Legendary Days: The 1981 NFC Championship Game – The Birth of Camelot

With Dwight Clark’s passing a few weeks back it was nearly impossible to not think back to his signature play and this game. The Catch ushered in an era where the 49ers became the NFL’s signature franchise and brought Dallas down a notch. A win 2 weeks later in Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac gave Bill Walsh the platform to showcase his genius, The West Coast (Paul Brown’s) Offense, and launch an era he coined “Camelot”. Joe Montana became one of the NFL’s newest faces and would dominate the decade.

Dwight Clark as he will appear forever in the minds of fans everywhere.

Going into the ’81 NFC Championship the 49ers were an organization that not only hadn’t won a championship in their 36 year history. They were 0-3 against Dallas in the postseason. Even worse is they had left 2 NFL Championships on the table by celebrating victory prematurely then succumbing to huge comeback defeats.

In 1957, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and the Million Dollar Backfield bolted to a 27-7 3rd quarter lead in a playoff with the Detroit Lions. Detroit battled back and won 31-27. Then in ’72, a revenge minded 49er team fresh from back to back defeats in the first two NFC Championship Games to Dallas jumped to a 28-13 3rd quarter lead. Amid the taunts and trash talk Landry replaced ineffective QB Craig Morton for Roger Staubach. In another classic meltdown Dallas stormed to win 30-28.

Each of these losses crippled the franchise as they went into a tailspin for a decade both times.

Now here was a 3rd trip to the summit for an organization fighting for respect. Why would this generation’s group get over the hump where previous teams had failed?? This was the dreaded Dallas Cowboys they were 0-3 against in the postseason.

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The Chancellor & former 49er Earl Cooper at PFHoF ’16

At the time Hall of Fame Coach Tom Landry was the Bill Walsh / Bill Belichick of his era having taken the Cowboys to the postseason 15 of the last 16 years. Not only had he won 2 Super Bowls, his teams was playing in a championship game for the 10th time with this tilt out in Candlestick. The NFL up to this time hadn’t seen this type of extended success. Not nearing 2 decades worth. Well a berth in Super Bowl XVI was at stake and all he had to do was get past this bunch of no names out in California. Consensus at the time by the national media cited that he would:

Eric Wright’s clutch tackle on Drew Pearson saved the game but Dwight Clark’s catch remains it’s signature. Prestige is much like momentum. You can’t exactly define it yet you know it once you feel it and see it. The mantle of prestige and esteem the Cowboys held transferred to the 49ers the moment Clark came down with the football. From that point on the buzz from NFL media in print and television began with Bill Walsh and his organization. His West Coast offense became the dominant offensive approach for the next four decades.

Epilogue:

For those of us old enough to have watched this game and remember those years it was a unique time in NFL history. A young Chancellor of Football was watching this frozen in -63 wind chill in Columbus, Ohio. These were bigger than life characters that were shaping how I viewed the game and learned of all those making history. When we lose Dwight Clark, who was one of those figures, a piece of us go with them. Things won’t be the same but thanks for the memories. Thankfully former 49er Coach Steve Mariucci shared this on Twitter.

Mariucci was a beneficiary of the prestige borne of The Catch. They were a well oiled and running dynasty 16 years in when he succeeded George Seifert in 1997. Hmmmm…isn’t that the same 16 year mark when Landry had the Cowboys in San Francisco back in ’81?? For irony…. Mariucci and the 49ers also lost the NFC Championship Game that year. Yet that story…can be told at another time.

Thanks for the memories Dwight Clark. RIP

Dedicated To The Memories of: Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Freddie Solomon, Bob McKittrick, John Ayers, Fred Quillan, Keith Fahnhorst, Ernie Stautner, Larry Bethea, Harvey Martin, Ron Springs, narrator Harry Kalas, Ed Sabol & Steve Sabol

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Legendary Days: The 1990 NFC Championship Game – The Death of Camelot

There is an old axiom when it comes to boxing when you hear someone say “styles make great fights” meaning opposing styles colliding provide great theater. Never was this more evident when it came to the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants of the 1980’s. The identity of the men from Gotham was a blood thirsty defense led by Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player ever. Joe Montana had ascended to legendary status as he led the NFL’s most efficient offense to 4 Super Bowl titles that decade. They would meet in a fitting crescendo that still has ramifications to this day.

Leonard Marshall clobbers Joe Montana and knocks him out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He doesn’t return to action until the final game of the 1992 season against the Detroit Lions.

