Saturday, April 18, 2020

Richie Petitbon: A Master of Defense

By TJ Troup
Lately, my stories involve in-depth analysis of a player's career after he has left us. Not today and this saga has been a long time coming.

Today is Richie Petitbon's 82nd birthday, and while his career as a player and coach is lengthy; I will not cover all 467 games.

Clark Shaughnessy aligned the Chicago Bears in a myriad of defenses. Almost always though his secondary was in man coverage. Clark sent his linebackers after the quarterback ("red dog") or had them drop into coverage to help the deep defenders.

The Bears after losing the title game in 1956 responded by winning 13 of their next 20 games, except games against the Colts (Chicago lost all four in '57 & '58). Stan Wallace was listed as a defensive back on the Bears roster, and he was a physical run defender.

At times he lined up right behind Bill George as he went knuckles in the dirt to give Chicago a 5-man pass rush. Wallace, in essence, is a linebacker, but usually had pass coverage responsibilities. Stan was an average pass defender at best. He played well enough in 1958 to receive some All-Pro recognition.

Wallace does not play for Chicago in 1959 (he eventually plays in Canada).

The Bears new director of player personnel is former Los Angeles Rams receivers coach George Allen. Though Allen is not listed as an assistant coach with a specific assignment, he worked at times with the defensive backs early in his days in Chicago.

The Bears number one draft pick is Don Clark, and he does not play for Chicago in 1959. That means the Bears number two pick (21st in the draft) takes on even more significance. Richie Petitbon played quarterback at Tulane, but will start opening day at left safety against the Packers.

Petitbon's assignments for Shaughnessy are very different than Stan Wallace. He is aligned deeper than many safeties, and with his wide-legged stance most would believe he has the tight end man to man.

As a rookie in 1958 Johnny Morris struggled returning punts the last seven games of the year (7 returns for 14 yards). Opening day against traditional rival Green Bay Petitbon will return punts besides playing safety. He has returned one punt for five yards, when McGee booms a punt to him in the 4th quarter. Richie fumbles the punt (a hustling Jim Ringo recovers), and the supposed contending Bears have lost to a team that won just once in 1958.

Maybe this new coach on Fox River can actually get the Packers to play physical and smart football--—and even win games. Chicago journey's to Baltimore to take on the champion Colts on a Saturday night. Richie redeems himself in the first half when he flashes in front of tight end Jim Mutscheller on an out route; pilfers the pigskin and zips 33 yards for a score.

Like many teams of the era offensive ends are not always "split out". When Raymond Berry is tight end left in a double tight end set with a flanker aligned away from Berry; Petitbon leaves the wide side of the field and takes Berry man to man.

Yes, Richie is, in essence, the right corner, but only if Berry is a tight end. Chicago has finally defeated Baltimore, and returns home believing this is their year. Two straight home loses, including the rematch with the Colts sends the Bears on the road to Kezar and another heartbreaking defeat. Halas has a very talented, and tough team, yet the record stands at 1-4.

Film evaluation of Petitbon early in the season shows he is a fine tackler when called upon, and has the speed to cover tight ends. Many times he does not play left safety, he plays "STRONG" safety. Meaning he goes where the tight end goes.

While other safeties have done this before on occasion—Richie is truly the first strong safety in NFL history. He goes where the tight end goes. Petitbon eventually gets a second chance to return punts, and is adequate at doing so (9 for 58 yards the rest of the season).

Lightning-quick Johnny Morris leads the league in this department. Late in the season, Petitbon has demonstrated vast improvement on defense, and his superb physical play against Pittsburgh is the best example. His long legs(6'3") and speed get him across the field in pursuit.

Chicago again finishes second behind Baltimore, but with talented corners Erich Barnes & J.C. Caroline along with Petitbon the Bears have the makings of a strong secondary for the upcoming 1960 season. One of the strangest years in Bears history is the only way to explain 1960.

Twice they are positioned to take over first place, and both times they lose at home; November 13th to Baltimore, and December 4th to Green Bay. Petitbon's second year is a learning experience, and while he by no means regresses, he does not make near the plays he did his rookie season. Don Schiffer's Pro Football Handbook for 1961 states that Petitbon will have "heavier duty at left safety, and has learned his new assignments exceptionally well".

Jack Johnson was in and out of the line-up at right safety, and veteran Charley Sumner struggled mightily in 1960. Shaughnessy moves Petitbon to right safety for 1961. The new left safety is former all-pro split end Harlon Hill. Hill is a shell of what he once was. Leg injuries, and off the field foray's into the Chicago nightlife have left the Bears with a left safety who just cannot do the job on a consistent basis.

