December 13, 2017

Remembering Mike’s Mistake

As we all know by now, the Green Bay Packers are spending the rest of January ice fishing and curling instead of playing football after getting dinged by the New York Giants last weekend.  The surprising and ignominious early playoff exit by the 15-1 defending Super Bowl champs spoils Green Bay’s opportunity to be considered one of the greatest teams in NFL history and also frees up Lambeau Field for arctic cheese rolling through Valentine’s Day.

If the Packers had figured out how to rush Eli Manning and catch the ball – things they normally excel at – they would likely be headed for a second straight Super Bowl crown, putting them in the same historic huddle with the New England Patriots of 2003 and 2004, the Denver Broncos of 1997 and 1998, the Dallas Cowboys of 1992 and 1993, the San Francisco 49ers of 1988 and 1989, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1978 and 1979, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974 and 1975, the Miami Dolphins of 1972 and 1973 and the Green Bay Packers of 1966 and 1967 as the only NFL teams to repeat as Super Bowl champs.  Come to think of it, it’s a rather crowded huddle but still a very impressive one.

This season’s Packers have been compared to many of those great teams and others of yesteryear. If the Pack had won it all this year, they would have been in place to do something no NFL team has ever done which is win the league’s final game three straight times.  Between the first NFL title game in 1933 to the final one before the Super Bowl era in 1965, the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts all enjoyed back-to-back title runs but no team ever reached the threepeat.

Right now a 102-year-old man in Green Bay is pushing the biker girl off his lap and yelling “Wait a second there, fella!”  OK, OK, Grandpa, I’m gettin’ there.  Before the NFL started playing championship games, teams were voted league champions and Boise State didn’t have a chance back then either.  The Akron Pros (Lebron James’ high school team) were the first people’s choice as NFL champs in 1920. The league’s first dynasty was the Canton Bulldogs who won it all in 1922 and 1923 and then moved to Cleveland and won it all in 1924, but the NFL doesn’t officially recognize that 1924 team as the same franchise as the ’22 and ’23 teams.  But a few years later an indisputable back-to-back-to-back occurred when the Packers won it all, by vote, in 1929, 1930 and 1931.

There you go, old guy!  Now chow down a Werther’s and give your gal a kiss.

It will likely be a long time before any team ever wins three straight Super Bowls as it’s just too dang tough.  But every December or January that a defending champion gets knocked out of its repeat quest about ten million of us sad souls in NFL land of a certain age think back to the team that, we believe more than any other one-and-done, really should have been the list of repeat winners – the 1985 and 1986 Chicago Bears.

There is little dissension among NFL historians that the 1985 Bears team that throat-crunched the rest of the NFL en route to winning Super Bowl XX was one of the greatest teams of any single season.  The Bears had maybe the best defense ever seen that year, had Walter Payton and Jim McMahon on offense and had one of the most colorful coaches of all time, Mike Ditka, on the sidelines.  Those Bears were great, they were fun and they were also eternally infuriating.

With all that talent – Payton, McMahon, Jimbo Covert, Jay Hilgenberg, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Dave Duerson, Gary Fencik and on and on – the Bears were expected to win three Super Bowls, maybe four.  Maybe more?  That’s a tough call but they should have won at least two.  So why didn’t they?  We’ve heard a million explanations: they got too complacent, Ditka got too cool, McMahon couldn’t stay healthy, the ionosphere was acting oddly.  And all of those might be true.  But, like Green Bay’s disappointment this year, the Bears’ blunder might come down to simply this: they had a bad afternoon.

Twenty-five years ago this month the ’86 Bears opened the playoffs in defense of their Super Bowl title having polished off a 14-2 regular season (and are still the only team to ever win 29 regular season games in back-to-back years) by welcoming the Washington Redskins to town for a divisional playoff game.  McMahon, the starting quarterback, was hurt but the Bears had his capable backup, Steve Fuller, ready to go.  Fuller was a good player, knew the system, and actually started in a playoff game two years earlier when the Bears beat the Redskins in Washington.

