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Lester Hayes’ incomparable 1980

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.

And this didn’t happen just any old year, I’ll remind you. It happened in a year the Raiders won the Super Bowl (to just about everyone’s surprise). For his efforts Hayes won The Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor much more likely to go to a lineman or linebacker than a DB.

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)

Year Player, Team G RS PS Total
1980 Lester Hayes, Raiders* 20 13 5 18
1969 Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs* (AFL) 17   9 4 13
1981 Everson Walls, Cowboys 18 11 2 13
1963 Fred Glick, Oilers (AFL) 14 12 DNA 12
1964 Paul Krause, Redskins 14 12 DNA 12
1964 Dainard Paulson, Jets (AFL) 14 12 DNA 12
1974 Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs 14 12 DNA 12
1987 Barry Wilburn, Redskins* 15   9 3 12
1976 Monte Jackson, Rams 16 10 2 12
1975 Mel Blount, Steelers* 17 11 1 12
1979 Mike Reinfeldt, Oilers 19 12 0 12
2006 Asante Samuel, Patriots 19 10 2 12
2007 Antonio Cromartie, Chargers 19 10 2 12

*won title

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:

(The game was played in bitter cold, and Cleveland had already missed an extra point and two field goals. Coach Sam Rutigliano didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in kicker Don Cockroft at that stage.)Headline before AFC title game JJ Duel

● 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.

Lester Hayes, his right hand covered with goo (stickum), reaches for a towel.

Super Bowl IV lives!

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.)

Anyway, the defense was never better than it was that year. In 17 games — 14 regular season, three postseason — it allowed just 18 touchdowns (eight rushing, 10 passing) and a mere 11.6 points a game. In the playoffs, the Kansas City ‘D’ was even more amazing, holding the Jets (quarterbacked by Hall of Famer Joe Namath), Raiders (QB’d by Daryle Lamonica, who led the AFL with 34 TD passes) and Vikings (QB’d by Pro Bowler Joe Kapp) to a total of 20 points (two TDs, two field goals).

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.

● RCB Emmitt Thomas (6-2/192, 26) — Hall of Famer. Five Pro Bowls. Led the AFL with nine interceptions in 1969 and added four more in the postseason — 13 in 17 games. Only two players have had more than four INTs in a single playoff year. (The Houston Oilers’ Vernon Perry in ’79 and the Raiders’ Lester Hayes in ’80 each had five.) Played 13 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?

One more argument for Robinson: Only four defensive backs have had more than 57 interceptions in a 10-year period. Three are in Canton (Em Tunnell, 73; Paul Krause, 62; Night Train Lane, 58), and the other (Darren Sharper, 58) seemed like a semi-lock for Canton, too, until he was convicted of rape in March. Johnny also had 16 games in which he had two-or-more picks, as many as anybody since 1960. (Krause also had 16 multiple-pick games. No one else has had more than 12.)

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:

It’s one of the more fascinating subplots of Super Bowl IV: the old way of kicking vs. the new way. Stenerud, a former ski jumper from Norway who was undrafted out of Montana State, was more of a weapon than Cox because he had more range. And Fred was one of pro football’s best in ’69, booting 26 field goals and making 70.3 percent of his tries, both NFL highs. But he kicked only two field goals of 50 yards or longer in his 15-year career and had a success rate of just 36.5 percent from 40 to 49 yards. Stenerud booted 17 field goals of 50-plus yards and was successful 51.3 percent of the time from 40 to 49 yards.

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.)

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.”

NFLers in the NCAA Tournament

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

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

Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

Antonio Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

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

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

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

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

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

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

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

Other bench players:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody want a 500-catch receiver?

It’s been an interesting offseason so far for name-brand NFL wide receivers. Seven of the Top 14 in career receptions — among active wideouts, that is —  have either been released (3), traded (1) or had their contracts run out without being re-signed (3). Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? (And an eighth, let’s not forget, Larry Fitzgerald, reworked his deal to save the Cardinals nearly $13 million on their 2015 cap.)

Reggie Wayne will have to make catches like this for another team now.

Reggie Wayne: 1 of 2 1,000-catch receivers sent packing this month.

The disposability of running backs has been a major topic of conversation the past few years, but any player in his 30s — as all of these receivers can attest — lives a fragile existence, too. If you’re still drawing a hefty salary at the age, you’d better be putting up the numbers to justify it. Otherwise your team might decide you’re in a Death Spiral and put you in the recycle bin. With a younger player, there’s more patience with ups and downs, but with a guy in his 30s it’s different. One off year, after all, could easily foreshadow a second . . . and a third.

Dwayne Bowe is the youngest of the aforementioned wideouts (31 in September), Reggie Wayne the oldest (37 in November, if there is another November for him). You could argue that the bell has tolled for some of them — Wayne and Santana Moss, say, and (maybe) the oft-concussed Wes Welker. But Bowe and Greg Jennings had three years remaining on their contracts, and Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson had two. So there’s a significant Bail-Out Factor here as well.

Nobody can tell me that some of them don’t have some good seasons left – in the right offense with the right quarterback. But it’s the way of the NFL world now. A well-paid wideout in his 30s has a less-than-stellar year and, regardless of the circumstances (instability at QB, injuries, etc.), isn’t brought back.

