Category Archives: 1970s

The role of women in NFL history

In recent days comes word the NFL will have its first full-time female official in 2015: line judge Sarah Thomas, late of Conference USA. Less than seven months earlier, another barrier was broken when the league hired Dawn Hudson as its chief marketing officer.

With women making all these inroads in pro football, I figured it might be a good time to post a story I wrote in 2000 about their oft-forgotten impact on the game — in ways large and small. I’ve brought the piece up to date in a few places, but most of it remains unchanged. As you’ll see, the role they’ve played is hardly inconsequential.

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The NFL couldn’t agree on how to realign after merging with the American Football League in 1970. Owners spent eight months batting around various ideas without reaching a compromise. Some of the possibilities were downright scary. Two of the plans broke up the age-old Bears-Packers rivalry. Another put Philadelphia and Detroit in the NFC West.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle finally stepped in and settled the issue. He put the five most popular plans in a cut-glass vase and asked his secretary, Thelma Elkjer, to reach in and pick one. Thelma pulled out plan No. 3, the only one, it turned out, that kept the black-and-blue division (Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota) intact. Had she selected any of the other four, the Vikings would have been in the NFC East.

We tend to think of the NFL as a man’s world, and it is to a great degree. But that doesn’t mean women haven’t, from time to time, played important roles in its history. Women have had a much bigger impact on pro football — in all sorts of ways — than most fans realize. (And not just by giving birth to, say, the Manning brothers.) For instance, did you know that the wife of the Pittsburgh ticket manager came up with the name Steelers? If it hadn’t been for Mrs. Joe Carr, we might be calling them the Iron Men or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. . . .

Silent screen star Corinne GriffithCorinne Griffith, wife of Redskins founder George Preston Marshall, made all kinds of contributions to the cause in the ’30s and ’40s. She designed the team’s uniforms (as well as the costumes for the marching band). She planned elaborate halftime shows that became the model for the rest of the league. She even wrote the lyrics to Hail to the Redskins.

(The latter might seem like a small thing, but it became very big indeed when Clint Murchison was trying to get a franchise for Dallas in 1960. Murchison knew the Redskins were opposed to another southern team joining the NFL — they considered the South their territory — so a buddy of his acquired the rights to the Redskins’ fight song and threatened to deny Marshall the use of it unless he supported Dallas’ bid. George capitulated, of course.)

There was nothing Corinne wouldn’t do for her beloved Redskins. One year, The New York Times reported, the Brooklyn Dodgers sent “Dean McAdams and Merlyn Condit to [Washington] for Bob Masterson, Ray Hare, George Smith, Tony Leon, Leo Stasica, $2,000 and a boxer dog, Toby. Referring to that one-sided transaction — McAdams and Condit never played with the Redskins — Mrs. George Preston Marshall, whose husband made the deal, averred she didn’t mind losing the players, but hated to give up Toby.”

Which brings us to Lizette Mara, wife of New York Giants founder Tim Mara. Lizette wasn’t nearly as active in team affairs as Corinne Griffith, but she did wield a certain influence. How so? Well, after the Giants played their first game at the Polo Grounds in 1925, her young son Wellington, who had stood on the sideline all afternoon, came down with a cold. Mom was none too pleased.

“She immediately came up with a novel solution,” Barry Gottehrer wrote in The Giants of New York. “The Giant[s] bench, placed on the south side of the field, was in the chilling shade from the second quarter on while the visiting team’s bench remained bathed in sun.”

“She told Pop to switch the benches,” Wellington, who followed his father into the Hall of Fame, told Gottehrer. “It was either that or leave me home, so Pop switched benches. And they’ve stayed switched ever since.”

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The 1999 NFL champions, the St. Louis Rams, were owned by a woman: former actress/chorus girl/nightclub singer/TV weather person Georgia Frontiere. Frontiere inherited the franchise, then located in Los Angeles, from her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, and made no friends by (a.) letting the club go to pot and (b.) bolting to St. Louis in 1995. Fans saw her as too bottom-line conscious — and totally over her head. They’d bring signs to games begging her to sell the team.

Unfortunately for them, she liked being an owner.

“It’s too much a part of my life,” she said in a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “What would I do on Sunday? There is still a certain kid in me. When I first met Carroll [who originally owned the Baltimore Colts], he used to take me to practice, and I played catch with Johnny Unitas. That was the greatest thing to ever happen.”

Many were skeptical when the Rams went to St. Louis, even though the team negotiated a sweet financial deal that included a new stadium. The city simply hadn’t supported pro football that strongly in the past. But Frontiere seemed to learn from her mistakes in L.A. First, she loosened the purse strings, giving huge contracts to Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and Isaac Bruce. Then she got incredibly lucky when her backup quarterback, Kurt Warner, turned into the NFL’s MVP (and was rewarded with a lucrative contract himself).

The ’99 season was pure magic — and ended with commissioner Paul Tagliabue handing Georgia the Super Bowl trophy. “[This] proves that we did the right thing in going to St. Louis,” she said in her acceptance speech. Tagliabue, who had opposed the move, didn’t argue. After all, the Rams were champs, and the city they left behind had been passed over for an expansion franchise in favor of Houston.

Vi Bidwill with coach Pop Ivy at the 1961 draft.

Violet Bidwill with Cardinals coach Pop Ivy at the 1961 draft.

Frontiere, it might surprise you to learn, wasn’t the first woman to own an NFL championship team. More than a half-century earlier, in 1947, Violet Bidwill presided over the title-winning Chicago Cardinals — quite unexpectedly, I might add. Her husband, pro football pioneer Charley Bidwill, had died of a heart attack the previous spring, and poor Violet was left to run the club.

These were the glory years for the Cardinals franchise, the years of Jimmy Conzelman, their ever-quotable coach, and the “Dream Backfield” of Charley Trippi, Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman. The team played for the championship again in ’48, losing in a snowstorm to the Eagles in Philadelphia, but won only one playoff game in the next six decades. Which is really all you need to know about Violet Bidwill, NFL owner.

Vi — adoptive mother of current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill — was a nice woman, by all accounts. She was just . . . well, why don’t I let Bob Nussbaumer tell you about her?

“I was helping the Cardinals out with the draft — gathering information on players and stuff like that,” he told me. “And in those days [the ’50s] they used to hold the draft in Chicago all the time, in a hotel. So we’re sitting at the Cardinals’ table, waiting for the draft to start, and here comes Vi Bidwill with a bunch of college football magazines. True story. Honest to God. And she’s flipping through them [at the table] and saying, ‘What about this guy? He sounds pretty good.’”

Vi was approached about selling the club in 1958 — and this is where she left perhaps her biggest mark on pro football. The man who approached her was millionaire oilman Lamar Hunt, who was anxious to buy a team. When Vi turned him down, Hunt went off and organized the AFL — which gave us Joe Namath, 2-point conversions, skyrocketing salaries and a decade of highly entertaining interleague strife.

So look at it this way: If it hadn’t been for Vi Bidwill, there might have been no AFL (or at the very least, a much different AFL).

There certainly would have been no St. Louis Cardinals, which is where she took the team in 1960 after years of playing second fiddle to the Bears in Chicago. (Son Bill continued the tradition of itinerancy by packing the club off to Arizona.)

You could even argue that, without Vi Bidwill, there would have been no Detroit Lions dynasty in the ’50s. Buddy Parker, who coached the Lions to championships in 1952 and ’53 (and laid the groundwork for their title in ’57), had previously coached the Cardinals. But he left the team after a winning season in ’49 because Vi wasn’t sure if she wanted to renew his contract.

“I wanted my status established,” Parker said at the time. “Mrs. Bidwill wouldn’t give me a direct answer. She said she wanted to wait and see. I’ve decided not to wait and see.”

