Tag Archives: Redskins

Sammy Baugh’s game of games

You can argue into triple overtime how good the NFL’s early players were. But it’s hard not to be impressed with the day the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh had against the Lions on Nov. 14, 1943: four touchdown passes and — as a defensive back — four interceptions in a 42-20 Washington win.

Nobody else in league history has had a game quite like it. Indeed, the four picks are still a record (tied many times). And get this: two other Detroit passes were just out of his reach. That’s right, Baugh could have had six INTs.

You can see most of these plays in the living-color(!) game footage I came across on YouTube. A couple of his scoring throws are snipped out — probably so someone could assemble a compilation reel of TDs — but almost everything else is in there. Why don’t I walk you through it with a series of clips?

Remember: This was the era of two-way players, and during the war years Sammy logged even more minutes because rosters were so much thinner. In fact, he rarely came out of the game. He was so tremendously versatile that he did just about everything but kick (though he did serve as a holder).

Three of his interceptions — he had 11 that season to lead the NFL — came in the second quarter and the other early in the third. So he accomplished the feat in barely more than 15 minutes of clock time. Amazing. How it unfolded:

Interception No. 1: Baugh swoops in to pick off a duck.

Interception No. 2: How’s this for a sideline grab?

Interception No. 3: Not only did Sammy stop the Lions’ scoring threat at the 1-yard line, he picked himself up after getting knocked down and ran to the 10 to give the Washington offense more room to operate. (You could do that back then, even if you were “down by contact.”)

Interception No. 4: More opportunism. (He fumbled at the end of the return, but the Redskins recovered.)

Baugh might not have been the fastest player on the field, but at 6-foot-2 he had unusual wingspan for a safety, which made him hard to throw over. The guy was just An Athlete — one with terrific (and conveniently large) hands. If he could reach a ball, he usually caught it.

Now let’s look at how close he came to two other picks.

Near miss No. 1:

Near miss No. 2:

As you’ve no doubt gathered, games could be pretty wild back then, with turnovers galore. The Redskins and Lions both worked out of the single or double wing, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for imagination — and improvisation. How about a fake jump pass?

As for Baugh’s other duties, here he is returning a punt:

And here is blocking on a kickoff (he’s the No. 33 on the right side of the wedge):

And here he is holding for an extra point:

And here he is punting (which he did about as well as anybody in those days):

(That one looks like a quick kick because he’s only about 6 or 7 yards behind the center. Anyway, it was downed on the Detroit 8.)

Whoops, almost forgot about Sammy’s TD tosses. Here’s No. 3, a 10-yarder to Bob Masterson:

And here’s No. 4, a 4-yard flip to Joe Aguirre (who, by the way, was blind in one eye):

(Again, his first two scoring passes are missing.)

What a player. What a performance. Too bad he had to share the newspaper billing the next day with the Bears’ Sid Luckman, who threw for a record seven touchdowns in a 56-7 wipeout of the Giants:

Luckman Baugh Newspaper Head

Note: If you want to read more about Baugh’s remarkable 1943 season, check out the piece I wrote about it for Peter King’s site, MMQB.

(Sorry for the advertising on some of the clips. It was the only way I could pull this off.)

Remembering Garo Yepremian

Garabed Sarko Yepremian was a grand old name. Not as melodious, perhaps, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, but resonant in its own Old World way. Alas, Garo is gone — struck down by cancer at 70 — and his death raises a question: Will pro football ever see a story like his again?

By that I mean: Will there ever be another player who plays in the first NFL game he’s ever seen — and sets a league record in his fifth?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start at the beginning?

Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times jokester, thought Yepremian should, by all rights, have hailed from Ypsilanti (Mich.) Garo’s background was much more unusual than that, though. Born in Cyprus, he’d fled with his family to London in the ’60s when the bullets began flying between the Turks and Greeks. (His Armenian ancestors had escaped to the Mediterranean island decades earlier, seeking refuge from Turkey’s genocidal lunacy.)

