Monday, May 29, 2023

Memorial Day—Donald Steinbrunner

 By John Turney 
Steinbrunner with the 1953 Browns

Donald Steinbrunner's football career went largely unnoticed, playing just one season (1953) for the Cleveland Browns. He'd primarily been an offensive tackle for the Browns but also played defense and some end. He got most of his time playing special teams, however. 

A knee injury ended the sixth-round draft choice's pro football career after only eight games but he did get to play in the 1953 NFL Championship game, a 17-16 loss to the Detroit Lions.

However, in those eight games he was teammates with a who's who of NFL greats—Otto Graham, Len Ford, Bill Willis, Lou Groza, Doug Atkins, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli, and others.

Steinbrunner on special teams in 1953
As a rookie lineman, it would seem likely that Steinbrunner's two-a-day practices would have been rather tough facing Len Ford and Doug Atkins and even George Young in those sessions—in an era where they were going full contact, not shells and shorts. 

One played he faced in practice remembered him—Bill Willis. "He wasn't a roughneck. He was a gentlemanly player,"  said the Hall-of-Fame middle guard. 

Hall-of-Fame center Frank Gatski, who he'd have faced when playing defense, had a similar take, "He was bi big, you guy when he came to the team. He was good enough to play a little bit. And he was a nice guy."

The Bellingham, Washington's teammate at Washington State, Harland Svare, felt that the big former Cougar would have been a great tight end but that the position had not been quite developed yet. Said  Svare, "He was a great blocker and at 6-3 and 230 pounds who could catch the ball. He would have played a long time."

He joined the United States Air Force in college via ROTC, and after a year in the NFL he was called into active duty, was trained as a navigator and chose to stay in the military. After serving as an assistant football coach at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he was transferred to Southeast Asia and was killed in action in Vietnam. 

It took decades for him to be recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its display for NFL players who died while serving in the military stating, "Some 30-plus years since Bob Kalsu’s untimely death, the Hall of Fame learned of a second pro football player, Don Steinbrunner, who died while serving his country in Vietnam".

The Hall of Fame has a lengthy piece on him now.
Steinbrunner in Vietnam

They report that Steinbrunner was sent to Vietnam in 1966, and after he was wounded in an aerial mission with a group he'd volunteered to join, he refused a safer assignment and later was killed when his plane went down a second time.

Major Steinbrunner's plane was shot down on July 20, 1967, in Kon Tum province, South Vietnam. There were no survivors among the five crewmen aboard. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor.

Steinbrunner's Commendations
★ Distinguished Flying Cross
★ Air Medal
★ Purple Heart
★ United States Aviator Badge Air Force
★ National Defense Service Medal
★ Vietnam Campaign Medal
★ Vietnam Service Medal
★ Air Force Presidential Unit Citation
★ Vietnam Gallantry Cross
★ Air Force Good Conduct Medal

Always a Hero
Leading his high school team to an undefeated season in 1947 and then made All-State in 1948 the Mount Baker High School graduate not only lettered in football but also baseball (he was also an All-Stater in hoops), basketball as well as track and field. 

At Washington State he played football and basketball (and was a team captain for both squads), making All-Pacific Coast and honorable mention All-American as a senior on the gridiron. He was made the All-Opponent team for seven schools. 

A long-forgotten tradition, an All-Opponent team the media would quiz players from schools, asking them who the toughest opponent they faced that season was and compile them into a squad. A tackle would be asked who the toughest defensive end was. An end would be asked who covered him the best, and so on.

Steinbrunner had been in the ROTC at Pullman and after his only season in the NFL he was called into active duty in the Air Force, becoming a navigator rather than a pilot due to his size and also to a vision issue (astigmatism).

At first, the handsome (he modeled some, even having a print ad in Look magazine) ballplayer was planning on returning to the NFL after his active service requirement was met but he loved flying and also realized his career in football was going to be limited. While okay, his niceness may not have been the best asset to possess in that era of football.

So the Steinbrunners (wife Meredyth and children) became a career military family. After a few years of traveling to various base assignments, the navigator got back into football in 1960 as an assistant coach for the Air Force Academy and held that position for five seasons. He also was a recruiter for the Academy, looking for high-quality football talent as well as young men who could pass muster as military men.

A year after his coaching stint ended he was called to Vietnam and though he could have avoided combat he volunteered to join the 12th Air Commando Squadron in the 315th Commando Wing. 

As part of Operation Ranch Hand the Squadron's assignment was primarily to spray herbicides in Vietnam, the majority of which was Agent Orange.

The plane fitted with spraying equipment used by the 12th was the Fairchild UC-123K Provider. It was a large—one that could fly low and slow, having the ability to spray jungles from altitudes as low as 175 feet. 

A July 21, 1967 story in the Bellingham Herald, revealed that on his final sortie with the "Spray Birds", the military reported the plane had been shot down based on the report of a forward air controller who saw a crash near Pleiku Air Base, where a ground fire was also observed. 

Pleiku Airbase (now Pleiku Airport) is located in Gia Lai Province in southern Vietnam. Military records show that the Major was shot down over (then referred to as) Kontum Province. Though both are close in proximity - in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam - we are not sure why there is a discrepancy between the official records and the account in the Herald, which was using the Air Force as a source.

Regardless, a military investigation revealed the crash was indeed the Provider that Major Steinbrunner was aboard and that none survived the crash. 