Instead, he joined the Lions as Bo McMillin’s top assistant and moved up to the head job the next year when Bo was forced out. Soon enough, Detroit was an NFL powerhouse

You have to admit, Vi Bidwill cuts a wide swath through NFL history, even if she didn’t always mean to.

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Moving along . . . other women besides the aforementioned helped make pro football what it is today. Frances Upton, for instance. She was the Ziegfeld Follies girl who married Bert Bell — and gave him the $2,500 he needed to acquire the Philadelphia franchise in 1933. (Bell wasn’t much of an owner, but he made a fine commissioner from 1946 to ’59.)

Women, in fact, bankrolled several owners in the early days. The mother of Bears center George Trafton loaned George Halas $20,000 so that he could buy out Dutch Sternaman and become sole owner of the Bears in 1932. Without that timely infusion of capital, Halas might well have lost the team (or so the story goes). In the depths of the Depression, it was a significant sum.

Then there’s Kate Smith, the famous singer from the ’40s. She was the main source of Boston Yanks owner Ted Collins’ wealth — Ted being her manager. “It was a standing joke on the team,” one of Collins’ players once said, “that if Kate ever got a sore throat, nobody would get paid.”

Collins always claimed Smith didn’t invest in the club, but she was, at the very least, a loyal supporter. She sang the national anthem before the Yanks’ inaugural game in 1944 and often could be seen rooting for them at Fenway Park. The Boston Globe offered this press box glimpse of her during a Yanks-Bears game in 1947:

“When the Bears sent McAfee, Turner, Holovak, Keane and Kavanaugh into the game for their final spurt, songstress Kate Smith — seated on the 50-yard line — almost jumped into the game to stop them. . . . She rooted violently for Boston throughout the game.”

Having a celebrity like Kate connected to the league was great for its image. Pro football in the pre-television era wasn’t thought of as very glamorous and didn’t have nearly as many followers as college ball. But, hey, if Kate Smith went to the games, they must be the place to be, right?

Another high-profile female who lent her fame to the fledgling NFL was figure skater/film star Sonja Henie, wife of Brooklyn owner Dan Topping. (Sonja might even have owned a piece of the club, though there’s some dispute about that.) In 1940, when the Dodgers opened the season against the Redskins in Washington, the Norwegian ice princess was prevailed upon to throw out the first ball. The United Press reviewed her performance thusly: “Until you have seen Sonja Henie throw a forward pass, you cannot possibly realize the truth in the statement concerning the weaker sex.”

Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.

Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.

And let’s not forget the Hollywood starlets who consorted with an assortment of Los Angeles Rams in the ’40s and ’50s. Elizabeth Taylor — Liz Taylor! — was once engaged to running back Glenn Davis (and Terry Moore actually walked down the aisle with him). Jane Russell, meanwhile, was married to quarterback Bob Waterfield. The stands at the L.A. Coliseum always seemed to be adorned by a Marilyn Monroe or a Lana Turner.

“Jane [Russell] would come with Bob [Waterfield] to the games in Philadelphia,” former Eagle Ernie Steele told me. “She was just a regular person. Everybody loved her. We were in the Washington Club one time after a ballgame — it used to be on Market Street — and she was just sitting at the table with us, drinking a couple of beers. One of the gals wrote on the wall of the ladies room: ‘Jane Russell peed here.’”

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More on Corinne Griffith, George Preston Marshall’s wife-of-all-trades: In addition to her aforementioned talents, Corinne also was an author. In 1946 she wrote (with the L.A. Times’ Bill Henry) My Life With the Redskins, one of the earliest — and best — books on pro football. It’s funny, informative and full of great stories.

Example: For the Lions’ first game at Briggs Stadium in 1938, owner Dick Richards had 6,000 yellow chrysanthemums flown in from California and gave one to each of the first 6,000 women to arrive. “Soon,” Corinne says, “6,000 chrysanthemums yellow-dotted the packed the stadium, lending their clean, tangy odor to the cool, crisp autumn air.”

(Corinne never dreamed up a promotion like that for the Redskins, but she did have Santa Claus flown into Griffith Stadium in a helicopter in 1946.)

Elsewhere in the book, she says it was she who convinced Marshall to move the club to Washington from Boston. “You see,” her logic went, “there are so many displaced citizens in Washington. . . . As a matter of fact, the D.C. after Washington means: Displaced Citizen. Most of these D.C.’s are alone in Washington with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon other than sit in parks and feed the squirrels and pigeons. . . . I have a definite feeling that Washington’s D.C.’s would welcome a little more action on Sunday afternoon.”

After Corinne came Perian Conerly. In the late ’50s, Perian, who was married to Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly, began writing a weekly column for her hometown newspaper in Clarksdale, Miss., about being a football wife in the big city (and including, naturally, behind-the-scenes information about the team and her own observations about the games). The column proved so popular that it was syndicated; one of the newspapers that carried it was The New York Times. Here she is trying to stump the panel of celebrities — movie star David Niven (!) among them — on the famed TV show, What’s My Line?

In one of Perrian’s columns, on players’ “sideline occupations,” she informed her readers that “a Chicago Bear[s] end, Dr. Bill McColl, specializes in surgery and recently performed an offseason knee operation on one of his in-season opponents.” Another time, writing about game day and its attendant anxieties, she revealed: “[Giants punter] Don Chandler’s first move [after waking on Sunday] is to race to the window of his apartment, which overlooks Yankee Stadium, and check the flags displayed there. Thus he gets an immediate indication of how the wind will affect his punting.”

Then there was this gem that ended a column about the growth of pro football and the “enlightened attitude of the general public toward the game”: “I have still another criterion for measuring this evolution of attitude. It concerns tone of voice. ‘Your husband plays professional football?’ has been the stock opening line of new acquaintances since our marriage in 1949. It remains so in 1960. But the exclamation today bears not a trace of pity.”

Perian hung up her typewriter at the end of the ’61 season, when Charlie retired. Three years later, though, Joan Ryan, wife of Browns QB Frank Ryan, picked up where Perian left off in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and later, after Frank signed with the Redskins, in The Washington Star). “Backseat Brown,” her original column was called.

Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.

Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.

Joan’s writing had a little more of an edge to it than Perian’s. She made cracks about other teams’ uniforms. (“The psychological letdown of having to go into a locker room on a bleak day and don [the Redskins’] mustard-gold pants with a maroon-and-gold jersey would make me want to forfeit.”) She ripped the offensive line her husband played behind when he was with the Rams. (“The first time I saw [Frank] throw four consecutive passes standing up was the first time I saw him play for the Browns.”) She told a story about Frank accidentally cleating coach Paul Brown during warmups (and how, after the game, his teammates were “jovially patting Frank on the back . . . [and] were hopeful that Paul might miss the next game because of the injury.”)

But that was nothing compared to what she said about Don Meredith in 1966. Five days before the Browns were to host Dallas in a huge game, she called the Cowboys quarterback “a loser.” (Think that might have caused some tension in the Ryan household?) When the teams met, though, Joan came off looking pretty good. Dandy Don threw four interceptions as Cleveland coasted to an easy victory.

According to a story last November in The Washington Post (a paper she went on to work for), “Women make up an estimated 45 percent of the NFL’s more than 150 million American fans and have become perhaps pro football’s most valuable players. Female fans, a group beloved by advertisers, represent the league’s biggest opportunity for growth.”

Do Corinne Griffith, Perian Conerly and Joan Ryan have anything to do with this?

It’s hard to believe they don’t.

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No discussion of women and their impact on pro football would be complete without Heidi. Granted, Heidi was a girl — and a fictional one at that — but she’s the reason 60 Minutes gets delayed, if need be, so an NFL game can be shown in its entirety.

Heidi DVD coverThat policy wasn’t quite set in stone in 1968, when the Jets played at Oakland in a preview of the AFL championship game. With New York leading by a field goal in the final minute and the game running late, NBC switched away from Joe Namath and Ben Davidson so it could air the children’s movie Heidi, which was supposed to begin at 7 p.m.

