Friday, February 21, 2020

Remembering Football Historian Richard Whittingham

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Richard Whittingham, football author-historian, 1984 
OTD fifteen years ago, in 2005, well-known football historian-author, Richard Whittingham passed away of a heart attack at his home in Wilmette, Illinois. He was 66 years old. Growing up in Ohio, Whittingham was one of my first football writing heroes. Over his lengthy career he wrote over 30 books, mostly about pro football. I was around 15 years old when I read his book, What a Game They Played: Stories of the early days of pro football by those who were there, for the first time.
What A Game They Played, Harper & Row, 1984
Published in 1984 by Harper & Row, What a Game They Played featured 18 interviews (taped on audio cassette by Whittingham) with former players (and one owner) that revealed stories of the NFL’s pioneering days of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Whittingham interviewed a who’s who of the early days of the NFL. His chapters included conversations with thirteen Hall of Famers: Red Grange, Don Hutson, Johnny Blood, Mel Hein, Red Badgro, Clarke Hinkle, Sammy Baugh, Ace Parker, Alex Wojciechowicz, Sid Luckman, Tony Canadeo, Bill Dudley and Giants owner Wellington Mara.

The remaining chapters were filled with stories from borderline Hall of Fame candidates, including Joey Sternaman, Glenn Presnell, John “Shipwreck” Kelly, Harry Newman and Jim Benton. What a Game They Played was 235-pages in length, had 29 photos, and each chapter had a short bio and an average of 5-11 pages in length. At the end of each interview was a colorful anecdote.

Over the past 30 years I’ve read and re-read What a Game They Played more times than I can count. It’s one of the few books I keep next to me while I write. Actually, it was my inspiration when I started writing about football. My first book, Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935, was an homage to Whittingham’s work.

I’ve listened to Whittingham’s tapes of his interviews for What A Game They Played and you can just hear the history coming through the voices of some of the NFL’s greatest pioneers. The book that came from these interviews is one of the best football books ever written. Sports Illustrated in 1984 wrote: “Anybody who skips Richard Whittingham’s What a Game They Played…just about has to be un-American…Whittingham turned on the tape recorder…and the result is pure pleasure.”

The ability to preserve the history of pro football with oral history wasn’t new, as The Game That Was (1970) by Myron Cope and Pro Football’s Rag Days (1969) by Bob Curran had been published over ten years earlier than Whittingham’s book. But just like those volumes of work, What a Game They Played continued on that legacy of preserving the early history of the NFL. Old stories re-told by the likes of Red Grange, Johnny Blood and Don Hutson was mixed in with fresh new interviews with Ace Parker, Joey Sternaman, Glenn Presnell, Jim Benton and the colorful John “Shipwreck” Kelly.

As a young fan of the NFL reading these early stories brought me close to the game’s early years. It gave me a front seat of the era in which the NFL was founded and was played on dirt fields by players who played both offense and defense for just a few bucks. I loved reading What a Game They Played in 1984 and I continue to love reading it in 2020. I thank Richard Whittingham for that.

Richard Whittingham was born in 1939 on the North Side of Chicago, growing up in Bears country. He attended Loyola University and quickly made a career as a freelance writer. Something he always dreamed about doing. “He always knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a writer from the first time I met him,” once said his long-time wife, Ellen.

A soft-spoken man, Whittingham was a voracious reader and a passionate writer. We interviewed him once in 1999 for nearly ninety minutes. His interview appeared in many NFL Films production that season and in future years. 
Whittingham, NFL Films interview, 1999 
I never really told him what his writing and research meant to me. But his influence is definitely felt in reading and learning about the early days of pro football and the NFL- as well as in my career and in my writing. I’ll remember him well and his legacy lives on in his many volumes on the NFL, its teams, and players.

Other books by Richard Whittingham that I highly recommend are:

Sunday Mayhem: A Celebration of Pro Football in America (1987)
Meat Market: The Inside Story of the NFL Draft (1992)

Illustrated Histories:
Chicago Bears (1979)
Dallas Cowboys (1984)
New York Giants (1987)
Washington Redskins (1990)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Going Out A Loser: Three Championship Coaches End Their Careers in Defeat

By Joe Zagorski

Every pro football coach wants to end their career in victory, and who can blame them?  Such an accomplishment would provide them with a great and lasting memory to celebrate as they transition to other occupations after leaving the game.  But all too often, victory in the final game during a winning season is a rarity.  Rarer still is achieving a win in a Super Bowl to end one’s career. In the 1970s, three head coaches would experience failure during their final seasons. At one time, however, Don McCafferty, Weeb Ewbank, and Hank Stram were on top of the pro football world, hoisting the Tiffany trophy that signifies a world’s championship. But their final seasons in the National Football League would each end with a losing record, as they walked off into their individual sunsets.
Don McCafferty’s story is probably the most bittersweet of this trio. He was a rookie head coach for the Baltimore Colts in 1970, taking over for Don Shula, who departed the state of Maryland to take charge of the youthful Miami Dolphins.  McCafferty’s timing could not have been luckier. In his rookie head coaching season, he led a mostly veteran team to the summit of the sport. The 1970 Colts were a poised and determined bunch of older pros, and they had one of the best defenses in the entire league that year, surrendering a mere 234 points, the second-best mark in the new American Football Conference (AFC). They also possessed Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall as quarterbacks, and several outstanding offensive weapons in wide receivers Eddie Hinton and Roy Jefferson, tight end John Mackey, and rookie running back Norm Bulaich. McCafferty’s team registered an impressive 11-2-1 record en route to Super Bowl V, where they came from behind to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, on rookie placekicker Jim O’Brien’s winning field goal in the final seconds.

