Thinking Out Loud: The 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class

SENIOR NOMINEES

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced two senior nominees for its 2016 induction class. The Seniors Committee, comprised of nine members on a rotating basis, selects the senior nominees. Nominees must be retired for at least 25 years.

We’ve discussed Ken Stabler’s Canton credentials. My recent post countered Peter King of Sports Illustrated, declaring Stabler as more than worthy. King, however, has an actual vote in the process, and it will be interesting to see whom the rest of the voters agree with.

Who else has three of the most iconic plays in history – the “Sea of Hands” game, the “Ghost to the Post,” and the “Holy Roller” – to his quarterbacking credit? Stabler also almost nearly won the “Immaculate Reception” game with a 30-yard scramble to put the Raiders ahead 7-6 in the fourth quarter. Most arguments against Stabler tend to be statistically based. Here’s a statistic to mull over: of the quarterbacks who rank in the Top 50 in all-time wins, only 6 top Stabler’s .661 winning percentage: Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning. Bear in mind that Stabler’s the only one in the bunch to play for the New Orleans Saints.

Dick Stanfel gets his third chance as the senior nominee, after denials in 1993 and 2012. He’s a difficult case to figure out. Why would he be nominated a third time if the Senior Committee didn’t fully believe he belonged? The flip side is he only played 7 years. He made All-Pro 5 of those seasons. He would have likely played longer, but it seems like he left the NFL for the same reasons Johnny Lujack early: he wanted to help his college coach (Joe Kuharich) as an assistant at Notre Dame. Stanfel had lagging injuries from WW2 and a terrible knee injury sustained in the 1951 College All-Star Game that required surgery and put him out his rookie season with the Lions.

He doesn’t have any statistics from the guard position. He was, however, named MVP of a Lions team that won the 1953 NFL Championship and featured Bobby Layne at quarterback and Doak Walker. That would be like J.R. Sweezy named Seahawks MVP in 2013. In addition, Walker and Andy Robustelli rate Stanfel as one of the greats. If I were a voter, I’d view their opinion, along with the Senior Committee’s, more valuable than my own personal guess and vote for Stanfel.

OTHER CANDIDATES

Unless the USFL makes a triumphant return with Donald Trump as commissioner, my biggest football surprise would be Brett Favre not making the Hall on his first ballot. His unquestionable worthiness as the only player to win 3 straight MVP awards and retiring as the QB wins leader, passing yards, passing touchdowns…we could go further if you’d like. Brett did some dumb things on and off the field – but he also was one of the most exciting and impactful players of the last 25 years.

Several finalists deserved entry last year, but the class was so strong that many deserving players have to wait. Kurt Warner is one guy that didn’t make it in 2015, but should make it in the next year or two. John Lynch was one of the top safeties of his era, and another one of last year’s finalists that should make it in a similar timeframe. I feel good adding Marvin Harrison and Orlando Pace to that same list.

Terrell Owens’ eligibility begins this year. Here’s a guy who put up legendary stats, and on paper looks like one of the greatest players of all-time. And yes, he had serious impact. But while a lot of people vote simply for statistics, I look for true contribution. What was Owens’ contribution to pro football and his teams? Often, he contributed chaos, distractions, and selfishness. His two biggest highlights might be his game-winning touchdown against Green Bay in the waning moments in the 1998 NFC playoffs, and the image of him dancing on the star at Texas Stadium. Or the Sharpie incident. Or dumping popcorn on his face. There’s a difference between celebrating the moment and disrespecting the game.

No question he was a tremendous player. His one shot at a Super Bowl, he had a great game for Philadelphia. Most advocates tout his second all-time receiving yards and other stats. I get that. But if Charlie Joiner and Don Maynard had to wait years to get in the Hall – after both retired as the NFL’s all –time leading receiver – Owens should have to wait also.

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A lot of internet buzz puts the Steelers Alan Faneca into the Hall next year, also his first year of eligibility. Again, to me there are the Hall of Famers. Then there are the first-ballot Hall of Famers. It’s a completely different class. Here is a list of first ballot guards: Larry Allen, Forrest Gregg, John Hannah, Bruce Matthews, Jim Parker, and Gene Upshaw. Is Faneca in that category? In terms of Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, he’s actually quite comparable. Would I pick him over Parker, Allen, or Matthews? Certainly not, but he’s a borderline first-ballot Hall of Famer to me, and if he makes it in 2016, I’m okay with that.

