Sunday, May 30, 2021

Memorial Day—Keith Birlem and Nick Basca

 By John Turney 
Keith Birlem

Keith Birlem was the commander of the Army Air Corps 508th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy) stationed in Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England, during World War II after playing just one season in the league for the Cardinals and then Washington (where he was a teammate of Sammy Baugh) after a midseason trade.

He’d been a star quarterback for 1936-1938 San Jose State football teams. The Spartans were 27-7-1 in the three seasons with Birlem as the quarterback and was named to the Little All-America Team after his senior season.

Birlem was the son of an upper-middle-class insurance broker (World War II was not just a poor man’s war, all were asked, and did, serve) and the younger Birlem was a local athletic hero who San Mateo High starring in several sports before moving on to San Jose State.

After a May 4, 1943 bombing mission over Europe to take out repurposed automobile plants in German-occupied Antwerp, Belgium in 1943, Birlem returned safety though it was not easy, they had encountered stiff German resistance. 

Three days later, on a training mission, Birlim’s B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed “Vicious Virgin” collided with another B-17 bomber killing all aboard both aircraft. 

This is a list of Birlem's commendations—
★ World War II Victory Medal
★ American Campaign Medal
★ Army Presidential Unit Citation
★ Army Good Conduct Medal


Mike Basca

Nick Basca played his last NFL game on December 7, 1941—the day of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. Three days later, on December 10, 1941, Basca enlisted in the United States Army.

The former Eagle was a tank commander and was sent overseas to England in December 1943 to join the Fourth Armored Division- part of General George Patton’s famed Third Army. This division trained extensively and acted as a decoy for the coming Invasion of Normandy because Allied Intelligence was aware Hitler was convinced that any charge into Nazi-occupied Europe would be led by Patton—someone who his Generals feared. 

Basca, landed at Normandy a month after D-Day and helped finalize the security of  Normandy. Next, the Third Army turned east and swept across France over 250 miles to the city of Nancy. It was towards the end of this sweep that Basca lost his life in the French town of Obreck.

Corporal  Michael Martin "Nick" Basca died in battle on November 11, 1944, when a German 88 mm round hit the tank he was commanding. 

Basca played football and graduated with a B.S. in education from Villanova. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles under Bert Bell and played eleven games for the Eagles one where he rushed for a touchdown, intercepted three passes, and kicked a field goal and nine extra points.
Basca with the 1941 Eagles
Basca was an undersized back at all levels of competition, high school, collegiate and professional, topping out at 5-8, 160 pounds. According to one media report, "At Sacred Heart, he became a local celebrity when, as a 97-pound eighth-grader, he led his team to a win over Phoenixville High's freshmen."

He then starred at Phoenixville High School then prepped for a year at Pennington in New Jersey before moving on to Villanova where he was a star for the team. doing all of the things well-rounded back did in the day—passing, punting, and drop-kicking, a "triple threat". He was named All-State Team, and to several All-Eastern teams, and was the team captain his senior year.

Here is a list of Basca's commendations—
★ World War II Victory Medal
★ Purple Heart
★ American Campaign Medal
★ Army Presidential Unit Citation
★ Army Good Conduct Medal
★ European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

1983 Boston Breakers Defensive Stats

 By John Turney 

As can be seen, the Breakers tackers are tallied from coaches film review and as per usual when that is done the assists are seemingly always high and no protocol is given as to what is or is not an assist so the total tackles are extremely high. This occurred in the NFL as well and we've spent time trying to use only gamebook totals where possible.

One of the giveaways is that there are 995 tackles credited and 994 assisted tackles credited a 1-to-1 ratio. Most times you see a 2-to-1 ratio for tackles and assists, so the assists are around double what would usually be found in a gamebook. 

In looking at this we'd think the total of 142 tackles is a reasonable total and maybe half or a third of the assists were ones where the player actually got his hands on the ball carriers. We'd suspect, based on experience, that many are when a player cut off a ball carrier, or forced a ball carrier into the arms of another—all legitimate and excellent football plays, but unless all teams released their coaches tackle totals then they cannot be used to compare team-to-team to whatever point that is valid anyway. 

So with all those caveats here are the tackles for the 1983 Breakers plus some other goodies—

Saturday, May 22, 2021

BOB SHAW: The 1950 Chicago Cardinals

 By TJ Troup 

Bob Shaw

Having sources to list the actual/accurate starting line-ups for teams historically is a challenge. Though team programs can shed light on this aspect; film is the key for obvious reasons. 

Jimmy Conzelman

When Jimmy Conzelman returned to coach the Chicago Cardinals in 1946 he made progress during the season in making his team into a viable respected opponent. Beating the Packers and Bears to close the season made the Cardinals winners for the campaign, and with an even stronger team in 1947 the Chicago Cardinals became champions. 

During a thirty-seven game stretch the Cardinals posted a 28-8-1 record! Many teams win at home which the Cardinals did (12-3-1), yet more impressive was an outstanding road record of 16-5! When Conzelman did not return in 1949 Cardinal management attempted the flawed concept of co-coaches. Phil Handler was an experienced line coach, and had a long successful career, but he struggled as a head coach. His interaction with Buddy Parker was not a positive one, and when Buddy took over the last five games of 1949 the Cardinals suddenly returned to their winning ways. One of the victories was on the road in the Coliseum before 74,673. The thrilling 31-27 win over the conference champion Rams showcased that Chicago did indeed have two strong teams. 

Though the Cardinals were demolished in the record-setting season-ending loss to the Bears; there was no doubt after four consecutive winning seasons the CHICAGO CARDINALS were a top-notch team with talent. Since there has never been anything concrete written about why Parker left to go to Detroit to be an assistant—can only surmise that this outstanding coach saw the "hand writing on the wall". Cardinal management would not give Buddy what he wanted, and he returned to a team where he had won a championship as a player. 


