favoring offense.
Before becoming the Giants’ starting left halfback, The Giffer made the Pro Bowl as a defensive back — while also getting playing time on offense. After a 14-10 loss to the Steelers in 1953, The New York Times said he “played a whale of a game” and logged “some 50 minutes of two-way action.” (The Brooklyn Eagle seconded the motion, calling it “a brilliant performance as an iron man on offense and defense.”) He scored the Giants’ only touchdown that day on a 6-yard reception and, for good measure, booted the extra point. (Yeah, he could kick a little, too.)
Earlier that season, the Eagle summed up his efforts against the Redskins this way:
[One of] the only bright spots in the New York picture yesterday [was] Frank Gifford, crack defensive back. Gifford almost single-handed[ly] averted a shutout. He leaped high to intercept a [Jack] Scarbath flip to prevent a touchdown, and his runback to midfield paved the way for the Giants’ first score — a safety — after the ’Skins had taken a 10-0 lead.
Then, in the second period, the former Southern California ace took a lateral from Tom Landry [on an interception return] and sped down the sideline for the lone New York touchdown. Tom had snared a heave by Eddie LeBaron.
Gifford, who had been used exclusively on defense, was tossed into the game to pass in the closing moments as a last-minute desperation measure by coach Steve Owen.
And here’s another: Frank threw as many TD passes in 63 attempts as Ryan Leaf did in 655 – and one less than Matt Leinart did in 641.
About all that’s missing from Gifford’s resumé is some kick-return heroics. But there’s a reason for that: The Giants had Hall of Famer Em Tunnell to run back punts (though Frank did average 25.8 yards on 23 kickoff returns). Besides, no sense in spreading the guy too thin, right? He was already doing everything but sweeping out the stadium.
Running back, receiver, defensive back, passer, kicker — there haven’t been many modern players as multitalented as Frank Gifford. Just wanted to drive home that point a bit more forcefully as we look back on his career and pay our final respects.
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).
● 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.● 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?
FYI: Daniell and his two running mates were later acquitted. But then, so were the Black Sox.● 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.)● 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?● 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.
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:Sources: Google newspapers, Brooklyn Eagle archives, Chicago Tribune archives, pro-football-reference.com.
Garabed Sarko Yepremian was a grand old name. Not as melodious, perhaps, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, but resonant in its own Old World way. Alas, Garo is gone — struck down by cancer at 70 — and his death raises a question: Will pro football ever see a story like his again?
By that I mean: Will there ever be another player who plays in the first NFL game he’s ever seen — and sets a league record in his fifth?
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start at the beginning?
Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times jokester, thought Yepremian should, by all rights, have hailed from Ypsilanti (Mich.) Garo’s background was much more unusual than that, though. Born in Cyprus, he’d fled with his family to London in the ’60s when the bullets began flying between the Turks and Greeks. (His Armenian ancestors had escaped to the Mediterranean island decades earlier, seeking refuge from Turkey’s genocidal lunacy.)
Yepremian might have spent the rest of his life in the U.K. — been an Un Known, in other words — if his older brother Krikor hadn’t come to this country to play college soccer. In the summer of 1966, Garo went to visit him in Indianapolis, and for fun they’d head to a nearby field with a football. Krikor would hold, and Garo, a weekend soccer player back home, would kick.
Little Brother got so good so quickly that Big Brother convinced him to seek a college scholarship. Indiana and Butler expressed interest, but there was a hangup: Garo didn’t have a high school diploma — another casualty of the turmoil in Cyprus. So Krikor wrote letters to several pro teams in hopes of getting him a tryout.
In Week 6 the Falcons, a first-year expansion team in need of almost everything, gave him a look — and were impressed. “He’s not a very big guy — 5-foot-8, 165 pounds — but he was knocking them [through] consistently from 55 yards,” coach Norb Hecker said afterward. Atlanta reportedly made him an offer, but he’d promised the Lions he’d work out for them before he signed with anybody. The next day he was in Detroit, leaving the coaches and players there just as slack-jawed.
According to one report, Yepremian made 19 of 20 tries from the 45-to-50 yards. In those days, that was ridiculous. Consider: NFL kickers converted a mere 55.7 percent of all field goal attempts that season. Even Wayne Walker, the Lions’ incumbent kicker, had to give him his due. “The best . . . I’ve ever seen,” he said.
And a soccer-styler to boot (if you’ll pardon the expression). In 1966, you see, “sidewinders” were still very much a novelty. There were only three in pro ball, all in the NFL — the two Gogolak brothers, Pete (Giants) and Charlie (Redskins), and Yepremian.
Traditionalists weren’t sure quite what to make of them. On one level, they were horrified that these Non-Football Players were trying to move in on the “foot” part of the game. Walker, after all, was a Pro Bowl linebacker, and other kickers, like the Browns’ Lou Groza, were former position players. The diminutive Yepremian, meanwhile, looked like he’d taken a wrong turn on the way to elf practice.
“No longer does the kicker have to be a heavy-duty performer who is part of the team,” The New York Times’ Arthur Daley lamented around that time. “He can be a man apart, and the only time he experiences rude contact is just before a roughing-the-kicker penalty.”
Then there was Yepremian’s unorthodox style, which made use of his instep rather than his toes. That took some getting used to, too. As the Oakland Tribune described it: “Garo uses only a skip and two short steps to get off his kicks. According to the laws of physics, his instep covers a greater area than the American toe kickers [enjoy] and helps boot the ball a greater distance. Also the whiplash of a sideway kick gives the leg greater speed.”
Or something like that.
Heck, these guys weren’t even Americans. Yepremian was from London . . . or Cyprus . . . or somewhere, and the Gogolaks had sneaked off to America amid the Hungarian Revolution. Indeed, it’s remarkable how the upheaval in Europe during and after World War II changed — in a huge way — the game of football. Fred Bednarski, believed to be the first college sidewinder — for Texas in 1957 — was a Polish refugee who’d spent some time in a Nazi labor camp. And Walt Doleschal, an early soccer-styler for Lafayette, was a displaced Czechoslovakian.
