The NFL’s Shameful Impatience with Black Quarterbacks

We are just a month removed from the NFL Network airing a special on the history of players and the importance of Historically Black Colleges & Universities. Even here I wrote an epilogue on the enshrinement of Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson’s into the Black College Hall of Fame last month. Outside of these circles you’ll hear comments as though every racial barrier has been eradicated and they haven’t. You have NFL experts pitching the notion Heisman Trophy winning QB Lamar Jackson should switch to WR at the NFL Combine last weekend.

Are you serious?? Why is that even being asked?? Why isn’t this being asked of Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, or Sam Darnold?? To many black former players and to this historian, it reeks of those in NFL circles who wish to keep the quarterback position white and that is a problem. It unveils what many of us have talked about in private circles for years and we’re talking about this today.

Now Colin Kaepernick situation withstanding, someone undoubtedly will mention “Julian Edelman was a qb in college and he switched.”  Yet he was a marginal talent at Kent St in the Mid America Conference where he threw for 1,820 yds 13 TDs and 11 interceptions as a senior. Hardly NFL material. He was not an electrifying talent that ran for 1,571 yards 21 TDs before tossing 30 more scores with just 9 ints and another 3,543 yards in a Heisman winning year. So lets kill that noise right off the top.

Its the audacity of having it come up in the first place when the young man has earned the right to be drafted as a quarterback. It pulls back the veil of the long ago thought that blacks weren’t to play the thinking positions and were asked to switch positions going into the pros.

Quick question: Who holds the Denver Bronco record for touchdown passes as a rookie?? *jeopardy music* The answer is Marlon Briscoe with 14 in 1968. Yes he has held the record for 49 years… not John Elway…not Tim Tebow…not Jay Cutler. In fact if you add Elway and Tebow’s rookie TDs together you would still only have 12. Briscoe’s reward?? He never quarterbacked in the AFL or NFL again and was switched to receiver. He won Super Bowl VII and VIII in Miami but the point we don’t know is what could he have developed into??

One aspect that rears it’s head are coaches and general managers impatience with wanting to get black QBs on the field. Why is it you rarely see black QBs groomed to be placed out there once they’re developed and ready??

What happens is the black quarterback is inserted for an element of excitement. Fans get behind the team. The team’s coaches don’t further develop the game of the quarterback and lock into the same plays. Opposing defense catches on to the quarterbacks tendencies within 2 years and the fans turn on the quarterback when he isn’t effective. Then hit Twitter, social media and the blogosphere about how they need to draft the next best thing. Sound familiar??

Its the same reason you didn’t see the Kordell Stewarts & Duante Culpeppers have long careers as backups once they weren’t starters. However a Ryan Fitzpatrick (7 teams looking for his 8th) and Josh McCown (8 teams) have been terrible yet hold clip boards and play without distinction for 28 years and not a playoff appearance between them.

If Duante Culpepper went from throwing for 4717 yards and 39 TDs to out of the league in 6 years, how did Fitz and McCown stay so long?? He couldn’t help develop a young QB as a gray beard George Blanda-type?

Even Doug Williams who won Super Bowl XXII with the most electrifying game in history was cut by the Redskins 1 year and 1 day later. In NFL Films Black Star Rising in 1995, Viking DE Jim Marshall expressed how “black players weren’t allowed to be 2nd tier players and had to perform just to be on a team.” That it was different for their white counterparts in the 1960’s. This still seems to hold true with the quarterback position.

This is where and how many of these black quarterbacks are thrown in before they’re ready. “If the play isn’t there take off and run the football” and not develop the QB fully before defenses catch up to them. This is what happened to RGIII, Kaepernick and would have happened to Russell Wilson had he not had such a great defense and running game. Its on the offensive coaches to gradually mature these scramblers into pocket quarterbacks. Landry did it with Roger Staubach and Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren did this with Steve Young. It takes years… it takes commitment.

Aside from Warren Moon down in Houston the one time I saw an organization really develop and commit to black quarterbacks has been the Philadelphia Eagles. Not only did Andy Reid help develop Donovan McNabb to a QB who led his team to 4 straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance… it goes further back than that.

Go back to the late Buddy Ryan and Randall Cunningham. Keep in mind Cunningham was drafted the year before Ryan got there. Buddy was hired in 1986 and worked to get the most out of the players on the roster. First he would deploy Cunningham as a wildcard, only on 3rd down packages and by 1987 had him on the field once he developed to the point he could play every down. He hired Doug Scovil to be his QB coach. It was Scovil who tutored BYU QBs as their coach in the early 80’s with Jim McMahon and Gifford Nielsen. So he had developed pro quarterbacks and bonded while working with Cunningham.