Taking the reigns in 1950 for the Cardinals was Earl "Curly" Lambeau. Wow! A man who had won championships, and understood offensive football. Lambeau had talent at the skill positions on offense, and decided to make a change at quarterback. Paul Christman was traded to Green Bay, and the "triggerman" would be Jim Hardy. While Hardy had some impressive games with both the Rams in 1948, and the Cardinals in 1949; he was inconsistent, and that is where we start the 1950 campaign. Hardy set a league record for finding the wrong colored jersey as the defending champion Eagles pirated 8 passes in a 45-7 home loss at Comiskey. 

Hardy rebounded in a Monday night contest against the pathetic green-clad Baltimore Colts. The man of the evening was end Bob Shaw, and since he has been mentioned, how did he become a Cardinal? When Steve Van Buren ran over, around the Rams defense through the mud in the Coliseum against in the title game of '49 Los Angeles front office knew a trade must be made. 

Though Dick Huffman was an excellent tackle, he was effectively blocked on right side sweeps by Philadelphia. The Cardinals drafted Bob Reinhard with the 8th overall pick in 1950 and traded him to the Rams for Bob Shaw. Though Shaw had shined in '49 for Los Angeles (he caught 4 touchdown passes in the division-clinching win over Washington), he was deemed expendable. 

There are times you have to trade quality to get quality, and this was an excellent trade by the Rams since Reinhard was one of the two best left defensive tackles in the league in 1950(the other was Weinmeister of NYG). So who replaces Shaw you ask? Elroy Hirsch had lost his left halfback position during the '49 season since he struggled running between the tackles. Since he had speed and moves...could he become an offensive end? Yes sir, and the 1950 Rams had yet another weapon in their arsenal. 

This story is about the Cardinals so lets return to Shaw, and the Monday night victory. On page 42 of my out of print book "This Day in Football" the game is detailed on Steve Sabol's eight-year birthday. Back to back road losses have Chicago at 1-3 and they travel to Griffith Stadium to take on the Redskins. 

The game film is a treasure trove of delights, and of course you may ask why? How the strategy unfolded, and the key plays of the game come to light, yet much more important having the complete game anyone can list and evaluate who played what position. Though would relish having even more complete Cardinal games for 1950 have enough resources to list the starting line-ups for Chicago for the season. Ready? Here goes....

CARDINAL DEFENSE: aligned in multiple fronts, yet usually they are in an over shifted 5-3-3 defense. Starting at left linebacker is rookie Bill Svoboda. He is walked off towards the flat, and aligned much deeper than other teams outside times he almost seems like a left corner? He had much to learn, but was willing, capable, and tough. Svoboda struggled defending sweeps, and deep passes as his responsibilities were daunting. 

Bob Dove

The left defensive end was veteran Bob Dove. He shed blocks easily, was excellent in pursuit, and was a capable pass rusher. Dove earned a trip to Los Angeles for the first pro bowl. The left defensive tackle was Bill Fischer. The big man had size, strength, and defended the run very well, but since he was a starter on offense; he was rested when Chicago was on defense, and as such rookie John Hock, and at times George Petrovich (his last year with team) filled in. 

Knox "Bull Dog" Ramsey

Youngster Knox Ramsey started at middle guard, and battled every center he faced. The middle linebacker in the 5-3 was over shifted towards the tight end, and was handled by Gerry Cowhig in his only year as a Cardinal. Knox Ramsey's older brother rotated in at linebacker, and the emotional and combustible Buster Ramsey was a hustler who never backed down from anyone. 

The right defensive tackle position was handled by Lloyd McDermott after the joined the team from Detroit. Also seeing playing time at this position were two men in their last year with Chicago; Plato Andros and John Goldsberry. 

Tom Wham

The right defensive end was quick, and resourceful Tom Wham. Though he was not chosen for the Pro Bowl, he sure had a nose for the ball as he recovered 9 fumbles over a 23-game span. Excellent at hounding the passer, and defending the sweep this lean veteran stands out in film study. He also is part of a league statistical error that should be corrected if Elias ever deems a trade viable.  

The Cardinals right linebacker was a two-man rotation of equal playing time. Vince Banonis and Ray Apolskis were effective and mobile. Starting at right corner was swift rookie Don Paul. You don't see Don making strong tackles, yet was adequate in defending the run. His baptism by fire was key in the foundation of an excellent career at right corner; though most of it came with Cleveland. 

Don Paul could, or should? have been rookie of the year as he gained 1,150 all-purpose yards, and intercepted four passes. During 1949 safety Bob Nussbaumer was the league leader in interceptions, and many of his "picks" were spectacular. Speed, and savvy coupled with his decisive instincts gave Chicago a centerfielder who could cover ground. Unfortunately, he was injured early in the year and was never, and I mean NEVER adequately replaced. 

Coming over from the AAFC was NFL "rookie" Ray Ramsey and thought he would develop in the next few years, he did not help the Cardinals very much when he was on the field. Also attempting to play safety was left offensive halfback Fred Gehrke. His failures on defense were the main reason he left the team to join San Francisco during the year. Gehrke was rock solid as a corner on the 1945 Champion Rams, but he was not a safety. 

Mal Kutner

Swift, athletic Mal Kutner if healthy would have filled in admirably for Nussbaumer but injuries curtailed his performance in his last year in the league. Kutner could still cover ground and intercepted three passes during the campaign. Finally, the starting left corner—diminutive Jerry Davis. Almost aligned like a left safety near the hash he had to help Svoboda on pass coverage to the outside, and take care of passes pitched inside the hash. Davis was an excellent pass defender, and though he lacked size, he was a determined tackler. 

Evaluating the Cardinal defense is difficult since they had strong moments......allowing Cleveland and New York a combined 13 points in back-to-back mid-season clashes, but also "giving" up 51 points in the return match with the Giants, and 56 points to the single wing Steelers. Chicago could be resilient, and display toughness one week, and then be a sieve the next with out-of-position play, and poor tackling. The Cardinals allowed 217 yards a game rushing in seven losses, but only 122 yards rushing in five victories.

CARDINAL OFFENSE: Bob Shaw began the year as the starting left offensive end, but with Kutner missing much of the season at right end Shaw was moved there. Shaw was the complete package with enough speed to get open deep, and a plethora of moves to find the open areas against a zone, or beat man coverage. Four times during the year Shaw gained over 100 yards receiving, and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his only season as a Cardinal. 

