Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pillars of the NFL: Heidi Game

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is Weeb Ewbank  who coaches the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets.  He built up the Colts in the 1950s and brought Johnny Unitas and team to two NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959.  He took on the fledgling Jets in 1968 with Joe Namath and company and won another NFL Championship Brown in January 1969.  Ewbank was a team builder and greatly underestimated because he took poor teams and built them up.  This post comes from Pillars and tells the story of one of Ewbank's seasons. 

Heidi Game

The Jets played the Raiders on November 17, 1968, in a game that would later be called the “Heidi Game.”  It was another famous game in pro football history that featured a Weeb Ewbank team.  The game was famous for the last minute of the game that TV fans did not get a chance to see and for what they did get to see instead.  The Raiders featured household names in quarterback Daryle Lamonica, kicker and  backup quarterback George Blanda, halfback Pete Banaszak, wide receiver Fred Belitnikoff, and  tackle Art Shell.  Many of these players forever represent “Raiders football” to American fans.  Likewise, given the cast of players on the 1968 Jets, any Jets-Raider contest that year was likely to be memorable.  

Daryle Lamonica hit Warren Wells for a Raiders’ touchdown and the Jets’ Jim Turner kicked two field goals in the first quarter making the score: Raiders 7–Jets 6.  Billy Cannon caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Lamonica and Joe Namath rushed one in from the one in the second quarter.  After the Jets missed a two-point conversion, the score stood at 14–12 in favor of the Raiders at the half.  In the third quarter, Jets’ Bill Mathis rushed one in from the 4-yard line for a touchdown.  Weeb Ewbank opted to kick the extra point rather than risk another missed two point conversion.  When the Raiders’ Charlie Smith rushed for a touchdown from the 3-yard line, the Raiders made a statement with a two point conversion to give them a 22–19 lead.  In the fourth quarter, Namath connected with Maynard on a 50-yard scoring play.  When Turner followed with a field goal, the Jets were ahead 29–22.  Lamonica responded with a touchdown toss to Belitnikoff, but Turner hit another field goal to maintain the lead for New York, 32–29 with a minute and change to go.  It was at this time that network television opted to end coverage of the game and go to the regularly scheduled program, which in this case was the movie “Heidi.”  

While viewers were frustrated, and perhaps most thinking that the Jets had come away with a victory, the Raiders’ Charlie Smith caught a Daryle Lamonica pass to give the Raiders the lead with seconds left.  Amazingly, the Raiders scored again when the ensuing kickoff was fumbled, recovered by the Raiders’ Preston Ridlehuber at the 2-yard line, and run in for the score.  Oddly enough, the Raiders won a very tight game, but by a convincing 43–32 margin.  

The Jets won their last four games of the season by wide margins.  The last minute loss to the Raiders in the Heidi Game was a good exercise leading up to the Conference Championship match with Oakland.  

 See "The Day Dick Butkus Caught a Bobby Douglass Pass for the Win."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pillars of the NFL: The Baltimore Colts' 1958 Season and the Greatest Game

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is Weeb Ewbank  who coaches the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets.  He built up the Colts in the 1950s and brought Johnny Unitas and team to two NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959.  He took on the fledgling Jets in 1968 with Joe Namath and company and won another NFL Championship Brown in January 1969.  Ewbank was a team builder and greatly underestimated because he took poor teams and built them up.  This post comes from Pillars and tells the story of one of Ewbank's seasons. 


1958 Season
The Baltimore Colts whipped the Lions, Packers, and Bears twice in 1958.  Their 56–0 slaughter of the Green Bay Packers likely had something to do with the Packers’ Board seeking out a new coach after the season.  They “settled on” Vincent Lombardi.  

Ewbank’s team would often reflect his calm, steadfast confidence.  The Colts won Western Conference with two games remaining.  After losing the last two games of the season to the Rams and the 49ers, the Colts ended the regular season with a 9–3 mark.  They scored 381 points and allowed 203.  

