You can argue into triple overtime how good the NFL’s early players were. But it’s hard not to be impressed with the day the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh had against the Lions on Nov. 14, 1943: four touchdown passes and — as a defensive back — four interceptions in a 42-20 Washington win.
Nobody else in league history has had a game quite like it. Indeed, the four picks are still a record (tied many times). And get this: two other Detroit passes were just out of his reach. That’s right, Baugh could have had six INTs.
You can see most of these plays in the living-color(!) game footage I came across on YouTube. A couple of his scoring throws are snipped out — probably so someone could assemble a compilation reel of TDs — but almost everything else is in there. Why don’t I walk you through it with a series of clips?
Remember: This was the era of two-way players, and during the war years Sammy logged even more minutes because rosters were so much thinner. In fact, he rarely came out of the game. He was so tremendously versatile that he did just about everything but kick (though he did serve as a holder).
Three of his interceptions — he had 11 that season to lead the NFL — came in the second quarter and the other early in the third. So he accomplished the feat in barely more than 15 minutes of clock time. Amazing. How it unfolded:
Interception No. 1: Baugh swoops in to pick off a duck.
Interception No. 2: How’s this for a sideline grab?
Interception No. 3: Not only did Sammy stop the Lions’ scoring threat at the 1-yard line, he picked himself up after getting knocked down and ran to the 10 to give the Washington offense more room to operate. (You could do that back then, even if you were “down by contact.”)
Interception No. 4: More opportunism. (He fumbled at the end of the return, but the Redskins recovered.)
Baugh might not have been the fastest player on the field, but at 6-foot-2 he had unusual wingspan for a safety, which made him hard to throw over. The guy was just An Athlete — one with terrific (and conveniently large) hands. If he could reach a ball, he usually caught it.
Now let’s look at how close he came to two other picks.
Near miss No. 1:
Near miss No. 2:
As you’ve no doubt gathered, games could be pretty wild back then, with turnovers galore. The Redskins and Lions both worked out of the single or double wing, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for imagination — and improvisation. How about a fake jump pass?
As for Baugh’s other duties, here he is returning a punt:
And here is blocking on a kickoff (he’s the No. 33 on the right side of the wedge):
And here he is holding for an extra point:
And here he is punting (which he did about as well as anybody in those days):
(That one looks like a quick kick because he’s only about 6 or 7 yards behind the center. Anyway, it was downed on the Detroit 8.)
Whoops, almost forgot about Sammy’s TD tosses. Here’s No. 3, a 10-yarder to Bob Masterson:
And here’s No. 4, a 4-yard flip to Joe Aguirre (who, by the way, was blind in one eye):
(Again, his first two scoring passes are missing.)
What a player. What a performance. Too bad he had to share the newspaper billing the next day with the Bears’ Sid Luckman, who threw for a record seven touchdowns in a 56-7 wipeout of the Giants:
Note: If you want to read more about Baugh’s remarkable 1943 season, check out the piece I wrote about it for Peter King’s site, MMQB.
(Sorry for the advertising on some of the clips. It was the only way I could pull this off.)
We’re coming up on the 35th anniversary of one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL player. Was it as great as Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards in 1984, Peyton Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013 or J.J. Watt’s both-sides-of-the-ball ridiculousness last year? Well, it’s hard to compare one position to another, but put it this way: Nobody has come close to doing what Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes did in 1980 — not in the modern era, at least. And given the gap that exists between Hayes and The Rest, it’s possible nobody ever will.
Lester’s performance that season was truly off the charts — so far off that his record might be resistant to rule changes, a longer schedule and anything else that tends to make the past disappear. In 20 games that season, including the playoffs, he intercepted 18 passes . . . and had another four picks wiped out by penalties. It almost doesn’t seem possible.
Let me lay out the numbers for you, then I’ll get into the season itself. Hayes had a league-leading 13 interceptions in the regular season — one off Night Train Lane’s mark — and another five in Oakland’s four playoff games. His total of 18 is five more than anyone else has had since 1960. Five. (Before that, the seasons and playoffs were so much shorter that nobody really had a chance to pick off 18 passes.)