(That’s why, whenever somebody wonders why soccer isn’t a bigger deal in the U.S., I always say, “It is a big deal, a very big deal. It’s just been incorporated into football.”)
Once the sidewinders began infiltrating the sport, kicking became much less of a hit-or-miss proposition, especially from long distance. What was the success rate on field goals last season, 84 percent? (From 50 yards and beyond, it was 61.) Nowadays, anything inside the 40 is, in the fan’s mind, a veritable PAT. Best not miss too many of those.
Anyway, Lions coach Harry Gilmer was forward thinking enough to get Yepremian’s name on a contract before the rest of the league became aware of him. The Motor City also had something going for it that Atlanta might not have: an Armenian church Garo could go to. The newest Lion, then 22, hustled back to Indy to gather up his clothes, then rejoined the club in time to make the trip to Baltimore for the next game. Oops, almost forgot: He had to obtain a work permit before he could suit up.
At first, Yepremian just handled kickoffs; Walker did the rest of booting. Against the Colts, Garo knocked one into the end zone and the other to the 5-yard line. This, by the way, was a familiar arrangement for the Lions. In the ’50s they’d often split the job between a Short Guy (e.g. Bobby Layne) and a Long Guy (e.g. Jim Martin) — as had other teams. The ’63 Bears, in fact, won the title with Roger LeClerc (field goals) and Bob Jencks (extra points) sharing the duties.
Besides, Yepremian had enough to worry about that first week. Never mind the strange surroundings and the large, sweaty men looking askance at him, he didn’t even know how to put on his uniform. Shoulder pads were a total mystery to him, and he “had no idea whether the sweat socks went inside or outside the long stockings,” the Oakland paper said. He also had yet to receive any instruction in the fine art of tackling. If the returner comes your way, he was told, “try to get an angle — and then fall in front of him.”
Then things started happening in a hurry for Yepremian. In his second game, in San Francisco, Walker got ejected in the second quarter — one of the hazards of being an Actual Football Player — and Garo had to do it all. He didn’t exactly ace the test, making just one of four field goal tries, a 30-yarder, and going three for three on point-afters. But hey, at least he was on the scoreboard.
Three weeks later, when he got his next big chance, he was ready. Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame quarterback, had his problems that day, throwing five interceptions, and Yepremian was the main beneficiary. The Lions offense had trouble punching the ball in, so Gilmer kept sending him in to kick field goals — six in eight attempts. That broke the NFL record of five set 15 years earlier by Rams great Bob Waterfield. (Garo’s four three-pointers in one quarter, the second, were another mark.)
Detroit’s first 18 points in a 32-31 victory came on Yepremian boots of 33, 26, 15, 20, 28 and 32 yards. Granted, there weren’t any long ones, but the sports world was amazed nonetheless — amazed that this nobody from another hemisphere, this abbreviated kicker with a quirky technique, had hijacked an NFL game.
Murray thought it was hysterical that Yepremian played for Detroit, an old-fashioned team that hit hard and partied harder. To him, the Lions were an unlikely franchise to steer pro football into the future. (Frankly, Jim shuddered to think of them behind the wheel of any moving vehicle.)
“They lead the league in airport fights, lawsuits, barroom brawls,” he wrote. “The team emblem should be a swizzle stick. Or a camel. They’re the thirstiest team in the game. The water boy carries olives.
“Other teams have a rugged line of defense. The Lions have a rugged line of defendants. Others have a team trainer on the bench. The Lions have a team bail bondsman. They spend half their time going over their plays and the other half going over their constitutional rights. . . .
“All of which is why — when they signed a native of the island of Cyprus to play for them — a lot of us thought they wanted him to stomp grapes.”
You can imagine how welcoming that Detroit locker room must have been to a Cypriot kicker of Armenian extraction who spoke four languages — none of which was Football. Veterans in that era were notoriously hard on rookies, and the Lions were among the league leaders in the hazing department. In his Yepremian appreciation a few days ago, Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote that Garo “was hung by his jersey on a locker’s hook by [Lions defensive] tackle Alex Karras.” If so, he got off easy.
Even after Yepremian set the record, the media struggled to get his name right. It wasn’t just the “Yepremian,” either. The very next week, the Baltimore Sun referred him as “Gary” Yepremian. (Those poor linotype operators. Decades of muscle memory must have made it awfully hard to override the “y” and type G-a-r-o.)
A strong finish left Yepremian with 13 field goals in 22 tries, the sixth-best percentage in the two leagues (59.1). Not bad for a guy who began the year in England, almost ended up playing college ball that fall, didn’t go to an NFL training camp, wasn’t signed until Oct. 12 and, oh yeah, was new to the game.
It was another four seasons before Garo caught on with the Dolphins and went from being a curiosity to one of the top kickers in the league — and one of the most clutch. But it all began with the Lions in ’66, when he showed the disbelieving masses he could do a lot more than crush grapes. He also could crush footballs.
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 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.
“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?
Will the addition of guard La’el Collins take the Cowboys’ O-line from very good to great?
With the draft in the books and the Slow Season officially upon us, let’s have a little fun today and revisit one of the more underappreciated games in pro football history: Super Bowl IV — the last between those sworn enemies, the NFL and AFL, before they merged into the colossus that bestrides the sports world.
Happily, the Chiefs’ 23-7 win over the Vikings can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. It’s the Canadian (CBC) telecast (as is clear from the commercials, one of which stars hockey legend Bobby Orr). Warning: There’s no telling how long the video will be available, so try to watch it before the Copyright Police springs into action. You won’t be disappointed.
We’ll get to The Game Itself in a few moments. But first, allow me to pay homage to the Chiefs defense, that group of Eleven Angry Men who backboned their run to the Super Bowl — and smothered the Vikes therein. When great defenses are discussed, you don’t always hear much about the ’69 Chiefs, and that’s a shame. After all, five members of the unit have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and a sixth, free safety Johnny Robinson, should probably be in Canton, too. (He was a finalist six straight years in the ’80s but, for reasons known only to the selection committee, wasn’t able to break through. Maybe he’ll make it someday as a veterans candidate.)