Yepremian might have spent the rest of his life in the U.K. — been an Un Known, in other words — if his older brother Krikor hadn’t come to this country to play college soccer. In the summer of 1966, Garo went to visit him in Indianapolis, and for fun they’d head to a nearby field with a football. Krikor would hold, and Garo, a weekend soccer player back home, would kick.

Little Brother got so good so quickly that Big Brother convinced him to seek a college scholarship. Indiana and Butler expressed interest, but there was a hangup: Garo didn’t have a high school diploma — another casualty of the turmoil in Cyprus. So Krikor wrote letters to several pro teams in hopes of getting him a tryout.

In Week 6 the Falcons, a first-year expansion team in need of almost everything, gave him a look — and were impressed. “He’s not a very big guy — 5-foot-8, 165 pounds — but he was knocking them [through] consistently from 55 yards,” coach Norb Hecker said afterward. Atlanta reportedly made him an offer, but he’d promised the Lions he’d work out for them before he signed with anybody. The next day he was in Detroit, leaving the coaches and players there just as slack-jawed.

According to one report, Yepremian made 19 of 20 tries from the 45-to-50 yards. In those days, that was ridiculous. Consider: NFL kickers converted a mere 55.7 percent of all field goal attempts that season. Even Wayne Walker, the Lions’ incumbent kicker, had to give him his due. “The best . . . I’ve ever seen,” he said.

And a soccer-styler to boot (if you’ll pardon the expression). In 1966, you see, “sidewinders” were still very much a novelty. There were only three in pro ball, all in the NFL — the two Gogolak brothers, Pete (Giants) and Charlie (Redskins), and Yepremian.

Traditionalists weren’t sure quite what to make of them. On one level, they were horrified that these Non-Football Players were trying to move in on the “foot” part of the game. Walker, after all, was a Pro Bowl linebacker, and other kickers, like the Browns’ Lou Groza, were former position players. The diminutive Yepremian, meanwhile, looked like he’d taken a wrong turn on the way to elf practice.

“No longer does the kicker have to be a heavy-duty performer who is part of the team,” The New York Times’ Arthur Daley lamented around that time. “He can be a man apart, and the only time he experiences rude contact is just before a roughing-the-kicker penalty.”

Then there was Yepremian’s unorthodox style, which made use of his instep rather than his toes. That took some getting used to, too. As the Oakland Tribune described it: “Garo uses only a skip and two short steps to get off his kicks. According to the laws of physics, his instep covers a greater area than the American toe kickers [enjoy] and helps boot the ball a greater distance. Also the whiplash of a sideway kick gives the leg greater speed.”

Or something like that.

Heck, these guys weren’t even Americans. Yepremian was from London . . . or Cyprus . . . or somewhere, and the Gogolaks had sneaked off to America amid the Hungarian Revolution. Indeed, it’s remarkable how the upheaval in Europe during and after World War II changed — in a huge way — the game of football. Fred Bednarski, believed to be the first college sidewinder — for Texas in 1957 — was a Polish refugee who’d spent some time in a Nazi labor camp. And Walt Doleschal, an early soccer-styler for Lafayette, was a displaced Czechoslovakian.

(That’s why, whenever somebody wonders why soccer isn’t a bigger deal in the U.S., I always say, “It is a big deal, a very big deal. It’s just been incorporated into football.”)

Once the sidewinders began infiltrating the sport, kicking became much less of a hit-or-miss proposition, especially from long distance. What was the success rate on field goals last season, 84 percent? (From 50 yards and beyond, it was 61.) Nowadays, anything inside the 40 is, in the fan’s mind, a veritable PAT. Best not miss too many of those.

Anyway, Lions coach Harry Gilmer was forward thinking enough to get Yepremian’s name on a contract before the rest of the league became aware of him. The Motor City also had something going for it that Atlanta might not have: an Armenian church Garo could go to. The newest Lion, then 22, hustled back to Indy to gather up his clothes, then rejoined the club in time to make the trip to Baltimore for the next game. Oops, almost forgot: He had to obtain a work permit before he could suit up.