Talk about a bonehead move. So many angry fans called the NBC switchboard in New York that it broke down. The network tried to placate them by returning to the game, but by then the Raiders had scored the go-ahead touchdown. It was, in every respect, a disaster, but something good did come of it: No network ever messed with a football game again.

So there you have it, folks, the never-before-told story of how women — yes, women — helped shape pro football. With Sarah Thomas about to join the ranks of NFL zebras, there’s no telling what the future holds. Someday, a female might grab a grease pencil and design a defense that will confound the next Tom Brady. In the mind’s eye, it’s the daughter of a football coach, a Condoleezza Rice-type, only she decides she’d rather be a defensive coordinator than Secretary of State.

This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Washington Times, Nov. 19, 2000.

Chris Borland and the future of the NFL

Dan Pompei wrote a piece for Bleacher Report not long ago that began like this:

There are not many footprints on the path Chris Borland has chosen to walk. His approach to the NFL, and life after it, represents a way of thinking that is very different from the thinking of most of his football forefathers.

Fifty years ago, or even 10 years ago, promising players considered the NFL a destination — not a rest stop on life’s highway. They did all they could to extend their shelf life. They didn’t consider shortening it, as Borland has, retiring after a standout rookie season with the 49ers.

But as time — and eras — have passed, so too have perspectives on the role football should play in a player’s life.

Actually, in the league’s first 40 years, many of Borland’s “football forefathers” thought like he did, considered the NFL a short-term gig. Unlike today, the game didn’t lend itself to a long, lucrative career. In the single-platoon era (1920-49), players often played the entire game, or close to it. The travel, too — on trains, buses and even in private cars — was more onerous. Some teams would be on the road for a month or more.

You also could make the case that competition for jobs was greater because there were fewer of them. In 1941, the last season before the war, there were 330 roster spots in the league and just 11 players who were 30 or older (oldest: 33). Last year there were 1,696 roster spots and 331 thirtysomethings (oldest: 42). Nobody ever talks about that when they talk about the early days: that it was harder to break into the league and harder to stay there — which, naturally, led to shorter careers.

Let me throw a few more numbers at you so you’ll get the complete picture. This is how many players in each decade played in all 10 seasons of that decade:

1920s: 3

1930s: 2

1940s: 5

1950s: 18

1960s: 74

1970s: 109

1980s: 92

1990s: 158

2000s: 163

2010s: TBD (but likely more than 163, Chris Borland or no Chris Borland)

From the ’20s through the ’50s, the prevailing philosophy seemed to be: play four or five years if you can, burn off any testosterone left over from college, sock away some dough (provided there’s some dough to sock away) and, in the offseasons — which were quite a bit longer then — try to prepare for your Next Life (in coaching, business, teaching, whatever).

George Halas’ Bears teams weren’t just successful on the field, they were successful off it. Several players, for instance, found the time during the season to go to medical and dental school. According to a 2011 story about John Siegal, an end in the ’30s and ’40s, his “typical day would spin the heads of today’s multimillionaire athletes. He attended Bears practice from 9 a.m. to noon, then headed to Northwestern University for dentistry classes from 1 p.m. until 5. One teammate, fullback Bill Osmanski, attended school with him; Halas had agreed to pay the pair’s tuition in addition to their salary.”

(Of course, clubs were more concerned for the players’ welfare in those days. As the Bears’ 1937 media guide noted: “A form of cod-liver oil is taken daily by the players when cold weather sets in.”)

Time and again, Halas would tell his team, “Football is a means to an end.” And in those leaner times, it was the soundest of advice. No player was so well paid that he could retire on his NFL earnings; he’d better have a Plan B (if not a Plan C).

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

But beyond that, there was more of an understanding that the human body wasn’t built for such punishment — not over the long haul, at least. Doak Walker, the Lions’ Hall of Fame back, quit in 1955 after just six seasons. Tom Harmon, the first pick in the ’41 draft, played a mere two years (after a lengthy stint in the military) before going into sportscasting. The “indestructible” Bronko Nagurski took the knocks for eight seasons, then decided professional wrestling was a safer — and better-paying — alternative (though he came out of retirement in ’43 when the Bears were shorthanded). None of this was unusual.

But as you can see in the decade-by-decade figures, things began to change in the ’60s. The money got better, the medicine improved, the jobs multiplied — and suddenly you had players staying in the game until they were literally wheeled out on a gurney.

It also could be argued that modern players are more dependent on the game than they used to be — because the job has become so time-consuming, in-season and out. Who today could squeeze in med school classes around all the practices, meetings, weight-room sessions, public-relations appearances and everything else on the football calendar? It’s increasingly hard to lay almost any kind of groundwork for Life After Football. (We won’t even get into the dubious college “education” some of these guys receive, “learning” that sometimes doesn’t equip you to do much more than retain your eligibility.)

In recent years, a time bomb has gone off — the Concussion Issue — and people have begun to wonder whether the game has gotten too hazardous to the players’ health, whether this is the beginning of the end for Pro Football As We Know It. First of all, the game has always been too hazardous to the players’ health. No league has left a longer trail of broken bodies than NFL. It’s more a question of: How much are the players — and the fans who cheer them — willing to put up with? Will the risk of CTE cause young athletes to turn to other sports, or will the fame and fortune of football be too much of a lure? And even if a kid does opt to play the game, will he, as he grows older, try to limit the damage, as Borland did (and as players in the early decades did, though their retirements weren’t always of their own volition).

Then there’s the matter of whether the NFL will continue to be as popular if it takes such a toll on its participants — or whether it will remain as profitable if concussion settlements spiral out of control. You even have folks like Malcolm Gladwell suggesting football will become “a ghettoized sport, not a mainstream American sport” — that it will draw most of its players from the lower economic classes, those who have fewer “options” and “for whom the risks are acceptable. . . . It’s going to become the Army.” (Except, perhaps, in such places as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where it’s engrained in the culture.)

Here’s the thing, though: David Robinson made over $116 million in his 14 seasons in the NBA – and that doesn’t include endorsements. Yet his son, Corey, is a wide receiver at Notre Dame and may well be headed for an NFL career. In this instance, in other words, you have an extremely wealthy family — and a very intelligent dad, from my experience — who have spawned, of all things, a football player.

I could make the same point about Denzel Washington’s son, J.D., who was a running back at Morehouse College and spent a year on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad. I ask you: How many NFL players come from more well-to-do backgrounds than Corey Robinson or J.D. Washington?

As long as a sport offers the chance for glory — never mind an eye-popping paycheck — it will attract players across the economic spectrum, I’m convinced. These players might, in the years to come, spend more time weighing the risk vs. the reward, and that’s a healthy thing. But the idea that vast numbers of them will simply stop playing, like Borland, is a bit farfetched. What it figures to come down to, ultimately, is the fans — and whether they, knowing the game’s consequences (loss of motor and cognitive function, etc.), stop watching. That’s when the league will really be in trouble.

But that, too, seems a bit of a stretch. This, after all, is America, the world’s biggest reality show. Pro football can almost be thought of as a spinoff of Fear Factor. Or is it the other way around?

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

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

NFLers in the NCAA Tournament

More than a few NFLers have played college basketball — especially in the two- and three-sport eras – but only a handful have made much of a mark in the NCAA Tournament. Here are the five most notable ones (and a handful of others who also took part in March Madness):

● Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers, 2003-present — As a junior, Gates led 10th-seeded Kent State to the Elite Eight, averaging 18.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in the tournament. He was the game’s

Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

Antonio Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

high scorer with 22 when Golden Flashes knocked off third-seed Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. Alas, he was a tweener by NBA standards, a muscular 6-4, so he opted for a pro football career. San Diego signed him as an undrafted free agent and, 788 catches and 99 touchdowns later, he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame.

● Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs/Falcons, 1997-2013 — Gonzalez joined California’s 1996-97 basketball squad late because the football team played in a bowl game. By the time the tournament rolled around, though, he was starting at power forward — and making a major impact. In Cal’s first-round game, he scored the Bears’ final 5 points (and 13 in all) to help the Bears edge Princeton. In Round 2, he had a team-high 23 in a victory over Villanova. His future was clearly in the NFL, though, and the following month the Chiefs drafted him 13th overall. He went on to break virtually all the records for tight ends and figures to be voted into the Hall as soon as he’s eligible.

● Sam Clancy, DE, Seahawks/Browns/Colts, 1983, ’85-93 — Clancy was an even bigger bruiser than the first two guys, measuring 6-7 and bulking up to 288 in the NFL. He was the star of Pittsburgh’s 1981 NCAA tourney team, posting a double-double (22/13) in the opener against Idaho and racking up 16 points and 6 rebounds in the Panthers’ second-round loss to North Carolina  (the eventual runner-up). The NBA’s Phoenix Suns selected him in the third round, but after a year in the Continental Basketball Association he turned to football and spent the next decade as a pass-rushing specialist. In 1991, his best season, he had 7.5 sacks for Indianapolis.

● Ron Widby, P, Cowboys/Packers, 1968-73 — Widby was a fabulous all-around athlete at Tennessee, good enough to lead the nation in punting (1966), win SEC Player of the Year honors in basketball (1967) and earn letters in baseball and golf. In his one NCAA tournament (’67), he totaled 43 points and 13 rebounds in the Vols’ two games. Following a brief stint in the American Basketball Association with the New Orleans Buccaneers, he punted for Dallas and Green Bay for six seasons. He was voted first team all-pro by the AP in 1969, when he led the NFC with a 43.3-yard average, and went to the Pro Bowl in ’71, the year the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl.

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

● Terry Baker, QB-RB, Rams, 1963-65 — Baker had an incredible final year (1962-63) at Oregon State. In the fall he guided the Ducks to a bowl berth, won the Heisman Trophy and was the first player taken in the NFL draft. And in the winter he started at guard for an OSU basketball team that reached the Final Four. In five tourney games, he averaged 10.4 points, with highs of 21 against San Francisco and 15 in the Elite Eight against Arizona State. As it turned out, it was the peak of his career. His arm — he was a southpaw — wasn’t strong enough for the NFL, and the Rams eventually moved him to running back. By 1967, after a season in Canada, he was out of football.

● Sixth man: Cornell Green, CB/SS, Cowboys, 1962-74 — Like Gates and Clancy, Green didn’t play college football. But Dallas was intrigued enough by his size (6-3, 208) and agility to offer him a contract — and understandably so. His senior season at Utah State, the Aggies made it to the Sweet 16, and he scored 27, 26 and 20 points in their three tournament games. That got him drafted in the fifth round by the NBA’s Chicago Zephyrs, but he decided to give pro football a shot instead. He wound up going to five Pro Bowls (three as a cornerback, two as a strong safety) and appearing in four NFL title games. He also gets bonus points for being the brother of Pumpsie Green, one of the great nicknames in baseball history and the first black player for the Red Sox.

Other bench players:

● Jack Dugger, T, Lions/Bears, 1947-49 — Dugger was a 6-3, 230-pound lineman who had a nondescript pro career. But near as I can tell, he’s the only NFL player to play in two Final Fours — with Ohio State in 1944 and ’45. Of course, the Final Four was different then. The semifinals were held in separate locations, the sites of the East and West regionals, after which the winners convened for the championship game (at Madison Square Garden in those years). In the ’44 semis, Dugger scored 8 points in a loss to Dartmouth, and in the ’45 semis he scored 4 in a loss to NYU (featuring the great Dolph Schayes).

 Red Hickey, E, Steelers/Rams, 1941, ’45-48 — In the 1941 NCAA tournament, Hickey’s Arkansas Razorbacks made it to the Final Four, where they were defeated by Washington State (with Red contributing 3 points). But his real talents lay elsewhere. As an NFL receiver, he tied for fourth in the league once in touchdown catches (7 in ’48), and as the coach of the 49ers in the early ’60s, he gave us the Shotgun offense, remnants of which can still be seen today. His son Mike was the Jets’ player personnel director in the ’80s.

● K.C. Jones, DB, Rams (training camp), 1955 — Ah, what might have been. The Rams drafted Jones out of curiosity in the last round in ’55 — the year he and Bill Russell helped San Francisco win the first of back-to-back NCAA titles. During his brief time in camp, he pretty much invented the bump-and-run style of pass defense, frustrating receivers with what can only be described as a full-court press. (And while his teammates constantly complained about his hand-checking, there was nothing in the rules preventing it.) Jones had the size (6-1, 200), athleticism, toughness and smarts to be another Night Train Lane, but basketball was his true calling, and he went on to glory with the Boston Celtics as — what else? — a defensive stopper.

Clarification: Yes, Vikings legend Joe Kapp played hoops at California in the late ’50s — the Bears’ glory years under Pete Newell. But no, he never got into a Final Four game. While he did appear in three tournament games in 1957 and ’58, going scoreless, he wasn’t on the team in ’59, when Cal won the NCAA title. Why? “I couldn’t play basketball [that season] because of the Rose Bowl,” he once said. (The Bears lost in Pasadena to second-ranked Iowa, 38-12.)

Sources: Encyclopedia of College Basketball by Mike Douchant, The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament by Jim Savage, pro-football-reference.com, sports-reference.com.

In the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Tony Gonzalez led Cal with 23 points in a win over Villanova.

In the second round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Tony Gonzalez led Cal with 23 points in a win over Villanova.

Trading one QB for another

Chip Kelly, the Eagles’ iconoclast/coach, was at it again on the first day of free agency. He swapped a quarterback for a quarterback, Nick Foles for the Rams’ Sam Bradford. Talk about something that Just Isn’t Done.

Or rather, it hasn’t been done very often in recent years. The risk is just to great — the risk of looking like a dummy if the QB you traded turns out to be better than the QB you got in return.

Here’s a factoid that might surprise you: Only 10 quarterbacks in NFL history have posted a passer rating of 110 or higher in a season. Three of them have been traded within two years of one of those seasons — while still in their 20s.

Foles, of course, is the latest. The details:

Daunte Culpepper

Daunte Culpepper

● Milt Plum, Browns — Had a rating of 110.4 in 1960, a league record at the time (and phenomenal for that era, which was much more hit-or-miss in the throwing department). Traded to the Lions in ’62. (Particulars below.) Age: 27.

● Daunte Culpepper, Vikings — Put up a rating of 110.9 in 2004. Dealt to the Dolphins in ’06 for a second-round pick (after blowing out his right knee the season before and asking to be traded). Age: 29.

● Nick Foles, Eagles — Posted a rating of 119.2 in 2013, the third highest of all time. Sent to the Rams in 2015. Age: 26.

But let’s get back to the topic du jour: quarterback-for-quarterback trades. They always cause such a stir, don’t they? Look at all the syllables that have been expended discussing the Foles-for-Bradford swap. And yet, none of these deals has resulted in an NFL title for either side (though one did lead to an AFL title). The more notable QB-for-QB exchanges over the decades:

● 1980 — The Raiders’ Ken Stabler for the Oilers’ Dan Pastorini.

I covered this trade in a recent post about one-for-one player swaps. Both quarterbacks were nearing the end, but Houston thought Stabler might have enough left to get the franchise to its first Super Bowl. Alas, he didn’t. Pastorini, meanwhile, broke his leg in Oakland, but that merely opened the door for Jim Plunkett (and brought the Raiders two more rings).

Winner*: Oilers (not that the Raiders suffered any when they lost Pastorini).

