An Appreciation — Paul Hornung

(Painting by Robert Hurst)

Stories of Paul Hornung’s lifestyle often overshadow those of his football career. Many question how he won the Heisman Trophy on a 2-8 Notre Dame team. One blogger even wrote an exhausting article questioning Hornung’s Hall of Fame credentials. The “Golden Boy” might not live up to the standards of bloggers who never saw him play, but Vince Lombardi and Hornung’s teammates declared him essential.

COLLEGIATE CAREER

Hornung grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Bear Bryant made a strong pitch for Paul to attend Kentucky, but Hornung’s Catholic upbringing gave Notre Dame the edge. Legendary coach Frank Leahy left after Hornung’s freshman year and Hornung never played for the coach who recruited him.

The Irish finished with the worst record in school history Hornung’s senior year. Many games must have seemed like it was 11 on 1. “I played every down in college. I led Notre Dame in rushing, passing, punt returns, and kickoff returns. I kicked off and punted. On defense I was second in tackles and first in interceptions,” he said. Moreover, Hornung led the Irish in touchdowns, and scored every point in their 21-14 win against North Carolina.

Imagine Tim Tebow leading the Florida Gators in 7 total offensive and defensive categories, while finishing 2nd nationally in kickoff returns. Stats like this earned Hornung the 1956 Heisman Trophy, and prompted the Heisman’s official website to proclaim him, “probably the greatest all-around player in Notre Dame’s history.” Iconic sportswriter Dick Schaap added, “In 1956 Notre Dame had a football team named Hornung. He passed. He tackled. He intercepted passes. Surrounded by the walking wounded, playing for a team crippled by injuries, Hornung was the whole show.”

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PRO CAREER

From 1947-1958, the first-overall pick of the NFL Draft was the “bonus pick.” Hornung explains in The Game before the Money: “Each team put their name in a hat, and you drew them out. Fourteen teams; here comes the bonus pick. After that, the draft starts in predetermined order: 1, 2, 3, 4. Next year, the thirteen remaining teams were eligible for the bonus pick. Pick a team out—they got the first [bonus] pick. I was the first pick of the 1957 draft.”

It’s interesting to learn why the bonus pick was eliminated, and to compare that reasoning to modern times. In the 1950s, Congress investigated the NFL and professional sports for violating anti-trust laws.  Congress told the NFL that the bonus pick bordered on an illegal lottery, and the NFL abolished the practice. The bonus pick was similar to today’s NBA Draft Lottery, considered completely acceptable in modern times.

The Packers floundered for Paul’s first two seasons, and Hornung floundered with them. He scored a mere 5 touchdowns and rushed for barely over 600 yards total in those two seasons. He bounced from halfback to quarterback to bench, never finding a permanent position.

Vince Lombardi turned Hornung’s career around. Lombardi, a former offensive coach for the New York Giants, appreciated all-around players, and thought he could use Hornung like he used Frank Gifford in the Giants offense.

Paul delivered in championship fashion. He won three consecutive NFL scoring titles, a feat which hasn’t been matched since. (Note: Stephen Gostkowski has a chance to do so in 2014.) Hornung’s 176 points in 1960 was a record that stood for 46 years. Think about that – his scoring record held up longer than both Babe Ruth’s and Roger Maris’ single-season home run records. Moreover, Hornung amassed his total in a 12-game season. LaDainian Tomlinson scored 186 points in a 16-game season, and is the only player in NFL history to eclipse Hornung’s mark. A current player would need to score over 236 points to best Hornung’s 14.7 points per game. A few NBA teams would probably like to get 14.7 PPG out of their players.

Hornung not only served the Packers, he served his country. Hornung missed 2 games in 1961 while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. President Kennedy arranged a furlough for Paul to play in the 1961 NFL Championship. “”Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday, but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day,” Kennedy said. Packer receiver Boyd Dowler also received a furlough to play that day.

The Packers routed the New York Giants 37-0 for their first of two consecutive championships. Hornung scored 19 points, still a record for an NFL Championship. In Michael O’Brien’s Vince, Hall of Fame teammate Henry Jordan commented on Paul importance to the Packers: “When Paul got that leave from the Army and walked into that locker room, you could just feel the confidence grow in that room.”

 

SUMMARY

Paul Hornung isn’t some magical being without flaws. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended him and Alex Karras an entire season for gambling. He unabashedly chased women. He consistently broke curfew.

He was, however, magical on the field. He scored 5 touchdowns in one game, three rushing and two receiving. He had 14 multi-touchdown games in a 9-year career cut short by a pinched nerve. Hornung also occasionally threw touchdown passes, including 2 in his epic 1960 season.