Late in the season Hill is benched, and Bobby Jackson gets a chance to play safety. Petitbon intercepts five times in '61 and plays solid football, but he is just not best suited to play right safety. George Allen spends more time than ever with the secondary, and rookie free agent Roosevelt Taylor has the speed, and tackling skills to play winning football.

Chicago still has Shaughnessy aligning the Bears in strange, almost "mystical" defenses that confuse opposing quarterbacks, but at times have Chicago defenders with responsibilities that do not fit with their skill set. Chicago begins 1962 with two road victories, and then comes the day of destruction. Every Packer fan that attended saw a team of destiny destroy a so-called contender 49-0.

Halas makes the momentous decision; Shaughnessy out, Allen in as defensive coordinator. While an actual date is not listed; Allen calls the Shaughnessy defenses the rest of the year, and the Bears win three of their last four to finish 9-5. Petitbon is playing the best football of his career. Diagnosing plays, hustling across the field in pursuit, and making timely interceptions.

The lowly Rams are in Wrigley on December the 9th, and early in the 4th quarter, Chicago leads 23-7. Former Bear Zeke Bratkowski brings the Rams out of the huddle on 4th and 4 at the Chicago four-yard line. Zeke zips the ball towards the sideline but Petibon has baited the Brat, and away Richie goes 101 yards for the interception touchdown score. This is now the longest Chicago scoring play in team history. Rumors abound that Weeb Ewbank is going to be dismissed in Baltimore, and possibly the next head coach of the Colts will be one of two young defensive co-ordinators who maximize the skills of their players; Don Shula in Detroit, or George Allen in Chicago. Bitter cold at Wrigley, and while the game has no bearing on the standings (Green Bay IS a team of destiny) these two bitter rivals pound on each other the entire game.

Chicago leads 3-0 as the Lions break the huddle late in the game. Morral has end Gail Cogdill aligned at left tight end and sends him on a crossing route towards the left-field wall and the band in the end zone. Coach Allen has Petitbon align head up on Cogdill as the right corner, and take him man to man with help from his new cohort Roosevelt Taylor.

Morrall lofts the pass, and Richie cuts underneath and with his long arms reaches up and tips the pass to himself for an end-zone interception and victory. Petitbon is rewarded for his outstanding season with a trip to the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles. He has set the team record for yards returning interceptions in a season with 212 and ranks among the best safeties in the league.

Every Chicago Bear alive that remembers the 1963 season will tell you about the defense. George Allen spent the winter going through the defensive play-book and taking out many of Shaugnessy's outdated alignments.

Coverages are now "hidden" disguised, and opposing quarterbacks struggle reading whether it is man? zone? or a combination. The Bear defensive line lead by the meanest man in football Doug Atkins, the linebackers now led by Joe Fortunato are menacing. and the revamped secondary of corners Whitsell, McRae, and safeties Taylor and Petitbon are the best in football. Mickey Herskowitz superb book The Golden Age of Football has a short story on Bill George called "The General".

George called the defensive signals under Shaughnessy, and wanted a pay raise for calling the defenses in '63. Not only does he not get the pay raise, he is replaced by Joe Fortunato as defensive signal-caller. Petitbon remains the "Colonel" and calls the secondary coverages and adjustments. Having beaten the Champion Packers twice, and surviving back to back ties with Minnesota and Pittsburgh the Bears can win the west at home with victories in their final two games. Petitbon ranks among the league leaders in interceptions with six, and his teammate Roosevelt Taylor has seven.

San Francisco is beaten 27-17 as Petitbon intercepts twice in a game for the first time in his career, and Taylor zips 30 yards to score on his interception return. Chicago clinches against Detroit in a hard-fought victory, setting the stage for a classic. New York easily defeated Chicago 47-7 in 1956 as Conerly passed to his backs in the masterful game plan of Lombardi. George Allen will not let this happen, though Tittle has broken his own record of 33 touchdown passes with a new standard of 36. The Bears intercepted 36 passes, and their defensive passer rating is one of the best every at 34.8.

The new Monsters of the Midway are a very well-coached hard-bitten gang of defenders. Final moments and Chicago has forged a 14-10 lead, but Tittle will never give up. Allen has the Bears in his form of Nickel Coverage, and Petitbon is taking the right side of the field, while Taylor helps McRae on the left.

Tittle's pass floats through the Chicago sky into Richie's arms, and Petitbon is now an NFL Champion.

