THIS MIGHT SURPRISE YOU: WHAT WAS THE WORLD LIKE LAST TIME YOUR TEAM WON A TITLE?

This is the first in a four-part series.

Knowing how much I love history, my wife bought me a birthday card listing facts about the year I was born. I started wondering what was happening the last time teams won a championship. Let’s find out, and I hope you have as much fun reading this as I had researching.

We’ll start with the NFC East and NFC North Divisions. Some of the most decorated trophy rooms in football reside here, their championships might seem longer ago than one might think. As Bruce Springsteen says, “Glory Days – They’ll pass you by.”

 

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Company dominated, winning 3 out of 4 Super Bowls. For their last title, the Cowboys topped Carnell Lake (remember him?) and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 30.  That January of 1996. Bill Clinton’s first term in office. Hootie and the Blowfish had the number one song in the country. A stamp cost 32 cents. Keyshawn Johnson would be the first pick in the upcoming draft, with future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden going fourth overall. Yep, it’s been so long since the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, that a Hall of Famer’s been drafted since then. Maybe we shouldn’t mention that HOF Walter Jones was drafted the next year. Or that the Colts drafted Peyton Manning merely two years later. Then again, maybe that puts it all into perspective.

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Above: Jerry Jones and Barry Switzer wrestling for the Lombardi Trophy.

NEW YORK GIANTS – Fairly recent for the Giants, of course, after winning in February 2012. What was going on? Tim Tebow’s overtime playoff touchdown pass against the Steelers was part of those same playoffs. The U.S. encountered several tragedies later in 2012, including the shootings at Sandy Hook and the movie theatre in Colorado. Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. While the Giants championship doesn’t seem so long ago, a lot’s happened since then.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES Norm Van Brocklin, old enough to play against Sammy Baugh, quarterbacked the Eagles to their last championship in 1960. He mentored a spritely, young Sonny Jurgensen that season. John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the country’s presidential race in 1960, and was simply “President-Elect” the day the Eagles beat Green Bay 17-13. Kennedy and then still-living presidential icon Herbert Hoover could have cut the rug to 1960 chart toppers by Elvis Presley (“Stuck On You” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”), Chubby Checker (“The Twist.”), and the Drifters (“Save the Last Dance for Me”). Quite the Inaugural Ball. And this was before handy dandy things like space travel, the Beatles, and handheld calculators. Mankind had merely just invented the Etch-A-Sketch when Ted Dean scored the winning touchdown and Chuck Bednarik made the game-saving tackle against the Packers. How on earth did they figure out Dean’s yard-per-carry without calculators?

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Above: Kennedy and Hoover

WASHINGTON REDSKINS – The Redskins topped the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl 26 on January 26, 1992. President George Bush Sr. telephoned Coach Joe Gibbs as players Mark Rypien, Charles Mann, Gerald Riggs, Jeff Bostic, Chip Lohmiller, and Ricky Sanders poured champagne over themselves. The Dow Jones topped out at just over 3,400 that year. Before we crowned the next Super Bowl winner, we’d all rushed out to see the following flicks: Wayne’s World, White Men Can’t Jump, Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own, and A Few Good Men. Good year for Hollywood as D.C. basked in the glow of winning, and we basked in the glow of VHS and the Popcorn Pumper – complete with that little compartment to melt butter in.

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NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS – They weren’t here to start no trouble, the 1985 Bears were just doing the Super Bowl Shuffle. Did the Washington roster bring back memories? Well, how about President Reagan’s congratulatory phone call getting passed around from Richard Dent to Dan Hampton to Walter Payton to Willie Gault? And of course,  “The Refrigerator” William Perry and shade-sporting, headband-touting Jim McMahon. You might remember McMahon getting fined for writing on those headbands. You might also remember that when the Bears won in January 1986, ancient Bear pioneers Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange were still alive to Shuffle to the champs’ theme song. They also could have shuffled to Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” and “Danger Zone” from the Top Gun soundtrack. Little did Bears fans know they were headed toward their own danger zone, still waiting for that next ring nearly 30 years later.