SUMMARY

Last year’s robust Hall of Fame class left some very worthy players outside. At least one or two should get in this year. The Hall will likely also induct Brett Favre and Ken Stabler in my opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if the voters overlooked Dick Stanfel again.

Here is a look at who I voted for last year (as part of the fan vote), with a list of players I’d like to see get in eventually. What players would you like to see added to the Hall of Fame?

 

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Click on Mick and Joe Kapp to see who I picked for the 2015 HOF Class

 

 

Thinking Out Loud: Ken Stabler and the Pro Football Hall of Fame

My first NFL memories involve Ken Stabler. My dad sat me down in front of the television during Super Bowl 11 and explained the meaning of the NFL’s biggest day while Stabler led the Raiders to ultimate victory. The Holy Roller play remains a cherished memory, and one of the first epic plays I witnessed live on television.

Stabler helped characterize the 1970s NFL. His bearded face symbolizes Raider football. The Hall of Fame has yet to induct “The Snake,” a position defended by Sports Illustrated writer and Hall of Fame voter Peter King.

Many fans, however, disagree. Count me in that group. King argues that statistics and career consistency don’t land in Stabler’s favor. I get that, and statistics play a huge part. Being great for 5 years is much different than being great for 10 or 15.

Yet we call it the “Hall of Fame.” The moniker implies the word “famous,” and nobody can deny #12’s fame throughout his career. Similar to the old E.F. Hutton commercials, when Stabler played, people watched. His exciting play energized fans of rival teams. He stood both a beloved favorite and a “love to hate” guy. Fan favorite isn’t a tallied in box scores, but in my humble opinion that should count for something on Hall of Fame ballots.

When I think of the top quarterbacks of the 1970s, three instantly come to mind: Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, and Ken Stabler. After a few seconds Fran Tarkenton and Bob Griese pop in, but Stabler comes beforehand. Not saying that he’s better than Tarkenton and Griese, but he’s certainly in that class. All those other quarterbacks made the Hall.

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He doesn’t fit in with Jim Hart, Joe Ferguson, Ken Anderson, Steve Bartkowski, Billy Kilmer, Ron Jaworski, and Steve Grogan, guys who had long careers but clearly aren’t Hall of Famers. Like Stabler, those quarterbacks were the faces of their teams. Stabler, however, was one of the most recognizable figures in the entire league.

For that, he’s clearly Hall of Fame material.

There was only one Ken  Stabler.

There was only one Ken Stabler.

 

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A Brief History of — The NFL Draft

Enormous media coverage surrounds today’s NFL draft. It wasn’t always that way. Bob Griese told us he didn’t know the draft had taken place – even though he was the fourth-overall pick. Players from The Game before the Money era often learned their pro football destinations through newspapers, college coaches, and friends. It apparently wasn’t until the 1970s that teams called players during the draft.

YEARS BEFORE THE DRAFT

Chaos often surrounded acquiring talent before the draft existed. Don Hutson signed with both the Green Bay Packers and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers after his college career at Alabama ended. NFL President Joe Carr awarded Hutson to the Packers since the Packers mailed their contract just a few minutes before the Dodgers. Hutson helped lead the Packers to 3 NFL titles and still holds NFL receiving records 8 decades later.

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Don Hutson.

The Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers both highly desired Minnesota All-American Stan Kostka in 1935. Kostka deftly fueled a bidding war, signing a sparkling $5,000 contract with Brooklyn. Philadelphia owner Bert Bell didn’t like being outbid, and scoffed at a rookie’s salary rivaling superstar Bronko Nagurski’s. Bell proposed a player draft to keep rookie salaries down, and to give lower-tier teams a better chance at top-tier talent.

Bell’s draft proposal passed, and the NFL held its first draft in 1936. The Eagles selected Heisman winner Jay Berwanger, who opted for a higher salary in foam-rubber sales. The Boston (now Washington) Redskins selected Riley Smith.

The draft succeeded in keeping salaries down. Smith signed for $250/game, far below Kostka’s deal. The draft, however, failed to balance out talent. The Packers, Giants, and Bears won 7 out of the last 9 championships before the draft, and also won 7 out of the first 9 championships after the draft’s initiation. Curly Lambeau apparently scouted players at bowl games, as Nolan Luhn and Bob Kahler told us he approached them after the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl, respectively. Other teams didn’t scout as well, some drafting ineligible players who were still in college.

