Tag Archives: Cardinals

George Halas’ premature “death”

A hundred years ago tomorrow, George Halas “died.” The word is in quotes because, well, he didn’t really die. At 20, he still had the Chicago Bears to found, the NFL to establish, the game of football to transform. But he easily could have died if he’d stuck to his original plan on July 24, 1915 to take the SS Eastland across Lake Michigan to the annual Western Electric Co. picnic. Indeed, one Chicago newspaper listed him among the 844 fatalities when the ship, packed with three times that many passengers, flipped over on its side while docked.

It’s one of the great what-ifs in sports history. What if Halas had boarded the Eastland that gloomy day — and suffered the fate so many did? What would pro football in Chicago look like today? Would the NFL still have climbed to the top of the sports mountain? Would teams be running souped-up variants of the single wing instead of Papa Bear’s baby, the T formation? Terrific cocktail-party questions, each and every one.

The Eastland disaster is Chicago’s version of the Titanic — all the more haunting, perhaps, because it happened not in the dark of the distant North Atlantic, where the cries for help couldn’t be heard, but on a Saturday morning in the Chicago River, smack downtown. The tragedy unfolded right before the city’s disbelieving eyes. Photographers shot picture after harrowing picture of passengers clinging to the side of the ship, victims being pulled from the water, bodies lying silently side by side in the 2nd Regiment Armory, where a makeshift morgue was set up.

The next day in the Chicago Tribune, a local theater chain ran an ad that said: “[It] has [been] decided that, “owing to the horror of the Eastland disaster, no motion pictures of the catastrophe will be shown.” (Interestingly, this past winter, the first known footage of the fiasco was discovered in a Dutch newsreel.) Here’s The New York Times’ story about it. And here’s the clip itself:

At first, there was wild speculation about the death toll. The Times reported that 1,800 had drowned.  The Boston Post put the number at 1,500, the Syracuse Herald at 1,300. The high, that I’ve seen, was 2,000 (Salt Lake Tribune, among others), the low 919 (Chicago Tribune). It probably depended on when the paper went to press.

7-25-15 Chi Trib p. 1

7-25-15 NY Times p. 1

Halas, a rising sophomore at the University of Illinois, was working that summer in Western Electric’s payroll department in Cicero. It was invaluable experience for a future NFL owner. As he wrote in his autobiography, Halas, “I learned to be precise and to keep meticulous records.” During the lean early years, especially — when franchises were always failing — his ability to keep the books balanced would serve him well.

The company picnic was held in Michigan City, Ind., on the other side of the lake from Chicago. Five boats, leaving one after another, were to ferry employees, family and friends to the event. Halas was booked on the first to depart, the Eastland, and over the years he offered two explanations for why he wasn’t on board when it capsized.

The first was that he’d been delayed at home by his brother Frank, who’d stopped him as he went out the door and told him to step on a scale. George was trying to put on weight for football — he’d been a wiry 140 as a freshman — and Frank wanted him to add 40 pounds before the next season.

“I never won an argument with Frank,” George wrote, “so off came the clothes.” He weighed in at 163, certainly an improvement.

“Just do everything I tell you and you’ll be OK, kid,” Frank told him. “Now get dressed and catch that boat.”

Anybody buy that story? Me, neither. After all, how long does it take to weigh yourself, even when you have to strip down to the bare essentials? George would have had to be cutting it awfully close to miss his boat.

In a 1967 series for the Tribune, he gave another version of events. He was supposed to play for the company baseball team that day as part of the festivities, he wrote, and “I had my ticket and my name was on the list of Western Electric employees slated for the Eastland. But the ballgame was scheduled for late afternoon, and I decided to take another boat leaving an hour after the Eastland.”

This sounds more plausible. Still, there’s at least one other possible scenario. Ralph Brizzolara, a lifelong buddy of Halas’, also worked at Western Electric that summer and he, too, was booked on the Eastland. (Brizzolara later owned a small piece of the Bears and helped run them when Halas enlisted in the Navy during World War II.) Anyway, after waiting in vain for George at the dock, Brizzolara boarded the ship – and was fortunate to escape with his life.

“My father was pulled through a porthole [to safety],” his son, Charles, says in Jeff Davis’ book, Papa Bear.

Charles, who’s heard all the stories, has his own theory about why Halas wasn’t aboard: “George just overslept.”

Impromptu weigh in, schedule change, inability to rouse himself — take your pick.

The Monday evening after the disaster, a couple of Halas’ fraternity brothers showed up at his house. They had seen Halas’ name in the paper — “a reporter had obtained a list of Western Electric employees assigned to the Eastland and assumed that I was on board,” George wrote in the Tribune series — and came to pay their respects to his family.

“I’ll never forget the shocked look on their faces when I opened the door,” he said. “When I missed connections with the ill-fated Eastland, I realized I was a very lucky man. Nothing which has happened since has given me any reason to think otherwise.”

Amazingly, that might not have been the only time Halas and the Eastland crossed paths. After being raised, the ship was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve, which turned it into a gunboat and renamed it the USS Wilmette. In fact, it was used as a training vessel at Great Lakes Naval Station when Halas served there during World War I. Did George actually ride the waves on the Erstwhile Eastland when he wasn’t playing football for the Great Lakes Bluejackets (who, by the way, won the 1919 Rose Bowl)? There’s a good chance, yeah.

If so, he survived that encounter with the “death ship” as well. Though the Wilmette managed to stay afloat until it was sold for scrap in 1946, it was hardly a monument to engineering. Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, had this memory of it from a reserve-duty stint in the ’20s: “It was still in sinking condition, I assure you. It constantly shied to the right, and once in a while felt as though it wanted to lie down in the water.”

Halas Yankees BoxOnce discharged from Great Lakes, Halas briefly played major-league baseball, getting 22 at bats with the 1919 (pre-Babe Ruth) Yankees before settling on pro football as a career. The rest, as they say, is history — volumes of it. It’s reasonable to wonder, though, how differently the NFL might look today if he’d caught the first boat leaving for the picnic.