Ryan and Scovil helped develop Cunningham into the NFL’s ultimate weapon. He led the Eagles to the playoffs over the next 3 years in ’88, ’89, & ’90. Tragically late in the 1989 season Scovil died of a heart attack at Veteran’s Stadium and it derailed an Eagle team with a chance at the Super Bowl. Without his coaching confidante, Cunningham fell prey to the LA Rams and Fritz Shurmur‘s confusing “Eagle Defense” with 2 linemen and 5 linebackers on the field. They lost an NFC wildcard playoff 21-7 at home in a drizzly rain and couldn’t make offensive adjustments.

Yet they never would have made it that far had Cunningham been thrown to the wolves without proper coaching and just “go make a few plays with your legs.” He would have been replaced by 1989 instead of 3 straight trips to the Pro Bowl and coming in 2nd in the NFL MVP voting in 1990. It was this fundamental structure being coached fully “how to play qb” is what allowed an older Cunningham to be 1998’s NFL Comeback Player of the Year. In that season Minnesota went 15-1 with the highest scoring offense in NFL history with 556 points. He did it from the pocket and framework of the offense.

Keep in mind Ryan and Scovil didn’t draft Cunningham yet polished a raw talent into something special. What Lamar Jackson brings to the table rivals what Michael Vick did as a quarterback a generation before. Yes he can get by on his legs when he doesn’t get through his reads. However I hope the staff that takes him has the patience and vision to start him when he is ready and further develop him to perform within the framework of the offense.

So the issue before us has several facets to it. One is the lack of commitment to fully developing black qbs to be more than an offensive anomaly for a few years. Another is the stereotypes and prejudices we see surrounding that position from the executive level. When Bill Polian suggested he switch to WR it made my blood boil and I have written about him here on his brilliance as a general manager.

While I know Polian doesn’t harbor those prejudices, after all he hired Tony Dungy to be the Colts coach, it raises an eyebrow because of the sensitive past it invokes. His voice carries weight in other NFL boardrooms and he could have damaged Jackson’s draft status. While I don’t agree with Polian’s assessment I do disagree with Jackson having his mother as his agent. He needs an agent who knows in NFL circles what to look for in a team. The scouting process to make sure the right organization will put the plan and succession in place for Jackson to be the most successful.  The Chancellor of Football can get you in touch with Adrian Ross or Leigh Steinberg…its not too late.

Dedicated to the memories of Buddy Ryan and Doug Scovil

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Missing Rings: 2009 Minnesota Vikings

When you think back to the NFL before the free agency era, you rarely had the chance to see players take on their former team. Not with the venom or emotion we have seen post 1993 as players left as salary cap casualties with something to prove. We watched Hall of Famers like Marcus Allen & Thurman Thomas move to divisional rivals knowing they had 2 shots a year to get some payback. Yet over the years this was rarely seen at the QB position.

Favre’s locker at The Pro Football Hall of Fame on display the day of his induction.

The last true time we saw this was when Joe Montana was traded out of San Francisco to make way for Steve Young. They had rebuilt on the run and were still among the league’s elite and no longer needed their young QB looking over his shoulder at a living legend who played the same position. In 1994 they faced off in an epic week 2 battle that captured the nation’s attention. We wouldn’t see a match-up of this magnitude again for another 15 years.

Now of all the long standing rivalries in the NFL there are few with more hatred between two teams like that of the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings. Theirs is a clash of lifestyles, cultures, teams, and an envy from Vikings fans and players of the Packer’s globally revered NFL legacy.

Although the Packers have won 13 championships it’s the legacy of Vince Lombardi and their being “Team of the 60’s” that NFL Films and books have elevated these teams & players to mythic status. Minnesota on the other hand is largely remembered for losing 4 of the first 11 Super Bowls with very few of their great players being recognized by  Pro Football Hall of Fame. One example is Paul Krause, the NFL’s All Time Interceptor with 81 passes. It took 20 years for him to make “The Hall” after a 16 year career. Could you imagine any player who retired #1 in any major statistic waiting that long to make the journey to Canton?? I didn’t think so.

Had the Vikings won those 4 Super Bowls they would have been remembered as the “Team of the 70’s.” There are only 5 members from the Vikings enshrined compared to the 12 from the 60’s Packers and that will increase to 13 when Jerry Kramer gets in this year.

From the mid 90’s on it seemed as though the Viking organization was constantly searching for a QB. The Vikings spent the better part of 2 decades with teams good enough to make the playoffs but not “the guy” to get them over the top. They shuffled in an aging Warren Moon, an enigmatic Jeff George, resurrected Jim McMahon, had journeymen like Sean Salisbury, and revived a retired Randall Cunningham.