The first NFL draft netted 4 Hall of Famers – Wayne Millner, Tuffy Leemans, Dan Fortmann, and Joe Stydahar. Brooklyn selected coaching icon Paul “Bear” Bryant in the fourth round.

NFL DRAFTS AFRICAN AMERICAN ATHLETES

Pro football integrated in 1946, with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode playing for the Los Angeles Rams, and Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley suiting up for the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC. They all, however, signed as undrafted free agents. The Chicago Bears made George Taliaferro the first African American to be drafted in 1949. “I thought it was the most incredible thing that could happen,” Taliaferro said when interviewing for The Game before the Money.

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George Taliaferro.

Taliaferro signed with the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons before the NFL draft, however, and honored that contract. He earned AAFC Rookie of the Year honors. The NFL later held a dispersal draft of AAFC players after the AAFC’s demise, and Taliaferro was the second-overall pick. The Lions snatched future Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur in the dispersal draft.

 

THE BONUS PICK

The NFL instituted the “Bonus Pick” in 1947. Paul Hornung explains in The Game before the Money: “First pick of the draft in those days was a bonus pick. 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.”

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“The Golden Boy” at Notre Dame.

Congress investigated the NFL, among other pro sports leagues, for antitrust violations in the 1950s. Congress declared the “Bonus Pick” too close to a lottery and suggested the NFL halt the practice. The NFL did so after the 1958 draft, conveniently after each team had selected one “Bonus Pick.”

The Congressional pressure demonstrates societal changes. What was unacceptable in 1958 is now celebrated as part of today’s NBA draft. Teams covet “Lottery Picks” and sports fans eagerly watch the “NBA Draft Lottery.”

AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE EFFECTS

The American Football League held their first draft in 1960. Some players were drafted by both leagues, and the two leagues warred over players.

Teams used scouts as “babysitters” to protect their draft interests. The babysitters would travel to a prospective draft pick’s college, wine and dine them, and do their best to keep the athlete from signing with the rival league. Walt Garrison said a Rams scout took him and his friends out to dinner, bought him a pair of boots, and then stayed in a hotel room with him during the NFL draft. The scout left the instant the Cowboys beat the Rams in drafting Garrison.

Tony Lorick signed with the Baltimore Colts, although the Colts hesitated in drafting him. The Colts heard a rumor that Lorick had already signed with the Oakland Raiders as their first-round pick. Unsurprisingly, Raiders owner Al Davis proved to be the source of the rumor.

Davis wouldn’t lose out on Fred Biletnikoff the next year, however. He signed Biletnikoff on the field at the Gator Bowl, national television cameras all around. Fred’s Florida State team had just defeated Oklahoma. It wasn’t the first time Davis signed a Hall of Famer on the field. He signed Arkansas standout Lance Alworth to a contract beneath the goal posts following the 1962 Sugar Bowl.

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Biletnikoff flying high in the Gator Bowl.

The shenanigans surrounding Chiefs legend Otis Taylor depict the lengths babysitters would go to protect draft interests. A group of NFL scouts took Taylor and several other draft prospects to a motel in Richardson, Texas, checked in under assumed names, and hoped to keep the draft picks there to keep them from signing with the AFL. A Chiefs scout close to the Taylor family learned Taylor’s whereabouts, and tried to sneak into the hotel as a journalist, using a camera as part of his disguise. An NFL scout recognized the Chiefs scout, and subsequently called police reporting the Chiefs scout as a suspicious person. Despite threats from the police, the Chiefs scout snuck Taylor out of the NFL scouts’ motel at 3:30 in the morning, promising a new Ford Thunderbird.

The battles changed the course of destiny for teams. Imagine Taylor playing alongside Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald, catching passes from Eagles quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Picture Hall of Famer Ron Mix next to Jim Parker on the Baltimore Colts offensive line. The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles after losing Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Paul Warfield to the NFL. Would the championship run have lasted longer and into the Super Bowl era?

The two drafts provided leverage to rookies drafted in both leagues. Some players, like Joe Namath, Donny Anderson, and Jim Grabowski, negotiated huge contracts. Namath famously collected over $400,000, Anderson scored $600,000.

