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.
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 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.
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.
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.