In ’98 Cunningham was the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year as he threw for 34 TDs. Super rookie Randy Moss set a record with 17 TDs as the Vikings roared to a 15-1 regular season and set the NFL scoring record with 556 points. They were a meteor and was the best of the Denny Green era however they were upset in the NFC Championship 30-27 and had to watch Super Bowl XXXIII.

Lost in this sea of futility, the Green Bay Packers became the center of the universe with the emergence of Brett Favre and the free agent signing of Reggie White. When they won the ’96 Super Bowl, Favre was in the midst of 3 straight MVP seasons and Viking faithful seethed with envy. The hated Packers had become one of the glamour teams and Favre had become the face of the league.

Peterson sets the NFL single game rushing record at 296 yards vs. Chargers.

This went on for years as the Vikings, with Randy Moss, could make the playoffs yet could only muster 1 more championship appearance. Once there, the lights went out in a 41-0 loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship. The most explosive player in football and they couldn’t field a champion with him. After his departure lightning struck again when they landed future Hall of Famer in RB Adrian Peterson in the 2007 draft. His rookie year saw him rush for 1,341 yards highlighted by an NFL record 296 yd rushing performance against San Diego. Yikes! His combination of speed and power might have been the most frightening at its zenith in NFL history. If they only could get a quarterback with him they could be lethal…

Elsewhere in the NFC North the Packers had retooled and Favre had become the grand old man trying to get back to the Super Bowl. Gone were the gunslinger days where Brett had to will his team to victory, he was getting by on guile. Timely audibles, leadership and staying controlled within Coach McCarthy’s offense led to a 13-3 record and homefield advantage. Early in the year he eclipsed Dan Marino to become the NFL’s all time touchdown passer, against the Vikings no less. In his 17th season he was the sentimental favorite to win a title in a swan song season that seemed predestined. But alas… the New York Giants upset Green Bay 23-20 in the NFC Championship. Favre had thrown a fatal interception in overtime to Corey Webster…and it was over.

The saga of Brett retiring and unretiring began as the Packers wanted to move on with a young Aaron Rodgers. Having his championship appetite whet he didn’t want to retire. Green Bay didn’t relent and he became a free agent and wound up playing the 2008 season with the New York Jets. He wasn’t inspired and seem to go through the motions and retired again… but when the Vikings came calling… this sent shockwaves through the NFL and a rejuvenated Favre hit the ground running.

Football fans everywhere took sides waiting to see Favre with the hated Vikings take on his old team. Packer fans were outraged he went to Minnesota and felt betrayed. Social media was in its infancy but comments “Judas” and quotes from the Godfather “It was you Fredo!” with pics from the kiss of death scene were everywhere as the buildup for those games began that summer.

To go with All Pro RB Adrian Peterson, the Vikings had developed WR Sidney Rice and drafted wild card and super rookie Percy Harvin off the NCAA champion Florida Gators. Farve had never had this type of firepower in Green Bay and Packer fans were nervous as hell. More important there was a pep in his step as though Favre had stepped back in time 5 years. He returned to being the emotional gunslinger and was on full display in week 3. The Vikings had begun the season 2-0 and were losing at home to San Francisco. They were being accused of looking ahead to the 1st matchup with Green Bay….and then the Vikes got the ball with 1:29 to go needing a touchdown.

The old man swaggered onto the field and brought life to the Viking huddle they hadn’t seen in a decade. A frantic drive saw Favre complete 6 of 8 passes that weren’t spikes and his last pass was a scramble & 32 yard touchdown to Greg Lewis with :02 seconds to go to win 27-24. The Metrodome hadn’t been that loud since the days of Moss and Cris Carter a decade before. Bring on the Packers!!

A raucous crowd awaited a Monday Night audience as the old knight outdueled the young lion in a 30-23 victory. Farve had gone 24 of 31 for 271 yards and 3 TDs where Aaron Rodgers had been sacked 8 times and harassed all night. He threw for 384 yards 2 TDs and an interception and had to play uphill all night. Favre left the field with his arms outstretched amid a sea of reporters. However in week 8 the Vikings would have to take the trek to Lambeau Field. Surely the Packer faithful would be just as loud and unforgiving as the Metrodome crowd had been for Rodgers.