*We’re just comparing the QBs here. In most cases, other players and/or draft picks were involved in the trades.)

Morton card● 1977 — The Giants’ Craig Morton for the Broncos’ Steve Ramsey.

Morton looked like he might be through after winning just two of 12 starts the year before. But he revived his career in Denver, guiding the Broncos — with the help of their famed Orange Crush defense — to the Super Bowl in his first season. Ramsey, an utterly forgettable QB, was cut by the Giants in training camp.

Winner: Broncos.

● 1976 — The Packers’ John Hadl for the Oilers’ Lynn Dickey.

Hadl’s two seasons in Houston — his final two seasons — were spent mostly as a backup behind Pastorini. He was, after all, 36. But Dickey, a decade younger, had his best years in Green Bay. In the ’82 strike season he quarterbacked the Packers to their only playoff berth in two decades (1973-92). The next season he led the league in touchdown passes (32) and passing yards (4,458).

Winner: Packers.

● 1972 — The Giants’ Fran Tarkenton for the Vikings’ Norm Snead.

In 1967 Tarkenton was traded to the Giants for the kitchen sink. Five years later he was traded back to the Vikings for slightly less than the kitchen sink. His second term in Minnesota was more fruitful. The Vikings went to three Super Bowls (though they didn’t win any), which cemented his status as a Hall of Famer. Snead went to the Pro Bowl in his first season in New York but was shipped to San Francisco in Year 3.

Winner: Vikings.

● 1967 — The Bills’ Daryle Lamonica for the Raiders’ Tom Flores.

In Buffalo, Lamonica was stuck behind Jack Kemp, who had taken the Bills to three straight AFL championship games (and two titles). He blossomed in Oakland, going 36-4-1as a starter in his first three seasons (which ended with one loss in the Super Bowl and two in the AFL championship game). Flores, better remembered for coaching the Raiders to two titles, threw just 74 passes in Buffalo before winding up his career in Kansas City.

Winner: Raiders.

Snead card● 1964 — The Eagles’ Sonny Jurgensen for the Redskins’ Norm Snead.

Amazingly, Snead was swapped not once but twice for a Hall of Fame quarterback. And while he may not have been Canton material himself, he wasn’t a bad player at all — as his 196 TD passes attest. (When he retired after the 1976 season, he was tied with Bobby Layne for 10th on the all-time list.) But Jurgensen helped resurrect the Washington franchise, which had fallen on hard times in founder George Preston Marshall’s final years. He was also one of the purest passers pro football has seen.

Winner: Redskins.

● 1962 — The Browns’ Milt Plum for the Lions’ Jim Ninowski.

This deal, which I mentioned earlier, didn’t amount to much. I include it, basically, because of Ninowski’s classic response when he got the news. Jim, you see, had been drafted by the Browns in 1958 before being packed off to Detroit, where he’d finally gotten a chance to play. He was far from happy, initially, about returning to Cleveland.

“I’m pretty disgusted,” he said. “I have no intention of going to Cleveland. I’ll quit football if I have to. You get tired of being tossed around like a toy.”

Ninowski did go to Cleveland, though, and started seven games in ’62 (Paul Brown’s last year as coach). He spent five more seasons with the Browns as the No. 2 guy behind Pro Bowler Frank Ryan. As for Plum, the Lions went 11-3 with him the first year — the third best record in the league — but things went sharply downhill thereafter.

Winner: Lions. (Let’s not forget, Milt also could kick field goals.

● 1958 — The Lions’ Bobby Layne for the Steelers’ Earl Morrall.

The trade reunited Hall of Famer Layne with Buddy Parker, who’d quit as Detroit’s coach previous year and moved to Pittsburgh. Bobby didn’t add to his ring collection (two) with the Steelers, but he did bring the club some much-needed credibility (in the form of three winning seasons). Morrall, just a third-year player, was nothing special in Detroit, but he had some nice moments late in his career with the Colts (1968, ’70) and Dolphins (’72, their perfect season).

Winner: Steelers.

Garrett card● 1954 — The Browns’ Bobby Garrett for the Packers’ Babe Parilli.

What a wacky tale this is. Garrett was the first pick in the 1954 draft (making him that year’s Sam Bradford). The Browns took him on the assumption Otto Graham, their legendary QB, was close to retirement. (Graham wound up playing through ’55.) But get this: Coach Paul Brown traded Garrett to Green Bay before he’d even reported to training camp.

Why? One theory is that Brown didn’t realize on draft day that Bobby was looking at a two-year military hitch following his graduation from Stanford. And indeed, the young quarterback spent the 1955 and ’56 seasons in the Air Force. Here’s the thing, though: Parilli, the fourth pick in ’52, was already in the service — and wasn’t discharged until ’56. So who really knows what was going through PB’s mind?

When Garrett rejoined the Packers in ’57, Brown reacquired him. Guess who he sent to Green Bay as (partial) payment? Parilli. That’s right, Bobby and Babe were traded twice for each other. But here the story gets even stranger. It turns out Garrett had a speech impediment: he stuttered. Brown had no patience for it — and ridiculed him on the practice field mercilessly. He was convinced it would keep Garrett from becoming an effective quarterback, hindering his play calling and especially his ability to check off at the line.

Paul Wiggin, the future Chiefs coach and a teammate of Bobby’s, said in 2012: “It was just a misunderstanding of what stuttering was. It didn’t solve the problem, it enhanced the problem.”

Before the preseason was over, Garrett decided to retire and join his father in the real estate business in California. Such was life in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Winner: Tie. (Neither club benefited much.)

So ends our Brief History of Quarterback-for-Quarterback Trades. Let me know if I’ve left out any good ones. As you can see, they’re better at generating noise than generating championships, though a few have had a significant impact.

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

Second acts by 10,000-yard backs

Frank Gore, who rushed for 11,073 in his decade with the 49ers, will join the Eagles tomorrow when the 2015 business year opens. Which made me wonder: How much gas do guys like Gore usually have left in the tank?

Gore is the 10th back who has racked up 10,000 rushing yards with a team — his original team, that is — and then switched jerseys. As you can see in the following chart, the other nine haven’t exactly run wild in their new surroundings. So if Frank has a productive couple of years in Philadelphia, he’ll shoot to the top of this list:

Years Rnning back 1st Team Yards 2nd Team Yards
2004-14 Steven Jackson Rams 10,138 Falcons 1,250
2001-11 LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers 12,490 Jets 1,194
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys 17,162 Cardinals 1,193
1969-79 O.J. Simpson Bills 10,183 49ers 1,053
1977-88 Tony Dorsett Cowboys 12,036 Broncos    703
1996-04 Eddie George Titans 10,009 Cowboys    432
1998-10 Fred Taylor Jaguars 11,271 Patriots    424
1972-84 Franco Harris Steelers 11,950 Seahawks    170
1988-00 Thurman Thomas Bills 11,938 Dolphins    136
2005-14 Frank Gore 49ers 11,073 Eagles   TBD

Jackson, of course, was cut last month by the Falcons. If he can find another job though, he could push his total higher. He’ll be 32 next season — the same age as Gore.

At any rate, no club should have very high expectations when it acquires a back like this. The best rushing season any of them has had with in his Second Life is 937 yards (Smith, Cardinals, 2004).

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Frank Gore hitting the hole hard, as he usually does.

Frank Gore hitting the hole hard, as he usually does.

One-for-one trades

LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso.

Trades don’t get any more stripped-down than that, do they? My guy for your guy — period. No draft picks. No throw-in players to balance the scales. No contingencies of any kind. Just . . . one for one. May the best man win.

You forget how unusual these deals are, especially since the advent of free agency. Teams don’t need to trade for players anymore — not as much, anyway. They just have to wait for their contracts to expire. Draft choices, not live bodies, have become the most popular form of currency. They get swapped and swapped and swapped some more until nobody can remember who got traded for what.