Check out these numbers: Against the Chiefs, those three estimable quarterbacks had a combined passer rating of 21 (113 attempts, 48 completions, 42.5 percent completion rate, 0 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Granted, it was a different game then, one in which the defense had more of a fighting chance, but the Kansas City ‘D’ was phenomenal by any standard.
Consider: Opposing passers had a postseason rating of 31 against the 2000 Ravens, arguably the best defense in the last 25 years (at least). For the ’85 Bears, the rating was 39.2. For the ’86 Giants, it was 48.5. That should give you some idea of how otherworldly the ’69 Chiefs were.
Then again, maybe I should just introduce you to these guys individually. That’ll give you an even better idea of how loaded the ’69 Chiefs were.
● LE Jerry Mays (6-4/252, 30 years old) — Seven Pro Bowls (or AFL All-Star Games, as the case may be). Played 10 seasons.
● LT Curley Culp (6-2/265, 23) — Hall of Famer. Six Pro Bowls. Former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ (read: knew leverage like nobody’s business). The Broncos drafted him in the second round in 1968, tried unsuccessfully to turn him into an offensive guard, then traded him to the Chiefs for a ’69 No. 4 (OG Mike Schnitker). How’s that for a deal? Played 14 seasons.
● RT Buck Buchanan (6-7/270, 29) — Hall of Famer. Eight Pro Bowls. An absolute monster. Played 13 seasons.
● RE Aaron Brown (6-5/255, 26) — Second team all-AFL by The Sporting News in 1969, first team all-AFC by The Associated Press in ’70 and ’71. Wonderfully athletic, disruptive pass rusher who would have had an even better career if it hadn’t been for injuries. Played eight seasons.
● LLB Bobby Bell (6-3/228, 29) — Hall of Famer. Nine Pro Bowls. Simply one of the best players in pro football in that period. Returned six of his 26 interceptions for touchdowns, tying him for most by any modern linebacker. Played 12 seasons.
● MLB Willie Lanier (6-1/245, 24) — Hall of Famer. Eight Pro Bowls. Was far from just a run-stopper, as his 27 picks (one more than Bell) attest. Played 11 seasons.
● RLB Jim Lynch (6-1/235, 24) — One Pro Bowl. Consensus second team all-AFL in 1968 and ’69. Played 11 seasons.
● LCB Jim Marsalis (5-11/194, 24) — Two Pro Bowls. Went to the AFL All-Star Game that year as a rookie and was all-pro in 1970. Played eight seasons.
● SS Jim Kearney (6-2/206, 26) — The only player on the unit who never made the Pro Bowl or the all-conference team. All Kearney ever did was run back four picks for touchdowns in 1972, tying the NFL record (which still stands). Played 12 seasons.
● FS Johnny Robinson (6-1/205, 31) — Eight Pro Bowls. Tied for the AFL lead in 1966 with 10 interceptions and led the NFL in ’70 with the same number. Was a nice offensive player his first two years, racking up over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in ’60 (458 rushing, 611 receiving), then switched to defense and had 57 INTs over the next decade. Played 12 seasons. Again, I ask: Why isn’t this man in the Hall?
To review: Five Hall of Famers (one more than the Steel Curtain Steelers, one less than the five-championships-in-seven-seasons Packers). Nine players who went to the Pro Bowl, another who was twice voted all-AFC and another who, though he didn’t earn any individual honors, has shared an NFL record for 43 years (and may well share it for another 43). And finally, tremendous longevity — careers of 10, 14, 13, 8, 12, 11, 11, 8, 13, 12 and 12 seasons (average: 11.3).
Imagine assembling a defense like that today. On second thought, don’t bother. Given the salary cap, the movement brought about by free agency and the general dilution of the product (six more franchises), it would be nigh impossible. That’s the defense the Chiefs threw at you.
Yeah, they haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since, while the Vikings played in three more in the next seven seasons (and suffered three more crushing losses). But I’ll always believe that, at that point in time, Kansas City was playing defense about as well as it has ever been played. I mean, there were no Gus Frerottes, no Jay Schroeders, no Dieter Brocks on their dance card. They were going against the iron — and shutting them down.
Something else to ponder: Eight of K.C.’s Magnificent Eleven were black (Mays, Lynch and Robinson being the exceptions). The Chiefs, from the beginning, were an equal-opportunity organization. All owner Lamar Hunt and coach Hank Stram cared about was winning. The Vikings defense, by contrast, had four blacks. Don’t get me wrong, the Minnesota ‘D’ — the vaunted Purple People Eaters — was outstanding. I’m just sayin’.
Remember, when the AFL came into being, the Redskins still had an all-white roster and some other NFL teams, notably the Lions, didn’t have the greatest track record in terms of integration. It’s one of the biggest impacts the AFL had on pro football. It brought more blacks into the game.
At any rate, from front to back — and from side to side, for that matter — the ’69 Chiefs defense was one of the all-time terrors. If Buchanan didn’t get you, Bell would . . . or some other member of this illustrious group. Make no mistake: Super Bowl IV was no upset. The Vikings offense was overmatched. And Kapp and Co., I’ll just remind you, were pretty potent. Minnesota put up 50-plus points three times that season. (Of course, the week before K.C. held them to seven points in the AFL title game, the Raiders had dropped 56 on the Houston Oilers. As I said, the Chiefs could strangle the best attacks.)
OK, on to the game — Super Bowl IV at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium. My thoughts:
● If you’re a pro football lover of a certain age, this final AFL-NFL championship game has a special place in your memory bank. The war between the established NFL and the try-anything AFL produced, for my money, the most entertaining decade in the game’s history. But rather than go off on a long tangent here, let me just say: To fully understand what I’m talking about, you had to be there. Pro football in that era was a weekly spectacular, and it emerged from those years as the No. 1 sport in the nation (to baseball’s continuing chagrin).