Would the Decatur Staleys, the first team he ran, even have joined the league — and would they have moved to Chicago when A.E. Staley’s starch company, trimming expenses, stopped sponsoring them? The Windy City, after all, already had an NFL franchise: the Cardinals. Besides, how many towns could adequately support two clubs, particularly during the Depression?

So maybe, under another man’s direction, the Decatur Staleys would have remained an independent team — of which there were many in that era. And maybe, without Halas’ boundless energy and ambition, they would have disbanded when forced to go it alone in 1922. That’s right, the Chicago Bears might never have existed . . . and the Cardinals might be playing at Soldier Field.

Then there’s Halas’ pet project, the T formation. It turned the game on its head with its spread alignments, direct snap to the quarterback and man-in-motion. Nobody in the pro game — absolutely nobody — was tinkering with the T in the early days except George, who had played it in college at Illinois. Every other club was running the single wing and/or double wing. Heck, even the Bears included some single wing in their offensive mix. Without Papa Bear and collaborators Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, would the T have evolved, taken root the way it has? There are no guarantees.

It was also Halas who brought Hugh “Shorty” Ray into the league as a technical advisor. Ray, a former Big Ten official, had a huge — if below-the-radar — impact on pro football’s development. He tidied up the rulebook, increased the pace of the game and made it much more of an offensive show.

“Shorty Ray was the greatest thing I ever did for the National [Football] League,” Halas once said. “He was the smartest man in rules ever. He was a genius.”

Remove Ray from the equation and there’s no telling what shape pro football would be in today. In the single-platoon era, before he was hired, the games could be ponderous, low scoring and, in many ways, held back by the rules. By the time he was done, pro football was no longer a rattletrap of a Model A. It hummed. (Shorty, for instance, was the guy who told officials to speed things up by throwing the ball back to the line of scrimmage instead of carrying it back, which ate up time and cut down on the number of plays in a game.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. A century ago, five years before the NFL was born — when the pro game was decentralized and teams like the Massillon Tigers and Fort Wayne Friars roamed the earth — George Halas missed the proverbial boat, a boat that, for 844 cursed souls, took them only to The Hereafter. Exactly how and why this happened will never be fully known, which is part of the fascination of it. Something to think about as the league, America’s most successful by several touchdowns, gets ready to kick off its 96th season. What if.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

A lost record?

There isn’t much in the NFL record book that dates to the 1920s — as far as individual marks go, especially. Ernie Nevers’ six touchdowns (since tied) and 40 points (still unmatched) in a single game survive, but not a whole lot else. It’s just a long time ago, you know? Besides, the league didn’t start keeping official statistics until 1932. Any record before that got grandfathered into the book, so to speak.

So I was happy to receive an email the other day from Gary Selby, who’s come across a potentially intriguing piece of history. Gary mentioned the item in my book, The National Forgotten League, about the Bears’ Joe Zeller possibly intercepting six passes in a game against the Eagles in the ’30s — two more than the current record. I say “possibly” because it happened before the NFL kept track of individual INTs (and before newspapers made much note of them in their game stories). So I wasn’t able to confirm Zeller’s feat; all I could do was throw it out there as a Great Big Maybe.

My source was the 1935 edition of Who’s Who in Major League Football, a kind of media guide published by the league. Zeller’s entry read like this:

Joe Zeller in Who's Who in Major League Football 1935

Selby, however, had this to add to the discussion: “Last summer, while doing some research for the Pro Football Researcher’s Association, I found an interesting article in the Milwaukee Sentinel. It reported that Milton Romney of the Racine Legion intercepted six passes against the Minneapolis Marines on Dec. 2, 1923. It was the last game of the season for both teams.”

Here’s the first paragraph of the article Selby was talking about:Just opening graf of Romney

The two franchises are long gone, of course, but they were indeed members of the NFL in Year 4. As an added bonus, Milton Romney, otherwise known as Mitt, is related to the Mitt Romney who ran for president in 2008. Cousin Milt broke in with Racine before spending the bulk of his six-year pro career as a quarterback for George Halas’ Bears.

Anyway, in this case — unlike Zeller’s — we have at least a bit of corroborating evidence. The thing is, it’s hard to know how reliable that bit is. After all, there often was confusion in the early days about who did what on the field. Jersey numbers weren’t as visible then as they are now, and dirt and mud could make players even harder to identify. Then, too, there was no television coverage . . . and thus, no instant replay to help a sportswriter confirm what he thought he saw. I’ve researched games in which three different players were given credit for a touchdown, depending on which paper you read.

The Milwaukee Journal’s account of the game notes only one Romney pick — and doesn’t say anything about any others. “On the first play after the kickoff,” it reports, “Romney intercepted a forward [pass] on Minneapolis’ 35-yard line and Rollie Williams got away for a touchdown on the next play.” The score increased the Racine lead to 17-0.

So who knows, really? As Selby pointed out, it was the season finale for the two teams, and some strange things have happened in these games over the decades. In 1937, for instance, the Cardinals’ Gus Tinsley caught a pass in the early December darkness and went 97 yards for a touchdown before the crowd — and many of the Bears — realized he had the ball. (It was, at the time, the longest TD catch in NFL history.)

Still, Romney’s “feat” is fun to think about. And let’s face it, if a player was ever going to rack up six picks in a game, it was in the ’20s, when the ball was fatter and harder to throw and INTs were epidemic. Consider: Six interceptions would have been almost enough to lead the league last season. (Lions safety Glover Quin was tops with seven.)

Sources: Google newspapers, pro-football-reference.com.

Quarterback Milton "Mitt" Romney in his Bears days.

Quarterback Milton “Mitt” Romney in his Bears days.

The NFL’s artistic gift to the NHL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: pro-football-reference, Google newspapers.

From the Giants' 1952 media guide.

From the Giants’ 1952 media guide.

Before anonymous sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are teams drafting better? (Part 2)

Following up on yesterday’s discussion of whether NFL teams have gotten any better at drafting in the last 50 years . . .