1958 NFL Championship Game Background
The Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants for the NFL Championship on December 28, 1958 in Yankee Stadium in front of 70,000 fans with 40 million TV viewers.  The Colts did not seem anxious.  Nor were they affected by the millions that would view the game on television.    

For many growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Unitas would come to be the archetype for the quarterback.  With his clean cut looks and brush cut hairstyle, he would also be the face of football.  After his father died when Unitas was a boy, Johnny U. helped support his family by working before and after school.  He went to church regularly.  He toughed-out injuries.  He practiced harder than most players.  He commanded attention in the huddle.   He gave the game everything he had.  He wanted to win them all.  Personal honor and glory took a back seat to his team’s accomplishments.  Even his Lithuanian family name, “Janaitis,” had been hammered out in translation to “Unitas” many years before as if to fit the destiny of an “All-American” quarterback of the era.  
 

The Giants had won the championship in 1956 and had a cadre of excellent players who would challenge Unitas and the Colts.  New York included the superb Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Rosey Brown, Andy Robustelli, and Emlen Tunnell.  Gifford was a versatile receiver, rusher, and defensive back.  Middle linebacker Sam Huff was a force in the Giants’ defense.  He loved to play tough and stuff the best running backs in the NFL.  Tackle Rosey Brown was a big man whose quickness gave opposing teams fits.  Tunnell was in the later part of his career in 1958, but he was a talented defensive back and punt returner who was known as an “offense on defense.”
The Giants were directed by Jim Lee Howell who took over as head coach in 1954.  Howell was a good head coach with two great assistants: offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry.  

At quarterback, the Giants had one of the best, Charlie Conerly from Ole Miss.  Conerly started out at Ole Miss in 1941; he went into the Marines and fought in the Pacific in World War II; and returned to Ole Miss afterward and graduated in 1948.   He was a 27-year old rookie when he began his pro career in the days before facemasks and he would play into the modern era of television.  Conerly took a beating on some Giants’ teams that offered him little protection.  Enough was enough and after the 1953 season, he went back to his home in Clarksville, Mississippi, to farm.  When Howell was made head coach, he went down to Clarksville and talked Conerly into returning.  Howell and his assistants got to work and created a team that could protect their quarterback.  Conerly would lead the Giants to the NFL Championship in 1956 and to the Championship game again in 1958 and 1959.  He played sparingly in the Giants’ 1961 season, his last.  

Although Conerly was clearly the number-one quarterback for the Giants, Howell always started Don Heinrich for the first offensive series of each game.  Ostensibly, this was done so that Conerly would have the opportunity to view the defense before going into the game. 
 
When Conerly and the Giants had beaten the Colts in the regular season, Conerly wrote that his team “outgutted” the opposition.    It was a sentiment that a hundred newspaper writers may have had after such a game, but because it came from Conerly, Ewbank used it to rile his players in the days leading up to the championship.  Unitas had not played in the Giants’ 24–21 victory that inspired Conerly’s words.

The Giants knew something about guts; they had to defeat an excellent Cleveland Browns team in the last game of the season and then beat them again in a divisional playoff game.  The Giants featured a well-balanced offense and a tough defense that could grind out wins on other team’s mistakes.  They shut out the Browns, 10–0, in the divisional playoff game to get to the championship game against the Colts.  

The Colts won the West Conference outright just ahead of the Bears and the Rams.  Ewbank’s team had a high octane offense that averaged over 30 points a game. 

The Greatest Game
The 1958 NFL Championship Game would come to be known as “the Greatest Game.”  It was a seminal contest of two of the best NFL teams ever assembled and it delivered incredible drama to an expectant, bourgeoning TV audience.  