Bill Fischer missed very few snaps on offense at left tackle, and his strong run and pass blocking is why he also went to Los Angeles for the Pro Bowl. Determining who the starter at left offensive guard is difficult since two men received equal playing time; George Petrovich, and rookie Ed Bagdon. Both men were adequate on their best day. 

The starting center most of the time was rangy Bill Blackburn. His skills as a run and pass blocker were strong, but he would not be ranked as one of the top-notch centers in the league. 

During the victory over Washington in October when the Cardinals had a commanding lead Blackburn played middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense. His vast experience and his ability to drop into the right area on pass coverage brings a question to mind? 

Why did the Chicago Cardinals make a valid attempt to play the 4-3 since Bill could pursue well, and drop into coverage? Vince Banonis also played some at center to spell Blackburn. Right offensive guard was handled by Buster Ramsey, and he could and did make every block needed on running plays to the strong side. 

Rookie Jack Jennings began the year as the right offensive tackle, but late in the year Plato Andros and John Goldsberry also saw significant playing time at the position. When Bob Shaw moved to right end rookie Fran Polsfoot became a starter at left end. He was outstanding as a route runner and displayed excellent hands. This youngster had a very bright future. Charlie Trippi was usually the left halfback, but twice during the year, he did not start. As the season progressed he was the key element in the Cardinal offense. Trippi ran well both inside and outside, and when called upon was excellent as a receiver. Fred Gehrke carried the ball plenty early in the year, yet as mentioned above was let go from the team. 

Pat Harder

Fullback Pat Harder was one of the better blockers in the league and could get outside when called upon, yet this Pro Bowl player was powerful on inside power runs, and traps. Elmer Angsman had speed, and been elusive in the past, and at the end of 1950 was selected for the inaugural Pro Bowl. The question is why? Angsman gained 128 yards rushing on 41 carries after five games, and finished the year gaining 5 yards on 12 carries. This might be the most questionable Pro Bowl selection in league history? Jim Hardy rebounded from throwing 8 interceptions to the Eagles to shredding the porous Colt secondary, but overall he continued to be inconsistent. 

When accurate the Cardinals won as he threw just six interceptions in Chicago victories, but 25 interceptions in seven losses. Surprisingly he also was chosen for the Pro Bowl? Pro Football Archives lists Hardy as starting 11 games, but the reality is he started eight. Frank Tripucka started four games at quarterback, and though he forced passes into coverage just like Hardy he could also zip the ball all over the field to open receivers. The November 19th victory over Eagles in Philadelphia improved the Cardinals record to 4-5. On a frigid Thanksgiving day at Comiskey the Steelers came into Chicago and physically whipped the Cardinals the entire game. Could the Cardinals rebound and win their last two to finish with a breakeven season? 

The crowd of 31,919 at Comiskey watched the Cardinals outplay their hated rivals...the Bears all afternoon winning 20-10 to force the Bears into a must-win situation to make the playoffs on the final Sunday(which they did). 

The Chicago Cardinals traveled to the Steel City to take on Pittsburgh. Both teams stood at 5-6, and six years earlier they "combined forces" if that is the best way of stating it; to form Card-Pitt in 1944 (a disaster of major proportions). The Steelers again completely outplayed the Cardinals in a 28-7 victory. Summing up the year is a real challenge, but since the Chicago Cardinals would win just 14 of their next 60 games one would look upon the 1950 team as competitive and at times a tough opponent. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Kim Bokamper—Misused?

 By John Turney 

At first, Kim Bokamper was playing in what seemed to be an ideal position then, in 1980 or so a transition occurred and by 1983 he was seemingly in a defensive position that did not suit his body style and skill set. And while he performed admirably it just didn't work very well in our view.

Going back to 1976, when Bokamper was taken 19th overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 1976 NFL Draft, he had some bad luck when he missed his rookie season with a knee injury. 

He was likely seen as a younger faster version of Bob Matheson—a player who could play linebacker and also rush the passer when needed. Matheson was the player, if you remember, that made the '53 defense' go, he was the player that allowed the Dolphins to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 using the same personnel because he had the skills to stand up and play 'backer or rush the passer at end from either side.

But he was 32 years old in 1976 so it was time to look for a replacement.

In 1977 Boklamber won the starting left linebacker spot and Matheson moved inside from right linebacker as the Dolphins moved from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base, but they still used a 4-man line in nickel and that fourth lineman was Bokampher at left end.

The right end was A.J. Duhe and both he and Bokamper were All-Rookie selections. 

In 1978 it was business as usual except the defense improved and the Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 1974. Bokamper was excellent but as we mentioned in posts about some outside linebackers it was a crowded league in terms of talent so Bokamper didn't get any post-season honors for 1978. He did in 1979, making the  Pro Bowl (his only one) but was healthier and made more big plays in 1978 than in 1979. But, that is often how it goes—a player has a big year, then gets recognition the year after.

As we mentioned Bokamper was a Pro Bowler in 1979 but in 1980 the transition was occurring. 

 Defensive end A.J. Duhe was not performing as well as he had from 1977-78 (he was hurt at the end of 1978) and in 1979 he was hurt again early in the year and lost his right end job to Doug Betters. In the 1980 camp, he couldn't win it back. So, as the verified story goes a sportswriter suggested to Don Shula that Duhe be moved to inside linebacker.

At first, Shula balked but then became intrigued by the idea an implemented it. The experiment began and it worked well. Duhe would play inside linebacker in base and sometimes 'dog' or sometimes cover (though he wasn't good at it yet) and in passing situations would play inside as a tackle next to Bob Baumhower or even outside and rush as an end or go off the field for a nickel back. 

But this changed Bokamper's role. Duhe was doing many of the things Bokamper had been doing in the nickel defense and you could even see Bokamper playing some base 3-4 end which he could do if he had to, but it was not an ideal spot for a 6-6, 245-250-pound player. 

The next season, in camp, Shula told the media that Bokamper was going to move from linebacker to being a situational player, a right defensive end in passing situations. 