In what might have been the biggest sporting event of the decade the nation tuned in for Favre’s return to Lambeau Field. Had there been pay per view for football games this would have smashed any record any boxing match had ever achieved. All the shows aired specials on the game and all week Fox dotted their television landscape with promos for the Game of the Week. The NFL’s all time winningest QB with the most touchdowns and yardage in NFL history, and the greatest Packer legend was going to be playing in purple and gold?? The mind struggled to take it all in…and when the whistle blew:

When the smoke cleared the Vikings were going into their bye week 7-1 and Favre had definitely had his revenge. In 2 games he completed 41 of 59 for 525 yards 7 TDs and was in complete control where Rodgers threw for 6 TDs, however had 1 interception and was sacked 14 times by the Viking front line. Yes… 14 times!! The Packers only led once in either contest, 3-0 in the 2nd game, and didn’t intercept or sack #4 once in either contest. This was against a Packer defense that finished ranked #2 in 2009. Suddenly the season was at the halfway point and the question had to be asked: Was this the best team in the NFL??

For the season Minnesota finished 2nd against the run & 6th in total defense and led the NFL with 48 sacks. Future Hall of Famer Jared Allen was a menace all year with 14.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, a safety and a touchdown in a season where he was All Pro and made the Pro Bowl. He would have been Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year over the NFL’s choice in Charles Woodson. Why?? In the 2 biggest games of the year Packers vs Vikings, Woodson never intercepted Favre where Allen sacked Aaron Rodgers 7 times which included the safety. This led to Rodgers being the most sacked QB in the NFL in 2009 taken down 50 times. Yes… 7 times. Checkmate!

Allen was joined at the Pro Bowl by fellow defenders CB Antoine Winfield, immovable DT Kevin Williams (also All Pro) and LB Chad Greenway should have been. DE Ray Edwards had a career best 8.5 sacks in ’09 playing across from Jared. MLB E.J Henderson, OLB Ben Leber, DT Pat Williams, and CB Cedric Griffin turned in solid seasons.

Offensively the Vikings finished 5th in the NFL and scored 470 points which ranked 2nd. All World RB Adrian Peterson rushed for 1,383 yds and a career best 18 TDs while collecting 43 rec. for another 436 yards. Wideout Sidney Rice was another contributor with 83 rec. 1,312 yards and 8 TDs…all career highs. Now add in NFL Rookie of the Year in Percy Harvin who contributed with 925 yards from scrimmage 6 TDs while ranking 3rd on kickoffs with a 27.1 yard avg for 1,100 yards and 2 more scores.   This team had weapons!

Do you realize at 40 years of age Favre completed a career high 68.4% of his passes for 4,202 yards 33 TDs and a career low 7 interceptions?? It was the highest season TD total for #4 in 12 years.

After racing out to a 10-1 start, the Norsemen finished 12-4 as the most complete team in football. Well, some were saying the New Orleans Saints were and after the Vikings stomped Dallas 34-3 in the NFC Divisional Playoff, they would meet in the Superdome for the NFC Championship. It was the only time in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl where a QB had taken 2 different teams to the conference championship game in just 3 years.

Favre had grown up just 60 miles from the Superdome and this was the building he had won his Super Bowl title. The script seemed to have been written…

A team that finished 3rd in fewest turnovers allowed w/ 18  during the ’09 regular season turned it over 5 times in New Orleans. The Vikings were able to bring in the catalyst for the best season in 10 years but he couldn’t breathe championship pedigree into players who didn’t have it on the professional level. Well at least for this game.

A 31-28 defeat in overtime to a team they lost the turnover battle to 5-1 on the road. Most teams get blown out yet the Norsemen hung tough and fought to the bitter end. Brett gambled with a bad throw on the Tracy Porter interception when the Vikings were near field goal position to win it in regulation. This became the final on field image of a legendary performer… like it or not. The Saints were off to Super Bowl XLIV where the Vikings had to ponder the what ifs…

The NFL’s best team had to sit and watch the New Orleans win the Lombardi two weeks later and the sports world was left to ponder “what might have been”?  Had the Vikings gone on to win that 1st Super Bowl, Brett Favre would have become the 1st QB to win the NFL Championship with 2 different teams since Norm Van Brocklin in 1960. He did become the 1st QB in the Super Bowl era to lead two different teams to a conference championship appearance in a 3 year period.

In the grand scheme of things it had been a magic carpet ride for fans everywhere. Not only for the middle aged men who got behind an aging lion in a young man’s game, but those who cheer the Viking legacy and almost watched the greatest Packer in history win their 1st Super Bowl Championship. A unique chapter in NFL history remembered at Favre’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. Both by speech as Chris Berman addressed the audience and the display pictured above. For Packer fans that grumbled at the locker display I just encouraged them to stand in front of the Viking jersey when taking their pics. Yet when you look back at the ’09 Vikings overall it was one of the strongest teams in the last 20 years that fell short of Super Bowl glory.

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Todd Christensen Belongs in The Hall of Fame

When Shannon Sharpe was inducted into “The Hall” back in 2011, pundits began to voice which of the new breed would be the next TE to get into Canton. Would it be Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, or Antonio Gates?? There is even outside talk of former Patriot Ben Coates as these were the dominant men at the position over the last 25 years. Uhhh… wait a minute… How did we get this far without mention of former  Oakland/L.A. Raider Todd Christensen??