Which is probably how general managers prefer it. Who wants to be reminded, year after year, of the boneheaded move he made when he traded X for Y? When you exchange picks for players, there can be much more of a smoke-and-mirrors effect. Keeping track of those can be like that scene in Chinatown when Jake Gittes pores over the real-estate transactions in the Hall of Records. (“So that’s who the Bucs ended up getting for the guy — Jasper Lamar Crabb!”)

So the McCoy-Alonso deal is notable for two reasons: first, because the Eagles willingly traded an in-his-prime running back, one who won the NFL rushing title in 2013; and second, because they received not draft selections from the Bills but an outside linebacker, arguably the league’s top rookie two years ago (before he blew out his knee and missed last season).

A straight-up swap of Known Players. What a novelty.

Naturally, I felt compelled to put together a list of other memorable one-for-one trades in NFL history. You may have other favorites, and I welcome additions, but here are 10 that come to mind:

10 STRAIGHT-UP, PLAYER-FOR-PLAYER TRADES

● 2005 — WR Laveranues Coles from the Redskins to the Jets for WR Santana Moss.

Santana Moss snares one vs. the Lions.

Santana Moss snares one vs. the Lions.

This was one of the weirder deals. Coles, after all, had left the Jets after the 2002 season to play in Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ’n’ Gun” offense in Washington. But Spurrier quit a year later, Joe Gibbs returned for a second term as coach and Laveranues decided he’d be happier back in New York. So the Redskins exchanged him for Santana Moss — and were they ever glad they did. Over the next decade, Moss caught 581 passes for 7,867 yards and 47 touchdowns. Coles played four more seasons with the Jets before they cut him and had 289 receptions for 3,439 yards and 24 TDs.

Winner: Redskins.

● 1989 — RB Earnest Byner from the Browns to the Redskins for RB Mike Oliphant.

Byner needed a change of scenery after his crushing fumble in the 1987 AFC title game, which followed him around in Cleveland wherever he went. The Browns obliged by sending him to Washington for Oliphant, the Redskins’ super-speedy third-round pick in ’88. Byner had two 1,000-yard seasons in D.C., went to two Pro Bowls and was the leading rusher on the 1991 championship team. Oliphant touched the ball exactly 25 times in Cleveland (playoffs included) before his career petered out.

Winner: Redskins.

● 1984 — RB James Brooks from the Chargers to the Bengals for FB Pete Johnson.

Brooks, a situation back behind Chuck Muncie in San Diego, blossomed in Cincinnati, making four Pro Bowls and retiring as the Bengals all-time leading rusher with 6,447 yards — a total surpassed only by Corey Dillon’s 8,061. (He also was a terrific receiver and ferocious blocker, as Boomer Esiason can tell you.) Johnson, more the sledgehammer type, had had some fine years in Cincy, but at 30 he was pretty used up. He played just one more NFL season — and just three games with San Diego before being dealt to the Dolphins, who needed a short-yardage guy for their ’84 Super Bowl run.

Winner: Bengals.

● 1980 — QB Ken Stabler from the Raiders to the Houston Oilers for QB Dan Pastorini.

Ken Stabler

Ken Stabler

Stabler was 34, Pastorini 31, and neither had much left. The Oilers were hoping The Snake, coupled with Earl Campbell, would finally get them to the Super Bowl, but he threw 28 interceptions in 1980, second most in the league, and had two more picks in the first round of the playoffs as Houston lost to — of all people — Oakland. By then, Pastorini had suffered a broken leg and been replaced by Jim Plunkett, who quarterbacked the Raiders to the title (and to another in 1983).

Winner: Oilers (though neither team got what it was looking for).

● 1977 — QB Ron Jaworski from the Los Angeles Rams to the Eagles for the rights to TE Charle Young.

Jaworski, a three-year veteran, had thrown only 124 NFL passes when Philadelphia acquired him for the unsigned Young, who had already been to three Pro Bowls. Charle never went to another. Jaworski, meanwhile, led the Eagles to four straight playoff berths (1978-81) and one Super Bowl.

Winner: Eagles.

● 1976 — WR Charlie Joiner from the Bengals to the Chargers for DE Coy Bacon.

In 1976, Joiner had yet to emerge as a Hall of Fame receiver (totals for seven seasons: 164 catches, 2,943 yards, 18 touchdowns). Bacon was probably considered the better player because of his pass-rush ability (in the days before the NFL kept track of sacks). Well, Charlie wound up in Canton after being teamed with Dan Fouts and Don Coryell in San Diego, where he racked up 586 more receptions. But Coy, let’s not forget, had two Pro Bowl years in Cincinnati before being traded to the Redskins (with CB Lamar Parish) for a first-round pick.

Winner: Chargers (but both clubs made out well).

● 1965 — WR Tommy McDonald from the Cowboys to the Los Angeles Rams for P-K Danny Villanueva.

Yup, the Cowboys swapped a Hall Fame receiver — admittedly, a 31-year-old one — for a punter-kicker. But keep in mind: They had just added Bob Hayes to the roster and figured they were in good shape at wideout. McDonald had 1,036 receiving yards in his first season with the Rams, third most in the league, and was voted to his sixth and last Pro Bowl. He followed that with another solid year (55-714-2) in ’66 before moving on to the Falcons. Villanueva filled a void in Dallas but was just an ordinary kicker (longest field goal with the Cowboys: 42 yards) and didn’t punt as well as he had in L.A (40.4-yard average vs. 44.3).

Winner: Rams.

● 1965 — CB Fred “The Hammer” Williamson from the Raiders to the Chiefs for CB Dave Grayson.

Fred Williamson cardOn the surface, it seemed like a fair trade: the mouthy Williamson, a three-time AFL All-Star, for Grayson, also a three-time AFL All-Star. Grayson was two years younger, though — 26 to Fred’s 28 — and had more of his career ahead of him. Williamson did help Kansas City get to the first Super Bowl in 1966, but Grayson helped Oakland get to the second Super Bowl in ’67 and led the AFL in interceptions the next year. By then, Freddie was out of football and on the verge of becoming a Hollywood action star.

Winner: Raiders.

● 1961 — QB Y.A. Tittle from the 49ers to the Giants for DL Lou Cordileone.

It’s easy, from a distance, to laugh at this trade, but Tittle was almost 35 and Cordileone had been the 12th pick in the previous year’s draft. Besides, San Francisco was experimenting with a shotgun offense, which required a quarterback who could run, and Y.A. certainly didn’t fit that description. At any rate, he had an amazing Second Act in New York, guiding the Giants to three straight championship games (all, alas, losses), while Cordileone bounced from the Niners to the Rams to the Steelers to the expansion Saints to oblivion.

Winner: Giants.

● 1960 — CB Night Train Lane from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Lions for K Gerry Perry.

Another swap of a Hall of Famer for a kicker! It just shows how much importance teams were beginning to place on the kicking game. Lane, though 32, was far from done. He went to three more Pro Bowls with Detroit and intercepted 21 more passes (to finish with a total of 68). Perry had a nice first season in St. Louis (13 field goals, tying him for fifth in the league) but was well below average after that.

Winner: Lions.

You can see how dangerous these player-for player trades can be. Many of the deals were one-sided, sometimes ridiculously so. The McCoy-for-Alonso swap — which will be official next week, when the 2015 business year begins — might also prove regrettable for one side or the other. We’ll know better in a season or two.

Note: The famous Sonny Jurgensen/Norm Snead trade in 1964 isn’t listed because it involved two other players. The Redskins also got DB Jimmy Carr in the deal, and the Eagles got DB Claude Crabb (no relation to Jasper Lamar). Granted, it was essentially a Jurgy-for-Snead swap, and fans always looked at it that way, but Crabb had intercepted six passes a rookie and, entering his third season, could have made up for the imbalance between the quarterbacks. (He didn’t.)