Namath

Namath and the Bear.

Not all players based decisions on money. Garrison said he wanted to stay close to his Texas roots, and preferred the Dallas Cowboys to the Kansas City Chiefs. Eller enjoyed Minnesota, and was happy to sign with the Vikings rather than create a bidding war between Minnesota and Buffalo.

The two leagues merged in 1966. Grappling over draft picks stood as a large contributing cause.

SUMMARY

The draft now gets dissected and diced in ways Bert Bell would have never imagined. The NFL Combine tests prospects where a mere index card asking for player stats in the 50s and 60s served the same purpose. Bob Griese learned the Dolphins drafted him when an assistant coach off-handedly mentioned it while crossing paths in the hallway. Now players sit by the phone with their agents and friends, watching the draft unfold on ESPN.

Some teams built their dynasties and legends around drafts. The Steelers 1974 draft produced Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster – all Hall of Famers. The Packers scored Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr and Bob Skoronski in 1956, then Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, and Jerry Kramer in 1958. The Bears netted Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus with back-to-back first round picks in 1965. Dallas selected Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, and Mel Renfro in 1964.

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Staubach quarterbacking the Navy Midshipmen.

Drafts remembered for being especially rich include the 1983 draft. Known for producing legendary quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly in the first round, Hall of Famers Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Eric Dickerson and Richard Dent also entered the league. The 1957 draft launched 9 Hall of Famers, including 4  of the first 8 picks. The 1964 draft contained a record 10 Hall of Famers. Many declare the 1989 draft the best modern draft. Four of the first five picks – Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders – all found their way to Canton.

 

READ THE NFL DRAFT STORIES OF NFL LEGENDS IN THE GAME BEFORE THE MONEY

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Thinking Out Loud: My 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class

The Pro Football Hall of Fame represents the highest level of personal achievement a player can reach. Fans can submit votes for the 2015 class online here. You can select up to five players, plus the Senior Nominee. Below is whom I voted for, and why.

Mick Tingelhoff (Senior Nominee). Mick started at center for the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie in 1962. He played every single game for the Vikings through 1978. 240 consecutive games, plus playoffs and Super Bowls. An epic career. Really one of those guys who should have been in the Hall years ago. You can read Mick’s story in The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, available from Amazon here.

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Tim Brown. Brown didn’t lead the NFL in many receiving categories, leading in receptions only one season. Still, he had nine consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards. The tenth year of that stretch he had over 900. Also an exceptional punt and kick returner, he led the NFL for a season in each category. As a fan, I always regarded Brown as one of the most potent threats in the league for a long time. His induction is also overdue.

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Don Coryell. An iconic coach. He unleashed offense like never before, making winners out of the lowly St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers. Dan Fouts made the Hall of Fame quarterbacking his offense. Louie Kelcher described Coryell as a player’s coach in The Game before the Money. While he didn’t make a Super Bowl, he took NFL offenses to the next level.

Charles Haley. Five Super Bowl rings. Although Bob Skoronski also won five championships and likely won’t (unfortunately) earn Hall honors as a lineman, Haley was a pronounced force on the defenses he played on. It’s no coincidence in this fan’s opinion that power in the NFC shifted from the 49ers to the Cowboys when Haley switched sides. He wasn’t quite the caliber of Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, or Bruce Smith as far as impacting games as a defensive player, but he was close. Certainly heads and shoulders above the majority of his peers.

Will Shields. Offensive linemen get the least amount of recognition with fans. You can’t argue with 12 Pro Bowl selections, however. Most players in the Hall have fewer, some nearly half as much. He and Tingelhoff are the most deserving members of this potential class, in my opinion.

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Junior Seau. Very close call between him and John Lynch for my final vote. I just gave the nod to Junior just because I remember him affecting the outcomes of games more than Lynch. Both were one of the top players at their positions for a long time, and both deserve induction.

REASONS WHY I DIDN’T VOTE FOR OTHERS

Kurt Warner. Warner is unquestionably a Hall of Famer in my opinion. Is he a first-ballot HOFer? Not so much. He took traditional losers to Super Bowls, but I didn’t think of him as one of the absolute best quarterbacks of his time like I thought of Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady. I’m a huge Warner fan, but I’m waiting until next year.