A man once cut by the Dallas Cowboys found a home in Oakland and became one of the main targets in the heyday of the AFC West. The question that arises is how did we forget Christensen?? Was it the fact he was a specials teams player who didn’t start until his 4th year?? Or is this more bias against the late Al Davis’ Raiders??

In 1980 the NFL was marveling at the performance of future Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow in San Diego. When he burst onto the scene with 89 receptions, a record for Tight Ends at the time, for 1,290 and 9TDs. He became the measuring stick for all who would play his position especially with this only his 2nd season.

When he completed the ’81 season with 88 receptions only future Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome was anywhere near Winslow on the marquee. Or so pundits thought.

In 1981 after becoming the 1st defending Super Bowl champion to finish with a losing record (7-9) the following season, the Raiders had to make changes. The 1st is they moved to L.A. then drafted super back Marcus Allen then following an old Raider tradition, converted a former running back into a Tight End…. Todd Christensen. If you went back 2 decades before, the Raiders converted former Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon from RB to TE and sparked their run to Super Bowl II.

The ’82 Raiders had the NFL’s best record in a strike shortened season at 8-1, and Christensen finished 5th in receiving among TEs with 42 receptions for 510 yds and 4 TDs. Although the Raiders were upset 17-14 by the NY Jets in the AFC playoffs, a star was born.  The next year saw the Raiders cement the notion they had supplanted the Air Coryell Chargers as the best of the AFC West.

Every great player needs a signature game and in the 14th week of 1983 the Chargers were hosting the Raiders in a special Thursday Night telecast. To add to the excitement both Christensen and Winslow were on pace to tie or break Kellen’s TE record of ’89 receptions set in 1980. In front of a nationwide audience Todd proved his worth.

 

 

Buoyed by this great performance the Raiders propelled themselves to the AFC’s best record at 12-4. Not only did the Raiders go on to win Super Bowl XVIII, Christensen unseated Winslow as the game’s premiere tight end as the loss also ended the reign of “Air Coryell”. His 8 receptions 140 yards and 3 TDs completely outshone his Charger counterpart’s 4 catches for 30 yards. This was the difference between Todd’s record of 92 receptions to Winslow’s 88 to conclude ’83.

Los Angeles Raiders tight end Todd Christensen (46) blocks New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks (58) during a 14-9 Giants victory on September 21, 1986, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

As injuries slowed Winslow it was Christensen who went on to maintain Pro Bowl level of play through 1987 when he went to his 5th straight. One aspect of a Tight End is to remember the primary role is to be a blocker. In the ’85 campaign he helped pave the way for NFL rushing champion Marcus Allen who ran for 1,759 yards. The following season he broke his previous NFL record for TEs as he nabbed 95 balls for 1,153 yards and 8 scores.

He led the NFL in receptions in 1983 and 1986 for all receivers not just Tight Ends.

In an era with 2 other Hall of Fame TEs Christensen had the best peak years.

  • Christensen ’83-’86: 349 rec. 4,394 yards 33 TDs *5 Pro Bowls*
  • Winslow ’80-’83: 319 rec. 4,258 yards 33 TDs *4 Pro Bowls*
  • Ozzie Newsome ’81-’84: 296 rec. 3,626 yards 20 TDs *3 Pro Bowls*
  • *Career Pro Bowls listed*

Now to be fair, Winslow and Newsome’s years include the strike shortened ’82 stanza which only had 9 regular season games. However keep in mind Todd was on special teams as a long snapper, set 2 receiving records at TE and blocked for 1985’s MVP and rushing champion Marcus Allen. Then don’t forget one of those record setting season was for a world champion when they won Super Bowl XVIII 38-9 over Washington.

Keep in mind his record for receptions in a season at TE was broken in 1994 by Ben Coates by 1 reception (96). Tony Gonzalez broke it in 2004 with 102 receptions, however Todd is the only one to have set the all time receptions record for a TE twice.

This isn’t to take away from the 2 gentlemen in “The Hall” from the same position, but how can Winslow (inducted in 1995) and Newsome (inducted in 1999) be in and we don’t even hear Christensen mentioned?? Is it because he was a late bloomer who went on to star on the 3rd team he played for?? Is this more of the media bias against Al Davis’ Raiders who seem to come up on the short end when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration??

A part of this has to do with the Raiders moving from Oakland to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland in 1995. Those Los Angeles sportswriters didn’t honor the team and campaign for those players once the team went back up north. Many sportswriters campaign for players whom they lobbied for their team to draft originally and usually in the 1st round. His rocky path to Oakland through Dallas and New York is why he didn’t have that.