His wife never got full details but she admitted wondering if the cause of the crash was the fuel tank had been pierced by enemy fire or if the wing caught a tree because of the extremely low altitude? Did her husband die on impact or due to an explosion? Did he survive the crash and was killed by enemy ground fire? 

Finally realizing those things didn't matter, she knew enough. 

She did know that she loved him and he her. She knew was a confident, fearless man who had a "knack for touching people's lives" and also that he was a hero.

Popular war or not, he was a man who wouldn't beg out of dangerous missions and leave it to younger less experienced, perhaps unmarried men, he accepted them because it was his duty and responsibility and eventually he gave his life.

That is his legacy and on this Memorial Day, it is worthy of remembrance.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

PFWA's Distinguished Service Award—1968-76

By John Turney 

Prior to when the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) began choosing NFL Most Valuable Players the New York Chapter of the PFWA had been doing it for a decade. It was in 1975 when the PFWA began choosing MVPs but the New York Chapter started voting for them in 1965. They also had additional awards they added.

One of them was added in 1968, the year of the first annual dinner, was the Arthur Daley Distinguished Service Award for "long and meritorious service to football", named to honor Arthur Daley, the noted longtime New York Times writer.

In 1975 it was renamed the Arthur Daley Memorial Award after Daley's passing the previous year. It only lasted a year after that.

The origin of the award is not known but it probably stemmed from the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers of America who had been giving a similar award since 1930 then called the William J. Slocum Award. Now called William J. Slocum-Jack Lang Award.

The dinner took place at some of the fancier hotels in Manhattan like the Waldorf Astoria or Hotel Americana, usually in late Spring or early Summer and was purported to be an event that featured guest speakers, presenters and special guests including NFL players and coaches, and of course, ticket-purchasing members of the public. 

Here is the list of winners—

NY Chapter of PFWA  Distinguished Service Award Winners
The Arthur Daley Memorial Award
1968—George Halas, coach and owner, Chicago Bears
1969—Art Rooney, owner, Pittsburgh Pirates/Steelers
1970—Dan Reeves, owner, Cleveland and Los Angeles Rams
1971—Paul Brown, coach and owner, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals
1972—Lamar Hunt, owner, Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs
1973—Don Shula, NFL player, three teams, and coach, Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins
1974—Weeb Ewbank, coach, Baltimore Colts and New York Jets
1975—Carroll Rosenbloom, owner Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams
1976—Art Modell, owner, Cleveland Browns

Friday, May 26, 2023

Bob Waterfield's Retirement Haul

 By John Turney 
December 14, 1952, was Bob Waterfield's final game with the Rams and had announced that it would be his last regular-season game. 

As such the Rams honored him with a retirement ceremony that included parting gifts and awards.

He got a boat, a motor, some fishing and hunting gear and golfing equipment among other things.
Here is the list.

The Rams beat the Pittsburgh Steelers that day 24-14 with the aid of three Night Train Lane interceptions - the final breaking the NFL record, one that still stands to this day.

Jim Finks throws high to tight end Dick Hensley and it is (maybe) tipped with "The Train" lying in wait - pick number 14 on the season was his. Tipped or not the ball was high.

Lane had the flanker, Ray Matthews, on the play but had his eyes in the backfield and dropped the coverage. He was behind Matthews, trail technique you could call it, but he didn't need to worry because he had deep help from the right safety Norb Hecker. Hall-of-Famer Les Richter has Hensley and Finks has to throw it a bit high but it gets away from him—it sails.

Here is the play—

A couple of plays later Norm Van Brocklin hits Crazy Legs Hirsch for a 65-yard touchdown to make the game 28-7.

The long one to Hirsch—

Waterfield didn't have a great day going 7 for 15 for 69 passing yards and didn't throw a touchdown pass. He did throw two interceptions.

With the win the fams finished 9-3 and played the Lions the following week in a divisional playoff, losing 31-21. Waterfield played enough to throw nine passes, making it his final playoff game.

This all capped a Hall-of-Fame career, one that included two NFL titles, one in 1945 in Cleveland and one in Los Angeles in 1951.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Kenny Washington's Seven Passes That Made History

 By John Turney 
 Woody Strode (left), Rams coach Adam Walsh (center), and Kenny Washington (right)

From 1933 through 1945 the NFL had a racist policy to not sign African-American players to their teams. It was not written down, it was not a rule it was euphemistically called a gentlemen's agreement. 

It was anything but.

In 1946 the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles and after being publically questioned and challenged by members of the Black Los Angeles Media and faced with the possibility of not being able to play in the publically funded Memorial Coliseum the Rams signed two Black players—Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. 

In the upstart All-America Football Conference, the Cleveland Browns had also signed two African-Americna players— Marion Motley and Bill Willis.

In camp, the Rams played Washington at quarterback, a T-Formation quarterback making him the first player of African descent to play that position. 

There had been Black players that had thrown passes in the NFL's early days. Black players were part of the NFL from its beginning Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall being the first. 

Pollard became the first coach and Pollard was back and even called a quarterback but it was a different offense, the modern T-formation with motion was not introduced until 1930 and was perfected in the 1930s.

For many years it's been thought that Chicago Bears' Willie Thrower thrower was the first Black player to man the position of quarterback. In 1953 he stepped in for a benched George Blanda.