Bokamper told the media he was "glad" about the change that he could just play "fast and loose". Actually, it was Bokamper's wife who was more concerned about the change asking the obvious question "Why change when he's been so successful as a linebacker"? Duh. 

The move was precipitated by the acquisition of Bob Budzinski from the Rams. The Dolphins paid a high price for him, a second-round and third-round pick plus a swap of second-round picks where the Dolphins took a lower one. In today's draft value chart terms, it would constitute a low first-rounder. 

Since solid Larry Gordon was entrenched on the right side, where Brudzinski played for Los Angeles from 1978-80, Bru moved to left outside linebacker, where he did play as a rookie, albeit in a 4-3 scheme so that made Bokamper a defensive end.

Another change took place well. Doug Betters moved to left defensive end and veteran Vern Den Herder was to backup both ends and Bokamper was supposed to be the right end but his play versus the run, which Bokamper admitted was not good cost him the starting job and by week one Bill Barnett started and when he hurt his leg, eleven-year vet Den Herder became the starter. 

That made Bokamper the designated pass rusher—coming in on likely passing downs. He also would also play some base 3-4 (to spell Den Herder) but he was essentially a third-down player.
Late preseason Dolphins depth chart 
And in that role, he played well. Outside of Fred Dean, Bokamper may have been as effective a nickel rusher as there was in the NFL that year. It wasn't just the 7½ sacks but the pressure he applied when in the game. He played well in the 1981 playoff Dolphins-Chargers marathon recording two sacks and deflecting a pass. 

However, one historic note is that with Duhe at linebacker and Bokamper at end Bill Arsnbarger expanded his zone blitz scheme, which we've seen short clips of him using in Baltimore in the mid-1960s. With Bokpamper he called it "zone to Bo" and he'd blitz Duhe or another linebacker (later on it was Charles Bowser) and Bokamper would drop back to fill that player's zone coverage responsibilities. Arnsparger thought that Bokamper's skill set would make this work better than it might with other players.

Bengals defensive coach Dick LeBeau noticed and began to implement it into his defenses and the popularization of the zone blitz spread. LeBeau credits Arnbarger as the original seed but LeBeau took it to new levels. 

In 1982 his role was to be the same as the previous year but injuries once again felled Barnett and Bokamper filled in as a starter and he played very well, especially in the playoffs (four sacks, giving him 7.5 sacks in 13 games). The Dolphins' defense, especially against the pass, was stellar and the "Killer Bs" went to the Super Bowl, losing to Washington.

Bokamper had his shot at glory in the big game as he had tipped a Joe Theismann pass up and into his hands with the goal line right in front of him for what would have been a huge pick-six, but if  "ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas." However, Theismann saw the play develop and reached into Dokamper's hands to knock the ball to the ground. It was a tremendous play by Theismann and Washington went on the seal the win. 

From 1983-85 Bokamper was the starting right end in the Dolphins 3-4 defense, Bill Barnett was moved to a backup spot for all three linemen in those seasons. At right outside linebacker a young, fast Charles Bowser became an effective blitzer lined up behind Bokamper's right shoulder and he was essentially the blind side rush, at least in 1983 and 1984.

Before the Rams game in 1983 (which Bokamper missed with a sprained knee) Don Shula stated that Bokamper was playing the run better than he ever had, but that is the kind of thing a coach says when your right end has no sacks. Bokamper did make some plays in 1983—he finished the season with two picks, one going for a touchdown, forced a pair of fumbles, and had two sacks but it was not the stuff of a Pro Bowl end or even the production a team wants from a blind side end. 

In 1984 he was again hurt, and finished with just four sacks but was part of the Dolphins Super Bowl defense. The next year it was more of the same—2.5 sacks, a forced fumble as he played less and less and by 1986 his NFL days were over.
Bokamper wanted to play in 1986, he told the media that he had tried to play the run tough but going through tackles and wanted to change that in 1986. He wanted one last hurrah if you will, but in late August he was waived. Bokamper simply said he gave it his all and he could "sleep at night". 

Indeed he could. 

Career stats—

Playoff stats—
We wonder, though, what might have happened if he'd stayed at left outside linebacker and been allowed to be the nickel end (either left or right) in the 1980s as he had been in the late 1970s.

He was really the first to do that in earnest. (It is often hard to know who did something first in the NFL, so we use the term "in earnest" to denote that the first time something was done a lot, it was a thing, not just a once-in-a-while gimmick). Later, plenty of guys like Andre Tippett and Kevin Greene did it a lot. Now, players like Von Miller and plenty of others do it. But in earnest, Bokamper was the first.

As a linebacker on the tight end side Bokampers 6-6 frame and long arms and 250 pounds were effective in stopping tight end blocks and in patrolling his side for sweeps, kind of like Ted Hendricks did - Bob Trumpy, telling a television audience that Bokamper was, "Absolutely unblockable. He has very, very long arms and you can't get to his body."

And as a rusher, he was effective and getting better as his 1981-82 success showed.

But that frame was just too small, and rangy ("an angular player" the scouts called him) to play a base 3-4 scheme. That had to have hurt his career. 

Or, in the alternative, why not use him as a nickel rusher, like in 1981 and some of 1982? He was effective then, especially in the playoffs, and note also he'd been excellent in the playoffs in the late-1970s as well, a "money player".
We are not in the habit of questioning Don Shula and Bill Arnsparger and Chuck Studley but in this one specific case, they may have erred. They really didn't put Bokamper in a situation conducive to getting the most out of his skills. 

No one is perfect.

Had Bokamper come out of San Jose State in 1969 or 1970, in a 4-3 era,  he may have had a career like Fred Dryer or Pat Toomay. If he came out in the late-1990s he may have been a taller Grant Wistrom or Patrick Kearney or players like that. He'd been ideal as a 40 end in those eras.

And he was excellent as a strongside 3-4 linebacker who was a nickel left end who essentially pioneered that spot. And it was taken away—for some reason even Bokamper's wife could not understand. 