Here’s Hayes’ closest competition:
MOST INTERCEPTIONS IN A SEASON SINCE 1960 (PLAYOFFS INCLUDED)
Lester Hayes, Raiders*
Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs* (AFL)
Everson Walls, Cowboys
Fred Glick, Oilers (AFL)
Paul Krause, Redskins
Dainard Paulson, Jets (AFL)
Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs
Barry Wilburn, Redskins*
Monte Jackson, Rams
Mel Blount, Steelers*
Mike Reinfeldt, Oilers
Asante Samuel, Patriots
Antonio Cromartie, Chargers
Yes, Hayes played in more games than the other defensive backs, and yes, some of them — the DNA (Does Not Apply) guys — didn’t even make the playoffs. But them’s the breaks. Besides, his interceptions per game of 0.9 is the highest of the bunch. (Next: Glick, Krause, Paulson and Thomas ’74 at 0.86).
It’s worth noting, too, that the league-wide interception rate in 1980 was 4.6 percent. Last year it was 2.5 — and if the Competition Committee continues to favor the offense, it no doubt will decline even further. That’s just going to make it harder to pile up 18 picks in a season. (Another way to look at it: In 1980 there were 627 INTs in 13,705 pass attempts. In 2014 there were 450 in 17,879 — 177 fewer in 4,174 more attempts.)
Now that the cold, hard data has been dispensed with, why don’t we take Hayes’ historic season interception by interception? Lester was quite a character, even by the Raiders’ oddball standards — the kind of player Twitter was made for. (Or maybe not. There was no telling, after all, what might come out of his mouth.)
Hayes considered himself, for instance, more than just an all-pro corner. In his mind, he was “the only true Jedi in the National Football League” (which was only to be expected, I suppose, of a player who claimed to have seen The Empire Strikes Back 300 times).
To Lester, money was “deceased presidents,” as in: “If the president of Australia doubled my salary and I was not under contract to the Raiders, I’d be on the first flight across the International Dateline. . . . It’s [all about] the deceased presidents, baby. In 1995, when the cost of bread is $5 per loaf, how is one to procure his loaf of bread?”
At Texas A&M, where he’d played linebacker, they called him “Judge.” That, he explained, stemmed from “a statement I made before we played Texas. I said our defense was going to hold court on Earl Campbell. I sentenced him to 2 yards on 20 carries.” (Campbell finished with 20 on 18.)
In 1980 Hayes was judge, jury and executioner as far as NFL quarterbacks were concerned. If they threw a ball anywhere near him, it was likely to wind up in his stickum-coated mitts (in the days when the Crazy Glue-like stuff was legal). How his season went:
● Week 1 (beat Chiefs, 27-14): Intercepted a Steve Fuller pass, setting up a field goal that made it 24-7 in the fourth quarter.
● Week 2 (lost to Chargers in overtime, 30-24): Had one of the Raiders’ five INTs against Dan Fouts.
● Week 3 (beat Redskins, 24-21): In the fourth quarter, with Washington at the Oakland 21, he picked off Joe Theismann’s throw to halt a drive.
● Week 4 (lost to Bills, 24-7): Returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown, the Raiders’ only score. Victim: Joe Ferguson.
● Week 8 (beat Seahawks, 33-14): Had two INTs, both off Jim Zorn. The first led to a TD, the second to a field goal.
● Week 9 (beat Dolphins, 16-10): From the AP account: “Lester Hayes had one interception, and would have had another — on which he rambled 95 yards for an apparent TD — had the play not been called back by an Oakland offside penalty.” QB: Uncertain (either David Woodley or Don Strock).
● Week 10 (beat Bengals, 28-17): A one-INT day could have been a three-INT day if two more picks hadn’t been nullified by offside penalties. The one he did get came on the final play of the first half when Jack Thompson threw up a Hail Mary.
● Week 11 (beat Seahawks, 19-17): With 4:20 left, he intercepted a Zorn pass and returned it 19 yards to the Oakland 39. The Raiders then drove to the Seattle 10, where Chris Bahr booted a game-winning 28-yard field goal.
● Week 12 (lost to Eagles in Super Bowl preview, 10-7): Picked off a Ron Jaworski pass at some point, but the newspaper stories don’t say when. (Unfortunately, the league’s gamebook archives only go back to 1981, which is why I have to rely on newspapers.)