In 1968 Marlon Briscoe of the Broncos was the first to be a starting quarterback for the majority of a season, he was "the guy". The following year James Harris opened the season as the Bills' quarterback, another milestone - the first Black quarterback to open a season.

Back to Thrower. He'd been a quarterback since high school and played it in college and was drafted as a quarterback. He hadn't been converted from another spot.

Washington had been a passer and runner in a single-wing offense. He had a strong arm and was an incredible runner in college at UCLA and in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League but he'd never played in the "T". 

Until 1946.

He got in for a few plays in the Chicago All-Star game where the Rams played the College All-Stars and in the season opener versus the Eagles in Los Angeles. 

On that September day, there were several firsts. 

It was the first NFL regular season game on the West Coast, the breaking of the color barrier with Washington and Strode playing in the game and Washington being the first person of color to play T-quarterback in the NFL.

Sadly, Washington was a shell of his former self, his knee was not fully recovered from surgery and it seemed he hadn't had a lot of reps at quarterback. The timing of the offense was off and things simply did not go well. 

Here are some of his plays from the Rams' opening game in 1946—
Bucko Killroy hits Bob Waterfield who goes out until
late in the fourth quarter. He plays a series and is replaced

Kenny Washington's first snap and first pass

Washington is just inside the wing on the right side. You can pick him up
downfield and it can be seen that his knee is not 100%—his legs
are not under him and cannot react smoothly.

A failed exchange. Ball is placed properly, but
perhaps the timing is off due to a lack or reps together.

Washington is under heavy pressure but manages to get 
the pass off avoiding a loss. 

Also of note:  Rams left halfback Tom Harmon goes into motion
and Eagles All-Pro tackle follows him as a hybrid DT/LBer

Again motion, and again Wistert covers. Washington
gets pass off under heavy pressure.

Washington's first and only NFL completion—a good throw
into a pretty tight window to All-Pro Jim Benton.

More motion to the right flat, more Wistert coverage and more
heavy pressure on Washington who avoids another loss
by getting the ball off. After this pass, he's one for five
passing and is replaced by Jim Hardy for the majority
of the remainder of the game

Washington targets Strode but misses

After this pass, Washington is one for seven.

In Washington's eighth dropback, he steps past
the endline for an Eagles safety.

He went 1 for 7 in passing for 19 yards. He played the rest of the season as a running back and threw one pass which was not completed. Jim Hardy was the quarterback on the play.

In 1946 Washington was never really healthy until the following year and even then he was probably never what he was when he was in his early-to-mid twenties before the knee started to give him fits.

At the time the Los Angeles Times had documented Washington playing quarterback but we're not sure why his playing the position was not more publicized and why Thrower got the consideration in the media. Perhaps because it was short-lived and he was moved from the position after a single game.

He was successful as a running back, in his three-year career - when he was in his late twenties - he averaged 6.1 yards a carry and 15.1 yards per reception. He still holds the Rams' record for longest run (92 yards) and the single-season yards per carry record (among league qualifiers) with a 7.4-yard average (which also led the league).

A racist policy robbed Washington of a full career and football fans of seeing someone who would have been one of the all-time greats in his prime. 

Note: Film clips from author's personal collection. Contact the author for permission to use.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Runners Becoming Receivers in the 1970s

By Joe Zagorski 
The decade of the 1970s in pro football saw numerous offensive trends in strategy and in the application of personnel on every play. Changes were common on an annual basis, all in the hopes of finding better ways to gain yardage and thwart opposing defenses. 

But a curious decision among several offensive coaches in the NFL around the middle of the decade saw running backs across the league doing more than just taking handoffs from their quarterbacks. The era of running backs leaving the backfield and running pass patterns downfield was blossoming in the 1970s, and quite a few teams found and used athletic runners who could both run and catch. 

The decision to throw the ball more often to running backs stemmed from the things that the defenses were doing. Opposing pass rushers were bigger, stronger, and faster, and they were getting into the offensive backfield quicker and with more regularity in the early 1970s. 

Moreover, opposing linebackers were blitzing more often, and they presented even more of a challenge to quarterbacks who were trying to locate and throw to their wide receivers downfield.  It was becoming apparent that if an offense could not do an adequate job of keeping defenders out of the pass pocket for a long enough time for the quarterbacks to set up and throw the ball, something else had to be done to successfully get the ball downfield.

Enter the running backs. Their pass routes as they left the offensive backfield were naturally shorter in distance than most of the routes that the wide receivers were running. Moreover, it typically took the running backs less time to find an open space in the flat, or just past the line of scrimmage. 

When quarterbacks in the 1970s were dealing with unblocked blitzers or a pass rush that was penetrating the pass pocket too quickly, it only made common sense to dump the ball off to one of his running backs. Those linebackers and defensive linemen who did manage to get close to the quarterbacks would thus take themselves out of a play if the passer got rid of the ball quickly to his running backs.  By the end of the 1970s, tossing the ball to running backs and using them as viable pass receivers was becoming much more of an option than it was in all the previous decades of pro football.
Fred Willis
The first modern running back who really seemed to wake up the game’s offensive strategists was Fred Willis of the Houston Oilers. In 1973, Willis managed to lead the entire American Football Conference (AFC) in pass receptions by snaring 57 passes.  

In the run-happy NFL, Willis’ achievement was a watershed breakthrough of sorts. Suddenly, other teams began to see the potential for employing runners who had great hands, and who did not mind meandering out of the pass pocket to catch the football on a regular basis.
Chuck Foreman
Ironically, the NFC had one such running back as Willis, and he displayed his talents in the very same year as Willis. Minnesota tailback Chuck Foreman burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1973, and he easily became the choice for the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. 