But then came Mike’s Mistake.

Mike Ditka was not the greatest coach in NFL history.  He was probably not even one of the greatest.  He was good though, and likely the most famous, colorful and recognizable man to ever prowl a sideline.  Late in the 1986 season the Bears had signed quarterback Doug Flutie, the former Heisman Trophy winner who had become a refugee of the defunct USFL.  Flutie saw action in a few games and Ditka (gulp) chose to go with him against the Redskins in the playoffs.  Washington countered by putting five guys on the defensive line to stop Payton and dared Flutie to throw.  He couldn’t.  The 5-8 Flutie finished 11/31 for 134 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as the Bears lost, 27-13.

No repeat.  No dynasty.

No one knows what would have happened if Ditka had gone with Fuller at quarterback instead of Flutie.  No one, that is, except me.  Fuller was no Roger Staubach but he knew the offense, had the support of his teammates and was a solid passer.  If Fuller had started that game the Bears would have won, then would have beaten the Giants the next weekend in New York and steamrolled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.  There’s no guarantee they would have won three or four Super Bowls but they would have, should have, won two.

Analyze, reanalyze, overanalyze, drive yourself crazy.  Go ahead, it’s January.  Have a drink and a Werther’s while you’re at it.  There are a million reasons the 1980s Bears didn’t become a dynasty but the biggest reason, most obvious reason, is a very specific one: It should have been Fuller, not Flutie.  If so, the Bears would have repeated and would be on the earlier list that this year’s Packers wanted so badly to be included upon.

The 1985 Chicago Bears were so fun, colorful and damn good that maybe one Lombardi Trophy was enough.  But two would have been nice.

Get over it, right?

Nope.  Not yet.

 

 

Leatherheads Heisman Poll

Tonight the 77th Heisman Trophy winner will be announced on ESPN with five finalists waiting in the audience.  The five finalists are Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, and Alabama running back Trent Richardson.

In anticipation of College Football’s most prestigious award, we here at Leatherheads of the Gridiron took it upon ourselves to pick who we think should be the Heisman winner. Our voters followed the same format as the Heisman voters: 3 points for our number one choice, 2 for our second choice and 3 for our third choice.

We had ten voters allocate their votes to nine different players.  Absent from receiving any votes is Tyrann Mathieu, the winner of this year’s Bednarik Award.  The Heisman has been given to a primarily offensive player each year except 1997 when Michigan cornerback and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson won.  Sorry Tyrann, we do not believe you will win the award.

Our candidates in alphabetical order are as follows:

Montee Ball
Ball is a running back for the 11-2, Rose Bowl-bound University of Wisconsin Badgers.  A junior, Ball has so far this season led the nation in total rushing yards with 1,759 and rushing touchdowns with 32.  He has also caught 20 passes with 6 receiving touchdowns.  His 230 points scored also leads the nation, 74 points more than the number two scorer Collin Klein of Kansas State.

Matt Barkley
Barkley is the quarterback for the USC Trojans.  The junior has led them to a 10-2 record and currently ranks eighth in QB rating (161.2) with 3,528 yards, a 69.1 completion percentage and 39 touchdowns (third in the nation) versus just 7 interceptions. USC is bowl ineligible so his season is complete.

Robert Griffin III
Griffin, also known as RG3, is the quarterback for the 9-3 Baylor Bears.  Griffin, a junior, leads the nation in QB rating with an impressive 192.3 rating.  He is fifth in the nation with a 72.4 completion percentage, sixth in passing yards with 3,998, fourth in TD passes with 36 while just tossing 6 interceptions.  He leads the nation in yards per passing attempt at 10.8 and has also rushed for 644 yards and 9 TDs.

LaMichael James
James is a running back for the 11-2, Rose Bowl-bound Oregon Ducks. The junior is currently fourth in the nation with 1,646 rushing yards and tied for ninth with 17 rushing touchdowns.  He has also caught 17 balls for 210 yards with a TD and has returned 14 punts, including a 58-yard touchdown against Nevada.