At first, Yepremian just handled kickoffs; Walker did the rest of booting. Against the Colts, Garo knocked one into the end zone and the other to the 5-yard line. This, by the way, was a familiar arrangement for the Lions. In the ’50s they’d often split the job between a Short Guy (e.g. Bobby Layne) and a Long Guy (e.g. Jim Martin) — as had other teams. The ’63 Bears, in fact, won the title with Roger LeClerc (field goals) and Bob Jencks (extra points) sharing the duties.

Besides, Yepremian had enough to worry about that first week. Never mind the strange surroundings and the large, sweaty men looking askance at him, he didn’t even know how to put on his uniform. Shoulder pads were a total mystery to him, and he “had no idea whether the sweat socks went inside or outside the long stockings,” the Oakland paper said. He also had yet to receive any instruction in the fine art of tackling. If the returner comes your way, he was told, “try to get an angle — and then fall in front of him.”

Then things started happening in a hurry for Yepremian. In his second game, in San Francisco, Walker got ejected in the second quarter — one of the hazards of being an Actual Football Player — and Garo had to do it all. He didn’t exactly ace the test, making just one of four field goal tries, a 30-yarder, and going three for three on point-afters. But hey, at least he was on the scoreboard.

Three weeks later, when he got his next big chance, he was ready. Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame quarterback, had his problems that day, throwing five interceptions, and Yepremian was the main beneficiary. The Lions offense had trouble punching the ball in, so Gilmer kept sending him in to kick field goals — six in eight attempts. That broke the NFL record of five set 15 years earlier by Rams great Bob Waterfield. (Garo’s four three-pointers in one quarter, the second, were another mark.)

Detroit’s first 18 points in a 32-31 victory came on Yepremian boots of 33, 26, 15, 20, 28 and 32 yards. Granted, there weren’t any long ones, but the sports world was amazed nonetheless — amazed that this nobody from another hemisphere, this abbreviated kicker with a quirky technique, had hijacked an NFL game.

6 FG headline

Murray thought it was hysterical that Yepremian played for Detroit, an old-fashioned team that hit hard and partied harder. To him, the Lions were an unlikely franchise to steer pro football into the future. (Frankly, Jim shuddered to think of them behind the wheel of any moving vehicle.)

“They lead the league in airport fights, lawsuits, barroom brawls,” he wrote. “The team emblem should be a swizzle stick. Or a camel. They’re the thirstiest team in the game. The water boy carries olives.

“Other teams have a rugged line of defense. The Lions have a rugged line of defendants. Others have a team trainer on the bench. The Lions have a team bail bondsman. They spend half their time going over their plays and the other half going over their constitutional rights. . . .

“All of which is why — when they signed a native of the island of Cyprus to play for them — a lot of us thought they wanted him to stomp grapes.”

You can imagine how welcoming that Detroit locker room must have been to a Cypriot kicker of Armenian extraction who spoke four languages — none of which was Football. Veterans in that era were notoriously hard on rookies, and the Lions were among the league leaders in the hazing department. In his Yepremian appreciation a few days ago, Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote that Garo “was hung by his jersey on a locker’s hook by [Lions defensive] tackle Alex Karras.” If so, he got off easy.

Even after Yepremian set the record, the media struggled to get his name right. It wasn’t just the “Yepremian,” either. The very next week, the Baltimore Sun referred him as “Gary” Yepremian. (Those poor linotype operators. Decades of muscle memory must have made it awfully hard to override the “y” and type G-a-r-o.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 11.02.53 PM

A strong finish left Yepremian with 13 field goals in 22 tries, the sixth-best percentage in the two leagues (59.1). Not bad for a guy who began the year in England, almost ended up playing college ball that fall, didn’t go to an NFL training camp, wasn’t signed until Oct. 12 and, oh yeah, was new to the game.

It was another four seasons before Garo caught on with the Dolphins and went from being a curiosity to one of the top kickers in the league — and one of the most clutch. But it all began with the Lions in ’66, when he showed the disbelieving masses he could do a lot more than crush grapes. He also could crush footballs.