Apart from the nostalgia, though, the Chiefs-Vikings collision was the last time the Super Bowl was truly an Us-vs.-Them affair. Thereafter, no matter how delicious the matchup, it was Us vs. Us, which, let’s face it, takes something away from the game. No Super Bowl team these days is fighting for the honor of its conference — not the way the Chiefs (twice), Raiders and Jets fought for the credibility of the AFL in the ’60s. And when the worm turned at the end of the decade, it was, for many fans, like finding out the earth wasn’t flat or the sun didn’t revolve around the earth. Jets 16, Colts 7 was that cataclysmic.
● The Chiefs were such a cutting-edge team — a modern team. Never mind their dozen black starters, they also did a lot of pre-snap shifting on offense, often played one of their defensive tackles over the nose of the center (to the detriment of the Vikings’ undersized Mick Tinglehoff), had a lethal soccer-style kicker in Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud (when soccer-stylers were still in the minority) and even formed their offensive huddle unconventionally (with two lines facing quarterback Len Dawson: larger creatures in back, smaller creatures up front).
Here’s Culp blowing by Tinglehoff (who’ll be enshrined in Canton in August) to stuff a running play:
Watching Kansas City play in those days was like visiting Tomorrowland. The Chiefs were nothing like the ultra-basic Packers clubs coached by Vince Lombardi earlier in the ’60s (who served as a model for the ’69 Vikings). For instance, the Chiefs might not have reached the Super Bowl if they hadn’t sprung star receiver Otis Taylor for big gains against the Jets and Raiders by using a funky formation — with Taylor in the slot between the guard and tackle. And they tricked the Vikes three times by running end-arounds with their other wideout, Frank Pitts (who they positioned, in each instance, as a tight end on the left side). The first went for 19 yards and set up a field goal:
Minnesota, on the other hand, just lined up and came at you. Unfortunately, it was hard to do that against a defense like Kansas City’s. Buchanan, Culp, Brown and Mays repeatedly collapsed the pocket, and it seemed like Kapp spent the entire afternoon throwing off his back foot.
● In the brief intro before kickoff, CBS analyst Pat Summerall said Vikings coach Bud Grant had told him during the week “that Kansas City is the type of team — a physical team, a hitting team — that Minnesota has had trouble with throughout the entire year.” The Chiefs’ aggressiveness was certainly evident in the Super Bowl. On consecutive plays in the Vikings’ second series, they absolutely crunched running backs Bill Brown and Dave Osborn when they swung out of the backfield to catch passes, holding them to a pair of 1-yard gains. How often do you see consecutive 1-yard completions in the middle of the field?
At the outset of the second quarter, Marsalis put the wood to receiver John Henderson, causing a fumble that Robinson recovered. K.C. kept right on knocking Minnesota’s socks off.
● It no doubt helped the Chiefs that they had Been There Before, even if their previous Super Bowl experience had been a humbling 35-10 loss to Green Bay. Sixteen Kansas City starters, including punter Jerrel Wilson, had played in SB I. For the Vikings, it was their first time on the Super Bowl stage. And frankly, it showed. From the very first snap, K.C. looked like the looser club.
Don’t forget, too, that while the NFL had been around far longer than the AFL, the Chiefs (born: 1960) were actually older than the Vikes (a 1961 expansion franchise). So this Super Bowl had a much different dynamic than its predecessors.
● Stenerud was a huge factor, booting three field goals — the first a 48-yarder, a Super Bowl record at the time — to stake Kansas City to a 9-0 lead. Fred Cox, Minnesota’s traditional kicker (read: he kicked with the front of his foot, the toes, rather than the instep), had only one attempt in the game, from 56 yards with the wind at his back, and came up eight yards short:
Little wonder that by the end of the ’70s, the vast majority of NFL teams had soccer-stylers.
● Another comment Summerall made: “Kansas City is basically a man-to-man defense in the secondary. Minnesota is primarily a zone defensive team.” This goes back to the Chiefs’ aggressiveness. Their ‘D’ attacked you at every level. Thanks to Thomas’ close coverage, Gene Washington, the Vikings’ Pro Bowl receiver, had only one catch for nine yards — and it didn’t come until the last eight minutes, by which time K.C. was ahead 23-7.
● People always joked about Kapp’s not-so-tight spirals. Indeed, Summerall mentioned that Joe “does throw a ball that wobbles quite a bit.” But the Vikes’ QB really aired it out on a couple of occasions. On an incompletion to Washington late in the first half, the pass traveled 65 yards in the air. It might be the longest throw in Super Bowl history:
● Just before that bomb, Dawson drew Minnesota offside by shifting into the shotgun, which wasn’t seen much back then. He took the snap nine yards behind the line. Play-by-play man Jack Buck (correctly) said it “used to be called the Short Punt [formation].” Yet another example of the Chiefs’ against-the-grain mentality (not to mention a sound strategy against the Vikings’ fierce pass rush):
● Penalties could be so much more punitive in the ’60s. At the start of the second half, Kansas City had moved to its 41 when tackle Dave Hill was caught grabbing Carl Eller, Minnesota’s Pro Bowl defensive end, on a third-and-seven play. In those days, though, the walk-off for holding wasn’t 10 yards, it was 15 — from the spot of the foul, which in this case was seven yards deep in the backfield. So it ended up costing the Chiefs 22 yards and left them with a third-and-29. Ouch.
(Referee John McDonough didn’t announce who the penalty was on, however, because refs weren’t equipped with microphones yet. It was left to Summerall to divine who the guilty party was. Sometimes, Pat just had to make an educated guess. After the Vikings were flagged for a personal foul in the third quarter, he said it “might” have been on linebacker Wally Hilgenberg for giving Kansas City back Mike Garrett “a little shot as he tried to get by him” on a pass route.)
● It was a better balanced game in 1969 — better balanced between the run and the pass, better balanced between the offense and the defense. The run/pass split that season was fairly even — 51.6 percent rushing plays (for the two leagues combined), 48.4 percent passing plays. Last year, with Drew Brees and friends firing the ball all over the lot, it was 43.4/56.6. Maybe you’re OK with that. To me, it’s out of whack (not that we’ll ever go back in the other direction).