As tonight’s draft approaches, here are a few more things I came across in my research:

● The last time more Hall of Famers were drafted in the second round than the first: 1991.

Nobody in Round 1 that year wound up in Canton. In Round 2, though, the Cardinals got CB CB Aeneas Williams with the 59th pick.

(Note: As with yesterday’s post, I’m not talking about “rounds” as much as blocks of 32 picks — 1 through 32, 33 through 64 and 65 through 96. That way, drafts in the 2000s can be compared to drafts in the 1930s, even though there were fewer teams and shorter rounds in the early years.

Hall of Fame DE Charles Haley, the 94th pick in 1986.

The only Hall of Famer in the ’86 draft went 96th (Charles Haley).

● The last time more Hall of Famers were drafted in the third round than the first: 1986.

That was year the 49ers, at 96, lucked into DE Charles Haley. None of the first-rounders has gone on to the Hall.

● The last time the top three rounds each produced a HOFer: 1993 — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, 8th) and RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, 10th) in the Round 1, DE Michael Strahan (Giants, 40th) in Round 2 and OG Will Shields (Chiefs, 74th) in Round 3.

● The two times more Pro Bowlers were drafted in the second round than the first (since 1950, the season the first modern Pro Bowl was played): 1967 and ’74. I’ll give you details for ’67, since ’74 comes up again later.

Round 1 (9): DE Bubba Smith (Colts, 1st pick), QB Bob Griese* (Dolphins, 4th), LB George Webster (Oilers, 5th), RB Floyd Little* (Broncos, 6th), RB Mel Farr (Lions, 7th), WR Gene Washington (Vikings, 8th), DT Alan Page* (Vikings, 15th), OG Gene Upshaw* (Raiders, 17th), WR Bob Grim (Vikings, 28th).  (Asterisk denotes Hall of Famer.)

Round 2 (10): RB Willie Ellison (Rams, 33rd), CB Lem Barney* (Lions, 34th), DT Bob Rowe (Cardinals, 43rd), FS Rick Volk (Colts, 45th), LB Jim Lynch (Chiefs, 47th), LB Willie Lanier* (Chiefs, 50th), WR John Gilliam (Saints, 52nd), OT Mike Current (Broncos, 58th), George Goeddeke (Broncos, 59th), LB Paul Naumoff (Lions, 60th).

The last time more Pro Bowlers were drafted in the third round than the first: never.

In 1966 and  ’74 the totals were pretty close: six in Round 1, four in Round 3. The breakdown for the latter:

First round (6): DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Cowboys, 1st), DT John Dutton (Colts, 5th), LB Randy Gradishar (Broncos, 14th), OT Henry Lawrence (Raiders, 19th), WR Lynn Swann* (Steelers, 21st), WR Roger Carr (Colts, 24th).

Third round (4): WR Nat Moore (Dolphins, 78th), WR John Stallworth* (Steelers, 82nd), QB Mike Boryla (Bengals, 87th), LB Frank LeMaster (Eagles, 89th).

● Best first round for Hall of Famers: 1964 (7) — OT Bob Brown (Eagles, 2nd), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, 3rd), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, 6th), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, 11th), DB Mel Renfro (Cowboys, 17th), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, 18th), LB Dave Wilcox (49ers, 29th).

● Best second round for HOFers: 1981 (3) — LB Mike Singletary (Bears, 38th), DE Howie Long (Raiders, 48th), LB Rickey Jackson (Saints, 51st).

One of three third-round Hall of Famers in the '68 draft.

One of three Hall of Famers drafted in the third round in 1968.

● Best third round for HOFers: 1968 (3) — TE Charlie Sanders (Lions, 74th), DE Elvin Bethea (Houston Oilers, 77th), OT Art Shell (Raiders, 80th). Imagine: three Hall of Famers in the seven picks that deep in the draft.

● Best first round for Pro Bowlers: 1961 (19) — RB Tommy Mason (Vikings, 1st), QB Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd), DT Joe Rutgens (Redskins, 3rd), LB Marlin McKeever (Rams, 4th), TE Mike Ditka* (Bears, 5th), CB Jimmy Johnson* (49ers, 6th), RB Tom Matte (Colts, 7th), OT Ken Rice (Cardinals, 8th), WR Bernie Casey (49ers, 9th), QB Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th), CB Herb Adderley* (Packers, 12th), DT Bob Lilly* (Cowboys, 13th), LB Rip Hawkins (Vikings, 15th), C E.J. Holub (Cowboys, 16th), LB Myron Pottios (Steelers, 19th), RB Bill Brown (Bears, 20th), TE Fred Arbanas (Cardinals, 22nd), QB Fran Tarkenton* (Vikings, 29th), OT Stew Barber (Cowboys, 30th).

(Note: Some of these players signed with the AFL and played in AFL All-Star Games rather than Pro Bowls.)

● Best second round for Pro Bowlers: 2001 (12) — DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Cardinals, 34th), TE Alge Crumpler (Falcons, 35th), WR Chad Johnson(Bengals (36th), LB Kendrell Bell (Steelers, 39th), DT Kris Jenkins (Panthers, 34th), DE Aaron Schobel (Bills, 46th), OT Matt Light (Patriots, 48th), WR Chris Chambers (Dolphins, 52nd), RB Travis Henry (Bills, 58th), DT Shaun Rogers (Lions, 61st), DE Derrick Burgess (Eagles, 63rd), SS Adrian Wilson (Cardinals, 64th).

● Best third round for Pro Bowlers: 1951, ’61, ’77 and ’88 all had seven. The most recent:

1988 (7): QB-P Tom Tupa (Cardinals, 68th), P Greg Montgomery (Oilers, 72nd), TE Ferrell Edmunds (Dolphins, 73rd), CB James Hasty (Jets, 74th), QB Chris Chandler (Colts, 76th), LB Bill Romanowski (49ers, 80th), FS Chuck Cecil (Packers, 89th).