But McCafferty’s luck would change during the next few years. True, there were still a good number of productive players suiting up for McCafferty at that time. The Colts would make the playoffs in 1971, and they even got as far as the AFC Championship Game.  But they could not solve a rolling Miami team, as the Dolphins defeated Baltimore in the Orange Bowl, 21-0. As a result, the Colts could not defend their Super Bowl title, and McCafferty could not stop the surge of bad luck that he was soon to be saddled with. The 1972 season would test Baltimore’s head coach in a way that even he did not see coming. The team had to face the fact that many of their players were getting older and slower, which is not a reassuring concept for any team. The Colts managed to win only five games, which was woefully inadequate for a team that was regularly expected to produce winning seasons after winning seasons.

Head coaches who tend to keep their older veteran players for an extended period of time for loyalty’s sake can often pay a detrimental price. McCafferty did so in a big way, as he refused to bench Unitas, despite Baltimore general manager Joe Thomas demanding that he do so following a 21-0 loss to Dallas in the fifth week of the season. McCafferty barely reached the Colts locker room following that defeat when Thomas met up with him outside of the team’s locker room and unceremoniously fired him.“This is a decision that had to be made for the good of the club,” said the blunt and brief Thomas about McCafferty’s firing.

Sometimes a change of scenery can lead to a change of fortunes, but not so in McCafferty’s case.  While it was true that he landed on his feet in Detroit the ensuing year, Unfortunately for him, his first year as a head coach in Detroit in 1973 did not amount to much, thanks to numerous injuries, and thanks to the fact that his players in the Motor City simply did not compare to the quality of players that he had in Baltimore back in 1970. The Lions earned a mediocre 6-7-1 record and were unable to beat any team with a winning record. Nevertheless, improvement seemed to be in store for the team in 1974.  Then came a final chapter, and I do mean final.  McCafferty’s 1973 season would be his last, as he tragically passed away just a couple of weeks before the start of the 1974 summer training camp.
The 1973 season would ironically also be Weeb Ewbank’s final year as a head coach in the NFL.  Ewbank won a pair of NFL Titles in 1958 and 1959 with the Baltimore Colts, and then in 1968, he led the American Football League’s New York Jets to what is still regarded by most pro football historians today as the greatest upset victory of all time. Ewbank’s Jets – featuring the brash (but spectacular) Joe Namath at quarterback – stunned the nation with a 16-7 triumph over the Colts in Super Bowl III, even though they were 17-point underdogs going into that game. With that win, Ewbank solidified his future enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which indeed did occur in 1978.

The 1969 Jets appeared to be a team that could avoid complacency long enough to return to the Super Bowl.  Ewbank did a good enough job to prepare them to achieve such a feat. They were lucky to stay healthy for the most part of the year, they had plenty of talent in all aspects of their offense and defense, and their roster remained intact and determined, as they won six straight games en route to a 10-4 record. But just like McCafferty’s 1971 Colts, Ewbank’s post-Super Bowl III Jets team could not repeat their championship performance from the previous year. The Jets lost in upsetting fashion in the playoffs to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, who parlayed the momentum from that victory to a 23-7 upset win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Ewbank’s Jets then endured several seasons of a multitude of injuries, including three years where the team was without the services of their offensive leader, Joe Namath, who had his throwing hand broken, then sustained a knee injury (one of several during his career), then got his shoulder separated. Without their franchise quarterback for most of 1970, 1971, and 1973, the writing was on the wall for Ewbank.  New York could accumulate a total of only 14 wins during those three seasons.  To reassert this point, a healthy Namath in 1972 could only produce a 7-7 record for the team in that year, even though Namath was named to the All-Pro team. Also by ’72, the vast majority of Jets who earned a world championship in 1968 were already retired.

Prior to the beginning of 1973, Ewbank made the announcement that he would stay on as New York’s head coach for one more year.  It was a brutal season, as the ’73 Jets could earn only four wins. By the time that November came around, New York could only muster two victories. They lost four games by the margin of a touchdown or less. Practically everything that could go wrong that year for Ewbank and his team did go wrong…and wrong, and wrong, and wrong some more.  Not only did Namath get injured early in the season, but so also did his backup signal-caller, Al Woodall. Ewbank thus had to rely on third-string rookie Bill Demory to quarterback his team for much of the year.  Frustration and inconsistency were the two most common features that the team exhibited during this time, and after 20 years of being a head coach in the pros, Ewbank was through.