The rule changes in 1978 that legalized the use of hands in pass blocking and eliminated bump-and-run coverage — along with other tinkering by the Competition Committee — have turned pro football, increasingly, into a throwing contest. Of course, almost from the outset, the NFL has tried to distinguish itself from college football by giving the offense “a slight edge,” as longtime league president Joe Carr put it. “We are primarily interested in developing a spectacular scoring game,” he said in the ’30s. “We haven’t the pageantry that goes with the college games, hence as a substitute we must offer wide-open play, with frequent scoring.
Over the years, though, that “slight edge” has widened. And when you watch a game like Super Bowl IV, you’re reminded how much. There was simply more uncertainty when Dawson and Kapp went to the air, a larger margin of error. Sure, the defenses had something to do with that — both were terrific — but the rules were also fairer. It was nice, for a few hours, to see the game regain its equilibrium. As much fun as passing is, running the ball is elemental (and, I might add, keeps pro football in touch with its roots).
● On second and 18 from the Minnesota 27 near the end of the first half, the Chiefs ran a draw to Wendell Hayes, who picked up 13 yards. Summerall’s remark: “Excellent call by Dawson.” Oh, right. Quarterbacks were still calling their own plays. How quaint.
It was just another way the game was more balanced: Things weren’t totally dominated, as they are today, by micromanaging coaches. That’s why the TV cameras weren’t constantly focused on Stram and Grant — neither of whom, by the way, wore a headset (a fashion accessory that wasn’t yet in vogue). To a large extent, the players ran the show.
● But not always. The famed 65 Toss Power Trap, which Garrett scored on from the 5-yard line to make it 16-0, was sent in by Stram (via receiver Gloster Richardson). It was a gutsy call, inasmuch as it was third and goal, and was perfectly executed. Guard Mo Moorman came over from the right side to trap Alan Page, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle, and Garrett had a huge hole to run through:
What’s just as notable about the play, though, is that Garrett leaped into Taylor’s arms afterward. Self-celebration wasn’t that common in the ’60s, but you could tell from Garrett’s reaction that that touchdown was, to him, the clincher. Given the way the Kansas City ‘D’ was playing, the Vikings weren’t going to rally from 16 points down:
Needless to say, the Chiefs cheerleaders were excited:
● Every now and then, Page would flash, just to remind everybody he was the baddest defensive player on the planet. Once, Dawson had barely completed a handoff to Hayes before Page broke through and drilled him. The guy had linebacker-type quickness (which figures, I guess, since he was 6-4, 245 pounds):
Earlier, Page had dropped Robert Holmes for a 5-yard loss on a draw and, a short time later, tackled Garrett a yard behind the line. That said, Kansas City guard Ed Budde — with help from his linemates — kept Alan from going totally bonkers, and the Chiefs did everything they could to use his quickness against him by running a bunch of traps, draws and screens.
Page now sits on the Minnesota Supreme Court, so it was amusing to see him lose his temper — not once, but twice. The first time, after drawing an offside penalty, he began jawing at the officials. The aforementioned hit on Dawson soon followed. (Moral: Don’t get Alan mad.)
In the closing minutes, Page got riled again. You couldn’t blame him. The Vikings, 13-point favorites, were going down in flames, and Grant — this shocked me — wasn’t using any of his timeouts to stop the clock. The Chiefs weren’t inclined to Just Get It Over With, though, and, on the first play after the two-minute warning, a third-and-11, Dawson rolled right to pass.
Eller sacked him for a four-yard loss, but Page wasn’t satisfied with that. He dove into Lenny, well after the whistle, as the quarterback lay on the ground, resulting in a personal-foul penalty that enabled K.C. to keep possession:
It was fitting end to the last Us vs. Them Super Bowl, one final bit of animosity before the two leagues clasped hands. Both benches emptied, but not much happened aside from some generic jostling. Then the game resumed, the Chiefs killed the remaining time, Stram was hoisted on his players’ shoulders . . . and pro football was never the same.
● Postscript: Did you notice, near the end, Buck’s plug for The Ed Sullivan Show (which aired that night on CBS)? Among the guests, he said, were Tiny Tim and his new bride, Miss Vicky. (If the names aren’t familiar, Google them. It’ll give you a better feel for where we were as a country when the curtain came down on the AFL.)
In fact, why don’t we have Tim sing us off?
I have just one more thing to add: The Kansas City defense was no “tiptoe through the tulips.”
(And yes, that’s Goldie Hawn who hands him a bouquet of flowers before escorting him offstage.)
Following up on yesterday’s discussion of whether NFL teams have gotten any better at drafting in the last 50 years . . .
As tonight’s draft approaches, here are a few more things I came across in my research:
● The last time more Hall of Famers were drafted in the second round than the first: 1991.
Nobody in Round 1 that year wound up in Canton. In Round 2, though, the Cardinals got CB CB Aeneas Williams with the 59th pick.
(Note: As with yesterday’s post, I’m not talking about “rounds” as much as blocks of 32 picks — 1 through 32, 33 through 64 and 65 through 96. That way, drafts in the 2000s can be compared to drafts in the 1930s, even though there were fewer teams and shorter rounds in the early years.
The only Hall of Famer in the ’86 draft went 96th (Charles Haley).
● The last time more Hall of Famers were drafted in the third round than the first: 1986.
That was year the 49ers, at 96, lucked into DE Charles Haley. None of the first-rounders has gone on to the Hall.
● The last time the top three rounds each produced a HOFer: 1993 — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, 8th) and RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, 10th) in the Round 1, DE Michael Strahan (Giants, 40th) in Round 2 and OG Will Shields (Chiefs, 74th) in Round 3.
● The two times more Pro Bowlers were drafted in the second round than the first (since 1950, the season the first modern Pro Bowl was played): 1967 and ’74. I’ll give you details for ’67, since ’74 comes up again later.