The Bears falter in 1964 for a number of reasons, and Petitbon does not have an all-pro season, or anywhere near it. He is not alone as the Bears go from allowing only 144 to giving up 379. A very slow start in 1965 has one and all believed the game has passed the Papa Bear by, but a resurgence comes about as Chicago wins seven of their next eight after starting 0-3, to actually become contenders.

Rookie Gale Sayers has ignited the offense, and rookie Butkus the defense. Blair Motion Pictures will soon become NFL Films, and in 1965 they have NFL Play by Play Report (game of the week). The color film jumps off the screen, my Bears are in Baltimore taking on defending western conference champion Colts and Johnny Hightops.

Chicago leads 7-0 in this hard-fought contest when the Bear pass rush knocks Unitas out of the game. We are right before the half as Cuozzo attempts to get the ball to John Mackey on a crossing route. Petitbon intercepts setting up a field goal and an almost insurmountable lead of 10-0. Richie has now passed McAfee to become the all-time leader in lifetime interceptions with 26. Watching film of Butkus, Petitbon and the rest of the defense shut-out the Colts in Baltimore has folks convinced that any kind of a stumble (loss) by Green Bay and Baltimore, and the Bears can win the west. Sayers has a game for the ages in Wrigley against the 49ers, as Green Bay beats the Colts.

The standings going into the final weekend have Baltimore and Green Bay at 10-3, and Chicago at 9-4. Is it possible? Petitbon and the rest of the Bears could actually take on Cleveland for the title? Not to be as the Colts beat the Rams on Saturday. The cover of the Sports Illustrated Pro Football Issue for 1966 is one of the most painful ever for me personally—"Bukich hands off the Sayers for the challenging Bears".

When you are 4-7-2 with one game to go you are anything but challenging. George Allen has left Chicago to revitalize the moribund Los Angeles Rams. Richie Petitbon has an outstanding season that ends with him being voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time. Rumors abound again that 1967 will be Halas last year as head coach.

As usual, Chicago is slow out of the gate(2-5 at mid-season), but the second half is very different. Jim Dooley has taken George Allen's concepts and renamed them. His nickel coverage is the called the "Dooley Defense", but in essence left corner Bennie McRae plays underneath coverage like an outside linebacker while Taylor and Petitbon patrol the deep zones.

Earlier in the year Richie intercepted Bart Starr three times in a game and is again having a superb season. Chicago finishes 7-6-1, and for the fourth time in nine campaigns Petitbon is headed to Los Angeles for the Pro Bowl. Watching the game that afternoon in the Coliseum was not only entertaining, but enlightening as Petitbon flashed in front of tight end Jerry Smith, outfought him for the ball, and dashed 70 yards for a touchdown. Everyone in Los Angeles heard me shouting from my seat, "Go Richie Go".

The Bears under new head coach Jim Dooley start slow in ' what else is new? Carter and Sayers put new life in the Bears offense, and the four-game win streak has the Bears in contention. The Chicago defense at times plays well, but Dooley is just not George Allen. The victory at New Orleans at Tulane Stadium is a homecoming for Petitbon, and now off to Los Angeles as the 6-6 first place (central division) Bears take on the 10-1-1 second place Rams (Coastal Division).

By this time in my life have learned the game well. Senior in high school, and a student of the game, am convinced the Bears can beat my "guru" George Allen in this very meaningful game. Having the play by play (thank you Ryan Anderson), and the game film brings back so many memories. Even without Sayers the Bears have scored enough to lead in the game. Butkus and Petitbon were all over the field.

Gabriel targeted tight end Billy Truax over and over, and Petibon defensed him all game as Roman was just 7 of 23, and Truax went without a catch. Upset of the year, but in Wrigley the last day of the season the Packers knocked off the Bears to "give" Minnesota the division title. As the game unfolded you could easily see Packer receivers uncovered and errors in coverage. Statements that Petitbon was responsible for the errors in coverage have never been proven to be true, but he may have been?

Richie has played 10 years of durable, quality football. He is a proven tackler. His style is somewhat different in that many times his long arms allow him to grab the man with the ball from behind, though he can be seen leveling a shoulder into a ball carrier or receiver also. Petitbon has lost some speed, yet his savvy and experience have proven valuable assets with his lifetime 37 interceptions.

On May 17th, 1969 Petitbon is traded to the Rams for journeyman corner Lee Calland and two draft choices. Richie will be reunited with his teacher and mentor George Allen! Though will be buried in navy blue & burnt orange—to say that I cheered for the Rams in 1969 is an understatement. Allen being rehired after being fired has lit a fire in George like never before. Petitbon will play strong safety with a new partner at free safety.
Though Roosevelt Taylor and Eddie Meador have different styles, they are both outstanding. Opening day and the Rams beat the Colts and Unitas in Baltimore as both Meador and Petitbon intercept. In the victory over Atlanta Richie recovers a fumble. Who says he can't run to the ball anymore? Eleven straight victories, but into the Coliseum on December 7th comes another team that has destiny written all over it.