Ewbank was present to observe some NFL history being made in his final game as a pro head coach, however. He stood from across the field that cold and snowy December 16 afternoon at Shea Stadium to watch O.J. Simpson of the Buffalo Bills complete his incredible 2,003-yard rushing effort in 1973…by running for 200 yards against his Jets defense.
Hank Stram and his Kansas City Chiefs made pro football history themselves in 1969 by upsetting the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, by a score of 23-7.  Up until 2019, that one season was undeniably the greatest in the team’s history.  It was also one of Stram’s greatest coaching efforts, as seven of the Chiefs’ 11 wins in 1969 were earned with a backup quarterback (rookie Mike Livingston) under center, due to the injuries sustained by veteran starter (and future Hall of Famer) Len Dawson. Hank Stram had to give Livingston a crash course in his multiple offense, which he was able to do with splendid results.  During this time, Stram also realized that his defense – which would eventually account for six Hall of Famers – was determined and motivated enough to not tinker with them all that much. Indeed, Kansas City’s defenders surrendered only 177 points in 1969, the second-lowest total in all of pro football that year.

But Stram’s team as a whole was quite similar to McCafferty’s Colts and Ewbank’s Jets, however, in the categories of post-championship complacency, and accumulated age all along his roster. Stram nevertheless continued in his role as head coach in Kansas City for five more seasons after earning a world championship, but he could only lead his team to the playoffs in one of those five years.
“The Chiefs are a descending team (by 1972),” admitted Chiefs historian Bob Moore. “They go off and rip off three wins in a row (at the end of the year). But this becomes a pattern for the Chiefs.  They end the season strong, and then everybody says ‘Oh, it’s going to be a good year (next year).  They just stumble along the way, and then we’ll be good again next year.’”

Such was not the case, unfortunately. Stram was usually able to build a competitive team, if for nothing else.  But for a team that had high expectations of success, a winning record from 1970 to 1973 was not enough for the man known as “The Mentor” to keep his job. Stram did some television color commentary work for CBS-TV immediately after leaving the Chiefs, and he was very good at it.  Then in 1976, he was hired to serve as the head coach for the New Orleans Saints, a team that had never known a winning season in its nine years of existence prior to Stram’s arrival.

Unfortunately for Stram, he could only last for two years in “The Big Easy.” The losses piled up quickly.  New Orleans only had a few players on their roster who might be considered quality players, and some of them were perpetually injured. As a result, the Saints won only four games in 1976 and three games in 1977. Hank Stram’s final season as a head coach in pro football (1977) saw him lose his final four games, the last of which was a 35-7 defeat at the hands of NFC West division rival Atlanta.  Stram’s previous exemplary efforts in the broadcast booth, however, reacquainted him with his friends and associates at CBS-TV in 1978.  Stram also worked with CBS Radio’s Jack Buck to broadcast Monday Night Football games following his years pacing the sidelines for the Chiefs and the Saints.

Like Weeb Ewbank, Hank Stram was also honored with a Hall of Fame bust, having been enshrined in 2003.

The unfortunate coaching climaxes for Don McCafferty, Weeb Ewbank, and Hank Stram are seldom remembered by football fans today.  It is much more preferable to recall the successes and the world championship seasons that each of these men enjoyed while coaching their teams.  If given the choice, every man who has been a head coach in the NFL would gladly trade losing their final game…for a Super Bowl ring.

Editor’s Note:
Joe Zagorski has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s.  He has written three books about pro football, including The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade; The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay’s 1972 Resurgence; and America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier.  He also edits the Facebook page The NFL in the 1970s.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Phil Villapiano—Caught in a Logjam

By John Turney
Sometimes a player can play in an era where there the talent is deep at his position. Such is the case for Phil Villapiano. He came into the NFL in 1971 out of Bowling Green as a linebacker with good speed but not a lot of upper-body strength (based on film study) but worked his way through that weakness and became a strong player at the point of attack.
He earned a starting spot as a rookie on the Raiders as a rookie and held it through 1979. He missed the 1977 season (most of it due to a knee injury). In 1971 he was All-Rookie (UPI) and totalled 107 tackles and picked off a pair of passes.

In 1978 he moved to the right side, allowing Ted Hendricks to move to his normal strong side (he'd been playing the right side for a few years since being acquired by the Raiders in 1975). So that year was an adjustment for Villapiano. The next season was another adjustment.

In 1979 he moved inside and fared well and was looking forward to 1980 but that was when he was traded to the Bills for Davis Humm and was a backup for them for a few years, providing leadership more than anything else, though he started four games in 1981.

Five-times he was First-or Second-team All-AFC and went to four Pro Bowls. However, those numbers would be higher but he was stuck behind names like Jack Ham and Ted Hendricks. And in the early 1970s, Bobby Bell was around and in the late 1970s Robert Brazile was making his mark.

And for All-Pro honors and All-Decade consideration (where both conferences are represented), there were names in the NFL like Chris Hanburger, Isiah Robertson, Matt Blair, Brad Van Pelt, and others. Yes, it was a good decade for outside linebackers in the NFL.

Through his starting days, Villapiano averaged over 100 tackles a year and a few sacks and close to 10 passes defense, spending much of his time taking on the top tight ends in the NFL as a strong-side 'backer.

Though he has little shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame with just two Second-team All-Pro selections, he does have an excellent shot at the Pro Football Researchers Hall of the Very Good someday, he's a worthy player who had a worthy career.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Jadeveon Clowney—Is He a 16/60 Player?

By John Turney
Without doubt, Jadeveon Clowney is an elite rusher, either from the edge or as a "joker" or "spinner" from the inside (a standing 3-technique if you will).