If you travel to 1978 the Giants and 49ers met in what was a forgettable season for both. New York won 27-10 out in Candlestick during the 4th week. Yet they only won 3 games the rest of the stanza while San Francisco only won twice. Both began by hiring coaches in 1979 in Bill Walsh and Ray Perkins which set the course as each regime rose to prominence in the decade to come.

The next step was the selection of franchise quarterbacks, first Phil Simms in New York in round one and Joe Montana in the third. Each turned to the draft for the same spark on defense a few years later when the Giants selected LB Lawrence Taylor and Walsh’s selection of FS Ronnie Lott both in the 1st round in 1981.

Walsh and company ended an 8 year playoff drought with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage as Montana and company had come of age. New York defeated Dallas 13-10 to earn their first trip to the NFL postseason in 18 years. Then after a 27-21 upset of the defending NFC Champion Eagles in the wildcard round, New York was one step away from the NFC Championship Game and traveled west to face San Fran.

Going into it were the questions could NFL Defensive Player of the year Lawrence Taylor get to Joe Montana?? Could the finesse passing game take down the Giants’ hard rock defense?? Walsh’s team was shattering the NFL paradigm by passing first to set up the run. Contrary to popular belief was the fact it was San Francisco’s defense ranked #2 to the Giants at #3.

Montana was 20 of 31 for 304 yards for 2 TDs in a 38-24 win under the lights. Up next came the NFC Championship with Dallas & The Catch, then a Super Bowl XVI trophy and all the prestige that came with it. Walsh became the toast of the league and christened with his “genius” label. Joe became one of the faces of the NFL and would be one for the decade of the 1980’s.

Taylor was the toast of New York.

The vanquished?? Well New York Defensive Coordinator Bill Parcell’s unit collapsed giving up a season high 38 points. They had only given up 30 once the entire year up to that point. As is the case when teams come up short in the playoffs, their knocked off kilter for a couple of years. Parcells succeeded Perkins after a 4-5 season in ’82 and was nearly fired after a disastrous 3-12-1 rookie year in ’83. Yet all the while Walsh was one of the NFL’s faces as the 49ers bounced back and came within a couple bad penalties from winning the NFC Championship a 2nd time in 3 years. They fell to Washington 24-21 yet the media felt validated in the moniker they anointed Walsh with….”genius.”

Parcells bristled at the attention Walsh and the 49ers “finesse” approach to the game was getting. It only intensified in ’84 as they went 15-1 and threatened to go undefeated. New York rebounded as Phil Simms finally emerged from the shadows and became a 4,000 yard passer and the Giants returned to the playoffs. Another NFC playoff loss to Joe and the Niners 21-10 relegated the Giants to the NFL’s jr varsity as Walsh and Joe went on to hoist another Lombardi trophy.

However over the years Parcells kept building a team of brute force. Although they had been effective he drafted 6-4 240lb OLB Carl Banks who was a blue chip strong side ‘backer. Brought in 288 lbs DE Leonard Marshall to replace a 259lb Gary Jeter. He kept building upon his defense and relying on a straight forward power rushing attack.

Finally in the 1985 playoffs, the Giants #2 ranked defense held Montana and the 49er offense out of the endzone for the first time in a 17-3 Wildcard win at home. For the first time ever Parcells and the Giants beat the Niners in the 80’s and in the locker room he scoffed “What do you think now about that west coast offense?” In a bit of irony he wound up coining the name Walsh’s offense would come to be known forever.

However the Giants were manhandled in Chicago 21-0 on the road to the eventual champion Bears. Both teams were built in the same old school fashion. You win with brute force on the line of scrimmage with a heavy front 7 and a strong offensive line with an offense that relied on the run. Yet the Giants sent alarm bells off all around the NFL when they already had a strong defense yet spent their first 6 picks in the first 3 rounds all on defense.

They fortified their defensive line with 6’4 280 lbs DE Erik Dorsey, NT Eric Howard who stood 6’4 275, 250 lb ILB Pepper Johnson along with crafty CB Mark Collins who was nearly 5-10 200 lbs. Collins turned into one of the Giant defense’s greatest assets as he blanketed Jerry Rice and was the best in history covering him. This gave the Giants a tremendous advantage for years to come.

In the ’86 playoffs the Giants defense had come of age and starting with a 49-3 devastation in the NFC Divisional Round it became clear the pendulum had completely swung. Jim Burt knocked Joe Montana out with seconds to go in the 1st half as Taylor returned an interception 34 yards to swell the score to 28-3. In an embarrassing fashion Walsh’s squad was hammered into submission. Physically beat down unlike any game they had seen since they rose to prominence.