Foreman had a little more speed than Willis, and he had the moves of a spinning top. Few running backs in the decade of the 1970s could outdo Foreman when it came to juking out an opponent. Foreman’s pass-catching prowess improved every year from 1973 to 1975.  

In 1973, he caught 37 passes. In 1974, that number increased to 53 receptions. Then in 1975, he caught the most passes that he ever caught in one season with 73, which was enough to lead the entire league. Foreman also led the NFC in touchdowns in 1975 with 22.  

He was just too talented to be ignored, and so the Minnesota offense just kept finding new ways to throw him the ball. Foreman ran practically any pass pattern out of the backfield that you can think of, and he ran them all to perfection.  His ability to get open on almost every play kept the NFL’s defenses guessing.

It seemed that the more passes that Chuck Foreman caught, the more his quarterback, future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, relied on him. quarterbacks during the 1970s were typically carrying the mindset that they needed to locate their wide receivers downfield first, and then look to their running backs as a viable option only if their receivers were covered downfield. 

Running backs for the longest time were simply a drop-off option. That was not the case with Tarkenton. He would initially look to his running backs much more often than most quarterbacks in the league. Once Foreman caught the ball, anything could happen, thanks to his unpredictable moves out in the open field.  

Ed Marinaro
Once defenders started paying more attention to Foreman, it enabled Tarkenton to increase his throws to his wide receivers.  But he also threw to his other running backs, and in particular to Ed Marinaro, a halfback who may have had the best pass-catching hands on the team. 

Other teams around the league took notice of what Tarkenton, Foreman, Marinaro, and the Vikings were doing. They saw what yardage Minnesota’s offense was accumulating. Many teams decided to start looking for a running back in the draft or via free agency with similar qualities and talents as Foreman.  

Lydell Mitchell
The Baltimore Colts had one such running back in Lydell Mitchell, who was Baltimore’s starting tailback. By the 1974 season (his third year in the NFL), Mitchell was also roaming out of the offensive backfield and looking to catch some passes. In 1974, he caught a lot of them…72 in fact. That was a good enough statistic to lead the entire NFL in pass receptions.  

To those who may have thought that his accomplishment was a fluke, Mitchell repeated the honor of leading the league in receptions again in 1977 with 71 catches. Truly, Lydell Mitchell was not your basic run-of-the-mill running back. Like Foreman, he was a talented pro who had defensive coaches guessing and flustered as to what he would do next.  

But Mitchell was a little bit different than players like Willis, Foreman, and Marinaro. Mitchell had a dose of brute strength and power to go with his trusty hands. When Mitchell got anywhere near the goal line, one had better watch out. He did not juke his way out of attempted tackles at that point. Rather, he simply lowered his head and blasted through them. Some running backs have a nose for the goal line, and a desire to cross it that is just too imposing to be ignored. Lydell Mitchell was one such running back.
Preston Pearson
As the decade of the 1970s started coming to its close, a new kind of running back-turned-receiver emerged. It was the beginning of an age of specialization in the NFL, where certain players were used specifically for something that they brought to their team that virtually nobody else could do. One such player was Preston Pearson of the Dallas Cowboys. 

Pearson came to Dallas after playing first for the Baltimore Colts, then the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dallas head coach Tom Landry immediately signed Pearson to a contract after Pittsburgh waived him, and that wise decision by Landry gave his offense a whole new weapon. Pearson by the late 1970s became known as one of the NFL’s most efficient third down backs. He would typically stand on the sidelines during first and second down, then join the offensive huddle for third down. Opposing defenses soon knew what to expect next. 

Preston Pearson was one of the most thorough athletes in the game. He possessed two of the largest hands in pro football, and he caught practically any ball his fingers touched. There are numerous instances of him running out of the offensive backfield, then diving for overthrown or underthrown passes, most of which he caught. 

Like Foreman, Preston Pearson’s number of receptions increased with almost every passing year during the latter part of the 1970s. His best season as far as statistics were concerned was in 1978, when he snared 47 passes. Considering that he was spending most of his time on the field only on third downs, that number of receptions is quite an accomplishment.

In conclusion, the decade of the 1970s in the NFL saw the idea of using running backs as receivers become an accepted part of offensive strategy. Thanks to the actions and results of players like Fred Willis, Chuck Foreman, Ed Marinaro, Lydell Mitchell and Preston Pearson, it became a very successful segment of pro football strategy.  

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association.  His upcoming book about the 1973 Buffalo Bills entitled The 2,003-Yard Odyssey: The Juice, the Electric Company, and an Epic Run for a Record will be released by Austin-Macauley publishers (New York) later in 2023.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense by TJ Troup—Still a Must-read

 By John Turney 
The book is almost a decade old, The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense: The Seven Seasons That Changed the NFL by TJ Troup was released in 2014 and it is still a book that needs to be in your library if you are interesting in defensive football history.

Another reason is to put perspective on comments in print or in clips like this which was posted on Twitter this weekend—
Credit: NFL Films
Fair use claim, for criticism and education

Allie Sherman is talking about Tom Landry's influence on the 4-3 defense and his contributions were huge. They cannot really be understated but sometimes nuance gets a bit lost because sometimes it gets translated into "Landry created the 4-3 defense" and that it was done to use Sam Huff's skills and thus making Huff the NFL's first middle linebacker.

