Saturday, March 28, 2015

Anniversary Celebration of Jim Thorpe

By Chris Willis
March 28, 2015
Jim Thorpe with Canton Bulldogs. Colorization by John Turney
 Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of football’s truly great legends. On March 28, 1953 Jim Thorpe passed away from a heart attack at the age of 64. Pretty much broke and living in a trailer in Lomita, California, it was a very sad ending for the greatest football player of the first fifty years of the 20th century. But Thorpe was more than a football player. Most fans and historians know that “Old Jim” won two gold medals in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics (IOC originally stripped his medals but reinstated them in 1983), as well as played six years of major league baseball with three different teams (New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves) from 1913-1915, 1917-1919. He also traveled around the country playing basketball with the World Famous Indians basketball team during the mid 1920’s.

But it was in professional football that he made his biggest impact. Signing with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915, for a whopping sum of two hundred and fifty dollars a game, he instantly brought star power to a sport that was ready to make the jump to being organized. Then in 1920 he was named the first President of the American Professional Football Association (APFA), the forerunner of the NFL. He was President just for the one year, mainly to use his name to give the fledgling league some credibility and a boost with the newspapers around the country.

He ended up playing eight seasons in the NFL and gave the league continued star presence throughout his time in the league. After retiring he struggled to make a living and support his family. Although he struggled off the field throughout his life his name continued to be associated with greatness in the world of athletics.

Three years before his death Thorpe was honored with the ultimate award. In 1950 the Associated Press (AP) held a poll to honor the Greatest Football Player and Greatest Male Athlete of the first half century. Announced on January 24th the AP voted Thorpe the Greatest Football Player of the first half century, edging out Red Grange the Galloping Ghost.
Jim Thorpe with Rock Island Independents. Colorization by John Turney
Associated Press Voting: Greatest Football Player (1900-1950)

Player, College, Votes

1)      James Thorpe, Carlisle,    170

2)      Red Grange, Illinois,   138

3)      Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 38

4)      Ernie Nevers, Stanford, 7

5)      Sammy Baugh, TCU, 7

6)      Don Hutson, Alabama, 6

7)      George Gipp, Notre Dame, 4

8)      Charles Trippi, Georgia, 3   

Two votes each: Sid Luckman, Columbia; Steve Van Buren, LSU; Willie Heston, Michigan; and Chic Harley, Ohio State.

One vote each: Wilbur Henry, Washington & Jefferson; Bennie Oosterbaan, Michigan; Nile Ninnick, Iowa; Glenn Dobbs, Tulsa; Glenn Davis, Army, Clyde Turner, Hardin-Simmons; Doak Walker, SMU; Frankie Albert, Stanford; Doc Blanchard, Army; and Charlie Brickley, Harvard.

A little over two weeks later the results of the more prestigious poll, Greatest Male Athlete of the First Half Century, was announced. Once again Thorpe was on top, besting the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Ty Cobb, Joe Louis, Red Grange, and Babe Ruth. Previously voted the No. 1 football player over the past fifty years Thorpe became the only male double winner in the AP poll when 252 of the 393 sportswriters and radio broadcasters selected him with this honor. The vote wasn’t even close, as he beat Ruth by 336 points and had 166 more first place votes.

Associated Press Voting: Greatest Male Athlete (1900-1950)

Top 15 Voting

Name, First Place Votes, Total Points

1)      Jim Thorpe (252), 875

2)      Babe Ruth (86),  539

3)      Jack Dempsey (19),  246

4)      Ty Cobb (11),  148

5)      Bobby Jones (2),  88

6)      Joe Louis (5),  73

7)      Red Grange (3),  57

8)      Jesse Owens (0), 54

9)      Lou Gehrig, (4), 34

10)   Bronko Nagurski (1), 26

11)   Jackie Robinson (2),  24

12)   Bob Mathias (0), 13

13)   Walter Johnson (1), 12

14)   Glenn Davis (0), 11

15)   Bill Tilden (0), 9

Fifty years later Thorpe’s name continued to be held in high esteem, just not tops in the voting. In 2000 the Associated Press released a poll voting on the Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century. The 16-member panel again thought highly of Thorpe placing him third behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.