Maybe Coach Shula should have listed to Mrs. Bokamper. She showed a lot of wisdom.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Tom Jackson—Yet Another Underrated Linebacker of His Era

 By John Turney 
The first person to name Tom Jackson was Paul Zimmerman who picked him for his New York Post team in 1976. He called him a "sawed-off Butkus".  It was a tremendous year for Jackson, he had 76 tackles, but picked off 7 passes, a very high number for a linebacker, and throw in his 4 sacks and 11 passes defensed other than the picks. 

That year was Jackson's first as a weakside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Prior to that, he was on the strong side in a 4-3 (and a bit as an inside linebacker in 1974 when Denver played some 3-4 schemes) and the new spot was ideal for him. 

No, he wasn't a big man at 5-11, 220, but he was someone who could run, around a 4.5-4.6 forty according to published reports and it looked like he played faster than that. In his era 'backers didn't rush all the time like they did at the end of his career when players like Lawrence Taylor or Rickey Jackson or Andre Tippett and others were racking up double-digits in sacks. 

Jackson was an all-around guy in Joe Collier's scheme. Play the run both when it comes at you and chase when it goes away from you, drop into your zone, or carry a running back in man coverage and yes, sometimes rush the passer, even sometimes with your hand in the Mile High Stadium Dirt. And most of all, deliver a blow when you get to your target. Jackson did all of that. 

If you read Denver paper clippings in 1974 and 1975 they are seemingly full of Jackson mentions, big plays or even near-big plays and certainly the Broncos team highlight films show the same things. He was just one of those players you notice when watching a defense.

After his 1976 season the Broncos defense got even better and became known as the Orange Crush and for a decade was one of the better defenses, year-in and year-out in the NFL and Jackson help up his part. 

In 1977 Jackson was All-Pro and was Second-team All-Pro the next two seasons (going to the Pro Bowl in all three) and in 1984 he was All-AFC giving his four seasons with post-season honors. But really, his 1980-83 seasons, when he didn't get honored, were not substantially different than 1976-79 and 1984 when he did. He was that steady—he made big plays in all of them and additionally was the emotional leader for his team. 

Vocal and tough, Jackson was the spokesperson for a team that was full of quieter-type men like Randy Gradishar, Bob Swensen, Barney Chavous, Rubin Carter, Louis Wright, Bill Thompson, Joe Risso, Steve Foley, and others. Other than Lyle Alzado who left after the 1978 season, there just were not any vocal players on the Broncos besides Jackson. 

But Jackson backed up his words with his play. 

He was nicked in 1985 and played a reduced role in 1986, but led his defense to the Super Bowl in 1986 where they lost to the Giants but it was still a good career-capping performance for "TJ".

Certainly, more can be said about T.J., but sometimes these profiles can get repetitive "he was quick, strong for his size, etc." Maybe all that needs to be said was that he was an excellent football player, a team leader, and a good man—and an excellent broadcaster, too.

Career stats—

Monday, May 17, 2021

Laying the Foundation in Houston: Exploring the Oilers’ 1974 Season

By Joe Zagorski 
Elvin Bethea, Steve Kiner, Curley Culp
The Houston Oilers were a team that was mired in absolute failure during the first few years of the decade of the 1970s. They held onto the label of mediocrity until 1970 when they seemingly drowned in a very deep tank. As their lack of good luck would have it, however, Houston was just beginning to explore the depths of defeat. The 1970 Oilers could only manage to win three games, and their 1971 team finished with only four wins. 

Those two years would be viewed as successful when compared to 1972 and 1973, however.  During those two seasons. Houston could win only once in each of those years. They were easily the worst team in the league, and most of their opponents did not really take them seriously.  Throughout all of 1972 and the first five games of 1973, Bill Peterson served as the head coach of the Oilers.  Peterson’s record with the team before he was terminated? A dismal 1-18.
Sid Gillman
Houston general manager Sid Gillman had seen enough after the team started 0-5 in 1973.  Rather than go through a detailed and longsuffering search for a new head coach during the season, Gillman just decided to promote himself to the head coaching position to finish out the 1973 season. He had no grand illusions at this time about what he could accomplish. 

Indeed, Gillman—who was one of the American Football League’s most successful head coaches during the 1960s—could only win one game at the helm of the Oilers in 1973. But in a way, that one win was enough to convince him that he could not go out with a losing record. Personal pride and a legacy of winning was at stake for him.  He decided to stay on as Houston’s head coach for one more year.
As a tonic aimed at success, the Oilers consumed what Gillman was preaching, as they benefitted from a full offseason and training camp with him as their head coach. The 1974 Houston club had nowhere to go but up in the league standings, and right from the very first regular-season game, Gillman’s players showed off a definite winning attitude. It was an attitude which was missing all throughout the previous four years. The Oilers began what would be a turnaround season in 1974 with a stunning 21-14 win over San Diego on opening day at the Astrodome. 
“We showed some real character today,” said Gillman following his team’s first win of the year.  “I don’t know how many characters Oiler teams in the past have shown, but this team showed some real class.”
While it was great to initiate a new year with a victory, some old habits had a difficult time leaving the scene.  In truth, it was the Houston team that had difficulty, as they lost their next five games to Cleveland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and St. Louis. Gillman’s team played a competitive brand of football in all but one of those losses, a 51-10 thrashing against the defending National Football Conference (NFC) champion Vikings. But now for all realistic intents, the Oilers were out of the postseason picture.  
How does a team – any team – stop a losing streak? Simply put, by putting all your effort into winning just one game. No need to look ahead. Just win one game. That is exactly what Houston did when they showed up in Cincinnati on October 27. The Oilers offense finally played mistake-free football, as they committed zero turnovers.  Houston’s defense was also earning high marks, as they took advantage of six Bengals turnovers, which indirectly led to 28 second-half points in a 34-21 win.   
A big reason for another victory involved a new player. In October the Oilers traded troublesome defensive linemen John Matuszak and a third-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Curley Culp and a first-round pick (that first-rounder was used to draft Robert Brazile and the third-rounder the Chiefs acquired became receiver Henry Marshall. 