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Terrell Davis. A lot of great arguments for his induction, but I just don’t think he played long enough to warrant it. For whatever reason, my mind puts him at the exact same level as Billy Sims. A back who dominated the league for a short period of time. Bo Jackson is another guy that would certainly belong in the Hall had his career been longer.

Tony Dungy. Not really ready to include him yet. I would put Tom Flores in there first. Coryell. Dan Reeves. Marv Levy. Dungy’s a great man and an excellent coach, but I personally thought many of his teams underachieved in the playoffs. Maybe that’s not on him, but again, I think a few guys need to go in before him.

A FEW GUYS I REALLY HOPE GET IN SOMEDAY

Jerry Kramer, who had crucial roles in two classic championship games: the 1962 NFL Championship chronicled here, and the legendary Ice Bowl (1967 NFL Championship).

Al Wistert. A perennially All-Pro on both offense AND defense. He anchored an Eagle defense that still owns the distinction of being the only team to shut out their opponents back-to-back times in the NFL Championship.

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Ken Stabler. Really a head scratcher why he’s not in. One of the most recognizable players of the 1970s, and one of the guys who made the NFL what it was back then. He has great stats to back up his induction, plus a Super Bowl and regular trips to the playoffs in a time when the AFC sported the dominant Steelers and Dolphins. The Raiders were always in that mix. I like Ray Guy, but it’s very interesting to me how they put him in the Hall before Stabler. And for that matter, Cliff Branch.

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A few more I’d like to see get in include, L.C. Greenwood, Harvey Martin, and a pair of Bronco linebackers, Randy Gradishar and Karl Mecklenburg. Mecklenburg’s been a semi-finalist the last few years, so perhaps his time is coming.

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Who would you put into the Hall of Fame?

 

 

Legendary Insights — Carl Eller on Jim Marshall’s Wrong Way Run, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago this week, on October 25, 1964, Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings pulled one of the NFL’s ultimate blunders. He recovered a fumble, rumbled downfield, and crossed the goal line – for a safety. Many remember the play a farce at Marshall’s expense. But how justified is the amusement?

I discussed the play with Marshall’s Hall of Fame teammate, Carl Eller. I first, however, asked about a seldom known fact: Carl returned a fumble earlier that quarter for a touchdown. A surprised Eller said, “Most people remember the wrong way run by Jim Marshall during my rookie year, and a lot of people only remember that. What people don’t remember is that I returned a fumble for a touchdown right before that….John Brodie was the (49ers) quarterback. I think Jim (Marshall) hit him and the ball snapped out. I picked up the ball and ran for a 45-yard touchdown in Gale Sayers–like fashion. [Laughs.]”

Eller then recalled the infamous play, providing new perspective. “The Jim Marshall play was very similar, but Jim was coming from the other side. We reversed fields chasing a flat pass Brodie had thrown to Billy Kilmer. Marshall picked up the ball and kept running, not realizing he was going in the opposite direction. My thought was, ‘He’s going to have a longer touchdown than mine.’ I also didn’t realize he was running the wrong way at first.”

The play’s confusion led to Marshall running the wrong direction. NFL action drops like lightning, players exert an enormous amount of energy and often battle mental and physical exhaustion on top of opponents. Adding these elements together with Eller’s recollection adds sense to what many simply write off as a bonehead play.

In case you’re wondering, the Vikings held on for a 27-22 victory at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. Watching the play now, do you have a different view of the “Wrong Way Run?”

NOTE: All above quotes are from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, published by the University of Nebraska Press. ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY!

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An Appreciation: Tom Landry

Phil Simms named his Top 5 Coaching Innovators during last week’s CBS Thursday Night Football broadcast. Being a Wisconsin native, I happily concurred with Vince Lombardi finishing number one. While I understand the difficulty of compiling such lists, the glaring omission of Tom Landry surprised me. To right that wrong in my little corner of the blogging universe, I humbly spotlight Coach Landry’s valuable contributions to the game.

THE ROAD TO COACHING

Landry attended the University of Texas. He played fullback and defensive back for the Longhorns. Like so many others playing college ball in the 1940s, World War II interrupted his NCAA career. He flew over two dozen difficult combat missions before returning home. Landry later stated that surviving the war built his confidence.