Paul Hornung — a legend both on and off the field.

NOTE: Two Paul Hornung quotes from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL are included in this article. Read Paul’s story and those of over three dozen other NFL legends here. Another great read on Hornung is That First Season by John Eisenberg, which chronicles Vince Lombardi’s first season with the Packers.

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This Might Surprise You: Steve Largent

Several players held the NFL’s all-time reception after 1970. Don Maynard, Charley Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Art Monk are among the names who claimed the title before Jerry Rice. Steve Largent is another receiver who held that distinction.

OLD SCHOOL THINKING

Largent played his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks. He told Seahawks.com he appreciated his accomplishments on the gridiron, “But the thing I’m most proud of from my career in Seattle was that I played my entire career in Seattle….It gave me a special connection with the city and the people and the team that you just don’t find very often with professional athletes today.”

IT ALMOST NEVER HAPPENED

Largent made his way to the Seahawks by happenstance. The Houston Oilers drafted Largent in the fourth round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He didn’t impress the Oilers, and found himself on a bus headed home to Oklahoma after four preseason games. He thought his football career was over.

Jerry Rhome, a Seahawk assistant coach, had coached Largent in college at Tulsa. Rhome convinced the team to give Largent a second chance. The expansion Seahawks traded an eighth-round pick in the 1977 draft for Largent’s rights. Largent made the Seahawks front office look like geniuses.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Don’t be too quick to praise the brilliance of Seattle’s front office. They followed up the Largent heist by trading their 1977 first-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys drafted Tony Dorsett with the second-overall selection. The Seahawks scored multiple draft picks in the deal, but drafted no one of NFL significance. The thought of Tony Dorsett and Steve Largent on the same offense is enticing. Might they have challenged for the AFC title with the Hall of Fame duo on offense?

A second double threat would have paired Earl Campbell with Largent, if the Oilers had held on to Steve. The Oilers had several playoff opportunities, and faced the Steelers in two straight AFC Championships. Perhaps Largent would have put the Oilers over the top, especially in the much closer second matchup.

Whether Largent would have pushed the Oilers further in those years or not, he certainly would have finished his Oiler career with Warren Moon. Although the Oilers didn’t become top contenders until after Largent’s retirement, Moon-to-Largent would have shaken a few AFC secondaries.

SUMMARY

Had the NFL expanded by adding the Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977 rather than 1976, the world outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma might never have heard of Steve Largent.

Largent retired the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns. Interestingly, he never once led the NFL in receptions or touchdowns in a single season. In fact, he never placed higher than third in receptions, a feat he accomplished only once. His next highest finish was sixth. Still, both fans and opponents highly respected Largent’s talents, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame made an inarguable decision to enshrine him. The Houston Oilers, however, weren’t nearly as wise.

Here are some amazing Steve Largent highlights via YouTube:

The Story of the NFL Draft and Recent Super Bowls

Last week we looked at the starting lineups of last year’s Super Bowl teams, wondering how much the draft led to the Seahawks’ and Broncos’ success. We found that while the draft was important, it appears to be equally important to find talent from other sources, likely because the draft is only seven rounds.

Now we take a look at Super Bowl teams (including the Seahawks and Broncos) from the past 5 Super Bowls, plus the first Giants/Patriots game after the 2008 season. Turns out last year’s teams were below the average number of starters to be drafted for the period, although the Seahawks were only slightly under (54.2%). Of the Broncos 22 starters only 10 were originally drafted by the franchise, a figure equaled by the 2011 Giants as the lowest in our survey. The 2010 Packers led all teams with 17 of their draftees in their Super Bowl lineup. Only the Seahawks and Packers won the Super Bowl with more of their draftees in their starting lineup than their opponent.

HOW TEAMS WERE BUILT

About 60% of Super Bowl starters from these 6 Super Bowls were starting for the team that originally drafted them (a total of 157 over 7 years). Although this era is commonly called the “Free Agency Era,” the number of veteran free agents bested the number of undrafted players only by a slim total of 7 players in those 6 games. The 2013 Broncos started 9 free agents, the highest total. No other team started more than 6. The 2011 Patriots started the most undrafted players (8), followed closely by the 2009 Colts with 7. The Colts were the only team we surveyed that didn’t start a veteran free agent on Super Bowl Sunday.  Here is a composite of how these 12 Super Bowl teams were built. Note that some players included in the “Veteran FA Signings” category are also in the “Total Undrafted Starters” category.