Pro Football Journal named him First-team All-Pro on 2016 and Second-team All-Pro in 2017 for not only his rush skills but his knack for nailing runners in the backfield for losses. We think he has the best swim move in the NFL, bar none. And his long arms help him stand off tackles until he sheds them to make a tackle in the run game.
Stf = run/pass stuffs, tackles for a loss, other than QB sacks
Our only question mark is his durability. Not his toughness, his ability to play 60 minutes for 16 games. Of course, no one goes 60 minutes, it's shorthand for playing almost all the snaps for all the games. And Clowney has only done that once in his six seasons. He's played 75 of a possible 96 games, starting 66 and played about 61% of his teams snaps in his career, When healthy (2016-18) he played about 82% of the snaps and was a dominant player in our view (and many others' view as well). But was it enough for the big-time money contract he is seeking?

Clearly, Jadeveon Clowney one of the top (if not the top) free agents available in the 2020 offseason and he's stated he wants to play for a contender.  He's just 27 so he presumably has at least say, four to six prime seasons left. But at how many games a year? Fourteen? Sixteen? Thirteen?

Unknown, of course. But we think a team would be wise to make sure they are covered with plenty of incentive clauses based on games played or snaps played in this case due to his penchant for being nicked. There have just been too many times when we wanted to watch him play and for whatever reason, he wasn't in the lineup.

We'll wait and see, but he will get top dollar, but we're curious to see the fine details when they come out to see if the performance incentives revolve more around playing time than tackles and sacks.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

1947 NFL Season in Review

By  Andy Piascik
 After surviving extremely difficult times during the Second World War, stability remained elusive for the National Football League in 1947 as it faced its most serious challenge from a competitor in the All-America Football Conference. The AAFC began play in 1946 with a successful debut season and it had teams in three cities – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – where it competed directly with NFL teams. Between competition in those cities for fans as well as competition for players that led to a rise in salaries, the NFL continued on shaky financial ground.

The league was clearly divided between haves and have-nots when the 1947 season began. The haves were the Bears, Packers, Giants, and Redskins while the have nots were everybody else. Those four teams had combined for 16 of 18 championships since 1929 and a total of 26 of the possible 28 Championship Game appearances since the title game’s inception in 1933.  

Among the have-nots, the Cardinals, Lions, and Rams had each won one championship, the Cardinals way back in 1925, while the Eagles, Steelers, and Yanks had never so much as appeared in a title game. However, the Steelers, Rams and especially the Cardinals and Eagles, were on the rise. By the end of the 1947 season, the era of dominance by the Bears, Packers, Giants, and Redskins would be at an end.

There were other changes in the NFL. The league increased its season from 11 games in 1946 to 12, where it would remain until 1961. Television was on its way to becoming a cultural staple and, while there were still only a small number of sets in the country compared to what was just around the corner, team owners grappled with how readily to make games available on the new medium.

Players continued to return from the military. That included both NFL veterans and collegians who had been drafted by both the NFL and the military and had gone straight from campus to the service. As a result, the number of available major league-quality players rose, though with the existence of the AAFC that talent was now spread between 18 major league teams. 

On the field, the single-platoon system was nearing its end as owners and coaches saw definite advantages to two platoons and looser substitution rules. An increase in passing and the possibilities of a more exciting, wide-open game directly related to the new thinking. Why risk exhaustion and injury to offensive stars like Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman by forcing them to play defense, too? The growing popularity of the T-formation and the pocket passer were also directly related to these changes. Other offensive alignments like the single wing, the A-formation and various offshoots of each were still in use but they were in decline and would essentially be gone from the NFL in six or seven years.  

There were also changes in grandstands around the league as 1947 was the third and, as it turned out, final year of a brief post-war attendance boom. Per game attendance was 30,624, down slightly from 1946 but still dramatically higher than the 20,393 average in 1944. The decline would be much sharper the next two years and attendance would not again reach the 1947 average, even though peace with the AAFC was achieved in 1950, until 1955.   
Kenny Washington
Finally, after re-integration in 1946, Kenny Washington was the only black player in the NFL in 1947 after Woody Strode left to play in Canada. Change would come at a deplorably glacial pace as the NFL lagged far behind the AAFC during the rest of that league’s brief existence, passing on or being outbid in 1947 for Buddy Young, John Brown and Horace Gillom, among others. Black players would become an increasing presence in the NFL each season thereafter, soon making up many of the league’s best players, but 1947 marked one last shameful step backwards.

A Record Smashing Season
Partly as a result of some of the changes mentioned above, many new individual, team and league records were set on offense in 1947. League-wide, new marks were set for most points, most total yards, most rushing yards and most passing yards, both in sheer numbers and on a per-game basis. The Bears and Redskins established new records for most total yards and most passing yards, respectively, both in absolute numbers and prorated per game. 

Individually, Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh set new records for most pass attempts, most completions and most passing yards, again in both absolute totals and prorated per game, and he also added to the many career records he already held. On the rushing side, Philadelphia’s Steve van Buren established new highs for most attempts and most yards, although only the yards were a record on a per-game basis.  

Windy City Battle in the West
For much of 1947, it looked like tradition would hold in the Western Division as the Bears ran off eight straight wins after losing their first two games to move into first place. Two recent NFL champs, the Packers (1944) and Rams (1945), began the season well with 4-1 and 3-1 starts, respectively, but each slumped badly at mid-season as their schedules became more difficult. Still, both teams showed flashes of their recent brilliance. The Rams overwhelmed the eventual champion Cardinals, 27-7, and also inflicted serious damage to the Bears (see below) while the Packers also defeated the Bears and won two games against the Rams.  