After several miscues on the first series, Unitas drove the Colts down to the 25-yard line on the strength of a long pass to Moore.  The Giants’ defense stalled the drive.  Kicker Steve Myhra attempted a modest field goal, but the Giants’ defensive standout, Sam Huff, charged in and blocked the kick.  When the Giants got the ball, quarterback Conerly immediately connected with Triplett.  Frank Gifford moved the ball down into Colts’ territory on a long run.  When the Giants’ drive stalled, Pat Summerall kicked a 36-yard field goal.  

In the second quarter, Gifford fumbled and the Colts’ jumbo-sized tackle, Big Daddy Lipscomb, recovered the ball on the Giants’ 20-yard line.  After a series of hard-fought short gains, Alan Ameche was able to score from the 2-yard line and the Colts took the lead, 7–3.  Unitas led another scoring drive that featured mostly running plays, but he hit pay dirt with a toss to his top receiver and fellow-perfectionist, Raymond Berry.  As the half wound down with the Colts leading 14–3, Huff tackled Berry out of bounds right near Ewbank.  The Colts’ coach did not like it.  Words were exchanged and the short stout coach was said to take a swing at Huff who was one of the toughest men in the league.  In Ewbank’s Goal to Go book, he writes that he pushed Huff rather than hit him.  Regardless of what exactly happened between the two, there were plenty of players and coaches to keep the David and Goliath apart, and the half ended with all parties still in one piece.  Commissioner Bert Bell did not levy any fines over the play.  

The second half began with a Colts’ drive that brought them to the 3-yard line. Four attempts to score failed.  The goal-line stand invigorated the Giants.  On a Giants’ drive, Conerly threw a bomb to Kyle Rote who lost possession of the ball when he was tackled at the Colts’ 25-yard line, but his teammate Alex Webster picked it up and carried it all the way to the 1-yard line.  After Triplett scored on a 1-yard plunge, it was Colts 14–Giants 10.  

The Giants came at the Colts again in the fourth quarter.  A strike from Conerly to Bob Schnelker took the ball down to the Colts’ 15-yard line.  A toss to Gifford gave the Giants another score and after the extra point, the Giants led, 17–14.  

The Colts did not give up, but they did not have much success either—at least for a while.  They missed a field goal.  They took over on a fumble only to have another drive stall on the Giants’ 27-yard line.  New York had the ball and a 3-point lead with less than three minutes to go.  Gifford was stopped a yard shy on a third-and-three play that could have iced the game if it had resulted in a first down.  The Colts were back in business after a Giants’ punt from their marksman Chandler brought the ball down to the Colts 14-yard line with a few ticks more than two minutes to go.  Unitas managed the clock perfectly by throwing high-percentage passes to Berry that brought the ball down to the 13-yard line with seconds left on the clock.  It was just enough time for Myhra to kick a field goal to push the game into sudden death overtime.  

The Giants got the ball first in overtime and went three and out; they missed a first down by only inches.  Chandler pushed the Colts back to their 20-yard line with a perfect punt.  Unitas orchestrated a drive that was perfect football drama.  On almost every down, Unitas called a play that ran counter to what was expected.  Instead of a pass, the Giants’ defense faced a run around end or a draw play.  When possession would seem to call for the conservative play, Unitas threw it across the middle.  When the Colts were in short field goal range at the 9-yard line, Unitas surprised everyone including Ewbank when he threw another pass that brought the ball down to the 1-yard line.  Unitas gave the ball to his fullback Alan Ameche who ran in for the winning touchdown. The Colts won the “Greatest Game, 23–17.  

On some plays Unitas had gone against his coach’s wishes based on adjustments that the Giants made on the field that gave the Colts an opportunity.  That was OK with Ewbank.  Ewbank was honored as UPI NFL Coach of the Year for 1958.

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Pillars of the NFL: 1950 Cleveland Browns Season

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is Paul Brown who formed  the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati  bengals.  Brown coached Cleveland to four AAFC titles and three NFL titles.  Brown was an incredible organizer and was a successful coach on every level, high school, college, the pros and even military during the war.  He also was an early proponent of black athletes.  This post comes from Pillars and tells the story of one of Brown's seasons. 