Source: pro-football-reference.comYepremian 6 FG photo

 

“The greatest O-line in NFL history”?

Because he’s too young to know better, La’el Collins got a little carried away at his first Dallas Cowboys press conference. He was ostensibly there to breathe a 305-pound sigh of relief after signing a 3-year, $1.65 million contract to join Jerry Jones’ ranch hands. After all, he’d projected as a first-round draft pick, but teams had passed on him because of concerns he might be a suspect in the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

Now that was behind him, and Collins was anxious to line up alongside tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, all Pro Bowlers. “This is going to be the greatest offensive line in NFL history,” the people-moving guard said. “Mark my words.”

Consider them marked, La’el — marked and mocked.

Hey, I’m all for rookie enthusiasm, but it’s a little early to be calling this Cowboys line the “greatest” anything, even the greatest in franchise history. Rick Gosselin did a nice job of pointing that out in a column last week. Gosselin also listed his Top 4 Offensive Lines of all time, and I can’t argue with any of his selections. “The 1962 Green Bay Packers, 1972 Miami Dolphins, 1973 Oakland Raiders and 1983 Washington Redskins all await [Collins and Co.’s] challenge,” he wrote.

I’d make it a fivesome, though, and add arguably the greatest O-line of all: the 1940 Bears.

Yeah, yeah, I know: 1940 is a long time ago. But four players from that line are in the Hall of Fame — left tackle Joe Stydahar, guards Danny Fortmann and George Musso and center Bulldog Turner. And the fifth, right tackle Lee Artoe, might be in Canton, too, if he hadn’t jumped to the rival All-America Conference after the war. Several teammates I talked to said Artoe was better than Stydahar (who, besides his playing feats, won a title as the coach of the ’51 Rams).

The '40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears are most remembered for their revolutionary T formation — the first modern offense — and, of course, for their 73-0 obliteration of the Redskins in the championship game. They also led the NFL in rushing yards that season (165.3 per game) and, when the T got rolling, averaged 50.3 points in their last three games, a ridiculous total for that era.

Granted, we’re talking about the single platoon days. (Translation: These guys aren’t in Canton just for their blocking. They played defense, too.) But they were, by any measure, a fabulous O-line — and a short-lived one, as it turned out. A year later Musso moved into a backup role, and the season after that the military summoned Stydahar and Artoe. Indeed, if the war hadn’t come along, the ’40s Bears likely would have won six or seven titles instead of “just” four — and would be thought of as the dynasty of all NFL dynasties.

Artoe and Turner, by the way, were rookies in 1940. (The others had been playing at least four years.) Lee once told me a funny story about that first season — specifically, about the apartment he rented with fellow rookie Ken Kavanaugh, a terrific receiver (and, after retiring, a longtime Giants assistant). It went like this:

“Ken and I had played in the College All-Star Game [in late August against the Packers, the previous year’s NFL champs]. Afterward we took the midnight train to Pittsburgh, where the Bears had a preseason game the next day. When we got back from that trip, the team just dropped us at Wrigley Field and turned us loose. Well, Ken and I didn’t know where the hell we were. So we walked a couple of blocks down the street, and there was this sign that said, ‘Chateau Hotel.’ It was a hotel of about 100 rooms. We went in, and they charged us $20 a month to live there — $10 each.

Chateau Hotel“We didn’t spend much time at the hotel. Halas kept you pretty busy. You woke up, had practice, had a little lunch, and in the afternoon you might get some time off or have some more practice. Then at night, starting at 7 o’clock, there’d be a chalk talk in the [Wrigley] field house. You’d watch movies of the previous game and stuff like that. After that, you’d go to bed.

“We’d come home at night, and the elevator was right close to the [hotel entrance]. So we’d just step in the elevator and go up to the second floor. This went on for about two or three months. [George] Halas never gave you a day off. You were so tired all the time, you couldn’t wait to hit the sack.