● Week 13 (beat Broncos, 9-3): Another end-of-the-first-half-Hail-Mary job, this time at the expense of Craig Morton.
● Week 15 (beat Broncos, 24-21): Had a second-quarter INT. (Matt Robinson threw it.) It was followed by a field goal that put Oakland ahead to stay, 10-7.
● Week 16 (beat Giants, 33-17): The New York Times: “Late in the second quarter, with the Giants trailing by two touchdowns, [Scott] Brunner overthrew a pass to [running back Billy] Taylor. It was intercepted by Lester Hayes, his 13th steal of the season, and returned 50 yards” — helping to put another three points on the board.
● Playoff Game 1 (beat Oilers, 27-7): Thanks, once again, to the wonders of YouTube, I was able to find video of all five of Hayes’ postseason picks. This is the first — in the end zone in the third quarter, when Oakland had a tenuous 10-7 lead.
And this is the second, near the end, with Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler — Lester’s former Raiders teammate — facing a third-and-18 at the Houston 2:
Touchdown — Hayes’ second of the season. He also had two sacks that day. Just so you know: No defensive back has had a two-interception/two-sack game since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Three linebackers have accomplished the feat, though – the Bengals’ James Francis (1992), the Dolphins’ Robert Jones (1998) and the Steelers’ Joey Porter (2002). That’s the kind of year it was for Lester.
● Playoff Game 2 (beat Browns, 14-12): Suckered Brian Sipe into two more INTs. Pick No. 1 came on a third-and-10 play from the Cleveland 48 midway through the first quarter:
Pick No. 2 was yet another a Hail Mary situation – just before halftime:
NBC analyst John Brodie made a classic comment during the replay: “A lot of fellas would be content to just bat it down. Not Lester. Put another skin on the wall.”
Exactly. Anything Hayes could get his hands on, he was going to catch. In that instance he was trying to keep the ball away from a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player (wideout Dave Logan), so who can blame him?
Amazingly — given all his interceptions — Lester didn’t have the most memorable INT in that game. The Raiders’ strong safety, Mike Davis, did, picking off a Brian Sipe pass in the end zone in the final minute to preserve the victory. The Browns were at the Oakland 13, in chip-shot field goal range, when Sipe tried to hit tight end Ozzie Newsome . . . and connected with Davis instead:
● Playoff Game 3 (beat Chargers, 34-27): Much of the talk before the AFC title game was about the matchup between Hayes and John Jefferson — all-pro corner vs. all-pro receiver. And sure enough, in the early going at the Oakland 14, Fouts wanted to go to Jefferson, who had lined up in the right slot. But JJ slipped, which resulted in Lester’s 18th and last interception of the season:
Hayes never had another year like 1980. Nobody has another year like that. In fact, he never had more than four interceptions in any of his final six seasons, though he continued to make Pro Bowls. Whether this had anything to do with the banning of stickum in ’81 is an open question. He used it, uh, liberally (as the photo at the bottom shows).
Still, he had some nice moments after that, including this one during the Raiders’ 1983 playoff run:
Before the Super Bowl against the Redskins, he said (in typical Lesterese): “As long as I procure those 72,000 deceased presidents on my birthday [Jan. 22 — the date of the game], that’s all I care about. It’s my destiny to spend my birthday intercepting three passes and scoring three touchdowns, a feat no other defensive back has ever done. I will do a 360-degree reverse slam dunk [over the crossbar] after each TD. It’s inevitable.”
Alas, he fell three interceptions, three touchdowns and three 360-degree reverse slam dunks short, but no matter. The Raiders won anyway, 38-9. Besides, he’ll always have 1980. And when I say “always,” I’m pretty sure I mean always. Who’s ever going to have more 18 interceptions in a season?
Lester Hayes, his right hand covered with goo (stickum), reaches for a towel.
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.)
While we’re sitting around playing solitaire, waiting for the NFL’s annual Free Agent Madness to begin, I thought I’d post something for your amusement.
In the first half of their existence (1921-70), before they moved to their current stadium/spaceship, the Bears played their home games at Wrigley Field. The place was built for the baseball, though, which made a football field a tight fit.
Close behind one end zone was the brick outfield wall. Close behind the other was the visitors’ dugout. Actually, the dugout was more than close behind; it intruded on the left corner of the end zone and made it shallower than the standard 10 yards.