The second contender in the West besides the Bears was Chicago’s other team, the Cardinals, whose Dream Backfield powered the Cards to far and away their best season since 1925. (1) Originally made up of Pat Harder, Marshall Goldberg, Paul Christman and Elmer Angsman in 1946, the Dream Backfield in 1947 was slightly different with the addition of Charlie Trippi and the move of Goldberg to defense. The Cardinals defeated the Bears early and, at 7-3, were within striking distance of the first place 8-2 Bears as the season entered December, with an all-Chicago season finale looming. 

The Giants Fall and the Eagles and Steelers Rise
After winning the East in 1946, the eighth time they had done that in 14 seasons, the Giants fell precipitously to 2-8-2 and last place in 1947. While the Giants declined in pretty much every area, it was especially the case in their running game and their rush defense. The suspension of Frank Filchock, their leading rusher and passer the year before, was a significant loss. (2) New York was never a factor in the division race and didn’t so much as win its first game until November 30th.

There are a number of eerie parallels between the 1947 Giants and their 1964 team, right down to their final records of 2-8-2 and 2-10-2. Both played in the NFL title game the previous December, battling hard in both games against the Bears before succumbing. Both fell unexpectedly immediately after many years of success. And both remained in the wilderness for a prolonged time, at least as far as winning division or conference titles, though the Giants would bounce back sooner after the collapse of 1947 than their latter-day counterparts.

Two years removed from an Eastern Division title, the Redskins fell to 4-8 and fourth place. Their slide would be steeper and would last far longer than that of the Giants as Washington would not return to the playoffs until 1971 and would not win another championship until 1982. There were many factors for the long stretch of futility but one of note was the steadfast refusal of owner George Preston Marshall to hire black players until the federal government forced the issue in 1962. (3)   
The Eagles had been in contention in several recent seasons after years as a league doormat, posting records of 7-1-2 in 1944, 7-3 in 1945 and 6-5 in 1946. They were alive until their final game in ’44 and ’45, finishing a half-game and a game out, before sliding some in 1946. Behind Steve van Buren, tackle Al Wistert and rookie end Pete Pihos, Philadelphia finally captured the Eastern crown in 1947.
The team with which the Eagles battled in the East, the Steelers, had similarly been bottom-feeders most years since joining the NFL in 1933. Led by halfback Johnny Clement, who finished second in rushing yards to van Buren, the Steelers tied the Eagles for first with their best-ever record of 8-4. Unlike Philadelphia, however, Pittsburgh was a flash in the pan and would not make another playoff appearance for 25 years.

Although far removed from contention, the fourth-year Boston Yanks had their best season with a 4-7-1 record good for third place in the East. Among their victories were a road win in Los Angeles and a 21-14 victory over the Eagles. Perhaps of greater value to owner Ted Collins, who was dying to place his team in New York’s Yankee Stadium (something that would come to pass in 1949 though at great cost), was a first-ever win against the Giants. 
Games of Note

September 29th at Comiskey Park (51,123): Cardinals 31 Bears 7
It was an early-season “message” win for the 1-0 Cardinals as they announced themselves as a team to be reckoned with in a decisive victory over the 0-1 defending champions. The win in a game played before the largest crowd in Chicago pro football history to that point also gave the Cards a two-game lead after just two games. The Dream Backfield led the way as Charlie Trippi rushed for 91 yards and 7.0 a pop, Pat Harder scored a touchdown and kicked a field goal, and Paul Christman threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. In a game that was 7-7 at the half before the Cardinals pulled away, the Bears turned the ball over six times, a problem that would plague them all season. 
November 16th at Comiskey Park (40,086): Cardinals 21 Packers 20

With the streaking Bears hot on their heels and every game of vital importance in such a close race, the 6-1 Cardinals staged a dramatic rally from a 20-7 fourth-quarter deficit to nip the 4-3 Packers. Pat Harder scored for Chicago on a run and Paul Christman threw two touchdown passes to Mal Kutner, the second of which proved to be the winning score. Green Bay’s Ward Cuff missed a short field goal attempt with 30 seconds remaining.

November 30th at Shibe Park (39,814): Eagles 21 Steelers 0
The 7-3 Steelers entered the game with a half-game lead and a chance to all but put away the 6-3 Eagles before a record Philadelphia crowd for pro football, but the Eagles rose to the occasion and posted a decisive shutout victory. Pittsburgh did not exactly possess a strong offense even at full strength and they were without three of their starters including Johnny Clement. The loss might have been a fatal blow to the Steelers but the Eagles were handily defeated by the Cardinals the following week and the two Pennsylvania teams would meet in a playoff on December 21st to decide the East.     
December 7th at Wrigley Field (34,215): Rams 17 Bears 14
With a chance to clinch a tie in the West, the 8-2 Bears stumbled badly at home against the 4-6 Rams. Leading early by 14-0 and by 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Chicago was beaten when Red Hickey made a sensational grab of a Bob Waterfield pass for the winning touchdown. The Bears had a 480-318 edge in total yards but, as in the early season game against the Cardinals, turned the ball over six times.