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He broke into professional football with the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference, playing one season with the team before the league folded. The New York Giants picked up Landry, employing him mostly at defensive back and punter. Landry finished his career with 32 interceptions and a 40.9 punting average. In 1954, Giants coach Jim Lee Howell offered Landry the position of player/coach, an opportunity Landry would later offer Dan Reeves with the Dallas Cowboys. Landry served two seasons as a player/coach before assuming full-time assistant coach duties, as defensive coordinator. The Giants offensive coordinator was a man named Vince Lombardi.

LANDRY IN THE WORDS OF TEAMMATES AND PLAYERS

I could write all day about Coach Landry’s innovations, but his former teammates and players provide the most reliable and credible statements. Frank Gifford said, “He created the 4-3 defense, which they still use today. A lot of people don’t realize that—he was the guy that invented the 4-3 defense.”

Lee Roy Jordan, the general of the famed Doomsday Defense at middle linebacker, ironically noted Landry’s offensive contributions: “When I think of Tom Landry, I think of all the multiple formations in football now. Tom wasn’t the inventor, but he was the one that took and put them into his offense every game.”

Dan Reeves, who like Mike Ditka worked under Landry before embarking on a head coaching career, credited Landry’s groundbreaking conditioning program as a pillar to the Cowboys’ success. “I had become a player/coach in 1970, and my first job was to help put in a strength and conditioning program for the Cowboys. We put it in that year and paid guys to stay in Dallas for $50 a workout….Instead of going back home to an off-season job, it gave a player enough money to stay around….I think that was the start of the greatness that the Cowboys had because we went to the Super Bowl in 1970, ’71, ’75, ’77, and ’79.”

Many believe Landry started using the shotgun in the 1970s with Roger Staubach, but Walt Garrison tells us the creative coach solved a peculiar problem with the formation in the early-1960s. “He started the shot­gun because quarterback Eddie LeBaron was 5-foot-7 and couldn’t see over the line. Landry moved him back so he could see!”

Landry also is responsible for the flex-defense (which occasionally “flexed” a defensive lineman off the line of scrimmage) and the extensive use of putting men in motion before the snap.

SUMMARY

Most coaching innovators specialized on one side of the ball. Don Coryell and Bill Walsh were offensive masterminds. Buddy Ryan and Tony Dungy influenced defense with their 4-6 and Tampa 2 respectively. Tom Landry, however, crafted major contributions offensively and defensively in wide use several decades later. Landry’s system and style undoubtedly helped shape the modern game of football.

Coach Landry’s innovations resulted in tremendous success for the Dallas Cowboys organization. He recorded 20 consecutive winning seasons, and made the playoffs 17 out of 18 years. The Cowboys won Super Bowls 6 and 12 under Landry, and also played in Super Bowls 5, 10, and 13. Dallas also reached the NFL Championship Game in 1966 and 1967. The 2-5 record doesn’t reflect the Cowboys competitiveness, as they lost each of the Super Bowls and Championship Games by a touchdown or less, and a combined total of 22 points.

NOTE: All above quotes are from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and available for purchase here.

Here’s what critics are saying about The Game before the Money:

“Fans who remember these players will thoroughly enjoy reliving the good times with the heroes of their youth, and younger fans will get a valuable sense of how today’s game came to be.”—Booklist

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“Wonderful!” Rich Kimball – voice of Maine football, 92.9 The Ticket Bangor, Maine

“All football fans will enjoy the stories told in this entertaining and engrossing read.”  –John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ

 

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Legendary Insights — Eric Hipple: Depression affects many after NFL career ends

My father-in-law and I recently heard former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple speak. Hipple, who quarterbacked the Lions to the 1983 NFC Central Division title, reviewed his career and shared about his current work at the University of Michigan Depression Center. He noted that 50% of NFL players battle depression after retirement.

ALMOST DIDN’T SURVIVE ACCIDENT BEFORE COLLEGE

Hipple accepted a scholarship to play at Utah State. A serious dune buggy accident nearly ended everything for him about six weeks before leaving for Logan. His vehicle flipped, and Eric suffered a fractured skull and separated shoulder. His doctor told him he’d never play football again. Eric’s father promptly fired that doctor, and Hipple began recovering under another doctor’s supervision.

Hipple recovered well enough that he led the Aggies to conference championships his junior and senior years. He placed sixth in the NCAA for passing his senior year. The Detroit Lions drafted him as the first pick of the fourth round in the 1980 NFL Draft.