Browns’ 1950 Season

The solid Browns’ defense got a big boost figuratively and literally when they acquired Len Ford in the disbursement draft. The disbursement draft was held in June to place the top players of the AAFC whose teams were not picked up by the NFL. Ford was a 6-foot-4, 245 pound end, who added extra muscle to the Browns’ defense. Brown would use the Hall of Famer as a defensive specialist. Ford would be one of the first pass rush specialists in professional football. 

The Browns’ first game was against the two-time defending league champion Philadelphia Eagles before a huge crowd of 71,237 in Philadelphia. The game was publicized as a true test of the former AAFC Browns against a solid NFL stalwart. The Browns convincingly beat the Eagles 35–10. The following week, the Browns hammered the Baltimore Colts, 31–0. Many teams had trouble defending against the Browns’ powerful offense. They crushed another former AAFC opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, 34–14, later in the year. They would go on to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 45–7, and the Washington Redskins, 45–21. 

The coach of the Eagles, Alfred Earle “Greasy” Neale, criticized the Browns as a passing-only team after their first meeting. Brown sought retribution by defeating the Eagles, 13–7, in their second meeting of the year without throwing a single pass.  The New York Giants were the one team that challenged the Browns. In fact, they beat the Browns 6–0 and 17–13 during the regular season. Three times was the charm for the Browns as they defeated the Giants 8–3 in the divisional playoff game.
The 1950 NFL Championship Game 

The Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams played the title game on Christmas Eve in front of 29,751 screaming fans at Municipal Stadium. The Rams had an awesome offense. They scored 466 points for an average of 38.8 per game; they passed for 3,709 yards for an average of 309 per game.   They featured two Hall of Fame receivers in Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. The Rams also featured two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, starter Bob Waterfield with Norm Van Brocklin in the wings. College football superstar, Glenn Davis, who had won both the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award while playing at Army, was the Rams leading rusher. 

The Browns would mix up their offensive plays to include pitchouts, short sideline passes, and a screen pass when needed. Graham would also run for good yardage when he scrambled away from the rush. A long pass had always been part of the Browns’ arsenal as well. 

Early in the game, Waterfield hit Davis on an 82-yard pass play for the first score. Graham used a number of intermediate passes and a forced scramble to bring the ball downfield in a hurry. A pass to Dub Jones gave the Browns their first touchdown and with the extra point, tied the game at 7–7. Hoerner scored for the Rams on a one-yard rush and with the extra point, the Rams took the lead at 14–7. In the second quarter, Dante Lavelli snagged a Graham pass for a 37-yard touchdown, but the Browns missed the point after. Lavelli scored on another reception at the beginning of the second half to put the Browns ahead 20–14. Hoerner scored again for the Rams on a 1-yard plunge. The extra point was successful. After a Motley fumble, Larry Brink took the ball in from 6 yards out. Another extra point and the Browns were behind by 8 points, 28–20.  After Warren Lahr intercepted a Rams’ pass, the Browns worked their way downfield and Graham hit Rex Bumgardner in the corner of the end zone for a score. 

With the Browns trailing 28–27, Graham fumbled and it looked like the game was over. But the Browns’ defense held and with a little under two minutes Cleveland took possession with one last chance to pull out a victory. Graham drove down the field with several precision sideline passes and a critical toss to Bumgardner that got the Browns down to the 19-yard line. A Graham quarterback keeper brought the ball a few yards forward  into the center of the field. All business and concentration, Lou “the Toe” Groza kicked a 16-yard field goal. The Rams’ Van Brocklin was given his chance at last minute heroics, but another Lahr interception ended the game with the score, Browns 30–Rams 28.  When the game ended, exuberant Cleveland fans flooded onto the field to congratulate the players.  Both goal posts were triumphantly taken down and carried off outside the stadium.

