Tag Archives: sportswriters

When SI’s Super Bowl prediction was only off by 52 points

Predicting the final score of the Super Bowl is an invitation to make a fool of yourself. Every year, though, media folk — and even more non-media folk — give it a shot, just for “fun.”

The greatest of all NFL title game predictions is the one John Steadman made in the Baltimore News-Post before the sudden-death classic between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants in 1958. Steadman thought long and hard about it, may even have availed himself of a palm reader, and somehow came up with 23-17 — right on the money.

(What’s overlooked about this story is that 23-17 was, at the time, a very unusual score. There had been only four 23-17 games in NFL history before the Sudden Death Game — the first, interestingly enough, being the Packers-Giants championship game in 1938.)

At the opposite end from Steadman’s is the pick Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule made a decade later when the Colts met the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. This, too turned out to be a historic game, because the Jets, 17-point underdogs, upset the Colts, 16-7, to give the AFL its first win over the established NFL. Anyway, Maule, SI’s pro football writer, miscalculated by just a shade. He had the Colts winning, 43-0.

But, hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a story that ran in the Oakland Tribune the week of the game:

MIAMI — Among Super Bowl writers, it’s Baltimore Colts, 49-6, with a lot of coward’s abstentions.

There are a record 367 credentialed working pressmen here covering the [Super Bowl], but a poll finds only 49 picking the Colts and a slim six writers going for the New York Jets. . . . Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated showed his NFL affection with a 43-0 Baltimore pick.

The results of the unscientific poll were no great surprise. The Colts had suffered only one loss all season, to the Browns, and had avenged it in the NFL title game with a blowout 34-0 victory at Cleveland. The Jets, meanwhile, had gone 11-3 in a supposedly inferior league and had barely gotten past the Raiders in the championship game.

But 43-0? The scores of the first two Super Bowls had been 35-10 (Packers over Chiefs) and 33-14 (Packers over Raiders). How on earth did Maule come up with 43-0?

Well, to be blunt about it, Tex was an NFL loyalist whose attachment to the league sometimes clouded his vision. A writer like that would have a hard time functioning today. He’d be crucified on sports talk shows, burned at the stake on Twitter and have his face ripped off on Facebook. But the world was a much different place in January 1969.

Before Maule went to work for SI, you see, he’d been a publicist for not one but two NFL teams. He was an assistant with the Rams from 1949 to ’51 . . .

1951 Rams co-Texes . . . and he was the head guy for the Dallas Texans in 1952 (after which they folded and the franchise moved to Baltimore).

Maule '52 TexansBy the way, did you notice the name above Maule’s in the Rams directory? None other than Tex Schramm, who helped turn the Cowboys into “America’s Team” in the ’60s and ’70s. Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times thought the Schramm-Maule duo was so hysterical that he’d go around telling people the Rams were the only club in the league with co-Texes.

(It was all so cozy back then. Consider: When Schramm left his sportswriting job at the Austin American in the late ’40s to work for the Rams, it was Maule who replaced him. A couple of years later, Schramm needed help in the PR department and, you guessed it, brought Maule out to L.A. Then Maule returned to Texas to take the job with the Texans, and who did Schramm fill the position with? University of San Francisco SID — and future NFL commissioner — Pete Rozelle.)

But returning to Maule . . . his love for the NFL knew few bounds. And loving the NFL meant looking down on the scrappy, rival league that had sprung up to challenge it in the ’60s. In the issue of SI that was published before the Super Bowl, Tex laid out his worldview:

In evaluations of the two teams, most experts, for unfathomable reasons, have conceded the Jets an edge at quarterback. Both [the Jets’ Joe] Namath and [the Colts’ Earl] Morrall were selected Most Valuable in their leagues, but Namath certainly can claim no clear-cut superiority over Morrall. . . .

As usual, the AFL players base part of their hopes for victory on the rather tenuous claim that since football is a game of emotion, they will outemotion the NFL. But Las Vegas bookmakers, a group not known for emotional display, figure the Colts to be 17 points better than the Jets, which is probably conservative. . . .

Because the AFL had to compete with the NFL for the best of the college seniors during the first five years of its existence a kind of natural selection worked against the new league’s acquisition of players with the self-confidence and desire to excel against the best. . . . The rest of the AFL players in those formative years came over from the NFL. They were mostly athletes who preferred to switch rather than fight for their positions in the NFL.

This situation, of course, no longer applies. With the common draft of the last two years, the AFL is getting its share of the truly competitive, gung-ho athletes and it will soon achieve parity with the NFL. But that parity has not yet been reached, and the Colts should demonstrate this with an authority that may shock Jets fans.

To summarize: In the pre-Super Bowl years, the AFL was essentially populated by gutless losers who either signed with the league out of college because they “lacked the self-confidence and desire to excel against the best” or fled the NFL because the competition was too tough. Maule couldn’t even look at the two quarterbacks — Namath, a future Hall of Famer with a cannon arm, and Morrall, a 34-year-old journeyman who was 30-32-2 as a starter going into that season — and admit, yeah, the Jets might have the advantage there.

And SI actually printed this propaganda. Amazing, huh?

SI SB3 coverYou already know how it turned out. Morrall did the “unfathomable,” throwing three interceptions and getting badly outplayed by Namath. Indeed, the Colts might have been shut out if aging, ailing Johnny Unitas hadn’t came off the bench to drive them to a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Maule’s post-game piece was more complimentary of Namath and the Jets, but you could picture him typing the words with clenched teeth. “Broadway Joe is the folk hero of the new generation,” he began. “He is long hair, a Fu Manchu mustache worth $10,000 to shave off, swinging nights in the live spots of the big city, the dream lover of the stewardi — all that spells insouciant youth in the Jet Age.”

