Tag Archives: Hall of Famers

The Steelers’ early draft follies

For almost half a century — since 1969, when they nabbed Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene in the first round and near-Hall of Fame defensive end L.C. Greenwood in the 10th (!) — the Steelers have drafted about as well as any team in the NFL, especially in the linebacker department. But it wasn’t always thus. In their early years they were atrocious in this area, and in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Buddy Parker was coach, they traded away most of their top selections for veterans. (Here’s a link to their classic ’63 draft, the year they didn’t pick until late in the eighth round.)

The Steelers’ Golden Moment came in 1974, when they drafted four players who are now in Canton: wide receiver Lynn Swann in the first round, middle linebacker Jack Lambert in the second, wideout John Stallworth in the fourth and center Mike Webster in the fifth. That marked the beginning of their historic four-championships-in-six-seasons run. But there were many, many lean years before it — as Jack Sell documented in this tale of woe, which ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the week of the ’53 draft.

Doc Blanchard, the Steelers' wasted 1946 No. 1.

Army’s Doc Blanchard, the Steelers’ wasted No. 1 pick in 1946.

By all means read the whole thing — to get a fuller sense of the Steelers’ draft follies in that era. The gist of it, though, is this:

Exactly nine of the [first] 17 first picks of Pittsburgh failed to see service in Gold and Black togs for various reasons. In addition to [Notre Dame back Bill] Shakespeare, who failed to turn pro [after being taken third overall in the inaugural ’36 draft], fullback Felix (Doc) Blanchard of Army, who chose a military career, and quarterback Bud Avinger, who elected to play in the Canadian League, never donned local togs.

Halfback Bill Daley and end Hub Bechtol were lured by the ill-fated All-America Conference. Quarterback Sid Luckman was really chosen by the Chicago Bears, who had given up end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first draft choice. And halfback Kay Eakin was traded to the New York Giants for Owen (Ox) Parry, a veteran with a bad leg who never reported here.

Halfbacks Johnny Podesto from Modesto and Paul Duhart came to training camp but couldn’t make the grade.

Lynn Chandnois, right halfback from Michigan State, will be the record-holder for length of service among the No. 1 selections when he reports next season for his fourth campaign.

Barely two decades later, the Steelers were hitting the lottery with Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster. In other words: Yes, long-suffering fans of (insert team name here), It Could Happen To You.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Steelers were so clueless in the early years of the draft, they might as well have drafted THIS William Shakespeare.

The Steelers were so clueless in the early years of the draft, they might as well have drafted THIS Bill Shakespeare.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda (NFL Draft edition)

Some of the NFL Draft’s best moments don’t become Best Moments until much later, after it’s established how good/bad the players are and how well/poorly teams evaluated them. That’s what this post is about: those instances when two guys at the same position are picked back to back, and it turns out there’s a gigantic gap between them. Basically, the first guy has a forgettable career (if he has one at all), and the second goes on to the Hall of Fame (or close to it).

Here are a dozen examples I dug up, just for the sake of conversation. Call them . . .

THE ALL-TIME WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA TEAM

*Hall of Fame

(Note: Shaw signed with the Bills of the rival AFL.)

The Vikes drafted Buster Rhymes over Andre Reed in '85

The Vikes drafted this guy a spot ahead of Andre Reed.

Talk about screwing the pooch. After deciding to draft a particular player at a particular position, the teams on the left took The Wrong Guy — a mistake which became infinitely worse when the next club on the clock took The Right Guy. You can click on the names to look at their stats . . . and see how huge a gap there was in each case. It ain’t pretty. Cheshire, Jones and Pfeifer never played in the league, and Rogers, for one, was a drug-plagued disaster (36 catches and 4 touchdowns, compared to Reed’s 1,012 and 64 — and counting).

Would the first decade of the expansion Browns have been a little less miserable if they’d opted for McNabb over Couch? You’d think so. You’ve also gotta believe the ’70s (pre-Coryell) Chargers would have won a lot more games if they’d had Stallworth catching passes and Page chasing down quarterbacks — or am I underestimating how lousy the Bolts were in those days?

This kind of puts it all in perspective, though: Spurrier wound up quarterbacking the only 0-14 team in NFL history (the ’76 Bucs), and Griese wound up quarterbacking the only 17-0 team (the ’72 Dolphins).