Quarterback Otto Graham touchdowns and passing yards dropped in 1950. Paul Brown was adjusting to the NFL, taking what he was given, and still winning. Marion Motley gained 810 yards on 140 carries. Dub Jones gained 384 yards on 83 carries and he had 31 receptions for 431 yards. Mac Speedie topped the club in receptions with 42 for 548 yards. Groza was 13-of-19 on field-goal tries and led the Browns in scoring with 74 points. The Browns had the second best defense in the league. Each Browns’ player received $1,113 for the championship win—about $10,600 in 2013 dollars.  After the championship game, Browns’ owner Mickey McBride said the Browns would “keep on building and winning.”  

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Pillars of the NFL: 1962 Green Bay Season

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is Vince Lombardi who coached the Green Bay Packers to five NFL Championships in the 1970s.  Lombardi was one of most gifted coaches who made his mark on NFL history. This post comes from Pillars and tells the story of one of Lombardi's season's. 

1962 Packers’ Season
Hornung had finished his active military duty and was available fulltime for the Packers’ 1962 season.  The Packers scored 415 points that season and only allowed 148 from their competitors.  The Packers’ first game was against their new neighbors to the West, the Minnesota Vikings.  It was the Vikings second season.  It was not much of a contest although the packed crowd of 38,669 in Green Bay was not complaining.  Hornung made the first four scores of the game with two touchdown runs and two field goals.  A Starr to Ron Kramer pass gave the Packers a 27–0 lead in the third quarter.  Hornung scored again, this time on a 37-yard touchdown run.  The “Golden Boy” was perfect on extra points for the day and scored 28 of the team’s 34 points.  The Vikings’ second-year man, Fran “the Scrambler” Tarkenton, hit Jerry Reichow for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to avoid the shutout.  The final score was Packers 34–Vikings 7.
The Packers’ defense mauled a good Cardinals’ offense in the second game of the season.  The Cardinals were held to just 16 yards rushing.  Taylor led the offense for the Packers with 122 yards rushing, but it was Paul Hornung doing most of the scoring again.  Hornung kicked a 13-yard field goal and had a 3-yard rush for the only scores in the first three quarters.  Max McGee caught a 19-yard touchdown pass in the last quarter and St. Louis was put to rest, 17–0.  Coach Wally Lemm of the Cardinals was impressed by the Packers’ balance and summed up his assessment of the team:
Great runners in Taylor and Hornung, excellent passing, at least five dangerous receivers, tremendous defense, outstanding kicking.
Taylor scored three times in a massacre of the Chicago Bears in week three.  He would not be the only one to see the end zone.  Pitts took it in from 26 yards out and Starr ran one in from 5 yards.  Starr also connected with Ron Kramer on a 54-yard pass play for another score.  To add insult to injury, in the last quarter, Herb Adderley intercepted a pass that he turned into a 50-yard touchdown play.  The final score was 49–0. Bears’ linebacker Bill George and elusive halfback Willie Gallimore were injured and unavailable.  
On October 7, the Lions gave the Packers trouble in the fourth game of the season played in Green Bay.  Hornung kicked a first quarter field goal, but the Lions pulled ahead on a 6-yard touchdown run by Dan Lewis.  Hornung came back in the third quarter with a 15-yard field goal and the Lions led, 7–6.  Just when things looked grim for the Packers, Herb Adderley intercepted a Milt Plum pass in the waning minutes of the game and ran it back 40 yards.  As the clock wound down, Hornung kicked a 21-yard field goal for the 9–7 win.
When Green Bay beat Minnesota again, the big story was not the 48–21 score, but the knee injury suffered by Paul Hornung.  Hornung was sidelined until the game against the Rams on December 2.  Without Hornung, the Packers managed to beat their next five opponents: the 49ers, Colts, Bears, Eagles and Colts again.  The Packers outscored their opponents 152–39.  In the second game with the Colts, Baltimore was leading 13–10 in the fourth quarter when Tom Moore, who was filling in for Paul Hornung, won the game for the Packers on a 23-yard touchdown run.
