Saturday, April 6, 2019

Gail Cogdill and the 1969 Atlanta Falcons: A Team For Now

By TJ Troup
Falcon Cogdill catches a touchdown over Eagle Irv Cross
In honor of Gail Cogdill's birthday tomorrow a detailed view of the 1969 Falcons and Cogdill's contribution. NFL Films top-notch producer Louis Schmidt did his usual outstanding job for 27-year-old future President of NFL Films Steve Sabol on the season highlights.

COACHING: Norm Van Brocklin got a second chance as an NFL head coach part way through the '68 campaign. Atlanta wins twice under his guidance, yet no doubt after the debacle ended the Dutchman knew his team in '69 would be very different.
Van Brocklin
His defensive staff will include Bob Griffin as defensive line coach in his first season as coach (former teammate of Van Brocklin), secondary coach Fred Bruney (experience in Boston and Philadelphia), and d-coordinator Marion Campbell. Campbell had worked for George Allen and the Rams, and he was bound and determined to institute as many aspects that he learned from Coach Allen that he could.

Van Brocklin believes that he must have men who are loyal and understand his type of teaching thus he brings aboard Walt Yowarsky to coach the running backs. Walt coached six years in Minnesota, and the last two with New Orleans; and this will be his first time coaching the running backs. The offensive line coach in his very first year ever at the pro level is former Ram All-Pro teammate Duane Putnam. Watching film of the Falcon running game definitely shows Putnam's impact with guard play as the Falcons are superb on both the trap and sweep. Putnam was superb as a player on those type of running plays. The receivers coach is Van Brocklin himself, and of course, he also works with the quarterbacks.

ATLANTA on Defense: The strength of the team should be the linebackers, but with the injury to Tommy Nobis (49 tackles) early in the season former Viking Don Hansen has to fill in. Hansen does an admirable job, but he is no Tommy Nobis.
Nobis limping off the field in Baltimore
Grady Allen in his second year is the left and usually strong side linebacker. Hard hitting and aggressive Allen always gives an effort, yet he still has a lot to learn and is not very instinctive. Undersized second-year man Greg Brezina (80 tackles, 1½ sacks, 1 interception) is the right or weakside linebacker and his strengths are apparent right away. Quick in defending the sweep, and on the blitz when asked, Brezina is always around the ball and leads the league in fumble recoveries with five.
Don Hansen
The expansion Vikings in 1961 led the league in opponent fumble recoveries, and in his first full year as Falcon head coach in '69 Atlanta leads the league in opponent fumble recoveries. A Van Brocklin team will always be hard-hitting, and hustle to the ball.

Early in the season, there is a rotation at defensive tackle, but for most of the year Jerry Shay is the left defensive tackle, and Dave Cahill (acquired in trade) is the right defensive tackle. Neither man is much of a pass rusher, and though both men give a substantial effort they both struggle shedding blocks and fill running lanes.

Claude Humphrey (49 tackles, 10½ sacks) at left defensive end is coming off a stellar rookie season; but in the NFL playing left defensive end in the western conference simply means you will be compared to David Jones, Carl Eller, and Willie Davis. Humphrey has every physical attribute you want: size, quickness, and strength. How quickly can he get to the passer? How strong is he at shutting down the off-tackle run play? Claude shows improvement and is on his way to stardom.
Claude Humphrey
The right defensive end is rookie John Zook (44 tackles, 9½ sacks), and boy oh boy does he give the Falcons an impressive season. He stands out in film study in every way a defensive end should. Later in this saga will be an explanation on how he came to be a Falcon.
Claude Humphrey racing for a touchdown with a fumble forced by John Zook
Norb Hecker was a teammate of Van Brocklin with the champion Rams of 1951. Hecker also played strong football for the Redskins and did a commendable job with the Packers coaching the secondary—thus his opportunity to be an NFL head coach.