That the former (Landry's contributions are huge) is true. The latter (Landry created the 4-3) is not. 

There were teams, most of them, that ran some 4-3 defense years before Huff entered the NFL. Troup's book documents what schemes teams played and when - starting in 1953 and covering the rest of the 1950s.

Here are some shots from 1950-55 of various teams in a 4-3 defense. Some of them look odd, especially the early ones. In some of the shots, the outside linebackers are walked out, following a back in motion or just positioned outside. But this happened later in the 1950s through the 1970s. Linebackers were sometimes "walked" to the flat.

Sometimes a nose guard or middle guard, whatever you want to call it would line up over the center and before the snap step back and play a middle linebacker-type position but that is not what these shots are.

1952 Rams at Chicago, #35 left linebacker Tank Younger is walked out

1952 Lions vs Browns, here the right linebacker is walked out and out of screen.

This is 1952, Rams versus Steelers with the linebackers inside

1952 Rams-Bears, both outside linebackers walked and the front in an overload

1950 Washington-Los Angeles, the middle linebacker is over a gap

1950 Rams at Lions, left linebacker is out of shot, walked

1950 Packers at Rams, four-man line, left linebacker going to flat

1954 Rams-Colts, an example of the middle guard #73 standing up
the next play you might find him in a three-point stance.

1955 Browns at Rams, NFL Title Game. Rams in a 4-3 with both
outside linebackers walked, the defensive tackles are flexed and
right defensive end Andy Robustelli stays in a two-point stance.

Lions at Rams, you can see the shadow of the left linebacker 
near the top. He's on the slot receiver.

1955 Bears at Rams. Bears here in a 4-3, next play they might be in a 5-2
or a 6-1 or a 7 diamond. You never knew.

Troup's book explains a light switch wasn't flipped and suddenly a team went from a 5-2 to a 4-3 it was like a fading light switch that went from dark to light gradually, as a matter of what percentage of the time they ran it compared to other teams. 

A team might run it a lot in say, 1953, then revert back to a 5-2 more the next year due to an injury or some other reason that stunted to transition. 

By the late-1950s everyone was playing the 4-3. But the claims that Sam Huff was the first middle linebacker or that it was Bill George or Joe Schmidt really are not cut and dried — George and Schmidt did it earlier but they also played other positions when their teams were mixing in the 5-2 front. George is usually a middle guard and Schmidt at left linebacker.

As Troup is fond of saying "Film is the best teacher."  And he's watched enough of it to be able to explain more of what happened in the 1950s, especially on the defensive side of the ball, than most historians before or since. 

But when you see someone, even an authority, it's okay to check what they say with film. It does not mean, in this case, someone is totally wrong, it's just that there is more information available to clarify
things. It's a matter of taking advantage of clips on Youtube and asking questions. 

In this case, in our view, Sherman is likely talking about specific things Landry did with the 4-3, his "coordinated" defense that he liked to talk about. And there is little doubt that Landry took things
that existed and put his twist on it, his stamp and changed the game that way, like most things in football. Step-by-step. 

Sometimes steps are bigger than others but in most cases, things fade in rather than just arrive or get invented or created. 

The same applies to a lot of the "changed the game" claims you see online, and even in books these days. Changing the game is rare, more often than not it's someone taking an old idea and dusting it off or a new guy just so tremendous in ability that something that existed looks shiny and new.

Then, a story goes out a decade after the fact and it gets picked up by people doing research, and semi-myths (things with some truth in them) get turned into orthodoxy, unquestionable.

 Nuance, context and shades of grey can be added to the myths and legends of the NFL without tarnishing anyone's legacy. All of us will learn more when we realize we don't know what we think we know.

4-3 Defensive Ends on the Nose

 By John Turney 
It didn't happen a lot but you can catch some defensive ends of the 1970s moving inside in certain packages and playing on the center, usually to get a one-on-one matchup. That could happen if the defense uses a five-man defensive line.

Other times it might just be that the end is switching places with a tackle and it's an overshift to the opposite side - the tight end is on that side - and that places the tackle on the nose. It could also be that the key player is always over the nose, playing either tackle but regardless of the shift he's going to be matched on the center which looks to be the case for Bubba Smith (see still below)

Or it might be a 3-4 that is used in certain situations.

Either way here are a handful of well-known defensive ends playing nose tackle.
Claude Humphrey in a three-man line in 1971

Bubba Smith, usually a left DE, playing RDT in overshift

Deacon Jones on the nose in a five-man line

Lyle Alzado in a five-man line

Cedrick Hardman cocked on the center in a five-man line

There are other examples - these are just a few. It's different than what happened with guys like Howie Long or even Dan Hampton.

In the latter years that Hampton started as a defensive end, he had a role in a particular package, the 46, and in it, he'd play on the nose. But he'd also play defensive tackle in nickel.

In other years he was a right tackle in base and in nickel, then move to the nose in the 46. In his early years, 1979-81 he was a starting end and usually stayed outside in nickel and in his rookie year they did run the 46. In 1980-81 they did and he'd often play right tackle in it, next to Alan Page.