The Norsemen are just not like any team I had seen since the '62 Packers. Minnesota knocks the Rams from the ranks of the unbeaten. Petitbon is hurt, and will miss playing time for the first time in his career. Los Angeles loses both games, yet Coach Allen will have his Rams ready for the trip to Minnesota and the REMATCH.

Never have I looked forward to a game more than this one. Many historians/fans will tell you that it was one of the hardest hitting games ever. Los Angeles lead by Gabriel wills its way down the field and a 17-7 lead. Petitbon has helped keep the Rams in the lead with a clutch interception (Meador also intercepts), but the Vikings will not be denied.

During the 1970 season, the Rams are in contention for either the NFC West crown or possibly the "new" wild card berth. San Francisco looks like they will win the west, and in the Coliseum on a December Monday night comes a pride of Lions bent on victory.

Petitbon records his last interception as a Ram, but Allen and the Rams come up short again. George Allen will be fired again? Only an owner who has lost sight of reality would do this? He does not stay unemployed for very long. Washington has had one winning season from 1956 through 1970, but Allen is convinced he can bring leadership, and his veterans (the "over the hill gang") to D. C. and win. Allen trades for a 33-year-old strong safety in Richie Petitbon. Opening day on the rain-soaked Astroturf of St.Louis, and Petitbon for the second time in his career intercepts three times in a game.

Though the 'Skins struggle to stay in contention after a 5-0 start, they win the game they must—where is that game you ask? Why, where else the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against his former team. Losing in the first round of the playoffs to San Francisco is disappointing but Allen sees 1972 as an even better opportunity for his team.
Petitbon has played well, and even got some All-Pro recognition for his performance in '71. He has received All-Pro recognition five times in his career. Allen trades for Petibon's former teammate Roosevelt Taylor and they are to be reunited in their quest of a Super Bowl.

During the upset loss to New England, Petitbon recovers a fumble in his last game as a pro. Richie is replaced in the starting line-up by Brig Owens. Time has caught up with him, but he wants to remain in pro football as a coach.

During the 1970 season Bum Phillips coached the defense for the Chargers, and in 1974 as defensive coordinator in Houston Phillips hires Petitbon to coach the secondary. His knowledge and expertise along with his ability to relate to players much like his mentor George Allen has the reinvigorated Oilers playing strong defensive football.

Four years in Houston before former teammate Jack Pardee hires him to be the secondary coach with the Redskins. When Pardee is dismissed after 1980 and replaced by Joe Gibbs—Gibbs keeps just one man from the Pardee coaching staff; yes, you guessed it was Richie Petitbon. He also has a new title; defensive coordinator.

Over the years he is revered for his ability to adapt and adjust during a game. His defensive game plans, and ability to confuse quarterbacks when trying to read the coverages he has taught his burgundy clad 'Skins defenders. No doubt there were times when after the '63 season Petitbon wondered if he would ever be a champion again? Three rings with Joe Gibbs says it all. Though is head coaching career was short-lived, he remains one of those men who had an outstanding playing career and then proceeded to continue on as a superb defensive coach. Happy Birthday Richie, and thanks.


  1. Petitbon was an excellent player and coach ... I admired how well the Redskins defences played despite slow secondaries, Darrell Green the exception ... they bent but hardly ever broke ...

  2. Coach TJ, great piece on a great pro player and coach....I totally get your sentiments about being a Bear fan for life....if only the Irsays had never entered the scene, pro football history, and my personal (now-orphan) fandom would be so different.....a m-I-n-o-r correction however:
    in 1965, the Colts and Packers did not both enter the last week of the season at 10-3....Green Bay did, but were "upset" by being tied by the 49ers in week 14 to finish 10-3-1....Baltimore entered at 9-3-1 and as you correctly state, beat the Rams in the "Tom Matte game" 20-17 (which was highlighted and discussed at length between me and Brian Wolf on a posting on this site a few months back)….love your pieces always!

  3. Great piece, Coach! Thanks for shining a light on a player who many remember more for his coaching career as opposed to his outstanding career as a player .

  4. Damn, I'm old enough to remember Richie and the Bears teams of the mid to late 60s. Thanks for the great profile.

  5. If ever a person deserved a Lifetime Achievement HOF Enshrinement for all contributions, it is Richie Petibon.