Marshall’s trade to the Jets was a virtual giveaway. (“Take his contract (and personality) — please!” ) All the Bears got in return was a fifth-round pick. They even had to throw in a seventh-rounder themselves. Here’s the rundown on the Not-So-Magnificent (Anymore) Seven:

THE COMINGS AND GOINGS OF SOME TOP-RANKED WIDEOUTS

Rank Wide Receiver, Last Team Catches Status
1 Reggie Wayne,Colts 1,070 Unsigned FA
2 Andre Johnson, Texans 1,012 Cut, signed with Colts
6 Wes Welker, Broncos    890 Unsigned FA
8 Brandon Marshall, Bears    773 Traded to Jets
10 Santana Moss, Redskins    732 Unsigned FA
13 Greg Jennings, Vikings    552 Cut
14 Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs    532 Cut

And here are their individual situations:

● Wayne (37 in November): 3-year, $17.5M deal expired.

● Johnson (34 when season starts): Had 2 years left on a 5-year, $67.8M deal ($15.6M cap number for 2015). Signed with the Colts for 3 years, $21M ($10M guaranteed).

● Welker (34 when season starts): 2-year, $12M deal expired.

● Marshall (31 when season starts): Traded to the Jets with 2 years left on a 3-year, $30M deal ($22.3M guaranteed). The Bears received a 2015 No. 5 pick for him but also sent the Jets a No. 7.

● Moss (36 when season starts): 1-year, $1.02M deal expired.

● Jennings (32 in September): Had 3 years left on a 5-year, $45M deal ($11M cap number for 2015). The Vikings replaced him with Mike Wallace in a trade similar to the Marshall swap.

● Bowe (31 in September): Had 3 years left on 5-year, $56M deal ($14M cap number for 2015).

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

Andre Johnson is one of two 1,000-catch wideouts cast off by his longtime team this month.

Andre Johnson, meanwhile, will try to pick up in Indianapolis where Reggie Wayne left off.

One-for-one trades

LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso.

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 STRAIGHT-UP, PLAYER-FOR-PLAYER TRADES

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

Santana Moss snares one vs. the Lions.

Santana Moss snares one vs. the Lions.

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

Winner: Redskins.

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

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

Winner: Redskins.

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

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

Winner: Bengals.

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

Ken Stabler

Ken Stabler

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

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

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

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

Winner: Eagles.

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

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

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

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

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

Winner: Rams.

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

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

Winner: Raiders.

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

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

Winner: Giants.

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

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

Winner: Lions.

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

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

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

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

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

The passing record Lou Groza once held

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

Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SIX OLDEST PLAYERS TO THROW A PASS IN THE NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The eternal life of a quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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

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

DeMarco Murray’s odometer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS BEFORE 27TH BIRTHDAY

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

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

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

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

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

MOST RUSHING ATTEMPTS AFTER TURNING 27

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

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

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

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

Source: pro-football-reference.com

2014 receivers: plus/minus

Same drill as yesterday. This time, though, I wanted to look at receivers — tight ends and wideouts only — and determine whose production had vacillated the most from 2013 to 2014. The leader in the plus column was the Falcons’ Julio Jones (an increase of 1,013 receiving yards over last season). The leader in the minus column was the Browns’ Josh Gordon (a decrease of 1,343), who was suspended for 10 games because of a DUI conviction.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a measure of whether a player was better or worse. Injuries, naturally, can cause big swings one way or the other. The question is more: What did his team get out of him?

BIGGEST GAINERS

Receiver, Team 2013 2014 Gain
Julio Jones, Falcons 580 1593 +1013
Travis Kelce, Chiefs     0*   862   +862
Randall Cobb, Packers 433 1287   +854
Malcolm Floyd, Chargers 149   856   +707
Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos 740 1404   +664
Kenny Britt, Rams   96   748   +652
Andrew Hawkins, Browns 199   824   +625
Larry Donnell, Giants   31   623   +592
Marcus Wheaton, Steelers   64   644   +580
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots 592 1124   +532

*Played in one game.

And just think: Jones missed a game. Otherwise, his total would have been even higher. As for Sanders, he certainly made a great free-agent decision to pair up with Peyton Manning. His yards nearly doubled.

BIGGEST DECLINERS

Receiver, Team 2013 2014 Drop
Josh Gordon, Browns 1646 303 -1343
Rod Streater, Raiders   888   84   -804
Victor Cruz, Giants   998 337   -661
Jarrett Boykin, Packers   681   23   -658
Vernon Davis, 49ers   850 245   -605
Pierre Garcon, Redskins 1346 752   -594
Denarius Moore, Raiders   695 115   -580
Brandon Marshall, Bears 1295 721   -574
Brian Hartline, Dolphins 1016 474   -542
Harry Douglas, Falcons 1067 556   -511

On this side of the street, you have Boykin, whose yardage totals in his first three seasons have bounced from 27 to 681 (when Cobb was hurt) to 23 (when Cobb was healthy again), and Garcon, whose stats took a big hit after the Redskins signed DeSean Jackson (and the quarterback situation turned into a three-headed mess).

OK, I’ve got that out of my system. Make of the data what you will. Just wanted to throw it out there.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Healthy again, Julio Jones' receiving yards for the Falcons increased more than 1,000 yards this season.

Healthy again, Julio Jones saw his receiving yards for the Falcons increase by more than 1,000 this season.