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

After a stunning trade, LeSean will be doing his running for the Bills next season.

After a stunning trade, LeSean McCoy will be doing his running for the Bills next season.

The passing record Lou Groza once held

When you think of Lou Groza, you think of this big guy — 6-3, 240, with a bit of a belly — booting field goals forever for the Browns. Groza happened to be a fine offensive tackle, too, protecting the blind side of Cleveland quarterbacks for more than a decade, but it’s his 264 field goals and 1,608 points that are more remembered. When he retired after the 1967 season, he held the career record in both categories. By a mile.

Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Browns Hall of Famer Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Anyway, you might be amused to learn that “The Toe,” as he was called, once held an NFL passing record. What record could that possibly be, you ask? Answer: For almost five years, he was the oldest player ever to throw a pass in the league.

Groza made this little piece of history in a 27-17 loss to the Vikings in 1965 – at the age of 41 years, 279 days. Patricia Heaton’s dad, Chuck, who covered the Browns for The Plain Dealer, described it this way:

The large and somewhat stunned gathering also saw Lou Groza throw a forward pass. The Toe, who on very few occasions in the past has had to resort to such desperation maneuvers, was trying to kick a 50-yard field goal.

The pass from center bounced away from Bobby Franklin, the holder. Lou recovered and, being confronted with nothing but purple [Vikings] jerseys, tried a pass. It was intended for John Brewer but wasn’t completed. So Minnesota took over.

The next season, in a similar situation, Groza threw another pass. This one was actually completed . . . for a 7-yard loss to one of his blockers, linebacker Vince Costello. Lou was now 42 years, 256 days old. This would stand as the record until 1975, when the George Blanda – a spry 43 years, 38 days – came off the bench to quarterback the Raiders to a 31-14 win over the Steelers. (He even tossed three touchdown passes, all of them longer than minus-7 yards.)

Blanda was still chucking in 1975, his final year in the NFL. In fact, in his last regular-season game, he went 1 for 3 for 11 yards (with one interception) as Oakland beat the Chiefs, 28-20. He’s still the Oldest Guy To Throw A Pass by more than three years.

In the decades since, only four other players older than Groza have cocked their arm and let one fly. Here’s that list:

THE SIX OLDEST PLAYERS TO THROW A PASS IN THE NFL

Year  Player, Team Vs Att Comp Yds TD Int Rate Age
1975  George Blanda, Raiders Chiefs   3   1   11 0 1     5.6 48-095
1998  Steve DeBerg, Falcons Dolphins 10   5   85 1 0 112.5 44-342
2007  Vinny Testaverde, Panthers Jaguars 28 13   84 0 1   38.4 44-026
2000  Warren Moon, Chiefs Chargers 31 12 130 0 1   38.4 44-008
2005  Doug Flutie, Patriots Jets   1   1     2 0 0   79.2 43-064
1966  Lou Groza, Browns Steelers   1   1    -7 0 0   79.2 42-256

The record Groza broke, by the way, was held by the Giants’ Charlie Conerly, who was 89 days past his 40th birthday when he relieved Y.A. Tittle in the 1961 title game against the Packers and hit 4 of 8 passes for 54 yards. (Not that “The Toe” wasn’t capable of a performance like that, had the center and holder just botched the snap a half-dozen more times.)

Postscript: When Bob O’Donnell and I were writing The Pro Football Chronicle in the ’80s, we came across an old story about Groza in one of the Cleveland newspapers. Instead of a head shot of him, though, the paper ran a photo of his right big toe.

Bob and I thought it would be hilarious if we could include The Toe’s toe in our book, so we tried to track the photo down. Alas, it had been lost to the ages. So Bob, not easily discouraged, phoned Groza and asked if his toe would be willing to pose for us. “We’ll send a photographer to your house,” he said.

At first, Lou was up for it. “No need to go to all that trouble,” he said. “I drive right by this photography studio every day. I’ll have the picture taken there and send it to you.” But soon he began to have second thoughts, began to think it might be “undignified” for a Hall of Fame player to have his 65-year-old toe appear in a book.

If I ever run into him in the hereafter, I’m going to make another pitch to him. I still think the world would love to see Lou Groza’s big right toe, gnarly or not.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The eternal life of a quarterback

At any other position — except maybe punter and kicker — when an NFL player hits 30, you start wondering how much longer he’s got left (or how many Pro Bowl seasons he might still have in him). But quarterbacks seem to have found the Fountain of Youth, what with all the passer-friendly rule changes and the league’s continuing effort to keep them safe.

When a QB reaches 30 these days, he’s often still on the rise — his play becoming more refined, his health no worse for the wear. Tom Brady just rallied the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory at the age of 37. The year before, Peyton Manning took the Broncos to the title game — and had one of the greatest seasons in pro football history — at the same age. And we may not have heard the last from either of them. The Patriots, remember, are still young, even if Brady isn’t (chronologically, at least).

You can’t ask for a better situation than that, not in a league that considers quarterbacks its first, second and third most important commodities. If QBs can play at a championship level well into their 30s — while everybody around them is aging more quickly — the NFL will never have a worry in the world, entertainment-wise. It might even be able to handle another round or two of expansion, which you know the owners want.

Let me show you what I mean about quarterbacks performing better as they get older. Note I didn’t say, “getting better as they get older.” It’s harder to measure that. After all, what a QB might gain over the years in terms of judgment and understanding, he might lose in arm strength and mobility. Does that make him a better player, necessarily, or just one who wins in a different way? But performance is measurable — through statistics. (And obviously, some of the improvement can be attributed to the aforementioned rule changes, which pushed the league-wide passer rating this past season to 87.1, an all-time high.)

Anyway, after crunching some numbers, I learned that not only does a quarterback’s rating tend to improve in his 30s, sometimes dramatically, he often throws more passes in his 30s than does in his 20s. The second discovery was a bit of a shock. Imagine if this was true of the average running back, receiver or pass rusher. Imagine if the NFL had across-the-board longevity like that. (Not that some the rules favoring passers don’t also help the guys doing the catching.)

Brady is a classic example. In his 20s he had a rating of 88.4 (on 3,064 pass attempts); in the 30s he has a rating of 101.5 (on 4,104 attempts) — an increase of 13.1 points. That’s tops among active quarterbacks who have thrown 1,000 or more passes on both sides of the 30 divide.

A QUARTERBACK’S 20S VS. HIS 30S (ACTIVE QBS ONLY) 

Quarterback Team(s) 20s Rate (Att) 30s Rate (Att) +/- Pts
Tom Brady Patriots 88.4 (3,064) 101.5 (4,104) +13.1
Drew Brees Chargers/Saints 89.4 (3,650) 101.2 (3,808) +11.8
Peyton Manning Colts/Broncos 93.5 (4,333) 101.2 (4,716)   +7.7
Tony Romo Cowboys 95.6 (1,857) 99.2 (2,353)   +3.6
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 92.1 (3,313) 97.5 (1,641)   +5.4
Philip Rivers Chargers 95.3 (2,902) 96.4 (1,776)   +1.1
Matt Schaub Raiders/2 others 91.5 (1,987) 86.0 (1,204)    -5.5
Michael Vick Falcons/2 others 75.9 (1,743) 86.0 (1,204) +10.1
Eli Manning Giants 80.2 (3,332) 85.7 (2,277)   +5.5
Carson Palmer Bengals/2 others 88.4 (2,595) 84.0 (2,311)    -4.4
Matt Hasselbeck Seahawks/3 others 84.0 (1,823) 81.4 (3,251)    -2.6

So you’ve got 11 active quarterbacks who have thrown 1000+ passes in their 30s. Eight have posted a higher rating than in their 20s, three have gone the other way. And naturally, the lower your rating in the 20s, the more room there is for improvement in later years.