Round 1 (9): DE Bubba Smith (Colts, 1st pick), QB Bob Griese* (Dolphins, 4th), LB George Webster (Oilers, 5th), RB Floyd Little* (Broncos, 6th), RB Mel Farr (Lions, 7th), WR Gene Washington (Vikings, 8th), DT Alan Page* (Vikings, 15th), OG Gene Upshaw* (Raiders, 17th), WR Bob Grim (Vikings, 28th). (Asterisk denotes Hall of Famer.)
Round 2 (10): RB Willie Ellison (Rams, 33rd), CB Lem Barney* (Lions, 34th), DT Bob Rowe (Cardinals, 43rd), FS Rick Volk (Colts, 45th), LB Jim Lynch (Chiefs, 47th), LB Willie Lanier* (Chiefs, 50th), WR John Gilliam (Saints, 52nd), OT Mike Current (Broncos, 58th), George Goeddeke (Broncos, 59th), LB Paul Naumoff (Lions, 60th).
The last time more Pro Bowlers were drafted in the third round than the first: never.
In 1966 and ’74 the totals were pretty close: six in Round 1, four in Round 3. The breakdown for the latter:
First round (6): DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Cowboys, 1st), DT John Dutton (Colts, 5th), LB Randy Gradishar (Broncos, 14th), OT Henry Lawrence (Raiders, 19th), WR Lynn Swann* (Steelers, 21st), WR Roger Carr (Colts, 24th).
Third round (4): WR Nat Moore (Dolphins, 78th), WR John Stallworth* (Steelers, 82nd), QB Mike Boryla (Bengals, 87th), LB Frank LeMaster (Eagles, 89th).
● Best first round for Hall of Famers: 1964 (7) — OT Bob Brown (Eagles, 2nd), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, 3rd), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, 6th), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, 11th), DB Mel Renfro (Cowboys, 17th), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, 18th), LB Dave Wilcox (49ers, 29th).
● Best second round for HOFers: 1981 (3) — LB Mike Singletary (Bears, 38th), DE Howie Long (Raiders, 48th), LB Rickey Jackson (Saints, 51st).
One of three Hall of Famers drafted in the third round in 1968.
● Best third round for HOFers: 1968 (3) — TE Charlie Sanders (Lions, 74th), DE Elvin Bethea (Houston Oilers, 77th), OT Art Shell (Raiders, 80th). Imagine: three Hall of Famers in the seven picks that deep in the draft.
● Best first round for Pro Bowlers: 1961 (19) — RB Tommy Mason (Vikings, 1st), QB Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd), DT Joe Rutgens (Redskins, 3rd), LB Marlin McKeever (Rams, 4th), TE Mike Ditka* (Bears, 5th), CB Jimmy Johnson* (49ers, 6th), RB Tom Matte (Colts, 7th), OT Ken Rice (Cardinals, 8th), WR Bernie Casey (49ers, 9th), QB Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th), CB Herb Adderley* (Packers, 12th), DT Bob Lilly* (Cowboys, 13th), LB Rip Hawkins (Vikings, 15th), C E.J. Holub (Cowboys, 16th), LB Myron Pottios (Steelers, 19th), RB Bill Brown (Bears, 20th), TE Fred Arbanas (Cardinals, 22nd), QB Fran Tarkenton* (Vikings, 29th), OT Stew Barber (Cowboys, 30th).
(Note: Some of these players signed with the AFL and played in AFL All-Star Games rather than Pro Bowls.)
● Best second round for Pro Bowlers: 2001 (12) — DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Cardinals, 34th), TE Alge Crumpler (Falcons, 35th), WR Chad Johnson(Bengals (36th), LB Kendrell Bell (Steelers, 39th), DT Kris Jenkins (Panthers, 34th), DE Aaron Schobel (Bills, 46th), OT Matt Light (Patriots, 48th), WR Chris Chambers (Dolphins, 52nd), RB Travis Henry (Bills, 58th), DT Shaun Rogers (Lions, 61st), DE Derrick Burgess (Eagles, 63rd), SS Adrian Wilson (Cardinals, 64th).
● Best third round for Pro Bowlers: 1951, ’61, ’77 and ’88 all had seven. The most recent:
1988 (7): QB-P Tom Tupa (Cardinals, 68th), P Greg Montgomery (Oilers, 72nd), TE Ferrell Edmunds (Dolphins, 73rd), CB James Hasty (Jets, 74th), QB Chris Chandler (Colts, 76th), LB Bill Romanowski (49ers, 80th), FS Chuck Cecil (Packers, 89th).
It’s rare that the talent in Round 2 turns out to be anywhere near as good as the talent in Round 1. (The same goes for Round 3 and Round 2.) As I said in the earlier post, scouting departments are fairly good at figuring out generally who the best players are. They just don’t always know specifically who they are.
But note, too, what this data doesn’t suggest: that teams have become more proficient over the decades at drafting. There’s just nothing here to support that. And it’s a bit of a surprise, given how much more time, money and manpower goes into the process these days — and how sophisticated it’s supposedly gotten.
This is how the NFL Draft looked in the early ’60s — and teams (arguably) drafted just as well as today.
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.
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
Picks 1 through 32
Picks 33 through 64
Picks 65 through 96
19 HOFers, PBers DNA
3 HOFers, PBers DNA
3 HOFers, PBers DNA
20 HOFers, 118 PBers
7 HOFers, 57 PBers
5 HOFers, 35 PBers
32 HOFers, 119 PBers
4 HOFers, 58 PBers
6 HOFers, 46 PBers
18 HOFers, 101 PBers
7 HOFers, 42 PBers
3 HOFers, 38 PBers
23 HOFers, 121 PBers
7 HOFers, 63 PBers
3 HOFers, 37 PBers
10 HOFers, 107 PBers
3 HOFers, 53 PBers
1 HOFer, 42 PBers
0 HOFers, 132 PBers
0 HOFers, 64 PBers
0 HOFers, 22 PBers
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.