Case Keenum
Keenum is the throwing machine for the 12-1, Ticket City Bowl-bound Houston Cougars.  The redshirt senior QB leads the nation in passing yards with 5,099 and passing TDs with 45.  He ranks sixth with a 71.7 completion percentage, third in yards per passing attempt with 9.5 and is third in QB rating at 177.9 while throwing just 5 interceptions.

Andrew Luck
Luck is the red-shirt junior quarterback for the 11-1, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl-bound Stanford Cardinal. Luck, the 2011 Camp, Maxwell and Unitas Awards winner, has thrown for 3,170 yards with the ninth best completion percentage (70.0), fifth most passing TDs (35) and the fifth best QB rating (167.5).  He was the Heisman runner-up last season, losing out to Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

Kellen Moore
Moore is the quarterback of the 11-1, MAACO Bowl-bound Boise State Broncos. The redshirt senior has thrown for 3,507 yards and is second in the nation with 41 TD passes.  His 177.9 QB rating ranks third and has thrown just 7 interceptions.  Moore was a Heisman finalist last season, finishing fourth in the voting.

Trent Richardson
Richardson is a junior running back for the 11-1, BCS Championship Bowl-bound Alabama Crimson Tide. The Doak Walker Award winner ranks sixth in rushing yards with 1,583 yards and fifth in rushing TDs with 20.  He has caught 27 passes for 327 yards with 3 scores and is tied for fourth in overall scoring with 138 points.

Denard Robinson
Robinson, a junior quarterback for the 10-2, Allstate Sugar Bowl-bound Michigan Wolverines is one of the most exciting players in college football.  He has passed for 2,056 yards and 18 TDs with a QB rating of 142.2 (38th) while throwing 14 interceptions.  On the ground, he has rushed for 1,163 yards and 16 TDs.

So what did our Leatherhead brethren come up with?

Drum Roll Please…

                  First  Second   Third  Total
Griffin           9 (3)   2 (1)   2 (2)    13
Richardson        3 (1)   8 (4)   2 (2)    13
Ball              9 (3)   2 (1)   0 (0)    11
Luck              3 (1)   6 (3)   1 (1)    10
Keenum            6 (2)   0 (0)   2 (2)     8
Robinson          0 (0)   2 (1)   0 (0)     2
Barkley           0 (0)   0 (0)   1 (1)     1
James             0 (0)   0 (0)   1 (1)     1
Moore             0 (0)   0 (0)   1 (1)     1

 

So Griffin and Richardson tie with RG3 getting more first place votes (3 to 1) while Richardson having more people voting for him, including more second place votes (4 to 1). I feel that Griffin will win tonight with Richardson finishing second. Ball and Luck will be 3 and 4, although I can not predict which order. Mathieu should be fifth.

I personally voted for Ball to win the award with Richardson second. When I think of the Heisman, running backs rank higher to me than QBs and other positions. Why? Could it be that when growing up running backs won the award from 1973 to 1983? Flutie screwed everything up with his Hail Marry pass in 1984.

Anyway, Ball has had a monster statistical season with one game left to break past Heisman winner Barry Sander’s single-season Football Bowl Subdivision touchdown record of 39 that he set during the 1988 season. Richardson is just a monster and can not wait to see him run in the NFL.

My third choice was Keenum. Why? I love those guys on perceived lessor teams that light it up with 9 TDs in a game. Timmy Chang anyone? If Houston had defeated Southern Mississippi, I probably would have had him number one. But he lost.

I could have easily voted for Griffin as my number 3. Afterall, his nickname is RG3.

 

Participating voters: David Boyce, Bo Carter, Ronnie Foreman, Terry Keshner, Bob Lazzari, Dan McCloskey, Tex Noel, Pete Sonski, Bob Swick, Joe Williams.

 

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.