Saturday, February 29, 2020

The 1954 Cleveland Browns

by Andy Piascik 

The Cleveland Browns were in an odd position as the 1954 season began. They were unquestionably one of the elite teams in the NFL after only four seasons in the league and their streak of playing in their league championship game every year was at a remarkable eight straight. Even in just their four years in the NFL, their 40-8 record was far and away the best in the league in that span.

On the other hand, the Browns had lost three consecutive Championship Games. Included in those were losses by the 1951 and 1953 teams which had both posted records of 11-1, the best in the NFL in those seasons. All three of the games had been up for grabs until almost the very end but, as the Browns and their fans were learning all too well, a narrow, late defeat in a big game often leaves a more bitter taste than a subpar season or a blowout loss. The taste from three straight close losses is that much more bitter. And the 17-16 title game loss to the Lions the previous December was the most bitter-tasting of all, as Cleveland led until a Detroit touchdown with 2:07 remaining decided the game.

There was also uncertainty around key personnel. Cleveland’s great middle guard Bill Willis retired in the offseason, and the great fullback Marion Motley did likewise in training camp after being told by coach Paul Brown that he was not going to make the team. Two mainstays who had been with the team from the beginning, offensive guard Lin Houston and defensive end George Young, also retired. And five-year veteran linebacker Tommy Thompson, a First-team All-Pro the year before, was forced to quit when it became clear he would not recover sufficiently from a serious knee injury suffered near the end of the 1953 season.

Mike McCormack
The final piece of one of Brown’s best trades, middle guard Mike McCormack joined Cleveland in 1954 after two years in the army. McCormack had come to the Browns from the Colts in a 15-player deal the year before in which Cleveland also acquired defensive tackle Don Colo and linebacker Tom Catlin. McCormack would move to offensive tackle in 1955, but in 1954 he took over for Willis at middle guard and added another dimension to the Cleveland defense. Willis was incredibly quick and was tremendous in pursuit but McCormack was 25 pounds heavier and somewhat tougher against the inside running game. Colo, who had joined Cleveland in 1953, was a bruising presence who played with a bit of nastiness that was one of the reasons Brown traded for him. As Brown put it, the fact that his players didn’t like playing against Colo was as good a recommendation as any.

Doug Atkins
One other very big personnel question concerned 6’8”, 260-pound defensive end Doug Atkins. Atkins had been Cleveland’s first-round pick in the 1953 draft, the 11th selection overall, out of the University of Tennessee. He had been a superb athlete in multiple sports in high school and college, and had agility, leaping ability and specifically the ability to hurdle blockers, that is rarely seen in a man his size. In short, Atkins was the rare player that a team could potentially build its defense around for a decade and more.

The problem was that Atkins was not Paul Brown’s kind of player or person. Atkins had an individualistic streak and was somewhat lacking in desire, and Brown rode him hard throughout 1953. Despite his great ability, Atkins played behind George Young in his rookie year. He did not take well to Brown’s riding and has said that his weight was all the way down to 220 pounds by season’s end because of the stress.

Even with Young’s retirement, Atkins did not crack Cleveland’s starting line-up in 1954. Brown instead chose for the job nondescript Carlton Massey, a rookie who would be traded a few years later and played just five seasons, compared to Atkins’ 17. Atkins would endure another stressful year under Brown’s hypocritical standards that he never applied across the board and then be traded in the first of a succession of terrible personnel decisions by the Cleveland coach and general manager.

A Slow Start
Cleveland’s season began badly as they were soundly beaten in two of their first three games. At 1-2, the Browns were two and a half games behind the 4-0 Eagles in a season with only 12 games and no wildcards. In what was likely a big break, Cleveland’s game against the Lions from the second week of the season on October 3rd was postponed to December 19th because of a possible conflict with the World Series. The Lions were two-time defending champions, had blown out the Bears in their opener, and had a penchant for beating the Browns. The postponement of the game at a time when Cleveland was clearly struggling may very well have prevented a 1-3 start.