In 1938 Dick Plasman, the last man to go without a helmet in the NFL, ran into the wall trying to catch a pass. He suffered a broken wrist, a cut-and-bruised head and who knows what else. (He also met his future wife — one of his nurses — in the hospital, so it wasn’t a total loss for him.) Here’s an AP photo of him being carried off:
The dugout could be dangerous, too. A few years ago, Harlon Hill, a star wideout for the Bears in the ’50s, told the Chicago Tribune he once “hit a part of it” while scoring a touchdown. “It really hurt,” he said. “I tried to stop and I went half way over into the [box] seats.”
If you’re wondering what the end zone looked like with a dugout jutting into it, this screen shot from a 1944 Bears-Cleveland Rams game gives you a rough idea:
Finally, here’s the video of the play leading up to the screen shot. The target is the Rams’ Jim Benton, one of the top receivers in those years — and a guy you could make a decent Hall of Fame case for. Unlike Hill, his momentum didn’t carry him into the dugout (which looks like it was covered with either canvas or thick plastic). But as you can see, he had to slam on the brakes to keep from falling into the stands.
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.
Seahawks punter Jon Ryan lobs a TD pass in the NFC title game vs. the Packers.
There were 66 1-yard touchdown passes in the NFL this season. I know this because I just researched it at pro-football-reference.com. Sixty-six 1-yard TD passes is enough of an abomination in this he-man sport, but this next statistic is even worse: Until Malcolm Butler saved the Super Bowl for the Patriots by picking off Russell Wilson’s throw in the final minute, the defense hadn’t intercepted a single pass in that situation.
As we all know, pro football is out of whack. The offense-defense balance has been lost, probably forever, thanks to a succession of quarterback-friendly rule changes. And few things represent this out-of-whackness better than the 66 1-yard touchdown passes QBs tossed this season. Heck, it’s practically taunting when a team dials up a 1-yard TD pass, especially when the receiver is somebody like J.J. Watt (two caught two of them this year).
Think about it: Against a spread offense, with pick plays and push-offs virtually legal now, how exactly are you supposed to defend a pass from the 1-yard line? Somehow, though, Butler did. If that isn’t reason to celebrate — the defense won for a change! — I don’t know what is.
Once upon a time, the NFL scoffed at throwing such an itty-bitty pass. In 1942, when the Packers’ Cecil Isbell lobbed a 4-incher to Hall of Famer Don Hutson for a touchdown, the league thought it was so hilarious that it added it to the record book. Now, keep in mind: Nowhere in the book could you find the shortest TD run or shortest field goal or shortest anything else. But the shortest TD pass — I’m surprised it wasn’t labeled Biggest Wimpout — was right there on Page 21:
Here’s how Stoney McGlynn of the Milwaukee Sentinel described this not-so-great moment in NFL history:
Even better, the Milwaukee Journalran a photo of the play — a terrific one. What are the odds of that? Check it out:
As you can see, Isbell, after taking the shotgun snap in the Packers’ single wing, released the ball from the Cleveland 9. (I’m guessing he faked a handoff before throwing.) I particularly like the X-marks-the-spot in the left corner of the end zone, which is where Hutson made the grab.
Anyway, Hutson’s “mark” stood for 18 years. Then Cowboys tight end Dick Bielski broke it by hauling in a 2-inch touchdown heave from Eddie LeBaron in a 1960 game against the Redskins.
The Associated Press’ account read thusly:
(Miscellaneous note No. 2: This happened in the third game in Cowboys history. They went 0-11-1 that first season, so Bielski’s TD must have been one of the high points of the year.)
Naturally, Dick’s feat was included in the record book, too, and the revised entry looked like this:
It wasn’t until 1971 that the NFL stopped listing the “Shortest Pass Reception for Touchdown” among its records. (Bielski and Hutson were still 1-2.) Maybe the league was just starting to lose its sense of humor. Then, too, by the early ’70s the short TD pass was no longer such a novelty. You have to remember: Until the ’30s, an incompletion in the end zone was ruled a touchback. The offense actually lost possession of the ball. That, as much as raging testosterone, is why teams didn’t throw much when they were close to the goal line. They didn’t want to risk a turnover. As it became more of a passing game, though, and as the rules loosened up, most of the risk went out of such a play.
