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The role of women in NFL history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately for them, she liked being an owner.

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

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

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

Vi Bidwill with coach Pop Ivy at the 1961 draft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.

Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.

Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to believe they don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

NFLers in the NCAA Tournament

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

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

Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

Antonio Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.

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

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

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

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

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

Terry Baker in action for Oregon State.

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

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

Other bench players:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trading one QB for another

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

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

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

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

Daunte Culpepper

Daunte Culpepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner: Broncos.

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

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

Winner: Packers.

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

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

Winner: Vikings.

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

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

Winner: Raiders.

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

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

Winner: Redskins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner: Steelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner: Tie. (Neither club benefited much.)

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

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

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.

A closer look at Reggie Bush, the receiver

As soon as the Lions released Reggie Bush, I wondered whether he might be headed to the Patriots – that is, if they can’t re-sign Shane Vereen. I wasn’t the only one who had such thoughts. Bush is the type of back who would fit well in New England’s system, a guy who can catch the ball out of the backfield and run it out of the spread formation.

The question with Bush — or one of them, anyway — is: Exactly how good is he as a receiver? Because that’s mostly what the Patriots would want him for. Others, like LeGarrette Blount, can do the heavy lifting in the run game.

What’s always surprised me about Bush is that he hasn’t been more exceptional as a pass catcher, given his speed and elusiveness. Granted, his 466 receptions in the 2000s are second among backs behind LaDainian Tomlinson’s 624. But in the yards-per-catch department he ranks 55th at 7.49 (minimum: 150 rushes, 150 receptions).

Of the 31 backs since the 1970 merger who have caught 400 or more passes, only Curtis Martin (6.88) and Emmitt Smith (6.26) have lower per-catch averages than Bush. And Martin (3,518 rushing attempts) and Smith (4,409) expended much more energy carrying the ball from scrimmage than Reggie (1,266) has.

Here’s another way of looking at it: When Bush was in New Orleans with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, he averaged fewer yards per reception than Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas did in the same offense. The comparison:

RUNNING BACKS AS RECEIVERS IN THE SAINTS OFFENSE

Years Running Back Rec Yds Avg TD
2011-13 Darren Sproles 232 1,981 8.5 16
2007-14 Pierre Thomas 327 2,608 8.0 12
2006-10 Reggie Bush 294 2,142 7.3 12

In other words, Sproles got more out of each catch than Bush in terms of both yards and touchdowns, and Thomas squeezed out more yards and scored a tick less often (3.7 percent of the time vs. Reggie’s 4.1).

That, to me, is why Bush has had such an underwhelming career. Forget the injuries that have caused him to miss 28 games in nine seasons. He just hasn’t done all that much to separate himself from the pack. (Which is why he’s never been to the Pro Bowl — almost an accomplishment itself in these watered-down days).

Maybe, if you analyzed it play by play, you could come up with other explanations. Maybe Bush draws more attention from defenses. Or maybe more of his receptions are in the red zone, where the yards come harder. It’s just always struck me as odd that his yards-per-catch wasn’t higher.

If Vereen (9.6-yard average on 107 receptions) leaves New England, I’m sure Bill Belichick and rest of the Patriots brain trust will take all this into account when considering possible replacements. It’s not that Bush is a bad option necessarily; it’s just that, the closer you look at him, the more he seems like an ordinary one.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

You'd think, as a receiver in the open field, Reggie Bush would make people miss more.

You’d think Reggie Bush, as a receiver in the open field, would make people miss more.

“Bullet” Bill Dudley returns

Saw an interesting note in The Dallas Morning News the other day about DeMarco Murray’s impending free agency:

Should Murray suit up in a different uniform next year, he would become the first player since Bill Dudley to lead the NFL in rushing and start the following season with another team. Dudley moved from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Detroit Lions in 1947.

Sixty-eight years. Now that’s a long time.

It’s also a story — Dudley’s escape from the Steelers to the Lions — that’s worth telling. “Bullet Bill” is, after all, a Hall of Famer. On top of that, there was no free agency back then, and it was rare that a player muscled his way off one club and onto another, as he did.