Long played defensive end in a 3-4. But he'd play defensive tackle, usually three-technique in nickel. But they also had a 46 package that would put him on the nose. He'd also play on the nose in a 3-3-5 scheme. And, there are some things that we're probably missing - he did play snaps at right defensive end when Lyle Alzado needed a rest or was injured, for example. That is until 1985 when Alzado went out for the year. Then they had Sean Jones start and he took over from there. 

The five examples are little twists that defensive coordinators threw at offenses in an era not known for moving guys around. Now, it is commonplace. 

Then? Not so much. But they did do it a little even with All-Pro level guys.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

1952 CHICAGO BEARS: 'Cause You Start Lying to Me There's Gonna Be a River Between Us'

By TJ Troup 
The quote in the title is from one of my heroes...Raylan Givens and today is Tim Oliphant's birthday.

The saga of the '52 Bears is interesting for a number of reasons. You ask why? Ready for the answer? Here goes. During a 54-game span from the beginning of the 1947 season to the halfway mark of the '51 campaign, the Bears won 41 and lost but 13. Impressive, yet they had one playoff appearance to show for all those victories (they lost in the Coliseum to the Rams in December of '50). 

The Neft & Cohen Football Encyclopedia is a vital source of information and on page 200 of the Early Years edition the following short synopsis of the '52 season: "Four years ago George Halas had a marvelous stable of quarterbacks in Sid Luckman, Johnny Lujack, and Bobby Layne; now Luckman was gracefully retired. Lujack had quit with a bad shoulder, and Layne was leading the Detroit Lions to a league championship. 

Stuck with a pair of unproven quarterbacks in George Blanda and Steve Romanik, the Bears dropped below the .500 mark for the first time since 1945 and only the second time since 1929. Halas and his staff believe they can rebound from the failure to win the conference crown in '51 after being in first place in November, yet many questions need to be answered. 

The Chicago Bears have had success in the draft many times in their history (and some seasons that were a disaster), but the '52 draft remains one of the best in Bear history. Let's take a look at those youngsters. The first nine drafted by the Bears in '52 all make the team and contribute. Jim Dooley was the 8th overall pick in the draft, and while he play well most of his career; there were better players available, and you just might take the time to look at the '52 draft overall and form your own opinion on who the Bears should have taken first. 

Clark Shaughnessy might be listed as a consultant, but he is the defensive coordinator who is still formulating a number of creative defensive alignments. Bear players had to be very sharp mentally (especially the linebackers) to absorb his verbiage and understand their responsibilities. 

The Bears would align in a 5-3-3, and also a 5-2-4. The defense would overshift, and align in gaps, thus hopefully creating lanes to "red dog". You would see some Bear defenders attempting to play a rudimentary zone coverage underneath, while the deep defenders were almost always in man coverage. 

Rookie Jack Hoffman is the starter at left defensive end, and the rangy youngster has an impressive first year. He sheds blocks, pressures passers, and can play the run. Rookie Fred Williams is the starting left defensive tackle. His size and strength are apparent right from the get-go, and he will earn numerous trips to the Pro Bowl in his long career. 

Rookie Herman Clark aligns at middle guard. Sometimes he stays aligned there, but many times he stands up to become a middle linebacker. He moves well for a big man and is very capable in pursuit. While not the best-tackling linebacker, he is learning on the job. Rookie Bill Bishop is the starting right defensive tackle, and he also demonstrates he has a bright future in the league as a run defender. 
Ed Sprinkle
Joining the four rookies on the D-line is veteran Ed Sprinkle. He lacks size, but not toughness. Sprinkle is a top-notch pass rusher and is still capable in pursuit, but at times he struggles in defending the run. Ed is again chosen for the Pro Bowl due to his big play ability. 

Drafted the year before as a future, Bill George gets plenty of playing time at left linebacker, and in some of Shaughnessy's defenses, he puts his hand in the dirt, shoots the gap and rushes the passer. He also is the starting right offensive guard thus more on him when that side of the ball is detailed. When he returns from his military commitment Bones 

Weatherly is the starting left linebacker, and sometimes even plays left safety. Weatherly is an excellent pass defender, and swift in pursuit, but struggles at times to stop the run. 
George Connor
The leader of the defense is linebacker George Connor. Savvy, strong, and versatile he plays both left and right linebacker during the campaign. Connor will be discussed even more as he starts at offensive left tackle. Many times have written about the defensive passer rating, and during '51 the Bears ranked 9th with a mark of 66.5 (league average was 52.9) and was a key reason why the Bears fell from first place late in the season. 

The 1952 Bear secondary ranks 11th out of 12 teams in this key statistical category with a mark of 66.8 (league average is 57.7). Al Campana starts a few games, is aligned at safety (both left and right), and does very little to help the defense and is gone after the season. 

Jim Dooley will align at the left corner a few times, but he is almost always the starting right corner and leads the team in interceptions. Shaughnessy has defenses where starting safety Don Kindt and Dooley switch places, and would relish telling you why, but cannot. 

The season begins with John Hoffman as the starting right safety when the Bears are in a four-man secondary. Athletic, and speedy for a big man, he is an alert pass defender. He misses many games with injury, and when he returns late in the year, he usually is the starting left corner. 

Don Kindt is by far the Bears best pass defender and is a strong tackler. Film study shows him ranging all over the field in pursuit, many times since his teammates are out of position. Billy Stone begins the year as the starting left corner, and he also is an able pass defender. He is an average tackler at best, and contributes far more on offense. 
The season begins in Green Bay with a 24-14 victory, and in week two the Bears head across town to play the Cardinals at Comiskey Park. Rookie Ollie Matson is the star of the game, but that old Bear nemesis Charlie Trippi dashes 59 yards for a touchdown to ensure a 21-10 win. 

