Sunday, February 28, 2021

Irv Cross—A Gentle Man But Not a Gentle Football Player

 By John Turney 

Irv Cross was as nice as you can imagine he was—based on what we all saw on television. He was kind, smart, witty. 

We got to know him over the phone a little bit in about twenty years ago. He was working on a project to memorialize football's part in popular culture. Once, I mentioned Colonel David Hunt's comment on Fox News about the "Shock and Awe" bombing of Baghdad to begin the second Gulf War. Hunt said it was definitely an attempt to kill Saddam Hussain to "sack the quarterback". 

Irv told said that was exactly the kind of comment he was collecting for his project. We wish we knew what became of that project because in some ways Pro Football Journal covers some of that same beat with our dedication to NFL Art, NFL Ads, NFL and Hollywood, etc.

Cross spent his first five NFL seasons (1961-65) with the Philadelphia Eagles (he was a seventh-round pick of the out of Northwestern in 1961) his last two going to the Pro Bowl. He was a tall (6-2) corner with long arms and a strong, wiry body who was solid in all phases of the game. In that era, a corner had to give good run support and Cross did. he could also cover well and had a skill that is no longer legal that he was as good as anyone in performing, the wide receiver "ax". 

A corner could press a receiver at the line of scrimmage and rather than cover him the corner could just roll block the receiver to the ground. it was a risky move because if the defensive back missed the receiver was free with no one on him. But, if the corner could execute it, that receiver, was out of the pass pattern, his route was dead. Irv was special at that—no one did it better.

He could also stick to a receiver and had good ball skills as well. And—he could lay a lick on a receiver. He was a great tackler and would hit you—hard. 

When George Allen took over as the Rams head coach Cross was one of the players he coveted and traded Aaron Martin and Willie Brown. Now, the trade was awful for the eagles, but at the time both Martin and Brown were considered young and talented prospects but Allen preferred experience and experience he got with Cross. 

Cross played right corner opposite Clancy Willians (one young player Allen did like) and contributed mightily to the best defenses in Rams history up until that point and maybe through now. 

In the three seasons Cross was in Los Angeles the Fearsome Foursome put pressure on the quarterback and the defensive secondary with Cross, Williams, and Eddie Meader kept opponents to a combined 49.6 defensive passer rating (third-best in pro football and second-best in the NFL over that span). In fact, in 1967-68 their defensive passer rating was 47.4 best in pro football for those two seasons combined.

With the Rams, Cross was a very good kick returner and a tremendous kick-blocker (we rank his seventh-best all-time) with sixteen blocked kicks in his career. In 1966 he tied the Rams record for most kicks blocked in a season with four blocked field goals and ended his Rams career with seven (good for fourth on the Rams leader board in that category). 

In the summer of 1969 Cross wanted to get into coaching and had an opportunity to be a player-coach with the Eagles and Allen included Cross in a deal that sent him and Joe Carollo and  Don Chuy for disgruntled Bob Brown and defensive back Jim Nettles. 

Cross even helped his Eagles obtain speedster receiver, Harold Jackson. George Allen wanted fullback Issy Lang and was offering rookie defensive end John Zook and change, and some of that change was a receiver, presumable of his choice. 

The story goes is Allen had Wendell Tucker and Harold Jackson run a race, maybe forty yards, we are not sure, and Tucked edged Jackson and that is what made Jackson expendable. They were supposedly that close in skills and ability. 

So, the Eagles coach approached Cross as asked his opinion of Jackson who had just arrived in Philly and Cross said "If you can get him, do it. He can fly". Jackson, went on to have four excellent seasons in the City of Brotherly Love.

In his career Cross had registered 22 interceptions 9returning two for touchdowns), 14 fumble recoveries. Cross also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and returned punts as well. In 1967 Cross forced three fumbles and had 10 passes defensed and 47 tackles. In 1968 he made 70 tackles and in 1966 he had 61 tackles with 16 passes defensed. 

Cross didn't get any honors for those years (honorable mention All-Pro in 1966 and 1967 by UPI) but he was more than solid even without the "Alls". 

Cross coached for a couple of seasons then resigned and got into broadcasting doing games in 1971. Then in 1975, he joined The NFL Today pregame show and Americans became familiar with his easy-going, smooth style. 

Don Criqui (center) in between Gale Sayers and Irv Cross for CBS, 1972

Later, in the mid-1990s through mid-2000s Cross was the athletic director for Idaho State and Macalester College.

Cross graduated from Hammond (Indiana) High School in 1957 where he was an All-Conference Halfback in 1956 and the Calumet Region Times Athlete of the Year in 1957.

He graduated from  Northwestern University and he played both fullback and defensive end there and was a team captain in 1960, earning Honorable Mention All-Big Ten that year. As a junior, in 1959, he caught a 78-yard pass—which is still tied for tenth all-time in Northwestern annals for longest passing plays. 