Associated Press Voting: Top 100 Greatest Athletes of 20th Century (1900-2000)

Top 10, Name, First Place Votes, Total Points

1)      Babe Ruth (5),  1551

2)      Michael Jordan (4),  1524

3)      Jim Thorpe (3), 1471

4)      Muhammad Ali (2),  1462

5)      Wayne Gretzky,  1368

6)      Jim Brown, 1333

7)      Joe Louis (1),  1327

8)      Jesse Owens,  1307

9)      Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1),  1254

10)   Wilt Chamberlain,  1235

Jim Thorpe, about to be hit in the back by George Halas. Colorization by John Turney
For an athlete’s name to hold up for nearly 100 years just shows how special Jim Thorpe was. Although he was much more than a football player, I’ll take some time today to think about “Old” Jim Thorpe and what he has meant to the game of football.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Fewest Yards Per Carry, Two-Year Span 1960-2014

by John Turney

Fifteen years ago Stats, Inc. published a great set of yearly publications that were full of interesting and relevant stats that could entertain a reader for hours. One favorite was their two- and three-year windows look back at what a team did for 32-game spans, rather than 16. These piqued my interest, and in this post, I want to update on one of my favorite lists from that volume while correcting a couple of errors.
Credit: Stats Publishing: page 36, from 2000 Pro Football Scorecard 
As you can see Stats listed the teams with the lowest yard per rush over a two-season span. On top, the San Diego Chargers sit, this would have been the impetus for the article, though not a dominant pass rushing unit, they were a brick wall to run at in 1998 and 1999, allowing just 2.9 yards a rush.

You can see the Texans and Patriots circled in the second and fifth slots, respectively, with averages of 3.01 and 3.09. However, there was a statistical anomaly in how the American Football League handed tackles for losses on quarterbacks, what are now call sacks. As a result every AFL team had "great" year in "stopping the run", that is if they could sack the quarterback a lot because the totals were simply lumped together. That was the case with the Texas and the Bills and the Patriots and one other team that appeared on the Stats, Inc., list. So, with the sack yardage taken back out of the equation they all fell much lower in this list, leaving the Buffalo Bills and the great Tom Sestak and Ron McDole as the top AFLers on this list at 6th and 7th.

 The chart:

Those same Chargers hold the top of the list, joined by the 1999-2000 Ravens and the 2006-2007 Minnesota Vikings led by the Williams Wall, Kevin and Pat Williams. The 1964-66 Bills held fast, as they truly were one of the best all-around defensive lines who could stop the run and get to the passer with frequency. The same can be said about the 1966-67 Patriots who appear high on similar lists that concern sacks.

The Los Angeles Rams Fearsome Foursome has three appearances, Dallas's Doomsday Defense is on it four times. For a team that makes one appearance, the 1991 Eagles sure made an impression with Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons.

The next set still lists many greats that allowed 3.34 yards a carry to 3.42 yards per carry over 16 games. At 26 is the Purple People Eaters, followed by three helpings of the Denver Broncos Orange Crush Defense, with more iterations of the Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers appear for the first time, featuring Mean Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Fats Holmes and Dwight "Mad Dog" White and as the reader will see, it's not their last appearance.

Taking the list to 75 brings more Rams from the 1960s and 1970s and lots of Steelers from the same era. At 47 and 54 we see the only mentions of the Chicago Bears, the dominate defense of the 1980s, which surprised me enough to double check the research. But, they would have had a few more if this were a top 100 list.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When The Legend Becomes Fact

by TJ Troup
Credit: Fleer
April of 1962 in the John Ford western the "Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" the newspaper editor (Scott) tears up the notes he has taken from Ransom Stoddard concerning the deceased Tom Doniphon, and Scott's famous quote "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend". How appropriate for the upcoming final season of Chuck Bednarik's career. His saga has a few twists and turns, yet is a testament to consistently outstanding performances on both sides of the ball while demonstrating longevity and durability.

He is the only rookie starter on the defending league champion Eagles offense in 1949, though he missed a couple of games, and played sparingly early. Chuck gets to view a legend early in the season as Chicago Bear center Clyde "Bulldog" Turner shows the young man how the center position should be played. Bednarik proved adept at all facets of center play down the stretch in 1949 and in back to back weeks in November he helped pave the way for Steve Van Buren go gain 379 yards on 62 carries in victories over the New York Bulldogs and Pittsburgh Steelers. |

