The Bears exhume the Rochester Jeffersons

Any day’s a good day when the Rochester Jeffersons get resurrected. The Bears did that Sunday when they lost to the Packers, 55-14 — after getting pasted in their previous outing by the Patriots, 51-23. This made them the first team since the 1923 Jeffersons to give up 50 points in consecutive games. How’s that for an accomplishment?

There isn’t much to remember about the NFL’s Rochester franchise. Though a charter member of the league in 1920, it lasted only six seasons and didn’t win a game in its last four, going 0-21-2. The low point was those back-to-back shellackings in the first two games of ’23 – 60-0 to the Chicago Cardinals and 56-0 to the Rock Island (Ill.) Independents. The man who managed (and sometimes coached) the Jeffersons, a paint manufacturer named Leo Lyons, simply didn’t have the money or material to compete with most clubs.

There’s an interesting connection between the Bears and Jeffs, as they were called. Before George Halas hooked up with the Staley Starch Co. in Decatur, Ill., and launched the Bears (originally the Decatur Staleys), he inquired about playing for the Rochester team. As Lyons told The Associated Press in 1960: “He asked for $75 a game. I didn’t know anything about him, and besides, I had two good ends. The league rule was that no club could have more than 18 players.”

So George made history someplace else.

“It was rough going,” Lyons said. “I hung on until 1925, but I lost everything and had to go back to my business. In 1921 I wrote to John McGraw of the New York [baseball] Giants and Ed Barrow of the Yankees – both teams were using the Polo Grounds then – trying to interest them in transferring the Jeffs to New York. They replied that professional football would never be a success there, and they were going to stop college teams from using the Polo Grounds as the cleats tore up the turf.”

The Football Giants, of course, called the Polo Grounds home for years (1925-55) before moving to Yankee Stadium and later the Meadowlands.

Here’s the headline from The Davenport Democrat and Leader after Rock Island ran over Rochester:

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From the sound of things, the game was a lot like the one between the Bears and Packers. The Independents unleashed a dazzling passing attack and threw “the wind-filled bag” all over the lot (which was hardly the norm in those conservative days). Indeed, if they hadn’t eased up a bit and run the ball in the third quarter — which was scoreless — their point total might have been in the 70s. According to the newspaper story, “The Independents didn’t have to boot [punt] the ball during the entire game.”

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Lyons never lost his love for pro football, even if he did lose his house at one point trying to keep the Jeffersons afloat. In later years, the New York license plate on his car read: “NFL 1.” “Never in my wildest dreams did I think the game would grow to what it is today,” he said in 1972.

He probably wouldn’t have believed, either, that one Sunday in 2014, the club founded by an end who once asked him for a job would bring the Rochester Jeffersons back to life.