“THE NIGHT OF THE HIPPLE”

Hipple made the Lions as the 3rd-string QB and holder for kicker Eddie Murray. His first NFL start came after injuries to Gary Danielson and Jeff Komlo his second year. This was no ordinary start either – it was Monday Night Football against the division rival Chicago Bears.

With the entire nation watching, Hipple threw four touchdowns and ran for two others. Dubbed “The Night of the Hipple,” it’s been called the greatest debut ever on MNF, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame owns his jersey from that night.

One touchdown pass was a 94-yard strike to Leonard Thompson, the longest in MNF history at the time. Lions coach Monte Clark sent Thompson in with the play, but Thompson forgot it on his way to the huddle. Hipple asked Thompson think hard. Thompson said, “Ah, I think it was a pass play to me.”

“I-34 Post?” Hipple asked.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Thompson said.

Hipple saw Thompson open downfield and threw to him as a Bears lineman knocked Hipple down in the end zone. Hipple got up just in time to see Thompson cross the goal line. “I got off the field and Coach Clark said, ‘You just made a career for yourself.’”

A FAIR CAREER

Hipple threw for over 10,000 yards and tossed 55 TD passes in his 10-year career. He led the NFL with a 63% Completion Rate in 1986, and scored 7 rushing touchdowns in 1981. Many fans remember a gruesome injury he sustained in 1988 when Charles Haley blindsided him, turning Hipple’s ankle backwards.

Hipple returned to play in 1989, but was given the option of retiring or being cut after throwing two pick-sixes against the Minnesota Vikings. Hipple wanted to say farewell to his friends in Detroit rather than hold onto the possibility of another team picking him up. He chose to retire.

POST GAME DIFFICULTY

Like many players, Hipple found adjusting to life after the NFL difficult. Although he’d built a business that after six years earned more than his NFL salary, he lost his sense of self and slid into a deep depression. He leapt out of a car going 75 mph in hopes to end it all. He miraculously survived.

His struggles also survived. Hipple, however, resisted any kind of assistance for his problems. He now says avoiding his own depression issues left him incapable of recognizing those in his teenage son, Jeff. While Eric was away on business, 15-year old Jeff took Eric’s shotgun and killed himself.

Eric’s downward spiral accelerated afterward. He “ate Vicodin and Xanax like candy” to cope with his severe emotional pain. He also tried drowning his sorrows in alcohol. One Monday night, he drove home drunk after a Lions home game. He was pulled over for DUI.

Hipple figured his fame would save him, but the officer took him to jail. The judge, however, gave him several chances to avoid jail time. Hipple refused to follow the judge’s orders, and eventually served 58 days in jail. In jail, he noted a fellow inmate refused to accept responsibility for his mistakes, and Hipple started thinking hard about his own life.

COMEBACK VICTORY

A University of Michigan doctor invited Hipple to a luncheon educating attendees about depression. He jokes that he was more interested in the free lunch at first, but Hipple strongly related to the presentation. He wanted to learn more, and went to school to train in suicide prevention.

Hipple’s acceptance of help led to him overcoming his problems, and he now assists others to do the same. He urges people suffering from depression to seek treatment, just like they would if they suffered from severe arthritis. He encourages all to stay mentally fit, and points out that mental fitness is just as important as physical wellness.

SUMMARY

Hipple now works as an outreach specialist of the University of Michigan, and speaks nationally on suicide prevention. He works with servicemen returning from the war as well as ex-NFLers. Hipple’s battle with depression and his suicide attempt aren’t uncommon with former NFL players. Fans know about Junior Seau and Dave Duerson’s suicides, but I found the 50% depression statistic stunning. Hipple alluded to the difficulty of transitioning from the game to regular life.

Rocky Bleier explains in The Game before the Money: “With the majority of athletes things are always done for you….everybody tells you what to do, where to go, what time to be there, what bus to be on…. (When you leave the game) you have to face a decision on your own, and it’s made for you either by injury or by getting cut because you’re not good enough to make the team. It’s a real­ity of the game that everybody goes through. How you deal with that specifically becomes very impor­tant, and it’s not easy.”

For many players, competing in the NFL is a lifelong dream. What does one do when they’re still young and have already accomplished their most desired goal? Mental preparation for life after an NFL career ends might be even more important than financial planning for professional athletes.