Righting the Ship Big Time
Paul Brown was probably not a happy camper in the week leading up to the October 24th game against the Cardinals. No Browns team had ever been 1-2 and there were likely many fans, players, coaches, sportswriters and others around the league wondering if this might finally be the year when Cleveland did not finish first. The Cardinals were easy fodder as usual, however, and the Browns romped in Comiskey Park, 31-7, to improve to 2-2. What not even Paul Brown or the most optimistic Browns follower could have foreseen is that the game marked the beginning of a run of defensive play unlike any in Cleveland’s great 1946-55 run, which is saying something because the Browns did some incredible things on defense during those ten years.

7.2 Per
 Beginning with that Cardinals game, the Browns won eight straight. During that span, plus the season finale loss to the Lions, Cleveland allowed only 72 points. That doesn’t come close to what the Steelers did over the same number of games in 1976, for one, but it’s pretty darn good, all the more given that the 1950s were a high-scoring era.  Since seven of the points Cleveland allowed came as a result of a punt return, their defense’s share was actually 65 points in nine games or 7.2 per.

Spearheading the turnaround was a run-stuffing front seven par excellence as Cleveland allowed only 1,050 rushing yards for the season, a mere 87 per game. Over the final nine games, the Browns allowed 67 yards a game and 2.36 per carry. The spirited play of newcomer McCormack at middle guard was a big factor. The Browns also had three tackles who were extremely difficult to move and enjoyed nothing more than wreaking havoc on misguided ball carriers who dared to invade their turf. The 6’3”, 250-pound Colo was the best of the bunch and he was not averse to adding a well-aimed fist or forearm to the mix.

John Kissell was much like Colo, though maybe even nastier. Teammates described him as the nicest guy in the world until he got on a football field. Two decades before Bob Brown made an impression on John Madden and his new Raiders’ teammates by destroying a goalpost one day in practice, Dante Lavelli remembered Kissell doing the very same thing.

Bob Gain was the third of the tackle trio. Cut from the same cloth as Colo and Kissell, he was even bigger at 6’4” and 260 pounds. Though he only played the latter part of the season because of an army commitment, the 1950 Outland Trophy winner was a welcome addition. Gain had a strong surge off the ball and a certain fondness for landing on the back of downed quarterbacks and ball carriers, preferably with both knees.

Overall, the 1954 Browns defense was a very well-coordinated unit. None of the tackles had particularly good lateral movement nor did any of the three get to the quarterback more than a few times. What they did do consistently was shut down the inside running game and crush the pass pocket from the middle, likely even to the satisfaction of a stern taskmaster like their head coach.

Len Ford
For getting to the quarterback, the defense relied primarily on right end Len Ford. Perhaps the first great pass rushing defensive end, Ford was the main beneficiary of all that pocket crushing. His sack total in 1954 may not have been as high as previous years but he was still as feared a defensive player as any in the league. With push from the tackles, Carlton Massey at least holding his own at left end and Ford overpowering from the right, we see again and again on film jittery quarterbacks scrambling for their lives or forced into incompletions and interceptions from having to throw earlier than planned.

They Can’t Pass, Either
Linebackers Tom Catlin and Walt Michaels, with Tony Adamle as a back-up, were Paul Brown types much like Colo, Kissell and Gain: rugged but disciplined players. While Brown allowed Ford some freedom, he required middle guard McCormack and the linebackers to pay strict attention to their responsibilities. They did, and the results were games where teams simply could not run the ball no matter how hard they tried: the Redskins ran 25 times for 33 yards and an average of 1.3; the Bears rushed 22 times for 37 yards and 1.7; the Eagles 32 times for 57 yards and 1.8; and the Cardinals 25 times for 60 yards and 2.4. The Western Conference champ Lions, who averaged 4.2 per rush in the rest of their games, went for just 2.7 on 33 carries and 90 yards. Then there were the Giants, who in their second game against the Browns totaled 4 yards on 21 rushes good for 0.1 yards an attempt.   

Cleveland’s pass defense was the best in the league, too. The front seven consistently created favorable down and distance situations and the experienced secondary of Warren Lahr, Don Paul, Tommy James and Ken Gorgal did its part. Cleveland allowed the fewest passing yards good for an average of just 134 per game highlighted by games in which they allowed impressively low net totals of 31, 53, 64 and 75. Opponents’ passer rating, using the system in place since the 1970s, was 44.1.