But in Super Bowl 49, glorious Super Bowl 49, we had the proverbial Once in a Blue Moon. On second and goal from the New England 1, Wilson fired to Ricardo Lockette on a quick slant and, lo and behold, Butler broke for the ball and all but plucked it out of Lockette’s hands. Game over (except for some pushing, shoving and punching). Patriots 28, Seahawks 24.
Come to think of it, that would make a great title for the Super Bowl highlight film: Blue Moon Over Arizona.
I’ll close with this from the Aug. 13, 1962, Milwaukee Journal:
The Packers host the Lions today with the division title — and possibly more — at stake. To kill time until the kickoff, why don’t we talk about something else that happened at Lambeau Field on this date . . . in 1961. With the wind chill a shivering 6 degrees, Green Bay won the first of its five NFL titles under Vince Lombardi, swallowing up the Giants, 37-0.
What’s totally forgotten about this game is that, thanks to a gaffe by the officiating crew in the third quarter, the Packers offense was given a fifth down. It didn’t have any effect on the outcome, thank goodness, but it’s still fun to revisit.
In fact, here’s the video of the game, courtesy of YouTube. If you jump ahead to the 1:10:08 mark (and let it run to 1:16:48), you can watch the whole nightmare unfold.
It happened right after the second-half kickoff. On first down from his 36, the Packers’ Paul Hornung gained a yard up the middle . . . and then the zebras collectively lost their minds. (That’s Lindsey Nelson, by the way, doing the play-by-play for NBC.)
As you saw, on second and 9 Packers quarterback Bart Starr scrambled 21 yards to the New York 42, where he fumbled and Giants safety Jimmy Patton recovered. At this point, referee George Rennix started doing some very strange things.
First he signaled that an illegal procedure penalty against the Packers had been declined (which presumably meant the play stood).
Then he picked up the ball and stepped off a five-yard penalty against Green Bay, moving the line of scrimmage to the 47.
Then he decided to confer with the other officials.
And then he concluded that the procedure penalty, which came before the snap, had wiped out the play and thus, the Packers retained possession.
But Rennix wasn’t through. In the confusion, the chains had been moved, and nobody remembered where the original line of scrimmage was. So when he marked off the five-yard penalty against Green Bay, he began from the 40, not the 37 — which made it just a two-yard penalty.
Worse, the chain gang, thinking the ball had changed hands, had flipped the down marker from 2 to 1 — and none of the officials caught it. Check out this screen shot of Rennix talking to head linesman John Highberger (48) — and notice the 1 on the marker to Highberger’s right.
Anyway, it was pretty embarrassing. And it would have been a lot more than that, of course, had the the Packers gone down the field and scored again. But they wound up punting, so no major damage was done. To recap, the five downs went like this:
1. First and 10 from the Green Bay 36 — Hornung, 1-yard run to the 37.
2. First and 15 from the Green Bay 35 (after Rennix’s Follies) — Hornung, 10-yard run to the 45.
3. Second and 5 from the Green Bay 45 — Jim Taylor, 1-yard run to the 46.
4. Third and 4 from the Green Bay 46 — Starr, incomplete pass to Bowd Dowler.
5. Fourth and 4 from the Green Bay 46 – Dowler punts.
“Not until after the game could the officials be reached for an explanation that answered only a part of the question,” The New York Times reported. “The officials said that a Green Bay lineman had been in motion illegally before the Packers had started their play. That voided everything that happened thereafter.
“Furthermore, they said that Starr already had hit the ground and the ball had been whistled dead when he fumbled, so in any case possession would not have been awarded to the Giants. [Note: This is totally at odds with the actions of Rennix, who signaled it was New York’s ball.]
“They never did say . . . why the down marker was reset at 1 instead of remaining at 2.”
Which left the NFL with this wonderful Times headline when it was all over:
Before 16-game seasons and 12-team playoff fields, the NFL played its championship game in the second or third week of December. Not much survives from those battles in the ’30s and ’40s, but there are a few clips available on YouTube. Here’s what I’ve found — from 1934, ’36, ’39 and ’41.