Some of the NFL Draft’s best moments don’t become Best Moments until much later, after it’s established how good/bad the players are and how well/poorly teams evaluated them. That’s what this post is about: those instances when two guys at the same position are picked back to back, and it turns out there’s a gigantic gap between them. Basically, the first guy has a forgettable career (if he has one at all), and the second goes on to the Hall of Fame (or close to it).
Here are a dozen examples I dug up, just for the sake of conversation. Call them . . .
(Note: Shaw signed with the Bills of the rival AFL.)
The Vikes drafted this guy a spot ahead of Andre Reed.
Talk about screwing the pooch. After deciding to draft a particular player at a particular position, the teams on the left took The Wrong Guy — a mistake which became infinitely worse when the next club on the clock took The Right Guy. You can click on the names to look at their stats . . . and see how huge a gap there was in each case. It ain’t pretty. Cheshire, Jones and Pfeifer never played in the league, and Rogers, for one, was a drug-plagued disaster (36 catches and 4 touchdowns, compared to Reed’s 1,012 and 64 — and counting).
Would the first decade of the expansion Browns have been a little less miserable if they’d opted for McNabb over Couch? You’d think so. You’ve also gotta believe the ’70s (pre-Coryell) Chargers would have won a lot more games if they’d had Stallworth catching passes and Page chasing down quarterbacks — or am I underestimating how lousy the Bolts were in those days?
This kind of puts it all in perspective, though: Spurrier wound up quarterbacking the only 0-14 team in NFL history (the ’76 Bucs), and Griese wound up quarterbacking the only 17-0 team (the ’72 Dolphins).
Once again the NFL Draft World is abuzz about two quarterbacks. Who’s better, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? More importantly, who’s going to have the better career? The Bucs, for one, are convinced the fate of the franchise hinges on it. (Until the next time they have the first pick, that is.)
Jameis Winston: A future NFL great . . . or something else?
But there’s another question that’s worth asking here: Does it really matter as much as everybody seems to think it does? By that I mean: If there’s a Hall of Fame quarterback in this draft, what are the odds Tampa Bay — or any other team in the market for a QB — knows for sure who the Future Legend is? You’d be surprised at the league’s sorry track record in this area.
By my count, there have been 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have been available in the draft. This doesn’t include Steve Young, who originally cast his lot with USFL (and came to the NFL via a supplemental draft), or George Blanda (who made the Hall as much for his kicking as his throwing). Our QBs date all the way back to 1937, the second of the league’s 79 drafts, when the Redskins took Sammy Baugh sixth overall.
Want to guess how many of these Quarterbacks For The Ages were the first QB selected in their draft? Answer: four. One out of every six. Heck, Warren Moon didn’t even get drafted in 1978 — and there were 12 rounds that year. And again, we’re talking about Canton-quality players, not Pro Bowlers (whatever that means anymore) or long-term starters. Seems like those types — Hall types — should be more obvious.
When I started researching this the other day, I never imagined the number — four out of 24 — would be so low. It’s not like the inexact science of evaluating talent is getting any more exact, either. In my mind, there are seven active or recently active quarterbacks who are likely headed to the Hall: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Only one of them was the first QB picked in his draft (Manning, who went first overall). One in seven. That’s worse than one in six.
Consider: In 1944 there were two Hall of Fame quarterbacks up for grabs — Otto Graham and Bob Waterfield. Neither was the first QB selected. (That distinction went to Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli.) It was the same story in ’57, the draft that gave us Len Dawson and Sonny Jurgensen. The first passer off the board? John Brodie.
In ’83, meanwhile, John Elway was the No. 1 pick (and went on to Canton), but two other Hall-bound quarterbacks in that draft, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, were the third and sixth QBs chosen.
Even if a quarterback has Hall of Fame ability, in other words, it may not be easily identifiable in his early 20s. So why, given this history, are teams always falling over one another to move up in the first round and draft a QB, often at inflated prices? A better strategy might be to stay put and take whichever one falls to you. Granted, it doesn’t look as good public-relations-wise; you’re not being “aggressive” and “proactive,” merely patient and calculating. But if you end up with a better QB than the one you might have gotten (and as an added bonus, didn’t trade a truckload of picks for him), who cares?
Here are the details on the 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Draft Era (1936 to present):
● 1937 — Sammy Baugh, Redskins (6th pick) and Ace Parker, Dodgers (13th). Two QBs/tailbacks (the single wing was still in vogue, remember) were taken ahead of Baugh : Ed Goddard (Dodgers, 2nd) and Ray Buivid (Bears, 3rd). Three QBs/TBs, including Sammy, were taken ahead of Parker. (FYI: Goddard lasted exactly four games with Brooklyn. When he didn’t play heroically enough to justify his high salary, coach Potsy Clark released him in the middle of the season. So it went in those days.)
● 1939 — Sid Luckman, Bears (2nd). The first QB/TB picked.
● 1944 — Otto Graham, Lions (4th) and Bob Waterfield, Rams (42nd). One QB/TB was selected before Graham: Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli (Boston Yanks, 1st). Otto wound up signing with the Browns of the rival All-America Conference. Three QBs/TBs, including Otto, were selected before Waterfield, TB Dick Evans (Bears, 9th) being the other.
● 1948 — Bobby Layne, Bears (3rd) and Y.A. Tittle, Lions (6th). One QB went before Layne: Harry Gilmer (Redskins, 1st). Two, including Bobby, went before Tittle. Just think: Detroit drafted two Hall of Fame passers in five years (Graham and Y.A., who opted for the AAC’s Baltimore Colts) and lost both to The Other League.
● 1949 — Norm Van Brocklin, Rams (37th). Six QBs/TBs came off the board before him: John Rauch (Lions 2nd), Stan Heath (Packers, 5th), Bobby Thomason (Rams, 7th), Frank Tripucka (Eagles, 9th), Bob DeMoss (New York Bulldogs, 13th) and Joe Geri (Steelers, 36th). That’s right, Van Brocklin, who won two NFL championships, wasn’t even the first QB drafted by his own team in ’49. (Geri, by the way, was a tailback. Pittsburgh was the last club to run the single wing, stubbornly sticking with it until the ’50s.)