Overall, the total yardage figure was 221.5 allowed per game, by far the best in the NFL. After the slow start, Cleveland allowed 169 total yards per game over their final nine. In their four games in the month of November, the Browns allowed a total of 444 yards from scrimmage or 111 a game. They also achieved something only a handful of teams in NFL history have by allowing the fewest rushing and passing yards in the same season. And for the third time in four seasons, they allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

Otto Graham and Company
As for the offense, though not as powerful as in some previous years, it was hardly chopped liver. Otto Graham had an okay season for him that was good enough for second among the league’s passers and First-team honors on virtually all of the All-Pro teams. End Dante Lavelli remained one of the best receivers around as he finished fifth in the league in receptions and seventh in touchdown catches. Third-year man Darrell Brewster had a solid season at the other end position as he finished 11th in receptions good for an above-average 16.1 yards each.
Dante Lavelli
As had been the case since Marion Motley suffered a knee injury in training camp in 1951, the running game was mostly by committee. Rookie back Maurice Bassett was a big surprise as he finished fifth in the league in rushing yards, and all among Curly Morrison, Dub Jones, Ray Renfro, Billy Reynolds and another rookie, Chet Hanulak, had their moments. It was certainly not a dominating group but it fit with a great defense and a coach who preferred caution over big playmaking.

The offensive line, long a Cleveland strength, was as good as ever with center Frank Gatski, left tackle Lou Groza and left guard Abe Gibron leading the charge. Fifth-year man John Sandusky held down the right tackle spot. Lin Houston’s retirement after eight seasons left a hole at right guard that was capably filled primarily by Chuck Noll, though newcomers Harold Bradley and Herschel Forester also saw action in Brown’s messenger guard system.

Overall, Cleveland’s offense was hardly scary aside from Graham, yet they averaged 28 points a game on 336 points that was second best to Detroit by a mere one point. Compared to other teams that season, that number of points is out of whack for an offense that finished fifth in total yards. The Rams and 49ers, for example, both finished with fewer points despite gaining far more yards.

 One big reason goes back to the magnificent play of the defense. Opposing teams were so often completely stymied on offense that Cleveland frequently got the ball with good or great field position. That good balance between offense and defense resulted in a 14.5 point differential per game that is 26th best in NFL history, close to the top 1%.

Gillom and Groza
Lou Groza
Compounding matters for the opposition, the Browns also had the best punter and far and away the best placekicker in the league. When opponents did pin the Browns deep or force a quick three and out, Horace Gillom was there to punt them out of danger. Gillom posted a 42.9 yard average to go along with a 38.9 net.   

In addition to playing tackle at an all-pro level, Lou Groza followed up his record-smashing season as a kicker in 1953 with another outstanding year. While the rest of the league averaged 9.4 field goals per team, Groza led the NFL for the third straight season with 16. His .667 percentage was also best in the league and head and shoulders above the league average.

 Beyond the numbers, Groza’s clutch kicking was the margin of victory in crucial back-to-back games in November against the two teams Cleveland trailed in the standings, the Eagles and Giants. In Philadelphia, his two field goals were all the points in a 6-0 win. And the following week in New York, Groza’s ten points on three field goals and an extra point were the difference in a 16-7 victory over the Giants.

As Cleveland rolled into December, the Lions were doing likewise in the West. By the time of their re-scheduled game on December 19th, both teams had clinched. The rotation system meant the Championship Game would be played in Cleveland so home-field advantage was not at stake. In a game played in a heavy snowstorm, the Lions again rallied for a late touchdown to win, 14-10. Though it was a meaningless game, the Browns could not have been happy about losing another close one to Detroit. The good news was that they would get another chance a week later for all the marbles. 

The Rebellion That Wasn’t
A number of Browns have told over the years of the offensive unit’s late-night meeting on the eve of the Championship Game. The feeling among Graham, Lavelli, and others was that they had lost the two previous title games to Detroit and the 1951 game to the Rams in no small part because of Paul Brown’s conservative game plans and play-calling. Their collective decision was to do something about it.

 Graham had decided he would retire after the Detroit game. Perhaps emboldened by that fact, he agreed, according to Lavelli and others, to 1.) reject plays Brown sent in that he did not think were appropriate and 2.) change plays as needed at the line of scrimmage based on Detroit’s defensive alignment. Both went against Brown’s requirement that Graham strictly adhere to the coach’s play-calling, a phenomenon that had evolved from their early years together when Graham called most of the plays to 1954 when, by Graham’s estimate, Brown called 90%. 