He was also chosen as Northwestern's Male Athlete of the Year in 1961.

In 2009 he was given the Hall of Fame's Pete Rozelle Award and is a member of the Cross is an inductee of the Indiana Football Hall of Fame.

Media reports indicate he dies in Roseville, Minnesota at the age of 81 and is survived by his wife Elizabeth; children Susan, Lisa, Matthew, and Sara, and many others.

R.I.P. Mr. Cross. You were a great man. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

If, At First, You Don't Succeed—Try, Try, Again

 By John Turney

What do four Hall of Fame defensive ends have in common? Other than being great defensive ends? 

Give up?

They were poor left tackles—
Gino Marchetti (upper left) played left tackle his second season in the NFL. He credits that as helping him become a  better defensive end when he returned full-time to d-end in 1954. He said he learned what was hard to block and then he replicated that. He did play some defensive end in 1953 as well, but mostly he was an offensive tackle.

Willie Davis (upper right) played both tackles in 1959 after being a defensive end his rookie season (same pattern as Marchetti). Injuries to Lou Griza and Mike McCormack (both Hall of Famers themselves) put Davis in a position to fill in at left and right tackle.

On the lower left is Deacon Jones. He began his career as a left tackle. It lasted about a half. He was benched and didn't play the second half. He did play some more in the next couple of weeks at tackle but was quickly moved to defensive end and the rest is, as they say, history. 

The lower right is a shot of Elvin Bethea who played left tackle in the preseason and perhaps some regular-season but he did play guard in the regular season before being moved to defensive end late in his rookie year of 1968 where his career took off.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Deacon Jones' Stance in the Early Years

 By John Turney 

We had many opportunities to ask Deacon about his stance switch in 1962 and 1963 from a right-handed stance (1961) to a left-handed one (left hand down) those two seasons and then back to a right-handed one in 1964 through the rest of his career. 

We do know he admitted he was raw as a rookie, and that he "didn't even know how to get into a proper stance" early on. But that is from his biography and we don't know if it means his rookie year or if it meant his first few years.

Here are shot shots from 1961 in a stance with this "tail" low in a crouched position—




In 1962 and 1963 he had his left hand down, though he brought his tail up in a track position if you will. Some coaches preferred that defensive ends have their outside hand down to prevent a false step in attacking a tackle, but it was usually up to the defender to choose—
FYI: This is interesting because Rams tackles are flexed and
one of those tackles is usually end Lamar Lundy



1963—




In 1964 he got his right hand down and his tail up (track stance), and this stand didn't change much the rest of his career—

1965—

1966—

Anyway, you get the point. We will always wonder why the switch—was he coached to do it? After all, it was often preferred by coaches to have that outside hand in front. Or, did he find it more comfortable or effective? And if so, why switch back to his right-hand in the dirt stance in 1964, when he began his dominance as an NFL defender. 

It likely had something to do with his more common use of the head slap in 1964 and beyond, much more than before. It was not something he brought to the NFL or invented, he learned it from Rosey Grier but Deacon, as he said himself he "perfected it" he never claimed to have invented it.  

Hashtag "things we wished we'd asked when we had the chance". 

Hardy Nickerson Thumbnail Career Review

 By John Turney 

Hardy Nickerson was quite a good player, one we never hear much about anymore. He was super-solid in Pittsburgh and then when he got a chance for free agency (thank-you Reggie White et al) he signed with Tampa and helped them in their building of a super defense—making All-Pro that initial season in Tampa and also going to the first of five Pro Bowls.

Here are his career stats and honors—



Nickerson was Second-team on the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team, so, in addition, two his two First-team All-Pro seasons and his two Second-team All-Pro years, he had his share of honors and he racked up 1,525 tackles in his 225 games (200 starts). 

After his NFL career he coached at high school, collegiate levels as well as being a linebacker coach for the Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and San Francisco 49ers.

Yeah, we'd say Hardy had a heckuva career, one worth remembering.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Doug Betters—A Worthy Career

 By John Turney 

Not everyone who plays a decent amount of time in the NFL is worthy of the Hall of Fame and not even of the hall of Very Good but they can still have a worthy career—one worth mention and praise. 

Doug Betters is one of those kinds of careers.

He had a big year in 1983, one in which he outpolled a wide field for the AP Defensive Player of the Year, though it was not consensus. Jack Lambert won the NEA Defensive Player of the Year Award. 

But the AP Award voting was interesting no less than 22 players garnered votes with Betters getting 19 to take the award.