Both Culp and Matuszak had signed future contracts with the upstart World Football League so both teams and were considered expendable. Matuszak had been sitting out due to a lawsuit attempting to allow him to jump immediately to the WFL. The trade put that on hold and Matuszak honored the trade. While Gillman was a head coach in San Diego during the 1960s, he had his hands full in dealing with Culp in the old AFL games. 

The addition of Culp to the Houston defensive line produced immediate dividends, as Gillman’s defense suddenly had the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage. But Culp was not the only new addition to the lineup. Gillman had long since earned the reputation as a head coach who was more than willing to cut players who were not performing well enough to meet his minimum standards. 

By the end of 1974, the Oilers had no less than 22 new players on their team, compared to those who were in uniform in 1973. During the second month of the 1974 season, many of those new players started to excel. As a result, Houston got back on the winning track.
Houston won three straight games following their big win over the Bengals. First, they traveled to New York to take on the Jets, and they pulled out a last-minute 27-22 triumph. Then they went across the Empire State to Buffalo. 

The Oilers played an improved brand of football in their 21-9 win over the playoff-bound Bills. Houston’s defenders intercepted six Joe Ferguson passes and limited the incomparable O.J. Simpson to just 57 yards rushing in that contest.  A 20-3 victory over division rival Cincinnati was next, and it boosted the Oilers’ record to 5-5, a mark that was certainly not foreseen just a month prior.
“We’re going to drive a lot of people crazy in Vegas if we keep this up,” said Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini.  “They keep picking us to lose.”
Vegas would prove to be correct the following week, however. Up next for Houston was a battle for the bragging rights in the state of Texas. The Dallas Cowboys were languishing amid their worst season in the past nine years, and if they were ever ripe for an upset, now was the time. Unfortunately for the Oilers, however, Dallas played one of its better games of the year against their Lone Star State rivals.  The Cowboys won this defensive struggle, 10-0.  

In previous seasons, a loss like that would be detrimental enough to Houston to send them on another losing streak. But that did not happen in 1974.  Instead, Gillman’s boys regrouped immediately by winning a game that nobody expected them to win. The Oilers crept into Three Rivers Stadium on December 1 and upset the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 13-10. It was indeed a sign that this Houston club had undeniably improved by leaps and bounds over the team that bore the derrick standard in previous years.  
Gillman’s team relapsed the following week, however. They lost miserably to a team that they probably should have beaten, the Denver Broncos.  Virtually all phases of Houston’s attack were missing in their 37-14 defeat at Mile High Stadium. The Oilers now had a grip on a losing record with one game remaining on their schedule. 

If they somehow pulled out a win over the Cleveland Browns on December 15, however, they would earn a 7-7 record. It was a time to show off whatever amount of character that the team possessed. They got behind early to Cleveland, a team that was having its worst season ever.  But Houston rallied in the second half to achieve a 28-24 triumph.  Coach Gillman had somehow willed his team to their seventh win, and a respectable .500 record.  
“I’ve been in this business for a long time,” admitted Gillman, “but this is the most satisfying season I’ve ever been through.”
Oilers fans, and perhaps even Gillman himself, did not know it at the time, but 1974 would stand out as the solid foundation for the team. The following year, O.A. “Bum” Phillips would be chosen by Gillman to replace him on the sidelines. All Phillips did was produce a winning record in 1975 and help the team to grow in ability and talent. But the 1974 Houston club took that first step toward winning. They took that first foundational step.

Associated Press, “Houston Rips Buffalo, 21-9.”  Victoria Advocate, November 11, 1974, 10.
Robinson, Barry “Satisfying year, says Sid Gillman.”  San Antonio Express, December 16, 1974,
United Press International, “Attention world; Oilers unbeaten.”  Port Arthur (Texas) News, 
September 16, 1974, 8.

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He recently completed work on a biography of former Philadelphia Eagles free safety Bill Bradley, and a screenplay about 1920s pro football in Pennsylvania’s coal regions.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Thomas Henderson—A Flamboyant Ride in the NFL

 By John Turney 

Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson was about as flamboyant a linebacker as you could find back in the day. And of the linebackers, we've profiled in the past couple of days he was the best, but like them, he was not able to have a lengthy career.

Henderson began as a walk-on at Langston University, a historically Black university in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, Henderson was a first-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 1975, the second of two first-rounders Dallas had that year (the other was Randy White). Henderson had been a stand-up end at Langston and was a small college All-American there. 

What made him stand out was his speed, around 4.5 for the 40. And though he was undersized, 6-2, 220, the Cowboys thought he could develop into a fine linebacker. They were right. 

He was a great special teams player, in fact, PFJ named him the retroactive NFL Special Teams Player of the Year for 1975 since there were no awards for that at the time like there were later. Henderson was the R1 on kickoff coverage for Dallas, could return kicks (and dunk them over the goalpost), and block punts and kicks. He got one in both 1975 and 1976 (and blocked a PAT in 1979 as well). 

In 1976 he moved to a specialized role as a nickel linebacker for Dallas and started to show what his speed could do in coverage. In limited snaps, he had 2.5 sacks and defended 10 passes, decent numbers for a fill-time linebacker, much less a role player.
In 1977 he won the starting strong-side linebacker position for the Cowboys and was one of the young stars that helped Dallas dominate the NFL in 1977, winning Super Bowl XII handily over Denver. He was all over the field, covering tight ends, backs and doing so with eye-popping hits. That season he totaled 75 tackles, picked off a trio of passes, defended five more, recovered a pair of fumbles, and was in on two sacks. For his efforts, he was voted Second-team All-NFC.

Henderson also began to let his personality out more and more. In 1978 he was hobbled early with an ankle injury but rebounded later and was named to his first Pro Bowl. He taunted the Rams before the NFCCG by saying the Rams "didn't have enough class" to be in the Super Bowl. He backed it up by scoring a touchdown on a pick-six to seal the game (with a finger roll voe the crossbar).

 Then, in the week In the days prior to Super Bowl XIII Miami, Henderson told the media that Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw “couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’.” 

However, his drug use was out of control (the title of Henderson's first biography). While he'd been high in Super Bowl X by snorting cocaine in a bathroom stall before the game in Super Bowl XIII he used coke during the game. 