Brown was the unquestioned boss and even a player as great as Graham had little leeway in such an important matter. Believing it was his final game and more frustrated than anyone over the 1953 title game loss in particular in which he played perhaps the worst game of his career, Graham by all accounts decided to risk his coach’s wrath. It is difficult to know what the repercussions would have been, as it’s hard to imagine Brown benching Graham in favor of back-up George Ratterman. Still, Brown had pulled Graham in favor of Ratterman for a brief period the year before.

56-10
In the end, no rebellion was necessary. The game unfolded such that Cleveland surged to an early lead that ballooned to 35-10 by halftime. Known for especially conservative play calling in the early going, Brown this time had Graham take advantage of coverage and matchup advantages that resulted in two long first-half touchdown passes to Ray Renfro.

Perhaps the biggest key to the game, not surprisingly, was the Cleveland defense. They didn’t shut down the Lions the way they had lesser opponents during the season. Instead, they did something they hadn’t been particularly good at in the regular year: they took the ball away, especially via interceptions. Again and again, the Browns snuffed out Detroit possessions with takeaways, nine in all: six picks and three fumble recoveries. Probably the most striking and pivotal of all was literally a take away as McCormack took the ball out of the hands of Detroit quarterback Bobby Layne in the second quarter when the Lions were still in position to make a game of it.

 It got so good for Cleveland that Len Ford intercepted two passes, a rarity for a defensive lineman in any game, let alone the biggest game of the NFL season. Ken Konz also intercepted two and the Browns also benefitted from a Detroit penalty for roughing punter Gillom. The penalty kept a Cleveland drive alive when the game was still close that resulted in a touchdown.   

 In winning 56-10, Cleveland went a long way to exorcising the demons of the three previous seasons. Rather than going downhill after three difficult big game losses, not to mention one of the longest runs of greatness in pro football history, the Browns bounced back in 1954 as good as ever. That the rousing victory came over the same team that had defeated them in the previous two title games was all the better.

Otto Graham threw for three touchdowns and ran for three others. If not as spectacular as his performance in the 1950 Championship Game, it was a memorable one nonetheless. Paul Brown talked Graham out of retirement the following summer and he led the Browns to one more championship.

Unsung Heroes
Cleveland had a number of great players on their sixth championship team and second in five years in the NFL. That is reflected in the many who were all-pros both that year and in other seasons as well as by the 1954 team’s ample representation in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Graham, Groza, Lavelli and Ford were among those widely recognized for their greatness by people around the NFL and fans alike.

 Mention should be made of some who flew below the radar. Three in particular who stand out based on what they did in 1954 are Abe Gibron, Don Paul and Mike McCormack. Gibron was firmly established as one of the best guards in the league in 1954. His play that year was superlative and it was recognized as such by players around the league who voted him to the first unit of the NEA’s all-pro team. Watching Gibron fire out of his stance time after time on film to knock his man out of the way of a Cleveland ball carrier is firm testament to his great play that year. His excellence goes a long way in explaining why the Browns could have been as successful as they were with a running game that was average at best.

Cornerback Paul arrived in Cleveland not long before the start of the season. He was traded by the Chicago Cardinals to Washington in 1954 and then to the Browns without ever playing for the Redskins. Paul was outstanding at right corner both in coverage and as a tackler. His acquisition and stellar play also proved valuable when left safety Ken Gorgal was injured during the season. Without Paul, Brown may have had to shift personnel around in the secondary. With him, Ken Konz simply stepped in for Gorgal and the defense never missed a beat

Much has been said above about McCormack. His capably replacing Bill Willis, a player long regarded as the best middle guard in football, was key to Cleveland’s 1954 success. He was a heady player who also fit right in with the bruising play of Colo, Kissell and Gain. That middle guard may not have been McCormack’s best position, as evidenced by his making it to the Hall of Fame based on his play at offensive tackle the next eight years, indicates he was quite the all-around football player.

No team has played at such a high level as the Browns in their first ten years. Even just considering their first five seasons in the NFL, they are the only team in pro football history to play in five consecutive Championship Games or Super Bowls. They would make it back a sixth time in 1955, winning again, to make it a total of seven championships in ten seasons. With the exception of the one in 1950, none was as satisfying as 1954’s.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

BOBBY DAN DILLON: Ranging the Field Far and Wide to Stop the Ball in Flight.