It’s amazing how close Brady, Brees and Manning are in their 30s, as far as their passing efficiency goes. Just three-tenths of a point separates them. And all of their ratings, of course, are over 100. That’s mind-boggling, especially when you consider how rare a 100 rating used to be (in a single season or even a game). But that’s the direction the game is going — to take nothing way from today’s quarterbacks. QBs can play forever — and play well. They might not always be worth franchise money, but they can be far more than just functional.

Compare the above list with the one below of selected Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Some saw their rating go up in their 30s, some saw it go down. It was a very mixed bag. And again, these men are in Canton (or, in the case of Brett Favre, headed there).

HALL OF FAME QBS: THEIR 20S VS. THEIR 30S

Quarterback Team(s) 20s Rate (Att) 30s Rate (Att) +/- Pts
Steve Young Bucs/49ers 81.3 (976) 101.6 (3,173) +20.3
Joe Montana 49ers/Chiefs 92.4 (2,571) 92.1 (2,820)    -0.3
Bart Starr Packers 74.6 (1,546) 86.2 (1,603) +11.6
Jim Kelly Bills 82.7 (1,742) 85.3 (3,037)   +2.6
John Elway Broncos 73.6 (3,070) 84.5 (4,180) +10.9
Dan Fouts Chargers 75.5 (2,594) 84.3 (3\010)   +8.8
Dan Marino Dolphins 88.6 (4,234) 84.1 (4,124)    -4.5
Warren Moon Oilers/Vikings 69.6 (1,191) 83.8 (4,809) +14.2
Brett Favre Packers/2 others 88.8 (3,883) 83.5 (5,522)    -5.3
Sonny Jurgensen Eagles/Redskins 79.1 (1,107) 83.3 (2,988)   +4.2
Bob Griese Dolphins 74.0 (2,014) 81.7 (1,415)   +7.7
Len Dawson Chiefs/2 others 85.6 (1,061) 80.9 (2,540)    -4.7
Terry Bradshaw Steelers 62.1 (2,019) 80.4 (1,882) +18.3
Fran Tarkenton Vikings/Giants 81.0 (3,022) 79.8 (3,455)    -1.2
Johnny Unitas Colts 79.4 (2,316) 78.2 (2,794)    -1.2
Troy Aikman Cowboys 83.6 (3,068) 77.9 (1,647)    -5.7
Joe Namath Jets/Rams 69.3 (2,605) 56.9 (1,157)  -12.6

In this group we have nine gainers and eight decliners — a totally different story. Part of the reason is that some of them played before 1978, when the NFL started outlawing defense. As a result, rule changes didn’t help them much later in their careers. The game was essentially the same (in terms of its policing, that is).

No one’s saying other factors might not have affected these quarterbacks — their supporting cast (coaches included), for instance. But it’s clear there’s never been a better time to be a QB than right now. Your star can keep shining, brightly, deep into your 30s. The Million-Dollar Question is: Who’s going to be the first QB to win a Super Bowl in his 40s? It’s bound to happen one of these days. You just know it is. (Look at how close Brett Favre came with the Vikings in 2009.)

Source: pro-football-reference.com

This is no longer the image of the NFL QB in his late 30s (the Giants' Y.A. Tittle in 1964).

This is no longer the image of the NFL quarterback in his late 30s (the Giants’ Y.A. Tittle in 1964).

DeMarco Murray’s odometer

Football folks have begun to worry about rushing attempts the way baseball people fret about pitch counts. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying these things aren’t important. It’s more a question of: How much weight do you give them?

The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray, stiff-arming all doubters.

The Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, stiff-arming all doubters.

When evaluating the free-agent value of the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray, for instance, observers are likely to mention his 392 carries in the 2014 regular season. For one thing, it’s tied for the seventh-highest total in NFL history. For another, it isn’t particularly conducive to a back’s long-term health and productivity — especially if he’s piling postseason carries on top of it, as Murray did (44 more).

In a piece for ESPN.com, Kevin Seifert pointed to the 392 figure and added: “All six of the most recent [backs with that many attempts] fell short of 1,000 yards in the following season.” This isn’t entirely accurate. One of the six, Eric Dickerson, did rush for 1,000 yards the next season (1,288 in 12 games). And another of the six, Ricky Williams, retired after the season and didn’t return to the NFL until two years later (and only after serving a drug suspension). I’m not sure Ricky should even be part of the conversation.

Then there are Eddie George (403 carries in 2000) and Terrell Davis (392 in 1998). To me, their drop-offs weren’t the result of one workhorse season, they were the cumulative effect of years of overuse. George had 1,898 rushing attempts in his first five seasons (playoffs included) — tops in the league in that period by 147. As for Davis, he had 481 carries in 1997 and another 470 in ’98 (again, playoffs included). Those are first- and third-highest totals of all time.

My point is simply this: There are other things that should be factored into the Murray Equation. Yes, he was a busy back last season, but that hardly means his decline in imminent — or even near. With him, it’s more a matter of “How good is he?” than “How much tread does he have left on his tires?”

Consider: 70 running backs since 1960 have had more rushing attempts before their 27th birthday than Murray (928) did. For a back at this stage of his career, he’s fairly low-mileage.

Just for fun, let’s look at the backs who’ve had the most carries before turning 27 (one final time: playoffs included) — and see how many attempts they still had in them:

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS BEFORE 27TH BIRTHDAY

Seasons Running back Team(s) Pre-27 High Post-27
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys/Cardinals 2,286 451 2,472
1999-09 Edgerrin James Colts/Cardinals 1,972 408 1,274
1993-05 Jerome Bettis Rams/Steelers 1,893 423 1,785
1989-98 Barry Sanders Lions 1,826 365 1,327
1995-05 Curtis Martin Patriots/Jets 1,792 418 1,908

(Note: “High” = most carries in a season before turning 27.)

Interesting, no? Smith and Martin actually had more rushing attempts after their 27th birthday. Bettis, meanwhile, had almost as many and it might have been the same for Sanders if he hadn’t retired at 30 (after a 1,491-yard season). At any rate, next to these guys, Murray’s workload seems pretty modest.

Note, too, that four of them had 400-carry seasons before turning 27 — but still had plenty of gas left in the tank.

Now let’s look at the backs who had the most carries after their 27th birthday:

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS AFTER TURNING 27

Seasons Running back Team(s) Post-27 High Pre-27
1990-04 Emmitt Smith Cowboys/Cardinals 2,472 366 2,286
1975-87 Walter Payton Bears 2,435 427 1,583
1971-85 John Riggins Jets/Redskins 2,239 462    928
2000-11 Thomas Jones Cardinals/4 others 2,064 376    739
1977-88 Tony Dorsett Cowboys/Broncos 2,050 380 1,188
1972-84 Franco Harris Steelers/Seahawks 1,984 374 1,365
1995-05 Curtis Martin Patriots/Jets 1,908 408 1,792
1982-97 Marcus Allen Raiders/Chiefs 1,871 259 1,418
1993-05 Jerome Bettis Rams/Steelers 1,785 355 1,893
1997-08 Warrick Dunn Bucs/Falcons 1,671 297 1,134

(Note: “High” = most carries in a season after turning 27.)

Eight of the 10 in this group had more rushing attempts before they hit 27 than Murray (978) did — in many cases a lot more. So why is everybody so concerned about DeMarco’s longevity? Sure, he had some nicks earlier in his career, but nothing major. He might have some very good years ahead, just as these backs did. Heck, Payton, Riggins and Martin still had a 400-carry season in their future.

It’s something to think about as free agency approaches. There isn’t anything ominous, necessarily, about rushing the ball 392 times in a season (436 counting the playoffs). But you certainly don’t want to do it year in and year out — and it’s doubtful Murray will, no matter what team he winds up with. Coaches these days are much more aware of human limits than they used to be.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Punters throwing postseason TD passes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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

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