December 7th at Shibe Park (34,342): Cardinals 45 Eagles 21
On the same afternoon their North Side rivals were upset by the Rams, the 7-3 Cardinals moved into a tie for first place with the Bears by decisively beating the 7-3 Eagles in a game that turned out to be a preview of the Championship Game. Philadelphia missed a chance to clinch a tie for first place. The game featured a very rare occurrence as two Cardinals each scored offensive and defensive touchdowns. Charlie Trippi scored on a run, Mal Kutner caught a touchdown pass and both men returned interceptions for scores in a fourth-quarter that featured 42 points.  

December 14th at Shibe Park (24,216): Eagles 28 Packers 14
In a must-win situation against a determined foe looking to add some luster to a disappointing season, the 7-4 Eagles defeated the 6-4-1 Packers in a hotly contested regular-season finale that featured numerous penalties and several fights. Steve van Buren cracked the 1,000 yard mark and bested Beattie Feathers’ 1934 rushing record while scoring touchdowns on runs of 1, 2 and 38 yards. Cornerback Cliff Patton made a key play early when he blocked a Green Bay punt in the first quarter that set up the first score of the game, van Buren’s 1-yard touchdown.     

Game of the Year, December 14th at Wrigley Field (48,632): Cardinals 30 Bears 21
The Bears had won seven championships to the Cardinals one and they held an overwhelming 35-11-6 advantage over the Cards in regular-season match-ups. The Bears had won 15 of the previous 19 games between the two and figured to do so again, especially playing at home, despite the excellent season the Cardinals were having. But the Cardinals cooked up a special play for the first snap from scrimmage and scored on an 80-yard pass en route to a shocking 27-7 halftime lead. 

The game featured five long touchdowns and the benching due to ineffectiveness of the Bears legendary quarterback Sid Luckman. As they had all year, the Bears racked up lots of penalties and turnovers, categories they finished worst in in the NFL. Their league best offense again piled up yards as they outgained the Cardinals 507-329, but it was not enough to overcome all the mistakes or a spirited opponent determined to finally gain the upper hand in Chicago. 

Eastern Division Playoff, December 21st at Forbes Field (35,729): Eagles 21 Steelers 0
In a game that closely resembled their match three weeks earlier, right down to the final score, the Eagles dominated the Steelers and moved on to the title game against the Cardinals. Philadelphia’s defense stifled Pittsburgh throughout, allowing just seven first downs, four completions, 52 passing yards and 154 total yards. Though themselves held to 255 total yards, the Eagles offense did enough to build a 14-0 halftime lead before Bosh Pritchard put the game away with a 79-yard punt return in the third quarter. Steve van Buren was held to 45 yards rushing and a meager 2.5 average per carry but he did catch one of Tommy Thompson’s two touchdown passes.

Championship Game, December 28th at Comiskey Park (30,759): Cardinals 28 Eagles 21       
In one of the more exciting games in NFL title game history, the Cardinals prevailed on an icy field to claim their second championship and deny Philadelphia their first in the first Championship Game appearance for both teams. The Cardinals utilized offensive formations designed to force the Eagles to spread their defense toward each sideline and then exploited the middle. The plan worked better than hoped as Chicago ripped off two long touchdown runs by Elmer Angsman (both 70 yards) and one by Charlie Trippi (44 yards) that were three of the five long scoring plays. 

The treacherous footing proved more troublesome to the two defenses as the teams combined for almost 700 yards from scrimmage. The two offenses were opposites as the Cardinals amassed 282 rushing yards and only 54 through the air while Philadelphia passed for 297 yards and a mere 60 on the ground. The Cardinals hurt themselves with 97 penalty yards, compared to 55 for the Eagles, and Philadelphia ran a remarkable 91 plays from scrimmage to only 53 for Chicago. But the Cardinals got better value from theirs as a result of their long runs and averaged 6.3 yards per play to 3.9 for the Eagles.   

Van Buren was stopped cold for the second week in a row as he rushed for only 26 yards on 18 carries, though he did crack the end zone on a 1-yard run. The two other long touchdowns of the day were a 53-yard Philadelphia pass from Tommy Thompson to Pat McHugh and a 75-yard punt return by Chicago’s Trippi. Trailing 28-14, the Eagles closed to within seven points with five minutes remaining in the game. But the Cardinals proved they could grind it out as well as break the big play, and they ran out the clock without Philadelphia ever getting the ball back.  
Hail and Farewell     

The 1947 season marked the end of the line for some players of note including 41-year old Ken Strong, whose career stretched back to 1929; Jim Benton, an outstanding end with the Rams for nine seasons who retired as second all-time in pass receptions to Don Hutson; two-way standout Charley Brock, an especially good center; halfback Bill Osmanski, who led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 1939 and played on the Bears’ four championship teams of the 1940s; Ward Cuff, an 11-year veteran who led the NFL in field goals four times including in 1947, and played in four title games with the Giants including on their champion team in 1938; Ki Aldrich, who played in two title games including in 1942 when Washington bested the 11-0  Bears; and Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner and first overall draft choice in 1941 who played only two seasons with the Rams because he was busy serving as a fighter and bomber pilot during which time he survived a jungle crash en route to North Africa and being shot down over Japanese-occupied China.  