● 1955 — Johnny Unitas, Steelers (102nd). Three QBs were taken ahead of him: George Shaw (Colts, 1st), Ralph Guglielmi (Redskins, 4th) and Dave Leggett (Cardinals, 74th).
Bart Starr: The 200th player picked in 1956.
● 1956 — Bart Starr, Packers (200th). Eight QBs were selected before him, a mostly motley crew featuring Earl Morrall (49ers, 2nd), John Roach (Cardinals, 31st) and Fred Wyant (Redskins, 36th).
● 1957 — Len Dawson, Steelers (5th) and Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles (43rd). One QB went before Dawson: John Brodie (49ers, third). Five went before Jurgensen, the others being Milt Plum (Browns, 17th), Ronnie Knox (Bears, 37th) and Bobby Cox (Rams, 38th). Knox chose the CFL over the NFL.
● 1961 — Fran Tarkenton, Vikings (29th). Two QBs came off the board before him: Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd) and Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th).
● 1964 — Roger Staubach, Cowboys (129th). Eight QBs were taken ahead of him, Pete Beathard (Lions, 5th), Bill Munson (Rams, 7th), George Mira (49ers, 15th) and Jack Concannon (Eagles, 16th), most notably. Of course, Staubach would have gone higher if he hadn’t had to serve a 4-year military commitment after graduating from the Naval Academy.
● 1965 — Joe Namath, Cardinals (12th). Namath was the top pick in the AFL draft but only the second QB selected by the NFL. Craig Morton (Cowboys, 5th) was the first.
● 1967 — Bob Griese, Dolphins (4th). One QB went before him: Heisman winner Steve Spurrier (49ers, 3rd).
● 1970 — Terry Bradshaw, Steelers (1st). Obviously, he was the first QB picked.
● 1973 — Dan Fouts, Chargers (64th). Five QBs came off the board before him: Bert Jones (Colts, 2nd), Gary Huff (Bears, 33rd), Ron Jaworski (Rams, 37th), Gary Keithley (Cardinals, 45th) and Joe Ferguson (57th).
Warren Moon: Not even Mr. Irrelevant-worthy.
● 1978 — Warren Moon was passed over on Draft Day despite quarterbacking Washington to the Rose Bowl (and winning game MVP honors). So he starred in Canada for six years before the Houston Oilers threw a big contract at him. Fourteen quarterbacks were taken in the ’78 draft, but only one in the first round: Doug Williams (Bucs, 17th).
● 1979 — Joe Montana, 49ers (82nd). Three QBs were selected before him: Jack Thompson (Bengals, 3rd), Phil Simms (Giants, 7th) and Steve Fuller (Chiefs, 23rd).
● 1983 — John Elway (Broncos, 1st), Jim Kelly (Bills, 14th) and Dan Marino (Dolphins, 27th). Elway was the first QB off the board, Kelly the third and Marino the sixth. The others who went in the first round: Todd Blackledge (Chiefs, 7th), Tony Eason (Patriots, 15th) and Ken O’Brien (Jets, 24th).
1989 — Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1st). The first QB picked. But . . . if the University of Miami’s Steve Walsh had been available in the regular draft, would Dallas’ Jimmy Johnson have chosen him over Aikman? Johnson liked him enough to grab him in the first round of the supplemental draft (and let the two young passers compete for the starting job).
Now for the seven quarterbacks who are locks – or semi-locks – for the Hall of Fame:
● 1991 — Brett Favre (Falcons, 33rd). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Dan McGwire (Seahawks, 15th) and Todd Marinovich (Raiders, 24th).
● 1994 — Kurt Warner (Packers, undrafted free agent). Nine QBs were selected that year — the regrettable Heath Shuler (Redskins, 3rd) for starters — but Warner, who played in obscurity at Northern Iowa, wasn’t among them. After stints in the Arena League and NFL Europe, he improbably led the Rams and Cardinals to a total of three Super Bowls.
● 1998 — Peyton Manning (Colts, 1st). Numero uno.
● 2000 — Tom Brady (Patriots, 199th). Six QBs went before him, a pedestrian group consisting of Chad Pennington (Jets, 18th), Giovanni Carmozzi (49ers, 68th), Chris Redman (Ravens, 75th), Tee Martin (Steelers, 163rd), Marc Bulger (Rams, 168th) and Spurgon Wynn (Browns 183rd).
● 2001 — Drew Brees (Chargers, 32nd). The second QB off the board, 31 picks after Michael Vick (Falcons, 1st).
● 2004 — Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 11th). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Eli Manning (Chargers, 1st) and Philip Rivers (Giants, 4th). Manning and Rivers, who were swapped on Draft Day when Eli balked at signing with San Diego, have had good-to-very good careers, but Big Ben is the only one in the bunch who has been to three Super Bowls (winning two).
● 2005 — Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 24th). The second QB selected, several long hours (in Green Room Time) after Alex Smith (49ers, 1st) led off the draft.
You also could break it down like this:
● 4 were the first QB taken: Luckman, Bradshaw, Elway, Aikman
● 5 were the second QB taken: Graham, Layne, Dawson, Namath, Griese
● 4 were the third QB taken: Baugh, Tittle, Tarkenton, Kelly
● 4 were the fourth QB taken: Parker, Waterfield, Unitas, Montana
● 4 were the sixth QB taken: Van Brocklin, Jurgensen, Fouts, Marino
● 2 were the ninth QB taken: Starr, Staubach
● 1 wasn’t taken at all: Moon (and Warner would make it two)
Maybe you’ll draw other conclusions after digesting all this. At the very least, it makes moving up to draft a quarterback seem a lot less “bold” and a lot more second-guessable. After all, many times, the great QB is the guy who goes 42nd, 37th, 102nd, 200th, 43rd, 129th, 64th, 82nd, 33rd or 199th – or is being overlooked entirely.