“We did go to functions occasionally, though, and at one of them we were talking to Wilfrid Smith [the Chicago Tribune sportswriter, who used to play in the NFL and still officiated games]. Wilfrid said, ‘Where are you living?’ and Ken and I said, ‘We’re over at the Chateau Hotel.’ And he started to laugh. “That’s one of the biggest whorehouses in Chicago!” he said. It was one of [Al] Capone’s old hotels. How were we to know? I mean, we lived there and everybody knew us, knew we played for the Bears, but we didn’t hang out in the lobby or anything. We did notice, though, that there were always a lot of girls around.”

Artoe, as I said, might have been the fifth member of the line to make the Hall if he’d stayed with the Bears. “He’d knock down anything that got in his way,” halfback Joe Maniaci said. ”He was rough. He was a 60-minute man. In my book, I’d say he was better than Stydahar. But he didn’t get the publicity Stydahar got. And when he went to the All-America Conference [and convinced several other Chicago players to go with him], everything he did was gone.”

It was an unusual collection of talent that Halas had assembled. Musso played without a helmet early in his career and got up to 300 pounds near the end, rare for those days. Fortmann went to medical school at the University of Chicago and later served as the Rams’ team doctor. Then there was Turner, “the smartest football player that ever lived,” according to Sid Luckman, the Bears’ legendary quarterback. “There was never a better all-around football player than Bulldog Turner.”

Another funny story:

“Bulldog snapped the ball back so hard that I [needed] major surgery on my wrist,” Luckman told me. “I used to give with the ball as best I could, but he put that ball in there like it was shot out of a cannon. Boom! The ball was gone, and he was gone.

“I pleaded with him. ‘Bulldog, please, I beg of you, don’t send that ball back so hard. I’ve had two operations. Could you slow it up a little bit?’ He tried to, but he couldn’t do it. It threw his timing off.

“So one time we’re at practice, and he was snapping that ball like he always did — boom, boom, boom! Finally, I knew what I had to do. I moved my hand away, and he snapped the ball right into his nuts. Oh, man! He was down on the ground for a while, but then he chased me for 25 minutes around that goddamn field. But from that time on, he didn’t snap the ball as hard.”

Now that was an offensive line, certainly as good — in its time — as any of Gosselin’s other nominees. Only the ’73 Raiders had as many Hall of Famers as the ’40 Bears (LT Art Shell, LG Gene Upshaw, C Jim Otto and RT Bob Brown). And let’s not forget, the ’62 Packers gave up 11 sacks against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s interesting that all these O-lines come from 1983 or earlier — interesting, but understandable. For most of NFL history, being a great line has meant, first and foremost, being able to run the ball, being able to impose your will on a defense. But with all the rule changes favoring passing, the running game has been devalued. It still has a place, mind you, it’s just different now. Clubs don’t pound away at defensive fronts anymore; they run, much of the time, out of more advantageous spread formations. The ability of a line to protect the quarterback has become as important as its ability to wedge block.

The ’40 Bears and the other famed lines ran the ball more than they threw it. A lot more. Not so with last year’s Cowboys (though they did have more rushes than passes). So if Collins’ bold prediction comes true, if the Dallas line does go on fame and fortune, it figures to be an updated version of A Line for the Ages, a new species. The thing is, teams have to worry about free agency now. Can Jones keep this group together long enough for it to reach those heights?

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Will the addition of guard La'el Collins take the Cowboys' O-line from very good to great?

Will the addition of guard La’el Collins take the Cowboys’ O-line from very good to great?

Lester Hayes’ incomparable 1980

We’re coming up on the 35th anniversary of one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL player. Was it as great as Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards in 1984, Peyton Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013 or J.J. Watt’s both-sides-of-the-ball ridiculousness last year? Well, it’s hard to compare one position to another, but put it this way: Nobody has come close to doing what Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes did in 1980 — not in the modern era, at least. And given the gap that exists between Hayes and The Rest, it’s possible nobody ever will.

Lester’s performance that season was truly off the charts — so far off that his record might be resistant to rule changes, a longer schedule and anything else that tends to make the past disappear. In 20 games that season, including the playoffs, he intercepted 18 passes . . . and had another four picks wiped out by penalties. It almost doesn’t seem possible.