By TJ Troup
The 1951 Green Bay Packers after a solid 3-2 start lost their final seven games of the year. Playing a 5-3-3 defense the Packers struggled all year defending passes, and as such finish dead last in the defensive passer rating category at 75.0. No team wins in the NFL when they allow 8.10 yards per pass and a league-worst 25 touchdowns pitched against them.

One of the reasons for the dismal showing was the poor play by safety Harper Davis(his last year in the league). Green Bay chose Bobby Dillon with the 28th pick in the draft to help solve their pass defense issues. Raised on a farm in Pendleton Texas; he was an All-American at the University of Texas. Green Bay used both the 4-3-4 and 5-3-3 defense in '52 and were a much-improved team on defense. John Martinkovic led a savage pass rush that set a team record that still stands by taking down enemy passers for 443 yards in losses. Green Bay with a record of 6-3 felt they were contenders till they faded down the stretch.

How much did rookie Bobby Dillon contribute to the improved team effort?

He played very little in the first two games, but in week three he starts at home against the defending league champion Rams and their vaunted passing attack. Los Angeles faces a 3rd and 35 situation on their opening possession as Van Brocklin drops back. The Dutchman fires and Dillon intercepts. The Packers drive 68 yards and score.

Future Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield brings the Rams back with a stirring fourth-quarter comeback and beats Green Bay 30-28. Dillon has played well in his first start and continues to improve during the campaign. He is almost always aligned at left safety when Green Bay is in a four-man secondary. Dillon contributes interceptions in the wins over Philadelphia and New York, and everyone who followed the game, and this team, in particular, knew the young Texas Longhorn had a very bright future.

The Packers in 1952 finished 8th in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 58.5 and teams learned that throwing deep against Green Bay was not going to be as easy as days past.

The optimistic Packers enter the '53 season knowing they will have six games on the schedule against the always powerful Rams, the best 49er team every, and the defending league champion Lions. Green Bay just does not have the talent and depth to beat these teams, and as such plummets to last place in the division (only team they could beat was the fledgling Colts). Dillon has changed positions to right safety, and has his first all-pro season.

His best game by far is on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit as he ties the league record with 4 interceptions. Dillon's three first-half interceptions have helped the Packers maintain a 15-7 lead over Detroit, and he pilfers his fourth on the opening Lions drive of the second half.

The Elias Sports Bureau lists the record holders in the league manual each year. Not sure why; as on page 12 of the '64 manual is the listing of every player who intercepted 4 passes in a game, and Dillon is not listed? He was the sixth player in league history to intercept four in a game, but he did it against the defending league champions, the other men did not.

Dillon is injured late in the game(his misses the final two games), and Detroit rallied to win. He ranks among the league leaders with nine interceptions, and the Packer secondary finishes 5th in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 50.4 (league average was 53.6).

Lisle Blackburn takes command in '54, and after eight weeks the team has shown improvement and is at the break-even mark of 4-4. The early season highlight for Dillon is on the road in Philadelphia for a Saturday night showdown against the Eagles.

 Late in the 1st quarter, Bobby ranges to his right and nabs Adrian Burk's errant pass, and weaves his way 49 yards to score. Green Bay goes on to win 37-14. Again the Packers can not sustain success and lose their last four—allowing 119 points in the process. When safety Val Joe Walker is injured, Dillon is moved to left safety and rookie Gene White starts at right safety (his only year in the league). Not sure why the Packers did not just keep Dillon at right safety, and play White at left safety, and though Bobby gives a valiant effort, he just cannot do it alone.

Gene White is just not an NFL caliber safety. Walker returns for the final game of the year against the Rams as Dillon returns to his usual post. He plays another of his strong games as he reads Van Brocklin's eyes, and flashes in front of the receiver to intercept early in the 2nd quarter. Bobby returns the ball to the Los Angeles twenty-two, and the Packers score immediately to tie the game. The Rams rebound and win 35-27.