But let’s backpedal a bit and start at the beginning. In 1947 Dudley was coming off an extraordinary season, one that saw him win the MVP award playing for a .500 team. Not only was he the league’s rushing leader, he also, well, check out his numbers:

BILL DUDLEY’S 1946

Category Details
Rushing 146 attempts* for 604 yards* (4.1 average) and 2 touchdowns
Passing 32 completions in 90 attempts for 452 yards and two TDs
Receiving 4 catches for 109 yards and 1 TD
Punt returns 27* for 385 yards* (14.3 average*)
Interceptions 10* for 242 yards* and 1 TD*
Punting 60 for a 40.2 average
Kicking 2 field goals, 12 extra points

*led league

For all-around excellence, you won’t find many seasons like it. There was only one problem: Dudley didn’t feel like he was built for such heavy use. He was only 5-10, 182 pounds, you see, and the Steelers’ single-wing attack was a punishing, grind-it-out style of football. Remember, too, that this was the era of two-way players, so he got beat up playing defense as well as offense.

To make matters worse, the team’s coach, Jock Sutherland, was a legendary taskmaster. Sutherland’s training camps were hell, and even his in-season practices could test a man’s limits. (“There will be only two kinds of men on the Pittsburgh Steeler[s] roster this fall,” Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press wrote during camp, “– those who are in shape and those who are dead.”)

After the season, Dudley announced his retirement, but it was just a ploy to get the Steelers to trade him to a T-formation team, one that wouldn’t make him carry so much of the load. As he later explained: “I felt playing 50-to-55 minutes in just about every game did not give a man a chance to give his best. It’s detrimental physically.”

Dudley cardYou can imagine how receptive the NFL was to this kind of thinking in 1947. Self-preservation? The very idea! So the Steelers shipped him to the Lions for two backs (Bob Cifers and Paul White), the rights to another (Bob Chappuis, the 26th selection in that year’s draft, who never played for Pittsburgh) and Detroit’s No. 1 pick in ’48.

After the deal was done, Sutherland gave his version of events — and savaged Dudley in the process. “I know for a fact a few of the boys would not have returned to the squad if Bill had rejoined us this year,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When they heard the news that he had signed with the Detroit Lions, one of them remarked, ‘Well, Detroit got itself another coach.’”

During the ’46 preseason, when Sutherland was working his players to death (and putting oatmeal in the water so it wouldn’t taste as good and they wouldn’t drink as much), Dudley complained to the assistant coaches, according to Jock. “[He] went too far in his remarks to my assistants, and when I say too far I mean just that. I heard what he said to them, and I reprimanded him in front of the full squad as I would have with any other player. He didn’t like it, of course, but said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I thought the matter was dropped.

“That night he wanted to leave the camp. There was a conference and he changed his mind. No more was said about it during the season, and he did everything asked of him, although some of the players to the end resented his bossy attitude.”

Can you imagine a coach today unloading on a former player like that? And again, this is a Hall of Famer he’s talking about. Dudley had played two full seasons in the NFL and been the league’s top rusher both years.

Besides, it’s not like Dudley didn’t have a point. The single wing did take more of a toll on you (never mind the toll extracted by Sutherland’s maniacal training methods). The Bears’ George Halas, one of the fathers of the modern T, tried to impress this on Steelers owner Art Rooney a few years later. “The single wing takes too much out of your players, Art,” he said. “You do kick the hell out of the opposition physically, but the opposition is still getting the points and beating you. Remember, the other team takes that beating once; your team takes it every week.”

To twist the knife a little more, Sutherland told the Post-Gazette, “Dudley begged to rejoin the Steelers when he heard a deal was being made for him with [struggling] Detroit. He was sorry over what happened and wanted to come back in the worst way, but I think it is better for all concerned the way things are now.”

The Steelers went 8-4 without Dudley the next season, tying for first in the Eastern Division. (The Eagles beat them in a playoff to advance to the title game.) But their success was short-lived. Sutherland died of a brain tumor the following spring, and the franchise scuffed along until the late ’50s, posting a winning record just once.

As for Dudley, he was right to dread going to Detroit. In his three years there, the Lions won just nine games (though he remained a valuable and versatile player). He tried to return to Pittsburgh as a backfield coach in 1952 — after spending two seasons with the Redskins — but Washington owner George Preston Marshall, unconvinced Bullet Bill would stay retired, wanted too much in compensation. (And sure enough, Dudley returned to the game, primarily as a kicker, after sitting out a year.)