Toward the end there was this: “So the era of John Unitas ended and the day of Broadway Joe and the mod quarterback began. John is crew cut and quiet and Joe has long hair and a big mouth, but haircuts and gab obviously have nothing to do with the efficiency of quarterbacks.”

It was as if, in Tex’s eyes, the final scoreboard read: Hippies 43, Establishment 0.

Red Smith’s strange ideas about football

Though he was born and raised in Green Bay — about a mile from where Curly Lambeau lived for a while — Red Smith wasn’t what you’d call a Football Guy. The famed sportswriter grew up, after all, in a baseball world. It wasn’t until the early ’70s, when he was almost 70, that the NFL became No. 1 in America’s heart.

Maybe that explains the cockamamie notions he floated in a 1958 column for the New York Herald Tribune. He attributed the first to a reader, one Robert L. Talbot of Summit, N.J., who claimed to be a “spokesman of a group of fans.” Talbot wrote:

“Whenever a team is behind by more than seven points it should be entitled to receive the kickoff regardless of which team has scored. [Say a] team that has been behind, 30 to 13, makes the score 30 to 20. This team still trails by seven points and so is entitled to receive the next kickoff.

“Another touchdown would make the score 30 to 27. With only a three-point difference, present rules would apply and the team scored against would elect to receive. We believe this would sustain interest at a higher pitch right up to the end.”

College all-star games used to have a rule like that, in case the score got too one-sided. (Perhaps they still do. I stopped watching them years ago.) Anyway, this Talbot fellow wanted to turn pro football into the North-South game — and Red was all for it!

“[T]his is no reckless, half-baked device to louse up established practice and open the gate for wild scoring,” he wrote. “The privilege of receiving the kickoff is no guarantee that a score will result, and there is a safety factor in the provision requiring an eight-point difference in scores (or a nine-point difference in college, probably) before the old order changeth. . . .

“The feeling here is that Mr. Talbot’s proposal is worth a trial. Chances are it would have little effect on the outcome of games. Certainly it would never enable a poor team to beat a good team. Yet if it helped at all to narrow the point spread between poorly matched teams, if it kept alive the possibility of a laggard catching up, it would serve its purpose.”

I’m just gonna let that argument speak for itself — and move on to Red’s second bout of temporary insanity: eliminating the clock and having games limited to a proscribed number of plays. His logic:

There is no good reason why a football game should end after 60 minutes of timed action and inaction. A championship fight goes 15 rounds. A golf match is 18 or 36 holes. Some games like soccer or hockey or basketball or polo must be clocked because there’s no other way of measuring them.

This isn’t so of football. On five minutes’ notice, statisticians could come up with figures showing how many plays a pair of live teams ought to run in any game or in any quarter of a game. There is no reason at all why a game couldn’t be measured by so many plays a quarter, rather than so many minutes.

There would then be no more of this nonsense about stopping the clock or running out the clock. Then the dial over the scoreboard would show not how much time remained but how many plays remained. Strategy wouldn’t change much, but a lot of sharp practice would be eliminated.

Yes, Red, let’s make football more like baseball, The Game That Has No Clock. All I can say is, it must have been one heck of a slow day in the Herald Trib sports department.

I don’t want anyone thinking I hold Red in low esteem. On the contrary, almost an entire bookshelf in my study is taken up with his collections. I just found this particular column hysterical. He did plenty of terrific football writing, too, like this passage on the Ice Bowl between the Packers and Cowboys:

It was the coldest Dec. 31 in the Green Bay records – 13 below zero at kickoff with a perishing wind carrying misery out of the northwest at 15 miles an hour. In spite of the 14 miles of electric heating cable under the turf, Lambeau Field froze, though not too hard for cleats. On the sidelines, players huddled under canvas hogans warmed by electric heaters, but out on the field there was no mercy.

No penguin is Bart Starr, of Montgomery, Ala. Fleeing from the rush of [Willie] Townes and [George] Andrie, he was harried back to his 7-yard line, where Townes jarred the ball out of his stiffened fingers. Andrie scooped it up and the score was 14-7.

No polar bear is Willie Wood. On a Dallas punt, he fumbled a fair catch and the Cowboys’ Phil Clark recovered on the Green Bay 17 [which led to a field goal].

Another of his dispatches on the game carried this dateline:

GREEN BAY, Wis. (BY SLED DOG) –

Finally, here he is in 1965 on the violence issue — specifically as it pertained to quarterbacks:

The mug shots of all professional quarterbacks should be displayed in the post office under the caption: “Wanted — Dead or Alive.” If John Dillinger were around today, he would be wearing jersey No. 19 like Johnny Unitas or 15 like . . . Bart Starr or 12 like Charley Johnson.

It isn’t pro football any longer. The name of the game now is get the quarterback. If [commissioner] Pete Rozelle had J. Edgar Hoover’s job, there would be 14 names — one from each team in the National [Football] League — on the FBI’s list of the 10 most wanted criminals.

It is shocking, but it is legal under the rules and probably nothing can be done about it without emasculating the game. . . . The pros have come as close as sweaty ingenuity can come to reducing an 11-man game to a game for two — the passer and the receiver. This makes the quarterback as important as the pitcher in baseball. It also makes him a prime target of ungentle monsters whose aim is to win and who know the shortest route to victory is straight over his cadaver.

Beautiful.

But pro football clearly wasn’t Red’s favorite sport — and he didn’t try to hide it. In 1960 he referred to it as “the high-scoring game of beanbag that masquerades as football in the pro leagues.”

Well, if that’s the way you feel about it . . .