DETROIT LIONS – Think that’s long? The Lions had waited nearly 30 years for their next championship by the time Da Bears trounced the Patriots in Super Bowl 20, and are still waiting. Detroit last won in 1957, although they had a good run of success in the 50s – winning 3 titles. All that changed when they traded Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh. Layne defiantly cursed the franchise, stating the Lions would never win again. So far our money’s on Bobby. The Lions haven’t come close to a league title since they traded him in a simpler time when there were only 48 states. (The U.S. granted Alaska and Hawaii statehood in 1959.) One Michigan native just told me, “That’s why so many people follow college football there.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS – Doesn’t seem like too long ago that Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and A.J. Hawk ran off the field winners of Super Bowl 45. Still, they are 3 of only a handful of Packers remaining from the roster that hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February of 2011. Up-to-minute tech geeks posted on their iPhone 4, but couldn’t get the 4s with built-in Siri until the World Series rolled around. The Japan earthquake struck that year, and the Navy Seals struck down Osama Bin Laden. How sneaky is inflation? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation calculator, $100 in 2011 had the same buying power as $105 does today. Equivalent to one fewer latte or five fewer scratch-offs.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS – Famously lost four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Often overlooked is whom they lost to – the Steelers, Dolphins, Raiders, and Chiefs – the most powerful teams in those franchises’ histories, and some would argue some of the greatest teams ever assembled. The resilient Vikings never won an NFL title, with their last shot being Super Bowl 11, played on January 9, 1977. That team featured soon-to-be Hall of Famer Mick Tingelhoff, and current Hall of Famers Carl Eller, Paul Krause, and Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton would later retire the game’s all-time leading passer. $100 in your pocket back in ’77 scored you $392.50 worth of today’s goods. That’s a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd records, or a lot of tickets to a hip new movie named Star Wars. You might have also put that $100 toward a brand new Apple II computer or Atari 2600 – both were released in ’77. Postage stamps cost 13 cents, and a gallon of gas only 65 cents.

SUMMARY

Having a little fun here with football, the cost of living, and history. It’s fun looking back and seeing what else was going on in the world when a particular team won. We’ll cover the rest of the NFC next week.

A Brief History of Hash Marks

In the NFL’s early years, there were no formalized scheduling rules. Some teams played more games than others, and the team considered to have the best overall record was declared champion, sans playoff. Adding confusion was a crazy agreement to disregard ties when determining the NFL champion. The 1932 season brought this mishmash to a pinnacle.

What the heck does all that have to do with hash marks? Well, the 1932 season ended with the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans tied with 6 wins and 1 loss.  Forget that the Bears played to 6 ties and the Spartans 4, including two against each other. Unable to determine a champion on paper, the NFL blazed a trail college football would follow a scant 80 years later, and held a playoff.

REALLY NOW, WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH HASH MARKS?

The championship game was scheduled to be played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, but brutal weather forced the game indoors, to the NHL’s Blackhawks home, Chicago Stadium. Situated for hockey rather than football, the playing area was only 80 yards long and much narrower than usual, with hockey boards acting as sidelines. At least sod was already installed for the playing surface, the benefit of a recent circus needing it for elephant routines.

Football rules of the day were similar to golf in that plays began at the exact location the previous play ended, rather than placing the ball toward the middle of the field. If you were tackled 5 yards from the sideline, that’s where the ball was snapped. Hockey boards cramped the logistics of ball placement for this game, so the offense was given the choice of starting plays on the hash marks. Choosing the option would cost the offense a down. The Bears beat the Spartans (now the Detroit Lions) 9-0, fueled by a Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange touchdown pass that might have been overturned by today’s instant replay (given conclusive evidence, of course).

The game influenced several rule changes the NFL made in the offseason, including the decision to regularly initiate plays on the hash marks. The 1933 and ’34 seasons would use hash marks 10 yards from the sidelines, stretching to 15 yards in 1935 and 20 yards in 1945.

HOW THE HASH MARK CHANGED THE NFL FOREVER

The Miami Dolphins weren’t the only ones who making history in 1972. Alarmed that 75 fewer touchdowns were scored in 1971 than in 1969, the NFL moved the hash marks closer together, to over 23 yards from the sidelines, less than 20 feet apart. The change ignited a power shift from defense to offense that remains in effect to this day.

The league continued to limit defense with rule changes since, but squeezing the hashes opened up the field, forcing defenders to cover more ground on each play. Before the hash marks closed in, the defense could count on one side of the field being several yards narrower than the other, leading to the classic saying, “Old Man Sideline never misses a tackle.”

It took a few years for the passing game to detonate, but the NFL’s running game exploded. Thirteen teams rushed for over 2,000 yards in 1972, and two others plowed for 1,995+. Comparatively, only 12 teams reached the 2,000 yard plateau over the course of four seasons, 1967-70. Individually, ten rushers gained over 1,000 yards in 1972, compared with only 2 in 1970 and 1 each in ’67-69. O.J. Simpson totaled 1,927 in his three-year career before tighter hash marks, then burst for 1,251 and 2,003 in wake of the new field design.