Green Bay finishes 9th in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 72.4. Entering his fourth year in 1955 Dillon's game at safety moves "up a notch" as he becomes the pre-eminent pass defender in the league. He is consensus all-pro and Green Bay with a record of 4-4 after eight weeks still has an outside shot at the division crown. For the first time ever the Packers will beat San Francisco twice in the same season, but lose to Detroit and Los Angeles to fall out of contention. Green Bay finishes 3rd in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 45.6 (league average is 57.1) due to Dillon's masterful play. He intercepts 9 times for the second time in his career.

The Packer secondary struggles during the '56 campaign with the exception of Dillon. He plays outstanding football against the Colts on October 14th, and his fourth-quarter interception against the Lions on Thanksgiving locks up the victory for Green Bay. Dillon is again all-pro and after the first five games of '56 he becomes the third player in NFL history to intercept 30 passes over a 40 game span. Who are the first two men to accomplish this amazing feat? None other than Hall of Famers' Emlen Tunnell and Richard "night train" Lane. Green Bay finishes a disappointing 10th in the defensive passer rating category in '56 with a mark of 71.1 (league average 59.6).

A re-furbished stadium for the Packers opens the '57 campaign, and a victory over the hated Bears. Green Bay can win only two other games during the year. The Packer offense struggles in Blackburn's last year, and the run defense is dismal. Dillon and rookie Johnny Symank play stellar defense though as the Packers rank second in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 51.2. The reason for the listing after each season is to show that every year Dillon intercepted 9 passes the Packers ranked in the top five in the defensive passer rating category. When he did not......Green Bay struggled.

Opening day 1958 at home and after two Rick Casares runs Ed Brown passes, and Dillon not only intercepts he dashes 37 yards for the fifth touchdown of his career. He has now tied Warren Lahr as the only men to do so in a career.

Much has been written about the disastrous 1958 season in Green Bay, yet Dillon again plays well  (he intercepts in their only victory of the year). The Packers plummet to dead last in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 86.1. Seven years in the league and Bobby has a hard-earned reputation as a polished pro who gives his all, and plays masterful pass defense, BUT it is a team game and Green Bay is at the bottom.

Enter Vince Lombardi to lead Green Bay out of the wilderness. Surprisingly Dillon just does not play well in '59, and though he plays every week, he looses his starting post at right safety. Dillon retires after the winning season though many believe he could still do the job. Dillon retired with 52 interceptions (still the Packer team record), and was tied with Jack Butler for second on the all-time list behind Emlen Tunnell.

Evaluating Dillon on film is a joy; he was very fast (track champion for the Longhorns in college), and was instinctive as he ranged far and wide to the ball on pass defense. His vision issues (eye sight in one eye was very limited) did not keep him from covering ground against either the pass or run. Dillon took excellent angles in defending the run.

He was a willing run defender, and a solid tackler. Very rarely do you see him with any eye-popping hits, but usually he got the job done----especially when a runner would break into the clear, and Dillon with a burst of speed would hustle across the field and take the runner down, or knock him out of bounds.

Stated above he played both left and right safety, and in 1958 he switched to corner against San Francisco late in the season when both corners were playing poorly. He went to the coaches at half-time and suggested the switch. Arthur Daley details this in his superb column in the Green Bay Press Gazette. Late in the game you see Dillon intercept a John Brodie deep pass up the right sideline. Harlon Hill was a force to be reckoned with in the mid-'50s and he torched many a defender on deep patterns. Dillon would move over to help the corner and as such this is the first "roll weak" pass defense used a high percentage of the time against an All-Pro receiver.

Watching film of Dillon defending Hill is impressive. Yes, Hill does get some catches, yet he never had the games against Green Bay that he did against other western conference opponents. Bobby Dan Dillon was a versatile, dedicated defensive back who attempted to "cement" the Packer secondary each week. He set records that still stand. What records are those you ask? He is the only defensive back to return interceptions over 100 yards for six consecutive seasons. Seven men have intercepted at least 10 passes against two different opponents in a career, but Bobby Dan is the only player to accomplish this against THREE different teams (Colts, Lions, and Bears). Dillon passed away at the age of 89 just months before he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Would have relished listening to Bobby Dan speak of returning to Temple Texas, and detailing his career in Green Bay.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Remembering Football Historian Richard Whittingham

LOOKING BACK
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 Bob Chandler 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?

LOOKING AHEAD
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.

Changes
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.   

Epilogue  
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.