DEC. 9, 1934: GIANTS 30, BEARS 13
This was the celebrated Sneakers Game, so named because the Giants switched to “basketball shoes” (as they were called) in the second half to get better traction on an icy field. They then exploded for 27 points in the fourth quarter to ruin the Bears’ perfect season and keep them from winning a record-tying third straight title.
(It’s still the most points ever scored by a team in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. The ’92 Eagles are next with 26 vs. the Saints in this 36-20 win.)
We begin our film festival with back-to-back runs by the great Bronko Nagurski. Note the Bears are lined up in the T formation, with the quarterback taking the snap directly from center. They were only NFL club using the T in 1934. Everybody else opted for some variation of the single wing. Note also, on the first play, the man-in-motion flashing across the screen. That had been incorporated into the offense, too.
One more tackle-busting Nagurski run. What’s interesting about this play is that the Bears are in the single wing. They mixed it up, in other words — which must have been a nightmare for opposing defenses. Watch for the official slipping and falling at the end of the clip. The field was treacherous in spots.
Here’s a photo of Giants quarterback Ed Danowski (22) getting ready to crack the line. As you can see, he and his blockers are wearing sneakers, which were borrowed from nearby Manhattan College and rushed to the Polo Grounds by locker-room attendant Abe Cohen:
After the footwear change, it was all over for Chicago. The sneaks didn’t just give the Giants better footing, they enabled them to cut more sharply than the Bears could. Hall of Fame fullback Ken Strong scored the final two New York touchdowns — the first over the right side, the second up the middle. In the last part of the clip, he touches the ball down in the end zone, just like in the old days. (Thus the term “touchdown.”)
“Strong had been removed from the game in the first half with his left leg twisted,” Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote. “He appeared out of it. But he came back in the second, apparently none the worse for wear.”
DEC. 13, 1936: PACKERS 21, REDSKINS 6
The ’36 title game should have been played in Boston, home of the Eastern champion Redskins. But the team didn’t draw well, so owner George Preston Marshall moved the game to New York’s Polo Grounds. (The next season, the franchise was in Washington.)
You’ll love the opening kickoff. According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, the Green Bay returner being picked up, carried back and slammed down is George Sauer (whose son, George Jr., starred for the Jets in Super Bowl III with eight catches for 133 yards, both game highs). Today, no doubt, Boston would have been hit with a personal-foul penalty.
The Packers led 7-6 at halftime thanks to this Hall of Famer-to-Hall of Famer heave from Arnie Herber to Don Hutson, good for a 48-yard touchdown:
Early in the second half Green Bay began to break it open. From the Sentinel: “Herber sent a long aerial down the field which Johnny Blood [another Hall of Famer] caught for a 51-yard gain, Don Irwin nailing him on the 9-yard line. After being halted three straight times on running plays, Herber found [end Milt] Gantenbein alone over the goal line and pegged one right in his arms for a touchdown.”
As the clip shows, Herber dropped back quite a ways before throwing the ball to Blood — 10 or 11 yards by my count. This was to give Johnny time to get downfield, but it’s also an indication of how unreliable pass protection was in that era. Linemen couldn’t use their hands yet, remember, and the concept of the pocket was still years off. (Plus, it was two years before there was a penalty for roughing the passer. Once the ball was released, the defense could pretty much whatever it wanted to the quarterback until the play was whistled dead.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t insert this last screen shot. It’s of the Packers’ Lou Gordon — No. 53 — running around without a helmet. In 1936 headgear was still optional.
I’d also be shirking my responsibility if I didn’t include the lead paragraph of the game story that ran in the Boston Globe. It was written by John Lardner — Ring’s son — then 24 and working for the New York Herald Tribune. Can you believe it? The Globe didn’t even staff the game (probably because Redskins were abandoning the city). Imagine the Los Angeles Times not covering Super Bowls XXXIV and XXXVI because the Rams had forsaken L.A.
“. . . championship of the universe, and points south.” Classic.
DEC. 10, 1939: PACKERS 27, GIANTS 0
Steve Owen, the Giants’ Hall of Fame coach, missed the game because of his mother’s death. That left the team in the hands of assistant Bo Molenda, a former Packer. The site was switched from Green Bay’s City Stadium to Milwaukee’s larger State Fair Park because this was, after all, the Depression. If a few more tickets could be sold . . . . And indeed, the crowd of 32,279 produced a gate of over $80,000, a record for an NFL title game. The winning Packers reportedly earned $703.97 each, the losing Giants $455.57.