It’s rare that the talent in Round 2 turns out to be anywhere near as good as the talent in Round 1. (The same goes for Round 3 and Round 2.) As I said in the earlier post, scouting departments are fairly good at figuring out generally who the best players are. They just don’t always know specifically who they are.

But note, too, what this data doesn’t suggest: that teams have become more proficient over the decades at drafting. There’s just nothing here to support that. And it’s a bit of a surprise, given how much more time, money and manpower goes into the process these days — and how sophisticated it’s supposedly gotten.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

This is how the NFL Draft looked in the early '60s -- and teams were (arguably) no more mistake prone than today.

This is how the NFL Draft looked in the early ’60s — and teams (arguably) drafted just as well as today.

Drafting the QB of your dreams

Once again the NFL Draft World is abuzz about two quarterbacks. Who’s better, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? More importantly, who’s going to have the better career? The Bucs, for one, are convinced the fate of the franchise hinges on it. (Until the next time they have the first pick, that is.)

Jameis Winston: Great . . . or something else?

Jameis Winston: A future NFL great . . . or something else?

But there’s another question that’s worth asking here: Does it really matter as much as everybody seems to think it does? By that I mean: If there’s a Hall of Fame quarterback in this draft, what are the odds Tampa Bay — or any other team in the market for a QB — knows for sure who the Future Legend is? You’d be surprised at the league’s sorry track record in this area.

By my count, there have been 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have been available in the draft. This doesn’t include Steve Young, who originally cast his lot with USFL (and came to the NFL via a supplemental draft), or George Blanda (who made the Hall as much for his kicking as his throwing). Our QBs date all the way back to 1937, the second of the league’s 79 drafts, when the Redskins took Sammy Baugh sixth overall.

Want to guess how many of these Quarterbacks For The Ages were the first QB selected in their draft? Answer: four. One out of every six. Heck, Warren Moon didn’t even get drafted in 1978 — and there were 12 rounds that year. And again, we’re talking about Canton-quality players, not Pro Bowlers (whatever that means anymore) or long-term starters. Seems like those types — Hall types — should be more obvious.

When I started researching this the other day, I never imagined the number — four out of 24 — would be so low. It’s not like the inexact science of evaluating talent is getting any more exact, either. In my mind, there are seven active or recently active quarterbacks who are likely headed to the Hall: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Only one of them was the first QB picked in his draft (Manning, who went first overall). One in seven. That’s worse than one in six.

Consider: In 1944 there were two Hall of Fame quarterbacks up for grabs — Otto Graham and Bob Waterfield. Neither was the first QB selected. (That distinction went to Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli.) It was the same story in ’57, the draft that gave us Len Dawson and Sonny Jurgensen. The first passer off the board? John Brodie.

In ’83, meanwhile, John Elway was the No. 1 pick (and went on to Canton), but two other Hall-bound quarterbacks in that draft, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, were the third and sixth QBs chosen.

Even if a quarterback has Hall of Fame ability, in other words, it may not be easily identifiable in his early 20s. So why, given this history, are teams always falling over one another to move up in the first round and draft a QB, often at inflated prices? A better strategy might be to stay put and take whichever one falls to you. Granted, it doesn’t look as good public-relations-wise; you’re not being “aggressive” and “proactive,” merely patient and calculating. But if you end up with a better QB than the one you might have gotten (and as an added bonus, didn’t trade a truckload of picks for him), who cares?

Here are the details on the 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Draft Era (1936 to present):

● 1937 — Sammy Baugh, Redskins (6th pick) and Ace Parker, Dodgers (13th). Two QBs/tailbacks (the single wing was still in vogue, remember) were taken ahead of Baugh : Ed Goddard (Dodgers, 2nd) and Ray Buivid (Bears, 3rd). Three QBs/TBs, including Sammy, were taken ahead of Parker. (FYI: Goddard lasted exactly four games with Brooklyn. When he didn’t play heroically enough to justify his high salary, coach Potsy Clark released him in the middle of the season. So it went in those days.)

● 1939 — Sid Luckman, Bears (2nd). The first QB/TB picked.

● 1944 — Otto Graham, Lions (4th) and Bob Waterfield, Rams (42nd). One QB/TB was selected before Graham: Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli (Boston Yanks, 1st). Otto wound up signing with the Browns of the rival All-America Conference. Three QBs/TBs, including Otto, were selected before Waterfield, TB Dick Evans (Bears, 9th) being the other.

● 1948 — Bobby Layne, Bears (3rd) and Y.A. Tittle, Lions (6th). One QB went before Layne: Harry Gilmer (Redskins, 1st). Two, including Bobby, went before Tittle. Just think: Detroit drafted two Hall of Fame passers in five years (Graham and Y.A., who opted for the AAC’s Baltimore Colts) and lost both to The Other League.

● 1949 — Norm Van Brocklin, Rams (37th). Six QBs/TBs came off the board before him: John Rauch (Lions 2nd), Stan Heath (Packers, 5th), Bobby Thomason (Rams, 7th), Frank Tripucka (Eagles, 9th), Bob DeMoss (New York Bulldogs, 13th) and Joe Geri (Steelers, 36th). That’s right, Van Brocklin, who won two NFL championships, wasn’t even the first QB drafted by his own team in ’49. (Geri, by the way, was a tailback. Pittsburgh was the last club to run the single wing, stubbornly sticking with it until the ’50s.)

● 1955 — Johnny Unitas, Steelers (102nd). Three QBs were taken ahead of him: George Shaw (Colts, 1st), Ralph Guglielmi (Redskins, 4th) and Dave Leggett (Cardinals, 74th).

Bart Starr: The 200th player picked in 1956.

Bart Starr: The 200th player picked in 1956.

● 1956 — Bart Starr, Packers (200th). Eight QBs were selected before him, a mostly motley crew featuring Earl Morrall (49ers, 2nd), John Roach (Cardinals, 31st) and Fred Wyant (Redskins, 36th).

● 1957 — Len Dawson, Steelers (5th) and Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles (43rd). One QB went before Dawson: John Brodie (49ers, third). Five went before Jurgensen, the others being Milt Plum (Browns, 17th), Ronnie Knox (Bears, 37th) and Bobby Cox (Rams, 38th). Knox chose the CFL over the NFL.

● 1961 — Fran Tarkenton, Vikings (29th). Two QBs came off the board before him: Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd) and Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th).

● 1964 — Roger Staubach, Cowboys (129th). Eight QBs were taken ahead of him, Pete Beathard (Lions, 5th), Bill Munson (Rams, 7th), George Mira (49ers, 15th) and Jack Concannon (Eagles, 16th), most notably. Of course, Staubach would have gone higher if he hadn’t had to serve a 4-year military commitment after graduating from the Naval Academy.

● 1965 — Joe Namath, Cardinals (12th). Namath was the top pick in the AFL draft but only the second QB selected by the NFL. Craig Morton (Cowboys, 5th) was the first.

● 1967 — Bob Griese, Dolphins (4th). One QB went before him: Heisman winner Steve Spurrier (49ers, 3rd).

● 1970 — Terry Bradshaw, Steelers (1st). Obviously, he was the first QB picked.

● 1973 — Dan Fouts, Chargers (64th). Five QBs came off the board before him: Bert Jones (Colts, 2nd), Gary Huff (Bears, 33rd), Ron Jaworski (Rams, 37th), Gary Keithley (Cardinals, 45th) and Joe Ferguson (57th).

Warren Moon: Not even Mr. Irrelevant-worthy.

Warren Moon: Not even Mr. Irrelevant-worthy.

● 1978 — Warren Moon was passed over on Draft Day despite quarterbacking Washington to the Rose Bowl (and winning game MVP honors). So he starred in Canada for six years before the Houston Oilers threw a big contract at him. Fourteen quarterbacks were taken in the ’78 draft, but only one in the first round: Doug Williams (Bucs, 17th).

● 1979 — Joe Montana, 49ers (82nd). Three QBs were selected before him: Jack Thompson (Bengals, 3rd), Phil Simms (Giants, 7th) and Steve Fuller (Chiefs, 23rd).

● 1983 — John Elway (Broncos, 1st), Jim Kelly (Bills, 14th) and Dan Marino (Dolphins, 27th). Elway was the first QB off the board, Kelly the third and Marino the sixth. The others who went in the first round: Todd Blackledge (Chiefs, 7th), Tony Eason (Patriots, 15th) and Ken O’Brien (Jets, 24th).

1989 — Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1st). The first QB picked. But . . . if the University of Miami’s Steve Walsh had been available in the regular draft, would Dallas’ Jimmy Johnson have chosen him over Aikman? Johnson liked him enough to grab him in the first round of the supplemental draft (and let the two young passers compete for the starting job).

Now for the seven quarterbacks who are locks – or semi-locks – for the Hall of Fame:

● 1991 — Brett Favre (Falcons, 33rd). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Dan McGwire (Seahawks, 15th) and Todd Marinovich (Raiders, 24th).

● 1994 — Kurt Warner (Packers, undrafted free agent). Nine QBs were selected that year — the regrettable Heath Shuler (Redskins, 3rd) for starters — but Warner, who played in obscurity at Northern Iowa, wasn’t among them. After stints in the Arena League and NFL Europe, he improbably led the Rams and Cardinals to a total of three Super Bowls.

● 1998 — Peyton Manning (Colts, 1st). Numero uno.

● 2000 — Tom Brady (Patriots, 199th). Six QBs went before him, a pedestrian group consisting of Chad Pennington (Jets, 18th), Giovanni Carmozzi (49ers, 68th), Chris Redman (Ravens, 75th), Tee Martin (Steelers, 163rd), Marc Bulger (Rams, 168th) and Spurgon Wynn (Browns 183rd).

● 2001 — Drew Brees (Chargers, 32nd). The second QB off the board, 31 picks after Michael Vick (Falcons, 1st).

● 2004 — Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 11th). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Eli Manning (Chargers, 1st) and Philip Rivers (Giants, 4th). Manning and Rivers, who were swapped on Draft Day when Eli balked at signing with San Diego, have had good-to-very good careers, but Big Ben is the only one in the bunch who has been to three Super Bowls (winning two).

● 2005 — Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 24th). The second QB selected, several long hours (in Green Room Time) after Alex Smith (49ers, 1st) led off the draft.

You also could break it down like this:

● 4 were the first QB taken: Luckman, Bradshaw, Elway, Aikman

● 5 were the second QB taken: Graham, Layne, Dawson, Namath, Griese

● 4 were the third QB taken: Baugh, Tittle, Tarkenton, Kelly

● 4 were the fourth QB taken: Parker, Waterfield, Unitas, Montana

● 4 were the sixth QB taken: Van Brocklin, Jurgensen, Fouts, Marino

● 2 were the ninth QB taken: Starr, Staubach

● 1 wasn’t taken at all: Moon (and Warner would make it two)

Maybe you’ll draw other conclusions after digesting all this. At the very least, it makes moving up to draft a quarterback seem a lot less “bold” and a lot more second-guessable. After all, many times, the great QB is the guy who goes 42nd, 37th, 102nd, 200th, 43rd, 129th, 64th, 82nd, 33rd or 199th – or is being overlooked entirely.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The draft and the Canton Factor

It’s great to have the first pick in the NFL draft — as the Bucs have on five occasions, including this year. But it’s almost as great to have the sixth pick, believe it or not. And you’d be amazed at how much mileage teams have gotten out of the 34th pick.

Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.

Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.

Let me explain myself. I’m talking about the number of Hall of Famers each pick has yielded — its Canton Factor, if you will. That’s what everybody is trying to do at the top of the draft, right? Hit a home run. Find a player for the ages. And there’s no pick like the first pick for that. An even dozen players taken No. 1 are in the Hall, 12 in 79 drafts (with more, such as Peyton Manning, to come).

This, of course, is hardly surprising. Drafting may be an inexact science, but general managers and scouts aren’t complete dullards. Give them first crack at the available college talent, and they can usually find a guy who can walk and chew gum, sometimes all the way to Canton.

What is surprising is some of the other stuff my research turned up. For instance, the second-best pick for Hall of Famers is the sixth (11). The 34th pick (4), meanwhile, has produced more HOFers than the seventh (1!) and ninth (3)* picks and as many as the 10th. Here are the selections with the highest Canton Factor:

PICKS THAT HAVE YIELDED THE MOST HALL OF FAMERS

● 1st (12) — QB Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989), DE Bruce Smith (Bills, ’85), QB John Elway (Broncos, ’83), RB Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers, ’78), DE Lee Roy Selmon (Bucs, ’76), QB Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, ’70), RB O.J. Simpson (Bills, ’69), OT Ron Yary (Vikings, ’68), RB Paul Hornung (Packers, ’57), C-LB Chuck Bednarik (Eagles, ’49), RB Charley Trippi (Cardinals, ’45), RB Bill Dudley (Steelers, ’42).

● 6th (11) — OT Walter Jones (Seahawks, ’97), WR Tim Brown (Raiders, ’88), WR James Lofton (Packers, ’78), RB John Riggins (Jets, ’71), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, ’64), CB Jimmy Johnson (49ers, ’61), RB Jim Brown (Browns, ’57), QB Y.A. Tittle (Lions, ’48), C-LB Alex Wojciechowicz (Lions, ’38), QB Sammy Baugh (Redskins, ’37), T Joe Stydahar (Bears, ’36).

● 2nd (10) — RB Marshall Faulk (Colts, ’94), RB Eric Dickerson (Rams, ’83), LB Lawrence Taylor (Giants, ’81), RB Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, ’77), DT Randy White (Cowboys, ’75), OG Tom Mack (Rams, ’66), OT Bob Brown (Eagles, ’64), LB Les Richter (Dallas Texans, ’52), RB George McAfee (Eagles, ’40), QB Sid Luckman (Bears, ’39).

● 3rd (10) — DT Cortez Kennedy (Seahawks, ’90), RB Barry Sanders (Lions, ’89), OT Anthony Munoz (Bengals, ’80), LB Dick Butkus (Bears, ’65), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, ’64), DT Merlin Olsen (Rams, ’62), RB Ollie Matson (Cardinals, ’52), RB Doak Walker (N.Y. Bulldogs, ’49), QB Bobby Layne (Bears, ’48), DE Claude Humphrey (Falcons, ’68).

● 4th (9) — OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens, ’96), LB Derrick Thomas (Chiefs, ’89), DE Chris Doleman (Vikings, ’85), DE Dan Hampton (Bears, ’79), RB Walter Payton (Bears, ’75), OG John Hannah (Patriots ’73), DT Joe Greene (Steelers, ’69), RB Gale Sayers (Bears, ’65), QB Otto Graham (Lions, ’44).

● 5th (8) — LB Junior Seau (Chargers, ’90), CB Deion Sanders (Falcons, ’89), CB Mike Haynes (Patriots, ’76), TE Mike Ditka (Bears, ’61), QB Len Dawson (Steelers, ’57), T George Connor (Giants, ’46), WR Elroy Hirsch (Rams, ’45), RB Steve Van Buren (Eagles, ’44).

● 8th (6) — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, ’93), OG Mike Munchak (Oilers, ’82), DB Ronnie Lott (49ers, ’81), RB Larry Csonka (Dolphins, ’68), WR Lance Alworth (49ers, ’62), OL Jim Parker (Colts, ’57).

● 11th (5) — WR Michael Irvin (Cowboys, ’88), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, ’64), DE Doug Atkins (Browns, ’53), RB Frank Gifford (Giants, ’52), DT Leo Nomellini (49ers, ’50).

● 18th (5) — WR Art Monk (Redskins, ’80), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, ’64), RB John Henry Johnson (Steelers, ’53), T Bruiser Kinard (Brooklyn Dodgers, ’38), RB Tuffy Leemans (Giants, ’36).

● 10th (4) — DB Rod Woodson (Steelers, ’87), RB Marcus Allen (Raiders, ’82), OT Ron Mix (Colts, ’60), RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, ’93).

Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.

Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.

● 34th (4) — LB Jack Ham (Steelers, ’71), CB Lem Barney (Lions, ’67), DB Yale Lary (Lions, ’52), OT Mike McCormack (New York Yanks, ’51).

*The only Hall of Famer drafted seventh is C Bulldog Turner (Bears, ’40). The only HOFers who went ninth are OG Bruce Matthews (Oilers, ’83), RB Lenny Moore (Colts, ’56) and RB Hugh McElhenny (49ers, ’52).

Some other discoveries:

● The 24th and 25th picks haven’t given us any Canton-quality players — yet. In the case of the 24th, that figures to change whenever Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 2005) come up for consideration, but nobody taken at 25 seems very Hall-worthy . . . or is even likely to get endorsed by the Veterans Committee. In fact, 25 has been a virtual black hole. The best selections at that spot: NT Ted Washington (49ers, ’91) and WRs Stanley Morgan (Patriots, ’76) and Boyd Dowler (Packers, ’59).

● Second-round picks might be good values salary-cap-wise, but they don’t produce nearly as many Hall of Famers as first-round picks. The breakdown:

HOFers drafted from 1 through 32: 121

HOFers drafted from 33 through 64: 32

● That said, the 48th pick yielded a Hall of Famer two years in a row in the 1980s: C Dwight Stephenson (Dolphins, ’80) and DE Howie Long (Raiders, ’81). The second round of that ’81 draft, by the way, had three players who wound up in Canton: LB Mike Singletary (38th, Bears), Long and LB Rickey Jackson (51st, Saints). By that measure, it’s the best second round ever.

● I love this: The third pick in the ’48 draft was QB Bobby Layne (by the Bears). The third pick in ’49 was RB Doak Walker (by the New York Bulldogs, though he ended up with the Lions). Both are in Canton, but even better, they were high school teammates at Highland Park in Dallas. (Another high selection who played at Highland Park: Lions QB Matt Stafford, who went No. 1 in 2009.)

FYI: The Jets are sitting with the sixth pick (good karma), the Bears with the seventh (bad karma, though they did get Turner there), the Panthers with the 25th (really bad karma) and the Bucs with the 34th (really good karma, especially since it’s a second-rounder).

Yup, Tampa Bay has the first selection and the 34th. Pretty sweet.

Now we just have to wait for Roger Goodell to say, “Gentlemen, start your draft boards.”

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.

●  ●  ●

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.

1959: a draft like no other

The 1959 NFL draft was full of Famous Lasts. It was last draft that was 30 rounds long. (It was reduced to 20 the next year.) It was the last draft of Bert Bell’s commissionership. (He dropped dead at an Eagles-Steelers game the following October.) It was the last draft — for a decade, anyway — that didn’t have the shadow of the rival AFL hanging over it. (Though the CFL siphoned off some talent in the ’50s.)  And it was the last, first and only draft in which one team — the Los Angeles Rams — picked 12 players before another team — the Pittsburgh Steelers — picked any.

Think about the Rams/Steelers thing for a moment. It would be almost impossible, after all, for it to happen today. A general manager would have to pull a (modified) Mike Ditka and trade away his entire draft, while another accumulated — through deals, compensatory picks, what have you — five extra selections. Good luck with that.

It was unusual enough for 1959, even with each club getting 30 picks. Everything just came together, perfect-storm-like. You had a Rams team, with a GM named Pete Rozelle, taking the stockpiling of selections to a new level; and you had a a Steelers team, with wheeler-dealer coach Buddy Parker pulling the strings, trading picks for veterans at an unprecedented rate (one that wouldn’t be duplicated until George Allen and his Over the Hill Gang invaded Washington).

When the pre-draft dust settled, the Rams had a dozen selections in the first seven rounds — all in the first 80 picks. (There were only 12 franchises then, remember.) The Steelers, meanwhile, had traded their first seven choices and didn’t pick until midway through Round 8, when they took Purdue running back Tom Barnett.

This, as you can imagine, caused something of a stir. Chicago Cardinals GM Walter Wolfner, not a big fan of swapping the Future for the Present to begin with, compared what the Steelers did to “borrowing money from a loan shark to pay somebody else.

“I am bitterly opposed to trading away draft choices because it defeats the purpose of the draft, which is supposed to equalize strength in the league,” he said. “By trading [for additional] draft choices, strong teams can afford to draft ‘redshirts,’ and in that way the strong get stronger and the weak weaker.”

(FYI: Redshirts were players who had been in college for four years (which made them eligible for the draft) but still had some eligibility left. They also were called “futures” because, even after being selected, they usually returned to school for their final season before turning pro. The better NFL clubs — clubs that might not be as desperate for immediate help — could use more of their picks on these players . . . and perhaps steal a guy or two they might never have had a shot at.)

Not everyone agreed with Wolfner, though. To other GMs, an asset — be it a player or a draft choice — was an asset, to be used as a team saw fit. As Rozelle put it, the swapping of veterans for picks “has helped us and we believe has been helpful to other clubs. No one can say the Eagles didn’t help themselves by getting [quarterback Norm] Van Brocklin [for, among other things, a No. 1]. Some of the clubs who do not have the budgets for scouting and cannot utilize their choices to the extent others can, through astute trading oft times help themselves.”

The Rams invested heavily in their player-personnel department. In fact, they were trailblazers in that area. Art Rooney’s Steelers, on the other hand, were more of a mom-and-pop operation, though Parker was trying to change that. Buddy, who merely wanted to turn around a habitually losing franchise as quickly as possible, had no misgivings about the extreme lengths he was going to. “There is no adverse effect on the public,” he said, “– as long as we win.”

And the thing is, Parker was making progress. His second Steelers team, in 1958, had gone 7-4-1 — the second-best record in franchise history. As for the Rams, their draft-driven rebuild was nearly complete. Or so they thought. They’d finished a game out of first in the Western Conference in ’58 and, with all the high picks in ’59, were determined to overtake the title-winning Colts.

Anyway, here’s how it all unfolded, how the Rams wound up with 12 selections in the first seven rounds and the Steelers with none:

RAMS PICKS

● 1 (2nd overall) — From the Eagles for QB Norm Van Brocklin. Drafted: RB Dick Bass. Bass still had a year of eligibility at Pacific and didn’t join the Rams until 1960.

● 1 (9) — Own pick. Drafted: T-DT Paul Dickson.

Jimmy Orr card● 2 (16) — From the Redskins for QB Rudy Bukich (who Washington waived before the end of the ’58 season). Drafted: QB Buddy Humphrey.

● 2 (20) — Own pick. Drafted: HB Don Brown.

● 3 (31) — Own pick. Drafted: FB Larry Hickman.

● 3 (33) — From the Steelers for WR Jimmy Orr and DE Billy Ray Smith.  Drafted: DB Tom Franckhauser.

● 4 (43) — Own pick. Drafted: FB Blanche Martin.

● 4 (44) — From the Bears for DB Jesse Whittenton and WR Bob Carey. The Rams were supposed to get OT Kline Gilbert, but he decided to retire. So they settled for a fourth-rounder (which would be a mid-second-rounder now). Drafted: LB John Tracey.

● 4 (45) — From the Steelers for FB Tank Younger. Drafted: DE Bob Reifsnyder.

● 5 (56) — Own pick. Drafted: E John Lands.

● 6 (69) — Own pick. Drafted: C Dave Painter.

● 7 (80) — Own pick. Drafted: DB Eddie Meador.

STEELERS PICKS

1 (8) — To the 49ers for QB Earl Morrall and OG Mike Sandusky. 49ers drafted: OT Dan James.

2 (19) — To the Lions for Hall of Fame QB Bobby Layne. Lions drafted: OG Mike Rabold.

Tank Younger card3 (33) — To the Rams for WR Jimmy Orr and DE Billy Ray Smith. Rams drafted: DB Tom Franckhauser.

4 (45) — To the Rams for FB Tank Younger. Rams drafted: DE Bob Reifsnyder.

5 (55) — To the Packers for HB Dick Christy. Packers drafted: OG Andy Cvercko.

6 (67) — To the Lions for HB Tom Tracy. Lions drafted: DT Dick Guesman.

7 (79) — To the Redskins for LB Ralph Felton. Redskins drafted: QB Mitch Ogiego.

(Note: If a player doesn’t have any stats to click on, it’s because he never played in the NFL or AFL.)

Layne, Orr and Tracy were terrific additions to the Steelers offense. The Rams’ biggest “hits” in the draft were Bass, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher (and three-time Pro Bowler), and Meador, who intercepted 46 passes (and went to six Pro Bowls). What’s more, two months later, Rozelle had enough of a surplus to swap nine players for Ollie Matson, the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame back. Brown (20th pick), Hickman (31) and Tracey (44) were included in the deal.

But the Steelers and Rams both went backward in ’59 — Pittsburgh to 6-5-1, L.A. to a ghastly 2-10 (which cost coach Sid Gillman his job). Not long after that, Rozelle was running the league from the commissioner’s office in New York, and Parker was busily trading away even more draft picks. In 1960 he had only two selections in the first six rounds.

It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the early NFL: the extremes. There simply wasn’t the parity that exists today — not nearly. Some franchises had money to spend, some had a lot less money to spend. The difference between the best teams and the worst teams was often much greater. And, of course, one club could make 12 draft picks before another club could make even one. Strange, but true.

Source: pro-football-reference.com, prosportstransactions.com, Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After the 1959 draft, the Rams gave the Cardinals nine players for this guy: RB Ollie Matson.

After the 1959 draft, the Rams gave the Cardinals nine players for this guy: Hall of Fame back Ollie Matson.

Rejected rule changes

It’s at the spring meetings that the NFL attends to its rule book — and reminds fans that “We’ll decide what is and isn’t a catch.” What’s far more interesting, though — to me, anyway — are some of the rules that have been rejected over the decades, especially in the formative years. Let me run down a handful of them, just for fun. You’ll be amazed at some of the proposals.

● 1938 — Some in the league were concerned about the increasing proficiency of punters. Their ability, “from inside midfield,” to knock the ball out of bounds inside the 10 was too often putting the opponent “strictly on the defensive with no chance to open up offensively,” The New York Times reported. “. . . The coaches . . . do not consider this a matter of skill and feel it restricts the offensive aspects of the game until a score is made [by the defense] or the half ends.”

The proposed solution: declare such a punt a touchback, “just as if it had gone over the goal line,” which would enable the offense to start from the 20 instead of being pinned deep in its own territory.

Every attempt was being made in those days to unshackle offenses. The previous season, after all, fewer than 26 points had been scored in the average game. But this particular rule change never got off the drawing board.

● 1941 — The NFL still had limited substitution in the early ’40s, and it was up to the umpire to make sure teams didn’t sneak more players into the game than they were allowed. The rules committee actually considered the “installation of an honor system among coaches in regard to the number of substitutions so as to lighten the duties of the umpire,” The Associated Press said.

● 1944 — AP: “Earl Cavanaugh, veteran league head linesman, is sponsoring the proposal for awarding a point for a ‘field goal’ on a kickoff. Among other things, he says, this would discourage out-of-bounds kickoffs, which slow up the game.”

Let’s not forget, you kicked off from the 40 then, and the goal posts were on the goal line. With a little wind at your back, especially, you had a decent chance to score an extra point.

● 1945 — Steelers owner Bert Bell and Eagles coach Greasy Neale pushed for the adoption of sudden-death overtime to cut down on the number of tie games. The New York Times: “The rules committee said in rejecting the proposal . . . that the league hardly had enough players now for 60 minutes of competition.”

That’s right, the NFL considered regular-season overtime at least 29 years before it was voted in. The league was rightly concerned, though, about having “enough players” to get through games. Rosters were only 33 that season, and many guys didn’t get discharged from the military until the fall.

● 1953 — International News Service: “National Football League club owners . . . voted last night against a boost from six to seven points for a touchdown and elimination of the extra point.”

● 1955 — Redskins owner George Preston Marshall wanted to “abolish the use of any and all types of facemasks,” AP reported. He was convinced they caused more injuries than they prevented.

By the mid-‘50s, of course, almost all players were wearing a mask — and with good reason: They wanted their driver’s-license photo to look as good as possible. When the wire service took an informal poll of the Washington roster, it found that 32 of 33 players disagreed with their boss.

“If they took my facemask away,” tackle Don Boll said, “I’d quit football. I broke my nose seven times in college when I didn’t have a mask. The University of Nebraska spent $1,250 on me for plastic surgery.”

Defensive back Norb Hecker added: “With the Rams I lost six teeth, which were accidentally kicked out. I also fractured my left cheekbone. For a mask? Yes, sir.

● 1957 — Someone floated the idea of “allowing the punter [to stand] no more than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage,” according to AP. “The latter change was designed to eliminate too many fair catches by forcing quicker punts and keeping more men on the line to block.”

● 1958 — This was the year college football added the two-point conversion. “The rule,” Time magazine said, “was designed to cut down tie games, give leading teams a chance to exert extra pressure and trailing teams a better chance to catch up.” NFL owners turned thumbs down on the proposal initially (though the AFL embraced it when it started up in 1960).

Cardinals general manager Walter Wolfner looked at it this way: “The ball has to be moved an awful long distance for six points, so why only three yards for two points?”

The league eventually changed its mind, but it wasn’t until 1994 — 36 years later. Some things take time.

At any rate, this year’s rule discussions were pretty mundane compared to other meetings. Maybe the owners should have reconsidered “awarding a point for a ‘field goal’ on a kickoff.”