Bednarik did not start at center in the championship game in the Los Angeles mud in the Coliseum; he started at right linebacker and played well. Watching Chuck shed blocks on sweep plays in '50 (at right outside linebacker) and 1951 (at left outside linebacker) and continually putting himself in position to make the tackle shows he is well on his way to stardom. Bednarik is the best right linebacker (Philadelphia plays the 5-2 defense) in the league during the '52 season. Physical at the point of attack, and superb at underneath zone coverage. He demonstrates athleticism with a one-handed interception in a 10-7 win over the Cardinals in November, and ends his season as the MVP of the Pro Bowl as he returned an interception for a touchdown to increase the Eastern Conference all-stars lead to 13-2 (final score 20-9).
Bednarik makes tackle in 1960 NFL Title game. Colorization by John Turney
The NFL did not have an award for defensive player of the year in 1953, yet no doubt the two finalists would have been Jack Christiansen of the Lions and Bednarik. Philadelphia led the league in run defense(1,117 yards allowed and only 6 rushing touchdowns). Bednarik recorded 9 takeaways (3 opponent fumble recoveries and 6 interceptions). Jack Del Bello of the Colts is in a spread formation in the November the 5th game, and throws to his left; Chuck as always is in the proper area of his zone and returns the interception 41 yards to the three yard line setting up a score. Del Bello fires down the middle of the field and far ranging Bednarik nabs the pass and dashes 26 yards for a touchdown. On opening day in 1954, Chuck had replaced Farragaut as the starting center (he goes both ways in week two against the Cardinals), but by the third week of the season he is back at right linebacker. The last four weeks of the year again finds Chuck at the pivot position as the contending Eagles try to stay in the race. Though Bednarik continues to play at an All-pro level; the Eagles are struggling to win. Defense has begun to evolve from the 5-2 to the 4-3 defense. Bob Kelley is now the starting center, and first-round draft pick Bob Pellegrini is rotating in at right linebacker with Bednarik. Since other teams have had success in the 4-3, and Bednarik is the best pursuing outside linebacker in the league. maybe he can play middle linebacker? Chuck moves back and forth from right linebacker to middle linebacker (sometimes in the same game based upon the defense called).

Though adequate at the position, he does not have a strong supporting cast. October 20, 1957, and Philadephia has won but 10 of their last 34 games. The Eagles are at home against the contending Browns and surprise the future division champions 17-7. Bednarik for the second time in his career pilfers twp Cleveland Brown passes at key moments in the game. Buck Shaw brings his coaching acumen to Philadelphia in 1958 and though the season is a disappointment; the trade for Van Brocklin and Bednarik's move back to center has again given the Eagles the leadership needed to contend.

A revitalized roster in 1959 produces a winning season. Much has been written about Concrete Charley and the 1960 Eagles, but almost nothing written about the Eagles of 1961? New head coach Nick Skorich and new starting quarterback Sonny Jurgensen have the Eagles in the thick of contention with Cleveland and New York and need a victory over the Bears to set up the first place showdown with the Giants the following week. Chicago had destroyed San Francisco's spread formation (shotgun) a week earlier. No problem for Bednarik as his quickness at the cut-off block continually stymies Bill George. Additionally the Eagles trapping game supplies much needed yardage as bull strong Chuck drives the defensive tackle out of the way for gapping holes in the 16-14 Philadelphia triumph.

Chuck Weber has not given the Eagles the kind of season hoped for at middle linebacker; thus down the stretch Bednarik moves back to defense. The Giants are beaten by the a victory today over the suddenly resurgent Steelers would bring a tie for first and another showdown with the Giants. For the final time in his career Bednarik intercepts twice during a game. He purloins a Bukich pass and sets sail for the goal line until he is met by offensive tackle Charley Bradshaw in a thunderous collision inside the five. The Steelers have rallied and cut the Eagles lead to four, as the venerable Bobby Layne whips a pass over the middle and again he is picked off to stop an opponent drive with a key interception. Timmy Brown sweeps left for the final score in the 35-24 win. The Eagles reward for second place in the division is a trip to Florida and the Detroit Lions. The final game of the season is a 38-10 loss to the Lions and Joe Schmidt.
These two veteran warriors are the poster boys for how to play the linebacker position. Instincts, quickness, ability to shed blocks, blitz when necessary, and play your assigned area in underneath zone coverage, but most of all: TACKLE the guy with the ball.

 Chuck Bednarik receives All-pro recognition on both sides of the ball in '61 at center from UP, and at linebacker from the Sporting News. He returns for one last go 'round in 1962 and the game of October 28, 1962, stands out. Bednarik faces rookie center Mick Tinglehoff of the Vikings. The baton has been passed from one truly great warrior to another. Rest in Peace Chuck, you're a credit to the game.
Credit: Topps 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Eagles Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik Passes Away at 89

By John Turney
Bednarik, Colorization by John Turney
Philadelphia Eagles great Chuck Bednarik passed away Saturday morning following a brief illness at an assisted living facility in Richland, Pennsylvania, the team announced. He was 89.