This forced the 49ers to finish what they started in the ’85 draft when they started drafting to fortify their lines and bigger running backs to deal with the Bears and Giants. In ’87 it took shape however it came to fruition as they won Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV after the ’88 and ’89 seasons. Walsh had stepped down after the XXIII championship and former DC George Seifert took over head coaching duties. Mike Holmgren and the 49er offense had elevated their offensive play to one of near perfection. Walsh’s legend only grew even in his departure for creating the offensive system which allowed his 49ers to become the team of the decade.

Going into 1990 pundits were debating not only were the 49ers the best ever team but was Joe Montana the best ever quarterback?? The same could be said of Jerry Rice as he had assaulted the record books and had also been a Super Bowl MVP. On their way to back to back championships they had set the NFL record with 18 consecutive road wins. Now they had the chance to win 3 straight Super Bowls where it would leave no doubt. They began the season with a 10-0 record and…

Waiting for them who also began 10-0 was the Giant team that had learned how to win from the 49ers and had taken it up a level. Now the more powerful rebuilt 49ers who had a 2-3 record (0-2 in the playoffs since ’85) staring them down. Were they lucky they hadn’t met the Giants in the playoffs in both ’88 and ’89?? Would they even have won back to back had New York had a shot at them??

In week 12 each team was 10-1 when they met in San Francisco on a Monday Night. In the 2nd highest watched MNF in history the 49ers beat the Giants 7-3 in a slugfest where the Giants inability to score a touchdown on offense did them in. In 3 shots inside the redzone they could only score 1 field goal. Yet to a man the Giants relished another shot at San Francisco. Finally they would have their chance in the NFC Championship Game. For the decade the record between the two stood at 2-2 and they would meet in the last chance to halt “Camelot’s” greatest procession into history.

 

In the collective gasp after the Leonard Marshall hit you knew everything had changed. The silence that befell Candlestick Park as Montana writhed in pain on the ground for several minutes was palpable. Unlike most games where the network would take a commercial break, a nationwide audience sat glued to the football version of a tragic event. The greatest ever quarterback whose nimble feet that had deftly dodged trouble in and out of the pocket forever in January’s past had been viciously taken down. The Camelot that Bill Walsh had so eloquently stated of that era ended in that moment. The final kick by Matt Bahr for the 15-13 win was just icing on the cake made by a ferocious defense in one of the greatest games in NFL history.

The era closed with the Giants holding a 3-2 edge in postseason games although the Niners were team of the decade. Over the next 26 years coaches from both sides made it to the Super Bowl 14 times with Bill Belichick (8) Tom Coughlin (2) Mike Holmgren (3) and Jon Gruden (1). This doesn’t include Bill Parcells’ 2nd Super Bowl triumph 1 week after this game vs Buffalo in XXV. Much has been made of the Bill Walsh coaching tree but take a look at the one stemming from Parcells’ group. Its second to none and it all started with a championship win over Camelot in 1990.

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Philadelphia Receives Super Bowl LII Championship Ring

Well last weekend the Philadelphia Eagles were given the brass ring for becoming world champions.. their Super Bowl rings. This commemorates a great 2017 campaign concluding with a 41-33 win in LII to take home the Lombardi. To the chagrin of Dallas Cowboy fans everywhere the Eagles do have a rich tradition of championships although there was a 59 year drought between the years they won it all.

As for the ring itself: The top of the Super Bowl ring has an Eagles logo on top of a Lombardi Trophy. There are 52 pavé-diamonds within the Eagle head to signify Super Bowl 52. The base of the trophy has 52 diamonds for each of their 13 regular-season victories. The top has three diamonds for the number of postseason victory. This concludes the 2017 odyssey which landed the Philadelphia Eagles their 4th NFL championship.

Here is a quick question: Who was the NFL’s Commissioner and where was the league’s headquarters before Pete Rozelle?? You guessed it…Philadelphia where team owner/founder Bert Bell established the team in 1933. He became league commissioner in 1946 and remained serving both roles until he passed in October 1959. Much of what is the NFL was shaped during his tenure as owner of the Eagles before he became commissioner. Notable achievements during his years

  • In 1934 it was Bell who lobbied the NFL on a common draft where lesser teams receive higher draft status. The league adopted this rule in 1935 and been in place since.
  • Bell also came up with the NFL’s 1st  championship Trophy. The Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy. A rotating trophy which went from champion to champion from 1934-1965. Just before the advent of the Super Bowl Trophy given out every year.