This brings us to the final, delicious part of our story: the first-rounder the Steelers got from the Lions for Dudley. It wound up being the third pick in the ’48 draft, and they used it to select an All-American quarterback from Texas – a fella by the name of Bobby Layne. Alas, Layne didn’t want to play in Pittsburgh’s single wing any more than Dudley did. So, rather than risk losing him to the rival All-America Conference, the Steelers sent him to the Bears for a player who better fit their offense, Kansas tailback Ray Evans.

Evans showed promise as a rookie, but that was the extent of his NFL career. To the Steelers’ shock, he turned his back on a $20,000 salary and took a job with a Kansas City bank. The probable reason, the Post-Gazette reported, was that he’d recently been “married to Edith Marie Darby, daughter of Harry Darby, wealthy Kansas City industrialist and Republican National Committeeman for Kansas. It is thought his wife may have objected to his pro grid competition.”

Layne, of course, went on to lead the Lions to two titles en route to the Hall of Fame. (What might have been.) He did finish his career with the Steelers, but he was in his 30s by then and didn’t have nearly as much talent around him.

So ends the tale of The Last NFL Rushing Champ To Start The Following Season With Another Team. DeMarco Murray can’t possibly top this, can he?

Dez Bryant, historically speaking

There’s been such an explosion in receiving statistics in recent years — Calvin Johnson’s near 2,000-yard season in 2012, Randy Moss’ 23 touchdown catches in ’07, etc. — that it can be hard to keep track of them all. Take the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, for instance. His last three seasons have been three of the best ever strung together by an NFL wideout. And yet, nobody’s called much attention to it (except maybe his agent, who’s trying to negotiate a new contract for him).

Consider: In each of those seasons, Bryant had 1,200-plus receiving yards and 12 or more touchdown grabs. You know how many other guys in pro football history have had a stretch like that? Four. And none of them, I’ll just point out, have done it four seasons in a row. So if Dez puts up similar numbers next year, he’ll be in a class by himself. Here’s the group he belongs to:

1,200 YARDS RECEIVING AND 12 TD CATCHES IN 3 CONSECUTIVE SEASONS

Years Receiver, Team 1st Year 2nd Year 3rd Year
2012-14 Dez Bryant, Cowboys 1,382/12 1,233/13 1,320/16
2000-02 Terrell Owens, 49ers 1,451/13 1,412/16 1,300/13
1999-01 Marvin Harrison, Colts 1,663/12 1,413/14 1,524/15
1993-95 Jerry Rice, 49ers 1,503/15 1,499/13 1,848/15
1989-91 Jerry Rice, 49ers 1,483/17 1,502/13 1,206/14
1964-66 Lance Alworth, Chargers (AFL) 1,235/13 1,602/14 1,383/13

Recognize anybody? Rice and Alworth, of course, are in the Hall of Fame, and Harrison and T.O. almost certainly will join them.

Rice nearly pulled it off seven years in a row (1989-91, 1,201 yards/10 touchdowns in ’92, 1993-95). He missed by just two TDs. And Alworth, let’s not forget, played when seasons were only 14 games long. (Granted, two of the seasons in question — 1964 and ’65 — were in the pre-Super Bowl AFL, which wasn’t quite up to NFL standards. But the shorter schedule balances it out, I think. He definitely belongs on the list.)

At any rate, we’re talking about a high level of production here. It’s rare enough for a wideout to have 12 TD catches three years in a row, never mind 1,200 yards. The only ones to accomplish that feat are the aforementioned five plus the Vikings’ Cris Carter (1997-99), another Canton resident. And again, nobody has done it four straight seasons, so Bryant has a shot at another first.

It’s something for the Cowboys to think about as they try to squeeze Bryant and DeMarco Murray under the salary cap. Murray is coming off a terrific season, sure, but Dez is coming off three terrific seasons — and is a year younger than DeMarco.

No one’s saying he doesn’t have some baggage. You can see his Warning Label from here. But the man delivers on the playing field — at historic levels. There’s no denying that.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Lance Alworth was the first wideout with 1,200 receiving yards and 12 TD catches three straight seasons.

Lance Alworth was the first wideout to rack up 1,200 receiving yards and 12 TD catches three straight seasons.

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