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Before combines, computers and Kipers

They weigh them, time them, test them, give them chest X-rays, knee exams, electrocardiograms. They work them out and wear them out, do background checks that are more like body-cavity searches. Heck, for all we know, NFL teams delve into the DNA of draft prospects — on the off-chance one of them might be secretly related to Jim Thorpe.

Then they gather up all this information, feed it into a computer and . . . draft Tom Brady in the sixth round — or James Harrison not at all.

Does anyone else feel this NFL Draft business has gotten to be a bit much? Sure, you want to be thorough, especially with so much money at stake, but as we’ve seen time and again, overanalysis can lead to paralysis — or worse, to Tim Couch.

Or to put it another way, what’s so wonderful about the Wonderlic test? Couldn’t you learn just as much about a guy by playing a quick game of rock-paper-scissors with him?

In olden times, the league did just fine without this microscopic evaluation of talent. Back then – I’m talking before World War II — clubs scouted the old-fashioned way, working their contacts in the college game and counting on recommendations from former players. Oh, they might get to see a prospect in action once or twice, but beyond that . . . .

Poring over game films, such a big part of the process today, didn’t come into fashion into later. (In the late ’30s, most teams were just beginning to pore over their own game films.) No, a club was much more likely to learn about a player by perusing the sports section of the newspaper. Some clubs even enlisted sports writers to do the bird-dogging for them.

One of them, a columnist for The Ogden Standard-Examiner named Al Warden, informed his readers in 1940 that he was “one of the far western football scouts for the Lions.” In fact, he went on, he’d just received a letter from Detroit coach Potsy Clark that said: “Let us have a list of prospective players from your section of the country as soon as possible. We are on the lookout for new finds.”

In those days, the NFL Draft went something like this: Every year, the league compiled a master list of eligible players – with the help of submissions from each team. The 300-odd names were then put on three large blackboards in the hotel meeting room where the draft was held.

Sometimes, if a club felt it had stumbled across a hidden gem, it would “forget” to put him on the master list. The Giants did this in 1939 with Walt Nielsen, a back from the hinterlands of Arizona — then surprised everybody by drafting him in the first round.

Wellington Mara, the 20-something son of owner Tim Mara, served as New York’s player personnel director during the leather helmet era. It’s astounding where the kid found players — and without, I’ll just point out, having any idea what their vertical jump was. Take the Giants’ 1938 championship team, for instance. Among the alma maters listed on the roster were Central Oklahoma, West Virginia Wesleyan, Emporia State (Kansas), Trinity University (Texas), Santa Clara, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, Simpson College (Iowa) and Oklahoma City.

Of course, the Giants took scouting more seriously than many other teams. At the other end of the spectrum were the Steelers of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Their player personnel man “was a full-time mortician named Ray Byrne,” NFL Hall of Famer Jim Finks once recalled. “So, on the side, he subscribed to all the college football magazines and put himself on the mailing lists of all the different colleges . . . [and] collected their press releases. That was the information the Steelers had when they went into the draft every year.”

By the time the American Football League came along in 1960, though, moonlighting morticians had been replaced by full-time scouts who crisscrossed the country in search of the next Bronko Nagurski. Eddie Kotal, Jack Lavelle, Pappy Lewis, Peahead Walker, Fido Murphy — nobody remembers them now, but they helped turn the NFL Draft into the extravaganza it is today.

The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.

The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.

Kotal liked to joke about his “14-month year” cataloguing prospects for the Los Angeles Rams, right down to the little-known defensive end from Arnold College in Milford, Conn. (the great Andy Robustelli, L.A.’s 19th-round pick in 1951). Let’s face it, you have to be a little nutty to spend all that time on the road — just you and your binoculars — and Eddie certainly qualified. As a back with the Packers in the ’20s, he was one of the handful of players in the league who played without a helmet.

For a while, the Rams had an edge on other teams because they budgeted more for scouting, but that soon changed. So much so that Kotal griped in 1957:

“Even five years ago I could stumble across a sleeper at some small college that no other club knew about. But nowadays, everybody’s scouting system is so exhaustive, there’s no such thing as one.

“I don’t care if the kid is a third-string halfback at Tiddle-de-Wink Tech. By the time I get there to see him, he’ll tell me:

“‘You’re from the Rams, huh? I just got a letter the other day from the Lions and the Bears, too.’”

And so it began, the inexorable march toward five-hour first rounds, the self-celebratory NFL combine . . . and Mel Kiper. The draft, once confined to smoke-filled rooms, has become the Super Bowl of the offseason, and scouting has been elevated to the status of a science — an inexact science perhaps, but a science nonetheless.

Fido Murphy, long dead, would snort at that. To Fido, who shared his bush-beating brilliance over the years with the Bears and Steelers, modern scouts were just “a bunch of office boys with fancy titles! A lot of fakers and phonies! You ask them what do they think of such-and-such a player, and they tell you, ‘Wait till I see the films.’ I don’t need no lousy films.”

Speaking of films, Fido was married to an Actual Hollywood Actress, Iris Adrian. Iris was no star, but she appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows opposite the likes of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. The reason their relationship lasted, she’d tell people, was that he wasn’t an actor — unlike her first two husbands. “If an actor gets a pimple on his butt,” she’d say, “he thinks he’s ruined for life. . . . [It’s] like dating another dame.”

Iris’ glamorous career, meanwhile, enabled Fido, a walking lounge act, to crack jokes like this: “The best field-goal kicker I’ve ever seen is a mule called Gus who kicks a field goal in the last minute of a Walt Disney film starring my wife. . . . Gus plays for a team called the Atoms, and he wears a red blanket.”

Fido had total faith in his ability to distinguish the player from the poser. As he put it, “It isn’t that I’m smarter than everyone else in football. It’s just that I know more. . . . Sam Cohen, the Bridgeport [Conn.] columnist, wanted to call me a genius, but I wouldn’t let him.” Indeed, when Sports Illustrated ran a story about him in 1963, he suggested it be titled “Football’s Greatest Scout” (which it was).

Note: I’d hoped to link to that marvelous piece by Myron Cope, but for some reason it’s no longer available in SI’s archives. It can, however, be found in Cope’s collection, Broken Cigars. A used copy shouldn’t be too hard to find if you’re so inclined. Here’s a brief excerpt to whet your appetite:

Without having to be prodded, Fido takes credit for the fact that Mike Ditka, the magnificent Chicago offensive end, signed with the Bears rather than with the wealthy Houston Oilers [of the rival AFL]. As Fido tells it, Ditka was flying home to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, from the Hula Bowl game in Hawaii and stopped in San Francisco to change planes. “I had him bumped off his plane,” says Fido. “Then I got him a first-class window seat on another flight, and he thought I was a big man. The flight had a 90-minute layover in Chicago, and I had [George] Halas wait for him at the airport with a contract.”

Fido would gladly pit his old-school eyeballs against any team’s computer, any scouting department’s rating system, any cockamamie intelligence test. It was he, after all, who said of the first pick in the 1963 draft, Heisman-winning quarterback Terry Baker, “For carrying around a trophy, he’s got a great arm. For throwing a football, no.”

Sure enough, Baker never tossed a touchdown pass in the NFL and ended his brief and uneventful career as a running back. Wonder what Fido would make of Jameis Winston.

A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the The Washington Times, April 24, 2009.

Terry Baker: a better arm “for carrying around a trophy [than] throwing a football."

Terry Baker: a better arm “for carrying around a trophy [than] throwing a football.”

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 Native American chief who played for the early Redskins

While sports fans continue to debate, with no little fervor, whether the Redskins should change their name, I thought I’d post this piece about the Native American chief who played for them in the early years — and holds an interesting place in football history. There’s a tendency to lump the Redskins’ refusal to integrate until the ’60s with the whole Name Thing and say, “It’s all of a piece. From the very beginning, this has been a racist organization.” But it’s not that neat and tidy, as you shall see.

 ●   ●   ●

In the NFL’s early decades, there were two main sources of Native American football talent: Carlisle (in the Pennsylvania town of the same name) and Haskell (in Lawrence, Kan.). They weren’t really colleges, though they played many of their games against college teams. They were more like vocational high schools, the U.S. government’s attempt to assimilate the young tribal population into the American mainstream.

Along with farmers, carpenters and mechanics, the schools turned out some really good football players. Carlisle is more famous, thanks to the exploits of Jim Thorpe, one of the country’s greatest athletes, and Joe Guyon, both of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But according to the database at pro-football-reference.com, Haskell sent as many players to the NFL as Carlisle did (19 each, with some attending both schools).

One of the Haskell alums was Larry Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound rock of a center. (Sportswriters often called him “Chief Johnson” because he was a leader of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.) Johnson was the last player from either school to play in the NFL; in fact, he was the last player by a mile. The next to last, Haskell teammate Orien Crow, suited up for the final time in 1934. Larry’s farewell came a decade later, when he returned to the league after a four-year absence — along with a number of other retirees (e.g. the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski) — because of the manpower shortage during World War II.

The club that brought him back for five games at the age of 35? The Redskins.

Not that this surprised anybody. Johnson, after all, had begun his pro career with them in 1933, when they were still in Boston. That was the year the team changed its name from the Braves to the Redskins. It also happened to be the year Larry’s coach at Haskell, Lone Star Dietz, left the school to take the Redskins job. Dietz brought four players with him (the others being Crow, end David Ward and wingback Rabbit Weller).

A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.

A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.

The Redskins weren’t any better than average those first few seasons. It wasn’t until Ray Flaherty became the coach (1936) and Sammy Baugh the quarterback (’37) that they began going to title games. But owner George Preston Marshall had a flair for promotion — and was always coming up with some kind of stunt to draw attention to his team. When Johnson was a rookie, Marshall had the players put on war paint for a game against the Bears so they’d look like “ferocious Indians,” end Steve Hokuf once recalled. There was only one problem. On the train afterward, “we found out that 10 of our players weren’t able to remove their war paint and had to leave it on until the next morning. That was the last time the Redskins used war paint.”

There was much fascination in that era about Native Americans. Thorpe’s feats as a football star, decathlete and major-league baseball player were part of it, of course. But another part was the culture he sprang from. To whites, it was just so was darn mysterious.

In 1922, the season Thorpe organized the NFL’s Oorang Indians — an all-Native American team sponsored by a Marion, Ohio, dog kennel — newspapers ran a story about the death, at 130, of a Chippewa named Wrinkle Meat. It contained this passage:

Several years ago, when he was struck by a railroad engine, he was taken to a hospital but refused a bed, seeking instead a “comfortable place” on the floor. He rolled into a blanket and remained on the floor for three weeks until he recovered. . . . For 109 years of his life he had been married, having had eight wives.

Indian customs, closely followed, he considered the big factor in extending his life so long. His oldest acquaintances never recall having seen him sit in a chair or lie in a bed. He was just as much opposed to many other customs of whites, for he contended they were contrary to the laws of nature.

This is the world Larry Johnson grew up in. Native American athletes simply weren’t like other athletes, newspapers were always reminding their readers. In September 1922 the Chicago Tribune reported: “The [Oorang] Indians begin training today, and besides their daily football practice will take long runs nightly behind packs of hounds.”

How long, you ask? Well, another source tells us, “It means nothing to the Indians to make a jaunt on foot into Marion [from their clubhouse at the kennel], a distance of 28 miles. The warriors eat but twice a day. Practice begins at noon and continues until evening, and it’s then that the redskins have their second meal.”

(Note: These “packs of hounds” aren’t to be confused with the Indians’ mascot – a pet coyote that belonged lineman Nick Lassa, otherwise known as Long Time Sleep.)

Pop Warner, the coach who put Carlisle on the map, was convinced Native American players were easily discouraged. That’s why, it’s said, he tried to score first in every game (not that this isn’t advisable under any circumstances).

“As long as an Indian is winning,” he told Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manager, “he is the greatest player on earth. When he begins to lose, he is among the worst. It is this trait which let the whites win all of the territory of the Western Continent.”

Thorpe, Warner found, was “sulky and hard to handle, and that may ruin him.” Whether Jim was any sulkier or harder to handle than other superstars is an open question, but this was sometimes how Native American players were portrayed — and perceived.

(Decades later, there was a quarterback for the Packers, a Creek nicknamed “Indian Jack” Jacobs, who routinely ignored plays sent in from the sideline. Jacobs was such a freelancer, the tale goes, that he wound up in the CFL, where he twice led Winnipeg to the Grey Cup game. But he doesn’t appear to have gotten any better at following instructions. One day his Canadian coach got so frustrated that he put in two QBs, one to call the desired play and the other — Jacobs — to execute it.)

But let’s get back to Larry Johnson, the last product of The Two Big Native American Schools to play in the NFL. From all accounts, the guy was a physical specimen. One sportswriter wrote that Johnson had “the physique of a heavyweight boxing champion. [But] . . . his early ambitions in fistic work were halted at Haskell when he was flattened by another Indian.”

Still, Larry could take care of himself. In 1938, when he was with the Giants, he “got in a fistfight” with Pittsburgh tackle Armand Niccolai, according to The New York Times. “Unlike most gridiron battles,” the paper said, “this one produced some punching. Niccolai was knocked colder than the weather — which was pretty cold itself. So the Indian was chased from the game and the Giants penalized half the distance to the goal line [the punishment for slugging in those days], some 20 yards.”

The Giants won the title that year (which also makes Johnson the last product of the Two Big Native American schools to win the championship). He’d joined the team in 1936 after three seasons with the Redskins and a stint with the minor-league New York Yankees. Injuries had left New York thin at center, and coach Steve Owen signed him as a backup for Hall of Famer Mel Hein.

“If the experiment of bringing in an Indian turns out to be . . . successful,” Times columnist John Kieran wrote, “Owen may come up with a Chinaman or an Eskimo the next time danger threatens.”

Johnson wasn’t a great player by any means. Indeed, he was a second-stringer for most of his NFL career. But he did have one special skill: He was the best snapper for field goals and extra points Owen had ever seen. As the Hall of Fame coach put it in 1947 piece for Football Digest:

Our captain, Mel Hein, was an artist at it. But once we had a center even better than Mel for the placement try. I know some of you won’t believe this, but I vouch for it on my word of honor. When Chief Johnson, a big Indian from Haskell, was our reserve snapper-back, he had the pass for placements down to such an art that the ball always came back to the holder so that it was caught with the laces uppermost.

(Coming from Owen, who placed a huge importance on the kicking game, this was high praise. The Giants in those days spent most of the first hour of practice on special teams stuff, primarily field goals and PATs.)

Larry Johnson photoAfter winning the ’38 title, Johnson spent some time in his native Wisconsin — and was a big enough deal to have his visit noted by the Shawano County Journal. He was in town, the paper said, to attend “the tribal council of the Menominees held in Keshena on Monday” and planned to “vacation in and around this section until August 10, when he will report [to] Superior [Wis.] for practice with the Giants until the [College] All-Star Game on September 1. Johnson is an enrolled member of the tribe and came down from Powell, where his mother lives, to attend the council with his brother, Joe Walkechon, of Keshena.”

The Giants went back to the title game in ’39, facing Green Bay for the second straight year. As the club prepared to leave for Milwaukee — where the game was held because the city had a bigger stadium — Johnson was filled with “fear and trepidation,” the Times reported. It wasn’t the Packers he was worried about, though. What concerned him was that “‘Every Indian in Wisconsin will be after me to get him tickets,’ he declared with a wry grin.”

It might have been the last time he smiled for a while. The Giants got crushed, 27-0.

Other than that, details of Johnson’s life are sketchy. In January 1939 the Nevada State Journal said he was living in Fallon Nev., and had returned home briefly to see his wife and children “at the Indian sub-agency” before heading to Los Angeles to play in the Pro Bowl (a game that pitted the champion Giants against the league all-stars). “Mrs. Johnson is the teacher at the Fallon Indian day school near Stillwater.”

The following year found him in Ogden, Utah, working for the U.S. Postal Service. And in 1944, according to the State Journal, he was “in the market for a western Nevada high school [coaching] job — football, basketball or baseball. Two seasons ago he turned out a championship grid club [in] Ogden . . . and has since moved to Reno.”

But then the Redskins, desperate for players in the late stages of the war, came calling, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the last half of the ’44 season for them. The NFL wasn’t much to look at that year. The talent level was almost semipro quality, and a few recent high school graduates even got into games. Washington was in contention, though, until the final two weeks, when the Giants beat them back-to-back.

After that, Johnson fell off the grid — so completely that none of the football encyclopedias list a death date for him. (Good luck finding an obituary. Lord knows I’ve tried.) That’s pretty much the end of the story except for one last nugget: It seems Larry had a sense of humor.

We know this because of something Owen said years later, at the weekly Football Writers’ brunch in New York. The conversation had turned, as it often did, to officials — in this case, an official who’d thrown his hat to the ground to mark where a Steelers receiver had gone out of bounds . . . and hadn’t bothered to notice the player had dropped the pass.

“Don’t get me started on officials,” said Owen, whose Giants were on the wrong end of the call — initially, at least. “When the other official straightened him out, I hollered, ‘And don’t forget your hat!’”

That sparked a memory in Stout Steve’s mind. “Remember Larry (Chief) Johnson, our Indian center?” he said. “He used to take great delight in moving an official’s hat a couple of yards.”

Johnson's bio in the Giants' 1939 media guide.

Johnson’s bio in the Giants’ 1939 media guide.

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.

Chris Borland and the future of the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1920s: 3

1930s: 2

1940s: 5

1950s: 18

1960s: 74

1970s: 109

1980s: 92

1990s: 158

2000s: 163

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Chuck Bednarik in his own words

Stuff the Eagles legend (May 1, 1925-March 21, 2015) said:

● “Backing up the line, that’s where a fellow can get plenty of action. There’s always something to do — make a tackle, intercept a pass. Sure, it’s nice to carry the ball, but there’s no thrill like backing up the line.” (1948)

● “I have played 14 years, and I’m counting the games that are left this season. Four, three, two, one, and then I’m hanging up my shoes. I’ve had it. I know I’ve said this for several years, but I’ve never been more sincere in my life. I told my wife the other day, I’ve played one year too long as it is. The pay has been good, though. There are two ways I never wanted to go out. One was with an injury. The other was with a poor team. I hate to quit on such a poor season.” (1962)

● “Joe Namath is a hell of a ballplayer. But as a human being he’s a hell of a creep. If he thinks he can break rules . . . then who does he think he is? . . . I don’t think long hair and athletics mix. Take Joe Pepitone, who used to play for the Yankees. Boy, would I like to be the catcher on a close play at the plate with him coming down the third-base line.” (1970)

● “The NFL had 12 teams when I played. Brother, you separated the men from the boys. You either had it or you were gone. Today, with 40-man squads and 26 teams, it’s too thin. Take quarterbacks, for example. Each team has two quarterbacks. That’s 52 quarterbacks. I want anybody to pick me out 10 outstanding quarterbacks now and six really good ones. They’re not there. There just aren’t that many good ones.” (1971)

The Hit. Note ball to right.

The Hit: Bednarik lays out the Giants’ Frank Gifford. Note ball to right.

● “Every now and then people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who put it to Frank Gifford.’ [Sportscaster] Howard Cosell keeps saying I blind-sided Gifford, but that isn’t true at all. He was running a down-and-in and, coming from my left linebacker position, I caught him head-on but cleanly. It was like a Mack truck hitting a Volkswagen. Frank had caught a pass, and when I tackled him the ball flew out of his hands and we recovered. I was so ecstatic over that that I jumped up and down in the air with my fist clenched. I didn’t know Frank was unconscious. Later, when his wife came to see him in the hospital, he said to her, ‘Honey, it was a clean tackle.’ We’re very good friends. He has even had me as a guest in his home. No sir, I was not a dirty player. Nobody ever accused me of that.” (1977)

● “Steve Van Buren of the Philadelphia Eagles was the best running back of his time, 1944-51. You can’t match yesterday’s apples with today’s oranges. But you can enjoy both.” (1984)

● “[The NFL champion 1960 Eagles] were the kind of team that you wondered how you kept winning. There were no superstars. I hate that, anyway — ‘superstars.’ To me, nobody is super except God.” (1986)

● “No question I could still go both ways [in today’s game], but I wouldn’t. I’d specialize, and I would last longer. I would be worth millions. It would be Lawrence Taylor’s salary plus 10 percent. And you know they try to compare me with linebackers like Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier and Sam Huff. There’s no comparison. They were mostly interior linebackers. I was a roving linebacker — protecting the middle and the sweeps. Plus, I centered the ball, I punted, I sometimes kicked off. My game called for so much more versatility.” (1992)

● “The positions I played [as a two-way player], every play, I was making contact [with an opponent], not like that . . . Deion Sanders. He couldn’t tackle my wife. He’s back there dancing out there instead of hitting.” (2005)

● “I’ll be 80 on May 1, and I know if they offered me $5 million, I could come back and snap the ball on punts and kicks. I know I could. I’d play one year and then retire.” (2005)

QB Norm Van Brocklin (11), Coach Buck Shaw and Bednarik (60) after winning the '60 title.

Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin (11), Coach Buck Shaw and Bednarik (60) after winning the ’60 title.

Second acts by 10,000-yard backs

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

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

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

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

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

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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

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