Yet they have/had a responsibility and shouldn’t have taken it out on those player’s legacies. I see these men all the time on talk shows over on ESPN when they have an obligation as history’s gatekeepers with their fellow writers and they have failed. They are why Todd, Head Coach Tom FloresLester Hayes, and Cliff Branch are on the outside looking in. It’s time to right these injustices.

Christensen deserves to be enshrined in Canton. Although we lost Todd, who passed in 2013, his family and Raider teammates should be able to share in that final honor.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you, Todd Christensen.

Dedicated in his memory: Todd Christensen (August 3, 1956 – November 13, 2013)

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An Overshadowed Classic: The 1966 NFL Championship Game

When you look back at the rich history of the Green Bay Packers, we focus squarely on the Lombardi era teams that won 5 NFL championships in the 1960’s. While the most iconic of these championships was The Ice Bowl for the 1967 title, a more gripping affair in the classic sense took place for the 1966 crown. While every championship has its importance this was the 2nd in a row which set the Packers up for the chance at winning 3 straight.

Bart Starr standing amidst a charging George Andrie (66) Bob Lilly (74) and the late Willie Townes (71) attempting a pass.

With the merger between the NFL and the AFL signed, each league would send their champion to play in a world championship game called the Super Bowl. While the sporting press sided with the traditionalist NFL there were revolutionaries who sided with the new guard if you will. The American Football League was established in 1959 and began play in 1960.

The new league had a flashier style of play and took to the air in a way that aside from the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas, the rest of the NFL and traditionalists scoffed at. It was 3 yards and a cloud of dust over here. Evidenced by the perennial champion Packers’ signature play… the power sweep. If I were to tell you to close your eyes and picture the Lombardi Packers, the image of Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston leading either Jim Taylor of Paul Hornung would come to mind vividly.

The founder of the AFL was Lamar Hunt of Hunt Bros. Oil and a Dallas, Texas resident. He had been thwarted in an attempt to buy the St Louis Cardinals a decade previous and wasn’t taken seriously when asked about NFL expansion to Dallas. So once he started the American Football League with his Dallas Texans as a flagship team (now the Kansas City Chiefs), the NFL scrambled and put a team down in Dallas which was then named the Cowboys. Each began play in the 1960 season.

Over the next few years the AFL and NFL waged war for the top college athletes. The Cowboys took several seasons to learn how to win under the guidance of Head Coach Tom Landry. Yet in spirit because they had been borne out of expansion and were the new kids on the block, the Cowboys were AFL kindred spirits residing in the NFL. They had a new way of scouting and evaluating talent much like the AFL and although Coach Landry had been the defensive coach (the term coordinator didnt’ exist until 1967) for the New York Giants in the 1950’s, he pioneered several offensive formations and sets to undo the 4-3 he brought into prominence a decade earlier.

It took a few years to gain footing however Landry finally had a team that could challenge for the NFL Championship by the ’66 season. He would take on his old nemesis Vince Lombardi in The Cotton Bowl to decide who would go on to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I.

Why was Lombardi a nemesis?? Lombardi was the Offensive Coach (Coordinator) of the New York Giants in the 1950’s before moving on to Green Bay. His offense used to sharpen Landry’s defense and vice versa for a great Giants team.

Another side note to this iconic championship it was Dallas’ Tex Schramm who stepped across league lines with Lamar Hunt to discuss the merger in the 1st place. It happened at Love Field and they met at the Texas Ranger Statue. So not only were the establishment Packers going to Dallas for the championship, they wanted to give the traitorous Cowboys their comeuppance. When you think of the city of Dallas from a national perspective, keep in mind we are only 3 years removed from JFK’s assassination there….and Lombardi was a Kennedy Democrat

Into this cauldron Lombardi and his team stepped…

With Tom Brown’s desperation last second interception to conclude the ’66 NFL Championship, the Packers survived and were off to Los Angeles for Super Bowl I. Tom Landry would go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest coaches in history. His team wasn’t ready to carry the mantle of league champion yet but they would come back to win Super Bowl VI as the 1st of Landry’s 2 championships.

It was Vince Lombardi’s team who defended their ’65 NFL championship’65 NFL championship and would go on to win Super Bowl I. There they would defeat Kansas City to win their 4th overall league title. Now looking back they had to actually beat two upstarts to win it all originating from the city of Dallas to crown themselves as Team of the 60’s. This would be the last with the Hall of Fame backfield duo of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. It was quiet Bart Starr who elevated his play with a record 4 TD passes in he win down in Dallas. Out in L.A. he was even better carving up the Chiefs to win the 1st MVP of the very 1st Super Bowl.