Green Bay turned it into a rout in the third quarter after Gantenbein (yes, him again) picked off a pass and ran it back to the New York 33. A touchdown — one that made it 17-0 — soon followed. The Sentinel again: “[Quarterback Cecil] Isbell, faking and veering the ball nicely, slipped back, wheeled and passed downfield to [back] Joe Laws, who was all alone to take the ball on the 6 and romp over without a man getting within yards of him.”
Aren’t those goalposts the greatest? They were the new, improved version that moved the posts off the goal line, where they could be an obstruction on running plays. (The goal posts weren’t moved to the back of the end zone until 1974.) The post-TD “celebration,” by the way, is just beautiful. A teammate comes up and . . . shakes Law’s hand.
In the fourth quarter, Packers linebacker Bud Svendsen intercepted another Giants pass and returned it to the New York 15. This time Green Bay turned to trickery. “A double reverse, with [Harry] Jacunski carrying on an end-around, brought the ball to the 1 yards,” the Sentinel reported, “and [fullback Ed] Jankowski pounded over the New York right guard for the score.”
Here’s that sequence – interception/double reverse/short touchdown plunge — that gave the Packers their final points:
DEC. 21, 1941: BEARS 37, GIANTS 9
Once again, the Giants took a licking. Of course, this Bears club — just a year removed from the 73-0 evisceration of the Redskins in the title game — was nigh unbeatable. The game was played two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which might have had something to do with the disappointing attendance: 13,341.
Behind by four touchdowns in the final quarter, New York ran a gadget play in hopes of getting in a parting shot, but the Bears blew it up. The New York Times’ account:
Just before the end, 9 seconds away, [Steve] Owen inserted Andy Marefos into his lineup. The next play was the one that had worked against the Redskins in their first game with the Giants. Hank Soar rifled a lateral [pass] to Marefos, who was supposed to heave a long one down the field.
Before he could get rid of the ball, the entire Bear team hit him at once. The pigskin popped out of his hand and [end] Ken Kavanaugh picked it up and trotted 42 yards to the end zone.
And then America — and many of these players — went off to war.
For whatever reason(s), there’s a Bermuda Triangle aspect to certain NFL records. They’re just hard to break — harder than you’d think they’d be. Norm Van Brocklin’s record of 554 passing yards in a game, for instance, still stands 63 years later, even though the deck is increasingly stacked in favor of quarterbacks. And Johnny Unitas’ record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games wasn’t seriously threatened for more than half a century.
Also, lest we forget, the Cowboys’ Tony Romo had a 38-gamer halted by the Eagles two weeks ago. Anyway, those streaks — Brady’s, Manning’s and Romo’s — are three of the five longest in the league’s 95 years. And they all came up short.
Back in September, I wrote about the history of the record (which was once owned by Cecil Isbell, the long-ago Packer) and even dug up some vintage video. If you want to look the original post again — or even for the first time — I’ll make it easy for you. Here’s the link.
The Packers’ Cecil Isbell throws a touchdown pass in the 1939 title game vs. the Giants.
In case you missed last week’s annotated play-by-play of the 1940 NFL title game — Bears 73, Redskins nil — here’s another shot at it. Since the game was played Dec. 8, I thought I’d zero in on another aspect of it today: a block thrown by Chicago’s George Wilson on the second play from scrimmage.
But what Wilson should be remembered for, above all, is the aforementioned block. It came on a 68-yard touchdown run by fullback Bill Osmanski that got the Bears off to a quick 7-0 lead (and foreshadowed the avalanche of points to come). Osmanski did a nice job of bouncing outside and into the clear, but it was Wilson’s downfield boom-lowering that turned it into walk-in (had his teammate so chosen). George wiped out the last two Redskins pursuers — Ed Justice (13) and Jimmy Johnston (31) — with one well-placed shoulder:
Here’s just the clip of The Block, so it’s easier to watch it over . . . and over . . . and over. No wonder Halas called it the greatest he’d ever seen. And let’s not forget: Without it, Osmanski might not have scored — and the Bears might have won only 66-0.
Finally, this is as close as I can come to a freeze frame: