May 27, 2017

Steelers Win Last College All-Star Game (1976)

Beginning in 1934, the Chicago College All-Star game served as the preseason kickoff to each NFL season. Conceived by Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune (who also developed major league baseball’s annual All-Star Game), it matched the previous season’s NFL champion against a squad composed of top college players, many of whom were about to enter the pro ranks (in 1935, the runner-up Chicago Bears represented the NFL; following the pre-merger seasons of 1968 and ’69, AFL champions that won the Super Bowl participated). The game was sponsored by The Tribune on behalf of Chicago Charities and played at Soldier Field, with the exception of two contests during World War II that were held at Northwestern University.

Initially, the games were competitive (the first ended in a scoreless tie), but typically the NFL squad won and as time went on the contests were often mismatches. Pro coaches complained about college prospects reporting late to training camp because of participation in the all-star contest, and of the additional exposure to injury. As salaries grew larger in the 1960s and ‘70s, the players themselves were averse to the prospect of potentially being sidelined. When NFL veterans struck during the 1974 preseason, the game was cancelled.

What would prove to be the last College All-Star game was held on July 23, 1976. The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of the Super Bowl following the ’75 season, represented the NFL against an all-star squad that included such future pro stars as Oklahoma’s Selmon brothers (DE Lee Roy and DT Dewey), RB Joe Washington, G Jackie Slater, WR Duriel Harris, QB Richard Todd, and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. The team was coached by Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian.

There were 52,895 fans on hand at Soldier Field for the Friday night contest. A heavy downpour had occurred about 40 minutes prior to the game, but it had passed before the opening kickoff. There was little scoring in the first half as Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense shut down the All-Stars, holding them to a net total of 54 yards. Roy Gerela kicked a 29-yard field goal in the first quarter and kicked two more, of 32 and 23 yards, in the second period to give the Steelers a 9-0 lead at the half.

Pittsburgh pulled away early in the third quarter. First, the Steelers gained an easy two points when All-Star center Ray Pinney’s snap sailed over the head of punter Rick Engles and through the end zone for a safety. RB Jack Deloplaine returned the ensuing free kick 32 yards to the All-Star 26 yard line, and three plays later RB Franco Harris ran 21 yards for a touchdown and 18-0 Pittsburgh lead.

Shortly thereafter, the Steelers regained possession after the All-Stars punted and QB Terry Bradshaw connected with RB Tommy Reamon on a 25-yard pass play to the two yard line. Reamon bulled over for the score, and while the extra point attempt was missed, the Steelers held a 24-0 lead that would end up being the final score.

The All-Stars got an apparent break when Pittsburgh reserve QB Terry Hanratty, under a strong rush, threw a desperation pass that was intercepted by safety Shafer Suggs. Suggs returned the pickoff 16 yards to the Steelers’ 39 yard line. A penalty moved the ball to the 34, but by this point a torrential rain had struck and the officials called time with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter.

The players left the flooded field, but many of the young fans in the crowd ran onto it and ripped down the goal posts. Unable to restore order and after consultation with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the officials called off the remainder of the contest.

It was a miserable conclusion to a series that had provided 42 games over a span of 43 years. Chicago Tribune Charities chose to discontinue the game in 1977, and the annual summer all-star event was no more. As was to be expected, the NFL teams won 31 times, the All-Stars 9, and there were two ties. At its height, it was popular with the fans, and attendance had reached as high as 105,840 in 1947. It had served a purpose when the NFL was struggling for recognition and the college game was more popular – a situation that had changed considerably by the 1970s.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on July 23, 2010.

 

Stars Throttle Wranglers for USFL Title (1984)

The Philadelphia Stars were a team on a mission during the 1984 United States Football League season. Head Coach Jim Mora’s squad had gone 15-3 in the league’s inaugural ’83 campaign but lost a closely-fought title game to the Michigan Panthers by two points. The Stars were just as efficient and dominating during the ’84 regular season, going 16-2. QB Chuck Fusina led a conservative but potent offense centered around RB Kelvin Bryant and an outstanding line anchored by OT Irv Eatman and C Bart Oates. The “Doghouse Defense” was, if anything, even better than it had been the previous year and featured All-League honorees in DT Pete Kugler, LB Sam Mills, CB Garcia Lane, and FS Mike Lush. The club had beaten the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions to advance once again to the USFL Championship Game.

Their opponent on July 15, 1984 was the Arizona Wranglers, under Head Coach George Allen. The veteran-laden club that had (for the most part) played as the Chicago Blitz in ’83 was similar to the Stars in having a ball-control offense and rugged defense. 37-year-old QB Greg Landry no longer had a strong arm but still had plenty of savvy behind center and the running game boasted two thousand-yard rushers in Tim Spencer (1212) and Kevin Long (1010). WR Trumaine Johnson was a top receiver (90 catches, 1268 yds., 13 TDs). The defense ranked first overall and contained DE Karl Lorch, DT Kit Lathrop, and LB Ed Smith. However, Arizona’s road to the postseason had been more difficult – the Wranglers started off slowly but won their last four games to finish second in the Pacific Division at 10-8 and qualify as a Wild Card. They won two closely-fought games over the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express to make it to the title game.

There was a crowd of 52,662 on hand at Tampa Stadium for the second USFL Championship game. The Stars took control from the start, driving 66 yards in 10 plays in the opening series of the game capped by a four-yard touchdown carry by RB Bryan Thomas. Following a three-and-out possession by Arizona, Philadelphia again put together a long scoring drive that took nine plays to travel 54 yards. Fusina scored on a quarterback sneak from a yard out and, while David Trout missed the extra point attempt, Philadelphia was ahead by 13-0 after a quarter of play.

Fusina completed his first ten passes and the Stars’ offense moved methodically down the field, but in the second quarter turnovers kept the team from scoring again and nearly allowed the Wranglers to get back into the game. Backup TE Ken Dunek, in the lineup in place of injured starter Steve Folsom, fumbled early in the second quarter at the Arizona 43 yard line. The Wranglers recovered and capitalized when Frank Corral booted a 37-yard field goal.

Another Philadelphia drive into Arizona territory was stopped at the Wranglers’ 11 but Trout missed a 27-yard field goal attempt. Just before halftime, an 84-yard drive by the Stars came up empty when Kelvin Bryant, who was hampered by a toe injury, fumbled at the goal line – the play resulted in a touchback. The score remained 13-3 at the intermission although Philadelphia had rolled up 249 yards to just 49 for the Wranglers.

Arizona’s offense came alive in the first series of the third quarter. The Wranglers advanced 40 yards, but facing third-and-three at the Philadelphia 39, Greg Landry’s pass intended for Tim Spencer was broken up by LB Mike Johnson. While a furious Landry shouted at officials that Spencer had been interfered with, the protest was to no avail and Arizona was forced to punt.

Once again the Stars moved smoothly down the field. However, after reaching the Arizona 16, they came up empty once again when Fusina’s third-down pass was tipped by Kit Lathrop and intercepted by Ed Smith, who returned it 37 yards to the Philadelphia 46. It seemed once again that the Arizona offense would put points on the board, advancing to the 23, but the Stars defense held and Corral missed a field goal attempt from 40 yards.

The Wranglers suffered only one turnover, but it served to put the game out of reach. Landry fumbled while being sacked by DE Don Fielder at the Arizona 11 yard line and DT Buddy Moor recovered for the Stars. Seven plays later, Bryant scored from a yard out and Philadelphia took a commanding 20-3 lead with just under ten minutes left in the contest. David Trout capped the scoring with a 39-yard field goal as the Philadelphia defense stifled the Wranglers the rest of the way. The Stars became USFL Champions by a score of 23-3 that easily could have been much larger.

Philadelphia ran 59 running plays, a USFL postseason record, and dominated time of possession by 43:19 to 16:41. They also outgained Arizona by 414 yards to 119 and, while the Stars turned the ball over three times, the Wranglers were only able to take advantage with the lone field goal, while Arizona’s single turnover led to seven points for Philadelphia. Arizona, known for its outstanding pass rush during the regular season, was unable to put pressure on Fusina and did not sack him at all.

Chuck Fusina, the game’s MVP, completed 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards with no TDs and one interception. Kelvin Bryant led the running game with 115 yards on 29 carries that included a touchdown while Bryan Thomas contributed 69 yards on 11 attempts and one TD. WR Tom Donovan caught three passes for 43 yards.

For the Wranglers, Greg Landry was successful on just 6 of 20 throws for 54 yards. No player caught more than one pass, with WR Lenny Willis gaining 16 yards on Arizona’s longest pass completion of the game and Trumaine Johnson gaining 15 on his sole catch. Held to only 72 rushing yards as a team, Tim Spencer led the way with 33 yards on 8 carries.

“There’s no doubt we are the best team in the USFL,” said a triumphant Jim Mora afterward. “There was no denying this team.” Mora further added, “Our goal after losing to Michigan last year was not just to get to Tampa, but to win this game tonight.”

“We had opportunities to get back in the game after a couple of turnovers, but we didn’t take advantage of them,” said George Allen, coaching his last pro game at age 66. “We didn’t play as well as I thought we would, so Philadelphia deserves to win the championship.”

Allen saluted his players by saying, “I’m proud of them even though we lost. They played hard and came back from adversity all season long.”

In the ensuing offseason, the Stars moved to Baltimore (necessitated by the USFL’s plan to shift to a fall schedule for a 1986 season that never happened) and, while not as dominant during the regular season, rallied to win a second straight title in ’85. The Wranglers stayed in place but were merged with the Oklahoma Outlaws for 1985 and went 8-10 to finish fourth in the Western Conference.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on July 15, 2012.

 

Jacksonville Bulls Score 53 Points in USFL Debut (1984)

The Jacksonville Bulls were one of six new teams in the USFL for the 1984 season. Owned by Fred Bullard (hence the Bulls nickname) and coached by Lindy Infante, they took the field for their first game on February 26 before 49,392 fans at the Gator Bowl. They didn’t disappoint, rolling up 53 points as they obliterated the visiting Washington Federals.

The first points came on a safety as Washington punter Dana Moore fell on a fumble in his end zone. The first touchdown occurred on a 74-yard pass play from QB Matt Robinson to WR Aubrey Matthews. It was 16-0 at the end of the first quarter after RB Larry Mason scored from a yard out.

By the end of the first half, the Bulls had a 29-0 lead as Mason scored a second TD on an eight-yard run (the PAT failed) and Robinson connected on another long pass play, this one covering 54 yards to WR Wyatt Henderson. Washington finally got on the board in the third quarter on a one-yard run by QB Mike Hohensee, but it was Jacksonville accumulating the next 17 points as the Bulls cruised to the 53-14 victory.

Robinson, who had played in the NFL with the Jets, Broncos, and Bills, completed 15 of 25 passes for 299 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions. Rookie WR Gary Clark led the team with 4 pass receptions (for 65 yards), although Matthews had the most receiving yards with 74 on his lone catch, the long TD. Larry Mason led the team’s runners with 36 yards on 11 carries with the two scores.

WR Joey Walters had an outstanding statistical day in a losing effort for the Federals as he gained 205 yards on 8 receptions that included a 51-yard TD on a pass from relief QB Reggie Collier.

It was a great start for the franchise both on the field and in terms of attendance. But while the Bulls would set a USFL single-game attendance record in their next game with 73,227 on hand to witness a heartbreaking loss to the New Jersey Generals, and would go on to lead the league in attendance over the course of the season, they went 6-12 on the way to a last place finish in the Southern Division. The Federals also finished last with a 3-15 record, tied with the Pittsburgh Maulers in the Atlantic Division.

Matt Robinson ended up splitting time at quarterback with Robbie Mahfouz. Gary Clark was the top receiver, with 56 catches for 760 yards. However, the team finished next to last in the USFL in rushing with 1729 yards; Mason’s 495 yards led the club.

Defense was a problem as the team failed to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ended up surrendering 455 points. They were good at picking off passes, with 28 interceptions (led by safety Don Bessillieu’s seven), but defensive lineman Bob Clasby was the team’s leader with just five sacks.

The franchise’s enduring legacy was the fan support that it generated. Long after the Bulls disappeared with the rest of the USFL, the NFL awarded Jacksonville an expansion franchise for the 1995 season. The enthusiasm generated for the Bulls apparently played a role in that decision.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 26, 2010.

 

Kelly Passes for 574 Yards as Gamblers Defeat Express (1985)

The opening week United States Football League contest between the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express on February 24, 1985 featured two of the most highly-regarded young quarterbacks in the league. Houston’s Jim Kelly had a remarkable rookie season in 1984, throwing for 5219 yards and 44 touchdowns. The Gamblers, coached by Jack Pardee and utilizing a run-and-shoot offense, went 13-5 and only a first-round loss to Arizona in the playoffs could put a damper on the outstanding year.

Steve Young of the Express joined the club after the ’84 season was already underway and, while not putting together the spectacular numbers that his fellow rookie did in Houston, nevertheless performed capably and had a positive effect on the offense. LA was 2-3 and having difficulty generating points when the mobile lefthander out of Brigham Young took over, but rallied to finish at 10-8 and gain a spot in the postseason in the weak Pacific Division (and defeated Houston in the first head-to-head encounter between the two quarterbacks). Following a triple-overtime win over the defending-champion Michigan Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, LA had finally succumbed to the Arizona Wranglers.

There was a typically sparse crowd of 18,828 in attendance at the LA Memorial Coliseum for the untelevised game. The Gamblers took the early advantage as Kelly threw two one-yard touchdowns to WR Ricky Sanders in the first quarter to build up a 13-0 lead (the extra point attempt was missed following the second of the TDs). The Express responded with two field goals by Tony Zendejas, of 26 and 48 yards, in the second quarter and the score was 13-6 at halftime.

Zendejas added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter, and then Young connected with WR JoJo Townsell for a 64-yard touchdown. RB Kevin Nelson ran for a two-yard TD and the Express, aided by Houston turnovers, was ahead by 23-13 after three quarters.

LA appeared to put the game away in the fourth quarter when safety Troy West intercepted a Kelly pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown, making the score 33-13 with less than ten minutes to play. However, two plays from scrimmage later Houston narrowed the gap in lightning fashion as Kelly threw to WR Richard Johnson for a 52-yard touchdown.

The Express played conservatively, trying to run out the clock, and the Gamblers got the ball back at the LA 43 following a poor 16-yard punt by Jeff Partridge with the clock down to 4:05. This time it took five plays to drive to another Kelly scoring pass as he connected with WR Vince Courville from 20 yards out. With the successful extra point it was now a six-point game at 33-27.

LA managed only a running play and two incomplete passes in its next series. Following another punt, the Gamblers had possession with just under two minutes to go. They only needed 40 seconds to cover 84 yards and cap their furious comeback as Kelly found Sanders open over the middle, beating West (who had two interceptions in the game and returned one for a score) for a 39-yard touchdown. Toni Fritsch kicked his fourth extra point of the game to provide a one-point margin.

Still, there was time on the clock for LA to attempt to drive into field goal range, and Zendejas had been successful on all four of his attempts. But Young was intercepted by LB Mike Hawkins to nail down the 34-33 win for Houston.

The Gamblers rolled up 585 total yards, with only 25 of that total on the ground, on a mere 8 carries. The Express ran the ball 20 times, but for just 49 yards while gaining a total of 267. Houston also had the edge in first downs (26 to 12), although the Gamblers hindered themselves by turning the ball over five times, to just one by LA.

Jim Kelly completed 35 of 54 passes for 574 yards and 5 touchdowns. In doing so, he not only surpassed Bobby Hebert’s USFL record of 444 yards, but Norm Van Brocklin’s NFL record of 554 and was just 12 yards short of Sam Etcheverry’s 586 yards with Montreal of the CFL in 1954. It was the second time Kelly had tossed five TDs in a game, tying the league record that he shared with four others.

Three Houston receivers gained over a hundred yards, led by Richard Johnson with 174 on 11 catches, including one score, and followed by Ricky Sanders with 9 receptions for 108 yards and three TDs and RB Sam Harrell’s 105 on 6 catches. Harrell led the almost non-existent running attack with 16 yards on four carries.

For the Express, Steve Young was successful on 13 of 27 passes for 255 yards with a TD and an interception and was the leading rusher with 27 yards on five carries. JoJo Townsell gained 104 yards on his two catches, including the one long touchdown, while WR Duane Gunn had four receptions for 42 yards.

“I’ve been in some comebacks before, but never anything like that,” said Kelly. “Pulling out that win was the best feeling I ever had in my life.”

“He’s a great quarterback; that’s a great offense,” summed up Steve Young, whose own efforts had come up short.

“I got too conservative in the fourth quarter,” lamented Express Head Coach John Hadl.

It was the beginning of another outstanding year for Houston and Jim Kelly. While the second-year quarterback out of Miami missed several games due to injury, he still led the USFL in pass attempts (567), completions (360), yards (4623), touchdowns (39), and passer rating (97.9). The Gamblers finished third in the Western Conference with a 10-8 record but were the league’s highest-scoring club with 544 points. They qualified for the postseason but once again lost in the first round, falling to Birmingham by a 22-20 score.

They were far ahead of the Los Angeles Express, who finished at a miserable 3-15 and wound up the year playing at Pierce College’s small venue while unsuccessfully seeking new ownership. It was a tough season for Steve Young as well, who threw for 1741 yards with 6 TD passes and 13 interceptions and rushed for 368.

With the demise of the USFL, both quarterbacks made their way to the NFL. Kelly played for Buffalo, the team that had his rights after drafting him in the first round in 1983, and led the Bills to four straight AFC titles – although the club fell short in the Super Bowl after each. Young went to Tampa Bay and was then dealt to the 49ers, where he was a backup on two Super Bowl-winning squads, was the starting quarterback when San Francisco won the NFL Championship in 1994, and led the league in passing six times. They both eventually ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the USFL performances were just the opening chapter.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 24, 2012.

 

Wally Lemm Leaves Oilers for Cardinals (1962)

On February 22, 1962 Wally Lemm, who had guided the Houston Oilers to the AFL Championship in ’61, quit to become head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. The 42-year-old Lemm signed a one-year contract in succeeding Frank “Pop” Ivy, who resigned with two games left in the season.

Lemm had started out more inclined to write about football then coach it. He graduated from Carroll College, where he was a halfback on the football team, with a journalism degree. Following service in World War II in which he commanded a torpedo boat, he became an assistant coach under Hugh Devore at Notre Dame in 1945. It was a quick jump to head coach at Waukesha High School in ’46 and then back to the college level. Lemm was an assistant coach for three years at Lake Forest College, as well as head basketball coach, before becoming head coach in 1954. The team won the conference title in his first year and he left after compiling an 11-4-1 record. From there it was on to Montana State and again, in his first season, his team won a title, gaining the Rocky Mountain Conference championship with an 8-1 tally.

In 1956, Lemm moved to pro coaching for the first time, serving as a defensive assistant for the then-Chicago Cardinals. The team, under Head Coach Ray Richards, had its first winning season in seven years and the defense was a big part of it as the unit intercepted 33 passes and allowed only nine touchdowns. However, in keeping with a pattern in which he didn’t stay in one place for long, Lemm returned to Lake Forest College as head coach in ’57 and came away with another conference title.

After returning to the Cardinals as an assistant in 1959, he moved to the Oilers of the new AFL in ’60. Houston won the first AFL Championship under Head Coach Lou Rymkus, but Lemm resigned to go into the sporting goods business. When the Oilers got off to a 1-3-1 start in 1961 and it was apparent that Rymkus was losing control of the club, owner Bud Adams hired Lemm to take over.

His coaching methods were rather unconventional for the time and made him unpopular with some of his peers. Lemm was low-key and took a relaxed approach with the players and kept the offense, in particular, as simple as possible in order to eliminate the potential for errors. His attitude was summed up in his statement that “football is supposed to be fun and if you treat the players like adults they will usually respond like adults. The game is not really simple anymore because the defenses change so much, but we try to keep it as clear, straightforward and pleasurable as we can.”

The philosophy worked in Houston. The intense Rymkus had sown dissension among the players, but Lemm relaxed the atmosphere. He also returned veteran QB George Blanda to the starting lineup and installed Willard Dewveall at tight end. The defense was simplified and Fred Glick replaced Charlie Milstead at safety, where he had been badly overmatched in the team’s defeats. The results were spectacular – the Oilers went 10-0 the rest of the way and repeated as AFL champs.

Lemm had initially agreed to a contract extension but was frustrated with the front office alignment in Houston despite the team’s success, and with the excuse of being able to work closer to home (he lived in Libertyville, Illinois), he accepted the offer to coach the Cardinals.

While there were rumors that the Oilers were interested in Sammy Baugh or former Dallas Cowboys assistant Babe Dimancheff to replace Lemm, in the end they hired Ivy, making it a straight swap of coaches (he lasted two seasons).

The Cardinals, all-too-typically a losing team, went 6-5-1 in 1960, the first year in St. Louis, and were 7-7 in ’61. Injuries played a key role in the team’s failing to show greater improvement, in particular the loss of star HB John David Crow for virtually the entire year. Canadian Football League legend Sam Etcheverry had moved south of the border after an outstanding nine-year career to take over at quarterback, but his arm was worn out and he was no longer the player he had been in the CFL.

Lemm didn’t have the same initial success as he did in his college stops and with the Oilers. St. Louis dropped to 4-9-1 in 1962. However, the seeds were planted for future success. Etcheverry started the year at quarterback but was replaced by second-year QB Charley Johnson, who showed promise and had outstanding receivers in fleet split end Sonny Randle and dependable flanker Bobby Joe Conrad. Crow was back at halfback and there was a good stable of young backs developing. The defense gave up too many points, but there was young talent in the backfield with 22-year-old CB Pat Fischer and 24-year-old FS Larry Wilson.

In the draft for the 1963 season, the Cards had two first round draft choices and used them to shore up the defense, adding safety Jerry Stovall from LSU and Purdue DE Don Brumm. The team dramatically improved to 9-5. Johnson had an outstanding year at quarterback, setting club records with 3280 passing yards and 28 TDs. Despite again losing Crow to injury for virtually the entire season, Bill Triplett was shifted from defensive back to offensive halfback and was a good replacement, running for 652 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry and catching 31 passes for 396 more. Perennial backup Joe Childress became the starting fullback and led the team with 701 rushing yards and grabbed 25 passes. Conrad led the NFL with 73 pass receptions, for 967 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Randle gained 1014 yards on his 51 catches and scored 12 times. Rookie TE Jackie Smith contributed 28 receptions for 445 yards. The line, built around C Bob DeMarco and G Ken Gray, was also improved.

The defensive line was augmented by the addition of Brumm and Stovall proved to be an asset in the backfield, along with Jimmy Burson. The linebacker corps, anchored by MLB Dale Meinert, was a good one. Jim Bakken, who had originally joined the team as a reserve defensive back, proved to be a reliable placekicker (and would for the next 15 seasons in St. Louis).

The stage was set for the Cards to contend in 1964 and they battled the Browns to the wire, ending up second in the Eastern Conference at 9-3-2. Indeed, they went 1-0-1 against Cleveland and won three of their first four and all of their last four contests – only a midseason slump prevented them from finishing on top. The team was well balanced. Johnson passed for 3045 yards, although he threw more interceptions (24) than touchdowns (21). Conrad had another Pro Bowl year (61 catches, 780 yards) but Randle missed considerable time with a shoulder injury – backup WR Billy Gambrell performed admirably in his place. Jackie Smith continued his development at tight end with 47 receptions for 657 yards. Triplett was out for the year at halfback due to a bout with tuberculosis, but Crow was back and led the club with 554 yards rushing. On defense, the small (5’9”, 170) but aggressive Fischer intercepted 10 passes and the club ranked second in the league with 25 overall.

The success did not continue as anticipated in 1965, however. After getting off to a 4-1 start, they lost eight of their last nine games to sink to 5-9. The line and receivers were still outstanding, but Johnson, who started out well, was plagued by injuries and seemed to regress. Injuries also struck among the running backs, and they were lacking the clutch play of Crow, who had been dealt away to the 49ers. On defense, the linebacker corps was still a strength but the line failed to rush opposing passers effectively and Wilson and Stovall missed time in the backfield.

The failure to meet expectations meant the end of the line for Lemm in St. Louis. He left with an overall record of 27-26-3 and returned to the Oilers as head coach in 1966 (including Ivy, they had gone through three head coaches since ‘62). While the Cards had some good seasons under his successor, Charley Winner, they were never able to win a division title. Houston, with Lemm back at the helm, utilized a conservative offense and outstanding defense to win the Eastern Divison in ’67, but was decimated by Oakland in the AFL Championship game. It was Lemm’s last hurrah as a pro head coach, and he quit for good following the 1970 season, citing health issues. His overall pro record was 64-64-7 and he was 1-2 in the postseason, with the one AFL title to his credit.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 22, 2012.

 

Joe Namath Becomes First 4,000-Yard Passer in a Season (1967)

The New York Jets finished the 1967 season against the Chargers at San Diego Stadium on December 24, winning 42-31. Third-year QB Joe Namath completed 18 of 26 passes for 343 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. With his second consecutive 300-yard passing game (he threw for 370 yards in a loss at Oakland the previous week), he finished the year with 4,007 yards, a new AFL record (Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen bested his own NFL record with 3,747 yards that same season).

Namath thus became the first 4,000-yard passer in either NFL or AFL history, and the only one to do so in a 14-game season (the record was first broken by San Diego’s Dan Fouts in 1979). Including the Chargers game, he had six 300-yard performances and one of 400 yards during the season. In addition to passing yards, he also led the AFL in pass attempts (491), completions (258), yards per attempt (8.2) and, on the negative side for the second year in a row, interceptions thrown (28). His 26 touchdown passes ranked second.

Overall, the season was a disappointing one for the Jets. After getting off to a 7-2-1 start, New York appeared to be cruising toward the Eastern Division title, but three straight defeats, including a stunning loss at home to the lowly Broncos, knocked them out of contention. Injuries to running backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell had a significant effect, forcing the team to over-rely on Namath’s passing and, thus, setting the stage for damaging interceptions as a result. There were also weaknesses in both the defensive line and backfield.

Namath, naturally, was the focus. A celebrity as well as a much-hyped passer out of college, he couldn’t help but draw attention, and his skills were outstanding. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, he had size, plus a strong and accurate arm that was made all the more potent by his quick release. He read defenses well, was a charismatic team leader, and stood tough in the pocket while taking many a hard shot from opposing defensive linemen. At the same time, Namath was not yet a seasoned quarterback, and while he could put up big numbers, he could also be erratic and try to force passes into coverage. In a tie against Houston, he passed for 295 yards but gave up six interceptions.

Namath came into pro football with one bad knee, injured in college; it required surgery before he ever played for the Jets, and again in 1966. Following the ’67 season, he underwent surgery on his left, or “good”, knee. The resulting limitation on his mobility made him all the more prone to taking hits, yet he never missed a game because of injury in the five seasons prior to 1970 (after which time missed due to wear and tear increased significantly).

It helped that he had two excellent receivers to throw to: veteran flanker Don Maynard, who caught 71 passes for a league-leading (and career-best) 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, and third-year split end George Sauer, who led the AFL in pass receptions with 75 and accumulated 1,189 yards with six scores.

New York ended up at 8-5-1 and in second place in the Eastern Division, a game behind the 9-4-1 Houston Oilers, who succeeded with a solid ground game and strong defense. Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, who had built a championship team in Baltimore over the course of five seasons in the 1950s, took some heat for the late collapse by the Jets, but all would be forgiven the following season.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on December 24, 2009.

 

Herschel Walker Signs with USFL (1983)

Football fans received stunning news on February 23, 1983 as the new United States Football League (USFL), slated to begin play in just a few weeks, announced the signing of Heisman Trophy-winning RB Herschel Walker to a contract with the New Jersey Generals. There had been something of a false start earlier in the month when Walker, whose agent had been in contact with the league for some two months, signed but then took advantage of a 24-hour escape clause to back away. However, this time it was a done deal and the 6’1”, 220-pound phenom, just short of his 21st birthday, was officially a professional.

The news was both surprising and controversial. Walker, who had been a Heisman candidate since his freshman year at Georgia in 1980 (he finished third in the voting), had won the award as a junior in ’82. It was widely anticipated that he would duplicate Archie Griffin’s feat of twice attaining the Heisman trophy, especially since at the time it wasn’t possible for underclassmen to enter the NFL draft.

The USFL had initially stated that it would follow the NFL’s no-underclassmen rule. It had also been the new league’s policy to take a go-slow approach to challenging the older league. They would be playing in the spring, rather than going directly head-to-head with the NFL in the fall, and payrolls were to be held to $1.6 million per club.

The payroll structure began to unravel even before the Walker signing as several major players coming out of college such as North Carolina’s RB Kelvin Bryant, Grambling WR Trumaine Johnson, and Michigan WR Anthony Carter had inked contracts that stretched their respective team payrolls beyond the limit (the owners used personal services contracts to circumvent the cap). Walker’s deal, which was a personal services contract with Generals owner J. Walter Duncan, came to $3.9 million for three years and included incentives that took the figure over $4.2 million.

Both the NFL and NCAA cried foul at the signing of the underclassman Walker, and several colleges banned the new league’s scouts from their campuses. USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons insisted that no other underclassmen would be signed and that Walker presented a “special case”. The truth was that, in having his agent approach the new league, Walker had already compromised his college eligibility for 1983, and had he pressed a court case, he might well have forced his way into the USFL through judicial decision (a threat of a lawsuit challenging the draft was something the NFL feared and ultimately led to its ending the ban on underclassmen).

There may have been plenty of controversy, but Herschel Walker was the biggest name in college football and a huge prize for the new league. Signing with the team that would play in the New York metropolitan area only enhanced the effect. It also assured that he would receive intense scrutiny, and when he started slowly (he gained just 65 yards on 16 carries in his first game, a nationally televised 20-15 loss to the Los Angeles Express) the criticism was quick to come. However, maintaining his composure throughout, Walker ended up leading the league in rushing with 1,812 yards over the course of the 18-game season, although the Generals were a disappointing 6-12.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 23, 2010.

 

Doug Flutie Has Rough Debut as Generals Fall to Stallions (1985)

Entering its third season, the United States Football League once again began play with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner on one of its rosters. In 1983, it had been RB Herschel Walker, and in ’84, RB Mike Rozier. Now in 1985, Doug Flutie, the diminutive (5’9”) but strong-armed and mobile Heisman-winning quarterback from Boston College, was under contract in the USFL.

Flutie signed a five-year deal with owner Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals for $7 million. The Generals took the further step of dealing their 1984 starting quarterback, veteran Brian Sipe, to the Jacksonville Bulls. Ready or not, Flutie was expected to step in and start right away.

Flutie had been with the team for just two weeks after signing his contract, and appeared in one preseason game where his performance was underwhelming. His regular season debut came on February 24, 1985 at Birmingham’s Legion Field against the Stallions, a good team that was coming off of a 14-4 record and Southern Division title in ’84.

New Jersey had also gone 14-4 in 1984, good enough for a wild card slot, but the Generals lost to the eventual league champs, the Philadelphia Stars, in the first round of the playoffs. It was a big improvement over the 6-12 record of the inaugural season in ’83, and reflected many changes. Walt Michaels, formerly of the Jets, had taken over as head coach, and veterans such as Sipe, G Dave Lapham, CB Kerry Justin, FS Gary Barbaro, SS Greggory Johnson, and linebackers Jim LeClair and Bobby Leopold were grabbed away from the NFL. Walker, the USFL’s leading rusher in 1983, was joined as a thousand-yard ground-gainer by FB Maurice Carthon, better known for his outstanding blocking.

There were 34,785 in attendance at Legion Field, along with a national television audience as ABC heavily hyped the game. What they saw was a dominant first half performance by the home team and a rookie quarterback whose lack of preparation was clearly evident.

Flutie missed on his first nine passes, most of which were poorly thrown, and two of them intercepted. He didn’t complete his first pass of the game, for six yards to WR Clarence Collins, until late in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, ninth-year veteran QB Cliff Stoudt, the league’s second-rated passer in ’84, operated Birmingham’s conservative offense smoothly and effectively. The ex-Steeler threw for three touchdowns and led long drives for two more.

Birmingham scored the game’s first touchdown at the end of a 10-play, 73-yard first quarter drive that was highlighted by Stoudt’s 28-yard run in a third down situation that advanced the ball to the New Jersey five yard line. The possession was capped by a two-yard touchdown pass from Stoudt to TE Darryl Mason.

Three plays after Birmingham’s TD, and just seconds into the second quarter, the Generals responded when Carthon ran off tackle and broke away for a 55-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.

It appeared that the Stallions had retaken the lead later in the period when, in a fourth-and-four situation, Stoudt completed an apparent 36-yard touchdown pass to RB Joe Cribbs. However, a holding call on Mason nullified the score, and Birmingham came up empty.

The Stallions did retake the lead before the first half ended. Cribbs ran for a two-yard touchdown with 19 seconds left, capping a seven-play drive that ran 7:29 off the clock. Birmingham had dominated the first half, holding onto the ball for 22 of the 30 minutes, but the score was just 14-7 at halftime.

The Stallions took control of the game in the third quarter, scoring 17 points while New Jersey’s offense floundered. In their first possession, they drove 69 yards in 11 plays that led to a two-yard scoring run by RB Leon Perry.

Four minutes later, and after FS Chuck Clanton intercepted a Flutie pass and returned it to the New Jersey 19, Birmingham scored again when Stoudt connected with RB Earl Gant on a swing pass that resulted in a six-yard TD. Late in the period, Danny Miller kicked a 33-yard field goal that made the score 31-7.

At this point, Flutie completed his first pass to the derisive cheers of the Birmingham fans. However, making that first completion seemed to settle the rookie quarterback, and he began to flash the form that had made him a star in college.

Flutie tossed a well-thrown bomb to Walker that covered 51 yards and set up Walker’s one-yard touchdown run, cutting the Birmingham lead to 31-14. Following Kerry Justin’s interception of a Stoudt pass, Flutie led a drive that culminated in his first pro TD pass, rolling out and throwing four yards to WR Danny Knight.

Down now by just 10 points, it seemed as though the Generals might pull off a big comeback when they got the ball again with seven minutes left to play. However, CB Dennis Woodberry intercepted a Flutie pass and returned it 22 yards to the New Jersey 44. Two plays later, Stoudt threw to WR Jim Smith for a 44-yard touchdown that effectively put the game out of reach at 38-21.

Flutie’s second TD pass was similar to the first, coming on a rollout and covering five yards to WR Marcus Hackett (his only catch of the season), but with 3:13 remaining it was too little, too late. Birmingham came away with a 38-28 opening-day win.

The Stallions had a huge edge in time of possession (41:37 to 18:33). They also led in total yards (372 to 288) and first downs (25 to 12). The Generals turned the ball over five times, to three by Birmingham.

Cliff Stoudt completed 21 of 33 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions, and rushed 9 times for 65 yards to lead the club. Joe Cribbs was the most productive of the running backs, gaining 46 yards on 16 attempts and scoring a TD. Jim Smith caught 6 passes for 98 yards, including the long touchdown.

Doug Flutie ended up completing 12 of 27 passes for 189 yards with two TDs and three interceptions; he gained 17 yards on two carries as well. Herschel Walker was held to only 5 yards on 6 carries, but caught 3 passes for 71 yards. Maurice Carthon, thanks to the long touchdown carry, ran for 74 yards on 8 attempts. Danny Knight also caught 3 passes, for 38 yards.

“I think I’m ready,” said Flutie. “I didn’t prove it today, but I believe I will next week.”

The Generals won their next two games, on the way to an 11-7 record and second place finish in the Eastern Conference (they once again lost to their nemesis, the Stars, in the first round of the playoffs). Flutie played respectably, passing for 2,109 yards and 13 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. However, it was Herschel Walker who keyed the offense – despite his low total against Birmingham, he ran for 2,411 yards and 21 touchdowns and led the club in receiving with 37 catches for 467 yards and another TD.

As for the Stallions, they ended up placing first in the Eastern Conference at 13-5 and won their first round playoff game, but lost to the Stars in the Semifinal round.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 24, 2011.

 

Lee Roy Selmon Announces Retirement (1986)

It was not a surprise on April 23, 1986 when star DE Lee Roy Selmon announced his retirement. He had not appeared in a game since the Pro Bowl following the ’84 season where he suffered a herniated disk in his back. Selmon was forced to sit out all of 1985, hoping that surgery would not be necessary and that he would be able to return to action. But once he received word that even with surgery there was no certainty of playing again, he made the decision to retire. At the press conference, he said “I’m just thankful I was able to play ten years.”

It had actually been just nine years encompassing 121 regular season games, but a great nine years. Selmon’s retirement marked a significant milestone in Buccaneers history. He was the first player ever drafted by Tampa Bay with the initial overall pick as an expansion team in 1976 (the other new team that year, the Seattle Seahawks, lost a coin toss to the Bucs and chose second). His college credentials at Oklahoma were outstanding, where he had won both the Outland and Lombardi trophies for his play on the line. Head Coach John McKay was looking to emphasize defense in the new team’s first draft, and going with the best defensive player available made sense. In the second round, Tampa Bay picked Selmon’s older brother (by 11 months), Dewey, a defensive tackle (he was moved to linebacker in his second pro season); the two had played together in high school and college, and would now have the opportunity to do so again in the NFL.

The Buccaneers got off to a rough start, even for an expansion team, losing all 14 games in ’76 and the first 26 altogether before finally winning the last two contests of the 1977 season. The defense was the league’s worst in ’76, not helped by Selmon missing half of the campaign due to a knee injury.

The team began to improve in 1977, and Selmon was a key contributor. When they won their first game, at New Orleans, Selmon had three sacks (not yet an official statistic) and 12 tackles. The big breakthrough came in 1979, however, as Tampa Bay went 10-6 and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship game.

The overall performance of the defense was significant to the club’s success in ’79, and not surprisingly, Selmon led the way. Playing at right defensive end in a 3-4 alignment, he recorded 11 sacks (unofficially). He also had 117 tackles and forced three fumbles (with two recoveries, one for a touchdown). For his efforts, Selmon was a consensus first team All-Pro selection, went to the Pro Bowl for the first of six consecutive years, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

Brother Dewey was part of an outstanding group of linebackers that included Richard Wood at the other inside spot and David Lewis and Cecil Johnson on the outside. The secondary was the most effective in the league and consisted of cornerbacks Jeris White and Mike Washington and safeties Mark Cotney and Cedric Brown. The other two starting defensive linemen, nose tackle Randy Crowder and left end Wally Chambers, rounded out the solid unit that ranked first overall in the NFL – they gave up the fewest points (237), total yards (3949), and passing yards (2076).

The Buccaneers failed to sustain the success of 1979 – they sank back to 5-10-1 in ’80 and made it to the postseason just twice more during Selmon’s career.

The 6’3”, 250-pounder was often double- and triple-teamed by opposing offenses, yet his speed, strength, and agility made him an impact player in any event. In 1980, with offenses concentrated on stopping him, Selmon was credited with 72 quarterback “hurries” to go along with nine sacks. In all, he was credited with 78.5 sacks and 380 “hurries” over the course of his career.

Selmon received first or second team All-Pro recognition in five of his nine seasons, and was an All-NFC choice (first or second team) after seven of them. It was hardly surprising that the Buccaneers retired his number 63; he also became the first inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium in 2009. Selmon was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

Brother Dewey also played well for Tampa Bay (he was named team MVP in 1978) until a thigh injury suffered in training camp knocked him out for the 1981 season; he was traded to San Diego, where he played one year in ’82 prior to retiring.

Pleasant and soft-spoken off the field, Selmon was a terror on it. As Coach McKay put it at the time of Selmon’s selection to the Hall of Fame, “He was almost unblockable. I can’t imagine anyone being better. He was the heart of our team. At a time when we were pretty fair, he was what made us pretty fair.” Doug Williams, the club’s quarterback during much of Selmon’s career, added, “If he had been in a four-man front, they would have banned Lee Roy from the game.”

Maybe the most telling tribute came from an opposing offensive tackle, Ted Albrecht of the Bears, who once told an assistant coach at halftime of a game against the Bucs, “There are four things in the world I don’t want to do under any circumstance. Number one, I don’t want to milk a cobra. Number two, I don’t want to be buried at sea. Number three, I don’t want to get hit in the head with a hockey puck. And number four, I don’t want to play the second half against Lee Roy Selmon.”

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on April 23, 2010.

 

Buddy Parker Abruptly Quits as Coach of Lions (1957)

On August 12, 1957, a “Meet the Lions” banquet was held at a hotel in Detroit. The team was still in training camp with the first preseason game coming up shortly and some 600 fans were in attendance. When it was time for Head Coach Buddy Parker to speak, it was assumed that he would utter the usual cliches typical of such occasions. Instead, he said “I can’t handle this team anymore. It’s the worst team I’ve ever seen in training camp. They have no life, no go, just a completely dead team. I’m leaving Detroit football. And I’m leaving tonight.”

At least one member of the audience laughed, thinking that Parker was joking. He was serious, however, and in the end simply walked off the podium and out of the building, leaving behind a stunned group of team executives, fans, and reporters.

Under Buddy Parker, the Lions had been one of the NFL’s strongest teams. Since taking over as head coach in 1951, they had gone 47-23-2 and won three conference titles and back-to-back league championships in 1952 and ’53.

The offense, directed by fiery fellow Texan Bobby Layne at quarterback, was solid and prominently included OT Lou Creekmur, guards Harley Sewell and Dick Stanfel, ends Cloyce Box and Dorne Dibble, and halfbacks Doak Walker and Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer. Parker proved adept at adjusting the offense to his personnel, effectively utilizing the power of FB Pat Harder, obtained from the Cardinals at age 29 in 1951, and then featuring the outside speed of halfbacks Hoernschemeyer and Gene Gedman while maximizing Walker’s all-around talents. With the resourceful Layne at quarterback, the Lions utilized play action passes to great effect and pioneered in the development of the two-minute offense.

As effective as the offense was, the Lions were especially renowned for their defense. Middle guard Les Bingaman had provided a 300-pound impediment to opposing runners and, when he retired, Joe Schmidt became a groundbreaking and exceptional middle linebacker. The secondary was particularly outstanding, as the Lions led the way in the art of drafting athletes for the defensive backfield. Known as “Chris’s Gang” due to the presence of safety Jack Christiansen, the unit also included fellow safety (and eventual fellow member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) Yale Lary as well as halfbacks Jim David, Bob Smith, and Bill Stits.

In three consecutive seasons, Parker and the Lions faced off for the NFL title against Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns; the Lions won the first two of those encounters. But Parker was shattered by the failure to win a third consecutive championship in 1954, losing badly to the Browns by a score of 56-10.

Detroit sank to 3-9 in 1955, but in ’56 the Lions recovered to post a 9-3 record and missed winning the Western Conference by a half game to the 9-2-1 Bears. In the showdown for first place, Layne had been knocked out of the game when blindsided by Chicago’s DE Ed Meadows on a very late hit, although the inability to stop Bears FB Rick Casares, who gained 190 yards rushing, was likely an even larger factor in the loss.

But by the 1957 preseason, a number of issues were rumbling beneath the surface where Buddy Parker and the Lions were concerned. While Parker never elaborated on his reason for the abrupt departure, it was known that he was frustrated with divisions among the team’s owners that had led to meddling and open second-guessing of the coach’s decisions. An hour prior to the banquet, he had been summoned to a suite at the hotel where one of the owners was throwing a cocktail party, and found several of the players there. It might well have been the last straw.

Assistant coach George Wilson was elevated to head coach and the Lions went on to win the NFL championship, once more defeating the Browns in the climactic game. Bobby Layne broke his leg late in the season, but veteran backup Tobin Rote – obtained to provide solid relief in the event of another injury to Layne – capably guided the offense the rest of the way.

Buddy Parker didn’t remain unemployed long – after rumors had him replacing Weeb Ewbank in Baltimore, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks after leaving the Lions. Layne was reunited with Parker in 1958, and the perennially-losing Steelers put together a 7-4-1 record.

Parker may have been an excellent tactician who was adept at game management, but he was also temperamental and prone to outbursts. The Lions obtained his services after he had quit the Chicago Cardinals in a huff, where he had been co-coach for a year and was caught in the midst of an ownership dispute. He would abruptly quit the Steelers shortly before the 1965 season, after compiling a 51-47-6 tally through eight years, and was finished as an NFL head coach at age 51.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on August 12, 2010.