FIRST TWO ROUNDS AND THE REST OF THE NFL DRAFT

The first and second rounds dominated the makeup of Super Bowl starters playing for their original team. Those two rounds outscore all other rounds combined, 92-65. The 2008 Patriots and 2012 49ers tied for the most number of their first-round picks starting, with 7. The 2008 Giants had the lowest number, as only 2007 first-round pick Aaron Ross started for them in the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants, however, started four of their first-round draft choices, as Kenny Phillips (2008), Jason Pierre-Paul (2010), and Hakeem Nicks (2009) joined Ross. All teams started at least one of their first- and second- round choices, but three teams (the 2011 Patriots, the 2009 Saints and the 2008 Giants) lacked a third. The fourth round surprising outscored the third overall, 16-15.

SUMMARY

I found these totals to be fairly consistent with last week’s percentages. The draft remains vital to championship-level NFL teams, but not as much as the hype surrounding the 2014 NFL Draft might lead one to believe. A strong dose of veteran free agents and undrafted players, possibly mixed with a trade and/or waiver pickup, work together as the recipe for success in today’s National Football League.

How Much Will the NFL Draft Help Your Team?

Like children going to bed at night on Christmas Eve are NFL fans in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft. Wishes of draftees dance in their heads. Mock drafts are read with excitement or worry depending on the prediction. Calendars get marked with plans days before the big event at Radio City Music Hall.

And like Christmas, some fans go to bed afterward elated about receiving the main object of their desire while others lay down disappointed, unable to have telepathically communicated to their team’s general manager whom they should have drafted to ensure divisional championships for years to come.

How important is draft day? Surely it’s quite important, but is it truly the watershed moment it’s built up to be? I started to ponder this question through fantasy football. I found that in seasons I reached the championship, several of my starters weren’t drafted. This year was no exception as Zac Stacy and Julian Edleman were two of my highest scorers late in the season. While there are historic NFL draft success stories – John Elway, Peyton Manning, the 1974 Steelers draft – I wondered how often the draft was the reason behind championship teams’ success. I decided to take a look at last year’s Super Bowl teams and how they were constructed.

The Seahawks

The Seahawks drafted many of their biggest stars of 2013, including Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman. Only Thomas was drafted in the first round, however, and he was the team’s second first round pick in 2010 after Russell Okung. Toss in draftees Kam Chancellor, Golden Tate and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, and first impressions point toward Seattle being built from the draft. Closer inspection shows that their Super Bowl starting lineup contained only 13 players (59%) drafted by the Seahawks, 6 on offense and 7 on defense. Four players (18%) of Seattle’s starting 22 weren’t drafted at all, including defensive line anchors Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons. In total, only 25 players of the 63 listed on the Seahawk roster found on http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sea/2013_roster.htm were drafted by the Seahawks, while 24 were undrafted free agents (38%), men overlooked on draft day by all 32 teams. Of the 46 players Seattle drafted from 2009-2013, only 25 were on the Super Bowl roster (47%). Of those 25, 15 were from the 2013 or 2012 drafts.

*NOTE: “Total Undrafted Starters” includes 2 players who were also “Veteran Free Agent Signings.”

 

The Broncos

The Broncos grabbed their biggest star, quarterback Peyton Manning, in free agency. Manning’s agent wasn’t alone in doing business with the Broncos. Nine of Denver’s Super Bowl starters were acquired as veteran free agent signings (41%). Only 10 of their 22 starters were drafted by the franchise. Of the 58 players listed on their roster at http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/den/2013_roster.htm , only 23 (about 40%) were players originally drafted by the Broncos. Nearly as many players (20) were originally drafted by another team and acquired via free agency, waivers or by trade. Contrasting with the Seahawks, that same roster included only 15 players who were undrafted, although three of them started on Super Bowl Sunday. The Broncos did draft some of their key players, including Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Von Miller, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2011, has been a tremendous force when active, but has missed significant time with both a league suspension and knee injury.

*NOTE: “Total Undrafted Starters” includes 2 players who were also “Veteran Free Agent Signings.”

Summary

While both teams picked up impactful players in the draft, it was necessary to supplement much of the starting lineup from other sources. The Seahawks trading for Marshawn Lynch and Denver’s free agent pickups of Manning and Wes Welker were essential moves on the road to the Super Bowl.

The seven-round draft stands as a crucial element to this fact. When the Steelers drafted their 1974 class which included Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, the draft lasted seventeen rounds. When the Packers drafted players who would later dominate through the Lombardi-era dynasty in the mid-1950s, there were 30 rounds.

Today’s NFL requires a combination of drafting, smart free-agent signings, and finding overlooked undrafted players. The draft remains an important component to winning in the NFL, but the seven-round system limits its influence.