Super Bowl I Trophy sits in the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame.

Another championship loomed in 1967 but it was the prime time finish of the ’66 championship at night that pushed the Packers into NFL lore.

As for the trophy won out in Los Angeles, The Chancellor visited it in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame just two weeks ago.

Today this rivalry renews as the Packers are down in Dallas to take on the Cowboys in Jerry World. Hopefully this look back helps in explaining the rivalry began here which will enrich The Ice Bowl memories created a year later.

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Keep in mind we’re still campaigning to assist Jerry Kramer to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and you can help. Lend your thoughts as well by writing in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the address below. Please be respectful and positively lend your voice:

Please write & nominate #64
Send letters to:
Pro Football Hall of Fame
Attention Senior Selection Committee
2121 George Halas Dr NW, Canton, 
OH 44708

 

Legends of The Fall: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson

When I came up with  The Legends of The Fall, my thoughts were to remember Hall of Fame players of yesteryear, and those whose “what if” legacies due to injuries or circumstances that kept them from becoming all time greats. Yet we still talk about them because they were supernovas that burned bright in our collective mind when we think of their transcendent play. One of those players was Thomas Henderson.

Artwork by Clarence Pointer signed by Hollywood Henderson available.

Now everyone remembers Henderson as one of the most flamboyant players of the 1970’s and he was. However lost in why he was so acclaimed were the distinctions he brought to pro football many observers obscure. Not this historian…and we’re going to take you through a few today.

One of those was his becoming one of the social icons of his times as a man of the 1970’s. A black cultural icon of transcendent play, outspoken black identity, and a reach that went beyond the football field.

In 1974 the NFL instituted several rule changes, the most visible had been the goal post moved to the back of the endzone. A more subtle change was the narrowing of the hashmarks which eliminated the short side of the field as you still see in college football. This called for Outside Linebackers with greater lateral speed and range play after play to either side.

Another subtle NFL rule change in 1974 made it illegal for all but the outside players on the punt team to leave before the ball was kicked. Enter Thomas Henderson. The Cowboys second #1 draft pick in 1975 who had been discovered out of Langston by Red Hickey. It was his speed and athleticism that led to his being used to help revolutionize the game from a tactical standpoint. This gave birth to the modern gunner where Henderson was also used. His size allowed him to bull through the two DBs as he came off the ball in pursuit of the punt returner

He was a special teams standout on a veteran laden ball club that had to get him on the field. He flashed downfield to make tackles and was used on reverses. A Linebacker on reverses?? Do you remember his reverse on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X??

 

 

 

It was one of the first glimpses into what he was doing down in Texas. By 1977 Henderson had become the starting OLB where his speed was on display to match with some of the NFL’s best athletes covering backs out of the backfield and covering TEs out in space. The NFL was speeding up as a sport on astroturf and Henderson was among the new breed of athletes being moved to defense.

 

 

 

What most pundits don’t realize is how 1 penalty altered the perception of Hollywood Henderson.

Over the next four years Henderson’s Cowboys were the best team in the NFC as they became Super Bowl champions in 1977 and repeated as NFC Champions in 1978. In those two seasons the Flex defense was ranked #1 and #2 in the NFL and going into Super Bowl XIII were ranked higher than the #3 ranked Steel Curtain. If they win they become a dynasty as back to back champions and Henderson, who had made his 1st Pro Bowl, would have been lionized instead of the team being scrutinized because of the loss.

We all remember Super Bowl media day when Henderson claimed Terry Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “c” and the “a”. Well think back to the game. Henderson made a huge play when he sacked Bradshaw and Mike Hegman stole the ball to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead. Their only lead of the game.

In what became known as a seesaw game it really was one the Cowboys defense had taken over. They dominated the 2nd half as Pittsburgh couldn’t move the ball. It was the bogus pass interference penalty on Benny Barnes that changed the field position and put the Steelers in scoring position at the 22 late in the 4th quarter. Then a fumbled kickoff, two quick scores and they were up 35-17 en route to a 35-31 win.

That pass interference, which is now called incidental contact and no penalty, caused Henderson and the Cowboys to be scrutinized because of the loss. He had played a tremendous game but now pundits pointed to the press conference and even an on field altercation with Franco before his 4th quarter touchdown as turning points. Great story telling but very…very inaccurate accounting of the facts.

The history books don’t tell you Dallas had set a record holding the winning team to just 75 second half yards. Nor the fact Henderson is the only person in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl to be involved in scoring plays in both the conference championship and subsequent Super Bowl on defense. In the video above when he scored against the Rams, it was the finishing touch on a 28-0 win out in Los Angeles.