Doug Betters, DE, Miami (19)
Randy White, DT, Dallas (15)
Dave Butz, DT, Washington (7)
Lawrence Taylor, OLB, N.Y. Giants (6)
Jack Lambert, ILB, Pittsburgh (5)
Chip Banks, OLB, Cleveland (5)
Mark Gastineau, DE, N.Y. Jets (4)
Mark Murphy, FS, Washington (3)
Fred Dean, DE, San Francisco (3)
A.J. Duhe, ILB, Miami (3)
Lance Mehl, OLB, N.Y. Jets (2)
Rod Martin, OLB, L.A. Raiders (2)
Randy Gradishar, ILB, Denver (1)
Howie Long, DE, L.A. Raiders (1)
Doug English, DT, Detroit (1)
Lee Roy Selmon, DE, Tampa Bay (1)
Dexter Manley, DE, Washington (1)
Ted Hendricks, OLB, L.A. Raiders (1)
Ronnie Lott, CB, San Francisco (1)
Raymond Clayborn, CB, New England (1)
Johnnie Poe, CB, New Orleans (1)
Matt Millen, ILB, L.A. Raiders (1)


Here are the stats for Betters in 1983—

And his career stats—


In addition to being the AP Defensive Player of the Year, Betters was a consensus All-Pro in a year where Mark Gastineau and Howie Long were playing great football and even though he had another excellent season in 1984 Betters got zero support for All-Pro. In fact he got nothing in terms of honors in any other season.

However, he was not a one-year wonder, he was a good run defender in his early years, even moving right defensive AJ Duhe out of his right defensive end position in 1979. 

But his legacy will be that of a member of the Dolphins Killer B’s Defense and his 1983 DPOY hardware and his 1982 Super Bowl appearance but ultimate defeat to Washington. 

In 1998, Betters suffered a spinal cord injury while skiing in  Montana and now is involved with charities helping those with similar injuries. 

So, again, not everyone is going to be All-Everything, but many have interesting careers as solid football players and did their job. Betters did that. Well done. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

NFL Colorization of the Day

 By John Turney 

This is a colorized shot of the 1937 NFL Championship game between Washington and Chicago. 



Monday, February 15, 2021

Is Antonio Brown a Hall of Famer?

 By John Turney 

Twitter used to be fun, now can still be fun, but more often than not it's ugly. However, there is a topic that was trending this morning. A tweet by CBS Sports HQ (CBS) that had 2.6K likes and a lot of replies and re-Tweets etc.

CBS compared Antonio Brown to Calvin Johnson who was recently voted into the Hall of fame in his first year of eligibility. 

It's a fair question because in the Pro Football Hall of Fame bylaws off-the-field issues are not to be considered (though they often are) and Brown has had plenty of those.

The key here is that CBS used numbers to compare and the numbers are similar—

Chart credit— ProFootball-Reference.com

A while back we did a profile of the top receivers and listed their stats, honors, how many times they led NFL (black ink) or were top ten (grey ink) in a major category, and so on. We've updated that to include what Brown has done since then.

Brown has added a ring and some numbers but even before his troubles became publicized his honors exceeded those of Megatron's. He was a four-time consensus All-Pro (three for Johnson) though Johnson has one more First-team selection so he was a four-time First-team All-pro, three consensus. Then add in Brown's two Second-team All-Pro selections and that shows he was "above the first line" six times. Brown has seven Pro Bowls to six for Johnson...one more 'above the second-line" if you will.

Then consider this:  To this day only Jerry Rice has collected more AP Offensive Player of the Year Award votes than Antonio Brown. Now, Rice won the award twice and Michale Thomas won it last year, the only receivers to win it but Brown got more consideration than others getting five or more votes in three separate seasons. That's a tall order for a wide receiver. Just ask Calvin Johnson who got two votes in his entire career.

Brown also has some good "testimonials" for his Hall of Fame resume—

Former teammate Ryan Shazier said about Brown, "Not the biggest guy. Not the strongest guy. Not the fastest guy. So why is he so good? WANT TO. It’s his WANT TO."

Shazier added that he can usually tell when a receiver is going to make his break but that "But AB is not normal. AB is an alien. His breakdown is so smooth and so quick that it’s basically just one hard plant and boom — he’s changing direction at full speed."

Richard Sherman said, "Antonio Brown is creative with his speed. He’s deceptive. He uses his acceleration and deceleration very uniquely. That’s what allows him to get so open."

When naming the top wide receiver he's faced Chris Harris, Jr., "AB is the best pure route runner in the league. He runs so many different routes with precision, but . . . it’s the unpredictable ways Pittsburgh uses him that makes him so difficult to defend. . . AB’s body control in the air is second to none." All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey added this, "Probably one of the top three, if not the best receiver that I’ve played in my career."

Summary

So, is Brown a Hall of Famer? Well, that's a technical answer because we have to wait and see what happens when he is eligible. But we can ask the question this way—Are his numbers equal to or greater than Calvin Johnson? Yes. Are his "honors" greater than Johnson? Yes. Does he have a ring? Yes.