Bert Bell, new NFL president, talks over the telephone at his Narberth, Pa. home, Jan. 22, 1946, while his children, Bert Jr., 10, left, Upton, 8, and Mary Jane, 4, listen intently. (AP Photo)

The Eagles have a rich heritage filled with famous coaches, players and some of the NFL’s landmark games. Especially in the days of the postwar era after WWII. In fact one of the lost treasures when talking about NFL history is the merging of the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers in 1943 to form the “Steagles”. Each team had lost so many players to WWII service this was a way to remain solvent. Both teams from the Quaker state are still in existence yet hold a respectful rivalry that is mild in comparison to others. It could be due to the respect each organization has for the other coming from this shared history.

However lost on a generation of Steeler fans, since many bandwagon fans jumped on once the Steelers started winning Super Bowls in the 70’s, it was the Eagles that kept them in that 42 year championship drought ending in 1974. Back in the pre-merger NFL both the Eagles and Steelers finished with 8-4 records. Led by NFL rushing champion Steve Van Buren the Eagles buried the Steelers 21-0 in a playoff and Pittsburgh struggled for the next 3 decades.

As for the Eagles? Head Coach Greasy Neale had a ground game that chewed up opponents as few had done before. During the years 1947-1949 not only did Van Buren lead the league in rushing all 3 years. He became the Eagles 1st 1,000 yard rusher (’47) with a league record 1,008 only to break it in ’49 when he pushed the record to 1,146 yards. They lost the ’47 NFL Championship to the Chicago Cardinals 28-21. However they powered their way to a 7-0 win in the ’48 Championship Game in a blizzard then beat the Rams 14-0 out in LA for their 2nd straight NFL title.

Yes you heard that correctly… The Philadelphia Eagles played in 3 straight NFL championship games and became only the 2nd team to win it back to back once a championship game was instituted beginning in 1933.

The late Steve Van Buren finished as the NFL’s leading rusher with 5,860 yards 69 touchdowns, 4 rushing titles and a member of the PFHOF since 1965.

In one of the more ironic twists between the Eagles and their cross state rival Steelers, Bert Bell had coached and co-owned both teams over the years. His life came to an end when he collapsed October 11, 1959 while his Eagles hosted the Steelers after a Tommy McDonald touchdown. The league than moved it’s headquarters to New York to do battle with the new American Football League, hired Pete Rozelle as Bell’s predecessor to compete in the modern age.

The 1960 NFL Championship Ring.

However the 1960 Eagles paid the absolute tribute to a fallen Bell by storming to the 1960 NFL championship. Having acquired former Ram quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who had been a part of the “point a minute” offense earlier in the 50s had a renaissance year. In his final season he passed for 153 of 284 for 2,471 yards and a career best 24 TD passes in only a 12 game season.

The signature game came in midseason when the 6-1 Eagles went to New York to play the 5-1-1 Giants who had won the Eastern Conference 3 of the last 4 years. This is the game where Hall of Famer “Concrete” Charlie Bednarik flattened HOFer Frank Gifford, knocking him out of action for nearly 2 years. Philadelphia won 17-14 to take command and rode a 10-2 record to the NFL Championship Game.

Bednarik’s hit on Gifford was one of the greatest in NFL history.

In what would go down as the only postseason defeat in Vince Lombardi’s career, a more veteran laden ball club pulled out a 17-13 win. One of the enduring images of that game was the last play when Bart Starr hit Jim Taylor with a short pass and Bednarik saved the day with a tackle on the 9 yard line as time ran out. Having made the last tackle, “Concrete Charlie” bookended the day where he became the last full time two way player in NFL history. He played the entire game at Center and Middle Linebacker. Not a CB coming in as a WR as a gimmick for 5 plays in a game. Hitting on every play as a 35 yr old.

Bednarik would play on for 2 more seasons, however “The Dutchman” or Norm Van Brocklin for the history impaired retired after the title game. He became the 1st starting QB to lead two different teams to championships in NFL history. A feat that took another 55 years to be duplicated. Unlike Peyton Manning’s 9 TD 17 interception performance in 2015, Van Brocklin left a champion after his greatest statistical season.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it generation ESPN/NFL Network newbies.

A history lesson from the desk of The Chancellor of Football. Congratulations Philadelphia Eagles we await to see what your encore will be after a magnificent Super Bowl win.

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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 Bill Plaschke and J.A. Adande 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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