The change even helped special teams. “In the old days those hash marks were a lot wider. They moved them in to help offenses and inadvertently helped the kickers,” former NFL kicker Chris Bahr told The Game Before the Money. He then pointed out how hash marks now line up directly with the goal posts. Ray Wersching, the San Francisco 49ers kicker throughout their glory years with Joe Montana, would keep his head down and aim between the hashes rather than peer up at the goal posts.

SUMMARY

The humble hash mark played a key role in pro football’s development, subtly yet profoundly shaping the modern game. Imagine the Houston Oilers Run-and-Shoot offense or the Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” with the ball placed 10 yards closer to the sideline at the start of a play. Would immortal plays such as the “Hail Mary” and “The Catch” seen different outcomes had players lined up on the short side? Would great open field runners such as O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders have racked up quite as many yards on unbalanced fields?

Note the hash mark differences in these two videos: The first video contains highlights from the 1943 NFL Championship. It’s amazing how close to the sidelines some of the plays start. The second video is of the incredible Eric Dickerson. Picture a few of Dickerson’s plays starting from the same spot as the ’43 Championship.

 

Lujack at Notre Dame

An Appreciation: Johnny Lujack

Johnny Lujack painting by Robert Hurst: www.ADamnFineArtist.com

 

SEVENTY YEARS AHEAD OF HIS TIME?

When people think of Johnny Lujack, they often think of Notre Dame, the Heisman Trophy, or his shoe-string tackle of Doc Blanchard in the original “Game of the Century” (watch below). The Irish lost only one game in the three years he started at quarterback, and Lujack led them to 3 national championships. Few football fans recognize his exceptional — albeit very short – pro career.


World War II interrupted Lujack’s college career after the 1943 season, causing him to miss the ’44 and ’45 seasons. George Halas’ Chicago Bears drafted Lujack in the first round of the 1946 NFL Draft, but Lujack elected to play out his eligibility at Notre Dame. “In those days you could be drafted on what the normal four years would have been,” Lujack told The Game before the Money. “I entered Notre Dame in ‘42, so my graduation year would have been in ‘46. The Chicago Bears drafted me in the first round of the 1946 nfl draft, following my junior year, but I didn’t even think about forgoing my senior year at Notre Dame.” Lujack’s choice paid off by winning the 1947 Heisman Trophy.

LUJACK’S PRO CAREER

Lujack starred at defensive back for the Bears in 1948. His 11 interceptions were third in the NFL that season, and he was named to the Chicago Herald-American’s All-NFL team. The Bears didn’t draft him to play defense, however. “That first year up, Bobby Layne was the quarterback,” Lujack recalls. “They got rid of Layne, thinking I was going to take over, which I did.” While Layne went on to have tremendous success and earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lujack’s accomplishments also stand out. Most football fans can tell you Norm Van Brocklin holds the single-game passing yardage record, but you might be hard pressed to find somebody that knows Lujack held the record previously. In fact, Lujack’s 468 passing yards against the Chicago Cardinals still stands as a Bears team record. In 1949 he bested Layne and the rest of the league in passing yardage (2,658) and passing touchdowns (23). Lujack wasn’t just a threat with his arm. The next year he set a league single-season record for rushing touchdowns with 11, and averaged over 6 yards per carry. His double-threat presence stands comparable to lauded talents like Cam Newton and Randall Cunningham, who Sports Illustrated called three decades ahead of his time. Using that logic, perhaps Lujack was 70 years ahead of his time.

 

 


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LEAVING ON HIS OWN TERMS

Pro football salaries were nothing like they are today, and past players’ values and attitudes contrast with those of many of today’s stars. Lujack retired after playing out the four years of his first contract, leaving what might have been a legendary career on the table. “I had the chance to become the quarterback coach at Notre Dame under [Head Coach Frank] Leahy’s last two years, 1952 and 1953. I felt that was a good way to repay Notre Dame and Leahy for giving me a scholarship,” Lujack states in the book.

SUMMARY

Where might Lujack fit in today’s NFL? Newton was the top pick of the 2011 NFL Draft after winning the Heisman Trophy and national championship, and led the Panthers to a division title last year. Althetic quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick represented the NFC in the last 2 Super Bowls, and recent QBs Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick consistently led their teams to the playoffs. It’s always difficult to compare players across different eras, but Lujack certainly could be considered a prototype to these modern stars.

Johnny  Lujack on the run.

Johnny Lujack on the run.