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

Let me lay out the numbers for you, then I’ll get into the season itself. Hayes had a league-leading 13 interceptions in the regular season — one off Night Train Lane’s mark — and another five in Oakland’s four playoff games. His total of 18 is five more than anyone else has had since 1960. Five. (Before that, the seasons and playoffs were so much shorter that nobody really had a chance to pick off 18 passes.)

Here’s Hayes’ closest competition:

MOST INTERCEPTIONS IN A SEASON SINCE 1960 (PLAYOFFS INCLUDED)

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

*won title

Yes, Hayes played in more games than the other defensive backs, and yes, some of them — the DNA (Does Not Apply) guys — didn’t even make the playoffs. But them’s the breaks. Besides, his interceptions per game of 0.9 is the highest of the bunch. (Next: Glick, Krause, Paulson and Thomas ’74 at 0.86).

It’s worth noting, too, that the league-wide interception rate in 1980 was 4.6 percent. Last year it was 2.5 — and if the Competition Committee continues to favor the offense, it no doubt will decline even further. That’s just going to make it harder to pile up 18 picks in a season. (Another way to look at it: In 1980 there were 627 INTs in 13,705 pass attempts. In 2014 there were 450 in 17,879 — 177 fewer in 4,174 more attempts.)

Now that the cold, hard data has been dispensed with, why don’t we take Hayes’ historic season interception by interception? Lester was quite a character, even by the Raiders’ oddball standards — the kind of player Twitter was made for. (Or maybe not. There was no telling, after all, what might come out of his mouth.)

Hayes considered himself, for instance, more than just an all-pro corner. In his mind, he was “the only true Jedi in the National Football League” (which was only to be expected, I suppose, of a player who claimed to have seen The Empire Strikes Back 300 times).

To Lester, money was “deceased presidents,” as in: “If the president of Australia doubled my salary and I was not under contract to the Raiders, I’d be on the first flight across the International Dateline. . . . It’s [all about] the deceased presidents, baby. In 1995, when the cost of bread is $5 per loaf, how is one to procure his loaf of bread?”

At Texas A&M, where he’d played linebacker, they called him “Judge.” That, he explained, stemmed from “a statement I made before we played Texas. I said our defense was going to hold court on Earl Campbell. I sentenced him to 2 yards on 20 carries.” (Campbell finished with 20 on 18.)

In 1980 Hayes was judge, jury and executioner as far as NFL quarterbacks were concerned. If they threw a ball anywhere near him, it was likely to wind up in his stickum-coated mitts (in the days when the Crazy Glue-like stuff was legal). How his season went:

● Week 1 (beat Chiefs, 27-14): Intercepted a Steve Fuller pass, setting up a field goal that made it 24-7 in the fourth quarter.

● Week 2 (lost to Chargers in overtime, 30-24): Had one of the Raiders’ five INTs against Dan Fouts.

● Week 3 (beat Redskins, 24-21): In the fourth quarter, with Washington at the Oakland 21, he picked off Joe Theismann’s throw to halt a drive.

● Week 4 (lost to Bills, 24-7): Returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown, the Raiders’ only score. Victim: Joe Ferguson.

● Week 8 (beat Seahawks, 33-14): Had two INTs, both off Jim Zorn. The first led to a TD, the second to a field goal.

● Week 9 (beat Dolphins, 16-10): From the AP account: “Lester Hayes had one interception, and would have had another — on which he rambled 95 yards for an apparent TD — had the play not been called back by an Oakland offside penalty.” QB: Uncertain (either David Woodley or Don Strock).

● Week 10 (beat Bengals, 28-17): A one-INT day could have been a three-INT day if two more picks hadn’t been nullified by offside penalties. The one he did get came on the final play of the first half when Jack Thompson threw up a Hail Mary.

● Week 11 (beat Seahawks, 19-17): With 4:20 left, he intercepted a Zorn pass and returned it 19 yards to the Oakland 39. The Raiders then drove to the Seattle 10, where Chris Bahr booted a game-winning 28-yard field goal.