That Benny Barnes pass interference penalty made the Steelers the Team of the Decade and sent 10 Steelers to the Hall of Fame and only 4 of the Cowboys from that era.

Henderson smashes into Denver QB Norris Weese in Super Bowl XII.

We know of the pressures and build up to his release in Dallas but where would he have been had they become back to back champion?? Greatest defense in history?? No one has been #1 on offense and #1 on defense and champion since his ’77 Cowboys. How much did the fallout from Super Bowl XIII lead to his dismissal in Dallas??

Keep in mind Tom Landry in his A Football Life episode said on stage had he handled the situation with Henderson differently we could have won 6 or 7 Super Bowls. Dallas went on to lose the ’80, ’81, & ’82 NFC Championships without him. When you look back at those losses Dallas didn’t have a defensive playmaker on the field. Not like they had in 1977 and 1978. In fact he would have been in his prime going into his 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons. Lawrence Taylor & Bruce Smith recorded defensive player of the year honors in that 6th season.

Would Joe Montana have all that time to scramble to the sideline and find Dwight Clark with The Catch in the 81 NFC Championship had Hollywood been chasing him??

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I’m still mad at him for this…he ruined 2nd grade for a kid in Denver.

Henderson was still in the NFL…just not in Dallas where they would have featured him. What could have been?

Epilogue: Last Saturday on February 10, 2018, Thomas Henderson was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. An incredible honor. If you think I was waxing hyperbole when I opined he would have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame had his career stayed on the same arc…guess where the BCFHOF is moving to?? Try Canton, Ohio inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Congratulations on your induction Thomas Henderson!! A supernova! A Hall of Famer!

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Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor perspective at -59*.  Do you realize that is 90* below freezing?? This was where Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed for good and became the ultimate lesson on why achieving home field advantage is so important.

It was a hard earned lesson and we covered this in the championship rings for Cincinnati… so this one is being told from the Chargers’ perspective

Head Coach Forrest Gregg carried off by his Cincinnati Bengals players.

One man happened to be involved in both games.  Hall of Fame Tackle Forrest Gregg started for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he went into coaching where he was the Bengals head man when they advanced to the ’81 AFC Championship Game. The winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI in frozen Pontiac Michigan, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

A frozen Dan Fouts.

Coming into 1981 the San Diego Chargers had been the vanguard of the new passing offenses that dominated with the rules of 1978, which liberalized the passing game. Head coach Don Coryell had revived the passing attack with many of Sid Gillman’s principles from the old AFL Chargers and forged a passing game that became the scourge of the league.

Now the head slap was outlawed on the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection, and receivers weren’t allowed to be hit after 5 yards. Offenses had been liberated from the thunderclap of defense which had dominated both the AFL & NFL since the mid 60’s.

Dan Fouts became the 1st QB to challenge and break Joe Namath’s all time record 4,007 yards passing when he broke it with 4,082 in 1979. Then he pushed it to new heights throwing for 4,715 yds in 1980, and finally 4,802 in 1981. However his Charger teams fell short of greatness by short circuiting in the playoffs. First they stumbled in a mind numbing 17-14 upset loss at home to the Houston Oilers in ’79, then again to the arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game.

Also a loss at home in sunny San Diego. In all reality this team was losing it’s prime and not capitalizing on the championship window that was before them.

Armed with 3, 1,000 yard receivers in TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, and now WR Wes Chandler, it was interesting to watch individual battles. Fouts led the league with 33 TDs, the late Chuck Muncie led the league with 19 rushing TDs to go with his 1,144 yards and James Brooks had nearly 900 yds from scrimmage and 6 more scores. Nevertheless they fell to 10-6 and had to go on the road in the ’81 playoffs.

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 76* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 divisional thriller. The other was The Catch in the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas the following week. Yet earlier on January 10, 1982 San Diego’s 2nd straight road affair took them to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time.  There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to get warm. A Sports Illustrated article the following week reported 43 fans suffered heart attacks at the game.

Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

It was the end of an era for Charger power. Sure they made the playoffs in 1982 but so did everyone else in the strike shortened year where 16 teams were in a single elimination tournament. Proof?? They beat a Pittsburgh team in the 1st round that had been shut out twice by non playoff teams. In one of them they lost to Buffalo 13-0 and finished the day with -2 yards passing. Yes that is with Terry Bradshaw….yet I digress

Age and injuries caught up to the Chargers as well as AFC West opponents to their air attack. John Elway and Marcus Allen came in and the balance of power shifted toward the Broncos and Raiders. In 3 of the next 5 years, Fouts watched those teams play on the Super Bowl stage he so desperately wanted to lead the Chargers to. He retired after the 1987 season and when you look back to the 2 AFC Championship Games lost it was this one that produces the most what ifs.

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