And add the testimonials and he has more credentials than many. And if he can keep his off-field issues under containment and changes his ways he can add to his numbers and honors but as of now he checks all the boxes except, really, longevity, and recently not everyone checks that box, just as Calvin Johnson and it didn't hurt him in terms of the Hall of Fame.



Thursday, February 11, 2021

All-Time Great Pass Rushers Bookend Their Careers with Sacks

By Nick Webster 

Marchetti (L) with the Texans and Atkins (R) with the Saints

Some players burst on the scene with a bang, others take time to learn and grow and improve, very few leave at the level of their height. Howie Long famously used the analogy of physical prowess being like an elevator that starts at the top of a building and descends, while football smarts start at the bottom and ascend.  

Somewhere in the middle, there’s a sweet spot where the athleticism-elevator is still sufficiently high and the mental-elevator has risen sufficiently that a player reaches his prime.

For two all-time great NFL pass rushers, they were able to announce who they were, respectively, on day one, and in the waning seconds of a great career.

Gino Starts with a Bang
Gino Marchetti was really born to be a pass rusher, big, strong, and quick he burst onto the league in 1952 with the erstwhile Dallas Texans. All the more odd is that he was such a natural pass rusher when in 1953 after the Texans dissolution the Colts tried him at O-Line.  

You might think this robbed him of a year of production at peak-physical prowess; but not so, Marchetti always credited that season and his attempts to block NFL caliber pass rushers with developing his pass-rushing IQ. But, Marchetti had played both ways in college at the famous University of San Francisco and was sufficiently refined they he burst on the NFL scene literally on day one.

On September 28th, 1952 in the Cotton Bowl before a sparse crowd the Dallas Texans would make their NFL debut; the more lasting debut that day, however, was Gino Marchetti.  

Following an opening kickoff return to the 37 yard-line of the New York Giants began attacking the Texans with a run off-tackle left. Setting a strong edge and turning the playback inside while making the tackle for a mere 2-yard gain is Gino Marchetti wearing what is now an unfamiliar #75.  

Welcome to the NFL Gino.
Marchetti lines up for his first NFL Play


Gino tackles the ball carrier for minimal gain on his first NFL play
On 2nd down and long Charlie Conerly and the Giants decide it is time for the opening pass of the 1952 season. Gino – in a stance that will become very familiar over the next dozen-plus seasons – lines up wide and angled in towards the QB.  

With a different uniform and a different uniform number, any astute NFL historian would immediately identify Gino on alignment and stance alone. And, as would also become familiar Gino was always the first off the ball. Only thanks to Bill Hewitt already owning the title was Gino not called “The Offsides Kid”.
Gino with the alignment and stance we all recognize


Not unlike Hall of Famer Bill Hewitt before him Gino looks like the “Offsides Kid”

A prominent feature of pass protection in the early ’50s was blocking the defensive end on the 5-man line with an offensive guard ‘flaring out’ from the center of the formation. One of the backs to the same side would either slip out for a screen, leaving the guard one-on-one with the DE, or would assist and ‘chip’ the DE for something approaching a double-team.  

This approach was reasonably suited for larger DEs who were less fleet of foot, as the guard could get to his spot. The tactic worked well also for undersized faster DE’s as the running back could handle them effectively. However, against Gino – and Len Ford and other physical marvels – the pass rush came too quickly for the guard to position himself and the Running Back simply could not manage the strength of the oncoming rusher.

The guard (boxed) cannot get out to reach Gino and the RB (circled) cannot handle the strong rush


Marchetti notches his first career Sack . . . on the opponents’ first drop-back
So, on the first drop-back that the Dallas Texans and Gino Marchetti have ever faced, Gino notches his first career Sack.  

If Pro Football Focus were around in 1952, they’d have his ‘Pass Rush Efficiency’ pegged at 100% at this point. An incomplete pass later and the Giants punt the ball back to the Texans who go three-and-out, followed by a punt of their own. In continuing to announce himself, on punt coverage Gino is among the crew who chase down Giants Tom Landry forcing a fumble on the return. The Texans recovery of this fumble leads to the first touchdown in Texans history.

Marchetti hits Landry on the punt return and the ball pops out, leading to a Texans touchdown
Over the remainder of the game young Gino notches two more sacks of 11 yards each to finish with 3 sacks for 29 yards and a series of tackles in the running game. The Texans post their first of many losses to come but a Hall of Fame career has begun with a bang . . . literally from the first series of his illustrious career Gino Marchetti was something special.

Atkins Finishes with a Flurry
Doug Atkins and Gino Marchetti were quasi-contemporaries. Gino debut with the Texans while Atkins did with the Browns just a year later in 1953; Gino retired in 1966 with the Colts and Atkins called it a career with the Saints in 1969. 