The 1968 Atlanta Falcons, with a defensive passer rating of 101.3, rank as one of the worst (most porous) secondaries ever, and as such Hecker is dismissed. Rangy, with excellent speed is the only returning member of the secondary; starting left corner Ken Reaves (51 tackles, 3 INT). He plays the ball well in flight, can turn and run with speedy receivers, and is willing and able to play the strong side sweep.
Ken Reaves
There are many excellent left corners in the western conference in '69 with Bennie McRae in Chicago, Clancy Williams in Los Angeles, and the two future Hall of Famers Lem Barney in Detroit and Herb Adderley in Green Bay. You cannot win in the league in this era without a strong side corner.

The Falcons do not register much improvement in the sack department from 1968 to 1969 though the rush is stronger. So, the youngsters in the secondary are just going to have to latch on in man coverage, and when asked play their zones with discipline and awareness. Lee Calland lost his job in Minnesota under Van Brocklin and released him in late October of '68.
Rudy Redmon (47) and Mike Freeman (28) trying to stop Dan Reeves
Van Brocklin will just not tolerate men in his secondary who are not aggressive. The masterful trades begin in the summer of '69 when the Dutchman acquires rookie corner Rudy Redmond and linebacker Jim Purnell from the Bears. He then trades Purnell to Philadelphia for defensive back John Mallory and John Zook.

Nate Wright does not give Van Brocklin what he wants at right corner, and is sold on waivers to the Cardinals in November. Hard-hitting, quick and very aggressive Rudy Redmond steps into the breach and plays outstanding football for Atlanta in 1969.

The safety tandem to open the season is Jim Weatherford at strong safety (366th pick in the draft), and the aforementioned Mallory at free. Weatherford has a game for the ages against San Francisco early in the year, but late in the season loses his job to Al Lavan. Mallory is adequate at free safety, but he also loses playing time to Mike Freeman late in the year.

The league average passer rating in 1969 is 71.6. The Falcons defensive passer rating is 69.3; an incredible improvement over '68, but much more important let's take a look at opponent passers in the six games the Falcons won in '69. Opponent passers completed 97 of 191 for just 861 yards; and allowed just two touchdowns, and pilfered 14 for a rating of 36.1 in victory. A job was well done by Fred Bruney and these young men.

OFFENSE: The starting left tackle is massive free agent Bill Sandeman, while the starting left guard is rookie Dick Enderle. Malcom Snider is also a rookie and has an excellent season as the starting right guard, and with the second pick in the draft comes rookie George Kunz. While these four youngsters all are an improvement over the men who played in '68 they are much better as run blockers than pass protectors.
George Kunz
An offensive line on the practice field must decide which aspect to concentrate on—the running game or the passing game. Obviously, Atlanta under the Dutchman wants a dominant running game. Jim Ferguson begins the year at center, but by week three he is replaced by 36-year-old Bruce Bosley.

As a rookie in '56 Bosley played defensive end for the 49ers and chased Van Brocklin in games at Kezar and the Coliseum, and now he is the leader and "glue" for these youngsters on the o-line. Big Bruce has lost quickness, yet his savvy, and strong run blocking ability are there for all to see. The Falcons can and will run the ball down your throat. James "Cannonball" Butler (163 rushes for 655 yards, 3 TDs) showed flashes of ability with Pittsburgh, but his per carry average was abysmal. He was released by the Steelers in September of '68 and signed by Falcons almost immediately.
Cannonball Butler
The Cannonball is voted team MVP and deservedly so. Though he never carries 20 times in a game or gains over 100 yards, he is an integral part of the Falcon offense. During mid-season he becomes a viable deep threat in the passing game, and though undersized he is a fine blocker.

Former starter Junior Coffey is traded to the Giants, and as such who will be Butler's campanion in the backfield? Paul Gipson flashes ability at times during the year, but is not very consistent. Second-year man Harmon Wages was scolded on the sideline as a rookie in '68 by the Dutchman, but is he ever an improved player in '69.
Harmon Wages and the Dutchman
His game against the Saints must still be viewed as one of the best ever by a Falcon running back. Wages, can and will block, he runs hard though not very shifty. He catches the ball well, and can throw the option pass. Wages gained 278 yards rushing on just 46 carries in Falcon victories, but only 97 yards in the Atlanta eight losses. 

No doubt if Van Brocklin asked him to drive the team bus; Harmon would do that also. The Atlanta Falcons in 1969 lead the entire NFL in yards per carry average.