He had filled a small nasal spray bottle with a vicious mixture of cocaine and water and put it into a it in the front of his game pants, in the belt loop opening for easy access.

He was sabotaging his rising star of a career.

The following season of 1979 Dallas began to use Henderson more on blitzes and he had six sacks in eleven games and was seemingly on his way to another Pro Bowl. But after a zero-tackle, zero-sack game versus Washington that ended in a 34-20 Dallas loss Henderson was seen clowning on in front of a TV camera showing a handkerchief that teammate Preston Pearson asked him to promote. 

Credit: CBS Television

This incensed his coach Tom Landry and placed Henderson on the reserve-retired list and Hollywood never played for Dallas again. 

After essentially being fired by Tom Landry he was traded to the 49ers for a fourth-round draft pick. There he was unable to kick a growing drug habit and also battled injuries in camp. He missed so many practices teammates began calling him "Holiday" Henderson.

A couple of weeks into the 1980 season Bill Walsh had seen enough and released Henderson. Walsh through a media spokesman told the media "Henderson did not live up to our expectations". 

Henderson with the Oilers in 1980

However, Henderson did catch a break, Bum Phillips, the Oilers head coach was willing to give him a shot and he signed with the Oilers and he did play some, in special defensive packages but also missed time with more nicks and bruises. He made 19 tackles recorded a sack and pick and forced two fumbles in limited snaps with the Oilers.

In 1981 Don Shula was willing to give Hollywood a chance. This time, Henderson had completed drug rehab and had a positive attitude and work ethic in the 1981 Dolphin camp. Shula told the media he planned to use Henderson as a strong-side linebacker, moving Kim Bokamper to more of a permanent defensive line spot and also used some of Henderson's special teams magic that he showed in Dallas.

"Maybe he can do for us what he did for Dallas", Shula said. 

However in preseason Henderson broke a bone in his neck and was on injured reserve the rest of the year and as it turned out, it ended his career.

Henderson's poor decisions led to more and more drug and alcohol abuse and led to a two-year stint in prison, where he finally became sober. He got into motivational speaking and into helping kids in his native Austin, Texas.

Then, he won $10 million (after taxes, current payout, the original sum was $28 million) in the Texas lottery in early 2000.  

He caught a break and things have been better since, more in control, if you will.

One wonders what might have been had he been able to stay healthy and sober. His skill set was perfect for the Dallas system and Landry was committed to the 4-3 Flex, he would not have switched to a 3-4 defense as 25 of the 28 teams did in the 1980s so Henderson would never have to be put in a position where his size would hurt him.

We think Henderson would be a star in today's game as a "moneybacker" or a hybrid Safety/linebacker or even a Lavonte David-type WILL 'backer. Henderson's speed would be coveted in those kinds of roles in today's NFL.

So, yes, there was a lot of bad in Henderson's career and life, but there was some good, too. We wish we could have seen more.

Hollywood Henderson—A Wild Ride

 By John Turney 
Plenty has been written about Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson's rise to fame, then fade into the ashed then his Pheonix-like rising after winning two Texas Lotteries. 

Henderson was a tremendously flamboyant character, once calling out Terry Bradshaw for being dumb "He couldn't speed 'cat' if you spotted him the "C" and the "A"". When he was signed by the Cowboys he whore a false tooth with a Cowboys Star on it, but took it out think it looked "foolish". 

Ya think?

He, in his biography he admitted to having a small inhaler filled with liquified cocaine hidden in his uniform pants during Super Bowl XIII. He was cut by Tom Landry in 1979 after a no-tackle performance in Washington when he clowned for the television cameras. He also played Super Bowl X high as well. 
Henderson with the Oilers in 1980
After the season he was then traded to the 49ers where he lasted about two weeks into the 1980 before Bill Walsh and seen enough. He was signed by Bum Phillips and finished that season with the Oilers and played a fair sub role. He was let go and signed by Don Shula but suffered a break in a bone in his neck which ended his NFL career.

However, like a couple of the linebackers we profiled in the last few days Henderson was likely the best (at his peak) of the small, fast linebackers of his era, again with the caveat of "when he was motivated".

We named Henderson our 1975 de facto Special Teams Player of the Year based on his ability to cover kicks, even return them (one for a touchdown) and a long one in Super Bowl X, but also his ability to block then—he got one and was close on several others. (He also blocked another one in 1976 and blocked a PAT in 1979). 

Henderson was taken by the  Dallas Cowboys in the first round (18th overall) of the 1975 NFL Draft—the second of the Cowboys two numbers ones that year, the other being Randy White.

He had starred for the Langston University Lions from 1971-1974 and earned NAIA All-American honors twice during his time as a Lion. He had legit 4.5 speed though was undersized—6-2, 221—but that speed made him especially effective as a cover linebacker. 

After spending1975 largely on special teams, Henderson was a nickel linebacker in 1976, sometimes covering sometimes rushing, and was very effective in coverage. Stats don't ever tell a complete story but sometimes they can give a glimpse into a player's abilities by reflecting plays he made. That year Henderson was credited with 2.5 sacks and 10 passes deflected which would be good for a full-time player. Handerson did that playing mostly in passing situations.

In 1977 Henderson was one of the young stars of a Cowboys team that dominated the NFL in 1977. He had 75 tackles as a strong-side linebacker and picked off the passes and deflected five others.
He began 1978 with an ankle injury missing some time early in the year but finished strong and was named to his only Pro Bowl (he was a Second-team All-NFC pick in 1977). He ridiculed the Rams in the 1978 playoffs by saying they didn't have enough "class" to go the Super Bowl and backed it up by returning an interception for a touchdown to seal the win in the NFCCG. 
In 1979 Dallas began to blitz Henderson more and in 11 games he had six sacks but then came the clowning (Henderson said he was waving handkerchiefs for the camera to help teammate Preston Pearson promote them) and his being cut. 
Dallas sent Henderson to the 49ers for a 4th round pick but he didn't impress Bill Walsh in the 1980 49er camp. "He has not played up to our expectations". Henderson had been plagued by a few injuries, including a hamstring issue in camp, and lost his job to Bobby Leopold and some 49ers teammates began to call him "Holiday" Henderson because he missed so many practices nursing those injuries. 