However, Gino was a 25-year-old rookie in 1952, having lost time to WWII and his effective retirement was in 1964; he was coaxed back to play just three games in 1966 when the Colts suffered serious injuries across their D-Line. And while Marchetti was a star from day-one, Doug Atkins took a little more grooming before he came into his own.

Atkins began his career under Paul Brown with the Browns in 1953 and learned under the great Len Ford.  However, Atkins was nicked up as a Rookie and played just 8 games, though he started all 8. In his second year, Atkins fell into Paul Brown’s doghouse and started just 3 games of the 12-game schedule, ceding time to a new rookie Carlton Massey.  

Brown, fed up with Atkins's lack of maturity parted ways with the large DE following this second season. In his third season, now with the Bears, Atkins played more and better than in either of his first two years starting 11 games and playing in all 12; Atkins notched a few sacks and began looking like a competent NFL starter. 

However, in 1956 Atkins was injured again and played in just 6 games starting one. It was not till 1957 that Atkins full potential began to show. He destroyed the Rams in their two tilts that season and, while the numbers may never be fully complete, he likely led the league in sacks that season. Atkins was now a dominant player and would make 7-straight Pro Bowls, before starting to cede playing time to younger players on the Bears roster in 1966.  

As 1966 ended it would have been reasonable to assume that Akins was done, he was 36 and clearly a step or two slower than in his prime. But, the league was expanding again, with the New Orleans Saints kicking off in 1967 and the Saints, unlike the Falcons a year prior, were willing to take on aging big-name players even a 37-year-old. 

But, as Howie Long has said, the mental elevator was reaching the top. In 1967 as a 37-year-old Atkins registered at least 8½ and perhaps as many as 10 sacks. In the official sack era (1982 to date) only four players have registered double-digit sacks . . . their names, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Chris Doleman, and Julius Peppers, good company. 

In 1968 Atkins was even better notching 12½ sacks in the 14-game schedule at the age of 38, the highest such figure in the sack era was Bruce Smith with 9 at age 39 in a 16-game season. Atkins averaged .89 sacks per scheduled game, the Smith figure of 9 in a 16-game season is .56 per scheduled game meaning Atkins was 59% higher than Smith in sack per scheduled game. 

The baseball equivalent would have Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds surpass Roger Maris by hitting 97 Home Runs in the same length season.

But Atkins 1968 was even more impressive when you consider that he missed the last 3 games due to injury. His 12½ sacks in 11 games played prorates to an 18-sack season at age 38. Certainly, this was a great way to end a career; however, undeterred and confident in his abilities given his strong 1968, Atkins returned in 1969. 

As a 39-year-old in 1969 Atkins posted at least 8½ and possibly as many as 10½ sacks – remarkable. But Atkins performance was an even better bookend to Gino’s career.  

In the 14th and final game of his career, and in the final drive that the Saints defended, late in the 4th quarter with less than one minute left to play Atkins sacked Pittsburgh Steeler QB Dick Shiner for an 11-yard loss. 

Atkins only failed to achieve perfect symmetry with Gino by allowing three more passes on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down to get off without again sacking Shiner; however, the 2nd and 21 hole, Atkins put the Steelers in essentially ended the drive, the Saints season, and Atkins career with a sack.
39-year old #81 Doug Atkins doesn’t get off the line like he used to

But Atkins is still a powerful force to deal with

Atkins delivers a shiner to kick off the final series of his career


Atkins – carried off after the culmination of a Hall of Fame career
Bruce Smith is officially the NFL’s all-time leading sacker and is likely to remain so for a while.  Bruce was an all-time great and a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer, but when considering his pole-position consider:
  1.  JJ Watt’s unfortunate plague of injuries
  2.  Reggie White’s 1984 USFL season – Reggie is 2 sacks behind Bruce’s career figure despite   playing 1984 (and 1985) in the USFL, where he certainly would have logged 2 NFL sacks.
  3.  Gino Marchetti and Doug Atkins’s 12 and 14-game seasons
There is no answer as to who’s the fairest of them all, but the next time you’re arguing about pass rushers, don’t forget old Gino and Doug.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Remembering Jack Cusack & Canton Bulldogs

LOOKING BACK 
By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Jack Cusack, Canton Bulldogs team manager, 1912 (Color: PFJ) 

On this day in 1973 former pro football pioneer and former Canton Bulldogs team manager, Jack Cusack, passed away at the age of 82 in Fort Worth, Texas. 

In the early days of pro football the city of Canton, Ohio became a juggernaut on the field, but not so much off of it. The team, despite its success on the gridiron, always seemed to go broke at the end of the season. Then the infamous betting scandal of 1906 between Canton and nearby rival Massillon almost killed the sport in Stark County. But a new name in the sport arrived in Canton at the most opportune time. 