Rookie Jim Mitchell has a wonderful year at tight end in '69. He is not John Mackey (who is?), but is similar in style, and results. Big Jim is a go-to weapon in key situations, and sure has a bright future in front of him.
Bob Berry
Bob Berry played for Van Brocklin in Minnesota and he shares the quarterback position in Atlanta with Randy Johnson. Johnson plays well in mid-season, but his severe knee injury against Washington ends his season.
Randy Johnson
Berry's nightmare first half against the Rams in the Coliseum notwithstanding, the vertically challenged veteran has a strong year with a passer rating of 106.5. His strengths far outweighed his limitations during '69. Atlanta has tried many men at receiver the previous three years, but for the first time in team history—the Falcons have reliable receivers in '69.
Berry sacked by Jack Pardee

Berry sacked by Coy Bacon
Paul Flatley (45 catches for 834 yards, 6 td) was a Van Brocklin favorite in Minnesota, and though he does not posses great speed, he runs superb routes, can catch everything, and is clutch in key situations. Paul usually is on the right side as the flanker in a pro set. Jerry Simmons loses his job early in year due to missed assignments, dropped passes, and his lack of blocking ability. He is sold on waivers to the Bears during the '69 season.
Jerry Simmons
Someone has to play split end on the left for Atlanta, and Van Brocklin has just the man to do the job. Gail Cogdill was one of the best receivers in the NFL from 1960 through 1964, and some historians (I am one of them), believe if not for injury and lack of quality quarterbacking he just might have had a strong candidacy for enshrinement. Yet, this is about his resurgence and what the veteran gave the Falcons in '69.
Flatley scores a touchdown versus Saints
Van Brocklin will not tolerate mental mistakes from his receivers; keep in mind he had Tom Fears & Elroy Hirsch in Los Angeles, and Tommy McDonald, Bobby Walston, and Pete Retzlaff in Philadelphia.

Cogdill just does not make mental mistakes, and though still lean he was an excellent blocker in Detroit, and he continues to do just that in Atlanta. Film study shows him busting his ass downfield to block. His knee injury has slowed him down, but he can run every route, can read coverage, and his superb athletic skills can still serve him well.

Quoting narrator Pat Summerall from the highlight film "(I)f a pass was near him, he held onto it". Gail makes superb adjustments to the ball in flight and film study shows him doing this in games against Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Detroit. Cogdill caught 11 passes for 240 yards in Atlanta victories, and 13 passes for 134 yards in losses.
Cogdill with a one-handed touchdown grab vs Saints
He scored five touchdowns, and most of them came on his new favorite route—the "flag" or corner route. In the season ending victory over Super Bowl bound Minnesota he delivers "the haymaker" on a 52-yard reception in the muck and mire of Atlanta as he gets behind Kassulke in cloud coverage and makes the catch before Krause can arrive to help. Flatley and Cogdill combined to catch 69 passes for 1,208 yards and 11 touchdowns in an offense primarily built around running the ball.

My interview with him years ago is still one of my favorites ever. Steve Sabol and myself relished telling each other stories from folks around the league, and Steve laughed heartily when told the Codgill story from the film room on a Monday as Van Brocklin fell asleep on the floor, with the ash from his camel cigarette still on—while the film had ended and was flapping on the 16 MM projector.
The Dutchman being carried off the field after a win over the 12-1 Vikings
The players are so in fear of the Dutchman no one moves or shuts off the projector for a few minutes. Picture this football fans; 40 men sitting still in this environment! The '69 Atlanta Falcons played strong football the second half of the year and scored over 40 points twice.

Let's end with a quote from Street & Smith's 1970 Pro Football Edition—"At the other striking positions in the backfield and at the ends of the line, Atlanta has become a good football team. Two retreads are doing a catching job for the Falcons, Paul Flatley, formerly of Minnesota, and 33-year old Gail Cogdill, formerly of Detroit. Flatley was presumed to be too slow in his pre-Atlanta days, and Cogdill was considered washed-up. Neither judgement had any merit" Amen to that.

1 comment:

  1. My word, this was a heck of a lot of fun to read. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it.