In 1981 Shula had told the press that Henderson had gone to rehab and was clean in the Dolphin camp and looking good. He had a plan for Henderson to play strongside linebacker and have Kim Bokamper play more on the defensive line. Shula also felt that Henderson would bring his special teams magic to the Dolphins since Henderson was trying to get a fresh start and was willing to return to special teams in coverage, something he had not done for five seasons or so.  But then the neck injury ended it all.

After football, his poor choices continued with drugs and other entanglements that led to a stint in prison.

After his time was served he eventually returned to Austin and founded the East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach helped raise money to build a track for those youth and also began giving speeches to both youth and adult audiences against the problems that drugs can bring.

Then, in 2000, he hit the lottery ($10 million after taxes).

Had he kept it together there is no telling what Henderson might have achieved. He was a great fit for Dallas who was a committed 4-3 team that would not follow the rest of the NFL into the 3-4 defenses we saw in the 1980s so Henderson wouldn't have had to try and play "big" like some of the smaller 'backers had to do when their teams deployed to 30. 

Like some others, Henderson would fit very well in today's NFL as perhaps a Lavonte David-type WILL 'backer or a "moneybacker", a linebacker safety hybrid. He certainly possessed the speed to do so and was a very instinctive player and a very good tackler. And he could blitz with skill as well. 

Henderson has overcome his addictions and other issues and that speaks well to his character. All fall, not all get up. We just wished he'd seen a longer "peak" in Henderson's career. He really was especially talented. 

Rod Shoate—A Patriot Big-Play 'Backer

 By John Turney 

We've been posting about some of our favorite players of the past, not necessarily the best players, the All-Pros or Pro Bowlers. Some, like today's feature Rod Shoate, never got a sniff of any post-season honors. 

Even so, in the Patriots 3-4 defense from 1977-81, he was a pretty effective player.

Shoate was a tremendous college player at the University of Oklahoma—he was a two-time All-American (and was Second-team his sophomore season) and totaled with 420 career tackles and was voted to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Though very undersized (6-1, 214) for a linebacker he had tremendous speed (4.5 forty, perhaps even a 4.4) and excellent, even unusual natural strength and those attributes gave him his shot in the NFL—he could run. He was selected by New England in the second round of the 1975 NFL Draft. He played the first four games of 1975 until a broken leg felled him. 

Then in 1976 hurt his knee in the Patriots' final preseason game which kept him out for the entire NFL season. 

Finally, in 1977 he was healthy and was a role player, a key one, for the Patriots as a nickel linebacker. His quickness allowed him to get pressure on the quarterback and also to be effective in coverage. The following year be began his four-year run as the Patriots right outside linebacker.

Paul Zimmerman once wrote that the things linebackers were called upon to do, in totality, were simply not possible. They had to hold the point of attack, be able to cover a running back, and blitz effectively. Essentially, he argued, they were part defensive lineman and part defensive back. And there really is no such thing. The backs they were asked to cover were simply better athletes, the linemen that had to beat were bigger and stronger. But, Zimmerman wrote, that coaches would just draw up coverage and hope for the best.

Shoate was small, and he did get hurt some due to his size, but his strength helped him a lot, but for his era, he was able to cover and blitz with the best of the linebackers in the NFL. His 22.5 sacks from 1977-81 were among the best of any outside 'backers for those years. (Remember this was pre-L.T. and the conversion of outside linebackers into "rushbackers".)

One quick comparison, Hall of Famer Robert Brazile had 23½ in that same 1977-81 span. Obviously, we are not suggesting that Shoate was the equal of Brazile overall, just point out that Shoate was effective in getting to the quarterback. Five of six sacks may not seem like a lot to younger fans, but for that day it was excellent given Shoate (or Brazile or any outside linebacker) was not rushing the passer opportunity. Coaches mixed it up and plenty of times Shoate (and the others) were in coverage on third downs/likely passing downs. 

We would suggest that averaging nearly 80 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 passes defensed and a pick and forced fumble per season for an extended period was very good and would be seen as excellent play. 

Like some of the linebackers we've mentioned (Michael Jackson, Hollywood Henderson, etc) Shoate would be effective today as a "money-backer" type player kind of a hybrid safety/linebacker. 

Shoate was noted by teammates as a student of the game, a film-watcher, and also as a hitter. That is evident when you watch Patriots games from the late-1970s. "I'll tell you something—he'd knock the hell out of you," His college defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell said. "He was mean. I mean, he liked to tear their heads off. Rod was a quiet guy, but his play spoke volumes."

His superior speed and strength would be fun to watch run sideline to sideline and also going full steam to the quarterback.
After the 1981 season, Shoate was traded to the Bears, where he seemed like he may be a great fit in a 4-3 defense coached by Buddy Ryan but he was cut before the season and didn't catch on with anyone else.

In 1983 he signed with the USFL and played for the Generals in 1983 and for Memphis in 1984. It was there people close to Shoate began to see problems in Shoate's personal life.

Those problems turned out to be drug and alcohol addiction which led to homelessness for long stretches of time after his football career. 

Wrote the Oklahoman, "Rod Shoate fell victim to fame and its darker trappings: the loss of fame, drug addiction, divorce, and loneliness. He died of AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - in an apartment in a tiny Oklahoma town at 8 a.m. Oct. 4., 1999. He was 46."

The NFL has known many such tragedies. We don't know if CTE or other brain issues contributed to the addiction and abuse of drugs. Certainly, a hard-hitter like Shoate would be someone vulnerable to such things but 22 years ago those issues were just not yet in the conscienceness of football, high school, college, or professional. 

So, the NFL history tapestry is full of headlining-type players, All-Pros, and Hall of Famers, but it also has players who were very good and performed well sans honors and Shoate is part of that.

A good part of that. Just ask any current NFL defensive coordinator if he'd like a 6-1, 214-pound player who can run a 4.4 and has rare natural strength and hits like a truck. We'd guess they'd all say there is a place for that guy in his nickel defense.