In 1912, at the age of 21, Jack Cusack became the team's secretary-treasurer, at no cost to the team, as a favor to team captain Roscoe Oberlin. However, Cusack was disliked by the current manager H.H. Halter. Cusack later went behind Halter's back to sign a contract with Peggy Parrett's Akron Indians, concerning conditions for a game between the two squads, something Halter was unable to do. When Jack's actions were discovered by Halter, he tried to dispose of Jack's services through a team meeting. However during the meeting the team sided with Cusack, after discovering he had secured a 5-year lease on Lakeside Park for the Canton professional team. The result was Halter being removed from the team and Jack being named the team's new manager.
1912 Canton Pros (Bulldogs) team photo (Color: PFJ)

As manager of the Pros, Cusack slowly added college players to his roster along with the local sandlotters who constituted the bulk of the team. To make the team more profitable he had 1,500 seats added to Lakeside Park. Cusack felt that the Pros had to live down the 1906 scandal and gain the public's confidence in the honesty of the game. It was his theory that if he could stop players from jumping from one team to another, it would be a first step in the right direction. Therefore, several Ohio League managers made a verbal agreement that once a player signed with a team he was that team's property as long as he played, or until he was released by management - although some pro teams did not abide by this agreement. 

The Signing of Jim Thorpe (1915) 

Cusack revived the Canton-Massillon rivalry in 1915. With the rivalry, fans began referring to Canton as the "Bulldogs" once again and Cusack reinstated the name. That season Massillon and Canton began hiring bigger name players. When Canton began the season with a 75-0 vic¬tory over a team from Wheeling, West Virginia, the Bulldogs' starting line¬up included newcomers Bill Gardner, a tackle and end from Carlisle Indian School, Hube Wagner, an All-America end from Pittsburgh, and Earle “Greasy” Neale, the coach at West Virginia Wesleyan and an outstanding halfback. Massillon also had some big names in its lineup. The Tigers were represented by four former Notre Dame players - ends Knute Rockne and Sam Finegan, tackle Keith Jones, and halfback Gus Dorais - and Ohio State halfback Maurice Briggs. 

 As the two games between the renewed rivals approached, it was just like old times, with Canton and Massillon appearing to be the best teams in the state. Each had lost only once, and Canton's defeat had been while traveling out of state, a 9-3 verdict to the Detroit Heralds. With fans anxiously awaiting the first game, Cusack, in a move reminiscent of the old Canton-Massillon wars, signed the best football player in the world - Jim Thorpe. Thorpe first earned national attention in 1911-12, when he was an All-America halfback at the Carlisle Indian School. He received the acclaim of the world when he won gold medals in both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Thorpe also had played pro baseball, as well as football, with the Pine Village team in Indiana. When Cusack contacted him, Thorpe had slid into semi-oblivion and was coaching backs at the University of Indiana.
 
Jim Thorpe, Canton Bulldogs (Color: PFJ)

Nevertheless, he was still Jim Thorpe. The great Indian was a star at any sport he set his mind to, but on a football field he was in a class by himself. Some players could run as well, some could pass, a few were on a par defensively, and a very few could kick equally well, but no one at the time - or possibly since - combined all these skills to an equal degree of perfection. Still, when fans heard that Thorpe had been promised $250 for each game, they figured Cusack had lost his mind. But Cusack had the last laugh. The paid attendance for the Bulldogs' games had averaged 1,200 before he signed Thorpe. For the final two games with Massillon, Thorpe helped draw crowds of 6,000 (where Massillon raised their ticket prices to seventy-five cents) and 8,000. Everyone wanted to see the world's best football player in action. Unfortunately, Thorpe didn't help the Bulldogs as much on the field as off in the first game as Massillon won 16-0. Thorpe didn't start, although he did break loose for a 40-yard run to the Massillon 8-yard line, before he slipped trying to avoid Dorais. 

Canton vs Massillon, 1915 

“Nowhere in this country today are there two football teams possessing such a galaxy of stars as do the Tigers and Bulldogs.” Massillon Independent, November 14, 1915 

“There was a large amount of money [bet] up on the game and the fans, crowded into a stadium much too small for the crowd, were at a fever pitch when the game started.” Canton Daily News, November 29, 1915.