The fledgling Dallas Texans are destroyed at Wrigley on October the 12th, thus the Bears at 2-1 are right back in the race, and will face a team that they beat all three times they have played them; the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners have scored just 27 points total in those losses, but this team is different in that they have royalty at halfback in Hugh McElhenny. 

The game is highlighted in the NFL's Best Teams, Best Years series in the 49er edition. McElhenny returns a punt 94 yards for a score in the 40-16 win. Watching "The King" weave, and dash through the Bears attempted punt coverage paints a dreadful picture of an area Halas never really addresses. 

Covering kicks can surely help you win a game, but you would never know this when watching Bears "special teams" (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Why would Bulldog Turner be on the punt team at this point in his career? 

The Bears travel to Los Angeles to take on a Ram team that is struggling and has already made a coaching change. Turnover after turnover occurs over the course of the first three quarters and the Bears lead 7-3. The Rams and Bears have become hardbitten rivals over the past five years with Chicago having won five and Los Angeles four. 

Many of the games have twists and turns, and plenty of excitement. 

The key play in this game so far is at the beginning of the 3rd quarter. Bill George recovered Dan Towler's fumble on the Los Angeles twenty-yard line, and now on 4th down and a yard to go, Chuck Hunsinger is stopped for no gain. 

The Bears first drive in the 4th quarter has Blanda attempting a 51-yard field goal which is short and returned by safety Jerry Williams. 

First and ten on the Bear twenty-yard line and Romanik's pass is pilfered by rookie right corner Richard "Night Train" Lane and returned 30 yards to the Bear four-yard line. Rams punch it in and take the lead. Bob Carey kicks off and there he is again involved in the kicking game . . . Bulldog Turner trundles 29 yards to his own forty-five-yard line. 

Blanda again misses a field goal, and here comes the Rams again. Van Brocklin rifles to Fears for the score. The Bears have the ball on their own twenty-five, with no T-formation quarterback in the game? 

The week before in the loss to the 49ers Halas sent in Whizzer White to play tailback and in a version of what many of you would call "the Wildcat" ran the ball a few times. Down 24-7 with about 4 minutes left Halas again sends in White to run the ball out of this formation. 

Four consecutive running plays by White and he has gained 22 yards, with a fifteen-yard penalty also accessed on Los Angeles for a personal foul. First and ten on the Ram forty-one, White throws incomplete, and then on second down lost six. 

Third down, and White cannot find running room, and foolishly weaves his way backward towards his own goal 51 yards, before his arm is hooked, and he fumbles. Ken Casner scoops up the ball and lumbers two yards to score.  Final Los Angeles 31 Chicago 7. 

The Bears return home after beating the Niners at Kezar in a contentious battle to take on a Packer team that is improved. Late in the first quarter, Parilli has pitched to rookie sensation Bill Howton for a score, but speedy Leon Campbell sprints 86 yards with the ensuing kickoff. Early third quarter and Rote has thrown a touchdown pass to Cone, and again on the ensuing kickoff, a Bear goes the distance as rookie Eddie Macon dashes 89 yards to score. 

Now early in the fourth quarter Reichardt of the Packers attempts a 43-yard field goal which is partially blocked, but the ball is still bouncing towards the Bear goal line, and Whizzer White has the pigskin bounce off his arm (ruled a fumble) and John Martinkovic scores for the Packers. 

A Green Bay 41-24 victory where the score is nowhere near an indicator of how well the Packers played, and how mistake-prone the Bears are. If there ever was a player who deserved to be Player of Week for a game—it is defensive end John Martinkovic wreaks havoc with his pass rush, and he also partially blocked a Morrison punt, and as previously mentioned scored on a fumble recovery. Five games left and here comes a Ram team that has won three straight to vault themselves back in contention for the conference crown. 

Los Angeles scored 42 points at Wrigley in December of '51 to position themselves to win the division, could they possibly score at will against this inconsistent Bear defense again? 

You betcha! 
First play of the game the Night Train intercepts, and eventually Waterfield kicks a field goal. 

Next Ram possession Van Brocklin isolates Vitamin T. Smith on linebacker Weatherly and lofts a perfect pass to the speedy back for 80 yards and a score. 

Late in the first quarter, the Bears had first and ten on the Ram thirteen, and a chance to get back in the game. Four failed plays, and is written in the play by plays "fans boo as Bears leave the field". Second quarter and Van Brocklin finds Hirsch open in the endzone behind Connor and Dooley. Rams 17 Bears 3. The Bears fight back, as Blanda zips a pass to rookie Bill McColl in the endzone for the first touchdown of his career. When Don Kindt recovered Towler's fumble at the Los Angeles forty-two, the Bear offense moves to the Los Angeles twenty-eight. 

Blanda then misses the field goal try from the thirty-five. Los Angeles's first possession of the second half ends with Don Kindt intercepting Waterfield and returning to the Ram thirty-seven, but he fumbles and Ram center Leon McLaughlin recovers. Late in the quarter and Van Brocklin after two deft fakes delivers a strike to Hirsch for 84 yards and a touchdown. Dooley does not even chase Hirsch (stated in the play-by-play). Chicago first and ten on their own thirty-nine, and halfback Eddie Macon loses the handle on the ball. 