● Week 12 (lost to Eagles in Super Bowl preview, 10-7): Picked off a Ron Jaworski pass at some point, but the newspaper stories don’t say when. (Unfortunately, the league’s gamebook archives only go back to 1981, which is why I have to rely on newspapers.)

● Week 13 (beat Broncos, 9-3): Another end-of-the-first-half-Hail-Mary job, this time at the expense of Craig Morton.

● Week 15 (beat Broncos, 24-21): Had a second-quarter INT. (Matt Robinson threw it.) It was followed by a field goal that put Oakland ahead to stay, 10-7.

● Week 16 (beat Giants, 33-17): The New York Times: “Late in the second quarter, with the Giants trailing by two touchdowns, [Scott] Brunner overthrew a pass to [running back Billy] Taylor. It was intercepted by Lester Hayes, his 13th steal of the season, and returned 50 yards” — helping to put another three points on the board.

● Playoff Game 1 (beat Oilers, 27-7): Thanks, once again, to the wonders of YouTube, I was able to find video of all five of Hayes’ postseason picks. This is the first — in the end zone in the third quarter, when Oakland had a tenuous 10-7 lead.

And this is the second, near the end, with Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler — Lester’s former Raiders teammate — facing a third-and-18 at the Houston 2:

Touchdown — Hayes’ second of the season. He also had two sacks that day. Just so you know: No defensive back has had a two-interception/two-sack game since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Three linebackers have accomplished the feat, though – the Bengals’ James Francis (1992), the Dolphins’ Robert Jones (1998) and the Steelers’ Joey Porter (2002). That’s the kind of year it was for Lester.

● Playoff Game 2 (beat Browns, 14-12): Suckered Brian Sipe into two more INTs. Pick No. 1 came on a third-and-10 play from the Cleveland 48 midway through the first quarter:

Pick No. 2 was yet another a Hail Mary situation – just before halftime:

NBC analyst John Brodie made a classic comment during the replay: “A lot of fellas would be content to just bat it down. Not Lester. Put another skin on the wall.”

Exactly. Anything Hayes could get his hands on, he was going to catch. In that instance he was trying to keep the ball away from a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player (wideout Dave Logan), so who can blame him?

Amazingly — given all his interceptions — Lester didn’t have the most memorable INT in that game. The Raiders’ strong safety, Mike Davis, did, picking off a Brian Sipe pass in the end zone in the final minute to preserve the victory. The Browns were at the Oakland 13, in chip-shot field goal range, when Sipe tried to hit tight end Ozzie Newsome . . . and connected with Davis instead:

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

● Playoff Game 3 (beat Chargers, 34-27): Much of the talk before the AFC title game was about the matchup between Hayes and John Jefferson — all-pro corner vs. all-pro receiver. And sure enough, in the early going at the Oakland 14, Fouts wanted to go to Jefferson, who had lined up in the right slot. But JJ slipped, which resulted in Lester’s 18th and last interception of the season:

Hayes never had another year like 1980. Nobody has another year like that. In fact, he never had more than four interceptions in any of his final six seasons, though he continued to make Pro Bowls. Whether this had anything to do with the banning of stickum in ’81 is an open question. He used it, uh, liberally (as the photo at the bottom shows).

Still, he had some nice moments after that, including this one during the Raiders’ 1983 playoff run:

Before the Super Bowl against the Redskins, he said (in typical Lesterese): “As long as I procure those 72,000 deceased presidents on my birthday [Jan. 22 — the date of the game], that’s all I care about. It’s my destiny to spend my birthday intercepting three passes and scoring three touchdowns, a feat no other defensive back has ever done. I will do a 360-degree reverse slam dunk [over the crossbar] after each TD. It’s inevitable.”

Alas, he fell three interceptions, three touchdowns and three 360-degree reverse slam dunks short, but no matter. The Raiders won anyway, 38-9. Besides, he’ll always have 1980. And when I say “always,” I’m pretty sure I mean always. Who’s ever going to have more 18 interceptions in a season?

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

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

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.

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.

Rejected rule changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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