NOTE: Eric Hipple’s book, Real Men Do Cry, chronicles his journey and is available here.

QB Reality – Why Most Teams Stand No Chance

UPDATED: Super Bowl 48 was a bit of an anomaly. Maybe. We’ll see if Russell Wilson wins another Super Bowl, which he’s already in position to do. Stark reality looms for teams without a quarterback sporting a championship ring: Out of nearly 50 Super Bowls, only 31 quarterbacks have won.

Of those 31 quarterbacks, 11 have won multiple Super Bowls. That equates to 28 of the 48 Super Bowls, roughly 60 percent of the games. The trend stays fairly steady through the Free Agency Era. Multi-winning quarterbacks have won 11 of the 21 contests, and only 15 quarterbacks won championships. Before Free Agency, 16 quarterbacks won those 27 SBs.

Dawson

Dawson in Super Bowl 4.

Wilson and Joe Flacco won the last two, perhaps slightly bucking the trend. In the Super Bowl era, however, Super Bowls 3-5 were the only three straight SBs in which the winning quarterback didn’t win multiple times on Super Bowl Sunday. Even that statistic’s a stretch, as SB 5 was Johnny Unitas’ third NFL championship, and SB 4 was Len Dawson’s second title, including the 1962 AFL Championship. (NOTE: For simplicity, I counted the Unitas/Earl Morrall tandem as one winning QB.)

11 quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana each won 4. Troy Aikman and Tom Brady, 3.  All of these men were clearly top-tier QBs of their day. Of the remaining 6 multi-winners, only Jim Plunkett and Eli Manning don’t fall into the clearly elite class. Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, and John Elway are indisputable legends. Ben Roethlisberger is close, certainly warranting serious Canton consideration.

A roll call of top single-time winners includes Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Ken Stabler, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees. All exceptional talents, and high above the majority of their peers. Add those 8 with the multiple winners, and you’ve got 19 of the 31 Super Bowl winning QBs. Moreover, it’s 75% percent of the games (36 of the 48 Super Bowls),

JoeNamath

 

Namath giving the only finger that matters after SB 3.

Incredibly, the trend holds true dating back to the 1940s. Only three championship quarterbacks – Frank Ryan (64 Browns), Billy Wade (63 Bears), and Doug Heinrich (56 Giants) won only one championship in post single-wing times.

All other championships were won by multiple-winning quarterbacks. Excluding the 1944 Championship which featured tailbacks rather than quarterbacks, 22 of the 25 NFL champions from 1940-1966 featured multi-championship winning quarterbacks. (Note: Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin both saw action for the 1951 Rams. Waterfield started the championship game; Van Brocklin threw the winning touchdown. Both won individually only once. Waterfield with the 1945 Rams; Van Brocklin with the 1960 Eagles.)

All of the American Football League championships before the merger were won by multi-winning QBs. George Blanda won the first two before Dawson beat Blanda in the 1962 title game. Tobin Rote quarterbacked the 1963 Chargers after doing likewise for the 1957 Detroit Lions. Jack Kemp won the last two with the Buffalo Bills the final two years before the merger. The Cleveland Browns won every AAFC championship, guided by Otto Graham. Graham also led the Browns to 3 NFL Championships.

Chargers

It gets more disconcerting if you have a low-grade quarterback running your team. Most one-time winning quarterbacks beat forgettable quarterbacks in championship games. Trent Dilfer beat Kerry Collins. Doug Heinrich beat a man named Ed Brown. Rarely does a quarterback below the golden grade win over a top-tier QB for a championship. There are a few exceptions, such as Doug Williams topping John Elway, and Frank Ryan getting the better of Johnny Unitas. Williams’ and Ryan’s defenses, however, gave up a combined total of 10 points in those games.

The tide may be turning, as 7 quarterbacks have won the last 10 Super Bowls. But again, only 15 quarterbacks have won Super Bowls in the Free Agency Era, and this year’s Patriots/Seahawks matchup follows the trend.

If you add the 1940 – 1966 era to that to the Super Bowl Era, 50 of 72 championships were won by quarterbacks who won at least one more championship. Only 43 quarterbacks have won a championship since 1940 (Unitas/Morrall both given credit for SB 5.)

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