Right defensive end Andy Robustelli recovers, and as he goes down pitches the ball forward (are you listening Ken Stabler?). Jack Dwyer grabs the ball and scores. The scorekeeper listed this play as a lateral by Robustelli and a 12-yard fumble-return touchdown by Dwyer. 

Possibly the scorekeeper did not think that Dwyer had control of the all until he was at the Chicago twelve-yard line? The Papa Bear comes onto the field to dispute the play and is penalized. Carey kicks off from the Bear 45 and Hunsinger returns to his own four-yard line. 

Macon in attempting to sweep left is tackled in the end zone by spirited rookie right corner of the Rams....yes you guessed it...Night Train Lane. The first play of the fourth quarter and the play-by-play states Van Brocklin "pulls" the Waterfield fake, hits Bob Carey at midfield, and a twisting 61-yard run, tearing away from several tacklers. 

The Rams now lead 40 to 10. The Bears score twice in the fourth quarter to demonstrate they have not quit, yet another loss 40-24. 

Detroit is leading the division, and Bobby Layne would relish beating his old boss on his home turf, but the Bears play spirited football and defeat the Lions 24-23! The Bear offense was polished, creative, and consistent in the victory, so let's take a look at who played on that side of the ball for the Bears. 
The left offensive end post for Chicago was handled by Bill Wightkin and Bill McColl, and both men also played some at right end. Ed Sprinkle even filled in a few times at right end. Gene Schroeder played some at right end, and also "flanked" out on the right thus he would be listed as a halfback (he even took a few turns in the secondary). George Connor usually started at left offensive tackle, and he was selected as an All-Pro linebacker, but he was still an effective o-tackle. 

When Connor needed a rest, Bobby Cross in his only year as a Bear filled in. This is the fourth year of the substitution rule, but many players had the skills necessary to go both ways, and Connor was sure one of them. Who logged the most minutes during the year you ask? Boy oh boy would I relish having the answer. Connor would be among the men who logged the most minutes, along with Nomellini and a couple others. 
 Dick Barwegan
The starting left offensive guard is handled by Dick Barwegan. Powerful, and quick Barwegan received all-pro votes for his performance. Wayne Hansen was a capable starting center, while rookie Bill George started at right guard, though Frank Dempsey and Ed Bradley got lots of playing time when Bill George concentrated on defense. The Bulldog is at the end of the line, yet he is the starting right offensive tackle week in and week out. He can drive block, he just does not move as well as he did when he was an All-Pro center in the '40s. 

Since many teams would have the tackle down block on the defensive tackle on dropback pass plays, that meant the right guard pulled and blocked the defensive end. Thus, on film, you can see rookie offensive guard Bill George pull, and cut block rookie left defensive end Gino Marchetti of the Texans. Priceless! Wonder if these two men when they became aged warhorses in the '60's discussed these plays at the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles? 

The Bears have one of the best fullbacks in the league, and Halas no doubt wanted him to be the featured back in the offense. John "Kayo" Dottley was the whole package . . . .speed for a big man, quick nimble feet, demonstrating he could change direction, he ran with power and bounced off many a tackler. His injury in the Coliseum basically ended a very promising career (he would return, but be a shell of what he once was). So who would carry the ball for a team that prided itself on a strong ground attack?

Basically halfback by committee - led by Curly Morrison - who at times really sparkled. Chuck Hunsinger had played well in the past, but in his last year as a Bear just did not get the job done. After the debacle against he Rams Whizzer White got very few chances in his last year in Chicago. Rookie Eddie Macon flashed ability and would return for '53, but the jury was out on how much he could handle? 
Previously mentioned Billy Stone as a corner, and he had proven in 1950 with the Colts he was a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield, and he did so with the Bears in '52. While not a great runner, he was at least adequate. 

Finally, Babe Dimanchef and Leon Campbell with their speed got a few opportunities. Blanda and Romanik were mentioned with the Neft & Cohen quote, but Bobby Williams started seven games in '52 and early in the campaign was accurate though he lacked a strong arm. Romanik held the ball too long and just was not as accurate a passer for the Bear passing attack, which takes us to Blanda. 

Halas never had the belief in Blanda as a passer. There was no doubt about his leadership and toughness, and George Blanda could force a pass into coverage with the best of the. During the draft Halas used a "future" pick on Ed Brown, and that will lead to more stories on the history of the Bears, but that is for another time. Back to the season. 

Victory in Wrigley over the Lions should have inspired the Bears to finish strong, but the disaster that awaited them in the Rubber Bowl in Akron Ohio is a story for another day. 

Yes, folks will tell you all about the Dallas Texans in my next saga (trying to whet your appetite). The loss to the lowly Texans and a shellacking by Lions in the return match at Briggs (again the Bears allowed over 40 points) takes us to the final game of the year. 

The Cardinals come to Wrigley and in a bitter hard-fought defensive battle the Bears prevailed to end the season on a winning note at 5-7. 

Jim Brown
Shifting gears to the greatest running back of all-time in JB. Am so thankful to have seen him play in person in '62, and twice in the Pro Bowl which of course included the final game of his career. 

So many talk about his power and speed for a big man, yet very little is said about what I believe was his best physical attribute—incredible balance, which he used to summon up that chiseled body to attack defenders. 


Lastly returning to the title . . . "With no bridge to cross".