Individual Seasons of Note
In addition to the accomplishments of Baugh and van Buren mentioned above, halfback Eddie Saenz of the Redskins had a busy and record-setting season as he rushed for 143 yards, caught passes for 598 yards, returned punts for 308 yards and had 797 kick-off return yards. His net 1,846 yards established a new single-season mark, as did his kick-off return total. Playing for the high-scoring Bears, Scooter McLean, meanwhile, established new records for most extra points and extra point attempts.

With Don Hutson two years retired and Jim Benton in his final season, Mal Kutner of the Cardinals and Ken Kavanaugh and Jim Keane of the Bears emerged as the NFL’s best offensive ends. Al Wistert was again one of the best, if not the best, tackle in the game, and Bill Dudley of the Lions continued to be an all-around standout at halfback, defensive back, and placekicker. Pat Harder was one of the league’s best fullbacks and also finished first in points and kicking points and tied for first in field goals. 

End Don Currivan played for the Yanks, who had far and away the worst offense in the league, but he amassed 782 yards on 24 receptions for a remarkable 32.6 yard average and nine touchdowns. On the defensive side, standouts included linebackers Riley Matheson of the Rams and Buster Ramsey of the Cardinals, tackle Fred Davis of the Bears and end Larry Craig of the Packers. Frank Reagan of the Giants and Frank Seno of the Yanks had ten interceptions each and came within one of the NFL record.   

Post-season Honors
The All-Pro teams selected by the major news agencies were a mix of mainstays like Bulldog Turner and newcomers like Harder. Wistert, van Buren, Kavanaugh, and Harder did best in first-team honors. Despite his great season, Sammy Baugh was surpassed by Sid Luckman of the Bears. It’s not clear what the reaction was at the time but it is certainly perplexing that Luckman got any honors over Baugh even considering that the 8-4 Bears had a better season than the 4-8 Redskins. Baugh was superior in every passing category, mostly by wide margins, and as noted above, he established several single-season NFL records. If the passer rating system that is used today is applied, Baugh scores at 92.0 to Luckman’s 67.7. 
Sanny Baugh
Not only should Baugh have been a slam dunk First-team All-Pro, he deserves strong retroactive consideration for Player of the Year/Most Valuable Player honors. The Joe Carr Trophy, essentially an MVP award, had been discontinued that season after nine years and none of the major media agencies that regularly selected All-Pro teams—Associated Press, United Press, International News Service, New York Daily News—appears to have awarded one. Judged from the distance of 73 years, while acknowledging there are factors about which we are not aware that might have influenced voters at the time, such an award should have gone to either Baugh or van Buren.   

Though still thick in the financial woods because of competition with the AAFC, the NFL was arguably still in better shape at the end of 1947 than at any point since its founding. The Rams’ move to Los Angeles in 1946 was proving a success, an important and much-needed shift in the balance of power was underway as the Cardinals, Eagles, and Steelers all enjoyed the best seasons in their histories, and pro football was slowly but surely climbing the sports ladder of popularity. Radio and especially television were increasingly playing a big part in that popularity, a development that would steadily continue and ultimately push the game to heights none involved in 1947 could have imagined. 

1. The Cardinals quartet was also known as the Million Dollar Backfield, though that nickname has become more closely identified with San Francisco’s 1954-56 foursome of Joe Perry, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson.

2. Filchock was banned for not reporting that he and teammate Merle Hapes had been offered money by gamblers to make sure the underdog Giants lost by more than the 10-point betting line in the 1946 title game. He played the next seven seasons in Canada while also being reinstated by the NFL to play one game for the Colts at the end of 1950.

3. This came about because the new Washington stadium that opened in 1961, D.C. Stadium (later known as RFK Stadium), was built on federally-owned land. Marshall was given an ultimatum that his team would not be allowed to use the stadium unless he employed black players, a demand he complied with a year later. 

The formidable research efforts of Ken Pullis proved invaluable: first, his work for the Pro Football Researchers Association’s Linescore Project for 1947 and, second, his Progression of NFL Records which is available both from PFRA and in the two editions of The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Glenn Presnell—Kentucky Pro Football HOF

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Glenn Presnell, Portsmouth Spartans, 1931 
Last week the final five members were selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the Class of 2020. Also selected last week were the new members of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. NFL players, coaches, executives who either played, coached or were born in the state of Kentucky can be selected. The 19th class inducted includes six individuals, Leeman Bennett, Bob Fry, Elois Grooms, Cletidus Hunt, Eric Wood, and Glenn Presnell.

I was happy to see Glenn Presnell get this deserving honor.

A borderline candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, PFJ ranked Presnell number 10 on the list of Pre-WW II halfbacks this past year. Here is the bio that was written up on him.

      Glenn Presnell (1931-1936) After playing 3 years with the semi-pro Ironton Tanks, the 5-10, 195-pound Presnell played 6 seasons (74 games) with the Portsmouth Spartans-Detroit Lions. Severely underrated, Presnell has two things that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame. His first years were played out of the NFL, although with a good Tanks team that defeated NFL teams during this era, and the fact that he played behind the number one player on our list- the great Dutch Clark. Excellent all-around player, Presnell excelled in many areas; was a productive runner, above-average passer, solid defender, and was one of the best kickers in the NFL during his time…Member of the 1935 Lions team that won NFL Championship—22 career TDs, including 18 rushing; and had 17 passing TDs…to show how great Presnell could be, when Dutch Clark decided not to play in 1933, Presnell became the focus of Potsy Clark’s offense. Had a career year leading the NFL in rushing TDs (6) and scoring with 64 points. He was named First-team All-Pro by the NFL, UP, Brooklyn Eagle, Collyers and the GBPG…in 1934- with Clark back on the team- he finished third in the league in scoring (63 points) and rushing TDs (7). 