Two weeks later, the teams met at Canton, with the Bulldogs winning 6-0. First, Thorpe dropkicked a field goal from the 18-yard line and later he made a 45-yard field goal from placement. But it was one of the most exciting finishes ever that earned the game its place in history. The second game was played before a crowd so large that fans had to stand in the end zones. Ground rules for the game were adopted providing that any player crossing the goal line into the crowd had to be in possession of the ball when he emerged from the crowd. Late in the game, Massillon drove the length of the field to try to score the winning touchdown. That is when the fireworks really exploded, according to Cusack: 

"Maurice Briggs, right end for Massillon, caught a forward pass on our 15-yard line and raced across our goal right into the midst of the "Standing Room Only" customers. Briggs fumbled - or at least he was said to have fumbled - and the ball popped out of the crowd right into the hands of Charlie Smith, the Canton substitute who had been following in hot pursuit. Referee Connors, mindful of the ground rules made before the game, ruled the play a touchback, but Briggs had something to say about that. "I didn't fumble!" protested the Massillon end. "That ball was kicked out of my hands by a policeman - a uniformed policeman!" That was ridiculous on the face of it. Briggs was either lying or seeing things that didn't happen to be there -- for most everybody knew that Canton had no uniformed policemen in those days. But Briggs was unable to accept this solid fact.” It was a policeman!" he insisted. "I saw the brass buttons on his coat.” 

As the arguing over the call continued, the crowd grew more and more restive. Only three minutes remained in the game that would determine the Ohio professional championship. If the touchdown counted and Massillon either won with an extra point or tied, the Tigers would win the undisputed championship. However, if the score did not count and the Bulldogs held on to win, they might be awarded the title. Finally fans of both teams could stand the strain no longer, broke down the fences surrounding the field, and swarmed by the thousands onto the playing surface. The officials, unable to clear the field, ended the game. However, the officials were not allowed to escape. The Massillon team and its fans demanded that they settle the matter by making a definitive statement about the referee's decision. The officials agreed to make the statement, but only if it were to be opened and read by the manager of the Courtland Hotel at 30 minutes after midnight. That would give the officials time to leave town, thereby avoiding the wrath of either the Canton or Massillon fans. That night the lobby of the Courtland was filled to capacity with both Canton and Massillon fans, waiting for the statement to be read. When it was announced, the fans learned that the officials had backed the referee’s decision and ruled that the Bulldogs had won the game. The last chapter of the season did not end at the hotel, however. It was not until 10 years later that Cusack solved the mystery of Briggs’s fumble and the phantom policeman. As Cusack recalled: While on a visit back to Canton I had occasion to ride a street car, on which I was greeted by an old friend, the brass-buttoned conductor. We began reminiscing about the old football days, and the conductor told me what had happened during that crucial final-quarter play back in 1915. Briggs, when he plunged across the goal line into the end zone spectators, fell at the feet of the conductor, who promptly kicked the ball from Briggs' hands into the arms of Canton's Charlie Smith. “Why on earth did you do a thing like that?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “it was like this - I had thirty dollars bet on that game and, at my salary, I couldn't afford to lose that much money." 

That kick might have saved the conductor $30, but it cost Massillon an Ohio League championship. Instead, the title race was left in a muddle, with three teams - Canton, Massillon, and Youngstown - all claiming the championship. As it turned out, the only clear winner in 1915 was Canton, and that was off the field, where Cusack’s signing of Thorpe not only led to immediate financial success but gave the Bulldogs a bright future. 

Thorpe actually did more than that, helping football throughout Ohio. More important than anything he did in any single game, Thorpe's presence at Canton focused the attention of the whole country on Ohio professional football. More players of quality began arriving and both attendance and salaries went up. Ohio sportswriters - without blushing - began to trumpet the "world professional championship." True, pro and semi-pro teams could be found from New England to Iowa in nearly every town will eleven able-bodied men and a flat expanse of 100 yards, but they all took the aspect of minor leaguers; Ohio held the majors. 

The presence of Thorpe on the field in football-crazy northeast Ohio doubled the attendance and escalated the demand for former college all-stars to the point where no team could hope to become a state, regional or national championship contender without a significant number of paid former college stars on its team. Soon, the annual talk of forming a real pro league - with Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs as the cornerstone - became more vocal than ever before. 

The Bulldogs were the class of the Ohio League and professional football. Cusack’s squad would go on to win the “championship” three straight seasons, 1915-1917. World War I halted Cusack’s plans for his Canton Bulldogs. But pro football wasn’t the only thing on his mind. At this time Cusack decided to leave Canton and go into the oil business, setting up his operation in Oklahoma. He would eventually sell the team to Ralph Hay, a successful automobile dealer in Canton.
Eventually Cusack would make his mark in the oil business, retiring wealthy in Fort Worth. Cusack’s contributions to the early days of pro football shouldn’t be forgotten. Although he isn’t enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he very could be based on his resume. In the 1960’s Cusack wrote a short memoir of his time in pro football, titled “Pioneer in Pro Football,” it was self-published. Just 32-pages in length it gives a great look into how the game of pro football was organized and operated during the 1910’s. It also gives game-by-game accounts of the famous Canton-Massillon games under Cusack’s watch. Pioneer in Pro Football is worth the short read.
On this day we remember Jack Cusack.
1973 Jack Cusack obituary
1967 Jack Cusack letter to Hall of Fame coach Greasy Neale

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

TUESDAY TIDBITS: Super Bowl Defensive Superiority

 By TJ Troup 

There are times when you just have to admit you got it wrong! Really believed the Chiefs would move the ball up and down the field on Sunday evening, and win their second title in a row. Much has been written already about Todd Bowles and his defensive game plan, and later in this saga will return to that subject. First up, must give credit where credit is due. 