It would be the Lions who would break the Packers’ winning streak on Thanksgiving Day.  The Lions not only held the Packers scoreless for the first three quarters, but both the Lions’ offense and defense scored.  Quarterback Milt Plum tossed touchdown passes to Gail Cogdill for the first two Lions’ scores.  Then Bart Starr fumbled near his own goal and Sam Williams took it 6 yards for another Lions’ score.  Things got worse for the Packers when Roger Brown tackled Starr in the end zone for a safety and Milt Plum kicked a long 47-yard field goal.  The Lions were up 26–0 going into the fourth quarter.  The Packers came to life then.  First Bill Quinlan intercepted a Milt Plum pass and ran it in from the 4-yard line.  Quinlan fumbled the ball in the end zone, but Willie Davis made the recovery for the Packers’ first score.  Another Detroit fumble deep in its own territory gave the Packers the ball on the 14-yard line.  Taylor carried the ball in from the 4-yard line for the last score of the game.  Despite the late game comeback by the Packers, the Lions prevailed, 26–14.  
Once again, Lombardi turned his team right around from a loss.  First, Green Bay beat the Rams, 41–10, and then beat the 49ers, 31–21.  They finished out the regular season with a 20–17 win against the Rams. The Packers faced the Giants in the NFL Championship game.
1962 Championship Game
After the crushing 37–0 loss the Giants experienced at the hands of the Packers in the 1961 Championship game, Coach Allie Sherman was looking for a better team performance on December 30, 1962, in a cold and windy Yankee Stadium.  The Giants’ Y.A.  Tittle had a seven-touchdown passing day that season and he was aided by the return of Frank Gifford.  Gifford had a lot of mileage in his 9 years as a halfback.  He took a year off and returned to play flanker.  Gifford’s presence at his new position helped Tittle accumulate a whopping 3,446 passing yards.  The Giants also had 1,698 rushing yards.  The Packers were much better balanced on offense than the Giants with 2,621 passing yards and 2,460 rushing yards.  Hornung had a sore knee in midseason and Jerry Kramer took over the field goal kicking duties for the Packers.  
The blustery weather favored the rush that day and the bruising fullback Taylor.  Both sides found it difficult to score facing both inclement weather and inhospitable defenses.  The field was rock hard.  The winds gusted up to 40 miles per hour.  The temperature dropped to 18°.  It was a beautiful day for a football game!  About 65,000 fans were in attendance, a few thousand more than the population of Green Bay at the time.
The Packers drove downfield on their first possession with Jim Taylor grabbing up most of the tough yards.  When the drive stalled, Jerry Kramer delivered a 26-yard field goal.  Responding to the challenge, the Giants drove the ball down to the Packers’ 16 with a good mix of runs and passes.  Tittle looked sharp, but his arm was whacked by Nitschke while throwing and the resultant wounded-duck pass was intercepted by Dan Currie, killing a promising Giants’ drive.  
Two of the game’s top competitors, Sam Huff, the Giants’ great middle linebacker, and Jim Taylor, the Packers’ rugged fullback, went toe-to-toe on several plays during the game.  Huff always had an extra whack for Taylor on each tackle and Taylor, who was known to take any impediment of his progress personally, was riled up.  When Phil King of the Giants fumbled on the Giants’ 38 and Green Bay recovered, the Packers were poised to make the most of it.  Hornung threw a halfback option pass to Boyd Dowler who ran to the Giants’ 7-yard line.  Taylor took the ball right up the gut through Huff’s turf and into the end zone for a score.  The Packers led, 10–0.
In the second half, the Giants’ offense stalled, but the defense scored a touchdown when Jim Collier recovered a blocked punt in the end zone.  Jerry Kramer kicked his second field goal from 29 yards out and then his third field goal from 30 yards out late in the game.  Green Bay won 16–7.  Lombardi’s Packers had their second championship.

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

 See "The Day Dick Butkus Caught a Bobby Douglass Pass for the Win."