     Was part of rushing offense that in 1936 set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 2,885 yards (in 12 games), a record that stood until 1972 when the Miami Dolphins broke it (in a 14-game season)…part of a Lions rushing offense that helped lead the NFL in rushing once (1936) and finish 2nd twice more (1934-35)…Finished career with 1,593 rushing yards (3.9 average) and scored 218 points- including converting 15 FGs and 41 XPs…had his career moment in 1934 when he booted a NFL record-long 54-yard FG to help defeat the Packers, 3-0. That record lasted until 1953 when Colts kicker Bert Rechichar kicked a 56-yard FG…First-team All-Pro in 1932 by GBPG…Second-team in 1931 by NFL; in 1932, 1934 by UP…Third-team in 1935 by GBPG…Honorable Mention by NFL in 1932, 1934-1935…Just like Cuff, should get more Hall of Fame consideration.

“Presnell was a good player. He was hard to bring down when he had the ball. You couldn’t hardly bring him down.” – George Musso, former Bears Hall of Fame lineman.

“Glenn Presnell was a brilliant football player. Outstanding on offense and defense.” – Ralph Kercheval, former Brooklyn Dodgers back.
Glenn Presnell, Detroit Lions
After his playing career was over Presnell went into coaching, first as an assistant with Kansas, Nebraska (one year as head coach in 1942), and then at Eastern Kentucky (1947-1953). It was at Eastern Kentucky is where he made his mark. He was head coach there for ten seasons (1954-1963), compiling a record of 42-49-3, winning two Ohio Valley Conference championships (1954, 1962), and taking the Colonels to the 1955 Tangerine Bowl (losing a close 7-6 game to Omaha). 

Presnell stayed on as Athletic Director from 1963 to 1971 when he retired, eventually moving back to the Buckeye State, living in Ironton, outside of nearby Portsmouth. It was because of his tenure at Eastern Kentucky that got him elected to the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. 
Glenn Presnell, athletic director, Eastern Kentucky
I was fortunate to interview Presnell twice while he was still living, once in 1999 and again in 2002. His interviews became a short chapter in my book, Old Leather: An Oral History of Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935. He was always very accommodating and told some good stories about his playing career in Ironton, Portsmouth, and Detroit. Once he told me about the Spartans traveling by bus to play games on the east coast. 

"We didn’t travel by train much in those days; it was mainly by Greyhound bus. Some of our road trips east would be pretty long and we wouldn’t have a chance to work out, so Potsy (Clark) told us to pack a pair of shoes and a sweatshirt on the bus with us. We’d be going along sometime in the middle of the afternoon and he’d see this open field, so he’d have the driver stop the bus. We’d put on our shoes and sweatshirts and practice in this open field. We’d get back on the bus after the workout smelling like a bunch of goats. Those were great days." 

Only a player from the Great Depression would think smelling like a goat would be great days. 

Glenn Presnell, top photo, at Spartan Stadium, Portsmouth, Ohio. Bottom photo, at Presnell home. 
Presnell also told about the playing equipment for his era and how he would want to be remembered. 

"Our equipment was nothing like today. Ours was made out of leather, which made the equipment much heavier. By the time you got on the heavy shoulder pads, the heavy hip pads, and other pads, you felt like you gained 30 pounds. I was fortunate. I was never really injured like some of the players from my era. I remember our helmets didn’t have any facemasks back in those days and if a guy got hit in the face, he would lose some teeth or maybe got his nose broken. That happened to several of my teammates at different times, but I was lucky. I must have been a good dodger because I was never really hit hard in the face. But I enjoyed it.

    It was a challenge to me to see whether I could make it in pro football or not. I enjoyed my nine seasons of pro ball very much and made a good living while doing it. I’d just like to be remembered as a good football player. That’s all." 

I cherish those two interviews I had with Presnell. Looking back at an era of NFL history that was worth preserving. Presnell passed on September 13, 2004, at the age of 99. Congrats Mr. Presnell on your election to the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

PFJ's 2010s All-Decade Team

By John Turney

For the 2010s All-Decade, we went with three receivers and added a fifth defensive back who could play slot corner as well as their normal position.

"Sink end" is a defensive end who moved in passing situations much of the time. Watt and Campbell were the best at that spot (power end if you will). Camber Jordan nosed Chander Jones who played some rush backer, too.

We didn't ignore nose tackles as the Hall of Fame will, we picked Snacks Harrison. Also, we picked a Will 'backer, Lavonte David. The Hall of Fame will pick two middle linebackers we are sure. It's too bad, David is one of the top three linebackers of the 2010s we believe.

 Stephon Gilmore's surge in 2018 and 2019 secured him the Second-team corner slot.

Player of the DecadeTom Brady

Defensive Player of the Decade—JJ Watt

Runners up—Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Donald