His nickname was “Concrete Charlie” and the Eagles and their fans will mourn him greatly. "With the passing of Chuck Bednarik, the Eagles and our fans have lost a legend," Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said via the team's press release. 

Bednarik, a Slovak American from the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania, Bednarik played in the NFL from 1949 through 1962 and, upon retirement, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

Bednarik served in the Army Air Corps, earning an Air Medal as a B-24 waist gunner in World War II. After he left the military, Bednarik attended the University of Pennsylvania, where was a two-time All-American, and was elected a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. It was at Penn where he earned his early accolades as a 60-minute man, excelling as both center and linebacker, as well as occasionally as a punter. 

He was noted as an All-Pro linebacker and center, and on occasion played both positions in the same game, though the reports of how often he did that are slight exaggerated at time, but he did play 58 minutes, and made a game-saving tackle, 1960 NFL title game. He was noted for a hard, but legal, hit on the Giant halfback Frank Gifford, which caused Gifford to be carried from the field on a stretcher and he took a significant amount of time recovering before he could return to the NFL, this time as a flanker.
Bednarik's hit on Giffold. Colorization by John Turney
With the Eagles, Bednarik was voted to eight Pro Bowls (five as a center and three as a linebacker). He was also a nine-time First-team All-Pro (1950-57, and 1960). He was a Second-team All-Pro selection in 1961.

He also received these honors:
1950s All-Decade Team, Center
NFL 50th Anniversary Team, Center
NFL 75th Anniversary All-Two-Way Team

Bednarik's former Eagles number, 60, was retired by the Eagles and he was an original inductee for the Eagles Honor Roll in 1987.

Friday, March 20, 2015

1936 NFL MVP RACE Retroactive

by Chris Willis

(Part One of an ongoing series)
The National Football League didn’t recognize a Most Valuable Player Award until 1938 when Joe F. Carr, President of the league at that time, announced that the NFL would officially name an MVP that season. Giants’ center-linebacker Mel Hein won the inaugural award receiving a watch at midfield right before the kickoff of the 1938 NFL Championship Game at the Polo Grounds. In this series of posts I’ll take a look at several retroactive races for NFL MVP, the players who would have likely won an award if one had been given.
This first one is for the 1936 NFL season. In a decade dominated by rushing, the 1936 NFL Season was no different in fact, it was typical. The twelve NFL teams, playing twelve league games on the schedule, totaled 15,370 rushing yards on 4,453 carries (a 3.5 average) with 166 touchdowns. While the passing statistics are downright awful. NFL signal callers of 1936 threw 1,656 passes and completed just 604, a completion percentage of 36.5 percent, for 8,960 yards.

The more glaring stat is the comparison of passing touchdowns to interceptions. There were 67 touchdowns compared to a whopping 216 interceptions. Those statistics result in a league-wide NFL passer rating of 29.2. Yes, the sophisticated passing games of today had a long way to go. Every team threw at least fifteen interceptions with the Chicago Bears,  throwing a league high 35 picks, although it didn’t hamper the Bears in the win-loss column as they finished the season with a 9-3 record.
Looking at the top five passers in the NFL in 1936 only Arnie Herber, the seven-year vet of the Green Bay Packers belongs in the discussion for MVP. Leading the Pack to the Eastern Division title with a 10-1-1 record, he was heads-and-shoulders above all the other quarterbacks in the NFL in 1936. 

In leading the league in completions (77), attempts (173), passing yards (1,239) and passing touchdowns (11), the future Hall of Famer Herber did have the benefit of throwing to the great Don Hutson (who was playing in his second year in the NFL) as nearly half of his completions and yards went to Hutson, as well as eight of his eleven touchdown passes.
Arnie Herber. Colorization by John Turney
As for Hutson, he did lead the NFL in receiving, but wasn’t challenged very much for that spot because of the lack of passing success of the other NFL teams in 1936.
Hutson was tops in receptions (34), receiving yards (536) and receiving touchdowns with eight. He added another score on a blocked punt to give him nine total touchdowns, which was tops in the NFL. But this wasn’t one of Hutson’s more dominant years, as the thirty-four catches would be the third lowest of his eleven-year career and the 536 receiving yards the second lowest- behind his rookie year of 420. Although Hutson would have been in the discussion for league MVP as the game’s best receiving threat, in 1936 it was not his time.

The running backs around the NFL in 1936 featured a who’s who of great Hall of Fame ball carriers. Each NFL team had a pretty dominant runner. The top five rushers from 1936, which featured three future Hall of Famers, did not include the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski (529 rushing yards on 122 carries, 4.3 avg, 3 TDs) and the Packers’ Clarke Hinkle (476 rushing yards on 10 carries, 4.8 avg, 5 TDs).
Giants rookie running back Tuffy Leemans, who Wellington Mara drafted as a second-round pick out of George Washington, was a workhorse in 1936 leading the NFL in rushing with 830 yards on a league-high 206 carries. But his workload hurts him here as he was the only player in the NFL to have over 200 carries, plus he only scored two touchdowns all season for a Giants team that finished with a losing record of 5-6-1. Side note here about Leemans, after rushing for 830 yards as a rookie over his next seven years he never gained more than 474 yards in a single season.

Cliff Battles had a solid season with 614 yards rushing and 7 total touchdowns as he contributed in the kick return game too for the Eastern champions Boston Redskins. But it was the Lions backfield that grabbed all the headlines. Fullback Ace Gutowsky (827 rushing yards on 191 attempts) and wingback Erine Caddel (580 rushing yards on just 91 carries) gave the Lions a great one-two punch of power and speed. Caddel averaged an amazing 6.4 yards per carry, tops in the NFL while Gutowsky finished second in the league in rushing yards (827) and touchdown runs (6). But the Lions weren’t finished there, they also had the best all-around player in the NFL in their backfield too: Dutch Clark. Running Potsy Clark’s single-wing offense from the tailback position Dutch was at his best in 1936.

Clark called all the plays from the field and in 1936 he called his number not as often as you think. He rushed for 628 yards, 3rd best in the NFL, but it was done on just 123 rushing attempts. His average was just behind Caddel’s at 5.1 yards per carry and his 7 rushing touchdowns was tops in the league.
Clark was the best back in a crowded backfield. The Lions rushed for an NFL record of 2,885 yards in twelve games (averaging 240 yards per game). The record would last for 36 years when the undefeated 1972 Dolphins rushed for 2,960 yards. They set this record on 591 rushing attempts (averaged 4.9 yards per carry) with Clark getting only 123 of those carries, about twenty percent of the time did he carry the ball. Compares that with his teammate Gutowsky (191 carries) getting the ball 32 percent of the time, or the Giants Leemans who had 206 of the Giants 517 carries, a nearly 40 percent clip.
Dutch not only handled the offense, but he was also the best kicker in the league too, leading the NFL in scoring with 73 points- behind four field goals and a league-leading 19 extra points.
The thirty-year-old Clark played the entire 1936 season at the highest level. He scored a point in every game, including an incredible stretch where the Lions played three games in eight days TWICE during the season. Games on October 11th (Philly), Oct. 14th (Brooklyn) and Oct. 18th (Green Bay) and again later in the year on Nov. 25th (Green Bay), Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 29 (Bears) and Dec. 2 (Bears). He was never better than those three games in late November. He scored a touchdown in all three games, kicked one field goal and four extra points. Against the Bears on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 26th) he sprinted 51 yards for the deciding touchdown in a 14-7 victory, sending Lions’ fans home happy on Turkey day. 
Dutch Clark's long touchdown run on Thanksgiving. Colorization by John Turney
Clark held up throughout the season by putting together a remarkable resume, leading the NFL in scoring (73 points), third in the league in rushing (628 yards), and he was also tops in the league in passing percentage with a mark of 53.5 percent. Although he only completed 38 of 71 passes, for 467 yards and four touchdowns, he was highly efficient in throwing the ball. He only had six interceptions, which paled in comparison to the massive interceptions totals of the other quarterbacks in the league.  Clark was also a better defender than Herber, Leemans and Gutowsky (but not better than Nagurski).
The race for the 1936 MVP comes down to Herber and Clark. Herber was the best quarterback in the league, topping all passing categories and leading the Packers to a 10-1-1 record, as well as leading the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (248 points). Although the Packers did win the NFL Championship in 1936 that doesn’t get recognized because the MVP is usually announced before the championship games or Super Bowl is played, so will keep to that schedule.

In the end, Dutch Clark is the 1936 NFL MVP, edging out Arnie Herber. 
Dutch Clark. Colorization by John Turney