All season have "trashed" Conor Orr at SI for his inability to not only understand this game of passion but simply because what he wrote was incorrect/wrong/foolish etc. Last week Conor Orr picked the Buccaneers to win; congrats Conor you got it right. 

Now back to the silver trophy game. Putting together a defensive game plan is always a challenge, yet there were times as a high school defensive coordinator my players went on the field knowing they would not only stop the opponent but absolutely dominate. 

What is a dominant defensive performance? 

Starts of course with points allowed, and for me, that was "pitching a shut-out" (how I relished leaving the press box walking down to the field and looked up at the scoreboard that read 0!), then the yards allowed...obviously as few as possible, then turnovers—taking the ball away over and over again, and finally the pass rush, and especially watching the opposing quarterback pick himself up off the turf after being sacked, and sometimes on that sack having his world turned upside down mentally, emotionally, and physically. There is no doubt that the men who have co-ordinated NFL defenses in the SB and dominated have their place in history. 

Would enjoy you folks out there that read this column to tell me which defenses should be on the list, and even more so, who would you rank as #1?  We begin my elite eight with Mr. Tom Landry who twice won the trophy, and his defense was a key element. Miami gained 185 total yards in January of '72, and Denver gained 156 in January of '78. Additionally, the Dallas head man with help of course from Ernie Stautner took the ball away 11 times! 

Having watched Richie Petitbon as a player and then as an assistant under Joe Gibbs with the Redskins you could easily see how much Richie learned from his mentor George Allen. The Dolphins in January of '83 gained just 176 yards, and take away the long early touchdown pass...Miami completed just 3 of 16 for 21 yards. Todd Bowles played under Petitbon, and would really enjoy asking him what he learned from Petitbon, and did any of those lessons factor in this past Sunday? 

Marcus Allen may have been MVP, but the Raider defense nullified an offense that scored 541 points in 16 regular-season games. Washington gained 283 yards but only scored 9 points. Charley Sumner had a terrific game plan. The 49er offense may have gotten lots of deserved ink, but the Niner defense allowed Denver just 167 yards in total offense, took the ball away 4 times, and recorded 6 sacks in January of 1990.

Seifert may have been head coach, but you know he was involved in how San Francisco played defense that day. Now the final three, a case can be made that any of the next three are the best defensive performances ever in an SB. The Vikings gained 119 yards and turned the ball over 5 times, no sacks, yet the pass rush did force Tarkenton to alter his passes. 

Chuck Noll learned lessons from Shula, and with a very motivated Bud Carson the Steel Curtain was a Black & Gold nightmare for Minnesota. Buddy Ryan may have used a number to name his defense, but very little has been written about the actual alignment and why, but the proof sure was in the pudding for the Patriots as they gained 123 yards in offense, turned the ball over 6 times, and were sacked 7. Ryan's defense was an adaptation of the old Oklahoma State defense of the ''50s.  

When Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson left the huddle to line-up for the opposing offense they both knew that they had nine other stalwart defenders motivated to make their job easier. Could go hours on what Marvin Lewis changed for the Giants after stopping the Titans and the Raiders. Baltimore allowed New York just 152 yards in offense, took the ball away 5 times, and recorded 4 sacks. Which team ranks #1? Hope you contact the Journal with who and why. 

Mike Henry (right) in Rio Lobo

Evaluating Mike Henry as a linebacker was a joy due to the amount of film have on him as a Steeler and Ram. Jeffrey Miller did a terrific job in his recent column on Mike. Ms. Sherry Lansing ("Emilita") gunned down Blue Tom Hendricks in Rio Lobo, though Mike was rock solid as the bad sheriff. During my time as a special education teacher was fortunate to work with my valued teacher assistants; and one of them had a cup of coffee with the Eagles, Packers, and finally the Browns. 

Since my favorite quarterback of all-time is Bernie Kosar had many questions for Cornelius about his time in '88 in trying to earn a spot on the Browns roster. He told me that he never saw a head coach that was more involved, and knowledgeable on every facet of the game than Marty S. The man was a leader, a teacher, and a credit to the coaching profession. RIP Marty. 

Lastly, John Turney and myself are going to branch out and do a baseball blog. My first story will be up on February 23rd, which is the birthday of my high school baseball coach. Hope you check it out.